By Simon Winchester
Sun 22 Nov 09
After a recent trip to South Korea, I was keen to find out some more about this fascinating country so was pleased to discover that author and journalist Simon Winchester had written a book about his travels in this little-known land. He was retracing the steps of a group of Dutch sailors who were shipwrecked off the coast of Korea in the 17th century, and the book describes his walk from the South of the country to the North Korean border-as far as he could go. It was written in the 1980s so I was aware that some detail was going to be outdated but still hoped to learn some more about the fascinating Korean culture that I had just had my first taste of.
Unfortunately I was disappointed with most of the book and it didn’t really provide the insight into the country that I was anticipating. I found the book disjointed and it was hard to get a feel of exactly where he was in the country, partly because he walked, rather than using any form of transport. As a result of this, much of the scenery and incidents he encounters along the way are described in detail but there are not enough descriptions of the people, culture, customs etc to provide any useful insight into the country. He does not visit most of the sights and attractions that the country has to offer, which would have been interesting to read about and similarly in Seoul he barely describes the city at all. Furthermore, many of the people that the author comes across in the book are non-Koreans, for example Irish missionaries and American servicemen, so they are seeing the country through a foreigner’s eyes, as is the author. He also meets several prostitutes and some tour guides along the way, neither or which provided a typical view of the country so as a result fails to explore Korean culture in any real depth. Several times the author makes sexual references to some of the women he meets on his travels, which I found to be rather tasteless and unnecessary.
One of the most interesting passages in the book was the description of ginseng, detailing its significance in Korean society and its health benefits. There were a few other interesting sections and anecdotes throughout, but if the rest of the book had been written in a similar style it would have a much more engaging and interesting read. By far the most interesting part of the book was the final part, when Winchester spends some time at the DMZ, near the border to North Korea. Although he was again predominantly with non – Koreans (American servicemen) while he was in this area, this section provides a fascinating insight into the history behind this massively fortified border area.
This book is a fairly quick, easy read with a spot of humour in parts, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone seeking to learn more about South Korea and its culture and people.
You can find this book on Amazon: Korea: A Walk Through The Land Of Miracles