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How To…Be Beside Yourself

processThe Island. Star Wars. Jurassic Park. Never Let Me Go. Dolly the Sheep.

All of the above are renowned for being seriously profound/wooly, and for dealing with the controversial-but-still-pretty-cool subject of cloning. My laboratory facilities are sadly lacking, and I only got a C in Biology, but where there’s a will there’s a creative loophole.

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4482221537_a5ab45b90d_oClone photography is a hugely popular form of photomanipulation, the results of which A) can look fantastic, but more importantly B) are ridiculously fun to arrange, if somewhat undignified. While perfectly capable of being done on the fly, it’s a good idea to plan ahead a bit before getting into the action, particularly if you’re planning on having your clones interacting with each other, eg. shaking hands/crossing over/fighting to the death.

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The example I’ll be using here was the result of a free lesson in a large, empty classroom. With an hour to kill and several vacant seats available, I thought I’d stand/sit in for my students.4598967953_95375dfc6f_o (1)

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When posing for each shot – especially if, like me, you’re too mortified to ask anyone to press the shutter on your behalf as you flail around a scene on your own – it’s a good idea to remember as acutely as possible what your previous ‘clone’ was doing. For example, if you’re shaking hands with yourself, focus specifically on where your hands are positioned in the air and aim to take both pictures in rapid successions before you forget where you were.

Make sure the camera is as still as possible, and – for extra ‘realism’ – pick a single focal point and switch off your AF (autofocus). This will mean that many of your shots are technically out of focus, but will ultimately create a shot which, despite all evidence to the contrary, looks realistic.

Secondly, embrace the fact that, the more advanced or populated your scene becomes, the more likely you’ll have to drop a few of your shots when the foreground clones’ shoulders get in the way. Remember the DOF (depth of field) of your lens and try not to have one twit (ie. me/you) standing exactly in the way of the whole scene in the background.

Once you have your shots, stick ’em on Photoshop and queue them as layers (on CS6, File>Scripts>Load Files Into Stack). My personal recommendation is that you arrange the clones at the back of the image first and work to the foreground, as it makes your life easier in the long run.

Each photo in the composition, with various bits erased to accommodate one another

Your first few clones will probably snap nicely into the shot, provided you’ve kept the camera stock-still for every photo. As you add more shots, you’ll have to erase the empty space around the clone; provided the focus and lighting levels have been constant for each shot, the figure should still fit into the scene without too much difficulty.

If you struggle to keep the shadows from layering over shots too much, you can use the ‘Burn’ (‘O’ hotkey) tool to darken the environment and cheat slightly.

cloneroomAfter what could be an extensive period of fiddling with lighting and forgetting which layer was which and swearing a lot at the computer, you should hopefully end up with a clone composition photo. I personally like using them to convince strangers I’m from a family of identical octuplets, but if you want to use them for less sociopathic purposes then that’s good too.

 

How To… Punch Yourself In The Face

fpcoverThis blog is ostensibly an excuse to regurgitate large numbers of photos online, feeding my ego without worrying too much about looking like I’m doing so. I love rambling about my (mis-)adventures and I love photography, so a travel/photo blog seemed like the healthiest outlet.

In addition to Taking Photos Of Stuff I See as a general pastime, I’ve also got a kink for Photoshop’s surrealist potential. I’ve had one or two (possible even three) people politely mentioning a few of my past PS projects, and figure that, in amongst the Korean stuff, it couldn’t hurt to throw in a few Photoshop tutorials for posterity’s sake.

One of my more well-received older pictures depicted, appropriately, me punching myself really hard in the face. It’s the closest thing to minor Flickr fame I’ve managed and I still harp on about it to anyone who’ll listen.

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(click picture for link to Flickr)

Sadly, I can’t find the original files for this particular picture, so I’ll use a pretty similar one I did a little while back. If you give this a go and I’ve missed something glaringly obvious in the How To, write me a comment berating me for my uselessness and I’ll rectify that immediately.

Please keep in mind that Photoshop is an actual beast of a program, and no two people use it the same way. I’ve fiddled with it for years in varying states of destitution and girlfriendlessness, and this is how I muddle along. If you use PS a different way/actually know what you’re doing, feel free to use the following stages as a very basic reference – and, if you make one of your own, I REALLY want to see it so you’d better send me the link.

 

1 – This is a very simple PS project, in that you’ll need a grand total of 2 photos and maybe 3 PS layers for the finished image. Your two photos are:IMG_6985

ONE shot of your handsome mug, andIMG_6991

ONE shot of you punching the snot out of a pillow. Ideally try to use one which could roughly match your skin tone (I’m like a vampire so ‘glaring white’ is a safe bet) – it doesn’t have to be exact, but try to choose a colour which you can at least lighten/darken to match your complexion.

 

2 – Open up your photos on PS. Hello, me(s).facepunch1

3 – On the pillow-punching shot, use the selecting-tool of your choice to select the punching hand and most of the pillow, then paste onto your first image. That’s all you need from Image 2, so you can now get rid of it.facepunch2

4 – Select your fightin’ hand with Ctrl-T, and shuffle it about until you get it in the right spot for your image. If you can’t get it exactly right, use the Opacity and/or Fill sliders on the Layers tab to fade the layer and fit it with the picture underneath.

