Thursday, November 08, 2007 Korea (South) South Korea

Hiking in the mountains

Leaves at Bukhansan [Enlarge]

The weather's growing cooler, and the trees in Seoul are a beautiful autumn-brown. We decided to take a much-needed trip out of the city to one of the nearby mountainous national parks. Korea is a very hilly country. From almost anywhere in Seoul you can see the tree-clad slopes of one mountain or other. The shortage of flat ground explains (in part) the food shortages in the North and the overcrowding in the South: much of the land is unfarmable and unlivable-on.

Early Sunday morning we boarded a subway train heading north from downtown Seoul towards Dobongsan station on line number one. The train was packed, just like rush hour on a weekday morning—but instead of being surrounded by be-suited commuters, either slumbering or watching the telly on their mobile phones, our travelling companions were all dressed in full hiking kit. Koreans take some things very seriously, and apparel is one such thing. It felt like we were going to a Gore-Tex convention.

These were the same sunlight-starved businessmen we teach every day, and their perm-headed wives. But this was them in Weekend Mode. Korean culture is all about social acceptability. You must go to the right university, get married at the right age to a person from the right family, have a child or two (no more), be promoted and attain as high a salary as your talent permits. Then, with the security of the next generation ensured, you must take up golf or hiking for your health so that you won't become a burden on the state. So it is easy to see why having the right hiking clothes is of vital importance. From the sun visors, to the neon-patterned body warmers, knee-length socks and leather boots, these Koreans were not just going hiking, but hiking for Korea, and being seen to do so.

Hikers at Dobongsan Station. [IMG_3062]
Going for a quiet walk in the country [Enlarge]

There was no mistaking when we had arrived at our destination station, about an hour out of the city centre. As the doors opened a river of hikers gushed out of the train, and down the stairs in a fluid but orderly mass. As we looked over the barrier we could see this river had joined the one from the previous train a few minutes earlier, and was flowing across the road and into the foothills of the national park. Having taken some photos, we joined a tributary of the river and started walking.

The path from the entrance to the national park into the mountains proper was lined by restaurants and shopportunities. This, seemingly, was the place to buy your hiking gear, as well as essential provisions. As we shuffled forwards in the queue we were able to look at some of the bargains on offer. Most intriguing was the amount of alcohol on sale. The hiking beverage of choice is, it seems, makgeolli (rice wine). Thousands of bottles of the stuff were being bought, presumably for consumption on the summit. The perennial Korean favourite, soju (a bit like vodka) was also popular.

Seoul suburbs from Bukhansan [Enlarge]

Is there anywhere else in the world where you have to queue to go for a stroll in the country? Just outside Seoul in the autumn you do! Actually to be fair it's not like this every weekend—we had, it seemed, picked the busiest weekend of the year, when the leaves were at their best and the weather perfect. As we filed into the park we were filmed by Korean TV news who seemed particularly interested in the strangely-dressed foreigners (us) who had joined the locals to partake of the motherland's natural beauty. We managed to find a less-busy path branching off the main one and took it—passing wonderful temples and mountain streams on the way to a summit of sorts. At the top we ate our picnic lunch sitting on the only free square metre of mountain we could find, with a great view over the northern Seoul suburbs. It was all very friendly, with a real party atmosphere. We were overtaken by a lot of very old Koreans, who had clearly been up and down this mountain more than a few times. And Glenn was given a very tasty apple by a Korean lady—the Asian women still love him!

Life here provides its own entertainments. The culture is fascinating. The city is vibrant. We wouldn't want to settle here long term, but as a place to spend a year it's perfect. The simplest activities give rise whole new perspectives, and a surprise is waiting around every corner.

Saturday, October 20, 2007 Korea (South) South Korea

Settled in Seoul

Dolsot bibimbap [Photo by abex]

We've been struggling for blog material since we stopped travelling and started our year of working as English teachers. So we thought we'd answer a few questions that people have emailed us or asked in comments about what general life is like here in Seoul. We didn't realise that people were interested in the mundane stuff, but thinking back, we had no idea how the Koreans lived before we came so it's no wonder that folks want some details.

Let's start with the food. Not much is known about Korean cuisine outside Korea. Western food here is expensive and so we mostly stick to the local food, which is easy, since it is really good. On our initial training course on How to Become an English Teacher we were introduced to Dolsot Bibimbap and found it to be very tasty. Bibimbap is mostly rice, served with a mixture of raw and sauteed vegetables, such as julienned cucumber, mu (daikon), mushrooms, doraji (bellflower root), laver, spinach, soybean sprouts, and gosari (bracken fern stems). You dollop in a spoon or two of spicy red pepper paste and stir well. Dolsot Bibimbap is served in a blisteringly hot stone bowl. A raw egg is added just before serving, and it quickly cooks in the hot bowl. The rice carries on cooking on the sesame oil-coated sides of the bowl, resulting in yummy crunchy bits.

There's loads of other great foods on offer in Seoul besides bibimbap, but it can be difficult to know what you're getting—not many of the authentic places have an English menu. So we don't always know exactly what we're going to be eating, but so far it's all been good! We have grown to absolutely love Kimchi (super-spicy fermented cabbage), named by US Health magazine as one of the healthiest foods in the world. It comes with every meal and forms part of many main dishes such as Kimchi jjigae (Kimchi stew), and even as a pizza topping. We haven't found ourselves challenged to eat a plate of grubs or anything nasty (although silk worm larvae are readily available as a handy snack from street stalls).

We haven't tried dog yet either. That Koreans eat dog is well known, and they are sometimes a bit embarrassed by it, knowing as they do that westerners find it a bit weird. It's not actually a popular dish, especially amongst women and younger people. Those who do eat it go to great lengths to point out that (of course) it's not people's well loved pets that get butchered. The dogs are specially bred on farms. Which doesn't make it any different from eating cows or pigs. Actually, the Koreans think we're strange for eating lamb—to them it smells unpalatable. We'll probably try dog meat soup before we leave.

The best thing about Korean restaurants are that they're really, really cheap. A very filling lunch costs KRW 5,000 (GBP 2.67 / USD 5.32), including all the kimchi you can eat. It's cheaper than eating in the apartment. In fact when you talk to Koreans you soon discover that very few of them do any cooking at all!

Our plan to earn back what we've spent so far is going well, but to achieve this we're having to be very careful with money. Every won spent is one more we have to earn back so we've been trying to limit our spending to necessities like food and transport. Transport here is good and cheap. A journey on the bus or subway is KRW 900 (GBP 0.48 / USD 0.96), a little more if you go all the way across town, or beyond the city limits. That's a third the price of the London Tube with an oyster card (an eighth the cash price) and half the price of the New York Subway. The subway is incredibly clean, and outside of the morning and evening rush hours, you even get a seat! Buses are more basic, though still pretty clean. They are very fast too, as their drivers are all red-light-running, two-wheel-driving, brake-screeching loonies. Standing up on the buses is a challenge, although it never feels unsafe as the other traffic knows to get out of the way.

The supermarkets improve week on week. When we arrived, HomePlus (a partnership between Samsung and Tesco) stocked a passable Australian cheddar cheese—better than any cheese we'd had on the road. At time of writing they have begun importing real proper Scottish cheddar of a brand we'd buy at home! Result! We can also get Kellogg's breakfast cereals, and fresh milk is very popular and widely available. Proper teabags are no problem either. Teabags and fresh milk: for Brits abroad nothing else really matters.

So, we work, eat and sleep—surely that's not all? Of course not. We don't have a TV—it just didn't seem worth buying one, as the English language channels here are a bit rubbish. We manage to catch the odd TV show online, or watch DVDs bought cheaply from the dodgy man in the subway tunnel. Every month we shell out KRW 41,800 for broadband internet (GBP 22.35 / USD 44.48). This is a bit steep, but it is very fast and we use it a lot, for everything. The other bills are very cheap though: the total for electricity, gas, water and two cellphones is about KRW 70,000 per month (GBP 37.45 / USD 74.76)

City Hall, Seoul [Enlarge]

We also invested in five months of Korean classes which were well worth the money. We are beyond beginner level now, though we lack the necessary vocabulary to communicate much more than asking the price in shops and giving taxi drivers directions. It's enough, just about! We will never master the many Korean levels of politeness though (there are at least seven). Luckily, as westerners, expectations of us when it comes to appropriately respectful speech are very low.

