I am going to assume that most of you who read The Weekly have, at one time or another, read the work of freelance writer Simon Richmond, though probably without realising it. Richmond has been a writer for the Lonely Planet guidebooks since 1999 and has written over 50 of their guidebooks, being sent to countries like Russia, Malaysia, Singapore, and even Iran.
On the island this month to research Jeju for an update to the 400+ page eighth edition of Lonely Planet Korea, I met this globetrotter for lunch at a coffee shop in Seogwipo City that he was reviewing for possible inclusion in the book.
Having been a journalist since the ‘80s he said he specializes in travel writing, “but I am a very general journalist. I write about anything, really. Which you have to for a guide book. I have to cover a multitude of different subjects. It’s not just reviewing hotels and restaurants, I have to talk about culture, political issues, history.”
Here for only a couple of weeks traversing the island to find its hidden gems, as well as visit the island’s staple tourist attractions, he said that in covering the island he hasn’t come across any difficulties.
“[The] people have been extremely helpful and I thought coming to a more rural part of Korea the level of english availability would be lower but it’s actually not too bad. And even in smaller places,” he said.
An observation he made as a possible reason for this is that “there’s something about Jeju; it seems to be attracting quite cosmopolitan people from Seoul and other parts of the country and just want to drop out and do their own thing here.”
Case in point, Suh Myung Sook, who left her busy life as a journalist in Seoul to found the widely successful Olle walking trails, a tourist attraction that Richmond has a particular interest in.
“One of the reasons I’m focusing on the Olle … is because [Jeju is] heavily promoted as an island to come walk and that will attract a particular type of traveller so I’m trying to do the trails, some of the trails, and get information that will help that type of traveller,” he said.
He continued that on the island there have been lots of things that have surprised him like the Kim Young Gap Gallery, which he said is excellent, and that “It’s really nice to see the island embracing its recent artistic heritage.” His point was only more solidly made by the fact that the street we were dining on was Lee Joong Seop Street, named after one of Korea’s most famous modern artists and home to the Lee Joong Seop Museum.
What is interesting, he said, is that “You can have the experience you want to have here,” due to the variety of genre tourism. For instance, the other day he visited the Genius Loci, a building in Phoenix Island designed by Tadao Ando, and he noticed that there were busloads of tourists in the area, but not to see the architecture. They were there because the area has been used numerous times as a film location.
“They ignored the really amazing bits of modern architecture which is great, I had the Genius Loci meditation place to myself for an hour,” he said.
In having travelled the world for over a decade with the Lonely Planet it is inevitable that he would have a variety of experiences, but one of the more memorable, he said, was in Russia writing about the Trans-Siberia Railway “when I was arrested … as a suspected spy.”
In the middle of Siberia while traveling along the Trans-Siberia Railway he got off at a stop, took a picture of the station, and was promptly arrested. The train left with all his belongings including all the work he had done for the Lonely Planet’s Trans-Siberia Railway guide.
“I thought I’d lost my bags. I thought I lost everything,” Richmond said. “My career would have been sunk because I [would have] lost half a book.”
He eventually convinced arresting officers that No, he was not a spy, just a writer on assignment. Then they helped him to catch up to his bags. Eighteen hours later he was at his destination and his bags were there waiting for him, with everything pulled out and itemized as proof that nothing had been stolen.
“It was a very memorable experience because obviously it was very stressful and almost a tragedy that became sort of successful,” he said.
I asked if he was often arrested while writing about the different countries, to which he said that in Russia it occurs for bribes and that “it has happened to me a couple of times.”
Currently with a team of four other writers Richmond, as the Lonely Planet Korea coordinating writer, is wrapping up three months research in Korea of the ninth edition of the book, which will be available sometime next February.
“This will be the best [Lonely Planet] guide to Korea yet, reflective of where the country is now as a great East Asian tourist destination,” he said.
New to the Jeju chapter of the book, along with better maps and more accessible information, “There will be plenty of new listings … such as Phoenix Island at Seopjikoji and more practical info in hiking the Olle routes or up [Mt.] Halla,” he said.
Nearing the end of his lengthy stay in Korea, Richmond goes back to his home in London, England, June 21. And what does a globe-trotting journalist look forward too? The comfort of his kitchen: “Cooking a meal at home!”
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