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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.

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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.

Backtracking: Autumn in Gwangju

IMG_7369I believe The Doctor once said something about wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey ‘stuff’ making up the universe, so by that logic I’ll now cram in a few vague observations of autumnal Gwangju, 2014. Spring and Autumn are the two most lauded seasons in Korea, and with good reason; winters here are to be reckoned with and the summers can kill a pasty Englishman on sight, so it stands to reason that the climate wouldn’t half-arse the seasonal vestibules in-between.IMG_8139 IMG_8122 IMG_8102

Arriving in October, we’d optimistically assumed that we’d be missing the wafting tail-end of summer and be welcomed by orange foliage and cool breezes. Sadly, we miscalculated; the seasons were a bit tardy last year, and the heat didn’t give up until well into November. By that point, I’d all but renounced my cool-weather wardrobe and was sulkily preparing for the temperature shock of a capitalised WINTER as soon as December came about.IMG_8128 IMG_8105

Sometime around mid-November, however, colours other than GREEN and SHINY (being a prevalent colour in Korea) started to pop up. On our first joint-school outing with the entire staff, we went on a professional jolly to the multicoloured Gangcheonsan County Park – a local(ish) mountain range, the lofty heights of which were achieved only by our fellow weygooks and our manager Sean – despite having to traverse a 50m-high, creaking suspension bridge with at least one acrophobe in our midst.IMG_7374

The Hans Teachers meets Reservoir Dogs.

The Hans Teachers meets Reservoir Dogs.

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Front to back: Molly, a deeply enthusiastic Perry, Sean’s ear, and Greg.

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The school/s in their entirety.

The school/s in their entirety.

In a further fit of foot-itching wanderlust, we (briefly) went on a nostalgic trip to Seoul – which, reassuringly, instantly filled us with the twitchy English rage we’d missed so dearly. We’d somehow totally missed the Christmas lights around the city when we’d lived right next to it, so on the upside we had new scenery to admire in standstill human traffic. Meg and Molly both bought socks, to ensure the 6-hour round trip wasn’t wasted.

Seoul Subway. We'd missed you.

Seoul Subway. We’d missed you.

Meg's worthwhile socks.

Meg’s worthwhile socks.

Molly's worthwhile and meaningful socks.

Molly’s worthwhile and meaningful socks.

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A very enthusiastic Mario.

A very enthusiastic Mario.

Despite our relocation to the opposite end of Korea, familiar faces followed us; our briefly-met fellow foreigner Mark just so happened to have moved to a school in Yeosu, a local(ish, again) seaport town. Home to the 2012 Yeosu World Expo, the city is a weird blend of close, bustling, typical Korean alleys and great, shiny, hi-tech monoliths left over from the Expo. Sadly, while spectacular the event cost significantly more than it made, so now the whole area is almost totally empty – leaving one with the impression of a post-civilisation, dead city (see: Serenity, Fallout, The Last Of Us etc.) but with shinier edges. The centrepiece of the ‘city’ is a great, arched hall, the ceiling of which is one great 218-metre long digital screen with life-size whales, sharks etc. drifting around; the hall is flanked by escalators and conference halls, which – to my great disappointment – were all sealed off and thus unexplorable. Still, for an overimaginative child of a fictionally-post-apocalyptically-obsessed media generation, I could happily find a stick and flail about on a zombie-hunt for hours.

Meg, yours vanity-struck truly and Mark, all devouring rice-burgers.

Meg, yours vanity-struck truly and Mark, all devouring rice-burgers.

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While a slightly abbreviated season, the punchy colours around Gwangju – a noticeably more floral city than Seoul – are exactly how Lonely Planet et al. advertise them. Sadly, the elegant, swaying, vibrant colours have since been obliterated by a mighty shit-ton of snow. We remain optimistic that Korea will make it up to us on the other side of the contract.IMG_7352

Deck The Halls with Bowls of Kimchi (Fa La La) – Also, Happy New Yesterday

IMG_8689[NOTE: This was intended to be uploaded before New Year. To summarise: it was good and I’m still alive.]

I helpfully documented the cooking process.

I helpfully documented the cooking process.

I type this in the post-joyeux glow of Christmas in Gwangju. I’m on the bus, fiddling with the volatile nature of IOS Autocorrect as we speed away from our token remaining workday this week; while Christmas is a given holiday, nobody East of Dorset seems to have heard of nor gives a fig about Boxing Day, so our festive celebrations have been sandwiched between obnoxiously normal work days.IMG_8690 IMG_8701 IMG_8704

Not to say that Christmas has been compromised. Granted, a few ingredients have been a bit fiddly to come by – our gammon steak was achieved masterfully by Meg pickling the hell out of a block of processed ham, and our options of dead-and-cooked bird included ‘with’ and ‘without’ head – but enough greed has been fulfilled, enough food has been et and enough booze has been quaffed to qualify as a Successful Christmas.

