I’m writing this near gate 7 of Incheon Airport, a cup of black tea at my left hand. I’m taking my laptop with me – so I can write, of course, but partly because my laptop bag is the only bag I have in Korea and it seems rather empty with just a change of clothes in it.
Had a pleasant surprise last night when my boss’s husband rang and said he and the director were coming over. When they arrived – with their two daughters – they had a laundry rack for me. Which was especially convenient, as, not only did I need one, but I’d just washed some clothes. (I had to wipe it down before draping my laundry on it, though – it was filmed with black dust, as if it had been in a bus station for a couple of weeks.) Mr Director spoke reasonable English (though with a strong accent) and went through my schedule with me again.
This morning he picked me up from my aparteu (as they say hereabouts) at five of the morning clock and took me to the bus station. He helped me get a ticket to the airport (11,000 won – five to six pounds) and hung around while I waited to depart. He’d said something about the Seowon Hotel, which I’ve seen nearby, but I can’t place exactly where; at first I interpreted this to mean he’d pick me up from there tomorrow, but thinking about it on the ‘limousine’ bus I decided he was advising me to head there by bus or taxi when I got back. In that eventuality, I’ll walk – the bus terminal is near Homeplus.
I spent the time on the bus looking out of the window – something I like doing when travelling. We drove out of Ansan and through some more modest built up areas (there were even some single storey shop building – imagine that) then out into some countryside that would have looked at home in Cheshire. A fairly thick but discrete layer of mist lay on the fields; in places this layer floated a little way above the ground and you could see side-on. The bus went to Gimpo Airport first, which is a bit tarty, with a flashing neon frontage. Then it was on to the ‘New Airport’ (as one toll station called it).
I got here in plenty of time: around seven o’clock – boarding is at 9:10, take-off at 9:40. I decided to change 120,000 won into yen, but evidently I handed over the wrong wad of 10,000 won notes (given that that figure in Korean is man, perhaps I should call them ‘manners’), so instead I got 12,000 won for 100,000 won. Apparently, the hotel charge has been paid, so I shouldn’t need much money. Somehow, though, 12,000 doesn’t seem a lot after using Korean currency.
I’m now in the Royal Food Court of the International terminal of Fukuoka Airport. Just as I was wrapping up Part One a couple sat nearby in the café I was having my cup of tea at in Incheon Airport. The guy looked an awful lot like the guy who plays the young Australian astronomer in Supernova, the sitcom with Rob Brydon. I didn’t get a decent front-on look, but Australia’s not that far away, so one shouldn’t be surprised.
Once more I have tea at my left hand – although I think this cup is probably very overpriced at 380 yen. Hold on, let’s work this out: I got 12,000 yen for 100,000 won, so one yen worth eight and a third won. There are 1,850 won to the pound, so 1,850 divided by 8.33 equals 222 yen to the pound. 380 divided by 222 gives you a price of one pound seventy one. Hmm, not that bad, I suppose.
I’m gathering strength and courage for the expedition to find the Korean Consulate General. Fortunately, it’s on the same line as the airport, although I may need to get the bus to another terminal. My research tells me the fare to Tojin Machi will be less than the cost of a cup of airport tea.
The visa application part of today’s mission went well. The subway was easy enough to navigate – buying individual tickets is a case of looking at the map, seeing how much it says for your destination, then putting some money in a machine and selecting your fare.
I arrived at the Consulate General at about 1:40 and joined the end of a cue of waegugin (foreigners) filling out forms to get into the compound. It turns out that in the afternoon they open for visa applications at 1:30, so my tardiness at the airport was actually part of a cunning subconscious plan to avoid hanging around for an hour and a half.
Once inside, I filled out the application form itself, cued some more handed over 6,000 yen and my passport, and now I have to return tomorrow (they open in the mornings from ten) and pick up my documents. Naturally, I didn’t speak to anyone while there, although there were a couple of Irish (Northern Irish, I think) women there. One of whom was on my flight – as were several other people including the guy who looked like the guy from Supernova (along with his presumably Korean, definitely fit girlfriend).
After that I was about to head back towards the subway, when I remembered I wanted to investigate a huge domed building I’d seen. The Yahoo! Dome turns out to be a baseball arena and home to the Hawks. I carried on that way and found the beach, which was nice, though very windy. I strolled along the littoral for a while then turned back and went to investigate Ohori Park – a large park that is about 90% lake. While I was there I wandered through the ruins of Fukuoka (or Maizuru) Castle. I took plenty of pictures (my camera only has a 32mb memory card, so you can only take 21 full-sized pictures with it; I’ve turned the picture size down, though to fit more in) – they should turn up on Flickr at some point.
The day had gone quite well up to that point, so maybe it was inevitable it should take a turn for the less good. I took the subway to Hakata – the nearest station to my hotel, the Chisun Hotel Hakata – and, of course, decided to make my way on foot from there. I’m not saying I got lost – I didn’t get lost – however, I didn’t find the hotel. I was trying to find my way by a map in tourist pamphlet and succeeded only in walking round in a big circle for a couple of hours. Towards the end of that time, as it was getting dark and the bats were coming out, I – yes, OK, fortunately – saw a sign for Hakata station and followed that.
