''White Coats - New Model Army
On Monday morning I took the short metro ride to Seoul train station to catch a ride down to Iksan to meet Professor Lee Byung-Do, another friend I had met on the train from Irkutsk to Mongolia. Seoul is easily the most-impressive metro system I have come across and the national rail network impressed me equally. Buying a ticket over the internet was quick and easy, as was collecting the ticket when I got to the station. As there was so little difference in price, I treated myself to first class where each carriage had, amongst other luxuries, an internet PC and wireless internet. I tried to use both of these but sadly they each required a password which probably meant an extra cost to use them, but in truth I only attempted it for the novelty value of doing so on a train.
Korea is 70% mountains. Maybe not of the Alpine variety, but short steep hills at least. All of which makes building a high-speed railway, which cannot take sharp turns up, down, left or right, all the more impressive. The ride south at 300kph was a succession of bridges and tunnels that must have kept the engineers very busy indeed as they worked out how to build it all.
After changing trains in Cheonan-Asan, a city which contained nothing but cranes and building sites as far as my eyes could see, I arrived at Iksan where Professor Lee met me at the station mid-afternoon. He took me to Wonkwang University where he teaches dental science. We had talked about the possibility of me having my teeth examined while I was there and of me meeting some of the students and perhaps some other things. He asked me what I would like to do first and I assured him that I had no preference. After I arrived, he took me to a room on the top floor and told me that some students would come along in ten minutes to hear me talk about my travels, which seemed like pretty short notice to me! I frantically set about going through two and a half thousand photographs to pick out some good or interesting ones that I could put into a slideshow to display on a projector. After just one minute, fifteen students in white coats filed into the room, took seats around the table in the middle, and politely waited for me to begin!
For all the amazing scenery and sights I have come across on my travels, this has to rank as one of the most surreal and memorable of the lot. A room full of strangers, just minutes after I was dozing on a train and the white coats just made it seem all the more unreal. I took ten mintues to get ready then blagged out twenty minutes of stories and anecdotes which seemed to keep half of them amused. I'm not sure if the rest were bored, stumped by my quick English or just in deep thought. Afterwards they asked a few questions and gave a little round of applause. One even asked for a copy of the photos I had showed them.
Talking to two of them later, they told me how they were spending a lot of time practicing taking radiographic pictures of each other's teeth and studying the results. A great many hours over a great many months would be spent refining these skills and knowledge. When I go to the dentist, the X-ray camera is set against the side of my mouth, before the dentist and his assistant scuttle towards the door as fast as they can before the picture is taken. It may be safe for me as a patient to absorb the rays from a couple of shots, but the cumulative effect of many pictures is not safe for the people who work there if they stay in the room for all of the pictures that take place under their auspices. I asked the students many times, and then later asked Byung many times, how this could be safe for them to photograph each other so much. No one was able to answer the question to my satisfaction but they all seemed to think that it was not a problem.
This done, I was left to catch up on some correspondance for a while before Byung took me to his home town, the much more interesting city of Jeonju, forty minutes drive away. We went to a vegetarian buffet restaurant just out of town were we were met by his wife and a daughter, the eldest of their three children. She spoke the best English of the family as she had spent several months in America as an exchange student. You could like tell that she had, like, been to, like, America and not, like, Britain by the way her sentences were, like, interspersed throughout with the word 'like', like.
Afterwards, Byung took me to a hotel he had found for me and apparently arranged some kind of discount. Keen to be a good host, he had arranged for me to stay at the best hotel in town (and even hinted that he was sorry that there was not a better one). Even with a discount, this was not within the scope of a budget traveller. However for one night the price would not kill so I took the room and made sure to enjoy the rare pleasure of a hot bath while it was available. Finding the room was slightly problematic, mind you. It was on the fourth floor, but the buttons in the lift went 1, 2, 3, F, 5, 6, 7 and 8. I hesitated and ended up pressing nothing while another guest took the lift up to the seventh floor. It transpires that 4 is an unlucky number in Korea so it is usually replaced by an 'F' where possible.
The next morning, the ever attentive Byung met me in the hotel lobby at 08:30 to take me for breakfast. We walked through the historic old town before taking a taxi to the cafe he had in mind. Although I didn't know it at the time, our driver declared that I looked like Jesus with my beard and asked to have his picture taken with me. But, as he didn't have his camera with him, this never actually happened.
After breakfast, Byung drove me in his own car to a monastry at the base of a mountain in Moaksin national park. After some strolling around we had some lunch. As with every meal we had together, I could find no way to stop him paying for for my food. He even tried to pay for some of my hotel bill later in the week! When we had eaten up, he had to go to his work so I was left alone to continue my tour of the site before hiking my way up the mountainside. I reached the top after an hour and a quarter, or rather, I reached a top. Emerging from the trees into a clearing, I was disappointed to see my target with the cable car station was sitting on another peak a little higher than the one I was on. I thought that this would be a big job to cross over, but it actually only took another fifteen minutes to walk down, across the ridge and up to the intended top.
