I began my final day of walking with some impatience. I knew I had a 17-mile stretch before me, and I wanted to get through it with the minimum number of breaks possible. I filled my water tank with the plum juice that I had bought the day before, then I started out on the trail. Let me tell you: sucking on plum juice almost the whole way down made a world of difference to my mindset. It was glorious. Too bad it didn't last the entire distance.
Much of the day turned out to be anticlimactic. Neither my boss nor my colleague Neil ended up meeting me at the estuary, so all that happened was that I quietly arrived at my goal, went to the convenience store on the premises, and sat down to a Snickers bar and a Coke. The trail itself was smooth sailing the whole way: not a single challenging hill to speak of. As I noted in an earlier post, the trail's quality went markedly down the moment I hit the Busan city limit, becoming cracked and lumpy. Much of the path was a straight shot between two noisy six-lane roads. After that, the estuary and a dam-like structure—some signs called it a "barrage," using a French term—came into view. I crossed the barrage to reach my goal, which lay just on the other side of the estuary.*
As I also wrote earlier, most of the bikers I passed along the way during this final leg refused to return my bowed greetings to them. I still have no idea why, but the difference in behavior made for a sudden and distinct contrast to what had gone before. I did, however, have one surreal encounter with a female walker on the trail. She was walking north; I was walking south. I nodded/bowed as I passed her, and she stopped in her tracks, looking as if she wanted to say something. Seeing this, I slowed down. The woman's mouth worked silently; it was obvious she was going through her limited Rolodex of English expressions in search of the right thing to say. What came out was:
I nodded, smiled, and said, "Yes, I speak English."
I nodded again: "Yes, I'm American."
"You... trekking?" (A lot of Koreans apparently know this term, trekking, which I assume has entered the Korean sports lexicon.)
"Yes, I've walked from Seoul to Busan using the Gukto Jongju [i.e., the term for the end-to-end bike path connecting Seoul to Busan]."
As soon as she heard me correctly pronounce "Gukto Jongju," the woman knew I could speak at least some Korean.
"Hangungmal haljul aseyo?" she asked. Do you know how to speak Korean?
I nodded and smiled again; the real answer—"Yes, but not fluently"—would have introduced too much subtlety into the conversation, and I had the impression that this lady wasn't primed for that sort of nuance.
After that, the woman was relieved to speak in Korean. I once again received the Standard Questions, to which I gave the Standard Answers. At the end of it, she said, "Daedanhashineyo!"—which I'd been hearing the whole way down the trail. The expression means "That's great!" or "You're great!"
While the conversation ended up being a fairly normal one, I'll never forget the awkward way in which it began. Many Koreans, upon seeing a foreigner, somehow feel obliged to speak to the foreigner in English. I wish Koreans would drop this mentality in favor of the more American approach, i.e., expect the foreigner to able to speak your language. Many Koreans on the trail, to their credit, immediately spoke to me in Korean. More of that, please.
Eventually, I made it to the end, crossing the river along the barrage, stamping my final stamp at the certification center, taking pics of the huge, vaguely winged memorial there, and sitting down to my sugary victory snack. It was just me, myself, and I, quietly celebrating the accomplishment of walking 340-plus miles from Seoul to Busan.
But something happened while I was seated in the shade of an admin building: a huge group of local folks suddenly appeared: handicapped people with their able-bodied minders. The disabled displayed a variety of disabilities ranging from physical to mental. But they were all on bikes, and at first, they wheeled about randomly in the large, open space around the monument. Eventually, the movement smoothed and coalesced into a circular traffic pattern orbiting the tower-like statue, and I was struck by the simple joy on all those faces. Looking at those uncomplicated smiles and realizing how purely those folks were in the moment, I felt as if my own personal victory had been sanctified, blessed by the eruption of these people and their bikes onto the scene, almost as if they were providing me the arrival celebration that I had vainly wished for.
Eventually, though, it was time to go. The convenience-store ajeossi had told me where to catch a bus into town, but I knew I wanted to slump into a taxi, not ride on a crowded bus. All the same, I followed the ajeossi's directions to the nearby bus stop, then flagged down a taxi. The cabbie was a friendly sort, and the drive across town to Busan Station was fairly long. I paid the driver a few thousand won extra as a tip, then marched over to the Toyoko Busan Station Hotel #1, the hotel I had been planning to stay at to enjoy a final night of semi-luxury in Busan before returning north.
I walked out of the Toyoko in a huff a few minutes later. When I walked in, a pretty lady at the reception counter greeted me. I asked whether the hotel had a room for one night; the lady said yes, then gestured toward a chart on the wall showing the different varieties of rooms I could choose from. I said I'd like the single, which was the cheapest option. The lady asked whether I smoked, and I said no, to which she replied that, since I didn't smoke, there were no singles available. The next-cheapest option was the "mini double," so I asked whether I could have that room. "Sure, but check-in isn't until 4PM," the lady replied—something she should have told me at the beginning of the conversation. It was 3PM; I was in no mood to wait an hour to flop onto a bed, so I walked out.
