22 November 2008

Seoul: Even more driving

I got fed up with my driving today, and vented a bit about my experience in my last post. Now that it's out of the way, and that I've had dinner, here is how my South Korean automotive odyssey continued.

Bugak Skyway is one of the few scenic drives within Seoul city limits. I've known of the hard-to-find route for years, and today was my chance to finally drive it. It winds through the slopes of Mt. Bugak, which is to the north of the Presidential Blue House; as a result, security is extremely strict, and stopping is not allowed anywhere along the route. Except for one place.

This octagonal pavilion is at the summit of the skyway, in a small rest area that is the only legal stopping point along the skyway. There are two restaurants here, one Korean and one Italian. The views are outstanding from here.

Looking north, I can see the rocky cliffs of Bukhansan National Park. The posh residential district of Pyeongchang-dong is between the two mountains. It is one of the few places in Seoul not served by a subway line; to get there, a bus transfer is necessary.

Looking southwest, I can see Inwangsan in the distance, and closer by, a section of the old city wall.

Looking directly south, I can see Namsan and its N-Seoul Tower, as well as the skyscrapers that make up downtown Seoul. Farther away are mountains on the other side of the city.

It's a bit cloudy and hazy today, but it's the warmest day of the week; many people are hitting the streets today to celebrate, helped by an elementary school holiday (normally, Saturday is a half-day), the opening of the ski resorts, and the lower gasoline prices. Today, gasoline is below 1,500 won per liter, rather than 1,800+ won per liter two months ago; it's even sweeter for me due to the recent sudden depreciation of the won, now trading at over 1,500 won to the US dollar. $3.80 per US gallon is something I can swallow - and certainly cheaper than last summer's California prices!

My travel companion at the scenic rest area. Note the folded exterior mirrors. The folding mechanism is power-operated with a driver's door button. It's a feature that would make sense only on the BMW 7-series or some other ridiculously large car back in the US, but over here in South Korea, where parking spaces tend to be very tight, it's a requirement, even on smaller cars like the Hyundai Elantra.

My car also comes with fog lights, which work completely independent of headlights. It's possible to drive with just parking and fog lights on, and many drivers do just that. I always use headlights when I am moving with lights on, however.

I finished the skyway, then proceeded north. My original intention was to head south immediately, leave the city, and visit the Korean Folk Village in Yong-in, about 20 miles or so to the south; but as I was in northern Seoul already, I decided to visit another sight nearby first. My drive northeast took me in front of Dream Land, an amusement park that is now completely closed and demolished to make way for something even better.

This is my destination in northeastern Seoul. It's the 4.19 Cemetery and Memorial, honoring the student-led revolution of April 19, 1960 that overthrew the Syngman Rhee regime, and the final resting place of those who were brutally murdered by the government. Its location, on the eastern slopes of Bukhansan, is marvelous. Although it can be reached by subway with a bit of a walk, I decided that I'd rather drive. Admissions and parking are both free.

Here are the graves of some of the victims. Each tombstone has the person's name, his/her photo, a flower vase, and a national flag.

This Confucian shrine houses the tablets and the photos of the dead. The goal is to ensure that their sacrifices, and their unbreakable democratic spirit, live on and inspire future generations of South Koreans.

This bronze artwork is titled "Fighters for Freedom," and was done by Yi Jong-bin. The middle portion has the pro-democracy student broadcasters, with the Korean flag behind them. They are thrusting a big fist against a rifle-toting policeman and Syngman Rhee.