There's loads of free or very cheap entertainment available in Seoul if you look for it. There are some great places to just wander about. Downtown in Seoul (a twenty-five minute walk from our apartment) we can stroll along the recently re-developed Cheonggyecheon (Cheonggye Stream), surrounded by courting couples and carefully selected and maintained wildlife. We are able (almost) to forget that we're in the middle of a bustling multinational city. Also downtown are the trendy, touristy areas of Myongdong and Insadong. Even if you're not interested in shopping for designer labels or tourist souvenirs, you can have fun here people watching. Street stalls sell intriguing snacks which change with the seasons. We are now in prime roast chestnut time, and it seems you can get (whole) flattened dried squid all year round. It's chewy but actually surprisingly good.

N Seoul Tower from Haebangchon [Enlarge]

Even closer to home is Namsan (South Mountain), a big hill stuck right in the centre of Seoul—with a predictably commanding view over the city. A local yellow bus, the number 02, will take you to the summit for just 500 won, or you can join the locals and walk up for free. On a clear day, we're told, it's worth shelling out an extra 7,000 won when you get to the top to go up the N Seoul Tower, originally a TV mast but now a tourist attraction on the summit of Namsan. From the observation deck it is alleged that you can see the West Sea (what we call the Yellow Sea), and Kaesong in North Korea. We've been to the top of Namsan but haven't been up the tower yet. We're waiting for perfect weather.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007 Korea (South) South Korea

Living and teaching in Seoul

Namdaemun (Great South Gate) [Enlarge]

Okay, recap: we've paused on our RTW odyssey to have a break from the tourist thing and to recharge our bank account. We've done the maths and as long as we're careful and save most of what we earn this year in our jobs as English conversation teachers, we can re-coup everything we've spent on the trip so far plus a little more!

So what have we been doing since we arrived in Seoul? Here's an update.

7–24 June: Just working!

We were told that our first month would be quiet. Newbies always start off with just a few classes to teach, so that they are not overloaded and also to to see if they're any good. But actually, the company was quite busy and so we soon picked up on the number of lessons we were teaching. We need to teach as much as possible because we get paid by the class.

Teaching took some getting used to, but already we're getting into the swing of it. The job is quite good fun and involves absolutely no stress. We mainly teach business people and professionals, but there are a few students and housewives, and Glenn's office has loads of kids too. Yes, we're at different offices but they're only about a seven-minute walk apart. Anyway it would be a bit weird working together.

The group size ranges from individuals up to classes of ten to twelve. The hours are tiring: our busiest times are 06:45 to 09:00 and 18:45 to 21:00, and then we have a liberal sprinkling of work during the day. The hours are certainly having the desired effect of stopping us spending any money!

You may remember Glenn saying that one of the reasons why we're doing this job is so that he can get over his fear of public speaking. Well, not only has he got over it, but he has given a week-long presentation skills course to Koreans (and they and he loved it). We'll call that a success.

25 June–13 July—Korean lessons and a birthday.

In the past we always tried to learn some of the language before we visited a country, even if it was just how to say 'thank you'. That went out of the window on our round-the-world trip because we didn't know where we would be going in advance and also because if we'd tried, our heads would have exploded.

But we're planning to be in Korea until 7 June 2008 and that's a long time to spend looking puzzled and apologetic. So we've started taking Korean lessons, twice a week for ninety minutes a time. Because we're studying in our own language school we get the lessons at cost (i.e. we only have to pay the instructor's fee) and we're taking the class with two of our colleagues. It's costing us each KRW 14,000 (GBP 7.45 / USD 15.18) per week.

Korean is very different from most of the languages we've learned before, but the structure is similar to Japanese, which we did a beginners' course in a few years ago. So we're not starting from absolute zero. We've got the hang of the Hangul alphabet, which is much easier than it looks. It is actually a syllabary, not an alphabet—each character is one syllable. We can now have a basic conversation in Korean in a shop or restaurant, or give directions to a taxi driver, so we're pleased.

Korean language lessons have been one break from the pattern of teaching and sleeping. Another was Isla's thirtieth birthday. We celebrated with a meal in a Mexican Restaurant called Casa Loca in the Yeouido area of Seoul. The meal was OK (Seoul is not great for cuisine unfortunately), but the margaritas were excellent! So now we're both in our thirties. Yuck.

14–30 July: bank holidays and apartment hunting.

Korea has a lot of bank holidays. They make up for the fact that people here get virtually no time off work otherwise. We had an enforced rest day on July 17, Constitution Day. Unfortunately it was also an income-free day, but it was welcome nonetheless.

Our employer puts new teachers up in a company apartment for the first three months, so by the end of July it was time to start looking for our own place. Our goal was to find somewhere modern (or at least clean), close to work, and cheap enough that the company's accommodation allowance would pay for the rent and the bills. We soon found that 'modern' and 'close to work' and 'cheap' were mutually exclusive concepts. The only place in central Seoul where we found anywhere meeting our aims was in the foreigners' ghetto: Haebangchon—known to its residents as 'The Chon'.

The Chon is not a bad area, it's just that it's not very Korean. The US 8th Army base is nearby so a kind of mini-America grew up there. As the army has begun to pull out, so they have been replaced by language teachers and foreign company workers. Koreans don't particularly want to live here (although plenty of them do), and there is a high resident turnover, so the rent is low. On the plus side the real estate agents speak some (if only a little) English, and are used to dealing with Westerners who want to pay a monthly rent instead of using the more common Korean jeonse system. Under this system the tenant deposits a huge sum of money with the landlord (around half the property's value), who then invests it and takes the income in lieu of rent. At the end of the contract the original deposit is returned. Why Koreans don't just use their huge lump sum as a deposit against buying their own place we don't fully understand.

That's all the furniture we own (except a Korean mattress), right there. [IMG_3005]
Our new apartment [Enlarge]

Isla's schedule was lighter than Glenn's in July so she went and looked at half a dozen places of varying styles and prices, and found one particular agent with a selection of the right kind of thing. We then went back together the following day and viewed a small (but very spacious for Seoul), newly constructed, one bedroom apartment. It has a good view at the front and there are no extra management charges. A snip at KRW 500,000 per month (GBP 266 / USD 542). Not bad for the centre of a capital city, and well inside our budget. There are only two drawbacks: it's totally unfurnished, and it's at the top of an infeasibly steep hill. Still, it was what we were looking for so we grabbed it while we could. More photos are here.

Saturday, July 14, 2007 Other stuff

You couldn't make it up

We've been doing our best this summer to keep up to date with the news from back home. We note that it's been a bit rainy in Blighty. Oh, and apparently there's a new prime minister. Gordon Brown is of course unelected, as America's George Bush was in 2000. We're confident that this minor detail will not stop our country's continuing campaigns to export democracy to other parts of the world though—do as we say, not as we do.

Anyway, we digress. Among all the shenanigans we missed a slightly bizarre story. It would never have come to our attention at all had a British work colleague not mentioned it when he found out that we were from Wiltshire. Now, not a lot usually happens in Wiltshire. At the moment there's a threat from a cloud of smoke following a barn fire, apparently, and changes to the proposed plans for the old Ushers Brewery site in Trowbridge. Last week the M4 motorway got a bit flooded. Wow. So given that nothing of global importance ever happens in Wiltshire, imagine our surprise when our colleague said "That's where the North Korean athletes are going to be staying for the 2012 Olympics!"

What? Huh? Sorry? Must've missed that one! So we googled it and yes, there is some truth to the rumour. Basically Chippenham, our old home town and the second largest town in Wiltshire, decided it would like to be one of the host towns for the preparation period before the 2012 Olympics. Chippenham was never going to attract a big-league sporting nation like the US or Russia. But undeterred, the 2012 committee (or whoever) contacted some smaller countries and received a prompt reply from the DPRK! So, assuming they manage to put a deal together and nothing changes in the intervening five years (regime change, reunification, all out war), what can Wiltshire do to make the athletes' stay more pleasant? Our suggestions are presented below, for the benefit of the residents of Chippenham.


In theory, North Koreans speak the same language as their brothers in the South, but in practice there has been a lot of evolution over the past fifty years. Apart from spelling and pronunciation changes, the North's regime has worked tirelessly to rid their language of the Chinese characters which are still occasionally sprinkled in among the Korean ones in the South.

Also, in South Korea, Japanese and English loanwords are everywhere. Opening our (South) Korean–English dictionary at random, we find that the word for 'trampoline' is 'tu-raem-poel-leen'. And 'table' has a pure Korean translation of 'shiktag', but a more common word, especially amongst younger Koreans is 'tae-ee-bul'. And if you want a nice English cup of tea with milk, you will need to ask for a 'mil-kuh-tee' rather than using the Korean words for milk and tea. But in the North, all these loanwords have either been expunged, or were never introduced in the first place.

So, people of Chippenham: if you're considering giving a welcome speech or having any signs made, be very careful to ask for the right kind of Korean translation, or you risk offending your guests with the 'coquettish and decadent' language of the South.


If you need any pointers on hospitality, speak to the residents of Middlesbrough who hosted the North Korean side during the 1966 Football World Cup (US: Soccer) and followed the team up and down the country cheering them on in all their games—football fans from the DPRK were of course not allowed to travel to support their national team. The fate of the players after they returned to the DPRK has been the subject of some speculation. Some sources claim that the team were sent to the gulag on their return, as punishment for indulging in the capitalist pursuit of getting very drunk after their stunning one-nil victory over the Italians. In a (government sanctioned) film released in 2002, the surviving team members vehemently denied the story. In fact, they claimed the opposite is true—they are still hailed as heroes to this day. Whatever the truth, it is worth noting for 2012 that cider is a soft drink in Korea. The differences between their idea of cider and the famous local Wiltshire 'scrumpy' should be pointed out clearly and unambiguously. It's for their own good.

Food and drink

This brings us to the subject of food and drink. You should have no problem at all getting authentic kimchi, mandu and ramyun noodles in the UK. There are Korean supermarkets in many cities, and wholesalers deliver imported Korean products countrywide. Kimchi (very spicy, fermented cabbage) is especially prized. It is reputed to cure bird flu and many other ailments and will no doubt be part of the DPRK's strategy to win Olympic gold. Kimchi is part of every meal in Korea and could easily be incorporated into some traditional British dishes to Koreanise them. Wiltshire pubs could offer kimchi ploughman's lunch, steak and kimchi pie, or bangers and kimchi…

Okay, 2012 is a long way off, but it never hurts to be prepared. The North Koreans were very welcoming to us when we visited their country. Hopefully we'll get the opportunity to reciprocate with some Wiltshire hospitality.

Monday, June 18, 2007 Other stuff

A book recommendation

Please buy The Aquariums of Pyongyang (US:, UK: No, we haven't signed up for the Amazon affiliate program so we're not getting commission. We just think that everyone should read this book.

We bought it when we arrived in Seoul, to help us when we were trying to reprogram ourselves after our trip to the North. The book's author came from a relatively well-off and trusted family in Pyongyang, but they fell on hard times when the author's grandfather was suspected of being a bit less than 100% supportive of the regime. The author and his entire family were carted off to one of North Korea's gulags, the Yodeok concentration camp (official name: Reeducation Centre No. 15). He was only nine years old. He spent the next ten years there, eating rats on the good days, and nothing on the bad days.

Incidentally, three generations of a 'hostile' family are purged, as that is apparently what is needed to root out the bad blood and prevent it from corrupting the workers' paradise.

His re-education complete, the author was eventually released from the camp. Using the resourcefulness he had developed in the gulag, he managed to escape from North Korea itself and tell his story. His book is a chilling read and it certainly had the desired effect on our own process of re-education. We guarantee that however bad your own problems in life are, they are completely insignificant.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007 Japan Japan / Korea (South) South Korea

Collecting our working visas

Korean Air reflections [Enlarge]

In order to work legally in Seoul we needed to swap our tourist visa for an E-2 work visa. This is a specific visa type for 'Conversation Teachers'. The application was a long, drawn-out process which involved getting degree certificates and academic transcripts sent out by our university in the UK in individually sealed envelopes (that's sealed as in 'with a university seal across the flap'). Then our employer had to sponsor us. We will be tied to the same company for the duration of the visa—if we want to change employers the visa will be cancelled and we'll need a new one (and a letter of release from our old employer). It sucks, but that's what it's like living as an alien. We just need to hope that we don't fall out with our employer.

About a week after our applications went in, we were informed that we had been successful, and we were each given a Visa Issuance Number. Then bureaucracy dictated that we must leave the country, visit a Korean consulate in another country to swap our Visa Issuance Numbers for physical visa stickers in our passports, and then re-enter under our new visas. So we were off to Japan, our twenty-second country since last November, on the slightly famous Fukuoka visa run.

There's a steady stream of westerners shuttling between Korea and Fukuoka. The process takes two days. Well, it takes a sum total of about ten minutes in the consulate, but you have to drop your passport off and leave it over night. We were booked on the morning flight from Seoul's Incheon International Airport. We took off on time and arrived in Fukuoka just under an hour later. We were first off the plane and straight through immigration. In the process, we got another whole page of our passports trashed by the official and her postage-stamp-sized immigration stickers. Why the hell can these people never just find a space on one of the pages that has already been used? There is no way we will be able to finish our round-the-world trip on these passports now, but we'll worry about that later. Within fifteen minutes of landing we had collected a free city map and what-to-do-in-Fukuoka leaflet from the tourist information desk, and were sitting on the courtesy bus. This took us to the Domestic Terminal, from where we caught the subway into the centre of Fukuoka.

On the steps of the Fukuoka Yahoo! Baseball Dome [Enlarge]

We found the Korean consulate easily and our applications were submitted by about 10:15. Passportless again, and with the rest of the day to kill we went looking for things to do. Visible from the consulate is the huge bronze Yahoo! dome of the SoftBank Hawks baseball team. We hung around and looked at it for a bit, and browsed in HMV, next door. It was a long time since breakfast and although we were tempted to have lunch at the Hard Rock Café, we've managed to avoid this particular cultural icon so far in our lives, so we decided to keep the record up and go Japanese instead. We picked up some sushi and iced tea at a convenience store and took our picnic lunch to the beach. The sun was out, the man-made beach was sandy, the view was the most stereotypically pacific-like of anywhere we've seen so far. Lush green islands drifting on the dark blue ocean. It was a pretty cool place, nothing like what we had expected.

We found the perfect place to get out of the sun, 123 metres up on the observation deck of the Fukuoka Tower. We spent over an hour up there just enjoying the view. Mid-afternoon we headed across town to our hotel, to check in, have a rest and deposit our bag. Once again we managed not to get lost on the well-signed subway and emerged at Hakata station, across the road from our accommodation, the Sunlife Hotel. The room was OK but tiny, and the TV only had bizarre Japanese channels so after a short rest we went out again, on foot, to walk around downtown Fukuoka.

Wow, Japan is expensive. But we managed to find a good local restaurant serving a kind of Japanese-Western fusion food. It was great and very reasonable. Then we wandered home by way of a book shop and had an embarrassingly early night.

Korean Consulate [Enlarge]

After a good sleep and a traditional Japanese breakfast (mmmm, dried seaweed for breakfast!) we checked out and deposited the bag in a locker at the hotel. Then we caught the subway back to the Korean consulate to collect our passports. Once again the consulate was almost deserted. This was definitely the quietest consulate or embassy we've visited. They are probably busy just before the beginning of term at the schools and universities, where most ex-pat English teachers work, but June is not one such time. The smiling official behind the desk swapped our receipts for visa'd passports and waited while we checked the details. Brits (and Aussies) get only a single entry visa, unlike Americans and Canadians who get multiple entries by default. We were assured that we can ask for a multiple entry stamp when we apply for our Alien Registration Card back in Seoul, and then we'll be able to travel in and out of the country freely. For Brits, this stamp is free. [So, we can't have a multiple entry visa like the North Americans, but we can get a free stamp added to our single entry visa after we get back to Seoul, which will effectively make it into a multiple entry visa. Welcome to the bizarre world of immigration rules.]

