Monday, 30 April 2012


Firstly, my laptop got better. So please disregard all information regarding its breaking down and dying. Ok, the blog...

On Friday, Natalie and I booked our flights. Well, we still have 4 more flights to book as it happens but the 4 we have left are pretty small, mostly internal flights so aren’t worth worrying about too much as of yet. However, the big ones are all done and dusted and we got some pretty amazing deals on them. We will be leaving Seoul on Tuesday 28th August, bound for Bangkok via Kuala Lumpa (it’s only a 2 hour layover). We originally intented to leave on the Sunday or Monday but for some reason flying on the Tuesday was almost 150 pounds (no pound sign) cheaper, so we opted for that. We used two fantastic websites which I want to rave about.

Flight price comparison websites are irritating. They are often disorganised, overly complicated and don’t even present you with the best deals on offer. We actually started by checking some of the obvious ones Kayak, Skyscanner and Expedia but none of the flights we ended up booking were represented on any of those websites. If you’re looking for cheap flights (especially if your dates are flexible) I would recommend avoiding these websites. So, how do you find a flight? Well, I still used price comparison sites but they were sites with a difference. 

The first was This inventive little site makes searching for a flight so easy. The home page is just a search box, you type in where you want to go ‘Seoul to Bangkok’ and when ‘August’ and you click search. You can be as specific or as brief as you wish, you can write ‘Asia in September’ and it’ll show you a tonne of super cheap flights. Adioso is specifically designed for people who don’t care when they fly and that’s why such great deals show up on the site, and you never know you might get lucky (as we did). Although we wanted to fly on the Monday the deal that was offered by the Adioso engine on the Tuesday was too good to pass up, and what’s in a day? Adioso provides you with a timeline of results that shows when prices rise and when they fall. It’s really clever and easy to use. Do it.

The second engine we used which is equally as amazing is Yeah, it’s still a price comparison site, but it has access to some amazing deals that the other sites we used just didn’t pull up. The layout is fantastic and it makes it stress-free to search for flights. It is designed to find the cheapest deal available and it cross references your search with over 700 different travel websites to find the best deals. We booked our flight from Siem Reap, Cambodia to Beijing, China through this website and we were very excited with the price we got quoted.  We’ll be flying from Cambodia to China on the 20th October with China Southern Airlines and we’ll be catching our Trans Mongolian Train on October 24th giving us 4 days in Beijing to get a feel for the place. It’s a shame that a Chinese visa is so expensive for such a short stint in the country.

The third flight we booked was from Vientiane, Laos to Hanoi, Vietnam. This probably isn’t the cheapest way to get into Vietnam but the Vietnam visa process gets complicated and when arriving by air that process is made very simple and doesn’t require much forward planning. So, we opted for the flight. We are flying with Lao Aviation which could be quite the experience and we depart Laos on 28th September.

The only flights left to book are an internal Thai flight from Phuket in the South to Chiang Mai in the North, an onward flight from Thailand that we won’t actually be boarding (a stupid visa restriction if you ask me), our flight from Moscow to Dortmund or Berlin, and our flight from Germany back to the UK (we’ve cut France off the tail end of the trip).

All this travel planning and budgeting has gotten me incredibly excited for the big trip. Natalie departed Korea for the last time this weekend, which means in three and a half months we’ll be flying. Very exciting, although, it’s lonely not having Natalie around anymore. I’ll miss her but know that the pay off at the end will be worthwhile. We’ve still got a lot of organising to do. It’s tough to know when you are micro-managing your trip too much so we’re trying to keep a steady balance between over-planning and not doing any planning at all. I think right now, we’re in a heavy planning phase but this is the time when flights need to be booked to try and grab those cheaper deals.

My friend Bob arrives this week, he’ll be at the end of a huge trip around the world and I’m sure he’ll be able to give me lots of valuable advice. I’m looking forward to seeing him and I’m sure he’ll have a great time here in Korea.

So, if you’re ever in need of a cheap flight check out or For the purposes of my family who I’m sure are the main readership of this blog, below is the current travel itinerary for those who are interested.

24th August – Depart Sachang-ri for Seoul
28th August – Seoul to Bangkok
1st September – Bangkok to Krabi / Phuket
8th September – Phuket to Chiang Mai / Chiang Rai
16th September – Chiang Rai to Huay Xai (Laos)
20th September – Huay Xai to Luang Prabang
23rd September – Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng / Vientiane
28th September – Vientiane to Hanoi (Vietnam)
4th October – Hanoi to Hue / Danang / Dalat
11th October – Dalat to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
14th October – Saigon to Phnom Penh / Siem Reap (Cambodia)
20th October – Siem Reap to Beijing (China)
24th October – Beijing to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia)
2nd November – 6th November Ulaanbaatar to Moscow (Trans Siberian Railway)
6th November – Arrive in Moscow
12th November – Moscow to Berlin / Dortmund (Germany)
17th November – Dortmund to London Luton

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Bowling for Sogogi

The title of this blog is a rather far fetched reference to the Michael Moore movie. I don't even like Michael Moore. As a matter of fact I find him utterly insufferable. However, I think the title has a certain ring to it, so, badda bing badda boom.

This is a eulogy for a netbook that has been through the works. It’s travelled to four different continents, has stuck by me for four years and has never given me many causes for concern. However, two nights ago my beloved netbook died. It was a long time coming. It was never a top of the range netbook, so, in a sense I’m surprised it lasted this long. The downside to this is that now I have to buy a new laptop. It’s a shame because I was intending to save a lot of money this month, alas, this will set me back a little bit and I’ve concluded that a laptop is something I can’t really live without, especially being a writer.  