5 – As you’ll be blending the pillow with your own gob, use the eraser tool with a large brush and 0 hardness to lightly ‘feather’ the edges of the pillow, so you can see the edges of the face underneath showing. Make sure A) you don’t feather the punching arm as you’ll look like you’re getting punched by a ghost, and B) that you don’t reveal any actual facial features underneath while erasing. facepunch3

6 – Increase the eraser tool’s hardness a tad and trim the edges of your Pillow Layer so it fits your face like a mask. If needed, boost the eraser’s hardness yet further and remove any floating bits around your punchin’ hand. If needed, again check the hand’s placement on the face using the Opacity slider to make sure you’re getting a nice, centralised thump on the nose.facepunch4

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7 – Here, you’re going to want to make a duplicate layer of JUST the arm/hand. Roughly select the arm with the Lasso tool, then tap Ctrl-J to copy the layer. Erase the squiffy bits so you just have the arm without any pillow background. This layer ensures your arm keeps its natural tone, as the next stage will be fiddling with the colour of your pillow:-facepunch6

8 – Now to make it look a little more human. Select the middle (ie. pillow) layer then, via the Image tab, select Adjustments – Photo Filter. Have a play with the different tones; depending on the white balance of your photos, you’ll likely want to use a warming/sepia filter to make the pillow more skin-toned. Repeat the process a few times with different tones to layer colours – by choosing ‘colour’ on the Photo Filter window you can also colour-drop your own skin tone, though you can mix and match colour if it’s not blending quite right.facepunch7

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9 – Last of all, using the Burn (darken) and Dodge (lighten) tools, have a play with darkening certain areas (eg. shadow around the fist, pillow wrinkles) and lightening others (depending on your portrait lighting) to make it look more ‘natural’ despite the fact that you’re smashing your face right in.facepunch9

10 – depending on how hardworking you’re feeling, either leave the image as it is or have a fiddle with lighting/contrast to make the overall shot stand out; I can’t really advise here as everybody has different ideals for brightness and colour in their photography.facepunchtutorial

Et voila! You should now have a portrait of self-abuse to worry your loved ones and impress easily-impressed people with.

 

Korea’s ‘Smallest’ National Park, And How It Lies

IMG_2976The nature of blogging means that I have the appearance of a hectic and action-packed life. If I were to post in a fashion similar to denizens of the Twitter Abyss, you’d be treated to close-ups of me vaguely picking my nose while playing Far Cry 4, or to us dancing wildly around a very confused dog when the ‘ooga chaka’ bit comes on during Blue Swede’s Hooked On A Feeling; as it stands, this site’s feed seems to miss out all the boring bits, eg. the full-time job which actually brings us to Korea.

That being said, the last month or so has provided a bounty of blogworthy distractions and, except for the abovementioned nosepickings and workgoings, pretty much has been a constant stream of Doing Stuff. I can tell because my thighs feel like two angry pigs fighting over a truffle after we dominated Korea’s smallest national park, Wolchulsan, along with recurring partners in crime Nate and Alysha.

If you squint, you can see the Cloud Bridge roughly dead centre.

If you squint, you can see the Cloud Bridge roughly dead centre.

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When I say ‘smallest’ national park, I’d like to reiterate the standards by which national parks tend to be measured. Admittedly, the park is surrounded fairly closely by a busy highway, and you can see distant civilisation from every angle – however, what Wolchulsan lacks in square kilometres (a mere 41km²) it makes up for in violent, perpendicular angles. Within minutes of setting off, we’re sticky and panting in the late Spring afternoon, even under a constant awning of foliage; deceptively sturdy iron walkways have been hammered into the mountain at often improbable angles, occasionally starting to resemble ladders more than paths.IMG_2732

LIES

LIES

Yours shiny truly.

Your shininess truly.

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Optimistic signposts along the way reassure lucky hikers that (for example) the scenic Cloud Bridge(Gureumdari, 구름다리) is a mere 0.3km away from that spot. The bridge does indeed come into view promptly – as a thin shadow across your face as you look directly up, precisely 0.3km above your head. The steep climb to the bridge provides an ample workout for one’s legs, arms, core and silent hysteria (note: the writer’s own fitness may affect his personal standpoint on some matters of physical exertion).IMG_2771

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It’s when you flop onto the ledge hugging one end of the 55-metre suspension bridge that you first see how far you’ve come, and it’s usually then that you work out who amongst you suffers vertigo. The monumental backdrop of Cheonhwabong, the park’s mountainous peak, sweeps into the forest below, eventually diminishing in the distance into farmlands and lonely-looking shrubs. On this particular day, the fieldworkers had apparently taken to incinerating stretches of their land, lending a dramatic if faintly alarming tone to the already impressive view.IMG_2798

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If travelling with a mixture of acrophobes and sadists (honestly a terrible combination when at great heights in the middle of nowhere), be warned that the wholly-secure suspension bridge will…shake, slightly, if one is overly enthusiastic bounding across the several-hundred-metre drop. While amusing to some, the mountain’s acoustics are remarkably effective should anybody shriek involuntarily on a creaking platform above the treetops.IMG_2871

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Putting into context how laughably easy the arduous uphill scuttle has apparently been so far, it’s from this side of the bridge that the park landscapers apparently started to get a sense of humour. Iron steps and railings are knocked deep into the stone of the mountain at the sort of angle which could only accommodate a suicidal Slinky. While never actually worried for my safety, I marvelled at the views I had while climbing of the very tops or very bottoms of my fellow hikers as we ascended (all of whom had lovely scalps and bottoms, so no harm done).IMG_2879

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The panorama from the actual peak (at least our actual peak, as we had no intention of getting to the actual actual peaks on this occasion, or possibly lifetime) is staggering. It’s the sort of view Peter Jackson would drop hobbits and dwarves on to do a helicopter fly-by of. By this point in our journey we hadn’t seen or heard any other climbers for a long while; our last encounter had been blaring hymns out of his phone at an incredible volume, but there wasn’t a sign of even his musical presence anywhere in the valley. Feeling like The Only People In The World, at that altitude, with a can of Sour Cream Pringles, was entirely blissful, albeit a touch windy for some of the more sadly airborne Pringles.IMG_2908

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The moment we realised this was the wrong bloody way.

