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Korea Blog: Michael Gibb’s Island-Hopping Travelogue “A Korean Odyssey”

Modern South Korea made its orchestrated debut on the world stage with the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Since that time, the most memorable English-language travel narratives about this country have been written by Englishmen. Simon Winchester’s Korea: A Walk through the Land of Miracles, which came out the year of the Games, seems to remain the best-known, though as supplementary reading I always recommend Clive Leatherdale’s lesser-known To Dream of Pigs, the chronicle of a journey around the country taken in the same time and published in the early 1990s. Over the past decade, during which Korea has made a fuller return to the global zeitgeist, a few more such books have appeared: Graham Holiday’s culinary travelogue Eating Korea, for instance, or Michael Booth’s Three Tigers, One Mountain, an exploration of northeast Asia given over in large part to Korea. What keeps bringing these Brits?

For the London-born Michael Gibb, author of the new book A Korean Odyssey: Island-Hopping in Choppy Waters, the attraction feels atavistic. “Just as a hiker salivates at the prospect of scrambling over a mountain range or an equestrian glows at the prospect of galloping across a far-flung grassland,” he writes, “I get giddy thinking about ferry trips to remote outlying islands,” especially “the storm-ravaged, history-rich, guano-splattered archipelagos of South Korea.” Even when transplanted to the other side of the world, it seems, a man from an island not known for its pleasant weather will seek out more of the same. Gibb currently lives with his Korean wife and young daughter on Hong Kong’s Lamma Island, where he relishes each summer, which begins “dark and thundery, oppressive enough to transform the jolliest of friends into miserable wretches,” then turns into “clear blue skies and enough heat to melt your brains.”

In the 1990s, Gibb lived here in Seoul — or rather, in the altogether different Seoul that existed in the 1990s. “It was far from easy dealing with a complex language, a feisty cuisine, and complex social etiquette,” he recalls. “The shove in the back while boarding a bus was not welcomed. Testy nationalism and insular world views alienated me. Motorbikes roaring down sidewalks instead of on the street boiled my blood.” By all accounts, the still freshly developed nation was indeed more reckless and slipshod all around in those days. “Planes fell out of the sky, bridges collapsed, gas pipes exploded, the top of a bus was shorn off by a low bridge, and one of my former students and my wife’s cousin were both crushed when a shopping mall collapsed.” The collapse was presumably that of the Sampoong Department Store in 1995, which killed more than 500 people.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.