Han Solo

Han Solo


I was up, and running. Every day this week, as an experiment in fitting in short recovery runs and also in order to keep my exercise spreadsheet looking neat – no empty rows for rest days. I’d decided on a cut back week, so only 10 miles or so this morning, which was just as well because my BAFIKed legs had no more in them. I ran along the Han river, and I was on my own.

Jimmy with two fingers up, in a restaurant, surrounded by the remains of our meal
Jimmy demonstrates the drink.

Say no more. Loads of other people out using the riverside, which was great. I had time to book a place for my second night in Phnom Penh and grab a pizza, then hopped on the train to the airport. I asked if I could get the train, and Jimmy-at-the-hostel said ‘yes, or a bus’ and explained where the bus went from, but I’m sure that my train was quicker and cheaper – I had 4,400 t-money left, it costs less than that from Hongik University and only takes 45 minutes on the Arex commuter train. I was impressed that Kayak had sent an email reminder to remind me of my flight, though less impressed to later find they had sent ‘it may be 30 minutes late’ messages when both flights were on time, not that I’d paid any heed. The flight to Shanghai was two hours, then I had a couple of hours at Shanghai airport, spent in a stroll, a bit of tv coverage of the Shanghai masters tennis and my head in a book. The flight to Phnom Penh was just over 4 hours but gaining an hour in China and another in Cambodia meant I left after 4 but arrived before midnight. I’d booked a hotel just outside the airport so I could walk. There was a long queue for the visa cashier, none for the application form, which I didn’t understand, unless everyone else had got a form along with the landing and customs form I’d been given, but by the time I had filled in the short form almost everyone was done and I could pay my $20 and pick up my passport – the visa form is at one end of a long counter, they take the form from you, along with passport and photo, then shuffle you off to the cashier. If it’s busy they’ll be having a stab at calling out different names, but I just picked up my passport and moved on. There are signs on the passport control desks saying ‘nothing to pay here’, but money certainly changed hands up ahead as an Asian lady shooshed her mother through. It seemed odd, but didn’t affect me and I could walk out to find the exit. Taxi drivers made offers, but the idea of a hotel nearby was to avoid that. I walked the wide, spottedly dark, streets, only wondering if this was a good idea when two figures loomed out of the darkness. They wandered on, so did I, and I could see the hotel. One last motorbike rider bid for my custom, a couple of times until I convinced him that I really could make it to that sign, 100m from here.

Busy highway next to water, which has mountains on the far side
Leaving Seoul.

Luxury. A $20 hotel room is the height of it sometimes, and I nearly got sucked into watching Taken 2 on one of many cable channels before finally rolling over for sleep. Short version: travelled. Nothing untoward happened.

I got Seoul

I got Seoul
Seoul, South Korea

Seoul, South Korea

Friday started creakily. The instructor at BAF – I’m not sure if it’s “British army fitness” because they’re free of the BMF shackles at home, or just to make for the BAFIK acronym – had suggested ‘you’ll be sore in a couple of days, mate’, but it had kicked in straight away, and surely couldn’t be worse tomorrow. All those box jumps and bouncing up using the bridge balustrades for balance had done for my back, and dips and push ups added some subsidiary pain for my arms.

First, an errand. While my washing washed, I followed hostel Jimmy’s directions – this road, left, then keep going straight – and found my way first to Hongik University and then to the branch of Korea Post that, if you didn’t know to “keep gong straight”, you’d claim was a bit hidden away. It’s certainly not where I’d expect the local post office to be, but I was there so who cared? A box was 500 won, and after I’d packed it with ticket stubs, world championship souvenirs and a few other bits, I was ready with my guesstimate of 12000 won for surface mail. It was 5900. Not a rate I can see on their website for international postage but, always assuming it makes it, a bargain. Now my bags are a little lighter, and have fewer “ooh, I’ll keep that, it reminds me of…” things to keep making a decision about keeping.

I moved slowly, with no particular agenda, using my Yorkshire pass (T-money, it’s called) to move me round the city to Jamsil, exploring the Lotte department store there, and getting a little lost round the outside of theme park, Lotteworld. By now I’d realised that without concerted effort I wasn’t going to find a plain singlet to get the Seoul flyers logo imprinted on – it’s only 10k won, but an overnight service, and I’d used time up on it already. The sports sections of malls were a bit useless, all JJB sports (home of the non-exercise trainer and sportswear) in British terms. Near Dongdaemun there is a long strip of sport stalls in the underground mall, but all sell football and some baseball tops. Department stores have Asics, Puma, Descente and Coq Sportif concessions but with only t-shirt running gear. And an honourable mention to Nike, who appear to have somehow instructed their staff to follow closely on the heels of customers like me, which annoyed me so much when it was repeated in a second store that I arranged an inpromptu boycott of any others I came across. Not really the Korean/Japanese way of service, which is why it stood out.

After a run with a Canadian who joined me at the last “ooh, you’re going for a run-mind if I join you?” minute, which let my legs feel a little better by the end of the 5k local loop, on Friday evening I went for dinner with Swiss Marco, a Korea lover on his third visit, though with no great idea of where to go, just like me. I will admit I was going to get a takeaway pizza, but settled for Donbuki (sp?) which are cylindrical rice cakes, then a beer back at the hostel.