The moment we realised this was the wrong bloody way.

After an infuriating failed attempt at a round trip – discovering after a very steep descent that our route took us further into the mountains rather than, as was preferred, out of them – we climbed back up the knotted rope-ladder and prepared our knees and ankles for the jellifying return journey down the mountain. A much shorter trip later, we’ve lost the normal use of our legs and we’ve seriously pissed off a peacefully dozing toad in a rock-pool.IMG_2939

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I take comfort knowing that, at least for a week or so, I don’t have to do anything horrible like adventuring or seeing more beautiful scenery. I suspect my 25-year-old knees couldn’t take it.

 

 

Sand, Crabs and Broken Toes

 

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Disclaimer: only part of the title is a medical condition.

We’re descending slowly  into a now more-than-fleeting camping fetish. Having successfully survived the arsonists and anally-retentive groundsmen of Sangju, we were eager to accept our friends and fellow colleagues’ offer of a joint-trip to the actually isolated coast of Sungpyeong; a barely-trodden expanse of glinting fool’s-gold sand with nary a soul to be seen nor heard (with the exception of a determined yet mysterious boat whose bi-daily routine seems to consist of throwing things overboard to pass the time).IMG_2091

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Safety-conscious dog check the GPS.

Safety-conscious dog check the GPS.

Being far more practical humans than ourselves, Nathan and Alysha are part of that expat elite who actually own their own car – all the better to fully explore the country, avoid a slightly tedious daily work commute and to accommodate their two beautiful yet affectionately heavy jindogae Fiona and Ingrid. The two Jindos dwarf, chase and are in turn right-hooked by our comparative runt of a dog regularly, made all the more hilarious/repellent by a thick layer of wet sand and salted fur.

The drive to Sungpyeong is reassurance enough that we have the place to ourselves: a little while off the highway and it’s nothing but mountains and mirrorlike, irrigated valleys as far as the horizon. We’re so far out in the sticks that, were we to wander aimlessly into the nearby villages, we’d be less of a mild curiosity and more of an exotic, sweaty fascination. The car pulls into the dusty, empty parking lot and all the signs of off-season are there: the toilets are conveniently-placed albeit not-so-conveniently locked, the bins are noticeably overflowing but sunbaked past the point of offensive and you can’t hear anyone competing for space on the sand.IMG_2163

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Meg cannot possibly contain the gibbon within.

Meg cannot possibly contain the gibbon within.

From the car, we heft our camping gear on foot to Nate and Alysha’s pre-discovered Choice Spot, hidden amongst boulders and alongside a handy water and/or wine-cooling stream. From a distance, however, the beach appear to have a life of its own, with pebbles seeming to erratically rush towards and away from the oncoming waves. On closer inspection, we realise that we’ve simply disturbed hundreds and hundreds of tiny red crabs, all scurrying wildly away to their subterranean dens underfoot. Most succeed, with the exception of the three hapless crustaceans our fascinated dogs managed to seize. True to her nature, Millie totally failed to dominate even a tiny specimen; the Jindos on the other hand managed a grisly, acrobatic display of catch-the-crab before getting at least one leg each.IMG_2126

Following the dogs’ enthusiasm, we promptly hurled ourselves into the sea, quickly discovering that the water was A) emasculatingly chilly and B) a cunning camouflage for the sneakiest bastard rocks known to geography. After a few minutes of soothing drifting and violently spontaneous profanity, I reckoned I would do The Romantic Thing and carry Meg (+her stubbed toe) from the cruel waves. This lasted approximately three seconds before I kicked the rocks’ reigning champion, ultimately lacerating my foot and actually breaking at least one toe while dropping Meg back into the sea. Not a proud moment.IMG_2152

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One of the upshots of camping on a nigh-isolated coast is that one can let one’s imagination run wild vis-a-vis campsite customisation and driftwood furniture. Pooling our combined creativity and DIY skills, we managed to rig up a mostly-successful underground(/sand) cooler box, as well as an elegantly canopied, raft-remnants-and-polystyrene-box dining table, complete with almost-not-wet Styrofoam stools for the discerning diners.

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IMG_2441Evening entertainments included a live concert (playing Mumford & Sons from a mobile phone whilst drinking stream-cooled wine), a private cinema (Meg and Alysha escaped to a tent to watch Pitch Perfect on iPad) and a fully-interactive arts show, ie. Nathan and I scrambling over rocks while waving torches maniacally for the sake of light-trail photos.IMG_2471

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Still sadly un-equipped with a remotely spacious tent, Meg and I pretzelled ourselves into the (quote-unquote) ‘2-person’ tent for another night’s almost-sleep, with Millie’s small canine buttocks firmly clenching my shoulder for much of the duration.IMG_2474

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Luck willing, we’ll actually get our human-sized tent before the next inevitable, obsessively-documented expedition. Until then, I will contend myself with hunting down the elusive dunes of sand hidden in the crevices of every bag, shoe and sock I own.

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Ceremonial Lights and Local Conflagrations

IMG_1911The hectic Korean lifestyle is an odd one to adjust to for a weygook. The sparing 10 days’ holiday offered by most hagwons seems a pittance to anyone from Europe (although I’m told it’s generous enough by American standards), and woe betide if you actually use any of your sick days – ie. you’d better be comatose or dead.IMG_1816

Domo-kun, just hanging out.

Domo-kun, just hanging out.

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That’s not to say that 10 days are your lot: as with all countries, there are National Holidays to lust after during the more arduous weeks, and Korea traditionally celebrates about 15 of them a year.

