Being on the Market in Busan

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It is an imposing modern building on the waterfront in Busan in the south-eastern corner of Korea. The sides are green plate glass; the roof is swooping steel and evokes a flock of gulls in flight. The ground floor is the main hall of the Jagalchi Fish Market, the biggest in South Korea. Above it are six floors of restaurants, below it a two-storey car park.

Casual visitors browse the stalls alongside the trade buyers; they choose their fish and take it upstairs to one of the restaurants, where the chef will gut it, skin it, slice it and send it back to them raw with half a dozen side dishes. This is hoe, South Korea’s answer to sashimi.

The market spills out into the surrounding streets and extends for several blocks. The first world slickness of the main building disappears outside, where the stalls have all the picturesque chaos of a traditional Asian street market.

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A man sits on an upturned crate, his face hidden behind a wide-brimmed hat, gutting and salting mackerel. Formidable ladies in visors and wellingtons squat at stalls under colourful umbrellas either side of the lanes. Behind them are haphazard piles of Styrofoam boxes, plastic bowls, carrier bags and filleting knives.

There are fish laid out on plastic sheets draped over planks balanced on buckets: grey mullet, red snapper, flounder, porgy, halibut, shark. There are octopus kept alive in bowls of percolating water; and baskets of fish heads; and every sort of seafood: shrimps, prawns, mussels, clams, sea cucumbers, abalones, sea snails, occasionally squirting jets of water at passers-by like kids with water pistols. There are stacks of jars with baby crabs fermented in chilli paste; and racks of dried squid; and bowls of seaweed, and bottles of chilli sauce.

Shoppers amble up and down the lanes, stopping to look a fish in the eye, peel back its gills, open its cavity, question the woman on the stall. Sometimes a scooter bullies its way noisily through the crowd.

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There are seafood restaurants, where the stalls peter out, with little rooms inside and big tanks outside, piled high with spider crabs and lobster, or a writhing mass of eels. It is rare to find English spoken or written and you are reduced to pointing and guessing, but whatever you get is bound to be fresh and will probably be cheap.

Jagalchi is not – yet – a tourist attraction on the scale of Tsukiji across the Sea of Japan in Tokyo, much as the tourist board tries to talk it up. It is just as rewarding; but no one important, as of yet, has endorsed it as a Must See sight, so it never appears on bucket lists and the tourists come in twos and threes instead of by the coachload. There is no need to restrict entry to certain times or hand out English language maps at the gates or post lists of things which the visitor should refrain from doing.

I was the only Westerner there and the only visitor with a camera. The rest were just trying to buy dinner, and I was trying not to be annoying.

© Richard Senior 2015

Gyeongju: Two Days in the Museum without Walls

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There are two or three blocks of forgettable shops south of the station, then a sudden lake of yellow rapeseed.

Narrow paths have been cut into the rape field and happy young couples stroll through the flowers, stopping to smile and make peace signs for cameras at the ends of poles they hold at arm’s length. The field is floodlit at night and more couples stream in and flashtubes pop across the field like a diorama of a battle.

Beyond the rape field, behind trees, older couples march along paths through the forest to a stream with their ski poles and sunhats and leisure wear as vivid as the yellow of the rapeseed and the blue of the sky. There are hazy mountains in the middle distance and the keenest start early and hike to them.

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Gyeongju was the capital of the ancient Silla kingdom which ruled Korea for a thousand years from the first century BCE. The walking trails criss-cross the site of Banwolseong Fortress and there are fragments of the old walls in the undergrowth. The hourglass-shaped Cheomseongdae Observatory is still intact after fourteen centuries and sits, surreally, in the middle of a park.

The kings and their treasures are buried in two dozen grassy hillocks, like a much-simplified form of the Egyptian pyramids. One has been opened up so that visitors can look inside and the whole complex has been modelled into a park with quiet paths between trees and azalea bushes and traditional music piped in through hidden speakers, which gives it a dreamlike quality.

The same music plays, to the same effect, in the grounds of the royal palace. The pavilions and ornamental lake have been rebuilt and the gardens restored and you could stroll there happily for hours, at least if you were not being followed around by a school party repeatedly saying “hello” and “how are you?” because they wanted to practice their English and those seemed to be the only words they knew. It is wonderfully ethereal at night, when the pavilions are lit up and reflect in the lake.

