A Long Weekend in Incheon

For the holiday weekend I’d treated myself to a 3 night sojourn at the Orakai Park Hotel in Songdo, Incheon; taking advantage of my Booking.com Gold Member discount. I left on Friday forgetting the horrendous traffic I’d encounter on the trip to Seoul and also the dysfuntional way in which Korean drivers ignore the bus lanes. The journey took an extra hour and luckily I’d logged a nights kip at the Sinseoldong Guest House. By the time I arrived it was past eight and I was needy for a shower and liquid refreshment. I grabbed a burger as I wasn’t exceptionally hungry and settled for a bottle of Cabernet and further cheese snacks at Lovestar. I met an interesting character who worked for Hyundai Engineering, he spent every third month in South Korea and the other time in Dubai. Twelve months ago he’d bought a new Range Rover from the fruits of his labour and driven it just once. His apartment in Yeouido, he said, was still like a show home.

Rising early I headed for the last stop on like one Incheon Station, the journey took 1 hour and 15 minutes but fortunately the train was pretty empty. Leaving Incheon station I took the bus (2 or 23) to Wolmido Island. My preferred transport would have been the monorail which appears to circumnavigate the island but as we know Korea is the “white elephant” capital of the world with a multitude of sports stadia, concert halls and other projects that are good propoganda but severely underutilised. Of course those of us hoping to ride the monorail will be greatly disappointed. The line was completed in 2009 but a number of safety concerns were raised after a test-run. Since then, the line has sat dormant. It was hoped that it would re-open in 2012 but alas poor Yorick. One would have thought that in May 2014 with the upcoming Asian Games taking place in Incheon it would have re-opened, don’t hold yer breath!

Wolmido was named after its shape which apparently resembles the tail of a half moon. It’s has been a strategic military post and has the remains of fortifications that have been hastily re-constructed. It was used for a military base during Japanese Colonization, but it then morphed into a tourist attraction in 1918 when a stone embankment was constructed to connect it to the main land. Wolmido’s attractions included a heated seawater bath, beaches, a zoo and the Yonggung Pavilion (Yonggunggak) that looked as if it was floating in water during the high tides.

Later it was the site of the US landings during the Korean War when all of the attractions were destroyed by the military exchanges. It later served as a military base and was rarely visited by civilians. In 1989 a ‘Street of Culture‘ was developed and the military was withdrawn; it is regaining its reputation as a tourists’ attraction. Visitors have increased since the opening of Incheon International Airport on Yeongjong Island. On arrival I followed the signs to the Street of Culture passing some pretty decrepit buildings, walls painted with murals and barbed wire plus some pretty seedy motels. The first amusement park I came to was manned by senior citizens but not yet open. On arriving at culture street Southend came to mind. For fish and chips, Mr Whippy and cheap lager read raw fish, chocolate pies and soju. The decaying confection of rotting concrete architecture, coffee shops with dirty windows and disgracefully finished public lavatories made me head quickly to the hinterland and the lovely park that is the miniscule Wolmi mountain. All signs pointed to the relatively new observatory as I passed a mixed body of folk attempting to play soccer. I took the well marked trail and staircase passing a rich forest formed of cherry blossom trees, pine tress, oak trees, zelkova trees, alder trees, cypresses, Korean rosebays and Korean forsythias.

This 25m high observatory is constructed of structural steel and a transparent glass curtain wall which encloses a staircase, library, coffee shop and the observatory deck itself. You can see a panorama Incheon port though today it was a little hazy, across the city I could Jayu Park and the city centre. I stopped for coffee and a Guardian catch up noticing the 1000ft Songdo Northeast Asia Trade Tower in the far distance, before strolling to a newly constructed fortification atop the hill.  The park is well laid out and with excellent facilities. Koreans do park design and maintenance pretty well it’s just a pity the bogs never see bleach just like the guesthouse bathrooms. I took the steep shortcut to the formal garden modeled on the garden at the Joseon Palace of Gyeongbokgung in Seoul. As there was no monorail I hopped on the return bus to the station and straight opposite is Incheon Chinatown and Jayu Park.

I discovered an article by The Hankyoreh Media Company and its journalist Kim Hyung-jin in which critics have blamed the absence of real Chinatown’s in Seoul and other South Korean cities on the discriminative policies of past South Korean governments, coupled with the xenophobic attitude of Koreans toward Chinese people living on their soil.

Historical records show that the ethnic Chinese settlement of Korea dates back to the early 1880’s, when China dispatched 3,000 troops to help put down a military revolt here. About 40 Chinese merchants came with them, followed by more at a later date. The Chinatown in Incheon was once a major Chinese community because of the port city’s geographical proximity to China across the Yellow Sea. Many came over to work in the restaurant businesses. The number of Chinese residents in Korea reached 65,000 in 1937.

