Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Springtime has arrived in Korea with a rainbow explosion of color. The cherry trees lining the roads are now in full bloom, raining down their pink petals onto the streets like a floral snowstorm. The hills around Ulsan have turned from a dull brown to a leafy, brilliant green. More unpleasantly, the sky is once again is full of the yellow sand from the Gobi Desert, choking the air and leaving a delicate dusting on any stationary objects.

With the warmer weather upon, and a fortunately placed long weekend at the beginning of this month, Amy and I seized the opportunity to mount our trusty scooter in the first mass Hell’s Ajummas ride of the year. Destination: Koje-do, a small island off the south end of the peninsula. Joining us on the adventure were nine other bikes and a total of 13 riders.

We set off bright and early Saturday morning hoping to beat the mad exodus of people from the city over a long weekend. We’d planned our route to avoid most of the larger traffic arteries - we’d head to Koje via the back roads through Busan, onto Jinhae where we would board a small vehicle ferry over to the Island.

Save for a few early near-disasters, we made our way out of the city and hit the roads in a relatively intact pack, no short feat considering the wide range of engine sizes we had in tow.

Our first obstacle was the urban nightmare that is Busan, Korea’s second largest city. We’d planned our route to avoid the chaos of downtown, but as with most well made plans – they often come unraveled quickly. It’s no secret that road maps in this country are remarkable inconsistent and inaccurate. Our route, well marked on the map, quickly disintegrated as we rode deep into the heart of the city.

Somehow we made it unscathed through the tumultuous traffic of Busan’s thoroughfares and rode on to Jinhae, a quaint port city and home to Korea’s southern naval fleet. Renowned for its annual Spring cherry blossom festival, we rode through Jinhae to a spectacular fanfare of pink flowers lining its wide boulevards.

Our ferry to Koje Island was a squat little rusted car ferry that left hourly from an undistinguished dock on the outskirts of town. Only a forty-five minute voyage, we settled in for the trip. A quick look around at the other passengers revealed everything from lovers out for a romantic daytrip to suited business men playing cards and drinking soju.

We arrived on Koje Island, just after a late afternoon squall had hit the island. The roads were still a little slick, but we had just missed the wet weather. Lucky too because neither Amy nor I had packed any rain gear.

We made our way to Okpo, one of the two bigger sized cities on the island. Exhausted from nearly a full day of riding, our group set out to find a bath house where we could scrub away the road grit and engine fumes. We spent several hours pampering ourselves in the heated pools and saunas before retiring to our hotel for a relatively early evening.

Saturday morning arrived and we set off in the morning to go and explore the island.

Koje-Do has the dubious honor of being the location of the largest Prisoner of War (POW) camp during the Korean War. During the height of the war the camp covered nearly 11,800 square kilometers and housed upwards of 170,000 North Korean, Chinese and Communist POWs.

Driving through the city that morning we stumbled onto a large rock wall, foundations from an earlier fortress built to repel Japanese invaders, ironically pressed into recent use as one of the outer walls to intern even more foreigner invaders.

On a side note, Koje’s POW camp was also the scene of one of the more notorious events of the war when in May of 1952, the POWs rioted due to the miserable conditions in the camp and succeeded in capturing the camp’s commandant Brigadier Dodd and forcing him to sign a humiliating confession, admitting to alleged camp ‘atrocities’.

You can see some historical pictures of the Koje POW here.

Reborn in 1999 as a historical theme park, the POW camp is now easily one of the most popular tourist attractions on the island and houses exhibits on the detainees’ lives, as well as re-creations of the camp itself and its surroundings. As we pulled into the parking lot, it was already awash in tourist buses and giant lines of people snaked around the entrance.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect, as we cued up to enter the giant tank that marked the entry to the park. I had more than a few moral reservations about visiting a theme park based on a sensitive subject like Prisoners of War. But in the end, sheer morbid curiosity overruled any ethical sensibilities I may have had.

Wandering through the re-creation of the camp I found all my suspicions confirmed. The park was little more than a lousy propaganda exercise curtained behind a cheap entertainment experience. While a cursory mention was made of the inflammatory political tensions that existed in the camp, little was made of the bloody clashes that resulted in thousands of casualties amongst the prisoners. Even less was made of squalid living conditions in the camp at the time.

Highlights on the tour included:

• A animatronic prisoners riot which you passed by on a moving sidewalk
• A full-scale display of US GIs digging a Communist prisoner out of an escape tunnel, inside a children’s play area.
• A wooden cut-out which you could place your smiling face into a scene of a miserable POWs behind barbed wire and get your photo taken

More saddening however, was watching the legions of small children being dragged around the park by their parents. You couldn’t help but think this camp is what they are being taught is the truth. Call it Disneyland with Dysentery.

In one corner, away from the cheap, crass re-creations, I found a small but moving memorial. Shortly after the war, a local art teacher snuck into the abandoned camp and painted pictures onto the walls of one of the buildings, perhaps in an attempt to bring a little joy and color to a place of misery and suffering. Fifty years later, the paintings are still there, faded but recognizable on the crumbling walls.

That afternoon we made our way south on the island, past many of Koje’s renowned sandy beaches and rocky outcroppings. The gently curving island roads made for very entertaining riding and coupled with good weather and beautiful scenery, we quickly forgot all about the POW camp. Our destination was the Haegeumgang, a spectacular rocky island at the very southern tip of the Island.

As we approached Haegeumgang, on either side of the road were fields of canola plants - and their brilliant yellow blooms created a golden-gilded entranceway to the park. We arrived just as the sun was setting and the evening light basked the craggy rocks in an orange-amber hue and created a truly magical setting.

Leaving Haegeumgang, our pack of bikes raced back in formation along the winding country roads. We were determined to make it back to town before we lost all our daylight and after settling into another hotel, we set off to find some food.

I and a couple of others were determined to try “Hwei,” thinly sliced raw fish served on a bed of noodles. To fortify ourselves for the meal, we dug into several bottles of Soju – as we figured the alcohol alone would be enough to poison any lingering bacteria.

The fish was delicious. The side dishes on the other hand, were an entirely different culinary adventure. Along with our “Hwei,” we were served an assortment of fresh sea cucumber, sea slugs and anemones. All were still ALIVE and wriggling and convulsing on the plate.

Not only did we have to wrestle with them to get onto our chopsticks but it took all of our collective willpower to shove them into our mouths and crunch down. No amount of soju could convince me to eat that again.

The holiday Monday was a sprint back home. We left Koje that morning via the same route we took on the way in. We made it to Busan by mid-afternoon and had a few hours to relax and unwind on Haeundae Beach before the final leg back to Ulsan.

And it was here, finally, that we ran into the first casualty of the trip when one of the bikes failed to start. We’d made all the way there with no problems and in the final stretch the bikes started dropping like flies. We lost another on the road back from Busan, leaving us with seven of the original nine bikes in tow. Thankfully, the rest of us made it back intact. So after 450km of roads behind us, two ferry rides, a surreal war-themed theme park, plates of raw fish and live sea creatures and some very saddle-sore behinds, we were finally home.

Photos of our trip can be seen on my website.