Korea: Backtracking to Suwon

Day 5 (28/04/11)

Mom and Dad at Paris Baguette selecting breakfast.

We opt for breakfast across Busan Station Square at a Paris Baguette. These chains have popped up all over South Korea and as breakfast spots go they aren’t bad. Mom wanted to try a place like this for a while now and I figured today was as good as any. The adorable thing about Paris Baguette (or Paris Croissant or Tous les Jours), other than the French names, that my Mom likes so much are the tray and tongs and displayed bread-based foods that customers get to select as they meander through the shop. We select bagels or donuts or croissants (no baguettes) and a coffee and enjoy them while Busan wakes up and goes about its morning business. I can’t really recommend any Korean-Frenchish Bread place for anything but breakfast or snacks, since for reasons known only to the Koreans they put heaps of sugar in EVERY bread product. Some make sense but if anyone can tell me why garlic bread needs to be sweet I’ll send you a (pretend) cookie with sugar and kimchi in it.

Due to this being a whirlwind tour of Korea, it’s time to clamber back on the KTX and reverse our route but stopping about 60KM South in Suwon. Suwon, specifically Yeongtong, is where I spent my first year in Korea. Teaching at a hagwon during the day and meeting some truly top notch people at night. (At some point the evening stopped by Now!! Bar – as it invariably does.) Yeongtong exists as an apartment building community built specifically to house the employees of Samsung. The layout of Suwon goes the city of Suwon, the monstrous Samsung Head Office Complex and then Yeongtong. It made for a mass difference for my parents, as opposed to Oyu Middle School, as this place is affluent with many people fluent in English (due to Samsung’s international influence and money to attract waygook English teachers.)

Mom and Dad were pretty amazed at the differences between rural Oyu and neon-lit, apartment-mad Yeongtong. We caught a cab from Suwon Station to Yeongtong, driving over the permanently-in-construction alleged subway system linking Suwon to Samsung and Yeongtong. There is one intersection (just past Park Ji-Sung Road) that has been covered with steel plates and temporary driving lanes for over 2 1/2 years.
Oh, and the subway was supposed to be completed before my first contract started in Nov 2008.

Dad is nervous because we don’t have any reservations and Yeongtong isn’t flush with hotels and Dad refuses to even contemplate a Love Motel. Luckily the Hotel Symphony/Amour has rooms and actually turns out to be the swankest and most affordable of the hotels we’ll stay in during the trip.

Time for a late lunch and I decide its time to push Dad’s palate and take him to Into the Gimbap. Some good, traditional Korean food. Dad’s hesitant. It’s about 2PM, Into the Gimbap sees as many waygooks at 2AM as it does at 2PM due to the proximity to Now!! Bar. Gimbap, delicious gimbap. That’s what I order for everyone. Chamchi (tuna) and soegogi  (beef) gimbap. Gimbap is a common food that acts much like a sandwich does, only this is seaweed wrapped around rice and other stuff in there; in addition to the main ingredient there are vegetables, leaves and spam (Koreans and their spam!).

How to make gimbap? No. Korean martial arts performance in front of Hwaseong fortress.

Dad doesn’t get a choice. Mom is called over by the sweet Korean Gimbap lady to be taught how to make gimbap. It’s a sweet gesture. Mom hasn’t tried to make gimbap yet.
The sliced rolls arrive. I don’t tell Dad what it is. There are no forks here, so he uses his spoon to scoop up his gimbap. Midway through the meal I let him know about the fact he’s eating a seaweed wrap. Mom kicks me under the table. Dad shocks us both with, “I know, it’s really quite good.” Mom and I nearly drop our chopsticks and kimchi! Dad… enjoying this? Not tolerating but enjoying?

Now there’s some daylight left and Suwon has one pretty amazing cultural site. So we hop back in a taxi and go a different route than before, which is great, because Mom and Dad get a better feel for the size and scope and sprawl of Suwon while I get to see places I truly will miss once I’m gone.

The natural place for us to visit on this sun-soaked Spring day is Hwaseong Fortress.
So we do. Nearly. We pile out of the cab and walk up the street towards the main entrance, Dad and I natter away about various things, Mom lags behind drinking in the sights and sounds.

Suddenly Dad and I hear a strangled scream of distress. It sounds like someone torturing a duck. We turn around and Mom lays sprawled upon the sidewalk.
Oh… shit. This looks bad. Very, very bad. Broken wrist bad from the way she clutches her hand to her chest.