Marco was still jet lagged, and joined by German Max, who had topped off six months of bar work with a madcap two weeks travelling and fallen a bit ill, we were quite the sleep-in room by now. I was up a bit earlier on Saturday and at least got my run in first. Temperatures have dropped to the point where a run at midday is no longer foolhardy, and it is even cool when the sun goes down, and I passed a slow and painful five miles with the backdrop of the Han river, some Korean metal band playing to a relaxed audience sat in plastic chairs at garden tables, and plenty of other people exercising. I went off to the Olympic park stop to add another stadium to the list of those I’ve seen, only to find that the station is at the far end of the park from the stadium, and the stadium isn’t in the park anyway. Word to the wise, Chamsil stadium is next to the baseball stadium, at the Sports Complex stop (line 2). I got to see the gymnastics and handball arenas, along with the velodrome, on the way through, caught a tiny bit of a folk festival and then some classical outside the Olympic museum. It’s small but perfectly formed, the museum, with Korea’s first medallist-a marathoner, perfect-heavily featured. I also had a Korean give me his politics intro, fairly sure the Japanese were dirty, Iran, Iraq, North Korea all not good, along with others. But if you can’t understand it, it might not be racism, right?

The walk along Olympic-ro is festooned with statues, discus, weightlifter, cyclists and so on, and pretty cool, as is the park itself which was a hive of activity. I got back to the hostel in time for the Korean barbecue my hosts had promised, though Marco and Sue Yung were waiting and hungry, so possibly I was late for whatever time had been set. It didn’t matter, Grace and Jimmy had been to a wedding and though they only take an hour in Korea, with no evening do and joint meals for all the weddings there that day, they’d got stuck in traffic and arrived after me.

The barbecue is cooked on a grill at the table-mostly by Grace, in our case – then you dip meat in various sauces, wrap it in a lettuce leaf and eat, along with rice, mushroom, onion etc to taste. Good, anyway, as was the soju (sp!) which tastes very alcoholic but isn’t actually as potent as all that.

So marked my last day in Seoul. Most evenings at the lovely Mr Comma guesthouse were punctuated by Sue’s swishing of the electric mosquito killer-racquet, but she had moved out to sort out packing, so it was quiet on Friday night. Seoul is a mighty city, with a mighty river, and masses to do, even if I did include ‘get lost’ a bit too prominently at the top of my list.

Next time, perhaps, I’ll have more luck. Reading: A spell for chameleon, Piers Anthony.

Accidental BMF

Accidental BMF
Seoul, South Korea

Seoul, South Korea

I spent my morning mostly sleeping – the Chinese girl in the hostel who is beholden to me for lending her my kindle charger overnight started conversation with “I saw you asleep over there” as if that were the defining moment of my day, and she wasn’t far off. The evening ended with me returning from a run to much respect and “we’re having beer and chicken” which is a perfect thing for hunger and tired thighs.

A wooden, spidery sculpture in front of a temple, wood on stone

I found the sports shop – there are two stations in Dongdaemun, I needed the Cultural and history park one, listed in my app as Dongdaemun stadium. I haven’t time left in Seoul to order a Seoul Flyers running top, but if I can find a plain one then they’ll put the logo etc on there.

I had gone to join the Flyers. Again – lucky they have so many sessions, allowing for tourists to miss a run through directional challenge and pick up another later in the week. Weds and Thurs are both mountain runs from the same place. Perfect, found the Hyatt, found a large group and one was wearing a Flyers vest. I’m in the right place. Lots of young folk, male and female. I stood around, wondering why the girl ahead of me had passed me and run up the hill, looking at her watch, when we still had over 10 minutes to go. Then a British voice announced we’d better go and I jogged off up the hill with all the good looking boys and girls, where I felt I belonged. A small group remained, I heard tell of “off to do our thing” but didn’t worry about it. We warmed up round a tiny flower bed, odd but okay, and then ran off a short way and did 8 lots of 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off, squat and jump. Very tough, and my thighs ached by now – this can’t be ideal warm up for a mountain run? As we went through the next circuit, the instructor said hi and asked how I’d heard of them; “on the web”, I said. A few of the boys introduced themselves and talked nutrition. They seemed so smiley and happy, keen to spread the word (“a few nuts, just to keep you going”) that for a moment I wondered if I was among a cult. As we had the next circuit explained, 5 lots of jump, bounce, burpees, box jumps, dips and push ups, separated by running, I was now certain that I was in the wrong place. I’d joined in, not with the moonies at least, but with British army fitness in Korea, or Bafik. I figured it was probably better for me than another run, though a tough mountain run would have been good, and given me a chance to talk to the Flyers about getting on to Saturdays base run, plus to see if there really were any places in the event on Saturday night; on Tuesday they’d been rumoured, but the Facebook group doesn’t hold the promised offers of bibs. No matter.

A busy road. On the other side, what looks like a silver airship, on the ground.
It’s a park. Really.

Feeling a bit daft but gratifyingly sore of thigh, I checked the GPS to see the hostel was 6.5km away in a straight line, so I could still get a run in. It was very slow, with a first section down precipitous descents and a mid section up 1 in 3 or worse inclines not helping. Still, only two backstreet dead ends later, I’d added a run to my beasting.

Talk, drink and booking a flight from Siem Reap to Bangkok to avoid the border queues finished my day. Avoiding the adventure, I think, but I’ve decided to value my time and just in general get on with the trip. Apparently the real pain is in going in to Cambodia, where tuk tuk drivers will take you to fake visa places, with real soldiers completing the illusion, but even heading into Thailand can take several hours. So I’ll fly, and make for Malaysia and Singapore overland, back on the train. Cambodia doesn’t have trains in any case, and missing out on a bus ride doesn’t feel as much like cheating as missing a train journey would.

Let’s flock to Seoul without any special plans

Let’s flock to Seoul without any special plans
Seoul, South Korea

Seoul, South Korea

The title sums it up – I’ve been drifting through Seoul. In Japan I felt from time to time that I needed to get out of cities, but in Korea the cities I’ve been in have been different enough that I’m just happy being here. Seoul, Gyeongju with it’s disconnected centre and proximity to mountains (that you can walk to – every city I’ve been to in Korea and Japan has had a mountain overlooking it) and Jeonju with its village on my doorstep were not overwhelming.

