I was so happy to be on my bike today. 74km of farmland, foresty mountains and wetlands. No shin pain, no expressways and the adventure of finding lunch in towns that have never seen a foreigner in their life.
Beef soup, intensely flavoured side dishes and the best pork belly and kimchi of my life.
This is the most ridiculous jimjilbang I’ve stayed in. In the common sleeping area there’s two saunas, three ornamented sleeping domes set at temperatures between 36 and 64, and an icy cold room. When I arrived the place was pumping – people everywhere, everyone covered in sweat hoping from room to room and getting massages from both undulating black sofas or real masseuses. There’s a jungle gym, a PC bang and and a restaurant. There’s even a tanning station where jade head rests and bamboo mats rest under a series of lights set to different levels of searing. The bathing floor ain’t bad either – fake waterfalls, pagoda like wooden baths, a plethora of saunas all set at different temperatures, a lap pool, an ice bath and a heap of body scrubbing stations.
It’s all very deluxe. I can understand why three different people suggested we come here. I wonder though if any of those people have slept here because there’s one huge exception to the deluxe theme – sleeping arrangements. There are no floor mats here, everyone sleeps on the tiled floor with cube shaped pillow about as soft and malleable as laying your head on a formaldehyde crocodile. If the main tiled space is too well for you lit there are two other options as well. Option one; a ziggurat like staggering of sleeping caves, which are dark and quiet but extremely hot. Option two; a strange mezzanine with ceilings that would made a sheep crouch. It’s dark and cool but it’s creepy and there are no pillows.
Oh no wait. Nicole just woke up. We were both sleeping in the ziggurat caves but Nicole got too hot and moved upstairs. There is one room upstairs with mats, heaps of them and pillows too. It was just to dark for us to see them last night. Apparently there were only three people sleeping in there. I don’t understand. Why the fuck is everyone sleeping on a tiled floor?!
Nicole and I are in Gwangju. It’s a massive typically Korean city* that’s surrounded by a mesh of farmland. Every unused space around here has been opportunistically filled by colonising cabbage and garlic farms. You can see slithers of farms on highway kerbs, in alley ways and on steep mountain faces. The locals are very proud of the produce and it translates into the cuisine. Most cities in Korea are famous for one dish or another, or a particular ingredient or style of cooking but of all the cities in Korea Gwanju is the most famous. SImply, we are in the Korean food mecca.
The only thing we planned to do in Gwanju is eat. I’m sure there are some nice temples or mountains to look at but any time spent looking at them is time spent not eating. We developed an itinerary with the help from a tourist map which had an extensive booklet on local food specialities. This was our plan:
1. Dinner – Oritang, Gwangju style duck soup with fresh water celery (minari), a garnish of ground spices and a sweet chilli sauce called chojang.
2. Breakfast – Bread and pastries made with local wheat.
3. Snacks – Yukcheon, a Korean pancake made with beef and eaten with rice wine.
4. Lunch – Fried meat wrapped in lettuce from the local markets.
5. Dinner – Chimaek, fried chicken with beer.
This is how it turned out.
1. The map pointed out a particular street where duck soup is sold. When we got there a group of enthusiastic and maybe lubricated men showed us which of the many ortiang restaurants had the best product.
Fucking excellent. Soybean paste, chilli powder, garlic, ginger and perilla seeds ground and boiled and then topped with a big fucking juicy hunk of tender duck. The soup boils away at your table and you add water celery, chojang and ground spices as you like. The longer you wait the thicker the soup gets until it congeals into a concentrated paste of pure deliciousness.
2. Following the instructions of our tourist map, we trekked to the Western edge of the city to find a bakery which made bread and pastries using Gwangju wheat. There was no bakery to be found. We spent about an hour hungrily scavenging around until a local told us it had closed. Oh well, on to the next destination.
3. The map said there was a famous restaurant in the middle a Gwanju business district. I was skeptical. Sydney’s CBD is jammed with overpriced cafes and restaurants in constant competition to out shitify each other. Turns out I was right. The restaurant we went to was fancy-smanshy as – felt couches matching the floor wood, waitresses in traditional outfits and lamp shades I can’t afford. Not the kind of place I expect to eat a home-style beef pancake. Obviously it was expensive but maybe we would have got it if the restaurant was packed but it was completely empty so we fucked off outta there. We hit the streets to ask some locals what was good to eat around the area. A few high-heeled, jacket clad young women pointed us towards their favourite restaurant, expensive and average looking, and some older women in medalled shirts told us to try a sashimi restaurant down the street or the place we had just come from.
Nicole gave up at this point and suggested we have lunch in a department store foodcourt. I didn’t want to do that and I pleaded we give it one more try, we just needed to ask the right candidate. About a second later a saw a street sweeper. This is the guy we needed to ask. He isn’t going to pay for any of this overpriced crap. He’ll know what’s what.
The following is translated from Korean . . . inaccurately:
Street sweeper: “Hello!”
M: “Good restaurant where can I find? Delicious.” My Korean is pretty bad.
SS: “There is no good food around here.”
Nicole: A whole bunch of stuff in Korean I didn’t understand
SS: “I don’t like any of the food around here I just eat at the department store.”
The department store gave us an ambiguous piece of meat which felt and looked like wet sheets of cardboard smothered in bleach. Fuck the business district and fuck the tourist map.
4. The map said some markets at the city’s South sold fried meat wrapped in lettuce. At this stage I had as much trust in our map as I do in the North Korean government but I thought a street market couldn’t let us down. Think again. We had wasted so much time chasing the shit-filled entrails of Gwangju food tourism we had missed the crucial lunch period. The street markets were almost devoid of food. The only things left were rice cakes, ddeokbokki and, thankfully, some ho dukk*.
I had enough rice cakes and ho dukk to plug a small damn and then set about to find a bin where I could remove that shitty map from my life forever more. Actually no. I hope it gets recycled and returns to me as toilet paper so I can ceremoniously wipe my arse with it.
5. Our final stop – Chimaek. Fried chicken and beer at the baseball. Nothing can go wrong and nothing did. I felt drugged with relief, my smile wide enough to endanger the integrity of my face. A magnificent evening.
Becca and gun, a local Gwangju couple came with us to the baseball. We stayed at their place last night. I was planning to ride 92km to Jeonju today but on Gun’s advice I might go and find some good food instead. It’s pretty clear where my priorities lie.
*Full of huge buildings, flashing signs, beige apartment blocks and big streets.
*A fried pancake with cinnamon and peanuts. I love them. See Instagram for more details.