A Canadian writer teaches English and finds out what it's like to be a foreigner.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Lowdown on Yeouido

Sunday, Shane and I added our bodies to the hundreds of thousands of Koreans who descend on Yeouido for the inaugural Cherry Blossom Festival.

Yeoudio is an island in the middle of the Han River in Seoul, and is famous for two things: commerce and little pink flowers.

Called "the Manhattan of Seoul" or the "the Wall Street of Seoul" by those seeking cheap points of comparison, Yeoudio is the commercial heartbeat of the city, and is home to many of its most prominent skyscrapers, such as the 63 building.

Long before the thought of teaching in Korea ever ricocheted around in my brain, I had wanted to see the cherry blossoms of Asia. I'd seen Chinese and Japanese films where choreographed battles played out in lush copse of cherry blossoms like spastic butterflies having sex. To me it was such an exotic image— pagodas and temples aside, it was the picture of Asia.

Being a rural kid in Nova Scotia, and no stranger to orchards or the apple blossoms of the Annapolis Valley, I don't know why the image of the cherry blossoms struck me quite like it did, but as I set out for Yeouido on a crowded subway on Sunday, I was excited.

I knew it wouldn't be an afternoon as vividly rendered as the scenes in a film, but nonetheless I was determined to check out every single blossom the place had to offer me. With a map from my Lonely Planet Seoul City Guide, I plotted out the route to maximize ogling. We would follow the masses to Yeouido Park (I think Seoul's second largest after Olympic Park...) then along the Riverside Park by the Han, before heading west around through the Satkang Ecology Park, and culminating in a place listed on the map simply as "Cherry Blossom Park." This was to be the proverbial pollen in the blossom crown, since I imagined it to be a lush grove of pink and calm, and an antidote to the dirty, swollen weeks of the same old eyesores.

I met up with Shane at Yeoudio station and we bought some delicious dried fruit (a real variety too: apricots, kiwi, pear, figs, Chinese dates, and many indistinguishable) for a snack in one of the many parks on the agenda. We followed a throng of weekenders out and across to Yeoudio Park, past many street vendors selling cotton candy, chestnuts and small cream cakes.

The entrance to the park was fairly congested with kids and young couples renting bikes to take out on the red cycling paths. We reached the open middle area and headed to where the trees began. Since it's only early April, we were denied the full effect of the thick, falling blossoms, but the touch of pink was enough to lift my spirits. The hills were covered by families enjoying picnics of kimbab and other favorites. Many women were out with their toy dogs, and old folks took naps under trees despite all the noise of the day. I even noticed a couple sort of passed out on each other with a few empty Budweiser bottles next to them.

We took turns posing for photos by the giant statue of King Sejong the Great, one of the most important figures of Korean history and the face of the 10,000 won bill (it's all about the Sejongs...)

We walked the course of the park and came up alongside the Han, and the festivities that were going on there. By this point the smell of the bondaegi carts every 10 feet or so was starting to take its toll, plus the congestion was starting to reach critical mass. If the sidewalk was a nose, you'd be pounding the Sinutab, or perhaps enjoying the immunity to the bondaegi perfume. Regardless, we had reached the river and were trying to scout out the locations used in the Korean monster movie "The Host."

We made our way along the riverside where thousands of more families were having picnics, flying kites and riding bikes. The sun was shining despite the haze of smog along the mountains and building tops on the other side of the river. We walked past a Exhibition-type carnival of giant inflatable rides for kids, most of which generally involved the children being flung out out of somethings mouth: a shark, dragon, palm tree, Titanic.

Up a sleep flight of stone steps near the Seogang bridge, with bright yellow hyacinth blooms on either side, we were met by yet another dense pack of pedestrians, as well as a man selling coconuts to drink from. I will never, ever, be surprised by what I might be able to buy on the streets of Korea. The next bit of walking saw us backtrack through the busiest sidewalk I've ever traversed in my life (see yesterday's photos) and through Yeouido Park again, to reach the Ecology Park on the other side.

By now my feet hurt, but I just imagined the pink tranquility of our final destination.

The Ecology Park was very bland, but a welcome slice of peaceful. We scaled down a stone incline and walked along the boardwalk over the river with no fish, and shitty magpies that I could swear were mocking me. The dry reeds and the 4:00 sun had a nice warm sepia tone, made even nicer by the saxophonist who had parked his motorcycle on the street-side of the park, and was camped out playing mellow tunes for no one in particular.

