'Papa's Got A Brand New Bag' - James Brown
Getting off the boat in Incheon and departing the ferry terminal building, the first thing I needed was cash; Korean Won. The cash machine outside the Arrivals hall just printed an error message on a slip of paper for me, so a security guard pointed me towards a distant supermarket. Inside I found four more machines, some in English, some specifically claiming to handle Visa cards. Despite the assistance of the shop's greeting girl, none of these worked. She tried sending me to a till for cashback and I picked up an ice cream as well to show willing, but all I ended up with for my efforts was an ice cream.
She pointed me towards Incheon town centre with the promise of real banks, which was a not-ideal kilometre or two in the heat. Various machines in bank number one produced nothing although one of the staff tried hard to help. Various combinations of cards and machines in bank number two were no better but one of the staff there was able to make a few suggestions and I finally found success. Too much success, in fact. When typing in the amount, I thought it was in increments of 1,000 so I asked for seventy (seventy thousand won, approx forty pounds), but it was in fact increments of 10,000 so I ended up with four hundred pounds worth of cash in approximately eighty notes. I couldn't begin to fold my wallet shut with this lot so had to carry most of it in my pocket. Fortunately (?), Seoul is an expensive place so I would have no problem spending it all.
Further protracted walking took me to the metro station for the long but pleasant ride into Seoul. By good luck, the hostel I had booked was ten minutes walk away from a station on the same line, so I didn't have to mess around changing trains with a heavy backpack. The hostel itself was in a maze of alleyways just off the main road. It was very well signposted . . . if you approached it from the other side. As ever, the Lonely Planet map was 90% correct, allowing you to get right up close to the place you are looking for without actually finding it. A random woman came up to me and somehow guessed what I was after and took me through to the front door.
Seoul is the first time I have seen a big Asian megatropolis. Sure, Beijing may have as many skyscrapers, but Seoul feels like a real city that has grown up this way, representing what is happening there, in a way that the slightly-lifeless Beijing did not. It may not have been as traditionally Korean as other areas of the country, but I thought that the balance between large-scale modernity, stylish areas and national heritage was a good one for a capital city.
After settling into my room, it was not long before I was heading back out to meet up with Jiny, who I had originally met on the train from Irkutsk into Mongolia. After walking half a mile past our meeting point and going back again, I found her in the travel section of the Kyobo bookshop as arranged. We went to a vegetarian restaurant from my guidebook which was very authentic; shoes off, sitting on cushions by low tables and a buffet of many small dishes to share. Non-vegetarians often assume that it must be impossible for me to eat whilst abroad, which is usually not the case, but Korea is very difficult I must admit. Almost all the food contains both meat and spice. After this night, I think I had about one proper meal in the next four days. It did get easier after this as I learned what to look out for and what to ignore. Also, I think I was a little bit unlucky in those first days.
Another addition to the food problem was the language barrier. I was surprised to find just how few people spoke any English in a modern country with many international business connections. This was after China where I had been surprised how many people did speak English given how few international connections they have. Furthermore, I had moved from a country where I did speak a smattering of the language to one where I spoke none.
Normally I fall back on miming and body language, which I feel I am pretty adept at. The Koreans however, don't seem to understand any of it. I swear I could walk into some of these cafes, push a gun into someone's forehead, point frantically at the cash register and the staff would just look quizically at each other before tentatively asking me "Coffee?". They will also talk to me for more than twenty minutes (please don't think I'm either exaggerating or citing a single example) repeating the same phrase over and over, despite my protestations that I don't speak any Korean. On the off-chance that they have managed to communicate something to me and they have accepted that I understood them, they will still repreat the same piece of information to me over and over until I have found a way for one of us to exit the conversation.
After the mad rush across China, including three sleepless nights in four, it suddenly hit me how tired I was. This tiredness now got one final encouragement when I sat up until nearly five in the morning watching Everton's painful early-season exit from Europe over the internet. For the next few days I slept until gone midday, left the hostel mid-afternoon and walked around for a few hours before getting back for another mammoth sleeping session. My lethergy surely not helped by the lack of proper food.
