October 10, 2012 by travelinggrits
October in Korea is booming with activity, and since I’ve had the good fortune to have 6 days off from work (three for Chuseok, three for student exams), I’ve been festival hopping. My second long weekend began with a trip to Cheonan for the world dance festival. I met my friend Kaley at the bus terminal in the early afternoon, and since we had some time to kill before the festival’s main events, we grabbed a quick snack of 호두과자 (red bean pastry with walnuts), and took a ride to the end of the number 24 bus line. A short walk brought us to the largest sitting Buddha in South Korea as well as a massive temple, perhaps the largest I’ve seen so far.
We worked up a considerable appetite on a spontaneous hike behind the Buddha, and we headed back into the city just as the sun was setting. After sharing a meal with more Fulbright friends, we took a ride to the festival grounds. On the main stage, we watched a contemporary dance performed to an electronic beat worthy of airtime at a hipster nightclub. Later on, while seated in the grass next to a smaller stage, we marveled at a dance-off competition, where teams of two performed hip-hop and “poppin’” in a West Side Story-style showdown.
When we had exhausted all of the action at the festival site, we headed downtown for the main parade. One of the major downtown streets had been closed to traffic, and groups of dancers clad in traditional garb for countries from Mexico to Malaysia proudly processed past bleachers crammed with spectators. Near the end, each group stopped and performed a unique dance representative of its homeland in a fashion similar to the performances at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. A group of Korean students performed the finale, and then somehow the entire crowd was on its feet in a conga line snaking up and down the street. I laughed and squealed as I was dragged through the rippling masses as fireworks exploded directly overhead.
Even before the sweet mental images of this day had faded, I was off to make more; the next day, I headed to the Suwon Hwaesong Cultural Festival. The UNESCO World Heritage website indicates that this national treasure was commissioned by King Jeongjo during the Joseon dynasty (late 1700s) in preparation for moving the capital from Seoul to Suwon. (Wikipedia adds some intrigue to the story: it says King Jeongjo wanted to move the capital to escape bad memories in Seoul and house the remains of his father, who was murdered by being locked in a rice chest. I have yet to find support for the validity of this story…) The festival afforded me a unique manner to explore the Suwon fortress: I registered to walk the fortress wall in straw shoes.
A few days earlier, I had enlisted the help of my host mother to fill out the online form in Korean. Thus, when I arrived at the festival site and asked for directions to the walk, many people were taken aback that I had managed to pre-register. Needless to say, I believe I was the lone foreigner out of about 1500 participants. And if I didn’t already stick out like a sore thumb, all the participants wore a safety orange cotton tunic (long-sleeve, I might add, on a bright and sunny October afternoon).
After check-in, I knelt in the grass to tie on my sandals, and I suddenly became aware that a camera was at my eye level. After filming me girding my feet, the man then asked to interview me about why I came to Suwon to complete the walk, and I fumbled through a response in Korean. I don’t know where that footage (pun intended) went, but it won’t upset me if I never see it. The man was the first of many—it seemed that throughout the walk, random photographers (I assume they were employed by the festival) would peep over sections of the wall and stop me to snap photographs.
And it would just be my luck that on the day when I have scores of people taking pictures of my feet, I have holey socks.
A fanfare of traditional instruments signaled the start of the walk. I timidly asked a Korean woman to take a picture of me for my own documentation in front of the fortress, and after a short exchange she quickly adopted me as her walking companion. A resident of Suwon, she pointed out areas of the fortress with great views and explained some of the fortress’s finer points, like colored flags marking the wall’s cardinal directions (red for south, white for west, blue for east, black for north, and yellow for the summit, representing the king).
My first thought: the Great Wall of Korea. The fortress wall curled around a large section of the city, almost like a protective arm laid in its midst. The wall was dotted with slits for archers, and one section was even designed to prevent the use of battering rams on the wooden gate by putting a dummy portion of the wall directly outside the door. It was truly a marvel.
My guide tread the wall at a quick pace, which ultimately became her downfall. The last half-kilometer or so of the walk was a steep uphill to the Seojangdae, a military command post at the wall’s highest elevation. She became very winded, and after huffing and puffing as much as she could bear she stepped off into an alcove and literally sprawled on the ground. “Go on without me!” she sighed dramatically. But I insisted I would stick with her, offered her some of my water and awkwardly twiddled my thumbs until she pulled herself to her feet. Later, when she found her family after the walk, she called me “her angel” for my saving grace during this difficult portion of the journey.
We pressed on, and within minutes we reached the top. Looking out over the city below from the highest point of the wall gave me a similar sense as when I gazed out over Athens from the Parthenon. My tunic was damp with perspiration, so I sat down and savored the cool breeze and the panoramic view before me.
Just as I was shouldering my backpack for the descent, another photographer approached me for a final shot. This man’s English was quite good; come to find out, he served as a translator during the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. After retiring from government work, he had dedicated his life to capturing the beauty of nature everywhere. He was proud to show me his work on his smartphone, and as he flipped through the photos he smiled at the flowers as if they were beautiful queens he once knew.
We chatted as we headed down the hill and ambled around the fortress palace grounds. I wanted to head to the bus station before nightfall, but my new friend insisted I stop for dinner first, explaining that he had gustatory insight into the best food location nearby after he had done a photography job for a local restaurant. His recommendation was spot-on, of course.
After dinner, he accompanied me to the train station, and then he headed back to the festival grounds to photograph the closing ceremony and fireworks show. After our conversation that evening, he told me that I was a great listener, calling me his “daughter,” and gave me his card. I might be mistaken, but it seemed that there were a few tears in the man’s eyes as he waved goodbye.
I was exhausted by the time my feet hit the doorstep of home sweet home, but my latest journey had been my favorite so far. I had taken many steps just that day: steps toward independence, adventure, cultural exchange, friendships with strangers. I felt like that day had been one where I lived life to the fullest; I had capitalized on everything Korea has to offer. Maybe these Traveling Grits are finally taking Korea in stride.