The memorial has a small hall dedicated to explaining the whole revolution. Here is a timeline of the events:
  • August 15, 1948. South Korea founded, with Dr. Syngman Rhee as the inaugural President.
  • July 4, 1952. Wartime amendment of the Constitution to allow Rhee's re-election.
  • November 27, 1954. Another constitutional amendment to allow Rhee's unlimited re-election.
  • December 24, 1958. Special security measures go into effect.
  • April 30, 1959. Gyeonghyang Shinmun shut down for publishing articles critical of Rhee.
  • February 28, 1960. Major student protest in Daegu over Rhee's tactics, particularly as he prepares for a fourth term. This was triggered by Rhee's orders to have the students attend school on Sunday, to prevent them from attending a rally in support of the opposition candidate.
  • March 15, 1960. Presidential election held. Syngman Rhee wins fourth term. His ally Lee Ki-bung wins the Vice Presidency. However, it was done only with widespread poll rigging.
  • March 15, 1960. Major protest in the southern port city of Masan against Rhee. A student by the name of Kim Ju-yeol, 17 years old, goes missing. Many others are gunned down by Rhee's forces as they protest the poll rigging.
  • April 11, 1960. Kim Ju-yeol's body is found floating in Masan Harbor.
  • April 18, 1960. Korea University students make a declaration, vowing to fight Rhee and protect democracy, following the school's tradition of fighting the Japanese and the Communists. The students march across Seoul, and many are injured when an "anti-Communist" youth group attacks them.
  • April 19, 1960. Citizens hear of what happened to the Korea University students. They band together and march toward the Blue House, demanding to speak to Rhee. Policemen gun down many of them.
  • April 20, 1960. Rhee makes a statement. His ruling political party, the Liberals, blame the citizens for the unrest.
  • April 21, 1960. Rhee's cabinet resigns.
  • April 22, 1960. A special National Assembly committee is formed to deal with the emergency.
  • April 23, 1960. Vice President Chang Myon, from the opposition Democrats, resigns. He demands Rhee's resignation as well.
  • April 24, 1960. Rhee resigns from the presidency of the Liberals. Lee Ki-bung resigns from all public positions.
  • April 25, 1960. University professors join protests.
  • April 26, 1960. Rhee resigns from the Presidency, and goes into exile in Hawaii.
  • April 1960. Lee Gang-seok, son of Lee Ki-bung and stepson of Syngman Rhee, kills Lee's entire family then himself.
  • July 29, 1960. A new National Assembly is elected.
  • August 13, 1960. The Second Republic is established, with Yun Po-sun as President, and Chang Myon as the Prime Minister. The Second Republic was the only South Korean government to feature a bicameral legislature and a parliamentary government. It lasted less than a year, however, as on May 16, 1961, a military coup by General Park Chung-hee ended everything.
Rhee's biggest problem was that despite his credentials as a fierce fighter of both the Japanese and the Communists, he was unpopular. In order to protect his power, he surrounded himself with the powered elites - who had gained their powers by collaborating with the Japanese. Rhee's crony capitalism benefited just these elites at the expense of the rest of the population. His economic plans failed, and South Korea was utterly dependent on American military aid; moreover, farmers who lost their livelihoods in the economic slump, as well as North Korean refugees from the war, crowded the cities and drove down living standards. It was well known that by 1960, Rhee had absolutely no chance of getting re-elected legitimately; he used a whole slew of blatant methods to rig the poll results in his favor.

This diorama shows the citizens marching toward the Blue House on April 19th, to demand to talk to Rhee. Some are being gunned down by the police.

The 4.19 Memorial is a must-visit site for any South Korean politician serious about protecting democracy, including the President. In this photo, 2MB is signing the visitor log. I'm kind of insulted to see this photo here, as 2MB's policies have a lot in common with Syngman Rhee's, and I am extremely offended that 2MB would rather spend South Korea's precious US dollar reserves banning gay marriage in California and funding white supremacists, than put it back into the South Korean economy and revive it.

Here are some politicians' messages left behind. The left top is from 2MB. The right top is his inept leftist predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun. The left bottom is from Roh's intended successor, Chung Dong-young, who was a pathetically weak candidate and lost to 2MB in a landslide. The right bottom is Lee Hoi-chang, a prominent far-right politician.

Not pictured, but also prominent, are messages from former Presidents Kim Young-sam ("YS") and Kim Dae-jung ("DJ"), both noted pro-democracy activists.

While most of the martyred students were boys, a number of girls were also killed. The families of this pair of martyrs decided to marry the two posthumously, as noted here.

This is the body of Kim Ju-yeol, as found floating in Masan Harbor on April 11, 1960. He was found with tear gas canister fragments stuck in his eyes, as seen above.

Some firearms. The rifle was the same model used by the police in gunning down the protesters. The handgun was the same model used in the murder-suicide of Lee Ki-bung's family. The bullet fragments were surgically removed in 1993 from the torso of a protester.

This is one of the ballot boxes used in the rigged March 15, 1960 presidential election. There were two ballots, one for the President, one for the Vice President.

