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Trip 37 — Jeju and Xiamen Walks

Jeju day 1: Airport to Jeju City
Tuesday, 25 July 2023

Today: 4147 steps/3.37 km/2.09 mi/38m

To reach South Korea, I flew Air India via Delhi. I didn't need to spend the extra frequent-flyer points to go in first class rather than business, but it was all that was available, and it gave me a half-day in the Indian capital.

First class on Air India was more like business class on most airlines, but more private; there was just one row of four seats, and the crew and I shared two bathrooms. I was the only passenger in the cabin. Food was decent, not exceptional; the cocktail options were a nice touch; crew were attentive and friendly. Apart from my chosen movie's missing the last nine minutes, it was a fine experience and I slept well.

The drawback of arriving in Delhi as a first-class passenger is that someone meets you on the jet bridge and has the potential to delay your exit from the airport. In my case there were two people, the more senior of whom had my name on a signboard like a prebooked driver in an arrivals hall.

There was no polite way to get rid of them, so I let them walk me along the corridors at a slower pace than I would have preferred. I made the mistake of saying I had a connecting flight 12 hours later and would be heading into the city in the meantime. I showed the more senior man my electronic-visa confirmation, the result of an application process much improved over the stuffy consulate I waited in back in 1997. That confirmation should have been proof enough that I was permitted to exit the airport.

"May I see your boarding pass?" he asked.

I gave it to him.

"Seoul," he said, turning the word into three syllables.

We reached the point where transferring passengers divert from those proceeding toward immigration formalities.

"Come to the transit desk," he said. "They need to validate your boarding pass."

"They already did that in New York," I said. They had asked to see my e-visa print-out when I mentioned I'd be leaving the airport between flights. They had said they needed to note the visa information in my record.

"Just let me check it."

There was a line of about 30 people at the transfer desk, but he skirted them and brought my boarding pass to the person in charge. They came back together.

"Sorry, you cannot leave the airport," the person in charge said. "The booking is all on one ticket. You would have to have separate tickets."

"That's not true," I said. I was just shy of certain of that, but if anyone was going to prevent me from leaving, it was going to be an immigration officer and not someone at the transfer desk.

"Please go through the security checkpoint and then you can go to the lounge," he said, giving me back my boarding pass.

"I don't want your help," I said, walking away from the three of them. "Thank you."

I had gone about 15 seconds when the person from the transfer desk caught up with me. "Sir, please, just a minute," he said. "Let me see your boarding pass again."

"I'm not giving you anything," I said, lest he rip it up or try to cancel it. "I don't trust you."

The immigration officer, of course, had no problem letting me into the country. For the "Hotel" information on my landing card, I had written, "Departing same day."

"Are you meeting somebody?" he asked. "You're arriving today and going back tonight?"

"Oh, no," I said, chuckling. "I'm going to another country." Volunteer the absolute minimum of information, I thought. If he's interested, he'll ask which one.

He didn't ask. He stamped my passport and invited me to proceed.

When I was last in Delhi, in 1997, there was no metro system. Today there are 287 stations, and a ride into town from the airport costs about 75 cents. For a lack of any better place to begin my reacquaintance with the city, I alighted at the main New Delhi railway station.

The footbridge between the metro and the railway station passed over a typical Dehli street crowded and noisy with auto-rickshaws, buses, and snack vendors. There was also a set of public toilets. You don't need to look for public toilets as you walk around in Delhi. Your nose will alert you.

I remembered this railway station, a two-story building with all sorts of very specific ticket windows. The booking office for foreigners was a hot, slow affair. There are no chairs; people set up mats and wait seated on the floor.

I crossed over the tracks and walked along Paharganj, a narrow kilometer of hotels, casual restaurants, travel agencies, and shops. This was traditionally the budget travelers' area, and it must have hundreds of little hotels, each with a metal detector installed more to alert the staff of someone's presence than to provide any meaningful protection. The old telephone centers, where one could make international calls, have been replaced by mobile-phone shops selling SIM cards. There are far fewer touts now trying to book me on tours to Kashmir; perhaps the travelers haven't come back in full force.

I walked up toward the giant onion domes of the Jama Masjid, the main mosque built in the 17th century. Opposite was the only Delhi hotel I'd stayed in 26 years ago that was still in operation. The Hotel New City Palace had a dusty, narrow entrance and five signs, each in a different typeface. The stairway was guarded by a pair of goats. I walked up for a better view of the mosque; the metal detector beeped, and the receptionist turned around to explain that there were no rooms. No problem, I said. I was just revisiting an old haunt.

I headed up through a street of bookstores, mainly computer and medical texts, and then through the alleys of Chandni Chowk. The shops were selling wedding supplies such as clothing, jewelry, and greeting cards. Some sold musical instruments.

The narrowness of the alleys did not prevent a variety of vehicles — auto-rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, and motorcycles — from trying to proceed in both directions, in addition to everyone walking. At one point everyone came to a standstill until riders figured out how to pass each other. The motorcycle drivers leaned on their horns, wimpy sounds whose flimsiness is surpassed only by those of the auto-rickshaws. They sound more sickly than urgent, and it's hard to take them seriously. A sheep's moan commands more authority.

The daily monsoon rain came just before four. It would have been a perfect time to duck into a cafe, but by now it was all wallpaper shops.

Arriving at the Red Fort, having consumed a dosa at a cafeteria-style place on the approach road, I went back into the subway. One great thing about Delhi's metro system is that it's a reliable place to find air conditioning. Delhi's heat is just as penetrating now as it was in 1997.

