Over the last few weeks and months Elizabeth and I have heard about a number of “cultural” excursions that are run in and around Ulsan by the council. These being free, we decided to see what a couple of them were like. At Korean class we were handed information sheets in English, we received text messages in English confirming our registration, and these trips were generally said to be fairly foreigner-friendly – and with us being as into free stuff as we are, naturally our interest was piqued.
The first was advertised as a moonlight tour around Daewangnam Park. We met in mid-afternoon – our party a mix of waegooks from Korean class, Ulsanites and tourists – and squeezed into an ornate-looking minibus. We were handed out rice cakes that no one really enjoyed – in fact Michael was shouted at for eating his sandwich instead – and then we set off, the sounds of the Korean tour guide’s voice and kids’ video games music to my ears. Thankfully the journey was quite short, and it was remarkably recognisable: we whizzed past huge shipyards and factories (at one point we drove alongside a huge sea of new cars for about 10 minutes) towards Ilsan Beach, where we’d been before. Nevermind, we thought, this should provide a good oppurtunity to hear something about the place and its history – as opposed to on our last visit, when our only interactions with locals were to order fresh oysters and then get shouted at for helping to clear away our trays.
Hear something we did. We had a quick walk round the park, which looks out onto the East Sea and so is a pretty nice place to be as the sun sets, whilst people took photos of us – presumably to persuade the next unsuspecting group that it’s a good idea to attend if you don’t speak Korean – before we were sat down in front of the tour guide who talked at us for a long time. We weren’t allowed to leave. Luckily one of our party translated a lot of what was being said, but by the time it had been whispered down a line of several people, a lot of the meaning was lost. Darkness fell and we were led back to the minibus, and I think this was the ‘moonlight tour’ part of the moonlight tour.
Luckily there’s quite a lot to look at in the park: there are some pretty attractive rock formations (I feel like a creep calling a rock attractive); a huge lighthouse; fishermen and women divers going about their business (they catch a range of shellfish and then wash and sell them); and Ilsan beach set against the backdrop of some of Ulsan’s giant oil refineries, which didn’t exactly make me want to go for a swim. Here are some pictures, some of which are from our last visit:
The second trip was to Ulsan’s petroglyph museum in Bangudae. Again we went through the same sequence as before – meet, ornate bus, rice cakes, Korean tour guide, video game noises – only this time we’d never been to our destination before. The museum was shaped like a whale, and inside was pretty interesting, giving some insight into how our prehistoric ancestors lived and conducted themselves. There were life-size replicas of the Bangudae petroglyphs covered in carvings of whales, tigers, turtles, deer and other animals, as well as representations of whale hunters, rock formations, local geography, animals and a load of Venus figurines from Europe, for some reason. This time we broke off from the main group and explored on our own.
You may have noticed at the beginning of this post a suggestion that I believed these trips weren’t entirely designed for westerners, whereas the pictures I’ve posted make it seem like they might have been quite fun. That’s because each of the shows – or one in particular – that have tainted my memories of them. Each visit ended with a lengthy show by a series of performers, and while the first one’s main problem was that it dragged on slightly, the second was just plain rubbish. I’m being slightly harsh here, but it’s hard to appreciate a puppeted Santa babbling away at you in Korean at the best of times. We’ve seen (first trip) dancers in giant brown masks slink and snake around the stage, traditionally-dressed acapella singers, a breakdancing crew, a magician and a guitarist; and (second trip) another magician and that bloody puppet show. We had to watch unknown characters talk their way through scene after repeated scene before we were shouted at by that Santa: “AHH WAEGOOKIN! HELLO!”. The kids there loved it – it seemed a weird combination, petroglyphs and puppets, as though they were trying to ensure you didn’t enjoy the whole thing – but I don’t think I raised a smile throughout, and I normally love stuff like that. Perhaps the Korean humour was lost on me – like when you try to show Blackadder or Mr Bean to a European and they just don’t get it. We managed to escape 59 minutes into the hour-long spectacle. I’m currently unsure as to what I’d do if I was offered another free trip to one of these great places, just because of what they subject you to afterwards.