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Trip 18 -- Northeast Asia

Part 1: Climbing Korea
13 June 2016

This focus of this trip is Ysyakh, the summer-solstice celebration in the Yakutia region of northeast Russia. But flying into Russia is too simple; it's more interesting to take the weekly ferry to Vladivostok from Donghae in South Korea. So I began the trip with a few days in Korea -- not nearly enough to do the country justice, but enough to give me a taste of today's Seoul and the volcanic island Jeju.

Getting a Russian visa is an expensive hassle, so I figured at some point I'd do just one long trip across the country. But the rules changed a couple of years ago, and U.S. citizens can now get a three-year multiple-entry visa. It's still a hassle, but it means I don't have to do the whole country in one trip. That, combined with my recent ten-year Chinese visa (a different kind of hassle), gives me an extra sixth of the world's landmass to explore. No doubt my next few years' travelogues will reflect this.

The hassle consists of obtaining an invitation from an authorized agency, then bringing it to an interview along with a print-out of the on-line visa application form. Getting the invitation, also known as visa support, is quick and cheap; you pay about $20 to a company and get it on-line in a day. You tell them which cities you might visit, and in which hotels you might stay; the only thing that must be correct is the date of entry.

Then you fill in the extensive and intrusive application form. I have no idea why they wanted, for instance, the address and phone number of my college (I went to the Harvard Web site and picked the first ones I saw) or information about my "place of employment before entering the current job," including my "chief's surname." I gave them what was correct 14 years ago, but the company no longer exists, and my department head has since changed her last name. The form also wanted a list of all the countries I've been to in the past ten years, along with dates, and the form maxed out at 30. And of course I had to specify the hypothetical hotels and cities on my visa support, along with addresses and phone numbers. At least they didn't require actual reservations (unlike China, which demanded a confirmation of each hotel and the transportation in and out).

For the visa interview, I had my choice of the Russian consulate, which as of late April had exactly one appointment available in May, or the Russian visa center, which had none at all but accepted walk-ins and charged an extra $33. I booked the consulate even though I wasn't available May 11 at 9:50 a.m.; eventually, by checking the on-line schedule several times a day, I was able to change to a convenient time. The Web site responded with a big "Confirmation of appointment: We've sent you letter with confirmation instructions for your appointment. Please follow the instructions in the letter within 22 minutes." I could almost hear the consul-general's voice barking the orders to me in terse Russian drawl.

Contrast all that with South Korea, who welcomes us with open arms. The Web site for the overnight Donghae-Vladivostok ferry, just for kicks, had a reservation form that wouldn't allow a date to be entered, but their e-mail support was helpful and casual. I asked for a bed and the response was, "if you wanna requested prefer bed, It'll reflect." I could almost hear the writer inviting me out for drinks after confirming my booking.

I burned a bunch of credit-card points to go first-class to Seoul in a flat-bed compartment with a sliding door -- but coming home it'll be coach on Aeroflot, baby! After dining on bibimbap (a mix of meat, vegetables, and rice) and watching "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" (my brother works in a whiskey bar, and I like studying musical dance forms, so I figured what the heck) I had the flight attendant make up my bed. I fell asleep quickly and dreamed that the plane was making a stop on a Caribbean island -- an unusual flight path from New York to Asia. In the dream I was happy about it because I could enjoy the compartment that much longer, but the dream turned sour when I realized my private area was actually a row of three seats across and noisy passengers were cramming their way in. I guess that's what might be called a first-world nightmare.

On arrival in Seoul, I switched airports and flew to Jeju, an oblong island about the size of Maui. Like Maui, Jeju owes its landscape and its beauty in part to volcanic activity. I spent the day hiking the south: climbing Mount Sanbang, named for its cave containing a stone Buddha; picking my way along the rocks of the Yongmeori ("dragon's head") coast below wonderfully stratified cliffs eroded into platforms and niches; looping around a small island reached via a bridge with a tower suspiciously reminiscent of the sail-shaped Burj al-Arab hotel in Dubai; and strolling to the Cheonjiyeon cascade in the middle of a forest. I also toured a replica of the Sperwer, a Dutch ship that got caught in a storm in 1653 and drifted to Jeju on its way to Japan. The survivors were imprisoned, and one wrote about his 13 years there -- the first western account of Korea.

Having dated a sex educator for five years, I couldn't skip the Museum of Sex and Health. I was directed to the section with the most English, a history of cultural attitudes, taboos, and superstitions -- for instance, ancient Egyptians had no qualms about the subject, seeing it as natural, while Africans considered it mainly for reproductive purposes -- but I was most interested in the "health" component. That was almost entirely in Korean, but from what I could see in English (and Latin) they were giving a good lesson on the facts of life. Fortunately there were English captions on what to eat and how to exercise for better sex, so I'll be adding walnuts and watermelon to my diet and taking up planking.

I checked into an 11-story hotel in Jeju city that was bordered on three sides by the sea, a row of seafood restaurants, and an amusement park. "May I have a high floor?" I asked.

"We have already assigned you a room," the receptionist said. "On the tenth floor."

"That's wonderful."

"But I can move you to a different room. The one you're in looks over the amusement park, and it will be noisy until ten thirty."

It was already almost nine. "That's not a problem. I'm going to go have dinner. Also," I said, showing him a Korean Web page on my phone, "can you tell me about this ferry?" I wanted to take a boat back to the mainland.

Most ferries leave from Jeju city, in the north of the island, but at least one was supposed to run from Seongsan, in the east. I hoped to climb the Seongsan volcano the following morning and then get on the ferry.

He did a bunch of quick typing on his computer and said, "That ferry isn't running. Probably until October."

"Can you help me find another ferry?"

He looked up the local port and the sites of various operators. The best option was one to Mokpo at 1:40 p.m. I'd researched this company and seen only a morning and a late-afternoon departure; the former meant I couldn't do anything in Jeju the next day, and the latter would have gotten me into Seoul well after midnight. So this news was a pleasant surprise: Maybe I could still get to the volcano and then come back for the ferry.

But according to the Web site, that departure couldn't be reserved; maybe it was sold out. And the office was closed until nine the next morning. He put a note in the computer system asking the morning receptionist to follow up.

A Jeju specialty is pork from black pigs, so I sought it out for dinner. I've never quite gotten the hang of Korean food. There's usually some assembly required: Either you have to mix things together, or you have to grill it yourself, or you have to wrap things up in leaves. And in my experience it always comes so hot that I have to let it sit for ten minutes. So I felt a bit of anxiety when my waiter brought out a plate of raw pork neck and a basket of perilla leaves and lettuce, fired up a flame at my table, and handed me a bottle opener, tongs, and a pair of scissors. I also received eleven banchan plates -- little side dishes that accompany almost all meals.

The meat was wonderfully firm and crispy, and I made use of the bottle opener by ordering a Cass beer. When I neared the end of my mixing, grilling, and wrapping, I was given the noodle service: long glass noodles in broth, accompanied by another pair of scissors. I left quite full, marveling at the amount of tableware that gets washed after a dinner in Korea.

Just after 9 a.m., I asked the morning receptionist about sailing to Mokpo. She called. "What time do you want to go?" she asked. And she was able to reserve a place on the 1:40 ferry.

I took the next bus -- which was packed -- to the Seongsan volcano, but the trip was longer than I thought it would be, so I didn't have time to climb up. Still, it was pretty to see the majestic, towering rock and take a short walk by the sea. I got back on the bus to the city. It was the same driver.

"Couldn't go up?" he signaled, making an "X" with his arms.

"Have to get on the boat!" I said.

The bus was almost empty on the way back, so I sat in front and enjoyed the fields, gardens, horse farms, and forests. The names of the stops were practically a guidebook for what to see next time: Halla Eco-Forest, Tenma Riding Stables, Sangumburi Crater. And a couple of ominous spots: Yangji Crematorium, General Shooting Range. Plus places signed on the road: World Liquor Museum. Lightning Museum! I was glad to have seen a smattering of Jeju, but clearly I'd need another trip there.

The ferry was well-timed to let me have dinner in Mokpo before taking the train to Seoul. Mokpo is known for its octopus sashimi, cut so freshly that it's still squirming when served. It's the scariest thing I've ever eaten. I let it settle to a gentle wriggle before attempting to lift the pieces with my chopsticks. Some of the tentacles held firmly to the plate, and one energetic little arm was determined to wrestle its way to safety.

I got a morsel into my mouth and chewed vigorously and quickly, lest any of the little suckers attach itself to my tongue. I enjoyed the texture but the novelty wore off after a few bites; I'm not sure it tasted like much other than the sesame oil and minded garlic that seasoned it. I also had a bowl of hearty octopus bibimbap. That night I flossed with great fervor.