The effects of this revolution were felt overseas. Turkish students were inspired by their South Korean counterparts, and launched a revolution of their own that overthrew their own crony capitalist regime. Japanese students also took to the streets to protest some aspects of the Status of Forces Agreement for the US military in Japan, as negotiated by the Liberal Democratic government, without enough input from the people.

Within South Korea, however, the effects took much longer to take hold. The military coup in 1961 dashed hopes for a democratic society. While Park Chung-hee claimed to be upholding the spirit of the April 19th revolution, his actual policies proved otherwise, especially in the 1970s as he rammed through draconian constitutional amendments designed to keep him in absolute power for life. After Park's assassination in 1979, another military coup, this time by Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, took place, with Chun becoming President (and in the process, gunning down hundreds more peaceful protesters). Only when the people kept standing up to Chun, and the Reagan Administration's support of him, did change start coming. However, even in the presidential election of 1987, the first democratic one in decades, Roh Tae-woo won a minority victory due to the inability of the pro-democracy faction to agree on a single candidate. Only with the civilian Kim Young-sam presidency of 1993 was the April 19th revolution seriously re-visited. And this cemetery, a sleepy local cemetery since its creation in 1961, was finally upgraded to a full national cemetery and memorial in the mid-1990s.

I am now leaving the memorial. This monument says it all. "Freedom, Democracy, and Justice - the Spirit of the April 19th Revolution." May this spirit live on forever - and inspire pro-democracy activists even in the US. They've gotten a lot done by getting an ally, Barack Obama, into the White House; now, they must use that as a starting point for sweeping changes.

I hopped back into my car, and started driving. News feeds indicated that Obama was now picking his Cabinet members, with his former rivals featuring prominently - Hillary Clinton as the Secretary of State, and Bill Richardson as the Secretary of Commerce. While I have my share of disagreements with both, I do think they are good picks, as Obama can reach out to those Democrats who had disagreed with him, and unite the party (and down the road, America too). Both Hillary and Richardson bring tons of great experience, which is honestly a weak point for Obama.

As mentioned in my last post, the drive to Korean Folk Village took two hours. My route took me south along surface streets on the east side of Bukhansan, following the route of the subway system's Line 4, into downtown. From there on, I followed Line 3 across the Han River to the posh fashionista district of Apgujeong-dong, before getting on the Olympic Expressway, transferring to Dongbu Expressway at the Olympic Stadium, then following it to the end. Upon leaving Seoul, the Dongbu Expressway changes its name to Bundang-Suseo Urban Expressway, and raises its speed limit from 80 km/h to 90 km/h; it ends as it leaves Seongnam into Yong-in, merging onto Provincial Road 23. (The Yong-in section of the expressway is currently being built.) Continuing on the 23 for another 10 kilometers or so brings me to the Folk Village. Simple enough, but traffic was extremely heavy both in Seoul and in Yong-in, and the reckless urban taxicabs really tested my patience. On the other hand, the entire stretch was free, and using the tollways would not have helped at all, as they were also hopelessly jammed.

I had really hated the Folk Village in my childhood. But in 2002, I decided to visit it again, and found it much more to my liking. With my increased knowledge of Korean culture and religions, plus memories of my writing mentor Gayle Brandeis' first novel, The Book of Dead Birds, which sends one of its protagonists to work here, I had to come back. Sure, the protagonist, Helen Sing Lo, is strictly fictional, and Gayle herself has never been to South Korea, but I decided to bring both of them here in spirit today.

I was dismayed to find that the admission charge for an adult went up from 9,000 won to 12,000 won. But it's still cheaper for me than last time, thanks to the shrinking won. I guess 2MB is doing me some good after all.

Here's one of my favorite sights. This is a traditional Korean outhouse. The toilet is that wooden hole. The dry leaves in the corner are used as toilet paper. The wooden containers carry away the accumulated waste, and a pottery tank (not pictured) carries away the urine. Fortunately, guests to the Folk Village don't have to rough it out here; they can simply use modern restrooms with sit-down self-flushing toilets and full running water.

A ginseng plantation. Korean ginseng is very good - and the best ones are from Kaesong. Unfortunately, Kaesong is now in North Korea.

These women, dressed in traditional costumes, are weaving silk.

Here's a workshop that visitors can take part in. The goal is to take a stump of bamboo and turn it into a yut stick. Yut is a game, played with four such sticks in place of dice, where two teams of players try to see which team brings its four moving pieces around the board faster. I guess it's time to make those sticks now so that the game can be played on New Year's Day.

