Korea is a country full of surprises for foreigners. This is mainly because we generally know so little about the southern portion of this small peninsula. We think it’s unfriendly, unstable, dangerous, overly-crowded and oppressively industrial.
This past week I traveled by bike from Seoul to Andong over 6-days with seven bicycle tour operators from all over the world. I was there as a representative for the Chattanooga-based BikeToursDirect on a Familiarization of Korea tour sponsored by bikeOasis and the Korean Tourism Organization. It was interesting to witness the other seven discover and fall for the charms of Korea. You never expect much, but it is, like kimchi, an acquired taste. Once you fall in love, you can’t get enough.
The first 48 hours in Korea can be a bit like a bad hallucinogenic trip. The major cities are big, crowded and smell weird. Walking around that first day your are overloaded by flashing lights, honking horns and K-pop blaring from every storefront making for one very trippy, disjointed song. This sensory overload in conjunction with profound jet-lag can make you feel like you’re about to faint right in the middle of thousands of people rushing past you like a herd of giant ants. Or like a character in the futuristic Korea depicted in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.
I watched my fellow group members experience this on our first night in Seoul just as I did in 2007. Eyes bloodshot, no sense of direction and being whisked around from one thing to the next in a taxi that is going too damn fast! I remember the feeling. Just get me to my room so I can process this.
The second day in Korea is the realization that you aren’t getting all of the comforts of home anymore. Shoulders slump when you realize you’re sleeping on the floor, Korean-style. You’re shocked by a strange side dish placed in front of you. Day two is an endless day of “but, why?” questions.
But that’s when it happens. Something small, but magical. Maybe a small child hands you a candy, a Korean stops you on the street to chat or simply to welcome or help you. Koreans have a way of making you feel special, making you feel at home. It is their special power. By day two, if you are open to it, you’ll start to fall in love. Before you know it you’re asking for more kimchi.