Less than an hour after my netbook kicked the metaphorical dust my camera went and snuffed it as well. I think something got into the lens as it makes an awful churning sound right before it switches itself off. I’m hoping to be able to pick up a cheap camera here in Korea, as for a laptop, I’m going to have to get that shipped from the UK which will also cost an arm and a leg. Yet, we mustn’t fret must we fellow readers for we are still alive? I’ve been hugely positive about the whole experience and am trying to see it as an opportunity rather than a nuisance.  Money comes and money goes and things get fixed just as quickly as things break and if we went around worrying about these silly things our whole lives then we’d get nothing done, would we? So, I’ll take it with a pinch of salt and look at it like the minor annoyance that it is.

Onto more uplifting news. The school went bowling yesterday. Bowling, bowling, bowling, what an utterly repugnant sport that is? Like all sport when it gets taken seriously its almost comical. If only some of those Koreans knew what they looked like. Koreans seem to take any social or leisure event incredibly seriously, they dress in the full attire, they focus on the competition and the winning and they forget the main ingredient in doing anything and that’s to just kick back and have fun. The Koreans were lined up in the bowling alley wearing the most fashionable bowling shoes, dressed in tracksuits and sporting shield guards on their hands, they did a strange ritualistic high five with one another when they knocked any pins over and I thought it was hilarious. My schools crew didn’t take it as seriously luckily enough and it actually was fun playing with my co-teacher. We rarely get a chance to actually talk to one another so this was a welcome opportunity. The school just down the road from mine attended as well so I was lucky enough to be with another native English teacher. We bowled. There’s nothing more to it really.

After bowling we went for beef (Sogogi) at a restaurant in Chuncheon (hopefully the beef wasn’t imported from California as it might be infested with mad cow disease, see the news for more information). I doubt that, though. I’m sure it was locally sourced and not from Lotte Mart or Home Plus. Trent (from the other school) and I sat with our co-teachers at the end of the table and had a conversation which was nice.

Trent and I discussed some philosophy and talked about our backgrounds and our future plans. It was great to be sat at a table full of Koreans and still be able to have an intelligent conversation with somebody. My co-teacher gave me some decent information, complimented my teaching and we had a good time. Relief. This semester has been tough and it was good to finally get some feedback on how I’ve been faring. The day after social events at school is always pleasant and today has been no exception. At lunch my 5th grade teacher asked me if I would be staying another year and was disappointed when I said I wouldn’t be. She said the students will be very sad. This made me smile.

So, onto buying my laptop I suppose. I’d better plan some lessons for tomorrow whilst I’m at it. Luckily, I don’t believe in luck. That sentence was loaded with contradictions wasn’t it? Yet, it seems any bad luck that might have come my way has now departed. Here’s to a brighter tomorrow with less technological problems. 

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Short Notice

Well, I’m going blog crazy aren’t I? I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or not. It gives me something to do at least. It’s just you my fellow readers that have got to sit through it. The sun is shining today and despite a misty ride to work this morning it seems to be brightening up after a weekend of rain.

My friend Bob (Robert) Simpson is arriving in Korea next weekend and I’m excited to see him. He’s been travelling around the world for months and months and Korea is his last port of call before he heads back home to the US. I met Bob on Cape Cod, I didn’t spend too much time with him on my first trip but on my second trip to the Cape we hung out a fair amount. He’s a great guy and I caught up with him via Skype last night. It was great to hear his voice which sounded full of life and happiness. I’m sure he’ll have a tonne of stories to tell me and I’m excited to hear about his travels.

In other news I arrived at school this morning to be informed that tomorrow is ‘Sports Day’. Brilliant. Oh, wait, it’s not quite the sports day I was expecting. It seems that at 14:00 the school is travelling to Chuncheon and going to a bowling alley (I’m not really sure if this is just teachers or students), after bowling we are going for dinner in Chuncheon and I’m hopefully getting a ride back with the school librarian. Nice of them to let me know with such notice, usually I wouldn’t find out about the venture until an hour before we're due to leave. The only downside to this is that I’m going to have to leave Natalie alone for the evening, something I would rather not be doing on our last week together. Despite this, I will try and have a good time and be affable about it.

Wednesday is pay day and Natalie and I were intending to book all of our flights, I suppose we’ll move that to Thursday now, as when I get in tomorrow night I doubt I’ll be in the right frame of mind to focus on the big trip and give it the attention it deserves.

I’ve planned eleven lessons in one hour and a half. That’s a personal record and has me sorted through to Thursday. Probably for the best. I’m assuming a few lessons are going to be cancelled this week but you can never be sure these days. I much preferred last semester when I got informed of cancellations and school events with a lot more notice. These days I’ll just turn up to class and wait to see if the students turn up, more often than not they don’t.

Such is life here in the mountains of Korea. Where farmers are starting to plough their fields and sew their crops. Where flowers and trees are finally blooming. I’m sure I’ll have plenty more to blog about soon, I’ll try and update about the trip to Chuncheon tomorrow. Natalie and I are off to Seoul this weekend and she flies home out of Incheon on Sunday morning. Sad face. Times are changing.

Oh the times they are a changing. 

