This is the last of many blogs from the most eventful day I’ve had in Korea, in nearly eight months since moving here. October 6, 2012…you were a beast.
We burst out of the station and onto the Hangang river park. Despite the fact that the fireworks do not begin for another four hours, there are easily 100,000 people on the riverside. Already. We carve out a small patch of grass and relax, the long hours since we awoke finally catching up with us. The sky is clear…cloudy. It’s a perfect fall day, without a hint of the threat to the North. Russell comments that the South is so safe…almost eerily so.
As the evening wears on the crowd becomes a living, moving, roaring thing. I’m tempted to call it a dragon (which sounds like way too much a stereotype, even to my exhausted brain) but the truth is that the throng reminds me far more of a whirring anthill. We agree that we’ve never seen anything like it. It’s both terrifying and annoying at the same time. Mostly annoying. The lines for the toilets are literally the longest I’ve ever seen in my life. 500,000-700,000 people crammed into a space that normally sees only a couple thousand per day.
Even the cell phone networks are crashing due to the overload. When we finally get in touch with our friend we were supposed to meet, he sends an ominous message: “People are getting trampled down here.” He has yet to make it out of the subway. It’s getting dark when Russell is forced by a full bladder to dash into the crowd, leaving me at our ever-shrinking spot as it is encroached upon by ajummas.
I’ve never felt so alone in a crowd.
The sea of people moves around me, barely contained on the sidewalks. As any minute it looks as though they might burst the banks and a tsunami of face and bodies might carry me away. Ten minutes pass. Then twenty. Where is Russell? I don’t have a phone, I have no way to communicate, and if we lose each other then we will not be able to find each other again. I suddenly wish we had a plan to meet somewhere in an emergency.
Oddly, the lack of service on the cell networks reminds me of the jamming they put on the DMZ. The loneliness of those twenty minutes in the crowd, surrounded by more people than I’ve ever seen with my own eyes, is greater than the loneliness of our tour group in the isolation and silence of the border. I try to imagine what a North Korea would think if s/he were thrust into this maelstrom.
Russell is back. He steps on several people to reach me, and we hug out of sheer relief. He had to walk nearly two miles in order to pee into a bush.
“I have to go find Will,” he says. “I hope he hasn’t been trampled.”
I’m alone in the crowd again. I decide to take photos to occupy myself, to make some kind of documentation of this insane and uniquely 21st century phenomenon. Whenever I am in a crowd, I think of how few people existed in the world of ancient and not-so-ancient times. No wonder anxiety is on the rise in the contemporary world. When confronted with nearly a million people visible in the space of five subway stops, anyone would freak out.
The fireworks themselves are marred by the necessity to use the toilet. Like Russell, I walk nearly two miles to escape the crowds. I pee on the side of a hill, in the shadow of the National Assembly. It occurs to me that I probably could be arrested for this. I simply do not care. I’m not using a toilet a million other people have peed in, especially in a city where toilet paper is scarce at the best of times and piled high in toitletside trash cans at the worst. I take my hair down and practically run through the crowd to get back, hoping that my wild-foreigner-woman appearance makes people scared enough to stay out of my way.
When the fireworks show finally comes to an end, we pack up our things and decide to walk in the opposite direction of the crowds for a while. As we dodge more and more people, the endless nature of the crowd becomes apparent. We all stop talking, the joviality of a night out sucked away by the sheer numbers of people, people, PEOPLE. After wandering aimlessly for about an hour, I look to my right. I swear aloud.
The National Assembly, literally the opposite of the island, lies to our right. We’ve done a full circle and not escaped the crowd at all. Cars are driving down the sidewalks, blatantly flouting any kind of traffic laws in front of the building that is supposed to make them. A family in a 4×4 is going up the sidewalk the wrong way on a one-way street and somehow doesn’t get pulled over. A businessman storms into his illegally-parked car in front of the financial center and nearly runs over our feet in his rush to move his car fifty feet. He nearly levels two people on the way, and for the first time in Korea I yell at a stranger, flipping him off and not caring what people think. He’s a danger.
We turn toward the subway and to the police officers waiting and holding back the crowds in groups of six on the escalators. When they finally let us through, we follow the crowd, throwing elbows as necessary. It’s an ugly scene. All the courtesy upon which Korean culture is supposedly based goes straight out the window, and with each stop more people force their way onto the train and jab me in the sides and back. It’s not even the last train of the night, so there is really no reason for it. I feel like a panic attack might be coming on, squashed between two couples who seem to have no idea that there is a six-foot-tall woman trying to eke out some space next to them.
My panic dissolves into anger at the next stop. A couple with a tiny baby in a snuggly is on the train, trying to protect their child from the crowd. People surge onto the train, shoving hands and feet over and under the crowd. Someone could easily fall and be crushed underfoot, or the baby could be smashed by the encroaching adults. I lose decorum.
“Baby!” I say, pointing. “Baby! BABY!” It’s in English, but that’s a word that everyone should know from its adoption into Konglish.
“Eodi?(Where?)” says someone, not bothering to use formal speech with me. I don’t care. I answer in Korean, also omitting the “yo” that marks polite speech. “Yo-gi. Yo-gi!(Here. Here!)” They don’t seem to care, continuing to push. It’s madness, and at that moment I kind of hate humans.
Perhaps mercifully, the anger replaces my panic for the rest of the journey back to Gojan Station. It staves off a full-blown panic attack and allows me to get back to the quiet and relatively empty streets of Ansan. We wander through the dark, just as cold as when we began this monster of a day at 4:30AM. I glance at my phone, and see that it is just after midnight. Twenty hours of travel, busses, subways, crowds, war zones, and setting foot in North Korea has left us bedraggled and famished.
Cheap kimchi jjigae at the 24-hour restaurant, the stumble home, and collapse into bed. October 6th, you were a beast.