And then we were done. It was barely 11:00 and our flight back to Seoul was not for another ten hours. We decided to visit the Fukuoka Disaster Prevention Center, listed in our English language tourism leaflet. We wanted to have a go on the earthquake simulator. There were signs in English pointing the way, but when we arrived at the building it was all in Japanese and we found it to be a generally uninviting place. We had a quick look round, established that the earthquake simulator was out of action, and left, because we couldn't make sense of the exhibits. So we went back to the beach and read our books for a while. Then the sky got very dark and we thought we should probably head back to the subway before the heavens opened. We found ourselves gravitating back towards the hotel, so we had a long lunch, sitting and reading, and sipping coffee in a Starbucks, then collected our bag and made our way to the airport. It was early, but we are masters of time-wasting.

There's a good observation area at Fukuoka. We wasted about two hours watching civil and military aircraft land and take off. At 18:30 we went to the check-in area. There was a long queue of suitcases waiting for check in to open. Their owners had left them in a line to mark their places in the queue, then wandered off to find something to do. When the check in opened we jumped straight to the front of the 'queue', refusing to respect the hierarchy of the luggage that got there first. In Britain this kind of blatant queue jumping would have made us the subject of violent, loud tutting and dramatic eye rolling, but here nobody bothers. When in Rome…

We got chatting to the only two other Westerners on our flight (both English teachers in Seoul) and the final two hours before boarding passed swiftly. The flight was uneventful, apart from the bit where we were enthusiastically waved off by the super-friendly ground crew. That does not happen at Heathrow. Too bad we were in a Korean plane, as that meant they didn't line up and take a solemn bow to us as we left, like they did to all the Japanese flights. We arrived back at Incheon airport at around 10:30, still in time for the last train back into Seoul. That was last night. Today has been one of Korea's many national holidays, so we have enjoyed our last day of tourism before we re-enter the responsible world of work tomorrow morning.

Japan was great, what little we saw of it. We are looking forward to going back there when our trip resumes.

Map of Days 192-193

Days 192-193
Seoul to Fukuoka to Seoul

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007 Korea (South) South Korea

Korea Change

We did not have any real preconceptions about how travelling would be before we left home back in November. Did we give much thought to how it would feel having no home, to be without the security of two good incomes? Not really—getting away from the whole material existence thing was the whole point. If we had thought about it too much, we probably wouldn't have gone through with it.

Now six months into our trip, we have made it to the eastern edge of Asia, sticking pretty well to our goals of not flying whenever practicable, and making things up as we go along. We had no idea that we would be here in South Korea in May. We have so far stuck to the northern hemisphere (Bangkok was the closest we came to the equator), not by design but just because it happened that way. We still have three quarters of the globe completely untouched—Northern and Central Asia, and the whole of Australasia, the Americas and Africa.

Travelling is sometimes harder work than work. We wanted to get away from everything so we'd have time to think about our plans for the future. But on the road there is always so much to see and do that we seem to have spent less time thinking than we did at home! In considering our Grand Strategy For The Future™, so far we've come up with a couple of mediocre ideas and a whole lot of rubbish ones. We did better than that in an average month at home!

And then there's the financial issue. We have spent a total of GBP 18,000 / USD 35,470 so far. That's about GBP 100 / USD 197 per day, which is a lot. But considering that (a) we weren't travelling on a cheap Round-The-World plane ticket, and (b) we splurged on our four-week Chinese and North Korean extravaganza, this total is not actually too bad. Before China and North Korea, the daily average spend was about GBP 82 / USD 161. We're not about to go broke, thanks primarily to the fact that we sold our house at what we believed was the tail end of one of the biggest global asset bubbles in history [we still believe that]. But we do want to have something left in the bank when this trip is over. Our travels were never supposed to be about money, they were supposed to be about enlightenment and personal growth—but we find that enlightenment is much easier with a cash pile in the bank.

Before we left home, we had briefly discussed the possibility of stopping for a while 'somewhere around half-way' and working to top up the finances. We thought we might look at doing something in Australia or New Zealand, or maybe even teaching English in China, Korea or Japan. We didn't get as far as investigating visa rules or anything, as we wanted to keep it unplanned and just see what turned up.

Serendipity has been very kind to us on this trip. In Hungary, the first unfamiliar country we came to, just as we were starting to feel overwhelmed by the journey ahead, we arrived at the Vámház Hostel where people turn up at the door and never leave, where they drink superb coffee and talk all night about absolutely nothing, and where we first began to get into the travelling groove. And in Bulgaria, at the far eastern end of Europe, where we prepared to dive headlong into Turkey, feeling a little as though Europe had been the uphill bit of the roller-coaster and we were about to start the first headlong plunge, we met an orthodontist from Germany called Matt, who gave us the wise counsel to just find our own pace. It was only then that our trip really started.

And once again, on the train from Dandong to Beijing, serendipity showed her hand. We were chatting to our cabin mates, the Aussie ladies with whom we had got on well in the DPRK, about stuff in general. We mentioned that we were going to South Korea next. It turned out that one of them has been living in Seoul since September, teaching English. We said that we had considered possibly doing something along those lines before we left home, but hadn't really given it much thought since, and what was the job market like there? She said the market was extremely good at the moment, and gave us her business card and the name of the recruitment manager at the language school she works for.

Well, we arrived in Seoul, visited the DMZ, chilled out a bit and started the long process of writing up our North Korean adventure on the blog. And then we had a look on the web for English teaching opportunities in Korea. There were indeed plenty, all much of a muchness for people like us who don't have teaching qualifications. There were also plenty of horror stories, but as far as we could tell these were mostly written by people just out of uni who seemed to want the world on a plate. The terms being offered by our friend's company seemed competitive and the working conditions seemed better than many of the other opportunities we were looking at. We called our friend's recruitment manager. She emailed us some information and a form to fill in, which we sent back. A few days later we were off to meet her for an interview, and Glenn's shiny pink Kim Il-sung Mausoleum tie got an unexpected second airing. Next day we both got a job offer!

The offer was for a year's contract working anywhere between zero and thirteen hours per day, depending on student demand. Our pay would be determined by the number of hours worked, but there would be a guaranteed minimum monthly salary. We would also get an accommodation stipend and a free trip to Japan to pick up our working visas. We knocked up a quick spreadsheet and it looked like we would be able to save enough money in a year to cover what we've spent so far on our trip, plus some extra—possibly even enough (when we factor in income from our investments in the UK) to get all the way back home again! The thought that we might be able to come home with as much money in the bank as when we originally left was compelling.

But it gets even better than that. Firstly, Glenn really, really hates public speaking. So much so that he didn't even know if he was going to do a speech at his own wedding until about 30 seconds before he stood up. [He did, and doesn't regret it.] He feels that his phobia held him back in his previous career. If standing up at the front of a class for a year doesn't cure him, nothing will. Secondly, our jobs will have antisocial hours. Our first lesson will start at 06:45, and our last one will end at 21:00! This is because we will be teaching mostly Korean businesspeople, who want to learn English before and after they go to work. How the hell are these hours a good thing?! Because we will get a large chunk of free time in the middle of the day, which will give us time to think about and pursue ideas and opportunities for the future. And working evenings will stop us having any daft ideas like going out and spending money in Seoul. It's all good!

We deliberated, discussed, adjusted the spreadsheet, and came to the conclusion that we're going to do it. Tomorrow we move into the apartment which the company is providing for the first three months. Then we will do a week's training, make a flying visit to Fukuoka in Japan for our visas, and then start work. When this year is over we will have saved some money and had a whole load more experiences. Our travelling batteries will be recharged and we'll pick up our tiny bags once again and head off out to explore the rest of the world.

p.s. We will still be updating the blog throughout the coming year, with our take on Korean life and culture, on teaching English in Seoul, on surviving on no sleep, and on thoughts for the future. We hope you will stay with us!

