Monday, 25 June 2012

Swimming in Sachang

On Friday evening I joined Ben, Russell and Deanna on a trip to Chuncheon. We had a KFC which has just opened in EMart, it made my belly cry. I knew there was a reason I didn’t like eating that stuff. We walked around EMart picking up necessary items for a BBQ that we planned to have on Saturday. This included beer, wine, sausages, burgers, and guns. How we ended up buying BB guns is way over my head. It was Russell’s fascination with the BB shotgun that probably spurred on the spontaneous purchases. He couldn’t wait to get back to the car and open up the box.

So, Saturday rolled around. We waited for Rian and Lanelle to arrive (they live in Hwacheon) and we headed out to the river. Deanna and Russell found us a great spot right on the river bank. There was sand, rocks and water you could swim in. We set up the BBQ’s, we cooked delicious meaty food, we swam in the river, we played Frisbee and we threw a ball, and we had BB gun wars on the beach. It was incredibly pleasant. Swimming in the river was especially pleasant. I really miss swimming; it’s something I used to do at least once a week back home. David and I would head down to the ocean and give ourselves over to its bitterly cold clutches. It was warm in the river and in the end everyone was swimming and having fun. It’s a shame we haven’t done more things like this in the time we’ve been here. There is still time.

However, the weeks are flying by, steadily, and, if I’m honest, not as fast as I might like. Responsibility really sucks. When my alarm clock attempts to wake me up in the morning (more often than not I’m awake and up before it goes off) I know that I have to do something. The something that I have to do is go to school. I like school. I like my kids. I like classes when they go to plan. They are even kind of fun when they don’t. What I don’t like is the fact that I have to do it. I ask myself, would I go to school if I had a choice? The answer is no, I would not. Does that mean I’m not passionate about it? I suppose the reality of it is that yes, it does mean that. That begs the question, what am I passionate about? That question is easily answered. Travel. How do I know I’m passionate about travel? Because I get a fuzzy feeling inside whenever I think about it, most of my free time at work is spent researching and planning it, it makes me feel happy and fulfilled, and it’s what I’ve wanted to do since my trip to America in 2009. This experience has been valuable and I’ve gained some important life skills but I can’t deny that the reason I came here in the first place was for the sake of travel and financing that travel.

It all starts in August. I break up from school on July 20th. There is a two week period where I’ll either have a camp, or sit at my desk and dream about what is just around the river bend. On August 4th the two week period in which I still have to go to school ends. I’ll have two weeks of vacation from August 4th until August 19th. During this time I will do some travelling around Korea, I’ll tidy my apartment ready for its new occupant and I’ll meet Natalie from the airport. I return to school on August 20th for one week. It’s the start of term and the new English teacher won’t arrive until the 25th, I’m sure this last week will fly by and then Natalie and I will be off on the adventure we’ve been planning all year.

It all seems so close yet feels so far. We apply for our visas this weekend. We’ve had to wait this long to apply for them as sorting out visas for a TransMongolian trip across Asia is a bitch. It’s really hard work. Pathetically so. There is no need for these countries to make it this difficult for us to visit them. However, we have no choice but to comply. I’ll be spending Sunday filling out a myriad of paperwork and then it will be out of my hands. My passport will do its tour of the embassies and will in theory land on Natalie’s doorstep just in time for our departure.

In the meantime, I’ll be here in Korea. In exactly two months it will all be over here. That’s only eight more weekends. When I think back to a year ago it feels a lifetime away. It feels like I’ve been here for a lot longer than I have. When I left Heathrow airport I sat in the departure lounge directly opposite the plane that would take me here (it actually took me to Turkey for a layover but whatever), I looked at the plane and had no idea where I was going. I knew I had to meet some EPIK people when I landed, I knew I’d be going to some sort of orientation, I knew I’d be working in a school, but the details were unbeknownst to me. I was throwing myself in at the deep end. I don’t really remember what that uncertainty felt like now. I remember being driven to my new town by my co-teachers, I remember seeing Nathanael walking past the apartment block and feeling relieved that I wasn’t going to be alone, but that feels like it was more than a year ago. I mean, really? That was nearly a year ago? Wow! Everything is so familiar here now, so naturally, I’m excited about the next step.

Now everything is coming together I wanted to leave you with an updated itinerary of the trip. This will probably only be interesting to my family, so feel free to switch off if you’ve made it this far. The reason I’m posting this is because a few dates have changed since the last itinerary I posted and I also wanted to write in a few of the things we’ll be doing in each place so you can at least attempt to picture it a little more.  Bon voyage.

