Sunday, August 31, 2014

Mokpo - City of Lights

Mokpo has never been on my radar until now for some reason and I wonder why it took so long. We flew there by KTX and that always gets you in a great frame of mind.  Near the train station there is a coffee shop named after the country Nicaragua. You need quite a few Korean characters to create that word. We went in to find out what sort of blend a Nicaraguan coffee is but I couldn't tell any difference. A one-month-old Persian kitten was in attendance as well as plenty of dishes of used coffee beans, I guess to mask its smell.  The kitten put in a brief shift of allowing itself to be rubbed by us, then moved away and we moved on.
The best thing about travel is the chance to make new friends.
Mokpo has a rather laid back feel to it. There is a sense that times could be better but that nothing is quite desperate.  Like a boom town that everybody has left except without there ever being a boom in the first place for people to be nostalgic about. 

We stayed at a place called 1935 although it appeared much older. The doors to the rooms were batwings that you pulled shut and locked with a brass pin to give you a sense of old times. Then you walked inside to see an air-con. Owing to the paper walls you could make out shapes on the other side. I looked out of a crack in the door and across the space and saw a man lying on his bed. Not that I was looking. There were a lot of noises too. At any moment something was clicking open or closed. Every time someone got up or went to the bathroom, or swatted at a mosquito, you heard it. 

We attempted to climb Yudal mountain one evening, which looked like it would be a pleasant thirty minute climb. It was said to be best at night, with lights guiding you helpfully all the way. We started on the side that had a statue park where artists had been let loose with cement and metal. This turned out to be another of the top spots of Mokpo and was well worth the wander. We had a contest to interpret some of them - this is a man pulling bread out of an oven with his hair on fire. Um no, its farmer and ox ploughing a field. 

We left the statues behind and continued the climb, sticking to the lights which looked unsettlingly like they would run out before the top. Then I realised we must have been attacking this summit from the wrong side because the peak seemed too steep from where we were. I looked straight up at it as though I was looking up at stars, with a hand on my lower back to keep my balance like a woman about to deliver a child. We climbed a bit more, until the lighting came to an abrupt end telling us we had hit the end of the road. We were in the courtyard of a Buddhist temple. Once again I was looking through a crack in a door and this time a Monk was washing rice. After a quick look around the grounds we got the hell out of there before they saw us and dragged us in to serve time in a temple stay. 

We headed toward a popular restaurant. It seemed to me like we were going to a real dog's box because the amount of and quality of civilization started to lower the nearer we got. I was fully expecting to see cars up on bricks at any moment and painted in undercoat. And then we turned a corner and there was a nice looking restaurant and a line of people waiting to get in! We turned back toward civilization. Its not polite to wait in a queue before a restaurant. At the ATM or something you know the guy in front is going to be finished soon. But at a restaurant, especially a good one, he might want seconds and thirds and settle himself in for the evening. Once we had a contest at Pizza Hut back home. They were offering a pizza slice buffet and we were going to take advantage of that so we brought Steve Lenned and a chessboard...we weren't there for the short term. Late in the second game while my brother was deploying the Sicilian defense and as Lenned was eating his 23rd slice, he conceded defeat. I concede, he announced. The manager suddenly appeared with the bill and a look of relief on his face because he thought Lenned was conceding defeat to the pizza.

Some cars in Mokpo followed the Seoul protocol of rushing pedestrians who had the green light while others came to a complete stop and may even have put the car out of gear and deployed the handbrake as they waited for you to walk. I saw one driver's palm facing up and a smile on his face as he gestured, 'after you.'

We ended up at Mokpo square one evening and it was buzzing. The weather was amazing, love was in the air. This was the kind of place to avoid at all costs if you were single. Lots of kids were driving in little electric cars with parents walking behind. I think the parents were doing the driving with remote controls and in retrospect I'd have felt safer with the kids running things. Along the waterfront were some steps to sit on and fifty meters out was a kind of pontoon that housed a water fountain. The water fountain show started. It was twenty minutes long. They sprayed water, which some projector lights hit and they played some nice tunes to go along. I heard "summer story" and "Flower new year" among others. In no way did the images up on the water, which included a running stick man and a hand - a big hand, co-ordinate with the music. After a while I realized we were sitting down with a huge crowd cheering and gazing happily at a sprinkler.

It threw up a big lot of water at times that came down crashing. You wanted somebody to be relaxing on the pontoon and that water to come down on them to see if there was any impact on it. To know what effect there is, if any, of water falling on you from fifty meters. Whenever they did the big one, people clapped. Or they called out "ooooh." I called out "woah."  It always makes me feel creepy to cheer after a performance like this or after a movie. I feel thankful and want to give my gratification to someone but no one is on hand to receive it.

In between sprinkler shows they put a sign up on the water. "Happy first birthday to Minsoo" it said for about five minutes. "Minji loves Jimin" for two. We took a stroll in the direction of our hotel that was ten kms away and discovered a quite delightful boardwalk that's a don't miss in the evening. Actually, I'm not sure what to recommend in the daytime? The path passed these two rocks and everyone was photographing the rocks. They look like two people with hats on, one looking down at the ground and the other up at the sky. We realised eventually that this place is called Gatbawi, or hat-rock, that its national monument number 500 and that the boardwalk was recently built in order to allow better viewing.
Now what have we here to cause so much fuss?
That best part was gone but we kept going west into the night like Frodo and his friends and the path hugged the coastline. We passed the maritime museum, a quite majestic building and for a few kms you could see the water was low. It was more like a mudflat than a coast and there were boats stranded up on the mud. I hope the tides rise again for those boats so they can become clean again.

Eventually you return to the organized desolation of the city, shopfronts with chairs leaning against the door from the inside and a sense that they haven't been open since Seoul had the Olympics. There was an old Korean flag on the ground, fluttering ever so lazily in the breeze as taxis screamed past into the open road and billboards of politicians trying to win local elections stood on buildings. You looked up at those politicians and even though they appeared happy, you were glad that this was going be their problem and not yours.

We went to that maritime museum.  Nice building.  It was free to get in.  There was free cloaking and there was a free audio guide in any language you wanted. It sensed where you were and played you the track related to that.  You had to be careful not to walk away too quickly before the narrator was finished or it would find another story to play. Then again, they just told you simple facts in that happy breezy way where history passes by without man ever entering the picture. "Shipbuilding was a big industry then and pottery making was especially popular." They had pieces of wood from broken shipwrecks and some pottery - celadon - that had been recovered from such wrecks. A lot of the stuff was from a ship that was traveling from China to Japan and got waylaid in Korea. I wonder that they are allowed to keep it. If I was from Japan or China I'd ask for some of it back. I'd say, hey my ancestor sent that to me hundreds of years ago.
It's easy to know which way to go when you have lights to guide you.
Mokpo, the City of Lights, was a fun place to spend a few days and I promise I will no longer confuse it with Mokdong.

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