The info on the Internet regarding a trip to Sokcho is all bunk. Maybe even confusing on purpose. I left Seoul at 6:30 and arrived at 8:15 p.m. The free advice on the Web suggested the trip would take 3-4 hours depending on getaway traffic, whatever. Sokcho City (Pop. 85.000) is a small city spread out between the East Sea and Seoraksan (mountain range) National Park. It has four bus stations plotted through different parts of the coastal zone, but only one of those terminals is haunted: the Intercity Bus Terminal.
I am not too sure what is was or what is wasn’t that I saw in the terminal that first night. Coming through the mountain pass to Sokcho the trip was so short I was questioning if I got on the right bus. But getting off I could smell the slightly briny air and the light of a full moon was coming and going and at least I was out of Seoul. I hadn’t eaten anything since a Paris Baguette croissant from the morning and with the noticeable bus going up and bus going down on the trip, and then the final descent to sea level; I was feeling lightheaded and out-of-sorts. I almost stepped into some woman who I didn’t see spring out of the bus seat closest to the front door. She was angular with a recusant attitude and very much looked like a boy. I stopped of course but no one was there. I said, “Sorry” only to the bus driver who was just smiling at the only passenger left and waiting for me to get off the bus. With my feet finally on the ground there was a soft ringing in my ears which at the time seemed more like I was actually able to hear the air.
When you come to a new place and sense that it has ghosts, the first thing to do is order a box of chicken. Pelicana Chicken for me. The overload of meat into the system will increase the fat flowing through the blood and thicken up the walls between what is easy to see every day and what reveals itself only on occasion in certain times and places. Sokcho is one of those places. It’s a tourist town to most, but I am convinced there are ghosts here and a noticeable population of habitual heavy drinkers. Deeply melancholic drinkers who don’t stand on street corners and scream for sure they are all screamed out. Others slightly saner are here too. Wanted felons fleeing the law, “International Man of Mysterious Disposition” is a how a Korean friend in the army once described to me hardboiled men on the lam in small Korean vortex towns like Sokcho.
Chicken in tow, I am making my way to The House Hostel. “The House” is well known accommodation with “European dash for travelers without cash.” Before exactly finding it (again the internet says a 15 minute walk and it was just 4 for me) I skulked around and stood in front of neglected edifices perfect for squatting. Next to them newer and sort of quirky individual dwellings; dwellings for housing ghosts, drunkards, felons and maybe even artists. Sokcho pastiche: revealing itself as a kind of top of the food chain lunatic colony waiting to happen and all are welcome. So back to accommodation. I waited 45 minutes for the manager to check me in as he was diddling with someone on the phone. I just should have started eating the chicken as the art on the walls of The House Hostel and one picture in particular were somehow disturbing. Not really like the visage of the woman I thought I saw blocking my getting off the bus, but like they knew each other if only as acquaintances as if that was possible.
I went into my small room locked the door put on the quasi-working quasi cable TV and dug into the chicken. The movie showing that night was THE LOVELY BONES
In the sun cased morning Sokcho is just like it’s supposed to look. The pretty blue colors on the main Yeonggeumjeong promenade offer a seaside recharge led by aquamarine everything and everywhere. Sea Women were friendly and demonstrated the accretions of a poetic life way outside the pale of fashion. Getting more familiar with the blind alleys and parallel main roads of Sokcho and its start and stop blocks of development, the overall feel for it portrays a unique place where the sea came in, picked it up and when she was finished with it, put it back wherever the waves coming in dropped it. It’s as if Sokcho was a place on the peninsula where compasses would spin out of control and nobody bothered to detect it.
On my second night I wanted to avoid the Express Bus Terminal and hung around “The House”. Just last year it received the award for best atmosphere in Hostel Bookers.com. When I first walked into the “Tortilla Flats” like hostel some travelers were sleeping through Gene Kruppa’s drumming soundtrack with the lobby being an inspiration of bric-a-brac coming from the proprietor Mr. Hyo Jun Yoo’s several hiking experiences in European hostels. Mr. Yoo has had the welcome mat rolled out at “The House” for almost four years. The visitor breakdown: Jan-April Malaysians, Chinese and Thais. May-June European continentals. July and August when the beaches are open (only 43 days out of the year) native Koreans. For whatever reason Mr. Yoo doesn’t want to talk about ghosts, but thinks my question comes from the weekends’ big paper moon hanging above us and that gives him a chance go on about, “Autumn in my Heart”. I understand for the first time really the attraction of Korean icons to other Asians in the world—it is the lightness of skin and skinny is as skinny does posture. In this fishing village maybe I understand it best as the attraction to the handsome sailor Billy Budd without having to reckon with the conniving and awful way of John Claggart. Just give me the image and in the long run the drama that follows is really not that necessary. We can figure it out.