Sign saying "Let's Flock to Seoul without Any Definite Plans"
Yes, let’s.

On Tuesday I got to Seoul on the bus, found the hostel and went to join the Seoul flyers for a track session. I managed to walk the wrong way *to the station from which I had just come* so was a bit late, but the rainy day kept away all but three of us in any case, so I ended up without pacers. 10 lots of 800m (more according to the garmin) at around 2.55 was alright. All on a 250m track, which was odd, and probably enough to confuse Garmin.

Wednesday saw a score of Palaces 2, Museums 2, with the palaces taking the nod on penalties given that the first museum was an in-palace bonus. I stopped for lunch first despite it being not yet 12, but that was a rare sensible decision – too many days I’ve figured it was too early, then yomped around and only realised how I’ve pushed myself when spotting the colour of my pee. Oh yes. I spotted a super cheap sign, managed not to brain myself in the tiny staircase on the way down-they warned me to watch my head when I was on the way back up, but since I don’t speak Korean, I had to turn to find out what they wanted which nearly had the opposite effect. It was a small and full canteen, so I stood around feeling hulking and in the way of tiny Asians for a while before finding a spot and enjoying pork and rice (he kindly told me the Korean name for future reference, it might have been, um, tonbukki) for under £3.

There are five palaces in Seoul, so the correct response to “I went to the palace” is “which one?”, usually followed by “there are how many?”. The first was near city hall, itself a glassy marvel surrounded by skyscrapers and much more the sight you expect in a prosperous country. For 1000won you can wander the gardens and check out the throne room, then check out the museum of modern art – not much abstract here, and they had an exhibition of 20th century Korean art which was cool, very different in style to western art. Historic sights continue in their Trigger’s broom style; all the original buildings, only rebuilt twice! As I left the palace I was just in time to see the changing of the guard ceremony and attendant crowd. There wasn’t a guard when I’d gone in, so at some point there had been an adding of the guard ceremony that I’d missed, mind.

Green grassed courtyard, small pond with a fountain.
City Hall area seen from the Modern Art Museum.

I wandered up to Gyeongbokgung Palace, and waited for an age to cross the multi-laned roads which surround it. The palace is much larger, with a beautiful garden, and had a slightly higher entry price – 3000won (£1.75) – and bigger crowds to boot. It was another national holiday, celebrating literacy and the simplified Korean alphabet, which added to the number of people out. The buildings were similar, and the throne room again had carved dragons in the ceiling, which were my highlight. I sat outside for a while, polishing off a pile of food from the handy Home Plus – or Tesco, if you will, and they certainly do-I’d spotted at just the right time.

That evening I went to find the Flyers again, this time for a mountain run up Namsan. I missed. Checking later, it was only a 10 minute walk, so running 10 minutes down the first road when I knew I had to make a right turn was a mistake. I was at the mountain, though, so had a hilly run looking down over the city. Being a bit lost has been a feature, though, with me heading off to find a shop (to see about a Seoul Flyers running top) the next day and hitting the impossibility of finding door 17 from a station with only 12 exits.

The title, incidentally, refers to the exhibit in my final museum, the museum of Seoul, which shows the development of the city. That phrase is used of the influx to the city in the 70s, which caused problems of sanitation and general living conditions. Now 1 in 4 Koreans live in Seoul, 1 in 2 in the metropolitan area.

Reading: Jon Ronson, Them.

I crash all the time

I crash all the time
Jeonju, Korea Rep.

Jeonju, Korea Rep.

Daegu to Jeonju on the bus. There are five express bus terminals in Daegu, though in fairness four of them are close to each other, serving different destinations from near Dongdaegu station. But there’s another terminal in the north east, and from there buses also go to Jeonju. Checking times on kobus, they leave at the same time from both stations. Eventually I ignored that seemingly improbable situation and went to Dongdaegu.

Cobbled pavements and buildings, with palm trees
Jeonju Hanok Village.

I’d got up for a run, hitting a 16 miler along the river. Fabulous, even in the drizzle. I passed a group of runners about to set out. Might have sped up a bit. Further along, a couple of them closed and passed, then slowed just as a third joined me. After a few more minutes the leader passed me again, but didn’t get away – I think they were using me as a target for intervals, which was a nice boost to my ego. My easy run pace, your pushing-it pace.

Post run I got chatting to a Danish girl back at the hostel over breakfast. There’s no shortage of traveller stories, but she had been going for 9 months so has more than some. From her, as from others over the last couple of days, the theme was “what no Indonesia?” in my plans, but I’m not changing them to fit in this recommendation, just slotting it away for future reference. I ended up packing up just after 10 when I’d figured I needed to leave before then to get to Dongdaegu for a 10.50 bus. But I wandered to the subway, wandered to the bus station the other end, bought a ticket and was on the bus with minutes to spare and no kerfuffle or rush.

Tree in front of buildings
500-year old tree.

Excellent, but hungry. Warning, minor peril! We stopped at services. I stocked. All was well.

The hostel in Jeonju is a couple of miles from the terminal, walkable but also a cheap cab ride away. I almost never get a taxi, so getting one is almost a treat in itself. There were no staff in attendance so I sat around chatting to Carsten, who was also waiting to check in. The place is big, with a comfy common room and that ended up as my base for a few hours, as people arrived and checked in – staff arrived eventually – and I had a couple of hours strolling round Hanok village. That’s the highlight of Jeonju for most, all traditional houses and one particularly beautiful street. There’s an old gate from a fortress and a cathedral, though the theme here is ‘reconstructed’ which to me and other europeans makes for a slight shrugging – so it’s from 1500, but was rebuilt in 1745? That’s not old. The cathedral is from 1905, so lovely – the loveliest in Korea, I read – but no great shakes if you’re comparing to others. It’s a picturesque spot to wander around, though, and there’s a hill overlooking the old part (though with so many trees that I only really had a view from the stairs on the way up), with Omokdae on top. That’s a large wooden pagoda in which people gather to picnic, chat and lounge. I did some of the latter on the Monday. Apparently it rained, but I didn’t even notice.

