Friday, 29 March 2013

Across Asia With A Lowlander: Part 1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

world-map seoul

Greetings!

Here we are, as Easter approaches, coming to the end of the Book One of Across Asia With A Lowlander in which the Lowlander and I leave South Korea via the port of Incheon to sail across the Yellow Sea to China in perhaps the most unromantically-named boat ever. Keep following for next week we’ll be starting Book Two: Master Potter Does Fine China, (I don’t know how I think ‘em up!).

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

 

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Book 1: Embarking Upon a New Korea

1a: Toyama to Pusan

1b: Pusan

1c: Seoul

1d: The DMZ

1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China

2a: Qingdao

2b: Beijing (I)

2c: Beijing (II)

2d: Beijing (III)

2e: Yinchuan (I)

2f: Yinchuan(II)

2g: Lanzhou

2h: Bingling-si

2i: Xiahe

2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

2k: Jiayuguan

2l: Dunhuang

2m: Urumqi (I)

2n: Urumqi (II)

2o: Urumqi (III)

Book 3: Steppe to the Left, Steppe to the Right…

3a: Druzhba to Almaty

3b: Shumkent to Tashkent

3c: Tashkent (I) 

3d: Bukhara

3e: Bukhara to Samarkand

3f: Samarkand

3g: Samarkand to Urgench

3h: Khiva

3i: Tashkent (II)

3j: Tashkent to Moscow

3k: Moscow (I)

3l: Moscow (II)

3m: Moscow (III)

3n: Konotop to Varna

japan-korea-map 4

s_korea_rmap3

17th July, 2002 – Seoul, South Korea

It was another early morning as we set off for another new country, this time virgin territory for us both, the Middle Kingdom, China. The lady at the Tourist Information desk had said that we needed to be at the port terminal in Incheon by eleven to buy a ticket, even though the boat didn't leave till past one. Problem was, she didn't say how long it would take to get to Incheon, Korea's third city and Seoul's outlet to the sea. We breakfasted as per usual in Lotteria and then made our way across the concourse to the subway station. As we passed the Tourist Information desk the Lowlander remarked, “They're probably glad to see us go, they can get back to doing nothing once more.” He was right, as I said before, in that city of ten million we seemed to be the only two visitors, which is a shame. Quite why Seoul, and indeed the whole of the peninsular attracts so few tourists is something of a mystery to me. Ok, so north of the DMZ it is understandable, North Korea truly does live up to the tourist motto of its southern neighbour as 'The best-kept secret in Asia'. It is so bloody well-kept in fact that even those weird enough to want to go, can't get in easily. But South Korea is completely open, (you don't even need a visa), and on top of that, it's cheap, safe, easy to navigate and full of interesting places to visit. I suppose being stuck in-between the big names of China and Japan doesn't help; those who want to see the Orient usually miss out Korea and go to one of its more illustrious neighbours. But nonetheless, probably the main reason why South Korea is so overlooked is that most travellers tend only to stay on the beaten paths, whether they realise it or not, and Korea unfortunately lies far away from any highway of Traveldom. I found the same to be true in the Philippines in South East Asia. The region is, on the whole teeming with tourists, but that archipelago, despite having numerous great sights, beautiful scenery, friendly English-speaking people and low costs, is remarkably traveller-free since it lies just off the traditional backpacker or tourist routes. Bad for them I suppose, but for me personally, well I quite like having these great places all to myself!

The Metro journey to Incheon was a long one with innumerable stops. When we eventually got there we took a taxi straight to the International Ferry Terminal, only to find that whilst buying the tickets would not be a problem, changing money was. It was a Bank Holiday and all the banks, including the one in the terminal were well and truly shut. Undeterred, I set off into the city centre, armed only with some Japanese yen and directions to a money-changers given by the terminal's Tourist Information desk.

Incheon, a city of 2.2 million is, along with Pusan, one of South Korea's two major ports. It shot to fame during the Korean War when General McArthur staged a massive maritime invasion there, which many believed was doomed to fail. But fail old General McArthur did not, and instead the entire course of the war was changed. The Southern Forces, which at the time held no more than an enclave around Pusan, started to push back and regain the territory that they'd lost to the North, and more. It took the addition of a million Chinese troops into the equation to turn the tide in Kim Il Sung's favour once more, and produce the divided peninsular we see today. Nowadays, the city bears few traces of the war and is more well-known for its International Airport and World Cup Stadium. Considering all of this, I expected the city centre to be a pretty impressive place indeed. The reality however, was far different. Walking around the streets, I could have easily mistaken the town to be one the size of Huddersfield or Groningen, rather than Barcelona or Bucharest. It was tiny! I suppose most of the businesses had been absorbed by the megalithic Seoul only thirty kilometres or so away, but even so it was surprising. What's more, nothing was open and so I quickly changed my yen and then headed back to the terminal.

Our vessel of conveyance towards Qingdao in China turned out to be the rather incongruously named Golden Bridge III, based in Panama, (nothing to do with tax, I'm sure). Like the port from which she departed, she was Korean, and a little smaller than I'd expected, but our cabin, complete with en-suite shower, was more than sufficient and there were no complaints from this quarter.

new golden bridge III New Golden Bridge III at dock

I was beginning to feel a bit of a true seaman by this stage, roaming the confines of the craft and comparing her with her sisters on the Irish, North, Java, Flores, South China, Mediterranean, Ionian and Aegean Seas that I have travelled on. The Lowlander however, was feeling unsettled. I always consider it a hilarious example of irony that he, born and bred in a small fishing community, on an island belonging to one of the world's greatest seafaring nations, should be so averse to boats, yet it's true. Whilst his drinking partners in the local cafe may be First Mates of fishermen, he requires a stack of tablets just to keep the contents of his stomach where they belong. Still, at least he didn't shirk from the challenge and for that he had my admiration.

The trip out of the harbour was more interesting than I'd anticipated. Once tired of looking at the other ships, our attentions were diverted to the fact that the whole harbour was several metres above sea level, and to get out of it required going through the largest lock that I had ever seen. By the time that the attractions of marine engineering had disappeared beyond the horizon however, I was settled on deck with a Colin Forbes novel, (a writer that I always seem to end up reading whilst on a boat or in a plane, I haven't the foggiest idea why), which was entertaining and contained a plot line reassuringly familiar to all his other books.

incheon 1

incheon 2

incheon 3 Scenes from Incheon Docks (the bottom photo shows a ship entering one of the enormous locks)

That evening's fare, served at the ship's restaurant, was a wholly unappetising creation laced with the ubiquitous kimchi. This side-dish, once a more than welcome addition to my dull diet of Japanese cuisine, had now become the backbone of my solids intake over the last few days, and I am sad to say that in this respect at least, I was glad to be heading out of Korea. Like so many Oriental dishes, it is fantastic as a change, but as an everyday thing? Leave me the sausage, chips and beans please!

That evening, to pass the time, I headed down to the miniscule on board bar to drink, read and write. I soon discovered however, that succeeding in the latter two would be an impossibility, when Jay, a Korean in L.A. (although not at that particular moment, obviously), joined me, and starting talking about his favourite topic, the art of making money. This nauseating subject, complemented by the movement of the waves, made me cut my visit to the Golden Bridge III's night scene short, and I headed up on deck to get my stomach settled once more.

It was then back to the cabin for the commencement of a most important contest. As I mentioned before, the Lowlander and I met whilst in Israel, and whilst there we both picked up the rules and a taste for that most Levantine of games, backgammon. Indeed, it could be said that we got to know each other over countless games of what the Arabs and Israelis call sheshbesh, in the kibbutz coffee house. Well, we are in Israel no longer, but the passion for the board of black and white triangles has remained, and so every time that we meet, we play. But never before had a full-blown tournament been attempted. However, with a whole month and more of long train journeys ahead of us, what better opportunity for a tournament of the most mammoth proportions, the best of one hundred games? And so we began, and after some hard dice rolling I emerged three-one ahead. Not bad for the first day, but the road ahead was long.

And with such thoughts in my mind, I turned in for the night, as the boat bobbed slowly across the Yellow Sea. South Korea, with its strange food, kind and friendly people, interesting culture, tragic war legacy and stunning scenery is a fantastic country and one all too often missed. I was glad to have seen a little and hoped one day to see much more, but for now my attention must be turned towards somewhere far vaster and unknown, the most populated nation on earth, a country with five thousand years of continuous history and the largest bastion of communism left, the People's Republic of China.

