Travelling through South Korea was a constant voyage of discovery. Before arriving I had very few pre-conceptions and an embarrassing lack of historical knowledge, be it modern or ancient. I had little understanding of the culture or cuisine. Sandie was slightly better equipped having been exposed to, and enjoyed, Korean cinema1. This meant there was so much to learn and understand. The best part of travelling is of course learning new and curious facts that are alien to our reality. Thankfully during our trip we were able to count on many friends to describe and explain things to us.
One of our few regrets after almost two months on the road was not having met enough of the locals. We wanted to remedy this and tried to contact some hosts to stay with2. Above all, our objective was to be able to learn first-hand from the locals and hear their story. Because we travelled mostly through the rural parts this was not always easy, but even so we enjoyed many great encounters, be it with new and old friends, native Koreans or visiting travellers. They all took us under their roof and kindly contributed to our discovery of their land. Entering someone’s home is already in itself a very telling experience. As we pedalled past the cities we would see the houses and apartments, but until you step through the door, what can you expect inside? It is real people who will be able to tell you about the real country, with its faults, political agendas and current preoccupations that you just cannot guess from outside.
Most South Koreans nowadays live in high rise, modern apartment blocks with all the necessary conveniences. Their view of such an arrangement is very different to ours. To us, coming from a culture where buying a house with a garden is often considered the ultimate goal, apartments often carry a negative connotation. Not so in the land of kimchi and steel chopsticks3, where being off the ground is somewhat looked upon as being higher up the social ladder. New buildings incorporate basic needs, with nurseries and shopping stores at the bottom of the lift. The view can also be spectacular, even if there is a slight lack of nature. In some of the homes we visited the lay out felt decidedly western, with a similar architecture and high tech appliances. One of the few things we found to be missing were ovens. This is a common occurrence in much of South Asia, but without one how do you roast chestnuts?
The paths to Daejeon were flanked by beautiful chestnut trees, and being the start of autumn the ground was full of the spiky balls that protected the treasures inside. We had stopped to collect this bounty as we pedalled and hoped to share them on arrival. We managed to improvise by boiling them but it was a rather unsatisfying solution. We hope we will be able to let our hosts try them roasted next time! Thankfully the rest of the food they prepared was excellent.
During our traverse of the country the shocking dichotomy between new and old, tradition and innovation was always there4. Why I found this so conspicuous I cannot say, but I could not help noticing it all the time and seeing examples that highlighted the split. Many countries have stacked their modern architecture next to historical buildings or integrated new solutions in an otherwise traditional landscape, but in South Korea the mix feels very raw and obvious. Small cottages overshadowed by huge high rise skyscrapers. Rice fields next to industrial manufacturing plants. Or a touchpad, inserted into the wooden door of a traditional Korean house or hanok. Once noticed, we kept seeing signs of this sudden change everywhere.
But we are of course not the only ones to have noticed the drastic differences between modern and ancient. We were staying with our hosts is Daejeon, Jenny and Jay, after trying to cook the chestnuts. Having decided to visit the city they kindly recommended the modern art museum. During this trip we have not spent much time visiting galleries or other indoor pursuits so it was nice to safely leave the bikes and take the bus into downtown. We left the huge government buildings behind and walked through the parks, still full of flowers. Reaching the museum a big fountain was decorated with a jumble of bicycle shapes, the tempered steel giving off rainbow colours. Once inside, part of the exhibition showed material by artists that reinterpreted, reimagined or contrasted classic works with a modern twist5. This was so Korean!
Leenam Lee6 borrows from ancient masterpieces and uses new technology to enrich the canvass and give new life to the scene. The changes are slow and subtle which adds to the magic of the landscape and makes for pleasant viewing. The fusion between the two is subtle and graceful. We spent a long time in front of the screens, lost in thought as we took in the small details and observed the changes. The original painting slowly evolved through the four seasons, the colours and weather fading seamlessly into the brush strokes. Some small figures also moved around, showing how they had got into the scene in the first place. It was a mesmerizing experience.
Another artist who highlights modern Korea’s heritage is Bomin Kim7, who uses ancient techniques and style to combine modern landscapes with a traditional story. Not only is the work intellectually interesting, the finished result is beautiful and aesthetically pleasing. The use of gold and purple gives the scenes an enchanted feel. The different paintings are based on old tales and add modern elements such as high rises, roads or even an airport. These works, more than anything else we saw, clearly showed the impact that the fast development of the country has had. I found it interesting that local artists had picked up on this; often the most obvious things about one’s own land are so taken for granted we are not conscious they are noteworthy.