Friday, April 27, 2007 Korea (South) South Korea

To the DMZ again

The border [Enlarge]

Our first priority in South Korea was to pay another visit to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) which separates the Korean peninsula, while the memories of our visit from the North were fresh in our minds. Whereas Pyongyang is several hours away from the border, Seoul is short drive of just 50 kilometres. In fact the capital of South Korea is so close to the border that it is within range of the North Korean artillery massed just over the border. Allegedly the North could hit Seoul with half a million artillery rounds per hour for several hours.

We booked a day trip to the DMZ with the United Service Organizations (USO), which is generally accepted as being the most comprehensive and best-run tour of the many which are available. For USD 42 (GBP 21.07) each, we would get a full day's tour of what has been described as the most dangerous place on earth. Lunch not included.

It was a beautiful sunny morning as we emerged from Exit 10 of Samgakji subway station at 06:45, exactly two weeks to the day after our mirror-image visit had started from Pyongyang. We were dressed in accordance with the UN Command's dress code, instigated to avoid the possibility of images of decadent or immoral westerners being taken by the enemy and used as propaganda:

Informal civilian clothes commonly viewed as acceptable in equivalent public settings are normally acceptable. For example, clean jeans without fraying or tearing and a clean t-shirt with running shoes are considered appropriate. However, ripped jeans, a t-shirt lettered with profanity, and flip-flop sandals would be deemed unacceptable. Visitors wearing clothing deemed faddish, extreme, torn, tattered, frayed, overly provocative, or otherwise inappropriate by the UNCSB-JSA guides will not be allowed to enter the DMZ.

We found the USO tour office easily enough, on a military base called Camp Kim. There was a big crowd going on the trip—two coachloads. They were a variety of people: tourists from seven or eight nations (but mostly Americans), expats, army wives. There were no locals, apart from our guide. South Koreans are not allowed anywhere near the DMZ without ultra-special clearance, lest they get a crazy idea like defecting or trying to make contact with the soldiers on the other side. It is a serious business, as thousands of families have been separated for the last fifty years, and they have no idea whether their loved ones are still alive.

We signed in, showed our receipt to prove that we had paid, and set off on the coach. Our guide, a Korean man in his forties, was happy to talk about the South Koreans' attitudes to the North, and to potential reunification. Older Koreans, he told us, are very wary. They saw what happened in Germany after the iron curtain fell, and they know that the financial burden of reunifying could cripple the economy for decades. But people under 40 are more pro-reunification—they don't understand what happened in Germany, and they don't understand just how bad things are in the north. Our limited experience of the country so far bears this out: the young South Koreans we have spoken to seem to know very little about the north, and are surprised to hear about the lack of basic services there—it's like they just assume that what they hear in the media must be grossly exaggerated. The guide went on to say that in his view, reunification is not an issue that Koreans in the south think about regularly. They certainly don't long to be reunited in the way that the northerners do.

The more we see of Seoul, the more differences we see between the two Koreas. The differences in nutrition and healthcare mean that young South Koreans are a similar height to Europeans. In the DPRK Isla was a tall person, here she's back to feeling like a short-arse. The pace of life, the standard of living, the traffic, the media, the technology—Seoul and Pyongyang are like two different planets.

The highway from Seoul to the DMZ is much like the highway from Pyongyang to to the DMZ: wide and straight. But there would be no posing for photos in the middle of the road this time—the traffic was unrelenting. As we drove, the guide pointed out the barbed wire and watch towers lining the river banks all the way from the suburbs of Seoul up to the border. Apparently there was a spate of North Korean mini-submarines which manoeuvred up the river towards Seoul and landed spies. It's for this reason, also, that the river now has so many weirs. It's been twenty-seven years since anyone was caught trying to get in in this way, but they're still vigilant. We turned off towards Panmunjom and encountered our first military checkpoint. Our passports were taken away and checked to make sure that we were all foreigners.

Our Korean guide and driver were replaced by US army personnel. The Americans are slowly pulling out of South Korea and handing over to the ROK army. For the past three years the Panmunjom site has been run by the ROK. Our USO guide had been giving us the anti-DPRK spiel all the way from Seoul, but now the propaganda stepped up a gear. We were herded into a lecture hall and barked at by a US Corporal in a slightly odd presentation, and reminded that we were entering a very dangerous area where we would be face-to-face with soldiers from the Korean People's Army. We didn't mention that a fortnight ago Isla had stood with her arm around a KPA Officer. We then had to sign a document indemnifying the military in case of our capture or death. The last 'killing incident' was in 1984, but apparently someone was kidnapped just three years ago. One or two people in the group looked a bit nervous. We figured that if the North Koreans wanted to kidnap and interrogate us, they'd have done it last week. Frankly, we were more concerned about our US army guide who went to great lengths to boast about what an excellent shot he was, and that if anything went down, his gun would be out and he'd be firing before any of us knew what was happening. He made it clear that a surprise KPA attack was a distinct possibility.

Finally there were some ground rules:

  • No waving.
  • No shouting.
  • No gestures.
  • No pointing.
  • No facial expressions, like smiling or sticking your tongue out at the KPA soldiers.

The KPA would be watching, photographing and video-taping us and any negative images would be used for propaganda. That would have confused the North Korean public, seeing us in the newspapers one week under the headline "Foreigners pay their heartfelt respects to the Great Leader", and next week as "Imperialist aggressors taunt the brave KPA with gestures".

Watching the enemy [Enlarge]

We drove up to the Joint Security Area (JSA) and went into Freedom House, which stands opposite the DPRK's Reunification House, both looking out over the row of blue and silver huts. We were made to line up in two neat columns and wait for permission to walk outside for our first view of the enemy. Once our guide was happy that the rows were straight enough he led us outside. In our last visit, we had not seen any ROK soldiers, but there had been plenty of KPA guys defending us from the enemy. This time, the North Korean side was deserted, but we were reassuringly surrounded by ROK personnel, standing in modified taekwondo stances, half hiding behind the huts (they half hide so that they present a smaller target to the enemy, but can still see what's going on).

Isla asked as innocently as she could about the circumstances when KPA and ROK soldiers come out to guard the huts. "The KPA only come out when there are visitors from their side here," we were told. Funny, that's exactly the same reason we were given for the absence of ROK soldiers a fortnight ago. We remembered back to our long wait on the northern side a fortnight ago, before we were allowed into the JSA. Had that been because a group of tourists from the South was already there and they needed to swap the soldiers over?

Two weeks ago to the day, this guy (and his friend just inside the open window) were posing for photos with us. Today we were told not to attempt any kind of communication, or make any gesture. If we do so, they will photograph us and use the photo for propaganda (something along the lines of "the imperialist aggressors are making plans to invade our homeland!"). [IMG_2895]
No waving, no shouting, no pointing [Enlarge]

As we stood on the steps listening to our guide, we looked across to two North Korean officers on the other side. One ("KPA Bill") was standing on the steps, watching us through binoculars. The other ("KPA Bob") was inside Reunification House, his binoculars poking out of a ground-floor window. They remained motionless like this, intimidating us like the frightening monsters the script says they are supposed to be. We couldn't be sure from this distance, but we think it might have been KPA Bill who was our guide on the other side, and very friendly he was too.

Now we were primed to enter the UN hut where the armistice talks were held—the same hut we'd been into two weeks earlier. Last time, it had been quite informal. We were invited to sit down in the chairs, to walk around the table, and even to tap the microphones to give the listening Imperialist Aggressors an earful of static. This time there was to be no touching the furniture. We were not even allowed to walk around one end of the table—an ROK soldier was positioned to make sure that couldn't happen. Another ROK soldier stood guard at the door at the north end of the room—the one we had entered and left through last time we were here. If he didn't do that, we were told, there was a very real danger that some KPA guards, who were permanently stationed just outside the door armed with clubs, would burst in and kidnap several of us for their own nefarious purposes.

As we were in the hut, we suddenly noticed that the KPA soldiers were coming out of their barracks and taking up their guard positions on the Military Demarcation Line (MDL)! For the first time we would briefly get to see the full face-off, just as it was time to leave.