Next part: 2a: Qingdao

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Across Asia With A Lowlander: Part 1d: The DMZ

world-map seoul

Greetings!

It’s been a busy week this week on UTM. For starters I’ve compiled all my India videos into a single, hour-long film. The same too with my UAE stuff and it’s worth watching them because not only do they display my wonderful video-editing skills (?), but they also contain lots of footage that I didn’t post previously.

 

The written word too has not been left unscathed. I’ve revisited the travelogue dealing with my 2008 pilgrimage to Walsingham, adding some photos so that it hopefully comes alive a little more. All very apt since in a fortnight’s time I’ll be visiting there again after attending a wedding in Norwich. Check out the changes by clicking on the link below:

Nazareth in Norfolk

And finally I’d like the draw the attention of visitors to this excellent photo website. It’s called A Grasp on Life and its author is one of my old students from the George Byron School in Bulgaria. That would be reason alone to promote it, as too would the quality of the images, but what I really like is that a lot of the locations featured are ones close to my heart and thus have been featured or will be featured on this site. There are some incredible images of (amongst other places) the Netherlands, (where she now lives), Bulgaria, (where she’s from), and also the Negev Desert in Israel where I once lived and which will be the subject of a travelogue appearing soon on UTM. Seeing these photos make me really jealous as I wish I could bring places to life in that way, but when I get out my (admittedly cheap) camera, I just seem to end up with bland scenes that do no justice to the incredible vistas before me or pictures of yours truly in a ridiculous hat doing some sort of cheesy pose that should really be incorporated into a Whigfield dance routine. Oh well, until I do learn how to make good photos, I just hope that my words on this website help capture my “Grasp on Life” just as Ralitsa’s pictures do here.

A Grasp on Life

And so on with the show, and a trip to the border with the “Axis of Evil”…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Book 1: Embarking Upon a New Korea

1a: Toyama to Pusan

1b: Pusan

1c: Seoul

1d: The DMZ

1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China

2a: Qingdao

2b: Beijing (I)

2c: Beijing (II)

2d: Beijing (III)

2e: Yinchuan (I)

2f: Yinchuan(II)

2g: Lanzhou

2h: Bingling-si

2i: Xiahe

2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

2k: Jiayuguan

2l: Dunhuang

2m: Urumqi (I)

2n: Urumqi (II)

2o: Urumqi (III)

Book 3: Steppe to the Left, Steppe to the Right…

3a: Druzhba to Almaty

3b: Shumkent to Tashkent

3c: Tashkent (I) 

3d: Bukhara

3e: Bukhara to Samarkand

3f: Samarkand

3g: Samarkand to Urgench

3h: Khiva

3i: Tashkent (II)

3j: Tashkent to Moscow

3k: Moscow (I)

3l: Moscow (II)

3m: Moscow (III)

3n: Konotop to Varna

japan-korea-map 3

s_korea_rmap2

16th July, 2002 – Seoul, South Korea

South Korea, although arguably not to be the highlight of our trip, contained at least one sight that I for one was determined not to miss. If the trip from China to Bulgaria were to be looked at as a Grand Tour of the Best of the Communist and Post-Communist world, then surely the best starting point would be the only remaining country on earth where a strict form of Stalinism still prevails, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or for the laymen such as you and I, North Korea.

Travel to Korea's secretive North is possible, (so long as you're not South Korean or American), but it comes at a price. I was desperate to go and so researched the matter somewhat, only to discover that the best deal on offer was a week's trip by rail from Beijing with a Dutch company. And that came to well over a thousand euros, alas well out of my price range.

So with travel to Chairman Kim's domain out of the question I had to settle for the next best thing; a good look at it from the South, i.e. Entry a day trip into the infamous DMZ. I knew that this was more than possible as I'd seen Michael Palin do it once on TV and so straight after my arrival in Seoul I made enquiries as to how to follow in the footsteps of that Monty Python funnyman, and found out that the best way to 'run DMZ' was without a group, and instead just to take a train to the end of the line and then get on a tour operating from there. Such tours went to the Observatory, the Peace Park and a tunnel apparently, but not the truce village of Panmunjeon where one may enjoy the dubious pleasure of entering the meeting room where the peace talks take place, and in there walking around the table, thus actually stepping into DPRK territory. Yes indeed, it would be a pleasure hard to forego but on the other hand we'd be stepping in and out of enough countries in the coming two months, and one should never be greedy now, should one?

To say that I have a fascination with communism and the countries that adopted it is somewhat of an understatement. Ever since childhood it has intrigued me, what was it about, why did it fail, how much did it actually fail..? These questions bothered me almost as much as the bigger question as to why did it have such a hold on me personally? The fact that once we left South Korea we'd be on a solid dose of Leninland in all it's forms was no coincidence, and I hoped perhaps to be able to answer those questions by the end of it all. In the meantime however, I was excited, about to take my first swig of socialism for the trip, and I couldn't wait.

The train out was a local stopping service, full of carrier-bag laden housewives who alighted at the innumerable small stations situated by vast company-owned apartment block complexes in Seoul's suburbs, that in their dull grey uniformity, looked like they should really be in the North rather than here. Except for the odd army base, the place was monotonous, boring and far too normal. It was hard to believe that a mere fifty kilometres away lay a vast Red Menace that, if it wished to, could obliterate these nondescript suburbs in minutes.

Finally however our train pulled up at it's destination. Well, almost. We were at the station of Kumcheon, the stop for the Peace Park and the place where we were to get our passes to go into the DMZ ('De-Militarized Zone' – an area that vies with Jerusalem – 'City of Peace' – as the most unaptly named spot on earth) proper. We had an hour to spend here so we fell in with a shy young Korean girl called Chi, (or something along those lines), a university student from Seoul who was visiting the DMZ for the first time too. The sun beat down and we wandered amongst the various monuments that made up the Peace Park, a place that despite it's name must surely rate as one of the most scary and surreal tourist attractions on earth. For a Peace Park, there was a surprising lack of any peaceful message here apart from a vague desire for reunification, (on Southern terms of course). Instead, we were treated to an unnerving cocktail of anti-Northern propaganda, various memorials to those who fell in the 1951-3 war, (the one to the US fallen being by far the largest), a railway carriage selling North Korean products, and a large building containing a hamburger restaurant and a shop selling DMZ souvenirs, a swimming pool in the shape of a reunified Korea, a barbed wire fence by the railway track with messages in Korea pinned upon it and a small amusement park with rollercoasters and merry-go-rounds. Oh well, if your country has been ideologically ripped in two and thousands killed in the process, then why not make a fun family day out from it all. As I said, this place was weird.

dmz01  dmz04 dmz03 dmz02 The DMZ Peace Park: family fun in a warzone

Keeping an eye on Chi's watch we decided to lumber back to the station in time for out train onwards, only to find that said vehicle pulling out of the station that we were walking towards. “Oh no!” said a crestfallen Chi, “my watch must have stopped!” There was nothing for it but another hour in the Peace Park whose meagre attraction we had already exhausted. We turned around and walked back to Monumentland.

“I'm so sorry,” said Chi, blaming herself for us missing our train.

“Oh, it's nothing, after all it's as much our fault for not wearing [or even having] watches.” But she was having none of it and was only satisfied when she had presented us with her watch. Once more I was more than taken aback by the kindness and generosity of the people of the Orient, and ashamed to think that had she been in Britain, she would probably have not even felt guilty about us missing the train.

We passed the time by fully exploring the emporium of tack next to the burger bar and later when we finally boarded our train, along with our original luggage, we carried some North Korean postage stamps, a tourist guide to that said country and a plastic DMZ moneybox capped by two smiling border guards, one communist and one capitalist.

The railway line onwards, deep into the DMZ had only been reopened that year and if the place north of the border was Leninland, then this area immediately to the south was surely Propagandaia. Our humble local diesel train pulled into the vast and deserted expanse of the brand-new Dora-san station, a place so laughingly pointless it is unbelievable. Now it is empty as the line doesn't continue to the north, but even if the peninsular were ever to be reunited, then it would be no better as this enormous construction of concrete and glass serves no community whatsoever. Inside the sparkling forum little models showed us the station full of trains going to Pyongyang and beyond, whilst one wall was covered with the text of US President George W. Bush's speech that he had made whilst on a visit to the station, where he expressed his desire for peace and a peaceful reunification through South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's 'Sunshine Policy', (a process that he incidentally proceeded to bugger up completely soon afterwards by naming North Korea in his 'Axis of Evil').

