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Friday, August 03, 2012

Up My First Mountain

Yesterday, i.e day five, was one of those days when you seem to go through a whole year’s worth of experiences over the span of a few hours.  I woke up nervous, wondering if anyone was going to kick me out of the harbor, so I packed up and left without even eating. Over the next twenty minutes, I passed several excellent beaches, many with shower facilities and drinking water, and I kicked myself for not having persevered a little more the night before. Then again, I forgave myself, because I had in fact persevered for about 45 minutes, and only gave up on finding a good spot when the gas station attendant told me that none of the beaches in the area had good camping spots. What a goon!  

 Not my most scenic camping spot

I stopped at a little rest stop, (which also would have been dandy to camp in, or at least better than the harbor), had my usual breakfast of raw seeds, roasted peanuts, and whatever fruit is rotting in my backpack, and pushed on, hoping to visit the DMZ before lunch time. I had heard that Gangwondo, the most mountainous part of the country, was tough riding territory, but this section of the cost was pretty mild, so despite my lethargy I made it to the checkpoint pretty early.  They told me that I wasn’t allowed to bike the last 10k and that I had to hitch a ride. I went back and forth on whether or not to bother, but I saw a giant tour bus and figured I’d ask the guide if there was an extra seat. It turned out to belong to an “international school” taking a group of students on a round-the-country road trip. They didn’t let me on the bus, but I got to ride up with one of the admin dudes.  I tried to make light conversation, but the guy for some reason couldn’t wrap his mind around the fact that I was speaking Korean, so that his first response to everything I said was “yes,” then a chuckle, then he’d look away. Only after a few seconds would it register to him that I’d actually said something that made sense and had a meaning, after which he’d answer.  “Oh, the school is in Daejeon.”

Unification Road

The DMZ lookout point itself was, again, underwhelming.  Not only had my thunder been stolen when they wouldn’t allow me to finish the last 10k of my 500k trip up the border, but there was actually not a whole lot to see.  At the base of the lookout point, there were a bunch of shops selling souvenirs (mostly North Korean booze), local food (corn, potatoes, rice cakes), and summer treats (shaved ice and even Dippin Dots!), along with a couple restaurants. Then there’s the DMZ itself, which of course is mostly devoid of activity, so that all you get from gazing out over it is this sense that the North and South are indistinguishable. There’s no natural boundary, no river, no mountain, just arbitrariness.  I was also a little frustrated that you had to pay to use the little mounted binoculars.  I guess I just felt it ought to be free, given that the lookout building was full of stuff about how desperately the South wants unification. Not that you could see anything through them anyway, but there was just something sleazy about how whoever was running the facility was intent on making money at every point possible. I know that even the basics of life aren’t available to many in the North, but it rather depressed me that aside from the fact that nobody in northern Gangwondo is starving to death, there doesn’t seem to me to be much to recommend the region.  Aside from the tourists and farmers, most people I saw seemed to work either for the army, at convenience stores selling shitty plastic beach toys, in factories, or on road crews.  I’m sure most in the North would be better off under South Korean conditions, but the rhetoric of sharing one’s blessings with one brothers doesn’t seem to hold up so well when one’s own country comes off as a bit pathetic and money-grubbing. 

Time Warp!

NK Booze: Acorn, Ginseng, Other Odds and Ends

 The tiny little floating hill there is SK territory; beyond belongs to NK.

Hungry and disillusioned, I rode back to the nearest park I could find, whipped up another bowl of noodles, then set up my hammock on a park bench next to a fenced-off building, which I assumed was an abandoned church and went to sleep.  About half an hour later, the sound of ATVs roused me from my dozing, and I was able to hear some older people mumbling things like “What is that?”  “What’s the deal with that bike?”  “I think he’s a foreigner?”  “What’s he doing sleeping here?”  I wasn’t yet awake enough to get out of my hammock, though, so I just lay there pretending to sleep and hoping they’d move on, which they did soon enough.  Not ten minutes later, though, the whole thing repeated itself. By this time I was too awake and too conscious of the heat to stay in the hammock any longer, so I got out, exchanged some pleasantries with them, and set about packing up my stuff.  Then another wave of old people came, and one of them, a chatty 70-ish gentleman, struck up a conversation, explaining that I had fallen asleep out of their “Gateball” (i.e. croquet) grounds, where all the seniors gather daily at 1pm to socialize, horse around, and exercise.  He invited me in for a coffee and even offered to let me join in the festivities, but I was feeling pressure to ride further since I had hardly even done 40k and the time was nearing 2pm.     

