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Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles…

Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles

by Simon Winchester

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This travelogue written in the late 1980s tells of the author's WALK through Korea from the south up to the DMZ. His love of the country and its people are evident and a welcome dose of warmth about a country where both the weather and the people are often treated coldly. The word about the weather may be true. While this book didn't have as much substance as other of Winchesters books, I enjoyed the bits of history and tidbits about life and culture. ( )
  gbelik | Feb 4, 2014 |
Simon Winchester launched upon his career as an writer, after retiring as a journalist. His first three books all dealt with experiences he had gathered during his years as a journalist, describing his travels in the Southern States, Northern Ireland and his POW Diary during the Falkland War. Following those books, he wrote three travelogues, situated in Mainland China, Hong Kong and Korea, and a failed science-fiction novel. He is best known for his science biographies.

In 1988, Winchester published Korea. A walk through the land of miracles. The Leitmotiv of the travelogue is the story of Hendrick Hamel, whose journal Verhaal van het vergaan van het jacht de Sperwer, En van het wedervaren der schipbreukelingen op het eiland Quelpaert en het vasteland van Korea (1653-1666) met eene beschrijving van dat rijk (Transl. Hamel's Journal and a Description of the Kingdom of Korea, 1653-1666 is the earliest Western description of Korea.

Hamel's journal is worthy of attention by readers who enjoyed David Mitchell's recent novel The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which describes a similar series of historical exploits of the Dutch in the Far East. In 1653, on their way to Dejima, the Dutch vessel 'De Sperwer' (the Sparrowhawk), was shipwrecked on the south coast of Korea. The 36 surviving Dutchmen were marched off to the imperial palace in Seoul. They spent 13 years in Korean custody, before Hamel and seven crew mates managed to escape to Dejima. According to Winchester, Koreans with blond-streaked hair and blue eyes, found in the southwest of the Korean peninsula are descendants of these Dutch prisoners.

Simon Winchester set out to walk the same route as the Dutch sailors used when they were marched to the capital. Each chapter starts with an excerpt from Hamel's journal. Originall, Winchester planned to walk the whole length of the peninsula, crossing the demilitarized zone and into North Korea, up to the Yalu river, from whence he intended to cross over into China. However, the epic trail finishes at the DMZ, as Winchester find the prospect of crossing over too daunting.

The first chapter of Korea. A walk through the land of miracles very muddled, describing ponderously about his plans, and rather distracting to-and-fro-ing between his previous visits to both Koreas. Subsequent chapters are written in a journalistic style, reporting experiences with local informers. It isn't clear whether Winchester spoke Korean. The description of Korea is marred by the many technical details of Winchester's kit, preparations:

I bought myself a stout Lowe rucksack and one of those canvas-and-velcro purses in which you keep all your valuables suspended from your neck. I dug my New Balance boots (last used a year before to clamber along the Crib Goch ridge in North Wales, and thus well worn in) out of a cupboard. I bought bars of Cadbury's Fruit-and-Nut chocolate and sachets of instant coffee and the inevitable slabs of Kendal Mint Cake (brown, not white).

This goes on for a page or so, and seems rather wordy, full of unnecessary details. During the trek, most details and descriptions are also of glass, concrete and glitter, describing modern Korea, as it was emerging in the 1980s, more than anything else.

Winchester's Korea. A walk through the land of miracles is probably attractive reading to readers who like the style of the Lonely Planet Guides, very hands-on and very close to the local population. ( )
  edwinbcn | Jan 3, 2013 |
Simon Winchester, before he became a popular science biography writer, walked 300 miles across Western South Korea just before South Korea's coming out as a modern nation in the 1988 Summer Olympic Games. My first surprise was how tiny South Korea is. Winchester's 300 miles translates to the distance between Munich and Vienna. The population of Poland crammed into a bit more than the area of Austria, with more than half the population concentrated around the capital city of Seoul, which explains the risky choice of the Inchon landing. Seoul is the ultimate prize. Its position close to the demilitarized zone makes its destruction in case of war a near certainty. The North Korean Damocles sword both guarantees American restraint and requires a perpetual Northern threat, which hopefully will not end in a Götterdämmerung when the rotten Northern regime finally collapses.

Winchester relies on the classic Western travel writer stick (the anti-Borat), in so far as he is a rich, strange and powerful specimen the natives are interested in approaching and offering their services to. Naturally, he has little to no knowledge of the country's language. I doubt that Winchester's model would work in, say, walking from Munich to Vienna.

Following the path of a 17th century shipwrecked Dutch crew from the island of Cheyu to the Imjin River, he can rely on the (pre-arranged) help and support from Buddhist temples and US army bases, as well as the basic tourist infrastructure. His path along the Western seaboard allows him to paint a good portrait of the country, its history, its culture and its people in an entertaining way. We learn about Korea's unfortunate geographic location amidst bigger neighbors (Asia's Belgium), its struggle for internal and external freedom, its contradictory devotion to both traditional Confucianism and rapid economic development. Only the Korean War, while looming throughout the book via the omnipresent armed forces and infrastructure, is never fully described. Similar to Tom Friedman's fondness for local taxi drivers, Winchester is enamored with Korean bar maids (both the taxi drivers and the bar maids are professionally obliged to speak to the foreign devils.). Winchester's tale of his struggle to remain chaste as an oversexed Englishman in the Korean fleshpot grows stale rather quickly. A little bit less dirty old man might have increased the reading pleasure and lessened the exploitation of the local women.

Overall, it remains a good read about the Cold War years and a good introduction to a country often overshadowed by its neighbors. ( )
3 vote jcbrunner | Oct 31, 2010 |
It’s the author’s account of his journey on foot through Korea, from Jeju Island in the south to the 38 parallel, retracing the steps of seventeenth-century sailor Hendrick Hamelits who was forced to make this journey after having been shipwrecked and made the king’s captive. On his walk, Winchester was hoping to discover what was there in the Koreans that made it possible for them to recently make so much progress in so little time.
Even though the book was first published in 1984, it has lost little of its relevance. It goes off on different tangents into history and culture, geography and politics, anecdote and intrigue, and very much of it is interesting, still valid and well written. It’s a very enjoyable read, and the one in which Winchester shows more of his private self than in his other books. ( )
1 vote Niecierpek | May 23, 2010 |
This is Winchester's account of his hike across South Korea, from south to north in the late 1980's. ( )
  ds1 | Jun 1, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0060750448, Paperback)

In the late 1980s, New York Times bestselling author Simon Winchester set out on foot to discover the Republic of Korea -- from its southern tip to the North Korean border -- in order to set the record straight about this enigmatic and elusive land.

Fascinating for its vivid presentation of historical and geographic detail, Korea is that rare book that actually defines a nation and its people. Winchester's gift for capturing engaging characters in true, compelling stories provides us with a treasury of enchanting and informed insight on the culture, language, history, and politics of this little-known corner of Asia.

With a new introduction by the author, Korea is a beautiful journey through a mysterious country and a memorable addition to the many adventures of Simon Winchester.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:32 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

"In the late 1980s, author Simon Winchester set out on foot to discover the Republic of Korea - from its southern tip to the North Korean border - in order to set the record straight about this enigmatic and elusive land." "Fascinating for its presentation of historical and geographic detail, Korea is a book that actually defines a nation and its people. Winchester captures and engages characters in true stories that provide us with a treasury of informed insight on the culture, language, history, and politics of this little-known corner of Asia."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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