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Gyeongju is known, with justification, as ‘the museum without walls’. I filled a day looking at temples and tombs, pagodas and wooden hanok houses and walking along trails through the forest. I planned to hike Mount Namsan, as well, but it turned out to be a lot further away than it looked and I gave up on the idea before I got there.

I set out early next morning on a bike which I borrowed from the guest house. It was a cheap, Chinese-made thing with brakes to trap fingers, sharp edges to scratch and protruding parts to bruise. It was a vicious cycle.

The shifter for the back hub refused to shift. The other had four positions for three gears. The first just made it click annoyingly, the second took me back to where I started, the third made the crank spin like a propeller, and the fourth made the chain come off.

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What I had taken, from the map, to be a quiet country road was actually a busy highway; it ran alongside the railway and sloped forever uphill. But there were cherry blossoms, white herons and mountains as well as the concrete, cars and trains.

I guessed that it would take around half an hour, an hour at the most, to ride to Bulguksa Temple, but it apparently takes longer than that in the car. The incline seemed slight but never let up until the turn off for Bulguksa, when it became a long, steep hill. Each sign implied that Bulguksa was round the next corner, or the one after that, and it began to feel like chasing a rainbow.

I got there in the end, though, and it is a splendid temple with pagodas, bridges, statues and intricately carved, gloriously painted roofs set in a forest you could lose yourself in for a day; but it was Saturday and brimming with day-trippers – of course, I was one of them – and instead of the serenity you expect at a Buddhist temple, there was the stress of a big city at rush hour.

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It would have been too easy to freewheel down the hill and follow my tyre tracks back to Gyeongju, and instead I took the long way round, up yet another hill, and hoped that it would lead into town. Eventually it did.

© Richard Senior 2015

24 Hours in Sokcho

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The bus from Gangneung pulled into Sokcho at 10.30. I spotted the guest house as we rounded the last corner and walked up there, dropped off my bags, picked up a map, and took a local bus out to Seoraksan National Park.

It was too late to think about doing the ten-hour round trip to the top of Daecheongong Peak and back; so I headed, instead, for Ulsanbawi which tops out at a more manageable 876m –  still 50 metres higher than the world’s tallest building. I was as well-prepared as ever with a vague tourist map, no water and ordinary street clothes.

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The path, only gently sloping to start with, meandered past a kneeling Buddha and stone lanterns and alongside a river which had dried to a trickle and was lined with blossoming cherry trees, and over an ornamental bridge, past a temple complex with kingfisher blue roof tiles and exquisitely painted eaves, and on and into the depths of the forest of deep green firs and brighter green deciduous trees from which – in the distance – the jagged peaks protruded.

I followed the path into the trees and over boulders and across more bridges and up and up, as the terrain became more difficult, and out onto a plateau where an ancient hermitage had been cut into the mountainside and up again to a spit of rock which I scrambled up and looked back across the expanse of the park into the floor of the valley way below. The peak, though, still brooded over me, hundreds of feet above. Its upper slopes looked more or less vertical.

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They were. There was an iron walkway up to the top with – depending on whom you ask – 800, 808, 888 or over 900 steps, which in any case is like walking halfway up the Empire State Building. I had aimed to get to the top without stopping but lost my resolve halfway up the walkway and stopped to rest, but only for a moment, because a sprightly old lady in luminous hiking gear surged past me and shamed me into pressing on.

The reward, though, for reaching the peak was a breathtaking view across the park, across the countryside, back to Sokcho and on to the coast and out over the Pacific.

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It was mid-afternoon by the time I got down, too late for lunch, too early for dinner, but I stopped anyway at an outdoor restaurant and ordered the local dish known as squid sundae, which sounds a bit Heston Blumenthal, but has nothing to do with the Western dessert of the same name. It is a squid body stuffed with diced pork, tofu, tentacles and shitake mushrooms, steamed and sliced into rings.

There was a shorter, easier trek through the woods, over rocks and bridges to the Yukdam Pokpo and Biryong Pokpo falls, and that passed an hour so before I got the bus back to Sokcho and poked around the fishing harbour and market and took the hand ferry across to the North Korean expat village (Sokcho was the wrong side of the border before the war and is an hour from the DMZ now).

