I promise I’ll write up the last of my exciting South Korean tour, which successfully wrapped after 6 days of riding from Busan back to Seoul with the Magnificent Seven Plus Dog, but for now, a silly something to wish everyone a happy New Year from the Last Best Place!
For the harvest festival of Cheusok (September 14-16, 2016) a large part of the 10 million inhabitants of Seoul travel back to their ancestral home towns in the rural parts of the country, making public transportation a nightmare. Even trains and buses sometimes sell out in advance of the holiday. So the group decided that the best strategy to avoid mass transit during peak holiday time was to get a ride down to the beach city of Busan in the south, and ride north back to Seoul. David and Emily had arranged for a truck to pick up all seven of our bicycles to drive them across the country to Busan, and we’d head down via the speedy bullet train known as the KTX. The bikes were strapped down to a little bongo truck and we waved goodbye to them. It was really happening now! The air was festive and the weather was not unbearably hot as it had been just before I arrived. Tunes was technically supposed to be in a carrier, but I was packing light(ish), so Emily let me borrow her over-the-shoulders wool Kodi-carrier bag and a long, light purple scarf to drape covertly over my pooch. It was around a two hour ride, and we reached speeds of almost 300km/hour (186 mph) as we careened through the Korean countryside. Tunes was a perfect stowaway, just as she’d been stealthy on the plane.
And so the Magnicicent Seven +1 began our trek. Alyssa and her husband Tyge, who both had helped me out greatly upon my arrival by settling my cab fare, had set out a day earlier for the beach. Emily, David, Mindi, Jim, Petunia, the aforementioned +1, and I were on our way to join them for our cross-Korean trip.
Heading to board the train like a bunch of bosses!
Once in Busan, we found our hotel, and the bike truck showed up pretty soon after that. They were mostly in tact, although the rivets that held on one of Tunes’s sun shade poles had failed. Luckily I have an external buckling belt around it to help hold it down for now. I’d found the blue and orange belt on the side of the road attached to an abandoned life jacket during my first tour scavenger and make-doer that I am. This trip has made me realize just how much her carrier and my bike have gone through, after months of touring and thousands of miles. They’re both starting to show som serious signs of wear and an embarrassing lack of maintenance. After seeing my new bike friends so lovingly care for their rigs with such zeal and savvy, I felt a bit underwhelmed with my own skills and attention to the machine that was making this all possible.
Our first group outing was nothing less than superb. We walked down to a beachside burger place for some Western fare where all of the staff spoke petty good English, which wasn’t alway the case in Seoul. Without a squid or a soju in sight, we downed some American grub and headed out for a night beach visit before retiring in advance of our big day.
Song of the day: All Aboard by Muddy Waters
During my week of exploring Seoul, I was able to get in a nice hike with Emily, Petunia and Kodi on a moutainside not far from their apartment. We took a lot of steps and did a lot of stairs, much to Emily’s delight, as several of the teachers were involved in a fiery FitBit competition. Along the way were lots of exercise equipment station sites, one of which was the site where Petunia and Kodi, who’d been like lovebirds since Day 1, could no longer contain their amorous feelings for each other. Ohhh my.
As we ascended the mountain climb, there were some great views of Seoul, albeit a bit obfuscated by the poor air quality and haze of the day. Despite the heat, humidity, and fact that my legs were the site of every Korean mosquito’s own personal harvest festival, it was wonderful to get to spend so much time outdoors. Emily and I had some great conversations, and she pointed out the recently-maintained South Korean bunkers that had been set up at these high, strategic vantage points. It seemed so antiquated to me that warfare would still be waged with on the ground, by-foot combat necessitated in an age where drones and nukes were prevalent. And as it happened, the day before we left on our cross-country trek, North Korea was reported to have detonated a nuclear test missile below the ground. A bit unsettling, but my mantra of “you can’t live your life in fear” seems to be status quo here. How else could you get along so near the DMZ, where frequently reports are heard of ballistics testing and UN sanctions and the North killing staff members for minor acts of insubordinanation ?
The mountain peak had a beautiful temple, but we were a bit too late to get to explore it, and I’d already put in a 50 mile bike day, so we were ready to eat!
The wait for Korean barbecue was over! David, Emily, and Andrea walked over to a local place where we waited on an outdoor patio until a table for 5 was free. Meanwhile, we wanted to have a beer on the patio, and after asking this of her with a mix of basic Korean and heavy gesticulating, she responded to our request with a totally bewildered look. Nonetheless, she brought us our beverages, and we were joined by Mindi, one of the now-hailed Magnificent Seven Plus Dog.
After an exquisite dinner of generously tended lean pork (thanks, Andrea for handling the BBQ!), a delicious introduction to grapefruit soju, and some late night shenanigans, we were ready for our transcontinental journey.
Song of the day – Into the Great Wide Open by Tom Petty.
David and Emily both had to teach at the Seoul International School during this week until they got the following week off for the Cheusok holiday, so I was on my own to explore the neighborhood and city. Without my bike, I hit the pavement in my shoes and with Tunes keeping up beside me. We walked to the end of the neighborhood and just kept going, down a thronging main road, taking in all the different coffee shops, restaurants, storefronts, and of course, the sumptuous people watching. A few pedestrians tried to strike up a conversation with me, which was sad, because all I could do was shrug with an apologetic smile and say “Sorry, only English.” So I was over the moon when three young men with beautiful midnight skin walked past and said in a lovely African accent, “Cute dog.”
