Sunday, August 26, 2012

Diving In

Yeongsan River, looking upstream
Today I made a second visit to a location I suspect I'll spend a great deal of time in during the remainder of my time here.

This morning I woke up feeling a bit under the weather, with a sore throat and some congestion. It was nothing too serious, but I was feeling groggy enough that I drifted back to sleep several times before actually getting out of bed. Even after I was up and about I lazed about my apartment, straightening up a bit and making a call home to my parents and probably worrying them unduly with my slightly raspy voice, and my unwashed face and mussed hair when we got the video calling to work.

It could easily have been a day where I queue up some videos or reading and stayed in my building, perhaps even my apartment, all afternoon and evening by giving myself the excuse that I needed to get more rest to nip this cold in the bud.

Alas, yesterday I consumed the last of the calories I had in my apartment. I have been building a collection of Pepsi something-or-others in my fridge that are sometimes thrown into my bags when I pick up bottles of water or late-night-snacks from the 7-11, but I'm pretty sure they don't have any calories. I haven't tried one yet, but there's a large zero near the logo and usually that's a good indicator that I'm not going to enjoy the taste of whatever is inside.

It is possible to get food from the lobby of my building, which could come in handy this week with a whopper of a typhoon apparently bringing loads of rain our way. However, since I was going all the way downstairs, I decided I may as well take a step outside and see where it leads me. I threw on some jeans and a long-sleeve shirt, grabbed my iPod (I'm still relying on Wifi for all communications here, and I knew I needed some pictures for a post this week) my sunglasses, and my wallet, and walked out.

I decided to grab a candy bar (Twix, an old favorite I rarely indulge in because I often give in to the temptation to indulge in new favorites) to hold me over until I might come across some place to eat, or until I made it to the store to pick up some groceries. Really I wasn't sure where I would end up.

I walked past this park near my apartment in Sangmu.
I walked down to City Hall and headed...east or north, or northeast, possibly southeast. I know it wasn't west. There's a road that runs from City Hall past the May 18 Memorial Park and on to the bus station, and I went that way, thinking I might turn at the park and go up to the store to buy food.

Walking can be a great way to explore a new environment, and with plenty of daylight left and the weather being absolutely beautiful this afternoon, I continued along that road past the park. While walking I'm able to take in more of my surroundings than I could by other methods. If I am transported to some other location, I get nervous about being able to find my way back. When I walk (or run) I feel familiar enough with the route I've taken that I know I can basically backtrack if I need to. So I kept going.

I remembered seeing a large KIA plant along that road while riding in the taxi to the bus station with Sarah and Jolene to go to Yeosu a few weeks ago, so I decided to go at least far enough to see that and take some pictures to send to Dylan. He drives a KIA back home and is currently struggling with the pain of having to leave it at home as he returns to college, so I thought he might be annoyed to have me taunting him with reminders of all the KIAs I see everyday.

This one's for you, Dylan.
A KIA dealership near the school
Over time I've realized that getting out and moving around tends to make me think I'm feeling better when I think I'm sick. I picked up the pace and strolled up and down hills pretending I knew exactly where I was going and that I was covering enough of my skin and eyes to blend in (I realized how wrong I was when the first of several passers-by said "hello" to me) By the time I reached the KIA plant I'd forgotten the relative grogginess of the morning.

If you search "Gwangju, South Korea" in Google maps satellite view and zoom in a bit, until the scale is at about 1 inch=1 mile, you'll notice the city is roughly divided into half by the Yeongsan River. On the west side of the river is a large complex of light blue roofs. This is the KIA plant, and it's huge. It makes a great reference point when I'm trying to get an idea of where different landmarks are located in relation to my neighborhood because it sticks out so much on the map.

My route had brought me around the back edge of the plant, so I continued along the perimeter to the other side, which brought me to the bus station. Other than Sangmu, the bus station is the location in Gwangju I have seen the most. It's where I first arrived in Gwangju on the bus down from Incheon International Airport, so it was comforting in a way to have connected the dots between my apartment and this portal to the rest of Korea (and home) on foot. I love Gwangju so far and have much more to explore here, so it's not as though I'm dreaming of escape. Instead, I find it opens up the imagination when I can see how where I am is connected to so many other places.

