DAY 87 – Bus from Seoul to Sokcho
After twice extending our stay in Seoul, we finally kicked ourselves in the butt to make a move towards the east coast. In retrospect, 10 days felt short even though it seemed long, and we could have stayed in Seoul much longer. Like Beijing, the goodbye was bittersweet. We‘ll be back Seoul! Too many things left to explore.
Reclining in my plush fauteuil, I have never ridden on a more slick or luxurious voyager bus, maybe ever. The seats are 2×1 rather than 2×2, and are actual lazy boys complete with rounded head rest and reclining leg rest. There’s also a foot rest on the seat opposite, but the legroom is so wide Jason could barely stretch enough to make his feet rest there. Luxury I tell you! Being that we are in Korea and that our budget is suffering silently, we opted for the bus which is super efficient, often faster, and quite a lot cheaper than the train.
The level of luxury can be felt even in the public restrooms, clean and pristine with heated seats in many cases, a far cry from the communal squat toilets of China. Many toilets even offer a range of services; a bidet, a light rinse, a spritzy shower… only at the touch of the button (if you know which button to choose as everything is written in Korean). With the range of buttons on display (anywhere from 10-15) they may even offer an air dry (TBC). Recommended after a rinse, not before.
My first encounter with one of these toilets, I stood puzzled before the series of buttons. Which one to flush? I examined each option, some having helpful drawings next to the Korean characters; a fountain of water for example. Probably not what I’m looking for. After puzzling over each option, I decided to choose the button on the very end: a plain square, assuming the last button surely meant stop, the conclusion of which would be a flush. Right?
At the touch of the button, a metal tube ominously began descending into the toilet bowl from beneath the seat: a shiny, scary, periscope. By powers of deduction, I brilliantly realized this was no flush. Moving away from the toilet slowly (lest the toilet sense my movements), I backed away towards the door, hands held up defensively, fearing what was about to let loose. When suddenly. A water jet with the power of a full-blast hose shot out of the toilet all the way to the ceiling across the room, splashing the door, the walls, and forming a steady stream from the ceiling that quickly began pooling up on the floor. The initial blast hit my back as I yelped out of the way. Never was I so glad to be wearing a raincoat. Always be prepared!
Back up flat against the wall, I edged towards the sink to wash my hands (hygiene above all!) thinking the jet would surely soon end. Honestly. What could people use it for? In its line of fire it probably feels like a sandblaster. I quickly realized the range of toilet services probably included an enema as well.
A quick rinse of the hands and it dawned on me that I would probably need to approach the beast and turn it off myself before it started to flood outside the bathroom. Advancing sideways crab-like against the wall, I pressed the square button again, hoping for the best. The gods were smiling down on me! The water jet shut down abruptly, and the shiny tube slowly retracted, going back to its deep and dark home where it belongs.
In leaning towards the toilet to end the eruption of waterworld, I learned an important lesson: all fancy toilets, despite being equipped with a long series of fancy buttons along the seat, are also equipped with one simple lever that everyone knows how to use: the standard flush button every toilet is born with. Lesson learned!
Let’s just say we made a quick exit from that restaurant.
Back to a more palatable subject. Korean food is delicious! We’re never quite sure what we’re going to get as most menus have pictures but no English menu. The pictures are helpful, but as most things are soups or stews, it’s hard to know what’s really in there. In one restaurant with no photos at all, we asked the waiter to bring us whatever the person next to us was having. We ended up having a spicy seafood stew that was our absolute favourite dish so far, but left us both feeling like our stomach lining had been burnt off from the inside out. The food is pret-ty spicy overall, from the fiery red soups to the vinegary kimchee. I usually end every meal with a sweaty face, a numb tongue, and lips on fire. It’s not pretty, but it’s worth it.
The best refreshment for the heat is some ice cold soju served in frosty glasses, Korea’s most popular alcoholic beverage. The first time we ordered soju over dinner, we expected some kind of Korean rice wine, but ended up having to knock back 5 shots each of Korea’s version of vodka (at 40% alcohol). We later discovered there are much milder versions out there which are more pleasant to drink, most with fruit flavours like peach or green grape. The more you know!
To enjoy the modern side of Seoul, we went to see the new movie out, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, in 4D. We didn’t even know another cinematic dimension existed beyond 3D! 4D is a completely Disney-like full-sensory movie experience which had us giggling and jumping like children from start to finish. The movie itself was in 3D, but with the added physical sensations of water mists when it was raining, the smell of flowers when we were in a garden, flashes of light during the storms, blasts of wind during the wand fights, punches in the back of the chair while buildings were crumbling, chairs dipping and diving with all the flying creatures on the screen, and a whole other range of special effects to render the movie physically real. Let’s bring this to Montreal!
On the other side of the technological divide: Mr. Khitai Rhee, master kite maker, practising the generation-old art of Korean kite-making in his small studio nestled into the traditional Bukchon hanok village in northern Seoul.
We sat down for green tea with Mr. Rhee on the tatami floor of his studio. Mr. Rhee explaining the ancient art passed down to him from his grandfather, who learned it from his own father and his father before that and on and on through the sons of the family for generations. The ornately hand-painted paper kites are cut in a simple rectangular shape and mounted on hand-carved bamboo pieces, just so. As Mr. Rhee proudly explained to us (and showed us on his phone), you can find him on youtube now, demonstrating the art of his craft. His pieces are exposed in museums as far away as Qatar, but you wouldn’t know this from sitting with Mr. Rhee, who is a simple man living a simple life, his kids off to college in Korea and the United States. He explained to us that he often sleeps at his studio, as it is better to work on the kites at night, once you can wash the day’s worries away. Quite literally, as before before beginning to work, Mr. Rhee washes his hands and himself to help cleanse his soul. The making of a kite is a pure art, and must be done with a pure soul – stress and bad thoughts negatively affecting the process. This is what he teaches his students, 5 apprentices, who will hopefully carry on the trade now that Mr. Rhee’s three children are headed for more modern careers. Although in a break of the male tradition, Mr. Rhee has begun teaching his 3 year-old granddaughter in the hopes that she will carry the craft on to the next generation.
Our journey into Korea so far has lead us to Mr. Rhee, and a whole host of other kind and generous people all over the city. Stand in a subway station with a map for more than 10 seconds, and a stranger is sure to stop by to ask if you need help, and then proceed to show you the way. There is more to Seoul than what I’ve just described of course, but only so much time in a bus ride, so the rest will have to be saved for later. We can’t wait to see what comes next!
Bring it on Korea!