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.