Before going into the station itself I crossed to the other side of the street through an underground walkway between the bus station, a department store, and the local bus stops across the street. On the other side I noticed an LG electronics store and decided to duck in to cool off and browse around. There seemed to be a wide variety of electronics and appliances, and I was curious as to how many different items LG makes. If nothing else I thought perhaps I could stock up on some toothpaste.

Unlike the LG washing machine and dryer at my house in the states, this product does not sing to me when it's done.
To my surprise, I was the only customer in the store and thus became the focus of the attention of the three workers patrolling the floor. Since I wasn't sure how to convey "just browsing" to them, I decided to ask about cell phones, since I'm planning on buying one soon. I held my hand up to my ear and was led to the phone counter.

Luckily for me, the man working the phone counter spoke very good English. He said he'd spent the past year in Sydney and seemed eager to practice his English, which proved very helpful as I had a large store of questions about buying a cell phone. After fifteen minutes another customer came in, and not wanting to monopolize his time, I thanked him for his help. He wished me luck and saw me to the door.

Often I find myself hesitant to enter situations in which I'm not sure exactly what to do. Even in the states I like to know exactly how to proceed in any number of contingencies, and I'll occasionally avoid situations that I feel present too much uncertainty despite the fact that I'm constantly surrounded by people who would understand what I was saying were I to ask them for help and whom I could understand when they respond.

In that light, walking into an electronics store by myself for no particular reason without knowing much relevant Korean besides "Hello...where much does it cost...thank you" felt like an adventure of sorts for me, albeit one that morphed from a skydive to a roller coaster once I found an English speaker. Still, this is the sort of thing I need to do more often if I want to really feel as though I'm living here and not just working here. I think the trick may be to ask myself, "What's the worst that could happen?" and then not allow myself to imagine an answer.

After leaving the store I crossed the street and browsed through a multi-level (and seemingly very expensive) department store connected to the bus station. I went up a few levels thinking I might look through some nice suits I would never buy, but each level seemed to be more and more devoted to women's clothes, so I turned around and began descending before I went too high up and possibly found myself in a situation that could be embarrassing in any unaccompanied male in the intimates department. This is the kind of anxiety I feel when I begin allowing myself to answer the "worst that could happen" question.

Once safely on the ground floor again I went over to the bus station and browsed through a few of the multitude of shops there, including my first visit to a Korean bookstore, where I was quickly greeted by this semi-familiar sight:

Fifty Shades of Grey in Korean
Ahhh...the power of marketing. Take a mass-market bodice ripper and print it as a trade paperback (I used to work at Borders..RIP) and you have a global phenomenon. I've read one of your paragraphs, book, before I knew what you were. I'm glad to see they keep you in plastic wrap here to protect unsuspecting book-browsers from the gagging that paragraph induced in me.

To be honest, I took this picture again to joke with my brother and decided to include it here in part to fulfill my promise of including more pictures and also on the off-chance that some 50 Shades fans might end up on this page, where they may then actually read to this point in the blog, where I will tell them, "I'm glad you read. If you enjoy 50 Shades you should check out some Zora Neale Hurston or Cormac McCarthy. Their Eyes Were Watching God or All the Pretty Horses might be good places to start. Or if you hated 50 Shades you may want to jump straight to Blood Meridian. It's sort of a reading cleanse diet. For a long time I remembered very little of what I had read in the months before reading McCarthy's Blood Meridian, and for a few months afterwards I had trouble focusing on what I attempted to read in its wake."

For those of you still with me (thank you for that, by the way!) I continued out of the bookstore and on to the ticket counters, which I stared at for about ten minutes, just reading through the destinations and schedules, imagining day trips I could take in the coming months, and how easily entertained I am by just riding on a bus and staring out the window at the landscape and thinking about how incredibly far I am from anywhere I've been before.

