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Month: May, 2015

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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