Better every day

Too ashamed to take photos of the old people

Having already made it to the northeast tip of the country, I had to figure out a new route and decided I’d try to stick somewhat to the northern border, so that when I finally make an online map of where I’ve been it’ll look like I attempted to circle the whole country.  The roads from there more or less constrained me to head slightly south towards Mt. Seoraksan, and  then inwards towards Seoul, though, so that’s what I did.  The trip up had followed the coastline, and so had been full of beaches, ports, and little towns, but as I moved inwards they were slowly replaced by farms, bed-and-breakfasts, and military bases.  Suddenly, I realized I could see nothing ahead of me but mountains, and that there was nowhere for me to go but over.

I didn’t know how far away the pass would be, or how high the road went, or how tough, or if I’d be able to make it in one night, so I figured I’d better procure a few more supplies before moving on.  I already had most everything, and only needed more raisins for my snack mix. Unfortunately, though, when I stopped at what looked like the last market before the road disappeared into the wild, the woman said that there were no raisins, and that I’d have to turn around and backtrack 10km to even have a chance at finding fresh fruit.  Ironic how out in the countryside, surrounded by farms, the shops only sell ice cream and bags of chips, whereas you have to be closer to the city to get anything fresh.  I was making it a point to do the trip without eating any such snacks – unless they came as gifts – so I plodded on. 

Felt more ominous than it looks

Eventually I got to a point where it looked like the climbing would begin.  There was a sign at the bottom of the road indicating switchbacks for 2.5 km and it occurred to me that things were getting serious.  So, like any serious adventurer would do, I postponed the inevitable by pulling over at a bus stop, taking a seat, and stuffing my face full of snacks.  I didn’t exactly feel afraid, but I did have a sense that I was about to be overwhelmed, that I had encountered the hardest part of my journey yet, and that  I was soon  be put  to a test.( Actually, it’s a very similar feeling to the one that has me continuously inventing new errands to do, recalling other people to see, and thinking up other ends to tie up before I leave for China.)  After scarfing down enough seeds to guarantee that I woulnd’t get that hollow-in-the-pit-of-your-sternum hunger that hits me on tough uphills, I resumed the journey, fully expecting 2.5km of torture.  What I got instead was a road that wound lazily uphill for about 0.3km then flattened out, following a river that cut through the mountain rage.  Instead of sweating blood like I expected, I was pedaling along  at a jolly cadence, smelling the pines and reveling in a blast of cool air every time I passed a little waterfall that ran down the side of the mountain, under the road, and into the river.  

Soon enough I passed a waterfall big enough to get into, and feeling free from both the fear of the mountain that had immobilized me just twenty minutes previous and from the dictates of society that say people just don’t do such things, I pulled over again, lay my bike down on the side of the road, pulled out my cooking pots and a toiletries kit, and proceeded to take my first shower (Not naked of course – maybe someday I’ll be that free.) in four days by using the pots to scoop up water that had pooled at the base of the falls. A few cars passed, but none honked or otherwise bothered me.

I resumed riding, my fear of the mountain replaced by an expanded sense of freedom.  How great it was that I could just bum around and get whatever I needed, whenever I needed it?  If I’m hungry, I’ve got my snacks.  If I’m thirsty, I’ve got my water.  If I’m tired, I’ve got my hammock and my tent.  If I’m filthy (not a very big if), there’s water somewhere.  I thought to myself, popular conceptions of freedom usually center on being able to do what you want, go where you want, buy or own what you want. This felt different, like I was free from wanting anything in the first place. I felt instead free to take and use whatever presented itself to me.  Not to do as I wanted, not to orient myself to the world in terms of (manufactured) desires, but rather to find a way to be content regardless of the circumstances.  Further introspection revealed that the sense of freedom was enhanced by a sense of being taken care of, and thus, gratitude.  How great of the mountain to give me shade; cool, clean, running water; trees to hang between and clearings to pitch tents in.  