A battle for the ages.

A battle for the ages.

Perhaps a brief summary of events between this and the (shamefully distant) last blog would be considerate. We’re well, truly and properly settled into our big, shiny base of operations, we like our routine and we really like our city. Looking back – much as we loved Namyangju – we made a fair few compromises living in the distant wildlands between Seoul and North Korea, interspersed sporadically with wrath-inducing trips to the most impatient city west of Tokyo. Here, we’re close enough to greenery to feel like we’re breathing actual air whilst having enough access to civilisation that we don’t have to mount an expedition for the weekly shop.

Molly with her miniature polar bear.

Molly with her miniature polar bear.

Our school is absolutely wonderful – more detailed outline surely to follow – to the extent that we haven’t once begrudged actually acting like adults and doing our job. It’s tiring and sometimes feels like it’s turning my brain to soup, but compared to the working hours of our Korean colleagues we have nothing to complain about. Plus, I got a jar of Nutella for Christmas (route to a man’s heart, etc.).
IMG_8038 IMG_8432I suppose a fairly significant side-note: once again, Millie The Slightly Weird Dog lives with us in Korea. As above RE: our school, will expand on the chaos of her transportation in a practical post shortly (something of a blogtacular back-log happening here) – but I’m overjoyed to report that our freakish little Border Collie-like-thing has the daily company of our friends Molly and Perry’s equally minute Pomeranian, essentially removing most of the guilt of going to work for hours. I will be getting home to the sounds of brainless joy and vigorously-sucked underwear shortly.IMG_8061 IMG_8367Rest assured, recent radio silence is a result of overwhelming creative disorganisation and comfort, rather than for a lack of positive things to say. My intention is to put up a few detailed/practical posts concerning Gwangju and Korean bits and bobs; if it happens before 2016, I’ll call it a win.

Homelandpia.

The big blue beautiful bastard. Like a shiny TARDIS.

The big blue beautiful bastard. Like a shiny TARDIS.

I’m writing this after a long, sweltering October summer (!? – still in the Northern hemisphere and thoroughly confused) day of exploring the local sights – by which I mean discovering as many recognisable supermarkets in the city as possible. It’s a very, very tedious hobby.IMG_7295

We’ve had our first week of work, and have our feet up in our brand-new, still-really-messy home in the 22-storey Landpia Officetel.

[Quick appendix: an ‘officetel’ is an example of the Korean/Konglish fetish for dual-word contractions – see also: Chimek = chicken & maekchu (beer), Menbuk = mental breakdown (also a cheery euphemism for tongue-tied conversational brain-farts), Remocon = remote control. In this case, an officetel is a combined office/hotel whereby workers can avoid the tedious commute to work by actually living in the same building – or, live in a residential space which can also accommodate an office. A terrifying but undeniably practical concept.]IMG_7154

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There’s a serious kink for socks in Korea.

Landpia, only a few years old, is big and shiny and exciting and has lifts which go very fast. I’m enraptured. We live on the eleventh floor, so can relax with a sense of aerial superiority over the common folk below (and a sense of awe at our 12+ floor social superiors); and, while our house has a total of two doors – ie. the front door and the bathroom – it still feels like a full house, rather than a big, tiered room. I’ve heard the word ‘mezzanine’ used but feel nowhere near qualified to successfully use it in a sentence.

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The running route, resplendent with bloody-minded fishermen.

The running route, resplendent with bloody-minded fishermen.

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On a more professional note (one does occasionally forget one’s purpose when working as an ESL teacher abroad), this new teaching experience is a huge contrast to our last position in Namyangju. For starters, we live and work smack-dab in the middle of the city, so no ajumma-fields to squelch through when we take a wrong turn. Our lessons are only 30 minutes long, which means that even the most horrific of student ennuyeux can be escaped swiftly; however, so far all the students have been wonderful/rambunctious/slightly sarcastic but in a good way. We actually have breaks in the day. We have our own room. I found a jar of apple sauce belonging to a previous teacher which I haven’t eaten yet but might when nobody’s looking.

The school!

The school!

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Yum.

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As we’ve only had the one week so far – which, honestly, entailed two days of shadowing other teachers, one national holiday and half the students off for midterm tests – a more detailed Life & Times will have to follow later. We’re really excited about working at Han’s School, and are eagerly anticipating not having to nestle in our own clothing while slipping into TV comas in future.

Meg had the artist's treatment at a street festival - results pending...