The flag is so large that it has to be lowered in rain, or even damp weather. The added weight would be enough to snap the flag pole. [IMG_2916]
A very large flag (Propaganda Village) [Enlarge]

We were hurried back into the bus, and we drove round Freedom House and up the hill to a small monument with the flags of all the UN countries who participated in the Korean War. As we went, we were just able to snatch a few photos from the moving bus of the line of huts (this is our excuse for the photo at the top of this post being wonky). The lookout on the hill was a good place to see the no-man's-land that separates North and South Korea in all its wild glory. Because the area has been heavily mined for fifty years, the land has become a haven for wildlife (including, as our guide wittily remarked, rare species such as the three-legged deer and the exploding orchid). But seriously, there's a significant bird-watching-tourism industry on both sides of the border. We didn't see any notable wildlife, but we did have a good gawp at the soldiers in a KPA watch tower, who in turn gawped at us through their binoculars. We also had an excellent view of Gijeongdong, or Propaganda Village, site of the world's tallest flagpole. The pole is 160 metres (525 feet) high, and carries a flag which is the size of a basketball court, and weighs in at an estimated 270 kg (600 lb) when dry.

From where we were standing, we could see glimpses of the road up to Reunification House, the road we had come along from Pyongyang to the DMZ. As we watched, two North Korean tourist coaches rolled up the road, stopped and unloaded their passengers who then gathered round the Kim Il-sung monument, just as we had done exactly two weeks previously. So this was why the KPA guards had suddenly assumed their positions around the huts—they had a visit on. It was a very strange experience to peer through the trees and see another group being given the exact same tour as we had, stopping at the Kim Il-sung monument before going down to the MDL itself.

Bridge of no return [Enlarge]

We drove on again, past the monument to the soldiers who died in the Axe Incident, past the Bridge of No Return where POWs from both sides were given a one-time-only chance to choose which side of the border they wanted to live on—either stay on the side that captured them, or cross back to their own side.

It was almost time for lunch, but before we could leave the US Army area we needed to visit the gift shop. We bought a UN pin-badge to complement our badges from the DPRK. Lunch was pretty good, better than what we got in the North, and better than the instant noodles that we've been living on since arriving in Seoul. Over lunch we confessed to our fellow tourists that we'd been to the other side. Mostly Americans, they were surprised to hear that it was possible, and we suddenly became the centre of attention as they fired off all the questions they hadn't felt able to ask the guides.

After lunch we drove up to the Mount Dora Observatory, a large glass-fronted building with an excellent panoramic view over the DMZ and beyond to Kaesong. It was the same idea as the lookout point in the DPRK, but we had to pay to use the binoculars! The visibility was very good and we could see Kaesong quite clearly, but we couldn't spot the huge statue of Kim Il-sung at the top of the hill. It felt weird, in the extreme, looking across at what had been our first stop in our life-changing, mind-bending trip through the DPRK. Geographically Kaesong was so close, but in every other respect it was so far. Sadly, photography of the inside of the observatory was not allowed, nor could we take pictures within ten metres of the railing.

Finally we visited the Third Tunnel of Aggression. The North shows off The Wall built by the US Imperialist Aggressors; while the South shows off The Tunnels dug by the DPRK Stalinist Aggressors. During the 1970s three 'infiltration' tunnels were discovered, commencing on the north side of the MDL and emerging in the South. In 1990 a fourth tunnel was located and, according to Wikipedia, the ROK and US military "regularly drill in the DMZ in hopes of finding more". The tunnels were dug so that entire KPA divisions (one per hour) could be rapidly transported under the DMZ to capture Seoul. Kim Il-sung was apparently an admirer of the German Blitzkrieg strategy.

Our trip to the DMZ was complete. We boarded the bus and rejoined the traffic jam which snaked its way into the heart of Seoul. It had been a strange experience. We got just as much propaganda from the US soldier who showed us round as we did from his counterpart in the DPRK. He wanted us to think that every KPA soldier was evil, jealous of our way of life and intent on doing us harm. Whereas the party line in the DPRK is that the US Aggressor is a malicious occupying force, it never gets personal.

Division of this peninsula is a cause of enormous sadness in the DPRK, and a lingering threat in the ROK. We went today in search of some sort of enlightenment, but we have just ended up even more confused and bemused than we were before.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007 China China / Korea (South) South Korea

Journey to the other half of Korea

Qingdao Ferry Terminal [Enlarge]

We spent most of our first day back in Beijing resting and uploading our photographs of North Korea to Flickr. We have taken hundreds. But not as many as some of our comrades—one of them took over a thousand pictures at the Arirang mass games alone! It was good to finally get the photos copied onto our laptop, as it's been a bit of a worry not having a backup of these expensive and completely irreplaceable memories.

The next stage on our round the world trip was a sleeper train ride from Beijing to the beer brewing capital of China, Qingdao (pronounced 'Ching-dao', to rhyme with 'now'), followed by the overnight ferry across the Yellow Sea to South Korea.

The train didn't start from Beijing until 22:50 so we paid for an extra half day to secure ourselves a late checkout from the hotel. Then, as late as possible without having to pay for a full extra day, we set out on a slow walk to the railway station. We had a very good club sandwich in the almost deserted restaurant of the Howard Johnson Paragon Hotel, near the station. The restaurant was in an atrium at the centre of the hotel, almost unlit, with a glass roof between us and the sky. It felt a bit like having a meal at the bottom of a mine shaft. We killed the rest of the waiting time in one of the station's soft-seat lounges, where the helpful staff kept an eye on us to make sure we didn't miss our train announcement, and Tom and Jerry cartoons played out endlessly on flat screen TVs.

We boarded the train amid the usual Chinese riot. We found our compartment, stowed our stuff, said a few hellos to our Chinese companions (who immediately fell asleep) and then settled down for the night. Still completely knackered from our DPRK trip we slept through until 06:30 in the morning which gave us just the right amount of time to sort ourselves out ready for an on-time arrival into Sifang station on the outskirts of Qingdao. We disembarked and went to find a taxi. One invaluable tip we've picked up is always to print off a map of where you're going in Chinese script, if at all possible. Luckily we had found one such map on the Weidong Ferry website, and we handed our map to the driver, showing the location of the Weidong ticket office. He seemed to know where he was going, and we got to the office just before 08:00. We had booked our berth over the phone from Shanghai, weeks and weeks ago. At 08:30 the office opened and we swapped our reference number and a wad of banknotes for two tickets. All that remained was to find a way to kill the seven hours until boarding time.

We had originally planned to do some sightseeing in Qingdao during this time, as it has lots of places for tourists to see. But we were so tired that we couldn't be bothered to do anything but set up camp in a corner of the terminal and sit it out.

It was our second wedding anniversary! On this day in 2005 we spent the day in a beautiful country house with our friends and family. Last year we were in London at the Royal Albert Hall, and riding on the Millennium Wheel. Today, we spent the day sitting in the departure hall at Qingdao ferry terminal surrounded by hundreds of crates of cargo being exported to Korea. And a Chinese acrobatic troupe, complete with see-saws! It will go down as one of our stranger anniversaries.

While Isla minded the bags, Glenn went for a wander down the street to see if there was anything interesting within range of the terminal. (There wasn't.) Glenn hadn't been gone long when a young Chinese man approached Isla. "Where are you from?" he asked. "England," said Isla. The man proudly showed off his jacket, which had a Union Flag on the front and ENGLAND written across the back. And then he grinned and said "James Bond!", and walked off. There was no answer to that. By the way, we are now carrying three bags, plus a plastic shopping bag, until we get a chance to mail home all our North Korean propaganda! Also, we're still carrying that damned terracotta warrior! Our travelling light philosophy is briefly on hold, and we hate it.

We finally boarded at about half past three, and then set sail at 17:35, about an hour late. Our 'Royal Class Cabin' was the equivalent of a 3-star hotel room and perfect for the overnight crossing. It wasn't cheap at 1150 yuan each (GBP 76 / USD 150), but hell, it was our anniversary—and the alternative was open bunks or mattresses on the floor of a fifty-berth dormitory. We could have booked the President Suite, but that seemed a bit extreme.

