Incheon, April 13, 2007 - Friday

Trip Start Apr 07, 2007
Trip End Apr 14, 2007

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Up until this moment I was fifteen times at the Incheon International Airport, including my arrival on Saturday. However, I had never been in the city itself. When prior to my arrival I suggested to Su Yeon that we spend one day visiting Incheon, she agreed, of course, but she had also told me that her co-workers had wondered "what one could do in Incheon entire day". Undaunted, I nevertheless wanted to go there, all the more so as I clearly knew by now that, comparably, South Korea wasn't exactly the first destination pick in the world and I had already seen (nearly) everything worth seeing there anyway. So one "boring" city more or less hardly mattered. And if it was my fate in Korea, why not pick one I had not seen yet? So Su Yeon decided to take a day off from work today and in the morning we took a local bus at the Ansan bus terminal and went to Incheon.
It took us only forty minutes or so to arrive there which compared to two hours that a bus takes from the airport is as good as nothing. The bus got us to the Incheon bus terminal and we started our one-day excursion. First thing we did was to obtain ourselves city map. For starters I could tell those were by far the best city maps I hade ever seen in Korea, including those in Seoul. I say city maps as we took two. One in Korean for Su Yeon and one in English for me.
Incheon itself is a politically independent city of 2.5 million people, but in practice largely regarded as a suburb or a part of the greater Seoul metropolitan area due to its close proximity to the capital, and the fact that the Seoul metropolitan underground train and the Incheon underground train systems are linked. Incheon is, however, a major city in its own right and is a separate jurisdiction from Seoul. It became famous in 1950 when American General Douglas MacArthur led UN forces in a surprising landing behind enemy lines during Korean War. Today, it's the second biggest Korean seaport, right after Busan, economically booming. And the city itself seems to be doing quite fine in other areas, too, thank you, with seaside amusement parks being developed, new underground train system, new shopping malls springing up like mushrooms after the rain and even a few historical sites being dusted off by the municipal government.
Friday morning, and the thirteenth to boot - which, granted, did not matter much in Korea - was almost deserted. In terms of population density per area unit Korea ranks as the most densely populated country I have visited so far, with even India and China lagging behind. And one can feel that very well there. Now, the streets in such a country on this Friday, at least when we arrived, were as good as empty. Besides, we had the coldest day so far. Neither entirely cloudy nor entirely sunny, but windy. Su Yeon started freezing right away, and even I occasionally wished I had taken my heavy biker's leather jacket instead of the raincoat only. But it was the way it was. We could not go back now.
From the bus terminal we set out in northern direction. Our goal was to first get to the City Hall and then turn westwards, so we would pass Chinatown and Freedom Park, or Jayu Gongweon in Korean, reach Wolmido Island and on that stretch see as much as we could along the way. Of course, such a cold day certainly didn't exclude a change of plans on a short notice which in translation meant a possibility to end up in a café, pizzeria or even movies for a while. But we had our initial plan and so we started out accordingly. Later it would be the way it would be.
For starters we were headed in the direction of Incheon Arts & Culture Centre. On our way there we first got to a picturesque Rodeo geori square even if I know that geori is Korean for street. Either way, empty as it was, but littered and full of garbage, I would say they had been partying fiercely the night before and now recovering from hangover. On which occasion, I wouldn't know. Maybe there had been an occasion, and maybe it had been "just because". Koreans aren't known as the most sober people in the world anyway. In any case, whoever had had their party the night before, someone else had their hands full of cleaning behind now.
Incheon Arts & Culture Centre itself is not a place a tourist in Incheon comes to for sightseeing or photographing. In that sense it was merely yet another non-descript, modern structure of whose kind there are as many as you want in developed parts of Asia. But it is certainly significant for cultural life of the city with its regular exhibitions and various performances.
We continued due north towards the City Hall, or Incheon Shicheong in original, and found ourselves on a paved, spacious square, surrounded by skyscrapers but also smaller business buildings, and yet with a fountain, artificial brook and small park in its middle, too. From the City Hall we turned west where we immediately saw a park lined with a long row of cherry trees in bloom. Only so we could get reminded that in spite of such a cold weather the spring had recently arrived.
At one point Su Yeon decided she was cold. So for starters we walked into a covered food market which was, as always, an interesting place for a foreigner like me. We took our time inspecting it, then bought some fruit and peanuts and got out again. But the weather grew colder so we put to our advantage the fact that one of the longest underground shopping streets in Incheon, Jemulpo Poyog, was on our way and we descended below the street level. There we even stopped by in one shop and bought Su Yeon a cap. At first she was sceptical towards it and tried it on - and finally bought - only because I had spotted it and suggested to her. But as the time went by, she increasingly liked her new cap and was ever prouder to wear it.
