Yesterday my wife and I embarked on a foolhardy journey from Gyeongju to Pohang, driving there in our new car to get me a driver’s license from the nearest Examination Office. This trip was remarkable for numerous reasons. The first was the distance: these two cities are so close that as soon as you leave one you enter the other, and even with my wife’s studiously cautious driving we managed to get there in under half an hour. I had assumed for no good reason that the distance was greater, and that the country itself was bigger, but by having a car the distances between places shrink down considerably, to the extent that if there were a bridge built from Busan to Japan—one can only dream!—the drive would probably not exceed a couple of hours.
The second was the blighted appearance of the countryside. I couldn’t take any pictures, as I was busy navigating using an excellent Korean map app, or maappp, which has magically convinced my wife that we don’t need to spend several hundred dollars on buying a computer to find the way for us—despite the smallness of Korea and the abundance of signs and turns, it’s rare to find a car without a singing talking beeping computer navigator mounted to the dashboard—but I can still describe the scene lain out for us: cement apartment buildings, gas stations, furniture outlets, an empty strip mall with posters left up for its grand opening back in November, strawberry farms with blue or black tarps spread over long half-cylindrical metal houses, and huge factories with bright blue rooftops and towering smokestacks billowing out white poison gas. Still, this was better than nearby Ulsan, where these smokestacks are actually on fire.
In short, beneath the mountains, every inch of land was being used for industry. I’d heard from someone else who works at my university that it’s illegal to own land in Korea without actually using it. Supposedly if you don’t make an effort to turn a profit from the land you own within a year or six months, if you don’t develop it, that land reverts to the government, which meant that this person in question (I’ve forgotten who it was) has to work on the farm he’s inherited from a recently-deceased relative, or hire someone else to work it for him, or else he’ll lose it.
Anyway, back to the trip. My wife told me that Pohang was a horrible place to live in, and I’d heard the same from several other friends who were stuck there for a few months. We arrived on a dreary rainy day and discovered that though we were on the outskirts of a substantial city of over half a million people it really seemed like there was no reason to go there. I had actually been to the city several times before over the years, visiting one of its garbage-strewn and refuse-choked beaches as well as hiking up around Bogyeong Temple, which would have been nice if there hadn’t been thousands of other people on the trail at the same time—but beyond this hike, which should probably be undertaken in the morning during a weekday to avoid the crowds of gawkers who are far more interested in Korean damsel-snatching foreign nationals than the beauty of their own country’s rapidly-diminishing countryside, Pohang appeared to be a place that is only inhabited by those who have few alternative options, as it seemed to possess nothing that is not already possessed in abundance by other Korean cities. We saw boxy clusters of cement apartment buildings and drove down roads lined by chain stores, all sad and dark in the smog and the rain.
We found the Examination Office in a place called Mundeok (or Moonduck), whose amusing name probably translates to Door of Virtue, and lost no time in arguing with the bureaucrats in residence: though my driver’s license information had been certified to be authentic by Maine’s Secretary of State, and even stamped, it still had not been apostilled—this bizarre word is the bane of foreign English teachers dwelling in Korea, as Korean employers can only legally recognize diplomas or other documents that are marked with its magical fraud-proof stamps—and so the officials, the bureaucrats, the uniformed ajummas who, as my wife said, would be working in that office for the rest of their lives, were unable to allow me to take the ridiculous Korean Written Driver’s test, which I had lost two days of precious life studying for, and we were forced to retreat, but not until after my wife demanded that the ajummas in question find a picture of the exact document that they required. They lost no time in using Korean search engines to do what they do worst: find things not directly related to Korea. It took them half an hour to print out and then hold up an apostille from Latvia, among other oddities; though I realized later that since Latvia and Korea are both signatories of the Hague Convention (which is where all of this apostille business originates), this document would be legally recognized here, and an apostille from Maine would probably look fairly similar.
We departed and lost most of the day for nothing. I went for a nice long hour-long run in the rain in an attempt to achieve something noteworthy for Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013, a day that will never return again to the universe, and while thinking about writing this blog post snapped a single picture along the way. This is what most of the drive basically looked like: