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Useful And Fantastic: Korea As It Once Was - 3

...There were also spavined, sway-backed horses looking as if they were slung on stilts, and tiny, miserable furry donkeys, half-buried under their loads of pine-brushwood, the universal fuel. Bicycles dodged in and out, - and what bicycles. They had heavy, crude, solid frames, always going back to the welders, but at night they looked rather beautiful, as each carried a low-slung, flickering carbide lamp, with flames that seemed to lick the rider’s feet every time the pedals came around...

Val Yule describes the Korea of long ago, before the country was torn apart by war.

A tragi-comedy stood in the Methodist Mission compound, next to, and overshadowing, the picturesque old mud office which had been the first Methodist church in Seoul. One of the women medicos had wanted a small station-wagon type medical van to visit country areas. A church back in the States heard her request, and decided to fulfil it beyond her wildest dreams. They sent out a gigantic caravan, equipped like a States-side hospital. I do not know how it managed to get into the compound. Certainly it could rarely venture out. Korean roads were too bumpy for the luxurious, low-slung axles; they were too narrow for the width of it; too twisty for the length of it; too steep for a little jeep to pull the weight of it. If the States-side church knew of it, it would break its heart.

There was not much traffic-noise as we know it, in Seoul, beyond the whistles and bells and squeaks and people. In the city of one and a half million people, the car number-plates went up to a couple of thousand. Some belonged to the luxurious, restricted speeder of the American officials, or of the silk-worm-fat Korean upper-class. Some belonged to the missionaries’ jeeps and station wagons; the rest to little black puttering taxis, or to even smaller and more sputtering three-wheeled cycle-cabs, always loaded to the gunwale, with as many as eight passengers, and still moving. There were army trucks, too, that roared callously past intersections, and Government trucks, such as those occasionally seen full of prisoners, mainly “political” with humiliating eye-slitted wicker baskets over their heads, and plenty of guards with rifle-butts at the ready.

There were hermetically sealed green caterpillars called trams. These were relatively cheap, and always crowded. Long queues waited for them in areas roped off the street. Although I believe it was once common transport for foreigners, since jeeps and traders’ exchange petrol came in at the end of the war, George and I belonged to the very few who ever travelled on them then. It was quite safe. George would put his pen in his inner-most pocket, leave his watch home, and carry only the tram-fare, so he could carelessly note the stratagems of his neighbours, with razor-blades waiting for brief-case or pocket, and accidental jerks for the rest. Not that the other foreigners were safe from trams. Pete paused at an intersection in his jeep; a hand reached out for his hat from a passing tram.

The trams are also propaganda vehicles. One such, one day, was decked out with azaleas and artificial flowers and policemen blowing whistles, and belisha beacons and the Korean flag with its red and blue tennis-ball (or eternity) emblem. This was to instil Safety First in to the people. You will see why.

Although there were not many cars and trucks, these were mostly driven by Americans. Koreans did not believe in traffic and Americans do not believe in pedestrians. It was the old immovable object and irresistible force again, with the qualification that loud honks made the objects in the middle of the road - usually dignified old gentlemen in white with upturned toes turned out and felt hats stuck square on the tops of their heads, like the famous Walrus, - leap and bolt in all directions, especially straight at the jeeps. As so many Americans drove on the assumption that the obstacles just in front would move just in time, they often had to pause in their mad flights to take scraped people to hospital. The fact that Koreans were used to - insofar as they ever got used to it - the left-hand drive of the Japanese, and that the Americans, unable to take this, had changed the rule to right-hand drive, increased the menace-potentiality of the confused Korean pedestrian.

One immemorial institution, however, refused to change at the whim of a foreigner. The daily, day-long processions of ox-carts out of the city to the farms kept steadily to the left. These were the donge-cartes of which Chaucer wrote so well in medieval England. They smelled all over the street. I found that the technique to pass an ox-cart, or honey-cart, as it was euphemistically called, was to breathe until the last wheel of the procession was passing, and then hold breath until the wake of the vapours was over.

Another immemorial institution was the hearse, which had been motorised. It was usually gilt and black, covered with what appeared to be angels and butterflies and dragons in gaudy stucco relief, topped with a curved gilt temple-like roof, twisted and embellished most elaborately and fearfully. Apparently it had a fairly free petrol ration, probably for health reasons, and so hearses were quite common, tooting and rattling around the streets. Sometimes they seemed more like private buses. Men lounged inside drinking or playing games on what might have been a table, but should, to complete the picture, have been a coffin.

Most of the haulage was done by hump-backed oxen and slow carts with thick, hardly circular wooden wheels, or else by men. Men drew carts, loaded high, or carried what seemed to be just as much on their own backs, on jiggies. Jiggies are a wooden V-shaped framework that forks and has two legs. One would be loaded while standing on these legs, supported by a staff. Its owner would bend his back to it, put his shoulders into the straw rope thongs, remove the staff and use it to steady himself while rising. Although heavy in themselves, jiggies have the great advantages that in steep country such as most of Korea is, both hands are free, and that they are so constructed that, by leaning slightly forward, the jiggi-man can carry a balanced load of 200lbs for long distances. Jiggies are a great idea, as long as economic circumstances do not force you to carry twice that weight for a pittance.

There were also spavined, sway-backed horses looking as if they were slung on stilts, and tiny, miserable furry donkeys, half-buried under their loads of pine-brushwood, the universal fuel. Bicycles dodged in and out, - and what bicycles. They had heavy, crude, solid frames, always going back to the welders, but at night they looked rather beautiful, as each carried a low-slung, flickering carbide lamp, with flames that seemed to lick the rider’s feet every time the pedals came around.

Then, down the wide main street from the Capitol, there were people running. All Koreans love running. Children run behind cars and carts; boys pace beside them, with the scientific run of those with no ulterior purpose except to run. So when the Americans sent one of their champion runners to Korea as an evangelist, the people flocked to see the running, at least.

And then there are the crowds, just walking. Far too many to describe, yet everyone is different. Women with bundles on their heads, their latest baby on their backs, or round in front at dinner-time. The next youngest is on the back of the third youngest, who is playing hop-scotch in the ditch or sitting in a pot-hole in the middle of the road. The next boy is a shoe-shine; the girl sells pop-corn. Perhaps one of the shaven, egg-headed youths in the navy uniform with buttons is the eldest, back from school.

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