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Koreans are said to go Sokcho just for the mudeumhoe (raw fish platter) in which the fish is sliced carpaccio-style and served on bean thread noodles with the tableful of side dishes you always get in Korea. There was enough, this time, for a small group: a fried fish, sashimi, oysters, whelks, squid sundae, squash, soup, salad, kimchee (fermented cabbage) and goodness knows what else. Thankfully you are not expected to eat it all.

Then I was back on the intercity bus in the morning, heading for Chuncheon, the last stop en route to Seoul.

© Richard Senior 2015

Cappuccino with the Cats in Korea

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The girls at the cat café spoke no English but by pointing and miming got me to understand that I had to take my shoes off at the door and sanitise my hands.

A haughty Persian lay on the counter resting its eyes; a silver tabby stood behind it, inspecting the accounts. In the middle of the room there was an activity centre lined with soft carpet for the cats to climb on, sharpen their claws against or curl up asleep in. Next to it there was a rug for them to roll about on and cardboard boxes to play in and toy mice and things on strings for customers to dangle in front of them.

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Modern life is too often too busy, too cramped for pets, and cat cafes are a compromise. There are rabbit cafes as well. Maybe you would love a cat of your own but your apartment is too small, or your lease stipulates against animals, or you spend all day and half the night at the office and all your free time out of town; so you can go to the cat café, buy a drink and stroke their cats instead. They started in Taiwan, became hugely popular in Japan – where there are now owl cafes and goat cafes – and spread across Asia to the West. This one was in Busan, in the south-eastern corner of Korea.

I first heard about them sometime last year when one opened in Shoreditch and thought they were a lovely idea but worried that the cats might be exploited, or at least not get enough quiet time to themselves. But, at this café, there were places for them to go where the customers couldn’t, and the customers left them alone when they wanted to sleep or were not in the mood to be stroked. They looked healthy and happy and properly fed, neither scrawny like feral cats nor fat from over-indulgence.

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I am good with cats; they like me. I can usually persuade the toughest of toms to come and say hello. I have had them climb on my shoulders all over the world, and purr and poddle and roll on their backs to have their tummies tickled. But these Korean cats were indifferent to me, until the girl handed me a packet of fish-flavoured treats and I instantly became the most popular guy there. The little white kitten which had, until then, just wanted to curl up and sleep on the activity centre now tried to badger me into letting it eat the whole packet. But while I was feeding the kitten – far less than it wanted – a tabby climbed up my leg and meowed and gave me its best wide-eyed, heart-melting look, so I fed it as well, and then a black and white cat strolled over and muscled out the tabby.

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Once I had fed them all, and they grudgingly accepted that I was telling the truth when I said there were no more treats, they sat on my table or on the sofa beside me and were happy to have their paws and noses stroked. It seemed as if we were friends for life. But, being cats, they would of course have abandoned me without thought if another customer had opened a packet of fish-flavoured treats.

© Richard Senior 2015

Gangneung: Sun, Sea and Spy Submarines

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It was a magnificent coastline. The rocks extended out into the sea, an abstract beauty above the surface, a dark shadow beneath. The water was turquoise near the shore, fading to deep blue further out. There were stripes of white sand at the foot of the cliffs.

Yet no one sat on the beach. No one paddled in the sea. No one clambered over the rocks. They might have been shot if they had. A sturdy fence surmounted by razor wire stretched along the coast. The waves broke onto tank traps. There were watchtowers every few hundred yards, manned by camouflaged soldiers with heavy machine guns and rifles.

I missed the stop for Unification Park and got off at the next one and set off walking down the coast road, along the security fence. There was nothing to stop me, but it felt like I ought not to be there. It was as if I were walking through a war zone. There was no one else on foot.

It was a hot morning and pleasant to walk and silent except for the droning of insects and the occasional car on the road, and there was a glorious view through the fence. But I could not help but be anxious.  I wondered how I would explain myself to an excitable soldier with whom I had no words in common. I had laboriously copied 통일공원 – Unification Park – on a sheet of paper to show to the bus driver (he had nodded, then shot past the stop); but I saw the scope for a terrible misunderstanding if I reached for my pocket when challenged by men with guns, so I took out my sheet of paper and clutched it as I walked down the road. I wished that I had not brought my daypack.

