Last night I woke up many times sore from my day of cycling, changing the icepack I had laid across formidable sunburns on both my thighs. I covered everything but those, and now nursing a cold I realize I shouldn’t have done what I did in the first place, but it makes no difference at this point. We are all light, we all come from light and we will all return to light. What difference will a couple of sunburns make?
I set off at about 10:30 and did not return to nurse my burns until about 21:30. The first leg of the trip is from my apartment downtown to the Wolmyeong Mountain park, a nice workout involving many ups and downs, which I am sure is as hard on my bicycle as it is on me.The mountain range is covered by lush evergreens, firs and pines, and apparently contains a healing tree, called silver birch, under which Koreans sit to inhale phytocide. There’s a local belief that the aroma from silver birch cures anything from hangovers to cancer.On the Sunday I rode out there I could see many people reclining on the wooden beds meant especially for breathing in the healing scent. Up and down the hills I went, passing Koreans of all ages, past Wolmyeong Lake, through a school area and some rock-climbing walls, down a steep path and finally into the industrial region.
The rich, delicious, tea-like sap-soaked scent of the emerald, lake-punctuated mountains yielded to the smell of factories, a new toxic odor appearing at every turn, at one point gasoline, at one point burning plastic, at one point a scent like sulfur, and finally quitting this plague upon the senses, I turned into the large stretch of rice fields. If gold and green had a child, it would be the colour of these crops stretching to every horizon.
Gold and green met that mellow sky blue and stretched across the periphery, the scent of sweet grass filling my senses, yielding once in a while to the ocean’s odour of dead fish, a not unpleasant smell until it becomes too strong.
Of course you cannot expect the ride to be without its sting, for the greater the beauty, the greater the beast. As much as a primate like me may love riding freely among the rice fields, so do the dragonflies and lesser flies love swarming around them. Anticipating this, I wore glasses and tired to keep my mouth as well-closed as possible to avoid an unwanted meal. Still yet the spiderwebs clothed me as I rode, tickling everything, and I thanked mother earth at one point for the richness of biodiversity and apologized for massacring so many of her friends’ homes.
Off in the distance I beheld a massive monument to green, clean energy, a giant windmill, white and streamlined, stretching its arms like a colossal toy soldier standing at attention in the distance. Here near the ocean, on a flat area, it proved to be the best place for such a monster, towering above everything else including the large apartment block likely filled with its engineers.
Otherwise there was the gold and green surrounding me, and soon crept in the parks, hotels and stores built to capitalize on the world-famous record breaking seawall. The first parks and hotels are dismal. The rooms for rent are cheap, and still located close to the industrial area, manufacturing site and Gunsan’s world-famous Free Trade Zone.
I once was asked by a young Korean man what a free trade zone is and had to scramble to find an answer. I explained all I knew: that it is a part of a city or country run by an economic rather than a federal body.
To this reply, this inquisitive student asked,
“You mean the national laws don’t apply there?”
“I guess not. I’ve never thought about it.”
“So labour laws, safety protocols, and even felony offences cannot be prosecuted?”
“Well, I don’t think anyone would actually do that.”
“But they could if they wanted to.”
“Yes, I suppose it’s possible.”
“Then I don’t think ‘free trade zone’ is the correct term.”
“So what would you call it?”
“I think the correct term is ‘concentration camp.’”
Clever kid, right? Bellowing shame to those who think young Koreans can’t speak English well! I have one criticism, though. The Koreans have pocket translators, so I never know if they fully understand the implications of what they are saying. The words they are searching for may not be correct, at least not in context. This young man probably didn’t know that he was referring to special economic areas, these ‘free trade zones’ as slave camps comparable to Dachau or Auschwitz. Or maybe he did understand and it was in fact, me who did not understand the implication that he was making.
These thoughts of concentration camps, smoke-spewing factories and swarms of dragonflies whirred past me as I entered an area that looked like the setting of a zombie apocalypse. Here I could see many rural initiatives to construct sculptures, trails and playgrounds that as far as I could tell, had not been maintained nor used in the decades since they were constructed. People drive cars. Why walk in a beautiful reed-pond, or cycle through many paths and enjoy these beautiful sculptures, when the real destination is the world’s biggest seawall?
My bicycle has become a friend to me, with its own personality. We enjoy so many experiences together, going across the bridges in the overgrown reed-pond, or going through various parks on adventures. She even kept me safe during a head-on collision with a motor-scooter last week. The delivery driver claimed he was fine. Bernadette was a touch bungled up, and I made it out alright with minimal damage. No fractures, just a little muscle pain in my thigh, nothing a little ice pack couldn’t cure.
We’ve explored many of these overgrown parks: beautiful brick designs overwhelmed by weeds, bright, colourful playgrounds left to nature’s forward temperament, and toilets left as derelicts while giant steel goliaths stand wasting away from neglect. Who would care for that which no one admires? Did it matter that lawns once kept tidy for smiling, happy couples and chuckling, sobbing, rambunctious youths to roll around in were now twisted with brambles and gopher holes? Would anyone ever notice the ruinous decay of these grand designs while screeching by at speeds well above the posted limit, tossing their garbage into these fields of a hopeful urban planner’s dreams?
I am the only one to notice as Bernadette sits beside me in this wild, watching me eat spicy beef and vegetables with two kinds of kimchi. There is another witness to the overgrown fields, a minivan that seems to have stalled out in the park. Its driver is smoking out of the window and chatting on his smart phone.