In Seoul, I checked into the E-Residence -- no, not a place where one can spend the night virtually; it's named for the Ephphatha family, who own it. It was in the Gangnam district. I stayed there not because of any sense of style, but because it was near the intercity bus station and because I'd recently seen a somewhat trashy TV program in which a young brother-sister team highlighted all the wholesome things one could do in Gangnam. After spending the night partying, for instance, they woke up early -- maybe even before noon -- to do an extensive workout that consisted of swimming a lap in a luxury hotel and then sunbathing on the rooftop.

For such a sprawling, energetic city, I was surprised at how much green space there was in Seoul. It is also very hilly. The E-Residence is approached from several directions by a slope that I wouldn't want to attempt in ice. Bukchon, a delightful district of alleyways with hanok -- traditional wooden, tile-roofed homes with inner courtyards -- is a hilly maze sandwiched between two palace compounds. I visited the palace on the west, Gyeonhbokgung, built in 1395 and ruled in the 15th century by King Sejong, famous for his 3 a.m. meetings and for creating the Korean alphabet (which is not that hard to learn, I discovered). And smack in the middle of the city is Namsan, a mountain with lush trails and fragments of the old city wall. So I did a lot of climbing.

And eating, of course. In the Noryangjin fish market, I bought a giant scallop and four meongge (sea squirt), and the vendor threw in a sea cucumber. I also bought a wormlike creature whose name in English, or even Korean, I never found out. I took them all to a nearby stall for preparation; the scallop was grilled with onions and chili sauce and tasted firm and meaty, almost like pork. The rest were served as sashimi; the monggae, looking more like an orange tulip than a sea animal, had the texture of a clam and a sour, woodsy ammonia taste. The sea cucumber was crunchy, salty, and briny, and the large worm (hai chang in Chinese, said my server) crunchy and sweet.

Also of note were the food stalls in Gwangjang and Namdaemun markets; I made the mistake of trying to sample everything in one evening, and I left happily stuffed. The mung-bean fritter was just like a potato pancake; I wanted to douse it with applesauce and have it for Chanukah. The mandu (dumplings) were nice and robust, and I joined the long line of people waiting for the next batch of kimchi buns -- when the door was opened and the telltale wave of steam was released, people rushed the vendor with their money.

Approaching city hall from my descent of Namsan, I passed a stream of people coming at me wearing shirts saying things like "Love who you want" and "Feminist." I figured I'd stumbled on a kind of gender-equality rally, and I crossed the street toward a group with a stage and dancers. People were handing out blue banners with something written in Korean. I watched one of the dances and clapped along with everyone else. Then I asked one of the banner people what was going on. He couldn't explain it well in English, and he mumbled something about being "against the festival."

A passerby came to the rescue. He said the people I was with were opponents of the queer festival in the park across the street. He translated the blue banner: "Smoking causes lung cancer, drinking causes liver cancer, homosexuality causes AIDS."

"Thank you," I said, and I pointed toward the park. "I think I belong over there." I turned to the banner guys. "I'm sorry for your hate." I took the pedestrian underpass, which brought me under the dance stage. "And I'm sorry I applauded," I shouted upward.

There was a big police presence around the park, but it was mainly to direct traffic; surprisingly, I got in quickly. The event's official name was the Queer Culture Festival. It was mainly over, but I heard about the last ten minutes of music and saw some of the booths before they closed up shop. I bought my girlfriend a necklace with the Korean yin-yang emblem (the one Korean Air uses in its logo) in rainbow colors, and I wore it across the street to display it proudly in front of the antigay banner guys.

While in the park, I met a group of Americans teaching English in Seoul, and we celebrated with post-festival festivities in the Itaewon nightlife area. The hours went by quickly, and I joined them for a sunrise meal of samgyetang (soup with ginseng-stuffed chicken). The subway had started up, but I walked the half hour back to the E-Residence, enjoying the peaceful mist of a quiet Sunday morning.

I slept for the three-hour bus ride to Donghae, where I paused at the giant city tourist map in front of the bus terminal. I judged it to be about a 20-minute walk to the ferry that would take me to Vladivostok.

A half hour later a sign indicated it was still 4.8 kilometers away. I was tired, but I had plenty of time, I was walking along the sea, and the city was calm and smelled of fresh post-rain greenery. I picked up some snacks and boarded the Eastern Dream. I plunked my stuff down and walked up to the top deck. A crackly speaker broadcast "Time to Say Goodbye," and we were off to Russia.

Go on to part 2: Risking it all on Kamchatka