Sunday evening we had an American about to begin a year of teaching English, a Swiss motorcyclist travelling Spain-Australia and a Singaporean. Yan, the motorcyclist, sees a different side of places to us – Tokyo was a nightmare to get out of, for instance, Mongolia a tricky landscape of pebbly tracks. He could, if he wanted, do a good comedic turn on the perils of motorcycling – missing a turn on a mountain road, screeching to a halt with one wheel over the edge, starting with two iPhones only to find he only had one at his destination-vibration phone-dropper syndrome? – and showing the other one, screen laced with cracks, explained with “I crash all the time”.

Just sitting
Just sitting.

Socialising was encouraged by the owner offering us all a beer, turfing Shayan off the computers to talk to us and generally jollying us along. Monday evening was the same, fewer people but that meant three Danes, German Sonya, Swiss Yan and Shayan heading for dinner. We failed to find bibimbap, ending with beer and chicken, using lots of hand signals and waving to order. Much more fun than it might sound.

So, after a lazy Monday – I managed a run, normally it’s my rest day so I only did 6k, promptly eliciting a “done with running already?” from Yan – with some walking up film street (there’s a festival there each year) and heading from the new and glitzy shopping area to the older, lower and muckier part of town, I was ready for Seoul.

Group of people photographed around a table

Bus to Seoul on Tuesday. I expected it to be 18100 won, it was only 12800 (£7.50)-travel really is cheap here. Trains are cheap too, something like £35 from Busan to Seoul, but the buses go to more places and are even cheaper. The only catch I’ve found, and it’s barely a catch, is that the intercity buses can be quicker and cheaper than the express ones. Certainly from Jeonju to Busan that’s the case. On the subject of railways, I know now why Seat61.com says ‘you can get a rail pass for Korea, if you believe it’. Why yes, I thought when I read that, I do believe it, should it be hard to believe? But the point is, buses are more convenient, sometimes quicker, go to more places and are cheaper. With a rail pass you’d have to use it a lot, and barely stop in places, to save money.

Reading: Haruki Murakami, Hard Boiled Wonderland.

Epizeuxis, the repetition of a word for emphasis. Not to be confused with repeating a phrase for same, which is known as ‘bloody irritating’.

Daegu, by thy river shall I know thee

Daegu, by thy river shall I know thee
Daegu, Korea Rep.

Daegu, Korea Rep.

Favourite sight in Daegu, a young man with his girlfriend, the man carrying a shoulder bag with his tiny dog inside.

I had no plans for my next move, other than thinking I’d go somewhere before Seoul. Gwanju on the west sounded interesting, but my hostel informant reckoned ‘not interesting for foreigners’ and much as I just fancied a city after days of walking, heading to the west for no big reason now seemed less tempting. Said informant had embarked on explaining a couple of things before denouncing them as boring (“Oh, Daegu! My highschool is there. Um, it…ah, boring”, “You know there is festival in Gyeongju? It is dream festival [looks down]. Hmm, actually, boring”), suggesting to me that with an (even) greater vocabulary he might have told me about them, but was left to use the word boring to escape from a conversation he couldn’t end. I’m going with the flow where I can so was prepared to take his word for it. Andong was a popular destination, for its mask festival, but I couldn’t spot a place to stay, and hostel man had suggested Jeonju. Booking on a Friday for Saturday night works as well in Korea as in Japan, which is not very, so with nowhere to stay in Jeonju till Sunday, I hopped over to Daegu.

Tall, red-brick Cathedral

It’s just an hour on the bus, but cities here have an intercity bus terminal and an express bus terminal and I think I went to the former. No great problem, but it dropped me somewhere in Daegu, I still don’t know where. I had tried to get off the bus too early and been taken under the wing of a local, who then got me on a bus and made me repeat my destination (byongshjoc degeree, byongsjok degeree) until he was confident I would hear it and be able to match sound to memory. It worked, though when I looked at the name of the subway (Myeongdeok) it bore little resemblance to how I’d have spelled the sound I was making. Maybe my more practised ‘Anyang Hesiou’ – hello, more literally have a great day – from walking past lots of friendly walkers is not as accurate as I think it is – funny how you can ‘hear’ it wrong.

I was at the hostel a bit after one, to find the owner waiting for me. Hostelworld always ask for an arrival time, I always have to make it up. This time, the poor girl was off out and I was the last one in, so she’d had to wait for me. But I was there. Happy to do very little; Daegu is a pretty cool city, like Korea in general it has developed at a rate of knots; unlike Seoul, Busan and Gwanju (or so I read, those three are the most finished), there is still much to do. Possibly not so much that counts as a must see, and I was only there because…oh, alright, time to get out and see some of it. Bernice, a very friendly South African monster who helps out in the hostel talked me through the local area, so as I then wandered down mobile phone alley (small bright shop after small bright shop) to the traditional medicine street, I had her words in my head. The houses of two important Nationalists, Lee Sang-Hwa and Seo Sang-don, have been preserved, partly by moving them closer together so a huge apartment building can be put in, and it is odd to see two traditional Korean houses right in between other big buildings. Turning left at the end of the medicine street I did indeed, Bernice, spot the big church and mistake it for the cathedral. Actually the church on a hill (Cheongna hill) is the first Presbyterian church, with three missionary houses looking conspicuously Western in its grounds, while the cathedral is the other side of the road. From this hotbed of history it’s an easy stroll to the big Lotte department store, with a cinema on the fourth floor. There’s a desk marked ‘English speakers only’, which I interpreted as ‘…should only come to this desk’ rather than ‘you must speak English here’, but it could go either way. A very helpful man stopped to check whether I needed help, but I wasn’t quite up for a film, just seeing what was on.