Monday, 23 April 2012

April Showers

The hills rolled past my window on the bus to work this morning. The river was gushing; water was smashing against the rocks, the final remnants of a weekend of rain. April showers. It was more like a monsoon on Saturday, a whole day of rain, a stark contrast to the glorious sunshine that graced the Korean mountains last week. I’m back at school and it’s nearly the end of April. I can’t figure out whether time is going by too fast or too slow. Sometimes, it feels like I’ve been here forever, sometimes it feels like I’ve just arrived. I’m getting pretty burnt out at school. The same repetitive curriculum is starting to take its toll and dampen my creativity. It’s a sign that it’s nearly time to move on, and I suppose it is, in a sense. I have four months left here in Korea before Natalie and I board our plane for Thailand. I can’t tell you how excited I am to finally begin the travel odyssey that I’ve been mentally preparing myself for since I left America.

Natalie and I finalised our budget this weekend and whilst I won’t quote a figure, it’s clear that it’s pretty doable. I’ve spent more money here in Korea than I originally intended to but that shouldn’t be a problem. I’ll certainly be living more frugally over the next few months, not eating out as much, spending weekends hiking just outside of town, I’ve decided to give up alcohol for the rest of my time in Korea, not just for financial reasons but because I don’t want to waste away my weekends, I want to be out in the world during the day rather than staying up during the night and then waking up at a ridiculous time (anything after 9am is unacceptable).

Natalie is leaving at the end of the week and that will mark the end of her time with me in Korea. She won’t be back until a week or so before we leave for the big trip. It’ll be a long stretch of time apart, but the pay off will be worthwhile. This will give me some time to do a few things I’ve been planning to do. I’m going to write my second novel (I told myself I’d write one when I came here and to come home having finished two will make me feel pretty good). It’s loosely based on the time I spent living on Cape Cod, only it’s sort of; a murder mystery. I’ll be getting in lots of hiking, mainly locally but there are a few mountains in Seoul I want to check off before leaving Korea, and the big bad tallest mountain in Seoraksan, which I’ll probably conquer on my summer vacation.

This weekend we went to Chuncheon to pick up some presents for my sisters Birthday, and to get some Korean traditional things to take back to the UK. I’m sending my giant oversized bag that I came here with back to the UK with Natalie, and I’m filling it with everything that I have that I won’t be taking around the world with me. Mainly clothes, lots of books, some things I picked up in Japan and some other un-necessary items. The bus was packed on the way to Chuncheon and I was forced to stand up (something that hasn’t happened since autumn). It was hot and stuffy and a couple of nattering Koreans started to irritate me. The bus journey went quickly enough but it was pretty wet when we got to Chuncheon so we did what we had to do as quickly as we could. Sunday was a lazy day spent skyping people from home and running a few errands in town.

The weather is starting to brighten up again now and I’m sure we’re in for a pleasant week. Today is planning day at school and I’ll hopefully get most of my lesson plans sorted today, I often procrastinate though. I can’t help myself. I have kindergarten in less than an hour and I’m hoping the class is bubbly enough to wake me up. 

So, I guess that’s all there is to report for the time being. Here’s to hoping that the next four months go smoothly, and that I make the most of the time I have left here. Here’s also to sending Natalie off and looking forward to August when she’ll be back and we’ll be off on our adventure. 

Thursday, 19 April 2012


I first read Rolf Pott's Vagabonding on Venice Beach at the end of my trip through the United States. It put into perspective everything I had experienced on the road and inspired me to keep travelling. The lovely chaps over at the vagabonding blog ( were kind enough to ask me a few questions about my adventure in the states, about my journey to South Korea and about my future travel plans. You can read the interview here: It's a pleasure to be included on the vagablogging site, it is an intelligent, thought-provoking and inspirational site that provides up-to date and well researched travel information, stories and articles. Please read the interview and check out the rest of the site. It'll be worth your time if you're at all interested in indie travel, or indeed, travel of any kind. That's all folks!

Monday, 16 April 2012

An Awful Lot of Running

“Deep in the meadow, hidden far away
A cloak of leaves, a moonbeam ray
Forget your woes and let your troubles lay
And when it's morning again, they'll wash away.”
- Katniss Everdean

I was looking forward to this weekend for several reasons the main one being that it was the first weekend in three weeks that Natalie and I had the chance to be lazy and do whatever we wanted. Not that I haven’t enjoyed having company, as I obviously have, and would rather opt for my friends and family to still be here than to have a lazy weekend, however, it felt good to have the opportunity to relax.

Friday night was incredibly lazy as we literally did nothing apart from bum around the apartment and cook dinner. We did watch ‘The Iron Lady’ which was thoroughly enjoyable and exquisitely English. Although, it lacked direction and wasn’t really sure about what it wanted to say about Margaret Thatcher it was great entertainment, which was all I was really looking for on Friday. Sometimes, although you’re living miles away from home in exciting new places you need to take the time out, to kick back and do something ordinary. So, I guess we embraced that.

Saturday morning we awoke to the new comedy drama by Ricky Gervais: ‘Derek’, which was everything I wanted it to be and more. If all television was that heart-warming and genuine then I’m sure that the world would be a much better place. Deciding that we had watched enough television for one morning we got up and headed into town with Nathanael. We were mistaken initially as it wasn’t market day like we had expected it to be, however, we headed to Kim’s Mart to pick up some essentials. It’s not really the most interesting adventure to write about however we did pick up some gimbop at the ‘Morning Cafe’. The usual cafe which we were used to purchasing our gimbop from has been closed for months now with no sign of reopening so we’ve had to venture on to new horizons.

The sun has been veraciously shining all weekend and we went up to the roof to eat our dinner. Call it a picnic if you will as we did have a blanket, cake, crisps and all the usual trimmings and we laid and basked in the sun that has been so dearly missed all winter. After eating and basking like a few lizards we decided to head down to the courtyard outside the school next door and play like children on the swings for a while. There’s something about swinging in the sun that makes me smile. We even spent at least half an hour trying to get a skipping rope down from a tree next to the swings. We succeeded and gave the skipping rope to a little girl that had been eyeing it up all afternoon. You do what you can.