From there it was onto a bus for the short drive up to the Observatory. Gazing out of the window at this seemingly peaceful and tranquil land, it was hard to believe that virtually every square centimetre was mined, and all the shrubs bristled with machine guns and infinitely more frightening modern military equipment.

Sliced through the greenery was a huge highway, lined with ornamental lampposts, each complete with a stylised outline of a unified Korea, completely devoid of cars and stopping abruptly with a huge sign declaring that the South have done there bit, and now the North must link up.

Apparently, two kilometres north, there is another empty highway that also stops abruptly at the border, with a large sign declaring a remarkable similar message.

dmz06 The Reunification Highway: not unifed

Our first stop was the Observatory, a military-green building overlooking the Land of Juche, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. This was what I'd come to see and hungrily I gazed across at the vista that the Observatory provided. Before me lay a vast, almost deserted valley, punctuated only by two villages. The first of these, the guide told us, was inhabited, the second, the one closest to Panmunjeon, was not. Or at least, that is what the South Koreans said, though from that distance, (several kilometres), it was impossible to tell. “We know that it is deserted because all the lights come on automatically at the same time every evening,” continued our khaki-clad font of capitalist wisdom. “They are boasting to us that they have electricity you see.” Who knows? Not being there at eventide then certainly not I, though I could believe it. Obviously the village's only purpose was propaganda since smack in the middle of it stood the world's tallest flagpole, proudly flying the red white and blue colours of the North.

dmz05 The Observatory

“And there is the South Korean village,” explained the guide. “It is called 'Peace Village' and unlike the North Korean one people actually live there. It is a farming community.” 'Peace Village' boasted a flagpole almost as big as its northern brother and inhabited or not, it had obviously been built for the same purpose. The only place of any real business, Panmunjeon, was hidden in the greenery.

I could have stood for hours gazing at this forbidden land. Even without the ideological split, it was naturally a spectacular scene, but the fact that it showed a gap between two halves of a country that had proved unbridgeable in almost fifty years made it all the more haunting. The barren landscape and concrete block buildings reminded me strongly of gazing at Albania from the Greek island of Corfu back in 1996. Stalinist and isolationist, Albania shared much in common with North Korea just over a decade ago, and a viewer at that time may well have thought Korea's divisions far more mendable than those of Albania with her neighbours. Times change however and one does not even require a visa to enter the Land of the Eagle these days. Let's hope that Korea goes the same way.

Taking photos of the North was irritatingly forbidden so after a while we fell into conversation with one of the guards, a young man who'd volunteered to do his military service on the DMZ. He talked enthusiastically of the recent World Cup, and when he found out the Lowlander's country of birth, like most Koreans, he treated him like a king. “Ah! Holland, Gus Hiddink! He is the biggest hero of the Korean people!”

dmz07 dmz08 With the guards at the Observatory

Our next stop on the Magical Mystery Tour of North Korean Menace was at one of the infamous tunnels discovered underneath the DMZ heading towards Seoul. This was conveniently close to the Observatory and situated adjacent to a round exhibition hall where we were treated to a video on the course of the Korean War. And thus, background established, we were loaded onto a tiny train, given hard hats and then descended into the depths of the Third Tunnel of North Korean Aggression.

Several months before coming here, I'd read an interesting book about North Korea, (North Korea through the Looking Glass: Kongdon Oh and Ralph C. Hessing), which had covered the subject of the tunnels in depth. It reported how South Korean soldiers had seen smoke rising from the ground one day, and dug down and intercepted a tunnel. Since then several more had been found, some, (including the one that we were now visiting), discovered through evidence given by defectors. These tunnels, continued the book, were big enough for a whole division of infantry and even small tanks to pass through and launch a surprise attack on Seoul. It was scary stuff indeed!

Or perhaps not. Upon reaching the tunnel, (which was extremely deep underground), I was more than a little surprised. A division of infantry and small tanks could indeed traverse this tunnel quite easily, but only so long as we are talking about the armies of the Lilliputians. The tunnel was so small that the Lowlander and I struggled to walk down it two abreast. Now, I know that I'm no expert, but this looked like no serious military threat to me. For a start, it was so deep underground that for them to have ever got to the surface, it would have taken many more kilometres of tunnelling and if they were detectable at this level, then what hope did they have nearer to the surface? And on top of that, how long would it take a soldier to walk its length? Two hours perhaps, probably a lot longer. Apart from the initial attack it would be useless, as by the time reinforcements had got down it, the war would be over, let alone the position still be ok. No I, (and the Lowlander too), were more than a little unconvinced. Was this yet another piece of propaganda devised to help convince us of the evils of Mr. Kim's regime? The convenient location certainly pointed to that, as did the fact that the pick marks, coming from the North Korean direction were highlighted, made it seem like they were trying just a little bit too hard. Perhaps the North Koreans had built tunnels under the DMZ, (I doubt not that the South Koreans had too), or perhaps not, but I for one was certain that this was not one of them. Still, real or not, it had been an entertaining experience and we felt not cheated at all as we ascended back to the surface.

dmz09 Going underground in the rather suspect spy tunnels

Back up top there was another party waiting to go down, this time a group of immaculately turned out US Army Officers. This got me thinking about their role in this whole mixed up affair. Are they the heroes or the villains? Are they the ones preventing a Northern invasion and stoutly supporting their allies in Seoul, or are they the ones at fault, their presence the main obstacle to peace on this troubled peninsular. This lot, laughing and joking as they boarded the train that would take them down to see the handiwork of the enemy (???), looked neither hero or villain, and perhaps that's what they really are, like most things in life, part boon and part hindrance and wholly hard to define.

Our tour was now largely over. We'd seen how evil the North could be and had that satanic state laid before us, and so it was of course time to buy the T-shirt. The selection at this emporium however, several kilometres away from the border turned out to be far less inspiring than that at the Peace Park, and so we settled instead for some noodles that turned out to be so bad that I'd seriously consider defecting the the North if I was forced to eat them on a regular basis. Then it was back onto the bus for a short trip through a maze of military bases and then onto the smart new Reunification Highway, which as I mentioned earlier, was so far failing to live up to its name, back to Dora-san station and the train back to Seoul.

As we passed back into normality through the capital's nondescript suburbs I got thinking about what we'd seen which had certainly been surreal if nothing else. The division of Korea, more complete than the Berlin Wall ever was, fascinates me and is one of the great tragedies of our age. If one thinks of all the outcomes of the Korean War, there is perhaps, none more tragic than the present one. Should the South have won there'd be a united capitalist country akin to Japan or the present South Korea, and if the North had won it would be united and socialist, probably having undergone reforms like China and Vietnam and fast-becoming a prosperous Pacific-Rim state. Yet as it is, the threat of each other has held both countries back. The Red Menace has given to governments of the South excuses for year to oppress their own and real democracy and freedom are only just arriving there now. What's more, the North's claims that Seoul is just a puppet of the US do ring true and the Americans involve themselves in the running of the country far more than an outside power should.

And then there's the North, cut off from the world, reportedly starving and impoverished, definitely lagging far behind her neighbours, gripped in a personality-cult dictatorship of staggering proportions, the presence of the South making any Chinese-style reforms a proposition not worth the risk for the ruling elite.

And how will it all end? Who knows? The only sure thing is that all of the possibilities seem unlikely. Sudden Northern collapse and revolution, the North invades the South, the South invades the North, Southern collapse and revolution, continued stagnation and stand-off, a slow opening-up to the outside world by the North? All seem improbable, yet one must happen. The question is, which one?

Returning to Seoul our day was far from over, and despite the exertions of a day on the frontline we were ready for more. And besides, we had a task to carry out...

The day before, the Lowlander had suggested that since we were in Korea, why not sample the dish for which the country is most infamous, dog. Now to tell the truth, I'd never thought of this myself, (but isn't that why it's best to travel with someone else, far less predictable?), but once he'd suggested it and I'd had time to get the idea of cute Labrador puppies out of my head, I was enthusiastic. Besides, after spouting off for years on the evils of vegetarianism, how could I refuse this dogmatic challenge?