My helmet and biking gloves go back on and I resume with Bernadette out of the wilderness and into the nicer area, the foot of the seawall, where there is a bustling town of fish and commerce. I should rephrase, bustling would be the right word if it weren’t for the fact that everything from the hotels to the extended quay have scarcely more than shop-owners and fishermen inhabiting them. As I will not be bringing fish along with me, the little support I can give the roadside businesses are fifty cents for a vitamin supplement and a dollar for water, both of which are quite necessary for my endurance.
Passing the quay I am now on the seemingly endless bridge into the misty horizon. The bridge stretches to an island called Sinshido, surrounded by other islands like Sunyido and Yamido. There is then a continuation of the seawall, a bit shorter of a trip, to the coastal town of Buan, a beautiful town hidden behind a lush, green forested park, which is my destination. Along the road to Sinshido there are several stops where tourists can pause to buy cigarettes, junk food, ice-cream, vitamin supplements, fish jerky or ginseng. The rest stops are called “parks”: dolphin park, wind park, wave park, and so on, and
are each marked with a new and interesting feature.
I enter the vastness, thigh smarting somewhat from my head-on collision with the motor scooter. I breathe in the air, and photosynthetically (for we do synthesize sunlight, you know) absorb the rays from above, well-protected with sunblock across my face, neck, arms and legs. I ride until I reach the island, and I ride along the interior where fishermen cast their poles at the side of a road jutting out from crumbling cement fish restaurants and tackle shops. I stop to survey my surroundings. Behind me there is sunlit tan, and before me is the sphere of the taegugki, the emblematic yin yang on the South Korean flag: below the blue of the ancestral sea god and above the red of the ancestral sky god.
Before me is a small island with a stretch of sandy beach, the first I have encountered in two years of living in a coastal town. I want so badly to get to that beach across the channel. The channel is so small that I in my insanity think I can swim across to that forested, residentless hunk of rock sitting in the placid water. But the water is not so placid, and I fear a current. I will have to bring an inflatable raft next time.
I continue cycling, inspect the small island’s theatre house I make a note to one day visit, and leave the island to discover a beach. I know there must be one somewhere. There is not much to focus my attention on for this stretch of seawall to Buan. About two hours into this stretch and I decide I should go home, even though the forested mountain sits before me. With an audiobook babbling away in my headphones, I hesitate, but decide to do something crazy and accomplish the full length, persuaded by egotistical voices in my mind prodding me with insults such as: “the man who almost crossed the world’s longest seawall” and “but why are you doing this, just to brag?” Demons away, ego intact, I push forward and pay for it at the end of the stretch with a nasty sunburn across my knees which sting terribly. I stop on the Buan side for water and find my beach which will be no fun to lie on with my ruby skin.
After parking my bike on the golden sand that was to be my prize, looking sadly past a beached sailboat into the bright misty beyond from which I cycled, I thought to enter the forested mountain beach park. At the entrance, there was a crooked old wooden arch inscribed with some Korean I could not understand. I logically deduced that the sign read “enchantress’s forest,” for truly, what else could it be? Covering the
arch were spider webs and uncommonly large spiders crawling about. I circumnavigated the spiderwebs and proceeded up the forest mountain trail. Past my sneakers crabs scurried back and forth avoiding death under my weary stride.
Scratching were my hands, itching were my knees, crawling were the crabs, guarding were the spiders, and here I came to a golden green pasture hugged by the gates of an English-style castle beside a GS gas station. That is where I found beside the path a small, abandoned cement house. The windows were boarded up, and at some point, the door had been blocked with a brick wall which was now busted and crumbled, dewy with spider webs. Of course I had to enter.
In front of me was a giant mud nest, a little like a wasp’s. The sound of arrows unsheathed at supersonic speeds whirred past my ears although it was too dark to see what they were. Fwam-fwam shot the arrows, and I wondered what lived in the giant wasp’s nest. I peer in, and one of these arrows shot out, it was a tiny bird, a sort of sparrow, and other sparrows resided within other giant mud nests. I walked forth and more sparrows flitted by at rapid speeds.
In the house, there was a bedroom, and a main room, but the room had been converted into a small barn. Plenty of poo pellets gathered around my sneakers. I looked out the window at the incredible view of the ocean from this high-up vantage point and breathed in the salty air as close to the wired up window as I could draw my face, for the smell inside was truly hideous.
This was the mystery I contemplated, the mystery of the converted house, a mystery that would not become apparent until further down the path an animal with a shiny black coat darted desperately away. I could not recognize the form, or not at least until I walked further along the path and heard a bleeting in my left ear. I turned and there was a magnificent, pure, petite white goat tied to a tree, calling to, I must assume, the black coat that had just flitted into the bush. The dark coat returned and looked me in the eye without malice, however my feelings of fear caught sight of the sharp part of its horn and played within my mind a scenario wherein the goat jerked its horn up into me as a result of its madness, for I had invaded its territory.
I ran. The goat, however, did not. It merely stood, its bleating, as well as its companion’s, becoming louder and louder as I jogged past the cement barn. I descended the path by the scurrying crabs, and finally to the castle and gas station where I was out of breath. I found a four-leaf clover beneath my feet and decided I would give it to a friend. I slathered my legs with sunscreen and returned home without haste.