After our incredibly busy day one in Korea, we took the next morning a little easier. We planned to take the KTX (Korean high-speed train) south to Mokpo, a well-developed harbor town on the southwestern coast of Korea. Why Mokpo? Besides being the town where my aunt Rebecca taught English and fell in love with Korea, it is also the town where my uncle Michael currently resides with his Korean wife, and where they own their own English hagwon (private school). Having plans to meet up with them in the afternoon, we headed down to Seoul station to buy our tickets and relax a bit. While enjoying some breakfast in the station’s large mall, it began to pour rain, further increasing our desire to do nothing all morning except enjoy some down time. Around 1:00 we grabbed a couple bento boxes for the ride, and took our seats for the very comfortable three and a half hour trip.
Crossing a majority of the Korean peninsula, we were able to admire the lush landscape of impossibly green hills that make up the Korean country-side. Apart from the occasional massive apartment complex (and we are talking ten thirty-story buildings built side by side, bigger than even Vegas can boast of), the Korean landscape is simply gorgeous and even more green than the rolling plains of England.
Eventually we reached our destination and met up with uncle Mike and his wife “Amy.” Her real name is Eun-sook, but she told us to call her Amy. They drove us around Mokpo for a quick tour of the town, stopping at a large sculpture park (the largest in Korea, apparently) and an old building originally built by the Japanese but now used as a cultural history museum of Mokpo. Ready for dinner, we mentioned that we hadn’t tried bibimbap, a famous Korean rice dish. Michael and Amy promptly took us to a their favorite local spot where you sit on the floor with low tables which, for a ridiculously low price, the staff completely covers the table with more dishes of food than I have ever seen in one place. The amount of food provided to us was simply stunning; all of it was beautifully presented as well as delicious. We definitely needed some locals to explain to us what to do with all these spectacular condiments, soups, and the bowl of makgeolli which you must ladle into small drinking saucers (make sure you always pour for others first, and never your own drink!). Being the expert, Amy offered to make our bibimbap bowls, which consisted of fresh brown rice, sprouts, fresh vegetables and lots of special Korean chili sauce. Other wonderful side dishes included rose colored pickled daikon, egg custard soup, whole small crabs drenched in chili sauce, local cooked fish filet, and of course kimchi. Amy introduced us to the local “summer kimchi” of Mokpo, which was more delicate and slightly sweeter than the spicy thick cut cabbage variety.
Even with four people, we were unable to eat all of the amazing food laid before us. As an after-dinner refreshment, the restaurant offered us chilled homemade cinnamon tea, powerful and delicious. Next, we headed over to Amy and Michael’s apartment to meet Amy’s children and chat about our experiences so far teaching English. In the evening, we headed down to the harbor where Mokpo had just finished up their summer water festival, and stopped in at Bar Texas for some beers. The cold beer hit the spot, and since I hadn’t seen my uncle in over twelve years, we proceeded to catch up over a nice long chat and more beers. And more beers. And more. Eventually we grabbed a taxi back home and passed out in the guest room with plans to possibly tour a nearby island the next day.
Next day came and I didn’t want to get out of bed. Andrew and Michael headed down to the docks in the morning to make reservations for the ferry to Jeju, while I proceeded to sleep in. Eventually I managed to get up and shower, and we hopped in the car with Michael and Amy, who had decided to show us a traditional Korean village about two hours outside of Mokpo.
About twenty minutes into the drive, I knew all was not right with my stomach. I could feel the last night’s beers mocking my stomach as we jerked along in the chaotic traffic that defines the Korea roadways. Luckily we had stopped for lunch before leaving, so I availed myself of the empty plastic bag and proceeded to re-live my bibimbap meal backwards. On a side note, rice is not the most enjoyable food to regurgitate, definitely a bit scratchy on the throat.
Once my body decides to go into “purge the poison” mode, I have very few options other than to keep drinking water so I at least have something to throw up for next time. I continued to be disgustingly ill, the entire drive up to the village, although we did stop at a once-famous tea farm where the hills where supposed to be lined with beautifully manicured rows of tea leaves. Michael had seen this once before ten years ago, but since then it must have fallen into disuse. Still hailed as a major tourist destination with pictures on the wall from the original garden, we were all amazed at how different the landscape had become.
With everyone a little disappointed and myself still majorly sick, we piled back into the car (now armed with a fresh plastic bag!) and headed to the Naganeupseong Folk Village in Suncheon.
While my enjoyment of the village was a little tainted due to the fact that I continued to throw up and worst of all, had to carry around my hot bag of vomit in the blazing sun just in case the urge struck me far from the nearest bathroom. I do remember that the village is a well-preserved fortress town originally built in 1397, surrounded by tall stone walls that you walk on for a look over the area. About 100 people still reside in this town, maintaining a more simple, traditional style of Korean life. You can walk along the streets and observe people in their huts, as well as a lovely lotus pond, and obligatory ancient torture demonstration area. All in all, it was a fascinating little slice of preserved Korean history.
Also, thank God, the last place I threw up! I had a short nap in the car and felt almost one hundred percent better when we stopped for some iced coffee. I even got my appetite back, so I devoured some delicious kimbap I had been too sick to eat earlier on the way to the Suncheon Bay Garden Expo.
I’m not sure Expo is the right word to describe the massiveness of this place but it was definitely a garden! Over 375 acres of land are covered by multiple “international” gardens, so you can visit an English garden, Thai garden and of course a traditional Korean garden. The gardens each featured flowers and plants native to that area. We enjoyed the Korean garden as the sun set, and heard music coming from a brightly lit staging area. Curious, we made our way to the stage and watched a hip-hop/dub step dance troupe perform an awesome routine in zombie makeup and bright red elbow-high gloves, which they used to great effect as a group.
Now being dark and not able to enjoy any more gardens, we made our drive back to Mokpo and stopped at a local restaurant for special galbi barbeque. A million condiments and lettuced-wrapped beef rolls later, my stomach felt totally normal and totally satiated. We headed off to bed, ready to greet one of the world’s new seven wonders of nature: Jeju Island!