So, the swings got boring after a while. We walked through a garden and read signs we couldn’t understand. We enjoyed the spring like weather because we didn’t know how long it would be hanging around for and we headed home. I finally watched ‘The Swell Season’ a film I’ve wanted to see for longer than I can remember and it didn’t disappoint. Nathanael cooked us all Cincinnati chilli for dinner which we ate on the roof. That was, Nathanael, Russell, Natalie and I, joined by Amanda briefly. That sentence was full of major grammatical errors which we won’t talk about. Cincinnati chilli was great, and Nathanael continues to master his culinary abilities. The sun set behind the mountains and a cool breeze wafted over the roof. Time to settle in for the night. Time to finally kick Nathanael’s ass at Scrabble.

As it happens, I did beat Nathanael at Scrabble, but it was a close competition. Russell was so furious that he lost that he challenged Nathanael and I to a race around the track at the school next door. How could we decline? I actually thought, naively, that I would win. Before coming to Korea I was running on a daily basis at the minimum of 2 miles and maximum of 4 miles a day. Running was my escape from the banality of my life. Oh gosh, that sounded rather arrogant didn’t it? I wasn’t really escaping from anything, what I meant to say is that running was an experience I longed for after work, it was a place where I could feel free for a short period of time and think over everything in my head. I genuinely miss running through the New Forest every Saturday. I used to park my car up at a small gravel parking lot behind the quaint English village of Burley and set off down the moors and through the forest, back along an abandoned railroad and along the side of the road back to my car. I miss that run immensely and one of the things I’m most looking forward to when I return to England is running it once more. Coming full circle.

However, since being in Korea I have been running maybe six times. That’s less than once a month. That’s shameful. What our race proved to me is that I can’t run like I could when I left England eight months ago and that is something I must remedy. Russell won. In fact he won twice. The first race started shamefully as we all fell over one another on the first corner when we joined up on the inside line. The second time it was close between Russell and I, but I kept slowing down on the corners, Russell came first fair and square, how shamefully disappointing. I thought, well, I’m not used to sprinting anyway, so, I challenged Russell to five laps. I started off confidentially but sprinted the first lap which was a mistake. I kept pace pretty steadily after that but on the fourth lap I could hear Russell catching me up and I didn’t have the energy to fight him, as he came around he overtook me and proceeded to kick my ass. Whilst, I don’t really believe in competition of any sort, especially when running (I prefer to run alone in the woods miles away from anyone) I felt a desire to prove to myself that I could still run, but alas, I can’t. Russell on the other hand can, although we were both rather red faced afterwards. I think I’m going to take up running again, once Natalie has left I’ll plonk on those shoes of mine and hit the trail. However, I don’t think there will be a re-match.

Bed time was inevitable after running at 9pm, and we settled down for an early night. Sleep is good.

On Sunday we arose at the break of dawn and got one of the early buses to Chuncheon. When we arrived nothing was open and the mission to get my haircut was proving fruitless. The main reason we headed to Chuncheon was to see ‘The Hunger Games’ a film which I had very sceptical expectations of. We purchased our tickets and walked around Myeong-dong for a while trying to find a hairdresser. We found a whole row of them right next to the cinema but as it was so early they were all closed. When I say early, I’m talking 10:30am. What hairdressers isn’t open at 10:30am? Ridiculous. It seemed like everything was getting going at 11am but our film was at 11:15 so we thought we’d do that first.

‘The Hunger Games’ was brilliant and I really didn’t expect it to be. I was sure that it would be a tame version of Battle Royale that will be trying to appeal to that teen romance market that is oh so fashionable these days. It’s not, it’s a thought provoking, blood pumping, heart racing, action packed thrill fest and is a must see. I may even read the series of books on which the film is based. I never read that genre but I was so impressed with the film that I might make an exception. I won’t let the cat out of its bag but if you know nothing of ‘The Hunger Games’ it’s about a contest that takes place in a dystopian future in which America has been divided into 12 districts, each district must put forward 2 teenage children once a year to take part in the hunger games, a fight to the death in an arena where there is only one victor. That pathetically sums it up and its best to go with no prior assumptions. I’ll leave it there. It was fantastic. I can’t get it out of my head.

I did find a hairdresser that was open for business after the film and the experience was much the same as the last time I had my haircut in Korea. Through broken English and Korean I communicated what I wanted. I was shown pictures of Koreans with outlandishly ridiculous hairstyles which I politely rejected, my head was moved ever forward by my hairdresser and my cut was cheap and successful. There’s not really much more to add. The hairdressers was a pleasant experience, refreshments were provided and I came out feeling pretty good about my new style. We had a McDonalds because we could and cooked Pad Thai for dinner. We went to the market and brought our fruit and vegetables. The sun continued to shine and is still shining as we speak. I don’t want to seem obsessive over the weather or anything, though, I’m aware I’ve mentioned it in pretty much every blog post this month and last.

Monday is planning day and I’m sat at my desk wishing I was outside in the sunshine. Perhaps, running through the forest, however, the planning is going well and my kindergarten class was good fun. I’m going to be doing some more planning for the big trip this week and its getting so close now I can almost smell it. Just think, in four months my contract will end and I’ll be onto the next chapter. I may have the dreaded third grade after school class at three o’ clock but you know what, I’m feeling pretty good.

Happy Hunger Games, and may the odds be ever in your favour...

