I had forgotten how spoilt I was in the Philippines. Everyone, from bus drivers to isolated islanders, speaks an impressive level of English. No one speaks English in Korea (I’m told they do but are shy to speak if they aren’t going to get it perfectly right). So I’ve had to fall back on the old faithful: Mime. Luckily for me, the American involvement in the Korean War has meant that the country feels enough of an affinity with the West to feature English on their signs as well as Korean.
If the boot was on the other foot and I was Korean rocking up to a regional town speaking as little of the local lingo and diddly squat about where I was, I wonder if I would have been able to get anywhere without breaking down in tears? I doubt it. We English speakers have it easy.
Arrived at Busan airport in the country’s South at about 8 th’neet and quickly set about trying to get the basics sorted – cash and digs. Went to the airport’s ATM and was faced with a machine that looked like the space command centre and I couldn’t toggle it to speak English. I’m not sure what these robots can do, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me tax returns. South Korea is a proudly high-tech society where anyone with a smart phone could step in for the Apollo Command Centre. Heckers, you even operate the luggage lockers at the train station with your fingerprints. But I am low tech and nearly flipped my lid on a couple of occasions when the sheer sophistication of what should be simple tasks nearly got the better of me. It took me three goes just to get cash out.
We’re back in the land of silly money so with 250k in my grubby paws and the scribbled half-addresses of three hostels on a scrap of paper, I investigated making my way into town. Half considered just kipping at the airport and waiting for the sun but a) that would be a cop out and b) this is a little airport so it started to get creepy as they turned the lights out. Jumped a bus into town, showing the driver the address of the first hostel on the list. Feared it was going to be a long night when I was met with a blank face but then his face lit with recognition and away we went. Clocked a 24-hour McDonalds on the way, just in case.
He kicked me out at the right stop and I found myself tramping along underneath a highway overpass at 11pm, asking people where I was going and grinning to myself as I received only blank looks in return and continued wandering blind. For what would be a most insalubrious spot in most Western countries, the underpass didn’t feel remotely threatening. Korea doesn’t, on the whole, although you do get a few tramp dens where they gather to drink rice wine, piss themselves and play the same games that the homeless play the world over. They’ll ask you for a few pence for their next bottle of fire water but I don’t think they’d knife you.
Most people didn’t speak a word of English but I found one student who spoke enough to translate the address into Korean for me and point me in the right direction. The ‘hostel’ was actually a 4-bedroom flat with lots of bunks but friendly June (a bloke, believe it or not), into Bob Marley and all things hippie, gives a very warm welcome. Most of the people in residence were Malaysian and Taiwanese, though there was also a strange German coleopterist sprawled out on the sofa with the alabaster white flesh of his inner thighs on full display. Vom. No surprises to learn that he still lived with his parents in his middle age.
Vaguely planned to do a loop of South Korea to end up back in the South to hop a ferry over to Japan so I decided to head to Deagu to meet the perpetrator of the South Korea detour. I met the haphazard Junho on the way to Capadoccia back in Turkey when he raced up to ask whether he was getting on the right night bus, having buggered about too long in the Princes Islands. He told me as we tramped around the Turkish countryside that South Korea is just a 3 hour flight from the Philippines and suggested that I drop in on the way through to China. Well why not?
So North I went, to his hometown of Gyeongsan (gs are pronounced like qs), via the metro and bus. Sat next to the standard-issue loon on the metro who talked high speed Korean at me and smelt strongly of the last night’s indulgence. Like Nick Rice on your average day at the office. It’s a popular pong and drunks are fairly commonplace, wobbling through the streets at all times of the day. Attendance at work nights out, for example, is mandatory and the boss has to accept a drink from every one of his minions. Obviously he gets legless. It’s difficult to see how they boss can command respect after one of these nights out – you often see businessman falling off stools restaurants. But by then the whole party is steaming. Power to them.
“Your bed is made of stone,” Junho told me. Cool, I thought, envisaging a majestic frame of carved sandstone. No no; it is in fact the mattress that is made of granite. Cool in summer, warm in winter and remarkably comfortable, all things considered, though I shouldn’t think you’d want to conduct matrimonial relations on it.
Met the wider family and settled into Korean life for a few days. Even attended niece Chea Yeun’s fourth birthday party (fifth in the weird Korean age system where you’re one when your born and have another year added to your tally every time a new year passes). Threatened, quite seriously, to take the little bag of mischief with me in my bag. She has an excellent sense of humour and found it hilarious to fart in her Dad’s friend’s face before collapsing in a sugar high after eating most of her birthday cake.