24th August – Last day of school and depart Saching-Ri for Seoul
25th August – 27th August – Seoul
28th August – Depart Seoul for Bangkok, Thailand via Kuala Lumpa (Depart 09:35am – Arrival 19:50pm)
28th August – 1st September – Bangkok
1st September – Depart Bangkok for Krabi, Thailand via overnight train
2nd September – 4th September – Krabi Beach, Ko Phi Phi Island
5th September – 7th September – Phuket, Karon Beach and Patong
8th September – Phuket to Chiang Mai, Thailand (Depart 15:25pm – Arrival 16:35pm)
8th September – 11th September – Chiang Mai, Elephant Nature Park
12th September – 15th September – Chiang Rai, Crossing the bridge into Myanmar (Burma) 
16th September – Ferry to Huay Xai, Laos
17th September – 18th September – Riding a boat down the Mekong River
18th September – 20th September – Luang Prabang, Bear Rescue Centre
21st September – Over night bus to Vang Vieng
22nd September – 23rd September - Vang Vieng, tubing down the river
24th September – 27th September – Vientiane, Ban Na Tribe and Waterfall Jungle Trek
28th September – Depart Vientiane, Laos for Hanoi, Vietnam (Depart 15:15pm – Arrival 16:25pm)
28th September – 30th September – Hanoi
1st October – 2nd October – Ha Long Bay Cruise
3rd October – Hanoi
4th October – Overnight train to Hue
5th October – 6th October – Hue
7th October – 8th October – Danang and Hoi An
9th October – Overnight train to Nha Trang
10th October – 11th October – Nha Trang Beach
12th October – 13th October – Ho Chi Minh City
14th October – Bus to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
14th October – 16th October – Phnom Penh, Killing Fields
17th October – 19th October – Siem Reap, Angkor Wat
20th October – Depart Siem Reap for Beijing, China (Depart 11:10am – Arrival 20:05pm)
20th October – 24th October – Beijing, Great Wall of China
24th October – Depart Beijing on TransMongolian Train
25th October – Arrive in Ulaanbaatar, Monglia
25th October – 26th October – Ulaanbaatar
27th October – 29th October – Gorkhi Terelj National Park, Staying in Ger Camp, Horse Riding
30th October – 1st November – Ulaanbaatar or elsewhere in Mongolia (open ended)
2nd November – Depart Mongolia on Trans Siberian Railway
2nd November – 6th November – Trans Siberian Railway
6th November – Arrive in Moscow
6th November – 12th November – Moscow, staying with family
12th November – Depart Moscow for Dusseldorf, Germany (Depart 17:00pm – Arrival 17:20pm)
12th November – 17th November – Dortmund, Germany, visiting Alex
17th November – Depart Dortmund for London Luton (Depart 13:30pm – Arrival 13:55pm)
17th November – 18th November – Home Sweet Home

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Under The City

I saw a penis.

That’s not a sentence that you’d traditionally start a blog with is it? Especially one which your family read. I could just leave it at that. That would be funny. I should probably give it some context though. Let me start at the beginning.

This week at school has been rather tiresome. On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday grades 3 through 6 were all away on a field trip to somewhere I can’t pronounce. This left me at my desk with very little to do outside of giving classes to 1st and 2nd grade. Good classes. However, I had lots of free time. I did a lot of writing. I’ve written 10,000 words this week. I’m writing a new film. It’s called ‘Youth’. Trying to get my head around my second novel has been hard. ‘Youth’ has just come out of me, fully formed, which has been good. My attempt to document my Cape Cod experiences alongside a murder mystery in my second attempt at a book has been tough but screenwriting seems to be something that comes very naturally to me. I should have it finished this week. So, I guess not having classes does have its benefits, I get paid to do things that I want to do and as long as I do my job it doesn’t seem to be too much of a problem.

So, Friday rolled around as it inevitably does. This weekend I had to go to Seoul to get my Hepatitis B booster vaccination and change over my malaria tablets. Nathanael and I headed to Seoul on Friday night. My appointment was early on Saturday morning and Nathanael and I wanted to explore a tunnel underneath the Wonhyo bridge in the pitch black on Friday night. Very good idea.

Urban exploration is still very much a new thing here in Korea, it’s a place in which Korea is falling steadily behind the rest of the world. I’ve heard that the Japanese and the Chinese have embraced urban exploration and there are communities actively partaking in the past time in those countries. Not here. In Korea urbex seems to be a community that is almost entirely made up of expats. No matter.