However, if the holiday happens to fall on either a Saturday or a Sunday, tough. It’s fairly common in the West for employers to throw in an extra day either side of the holiday for goodwill, but in Korea you have to hope that the weekend doesn’t eat up too much of your precious midday-wake-up-bacon-breakfast-back-to-bed days.IMG_1845

The most recent holiday, Buddha’s Birthday (seokga tansinil, 석가탄신일) luckily occupied a Monday, allowing us to get away with our previously-mentioned camping trip. While we were away, Gwangju dolled up for the occasion.

A popular form of cultural celebration in Korea is via the medium of lantern displays – illuminated, paper-framed models lining the city’s roads and rivers. This Buddha’s Birthday, historic and traditional figures hover above the rushing water, not to mention such antiquities as Pikachu (despite him/her/it being Japanese) and Korea’s favourite infant’s TV show Pororo. The riverside is especially spectacular towards midnight; while it’s not 100% that the lights will stay on (they indecisively flicked on and off as the hours went on for us), you’ll have the river to yourself.IMG_1920

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Festive soju with our newfound, coincidentally fellow Lancaster Uni alumni mate Si.

Festive soju with our newfound, coincidentally fellow Lancaster Uni alumni mate Si.

On this particularly scenic night, however, a less peaceful, slightly more alarming light display lit the sky; as we walked through the city, we were immediately walled off by a number of fire-engines and police cordons battling with a towering inferno of a building.IMG_1828

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Si, bravely striding past the barrier to have a look.

Si, bravely striding past the barrier to have a look.

The strangest part for me: in the West, social media-ites would be climbing over each other, eager to be the first heroic photographer to earn him/herself an award for capturing this dynamic event, tweeting and posting about the fire as it progressed (and losing interest when it went out). Try as I might, however, I can’t find a single mention of the fire online, despite a significant portion of downtown Gwangju being blocked off to fight it as smoke and embers drifted high above the tallest buildings.IMG_1867

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Maybe they’re just less dramatic here.

The Road to Sangju

Since my last post, Spring sprung over the course of three days and then descended violently into Summer. To summarise: I’m no longer wearing coats as a mortal necessity, I actually spurn full-length trousers until I need to hide my sexy-yet-hirsute shins for professional purposes, and I’ve been sunburnt. Twice.

Genuinely beaming because the tiny dog just belched like an old man.

Genuinely beaming because the tiny dog just belched like an old man.

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Porta-dog actually prefers her shopping bag to a dog-carrier.

Porta-dog actually prefers her shopping bag to a dog-carrier.

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In the gap since January, a few changes have occurred: due to one of our colleagues having to leave his position, Meg and I now work at separate campuses (somewhat lonely but conducive to my nesting habits in my new bachelor-pad at work), and we’ve successfully embarked on and returned from an expedition to the Philippines. Why is this blog post not *that* blog post, I hear you cry ? I’m writing a travel piece for an Australian magazine and don’t have the faintest bloody clue if I’m allowed to put it on here first. I could re-write the thing more personably for blogging purposes, but that sounds like a lot of work.

In place of that particular adventure, I think I’ll re-enter the foray of public diary-writing via a more recent and local story; our first (mostly) successful Korean campout of the year (and, indeed, our first Korean campout. Actually, our first campout together, full stop).

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While looking for suitable campgrounds, we were split between two choices, in the anagrammatic quandary of Namhae versus Haenam. Haenam is closer, but less beach-y whereas Namhae is a rolling, mountainous archipelago of beaches and forests, but is a hefty 6-hour total bus journey from Gwangju. Given that we were exploiting a precious three-day weekend for Buddha’s Birthday, it seemed prudent to get as far away from home as possible, so Namhae and the nearby Sangju ‘Silver Sands’ beach won.IMG_1583

Being the environmentally-conscious (/incapable) people we are, driving is not an option. We rely wholly on the mostly-fantastic Korean public transport to get us everywhere; unfortunately, due to the three buses required for us to get from Gwangju to Sangju Beach it actually took us roughly as long to get there as the same journey would from Seoul. Regardless, we’re pretty bloody-minded when it comes to these things and did it anyway. A quick breakdown of the journey from Gwangju to Sangju Beach:

– From Gwangju’s Gwangcheon Bus Terminal, take an express bus to Jinju (₩10,250, about 2hrs)

– At Jinju, make sure to wait until the bus stops at the Intercity Bus Terminal, not the Express Bus Terminal: we got off too early (at the Express Terminal, the stop before our destination) and had to get a short taxi to the Intercity station. Not a great tragedy, but a pain in the backside when carrying a big ol’ bag. When at the *correct* terminal, get a bus to Namhae from Gates 15-17 (₩5,700, 1.5 hrs)

– Once in Namhae, just go back into the station and get a bus ticket to Sangju (₩2,500, 30 mins)

– From Sangju, head towards the big wet sandy thing you can probably see on your right and you’ll find the beach.

Bus times from Jinju for Gwangju and Seoul, if you were interested.

Bus times from Jinju for Gwangju and Seoul, if that sort of thing interests you.

Word of warning: if your bags are under the bus, be as theatrical as possible to the driver in getting them out; we dragged ours from the bus and got the doors almost-shut with seconds to spare before it sped away, apparently oblivious to the still-slightly-open side panel.

Sangju is a tiny, coastal town with one convenience store, one chicken takeaway and a handful of Korean seafood restaurants with obligatory tanks of live cephalopod victims. The beach is surprisingly pristine – while our experience gave us the impression that it was regularly crammed with waders, volleyballers and daydrinkers, we were reassured by a local Canadian teacher that it’s usually peacefully deserted. For the campers among you: there is a dictated camping area, which is apparently emptier on a regular basis; due to the holiday weekend, the campsite we saw was turned into an impromptu shanty-town of claustrophobic tents and canopies, so we chose instead to camp slightly illegally on the beach and, later, in the nearby woods edging the beach.

