It was only 4 PM when we arrived in Mungyeong, and we felt like we were on top of the world. It had been a ride of contrasts, from the tough grind up the hill in the morning, to the neverending descent in the afternoon. Finishing our day a couple of hours earlier than normal made us feel invincible. Spirits were high as we sailed into town.
Mungyeong is located in North Gyeongsang Province, and its name roughly translates to “hearing good news”. The local government, economy, and transportation networks are located in the principal town of Jeomchon, which is where we were staying. During much of the 20th century, the city’s main source of revenue was coal mining - however, these mines were closed in the 1980s, and since then, the municipal government has focused on developing tourism and agriculture. Because it is surrounded by the mountains that we just rode over, 75% of Mungyeong’s land is actually unsuitable for farming, but this sector continues to play an important role here. The area is well known for its orchards.
By now, we have developed a knack for finding good accommodation through our tried and tested technique, which we call “ride to where all the hotels are and pick the one that looks newest”. The City Hotel is no exception. 45,000 won per night gets us a decent double room with the usual amenities: bathroom, toiletries, and most importantly, a desktop computer. There’s also a free washing machine and cheap dryer at your disposal, which we happily took advantage of. Lastly, the closest 7-Eleven is only a few meters away. That’s a bingo.
After cleaning ourselves up and chilling for a bit, we set off to tackle the dreaded search for an ATM that would take foreign bank cards, as we were once again running low on funds. As Mungyeong was a bigger, more established place than the ones we had stayed in over the last several days, we hoped that we would have better luck. We walked the entire length of the city and tried no less than 10 banks before finally hearing that comforting whirr of cash being counted. Coupled with the fact that traffic lights here take an inordinate amount of time to change (no seriously, we were stuck waiting to cross for ages), we ended up spending nearly an hour on this mundane task. In this experiment alone, we have discovered that 90% of Korean ATMs do not offer “global service”. It’s really hit and miss, so you’ll have to keep trying until you find one that works (or carry cash around with you at all times, which is probably safe, but still makes us uncomfortable).
Jess was seriously stressing about this, so when we heard cash being dispensed, she almost cried tears of joy. This accomplishment (and the end of today’s ride) called for a celebratory beer, so we allowed ourselves to splurge at a hipster backpacking cafe directly across the street called Solveig, where two Asahis set us back 14,000 won (ouch).
There’s really only one way to end a day like this, and that was to get some well earned Korean BBQ for dinner. Luckily, there was a restaurant directly below our hotel that offered a generous feed at only 36,000 won. It was a small establishment with a handful of tables, and there was a large group of men sitting on the other side in what looked to be a reunion gathering. We chuckled as they took one round of shots after another, making sure that each person got their own elaborate toast. God knows what they were saying, and we wished we could understand the undoubtedly tall tales that were being told. We got the feeling that they had known each other for a long time, and everyone was in good spirits.
We were minding our own business and playing our usual post-prandial round of rummy when one of the aforementioned gentlemen mustered up the courage, or perhaps was browbeaten by his friends, to come and say hello. Once he ascertained that Jess was Korean, the drunken floodgates were open, and he sat down for a lengthy, friendly chat to get to know us better. As Jess was only getting 40% of his comments, she spent most of the time nodding and smiling, looking at Neil pleadingly as if to will him into knowing conversational Korean so she could have a break.
The exchange went something like this:
“Yes, so we’ve been watching you this whole time, trying to figure out what’s going on here. You’re Korean, aren’t you?” said the man.
“Yes”, Jess replied meekly. “But…I can’t speak it…so well.” (pauses indicate hesitation in the Korean language)
“Because I…was born…in America.” Jess sunk even further into her seat.
The man audibly gasped. “What kind of Korean person doesn’t know Korean?”
Cue Neil’s snickering, which then drew the man’s attention to him.
“Now you! You’re American for sure. Say, I’ve been trying to get a visa so that I can travel there and ride my motorcycle. Will you go with me? That way, I can get into the country!”
Now Jess started hysterically laughing, with Neil being none the wiser about what was going on. At this point, the whole group had come over and they were talking on top of each other, excited that they now had a surefire plan to get into the States. They even invited us to their offices the next day to flesh out the few remaining minor details. One of our new friends could speak a bit of English, and he was chosen to relay all of this information on behalf of the entire crew, in addition to wishing us well on our marriage.
It was lovely, albeit slightly overwhelming, but Neil took it in his slightly saddle-sore stride. Jess, on the other hand, got completely flustered and refused to leave the restaurant until they were all in a cab home. She feared they might kidnap us and take us to a noraebang for a spot of karaoke.
Neil hoped they would.