Accepting the idea of consuming canine was one thing however. Finding a woof woof to wolf was another. Although Korea has a reputation as a dog devourer's paradise, I'm afraid to say that this is a myth. “Dog?” said our cute hotel receptionist, “I never eat dog. My father sometimes... No I don't know where is dog restaurant.”

Chi at the DMZ was equally elusive. She even seemed ashamed of Korea's reputation as the globe's hot-dog capital. “I've never eaten dog,” said she, “I don't know what it tastes like, sorry.” She did however write down the hangul characters which we now presented to the underworked lady at the Central Station Tourist Office.

“Dog?” she queried. “You have dog?”

“No.”

“You want to buy dog?”

“No.”

“What about dog then?”

“We want to eat dog!”

“Eat?!” She looked angry. We were fast learning that most Koreans were not only not dog devours, but were in fact rather ashamed of their countrymen who were, in much the same sense as the average Englishman is disgusted by his aristocratic fox-hunting brethren. She was however, there to help us, however distasteful that task may be, and so she guided us to an area of town famous for its canine cuisine.

Once there however, we were little better off. “No dogs here!” was the answer at all the restaurants that we tried, accompanied with a look that suggested that they'd prefer it if we left their establishment. Eventually however, after traipsing round every brightly-lit street in the block, we were directed by a pharmacist to a tiny establishment down an alleyway. We checked the hangul characters above the doorway. They matched! We bent our heads and entered the low doorway into a small, traditional-style eating house with a pleasant ambience and enticing smell coming from the kitchen. The waiter, surprised to see two white men, approached us uneasily, unable to speak a word of English. We however just showed him the note that we'd got Chi to write, stating 'dog soup'. He nodded and showed us to our places.

dog dinner Dining on dog

And so we did dog, and very nice it was too. A fine spicy stew with meat more akin to rabbit than anything else that I've ever eaten, washed down with two glasses of Korea's most average of ales. And for those who ask, 'How could you do it? Think of those cute little fluffy things!' then I shall explain. Think of a brown-eyed golden retriever or droopy-eared and loving spaniel then yes, you're right, enjoying your spicy dog soup might be difficult. But if you picture in your mind one of those annoying, small yappy dogs that old ladies favour then you'll realise that by far the best place for them is in your soup, and you start to feel positively like your actually doing the world a favour. And thus, with our bellies full of Fido, we headed out into the neon night, read for our next dose of Culture Korea, this time one of my suggestions.

As mentioned earlier, whilst in Japan, I'd developed a taste for bathing as a leisure activity. Unfortunately however, when the Lowlander had visited Toyama, I had but arrived in the country myself and hadn't yet discovered this fine mode of relaxation, and thus he was sadly ignorant of what in my mind is the highlight of the Orient. Now however, he was out East again, for his second and potentially last time, and thus this was not an opportunity to waste!

Heading out to a spa resort however was out of the question due to time (and money) restrictions. So, it would have to be the next best thing, something that is as rewarding culturally however, if not as sumptuous as the full-blown oncheon experience. We were to go to an urban bath-house.

Bath-houses differ from the oncheons in that there the water is but that from the tap heated up, and are consequently not jam-packed full of minerally goodness. What's more, they tend to generally be more basic and less well-kept although this rule is far from rigid. They come in all shapes and sizes from the hundred year-old tiled-roof pavilion with lime-encrusted tubs, to fabulous palaces of pleasure with palms, saunas, Jacuzzis and baths heated to a myriad of different temperatures. Most city centre ones however are remarkably similar. Occupying the lower or basement floors of a building, they contain baths and sauna at the very bottom whilst on the floors above are the sleeping rooms, for it is these establishments that provide much of the city's cheap, short-term accommodation. Vast dark halls, filled with beds are the order of the day, occupied by lorry drivers, travelling salesmen, low ranking delegates in town for a conference and less legal types. There's usually a TV room as well, thick with cigarette smoke, and next to that, a cheap and basic canteen.

The baths that we found were no exception, and after a small altercation with the doorman who didn't want to let us it, (one normally books for the night, not by the hour), we were both naked and soaking in a deep hot tub, the aches and pains of a day in Propagandaia slowly drifting away. “So what do you reckon?” I asked the Lowlander.

“I wish that we had these in the Netherlands!” he replied. Praise indeed!

And so it was all clean, refreshed and clear-headed, we boarded the Metro that evening back to our hotel. Not everyone was in the same state however. One girl, further down the coach had obviously had more than a little too much to drink and required three of her male friends to hold her upright. I smiled to myself, remembering the countless times that I've been in her position, (though never on the Seoul Metro I must add), and all I can say is that when I woke up the following morning, I was glad indeed to be me and not her.

Next part: 1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

Friday, 15 March 2013

Across Asia With A Lowlander: Part 1c: Seoul

world-map seoul

Greetings!

This week finds me in the South Korean capital again, only a few months after I visited on the Dirty Magazine adventure. This time though, I’m there to meet someone from way back, a Lowlander who I first clasped eyes on back in 1997 in the heat of the Israeli desert.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Book 1: Embarking Upon a New Korea

1a: Toyama to Pusan

1b: Pusan

1c: Seoul

1d: The DMZ

1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China

2a: Qingdao

2b: Beijing (I)

2c: Beijing (II)

2d: Beijing (III)

2e: Yinchuan (I)

2f: Yinchuan(II)

2g: Lanzhou

2h: Bingling-si

2i: Xiahe

2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

2k: Jiayuguan

2l: Dunhuang

2m: Urumqi (I)

2n: Urumqi (II)

2o: Urumqi (III)

Book 3: Steppe to the Left, Steppe to the Right…

3a: Druzhba to Almaty

3b: Shumkent to Tashkent

3c: Tashkent (I) 

3d: Bukhara

3e: Bukhara to Samarkand

3f: Samarkand

3g: Samarkand to Urgench

3h: Khiva

3i: Tashkent (II)

3j: Tashkent to Moscow

3k: Moscow (I)

3l: Moscow (II)

3m: Moscow (III)

3n: Konotop to Varna

japan-korea-map 2

s_korea_rmap1

Seoul-City-Map

15th July, 2002 – Anseoung, South Korea

I awoke that morn refreshed and enjoyed tea and toast with the Highlander before bidding him goodbye at Anseoung Bus Station and boarding the coach for an uninspiring ride into town. Surprisingly however, for the first time this trip, (Highlander excepted, I planned to meet him), I was sharing the vehicle with some other Westerners; a French couple who sat on the seats in front of me. Wondering quite what two French people were doing in the suburbs of Seoul, I strained to listen to their chatter, but alas it was fruitless. My understanding of the Gallic tongue never really got past “Je m'appelle Matt, j'ai douze ans et j'adore Stoke City FC,” so I soon gave up and swapped their words of wisdom for those of their compatriot, Mr. Verne, whose Eighty Days I finished as the bus pulled into the Seoul terminal. Quickly I alighted from the coach and plunged into the depths of the Metro system, catching a train to the Central Railway Station. I was hurrying because I was late and I had an appointment to keep. In Anseoung I'd said 'Goodbye' to the Highlander. Now, I was about to say 'Hullo!' to the Lowlander.

On the back of my Lonely Planet guidebook there's the following crappy comment:-

'Passport, dollars and Lonely Planet guide – the essential survival kit anywhere on Earth.'

It is sadly attributed to 'The Independent (London)' and annoys me intensely because it is a). Not true and b). Worthy of a Brown Nose Award. To be fair, most of the comments by reviewers published on the back of books are ridiculous. 'Colin Forbes has no equal!', 'A Gripping Achievement!', 'A Tour de Force!' What claptrap! Do you know what? I should like to become a popular published author for just one reason alone, and that is when someone describes my work as a 'Tour de Force!' I can ask the reviewer just exactly what a 'Tour de Force!' is, because I haven't got a bloody clue. But I digress, let's get back to the matter in hand. What I want to say is that if 'The Independent (London)' doesn't mind, I'd like to borrow and revise its words of wisdom and transform them into something a little more accurate. Thus:-

'Passport, Hard Currency, a Sense of Humour and a Lowlander – the essential survival kit anywhere on Earth.'

