Modern South Korea made its orchestrated debut on the world stage with the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Since that time, the most memorable English-language travel narratives about this country have been written by Englishmen. Simon Winchester’s Korea: A Walk through the Land of Miracles, which came out the year of the Games, seems to remain the best-known, though as supplementary reading I always recommend Clive Leatherdale’s lesser-known To Dream of Pigs, the chronicle of a journey around the country taken in the same time and published in the early 1990s. Over the past decade, during which Korea has made a fuller return to the global zeitgeist, a few more such books have appeared: Graham Holiday’s culinary travelogue Eating Korea, for instance, or Michael Booth’s Three Tigers, One Mountain, an exploration of northeast Asia given over in large part to Korea. What keeps bringing these Brits?
For the London-born Michael Gibb, author of the new book A Korean Odyssey: Island-Hopping in Choppy Waters, the attraction feels atavistic. “Just as a hiker salivates at the prospect of scrambling over a mountain range or an equestrian glows at the prospect of galloping across a far-flung grassland,” he writes, “I get giddy thinking about ferry trips to remote outlying islands,” especially “the storm-ravaged, history-rich, guano-splattered archipelagos of South Korea.” Even when transplanted to the other side of the world, it seems, a man from an island not known for its pleasant weather will seek out more of the same. Gibb currently lives with his Korean wife and young daughter on Hong Kong’s Lamma Island, where he relishes each summer, which begins “dark and thundery, oppressive enough to transform the jolliest of friends into miserable wretches,” then turns into “clear blue skies and enough heat to melt your brains.”
In the 1990s, Gibb lived here in Seoul — or rather, in the altogether different Seoul that existed in the 1990s. “It was far from easy dealing with a complex language, a feisty cuisine, and complex social etiquette,” he recalls. “The shove in the back while boarding a bus was not welcomed. Testy nationalism and insular world views alienated me. Motorbikes roaring down sidewalks instead of on the street boiled my blood.” By all accounts, the still freshly developed nation was indeed more reckless and slipshod all around in those days. “Planes fell out of the sky, bridges collapsed, gas pipes exploded, the top of a bus was shorn off by a low bridge, and one of my former students and my wife’s cousin were both crushed when a shopping mall collapsed.” The collapse was presumably that of the Sampoong Department Store in 1995, which killed more than 500 people.
Rooted in corruption and negligence, the Sampoong disaster became the natural comparison in April 2014, when more than 300 died in the sinking of the MV Sewol. The legacy of “the tragic ferry” brings Gibb to remote Gwanmae Island, off whose coast the ship went under. 250 of the dead were high-school students on a field trip to Jeju, South Korea’s largest island and long its most popular vacation destination. But Jeju doesn’t figure into the book: “It’s too accessible,” Gibb explains. “There are many flights as well as many ferry options.” But he does dedicate a chapter to one of Jeju’s own, smaller islands. “At only about one square kilometer and a fluctuating population of around 120 in 60 or so households,” Mara Island catches his imagination but ultimately disappoints, its notability as the southernmost point of South Korea drawing a surfeit of compulsive selfie-takers and littering “teenoids.”
A Korean Odyssey isn’t the kind of grumbling travelogue in which some Englishmen specialize; nor is it an expatriate’s lament for the good, bad old days. Gibb does, however, retain a taste for Maxim Gold, a “sugary, milky, hot, completely unhealthy” instant coffee favored by Koreans over age 60, and a love of what might be called urban rusticity. “A deserted seaside town is far more interesting than one filled with vacationing families packing out ice-cream parlors and noisy arcades,” he writes, justifying an off-season stay on Wolmi, an amusement-oriented island off the large industrial city of Incheon. He enthuses over a highway rest stop where “ajumma wrapped in voluminous scarves cook up spicy rice cakes, thick noodle soups, and fishcakes amid clouds of garlicky steam. With manic trot music blaring over tinny speakers, you can buy pallid hotdogs, small pastries stuffed with red bean paste, and tubes of gimbap.”
Here the reader unfamiliar with Korea turns back to Gibb’s introductory glossary. It describes an an ajumma as “a middle-aged Korean woman”; a later chapter adds detail about a “hard-working, no-nonsense, gregarious spirit,” as well as “permed hair, floral patterned pants, expansive sun visors in sunny weather, and bright-red windbreakers.” (The ajumma‘s male counterpart, the ajeossi, is “an authoritarian figure with poor fashion sense and few social graces.”) Trot is “a glorious form of pop music associated with the older generations but often experiencing a resurgence” whose “longing and sorrow” first grew popular in the Japanese colonial period. Gimbap is “the ultimate nutritious snack; a sheet of dried seaweed packed with rice, egg, ham, radish, gimchi, carrot, and anything else at hand, rolled and sliced into chunks” — in Gibb’s experience best consumed, or at any rate often consumed, on the go with boiled eggs and a Maxim chaser.
