Life in Seoul, at least for the initial period of my stay here, had me entrapped in a humdrum of harsh winters and solitude arising from the stringent COVID-19 restrictions. It wasn’t until February of 2022, that the city steadily attempted to get back its lost zest with calculated leniency in curfew and mobility.
Social media and group chats in my circle, bustled with travel plans, and I for one had set my mind on where I wanted to go. I had always been mesmerised by the eastern shores of South Korea for their pristine beaches. I find my peace by the shores rather than the zenith of some mountain. Sokcho (속초) was a dream destination that I had only experienced vicariously from South Korean media and dramas, and had hoped to go there ever since. It was going to be my first of several trips in South Korea and I wanted to make it special by travelling to Sokcho first.
My friends dropped in and out of the idea of wanting to travel together with me, until finally one of them stuck around and we were all set to head out that weekend.
As luck would have it and to my utter dismay, my friend tested positive just a night before the day we were scheduled to depart. For someone like me who had ardently invested all her emotions and hopes already, this seemingly practical glitch came across as a harsh blow.
I have waited for almost a decade to be in the country of my dreams, to breathe this air, to engulf myself in the serenity of South Korea’s countryside and as much as I sympathised with his unforeseen predicament with COVID, I just couldn’t bear the thought of being denied my longing wish to see the eastern seashores of South Korea.
It is quite natural to say that after a night full of tossing left, right, and centre, mulling over this, I succumbed to my childlike whim to escape into a getaway and decided to hop on a bus to Sokcho. However, that weekend slot was predicted to witness one of the most intense rainfalls ever. Spontaneous and stubborn as I can be, I felt I could come to terms with the practicality of the matter later on. On the bus to Sokcho, I stared blankly at the pouring window panes from time to time while rummaging through the available Airbnb listings and found a gracious host willing to let me access her space on such short notice. Perhaps fate was cutting me some slack after all. I briefly considered myself as the charismatic Jack Dawson from Titanic, “I mean, I love waking up in the morning not knowing what’s gonna happen or who I’m gonna meet, where I’m gonna wind up……I figure life’s a gift and I don’t intend on wasting it. You learn to take life as it comes at you… to make each day count.” More like, I thought of him as a justification for my impulsiveness at that time.
A couple of hours later, at around 10am I found myself smack in front of Sokcho bus terminal with a backpack, a half-dead phone from all the music I had listened to and absolutely no idea whatsoever on where to go from here. But to my surprise, the sky bared a bright sunny smile as if there wasn’t a spec of rain to begin with. My check in time wasn’t until 4pm so I had time to kill and nowhere to be in particular.
Leaving my luggage at the bus terminal lockers, I somehow made it to the beach. Thankfully my attempt at speaking Korean enabled many kind hearted Samaritans to guide me with directions. I strikingly remember one old and weary lady whose eyes lit up upon seeing my curly hair. She communicated her admiration for it by her hand gestures. As a person who emotes feelings based on the energy vibrations of those around me, the warmth and compassion of the people of Sokcho already started to grow on me. The locals in Sokcho, I realised, generally comprised of an older population. I figured it made sense that the elderly seek more comfort in the hand of nature as Sokcho is a serene abode wrapped by Seoraksan (설악산) mountain and forests. People enjoyed a more laid back way of life and spaces were less congested unlike the urban jungle of Seoul. The welcoming nature of the locals and the astonishing bright weather led a voice within to reassure me that perhaps, despite all odds, I could have a chance to create a lasting memory.
The shores of Sokcho had the most picturesque views, with turquoise blue waters lapping against golden sands. I reminisced about the scenes of the popular drama “HomeTown Cha Cha Cha 갯마을 차차차 (2021)” that was stirring the world globally with staggeringly high viewership ratings. This popular Korean drama dwelled around a storyline concerning Sokcho and its people, which also was instrumental in sparking my interest in visiting this place. The first episode highlights the handsome male lead ‘Kim Seon Ho’ crossing paths with the famous Korean actress ‘Shin Min Ah’ at the beach. The only plot twist in my case was that I did in fact run into someone by the beach as well, however it wasn’t a gentleman like Kim Seon Ho, rather someone way more worth cherishing.
