Ganghwa Island, just 90 minutes and 4,200 Won west of my front door, is a lush and quiet landscape of rice paddies, verdant mountains, Buddhist temples and mud flats on Korea’s western shore. The island lies just at the edge of the North Korean border and has a long history of blah blah blah invading it and some other people invading it and oh-my-god-the-suffering, the SUFFERING! I’m not really interested in that. To me Ganghwado is about getting down with the peace and the quiet. Being so close, I’ve spent two Saturdays in the last month there. My first trip was a solo expedition to escape the city with camera and improper footwear.
At Ganghwa bus terminal, I abandoned my bus in favor of another bus which would take me to the southern part of the island. Interestingly, my original bus would have taken me where I intended to go, I just didn’t know that. Living in Seoul, it is easy to get by with very basic Korean, but as soon as you get outside of the city, you can kiss your English signs and your “Hi, nice to meet you!” and your fast-paced, futuristic, Jetsons world goodbye. It’s been awhile since I’ve had to flex that muscle, the muscle where you have to be resourceful and figure stuff out, where you have to trust that you will make it home and that you will not die. Considering that I know exponentially more Korean than my first adventures around this country, it was noticeably easier to steady my course and renegotiate my compass. So I bought another bus ticket, found a map in English, bought a delicious dried fruit cake at the bus station bakery, told the cake lady it was delicious, found my bus and boarded, all without one single word of English spoken, written or read.
A 20 minute drive south, through winding tree-lined roads that reminded me of Maine, and I was deposited in the middle of almost nowhere. To the bus driver, I queried: “Bus terminal? Where is? Is here bus terminal? Here? Really?” Really. This parking lot is the bus terminal. I looked at my map, smiled, thanked him, got my bearings and headed in the direction of a ferry that would take me to Seongmodo, the small island just west of Ganghwado.
I don’t know if you’ve traveled in Korea, but it appears road sign measurements are about as reliable as waiting time estimations for tables at restaurants. “Table is ready…30 minutes” means that approximately one minute after you sit down to wait, “Suh-tay-pah-nee!!!!! Table is ready.” Conversely, the popular “10 minutes” can mean anything from 50 to 1,340 minutes. This same principle applies to distances.
On Ganghwado, this meant several hundred kilometers in additional distance than was indicated on that “map.” True, my map had cartoon drawings of ancient stone monuments and buddhist temples, much like a map of Six Flags, but I had also carefully studied this site and that little bus is smiling. How effing far can it be if the bus is smiling? Several hundred kilometers, that’s how far.
But this being my day with nature, I was ready and willing. I wandered down a quiet country road, past small farms, and the second I laid my eyes on a rice paddie, I knew I’d been deposited in exactly the right empty parking lot.
I have long been impressed with Koreans’ ability to cultivate and farm the shit out of every available inch of land. While it’s true that Seoul is a sprawling maze of concrete and cement, if there is a patch of grass or an available rooftop, you can be sure there is an ajumma who has claimed it and is carefully tending to her red pepper plants or herb garden or budding gingko tree. In my travels around the country, I’ve seen rows of red ginseng and delicate rice fields from moving vehicles, but never up close like this. It is just as mystical and magical as I’d always hoped.
When I arrived at Seonsu dock some 45 minutes later, I was unable to locate this “ferry.” I located lots of fishing boats and lots of sashimi restaurants, and I located the island I wanted to get to, but no ferry. I looked north to Oepori, the small village I now realized was where I should be standing. I looked again at my map, at Oepori, at the road along the water leading to Oepori and said to myself, “How far can it possibly be to walk there? I can see it.”
Two and a half hours later, as dusk was creeping in and the clouds had enveloped the sky and mountains around me, I arrived in sleepy little Oepori. But it was an exquisite two and a half hours of not much more than a few passing cyclists, some cows, some poppies, some ocean, farms, mountains and complete and utter silence and stillness. I stumbled upon some Australians, who helped me find the bus stop, bought a beer and some Pringles, and made my way home.
Two weeks later, I played tour guide to my friend Betsy and her dad who was visiting from the US. It is always easier the second time out. This time we made it to the ferry, made it to Seongmodo, visited the stunning Bomunsa temple, sat with the chanting monks (known to Betsy as “my people”), ate ice cream cones and made back to Seoul for tacos all without so much as a flinch, a wrong turn or an extra kilometer. It was perfect both ways.
Photos from the second trip to Seongmodo.