You need a passport to get to the island?’ I ask Dada as we join the hordes waiting in the line to Nami Republic. But in Korea, the world’s most darkly divided peninsula, getting to Nami nature park is a fairytale reached by ferry or zipline a mile long.
As our ferry reaches the cold shores of Nami island, jazz notes fall down the hill. A saxophonist plays while a father dances with his little girl. A mermaid sculpture hides in the grey mist circling this tiny crescent-shaped island covered in forest. Among the elegant skeletons of white birch trees, a Christmas tree made from green Soju bottles rests. In April.
I’ve only been teaching in hyper-conservative Seoul a month, but already life on Nami seems a mystic dream, a place where ostriches roam and cars don’t, an hour from the second biggest city on Earth.
I’m here with my Korean friend Dada, who I met last week in a dive club when I asked if I could try on her Russian hat. Turns out Dada is a stylist for Korean GQ who lived in London for a while to practice her English, and even though I’m from the north of Scotland, it’s close enough to Dalston for her. After a mid-week coffee, this is our second date. Having spent the Saturday morning train journey to Nami pretending we’re birds with claws for hands, I’m pretty sure she’s The One.
On pine-sprinkled paths the colour of burnt caramel, dancing shadows belong to old aunties trussed up in plastic visors and purple puffa jackets. I look to my new friend Dada with a sad smile. We came hoping the island would be ours. She twirls a twig in the air.
Tada! They’re ostriches now!
Hermione, you did it!
My friend winks, grabs my arm and clucks through the mist singing,
I sing along, feeling free.
We sit down in the tent, and cross our legs for imaginary cucumber sandwiches at the Ritz.
Afternoon tea Miss Yeong?
Underground are pots of cabbages, curdling and softening in chilli and scallions. Bored already, we jump out of the yurt and run across the park to climb on top of a papier mache snowman, then chase each other across the grass to an outdoor pottery exhibition displaying Cocks! Dicks! Penises!
We giggle at the clay cocks while real cockerels sing and strut on the curved roof of the replica Korean traditional house next to the winter exhibition. A peacock pauses to show off her dreamcoat in the garden, but I am hushed by the antique beauty of the house these birds call home. I stroke the thin paper doors made from the pulp of mulberry trees. Dada points out some tears in the paper.
They’re to watch people having sex!
I gasp like an over-awed little sister.
We go for a walk around the tiny island. In the placid water surrounding Nami, lovers thrash swan pedals. As we drift through spare woods to the island’s end a mile away, couples in cutesy matching jumpers laze past on tandem bikes. So much sugary love disturbs us. We run back to the island’s grey heart where there’s a garden sculpture made up of hundreds of pebbles balanced delicately on top of each other.
An avalanche of pebbles crashes into concrete. I panic, see guilty Dada run behind a concert building in the woods. We slouch against the wall looking out for Nami police.
What did you do, Dada?
‘I got too excited with my Hermione wand’ she says in a small voice, cheeks flushed.
I look up. Chains dangle from the roof of this non-descript log cabin. The chains are rusty rain, I have to touch them. I start climbing the biggest one and crash just as fast. The links fall to the floor all around me, my hands streaked red. We are both dicks.
Too hyper to explore any more, we head to Nami’s little avenue of fancy restaurants and cafes. In the chic surroundings of Di Matteo’s Italian, we order pizza as light as a galette and calm down while talking about how the Korean prime minister looks like a cricket.
Back outside after lunch, we find an abandoned swimming pool hidden amongst the skeletons of trees, a huge plastic castle built to house a tiny toilet, and a giant pyramid made from books. No wonder we feel high.
A tiny wooden cottage by the water welcomes us with pots of daffodils and the smell of burnt sugar. We make Korean bopkee candy over a gas stove outside, whisking baking powder into sugar until it resembles a latte. The bubbling liquid is poured over a metal tray, hardening while we chew.
Too much sugar, too much air, we run in search of two ostriches who don’t run free, but stalk around a field. We taunt them with twigs, because we’re bullies, reminded of ourselves pent up in the city.
Because we can, we skip along tracks that normally carry a choo-choo train full of tired families round the island.
A whistle-blower escorts us off the tracks, even though the toy train is nowhere to be seen. It’s been hours, we’re tired, time to take the ferry to Chuncheon city across the bay.
Walking past traditional houses back to the train station, we see an old woman with soft apple cheeks and a woolly jumper pulling roots from her garden. There’s tears in the paper covering her doors. We know her sexy secret and we can’t stop laughing. I can’t believe it. Korea might just be my kind of place.