Back in late May, there was a singular incident of a man who was identified with MERS or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. It spread to a few others in the same hospital and unfortunately there were a few deaths. The media then picked this up and blew it up to epic proportions, throwing the entire country into a panic and making it seem like it was a fatal pandemic taking over Seoul. People were wearing masks and it was paranoia to the utmost levels – the slightest cough on the subway got everyone giving you the evil stank eye. The government had to respond, of course. They started setting up potential quarantine facilities, one of which was where I worked. I work at a government established but privately run English education institute. There were rumors going around the office at first, but then we got the official confirm that we all had to evacuate and be relocated to a place I’ve never heard of, Suanbo.
We packed pretty much all our belongings and stuffed ourselves + luggage into a tour bus. I remember the vibe at the time was somewhat tense. It was uncertain whether we’d be returning at all. Some were nervous, some were upset, and a certain some were nonchalant – I was in the last camp. I thought of it as a sort of vacation away from work but still considered work. After about an hour and a half bus ride, we approached what looked like an extremely deserted small city, a ghost town of sorts. It looked rather decrepit – I think I was conjuring up thoughts of the Walking Dead or something like Banksy’s Dismaland. There wasn’t a single person we saw in the streets. We had reached the town of Suanbo. But the bus didn’t stop – it continued past that and the occurrence of buildings were slowly decreasing. It was definitely farm and country before the bus started to slow down. We were all murmuring amongst ourselves, how the hell are we going to get out of here? We didn’t see any bus stops and taxis were out of the question. We had arrived at a place called the Suanbo Yeonsuwon – the Seoul government “training institute.”
Corporate businesses and organizations have these resort like facilities that are set up in the country which are referred to as a yeonsuwon or training institute. They are usually for company workshops, seminars, or conventions. They are also a way to treat employees to a relaxed getaway on company time with company property.
We filed out of our sardine entrapment and started to settle ourselves into our individual rooms. I had to say, the rooms were pretty spacious and nice. I honestly appreciated the large and open space – a huge, luxurious upgrade from my normal room. We all decided to meet later to walk to town. I used the time to do some quick exploring of my new surroundings. I eventually found my way to the roof of the building and got in a little #chasing_rooftop action.
Yeah, we were definitely out in the country as far as my eye could see. It was time to meet up with everyone and trek along the roads into the small town. I had done a quick Naver search and located a bus stop nearby. I also found out the nearest major city within the vicinity of Suanbo was a place called Chungju. They had an E-mart, a CGV, and a train station. Yes, civilization!
We started to approach the edge of the town and spotted a bus stop. There was man there sitting with his son. He was a local and just hanging out. We must have looked really out of place, a random crew of foreigners popping out of nowhere looking completely lost. He must have felt sympathy for us and decided to help us out. He asked us where we were from. We described our situation and how we were trying to find a bus to Chungju. He said we were at the wrong bus stop and was kind enough to walk us further into town to the right bus stop. A really nice guy and the baby was cute too. He said his son was half Korean (obviously) and half Bulgarian… or Slovakian… his wife was from eastern Europe, haha.
Suanbo wasn’t as dismal or empty as it first appeared to be. There were lots of people and the buildings were a bit dilapidated from age but not desolate. I think at the time the bus was initally rolling through, we were holding rather depressing thoughts and that may have played a subconscious influence on our outlook of reality. Apparently, Suanbo is super famous for its hot springs. A lot of people were looking forward to taking advantage of that. These are all the pictures I took on that first day there. I’ll share more of my exploration of this region in my next post.
Later on, I also found random palm trees there. Upon closer inspection, they were true to size scale fake palm trees.