The marketplace at the far end of the village. It consists of handicrafts, souvenir shops, and most importantly, a food court.

At the marketplace, I saw these two masks being carved, with finished examples all around.

Masks have lots of different designs. My favorite is that of "umulcheonyeogwisin" (우물처녀귀신), a spirit of a maiden who had fallen into a neighborhood well and drowned. The connotation is that without having ever had a chance to fall in love, she would be one heck of a frustrated spirit, and would haunt many living people.

And here is a neighborhood well serving a mountainside village. The rich could dig their own private wells, but most people had to settle for a communal well like this, a place to get the water, do the laundry, and hang out, especially for the women.

In one of the mountain houses, I can see this man construct a traditional shield kite. Kite flying is a very popular winter sport. A variation of that is a "kite fight," where abrasives are applied to the strings, and two kite flyers battle it out to determine whose string snaps first from the abrasives (and therefore loses the kite and the fight).

Here is another mountain hut. It uses readily available local building materials, including wooden planks as roof tiles. Most Korean homes tend to use brick tiles (for the nobility) or thatched roof (for commoners).

Here is a fortune teller's house, showing elements of native shamanism and Buddhism. One of the side Buddhist statues is certainly that of my transgender matron saint, Kwan Yin. And for that matter, some fortune tellers have traditionally been transgender women.

This particular fortune teller's house can tell me my general fortune, how long I'll live, how healthy I'll be, how well my business will run, and how compatible I am with my significant other (based on our birthdays and zodiac signs). I can get a reading for 20,000 won.

A number of live performances are always available. Here is a seesaw demonstration. These two women (seesaws are always for women in traditional Korea) are acrobats; not only do they jump high, they can even somersault while airborne.

And this man is another acrobat, using a tightrope to showcase his balancing skills.

Another performance, showcasing horseback warriors. These two equestrians are shooting arrows into the target, and their aim is excellent.

In The Book of Dead Birds, Helen would have performed this skill. However, I found that at least today, the announcer was the only female in the performing group, and all riders/warriors were men.

I made sure to visit the village's small Buddhist temple tucked away into a remote hillside while at it. It's small and unconventional, but it does have everything that a Korean Buddhist temple ought to have, between the Four Devas to an Amitabha.

This partition - named "Seven Stars" - is a shamanistic shrine on the grounds of the temple, showing the Korean mix of Buddhism and shamanism. The "Seven Stars" theme is quite popular; "Northern Seven Stars" refer to the Big Dipper (Ursa Major), and a popular soft drink, Chilsung Cider (칠성사이다) which is a slightly sweeter alternative to Sprite and 7-Up, also carries the "Seven Star" theme in its name. (Chilsung = Seven Stars)

Counting stars is a popular theme in Korean culture anyway. The neoliberal corporate empire, Samsung, simply means "Three Stars."

"Folk Village Clinic." This is where I can duck in to learn about acupuncture as practiced in Korean culture.

Here's a sight that Helen Sing Lo would certainly love. This is a collection of Jeju Island homes, circa 19th Century. Notably, the thatched roof is tied down and reinforced due to the strong winds of the island, and the walls use volcanic rock, the most common building material there, as Jeju is a giant volcano.

Another supposedly common sight in traditional Jeju homes is this barrier. When the home owner is away, putting wooden sticks into this barrier keeps neighbors' livestock out. The number of sticks in place can also send different messages as well, though I couldn't figure out what those might be.

Running water is very scarce in Jeju. Here is a water-collecting mechanism, named "cham." Rainwater trickles down along the tree trunk, onto the thatch, and into the jar.

A toilet, Jeju style. The black boars are kept inside; they eat the human waste and leftover food, and serve a number of other useful roles in a Jeju household. I can also see a calico cat sit on the fence and take a look inside.

Sure, it's kind of humiliating to sit in there with a neighbor's cat watching. But then, Jeju is a warm place, so going "traditional" means going naked from the waist down. Definitely humiliating whenever I go about doing anything! (Especially when I look like Ann Coulter between my legs.) At least there is no need to undress as I enter the toilet, since all I need to do is just squat down.