Yes, I mean that, and no I'm not looking for a Brown Nose Award myself, (although an Amstel would be nice if you're buying...). The question you readers might be asking though is who, or what, is the Lowlander? Well, let me explain...

Just over five years ago, I set out for the Holy Land to work as a volunteer on a kibbutz in the desert. Before setting out, a Jewish friend of mine who knew the place well assured me, “Don't worry, you'll be fine, just so long as they don't put you to work on chickens.” Well, I arrived, fresh-faced and nervous, only to be met by a harsh battle-axe of a lady who was apparently the supervisor. “Here's your room,” said she. I looked at the place before me. The description 'room' was barely applicable. Next she took me to the dining room where the toiling masses were eating lunch. “You'll be sharing your room with these two men,” she remarked. Two gorillas stared back at me menacingly. They looked as if they'd just returned from a Motorhead concert, not a day of work. I gulped. “Oh yes, and you're on chickens,” she added. “Start at eight tomorrow.”

That evening I attempted to get to know my new roommates. The first, a Swiss guy, was out, so I fell in with the second, a long-haired Dutchman. “Do you like music?” I started, (always good as an ice-breaker).

“Yes,” replied he.

“I like Bob Dylan meself.”

“He is not my favourite. I prefer Bowie.”

Oh, didn't know much about him except that he was once in a cool film called 'The Labyrinth' that had a very hot young lady in it. Better change tack. “I'm a bit worried about the chickens, I've heard that is is rather bad.”

“It is not bad if you don't mind to work. I was not worried.”

Oh.

And so it continued for the whole conversation, not one agreement on anything, or any piece of common ground. Not only was I living in a shack and working in chicken hell, but my roommate was an obstinate Dutchman who looked like a cross between Lemmy from Motorhead and Aramis from the Three Musketeers, and whom I had nothing in common with and who probably thought me to be a work-shy, immature young idiot, (which I was). Yes indeed, Oh.

'But why are you telling me this crap?' asks the frustrated reader. 'I couldn't care less for your Israel reminiscences five years back. I wanna learn about Korea, China and all that sort of stuff. If I wanted to know about strange long-haired people in Israel I'd have picked up a Bible. What happened to this Lowlander fellow that you were going to tell me about?'

Well, the reason that I told that little tale, is because that shaggy-haired Dutchman is the Lowlander. Much as I would never have believed it at the time, we eventually found some common ground and more than that actually became friends. Much more than that in fact, rather good friends, and that's why, two months in Israel, two trips to Britain, several to Holland, a week in Switzerland, (visiting the other kibbutz roommate, he wasn't bad at all too), and a month in Japan later, I was now heading to Seoul Railway Station to meet my most established travelling companion.

2579_155318280304_2259229_n Three roommates in Kibbutz Revivim, 1997. The Lowlander is in the middle

We are a strange pair, (ok, to be fair, we're pretty strange taken separately as well), but for some reason it works. The initial disagreements proved to be a false indicator, (by the by, it seems to be a common thing with the Dutch that they appear cold and distant on the first meeting, see my Indonesian travelogue for another example), we actually have a lot in common politically and socially if not musically. But I am talkative and he is quiet; I have an annoying habit of going goo-goo over kids, he ain't interested; he is sporty and I am well, slightly more rotund. The list goes on. The main thing is though, we've never ripped each other to pieces in an argument whilst on the road, (though its come close), and we both offer something different and unexpected to each other's trips, which is after all the main reason for having a travelling companion. And besides, who else was I going to find who actually dreamed of seeing Kazakhstan?

I arrived at the station and in no time at all located the Lowlander. We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries but this was no time for conversation. 'And why's that?' you ask. 'Surely having a conversation is rather a good idea with someone whom you haven't seen in almost two years?' Well yes, fair point, and to tell the truth, I would have quite liked to sit down over a nice cup of tea and discuss the weather, but there again, I'd just come of a three quarters of an hour bus ride. He however, had done the same, preceded by over ten hours in a plane from Brussels, and wore a look that said, 'Get me to a hotel...quickly!'

And so we endeavoured to. A trip to the Tourist Information desk on the station concourse located one not too far away from the station and the nice bilingual lady phoned them up and booked us in. All we had to do was get there.

That however is no easy task in Korea, with it's strange alphabet and innumerable tiny streets. Despite the fact that we had been given a map and explicit instructions, the hotel did not turn out to be where it should be. Wearily we wandered the street, trying to match up the hangul characters and showing unfortunate passers by the piece of paper with the hotel's name inscribed upon it. With my heavy baggage and lamentable lack of Korean this was irritating. For the Lowlander however, it must have been hell. Thankfully however, one kind soul did know where our abode for the night was situated and it was not too much later that we crossed the threshold of the Yongyan Homrue where welcomed by a noticeably pretty receptionist, we were shown to our room.

The Lowlander then slept, as he was perhaps fit for little else at that stage. I however, having lodged satisfactorily with the Highlander the preceding night, was still bursting with energy and more than conscious that the city of Seoul had a lot to offer and that there was but little time for me to sample it. So, without further ado, I dumped the luggage, took a shower and then returned to the railway station.

Ok, so I know that it's sad, and perhaps with such limited time on my hands, I could have done countless other more productive things, but I'll admit it now, my first stop in the Tour de Seoul was the Central Railway Station, not because that was the place from whence one may travel to elsewhere, but because it is the railway station, and uncool as it may be, I like railway stations, trains and most other things connected to them. One of which being the tickets that you require to travel on them.

“You want tickets?” said the likeable lady on the Tourist Information desk who was obviously not overworked, (I honestly believe that the Lowlander and I were Seoul's entire tourist population that week, leastways, I'd seen no other).

“Yes, I collect them, from all different countries.”

“Oh.” This was obviously a new phenomenon for her, who had dealt with our hotel request with far more ease. “Where exactly do you wish to go?”

“Oh no, I'm not going anywhere, I just want any old spare ones that you might have lying about.”

My ticket collection, famous as a source of amusement to friends and family and a great source of pride to myself. It is quite impressive, in fact as ticket collections go, very impressive indeed, (although I'll admit to have never come across another). From it's humble beginnings in a pencil case owned by a seven-year old child, it has grown in an ensemble of bus, train, cinema, tourist attraction, ferry, plane, parking, (you name it, I've got it), tickets extraordinaire, now occupying two shoeboxes and the pencil case. Over fifty countries on all of the Earth's continents bar Antarctica are represented, and it is still growing. The opportunity to add a myriad of Korean National Railways specimens, (I prize rail tickets above all others of course), was too tantalising to miss out on, and thankfully the Tourist Information lady was sympathetic to my billetary needs, and together we went down some corridors and through a few doors into the depths of the Korean National Railway's officialdom, before arriving at a small room that was a ticket collector's heaven, being filled with bin bags, each one packed solid with those precious pieces of paper and card. I delved excitedly into the morass and emerged some minutes later a happy man indeed.

And from there it was onto the platforms to take the obligatory photos of Korean locomotives with which to bore friends and relatives and fascinate fellow train lovers, before finally leaving the pleasures of Raildom behind and hopping onto the Metro train bound for Youi-do island.

Youi-do is (apparently) Seoul's answer to Manhattan; an island in the Han River upon which the booming modern face of the country has taken residence. The DLI63, South Korea's tallest building, (the unfinished 105-storey Ryugyong Hotel in Pyonyang is the peninsula's highest), is there, along with countless other skyscrapers and temples of finance, and the country's domed parliament building. This indeed is the place to head for if you want to view the modern Korean success story in full flow.

I however, was visiting for an entirely different reason. I'd read with interest in the guidebook that the church with the world's largest congregation also sat on Youi-do. South Korea's enthusiastic acceptance of 'Born Again' Protestant Christianity fascinated me and I figured that this would be the place to see it in all its glory, as Youi-do's Full Gospel Church boasts over forty thousand churchgoers on its books, which is considerably more attendees than most Premiership football teams manage to attract. Now, I've always been a bit partial to hymn singing and All Round Adoration of the Almighty, and so the idea of attending a mass Mass here sounded appealing.