I walked a couple of miles down to the Moran station, feeling some helplessness at being entirely illiterate here, and yet thrilled to be on my own somewhere that was entirely foreign to me, save for the bizarre appearance of a Dunkin Donuts and a Yankee Candle store. Those were pretty much the only words I could read. What a feat, I thought, for so many immigrants world wide, who drop themselves into a place where it feels this vulnerable all the time. Not only do you have no idea how to get around, what kinds of substances are in the packages on grocery shelves, or how to have a pleasant conversation with anyone local, but they also transplant themselves into an entirely foreign cultural milieu and must somehow learn subtle social customs such as turning 20 degrees away from your elders while taking a drink at a table, or removing one’s shoes upon entering a home, or accepting a gift with two hands after refusing it politely as not to seem greedy or inappropriate. Especially difficult is moving to a place where the alphabet is entirely different, where cognates are far and few between, if any, and the phonemes are so entirely different that one has nothing familiar to anchor them to in order to memorize phrases easily. My brain keeps wanting to tell Tunes “ne, ne, ne” in Hindi when she does something objectionable, but that no means yes in Korean. Or I reflexively say gracias when I’m sure that’s senseless here. When I want to spout of a first person sentence or conjugate a verb, my brain tries to code switch into French I was once fluent enough in to get around in France. But here, I’m totally and utterly useless and infantile. At least my “hello” and “thank you” has become far more proficient than my first strained YouTube parroting attempts. I’m grateful for the humbling exercise. I wonder whether members of certain political parties were immersed here on their own and without money would still be clamoring to build walls and deny equality to their fellow human citizen, if they could only see what it was like to struggle with what privilege renders invisible.
That evening, David and Emily returned home, and while I was tempted to join in on a fitness boot camp with Emily, I join David and neighbor Kendall for a trip to get sushi in a huge mall. We take the subway, which is an exciting city experience I’ve not had since my last visit to NYC about a year ago, and it’s one of the cleanest and safest in the world. There is a glass case at every stop, about the size of a large armoire, with about 30 silver bags, an oxygen tank, and some small boxes. I ask David about these, and he explain that they are masks, first aid kits, and disaster supplies. “This is a nation at war,” he reminds me, “and in case we’re bombed, these are emergency supplies underground.” It seems such a strange token gesture, with almost 10 million people living in Seoul and thousands and thousands using the subways, to have 30 masks staged in this catastrophic-event tableau.
In the subway tunnel were various vendors hawking their wares, and we passed one that has an entire booth dedicated to selling dog clothes. I had to stop of course, and I picked out a hanbok, or transitional dress, for Tunes in time for Chuseok. We posed for a couple of photos outside of the world’s 6th tallest building, which is still under construction after nearly 30 years.
Tuesday came and so did my bike, finally! It turns out it’d missed one of my connecting flights and was waylaid. I spent a good amount of time reassembling it myself, and received some additional kindnesses: one was from Muffin, the housekeeper and dog walker, who propped open the downstairs door for me so that I could catch a breeze while working on my bike in the foyer, as it was a sweltering 85 degrees Farenheit here.
Another kindness was that a friend of David and Emily’s, Peter, came by to take me to lunch at the Seoul International School. Peter was just about to hop on a plane that afternoon to fly to his new job in Vietnam, but made time to give me a tour of the school and take me to the cafeteria, where I joined David during his lunch wave, and Emily for hers later. What a beautiful facility! It was cool to see where they get to work and teach, and I got to learn a lot in a short time about the social climate of a Korean education (more on that later).
An additional kindness came from the neighbor and one of the Magnificent Seven bike touring team, Jim, who helped me reinstall my derailleur, which was a bit tricky for me. Jim is an uber bike nerd, and we spent an hour or two together as he worked on his own bike and I helped it (read: I held the fork for a minute and pointed a flashlight for him). I learned so much about bikes from Jim; I only wish I could remember half of what we discussed. His awesome wife and badass volleyball coach Mindi joined us after her team’s big win, and that evening, David and Emily cooked up the yummiest chicken and Brussels sprouts! MMmmmm.
By Wednesday, with my bike all assembled and David rigged me up a sweet map that directed me to an incredible bicycle path. It was a humid, hot day, and rain was forecasted, but I came here to ride and explore, so I tightened all the bolts one more time, stuffed my raincoat in my pannier, and Honey Badgered it. Finally! I was on my own, riding my bike around Korea We followed a beautiful designated bike path that was mostly flat and followed the Han River. I was so excited to get out and go, and we cruised about 50 miles, feeling totally blissed out. Touring Tunes was back on the road, back in business.
I treated myself to lunch out, and received the kindness of a waitress who helped me navigate my food options with a visual menu, so I pointed at what I wanted, sheepish that I could not be more polite, and she kindly showed me where the metal chopsticks and spoons were (in a freer in the table) and ultimately helped me get my bill. I was so grateful for her assistance– even though I felt like an ugly American, she was patient and gracious. And I got an amazingly spicy meal for only 6,500 Won (about 6 bucks), including soup, sides, kimchi, rice, and some delicious pickled radishes! And supposedly, this is the fast food place in town. I’d take this over the Golden Arches any day.
Song of the day: Going Mobile by The Who