Not for this traveler the elaborate meals of Ministry of Tourism-approved “royal court cuisine,” let alone the luxury hotels that have multiplied around the country since his years living here. As a default form of accommodation on his island travels he opts for the minbak, which “usually refers to a room in a private residence” costing around US $33 per night. A lower price means “iffy sheets, suspicious stains, and the absence of a convincing door lock,” though such lodgings can also produce the kind of scenes travel writers hope for, as when Gibb finds himself “half-naked in an ajumma’s bedroom while her friends gambled in the living room outside.” (He also gets some mileage, as other Western writers in Korea have done, out of staying in a “love motel” for purposes more mundane than those implicitly advertised — and certainly more so than those of the couple next door.)
For the middle-aged Gibb, given to self-deprecating asides about his own thick midsection and thinning hair as well as the occasional schedule-mangling injury and bout of sickness, this style of travel constitutes a return to relative youth. “Back in the early 1990s I’d take off at weekends to far-flung towns,” he writes. “Tickets were inexpensive, accommodation easy to find. The unfamiliarity of the transport system, the challenge of the language, and the peculiarity of habits and customs kept me alert.” This as distinct from such ostensibly more exotic destinations as India, Nepal, and Thailand, “where everyone speaks English and there is a well-established tourist infrastructure for non-locals.” Few challenges in such places compare to “looking for accommodation and food late night in a town deep in the South Korean countryside where no English is spoken and you have to read Korean to catch a bus,” Gibb’s idea of “proper travel.”
However much it’s softened over the past three decades, South Korea’s disinclination to accommodate foreigners, and especially English-speaking Westerners, remains strong. Indeed, it’s one of my own favorite aspects of life here, though you do need the Korean language to appreciate it. (Nevertheless, Simon Winchester somehow managed to walk across the entire country seemingly without more than a few words.) “I’ve been wrestling with Korean for years and never achieved the degree of fluency that reflected the time I’ve invested,” Gibb admits, as many Korea expatriates do, though his work here included university tutoring and even television hosting. But despite speaking in “a mishmash of poorly constructed sentences, often translated word for word from the English,” he appears to hold his own in conversation on the islands and elsewhere. Not that many of them understand his journey itself: “Don’t you have any friends?” more than one Korean asks.
Yet some enthusiastic locals — proud church organizers, a taxi driver doubling as an expert on 17th-century poet Yun Seon-do — respond to the enthusiasms of what Gibb calls his “inner nerd.” An interest in Korean history and politics motivates him as much as an affinity for rugged maritime scenery, influencing his choices of which of South Korea’s more than 3,000 islands to visit. These include Yeonpyeong, victim of a 2010 North Korean missile attack; Godae, the point of arrival for Karl Gützlaff, who became the first Protestant missionary on Korean sovereign territory in 1832; Sinui, where just five years ago “a visually impaired man with the mental age of a twelve-year-old” was alleged to have been enslaved on a salt farm; and Hansan, site of a major victory against the Japanese by 16th-century admiral and national hero Yi Sun-sin (narrator of Kim Hoon‘s novel Song of the Sword).
On Cheongsan Island, Gibb seeks out a shooting location of Im Kwon-taek’s Seopyeonje, a formative moviegoing experience of his early life in Korea. Standing there he felt the Korean “underdog spirit” expressed in the film, “the triumph over adversity, the determination to succeed, the belief that art, rather than anything as grubby as commerce and consumerism, captures the essence of life.” He senses another force emanating from the core of Korean society at the destination he saves for next-to-last: Dok Island, much more widely known by its Korean name Dokdo. Both South Korea and Japan regard Dokdo as their own territory, though only the former occupies it. “The legality of either side’s claims is fuzzy,” Gibb writes. “South Korea cites supporting documents dating back hundreds of years, while the Japanese argue that Dok Island was terra nullius until Japan annexed Korea at the start of the twentieth century.”
This unresolvable dispute has made Dokdo the displaced but red-hot center of Korean nationalism. A song heavy on the refrain “독도는 우리 땅,” or “Dok Island is our land,” is standard material for South Korean schoolchildren — including those attending Korean schools in foreign countries, such as Gibb’s own eleven-year-old daughter. As if hearing it at home in Hong Kong weren’t enough, he gets a straight shot of this spirit on his excursion to what third parties call the Liancourt Rocks. “The jingoism of my fellow passengers was getting uncomfortable,” he writes of the end of his strictly limited time there. “Some of the men clenched their fists; and as their confidence grew and the sense of national pride swelled, their good humor yielded to more aggressive passions.” A South Korean flag surreptitiously planted on his backpack makes him the target of many a camera.
Even such discomfiting experiences trigger Gibb’s fond memories of life of a foreigner in Korea back when even in Seoul kids “gave you a hard time, calling you names, following you, generally being cheeky.” On the islands he savors “the slower pace of life, the lack of English spoken, the stubborn remnants of hard-core ajeossi and ajumma culture, the lack of routine, and the new and the curious,” all of it far from the hyper-developed image of 21st-century South Korea making its way in television dramas and music videos across Asia and the wider world. By the end, Gibb has taken more than 60 ferry trips and visited 30 islands, a project that his advancing age, he writes, made the project a “now or never” proposition — but then, so has the much more advanced age of Korea’s remaining islanders. Those planning their own Korean odysseys should make them soon.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall hosts the Korean-language podcast 콜린의 한국 (Colin’s Korea) and is at work on a book called The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles. You can follow him at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.