White/grey bricked modern church

The malls underground, next to some of the stations, particularly (by which I mean the first mentioned below I saw, while the second was listed as 2nd best attraction in Daegu by Trip Advisor, which shows really how much TA’s visitors have had to say about the city) Banwoldang and Jungangro, are worth a look too. And finally, there’s a useful app, even the lite version of ‘Subway in Korea’ lets you check which line and direction you might need.

I headed East to the river for my run; South today, I’ll go North tomorrow. This is another river with a whacking great track next to the river, and well maintained shared cycle/run/walk path where that ends. In the evening I crossed the road from Banwoldang where I was staying and was submerged in youth and bustling streets. I think the cries of ‘amigo!’ were to tempt me in, but I continued my search for a quiet restaurant and found one called ‘School Food’. I had two courses, probably both mains, both excellent – a kind of sushi and bibimbap. The latter is the speciality of Jeonju, where I head tomorrow, so now I can compare. It was all excellent, anyway. I was in and in bed by 10, in common with half of my room. The other half were all home and in bed by 6 in the morning; how the other half live.

Bronze statue of a boy, on top of two book-statues, pile of 6 beside him
Taken by this chap.

Saturday’s short run – http://connect.garmin.com/activity/3862 19975.

Sunday’s long one – check it out, if I’d made a loop rather than an out and back, I’d have gone round most of the city http://connect.garmin.com/activity/3862 20047.

Reading: Janet Evanovich, Four to Score.

One more day of walking, one of rest

One more day of walking, one of rest
Gyeongju-si, Korea Rep.

Gyeongju-si, Korea Rep.

Knackered! Was it the day of walking round a village and temple, with a climb? Was it the day of walking up and down Namsan mountain? Or the running?

Very dark water, with trees and temples uplit
Reflecting pond.

All of them, obviously. I even skipped a run on Thursday, so as to meet the others slightly fresher. Ray reckoned they’d be at the museum between 9 and 9.30, I was eating breakfast at 8.40 but somehow didn’t leave till 9.15, and got to the museum after a yomp at 9.45. They must have gone. I sat still for a bit then figured I was daft waiting and anyway, I might catch them. Lonely Planet suggests a route, and it looks as though there’s a natural start point over the road from the museum, then up and round a 3, 5 or 8 hour route. To start with, there is more than one road to cross, and I had two abortive attempts to find a way in, first just to get to the obviously forested area – I crossed one road then my only route was a paddy field or busy road – and then past a village and into the park. Backtracking again, I found an ancient house site that had been marked on the map (the map that is more of a guide than any sort of exact map), so that was a start, but there still wasn’t any walking route. I was hungry, another reason I’d pushed on on my own, not really sure I was up for the 5 hour hike, and had a sit down.

Dark water, trees on either side uplit
Probably not really showing the reflections to their best effect.

Sod it, I’m not giving up just yet, I’ll walk up the hill and see what I find, I figured. Tombs, was the answer, and small almost-paths that suggested something had come this way. I still wasn’t really in the mood, but hitting a hiking trail, an hour and a half after I’d left the hostel, cheered me up so much I resolved to follow it. There are regular signs, so I knew it was under 4km to the peak, and could just follow whichever path took me that way. Much of this route was uphill, and hard work, but I was travelling light, just my ipod for company. I’d picked Radio 4’s ‘how you pay for the city’, and tales of the charges for ordinary financial products (for instance, there are 16 stages in a managed fund, as money goes from broker to commodity bank to other body etc, most of these are hidden charges) meant I could get pleasantly irritated by the financial (lack of) services industry on the way up. MoneyBox had a great piece on pensions the other week, and I now realised why Paul Lewis was pressing the spokesman for a pensions provider so hard. Said spokesman hid behind the FCA, using their ‘it may not be in people’s interest’ as a reason why they shouldn’t provide details of all their charges – the former statement fairly obviously is a recognition that it’s a complicated picture rather than an instruction, but the finance firms can treat it as an instruction when it suits then. Plus, of course, it’s really difficult to know what the charges are when you have separate companies buying and selling shares, others borrowing them in the evenings, and so on. It’s an inconvenient truth that the same companies provide services in the Netherlands, where they have to detail all the charges. That said, it is almost certainly the case that the industries are so different that they genuinely don’t know all the charges – as it said in the documentary, it’s not a middle-man but a whole rugby team in the middle. As a result, all other things being equal, a Dutchman saving in to a pension will receive 50% more than a Brit. Well done everyone.

Blue, teal and pink lights in a stream
Lit pond, lit trees, lit water.

Of course, travelling light I also had no food, and that wasn’t going to help my mood. I eschewed any optional signs, 650m to the Hermitage etc, but chose to head off for an extra 100m to a viewing point within a few hundred m of the top. Listening to the podcasts, I enjoyed the views, which were fabulously. Suddenly, a few minutes in to a good rest, girding myself for a last push upward and then a quick descent to food, I felt a tap on my shoulder. The Korean behind me was insistent I join him. He had no English, or none that he wanted to use, but I was deemed ‘most deserving’, and he poured me a drink, handed me a sushi roll and opened a bag of cut melon. He definitely didn’t want to chat, but had brought twice the food he needed, and with the first bite of sushi (home made, I’m fairly sure) I could feel my spirits soar. This wouldn’t have happened in a group, whether I’d have held my mood together with others I don’t know, but now it was irrelevant. He shared out his chocolate treats and settled in to play a game on his phone. I enjoyed the view, feeling I should stay, but also acknowledging that if it were me, I’d be happy to give and enjoy a silence. I figure I’m less sociable than many, and so try to adjust to what might be expected of me – like trying to make conversation, or sticking around in case he wanted to, but a good non chat is good. I figured he was now killing time to allow me to move on, and did.