There are 50 million people in South Korea so it’s fairly crowded. People live in apartment blocks that are all *identical* and look like Playmobil might have had a hand in the design. Homes don’t generally have curtains; meals are taken seated on the floor around a low table; most people sleep on the floor and roll their bedding away into cupboards during the day; shoes are removed at the door without fail; bathroom towels are about the size of a hand towel and used only once. Which is actually much more hygienic and practical than the Western way. They are obsessively clean. Being asked three times a day if you’d like to take a shower could give you a complex but this, along with super high levels of organisation and gadgetry for most everything, very much appeal to my inner neat freak.
Food, like in many other countries, features prominently. If you know anything about the national cuisine, it’s probably limited to barbeques (which are exceptionally good) but they have a sizeable spectrum of dishes, only seldom using the dog meat for which the country is renowned. I was treated to a full array. Chenna’s birthday spread included the traditional birthday seaweed soup (in the Philippines noodles are eaten on birthdays – for long life?) and beef bulgogi. McDonalds also do a line in bulgogi burgers but I’m going to be generous and say that Junho’s version is better. Attempted to return the favour and rustle up some English goodies for sampling (you heard right – I was going to cook), namely an apple crumble or some fairy cakes (it’s been a while; keep it simple). But Korean homes don’t have ovens so I was thwarted and Korea was saved from my baking.
Korea has such distinct seasons that you can almost set your watch by them; the rains started a couple of weeks back and will continue for almost precisely 30 days. They say that the predictable seasons mean that Korea can raise superb crops and livestock in what is a fairly logical argument. I can recommend the pork, beef, chicken and veggies – delish. But then I have just come from the Philippines.
It’s Asia so chopsticks are de rigeur and I’ve been honing my technique. I have moments of brilliance and moments of childlike amateurism. A spoon is used for the rice (often with soup spooned over the top) and the chop-chops are used for everything else. There are many points of etiquette to take in. It is rude to cross your chop sticks. The older generation think that it is rude to talk while a meal is in progress (stark contrast from Mediterranean dining). When eating noodles, you should shove as much in your mouth as is feasibly polite and make loud sucking noises to show your appreciation. Like in Japan, blowing your nose and other such ablutions are considered only appropriate in the bathroom. But it doesn’t seem to matter who hears these once you’re in the bathroom and by Christ are some enthusiastic. It’s also a different story if you’re in the company of friends, particularly if you’re a smoker, when it’s ok to perform torso-shuddering evacuations and spit it into a cup at the table. WTF? That’s truly repellent.
Most of Asia doesn’t seem to have much regard for the personal bubble, which is a problem as I don’t like strangers touching me. I suppose it comes from living in a crowded continent but the Asians don’t recognise the arm’s-length code and if you’re in their way you can expect to be shoulder-barged without so much as a backwards glance. Some stand so close on public transport that you think they’re going to sit on your lap. Dislike.
Spent a few days exploring the surrounds, starting with the city of Deagu (pronounced Teagu. Don’t know who was responsible for the phonetic English but they buggered it up) where the forthcoming international athletics meet will be held. Meandered around the streets and umpteen coffee shops developing huge style crushes on all of the fashionably draped Korean ladies. I LOVE Korean style. Haircuts are bold and perpetually coiffed. Sheer, oversized layers are wispily draped over over peaches-and-cream complexions, matched with smart tailoring and worn with wellies. Is there a book of street style in Korea? If not, there should be. My fashion swooning almost convinced me to go in for the pleats, but I can’t help thinking that what suits a delicate Korean frame would make me look like Gulliver in drag.
Then we headed East to the national park of Gyeongju for a poke around the grounds of a once triumphant imperial household. It boasts beautiful natural scenery and some historical attractions but unfortunately most of the cultural treasures were lost during the war. Burial mounds pepper the park proper and functioned in a similar way to the pyramids of Egypt, seeing VIPs buried within with all the most important trinkets for the afterlife. Most of the actual buildings you see today are reconstructions but you can still see where the old Big Deals would have hung out by pretty lily ponds, smoking pipes, drinking tea and tinkering with their respective harems, in what I imagine was an early form of Champ Man. They say that the palace takes the shape of a crescent moon viewed from above but to me it looks more like a banana to me. Also nipped up to the temple of Bulguksa, one of the more famous in the country given that bit of the complex features on the coins. Jolly pretty.
Best bit? The ice room (Sseokbingo). Estimated to have been built 1500 years ago, it is a subterranean room with a floor slanted to make the ice captured in winter slide slowly inwards, preserving all the food inside: you can feel the chill, just from standing at the doorway. The world’s first fridge-freezer! Bravo.
