A Recycled taleGANGHWA ISLAND, Gyeonggi
It’s amazing how some trips can go wrong even before they start. Here I was, on a bus headed for this sunny island west of Seoul, for the second time in a week. I had been there two days before to do a feature on the new 16-kilometer (10 mile) bike road that stretches along the island’s eastern coast. But my editor wanted me to revise my article (“You sound like you’re writing for a ‘Lonely Planet’ guidebook”) and had sent me back.
On top of that, I’d taken 72 photographs and only two came out.
I explained to my editor that I had been a lonely planet on a bike road that stretched for miles with few humans in sight. I didn’t mention that I’d absentmindedly opened the back of my camera while I’d stopped to admire the sunset.
In a mood of penitence, I promised to go back and bring the snappiest human interest story ever written about that darn bike road.
This time I’d asked my sister Wonzie to accompany me on the trip because she’s a good photographer and she doesn’t suffer from fumbling camera fingers. She’s also just a fun person to have along on any trip.
The bus ride from Sinchon to Ganghwa island, costing 3,900 won ($3.25) per person, takes about an hour and a half. The bus enters the island by crossing Ganghwa bridge. Ignoring my sister’s advice, I ask the driver if he can drop us off at the nearest point to the Ganghwa History Hall, where the coastal bike road starts. The bus terminal, where the bus stops, is farther into the town and there’s no need to go there first. I know, I tell my sister, because I’d been here just days before.
It is not until we start walking down the dusty road with only cars whizzing by that Wonzie reminds me that we don’t have film for the camera. Moreover, we don’t have any cash. I’d stopped Wonzie from drawing cash from an ATM machine back in Sinchon. (“Trust me,” I said. “They have ATM machines in downtown Ganghwa island. I’ve been there!”)
No, they don’t accept credit cards at the kiosk that rents the bikes. After a long trek down a dusty road with no public transportation in sight and few buildings, none of which looks remotely like a bank, we finally reach a bus stop and ask the lady who’s waiting there if there’s a bank nearby. She tells us the nearest ATM machine they have in town is at Suhyeop Bank, which is located (of course) at the bus terminal.
At Suhyeop Bank, a very nice little small town bank, there is only one ATM machine and it looks like a cousin of the ENIAC, the first computer in the world. I slip my card in and punch in my numbers. Clunk, the “Out of Order” sign comes out in the slot. Great, I can imagine the good people of Ganghwa coming after me with torches and pitchforks because I’d ruined their only ATM machine. After sorting out the problem, we finally leave for the real sightseeing after an hour of purely unnecessary delay.
“Hey, you’re back!” the woman at the bike rental kiosk near the history museum greets me. Yes, I’m back. Turns out that the woman’s sister lives in the same neighborhood as I do back in Seoul. We know this because I have to hand her my driver’s license as a deposit. It costs 8,000 won to rent a bike for one whole day. The mountain bikes are in pretty good condition. The problem is my sister: Wobble, wobble, crash. If you’re not a good bike rider, it might be a good idea to bring your own helmet. And leave very young children behind. No helmets or child-size bikes are provided.
It had been a rough start but I can’t help feeling cheerful as we head off on the pleasant highway, cooled by a nice sea breeze. The Ganghwa channel, sparkling in the sun, sits on one side, and deserted rice fields on the other. There is a wide ditch and a barbed wire fence along the northern coast of the island because besides being a land of historical battlegrounds, Ganghwa is still a militarily strategic point, as it guards entry from the west to the Han River and is only a few kilometers from North Korea.
The countryside is peaceful; no one yet in sight. But this time, I’m not a lonely planet; I’m with my kid sister. We’re two lonely planets on an orbit of a refreshing bike ride.
A short way from the hall, we pass by a row of some very ugly-looking big restaurants serving grilled eel to weekend visitors from Seoul. The eels, quite ugly creatures, look so out of place in the bucolic countryside. One restaurant has a red windmill hanging on its side for decoration, so we dub it the Moulin Rouge.
