With Busan so recently behind me, I had no concept of how to prepare for another long weekend, and thus a holiday snuck up on me. I had no plans, and no real energy to push myself into generating some, and so I faced the idea of being the only lamo hanging around Incheon all by myself. Visions of other Inchers flocking to the various coasts cluttered my head: they were basking in the sun, suckling at the juice of succulent summer fruits right off the vine, drinking luscious, mysterious liquors from unknown provinces, and laughing at me all the while. When would stupid Michael get his shit together? Luckily, my friend Tony, who is only staying for a year and thus wants to squeeze all the life juice he can from Korea, asked me on the Friday if I wanted to hop a bus and go across the country right after school. I did want to, and so off I went.
Traffic was, as it is constantly in Korea, a nightmare. It took us hours to get of the Mad Maxian car hellway of Seoul’s orbit: a labyrinthian expanse of spiderwebbing highways where cars slowly inch forwards towards their destinations, and towards death and the end of time. When we finally got to our Rest Stop, it was so late that nearly everything was closed, but he roads this far out of Seoul were comparatively quiet. Our driver, wanting to get home and also probably desperate to make up time, then did everything he humanly could to cause us to die in a fiery bus crash by speeding down the highway at sound-barrier shattering speeds.
We were deposited in Glorious and tiny Sokcho on the eastern coast of Korea late into the night, and eventually directed a taxi to our hostel. Inside, we meandered around the front hall, looking around for anyone who could let us into a room to sleep. After several minutes trying to decipher a nearby sign with my cellphone dictionary, we began hitting a nearby call button with growing desperation. It also suggested a specific room number, from which we heard the sounds of showering, and thus we were left trying to wait the mystery check-in staff out of their bathing.
Eventually, a squad of Korean hiking ajosshis wandered in, read the same sign, and took greater, more impatient action. One repeatedly slammed at the door of the night staff while another held down the call button, and still the third began calling every phone number associated with the hostel.
At great length, a middle-aged man in a bathrobe shuffled languidly down the stairs towards us there. He looked upon the recently arrived Koreans, and particularly us, with vast, directionless disdain. We approached and asked about getting out room, to which he muttered a number value probably 20 bucks greater than what had been confirmed over the phone earlier in the day. When we pointed this out, he seemed to smirk at how easily we untangled his… not particularly effective ruse, and accepted our bargain price. We handed him our money. He then spent a great deal of time apathetically searching out a key to a room, to any room, before finally reaching directly in front of his body approximately three centimtres and extracting the obvious and easily accessible keys.
The first night we quickly headed to bed, but for a brief venture for dinner. We passed by mostly closed restaurants and norae bangs, unpopulated but for one woman who saw our white skin, and flung herself from the door of her establishment, arms spread out as though embracing the night, before shouting with delirious glee, “PIZZA!”
The following day we quickly rose: we were to go hiking, which is generally what does when surrounded by the Seoraksan range of mountains. I had been there once before with a group of about 50-odd people, and also in the busiest season, where the leaves change and basically the entire mountain looks like it’s entrenched in autumnal flames. In spring-time, the mountain is relatively less buzzing with thousands of the fit elderly, and thus our scampering was less impeded than usual.
We took to a hike which had been described to us the previous time, and thus stumbled up some rocks for some 3-odd hours. Being as chronically underprepared as always, I wore my pitifully chosen casual footwear, but also like always, still made it to the top of the mountain eventually. The peak was basically as I remembered the other peaks: stand around, look at all the beautiful things. We gazed out across the landscape, and still further out to the sea, or down the precipitously steep stairs we had just ascended. Nearby, a man with a giant concessions cart played grand, anthemic tunes from his battery-powered ghetto blaster, and draped Seoraksan memorial medals around the shoulders of children, if their parents were both willing to fork over the money and demanding enough to make their kids hike up a mountain.
We stumbled back down the mountain, and soon met other people fleeing the Incheon/Seoul orbit for the long weekend before heading into town. Sokcho, from what I experienced, was basically mountain, beach, fish market, and those are really the only necessary components to a fun weekend. We spent the rest of the day meandering up and down the beach before settling into an enormous seafood dinner (and first tasting the delicacy that managed to trump my long-held biases against seafood).
By nightfall, we purchased bottle after bottle of makgeolli, sitting on the bluffs in front of the water and watching as night slipped over the sky. Like most other beach-goers we were easily swayed into buying fireworks by the dozen, and stood at the crest of the surf, firing Roman candles by hand into the sea. We smelled of sulfur, and liquor, and we kept our feet bare to dig into the sand.
It was the birthday of one of our friends, and after discovering that the fireworks salesman spoke spectacular English (also, the South African we were with referred to him as “the chap from the cracker shop,” which I can’t even begin to describe how much I enjoyed) and giving him lots of business, he rewarded us and especially the birthday girl with an enormous, dangerous explosive.
The resident Afrikaans speaker deciphered the German scrawled across the side, warning us about exactly how distant we should be when firing this thing off. We set it into the sand as deeply as possible, lit a fuse, and darted back to the rocks, while streams and canons of sparks blasted up into the sky, and also nearly singed whatever families strayed too close to the cross-fire. For a holiday I had no part in planning and one which I had little knowledge about before simply arriving, my weekend in Sokcho managed to give me one of the best days I’ve had in Korea yet.
[Alternate title is a hat tip to Will, and also something that will enrage Faith, should she read it.]