Chuseok, the Korean Thanksgiving, is a time when many Koreans visit family with gifts and food, and pay respects to dead ancestors. For English teachers in Korea, it means three days off in the middle of the week, and maybe a Monday or a Friday (or both, if you’re lucky). Going through the extended immigration process to declare yourself a resident alien meant I wasn’t sure of my ability to travel, and thus I was left in Incheon to figure out what I could do with a week off.
The first day was to set off the holiday with a bang: we were to hike up Gyeyangsan, the highest mountain in Incheon (don’t be too impressed, that means it is 394 m in elevation). We set out early, meeting up at Bupyeong (seemingly the centre of all things in Incheon), praying for good weather. We assembled a posse that included my friend Kin, another Canadian from my agency living in Seoul. When we arrived at the subway station near the mountain, however, we were assaulted by the weather: massive, street-flooding thunderstorms claimed the sky oppressively, making it impossible to advance further than one street beyond the station.
Because of the weather, much of the rest of the day was a bust, as we headed in search of lunch, and then basically split off to nap quietly in our distant apartments. Feeling like a lacklustre host, I dragged Kin once more out to one of the regular Incheon foreigner’s haunts, Who’s Bar, for drinks and pleasant, English-speaking company.
Determined, the next day we set out in a new group for Seoul, demanding good weather of the universe so that we might be the rampaging tourists we are at heart. Korea provided, and the day remained at a steady overcast, allowing us to make it to Yongsan, the outdoor electronics market. My friend Adam, even more cut off from the world than I, being without cellphone or internet, was desperate to track down some bootleg DVDs, and had been told that Yongsan was a Mecca of illegal copying, Seoul’s answer to Toronto’s Pacific Mall. Of course, being that this was the actual day of Chuseok, much of the market was closed, and we wiled away our time out front of the station.
Eventually we took ourselves to Ganghwamun to see Gyeongbokgung (according to a Lonely Planet guide left in my apartment, “Palace of Shining Happiness”). We exited the station, and I was confronted by a nascent wave of “Holy shit, I’m in Korea.” The life of an English teacher can be insulated enough that this feeling often only resides in the background, a gentle hum of Otherness to the daily goings-on that I can casually ignore. Swamped by other tourists, both Korean and foreign, in a huge metropolitan centre, facing one of the largest, and most beautiful sites in Korea, I got a huge, undeniable wave of actually being here.
The road to the palace is a long, extended island in the middle of a busy intersection, a verdant blast amid the usual Seoul skyline of hulking towers. The palace loomed in the distance, older, stranger than anything around it. The buildings in most of downtown Seoul, but for the Hangul, look like buildings in most of the West, but the Palace was distinctly Korean. From a distance it looks almost dropped in and out of place, like the office towers were the ancient ones rightfully claiming the land, and the Koreans only recently erected the palace for some fun tourist spots.
Whether through good timing, or maybe because the palace does regular showings, we showed up for the Korean version of the changing of the guards, as soldiers dressed in traditional garb and playing traditional sounding instruments sounded off and marched. A taciturn looking man banged an enormous drum, and frowned as tourists swamped him with photos (a theme for many of the dudes at the palace, who remained amazingly stalwart, considering). As is always the way with travelling, you often feel special, like a show is being put on for you, a vague sort of narcissism that ignores the likely regularity of these sorts of displays. But it doesn’t matter the truth, because you feel like, yeah, the universe owes me for raining me out from the hike, and so the guards are going to put on a big show, just for me (and the other 10,000 assembled tourists).
Armed with cameras and street meat, we took to wandering the enormous palace grounds, passing through the various tall, majestic gates. Each was intricately fashioned with hundreds of tiny, minute details on every log included, and painted bright greens and purples. We eventually came to the main courtyard, climbed up the palace steps, and teetered on the edge to see the simulated but maintained version of what Korean palace life would look like.
From there we walked the palace gardens, where adults and children were playing what I assumed to be traditional Chuseok games, but could really just be Korean pastimes for all I know. I almost managed to score one in arrowhole (the trick: throw up and try to make a parabola), children dashed around with sparkly, dangly hacky sacks, and many Koreans played an impenetrable looking game involving four wood blocks with markings on the sides and a series of little stones.
When we eventually tired of all the majesty, we headed next for Namsangol Hanok Village, a series of traditional Korean homes maintained in their original style, except for that one that was turned into an expensive restaurant. Again, the place was bustling because of Chuseok, and because of, you know, international tourism: families, Korean and foreign, flooded the village, watching how to make songpyeon, taking pictures with people dressed in hanbok (traditional Korea-wear), poking around in actual Korean nature.
The grounds of Namsangol were pretty well-maintained, although at times it had a certain… Korean pioneer village feel to it. All the same, we marched up and down the little water falls, photographed what I assumed to be a latrine but was probably some sort of aqueduct, wandered the grounds looking at various things we weren’t entirely confident in the history or significance of. Eventually we settled in front of a large stage, as Koreans were gathering, and it looked like a drum show of some kind would begin. While an elderly man staggered out of the masses and began dancing gaily for probably over an hour, we realized one of the limits of knowing so little of the language: we couldn’t read the show times. We waited for a while longer, and eventually left.
Due to a few mishaps on the ride home (read: getting terribly lost on the slightly confusing Seoul metro), I was happy my next day would be a quieter one. I had met Nancy and Adam at the airport when we first arrived. They were also with my agency, and Nancy especially shared my interest in relentless photowhoring. Adam did not, and thus when he found a large, weird graveyard near Bupyeong, he suggested we go explore it. Underneath this was the implication: bring your cameras and stop talking to me about photography.
Nancy and I followed a series of vague directions, eventually turning down a street that, according to our waffley, untrustworthy travellers’ sense, “felt right.” As it turned out, it was! We stumbled past an enormous flower market, one that was impossibly busy, and we eventually found the main grounds of the cemetery. We both remarked that it seemed incredibly busy, and it took us probably ten more minutes before we realized: well, duh. Chuseok.
On the main grounds were seas of graves, all in similar shape and make. There were raised, grass mounds, obvious reminders, rather than the politely flattened western graves I’m familiar with. Each stone was a short black obelisk with Chinese or Hangul writing, capped and bracketed by grey stone. Everywhere we saw families and relatives gathering, bowing to their ancestors ceremonially, showing their respects.
I worried that taking pictures would seem disrespectful, especially on Chuseok (…not that it stopped me all the way), and thus we sought higher ground. We found a path up into the hills and began to climb, and eventually discovered that all of the foothills surrounding the graveyard were… also graveyards. They were built everywhere, half-spherical mounds like little hobbit homes emerging all over the hillside, and families grew even more abundant. Here, many had set up picnics, carving and sharing fruit, eating together, leaving wine. My worries about being disrespectful began to fade as children raced past us, gesturing at us with awe and informing their relatives that the waygooki were around. As we passed, one family smiled happily to us and waved. Other people out for a hike sauntered by, with backpacks and sun-visors in tow.
We eventually came to rest at the peak of one of the graveyard mountains, nearby the outdoor gym equipment (a standard atop anything you can hike in Korea). We ended up spending Chuseok in a cemetery, which is just about right.