Namhae is known for its garlic, and is locally known as the kissing county

Namhae is famous for its garlic, and is locally known as the ‘kissing county’ (half of this information is true)

Good points: the beach is spectacular, and was our very portable pup’s first introduction to both sand and the sea. Millie, for all her wonderful traits, has never quite got the hang of swimming or, in fact, anything to do with water – as such, her first introduction to the beach involved a lot of barking at waves and sprinting away from the approaching tide, followed by eating and promptly vomiting a large quantity of sand. She quickly learned the undrinkable qualities of seawater, which did nothing to either her regurgitating or the state of our tent as she took shelter shortly afterwards.

what is this place

what is this place

what the hells this

what the hells this

what smells funny

what smells funny

gonna taste this

gonna taste this

what the bloody hell is this

what the bloody hell is this

why is this wet

why is this wet

where are you going

where are you going

seriously, screw this

seriously, screw this

True to Korea, you’re never far from convenient facilities; clean bathrooms and food stalls dot the coastline, and judging by the displays throughout the night it must be fairly convenient to purchase fireworks from somewhere nearby. While we foraged for food on our newly-second-hand-bought camping stove, bonfires and hand-held fireworks displays illuminated the night – and continued to do so throughout much of the early morning.

Ham and udon noodles for dinner, because cultural

Ham and udon noodles for dinner, because cultural

Camping breakfast: five minutes to cook sausages, four minutes to cook beans and for some reason thirty five bloody minutes to scramble an egg

Camping breakfast: five minutes to cook sausages, four minutes to cook beans and for some reason thirty five bloody minutes to scramble an egg

well I for one am inspired

well I for one am inspired and feel like I’m possible

Less good points: in the eventuality of Shanty Town campsite conditions, a particularly keen professional jobsworth may come and jab at your tent in the early morning/evening if it’s a few inches off ‘correct’ placement. By our sociophobic British nature, we tried to avoid any other humans while camping, but this resulted in our tent being placed in an unauthorised spot under the treeline. Word of advice for fellow renegade campers: keep your tent packed up until after about 8pm, then go rogue and camp wherever the hell you like, keeping in mind that your breakfast may be interrupted by an accusing pointed finger aimed at your tent.

Shanty Town in its tentish glory

Shanty Town in its tentish glory

For some reason, a very appealing rock.

For some reason, a very appealing rock.

Nothing on our grey, near-fatal beaches back home.

Nothing on our grey, near-fatal beaches back home.

Less of a comment on the beach, more on our preparedness: our professional predecessors generously left the tent we brought with us, which I had set up at home to confirm its usefulness. In practice, however, it turned out that the size of it meant that I’m actually incapable of lying down horizontally: non-conducive to overnight camping, in hindsight. Gmarket will surely help us with replacement future camping equipment.IMG_1603

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Nothing like sandy Moscato in a plastic cup

 

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The lifelong loyalty of a dog who just heard the word ‘treat’

 

Sandy dog-vomit and crack-of-dawn social fireworks aside, this was a profoundly successful first attempt at Korea Camping. Future blogs – if ever they come – will surely tell tales of our upcoming rogue-adventures-to-be.IMG_1677

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Towers, Bears and Geese

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Under this mystique of sophistication, wit and impeccable gramm(er)ar, it may surprise you to learn that, deep down, I can, on occasion, be profoundly lazy. I’ve never been one for footing balls or chasing steeples – anything where there’s the slightest chance I might embarrass myself in front of large groups –  but have come to love the rare, glorious moments where I can experience the suicidal joy of snowboarding. If ever I were to find myself plummeting down a sheer mountainside, I’d like to at least be strapped onto a fibreglass spatula. On the slopes, I can at least be assured that falling over and embarrassing oneself in front of large groups is a commonplace event.

Living in the green low(ish)lands of Somerset, mountains are a bit sparing to come by – so this pastime, while immensely fun, has had a habit of occurring roughly once every two-to-four years:

2006: Lapland, Finland; -25° in the Arctic Circle, with the Aurora Borealis above and a swearing, pre-bearded Benjamin falling over a lot under the watch of an ex-military snowboard instructor

2008: Wanaka, New Zealand; having already blown the backpacking budget on skydiving and hostels, went all-out on the Treble Cone slopes in Wanaka. Got stuck in a white-out on the mountainside, managed not to fall off the mountain

2011: Ehrwald, Austria; never one to actually pay for anything if I can get away with it, managed via Mum/’s magazine to blag a travel-piece on Ehrwald & Mt. Zugspitz. Brought brother along, drank weissbeer, managed not to fall off the mountain

2015: Bear’s Town, Namyangju, South Korea; two years after I’d previously lived 20 minutes away from Bear’s Town ski resort, I travel across the entire bloody country to finally get there. Confidently avoided any potential falling-off-mountain scenarios.IMG_7572

Swallowing the guilt of leaving Millie in the care of our fellow dog-addicts for one whole night (pathetic, I know), we occupied ourselves for the 4 hours to Seoul on the now-familiarly-far-too-hot bus – Meg by sleeping 80% of the journey and myself by discovering Banner Saga on the iTunes store.