There are a lot of motels in the city, painted in primary colours and festooned with lights. Apparently, given that Gyeongju is a university town and there is a relative lack of privacy in Korean homes, [many] enterprising individuals have opened motels purely to serve students in getting laid. Sexy. The youths also use DVD rooms – hired out for 3 hours at a time – as shag pads. Careful where you sit.
Junho pulled a crowd of pals together for dinner and drinks one evening. “Laura, do we smell of garlic to you?” Min asked me. Erm, no, not really. “Because we think Europeans smell of cheese.” Everyone around the table nodded in agreement before explaining that when we whiteys get a sweat on in the nightclubs, we kick out a pong of cheese. Not me, they hurriedly assured; I’ve been away for too long. While on the subject, in Korean nightclubs, if a fella takes a shine to a lady, he can get the waiter to go over and grab them and bring them back to their table. How lazy is that? If the girl isn’t keen? She looks them up and down, says ‘no ta’ and wanders off. Sort of evens the field but it seems like a humiliating way to do business to me.
Called in another of Junho’s pals for show-and-tell on the way homewards. They told me that I’m the first gringo (waygoogeen, in Korean) that he’s seen in real life, but they needn’t have – I could tell by the way he stared with his head cocked to one side and said, “you have a nose like the Eiffel Tower”. Chuckle! Looks – beauty, skin, hair, grooming – are very important in Korean society. It is considered beautiful to have a small face and big nose, and, as a pale-face, I’m seemingly at an advantage. Most people compliment me on my big nose and ickle face. They even have a sign for it (hold one hand in a fist and grab the wrist with the other hand, in case you ever need to indicate to a Korean that someone has a dinky visage).
Jumped the swish, clean, comfortable and super-efficient train from Gyeongsan to Seoul which took just 4 hours. Very reasonable fares (about 15 quid) are the same whether you pre-book or reserve in advance. Ah, British Rail; how very different…
By chance, the lovely Rachel and Mariano, pals from Dubtown now transplanted to Shanghai, were visiting at the same time and they generously let me bunk in at their posh hotel room. Big brownie points.
Together we explored Namdeamun market, the gringo/student haunt of Itaewon Road, Gyeongbok Palace (vast but not much actually in it and, as always, a reconstruction of the real McCoy which I think the Japanese burnt down), the quirky shopping street of Insa-Dong and all their respective cake shops. Plus we went to see X-men. Can’t be cultured all the time. Have you heard the argument that it’s homoerotic? Classic media studies waffle. British school kids are probably winning A-levels for this sort of shit.
You can’t come to South Korea and ignore the bit oop North. You’ll all know about the role Korea played in the battle between Capitalism and Communism when the yanks clumsily drew a first draft border across the 38th parallel post WW2, but you probably don’t know how much damage it wrought or how sad it makes the Korean people. Two million people died, priceless national heritage, architecture and treasures were destroyed. It ended in the current stalemate with a border sketched out and a 4km (2km each side) exclusion zone between the two, known as the DMZ.
Back when the North was still feeling fiesty, they dug a series of tunnels beneath the border that could have seen 30,000 armed troops pour over the border and support an air strike on Seoul. Having been in the tunnel, they’d have to be pretty small troops. Were they raising a midget army? Please God say it is so. Anyway the plan was discovered and defeated. Now they keep a close eye on Kim Jong Il and have got massive piles of dynamite stacked at regular intervals over Highway 1 that runs North to South so they can blow it up if he tries anything silly.
It’s remarkable that South Korea has managed to turn what is just a dull stripe of farm land into a tourist attraction that welcomes three million tourist per year. They’ve done a Disney job on it and a stream of around 50 coaches (replete with umbrella-wielding guides – ugh) follow a well trodden path around the site, taking in the Friendship Bridge, the husk of a rotting old train that fell under fire once upon a time, the last train station on the way North, a tour of the attack tunnel and a movie theatre for a little presentation that tries to spin the DMZ as a wonderful thing for Korea since wildlife has flourished here. It juxtaposes footage of elks and “living fossils – goats” (their words) leaping about with information about how the land is littered with land mines. Hands up who expected to see an exploding elk in the next shot. Us too.
My favourite bit is the flag-off between the two countries that captured my attention a few years back. In what is an ostentatious show of willy waving, each continued to put up a bigger and bigger flag, blaring respectively patriotic music in the other’s direction until North Korea had the world’s tallest free-standing flagpole in the world and a flag weighing 270kg. But then they went and added more height and tethering the top with cables for support. Everyone knows cables are cheating so the title was whipped away and given to Turkmenistan.