Tall roof-end tile, person-sized
Ridge-end ornament tile.

I picked up the pace and hit the top. More spectacular views over the valley and the edges of the city – the main bit was mostly blocked. I had a brief chat on the way – yomping past a Korean and his friend, he called out ‘you are strong man!’, let me know it was a national holiday (thought it was busy) and asked if I was fitness man. Why yes, I run. Oops, business man, not related to the strong man comment. Oh no, not a business man, though I’d happily sanction a lot of them these days, as they talk as if involved in free market economics and actually give crony capitalism a bad name. Conversation over, they peeled off for a look over the valley and I cracked on. Further down I was stopped by a couple of American girls anxious to know if there was a bus stop waiting for them at the end. I could only guess, as they already had, that there would be on the main road, not the one we would hit first. They looked fine, but I guess they’d carried as little as me and hadn’t managed to liberate food from the locals. I’d picked the longest route down for the extra kilometreage and it was tough on the leg muscles. It turned out that shorter routes were tougher – precipitous descents and roped off drops. Or so I heard from Steve and Ray, later. I made it happily to the bottom and walked back to town, via a couple of tombs, a forestry research centre with great walks, a bit of mildly hairy roadside and the national museum, where the day had begun.

I was shattered, but it seemed only fair to meet the others at their guesthouse, 20m walk away, seeing as I’d missed our rendezvous earlier. Gyeongju is a nice mixture of old and new – despite the economic miracle, and the similarities to Japan in parts, it’s obvious that parts of South Korea are still poor, and that some areas have been improved while others haven’t. Here, you can see it building by building, in some places, and you walk from a new, well appointed rail station past old (it seemed to be uniformly pensioners) people selling apples, chilli, onions and the like on the street, next to brand new glass-fronted pharmacies. Walking to their hostel I came through a much more glitzy shopping area; I didn’t spot the big luxury brands, but there were more swanky, glassy shops for Head, Lacoste, Adidas et al. Dinner was a complete contrast, as we popped into one of the small restaurants, mom and pop seems the best description, a handful of tables, order taken and cooked by the same person; a woman both times I have been. Good food, a cup of green tea afterwards, which isn’t such an odd thing for me now, and a walk home that showed just how chilly it had become. It was quite nice to feel almost cold, that’s really the first time in a couple of months.

Lilies in a pond, outside a hall
Sumukdang Hall, Gocheongji pond.

Today I did very little. Admittedly ‘little’ involved a 10 mile run with some intervals, but I didn’t start till after 10, allowing my roommates to get up early and head off to whatever they were doing. I was slightly confused that I’d not found the lake at Bomun lake, where the posh hotels are, so resolved to keep going till I found it. Rather than head West to the river, as I have before, ending up then heading East and coming (I now know) within 500m of the hostel, I went straight North, then East, and this time looped round the lake. They have a triathlon there, and there’s a grandstand right on the lake for everyone to watch from, must be quite a spectacle. There’s a marathon here, too, which starts in the same area, if I understood my informant correctly. It’s definitely a good place to run, I got overexcited spotting some golden statues and ran towards them on a rep, ending up looping round their dead end, paying very quick respects to, um Confucius and his two friends. Having run that far to get to the lake, and only running 6 lots of 1k, I ended up with a 5 mile ‘cool down’ run back, seeing the local amusement park (edge of the lake) and a road that was driving distance only from the city proper, and seemed to consist purely of restaurants.

In the afternoon I went to the Gyeongju national museum, which has a good selection of local artifacts and exhibits from the golden days when the city was the capital of Silla. Back then it had a population of 1million people, and was grand – right up until Genghis Khan invaded in the 12th century and levelled much of it. Between the museum and the ‘screening for palaces’ (which turns out to be a 15 minute video, made of computer reconstructions of the main palace, rather than a scan to check what percentage palace you are) I got some sense of the historic meaning of the place. Anapji pond was part of the palace, a man-made pond; a pond in the day time, a glorious view at night, with trees and the pagodas lit up for effect. All around were parked cars, and a queue for entry; it may be like that most nights, though today being Friday may have helped the cars. It’s a wonderful spot, and a good way to end my Gyeongju experience – Daegu tomorrow, on the way to Jeonju.

Reading: The Glassblower of Murano.

Run: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/3853 57867.

Yangdong, Bulguksa and Seokguram grotto

Yangdong, Bulguksa and Seokguram grotto
Gyeongju-si, Korea Rep.

Gyeongju-si, Korea Rep.

A full day. Clemence, a French girl who will forever now be known as Ray, was also in town. I’d met her in Busan, and she’s only here for three weeks so has more of a plan. I got to Gyeongju yesterday and bumped into her and hostel buddy Steve, so there were two of us to follow the schedule of someone more organised than us.

View of nature; hilltops rolling away in the distance
Top of the world, ma.