The Japanese colonial rulers of the time were reportedly uneasy about the expanding Chinese community and began a crack down. They imposed heavier taxes on Chinese merchants and orchestrated anti-Chinese riots among Koreans. The ordeal of ethnic Chinese in Korea continued even after the country was liberated from Japan’s colonialism in 1945. Most past South Korean leaders, especially Park Chung-hee, harbored a negative view of them, reportedly out of concern that they could take away national wealth.

Park, the current Presidents father, came to power in a military coup in 1961 and ruled South Korea until his assassination in 1979. He restricted foreign ownership of land and other property and implemented a currency reform that excluded Chinese savings. He barred Chinese restaurants from selling food made with rice, a major staple in South Korea. Apparently the Park government also virtually denied Chinese nationals the right to live in South Korea permanently, requiring them to renew their residential permits every three years.

 “Some say Park is the father of South Korea’s modernisation, but for us, he was evil,” said Wang Wen-jung, vice president of the Chinese Residents’ Association in Seoul, adding that he had to drop out of a high school in Seoul after his father’s Chinese restaurant went bankrupt in 1967.

Amid the hostile Korean government policies, fledgling Chinatowns in South Korea, including the one in Incheon, slowly withered or were drastically downsized. About 10,000 Chinese emigrated to the United States, Taiwan and other Southeast Asian countries between 1972 and 1992, Yuan said. Now, about 26,700 ethnic Chinese live in South Korea.

For me it was a pleasant stroll though the buildings were not particularly attractive or Chinese style. The main attraction for Koreans are the bakeries outside which they’ll queue for hours and the Jajangmyeon restaurants. Jajangmyeon is a unique Korean food created by Chinese people in Korea consisting of thick noodles with a thick sauce made of chunjang, diced pork and vegetables. For me it’s dire sleep inducing scran.

Up the hill is a second gate that signals the entrance to Jayu Park. First called Manguk Park and then Seo Park, Jayu Park rests on the Eungbongsan mountain (hillock) of Incheon.. During the Korean war in 1950, all hope of reclaiming Seoul was seemingly lost as the US /Korean armed forces were backed up in Busan but the Incheon Amphibious Landing Operation, or the Battle of Inchon orchestrated by General MacArthur meant Seoul and its citizens were reprieved. In 1957, the park was renamed Jayu (Freedom) Park on the seventh anniversary of the landing. I followed the marked “historic” route which had little to stimulate my cerebral juices, eventually I came to “mural” street which depicts Chinese history in a series of very modern glazed tile murals of no great age.

Leaving Chinatown severely disappointed by its lack of authenticity I climbed back aboard the subway and headed to the Orakai Park to check-in. On the lift up to my room I saw the buffet dinner was $55 and so after showering I headed over to Lotte to stock up o Chorizo, Smoked cheese and Cabernet; I also found a fantastic European bakery with an amazing array of fresh bread being created in full view. On the way back to the hotel I stopped at another overly priced hand-drip coffee shop, the coffee I have to say was fruity and first class. I passed through the Eastern edge of central park before settling down to good food, wine and an evening of National Geographic.

Sunday was sunny but cold and after watching the EPL replays I headed out to the former fishing village of Sorae Pogu.  If you like Sashimi or shrimps this is the place to descend upon. It’s basically a large open market surrounded by eateries. There are a variety of pickled foods and other marine products including a multitude of live fish and crabs. seal penis’s, salted shrimps, salted octopus, salted yellow corvenia intestine, salted herring and salted crab. Apparently during the season for kimchang (preparing kimchi and pickles) the raw shrimp is particularly popular. There are also many hoe (raw fish) restaurants near the entrance of the market and also inside. There were some real characters with brightly coloured hair and spectacles to match, most were mainly women. The aromas invaded the nostrils but eventually I became oblivious to the stench. Adjumas chopped up live squid and octopus in pink rubber gloves one or two were singing. some treated me with reverence, others offered my a smile and some just a frown and look of disdain. I capitulated on the raw fish and ate some deep-fried and battered shrimp along side a barbecued corn on the cob.