Unfortunately however, services were on Sundays and today was alas, a Monday, and so a Communion with Koreans would probably be out of the question, but nonetheless a trip would be of interest anyway. I was however to be disappointed. When I finally did locate this famous Mansion of the Messiah, I found it to be a rather nondescript brick building with only a huge white cross on the top to indicate that it was in fact a church. 'Hmm, perhaps more impressive inside?' thought I, ascending the steps. Alas though, I was never to find out, for the building that houses the world's largest concentration of Christians was well and truly locked. 'Reverend Cho welcomes you!' exclaimed the sign besides the entrance.

“Not bloody likely!' muttered I in an annoyed retort, and with thoughts less pure than they perhaps should be, I marched away.

full gospel church 

The Full Gospel Church, Youi-do: But not full of Gospel on Mondays…

If my visit to the island was a trip to Seoul's economic heights, and to the Full Gospel Church an attempt to reach her spiritual peaks, then my next objective was to reach their physical counterpart. In the centre of the city lies a hill and on top of that hill stands the Seoul Tower from which one may gaze across a stunning modern cityscape. Or at least that is what the tourist blurb claimed. Now I, being one for getting high and surveying the scene knew that this was an opportunity not to be missed at all, and so by Metro, taxi and cable car I journeyed to the Seoul Tower.

That the tower occupies a position that should command views across a 'stunning modern cityscape' as claimed, I do not doubt. It is high enough and Seoul is stunning, modern and city enough to constitute all the necessary ingredients. The blurb writers had forgotten (deliberately?) one important factor though, that being the city's thick and oppressive smog. Two hundred and forty metres off the ground, I gazed out of the plate-glass panorama windows onto an expanse of dull grey-brown cloud, through which the outlines of office buildings could just about be made out. Anything further than a mile away was completely obscured.

seoul smog Seoul Panorama: browny-grey

Disappointed with the view, I turned instead to listening in on the conversation of some fellow visitors who were conversing in my native tongue.

“In which direction is North Korean then?” asked a portly Statesider, obviously of considerable means.

“This direction,” replied his companion, a smartly-dressed Korean businessman, “about fifty miles away.”

“Fifty miles, is that all? Jeez! D'ya hear that dear? Fifty miles!”

His weary-looking wife nodded.

“So if North Korea attacked, what damage could they do?”

“Probably they could destroy a lot of what you see here.”

“Jeez! But the important question is, do they have noooclear capabilities?”

“Well perhaps so, perhaps not. Officially not, but it matters little, they could do a lot of damage anyway.”

“Yeah man, but that is what matters, noooclear capabilities!”

I exchanged a glance with the weary wife who detected my amusement and smiled back, before descending in the lift and returning to the hotel.

The Lowlander, now refreshed by sleep, was more talkative and ready to hit the bright lights and big city. He, like I, was also hungry, so I suggested that we head for Itaewon, as I knew of nowhere else, and thus Itaewon way we did wander, and very soon ended up in a traditional restaurant where we ordered Bul Kogi, Korea's excellent do-it-yourself barbeque-style cuisine, where one sits around a low table with a flame grill in the centre, and cooks pieces of marinated red meat to the level of one's preference; a vegetarian's nightmare, but heaven for a Lowlander and a Midlander.

And so it was that we caught up on old times, talked of the trip ahead and quaffed Korean ale, before moving onto the German-run bar of the previous evening, quaffing more European-style lager in a European-style setting but with a genuine European drinking partner.

And thus Lowlander and Midlander met once more, and the Trans-Asia expedition truly got underway.

lowlander seoul Drinking with the Lowlander in Itaewon

Next part: 1d: The DMZ

Friday, 8 March 2013

Across Asia With A Lowlander: Part 1b: Pusan

world-map seoul

Greetings!

And in a week when Korea is in the news again for all the wrong reasons, (well… North Korea is), then is it not apt that Uncle Travelling Matt explores the country further, revving up for the time when he visits the border with the World’s Naughtiest Nation? That however, will be next week, providing of course, that Korea, be it North or South, has not been reduced to a nuclear wasteland by then.

Mind you, if it has, fear not, I’ve already got a travelogue on Chernobyl waiting to be posted as well!

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Book 1: Embarking Upon a New Korea

1a: Toyama to Pusan

1b: Pusan

1c: Seoul

1d: The DMZ

1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China

2a: Qingdao

2b: Beijing (I)

2c: Beijing (II)

2d: Beijing (III)

2e: Yinchuan (I)

2f: Yinchuan(II)

2g: Lanzhou

2h: Bingling-si

2i: Xiahe

2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

2k: Jiayuguan

2l: Dunhuang

2m: Urumqi (I)

2n: Urumqi (II)

2o: Urumqi (III)

Book 3: Steppe to the Left, Steppe to the Right…

3a: Druzhba to Almaty

3b: Shumkent to Tashkent

3c: Tashkent (I) 

3d: Bukhara

3e: Bukhara to Samarkand

3f: Samarkand

3g: Samarkand to Urgench

3h: Khiva

3i: Tashkent (II)

3j: Tashkent to Moscow

3k: Moscow (I)

3l: Moscow (II)

3m: Moscow (III)

3n: Konotop to Varna

japan-korea-map 2

s_korea_rmap1

busan-city-tourist-map-647-1 

14th July, 2002 - Pusan, South Korea

I woke much earlier than I’d expected (or wanted) to the next day, or to be more exact, just into the next day, firstly at one in the morning, then just before two and then just after. The reason for my nocturnal restlessness was a simple one, mosquitoes. Now these pesky little bleeders (literally), are (I am thankful to say), rarely much of a problem to me, and in the past I have slept peacefully whilst others have been forced to brandish the spray hours back. However, this lot were in a league of their own, and en masse too, and even I couldn’t cope. Eventually, around three, being able to stand it no longer, I got up, gave myself a good scratch, closed the window and hunted through the collection of sprays on the dressing table, until I found one with a picture of my foe on the front, and then sprayed every inch of the room. They dropped from the sky like flies, (which they sort of are I suppose), and that done, sleep not only came easily, but stayed. For me until morning, and for my insect friends, I am happy to say, forever.

As a consequence of all this however, my proper waking up when the day was light, came later than I’d intended, and it was almost lunchtime by the time I’d showered, shaved and prepared myself for the travails of the tourist. Consequently, before heading off to see the sights, I first stopped off for some fodder at the Lotteria by the metro station.

Lotteria, (which I’d first discovered back in Japan and mistakenly believed to be Japanese at the time), is Korea’s spectacularly mediocre answer to McDonalds. Not only does it serve rather tasteless burgers and average coffee, but its colour scheme is red and yellow, and the staff have silly uniforms too. Haute cuisine it is not, but I frequented it because it is Western, (despite being Korean). Now before the travel purists condemn me outright for being yet another Western ignoramus afraid to experience the local cuisine, I must state in my defence that I do try local foods, and sometimes I even like them. In fact, wherever I am, as a rule I tend to eat as much local food as is possible, (it tends to be cheaper), although of course, if local food is not available, I tend to as much food of any type, full stop, as is possible. But, I do draw a line, and that line is the mornings. Mornings are sacred times, the day is new and the stomach is weak. Mornings therefore, should not be polluted by strange foodstuffs, and instead the stomach requires bread, meat, perhaps potatoes and other proper foods. The salads, rice, noodles and other exotica, whilst undoubtedly (?) pleasant, must wait. The morning is the preserve of real sustenance, washed down by a nice hot cup of tea. And Lotteria, whilst being far from perfect, does provide both, and thus to Lotteria did I go.

091203024536Lotteria

Lotteria: Korean class

After having finished my teriyaki burger meal, (you see, even before lunch I make some concessions to the local cuisine), and cup of tea, I was ready to go on and see the sights of Pusan, Korea’s second city. The main sight (according to my guidebook), was however just out of the city, the Kunjong-gu fortress, a sort of Korean Masada without the famous suicide pacts. Well, it sounded interesting to me, so I hopped onto the Metro to the nearest stop and then took a taxi to the renowned citadel. However, when deposited at the site by my driver, I had to admit to being a little confused as to where the famed fortress, (or indeed, any fortress), actually was, for he seemed to have dropped me off in a small mountain village.