Helen lived in the 1960s, so by then, she would've worn full modern clothing, and even a wetsuit when diving (something she was never good at). However, she'd be familiar with another warm-weather provision: extensive use of wooden flooring in these houses, compared to those on the Korean mainland.

A pair of mirror-image harubangs. Harubang is "grandfather" in Jeju dialect, which is completely out of this world, and can be understood by very few Korean mainlanders.

Unfortunately for Gayle, I could not find any harubang statues for purchase here. I was, in fact, advised that I'd actually have to fly to Jeju to get them. I have no plans to fly to Jeju at this time, as I'll be more than busy going to Hong Kong already. However, my next stint in South Korea WILL include Jeju. Sorry Gayle - you'll have to wait a bit longer for your harubang. At least I'll have time to study some key words of the Jeju dialect.

A pair of Jindo dogs, native to Jindo Island in the southwest of Korea. These are very capable dogs, often used for hunting. While Jindo is not an officially recognized breed in the US yet, it is officially recognized in the UK and internationally.

A scholar's house, showing grand architecture but spare, frugal furnishings.

A traditional playground.

In front, there are two jars where I can try to throw arrows into. It's an old game, imported from Tang China and popularized by Silla about 1,200 years ago.

In the distance are seesaws and swings. Both were almost exclusively used by women, as they were often confined to their homes by the Confucian moral code, and needed a way to jump up high and see the outside world over the house fence. For safety, while two riders jump alternately on the seesaw, a third person needs to sit in the middle over the pivot point.

I tried the swing. No luck gaining any altitude.

I entered a seowon, a Confucian academy where young men learn Chinese literature, after spending their childhood learning Chinese characters. I am now doing something that would be more appropriate for a child: writing characters in a sandbox to save money on paper and ink. There are six sample messages for me to write. I picked the top right - 東奔西走 (run busy, from east to west) - because it describes my automotive odyssey exactly. I don't think I got the stroke order correct, however, as stroke order is everything in Asian writing, essential in ensuring proper penmanship and legibility.

Confucian shrines with tablets of the deceased seowon principals.

I am about to leave the village. I am crossing the village creek, which is spanned by a number of traditional bridges. The one that I am crossing is a flat stone bridge without handrails, and the dam in the distance is another bridge, consisting of a series of stepping stones. Both carry warnings, as they are dangerous.

An interesting sight. Three days after a new baby is born, its umbilical cord is burned in this stove. This ensures long life for the baby.

I immediately drove back to Seongnam, even though it still took me almost an hour to cover just a few miles due to the construction. After some rest, I headed back out for a dinner, exploring the Bundang Ward.

While Seongnam used to be a cut-rate town just southeast of Seoul, merely a place to pass through and a home for those who couldn't quite afford the real Seoul, that's no longer the case. South of downtown Seongnam, a new ward named Bundang was created over a wide swath of rice paddies, and it was built up into an endless forest of high-rise (mostly) luxury apartments in the 1990s to relieve overcrowding in Seoul, along with lots of services and businesses to support them. Bundang is so nice, that it's nicer than any part of Seoul for that matter. I am currently in Bundang, which is also linked to Seoul's subway system via the Korail-managed Bundang Line. Just to the west, Pan-gyo is going through the exact same transformation. Seongnam, thanks to the development of Bundang, already boasts one million people, qualifying it to secede from Gyeonggi Province and become a metropolitan city of its own (equal to a province) if it wanted. Once Pan-gyo is fully developed, I am pretty sure this will go forward.

My exploration of Bundang covered the main developments, centering around Yatap and Seohyeon districts. Yatap has a Homeplus department store, anchoring a huge mall with free parking and lots of stores (many of which are empty for now, however). The mall also houses Seongnam's own express bus terminal, with frequent services to all points of the nation; for example, a bus leaves hourly for Busan, and costs 30,800 won for deluxe and 20,700 for regular. Meanwhile, Seohyeon has a Samsung Plaza department store with a food court, as well as a huge number of nightclubs (including apparently strip clubs), bars, exotic restaurants, and more. Bundang, as a whole, is extremely impressive with both its architecture and its businesses - and especially so when they light up at night.

I am expecting to spend tomorrow, my final full day on the road, covering Ganghwa Island in Incheon as well as the Ilsan area. Ilsan also saw massive Bundang-like development in the 1990s, and includes another observatory within a stone's throw of North Korea. Should be a good day.