Friday, 13 April 2012

"로켓" - Rocket

At 7:30am Korean time North Korea finally launched the rocket that has been the subject of much discussion amongst the press here, and across the globe, all month. The reaction on the ground was predictably apathetic, it seems that whenever something of significance happens in the North the general public in the South are largely unaffected by it. They must be so used to empty threats and pathetic provocations from the North that the idea that there might actually be a threat is not taken seriously.

What was surprising in the case of the rocket launch earlier today was that the North admitted its failure. At noon today state TV in the North announced that the controversial launch had failed to enter orbit. Whether this was actually a missile test or whether it was as the North had declared, a peaceful launch to put a satellite into orbit is yet to be revealed. What is clear to me, from behind my desk twelve miles from the border is that nobody here really cares. At least, that’s the way it seems.

So, the North Korean rocket failed and what a surprise. I guess you really do get used to this kind of thing when you live in such close proximity to one of the most secretive communist dictatorships in the world. So, what happens next? Talk of supposed nuclear tests have been thrown around for about a week now, but, let’s be honest, aren’t they always? Victor Cha, former director for Asia policy in the US National Security Council said that it’s important to watch very carefully what the North are doing now at the nuclear test site and how they explain this with all those foreign journalists in the country, and he has a point, of course it’s important to keep an eye on things, but on the ground at least, the South Koreans will continue to keep their distance from the news. They will continue to read about their crazy Northern neighbours in newspapers, continue to have the news broadcast on their television sets and over the radio, but it’s all just background noise.

I didn’t expect it to be this way when I moved here; I expected the threat of the North to be a shadow that loomed over the country but it turns out that’s not the case at all, the North is just something Koreans have to put up with. One day it’s a rocket launch, the next day it’s a nuclear test, the day after that it’s about transition of power, or provocation and idle threats, its everyday, it’s a part of life here and suffice to say the launch of the North Korean rocket hasn’t affected my life here in South Korea at all. The only thing that’s changed is that by this time next week I won’t have to keep reading about it anymore, it’ll be something else instead.

I don’t want it to sound like I think that South Korea as a nation doesn’t care about what’s going on upstairs. I just want to make it clear that people don’t make a big deal out of it here. Of course Koreans care about what is happening to their country and their nation. A hugely patriotic camaraderie the likes of which I’ve never experienced before makes sure of that. Yet, people will be out drinking tonight, people will be cooking dinner and talking about trivialities largely unrelated to North Korean space rockets. Teenagers will be listening to K-Pop on their Samsung mp3 players or playing Starcraft in PC Bangs nestled on top of convenience stores and discussion of the failed rocket launch will be fleeting.

A lot of folk on twitter have been tweeting the most naive and uninformed opinions and comments on the subject of this rocket launch, I just wanted it made clear that I won’t be losing any sleep over it, and nor will anyone else.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Kieran and Naoko Visit Korea

I feel like my previous entries have been overly descriptive and akin to the rear end of a postcard. I have, after all, just been describing the things I’ve been doing with my various guests. Well, this will be the last of those, until May at least.

Kieran and Naoko visited this week. They actually arrived the same day that my parents left and coincidently they bumped into my mother and father at the bus terminal in Seoul. As much as I loathe the mantra, ‘It’s a small world’ I suppose this would be the appropriate place to voice it.

Kieran and I have been friends for coming on nine years. As it happens, (having distanced myself from several of my friends in previous years) Kieran is probably my oldest friend. Nine years is a long time and we’ve certainly both come a long way since we became properly acquainted in college. Kieran’s girlfriend, Naoko is from Japan and their main reason for coming to Asia was to visit Naoko’s family in Japan, however, Korea is an obvious stop off and Kieran had decided before I even came to Korea that he and Naoko would be visiting.

On Monday evening I got home from school, opened my front door and was greeted by Kieran and Naoko’s shining if not slightly jet lagged faces. It was marvellous to see them. We exchanged the usual pleasantries “how was your trip?” “What did you do in Seoul?” “How was the bus journey?” and after catching up we took a walk around town ending up at the temple that looks out across Sachang from a tall grassy hill (a knoll if you will). We tried to teach the resident pooch to play catch but for some reason the poor dog was frightened of the stick, so we departed. We made our way back to the apartment to get changed and freshened up before going to dinner. We went and had Sam Gap Sal at the same restaurant that I took my parents to on their first night in my town. The food was well received and there was hardly a dish left on the table that had any food left in it. It appeared that Kieran and Naoko were rather fond of Korean cuisine. The smell of Sam Gap Sal likes to stick to you, your clothes, your hair, and your skin and we left the restaurant smelling of pork but were sufficiently and satisfactorily filled up. We spent the rest of the evening playing cards and eating junk food and of course talking about the things that we hadn’t been able to talk about for the bygone seven months since the last time we met up. Oh, how strange it was to have my friends there in my apartment in Korea. How wonderful as well.

Unfortunately I had to go to school on Tuesday but that left Kieran and Naoko time to catch up on some sleep and allowed Natalie the opportunity to show them around town a little more, I think they ended up climbing the small mountain at the foot of the bus station. The weather was pleasant enough in the morning but turned to gentle drizzles come the late afternoon. I arrived home and showered, talked to Kieran about the people with whom we studied at college and what they may or may not be doing with their lives now. It appeared neither of us had really stayed in touch with anybody from that chapter of our lives, apart from each other. No matter. As Gordie notes in the 1986 film 'Stand By Me': "People come in and out of our lives like busboys in a restaurant." There's a lot of truth to that and it makes me wonder how many people from this chapter of my life I'll still talk with in nine years time.