The metro has a small museum in one of the stations. They're very proud of their extradosed bridge — a kind of hybrid girder-and-cable bridge that allows for shorter height — over the railway tracks, and a display mentioned their flying eight subway cars in from Germany, one at a time, and ferrying four others by sea from South Korea. There were also a couple of teeth from a tunnel-boring machine. "About 178 cities in 56 countries" have subway systems, a caption said. I wondered when it was updated. Surely there must be more, if China has opened a quarter that many since 2000!

I got off at Connaught Place, which I remembered being a hot, airless circular green park where everyone wanted to polish my shoes or clean my ears. The park is closed on Mondays, a pity as it's one of the city's few green spaces. I walked its circumference before sitting on a ledge near one of the white shopping buildings with tall columns, listening to a couple of musicians.

It wasn't long before someone showed me a tiny spoon and a cotton swab and his little book of testimonials extolling his ability to extract muck from one's orifices like the tunnel-boring machines.

"Let me show you," he said. "Just a sample. No money." He looked into my right ear. "Oh, very dirty."

All of me is dirty, I thought. I haven't showered since I left my apartment. "Another time," I said.

"You say 'another time' now, and next time you'll say 'another time' again. How about now?"

He started to poke around in my ear. "Thank you, but no. Have a good evening," I said, and I escaped into the maze of tattoo parlors under the street.

I had just enough cash left for a beer at the Connaught Clubhouse, or so I hoped. The United States' exasperating habit of showing menu prices that are about 30 percent short is duplicated in India. The Connaught Clubhouse levies a ten-percent service charge and "government taxes."

"I have a strange question," I said to the waiter. "I'm going to the airport tonight. I have five hundred eighty rupees. Do I have enough for a large beer?" A half-liter was 495 rupees on the menu; 330 milliliters cost 385.

"Let me go ask," he said.

The full amount would have been over 600 rupees, but he made me a deal for 545. I'd arrived at a good time to sit at a high-top. Among the zillions of rules posted at the entrance was one denying "stags" entry after 8:00. At that time the lights went down and a singer-guitarist started performing. I finished my beer, listened to a few songs, and headed through back streets toward Shivaji Stadium station to catch the airport train.

Delhi has a bunch of stray dogs, most of whom spend the day sleeping. Now it was dark and cooler, and a few were wandering. One was lying on the sidewalk near the station, with its legs in the air, inviting attention. I looked at it and if I'd been in the country long enough to deem the dogs' general disposition friendly, I might have given it an affectionate scratch.

But the look was enough. The dog caught my glance, stood up, and started following me toward the station.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I wish I had some food for you."

The dog whined, condemning my betrayal. It followed me for a few more seconds and then stopped. I wished I hadn't gotten its hopes up.

I flew to Seoul's Incheon airport and transferred to the smaller Gimpo airport for the Jeju flight. Nearly all the flights from Gimpo's domestic terminal were going to Jeju, on Korean Air and several regional carriers. No doubt the frequent fast trains on the mainland have made most short flights unnecessary.

We were in the air for 48 minutes between Gimpo and Jeju. On arrival, I walked up the busy road to the left and was soon in a small park. The park took me to a disused brick lighthouse at the edge of a busy intersection. I crossed and was soon going along a leafy protected footpath parallel to the main road.

I followed some back roads to Jeju City's street grid. The streets were narrow and many had two-way traffic in addition to cars parked on both sides. That left little room to walk, but traffic was light and drivers respectful.

This area was full of hotels and restaurants, and after about 20 blocks I reached my hotel, the Pearl. The room was simple, clean, and comfortable, with a refrigerator and a balcony overlooking a convenience store, a couple of eateries, and a 24-hour spa.

How to choose where to have dinner? Jeju is known not just for seafood but for black pork, and this neighborhood seemed to favor the latter. I could have popped into any place, but I figured I'd check a couple of reviews just to see what these places were like.

I picked a random place on Google Maps, Sukseongdo, and it seemed to be among the most highly regarded. Reviews lauded the barbecued pork and mentioned multiple-hour waits. Well, it was early, I thought, about 6:15. I could get my name on the list and have a drink somewhere.

The person in front gave me a number and suggested I return in an hour. I found a spot for a beer, and because it was happy hour it came with a free snack. One option was a slice of blueberry-gorgonzola pizza. It came with a dish of a sludgy, clear liquid, which my server told me was honey. Jeju is going to be full of food surprises, I can tell.

I returned to Sukseongdo and was seated almost immediately. I ordered the belly and neck of black pork. Someone brought over a bowl of hot coals, which were covered by a grilling plate at my table. A vent hung down from the ceiling like an elephant's trunk.

Side dishes were brought out: pork-kimchi stew, fish paste, wasabi, chilis in fish sauce, cod roe, and leaf and stick vegetables. The stew was to be eaten first; everything else was to adorn the meat.

The pork slabs were put on the grill, along with cabbage and a king oyster mushroom. My server attended to the grilling, returning at intervals to turn or reposition the meat or cut it up. One time her colleague thought it was ready to be turned, and she caught him doing it. She cast him a jokingly bitter look.

"You've got it," I said to her.

She had warned me that both cuts of meat were on the fatty side, but I was fine with that. The neck tasted more like a ham, with a firmer texture; the belly was crisp and light. I was glad that they cooked everything for me.

It was hot in the restaurant; there was a fire in front of me, and once in a while someone brought flaming coals to another table. Occasionally a gust of air provided some relief.

There's something about that kind of meal, especially when accompanied by a beer, that leaves me shuffling out in a state of blissful delirium. I ambled back to the Pearl, my tongue and stomach more than satisfied.

Go on to Jeju day 2