The South still hopes to restore the former country and has a special, Orwellian-sounding Ministry of Reunification working on the job. There’s a great sense of wounded sadness surrounding the Norht-South divide. A war memorial back in Seoul commemorates all those who have perished in the conflict and features a statue called ‘brothers’ (or something similar) that depicts North Korea as a young soldier boy falling into the arms of his older brother (South Korea, if you’re keeping up) in forgiveness. The majority still regard Korea as one fractured whole and look forward to the day when they are reunited.
With Seoul in the bag, we parted company, they bound for China and me South for a ferry to Japan, intending to drop in briefly on Smellen who moved to Tokyo back in February.
The sisterhood teases me frequently for my dithering but the trip back to Busan displayed a phenomenal amount of fucking around, even by my standards. I am reminded that my former, organised ways had merits and that it pays to do some basic research.
Japan is just a few hours away from Busan by ferry: this much I knew. You can sail to Osaka (overnight), Fukoka and Shimonoseki on the frequent services so thought I’d wing it and pick up a ticket on the next one. Arriving at the port, with all the ferry information finally laid before me, I idly began to check how to get around both within Japan and to make my way from there to China afterwards, hindered by an amorous Buddhist monk from the nearby temple who was on his way to Osaka and invited me to be his girlfriend for the day and check out his motel room. I passed up but he asked if my pal in Japan would be interested so gave him her digits.
It is eye-wateringly expensive to fly the two hours back over the water during July. I think you could get a black market kidney for less. Taking ferries is possible and fractionally less expensive but takes aeons. Abort, abort! Time and cash are at a premium if I’m to make the August appointment back in the Yook so I regrettably shelved the Japan plan for another, more organised time and instead worked out how to get to China. You can get there on a ferry. But not from Busan, from back up in Incheon. Next to Seoul. What a ‘tard.
Decided to catch the last train from Busan to Seoul which gave me a few hours to kick around and actually explore the town before looping back on myself to the capital. It has its share of tourist sites (including old temples and a fortress) and natural parks that I by no means did any justice. The main park was swathed in sea-mist so I went for a long walk over the bridge and around the harbour with all the dog walkers and OAP power walker clubs. Down by the station is a pleasant little ‘cultural cluster’ that they’re in the midst of doing up, but you have to wonder if a town touting ’40 steps’ as an attraction is clutching at straws.
Arrived back in Seoul at 4am and was guided to a neighbourhood sauna by an overly helpful station security guard who collared me as I was contentedly trying to nick wifi from one of the cafes on the concourse. Not, you understand, to earn a fast buck but to get showered and freshened up. Korean saunas are not [very] seedy places but more a social hangout which incorporate DVD lounges, sleeping rooms, computer centres, cafeterias, meeting rooms, karaoke suites. Oh, and large bathrooms with a collection of hot and cold washing facilities. Nevertheless, I don’t get them. Students and teenagers use them for a crash pad if they’ve been on a night out and can’t go home til the morning but most of the people slumbering in them at 5am look like they ought to have homes or hotels to go to. Baffling. At a fiver a night, they’re a rung below hostels I suppose, so if you need to do Korea on the cheap, this is where to stay.
Headed for the bathroom for a steam and a sluice and observed the 5am crowd with interest. Mostly the characters, but I also couldn’t help but notice some ladies were well overdue a vajazzling. I’m since told that the more hirsute the lady garden, the easier (and more hygienic) it is to target the wee over a squat toilet. Which would be about right for the Koreans.
Squeaky clean, I bussed it out to the port of Incheon to get on the first China-bound boat I could find, fearful that I would never leave Korea. Two boats were sailing that day, bound for Qingdao and Yantai. Hmmm. “Which is the nicer boat?” I asked. Qingdao it is. Had time to kill ahead of boarding so went to McDonalds (it’s got to that point) and for a stroll around town. On first glance it seems to be your average port town with ropey hotels and a cluster of squalid-looking bars with peeling signs and naff names. But wander further and you can find some very pleasant parks (one boasting a statue of that troublemaker, General McArthur), a Chinatown selling the same plastic tat that Chinatowns the world over sell, a handful of museums and a cosmopolitan shopping and cafe area. Like the rest of the country, the city favours function over form. Don’t add it to your holiday shortlist, but Incheon is not a dive.
Moseyed around for a few hours, bid Korea a fond farewell and boarded the slow boat to China.
Ubiquity stakes – New Balance (grey body, neon laces and neon flash through the sole, else you’re nobody), smart phones, coffee shops.