Yesterday I picked up a map and found out where was recommended. Gyeongju used to be the capital of Silla, a province which unified the three kingdoms of Korea. As a result this area is filled with tombs from ancient kings and nobility – over 100 mounds – along with pagodas, temples and the like. I was on the walk up to the tomb of general Kim Yusin when meeting Steve and Ray, and finished following signs to Ongyeobong peak. I’d started at four, so by now time was getting on, but meeting a couple of British runners I followed their advice to turn left when really I should have just gone back the way I came. That took me down safely in the light, but I was a way from town, not getting back till after 7, then heading out for a 7 mile run, 5 at tempo pace – not at the progressive pace I’d wanted, but 30:34 for the five is decent. Luckily there’s a running track, more or less – not quite as bouncy, but fundamentally that’s what it is – by the river here, so it’s a great place to belt out some miles.

Old Korean building, rock and sloping roofs

Tuesday, then, we were to head for the Yangdong folk village, a preserved ‘original’ Korean village around 9, so I was up before 7 to fit in 10 miles first. I coincided with the same bus Ray and Steve were on, and we hit the village just before 10. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site, “an excuse to take more money from us” says Steve, and it’s unusual to have an entry fee for a village, certainly, but 4,000 won is £2.32, so it won’t hurt. The village sits on a hillside, in the shade of a mountain, with the nobility’s houses further up (better views) with tiled rooves, poorer folk lived in the thatched houses. It’s a beautiful place, even when filled with children running around and practicing their “hello”, or even “hello, hahahahahaha”. The Japanese children were big on hello, not so much the laughter, though one girl did follow me right on my tail for a laugh at Miyajima.

Gate reflected in water, almost covered by trees
Exit to Bulguska.

The houses at Yangdong are not that large – even the master of the house wasn’t in vast areas of space – but quaint, wooden with a courtyard. Pretty much all like that. We wandered happily around, then stopped for lunch, noodle soup, all round.

The aromatic tree at Seobaekdang - ancient
The aromatic tree at Seobaekdang – ancient.

In the afternoon the plan called for the ‘main’ sights, Bulguska temple and Seokguram grotto. They’re the main ones because they’re the most accessible, I think, perhaps with Anapji pond included, though that looks so different (better different) at night that it’s recommended you save it till then. Steve wasn’t up for more temples, but Ray and I hopped on a bus and walked up a hill from the stop to the temple. It’s grand. Mostly reconstructed – the problem, again, with the originals being made mostly of wood – but with some grand stone staircases. Outside one of the smaller buildings were a lot of cairns, stone-smaller stone-smaller-pebble etc, and we entertained ourselves building one each. I won because I’d put mine in a spot with sun shining through the leaves, then we built a joint one on a bamboo leaf. Because we could. Seokguram has the same entry fee, but is just a tiny grotto which is now being reconstructed, so you can’t wander round the inside at the moment as you used to be able to. If you pay the 1,600 won for the bus up there (short trip, and more expensive than a town bus to anywhere) you would probably wonder why. It is a 2.2 km walk, though, and a beautiful one, if mostly up. And, oddly, mostly down on the way back. It’s another 400m or more from the ticket office, too, which feels like a distance after the walk up. So, to see the inside you’d get as much from the reproductions in the Gyeongju national museum and a few photos, perhaps, but go for the walk up and down if you can.

Read: Moonwalking with Einstein: the art and science of remembering everything, Joshua Foer.

Tiny gateway to a temple

Busan baseball

Busan baseball
Busan, Korea Rep.

Busan, Korea Rep.

After two days doing little, I figured I should see a bit more of Busan than Haeundae beach. Yesterday I had taken myself off for a long run around 11, which wasn’t as big a mistake as it might have been, given a cloudy day, though the heat was deceptive and I was soaked through by (before) the end. I ran along the coast, as I has on Saturday, reaching a natural turning point at ‘the view’, a restaurant on top of a hill, just behind a large area enclosed by green netting that had puzzled me for a while until, with the clarity of thought that comes from a long run, I realised it was a driving range. There are several around town. I turned, just after the hour, ending up running for 17 seconds longer than last week, for exactly the same distance. Hmmph.

UN Memorial Cemetery; grass and modern building.
UN Memorial Cemetery.

I had lunch in one of the touristy restaurants almost outside the hostel. The owner pointed to just one thing, octopus and something soup, ‘the best for stamina’, it said. Whether that was her speciality or the only thing she could be bothered to cook, I don’t know, but stamina is the right word for me, we agreed a price and I ate it and accompaniment right up.

I spent the afternoon on the beach till rain drove me in. It ended up raining for the duration and I found a comfy spot. The hostel has an upstairs, rooms up there unused as it is quiet, but with a kitchen and, on the mezzanine, mattresses and cushions. Later the manager treated the three of us knocking about, my korean roommate and a French girl, to a beer. He is from Osaka, so reminisced – he misses it, over here just to run the place while the owner is in the US.

Monday morning I headed to Daeyeon to see the UN memorial cemetery. Volunteers everywhere, one happily hit play on the video in the chapel, which have some background on the Korean War and made clear their gratitude for UN intervention though the shiny UN logo and, to my eyes, slightly amateur text overlays combined with repeated mention of “invaluable sacrifice” and other overly adjectivised phrases to give it an overblown feel. By the end I was in the mood for some Starship Troopers. The art of the overblown.

Banks of empty seating, with a few people scattered around
Sajik Baseball stadium.

From there I took the metro to Nampo. The metro has four well organised (in that very few stations are close to each other) lines. Music plays in the station just before the train approaches – I think the soundtrack differs by line. There’s also a musical intro for stations at which you can change onto other lines – the guide I read mentioned birdsong, which is the soundtrack for the seaside line to Haeundae, other lines differ. It’s all charming, and a single ticket is a maximum of 1400won (80p), a day pass 4000 (£3.2). Nampo has the shopping area and is by the port, a great spot to wander. There’s a web page on ‘awesome Busan’ giving you a decent two day programme, which sensibly points out the Jagalchi fish market is not for everyone, but I loved it. I wandered through the first hall, impressed by the variety of sea critters wiggling around their tanks. I assumed this was it, watching stall holders expertly gut and skin fish, but outside were dead, prepared fish, tiny stalls at which to eat, full ones with four people on stools talking to the owner, larger restaurants with owners temping you in and, gradually, stalls selling items other than fish.