There are some red signposts along the ditch, military markers warning of explosives that were lost from the nearby military bases during last summer’s flood and might still be buried or hidden in the brambles. Wonzie and I are eyeing the ditch warily when, all of a sudden, a man who appears from the other side of the road comes across and to our utter horror, climbs nonchalantly down the ditch. It is then that we notice that there are plots of plowed land inside the ditch. Captain’s log: We are no longer alone. Life form has been detected on the bike road.
We pedal on. Cars and tourist buses pass by occasionally. It is nearing noon, the sun is getting stronger and there aren’t that many shady spots in which to rest. There is one inviting leafy rest stop ahead but a group of ajumma and ajeossi have taken it. Their van is parked across the bike road. For some reason, they hide their soju bottles and food when they see us approaching. “We shouldn’t let children see such sight,” a woman pipes up and they all roar with laughter. I make a mental note: Soju makes you look younger.
It is still a lonely road. There are three or four dondae along the bike road that we stop by. These are military posts built in the Joseon dynasty and are basically just large circular stone walls that look like empty bullrings inside. Most of these were repaired during the 1970s under the auspices of President Park Chung Hee, who wanted to showcase the military achievements in history. Too bad South Korea lost most of the famous battles that were fought there.
The next life forms we encounter on our way are three ajumma squatting on the other side of ditch, scraping the ground. We ask them what they’re doing. “We’re digging ssuk,” one lady answers. Ssuk, or edible mugwort, from the coastal areas is supposed to be especially good for your health. “Very good for women,” the second lady tells us. “We’re going to make ssuk rice cakes with them,” the third chimes in. “Why, haven’t you ever seen ssuk before? What’s your mommy doing at home, not making rice cakes for such a pretty lass like you?” The first lady cackles at me. Fair is foul and foul is fair. We leave before they might tell me that I was going to become the King of Scotland, my pretty.
When we get to Gwangseongbo, the fortress that came under an attack by a U.S. Navy fleet in 1871 and one of the main attractions on the bike road, we find it being ambushed again. Some hundreds of middle school students are yelling, running and shoving their way through the gate of the place. “We get school excursions visiting throughout early and mid April,” the lady at the ticket booth tells us. “You’ve come at a bad time, though. It’s not like this all day long.” The park at the fortress is quite picturesque with a nice view of the channel. Harried through by boisterous students left and right, we retreat hurriedly to a tiny restaurant in the tiny village by the fortress.
At the restaurant, we are met with even more unpleasant company. Five or six very loud grown-ups had entered the restaurant right before us and apparently I’d stood in the way of one of their group when he was taking a picture of them. One of the ajumma starts screaming at me but I don’t realize that the unexpected and unnecessary tirade is directed at me until my sister tells me. I’d thought they were just enjoying themselves. We hurriedly leave the restaurant with the lady and company still screaming at one another. Wonzie and I are not very good at confrontation, especially when it’s a screaming Korean ajumma we’ve got to confront.
Scurrying out of Gwangseongbo like Hansel and Gretel, we see two very old and bent ladies selling some fresh mountain greens on a bench. There is a flock of visiting middle school girls sitting on the bench next to the two ladies but of course they’re not interested in the greens. There are two kinds of greens. “This is called wanchuri and the other is naeng-i,” the ladies tell us. Naeng-i, we know, wanchuri, we don’t. “We’ll buy some naeng-i if you let us take a picture of you,” we offer. Amid blessings and praises for being two very nice girls, we buy the naeng-i and take the picture.
The bike ride back to the history hall is mostly downhill but we’re still dog-tired when we finally get to the bus terminal. The naeng-i, which was so fresh and green when we bought it, looks gray and sad as we get on the bus back home. When we reach Seoul and try to pay the driver, it turns out that he only has coins to give for change. Jingling 21 silver coins in our pockets, we finally come home.
The next morning, with more than 30 kilometers behind me, my body feels as if it’s being held together with nails. The shinbone connected to the knee bone, the knee bone connecting to the thighbone, the hipbone . . . Wait, where’s my hipbone? I hobble to the living room, where I spot the camera. I think to myself that I had better take the film out before I forget. I open the back of the camera and find myself staring at the sinister brown slip of an unfinished film. It is then that I remember telling Wonz to leave the last shot just in case.
by Lim Ji-su