“Kunjong-gu?” I queried. Taximan nodded slowly whilst pointing at the meter. Hmm… He drove off as soon as I paid him, and I decided to have a look around, taking the uphill lane since in my experience, fortresses tend to be more easily defended if they are the top of a hill, (smart, eh?). However, after a kilometre or so, my lane petered out by a plain Buddhist temple and an outside toilet. Confused, I asked a woman if here be Kunjong? She nodded in the affirmative. “Kunjong-GU” I repeated, pointing out the words in my guidebook. This time there was a shake of the head and a point of the fingers in the direction of a nearby hill. So that was it! The driver had taken me to the village Kunjong, and not the fortress! Quite why he might have thought that I would want the village I know not, but he obviously did and that’s where I now was. Thus, there was only one thing for it, and that was to head back down the main road and take another taxi to the fort itself.

Whilst walking back down I had a good look around me at what was most likely to be the only traditional Korean village that I would ever visit. It’s houses were generally but one storey and like elsewhere in the Orient, few rooms seemed to contain chairs, instead families were sat on the floor eating their midday meal. Generally speaking it looked plainer and perhaps a little poorer than it’s Japanese counterparts that I had visited, but the difference was small, and it was a world away from the poverty-stricken villages of the continent’s south-east. All the homes appeared to have running water and electricity, were well-maintained and on the metalled roads four wheel drives sat outside the homes of their owners. No, South Korea is nowadays without doubt no longer a poor country, and no doubt as the years roll by, it will be getting much richer.

I was deposited near to the East Gate of the fort, which was situated on the top of an atmospheric, misty, boulder-strewn hill. Walking up to it I really got a feel of the mysterious and exotic east and I half expected fearsome and strangely-clad warriors to burst forth from the handsome and well-proportioned gate up ahead of me. That illusion however was completely shattered upon arrival at that said structure, which turned out to be but a post-war reconstruction, populated not be warriors, but a mackintosh-clad army of ramblers.

kunjong gu The East Gate of Kunjong-gu

There was unfortunately very little left of what must once have been an extremely impressive complex, with outer walls stretching for a distance of over seventeen kilometres. The fortress was started in 1703 but not completed until 1807. From then on it did its best to defend a troubled corner of a much-attacked land, before being destroyed by the Japanese in the twentieth century.

After consulting the map, I decided to walk along the path that followed the perimeter wall to the cable car terminal near to the South Gate, several kilometres hence. I started along, enjoying the serenity and scenery, but not so much the misty dampness. After some time I reached a road with a few shops, so I decided to buy some mineral water to quench my thirst. The liquid that I bought however, in the mineral water-esque green bottle, turned out to be not the bounty of the skies, but some brand of unpalatable local moonshine made from rice. Too shy to admit my mistake to the stallholder, I took one sip, before putting it deep inside my bag with the intention of perhaps drinking it later.*

The path, which seemed to go on forever, eventually brought me to the cable car station, adjacent to which stood a restaurant. Being somewhat hungry and still thirsty from my long trek, I decided to call into the latter and order some local dishes, (it now being past lunchtime). Confronted with a mass of hangul however, this proved a somewhat difficult task and I was about to reach for my guidebook, when a kind, English-speaking diner decided to assist me. He turned out to be a resident of the city and recommended bibinda, a famous dish of stodge created by mixing rice, meat, kimchi, and various vegetables together in a large hot pot. I’d tried this before and quite enjoyed it, being a bit of a fan of stodgy food, (you have to be if you’re British), so I gave it a go whilst talking to my helpmate about Korean life and his job as a dentist. After thanking him, I paid up and moved onto the cable car which I ended up sharing with the first Westerners that I’d seen so far, a group of portly Kiwis who, (I gathered from their conversation), were teachers in the city.

Now I, (and this will become increasingly apparent throughout the course of this travelogue), am a big one for cable cars, tall towers or big hills; in other words any place that enables me to get up high and see how the land lies, or how the place that I’m visiting is arranged as it were. Perhaps it comes from looking at too many maps as a kid, I don’t know, but whatever it is, wherever I go, I always try to get up as well as get around.

Consequently, when it comes to cable cars and chairlifts, I’ve been on quite a few over the years. Few, if any however, have been up to the standard of that one from Kunjong-gu to the city of Pusan. For the entire distance from the misty mountain top to the suburban bottom, a stunning vista of the seaside city was laid out before me. I picked out the centre, the Metro line which I’d arrived here on and the impressive Main Stadium, only a month back the setting for Korea’s World Cup 2-0 defeat of Poland. And nearer to, there was the mountain slopes, littered with boulders and trees, the greenery punctuated occasionally by the graceful roof of a temple.

pusan cablecar The cable car from Kunjong-gu to Tongnae

But a love of being above it all was not the only reason behind my decision to take the cable car to return down the mountain. Indeed there was another very important extra factor in my reckoning, for the cable car’s lower station is in an area of the city named Tongnae, and that was a place that I definitely wanted to go to, as it is the home of one of the most famous oncheon in the land.

Those of you with a good memory will remember that oncheon is the Korean for the Japanese term onsen, and that onsen was what my travelling companion on the ferry had been to Japan to sample. Yes indeed, oncheon are those hot spring resorts, beloved by the locals and generally found in the peninsula's mountains. Tongnae however, is an exception. It’s an urban oncheon and consequently, due to its convenient location, very popular.

Popular it might be, but easy to find it was not. However, if in doubt, ask. I found the locals to be very friendly and despite the lack of a common tongue, after several visits to small shops and a lot of pointing and gesturing, I found myself at the huge Tongnae Public Baths Complex.

Having lived in Japan for two years I’d tried a lot of, and grown to adore onsens, and as such I was eager to try the Korean variant. What would the differences be? Upon entering there appeared to be few; queue up, buy a ticket, take off your shoes, take of all your clothes, wash thoroughly and then enter.

‘Take off all your clothes,’ did you say? Surely sir you can’t be serious! How uncivilised, like a Roman orgy or something! Well, my prudent friend, I’m afraid I’m being perfectly serious, although alas you were wrong on the orgy count. Nakedness is the order of the day with both onsen and oncheon, and for a shy Brit like I, that took some getting used to at first, my prudence delaying my first entry into the world of oriental bathing by over a month. However, once bitten, forever smitten, and by this time I batted not an eyelid at the sight of a vast damp room full of small men in their birthday suits.

Another thing that also takes a bit of getting used to is the fact that bathing out East is for relaxation, or health purposes, and not for getting clean. Indeed, climbing into a bath unwashed is one of the biggest cultural faux pas that one may commit, and so first stop is always the showers, where one soaps and scrubs every speck of grease and grime away. And that done, it’s time to step out and experience oncheon.

I was not disappointed.

As a general rule, for an oncheon to be worth its salt, it should boast more than just a pool of mineral water. A Jacuzzi pool, outdoor pool, sauna and perhaps a plunge pool of icy H2O are common attractions. More luxurious oncheon may also include a bath of something else, tea or salt water perhaps, or a massaging waterfall maybe. Tongnae Oncheon however was in a league of its own. In the two hours or so that I spent under its vast domed glass roof I experienced, (in the company of hundreds of naked Korean men), the following:-

  • A yellow sand bath
  • ·A hot bath
  • ·A hotter bath
  • ·Even hotter, ouch!
  • ·A cold bath
  • ·Brrr…! Too cold bath.
  • ·Outside bath
  • ·Yellow soil sauna
  • ·Wet sauna
  • ·Dry sauna
  • ·Caves with artificial waterfalls
  • ·Chinese medicines bath
  • ·Green tea bath
  • ·Brown tea bath
  • ·What sort of tea is that? Bath
  • ·Salt water bath
  • ·Foot massage walkway (with pebbles)
  • Kiddies pool
  • And a drinking fountain!

And all the aches and pains of eight hundred kilometres of rail travel, two hundred more by boat, a mosquito-infested sleepless night, and a long walk around a misty fort, were soothed away. I walked out of that oncheon declaring to myself two things, firstly that it was after all rather similar to its counterparts in Japan, and secondly that it was damn good!

I'd intended to visit the Pusan Tower, (big pointless sticky-up thing in the centre of town), after, and so took the Metro straight there, but alas, by the time that I'd climbed to its base, time was running short and so I climbed astraight back down again, and headed back to my hotel, paid the bill, grabbed my bags, and went to the railway station with fifteen minutes to spare.

pusan tower The Pusan Tower

Upon arrival at the station however, I found that, like the Japanese, the Koreans employed that annoying system of not letting one down onto the platform before showing one's ticket for the waiting train, so I opened my bag and rummaged for the required article.

