EPS Review #45 - Korea, A Walk through the Land of Miracles

by Simon Winchester, Collins 1988.

I was interested by this book, since I have not seen many travel books about Korea. Also, I have often wondered if Korea might not be really nice in some of the out-of-the-way bits the country. I was in Seoul back in the early 80s, and while it was very interesting, it wasn't lovely.

Well, the answer is, yes, there are some very beautiful spots, though many more spots to remind you of the war: the whole east coast has a fence along it, for example (Winchester got into trouble for reporting this "secret"). The Koreans are very friendly. He meets a monk named Haedarng, and later manages to visit his idyllic hut in the hills, only, alas, to sneer at the monk's Buddhist theories about Shakespeare. Later, a sojourn at a mountain nunnery is interrupted by a thunderclap:

"Pay no attention, " said Miss Lee, glancing at her watch, "It's only the Blackbird."

She compares the regular flight of the American surveillance plane to cherry blossoms: a reminder of the frailty and imperfection of existence. There is loads of material here, like the Kwangju massacre, and visits to US bases, and ginseng (he's crazy about it!) but it is somewhat spoiled by Winchester's callowness (he is always lusting ineffectively after women he meets) and shallowness (he doesn't quite speak the language or read Hangul). But it is better than nothing, and points to further reading, since he is following the tracks of Hendrick Hamel, a shipwrecked sailor who wrote "The Description of the Kingdom of Corea" in 1668. The photos are all stock footage, another disappointment. But I would still recommend this book if you are curious about Korea today.

I haven't many other books about Korea - there are some rabid Korea collectors (veterans?) on Ebay and prices are very high. I recently scored "Old Korea, The Land of Morning Calm" by Elizabeth Keith (Hutchinson 1946), which is stuffed full of color plates.