We were the only westerners among the few hundred on board, and we were objects of great curiosity. The voyage was uneventful, and we spent most of it in the cabin, as there was absolutely nothing of interest on the ship, despite what the website said. We couldn't even buy a can of Coke and a bar of chocolate, as the only shop on board was a tiny duty free shop selling nothing but booze and fags. It is obvious that the Weidong Ferry does not get many tourists.

Every half hour or so there was an announcement in Korean and Chinese, which we had no ability to comprehend. We could have been sinking and we wouldn't have known. But credit to our new, we've seen it all, laid back personas, we weren't bothered by not having a clue what was going on. We are used to it now.

Korean cars being exported [Enlarge]

We disembarked in Incheon port (pronounced In-chon) at 10:30 this morning. Incheon is about an hour's ride on the subway from Seoul, the capital of South Korea. At the exit to the ferry terminal was a tourist information booth where we got directions to the nearest ATM and subway station. As usual, we hadn't bothered changing money before arriving, since developed countries always have plenty of ATMs.

We walked out of the port, wondering what our twenty-first country would have in store for us. It should be one of the easier ones, we thought, as South Korea has a reputation for being one of the most high-tech countries in the world. We went into a nearby supermarket, as directed by the tourist information lady, where we had a choice from several ATMs. At which point each machine in turn barfed at us and told us in broken English that it only accepted Korean cards, and so could we please stop contaminating it with nasty foreign ones. Bugger. Oh, and our phone didn't work either. It is a worthless piece of plastic here, as the Korean system is completely different to the rest of the world's. We spent the next half hour or so trying ATM after ATM throughout Incheon, before giving up and exchanging a few American dollars that we found at the bottom of our wallet for just enough Korean won to get us to Seoul. With the exceptions of Laos and North Korea, every country we have visited has had bog-standard, any card welcome, ATMs. Still, at least we could get to Seoul, and with the help of a friendly local we boarded the subway. After a short walk to our pre-booked hotel, we checked in and contemplated where we'd landed, and what we'd landed ourselves in.

Map of Days 149-151

Days 149-151
Beijing to Seoul

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Saturday, April 21, 2007 China China

The Dandong extension

Dandong waterfront [Enlarge]

A good sleep and comfort food for breakfast yesterday (bacon sandwiches!) put us in a good mood that even the torrential rain couldn't dent. A couple of people were sick from the meal on the train the day before, and didn't join us. We're glad we gave the restaurant car a miss.

This was the beginning of our post North Korea rehabilitation and deprogramming. We met Brooklyn and the rest of our group at 09:30 and went outside to the bus. Just outside the hotel was a slightly shifty man. He should really have been wearing a grubby raincoat that he could open to reveal a selection of dodgy wares pinned inside. What was he touting? North Korean money. It is illegal to take any won out of North Korea. The customs checks had been pretty arbitrary so we would almost certainly have got away with taking some out, but since all transactions were done in hard currency, we never got a chance to get hold of any won. We've managed to keep a low denomination note from every country we've been to so far, so we wanted one or two from the DPRK if possible. This guy was asking 10 yuan for 150 won which was fairly close to the official exchange rate, but significantly below the black market rate, which is presumably where his profit margin is. That, or the notes are fake. If they are fake, they're certainly convincing, and given that the won is worth so little, it would surely be cheaper for him to buy the real thing than print his own? We shelled out for a clear plastic bag containing a one hundred won and a fifty.

North Korea on the right, China on the left. [IMG_2793]
The One Metre Hop [Enlarge]

About thirty minutes' drive out of town we visited the one metre hop, known in China as yi bu kua (the literal translation is 'one step across'). Here the Yalu River is so narrow that you can allegedly hop, step or jump across to North Korea. It looked a little too wide for that, but you could certainly wade quite easily. How far you would get after your paddle is debatable. For a start, you'd only find yourself on a North Korean island still in the middle of the river. Secondly, we could clearly see a couple of KPA soldiers hiding in the bushes. When we started pointing cameras at them they ran away. A few years ago apparently an Italian journalist jumped over and was immediately captured by the soldiers. He was interrogated for a day or two and then released.

Then we popped next door to the eastern end of the Great Wall, reconstructed from the ground up a few years ago. We climbed up to the highest point, but there was so much low cloud and drizzle that there wasn't much of a view. The worst of the rain had stopped by now though.

Although we had been to plenty of souvenir stops in the DPRK, we didn't get a chance to buy the most sought-after North Korean souvenir of all: a Kim Il-sung badge. These little pin badges are worn by almost every adult in the country. They are not for sale anywhere in the DPRK. People are 'given them' by the government. Replacements are not available. Someone in group B had asked their guide what happens if someone loses their badge. The predictable reply was, "They don't lose it". Simon from Koryo Tours had told us that the souvenir shop in Dandong is the place to get authentic Kim badges. Sadly, we weren't too impressed with them. They were clearly extremely low quality Chinese fakes, and didn't even have the same design as the real things. We decided to hang on and wait to see if there were any better ones on offer elsewhere.

An example of propaganda designed to demoralise the US troops. [IMG_2821]
Korean War museum [Enlarge]

Next we went to the Korean War Museum, or rather the museum of the "War to resist U.S. aggression and aid Korea", which is the name of the war in China. At the height of the cold war it suited China to prop up communist North Korea, so that it could act as a buffer between China and South Korea.

After lunch we managed to find a working ATM, replenished our empty wallet and repaid our footballing debt. We had tried and failed to get cash last night from two ATMs, and we were seriously worried that maybe some North Korean anti capitalist pig jamming technology at the DMZ had fried our ATM card (yes, that's how we think now, in fact one member of our group is actually considering replacing his mobile phone in case the Koreans bugged it while it was in their possession). But rather boringly the problem turned out to be a minor network outage with the bank concerned.

We took a short cruise on the river. The contrast between the opposing waterfronts was incredible: on one side, the buzzing high-rise city of Dandong; on the other, a semi-rural scene of people washing in the river and fishing from the mud banks. The Koreans are not ignorant of the difference, and lots of them regularly cross the river—the price for the border guards not noticing them is as little as a packet of good-quality cigarettes. They can then work, sell produce or scavenge for food before returning to their own side again after dark. We also walked out to the end of the broken bridge, where we could look over to the other bridge by which we had left North Korea on the train. It doubles as a road bridge, and while we were there a reasonable flow of traffic was passing in both directions (almost all of it trucks and vans). Meanwhile on the broken bridge a woman was selling more souvenirs, including Kim badges. They were the same tat as we had seen before and it became clear that we are not going to find any authentic badges for sale. We got a good deal on one of the fakes.

Sinuiju river bank [Enlarge]

By early evening, it was time to board our final train back to Beijing, which arrived at 08:30 this morning. We have completely lost track of time this week, and so we both forgot that today is Glenn's birthday! We took a taxi back to Koryo's office to pick up all the stuff that was prohibited in the DPRK, checked in to our hotel and began a long rest. The week in North Korea has probably been the most memorable week of our lives, but it has been no relaxing holiday! Now we have to learn to think for ourselves again. In a few days we are heading to South Korea. We can't wait to see the other side of the world's last divided nation.

Map of Day 147

Day 147
Dandong to Beijing

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Thursday, April 19, 2007 China China / Korea (North) North Korea

Return to the free world

Pyongyang station [Enlarge]

We should have had a lie in this morning as we were not due to leave the hotel until 09:30. But Sod's Law came into play and we got a wake up call meant for someone else… at half past six. We got up, showered, dressed, packed up our bags and took them down to our last ever Yanggakdo Hotel breakfast. We certainly won't be eating eggs for a while—we've eaten more than our average annual consumption of eggs in one week. We had been told to be on the bus at 09:30, ready to go. The entire group managed better than that, and was on board and waiting for the driver at 09:15. This unusual burst of punctuality was due partly to the group's continual improvement in doing what is asked of it, but mostly because everyone was now desperate to get out of here. Our train back to China wouldn't wait for us, and staying here for several days while we found another way out of the country would drive us mad. Not to mention the 500 US dollars per day fine which would be levied on each of us for overstaying our visa.