It smelt of fish, obviously, but not so overwhelmingly as you’d expect, I don’t know why. A strong breeze, perhaps, though I did notice some stalls burnt incense by the fish, as much for smell as keeping away insects, I guess.

I’d missed out on a baseball game in Japan for reason only of indolence, but the Lotte Giants were at home and I was determined to see them, so headed for the stadium, there before 5 for a game starting at 6.30. Hopping off at Sajik station I saw my directions were right and I indeed couldn’t miss the stadium, and I was at the front. The football stadium is somewhere off behind this one from that direction. The ticket office was up a ramp and closed, with a cluster of people round it. It soon opened and I paid not 7k for the back of stadium seats, but 10k (£5.75) for a spot nearly in line (a bit closer in) with first base and the home plate. The next section was only 2k more, but I remember fondly being in Barcelona and a group of us deciding the cheapest seats would be fine and gradually – “it’s only five euros more…” – working our way up to the second most expensive on the grounds we wouldn’t be back to the Nou camp. No regrets about that, but I stuck with my initial thought here.

Once I’d got my ticket, curious, I wandered round the back of the stadium, grimy at ground level with disused gates betokening better times. I could hear a distinct noise, though, like a not quite rhythmic banging, and with a glimpse of light and green through slats I realised the practice area was just inches away, the sound that of balls hitting gloves.

More people in the stands now the game is on, but masses of space
End of inning.

I was very excited. The team have something like a 57-56 win loss record, which puts them in mid table – better than the ‘perennial bottom feeders’ tag that lonely planet gives them, though perhaps it’s not the despair of being at the bottom but the hope of climbing the table that really gets you. I found my seat, at least I think it’s the right one – it hardly matters, you can see the size of the crowd from the picture. I’m not sure why people queued at the ticket stand, unless they have one particular seat they want – no area is so small that 10 people getting ahead of you will prevent you getting in. As I sat in my seat, finishing the grim Rabbit, Run and watching adorable small people do some kind of warm up song I was interrupted by some university students who wanted to ‘interview’ me, which was entertaining. They are studying English literature, which gave us kinship at least, but whether my talking about being at my first baseball game will be of interest, I don’t know. They and the fried chicken sellers outside (one of whom more or less chased me, as if once I understood she had fried chicken I would be a guaranteed sale) would be forgiven for spotting a white man and expecting an American, given the sport, so maybe thought we could compare notes on our teams. Instead I had only “um, I’ll look it up – I hope you will too” in answer to “can you tell us some English baseball teams?”

I loved the game. The next section over, section A to my B (and I could easily have strolled in there) had the voluble fans in, addressed by cheerleader and man with microphone and whistle, quiet for the opposition innings, musical accompaniment for the home. Plenty of k pop, I’m sure, but I was playing spot the song for the western songs with korean lyrics – by my reckoning we had “Obladi, Oh Carol, Lady Gaga, Loving nobody but you for all my life, I love rock and roll, Cum on feel the noize, Super Trooper, If you’re happy and you know it (lotte!), Glory glory Tottenham Hotspur and Pretty Woman, each one I think attached to a particular batter. The home team did well, too, scoring in inning 3, loading the bases thanks to a couple of second base steals in inning 5 and picking up 3 more, and cementing it in inning 7 with another 3, making the Wyverns’ solitary point at the end irrelevant. Apparently the standard is high minor league, but the crowd much noisier. Official attendance was only 3287, but they did make some noise. Lotte are fifth, but can’t make fourth at this late stage. Two more home games in the next two days keep them all busy, though, I hope they get the same all energy whistle blowing lunatic I had, I loved him and was singing along by the end, though without more practise I couldn’t quite inflate the orange plastic bag they gave me to let me stick the handles round my ears and wear it for the end of the game.


Tomorrow, to Geongju, a smaller city on the cusp of a national park.

“In fact he has hardly listened; it is too complicated and, compared to the vision of a sandwich, unreal.”

The best thing about travelling

The best thing about travelling
Busan, South Korea

Busan, South Korea

Brave title, dick. There are probably many best things. And they change. But the thing that occurred to me today;

In a foreign country you barely have to move to see something new every day.

Deserted beach, with sea rushing in
Lively beach.

The context for that is my doing the same today as yesterday, lying on a beach under a cloudy sky, with someone else’s question (of their own journey) “is it enough?” in my head. Well, is it? Those are dangerous words, and ones that mostly come into your head when you already think the answer is no, but still-is this enough for my second day in a new country? Then I recalled yesterday’s stroll round Busan at night, looking at live fish gaping at me and eels thrashing in their tanks, ready to be served at the restaurants they were guarding. Today’s run took me round the headland to a spot where family after family was setting up and knocking off a picnic on the prom; using their seaside location no matter that the weather is cloudy (though admittedly, still 26 degrees).

So. I’ve barely moved locations, but yes, I’ve seen something new. And it is enough.

“However, while there is nothing more “natural” than large numbers of children dying in a Malthusian cesspool of unchecked contagious disease, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that we should avoid that.”

Huffington Post “As if it’s not enough to be trying to get some sense out of this frigging game [golf], you have to carry around this madman trying to swallow your soul.” Rabbit, Run.

An emergency response vehicle, marked "Terrorism Response".
A reassuring sight.

Start a Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