From the centre of the country we headed north, through more mountains before connecting with the Namhangang river, which would lead us into the capital. We pedalled long distances, sometimes into the night. Safe on our bike paths we could watch the reflections on the water or watch the thousands of moths caught in the light beneath the street lamps.
As we reached the outskirts of Seoul there were more and more cyclists, and sometimes we found ourselves ridding with the same group for some time. The network has been well developed and there are specific tunnels and bridges for riders. We were often near the river and it was pleasantly green, even if the density of train and motorway bridges started to increase dramatically. It was the easiest way to enter the sprawling metropolis and we were soon able to reach the centre and find a place to sleep.
Korean fascination with Western, and especially French culture is quite cute, especially the cake shops and bakeries with their fancy names and even fancier products8. Korean cinema has been appreciated worldwide for years, but is now starting to make its mark on the wider public. We had heard that many natives did not enjoy or consider their home-grown directors worthwhile, and we were surprised to confirm this during our stay. It was our films they wanted to see. Is this a case of the grass being greener, where the question goes both ways? Some things are more clearly cut, such as hairstyles and fashion. We had only been out for a few days to realise everyone had the same look. For young men it is long on top with shaved sides, known as two blocks style. For older women it is short and always forced into short curls, sometimes dyed red or dark purple. Younger women have some more choice but the overall look if often quite uniform. There are very few rebels in a land where your appearance is so important and a lot of effort is made to fit in. This is in contrast to modern western culture where the opposite is often true and individuality is pursued within certain limits. Unfortunately it is this pervading necessity for a perfect image that made the worst impression on us. Seeing people spending hours to take a single, perfect photo seemed so sad when there was so much more to be enjoyed in life. Some young Koreans have taken this worldwide phenomenon to the limit.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Seoul downtown where lights blaze and people enjoy the nightlife. Maybe we had spent too long in the countryside and become disenchanted with such a shocking amount of waste and blatant obsession with shopping and consuming. We had become accustomed to a life with no need to constantly purchase new things. Being invited in for a meal, be it by our hosts or some monks at a temple was the highlight of our day. By cycling through remote areas; we didn’t need to make an effort to control the impulse and were not bombarded by a constant demand to consume. We had started to get used to a simpler way of living with little effort. With so many Koreans cycling across the bike paths, maybe they will take to the long distances, leave behind some of the gadgets and slowly realise the simplicity of it all. Some already have, we are sure others will follow.
We look for patterns and make judgements, stereotypes even. It is the way our brains have equipped us to survive. These are simple shortcuts that let us make decisions and are how we create our world view, fast. Often we extrapolate from a few meaningless cases to create a false reality, but in general we will be able to slowly start to build up an incomplete image. It will take time to fit in all the pieces. As we cycled through Korea, we saw and judged one small and incomplete part of the nation at a time. Some we loved and others we disliked. Our route gave us but a flitting glimpse of the landscape and the people. Like anywhere it would take a lifetime to dig down and really understand the deep currents that form and drive a society. But it is always fun to try and understand as much as possible, and is the reason why we are there in the first place, even if it does lead to oversimplifications. Korean society is very complex and a stark reminder that there still remain many differences in a globalising world.
Our traverse through South Korea was eye opening and diverse. We had been welcomed by new and old friends and would like to extend our appreciation and thanks to all for having enriched our voyage. We are very grateful.
1 Korean cinema has become a worlwide phenomenon, with Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite picking up multiple international awards, and rightly so. If you haven’t seen it, you should. For dark revenge and full-on pent up voyage of madness and emotion try Oldboy. Or for a more lighthearted and enjoyable thriller watch The Gangster, The Cop and the Devil.
2 Bike touring and looking for hosts? If you don’t know about warmshowers you are missing. Like couchsurfing but by cyclist for cyclists you will definately meet some bike fanatics and wil be able to swap tales from the road as well as get some rest and learn local. Check out the page here.
3 Korea is the only Asian country to use metal chopsticks. Legend has it the royal family would only eat with silver one’s and everyone wanted to follow suit.
4 South Korean economy, helped by US aid and the proliferation of family conglomerates or chaebols grew by over 10% annualy for decades. From the destruction and poverty following the Korean war, entire cities have risen up in half a centry.
5 Hanguk-hwa, Mindful Landscape exhibition at the Daejeon Museum of Modern Art,
7 Bomin Kim, bio here
8 Tous les Jours and Paris Baguette may sound French but are a very Korean creation. You will find them sprinkled profusely throught the city, selling all the classic baked good you could imagine, sort of.