After a now-familiarly obnoxious reunion with Lori (the only remaining Namyangju-based member of the obscene Osan Crew of 2012/13), we detoured back to Jinjeop via the astonishingly shiny and alarmingly tall Lotte World Tower – the name given to the work-in-progress tower we watched grow in Jamsil when we’d pass through on a weekly basis. I remembered it as a wee bairn of a building, all scaffolding and catherine-wheel blowtorch embers in clear view of street level. Understandably, I feel, I initially failed to recognise the looming, perspective-distorting behemoth of a skyscraper sticking out of the ground when we arrived. Already 94 storeys high, it’s still got another 29 to go – and will be the fourth tallest building in the world, after the Burj Khalifa, Shanghai Tower and the Abraj Al-Bait – and will be the single tallest building in the OECD (ie. Western economic world).

It's a big 'un.

It’s a big ‘un: still another third to go.

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I’m throwing out these statistics to try and convey the whoah, cor blimey, f**k me effect the place had on me. Of course, being Seoul, the bottom seven or eight storeys have already been devoted to a top-class, glass-plated, esculator-bound shopping mall with no possibility of convenient escape. Giving in and lending our custom to a Hard Rock Cafe on the top floor, we ate our burgers, experienced all-American (read: incessant badgering) treatment by an entirely bilingual and very lovely pan-cultural staff, considered self-harm while waiting outside H&M for a full hour and finally, somehow, managed to get back to Lori’s home castle.IMG_7632 IMG_7639 IMG_7636 IMG_7631

Hard Rock Cafe - just in case you accidentally find yourself abroad.

Hard Rock Cafe – just in case you accidentally find yourself abroad.

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I’m already over-budget on words and I haven’t even got to the cold bit.

Bear’s Town was a surprise in a number of ways. Firstly, the journey from Lori’s to the slopes took a total of twelve minutes (a fact which I would have exploited far more beforehand, had I known). Secondly, for three of us to get everything – snow jacket/salopettes, boards, boots and lift pass – cost a total of 170,000 won, or 50-60,000 each: about £35 for all I needed to go snowboarding for a day. For anybody not familiar with ski prices, that’s laughably cheap. Thirdly – and best(ly), the nature of ‘slow mornings’ in Korea meant that for practically the entire day we could slide around the mountain with relative freedom from crowds, and nip back up the mountain lift in no time at all.IMG_4352

Seriously damn stylish.

Seriously damn stylish.

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Meg always finds a new friend.

Meg always finds a new friend.

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Before I describe the day, I’d like to point out that Meg is now not only willing, but suggesting we go back for Round Two. I emphasise this point in contrast to the stream of profanity which flowed from my beloved girlfriend’s mouth as she passed through the inevitable ‘falling over and swearing a lot while you hate everything’ phase of snowsports. However, less than an hour into the experience, thanks in no small part to Lori’s expert guidance and my ability to not fall on Meg while I helped her balance, she was braking and manoeuvring like a star. I took this as my cue to try out the full stretch of Big Bear (comprising both the smaller Little Bear slope and the remainder of the immediate mountain) – which, I’m egotistical enough to admit, I managed well enough without actually falling over once, and somehow succeeding in doing that quick ‘zig-zag’ thing (shop talk) which speeds the board up but, more importantly, looks cool. The girls would have been so impressed but, sadly, had been diverted by churros and chocolate dip by this point.IMG_4355

It wouldn't be Korea without some form of dwarfish mascot.

It wouldn’t be Korea without some form of dwarfish mascot.

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'F#@k.'

‘F#@k.’

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It’d been a long day’s slipping, sliding and swearing, and we were all feeling the après-ski, pre-galbi glow of a good day’s farting around. We’d been waiting at the highway-side bus stop for a while when we heard the group of jindo guard-dogs barking at something interfering with them behind our shelter and, upon peering through the scratched plexiglass pane, it became apparent what was riling up the previously silent hounds.IMG_7684 IMG_7689

'You from round here, stranger?'

‘You from round here, stranger?’

Murderer's eyes.

Murderer’s eyes.

I wasn't the only victim.

I wasn’t the only victim.

I like to think I normally make a point of avoiding unnecessary profanity in this blog, but trust me when I say that these feathery sons of bitches were goddamn mean. Two rough-as-arseholes geese seemed to be making a point of harassing the guard-dogs, hissing and honking, for no apparent reason other than their own avian satisfaction. I made the fatal mistake of leaning round our transparent hut to try and get a shot of them, and the bastards rushed me. I wasn’t the only one – a fellow Korean Bear’s Town-goer tried to get a few snaps but was himself harangued and honked at as we both tried to get away from their jabbing faces. The bus miraculously arrived just as I was wondering if geese somehow had teeth as well as beaks, and we left the flapping psychopaths to further torment the poor canines.

Shaken and terrified.

Shaken and terrified.

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I can't do Dalk Galbi's food-pornography justice.

I can’t do Dalk Galbi’s food-pornography justice.

We consoled ourselves with the somewhat predictable choice of dalk galbi (how I love thee), gathered our stuff, bid adieu to Lori and found our way back to Dongseoul Bus Terminal. One sauna-bus and The Grand Budapest Hotel later, we were back in Gwangju; aching, goose-traumatised and tired, but home.

hur hur hur

hur hur hur

Bamboozled

IMG_9189Invigorated by the previous expedition to the tea-filled tea-fields of Boseong, the following (ie. last as of 14/01/2015) weekend we decided to pack up and nip out to another of Jeollanam-do’s uber-cultural spots at Damyang: the Damyang Bamboo Forest, or Juknokwon if you’re a cool kid. As I’m essentially a professional tourist by this point, it seemed only proper that, having spent a very cultural weekend looking at green tea, I should follow this up by spending a very cultural weekend looking at bamboo.IMG_9182

This is why we can't see nice things.

This is why we can’t see nice things.

