Last time, I mentioned Eliz and I had been to Jinju’s annual Lantern Festival. Whenever I tell someone this, the general response is: ‘Oh right, cool’. Then a pause. ‘What’s a lantern festival?’. Before we left, I didn’t have much of an idea either, but I’ve since done some research, and english.visitkorea.or.kr says this: ‘the tradition of floating lanterns on Namgang River in Jinju City dates back to the 1592 Japanese invasion of Korea. In October 1592, during a battle between Japanese and Korean soldiers around Jinju Fortress, Jinju people flew lanterns high up in the sky as a military signal and communication tool with soldiers outside the fortress, while floating lanterns and torches along Namgang River’. But, like I say, neither Elizabeth nor I knew any of this, and so we hopped on a coach at lunchtime two Sundays ago, not knowing what to expect. You never know what to expect in Korea.
The coach journey was a nightmare. Aside from the wheels falling off and from finding our way onto the damn thing – which we managed by holding a big sign that said ‘we are foreigners, please assist us’ in Korean – everything went wrong. We even got one less square rice-sandwich than everyone else. Firstly, there were other collection points to get to before we could head to the motorway – one of which we waited at for ages for no reason – and so the pleasantly empty coach became rammed with other passengers. Next, the driver turned on the big screen, and everyone else on the coach was literally glued to it, which made our position at the front pretty irksome as the volume had to be turned up to the max. On the way there it was Korean telly followed by some awful Vin Diesel-esque action film in Korean; on the way back it was a ridiculous Korean romance about a couple who somehow fell in love by arguing very loudly and often with each other (cue howls of laughter from the watching audience at regular intervals. On a sidenote, a lot of Korean elderly ladies remind me of extras from the Witches film. They can give stares so harsh that you almost expect them to start shooting lasers from their eyes; and sometimes they dress in long black shawls. They look pure evil sometimes. They also often sit as though they’re in a desert somewhere squatting to do a poo, and I don’t know why they do this, or why it reminds me of the Witches, but they do, and it does. The ones on the coach cackled, adding to this effect). Then despite being already late, having crawled along the motorway in heavy traffic, the driver insisted on stopping at a service station a few miles outside Jinju. The system for ordering food there was so complicated that I couldn’t get what I wanted – you had to order from a separate booth and then pick it up at your respective restaurant, unless you were ordering certain specific items, and I didn’t really get it. Finally, once in Jinju, instead of letting us off the bus to go and explore, he insisted in taking us right to the predetermined drop-off point, wasting another 45 minutes. This left us with about four hours to play with, rather than the six we had expected, as he refused to take us back any later. In hindsight, this was probably the correct decision, as it took us even longer on the way home to get back given the traffic leaving the festival and the fact that Korean drivers are a) mental and b) mean, and so if you’re a big coach trying to make a three-point turn after going the wrong way you’ll only get honks rather than help; and if you need to turn right at a junction you can forget about anyone letting you out.
Anyway, I think the festival was worth it. I’ll post a few pics at the end but I’ll do my best to describe it too, because neither Eliz nor I have mastered taking photos in the dark. When we got there both of us were trying to squeeze as much fun out of the place as possible to make up for lost time. The first station we got to was called Comic Book Island or Cartoon Character Causeway or something, and there were loads of huge lanterns of superheroes and Pokemon and Teletubbies etc., but they weren’t lit up yet as it was still light. We crossed the ‘Bridge of Love’ that traversed Namgang River, on which there were dozens of these lanterns floating on the river. There were contributions from all over the world (the British one was a group of Palace guards; the Dutch one was a group of kids wearing clogs; the German one was a group of naked sunbathers, efficiently, simultaneously barbecuing sausages, drinking beer and bronzing. You get the picture). We explored the other side of the river, where you could buy all sorts of culinary delights (over the course of the evening we bought a metre-long skewer of meat, a cupful of fried octopus tentacles, candyfloss, kimbap, noodles and roasted chestnuts) and see more lanterns. There were vikings, fire-breathing dragons, battling soldiers, rabbits making soup, a Santa Claus, Disney characters, mythical birds, unicorns, giant frogs, and Rocky Balboa, amongst other things. As night fell the lanterns looked more and more impressive on the river, and when we ascended a bank to get a better view, the scene was pretty spectacular. There were lights in trees, shoddy fireworks shooting off all around us, another bamboo forest with lighted animals hidden in it, and a tunnel made of tiny lanterns – more than 10,000 of them – that you could walk through and admire. We fought our way through the crowd on a different, bigger bridge back onto the side we started on, where there was some kind of palace/temple – obviously packed full of more luminous statues. We made our own lanterns and floated them down the river, before climbing up through the palace back to the bus stop, feeling tired yet fulfilled. Despite all this, Elizabeth described the day as ‘the worst of my life’ because of the journeys, but I don’t think it was quite that bad. I had quite a nice time, in fact.