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Book review, ‘A walk through the land of miracles’, Jeju, South Korea

30 August 2008 No Comment

Not long before Seoul was to host the 1988 Summer Olympics and, as a result of which by a strange twist of fate, best-selling author Simon Winchester’s newspaper sent him to Korea to find out what he could of the Hermit Kingdom – as very little was known of it at the time.
Using the diary of Hendrick Hamel* as a model, Winchester decides to walk from Moseulpo (모슬포) on Jeju’s southwest coast all the way to Panmunjeom (판문점) at the DMZ.

Winchester is a veteran traveler and backpacker in the fullest sense, and it is the decision to see the country by foot that enables him to make the sharp and accurate insights that he does throughout the book.

In addition to being a reportage of his own experience, Winchester fleshes out the chapters with relevant political and cultural history giving the reader pause when he writes things like, “Korean people have remained culturally inviolate” despite having spent “the better part of its four thousand years being invaded, crushed, subjugated, colonized, or in other ways trampled on.” Along with the weighty anecdotes, there is commentary on interesting social tics such as why Koreans take photographs the way they do and attach enough importance to it that they will walk around all day long lugging their tripods.

Winchester’s propensity for repetition aside, his is an engaging read not only for the relevant subject matter (Jejuites will particularly enjoy Chapter 2) but because it is an open-minded take made by a well-traveled, educated writer with a disposition to handle what new cultures have to offer and the experience to put it into context. He does not batter his readers with complaints about what he cannot understand or accept about Koreans or, though he digresses a great deal, bore them through long-winded thought meanderings on how, astonishingly, Korea differs from his homeland. He gives credit where it is due:

Eighteen thousand men worked at the Ulsan yard. They worked six days a week. They started at 6:30 am with thirty minutes of compulsory jogging. They then reported for work at the yard at 7.30 am, and laboured uncomplainingly until they were allowed home at 5.30 pm. [page 6]

The new edition also features a recent trip that Winchester makes to North Korea which in and of itself is fascinating.

The book might be best suited for those who have lived here half a year or more, or at least ought to be read again after doing so as being able to recognize names, places, and events make for more enjoyable reading. Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles AUTHOR: Simon Winchester PUBLISHER: Harper Collins ©1988, New York ISBN-10:0-0-075044-8 PRICE: 13,950₩. Get your English books at: Jeju Book Town in Shin Jeju, www.whattthebook.com, www.betterworld.com, www.amazon.com/.ca/.co.uk/.co.jp, www.kyobobook.co.kr, www.seoulselection.com.

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*17th Century Dutch sailor Hendrick Hamel is credited with the West’s oldest known historic record of Korea; a diary he kept while in Korea (and mostly Jeju) after being shipwrecked on Gapa Island (aka Gapado (가파도), just south of Moseulpo). The diary is available online (http://www.hendrick-hamel.henny-savenije.pe.kr/holland15.htm) excerpts of which open each chapter of Winchester’s book. There is a museum at the foot of Sanbangsan (산방산) on Jeju’s southwest coast, dedicated to Hamel and his crew. In fact, the museum itself is a replica of the ship Hamel sailed on 350 years ago presented as a gift to Korea by the Netherlands. Amusingly, a connection is made between two of the men, both Dutch, who have been responsible for drawing the world’s attention to Korea; Hamel at the end of the 17th century and the 2002 World Cup soccer coach Guus Hiddink at the opening of the 21st.

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