WOMEN stand transfixed in the rest room of the service station, staring up at the large plasma screen above the taps. All eyes are focused on a coffin as it is placed on the flower-strewn hearse surrounded by people sobbing their hearts out.
The woman next to me puts her hands together and bends her head in sorrow. Another makes the sign of the cross. Buddhists and Christians alike mourn this national figure, loved and admired by all, it seems.
And then there is a break for advertisements, the spell is undone and the swish of taps drowns out the jingle for a Hyundai car. There are few places in the world where people watch the news in such intimate spaces. But this is South Korea and technology infiltrates every aspect of life.
Even a daytrip to Seoraksan, South Korea’s most spectacular national park, allows no respite.
Back in the minibus, Kim, our guide, fills in the details. “That is Choi Jin-Sil, the well known actress . . . She was only 39.”
Kim explains that this film star committed suicide after a messy divorce and persistent cyber harassment by people who thought her loan shark activities had led to a fellow actor’s suicide.
“Shame we don’t have a screen in the bus,” Kim says. “Then we could watch the service.”
The film star’s funeral takes place on the day that I escape to the countryside after a frenzied week in Seoul. There is plenty of choice, given that 70 per cent of South Korea is covered with mountains and 20 per cent with national parks.
But Seoraksan Park, which roughly translates as snow-cragged mountains, is considered the most spectacular.
We leave Seoul early, snaking our way over flyways and byways and through long dark tunnels. As we travel past construction sites where half-built bridges hover over valleys, Kim chatters on, determined to keep us awake.
“One of the most popular tours, particularly with Japanese women, is the beauty surgery tour,” she says. “On day one you choose the film star you want to be like and then have the surgery. On day two you actually go on the film set.”
I look around at my Indian and Japanese fellow passengers. None of us seems impressed. We are looking forward to scaling the peaks of South Korea’s most beautiful national park, visiting the Buddhist temples and eating fish in the nearby coastal town.
When we emerge from the city, the pine-covered hills and paddy fields are shrouded in mist, which takes hours to clear but, when it does, the view is overpowering. Seoraksan Park has some of the highest peaks in the country.
We make an obligatory photo stop under the shadow of Ulsanbawi mountain; its elongated brow resembles a crocodile’s jaw.
Legend has it this granite formation was once a living being from the southeast of the country who tried to relocate to the beautiful Geumgang Mountains in North Korea. When he arrived in the north, however, there was no space left for him. He turned back, discouraged, but fell asleep in Seorak and never woke up. A fortunate mishap for Ulsanbawi, as this is a beautiful place.
At the base of the mountain, a cafe owner pounds a translucent white substance against a stone. “Try some,” he urges.
I choke as the warm glutinous substance slips down my throat. This is the famous rice cake and I am not impressed.
But the view is a different matter. Autumn has arrived early in this part of the country and vibrant yellow, red and orange foliage provides a spectacular foreground for the dramatic snowcapped peaks.
I wonder when the images in the service station of people bungy jumping, whitewater rafting and hiking will kick into life. So far there is little sign of human activity. Thirty minutes later, as we walk through the entrance to the park, hikers stride towards us, determined and refreshed. Perhaps they have admired the rock-face Buddhas, the spotted bears, antelopes and deer or swum in the pool under the Flying Dragon Waterfall.
Koreans are enthusiastic hikers. In fact, hiking eclipses tae kwon do as the national sport. They also consider Seoraksan – with its skull-like peaks, pine forests, waterfalls, fortress and temples – as the most beautiful of all 17 national parks. There are plenty of trails, some of the most spectacular reached by cable car and all are well marked in Hangeul script and English.
Large parties of older women shelter under trees, their chatter drowning out the birdsong above. They all wear identical red or blue fishing jackets and distinctive bubble perms known as bbogeul- bbogeul (pronounced affectionately as boggle-boggle).
These are members of the famous ajumma brigade.
Although technically ajumma refers to all Korean women, in practice the term is used for grandmothers. Despite years of war, poverty and family responsibilities these women face old age with great resilience, with ajumma power. Clearly hungry, they unpack their picnic hampers and start to eat pajeon, a post-hike savoury pancake made of mountain vegetables.
Their energy and good cheer put us to shame. No doubt they have already climbed the 800 steps to Ulsanbawi and back, shouting, laughing and singing all the way.
There is a long queue for the cable car, which sways above us as it moves slowly over the valley to the snowcapped peaks.
“Shall we wait or would you like to go and see a beautiful temple and the largest bronze Buddha in the world?” Kim asks. “The Buddha,” I reply without hesitation, for I am terrified of heights. No one disagrees, and we set off up the mountain, crossing a beautiful carved stone bridge to Shinheungsa temple surrounded by pine-covered mountains.
Monks relax and talk under trees while children pile up stones to make Buddhist stupas, which fall apart and are reassembled. People chalk messages on roof slates and place them at the foot of the enormous statue of Buddha.
The temple was founded in the seventh century during the Silla period but most of the painted wooden buildings are from the 17th and 18th centuries.
Four heavenly kings, wearing beards, jewels and flamboyant clothes, guard the entrance. One frowns, pitchfork in hand; another looks as if he has seen a ghost, the third tickles a lizard and the fourth smiles and plays his lute. He looks too genial to ward off evil spirits.
I am reluctant to leave, envying people who are staying in the nearby spa village of Osaek. Most hotels have communal hot spring baths and some even pump water into the bedrooms.
We reach Daepo Port on the east coast in the late afternoon. On the beach a fisherman hangs out his squid along three parallel washing lines.
“Try the fried tempura,” Kim urges. That is all very well, but from which stall?
There are dozens, each tended by a woman hollering for our attention. Some sit cross-legged among fans of neatly arranged tempura. Others dip kebabs of battered fish into pans of boiling oil.
Daepo Port. Click images for more photographs of South Korea.
Bright pink sea anemones swim amid silver-backed fish and a live octopus tries to clamber out of a blue plastic tank.
I walk along the harbour and watch men fill each other’s glasses with shots of soju, a strong spirit with a rice base; it is not Korean custom to pour your own.
Others sit and order platefuls of squid stuffed with rice and vegetables or plump shallots served with sweet hot sauce. This looks tempting but there is not enough time for a full-scale meal.
On my way back to the minibus I succumb and order tempura; it is as fresh a fish as any I have tasted.
Our last stop is Naksan Temple, built into the mountainside overlooking the sea, a spectacular site established by a Buddhist monk in the seventh century.
This was at the bidding of a bodhisattva, who stayed on earth to help others achieve enlightenment and lived in a nearby cave.
I climb down the rockface, take off my shoes and enter a small pavilion perched over the cliff.
Taking my cue from other pilgrims, I kneel and peer down the 10cm hole as the waves rush into the cave below. Perhaps this is the cave where the bodhisattva lived? As we climb back up the steps a smiling bodhisattva helping us on our spiritual path serves us spring water from an outstretched hand.
On the long journey back to Seoul I revel in images of heavenly guardians playing the lute or tickling the lizard, lines of squid drying in the sun and smiling ajumma beckoning me to join them for pajeon.
But the problematic side to this fascinating country is Seoul’s fame as the capital of plastic surgery and the country’s preoccupation with the more intrusive aspects of technology. As we approach the neon lights of Seoul I reflect on how many Choi Jin-Sil look-alikes are still mourning her demise.
This article first appeared on 7 November 2009 in the Australian www.theaustralian.com.au/life/travel/from-plastic-to-fantastic/story-e6frg8rf-1225794419331