While sitting by the beach immersed in the view, I was slightly overwhelmed by most couples and families enjoying themselves, taking photos together, laughing in their banter and having fun as a group. A sense of solitude crept into me, looking at them with envy. Despite technology playing a pivotal role with selfie sticks and motion sensors, nothing could replace the joy of clicking with someone and sharing that moment together. I camouflaged my dismay with fake enthusiasm and flared up my camera for selfie shots to upload on my Instagram.
While doing so, the corner of my eye caught a young woman sitting by herself staring into thin air. Perhaps, she was a solo traveller too? Maybe we could take pictures of each other to feel less lonely and sad about the situation? That’s all I thought while I found myself taking small hesitant steps towards her direction. She looked flustered at first, like most Koreans have to do when they see me, as an anticipation that they might be forced to communicate with me in English. But the moment I greeted her in Korean and initiated some friendly small talk, she felt more at ease in conversing with me. Her name was ‘Maeng’, and she hailed from ChungCheongDo (충청도), a southern province in Korea. Coincidentally, she too was on a solo vacation. This was her first time travelling by herself and hence this was a very meaningful trip for her. She was intrigued by the idea of us meeting by chance, but somehow since we spoke the same tongue and were women, she felt safe opening up to me. She had arrived a day earlier, and was staying until the end of the day.
On the spur of the moment, we decided to get lunch together and go sightseeing until her evening bus. What could be more authentic for lunch than some wholesome Mulhoe (물회), a popular delicacy! Eating Mulhoe is an experience in itself! The way it is served as layers of raw fish over a bed of shaved ice broth, spicy sauce and noodles makes it mouth-watering. In fact, I found it more refreshing and soothing to eat during winter. Maeng had an impression that I would be a default vegetarian owing to my Indian roots, but my love for “all things meat” amazed her.
Our next halt was the famous Buddhist pagoda known as Sokcho Yeonggeumjeong (속초 영금정) and the local market. We brought out the childlike twinkle in each other’s eyes as we attempted to make silly poses for photos at the tourist spots.
The ajummas (referred to middle aged or older women) at the Sokcho Jungang market (속초중앙시장) loved having us at their local shops. Their dialect had a spice palette of its own which added more nuance and flavour to our conversations. We tried several snacks at the market including the Dalgona (달고나) candy popularised by the “Squid Game 오징어 게임 (2021)”.
Time flew by and it was time for me to drop her off at the bus station, pick up my luggage and head to my Airbnb. With a heavy heart we hugged each other with promises to be in touch. I reminisced about our journey throughout that day and smiled to myself at the serendipity of it all.
Sure, the next day flew by doing touristy things like having a yachting experience, café hopping and more. Although they appear to be more exhilarating and validated by netizens on social media, funnily enough for me, those memories seemed to have faded off over the months.
When I look back at my time in Sokcho, I am drawn into the story of two vulnerable yet inquisitive souls who took a chance to explore a new dimension as a break from their mundane routines and found a sense of belonging during their most isolated and solitary times. Back then, Maeng & I were lost in our own bubble of happiness. What was strange for both of us was that despite being absolute strangers, there was some connection, some depth in our conversations that bonded us to a tie closer than just any other form of friendship. As an intuitive soul who believes in countless possibilities, I attributed that perhaps the vehement urge to make it to Sokcho on that very same day, stemmed from worldly forces working their ways in helping us meet. Maeng also rejoiced in my company, as I was her first ever friend from a foreign country and she had never had the chance to venture overseas. For me personally, that trip was a much needed emotional escape, for deeper perspective and a constant reminder that life has a way of looking out for you, maybe through lenient weather conditions, accommodative housing hosts, or precious lifetime friends like Maeng.