We went out for Chinese (Korean Chinese) food at seven, and Nathanael and Amanda came along as well. Natalie as well. We can’t forget her, can we? We dined on Mandu (fried dumplings), Jjangmyeong (black bean noodles), egg fried rice, spicy pork and soju and yet again the food went down well with the company. After eating we went up to the sixth floor Hite bar on the main strip of town and continued to drink. By the time we left Hite every foreigner that lived in Sachang was there and we went to a singing room to sing some songs and continue with the merriment. It looked as if my company (as if we’re in the Lord of the Rings or something) were getting tired, we were home by midnight and wanted an early night as I had a day off on Wednesday. We had plans.

Wednesday rolled around quickly and we got on the bus to Chuncheon. The weather was a little cloudy but the morning felt fresh and spring still felt like it was blooming and bouncing about the air. We were making our way to Nami Island. We didn’t actually arrive at Nami until around midday. We brought tickets to the zip line (one of many ways to get onto Nami Island short of swimming) and we had lunch whilst we waited for our turn on the wires. We snapped many photos and flew down the zip wires over the river to Nami Island. Both Kieran’s and my own harnesses got stuck just before the end of the line and we had to get pulled the rest of the way by the zip line staff. Embarrassing. We spent many hours on the island, hanging out with the ostriches, admiring the sites and having water fights on the lake in rented boats. We ate ice cream, helped some Koreans push their bike up a hill and made comment that Nami Island is like walking into a Studio Ghibli film, where everything is reminiscent of an Asian fairytale. It certainly tried its best to appeal to the romantic side of the Korean culture and make everything as un-necessarily cute as possible.

We got back into central Chuncheon by about six o clock and went and had Dak Galbi in a nearby restaurant. As usual my belly is regretting that decision but alas it was enjoyable and not disappointing. Dak Galbi always tastes so damn good. We caught the bus home and were thrown around bends at lightning speeds until we made it back. We all nattered some more and before we knew it, it was time for sleep.

Kieran and Naoko left this morning for Japan and we walked them to the bus station. It was truly wonderful seeing them and I’m so glad that they made the effort to come and visit. It’s strange that I won’t see them again until the end of the year but if I’ve learnt anything from living here is that time goes by quickly. I hope both Kieran and Naoko have a fantastic trip to Japan.

As for me, Natalie and I are now left to our own devices again and she’ll be hanging around until the end of April. I’m looking forward to the weekends over the next few weeks and will try not to waste the time we have left together as before I know it Natalie will be on the next plane to somewhere other than here as well and I’ll be in the last stretch of my time in Korea before both Natalie and I pack our bags and head to Thailand to begin our big adventure.

It’s a dangerous business, walking out your front door, you step out onto the road and there’s no telling where you might get swept off to.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Mum and Dad Visit Korea - Part 2

My principle is walking through the garden at the front of my school. The sun is shining brighter than it has shone in nearly five months. Spring has arrived. There is water in the streams. The sound of it crashing against the rocks is music to my ears. The flowers are slowly but surly beginning to blossom. My parents are leaving my small rural town today and heading home after two weekends here in Korea. They've experienced a multitude of weather since arriving, from torrential downpours, to thick snow, to bright sunshine and roaring winds.

After arriving and settling into their hotel on Sunday night we went for Sam Gap Sal (barbequed pork) at our favourite pork restaurant in town. This was the first time my parents had been to what I would call a proper Korean restaurant. There were side dishes, kimchi, lettuce leaves, hot sauce, raw garlic and all the rest along with the pork. Their chopstick use was in check and we all had a great time at the restaurant. It was a quiet night after eating and introducing mother to the local hounds. We settled down for an early night and the next day I jetted off to school. Natalie took care of my parents in the week and I’ll only need to give you a brief summary on what they did each day up until this weekend, which is what this blog will mainly cover.

On Monday they stayed in town and hiked to the local Buddhist mountain temple (to read more about this particular temple see my blog ‘Candlestick Rock’.) It’s a reasonably long trek through the mountains to get there with plenty to see on the way. That evening we dined on duck at the local duck restaurant and mother didn’t exactly eat much. However, it was enjoyed by everybody else and we went to the local bakery afterwards so Mum could eat something.

On Tuesday they went to Chuncheon for the first time, however, it was nearly postponed by the snow. We had inches upon inches of snow fall on Monday night which resulted in my not being able to get to school on Tuesday morning. I tried. I even got in a truck with a crazy Korean farmer and swerved across the road fearing for my life before he decided it was too dangerous. Luckily, this meant I spent the morning with Mum and Dad before going to school at midday after the snow had cleared a little. As I went to school they went to explore E Mart and were back in town for A Dak Galbi dinner.

Wednesday was a little more exciting and they visited a big dam, waterfall and temple in Chuncheon and we cooked dinner in the evening. A welcome change from Korean food I suppose. Thursday they stayed around town and checked out some of the other temples and things around and in the evening we all went for Chinese food.

On Friday I suppose the weekend really started. My parents went to Nami Island for the day. I’ve written about that island way back in September, it’s basically a small paradise just outside of Chuncheon. It’s a beautiful little island with much to see around it. When we went we zip lined onto it but I don’t think my parents were up for that. I met my mother and father at Chuncheon bus station at around 6:30. I was lucky enough to score a lift to Chuncheon with my co-teachers as there was a school meal in the city that night. After being informed that the 6:30 bus to Sockcho was sold out we decided to book tickets for the 8:00 bus and go for some Western food at the nearby steakhouse. After filling up we headed to the station picked up some snacks and boarded our bus.