After emerging from Satkang, we checked the map; not far from the Cherry Blossom Park, and my fantasies fulfilled. First however, we stumbled into a small square with a statue of two nude women, and a large plaque informing us that this was the Ankara Park in appreciation for the Turks who were sent to help fight in the Korean War. We made our way through the surprise bonus park, passing a re-creation of a traditional Turkish chateau-type house, and a sad looking guy in a fatigue jacket, smoking in an open pavilion. We climbed back up to the road and saw a street lined with cherry trees.

"It must be on the other side of that hill," I said to Shane, and we jay-walked to our mission objective. I scouted over the thicket, expecting to see an orchard type field of cherry trees nestled between the river and the hill.

It was a heavy machinery plant.

"Maybe it's a little further down?"

We walked.

A dirt soccer field.

We walked.

A parking lot.

Needless to say, as we walked the sidewalk itself was lined with cherry trees, and the horrible realization dawned on both of us. Is this sidewalk the park? No... that would be cruel to label an entire portion of the map as a Cherry Blossom Park, only to have the park be a stretch of
sidewalk with cherry trees every bit as present as they are on pretty much every sidewalk on this goddamn island... right?

That was, in fact, the case.

Perhaps the "-ing lot" portion was cut off by the printers?

Shane took a great photo of me looking crushed next to the lot (see above).

Despite being let down by my grand imagination, the afternoon and the blossoms we did see, were lovely. We got a little lost trying to make it back to the subway, but all prevailed and we soon found ourselves in the familiar environs of O'Kim's Brauhaus, sharing a big plate of sausage with German microbrew, just as Jesus would have wanted us to do, had he the means to say so.

After the brigand known as Patenaude and I parted ways, I made my achingly long subway ride back home. When I finally scored a seat it was next to a pretty girl, much to my delight, but one who stayed only two more stops before getting up and spilling the soju wino who was sleeping on her shoulder. He spilled right off her and into the now empty seat space beside me. The guy reeked of booze and had seemingly little control over himself. He stumbled awake, and straight-up, but soon fell again to dozing and leaning closer and closer to me. I was pressed for dear life against the metal rail at the end of the seat. His ball cap fell off and he didn't notice. A man in the other set of seats picked it up and balanced it on his knee. The wino himself was the next to fall— on me.

He let out a contended sleepy sigh and flipped over onto his back, letting his head flop into my lap like a teething baby, drunk on rum.

I poked him a few times in the head.

"Ya... ya..." I said in a drawn out way to get his attention.

He was perfectly content not to move.

I slapped his forehead a few good ones, and he grunted but didn't budge.

Everyone on the train found this terribly amusing, and I couldn't help but laugh myself as I put both my arms under the wino and none too softly shoved him into an upright position, not unlike an airline tray.

He grumbled himself awake only to pass out again in the opposite direction. Now he was the auburn haired kid in the cream-coloured Converse's problem.

The kid quickly changed seats.

When I finally arrived at my station, I got in line for a taxi outside. I was cold because my jacket was put to use sensibly preventing the salsa bottles in my shoulder-bag from smashing together. It was a good 10 minute wait before I opened the door to a yellow cab and was immediately struck by two things:

Thing the first: "This cab smells like butterscotch... or a butter-toffee cappuccino of incredible potency."

Thing the second: "Holy shit, does that cab driver look exactly like a Korean version of Bruce Campbell!"

It was true.

He had the long, pronounced face and chin, cock-sure grin, and all the chutzpah the Army of Darkness could handle.

It was weird.

We had a few short exchanges in simple English, and Bruce offered me some cigarettes because I was Canadian. He lit up himself because, frankly, he was way too cool to not be smoking and driving at the same time. Oh, and he was chewing gum too.


After recklessly driving the swerving back roads to just under the big neon sign for the Hotel Bellagio, I paid Bruce the $5 and change the 15 min. drive had cost me, but before I got out of the cab, he put his hand on my shoulder, looked me straight in the eye and said: "Shop smart, shop S-mart."


Not really, though.


Irrelephant said...

Cherry blossoms in spring, great fun with a drunk, and Bruce Campbell sharing his pack of Camels. My gods, man, is Korean actually the white man's Heaven?

Jon Allen said...

When you came up from the hangang river park you should have turned right and carried on towards the National Assembly building.
The whole road behind the NA is where it's all happening!
They should still be in bloom this weekend if you want a second go at it.