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After succeeding in leaving the house before mid-afternoon, we once again fled Gwangju from our trusty Gwangcheon Terminal (we later realised a similar, possibly more ideal route exists from Gwangju Train Station if that’s more your thing) for a brief-ish 45 minute trundle to Damyang. Rather than being Those Guys and getting a second bus from the station to the forest itself, we ambled through the town for a bit and arrived at the sprawling, impenetrably green body of bamboo – approximately at the same time as coaches upon coaches of like-minded local adventurers.

Meg always manages to find an animal to befriend.

Meg always manages to find an animal to befriend.

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Paying the less-than-exorbitant ₩1,000 (50p) entry fee gave us passageway to a winding maze of towering bamboo and violently-brandished smartphone -selfie sticks (sel-ca bong) – a phenomenon which seems to have fully permeated the country, and which makes the simplest of scenic walks a dueling match when every family you pass has to thrust their iPhone-on-a-stick in your ear. Within a minute’s walk into the woods, we came to the first ice cream/bamboo souvenir stop; after a brief investigation of the flutes and wind-chimes on offer, we were driven away by very serious-looking ajummas bashing themselves in the back with loudly-clacking split pieces of foliage. I have yet to understand the purpose of this.IMG_9192 IMG_9173 IMG_9168

The forest is spread over 2km of hillside, punctuated by occasional pagoda-like rest stop and alarming statues of pandas. Working our way through the solid foliage, we managed to scramble to the peak of a clearing above the bamboo canopy, which – after a brief queue of selca (selfie-camera)-wielding couples, paid off with a 360° view of Damyang and its surrounding farmland. In a fit of hypocrisy, I held up other people whilst taking my own couple-selfie (though I have yet to acquire a telescopic narcissism-rod yet), then fled like a perturbed panda back into the safety of the woods.IMG_9222 IMG_9236 IMG_9224IMG_9323IMG_9312IMG_9316 IMG_9249

After devouring a lovingly-prepared and wholly British cheese-and-Branston-pickle sandwich (thanks to Meg for having the foresight to buy some in the UK) in the sunlight of a temple garden, we attempted to plot our route to the ‘Slow City’ of Changpyeong-myeon – which, after closer inspection, was a 2-hour bus ride away. This idea swiftly removed from our minds, we instead set out to find the Metasequoia Road, a scenic, serene, tree-lined path through nature – which, after an hour’s hiking along the river, turned out to A) charge more than the forest for the pleasure of a roadside walk, and B) be totally packed with similarly-inclined walkers. Rather than heading down this path, I instead took a few illegally-free photos and ran away before anyone could object.

Sandvich Time.

Sandvich Time.

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Not that our briefly-defeatist backtracking was in vain, however. While retracing our riverside steps, we came across a slightly ramshackle bike-rental tent, offering normal bicycles, tandem bikes and something which can only be described as a tandem-bike carriage – essentially two bikes welded together side-by-side with a roof. As such an opportunity should and could not be wasted, I thrust my hard-earned cash into the beaming businessman’s face and we hijacked the bike-carriage with glee. I’m fairly ashamed to say it was the closest thing in my life so far to being in control of a four-wheeled vehicle (Meg could apparently not be trusted, as her separate steering wheel had been disconnected) – we plowed through sucking mud-patches and screamed down badly-concreted paths in our weird machine, all the while amazed that I hadn’t run us into the (alarmingly close-by) river or the ditch on either sides of the road. Pausing only briefly to purchase and devour an entire tray of traditional, honey-filled tteok (rice cakes), we left Damyang in relatively good condition.IMG_9336 IMG_9352 IMG_9356 IMG_9359 IMG_9361

Honey-filled tteok, also known as 'oh my god we ate the entire pack'.

Honey-filled tteok, also known as ‘oh my god we ate the entire pack’.

 

(Green) Tea Time

Definitely green.

Definitely green.

It’s felt very odd since I moved back to Korea. Not because of any (non-existent) regrets, or feeling alienated – quite the opposite – but because it’s felt remarkably normal to be here. The first time around, we reached the airport and didn’t have the faintest bloody idea what to do next. Now, we know how the transportation works, we can (poorly) muddle by with our infantile grasp of hangeul and we know what to expect from the country in general. It’s a weirder sensation not feeling displaced – but it does make it a hell of a lot easier to buy groceries.IMG_8788

Mandu, or Korean dumplings, also with green tea.

Mandu, or Korean dumplings, also with green tea.

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The flip-side of our too-cool-for-cats familiarity with Korea is that we’ve been absolutely rubbish at Getting Out There since we got settled in Gwangju. We’ve popped out for a stroll in the mountains with our school and we nipped up to Seoul for a laugh, but we hadn’t really Done An Adventure until last week – when I threw down my Playstation controller and demanded that we leapt into action.

[note: some artistic embellishment may occur RE: pivotal action roles in this scenario. Meg may have expressed enthusiasm while I was hunting Templars in the Caribbean]

One of the problems we faced whilst near Seoul was that, although conveniently close to the country’s capital, there wasn’t much else to be discovered in Gyeonggi-do; almost everything worth seeing seemed to be on the southern half of the country. Now that we live in the southern half of the country, we should really live up to our latter-year resolutions.IMG_8918

So, after a brief brainstorming session where I outright refused to walk up the bastard great mountain Mudeungsan (surely a blog-to-come later in the year…), we settled on Boseong, the celebrated traditional green-tea fields on the southernmost edge of the country. One of the destinations we never quite managed to get around to before, Boseong is on most online lists of ‘Top 10 Places To Take A Selfie In Korea’, ‘Top 5 Edible Places In Korea’ and/or ‘Top Korean Tea-Related Destinations’, and so on.

