All the Taes……Taegeuk-do Village and Taejongdae

Being light in the wallet and with springs glorious charms upon us I have taken to discovering the hidden charms of Busan rather than straying further afield. I’ve lived in Busan now for close to eleven months and visited the city several times the year before. However, until a week or so ago I was unaware of the existence of Taegeuk-do village. I guess it is a little under-reported in the media and has only been really considered a tourist attraction in recent times. This area is steeped in history, most of it inglorious and it is only the recent arrival of an artistic redevelopment that has garnered it significant attention.

Taegeuk-do is located close to subway line 1 and is accessible from stop 109 (Toseong). Ironically, this brings my ignorance to the fore as I only live at stop 102 a mere fifteen minutes away. While hiking up the mountain along a main road you begin to notice the change from high-rise apartment and relatively modern homes to the first signs of the basic but colourful cubicle style homes that date back to the early 1920’s. Taegeuk-do is a historical settlement area for the people who follow the Taegeuk religion. While the country was being torn apart by the Korean War in the early 1950’s the Taegeuk followers settled in Busan. A population of 4,000 gradually swelled to 20,000 at its peak in the 1980’s.  The population then dwindled while Korea’s prosperity grew leaving an ageing and increasingly empty community. The impoverished area has only recently been reinvented.

Arriving at the rather colourful Gamjeong elementary school and briefly being confused about where to go I wandered over the summit in the road and saw a signpost to the village. The first street you walk along is home to the lime green house with the crazy birds on the top, an information centre, the ‘darkness’ house and some bohemian styled cafes. The true spirit of Taegeuk village however lies in the mountainous slopes where you can get lost amongst the alleyways and pastel houses, meet cute dogs, come across more of the converted art themed houses and interact with the locals. The locals generally seemed happy to meet you, always pointing in some direction to take you onto the next little treasure. However, I’m not sure how they really feel, deep down inside, that their homes are now the subject of Korean, Japanese and international tourists shutter lenses.

I walked around in the glittering sun taking photos and taking in the heartbeat of the area. After re-climbing the sloped village from the other side I headed up to the suggested viewing platform at the summit to take some final snaps when I was approached by a young Korean lady. I had met her in the alleyways before with her friends and had a brief “How are you?”, “Where are you from?” conversation and carried on. Her intent this time was to procure a little more information from me. As we chatted away she asked me if I would like to be interviewed for TV. After some initial relenting her cameraman came over and persuaded me. The interview was for SBS television. They were apparently making a documentary on the cultural heritage of Busan. I completed my interview and I guess at some point my face will grace the screens of national TV. However, I’m unlikely to watch it as the date and time it will be aired was not yet determined. If you catch me on TV let me know! I’m sure it will be a vast improvement on  my last appearance,  protesting a bad game winning decision at a basketball game in Changwon…( I may have been slightly under the influence of Hite or Cass).

A few weeks later I went to Taejongdae. Taejongdae is a forested park on Yeongdo island to the south-west of Busan. Famous for its dramatic cliff faces, colourful sedimentary rocks, “dinosaur” footprints and being Busan’s number one suicide destination.

I went during the evening with my co-teacher. After enduring a mildly reckless bus journey through Yeondo’s steep streets we arrived at the base of Taejongdae park and elected to hike to the cliffs rather than take the faux “train” shuttle bus. After walking up the winding hill and getting a first hand view of some ambience ruining road maintenance and avoiding caterpillars hanging by silk strings from overhanging tree branches we arrived at “Busan’s 28th monument”.

We descended down a pathway towards a rather uninspiring and semi-modern lighthouse. After walking below and around the aforementioned lighthouse we came to the cliff face and walked across the cliff tops. The cliff tops paint a colourful history of sediment deposits. Stone is highlighted by layers of iron brown, turquoise blue and shades of bleached brown and orange. My co-teacher tried to suggest to me that some pock-marks on the cliff top are the remnants of dinosaur footprints. However, her protestations that her field trip teacher had told her years ago made me think the joke is being passed down through the generations…

Waves crashed against the rocks below and large freighters dotted the sea waters around, waiting to land in port to unload their cargoes. As the sun went down and illuminated the biggest moon of the year it felt like a place too tranquil for the drama of suicidal tendencies. Korea has the highest suicide rate in the western world. The educational pressures and the preference to take your own life rather than bring shame on your family are well reported. At Taejongdae they have fenced off many areas, presumably to deter suicides. However, the unusual rock formation chillingly known as ‘suicide rock’ and the area around it is still accessible. I guess if you are intent on taking your life you will find a way to do it no matter what.

I messed around and took some pictures, got a little too close to the edge and peered into the last view that many people before me had looked at. All the time looking suspiciously around me to see if anyone might be considering the last jump. Taejongdae is an unnerving mixture of beauty and tragedy.

On the way back we stopped in Nampo-dong for some dinner and chanced upon an alleyway just off the main shopping strip that had been revamped into an excellent example of street art that contributes positivity rather than mindless graffiti. What was once a dark and damp alleyway cluttered with air-conditioning units was now a fresh and interesting focal point. I’m surprised I had not stumbled upon it sooner.

School has been quite busy recently. My workload has definitely gone up this semester but I am also quite happy as my days flow by so quickly. I have taken on a Cross Cultural Awareness Program (CCAP) with the Busan Ministry of Education (BMOE). This involves me going to another school and giving a presentation to a few classes of students about myself and my life at home in England. I had my first class last week in Sasang Elementary School on a Friday morning. I presented to two classes of third grade students. One large class of 38 students and a second smaller one of 19 students. Both classes were successful to an extent. I’d say I completed my presentation in the first class and in the second class the majority of students actually learnt something! I had initially been nervous about presenting to students who would have low comprehension skills due to their age but my visual Powerpoint and the help of the home room teachers with translation was very beneficial. The school was quite welcoming and it was good to meet some new excitable students. I struggled to leave the playground after lunch and barely made it back in time for my own storytelling lesson at my school because of the throng of students demanding answers from me!

Just over a week ago was my first sports day at Myungho Elementary School. I missed out on this narrowly last year as it was just before my contract started and I have been looking forward to it earnestly. Sports day turned out to be not as expected but exceeded my expectations of enjoyment. I have fond memories of  sports day as a child. At primary school it was a collection of athletic and crazy races culminating with the highlights of the ‘house’ relays between North (Blue), South (Red), East (Green) and West (Yellow). I was in North and remember my first victory in the egg and spoon race when I was five like it was yesterday.

Sports day at Myungho Elementary School was partially similar but on a much grander scale and was quintessentially Korean styled. Every student participated in a sprint race and while these were going on there were choreographed warm-up routines and year group dance performances for the crowds of proud parents that lined the playing field. The highlights of the day were the year group relay races that had the drama of dropped batons and leaders falling over on the gravelly, dirt surface. The mothers joined in for their own relay race and tug-of war and even my services were called upon for one race. Students lined up at the start of the track, raced to pick up a piece of paper, that held the name of the teacher they had to find further down the track, who they then had to then join hands with and sprint to the finish. The first race ended in a 5th placed finish due to my student being unable to recognise the only tall, white and foreign teacher taking part, let alkone present at the whole event. However, my second appearance resulted in a Usain Bolt-esque field destruction as my student ran screaming “Jamesssss!” at me down the track. I was complimented by students throughout the rest of the day for my speed…compliments that may be lost on some of my fellow team members on my football team…

The rest of the sports day was enjoyable, I hung out with the students, congratulating or commiserating with them and taking hundreds of photos and acted as one students personal assistant as he kept giving me his shoes so he could race in his socks. Sportsday is definitely my favourite day on the school calendar. It was colourful, vibrant and noisy.

In other-side of the world news, the football season is drawing to a close. We have 3 (or4) games remaining including a semi-final next weekend. Our form is indifferent. We won three on the bounce but have lost the last two, 2-0. We are struggling a little with injuries and have lost a good striker. It would be great to win something so next week should be an immense battle as we give it our all against Busan United for that final spot. I’m off to get some acupuncture later to try to alleviate some pain from my sciatic nerve that has been bugging me for the last month and knocking my confidence a lot. I’m hoping the doctor can understand English as I don’t fancy drawing him a picture from the bottom of my back, over my ass and down the back of my leg!

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