Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Mark and Jin's Travels I

It's Monday night, 22:14pm, and it's time for another blog entry! I'm sitting in the main room of Jin's parents house. Jin's mother is busy peeling one of the multitude of chestnuts she collected from her latest sojourn into the mountains, and Jin is on the computer organising some documents for tomorrow's interview in an English teaching Institute. The television is showing one of the many period-dramas that seem so popular here (men in silly hats and women with unnecessarily complicated hair-dos, much like English period-dramas, although usually with more murder involved...).

We got back from or travels around the country on Saturday evening. Eight days before we had taken a train down from Seoul to Gwangju, the capital city of the south-western province of Jeollanam-do. Whilst significantly smaller than Seoul, Gwangju is still large enough that it's centre – where we stayed for the first two nights – is just as crowded and noisy. Therefore we spent as little time there as possible. On Saturday we took a bus to the nearby town of Damyang, where our target was a large Bamboo park. It turned out to be rather tacky and touristy (think smiling cartoon Pandas), but still it was pleasant to walk around the shaded paths. In the evening we returned to our motel in Gwangju which, whilst undoubtedly frequented by gamblers, teenage lovers and adulterers (you can rent the rooms by the hour if you prefer), nevertheless provided cheap and relatively clean accommodation.

On Sunday morning we rented a car and went off to explore the rest of the province. Jeollanam-do is an interesting place for many reasons. The southern end of the Sobaek Mountains run down its eastern side and plunge into the sea, creating a highly fractured coast and numerous small islands. Away from the mountains there are fertile plains which a combination of warm climate and higher than average rainfall have made into the rice bowl of Korea. Agriculture is a major industry here, although thankfully it has avoided the trappings of agri-business, and most of the land seems to be split into family small-holdings of a few acres. Perhaps because of its agricultural roots, the province tends to be viewed in other parts of Korea as rather backwards and undeveloped. Its people also have the reputation of being rebellious and hot-headed (whilst some of this is probably just prejudice, their reputation is borne out by their driving, which is impatient and reckless even by Seoul standards). In the period after the Korean war Jeollanam-do was known as a breeding ground for Communists, which lead to much persecution of its inhabitants by the military governments of the time. During the 70s and 80s it was a leading player in the campaigns for democratisation (which were also blamed on communist elements by the state controlled media). In May of 1980, following the assassination of the dictator Park Chung-Hee, and the military government's subsequent attempts to hold onto power by all means necessary the protests reached a climax. In an event known as the 5.18 (May 18th) uprising the government acted to brutally crush the increasing protests in Gwangju. Special forces where sent in, and over a five-day period hundreds of people were killed (the exact numbers are not known). It is clear that the event is still raw in the minds of the people of Gwangju from the monuments and parks that have been constructed in its memory. Chief among them is the 5.18 National Cemetery, which was our first stop on Sunday. It is set in a large park on the northern outskirts of the city containing the tombs of those involved with the uprising, as well as several large exhibitions documenting the events and the people involved. It was an impressive and powerful monument, and one obviously designed to attract tourists and citizens to come and learn about the event it remembers.

Perhaps the thing that most stuck with me from our visit to the cemetery was how new it all was. Although the uprising happened in 1980, the cemetery as it exists today was only built in 1997 (following the election of Kim Dae-Jung, the first President from Jeollanam-do, who had been involved with the pro-democracy movement). Jin had visited the cemetery before that time, and she remembered it as a wild, disorganised and almost deserted collection of tombs in a field at the end of a dirt-track. Before 1997, many people knew virtually nothing about the massacre (except for the government broadcasts at the time, which predictably blamed it all on the Commies). At one level it shows how quickly Korea has changed – walking around Seoul now feels much the same as walking round London, its sights, its systems, the outward behaviour of its people seem familiar. However it also indicates that under the surface significant differences from a Western-style democracy remain, the currents of history take much longer to disperse.

I seem to have written quite a lot already, so I'll leave the rest of our travels to another post. I'm going to set up an online photo album somewhere too, so when I've done that I'll post the link. I hope everyone who reads this is having a happy time whatever they are doing :).

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