Mom insists she’s fine. I’m perfectly happy calling it a day and hopping back in a cab to go to one of the hospitals to get her checked out. Despite my protests Mom insists on pressing on. Instead we visit Hwaesong Fortress. As we approach the main gates of the fortress I have to laugh to myself as performing on a stage in the huge open air mosaic courtyard just happens to be some Korean martial arts, in traditional uniforms putting on a display of swords and polearms. Since I’ve been a geek for archaic weapons since I first read about the Sword in the Stone or first rolled a 20 sided die playing Dungeon and Dragons (Deluxe Red Box Edition) we stay and watch for a few minutes.

Mom and Dad on the 'Royal Walkway' in Hwaseong Fortress, Suwon.

Hwaesong Fortress remains the largest of Korea’s ‘fortresses’, Korean (and Asian) architecture differs markedly from the European style castles and or North American style forts. There are walls, but inside the grounds things are not as clustered or claustrophobic as in the West. Here there are open spaces, gardens, few traditional buildings stand over two stories tall. Inside the walls, the palace unfolds at a leisurely pace. Mom (still clutching her wrist) and Dad marvel as we wander through the old royal living area. There is a simplicity and grace to the place that supports its Buddhist and Sino influences and Korean sensibility.

The buildings offer mini mazes, twists and turns that invite a visitor deeper without ever overwhelming one with a sense of forboding. Part of this stems from the painted wood and tiled roofs. Mom and Dad happily explore and amble along pathways and look around corners to discover what lies in the next room.

Hwaseong invites exploration. Having been there twice, I guided my parents from behind, permitting them to wander wherever they would. Letting them discover the twists and turns of the Royal Court. It isn’t overly big, far from palatial, but there are all sorts of intriguing rooms maintained in the style as they would have been hundreds of years ago. From rice storage bins, to games of yut, to royal hanboks, to wooden reading lamps, hand painted ceilings and screens, to a writing room, to the royal reception area, it didn’t matter where my folks went, they enjoyed what they saw and how distinctive it was from European history.

Royal writing room, Hwaseong Fortress.

It helped as well that they arrived with no preconceptions and little knowledge of South Korea. Each day, each place, each trip, each meal was some new experience for them. And I’m going to confess, I hope that when I’m approaching 70 my curiosity of the unknown remains as lively and infectious as my parents. They may call me traveller and themselves tourists, but they’re two of the most game tourists I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing and showing around a place. (For my Mom, I also showed her around Edinburgh back in 2001).

The palace and outbuildings are completed but the trip to Hwaseong can’t be completed quite yet. See, the great thing about this fortress is that Suwon has grown up around and within it. I hike upwards with my parents in tow, heading to the peak of a nearby hill. It’s not overly long but it is a pretty steep set of stairs. Mom and Dad are willing, quite likely because I didn’t even bother to tell them where exactly I was leading them, I just vaguely pointed upwards.

After a 15 minute hike, my parents appreciate the reason I insisted on climbing this hill. From the top it shows Suwon and the surrounding area in all its glory. It depicts just how huge the perimeter walls of the fortress are. Stretching over 5KMs the city of Suwon sprouted up all around the walls, maintaining them. The scope of the architectural feat truly impresses Dad, he’s been a historical buff since before I was born. Mom, she more enjoys the pagoda atop the hill and the views that are offered up from the hike. And there are views. Very nearly a 360 degree sweep of the land, from this vantage point the guards of Hwaseong could see to the north for kilometers, to the south the land was nearly as open (at least before modern Suwon and Samsung and a World Cup Soccer Stadium sprang up), the east leads off to another rolling set of mountains while the west offers the nearest views as tall trees have grown up over the centuries, as well as the neon lit buildings of Suwon.

The view from the hill atop Hwaseong. (Looking roughly south-by-southeast.)

Having shown my folks the day trip tour of Suwon and Hwaseong we descend from the hilltop and hop into a cab, backtracking to Yeongtong for dinner with one of my favourite co-teachers ever and her son.

This post is over 1600 words, so I’ll keep the amazing meal for another post.

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3 thoughts on “Korea: Backtracking to Suwon

  1. Pingback: Korea: Korean Folk Village with the Folks | Byron and his backpacks
  2. Pingback: Surprising Jimmy « Byron and his backpacks
  3. Pingback: What’d I do Jiangsu? « Byron and his backpacks

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