Chuncheon, South Korea
October 25, 2014
I just let the place surprise me. I didn’t know squat about Chuncheon. I only knew of the city when I googled the jump-off point for both Nami Island and Seorak Mountain, and that was as far as my research took me. I was traveling with friends, one of whom knew a local who graciously offered her flat. We hoped she would make touristy recommendations; otherwise, it would be no biggie to spend a couple of days in the city without any agenda.
Just our luck that our host, Sora, played tourist guide during our short stay. It was the closest we experienced to couchsurfing, minus the attendant risks. We hit the food trail upon luggage drop-off. Chuncheon, proud home to dakgalbi, literally chicken ribs and rice cake, named a street after its famous dish. Myeongdong Dakgalbi Street was a busy alley cramped with 20 or so restaurants serving the same specialty. The street buzzed with youthful energy, packed as it was with twenty-somethings. The cacophony of friendly chatter and bright lights of shop signs filled the narrow walkway.
Sora had a restaurant in mind, but the long waiting list nudged us over next door, Myung Mule. Not a bad second choice. It looked the part: low tables, floor seating, and ambient smoke. We got lucky and settled barefoot around the BBQ table. As the skillet simmered in front of us, a server dumped dakgalbi ingredients: chicken slices (not rib meat, dakgalbi turned out to be a misnomer), leafy vegetables, sweet potatoes, penne-shaped rice cake, and an alarming amount of chili pepper paste. Not particularly thrilled about any form of cooking, I nevertheless took hold of a giant spatula and gamely stirred the ingredients as smoke billowed on my face.
Despite the red-hot gochujang sauce, dakgalbi was not as spicy as I had feared. No snotty side effect. We mimicked Sora as she wrapped chicken slices in cabbage leaves and stuffed the whole thing into her mouth. No dainty bite sizes. While she devoured it with poise and aplomb, I looked like cattle grazing on the first grass of spring. No need for regurgitation, however; I could still taste the smell of dakgalbi in the air several paces away from the eponymous street.
The chilly autumn night did little to deter our host from maximizing our only free day in Chuncheon. After dinner, we drove to a park shrouded in misty darkness. My drooping eyes widened when she parked the car; we were going on a stroll in 10-degree weather. Well played, I thought. It made sense to do a lot stomping after a bit of chomping. The park was landscaped, but not overdone, and sprawling, cut through by Bukhan River flowing from North Korea.
Gongjicheon Sculpture Park made creative use of lighting, although none too brightly. Pin lights crowned smaller trees like Christmas trees, spotlights lit up larger ones from the ground. Colorful lighting traced the outline of bridges and floating restaurants. All this brilliance contrasted with the pitch darkness of Bukhan River and cast mirror reflections on it. Even at such late hour, the park was far from empty and quiet. A soccer game was underway and workers were setting up equipment for the annual marathon that would happen in a few hours. We were making a ruckus posing with some of 30 sculptures scattered throughout the park.
An obelisk inscribed with “Ethiopia” in different scripts rose above all other sculptures. Sora explained it was a memorial for Ethiopian veterans who fought during the Korean War in the 1950s. What an unexpected piece of history and an unlikely alliance, I thought, considering the geographic and cultural distance between the two countries. The connection lived on to the present generation; the next day we would see an Ethiopian coffee shop in Nami and large groups of African tourists.
Outside the war memorial, several military tanks were on display. They loomed in size, but lightened up with a decidedly cutesy paint job. Still, they stood as stark reminders that this country was still at war. I had not seen as many men in uniform – on the bus, on the streets, at train stations – as in Chuncheon, one of the cities closest to the persistent threat north of the border. Thanks to Sora, we learned much about the city the old-school way – by experiencing it with no help from Google.