One of the fascinating things about Korea, I find, is an ability to create something out of nothing. The more I travel and see the country, the more I realize that when pushed into a corner you’ve got to be creative and forge your path of survival.
Some weeks ago, I drove up north to a place called Pocheon Art Valley. It is an artificial tourist spot carved out of an abandoned granite quarry, complete with a small pond, an amphitheatre and exhibition rooms. There was a long queue for the monorail up to the art valley, most Koreans with kids hand in hand. When I was done surveying the place, I remembered the frustrated time I had searching my way out of a man-made stone maze in Jeju. That, too, was just another recreational space created out of nothing for the fun loving Koreans who needed a place to hold hands and walk into. That I disliked these fake places is another story but I appreciate the effort behind such spaces. And no, I don’t like teddy bear museums.
Further north was the Sanjeong lake. Originally built as a reservoir for water supply in 1925, this lake had a pension of Kim Il-sung when it was briefly in North Korean hands. Apparently one reason was that the lake was shaped like an inverted Korean peninsula which inspired him while making war plans. I felt a bit better seeing the green mountains surrounding the lake even though it was crowded and loud announcements blasted off the speakers in the amusement park. Weekends in Korea can be tricky, with people from the cities and towns ever eager to get more breathing space. So the riverside parks in Seoul, the mountains near Seoul and the nearby touristy places are full of loyal Koreans on weekends.
I recall one trip to Bukhansan National Park, north of Seoul. At one rest point on the way to the summit, I looked around to savor the view and saw people climbing the mountains from all directions. When I reached the summit, I had to jostle for a space to have lunch. On another trip to Seoraksan National Park, I reached at 11 a.m. and was told the reservations for the cable car went till 5:00 pm. The Korean hiking gear is another story.
Without fail, every trip outdoors reminds me of home and I am thankful for that. Imagine my surprise when I first found proper toilets on a hiking trail. Public toilets are ubiquitous in Korea and I’m reminded that it’s a mark of progress. Most places have provisions for the differently-abled too. I suppose it shouldn’t be too difficult to make proper public toilets at least beginning with the many small towns closer home, even on the paid model like the ones in Delhi. It’s so basic and yet taken for granted most of the time.
Roughly 50 million people live in South Korea, with about 15 million in Seoul and Busan combined. Korea is only slightly larger than the state of Bihar in my country area wise, so one can drive from the west coast to the east coast in about five hours or less. I took a drive to the Gangneung on the east coast via Daegwallyeong and Odaesan National Park. It’s a beautiful drive up through the mountains of Gangwon-do and down as the valley gives way to the sea. I had to stand in queue to see the famous touristy sheep farm along the way. The sea from Gyeongpo beach was serene, beautiful and almost full of promises. It wasn’t July so it was less crowded but I got the peace and quiet I wanted, away from the city. The beach front was clean and the restaurants filled with customers even though it wasn’t peak season. These people knew how to enjoy. This is the same spirit that runs across the country – whether it’s a beachfront seafood joint, a quaint café in a corner somewhere, the streets in Itaewon and Gangnam, makgeolli on a mountain top, acoustics on a Hongdae street, silence beside the Han, the list goes on. Koreans know how to enjoy and this translates into various efforts both at personal and government level. At many places, I have been handed down two or three maps to a place. One would be a standard map of the city, another would depict famous restaurants and hotels, and still another map would be a cartoon sketch showing the famous places in and around the city. I even like how, on a hike, am handed a map on entry showing various trails and routes to take. There’s no question of getting lost.
To welcome tourists, the basic things need to get covered and Korea does that well. From seemingly small things like maps to communication to accommodation to transportation to advertisements, Korea gives insights on how to sell even if there may not be much. After all, the country has had an increasing rate of foreign tourists with over 11 million inbound tourists in 2012.
I wish more politicians and policy makers would come and observe Korea a little more, between meetings and short forays into Namdaemun and Insadong. On a recent visit by a lawmaker from the North-east, I desperately made my pitch on how we can learn and sell our beautiful country better. Because it’s no secret, India does have the goods and I can’t help but beam as I compare when I travel abroad. But we need to do so much more, and here we can take a leaf out of the Korean book. They do extremely well with less. The problem is we don’t know how much we have. It’s a problem of gratefulness.