Nothing but rocks, water, trees, crops, and a few houses.  Good times. 

This feeling then morphed into a sort of love for everything around me.  The fear from before receded into the background even as the road in front of me grew steeper and steeper.  Two racing cyclists passed me going the opposite direction and I instinctively began to shout out to them, asking how far to the top, then I realized I didn’t even care.  Pretty soon I came upon a construction crew who had torn up the road, leaving quite a mess in its wake.  Even here, riding uphill, on a mud path, under the hot sun, alone and in the middle of nowhere, I felt at ease, this temporary discomfort a necessary part of the process of providing roads to ride on in the first place. I trudged along, following the river past solitary farms, rows of corn shoulder-high, and grandmothers cleaning mountain ginseng.  Every time the road curved around the base of one mountain, another rose in the distance, such that I was amazed not only at their height, but at their number and depth as well.  

Before I knew it, I hit a new set of switchbacks, much more serious looking than the first.  Regardless, my attitude had completely changed, and rather than feeling outmatched, I simply felt challenged.  Worse come to worst, if I couldn’t make it up, I’d simply push my bike to the top, and I’d be stronger for the next trip. I switched the bike into the lowest gear – losing a great deal of psychological comfort, since when you’re in the next-to-lowest gear, you can always say to yourself “if it gets too tough, I can just drop down a notch” and pushed as hard as I could passing signs for 400 and 500m, stopping every few minutes to pant, take photos, and pound down liters of water.  After a few more turns and one final climb, I hit the top: 520m.  I let out a scream of joy, popped down to take a picture, and collapsed at the nearest rest stop.  

Going up...
 Still going up...

Woohoo!  Summit

Yup, this is how I dress when the day gets dark and/or the going gets slow...

By the way, that was only the first couple adventures! 

Mystery Salt Deception / 신비 소금 속음

"Baeksul 5000 Year Mystery Salt
Delicious Salt made from Natural Salt"
At one point on my trip, maybe the 3rd day, I stopped to buy some ingredients so that I could cook my own lunch.  Namely, vegetables, perilla powder, and salt.  I chose a certain bag because it 1) had a nice drawing of a guy working at an old school salt-mill, 2) cost a little more, possibly reflecting the higher price of more eco-friendly operations, and 3) had a resealable zip top.  When I got home at the end of the trip, the friend I'm living with, Mina, informed me that the salt is in fact 10%MSG.  I didn't know what to do - I realize that eating it won't kill me, but I don't really want to consume it; yet I also don't want to throw it out, since all the environmental damage involved in production would then be for nothing, and anyway the MSG will wind up running into someone else's food or water. Mina came up with a nice idea: send it to the company with an angry letter.  I wrote it in English and Korean and she checked it for me.  Here it is.  First is her explanation of the background....

나를 얹혀살게 해 주신 미나누나는 한국말로 설명을 잘 해 주시는군요!
집에 소금이 하나 있다
마이크가 여행중에 사서 조리할 때 사용한 소금이다
그런데 자세히 보니 [천일념으로 만든 맛소금]이라고 되어 있다
오천년의 신비라는 카피와 함께

이 소금을 어째야하나
내 건강을 생각하면 버려야하고
그냥 버리면 토양오염 또는 수질오염에 보탬이 될 게다

마이크는 그제 점심 요리에 이 소금을 썼다
그냥 버릴 수는 없으니 내가 먹어야겠다며

백설]로 착불로 보내버리는 방법은 어떨까?
당신들의 헷갈리는 광고에 현혹되어 소금인 줄 알고 샀으니
환불은 되었고 당신들이나 많이 드시오 하고!

To Whom It May Concern,

I’m Mike, a humble foreigner living and traveling in your beautiful country.  For five years I’ve worked hard, dedicating myself to my students while also doing my best to serve the environment around me in various ways. 

Recently, on a bicycle trip that took me from Daegu to Pohang, up the east coast to Tongiljeongmangdae, then through the mountains of Gangwondo and along the Bukhangang to Seoul, I stopped at a small market in a town whose name I don’t remember to buy some ingredients.  Among them was salt.  I chose your company’s salt because I trusted the package.  Other salt, with its transparent plastic and overall cheap look, gives me the impression that the company is cutting corners wherever it can.  Yours, on the other hand, depicts a lone man working on an old wooden device and declares itself to be the bearer of “a Five Thousand Year Old Mystery.”