Into the center of town on the most populated road, small town commercial blight is everywhere. On the storefronts of: Kappa, LeCaf, Skin Food, le coq sportif, Lotteria, Mr. Pizza and other B-Brand names. But further down Sokcho road turns into Rodeo Road and the big-biz bright lights retail of Pizza Hut, LaCoste and New Balance are worked into the mix. Usually all of the energy put into anyone’s downtown shopping takes the steam out of me but I just keep walking towards a discovery. I found my way curving around Cheongchoho Lake to the town’s multiplex. It’s kind of a bad joke to come to a seaside town bordered by mountains and check into the local movie house, but I wanted to find out if “Moneyball” was playing and it is isn’t. It opens nationwide on November 17 but will not run in Sokcho. The theater’s manager doesn’t think it would do very well at the box office. One of those in red-line quotes, “American cultural intellectual products”, perhaps. Something outstanding but too difficult to get through for the locals and if they did it may offer something that has too much of a reach. Something way outside the comfort zone. So now Mickey Rourke is in something 3D called “The Immortals”. I paid 13.000 won and then walked out after 15 minutes or so. I was punished by the Sokcho Gods for trying to sit inside when so much natural wonder surrounded everyone. I had better get outside of my comfort zone.
Equally surreal and a hell of a lot less costly is the visit to Abai Village. A ramshackle island theoretically organized and run by North Koreans but the two restaurant owners I spoke with came from the nearby village of Miastmore. There are no marquis of the new Korean wealth here. Just a 200 meter beach; drab and unkept probably what North Korea could be like on a day-by-day basis. Just a check-off the tourist list. Well, least I forget the hand-pull ferry spanning about 50 yards On the crossing over a native tourist stopped at the only point where there might be a bit of concern turned danger to look down at his shoes and jammed the line behind him. Everyone was briefly stalled in the middle of their next step until someone kicked the gift box of dried fruit he was carrying to get the line moving again.
From The House Hostel or anywhere on the main drag through Sokcho, buses 1,7 or 9 will take you to the main beach or actually Bus Terminal number 2. And from there you can smell the way to the East Sea. Sokcho Beach proper actually is a tiny hamlet with a post office and coast guard station and a variety of accommodation, and cheap outside eateries. Even in the warm off-season the natural effects that the sea and coast can have when they sit together are mitigated then transformed into what is all around me. One could call it, ‘empire of the couple’. Not that people shouldn’t take some pose and act differently whenever standing next to the ocean, but I often experience something like irregular on the beaches of the Korean peninsula, “Demonstrative couples horseplay for love”, is what would be written on the other side of the postcard.
I had to wonder, Isn’t there anything else in the make-up of nature that commands more than a loli-pop photo op? But it isn’t hard to move away from this saccharine atmosphere; crowded beaches are crowded beaches anywhere and the more you move away from the crowd the more something else might be revealed. The map Mr. Yoo gave me showed a smaller Oengchi Beach that would be up on the lookout over all of Sokcho Beach and Abai Village. He said there was a Buddhist temple there and I headed out for it because it seemed a good notion to see less people and more natural surroundings. I hadn’t seen anyone or heard any voices for about twenty minutes and so when I came to a fork in the hiking path I wanted to persuit this private moment of qi (chee) as much as possible. To continue on the upper left part of the heavily wooded trail seemed ok because even though there were do not enter signs and an iron pole-gate to stop any traffic there was plenty of sunshine left in the day and by going this way I would actually be heading towards day light. The right turn down of the trail offered cut in half log stairs that were literary made with a pain-in-the-ass angle from some surely deranged mind. I sensed I was in the pull of an independent geomancy and went left and up. There were about 10 more minutes of hiking and I came to a clearance. It was a fort overlooking the East Sea. A kind of watchtower and army depot that if you spend anytime hiking along the coasts of Korea you will come across and the soldiers will ignore you just long enough for you to get back on regular course. They are plotted all over the coast of the East Sea hopefully as just a military vestige and artifact from the times when a Japanese invasion had to be kept guard for. This one now was certainly abandoned.
I maneuvered around the post almost on tip toe; in just that secretive way where it’s scripted that you’re caught and have some explaining to do. I also fantasized that I was holding hands with past lovers and the excitement of the completely unique tryst brought me to the edge of listening to that same sensation I got coming out of the bus from Seoul, and up on this way overgrown lookout point I could again hear the air. For sure, it had been a long time since anyone had kept any regular hours up here. I kept circling around the watch-house trying to get into the abandoned rooms but all access was boarded. I leaned in one open window that was up off the ground enough to not worry about falling into and getting hurt but to adventure and jump down only to realize that getting out was the trick. I leaned in the opposite direction and suddenly she was there. The angular and recusant female in the same boy’s clothes done up with black paint against the worn out and plain wall. I moved away in a manner that I am pretty sure was grateful. Grateful for what I do not know. I marched straight down to the leftward sloping trail and found the small temple. I left before sunset and took a taxi straight to the House Hostel.
My meal that night was the ultimate comfort food, pizza. And when it was time to leave Sokcho for Seoul, I went from a different bus terminal and, yes, this time it took about 4 hours to get back.
For booking at The House Hostel contact: Yoohj73@hanmail.net
A second part of this journey exploring the Feng Shui of the Seorak mountain range is in the works from 3WM
Tortilla Flats: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tortilla_Flat
Qi (chee) : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qi