On the Sunday I headed north through a popular area of restaurants, cafes and trendy shops. I headed towards a wooded hillside park, stopping outside to consider whether to go into the entrance before me or follow the road further uphill. A Korean man stopped to ask if I was lost and when I told him I was simply considering which was the more interesting direction to take, he told me to come with him into the park. A few years older than me, he worked in the nearby audit office and his name was Kim. He was walking up the hill for his exercise and the two of us were both a bit out of breath when we reached the top. The last of the light was just disappearing now and we beheld the view of the city below us, all lit up yet silhouetted against the dying remains of grey in the sky before it gave way to the full black of night. He told me about the city, the sights we could see and the importance of this and the neighbouring hilltop in defending the city over the years. After we descended together he asked if he could buy me dinner at a popular local tofu restaurant, but it was shut when we got there so said our goodbyes and parted company.
I still needed food though so headed off to a nearby mini-market to see if I could find something to take back to the hostel to cook. I couldn't figure out what most of the stuff was, not least because I couldn't understand the writing. I returned with nothing better than a box of Frosties (you don't need to know the language to recognise Tony the Tiger!) and a bottle of milk. The next night I went to a bigger supermarket and generally the situation was the same. I wondered whether this journal's soundtrack would be Barbara Streisand's* 'Lost in the Supermarket' but did at least manage to come away with some bread, cheese, olive oil and a bunch of grapes.
The next night, I recruited Jiny to take me around a supermarket to explain what everything was. Mostly, this just confirmed that most of the things I had picked up and studied were indeed no good for me, but I was at least able to buy some just-add-water spaghetti meals.
Wednesday morning I was up at six to get to the USO headquarters at Camp Kim by seven to join their tour to the de-militarised zone (DMZ). The USO is the international organisation that provides support and military presence to help maintain the security of South Korea against the threat of the North. Although there have been meetings more recently and the two countries are moving slowly closer together, they are still at war and this fact is not just a small technicality. The DMZ is a 2km-wide strip of land running along the border. No one, not even soldiers, are allowed to enter, to avoid possible conflict situations. One of the results of this is a wildlife area unlike any other in the world because there is no human intervention. Many species are blossoming here, including the recently-migrated Siberian tiger and leopard.
Rules are tight and one of these is a dress code that includes no shorts or sandals. This is to prevent the North Koreans taking pictures of the tourists and using them as propaganda examples to their people of uncouth southerners. Much of what takes place here is a game of propaganda on both sides. It is easy to think badly of the north for this risk they provide to our clothing choices, but if we heard that northern tourists to the border were subject to the same restrictions then I am sure we would be quick to mock their controlling attitude.
What you think of these rules is perhaps neither here nor there though, the bottom line is that they must be adhered to if you wish to take the tour. Sure enough, a couple of people were taken off the bus to change their shoes and consequently switch to the other bus. How amusing to watch the stereotypical American woman persist with a protracted argument with the tour guide over the injustice of it all. In the end, she opted not to go along at all.
As the bus rode out of town, our Korean guide happily chatted away into his microphone, geeing everyone up, explaining the lunch options and pointing out various sights of interest that we passed. He was an enthusiastic, jolly man, but his accent was so thick that I'm sure I cannot be the only one who understood barely ten percent of what he was saying.
Outside the DMZ, we arrived at a US military base and went inside for a briefing. They told us twice that we could take photos during the briefing but must turn our flashes off. I duly did so and then switched to the darkness setting. What I didn't know about my camera until then was that this turns the flash back on, winning me zero brownie points with the soldiers.
After this we went outside and transfered to an Army coach to ride through the gate into the DMZ itself. On the way we passed a one-hole golf course. A few years ago it was surrounded on three sides by minefields (very heavy rough!) making it famous as the most dangerous course in the world. These days it has been superseded by army courses in Iraq and Afghanistan and its minefields have been removed.
Two villages exist within the zone itself, one on either side of the actual border. The Northern village is actually just a collection of empty houses for show which used to issue messages on a loudpspeaker for most of the day, telling South Koreans how great the North was and inviting them to defect. Panmumjom, on the south side is a middle-class rice-farming village. Residents are subject to a strict nighttime curfew but have the benefit of paying no tax.