I sat around, rested, admired the view and took some photos for perhaps an hour before heading down on the opposite side to that which I had climbed up. My knees have never given me any trouble before we had to race down Snowdon in June, but this afternoon as I slowly walked down this mountain the bones were grinding again. Ouch ouch ouch!
At the bottom, I was supposed to go to a bus station to catch a ride the 10km into town, but it was a nice day so I figured I would stroll a while by foot, picking up the bus en route when I felt tired. Perhaps the inevitability of this was that I did not get tired nor did time become an issue until I reached the city outskirts. By which time I had no way of knowing if I was still on the bus route or which bus would take me near my hotel. I had no usable city map with me except for the business card for the hotel which had a basic map on the back. Or, to put it another way, I had no usable city map with me. This random collection of lines on the card did at least contain some landmarks such as City Hall, so I was able to follow street signs towards them, hoping that at some point the roads would become familiar and allow my memory to take over the decision making.
The plan was for me to meet Byung by the hotel entrance at 7pm and after three hours of walking since I got to the base of the mountain, I miraculously got there at 7:05, just as he was pulling up. He took me back to the same restaurant as before, as I had enjoyed it so much and because, I suspect, he didn't fancy his chances of finding a second place to feed a vegetarian without spices in this town.
Afterwards we tried to find a new cheaper hotel, which took a bit of work but we did find one from my guidebook. It was a funny place and I did wonder exactly what sort of clients they usually got. Firstly, there were the videos for hire/borrowing from reception, many of which were 'specialist interest'. Secondly, there was the mystic blue lighting in the corridor on my floor (see photo). Thirdly, there was the condom machine on the wall inside my room. "How convenient!", as someone said when I told them about it later.
The next day, with no chaperone, I strolled along the river back to the old town and had a more thorough look around some of the shops and displays etc. Generally, the balance between old and rebuilt old and between maintaining customs without falling into a cheap novelty commercial exercise was perfectly maintained. Certainly not like, say, Venice. Teak-coloured wooden buildings and surrounds were complemented with little fountains and subtle wooden street furniture. Many of the shops sell traditional paper, clothes, fans, instruments and all manner of artworks based upon these themes. All of them seem to be happy for you to walk in and treat them like mini-museums, even if you don't want to buy anything.
In the evening, Byung was back from work too late for dinner, but the good professor did take me out for a few beers. Korean beer is awful and makes you yearn for American beer. OK, it's not quite that bad, but it is pretty bad. However, the place we went to had a menu of fifty-odd beers from all around the world, so I was able to take us through some of the Belgian beers on offer. I started with the Duvel, my personal favourite, and explained that it was a beer to be drunk slowly with it's 8.5% alcohol content. Byung didn't heed my warnings and set about his glass like a thirsty mule. He assured me that it was no problem because Koreans often have local drinks much stronger. But, these drinks equate to spirits and I certainly hope they don't put spirits away with the large gulps that he was using to deal with the Duvel. Afterward a few more drinks, I firmly insisted that it was an important English custom to share the cost of drinks. I just about managed it and I think this represented my only success in paying for anything when they two of us were together.
Thursday was a quiet day of sitting in a cafe in the old town. Friday morning, Byung picked me up and took me into his work at the university. After speaking to a couple of people, he was able to arrange for one of the students to give my teeth an examination - actually quite a usefully important thing to check on whilst travelling, I don't want to be in the middle of rural China when serious toothache kicks in. She told me that I should raise my left arm if I felt any pain. I didn't have any confidence that she would see my left hand quickly enough when she was concentrating on the inside of my mouth, so I assured her that I would signal any discomfort with a clear and distinct 'MMMMMAAARRRGGHHHHHH!!!!!"
Most UK dental check-ups I have had begin with the dentist scraping away on my teeth with a little stick. Here, she spent twenty minutes with a buzzing device that scraped away the bad bits of the surface. Each tooth got individual attention and apparently will have left them looking whiter. They still looked pretty yellow to me, but I think that just says a lot about how badly discoloured they were in the first place (despite my regular and rigourous brushing, I hasten to add). I thought that it would make a pretty good picture to have her peering over the camera (IE: my face) with her mask, a couple of implements and a serious expression, but sadly she wasn't game.
Afterwards, I took a walk back into the town centre, got large bowl of vegetables for lunch and caught a train back to Jeonju. That evening I was again taken back to the vegetarian buffet restaurant. This time, we were joined by his ten year-old son. A keen football fan, I had already had stern words with his father earlier in the week when I ws told that the boy particularly liked Chelsea. I had tried to explain Ken Bates, electric fences and football's soul as best I could. I don't know how much of it sank in, but it is important to try.
Over the course of the meal, the boy proved to be a veritable encyclopaedia of European football, as he happily listed many teams from each country that he liked and many players from each team that found his approval. I asked if he liked Everton and he told me he did. I was glad to hear this because the night could obviously have turned sour at that moment if he had given the wrong answer, although I was not blind to the fact that he seemed to like everyone. As we reached our deserts, I finally asked if there was anyone he didn't like. He gave this some thought and first mentioned Celtic before, to my amusement, announcing that he didn't Tottenham..What a nice boy!