Friday, May 3
Got to Mungyeong by bus from Dong Seoul Station, a good place to hop by bus to points east and south of Seoul. Bus transportation is cheap, used by locals to get from place to place because of the convenience. Buses are clean, quiet, run frequently, and often are not crowded. Although the fast trains are popular, we have not had a bad experience with the bus system so far. We got from Seoul to the area halfway to Busan for about 13,000 won per ticket, which works out to perhaps $11.50 or $12 apiece with the current exchange rates. You can spend a lot more getting around Seoul for a day.
Not only is the bus super cheap, but the infrastructure to get you to the middle of South Korea (Kyungsangbukdo and Chungcheongbukdo) has got to be one of the world’s most expensive highway systems. If you’re not going over a gazillion-dollar bridge, you are going through a gazillion-dollar tunnel. The terrain is such that no road system could work out unless all this stuff was built to make the roads reasonably level. We felt the contrast when we went later by taxi over local roads in the Mungyeong area, where there are signs with squiggly arrows and stomach-wrenching switchbacks as the roads struggle up and down the mountainsides. Thanks, South Korean taxpayers, for making our travels cheap and fun.
The middle of Mungyeong city is one of those places where it looks like they were trying to do something in the way of a tourism plan at one point, and then they either ran out of money or sort of forgot what the plan was. Somehow or other, it is evidently not working out like they thought. Seven- or eight-floor alleged tourist hotels on what could be a very pretty riverfront are smack next to vacant lots piled with last year’s building and farming trash. Other vacant lots are planted with this year’s seedlings, trash piled at the edges, and miscellaneous junk covered with flapping black plastic. The center of town has nothing special to recommend it, except, of course, that the people were really nice. There is a hot spring spa, associated with the national park system (Mungyeong Onjon) which we did not try out. The spa seemed large, with very few customers.
Korea… you are either bowled over by the sheer artistry of everything, or completely baffled by the thoroughness of how things get trashed and commercialized. It is indeed a place of contrasts. The difference between the neglect of Mungyeong city and the careful planning and execution of the beautiful Chasabal Festival at nearby Mungyeong Saejae is just one example.
In retrospect, it would have been much better to stay in the nearby Mungyeong Saejae, a fun retail village that has apparently been popularized and expanded due to a imitation ancient village set used to film many of the network’s so-called “historical” dramas. Although the film village is an imitation one, it looks very permanent, and the buildings are convincing. It’s also very large, surrounded by beautiful mountain peaks, and the perfect place for a festival, particularly one devoted to an ancient art form like pottery. We tried to identify the settings for some of our more favorite historical dramas. Maybe it would have been pricier to stay at Mungyeong Saejae, I don’t know. But, it is probably a more happening place for tourists, full of fun stores, and barbecue restaurants with nice places to sit outdoors.
On Friday, we climbed up a steep slope in Mungyeong city, past a fake climbing wall that appeared to be deteriorating, up to a traditionally-built pavilion overlooking the river, which afforded a beautiful vista up and down the river, and off to the distant mountain peaks. You sort of have to look past the sad collection of tourist hotels off the deteriorating riverfront boardwalk, but the views from many places in that area are spectacular.
We also ended up going for drinks at the Café Old, an oddly-named place on the main highway where cars can pull off and get coffee, beer, wine, and various Korean-influenced continental snacks (like the famous sweet potato pizza). Coffee places tend to be so cutely decorated that you forgive them for the rather high-priced drinks. Besides, the owner played French lounge lizard music that was cool, and served a rich version of the regional berry tea, omija cha, made from an extract which produces a warm cranberry citrus-like drink. It actually reminded me of the taste of lingonberries (which we used to have only for Swedish dinners on the holidays), and I wondered if the plants are at all related. There is no English language equivalent of the popular name of the berry although it has a Latin name (schizandra somethingorother). It was rejuvenating. After two days and still on a jet lag schedule, I take note of anything that gives me an energy hit, especially when it is also delicious.