The bus took us to the border point itself. Each country has a building facing the other on either side of the line Between them are five single-room buildings like scout huts, each sitting on the border itself so the line crosses through the middle of every one. These are used for meetings and negotiations between the two sides which do still occasionally happen. Cameras and microphones in the buildings record everything that happens there for both sides. In the morning, elite South Korean soldiers go in to carefully check and secure the room ready for tour groups to visit. In the afternoon, they leave and North Korean soldiers enter to repeat the process for their own tour groups. We were allowed inside one of these rooms for five minutes. The soldiers within were the real deal, not just for show. I tried to take a picture of one as we were leaving the room but each photo was inexplicably blurred. Five times I tried and five times I was frustrated by the awful result. Finally, just about the last person left in the room, I rested the camera on the polished table to ensure a steady shot for one final try. The result was perhaps the best picture I have taken so far on my trip. I gave a little nod of thanks to him afterwards and, to my surprise, he gave a barely-perceptable nod back! I took a quick shot of the other solider the same way as I walked out, but it is the picture with the reflection and without the flag that is the good one to look for.
Outside they talked to us a little more and we had a chance to photograph the North Korean sentry outside his building across the border. Twice during these few minutes I was asked to stop walking off from the rest of the party. I reckon I was in the right on the second occasion, but this is clearly not the best time and place to start a debate about who is right and who is wrong. By way of an example of the seriousness of the situation, we were constantly warned to never point at, gesticulate towards, laugh at or attempt any kind of communication with the North Koreans as it could quite possibly result in them opening fire.
Back in the bus we went to a viewing post on a hilltop and then to the 'Third Tunnel'. This is the third of four tunnels, built by the North, that the South has discovered over the years. This one was said to potentially allow the North to march 30 000 soldiers an hour into South Korean territory. Very impressive and a threat to be taken seriously, but I do feel that there is an element of propaganda and scaremongering at work here. Has Alaistair Campbell 'sexed up' this report?
We were able to walk through a long, steep walkway to reach the southern end of the tunnel which we were then able to walk along for a few hundred metres. I have to say, it may be able to handle 30 000 marching Korean soldiers, but not 30 000 American basketball players. I constantly banged my head on the rough ceiling as I walked along. The yellow hard hats meant it didn't hurt a bit, but the American lady behind me found it very funny. When I waited for a while to let her past, she urged me "Don't stop, you're my entertainment". Actually, a few days earlier at the hostel I almost knocked myself out on a low doorway. I had to lower myself to the ground and lie there for fully five minutes in the middle of the hallway until I was able to stand up and carry on.
After the tunnel we came back to Seoul, little more than an hour away. My mother recently observed that the dynamic of my trip has shifted recently from doing things to looking at things such as scenery. With this in mind, I vowed to take a more pro-active approach to matters. So, I decided nothing would please her more than if her eldest son got religion. Therefore, the next night I headed off down to the Bong-Eunsa Buddhist temple complex, situated next to the less-than-Buddhist world trade centre.
Sadly, they had just 'canceled' their temple-stay program meaning I couldn't book myself in, so I took an evening walk around the grounds instead and looked at the various altars and the members of the public praying to them. I was drawn to one simpler room by the sound of chanting. Inside, a dozen people, mostly women, were being taught special chants and how to play hollow bulb-shaped wood blocks. I sat on the porch outside and watched them for an hour or so.
At one point, I tried to swat a mosquito buzzing around my head until I remembered where I was and that this sort of behaviour would be frowned upon. Later, during a break for food and drink, they brought some of both out to me. Unfortunately, I had just finished one of my rare big meals in Seoul so struggled to eat much of this. Also, to my surprise, I swear there were bits of pork in some of it. I gave half of it back to them at the end but in retrospect this was the wrong thing to do as wasted food is a big no-no; I should have just kept it and taken it home with me.