The bus to Sockcho takes around 1 hour and 40 minutes, which went extremely quickly. As soon as we got into town we jumped in a taxi and headed out to our hotel on the border of Searoksan National Park. We checked in and had a few drinks in our rooms before we settled down for the evening. We were staying in the Sorak Park Tourist Hotel which is around 1.8km outside of the park (which makes it easy to walk to), and is just across from the park visitor centre. The view from our balcony was lovely and although the hotel had clearly seen better days it was perfect for what we needed it for.

The next day we got up at 8am and were out of the door by 8:30am. I didn’t know quite how busy the park was going to be, the trees were void of any leaves and snow covered the peaks of the mountains. As we approached the main gate it was quite clear that although there were still many visitors this was going to be nothing like the overcrowded mass onslaught that we had experienced last time we went to the park in September. It costs a mere 2000won to get into the park and we headed straight for the cable cars. The cable cars soar to the top of one of the most breathtaking mountains in the park and we didn’t have to wait long for our ride either. We had breakfast and we were in the cable car by 10am. There were plenty of tourists a top of the mountain all taking ridiculously unnecessary photos of themselves, but we got around these quite quickly and walked to the peak. From the top you can see for miles and miles, the whole of the national park falls away from you and the magnitude of the mountains is quite overwhelming, striking and beautiful. Dad and I made it right to the top and had a photo next to the flag that was waving in the wind. After we’d really soaked up the atmosphere of the place we slid down the snow to the temple just below the peak, and then proceeded to go down the cable cars.

The next stop was Biryong Falls a beautiful waterfall about 2km walk from the cable car station. The walk is a pleasant one and not too strenuous. It is reminiscent of Jurassic Park 3 when the main characters are walking through the aviary. The waterfalls crash down onto the rocks and the river seems to stretch for miles and miles. When we got to the falls we all sat down and had a rest. You could spend hours sat beneath these falls, and the temptation to take off your clothes and go for a swim would have been irresistible had it not been for the snow still noticeable around the edges.

After arriving back from the waterfall we ate lunch and had a short walk around another temple that is quite close to the park entrance. After this we decided that we had better head back to the hotel. We freshened up there and proceeded to Sockcho Beach via taxi. Sockcho Beach is a sandy pretty beach but it was very windy down by the front. We walked all the way along to the harbour (another 2km) and we finally settled down to have dinner at an all you can eat restaraunt which mum wasn’t all that fond of (ya know heads still on the fish and all that).

It had been a pretty successful day but we were all tired from the walking and decided to have another early night. We were up the next day to ascend the park one last time. The plan was to hike to the top of Ulsan Bawi. Ulsan Bawi is a giant rock in the middle of the park and again I have talked about it before. It reminds me of half dome to a certain extent but isn’t nearly as big or as dangerous but it’s still slightly treacherous. Natalie and Mum got ill half way to the rock and turned around but Dad and I trekked on determined. It was a lot warmer on Sunday but the wind was so powerful that the park service had stopped running the cable cars. As we got closer to the top it became apparent that it might be too windy to actually reach the summit of the rock.
We started walking up the thousands of steps that have been carved in and placed upon the rock and the closer we came to the top the windier and more dangerous the climb became. We even got to a point where people coming down were telling us to turn around and go back. Reluctantly, in the end, that’s what ended up happening. We both got blown into a rock and decided enough was enough. We had come far enough. We had come so far in fact that we even caught a glimpse of the final staircase to the top, this staircase however was right up in the middle of the sky with no rocks around it to block any of the wind. That was too dangerous so we decided we had come far enough. We made it back to the bottom and still felt successful, it would have been a mistake to have gone any farther and Dad even said that it was one of the most dangerous walks he’s ever been on. I’ll give it second place.

We got back to the cable car station and had lunch with everyone and then headed home. We boarded the bus, got back into Chuncheon, boarded another bus and we were back in Sachang-ri by 5:30pm. Pizza night proceeded and this morning we said our farewells. It’s strange that I haven’t seen my parents for 7 months and it’ll be another 7 months before I see them again. I hope they had a fantastic time and will cherish the experience of coming all this way. It was wonderful to see them and I had a fantastic time. I really feel like they got a taste of what it’s like to live out here in Korea and they’ll go home with many stories to tell. That’s what it’s all about really.

Kieran and Naoko my two friends from back home arrive today, and I think (going by the board in the staff room) that I have Wednesday off so I can show them around as well. What a busy month April has been!

May the sun keep on shining. May the flowers finally bloom.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Mum and Dad Visit Korea - Part 1

It’s hard to imagine now (having lived here for over seven months) what it is like to experience Korea for the first time. My early recollections of my time here are shrouded in a fog caused by the fact that I’ve become so used to everything here in Korea. Nothing is really very surprising anymore and I’ve settled into a state of complacency about the whole thing. This isn’t meant to sound as negative as it does, I suppose, what I mean to say is that I feel like I’ve lived here for longer than I have and therefore I do not notice the cultural differences so much anymore. So, it was fun (to say the least) to experience Seoul this weekend, with my parents.

We met my parents at the bus stop outside of the Koreana Hotel. The Koreana is an old hotel built in the eighties. It manages to maintain the charm of an old eighties hotel whilst remaining in the present and despite the dirty carpets and VHS player you really wouldn’t know that the hotel has been on the main strip in central Seoul’s Jongo district for nearly 30 years. It’s quite a luxurious hotel and the rooms were fantastic. I greeted Mum and Dad with a hug and can’t describe how good it was to see them after seven months. It was a real treat, and after we settled into our rooms we went out for a late night coffee at one of the hundreds of coffee houses around the hotel. We all had a coffee (I think Natalie actually had a tea) and a slice of cake (I think Natalie actually had a sandwich because she’s a pig) and we caught up. There was a lot to talk about including my parents recent trip to Hong Kong. We settled down at about 11pm and got some rest ready to be tourists the next day.