I tensed whenever I walked towards and past a watchtower, and deliberately did not look up at the soldiers, but there was never a shout, or – worse – the click of a safety catch. A troop carrier seemed to slow as it passed me and I thought that it was going to stop, but it was just that the driver was struggling with the hill. Then a company of fully-armed combat troops with rifles, packs and steel helmets marched up the road towards me. I held my breath as they came close but they marched past, an inch away, as if I were not there at all. It was a routine patrol.

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There is good reason for the strongarmed security. One night in 1996, North Korean commandos landed on the shore nearby. When the submarine came to collect them after their spying mission, it snarled up on rocks and stuck fast. The captain burned his papers and tried to destroy sensitive equipment, although it would probably have been of more interest to museums than military intelligence. He and ten others were later found shot dead, presumed, by some, to have been executed for negligence. The other fifteen tried to sneak back to the North on foot. They stole food, stabbed three civilians, strangled a soldier and stopped at a ski resort to play video games; but after a frantic seven-week manhunt, all but one had been killed or captured. No one knows where the other one went.

The submarine is on walk-through display at Unification Park. It is claustrophobic enough when you squeeze through it alone with all the hatches open: unthinkable to spend days at a time locked inside it with twenty-five others struggling for space between the engines and bulkhead, the pipes, the gauges, the valves, and the periscope tube. It has had a fresh coat of paint on the outside, but there are still the scorch marks and melted radios in the cabin, and a smell of oil and diesel.

Nearby, there is an old American destroyer which went into service a few weeks too late for the War in the Pacific but got its chance to fire at North Vietnam twenty years later, before it was sold to South Korea. It is claimed as the only warship displayed on land anywhere in the world. I doubt that, somehow; but I cannot immediately think of another, and the point is too trivial to research.

© Richard Senior 2015

Reunification Delayed: Korea Rail Would Like to Apologise to Passengers

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There is an impressive modern station in the city of Paju in the far north of South Korea. The walls are plate glass, the roof is swooping brushed steel; its supporting rods are fashionably exposed. There are seats for a trainload in the waiting area and a long line of toilets and sinks. The station was built to be busy. A map on the wall shows connections through Korea, across Asia to every city in Europe; and a sign directs passengers to the trains for Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. There are carousels, baggage scanners, customs desks and all the paraphernalia of international transport hubs. Across the road, there are goods warehouses and yards big enough for articulated trucks to manoeuvre.

But the warehouses are empty, the carousels stand idle, and no trains go to Pyongyang. The border is sealed with high fences, razor wire, tank traps, and watchtowers manned by soldiers with machine guns trained, and regular patrols by squads in combat gear.

The only trains which run into the station – three or four a day – are specials bringing tourists to see what is ironically known as the Demilitarized Zone and to peer through telescopes into the North at what they claim is a farming village, although the only people you see are the armed guards in the watchtowers. But it has the World’s Third Largest Flagpole. In the South it is known as the Propaganda Village.

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The station, too, looks like nothing more than an elaborate, expensive, political gesture. But things seemed different when it opened in 2002. The Korean Cold War had briefly thawed. North and South had been talking since the end of the nineties. They committed to working towards peaceful reunification. They agreed that the railway lines across the border should reopen, that families separated by the war half a century ago should be able to meet; that Southern companies should build factories on the other side of the border and Northern workers should staff them. Optimists thought that reunification was bound to happen soon.

The mood did not last. Relations grew frostier when the South’s most powerful ally included the North in the ‘Axis of Evil’ together with Iran and Iraq. They chilled further towards the end of the Noughties when a new government in Seoul resolved to take a hard line with Pyongyang and strengthen relations with Washington. The North, in its turn, froze off any prospect of further cooperation with a series of gross provocations. It sank a ship, bombarded an island, kidnapped soldiers and tested nuclear weapons. By then, the idea of taking a train through Korea, across Asia to cities in Europe seemed entirely fanciful.

Just this week, it was reported around the world that the North had test-fired ballistic missiles from a submarine and might double its stockpile of nuclear warheads by the end of next year. It is hard, now, to imagine peaceful reunification happening any time soon.

Then again, that might have been said about Germany a year before the wall came down.

© Richard Senior 2015