The mystery to me is how you could knowingly, intentionally imply that your product is natural, traditional, and premium, when in reality a full 1/10th of it is composed of glutamates and other additives.  A further mystery is what these products will do to my brain and body, particularly when without my knowing it up to ten percent of every seasoning I purchase might be made of it.  I feel betrayed and deceived.  My Korean level is decent, and still I would have known nothing if not for a knowledgeable, skeptical Korean friend who pointed out to me that I had been tricked.  I feel sorry for all other foreigners who, either through lack of language skill or lack of close contact with Koreans, run the risk of sacrificing their health and violating their ideals through the consumption of your product. 

Surely, part of the fault is mine for letting down my guard.  I should have known to read the ingredients.  Then again, it’s clear to me that you did your best to make sure I wouldn’t.  Shame on you for such underhanded tactics, and for such blatant disrespect for those who may or may not choose to buy your products.  I am hereby returning the salt.  I won’t ask for a refund.  Instead, please put the money towards hiring a designer who will design an honest package for you.  

Thank you for your attention.

Mike Roy

관계자 제위

안녕하세요.  저는 당신의 아름다운 나라에서 살고 여행하고 있는 겸손한 외국인인 마이크입니다.  제가  학생들에게 헌신하며 가르치면서, 저를 둘러싼 환경을 여러가지 방법으로 돕는데 5년을 바쳤습니다.  

최근에 대구에서 포항까지, 동해 바닷가를 따라 통일정망대까지, 강원도의 산길을 해서, 북한강을 따라 서울까지의 자전거 여행하는 길에 한번 이름도 기억이 정도로 작은 시골 마트에서 들러서 재료를 샀습니다.  가운데 소금이 있었습니다.  포장을 믿고 백설 오천년의 신비 천일염 맛소금 샀습니다.  다른 소금은 투명하고  찟기 쉬울 같은 비닐로 포장이 되어 있어서, 회사는 부실작업하는 회사일까봐, 환경을 제대로 존경을 할까봐, 소금을 산다는 것을 삼갔습니다.  오히려, 백설 소금은 나무로 만든 옛날의 기계에서 일을 하는 남자를 보여 주면서 오천년의 신비 품는다고 합니다.

저한테 신비스러운것은, 십분에 글루타민과 다른 첨가물들이 들어 가는 제품을 당신 제품을 일부로 천연, 전통, premium 같은 단어로묘사할 있다는 것입니다.  다른 신비스러운 것은, 첨가들은 저의 뇌과 몸에 어떤 영향을 미칠 것인지입니다.  특히, 제가 사는 모든 양념은 백설소금처럼 10% 첨가물이면.  저는 배신을 당하고 속은 것처럼 느껴집니다.  저는 한국어를 비교적으로 하는데도,  제가 속았다고 알려 , 아는 것과 의심이 많은 한국인 친구가 없었더라면, 저는 영원히 몰랐을 거예요.  다른 외국인들, 특히, 한국어를   못하는 친구들, 또는 그런 한국 친구를 아직도 사귄 친구들, 당신의 제품을 사는 것을 통해 자기의 원칙을 위반할 가능성, 그리고 자기의 건강을 해칠 가능성 아주 높은 같습니다. 

확실하게 저도 재료를 제대로 읽어서 자신을 꾸준히 보호했어야 됩니다.  그래도, 제가 봤을 , 백설에서 제가 그렇게 하게 만들었던 것도 분명합니다.  쪽팔릴 만한 전략입니다.  고객은 당신의 제품을 살든 말든 당신의 존경을 받을 만한 사람입니다.  저는 소금을 반납하겠습니다.  돈은 돌려달라고 하지 않겠습니다.  그대신에 돈을 써서 정직한 포장을 만들어 사람을 고용하시길 바랍니다. 

읽어 주셔서 감사합니다. 

Mike Roy

My first protest letter!  Tons of fun, and I got a Korean lesson out of it!
나의 첯번째 항의의 편지!  재미도 있고 한국어 실력 높였음ㅎㅎ  

And even found a new Korean pun: So-geum Sog-eum = Salt deception
속음 소금 - 받침이 중요하구나!