The Wonhyo Bridge is one of many bridges that cross the Han River in the middle of Seoul. Its grey, it’s bleak and it’s industrial. The view is pretty good down underneath the bridge. There is a cycle trail, some tennis courts and a park. That’s not why we were there though. We were there because we wanted to explore a tunnel which runs underneath the north face of the Wonhyo bridge all the way down to Sam Gak Ji which is a good 2km away, underground. We slid into the tunnel unnoticed and walked along what might as well have been a path in the pitch black. There were some drains to step over and the further in we got the less path like our path became. If it wasn’t for the flashlight we had just bought the exploration would have been impossible. The further we got into the tunnel the scarier and more daunting it became. You could fit at least three double decker buses in there. That’s how tall it was. It was like a communist Moria. There were big concrete pillars supporting the tunnel. The river was running steadfast underfoot. The tunnel was wide as well. Really wide. There were actually two paths you could walk and we were to the far left. We walked so far in that you couldn’t see the entrance anymore. You could just hear the water gushing and the sound of the street from up above. I thought of my first novel ‘The Cave’ and how this tunnel reminded me of my cave a little bit. It was eerie, it was dank, and it was abandoned. There was nobody around, I was worried we would bump into some homeless types but Nathanael didn’t seem too concerned about this.

Either way, we were in and out and we had the experience of seeing a part of Seoul that not many people get the chance to see, unless they watch the movie ‘The Host’ of course, as parts of that movie were filmed right there in the tunnel under the Wonhyo. I stood on the sand alone (as Nathanael talked to some Koreans) after exiting the tunnel. I looked out across the Han River. I saw the metro trains travelling over a bridge in the distance. There were couples holding hands walking along the cycling track, the moon made the water sparkle. Seoul was alive all around me. I took deep breaths and listened to the river. It was peaceful. I felt empty and full at the same time. Nathanael came back over and we decided it was time to leave.

So, we needed a place to stay right? It was getting late and I had an appointment in the morning. This bit is about the penis by the way. In case you were wondering if I was ever going to get back to that, here we go. We stayed at a jimjibang. That’s code for Korean bath house. I don’t know why us foreigners call it a jimjibang and don’t just call it a bath house. We don’t call a mountain a san (Korean for mountain), do we? Anyway, Korean bath houses are a little like health spas or really cheap hotels. 8000 won was the actual price. I didn’t take a bath. I didn’t want to get naked in front of a bunch of strangers, or in front of Nathanael for that matter. I just wanted to get some sleep. There are penises everywhere though. I guess that’s what you get at a bath house. You walk in, you pay your money, you get given a locker key, you walk round the corner and boom, asian penises everywhere. I walked to my locker offloaded my stuff, used the bathroom (not the BATH room and went upstairs to a small capsule (reminiscent of Japanese capsule hotels) and went to sleep. It was a pleasant sleep on a Korean style bed. A floor with a mat on it. I slept really well. I got up, went to my locker, got my things and proceeded to my doctors appointment. I saw some more penises on the way out.

I got my vaccinations. It didn’t take long. Afterwards we went to Namdaemun market and haggled with some Koreans over some backpacks and I finally bought myself a backpack for my trip. It’s blue and black and it’s 45L. I didn’t want to get a massive bag; I wanted to restrict the amount of things I’d be taking with me around the world. I mean, with the amount of travelling we’ll be doing the last thing you want is to be weighed down. I’ll write a blog before I pack my bag and I’ll take some photo’s of exactly what I’m packing for the big trip. Less than you’d expect is what I’m hoping for. The market was humming with people and once we’d scored a good deal on backpacks we got out of there. We had some Vietnamese food which was delicious and we caught the afternoon bus back to Sachang.

It’s Sunday now. Last night I shot some people. Sean, you really do keep throwing out the most inappropriate sentences. What I mean to say is that I played some video games with Ben that involved shooting things. I got up at 6:30am this morning. I just do that. Once I’m awake I can’t stay in bed. You only get a certain amount of mornings in your life and it’s your job to make sure you don’t waste them. So, I cleaned my bathroom, I made some breakfast, I did some writing and I watched a movie.

I also have to make a gibbon experience decision. Here’s the predicament. The gibbon experience is a program in Laos where you head off into the jungle for 2 days and live in these high rise treehouses that you get to via zip line cables. I’ve been excited about doing it for nearly two years now. Ever since I first heard about it. The problem lies in the time of year that we’ll be in Laos. It’s going to be wet season and the hike to the treehouses can be pretty treacherous from what I’ve read. Part of me likes the idea of the adventure. Part of me doesn’t want to slip up and break a leg. It’s looking more and more likely that we’ll skip out on that experience and find something else to do. I’ll keep you posted.

