The Western Coast
I am not sure what news about Korea makes it into American newspapers. Right now Korea is dealing with a terrible oil spill on its west coast. 10,500 tons of oil have leaked and are landing on some of the most pristine beaches in the country. Abalone and oyster farms, raw seafood restaurants, little maritime communities and large tourist enclaves have all been equally damaged. Thousands of people have already applied for economic relief since their livelihoods have been utterly destroyed.
After seeing pictures of blackened shores, birds dripping oil, and rafts of belly-up crabs, I realized I have actually been to that coast. Of course I had no idea then that it would be my only chance to see one of the most beautiful parts of Korea. Here is a description of my trip, with sights, tastes and smells.
Three friends and I drove west and south from Pyeongtaek through miles and miles of rice fields. After about 2 hours we reached the coast and began driving south. In this area the road often becomes a very long bridge between peninsulas or even onto and off islands and the entire area is what I think of as a “beach town”. There are lots of motels close to the shore and acres and acres of oyster “shacks” (inexpensive restaurants serving fresh oysters in a half dozen simple ways).
I am not sure at which beach we finally stopped, though I think we were on Anmyeondo Island. This is the southern part of the Taean Haean National Marine Park which is the epicenter of the oil damage. We were greeted by wooden and metal birds on sticks lining the shore, an art form I have seen in many places in Korea. We arrived right around sunset and the islands off the shore already had a touch of red and gold behind them. It was very windy!
As we walked along the beach we passed dozens of older women with large bowls. Peeking in I saw live baby octopi, fresh oysters, and a half dozen types of sea life I could not identify. My companions stopped near a set of tables protected by umbrellas and ordered - raw shelled oysters, sea “ginseng” (sea cucumber or sea slug), and a red, pulsing thing that looked like a human heart but was clearly some kind of sea urchin.
The oysters were great, the red thing was hard and salty, but the slug was slimy and cartilaginous at the same time and is the first food I have had I will definitely not repeat. It is hard to believe it was a staple of the medieval East Asian trade routes! It was clear why beer and soju (pine-needle vodka, with half the alcohol) were necessary accompaniments, along with hot peppers, hot pepper sauce and garlic.
We then drove briefly to a fresh fish warehouse, chose our dinner from the tanks, and walked it next door. Butchers killed, cleaned and sliced our fish in front of us. (Koreans like to watch this process since it ensures that the fish they chose is the fish they actually eat, without substitution of lower quality fish). Then we walked next door one more time to a restaurant, which gave us a place to eat our huge pile of fresh, raw fish. The restaurant also cooked the heads, skin and bones into a rich stew with vegetables and spices (this is called maemultang). The raw fish was just like sashimi, except in amazing quantity.
Afterward we went out for norebang and then back to the car, looking out over the ocean under the stars. I wish I had inhaled deeply of the salty air, which is now thick with nausea- producing oil fumes.
Knowing my time here is limited, I have tried to do as many things as I can, while at the same time remembering I am on sabbatical and sheer exhaustion defeats the point! I had the tail end of a terrible cold when my friends decided to go to the coast, and I agreed to come reluctantly and a bit resentfully - I really just wanted to sleep. Now I am, as I often am here in Korea, grateful I went and tried something new. Sometimes events like the oil spill highlight how much can change in an instant and how precious time and place can be. As the New Year approaches that seems like a good reminder for all of us.
1 comment December 12, 2007