Trip to Pohang

We left Suji at 12pm. After work, I rushed back home and tossed all my stuff into my backpack and met my hyung (성태) at 낙생고등학교. I was pleasantly surprised that he had a 2-door SUV, which would be incredibly comfortable for the trip. It was just me and him, and we tossed all our stuff in the trunk and went on our epic trip to Pohang(포항). He had a GPS that was huge and had tv/mp3 and all the bells and whistles. It was instrumental in guiding us safely to our destination.

Anyways in the car ride, we talked about the most random stuff. It was also great stopping by these little pit stops in Korea to get stuff to eat and also getting coffees. Talking about politics, society, and philosophy were a few of our topics. During the ride we got pretty tired and I wanted to sleep really badly but forced myself up so I wouldn’t let my friend fall asleep at the wheel. He then started to sing all these random Korean songs… most of them traditional or old-school. I was amazed by his sonorous voice which seemed to permeate the entire car. It was deep, rich, and full of emotion. Finally at around 3am I couldn’t take it anymore and fell asleep for an hour or so.

When I awoke, we were extremely to one of our stops; Bulkuksa temple. It was around 4am and it was extremely foggy and there was this huge windy road leading to the top. I remember at the bottom of the hill we saw some elderly people trying to hike up the treacherous mountain, and commended them for their tenacity. On the ride up, my hyung turned on his foglights which illuminated the narrow and twisty road quite well, but I remember seeing him swerve into the left lane several times on our way up which made me extremely anxious. I remember looking at the extreme bends that I saw on his gps and thinking that it was just like a video game… Initial D to be exact… driving on the mountainous hills.

Anyways, we finally got to the top and I remember how extremely foggy it was but yet mysteriously romantic. It was around 5am now, and it was lightly sprinkling. It was also cold as hell… I remember shivering in my shorts (the only pants I brought) and regretted not bringing some jeans and a sweater. But anyways, we wandered around a bit, taking in the majesty of it all, with me snapping a ton of photos. We were both extremely tired (my hyung got no sleep while I only got an hour or so) but we headed toward the entrance. The man in the front told us that they were closed until 7am, so we headed back to the car and slept until it opened.

Now with us being recharged with about two hours or sleep, we went through the entrance of Bulkuksa and headed to the main temple. The morning air was incredibly crisp and fresh, with every breath in feeling like I was having pure oxygen. I cant quite describe the experience in detail, but it was probably one of the most beautiful mornings I have experienced in my life. It was also still sprinkling, and I remember patting myself on the back for bringing an umbrella “just in case.”

We finally got to the top and after getting a sip of water from a spring (which was damn refreshing), we headed up a flight of stairs to see the main temple. Inside the temple, encased in glass, was this amazing Buddha statue that stood up to be around 20 feet tall. There was a sign on the left saying “no photos”. I took a picture of the Buddha statue and the sign as well.

After basking in the beauty of the place, we both headed back to our car to go to go check out this padoga (like a tiny statue of a tower) that is on the 10 won Korean coin. The place was equally as refreshing in terms of nature, and it was great to see all the traditional Korean architecture around the place. My 35mm wasn’t cutting it anymore in terms of trying to get everything in, so I threw on my 24mm which gave me all the wide-angle goodness that I wanted. I remember just getting a few snapshots here and there…. Nothing too artsy or anything. I was trying to enjoy the experience more than trying to get tons of photos.

After checking out that place, we headed further inward toward Pohang and stopped by another place which was supposedly a pond created by some Korean king thousands of years ago. The man-made lake was quite beautiful, and littered with tiger lilys all around the middle. We took a stride around the perimeter of the lake, while taking our time and just enjoying the nature of the place. It was quite beautiful….although it felt a little played out after seeing all the other gorgeous places that day.

Somewhere along the way we had Ddak Jjim which was damn delicious (see the picture) and then we headed to Pohang. We drove for another 3 or 4 hours and we finally got near our destination.

Pohang was very cloudy and overcast, and was slightly sprinkling intermittently. However just driving around the place, I got a much different vibe than Seoul. Here was a tightly-knit community where it seemed that everyone knew each other and where people were generally much kinder to one another. There were a lot of authentic-looking Korean structures… which were made without a bunch of planning. Thus it caused the place to seem more genuine… rather than the planned structures that dominate Seoul.

Our first destination was to first get some bomb ass-food. Along the way my hyung kept on telling me about this famous dish in Pohang which is raw fish mixed with water and all these other stuff. It sounded pretty weird, but I was open to new experiences so I told my hyung that I was totally down.