Things are all falling into place now and the week after next we’ll be applying for our visas. The last stage of the very long planning process. Once that’s’ done we can relax as there will be nothing left to do outside of packing our bags and boarding our plane. Time is going by very fast and I only have two months left in Korea. The sun still shines and the humidity is getting irritating. I go running and listen to the frogs down by the river at night.

This blog has been a little disjointed. I’m making fish and chips again tonight. I’m becoming a master of the meal.

…for there will be fireworks and they will light up your eyes and you will feel more alive than ever before…

Monday, 11 June 2012

The Shape of Things to Come

It’s June now. Did you notice? I did. I seem to be becoming more aware of the date on a daily basis. With only ten weeks left until I leave Korea I can’t’ help but countdown. It’s not like I’m wishing the rest of my time away, quite the opposite, I’m trying to make the most of the time I have left. I’ve said this one thousand times now, but, it is hard not to keep counting down the days in glee as Natalie’s arrival approaches and as each day comes closer to the day when I’ll be free of any irksome obligations and responsibilities and I finally hit that road.

School is still busy. Whilst the second semester has been a lot harder than the first I’ve gotten to know the kids a lot better and I’ve certainly become more confident with the materials that I prepare for my classes. It’s still a pretty easy life, albeit a sometimes stressful one, stressful because it’s hard to know what is going on. Most people seem to know when their vacations are going to be now, and what days their summer camps are but I’m still in the dark. Not only am I busier this semester but so is my co-teacher and that has left me even less informed than I used to be, although, I’ve gotten better at judging things and working things out for myself.

I’ve been trying to decide what I’ll do with my two weeks off (whenever they may arrive) and I’ve decided that I’m going to do a temple stay in the countryside just outside of Daegu. Daegu is a city somewhere in the middle of the country, nearer the south than the north and the temple is about an hour outside of the city in the countryside. I’ll probably only do a two-day temple stay there and then maybe I’ll head out to the cultural heritage sites near the east coast. I’ve never meditated before and don’t really know much about Buddhist rituals so it’ll be worth the early mornings to have the experience.

School should break up somewhere around mid-July and then if my camps are anything like everyone else’s I’ll have two weeks of working camp in late-July and then have the start of August off and come back for the first week of the new semester before packing my things and heading off with Natalie to new horizons. Speculatively. I don’t know how anyone can do this gig for much longer than a year. Perhaps it’s just me and my innate desire to always be moving on and doing something different, I always get itchy feet whenever I’m in one place for too long.

This weekend I went hiking with Nathanael. We hiked Changan Mountain again but this time we went up a different trail, a trail I much preferred as it felt more rustic, it was all overgrown and smelt of pine which reminded me of Maurice’s Campground on Cape Cod. We sat on a picnic table halfway up the trail for quite some time talking about this and that. It was peaceful and it was great to get out of my apartment for a while. We exchanged stories of the hikes we enjoyed in our home countries and thoughts of the New Forest flooded my mind. David and I used to go hiking every Wednesday (that we both had off of work) in the forest and I miss it immensely. Natalie lives in the New Forest and my memories of our time there make me realise how in love I am with that place. Oh, how sentimental. It’s strange how travel makes you think of home in totally new lights, totally new perspectives. I look forward to rediscovering it.

Next weekend we’ll be heading to Seoul. I’ve got to pick up the malaria tablets I was supposed to pick up last time, and I’ll also get my Hepatitis B booster vaccination. The joy. Nathanael’s coming along and we’re going to go to a night market, I’ll hopefully pick up a bag for the big trip. I’m thinking about a 40L. There’s also an Iranian restaurant in Hyehwa that I’m pretty stoked about.

I’ve been in a pensive mood recently. June has been quiet and nothing major has happened. Time has been spent planning lessons, giving classes, and just hanging out in Sachang on the weekends. I’ve done a lot of writing, a fair amount of socialising and a lot of relaxing. I plan to do some more exciting things in the coming weeks so there will be a little more for me to blog about but I thought I’d better update so you lovely folks know that I’m still here, I’m still breathing and I’m still enjoying myself. 

My bus was late today for the first time since I've been in Korea. I wondered what was up as the bus lady was just speaking gobbledygook at me. It turns out the bus I would have usually taken broke down as I saw it being toed away as I pulled up into town. I guess I can forgive them for that. Well, the smell of the fish and chips that I'm cooking is beckoning me. I'll see you out there, somewhere...