Day Trip IV

Begam-ai, Jochen, and Gulaim
SEOUL, South Korea
May 25, 2008

Yesterday was fabulous for spending the day together with two people I didn't think I'd connect with. Today was even better.

I'm on my way back to the U.S.. Last night I flew from Urumqi to Seoul. When booking my reservation, the ticket agent was apologetic: "I'm sorry, but the best connection I could get between Urumqi and Seattle requires one stop: a twelve-hour layover in Korea. The flight from Urumqi would arrive at 6:30 A.M., but you wouldn't fly on to Seattle until 6:30 in the evening."

"Perfect," I said. "I have a couple friends in Seoul. That will give me a free day to visit."

I'm about to make that 6:30 P.M. connection, having just spent a full day in Seoul with both Jochen and Penny.

This morning Jochen received me at Incheon airport, then drove to his home in the Pyeongchang-dong neighborhood. Jochen is actually my oldest personal connection with Xinjiang. We were both traveling around the area in 1993. On that trip he and I met on a bus ride from Kashgar into northern Pakistan. Somehow we've managed to keep up. In the days before e-mail our communication was by handwritten letter. There have also been occasional connections around various points in Europe--Germany, Denmark--over the years.

The last time I saw Jochen was some years ago. At the time he was working down in Bavaria for a silicone-manufacturing firm. He's still at the same company, but has been promoted and tranferred, serving as president of the Korean division over the past couple years. Since we last saw each other Jochen has started a new family. His household now consists of Jochen himself, Gulaim, and Gulaim's 10-year old daughter, Begam-ai. Gulaim and Begam-ai originally hail from Kyrgyzstan.

We started the day with breakfast. Gulaim prepared traditional Central Asian fare: nan, tea, and jellied walnuts from Arslanbob in Kyrgyzstan. Fumbling for a common language, our conversation was split between Russian--which alienated me--and a pidgin mix of Kyrgyz and Uighur--which alienated Jochen. After a long, hot shower I was ready for my one day visiting Seoul.

Penny and David
We all arranged to meet up with Penny, the same friend whom I stayed with a few months ago in Istanbul. While I was visiting Penny this past December, she was already contemplating her move on from Turkey. I recall how the very day I left that city she had an interview she was guardedly excited about. It was for a good position: teaching English at the British Council in Seoul. So many English teaching positions--including ones Penny had worked in both Urumqi and Istanbul--demand long hours and are poorly compensated. Landing this position would command a proper salary and free her from the demands of working for owners of private-language schools, people whose relationship to their employees is often based on maximizing profit.

She got the job. Penny's been here in Korea teaching at the British Council for about three weeks now and is excited--not just by the higher salary--but by the prospects of living in a new place and having the opportunity to explore a country new to her.

Together, the five of us spent the afternoon wandering around the grounds of a lovely 15th century palace, Changdeokgung. When we'd had enough of the parks, ponds, and ancient buildings, Jochen treated us to lunch at a traditional Korean restaurant: pancakes with vegetables and seafood fried up inside, small dishes of pickled vegetables, all washed down with dongdongju, a brew of fermented rice water with a slight kick to it.

This has been my first visit to Korea. Though it was a full day, I didn't see much of Seoul. A lot of that had to do with limitations of time, though the main reason I didn't race around trying to take more in is that I'll be back soon. The return leg of the ticket I'm leaving on will take me back here at the end of August.

Penny, Jochen, and I are already talking about what we'll do then.