And rummaged, and rummaged, and rummaged. But strangely not ticket was to be found, and more worryingly, no passport either. Tickets are replaceable. Passports are too, but the visas for China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Russia that were in the passport... Yes, I had a problem, and there was nothing else for it, but to rush back to the hotel.

Now the hotel proprietor, (who spoke not a word of English), was more than a little surprised to see his supposedly departed guest back so soon, and even more reluctant to let me back into my room, as it was now occupied by someone else. Fortunately however, by hurried and broken Japanese, with a strong emphasis on the words 'passport' and 'bedroom', I convinced him, and so we rushed up the stairs and I dived into the (luckily vacant) room, and hunted around.

Now, no passports were immediately apparent, but I, being a perennially messy kinda guy, had a good idea where it might have got to, and with all my strength I hauled the double bed away from the wall and lo, discovered not only my key to Trans-Asian adventures, but also the ticket for my train to Seoul which was departing in five minutes time, several leaflets detailing the attractions of Pusan, some Korean won, a smelly pair of socks, an even smellier pair of pants and a paperback copy of Jule Verne's Eighty Days Around the World, all of which I hurriedly gathered in my arms, and thanking the proprietor en route, ran flat out to the station, grabbed my baggage and hurtled down to the Seoul-bound express, literally being the last to board, just as she was a-rolling out of the station.

Now following that mad rush, I was as mentally and physically shattered as I possibly could be and needed nothing more than a good sit down and a rest. And luckily, I had over four hours of just that ahead of me, sat on the train. The grand green and yellow diesel slowly drew through the suburbs of Pusan and I settled down to enjoy a new country in the most civilised manner possible. From a railway carriage.

And what a journey it was too! Once out of the city, we followed the mighty Nakdong River, its calm waters framed by majestic mountains behind and looking like a picture-postcard representation of a classic Asian scene. This was the land of dragons, temples and fantasies that I'd hoped to find, and I revelled in it.

Travelling through Korea at high-speed was fascinating and quite often revealed some unexpected sights. Naturally she was similar to Japan, young steep mountains, virtually uninhabitable, the people clustered on the plains below, but yet at the same time, she was different as well. For a start, there were less people and the plains less-crowded. Agriculturally, there was a notable amount of market gardens, the vast greenhouses penned in-between the river and the railway. The towns differed also, the houses sturdier and squatter, and not a temple in sight, in their place countless neon cross-topped churches proclaiming the glory of a Christian God, and on one hillside a huge Catholic seminary stood, with an enormous Christ over the doorway, arms outstretched, welcoming Asia into His Kingdom.

Christianity in Korea is an interesting phenomenon. After the Philippines, South Korea is the most Christianized country in the Far East, and whilst the unrelentless sowing of seeds by missionaries has largely fallen on stony ground in this part of the world, (just over one percent of the population in Japan, in China a mere thirty million believers out of a population of 1.3 billion), the seeds of faith have returned great yields on the peninsular and of today's sixty million South Koreans, over a quarter profess to be Christian and that number is growing.

Quite why they have been so successful however, is something of a mystery. Perhaps it is a wish to distance themselves from their old oppressors in China and Japan, or perhaps Christ provides a welcome refuge and security from the harsh and ever-threatening atheism of their Northern brothers, who knows? But whatever the reasons may be, Christianity, particularly of the modern, evangelical Protestant variety, is well-established and is increasingly popular, particularly amongst the country's youth.

Despite all of that though, the fact still remains that is a quarter of the population is Christian, then the remaining three quarters must be something else. And, officially at least, that something else, is a mixture of Buddhism and Shamanism, the country's two traditional belief systems, with a history dating back thousands of years. A mere traveller through the country however would be hard-pressed to imagine this to be the truth, and indeed I, who had read about this situation beforehand, struggled to believe it to be true. To all intents and purposes, South Korea appears to be not only a predominantly Christian country, but a fanatical one at that.

The reasons for this illusion are two-fold. Firstly, there are the Christians themselves, who are, as I said earlier, largely Protestant and Evangelical. And Evangelical Christianity is by its very nature, a strain that likes to advertise itself and shout about what it is. Consequently, any church, no matter if humble or huge, seems to be topped by an enormous cross, and at night these crosses light up proclaiming to all that whilst not everyone here might be Christian, those who are are very pleased with their faith.

And then there's the Buddhists. More than the profusion of glow-in-the-dark Houses of Christ, the abject lack of any signs of Buddhism whatsoever help create the illusion that Christ is entirely in control. Whereas the Japanese landscape is littered with the graceful roofs of shrines or temples, they are noticeably absent from the townscapes of Korea. In every town that we passed through, I gazed out eagerly for any hint of the Buddha, and each time I was disappointed. The reason for that too is simple; Korean Buddhist temples look like normal houses and are humble in the extreme, only discernable as a place of worship by the large mirror-image of a swastika on the door. They are numerous, but not apparent from a speeding train.

I moved into the restaurant car for some curry and rice, and got talking to the waiter who spoke excellent English. I asked him about the large concrete highway that had been following us for some time now and was evidently still under construction.

“Oh, that's not a highway,” he said, “it's the new high-speed railway due to open in 2010 that will link Seoul with Pusan.” And then he optimistically added. “And perhaps also it will be extended to China and Russia?” Will that dream one day come true? A railway through North Korea which we may travel on freely. And perhaps even more? When I'm retired will I be able to make the journey the other way, from Stoke-on-Trent to Toyama, all the way by high-speed train alone?

But for the present my train was fast enough and pleasant too. Around Daejon, the country's big city in the centre, darkness fell, so I returned to my seat and settled down to Jules Verne whose hero was travelling a lot further than I and in only eighty days! Well, if that was theoretically possible in the second half of the nineteenth century, then perhaps my dream for the second half of the twenty-first is not so unrealistic?

korean train The train to Seoul

Arriving at Seoul I quickly transferred to the Metro and journeyed to Itaewon, the city's sleaze district, to meet up with the Highlander, an old comrade from my school days who now resided and toiled near to the South Korean capital.

I found him to be much the same as ever and we retired to an excellent German-owned bar that he frequented, (“the GIs don't get here,” explained he), for a long catch-up, having not met up for several years, a chat which I won't bore you the reader with, as it involved only people and places that you are no doubt unfamiliar and uninterested in.

Later on however, we moved onto the subject of Korea, and the Highlander had some interesting things to say. The one that surprised me the most was when I mentioned Korean girls. “Don't even think about it,” he said, “for us ex-pats by and large they're out of bounds.” That surprised me since in Japan relations between the local ladies and foreign men were notoriously common. “Not so here,” said the Highlander, “the virgin bride is still expected in Korea.” That contrasts greatly with her neighbour, yet another example of the fact that the two countries, on the surface so similar, are in many ways profoundly different.

Another difference is that Japan is not chopped in two, with an impoverished northern neighbour ready to invade at a moment's notice. “Ever wondered why the streets of Seoul are so wide?” remarked my Highland friend. “Easier for moving troops around.” Just before my visit, the US's enlightened President, George W. Bush, had made one of his typically bombastic remarks, by including Korea's North in his imagined 'Axis of Evil'. What effects had that had I asked?

“Well, just between ourselves it caused a few feathers to be ruffled,” my friend replied. “A GI acquaintance of mine says that following it all American troops were issued with gas-masks and put through biological warfare training.”

But could the North Koreans successfully invade the South these days, what with no Chinese support and fifty-thousand American troops in the country?

“It's doubtful, but what matters is the damage that they could do first. Remember, Seoul is only fifty kilometres from the border and most of the country's wealth and power is centred here. They might fail, but they could virtually destroy the South in the process.”

The Highlander's residence was not in Seoul itself, but around fifty kilometres to the south in a town called Anseoung. We got there by bus and taxi, (and in doing so I learnt that Koreans don't queue and Korean buses don't necessarily stop!), arriving in the early hours, whereupon I put my head to the pillow and fell fast asleep after what had been a very long day.

mcleish 

The Highlander

 


* I never did though; it ended up left in our hotel room in Seoul after the Lowlander found that he too, couldn’t stomach more than a mouthful.

Next part: 1c: Seoul