The train station was surrounded by hotels of various sizes and qualities. I walked across the way and down a shady side street, which is where I found the oddly named "Busaninn Motel" (부산인 모텔). This looked exactly like the sort of ratty place I had been staying in during my walk south, so I stepped inside and spoke with the ajeossi. I asked how much a room would be, and he said "W35,000." I then asked whether I could pay by card; he made a face, laughed politely, and appeared to strain in replying: "That... would be difficult." I smiled and whipped out some cash. The ajeossi handed over a key, then he asked me what my story was, so I knew I was in for the Standard Questions again. I rattled off the Standard Answers, and the ajeossi expressed envy at my being able to take such a long trip. He turned out to be a big-time hiker, and he told me about his time, years ago, doing the Baekdu Daegan mountain-range trail. He also showed me a phone app, called "Tranggle" or something, that maps and logs your mountaineering exploits. Eventually, I made it up to my room on the third floor and settled in.
That afternoon, I taxied over to my boss's hotel, the much nicer Homer's Hotel, which was way north in the Gwangalli neighborhood of Busan. The boss saw me and joked that I was starting to look like Bodhidharma, which pleased me because I've long imagined myself playing the stern Indian monk—considered the First Patriarch of Zen Buddhism and the father of Chinese martial arts—in some film or other. We met up with the boss's friend John, who is a married university prof who also does freelance textbook-writing work for our company (among other projects). We walked down the street to have dinner at Slice of Life, a pizza-and-wings joint. John turned out to be a man of many talents, music and standup comedy among them. Nice guy, witty conversationalist—which was a good thing because I was fairly quiet.
After dinner, we walked out to the beach, which was just across the street. The ocean was right there, a large bridge in the distance (Gwangan Daegyo, called "Diamond Bridge" in English) spanning the seaside panorama. John had told us that the bridge often lit up at night, with a sound-and-light show, and the bridge was indeed alight by the time we left the restaurant. I went over to the water and took a dark, murky photo of my hand touching the sea. My boss took some pics of me standing with the ocean behind me, and after that, I said my goodbyes and grabbed a cab to go back to my humble motel.
There wasn't much left to do. I laundered my clothes, happy that the motel had a large electric fan that I could use to dry my damp items faster. I slept comfortably that night, cabbed over to my boss's hotel in the morning, met with Neil—another teacher/freelancer and another of the boss's many friends—for lunch, then drove back to Seoul in mostly decent traffic. I regret not having gotten a shot of Neil for the blog. He's another smart, witty gent, and he had written me some encouraging emails during my walk. Well, maybe I'll get a picture next time.
The boss dropped me at my apartment building. I've already told the story of meeting the lobby guard, so I won't repeat that here. When I got to my room and went inside, I saw that my bathroom's light and fan were both on. This is from when some men entered my place, with my permission, to check whether a leak in the ceiling of Apartment 537 was coming from my place (initially, my boss had called me to tell me about the problem). My boss told me that, in the end, the leak wasn't coming from my apartment, but I guess the men who checked for the leak were neglectful when they left. No matter; I doubt my electric bill will be all that large.
Coming back felt strange, but the strangeness wasn't unexpected. I had been away for three-and-a-half weeks, after all, so I knew I'd need time to readjust to the sights, smells, and textures of my apartment. It also felt odd not having to gear up for another full day of walking, and I felt guilty, Thursday night, going to sleep and knowing that I wouldn't be doing any sort of hard work the following day.
But I'm back now, and I've already run some errands around town. I've got more errands to do over the weekend. I've seen "Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2," so I'll be slapping up a review of that alongside my epilogue posts. I moved my visit to the doc's office to Saturday morning. I'm staring at a box full of Soylent bags and another box full of leftover MREs, all of which I'll be consuming, instead of spending money on meal shopping, over the next several weeks. I still need to unpack my backpack and think about consigning my poor Gregory to the trash heap, but I'm not quite ready to shoot the lame horse yet. If I can find a way to have the backpack repaired, I'd rather repair it than go about the chore of finding, and acclimating myself to, a whole new backpack.
Those are issues for other days, and I have many days ahead of me to get back into my old routine. Except for one small bit of trail, the Gukto Jongju now lies behind me, a part of my personal history. No one can take from me the fact that I've walked all the way across South Korea, and that's a nice feeling. I've done it. I did it.
And, who knows? I may do it again.
*Linguistic note: I've been translating the term haguduk (하구둑) as "estuary," but I think the word hagu (하구), by itself, means "estuary." The duk, at least in the context relevant to my experience on this walk, probably refers to the barrage itself.
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