From here I took the subway to Bupyeong, said to be one of the cheapest subway shopping areas in Korea? It is also one of the biggest as well. You’ll need to invest hours shopping in this area; it’s a maze stocked with the latest trends to everyday basics. It wasn’t like other places I’ve visited in Korea, in fact it seemed much more cosmopolitan.  I suspect this is due to its proximity to the International Airport and the construction sites of Songdo. There seemed many Indonesian people and I spoke to a guy from Myanmar who unsurprisingly spoke the best none native English I’d heard whilst in Korea. The area is an architectural eyesore but whats new here, the area directly in front of the station is a traffic island and was full of homeless folk basking on the benches surrounded by empty soju and makeoli bottles. After an hour of sensory overload I found a spa to rejuvenate myself before heading to Incheon Arts Centre to watch some more skateboard acrobatics.

Monday was a little warmer and so I strolled along the South side of Central Park towards the Tri-Bowl Convention Centre. The whole of Songdo New City is built on land reclaimed from the sea a feat our Dutch neighbours would be proud of. The 101-acre park has South Korea’s first seawater canal and landscaped themed areas. The authorities claim it includes sustainable irrigation via rainwater harvesting. Many global cities have famous parks that are integral to their landscapes, whose names have become connected to the city. New York would be unthinkable without Central Park, while London and Paris wouldn’t be complete without Hyde Park and Jardins du Luxembourg. This is Incheon’s attempt to do the same it’s commendable and visionary but the city needs finishing before they can contemplate realising their goal. As this was holiday weekend the park was buzzing and since my last visit some 14 months before, was undergoing some “Korean” enhancements of a faux Joseon nature.

I strolled along dodging viral skateboarders who hunted in packs eventually reaching the Tri-Bowl CC. The propaganda describes the awesome structure thus:

“The structure represents Incheon’s tripartite harmonisation with nature. The three natural elements, the sky (Incheon International Airport), the sea (Incheon Port), and the land (Metropolitan Traffic Network), are represented in the three bowl structures. It also serves as a composite cultural space for the Songdo IFEZ, Cheongna, and Yeongjong areas. The Tri-Bowl is receiving particular attention for its creative “Yeok Shell” structure, the first such construction concept in the world. In the shape of an upside-down Goggal (a type of Buddhist hat), the Yeok Shell structure enlarges from the base to the top.”

Passing along the north side I tried and electively failed to keep pace with the masked power-walkers. On my previous visit I’d been aghast at the lack of foresight shown by park planners  providing only a road bridge across the canal at this northern end; this being the only crossing from the mid-point of the park. Interestingly today a new footbridge was also under construction.

I continued through a grassland area flanked by the gargantuan residential complex containing Central Park 1 & 2 before settling for coffee adjacent to the day-trippers tents. I continued my stroll through the children’s Deer Zoo with the signs for “Do not feed the animals” being comprehensively ignored. The forested area is capped by a lovely pagoda which is the highest point in the park giving great views across the real estate of the recently inhabited I-Tower home to the UN Green Climate Fund; beyond that the shimmering Incheon Cable-stayed Bridge comes into view. The bridge is 21.38 kilometres long, 230 metres high and took four years to complete, it opened in 2009 and provides access to Incheon International Airport.

I left Central Park heading East, passing the Sheraton and eventually reaching Sunrise (Haedoji) Park. I climbed the azalea glad man-made hill which afforded views across the Convensia and on towards the sea. In the centre of the park you will find a lake with seating areas that is perfect for picnics or business people who are on their lunch break. There is a nice playground for the children and a musical water fountain. Throughout the park you will notice some wind turbines which are used to power the lights in the park. I stopped for a further caffeine fix before crossing the cycle path to the landed whale sculpture.

I took the subway to Incheon Express Bus Terminal another shopping hub. As is usual for me my shopping is targeted around electronics and gadgetry.  I needed  a new cable for my iPhone as the Apple boxed cables shelf life had ended; in addition my mobile phone charger died an early death and so both items needed replacing. The sales assistant despite saying 6 time “no englishy” was very helpful and the transaction appeared to go smoothly. My phone pinged which meant my bank had confirmed the transaction but unfortunately for me Shinsegae didn’t! She put the card through again invoking a second ping. Of course I was a little agitated and asked for the refund slip which they indicated couldn’t exist as only one transaction occurred. After a seven floor excursion to the “gift centre” where someone could converse in Englishy I managed to retrieve a print out which did in fact confirm only one transaction had gone through. Hallelujah!!! Relieved I found a “Twosome Place” for coffee and settled down with the Morrissey Biography for an hour or so before climbing the blue footbridge back to the subway and Songdo.

Oh what a night was to come, after MCFC’s victory over EFC it was Liverpool’s turn to falter. I was up in the middle of the night to see Crystal Palace reverse a 3-0 deficit and draw 3-3. As I left for Dullju on morning I was still elated from the previous nights events. Could City win on Wednesday? If yes a draw Sunday would be enough to win the EPL twice in 3 years. Maybe there is a GOD after all?

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