Further west, we came to the Subong Park, or Subong gongweon, which was at least as the parks go unkempt. I can't quite say it was neglected for it would be an overstatement. After all, someone had made an effort to make walking paths out of wooden logs which we climbed to the top of the hill the park was located on. Also, there was a charming park lighting of a modernist style. On the hill summit we saw a series of equipment that in all other countries I had seen so far belonged in gyms, and here it was outdoors for people to use freely. So it is not that no one seemed to take care of the park. I had just seen neater ones. We lingered on top of the hill around a miniature zoo with domestic animals. How would I be me if I didn't cast at least a glance there even if it wasn't about more than just a few rabbits, chicken, ducks, turkeys and the like? And all that in only two or three cages. After that we went downslope, on to the west.
But Incheon is a much larger city than one would be led to believe at first, and Su Yeon's physical strength wasn't unlimited. So at one point she simply couldn't go on foot any more. Therefore we decided to take the underground to the Chinatown. The closest station was Jemulpo Poyog, or Jemulpo Underground Arcades. From there, there was just one stop to the Chinatown - Dowon yeog.
But Incheon is a much larger city than one would be led to believe at first, and Su Yeon's physical strength wasn't unlimited. So at one point she simply couldn't go on foot any more. Therefore we decided to take the underground to the Chinatown. The closest station was Jemulpo Poyog, or Jemulpo Underground Arcades. From there, there was just one stop to the Chinatown - Dowon yeog.
"Lonely Planet" literally claims that Koreans have been as hospitable to their Chinese minority as Japanese have been towards ethnic Koreans living in Japan - which is why most of them have emigrated elsewhere. It may be true, but let's be fair. Which nation is hospitable towards their nearest neighbours? But having said that, Incheon nevertheless have an official Chinatown, albeit the only one in South Korea. And Chinatown in Incheon looks precisely the way it should by definition, i.e. the visitors there expect it to be - a lot of red colour, wavy roofs, lanterns, dragons, restaurants and souvenir shops. The weather wouldn't relent and it was as if winter had decided to show its teeth to spring at least once more. So in part for that, and in part for hunger, Su Yeon and I picked a restaurant and decided to have our lunch there.
Just as usual, Su Yeon studied the menu with gusto even if it was clear in advance that she wouldn't eat more than a bird. And I had known I would eat fried rice even before we took our seats. There was no way I would risk trying something I didn't know and regret it later until the end of the day. A waitress came soon, probably the restaurant owner's wife, and tried to take our order. However, even I could soon realise her Korean was not much superior to mine. So the husband joined in and took over where she got stuck, and to me it looked like very beginning.
"He speaks excellent Korean," Su Yeon said. "Almost like a true Korean."
"And what about her?" I asked.
"She is very bad."
Of course, if her Korean was very bad, then I belong to those who didn't speak at all. But the fact that I had realised she had not been able to take our order made me happy with myself. If nothing else, I could at least clearly tell Korean from Chinese. Or Mandarin, to be precise.
After we had finished our lunch, and then warmed ourselves enough to go on with our sightseeing, we decided to continue. Another Incheon landmark is located right next to the Chinatown, and that is Freedom Park or Jayu gongweon. The statue of General MacArthur as well as a memorial to the centennial anniversary of U.S. and Korea relations is located within. So we thereby wanted to pay tribute to Incheon's historical significance. But before that, at the very park entrance, we spotted a cute café, housed in a building that with its style neatly fit in the Chinatown, and decided we wanted to have a hot drink there. However, inside it proved to be an artsy hangout, furnished more along the lines of western cafés. Tables, chairs, a piano, paintings - even the music from loudspeakers. In such places in Korea one can usually hear non-descript music, i.e. bland local pop or boring, modern western production. OK, just like everywhere else, if you will. There are not many café and restaurant owners in this world that you can accuse of a developed musical taste, be it in Korea, be it in Europe. Or anywhere else, for that matter. In places like this you can very seldom hear western oldies or country standards. And this place was precisely like that. I ordered myself a hot chocolate, Su Yeon had a tea and we spent about an hour there. She talked about her work and certain Mandy who created her some serious problems, so after that we made jokes about it and all along listened to Kris Kristofferson, Billy Joel, Tina Turner, Supremes and the likes.
And then we went to the Freedom Park. There, too, just like in Subong Park, we saw the equipment as if from the nearest gym. Besides, Freedom Park looked to me as a place to best see the city panorama from. The park itself is located on an elevated spot, and in addition to that there was a small pagoda inside, its purpose very much like the one in Panmunjeom the day before. Which meant with a platform as a lookout spot. Climbing up there, against the setting of a milky sun on the pale sky, we realised that Wolmido Island was in fact still far away, and the afternoon had already quite advanced. I had wanted to see it as Wolmido represented location of Green Beach, one of the landing sites for MacArthur's invasion force. OK, it is now a local tourist attraction with a boardwalk, an amusement park and many numerous restaurants. But anyway. However, it was cold, Su Zeon was exhausted, and I myself had never been crazy either about amusement parks or raw fish restaurants. So the two of us decided that once we left the park, we would return to Ansan. And leave Wolmido for another occasion.
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