Meg had the artist’s treatment at a street festival – results pending…

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Also, we’ve discovered Dak Galbi restaurants in the area and will return to England fat as holy hell.IMG_7348

 

A Cross-Countries Trek

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We’re actually in Gwangju, South Korea. Finally.

Four-year anniversary breakfast.

Four-year anniversary breakfast.

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This would normally be the point where I’d use a cocky expletive to proudly declare our arrival at our destination – however, as it stands I’m just bloody glad we’re in the right hemisphere. Who knew, suitcases with broken handles aren’t much fun to pull?IMG_7140

We’ve been staying in a rather fabulous little hotel (not a love motel, as it turns out – either that or we just haven’t found the expected ‘vibrating bed’ function yet) for a few nights now, kicking the final throes of jetlag by totally escaping sunlight and accidentally sleeping until midday. We’ve managed to make a bit of a Korean tour up until this point (appropriately, our hotel is the Hotel Food & Tour, whatever that actually means), the timeline for which started as such:

Meg's reaction to being woken up for this photo.

Meg’s reaction to being woken up for this photo.

Step one: Actually succeed in claiming seat/s on Etihad’s aeroplanes. The journey was essentially successful, save for the vast majority of things which seemed to go miserably wrong.
*despite best intentions, my suitcase was STILL too heavy and I had to throw away two beloved pairs of trousers. RIP, light blue scuffed jeans and tan chinos
*an Abu Dhabi security machine ate my credit card

Abu Dhabi's bafflingly shiny airport interior.

Abu Dhabi’s bafflingly shiny airport interior.

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oh my god dak galbi I missed you

*we intelligently bought FOUR LITRES of classy-bastard alcohol without considering the weight implications for the rest of the journey across the world and then Korea
*we were stuck for (not exaggerating) a full decade at the passport booth with slowly-dislocating collarbones under the weight of baggage
*due to aforementioned passport delay, it took so long for us to get to baggage claims that they’d declared our bags as ‘abandoned’ and would have incinerated my socks (and everything else) had we not stopped them
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IMG_5519*upon finally succeeding in crossing onto Korean soil, we discovered that our solitary remaining credit card didn’t work abroad and prepared to make a life for ourselves within the airport à la Tom Hanks in The Terminal (soon rectified by the fourth attempt at Skyping the bank; danced like insane people and scared a family)
*laboriously pulled ourselves through what felt like every single Seoul subway station we managed to avoid the first time around, and managed to break off my suitcase handle (nearly causing a human avalanche of surprised Koreans when it got stuck on a moving escalator).

Familiar directions...

Familiar directions…

Meg's tactical coat-baby (like a clothing turducken)

Meg’s tactical coat-baby (like a clothing turducken)

However, I list these purely because misfortune is more entertaining than success. To make use of our gleefully-gotten free days before teaching, we opted to push ourselves on our lucky friends and colleagues in Namyangju to see a few familiar sights before Korea 2.0 began. Armed with our duty-free rum and wild, jetlagged stares, we usurped fellow Osan Crew member Hailey’s old room while staying with likewise Korea veteran Lori; in the space of two days we managed to see our old stomping grounds at the lake, briefly meander through the lichen-tastic Jinju Apartments, gorge ourselves to the point of masochism at my desperately missed Dak Galbi restaurant and scared the hell out of our old school director whilst baffled ex-students milled about us. It was wonderfully surreal to see our old workmates, getting soju-slurred with Eric and caffeine-twitchy with Monica respectively – however, one does not marinade in nostalgia when one is expected elsewhere.IMG_5428

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Lori sees you.

Lori sees you.

Ceremonious lakeside gibbon-run.

Ceremonious lakeside gibbon-run.

IMG_5498Fast-forward a day of relative success discovering and figuring out the cross-country KTX bullet train, we left our comfort zone and ventured to Korea’s southern half. Immediately, Gwangju feels different to Seoul; most notably, there’s green stuff lining the streets and you can actually see the sky without branded buildings reflecting it back at you first. Our area, Chipyeong-dong, has everything you need from a built-up commercial district while also being a few minutes’ walk away from long river walks and marshy horizons along the outskirts of the city.

Fleeting doorway shot at Kangs.

Fleeting doorway shot at Kangs.

As it turns out, we have.

As it turns out, we have.

IMG_5478From our (non-pornographically clandestine) hotel  we’ve ventured out to our home-to-be at Landpia (details to follow once we actually move in), and met up with four of our fellow colleagues-to-be at Hans School (same promise as above). Due to self-inflicted terrible timekeeping, I’m actually writing this after our first day of work – however, (see above two addendums) on that note.

Our non-clandestine hotel.

Our non-clandestine hotel.