Meg likes pine trees.

Meg likes pine trees.

One of the many upsides of our location is that we’re within a 5 minute scoot of Gwangcheon Bus Terminal, from where we can get pretty much anywhere on the Korean mainland. Hopping on a (gloriously empty) coach to Boseong proper, we then hitched a further taxi ride on the other side to the Tea Fields themselves. A note to wary travellers: regardless of how alluring the violet, fuzzy lining of the taxis waiting outside the bus station, I’d opt for a local bus to the fields instead; 10,000won is enough to get to the other side of Gwangju, so a 10-minute saunter for 13,000 didn’t come off as a good deal.

The Boseong Tea Fields are contained in a reasonably small area – maybe a square kilometre or two – but what it lacks in expansiveness it makes up for in sudden altitude. After a peaceful stroll through lines of pine trees, the ground suddenly takes off and shoots up a hundred metres. Tattooing this drastic slope are rows after rows of violently green tea crops, ripe for the picking by peckish tourists. I can’t vouch for the actual raw edibility of the plants, but the elderly ajummas and ajushis were cackling around us while chewing leaves, so presumably it’s delicious and/or that’s just the sort of thing ajummas and ajushis do.

Meg can't quite handle the sheer quantity of tea.

Meg can’t quite handle the sheer quantity of tea.

The pinnacle viewpoint for the fields – and for the surrounding countryside, which drops two hundred green-hilled metres onto a distant valley floor – is spectacular. Owing to the masochistically steep incline of the mountain, most of the initial shots might be blurred or feature other heaving, sweaty adventurers, but there’s usually a break between couples’ selfies where you can get a shot for yourself.IMG_8884

Simply not enough selfies in the world.

Simply not enough selfies in the world.

As seems to be typical of any kind of exploring in Korea, the second we stepped off the obvious beaten path, we were entirely alone. Rather than backtracking down the mountain-ladder, we instead wandered further round the landscape – rewarding us with another of those ultra-rare, gloriously Silent Moments. Surrounded only by forest, away from the crowds, the sensory-depriving silence was enough to make the blood in my ears louder than the world around me. The loud, ecstatic greeting from (presumably) the groundskeeper sweeping a muddy stone staircase moments later served as a fine reintroduction to Korea.

'What's that sound?' 'Your heartbeat.' 'Oh.'

‘What’s that sound?’ ‘Your heartbeat.’ ‘Oh.’

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In favour of heading straight back home after circumnavigating the fields, we instead took the bus to Yulpo, a nearby beachside town, offering a Pine Forest Beach to explore. This decision cost us 1,200 won (about 60p) and bought us the single most spectacular mountainside-road spectacle I’ve seen in Korea. Huge mountains wrapped around tiny, distant fields on the valley floor stretched out into the water, and (owing to our disgustingly late departure in the first place) the setting-sun light blinding us on each left turn around the mountain burnt everything like fire. Excuse the poetic waxing: it just describes the experience as best as I can, and I owe it at least that.

Unbelievable and, thanks to the direct sunlight - entirely unphotographable views whilst moving.

Unbelievable and, thanks to the direct sunlight – entirely unphotographable views whilst moving.

Bright sunlight selfie.

Bright sunlight selfie.

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#likeomgsophotogenic

#likeomgsophotogenic

In the short time between arriving at the orange-lit Yulpo Beach – with a (well-timed) folk concert blasting out strangely off-key melodies and people dancing on the beach – to us waiting in the freezing cold for an ultimately non-existent bus back to Boseong, we ambled along the sandy stretch to the pier, (Meg) did a few cartwheels in the sand and I bought a sausage. It was a good start to this year’s exploration.

PS. Sorry about the beard, Mum.IMG_9042

The White Stuff

IMG_8556Time for a (slightly) more up-to-date update.

Reviewing much of my earlier ramblings, I realise that, given particular weather conditions, I am an angry little man. In the summer of 2013, I sweated, fumed and swore as I squelched miserably through crowds of un-moistened, calm people both above and below ground as I barged about the country. I couldn’t possibly have identified more with the ‘rubbish weygook’ stereotype if I’d actually wanted to: I was cranky, vague from the heat (the only Hangeul my memory permitted me was either offensive or unrelated to any given conversation), and I offended more passers-by than I could hope to apologise to. Summer is not my friend, and vice versa. [stay tuned 5 months from now, happy readers]IMG_8561 IMG_8672 IMG_8639 IMG_8666

It seems only fair, then, that the polar (so to speak) opposite of Korean weather transforms me into an infantile, happy moron who likes to grin at the sky whenever white stuff falls from it. I came to Gwangju preparing myself for a disappointing show of snow this winter; nestled in Jeollanam-do, among the southernmost provinces, the city usually has a more mild climate, ie. hotter summers, fewer winters. (This only occurred to me after I’d signed the contract.) That being said, I’m happy to boast that we’ve had no shortage of ice-lined socks and snowball-sodden wool gloves since December.IMG_8624 IMG_8726 IMG_8733 IMG_8545 IMG_7567

Arguably the best part of the weather is the wondrous sight of tiny dogs losing their tiny minds in snowdrifts, charging about with brainless abandon until their pitifully tiny feet are frozen and the snowflake-donuts on their noses have completely obscured their faces. Millie always regrets snowbounding afterwards, yet manages to forget before every new walk – helpfully.IMG_8336 IMG_8360 IMG_8367 IMG_8406 IMG_7561 IMG_8450 IMG_8757IMG_7456
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I only managed to partly cripple myself a few times on the ice, and both times were either heading to, or returning from our Dalk Galbi local so it was a fair trade.

Pre-snow mug.

Pre-snow mug.