The next day I set out to find a couple of art galleries. The first took a long old time courtesy of the Lonely Planet 90% map rule, but I got there in the end. As I entered I bought myself a grape-juice drink to quench the thirst I had built up during my protracted walk in circles under the city sun. As with a couple of similar drinks I bought during my time in South Korea, I was suprised to find that it contained actual peeled grapes, a bit jelly-like after sitting soaking up the sugary liquid around them. This seemed particularly inappropriate when the drink was sold in a can. It took me ten minutes, a lot of tougue work and all of my ingenuity to get the last of the grape pieces to finally drop through the drinking hole at the top.
After an hour in the gallery I headed out to find the second location. Once again, I am certain that I quickly got close but there the details of the map started to get a bit weird so, with the daytime drawing to a close, I decided to head back to the hostel, pausing on the way to be interviewed by some Korean students who wanted to ask me some questions about my time in the country as part of their school work.
That night I found myself sitting in one of the many gourmet ice cream cafes with Saratu, a Nigerian girl from my hostel who is studying at a university in the city. She told me that she didn't find Korean men attractive because they were skinny, had silly beards (I tried to disguise the offence I was taking...) and because they had handbags. Handbags? I hadn't noticed this before, but she assured me it was true. We were sitting by a floor-to-ceiling glass window, one floor above the ground, so had an excellent view of the busy street below us. We peered out for twenty minutes and watched everyone that passed by and, do you know what, she was right! The men pretty much all carried bags. Some of them could be classified as satchels, rucksacks or workbags. But many were simply handbags. Of the type women carry. Not just any old handbags either, we are talking designer Gucci, patterned leather handbags. Some of them even compounded this by carrying them hooked over their forearm like a little old lady going down to the post office to withdraw her pension. I mentioned this experience to Jiny when I saw her the next day. She too had never noticed it before, but when I started pointing out the many examples walking past us on the street, she was shocked and conceded that it was terrible.
Saturday morning I went to Seodaemun prison museum. Built on the site of the actual prison that operated for most of the twentieth century, it now documents the incarceration and treatment of Koreans at the hands of the Japanese who occupied and controlled the country from 1910 to 1945. During this period it was the main location for interning Koreans who either fought to overthrow their oppressors or who simply spoke out for their freedoms. Most were tortured horribly in a wide number of ways and many met their deaths as a result. Modern-day Korea is clearly very proud of these martyrs who never gave up their beliefs or their struggle for freedom for their country. I found it very difficult not to compare and contrast this with their much-bigger neighbours across the water who are quick to tell you what a patriotic nation they are but who have minimal interest in their freedom, their country, their culture or for standing up for any of these issues.
Afterwards I met up with Jiny again. I heard many times during my stay in Korea how under pressure that everyone feels, and in some ways she confirmed this. I heard people tell me, first-hand and second-hand, how Koreans feel the need to work very hard from cradle to grave. Long hours of hard study at school and then university are required to get a good job afterwards. Once a job has finally been found, further long hours are required to earn money to pay for a home etc. It is apparently the norm for Koreans to work an unpaid half-day or so every weekend on top of their long hours during the week. This does not just apply to those with 'important' jobs either. It would not be unusual for me to grab a drink and an ice cream from a shop as I left my hostel in the morning. When I returned to the same place for a snack as I came back late at night I would find the same person serving behind the till still on the same shift.
More than once I found myself in conversation with a Korean who told me how much they envied my travelling. Every time I told them to follow these dreams and do likewise, including one man on the metro one night who I commanded to go home and immediately tell his family "Pack your bags, we're all going travelling tomorrow!". The problem, aside from the mental barriers of work always being the ultimate priority, is that it is so difficult to get a job in Korea that no one dares to leave their employment for fear that they will not be able to find a new job upon their return. It's not that unemployment is a problem in Korea, global credit crunch notwithstanding, but if no one moves between jobs then they are not leaving a vacancy behind them for another person to fill. Therefore there are few vacancies therefore there are no jobs for people to move into. And so the cycle continues. This is the opposite situation to the UK where we are all changing jobs so often that, even in these economically-challenging times, there are still many vacancies if you're good enough to win one of them.
* - Oh, alright, it was The Clash