Before we ate lunch, we checked out a traditional market in the middle of Pohang. I will try to describe the place as best as I can. Imagine a classic scene that you see from pictures in Asia; women sitting down trying to sell their food or goods to people walking by with the entire place overflowing with people. It is a very genuine experience, especially when it comes to Korean culture. It seems much more personal than the often impersonal shopping experiences that we have at supermarkets. Kinda like farmers markets back in the states, but on steroids.

But anyways, I tried to capture the mood and experience of the place as well as I could in my photos, but I don’t think that I was truly able to. Photography definitely has its limits. One photograph can only show you so much, and a series of photographs can help more but doesn’t really grasp the atmosphere of a place. The only way that you can really get the sense of the place is to be there in person. To smell all the exotic scents, to hear the clamoring of people in the streets, and to twist your head around in every single direction is the only way that you can get a true “feel” of the place. However as I know how the human imagination is aided by photographs, here are some.

Anyways while we were walking around, we soon entered the center of the market where they sell what Pohang is famous for; its fish and seafood. You could seriously find any crustacean, fish, or marine life if you were there. There were even some places that sold huge chunks of shark and whale. The smell of fish permeated the air, and it was pretty entertaining to see all the fish squirm around in tanks that kept them alive until they would be brutally chopped alive to pieces for human consumption. While walking around though, we got barraged constantly by people trying to convince us to eat at their restaurant. But these people seriously went the extra mile. They didn’t just call at us to go eat at their place from in front of their restaurants; rather, they followed us around for around 2 minutes trying to convince us why their restaurant was better than all the others.

We finally ended up settling at a place and ordered that fish in water-dish I was talking about. Before the food came out, they gave us a plethora of side-dishes that ranged from pupas (Korean people love them, but i cant stand their smell) to seafood. When the dish finally came out, it reminded me a lot of the Korean dish, Nengmyun. There was ice inside there and thinly sliced raw fish with radishes, spices, and seaweed. After pouring in water and mixing it all together, I dove in and damn was it delicious. It was quite possibly the freshest fish I had in my entire life that was refreshing and satisfied my taste buds to the max. They also made a spicy soup with the left-overs from the fish bones which was delicious as well.

Afterward, our next destination was the beach. Before we went to the beach, we found a motel nearby and checked in there to sleep in later. After unloading our things and marveling at how great the deal the motel was (only 25 bucks a night for a private room that has air conditioning, cable, etc) we headed to the beach. When we got there it was a little chilly but we decided to take off our shoes and check out the place regardless. There was a handful of people there that made the place seem more lively. It was also the perfect amount of human life; not too much people, but not too few people.

Anyways I kicked off my shoes and proceeded to walk down the beach with my hyung in my barefeet. Feeling the refreshing water flow in-between my toes was an experience that I haven’t felt in a while that made me really open my eyes to the small beauties of life. Something as simple as walking down the beach with a close friend with the sound of the water roaring in the background was more satisfying than all the riches in the world. I walked around with my stalker lens and snapped a few pictures of the beach, but tried hard not to be caught in the act. Fortunately all my training as a stealthy street photographer kept me largely unnoticed.

We were soon pooped and decided to head back to our motel. There were no stations to wash our sandy feet and we failed to bring a towel, so we decided to walk back in our bare feet. It was probably another of the most epic parts of the trip. In the beginning it was fine just walking in the streets on the asphalt. A few pebbles here and there, but nothing too serious. I saw a few shards of broken glass bottles, but some quick maneuvering kept me from any serious injury. I remember thinking to myself how strange it felt walking on the ground with my bare feet… a memory that I haven’t had since probably when I was a child. This further led me to realize how disconnected humans have become to our environment, and something as simple as walking around in one’s bare feet can really make us have a small epiphany about this fact.

Walking barefoot on the street was chumps change… nothing too difficult although it felt very strange and foreign. However, the worst was yet to come. Before we could get to the motel, we had to cross this huge parking lot which was littered with these tiny stones. And damn it was probably one of the most painful experiences of my life. My bare and naked feet that had been protected with shoes its entire life had no idea the hell it was about to endure from the relentless attack of random pebbles and stones on the ground. Every step was like a thousand little devils poking at me at the bottom of my feet with their tridents, cackling with laughter at my pain.

However this experience was very strange.. as painful and arduous as the experience was, it was incredibly liberating at the same time. To be faced with this pain, but at the same time knowing that it would come to an end once I passed this red-sea of rocks was something I quite looked forward to, and had my heart-set on accomplishing. So I bit my tongue and cursed along the way in a mixture of English and Korean, with my poor little feet begging me to stop. But I ignored the signals that my body were sending me, and let my mind take over. When I finally crossed over, a sense of euphoria overtook me and I gave myself a little pat on the back from enduring and succeeding in this small endeavor.

