Lonely traveler documents life on planet Korea

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Lonely traveler documents life on planet Korea


It was after 9 at night when Martin Robinson opened the door to his motel room. Taking off his shoes, the 55-year-old traveler stepped inside and dropped his small sack on the bed. It had been a long day, but his work was far from over.
Reaching into the sack, he took out the notes he had been making during the day. Then he took out another notebook and started copying them down, carefully transcribing his notes. It had rained all day, so he hadn’t done a lot of outdoor traveling, but he visited plenty of indoor spots such as shops, restaurants, bars and hotels around South Jeolla province.
Mr. Robinson is a writer for the Korea and Seoul editions of the popular Lonely Planet series of travel books. His job description is simple: To travel and write down everything he sees and feels about Korea from a foreigner’s perspective. The book does miss the mark a few times ― it calls Father’s Restaurant in Insadong a “popular budget restaurant,” though few people, including penny-pinching travelers, have heard of the place.
He has, however, been responsible for some bits of gem-like advice. “Department stores offer customers with numerous products to taste in the supermarket section, which is usually in the basement,” one edition of the Seoul guide stated. “In just one store, you may be able to sample such items as sesame soup, cold noodle soup, potato and buckwheat pancakes, ham with mustard, hamburger and various types of nut jelly and kimchi. For dessert, kiwi fruit, yellow melon, gingko nuts, cheese slices, yogurt and an aloe drink may all be offered.”
This was Mr. Robinson’s fourth visit to Korea for yet another revision of the guidebook. He arrived on April 22 and will be staying in Korea for two months to scout out new places and advice.
“I am going to be working on longer reviews of hotels and restaurants, and mention general improvements,” he said in an interview.
He was here last year, he said, but the country has changed so much, so fast. “There are so many motels, ‘well-being’ food, and everything is much more expensive, as the won has gone up so much,” he said. “More buildings, expressways and countryside roads are paved, and there is also the KTX bullet train.”
The writer has also written for Lonely Planet about New Zealand (where he is from), India, Samoa and Australia. He said the two big pluses about traveling around Korea are the “excellent bus services, which are so frequent and go everywhere” and the “marvelous motels which provide great accommodation for 30,000 won,” or even less.
But he said he was always surprised how few people he can find on the road who speak or understand English.
“[Korea] also lacks English or romanized menus in restaurants. This hasn’t improved over the past 10 years,” he said.
Korea needs to provide more English information, he said, because he cannot speak or understand Korean, and neither can most backpackers. “Actually, I’m hopeless at learning languages,” he said.
He first came to Korea in 1995, and worked as an English teacher for two years. He said it was during that time that he started traveling around the country. Asked whether he thought two years was too short a time to learn a country’s tourist attractions, cultures and customs, he replied, “Two years is quite a long time to live in a country. You can learn a lot if you are interested in the country and have your eyes open.”
So during the years he toured around the country, he said he found quite a few nice places to visit. He hiked up to Ulsanbawi on Mount Seorak, which he called one of his most memorable hiking experiences, and said he “loved walking around Namsan mountain in Gyeongju and coming across a Buddha carved on a rock.”
Then again, those are pretty well-known tourist sites. Hasn’t he found anything more exotic or interesting?
“The unexpected is what travel is all about. I enjoy finding unusual tourist sites like the North Korean submarine in Jeongdongjin” in Gangwon province, he said. “This time, I’m really looking forward to visiting really out-of the-way islands like Eocheongdo, off North Jeolla province, for bird watching, and Geomundo island, off South Jeolla province, which was a British naval base for a few years.”
But he had some disappointing news for Koreans expecting the new edition to mention the Dokdo islets as a “Korean” tourist site. He did not mention Dokdo in the previous book and he is not planning to do so this time, either ― although VANK, a civic group that promotes issues of interest to nationalistic Koreans, had said the New Zealander was considering adding Dokdo.
“Last time, I said we would want to put Dokdo in the book once it becomes a tourist attraction,” he said. “It’s not a tourist attraction.”

by Lee Min-a

Mr. Robinson is coming to Seoul for a lecture on tips to foreign backpackers in Korea tomorrow evening at the Shoestring, the outlet that prints and distributes Lonely Planet in Korea. Shoestring, in the Hongdae area, displays travel books by over 250 publishers and 50 different volumes survival foreign language tips. For more information, call (02) 333-4151
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