Then I wandered upstairs to the IMAX theater, grabbed a couple "The Expendables 2" brochures to mail to my brother Ethan, and spotted a Cold Stone Creamery and a Burger King.

With just a couple hours of good daylight left, I walked out of the bus station and turned west. I decided to walk along the front side of the KIA complex this time so I could take better pictures of it for Dylan to see.

KIA plant gate
Building at KIA plant in Gwangju
The plant stretches along several blocks and covers both sides of the road for the majority of that. KIA's website shows the locations of their plants, and according to it this plant covers nearly 1 million square meters and assembles commercial vehicles and buses, as well as some military vehicles.

When I had finally walked past the length of the plant and thought I was nearly home, I noticed a large sign in the middle of the sidewalk. Having some idea of what it said without really knowing what it said, I walked around it in trepidation. Sure enough, the sidewalk beyond the crosswalk was completely blocked off for construction work.

This is when it becomes very advantageous to live along a river. The Yeongsan River, as mentioned previously, runs through the city of Gwangju. It is considered one of the four major rivers of the Republic of Korea and is part of a trail system that was recently the subject of a major government project to revitalize riverside recreation in the country. A smaller tributary of the Yeongsan runs along City Hall near my apartment and up past the bus station and on to the base of Mudeung Mountain on the other end of the city. Anytime I get lost in Gwangju, it seems if I can find my way to the river, I can find my way home. Of course, I doubt this will ever really be an issue, but it is a comforting thought just the same. City Hall is downriver from just about everything in Gwangju, so if I get to the river and there's anything around me, I can follow it downstream and find my way back.

At the sidewalk closure I made a right turn and headed for a bridge. From that bridge I took the picture I used at the top of this post, and on the other side I found steps leading down to the riverside path.

A picture of he bridge from which I took the picture mentioned in the sentence above and shown at the top of the post, taken from the riverside path which I reached via this bridge

I first walked along a different portion of this path two weeks ago on a similar Sunday afternoon stroll, and was struck by how quiet and removed it seems compared to the sidewalks a mere ten meters away. When I lived in Boston I ran the paths along the Charles quite often. I loved running that, but it includes a lot of crosswalks and is usually about level with the busy roads alongside it. This path goes under the bridges and is often flanked with high vegetation in addition to being set below the roads to really make it feel separate from the surrounding city. It seems to be an ideal location to get back into my running routine.

I followed the path down to City Hall, which is where I began my walk and headed down river two weeks ago (without a camera). Downstream from there the path affords beautiful views of the surrounding mountains as the tributary runs into the Yeongsan as it continues on down toward Mokpo. From Mokpo there are ferries to Jeju and Shanghai.
The  riverside path from under the City Hall bridge, looking downstream

I've always lived right along a river. I grew up in towns bordering the Mississippi and imagined the journey the barges made to New Orleans on many occasions while crossing into Missouri. In addition to running along the Charles in Boston, I also often ran along the River des Peres (aka the sometimes-connected series of puddles des Peres) during the past year while living in the city of St. Louis. I was able to participate in the final Lewis and Clark Marathon along the Missouri River in St. Charles. Having the Yeongsan right here brings yet another element of familiarity to this experience and provides another possible avenue for diving into new and uncertain experiences here.

Looking upstream from the City Hall Bridge (City Hall complex on the right)
When I got back to Sangmu I ordered a chicken sandwich and fries to take back to my apartment for dinner while watching an episode of Mad Men. Baby steps.


  1. Well you were a million times more productive with your Sunday than I was! I slept 9 hours, got up and read some, and then passed out for two hours in the middle of the afternoon. Intensives are so exhausting!! I really look forward to being more productive with my weekend now that they're over. Let's definitely plan a day trip for next Sunday!

  2. I love the shoutouts Trev, I will be seeing the Kia soon...maybe i'll tweet you some pictures of a nice grilled steak or salmon back home, you know what they say about revenge.

    1. You should send me pictures of the salmon before you cook it because it's a dish best served cold