Finally at the motel, we both KO’d on the bed for about two hours, until we had to get up and meet a friend of the hyung that I came with. When my hyung was living in po-hang for around 6 months, he befriended a guy at the church they were both attending at the time. He told me all of these great stories that they had together, imitating his Korean accent (Gyung-sangdo Satoori… a pretty well known dialect in the south). We then headed toward his church and parked out car closeby, and waited at the beach until he came. Listening to the sound of the water crash on the beach, while holding up my umbrella to shield myself from the light rain seemed incredibly romantic for some reason.  I totally forgot about all of the worries and concerns in my life during those 30 or so minutes on the beach… just reflecting about life.

His friend finally came and we headed to church together. The church looked very homely and inviting from the outside, and during mass it was beautiful to see the small yet intimate community they had there. It seemed like everyone knew each other and what the church lacked in quantity in terms of membership, they made up in quality and from tightly-knit intrapersonal relationships. The church looked quite lovely inside as well, and it was not too big nor too small. It was just right. What I also found funny was that the priest also used the Satoori dialect that many of my family members in the countryside use. During his homily, he didn’t simply read from a paper; he started his sermon with some chit-chat about the weather and such and how things were going in his life. It really helped clear the air and made the environment seem much more friendly and personal, which helped open up the channels of communication between him and the audience.

After mass, I became more acquainted with the friend of my hyung. He looked quite young for his age (I suspect he was around 40 or so) and I could tell of his superior character when I first met him. He was extremely friendly and talked to me like we knew one another for a while, and he gave me a lot of respect in saying that I spoke Korean incredibly well considering I was born and grew up in the states. He gave me a little spiel about how too many Koreans from the states don’t care about their culture or language anymore, and that anybody who is ambitious enough to try to preserve it should be commended. I was starving at the point, and we decided to go eat some Korean Sashimi. Living in po-hang, the friend of my hyung knew all the bomb places to eat that had the freshest fish, while giving the best service.

We soon came to a place and got seated, and started to talk about random stuff regarding how my hyung and his friend knew another and met, and also stuff regarding politics in Korea. I had no idea, but it seems like a ton of people in Korea are really upset with the current president, Lee Myung-Bak and they say he is too conservative and isn’t implementing any of the changes that he promised during his presidential campaign. We shared all this pleasant conversation while having some ridiculously delicious food. There were like a million side-dishes and they gave an extrorbinant amount of sashimi as well. All of this was not complete without soju of course, so we shared a few shots of soju as well… which I am getting pretty accustomed to.

After saying our goodbyes we soon parted ways with my hyungs friend, and went back to our motel room. After showing we turned on the air conditioning and my hyung knocked out first on the far right side of the bed toward the wall. I stayed up a bit typing my note about the people that I met in Korea and also typing up this document as well. I also saw the men’s Korean national basketball team playing the Philippines and I think Korea ended up winning by like 10-20 points.

But I didn’t know the hell that I was going to experience that night. My hyung seriously snored worse than doh and brian combined. It was like being next to the belly of a beast. Every snore seemed to shake the room and make it vibrate like it was cowering to his powerful presence. At first I wanted to wake him up, but I knew that he needed some sleep driving back up to Seoul so I ended up not shaking him or anything of the sort.

However the snoring was pretty unbearable. I tried to ignore it at first, but his snoring shook my core and penetrated my eardrums. I cursed myself for forgetting my earplugs back at home (I have become pretty reliant on them) and remembered the mp3 player in my bag. I then put it on and tried to blast it loud enough to cancel out the sound of his snoring. In between beats I could still hear his snoring. However I tried to bear through it, and ended up falling asleep sometime later that night.

The way up seemed much quicker than the way down. We ended up chatting a bunch about politics, philosophy, and a ton about 이명박. Along the way we also made a few pit stops. One pit stop towards the end in 인천 was pretty memorable as there was a pretty talented musician there singing and playing the electric guitar, and buying “Co-Pop” from BBQ chicken which was a cup of coke with a little suspended container that had fried chicken.

Anyways, we finally ended up getting back to Seoul where we said our goodbyes and parted. 할머니 felt pretty 감동 from him helping me out, so she asked me for his phone number, in case she wanted to hook him up with somebody else (he is 35 and unmarried). Hopefully she can hook up my hyung soon.