There are two phenomena that I associate with Spring in Korea; blossoms and “Yellow Dust from China”.
Last week, we had our first yellow dust warning. The sky looked a bit hazy, not much worse than most other days, but after the snow, it was actually bluer than usual.
The plum blossoms are the first to come, soon followed by the cherry blossoms. They begin their bloom in the south and sweep their way up the country a day at a time. By the end of February, the plum blossoms are already blooming on the southern coast. Cherry blossoms have probably started, or will start blooming any day. Around Seoul, the plum blossoms are just starting now. I remembered going to a small, relatively unvisited palace a couple of years ago and being surprised by all blossoms. I checked the date on my photos and it was March 23rd. EunBong called the palace office in the morning and they said they were just starting to bloom, so we headed into the city to see.
The number one thing on our list of ways to keep from spending money was not going to Seoul, but we’ve done well enough lately to make a trip in. It was nice to get out of our little neighborhood for the first time in weeks. It rained a little in the morning and was so overcast that it seemed like late evening just after noon.
We got to the palace, walked around a bit, sat, secretly picked a few of the plum blossoms for tea later, and took some pictures. I had the worst time trying to adjust the white balance on my camera. It just wasn’t matching the peculiar yellow tinge in the sky. It took about as long for me to finally make the correct adjustment as it took me to realize this wasn’t an overcast day sort of yellow that sometimes happens, this looked much more of an industrial shade of yellow. As the rain clouds cleared, the sky turned such a bright yellow, it could have cheered up Picasso, given every taxi in New York a fresh coat of paint, and still had enough left for the Yellow Submarine!
Not long after, EunBong’s friend called to say the news was telling everyone to stay inside because of the yellow dust storm. What makes the dust so dangerous is as it travels from the desert, where it originated, through industrial China and Mongolia, it picks up a lot of hazardous particles. Toady’s dust had especially high levels of cadmium and lead, that it contracted from battery factories along the way, along with various other heavy metals that belong in the ground, not in the sky. We headed to a cozy, traditional restaurant and camped out in the corner with Fina for a while. We have a plastic cover over her stroller but I was still worried about her lungs.
After a couple hours, we headed for the bus home. A man who works at one of the tea houses along the way spotted us and called us in for some tea. They were sampling some traditional Korea fruit teas, the sweet aroma was a pleasant change from the dusty air we’d been breathing outside. The first cup he gave us was ‘Dol Bok-sung-ah Cha’, fermented ‘Stone Peach tea’, a variety of wild peach that only grows in the deep mountains. It was particular good for cleansing the blood, and also the throat and lungs. Suitable, I thought, for what we may have just breathed in today. The smell was like preparing yeast for dough, and the taste was like a soft, peach flavored cider. The next cup was ‘San Darae Cha’, fermented wild ‘Mountain Kiwi tea’, a tiny Kiwi that, again, only grows in the deep mountains. They told us it was helpful for cleansing our kidneys.
There’s a small mountain behind the main palace in Seoul, less than 2 km away. Not long ago, it was barely visible behind the cloud of dust, but as we left, I could make out its clear silhouette against the twilight and street lamps. The wind was blowing sharply and the air felt much fresher. As I dosed of on the bus ride home, I thought I heard the radio talking about the yellow-dust storm. I heard the numbers 540, and figured they were talking about the PPM in the air that day. When i heard the number 2000, I realized I didn’t understand as much as I thought I did. I stopped listen and tried to fall asleep when EunBong nudge me and said that in Seoul today, the pollution had hit 540ppm, but around Daegu, it had been over 2000ppm. To put this into a bit of perspective, a good day in Seoul is anywhere between 50-100ppm, I checked LA’s air quality, and it was at 74ppm. The Air Quality Index rates 201-300ppm as very unhealthy and 301-500ppm as hazardous. 2000ppm is absolutely off the charts!
We weren’t out for long, but we were out in the peak of it. I keep trying to telling myself, “I am the dust, the dust is me,” a trick my friend said she used to get over environmental allergies. I have a bit of a cough now, so if it doesn’t work, I think I’ll eat some extra kimchi this week!