When I got back there I decided I wanted something simple to eat – ergo MacDonalds. Even that took me twenty or thirty minutes to find – the shopping complex above the subway station is massive and maze-like. Then I took a taxi. Throughout the day I’ve been saying ‘Domo arigato’ (‘thankyou’) to people (in context, obviously), but by the time I got to the hotel I didn’t have the energy even for that. I’d heard someone at the consulate earlier saying that they’re hotel needed their passport number. I have mine written in my address book, so I wasn’t worried on that front. When I checked in I was asked for my passport; I explained that it was at the Korean Consulate , and the girl behind the desk said something like, Ah, visa, and that was it – no passport number needed.
The room’s OK – compact, but who cares for one night? There seems to be a faint, dusty smell of cigarette smoke throughout the hotel (although it may just be a faint dusty smell), but my nose has acclimatised to it now. When I got to my room I put the TV on to find one channel broadcasting Walking with Beasts; a button on the remote changed the Japanese voiceover back to Kenneth Branagh. I had a cup of not too nice instant green tea then went to bed. Where I had a couple of hours rest before some kids in the corridor woke me up (sounds like a school trip, given that an adult has been knocking on doors talking to them). Now, while I’m still tired, I’m no longer sleepy. I might read. I might even go out for a walk …
On my second and last day in Fukuoka I got up at about 8:30, showered and went down to the restaurant for breakfast. Although there was a large selection of Japanese food, I, as usual, went for the easy option and cornflakes and a handful of bread rolls (which latter were extremely nice – warm, crusty, brown rolls sprinkled with seeds). After brushing my teeth I checked out (the bill had been paid in advance by the school) and set off to find Hakata station, which, it turns out, is about a two minute walk from the hotel. Darn (as Ed Winchester might say).
I returned to the Consulate General to find it a lot less busy than yesterday; I asked for my passport, was given it, complete with shiny new visa, and left. This left me with about seven hours or so to kill before my flight at 18:10. I could have gone to explore more of the city, but after yesterday’s four and a half hours of walking I decided I’d just go straight to the airport.
Well … I went straight to the Domestic Terminal, then walked round the corner to get a shot of an amusing sign – and kept on walking. In the midday heat, the walk to the International Terminal was a little arduous, but survivable. If I’d been quicker off the mark I would have taken a good photo of two planes, one landing, one taking off at the same time. By the time I fished my camera out of my pocket the plane taking off had passed me, and, just as I was about to snap the landing aircraft, a van came round the corner and blocked off my view of it.
Eventually, after straying into the cul-de-sac that was the Cargo Terminal, I got to the appropriate bit of the airport. With still nearly six hours before the flight. I had a cup of coffee (shock, horror! I did ask for green tea, but they’d sold out, apparently, and I’m not too keen on milkless black tea), read, bought a couple of cat ornaments, wandered around. After an hour or so reading I went for a walk round the terminal and discovered I had a twinge in my right calf (a tinge that is still present as I write this two days later). Towards four o’clock other waegugin arrived at the airport. I checked in, went through into Departures, read, got on the plane.
It was overcast and drizzly by take-off time, and the ascent was quite bumpy. When we got above the murky clouds, however, we were rewarded with the view. Cotton wool clouds made a fantastic landscape and the sky went from orange at the horizon through cyan, sky blue and up to indigo above. I read some more (The Darkness that Comes Before is quite engrossing – expect a positive review soon) received a meal (even though the flight is only an hour; these two flights have been my first taste of sushi, which I’ve found quite pleasant (although who knows what real sushi might taste like)), and then we were nearly ready to land. The view from the window now showed that night had fallen; Koreans cities appeared as networks of light, like a microscopic view of an ethereal being – you could even see car headlights like blood cells pushing through veins.
At Incheon Airport I dithered once more. Eventually, I bought a couple of books on the Korean language (one from each of two branches of the same shop – neither had them both) – one phrasebook and one vocabulary (containing the 6,000 most common Korean words according to the National Academy of the Korean Language). I checked my bank balance to find it now contained 574,000 won (more than I was expecting for my week or so’s work in September and equal to about 310 pounds – meaning I have the equivalent of ten GBP a day for October), then got on the limousine bus back to Ansan. I noticed people giving money to the driver as they got off at the various stops along the way (I noticed it on the outward trip, too, but I gave it more thought this time). I’m pretty sure they were paying him rather than tipping him – no tickets were checked or money taken as we got on. You have to wonder what sanction a driver holds if a person refuses to pay on arrival – threaten to drive them back? I almost found out as I got off – I was behind a man who had misplaced either his ticket or his money; however, I squeezed past and handed over my ticket.
From the bus station I went to the nearby Homeplus to get some milk (as I went in, I passed a couple of lads coming out who had hair as long as mine – the first such I’d seen in South Korea – they looked very Native American (which isn’t surprising, as Native Americans are, in racial terms, Asian (or Mongoloid, to use the unflattering technical term)). Then I walked home.
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