Before the coach left the hotel, Mr Lee had some things to distribute. First of all he handed out the DVDs made by our cameraman. He has been following us all week, and we saw a sneak preview of his results in the duck barbecue restaurant last night. It looked really good. Then Mr Lee gave someone a large plastic bag containing all the mobile phones for both groups. The bag had a customs seal on it, which would be checked by the border guards on the way out. Consequences for opening the bag before then were not mentioned, but they really didn't need to be. Finally Mr Lee made us check three times that we had our passports and all our belongings with us. Then we set off for the train station.

This is our carriage, which is only going as far as Dandong, just over the Chinese border. [IMG_2773]
Pyongyang to Dandong carriage [Enlarge]

When we had booked the tour, we decided to take the one day 'Dandong extension'—a brief stopover in Dandong, the Chinese city on the DPRK's northern border. Roughly half of us had chosen to do this (all of our group and two members of group B), and we were all placed together in a North Korean train carriage. The rest of group B are staying on the train overnight, and going all the way to Beijing in one go. Their carriage was Chinese. The style was the same (four berth compartments), but the Chinese carriage was newer and had heating!

A lot of shunting was going to be necessary. A long train would leave Pyongyang. Most of the carriages (full of North Koreans) would only go as far as Sinuiju, the Korean city which faces Dandong across the Yalu River. Our carriage and group B's Chinese carriage would be unhitched and taken across the bridge into China. Our carriage would be left there, and group B's carriage would be connected up to a Chinese train going from Dandong to Beijing.

We shared a compartment with two Australian ladies with whom we have become good friends during week. Between them they have got decades of amazing independent travel stories to tell. One of them first travelled to China in 1979, when the only way in was on an organised tour and many people had never seen a westerner—sounds strangely familiar!

The final parting word from the guides was a reminder not to take any photographs from the train as we travelled through the DPRK countryside. If anyone on or off the train sees us take a photo they are duty bound to report it to the authorities. The customs officials will find out and people's photos will be gone through and 'edited'. Then Mr Lee, Mrs Lee and the two group B guides waved us off. They were still smiling as we chugged slowly away, but the second we were out of sight they must have collapsed in an exhausted heap on the platform. All the guides worked so unbelievably hard this week to meet our requests wherever possible. They must think that Westerners are a bunch of spoiled, lazy, scruffy, rude, disobedient, rich, arrogant dickheads. But not once do they let it show. We'd like to think that they will get a couple of days off, but we know that won't happen. They will be straight back to the office to prepare for the next group. And when summer comes and it's busy on the farms, they will join the other office workers from Pyongyang who have to go and do a turn helping out doing hard manual labour. Our lives are incomparably easy compared to theirs, and they are amongst the elite in the DPRK—the trusted few who are allowed to travel around the country and interact with foreigners.

The train made steady progress out of Pyongyang and the dreary grey landscape of the city turned into the dreary brown of the countryside. There wasn't much to photograph anyway. It looked like all the other rural areas we had seen, and a lot like many of the rural bits of China, and even India, that had slipped past the windows of other trains we have taken. All the sensitive stuff is pretty well hidden. After a while a railway employee from the restaurant car came round touting for business. We had a look, but the restaurant car was thick with cigarette smoke, and on seeing the state of the kitchen we lost our appetite anyway. Mindful of the story we'd read about Indian railway kitchens, and of the fact that we had two long train journeys ahead of us, all day today and overnight tomorrow, we slipped off back to the compartment. We don't ever want to get sick, but we especially don't want to get sick now. The duck barbecue last night had laid low one member of our group (we did suggest at the time that using the same chopsticks to eat the cooked duck as she was using to handle the raw duck was a bad idea). She spent the first hour of the trip in the squalid train toilet, and the rest of the time on her bunk, sleeping it off.

A man came round and handed out three forms to each person: a DPRK departure card, a customs declaration card and a health screening card. We filled in the first two okay, but the health card was only written in Chinese and Korean. Luckily two of the group could read enough Chinese to get us by. At 15:20 we stopped at Sinuiju station, on the DPRK side of the border. The passports and cards were collected up and taken away. Then the customs officials came round. We had to leave the compartment and come back in to be interviewed individually. Some people had their bags searched, some people had their photos reviewed on their cameras, and yes, some people lost photos. But we survived the experience unscathed. The guard wasn't even bothered about our oil painting, for which we had carefully asked for a receipt to prove that it was regular art and not socialist realist art, the export of which is banned.

At the same time as our border formalities were going on, the North Koreans in the other carriages must have been getting their papers checked. There is no concept of free movement in the DPRK—you need permission from both the head of your work group and the local government to even travel to the next village. Going to a border town must require an even greater level of checks and balances to make sure you don't have any crazy ideas like escaping. All of a sudden the station sprang into life as the Koreans were released from the train. They began to file past our window along the platform. They were all weighed down by some very heavy looking luggage. The older women in particular looked like they were permanently bent at 90 degrees from a lifetime of carrying heavy loads on their backs. After things had calmed down, we were told that we could get off the train and stand on the platform if we liked. "But stay near the train!" It was cold outside, and so after a quick bit of fresh air we retreated back to the slightly warmer carriage. Some people who were brave enough to stay outside managed to have a conversation of sorts with the DPRK wrestling team, who were travelling to Beijing for a tournament.

Bombed bridge separating North Korea from China [Enlarge]

Three hours and five minutes after we had stopped, our passports rematerialised. We were approximately as cold as we had been when we were stuck at Niš in Serbia, but far less bored thanks to the Aussies' travel tales. These two make our round the world trip look like a package holiday. Almost immediately, the train began to move again. As we rolled slowly across the Yalu River on a utilitarian box girder bridge, we could see the famous 'half bridge' that was bombed by the Americans during the Korean War and now stands as a strange kind of monument, jutting out pointlessly into the middle of the river. The Chinese half is intact, but the Korean half is gone apart from a few concrete pillars.

Chinese immigration was relatively painless, but still took over an hour. The officials were smiley. They said "Hello", we said "Ni hao". Obviously North Korean customs checks are so thorough that the Chinese don't feel the need to do any more checking. We were finally released from the train and met our new guide on the platform, in the form of the small but voluble Brooklyn. He led us out to the waiting coach which whisked us across town to the Zhong Lian Hotel.

It wasn't the Sheraton, but it sure felt like it. We could buy overpriced ice creams in the foyer, we could access our email in the Business Centre, and if we wanted to we could go outside, into the street, and walk anywhere we wanted. You cannot believe how weird, how exhilarating and how scary that feels unless you have experienced the DPRK. We checked into our room then went down to the hotel's restaurant for dinner. That meal was good! At the end of our tour of China, barely a week ago, we would have been happy never to have a sumptuous Chinese banquet ever again. But after seven guilt-ridden days of eating meals which were generally very poor quality, but which were so relatively extravagant that no North Korean (apart from one) would even be able to imagine them, this delicious and high quality food was so welcome.

Talking of guilt, there is plenty of information on the web about the food shortages in the DPRK, and the consensus seems to be that this year is going to be another really tough one after the floods of 2006. We used to get annoyed if our local supermarket ran out of frozen peas. But most people in North Korea (or at least the non-elites outside Pyongyang) are surviving on 200 g (7 oz) of rice or grain per day, and hardly anything else. These are people we've seen in the street, people we've driven past, always smiling and looking cheerful. They live in a country that tries to depict itself as modern, advanced, and superior. A country which preaches Juche (self-reliance) but is hooked on international aid to meet its most basic needs. Standing on the riverside in Dandong this evening we could take our pick of 24 hour convenience stores and buy anything we wanted for a small amount of money. Then we could jump in a taxi and drive through the neon-lit streets to a bar or restaurant serving any dish from almost anywhere in the world and eat until we were full. But five hundred metres away on the opposite bank of the river, so dark that you could be forgiven for not realising there's even a city over there, people were coming home from work to their cold, dark apartments, and going to bed with their hunger barely touched by their starvation rations. You will surely never find a contrast as stark as this anywhere in the world.

All our photos from today are here. You can see everywhere we go in Google Earth by going to our progress map, then clicking the Google Earth tab.

Map of Day 146

Day 146
Pyongyang to Dandong

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.