It was quite refreshing to be a tourist in Seoul after months of being an expat. We headed out at 8am and had breakfast at Paris Croissant a small bakery / coffee house underneath Anguk subway station. We then proceeded to check out Changdeokgung palace and gardens. This is one of the older palaces in Seoul and I’ve been there several times. We walked around snapping photos of the ancient Korean buildings and gardens and started our day of walking which would take bits toll on all of our legs by the end of the day. As far as I can tell my parents were both impressed with the palace and the views of the city from a top the garden. Mum was probably a little more impressed by the black squirrels that lived there. Walking around the palace didn’t take nearly as long as I thought it would so I decided we would walk up an ancient wall leading to a viewpoint on top of the city. The walk was quite a distance and by the time we had trudged our way to the top (getting disheartened by a Korean fifty something who was running up the hill) we took a well needed rest and looked out at the view for a while. From the top you can see several of the mountains surrounding the city and you can look right across to Seoul tower on the opposite side of the city.

It was getting on a bit and despite the sun being out it was getting a little cold so we walked back down through Hyehwa district (a student art district of Seoul) and went for lunch at my favourite Seafood buffet restaurant ‘Morisco’. Natalie and I ate plenty and Mum and Dad weren’t too shy about trying new things, I think I even got Dad to try some sushi. Although, they avoided the squid noodles and spicy tteok a good meal was had by all. It’s a pleasant atmosphere in this particular restaurant and despite serving an array of Korean and Japanese foods the place has a Western feel about it which was a good way to break my parents into the dining culture of Korea.

After lunch we headed out to the next temple. We got off a stop before to attempt a walk through Insa-dong but ended up getting a little lost, we eventually found our way back through the Buddhist centre of Seoul and stumbled across the palace we were looking for. Gyeongbuk palace is the grandest palace in Seoul and we arrived just in time to see the changing of the guards. As a matter of fact, Natalie, Mum and I ended up in the middle of it nearly getting trammelled down by the guards. They walked right into us and we had to dodge them a few times. I guess they’re told to just walk through blind tourists. Mother was more than amused by this and we continued into the temple and had a look around. The day was gradually coming to a close and after spending some time at the palace and temple we walked back down the main strip past the statues of kings of old and back to our hotel.

A well deserved bath was had and taken full advantage of as it’s rare that I get the opportunity to have a bath these days and we headed out at around 5:30pm. We jumped in a taxi to rest our legs and we made our way to N Seoul Tower. The queue for the cable car was considerably shorter than it was the last time I went up the tower and Mum wasn’t as panicky about the experience as I expected her to be. We made it to the top and had some wine and Italian food looking out over the whole city. It’s quite some view from up the top. Night fell and we purchased our tickets into the fastest elevator in the world and shot to the top of the tower. We spent quite some time on the observation deck looking out at the light sprawling out across the city beyond the Han River. It looks stunning from up the top and all around you can see lights and life bustling around. Whilst at Seoul Tower, Natalie and I also partook in the age old tradition of securing a padlock on top of the fence at the top of the tower. There are literally thousands of padlocks up there all symbolising the love and romance of the viewpoint. I suppose.

Wow! Feeling tired we all went back down and jumped in a taxi back to the hotel. I think we even had a coffee before bed at Holly’s Coffee House. The next morning we were up a little later and we left our bags at the hotel. We had waffles for breakfast at Caffe Benne (a favourite of Natalies) and then headed to Seodaemun Prison for a little history. I’ve talked about this place before when I went with my school (see my blog: ‘You Will Hate Japan, You Will, You Will’). It’s rather a depressing sight to be honest but one worth seeing to understand a little more of what went on in the country. After walking around here in the cold cells we headed out to the War Memorial for a little more culture. The War Memorial of Korea is a really great museum and you can learn a lot about the Korean war there. We didn’t spend a great deal of time here but we did walk around the main exhibits and outside you can see some of the military equipment from the Korean war. We were getting hungry (with the expectation of Mum) and headed to Namdaemun market for some market style lunch. Hot dog sticks and pancakes. The market was busy and sells mainly clothes and isn’t nearly as touristy as I expected it to be. There were many wondrous foods on display however but nothing we really fancied after our hot dogs on a stick. We caught a taxi back to the hotel, picked up our bags and headed for the bus station. We caught a taxi to the bus station and Mum and Dad managed to catch a glimpse of the Olympic Stadium and Bridge on the way back to the bus terminal.

We arrived back in Sachang-ri at about 4:30pm and proceeded to the nicest looking hotel in town. It was rather a hilarious trial trying to check in and it took us about half an hour of hand gestures with the owners who spoke no English. It was hard to get across that although there were 4 of us only 2 of us were staying in the hotel. The owner who was very humble showed us loads of rooms, even a Korean style room (no bed just a floor) despite the fact that we asked for a room with a bed. After many more waves and mimes we managed to get the point across and my parents checked into their room which for a town like this was a pretty decent room. They had a bed. You’ll be happy to know. My parents seemed impressed at my ability to keep my cool whilst trying to explain what we wanted in a language neither me nor the owner spoke. Rather hilarious. I think it all worked out okay in the end though. They have somewhere to sleep. That's what important, right? So my parents have arrived and there’s a lot more to talk about but I’ll save that for next time.

It’s going to be a fun week.