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Archive for November, 2008

To Jejudo

With my blackened, swollen foot beneath me, I set off for Gimpo Airport in western Seoul on Saturday morning after about one and a half hours of painful sleep. I only decided late on that the subway would be the best way to get there – often express buses are much quicker, but it looked like they don’t start until a relatively civilised 7 or 8 am. The subway stations, however – so I discovered – open at five (I had thought they opened at 5:30). So I got to Nowon Station just before opening time and waited while a member of staff raised the grille at the entrance. Once in the station, I had to wait about fifteen minutes for a train to arrive (from the wrong direction, in fact), and then another quarter of an hour for it to actually leave.

At the airport, I wandered around for a bit on my painful toe, not seeing any large groups of foreigners (there were supposed to be 30 or so people on the trip) and wishing I’d checked the meet-up details more thoroughly. Eventually, I sat by three westerners who were also ‘Gallivanting to Jeju’ (the name of the Facebook event). Further eventually, we decided we were in the wrong place and so went downstairs to look for another meeting place. Then we were directed upstairs again right back to the place where we’d been waiting.

The flight to Jeju Island took an hour and five minutes on the smallest aeroplane I’ve yet been on – only four seats to a row. Jeju can refer to either the island (Jejudo) or the city (Jeju-si (‘si’ (city) is pronounced like ‘she’)) or, indeed, the province (Jeju-do; a good example of the Korean language’s lack of diversity is the fact that ‘province’ and ‘island’ are the same phonetically and graphologically). It’s a popular holiday destination. If you ask a student what place (anywhere in the world) they’d like to visit, seven times out of ten they’ll say Jejudo. Its described as being the Korean equivalent of Hawaii – a volcanic island with a warm climate.

The largest national contingent on the trip seemed to be Americans (but some of those were probably Canadians – I’m sure I noticed one person saying ‘oat’ insteat of ‘out’); there was at least one New Zealander, and even a Russian girl who was studying language here. I was one of four Englishmen. Two of these were a couple of quiet young guys fresh out of university who were with a very short, quite cute Texan girl. These three worked together in Suwon, and they were my roommates.

The first item on the itinerary was supposed to be a two-hour hike to some ‘lava tubes’ (I still don’t understand what these are supposed to be). In the event, it was a five-minute hike up a hill. This hill wasn’t the place we were supposed to go to, but the actual destination apparently only allows a small number of visitors every day, so there we were. There was another, taller hill a little further on, but our group leader, Rudy, suggested time would be better spent doing something else and most people seemed to agree. Anyway, this hill provided a reasonable view of some the coastline and countryside, and there were a number of graves around it, each walled off with a neat square of basalt blocks.

Fields, Hills and Graves

The coastline and countryside of Jejudo is certainly one of the place’s main attractions. With its craggy cliffs (and even its tourist industry) it reminded me a lot of Wales. The fact that it has countryside (in a form recognisable to a Briton) probably makes it unique in Korea – it has grassy hills and wooded hills, horses and cattle. Also, the weather was very agreeable. I mentioned to a couple of people that late November on Jejudo was similar to a British summer (well, late spring, anyway).

Next (I can’t remember precisely if it was next, but the order of events doesn’t matter too much; I mean, you weren’t there – you can’t call me out on it), we went horse-riding. This consisted of a few minutes each on a horse, going round a very small course. I had a few horse-riding lessons when I was a child, but I hadn’t ridden at all since then, so I wasn’t especially moved one way or another by the prospect of this ride – and the advertised ten minutes seemed pathetic. It was actually quite fun. Eventually.

First off, you had to put on a wide-brimmed hat (not much protection in the event of a fall), a red waistcoat and riding boots. These boots had narrow toes, so squeezing my turbid foot into one was quite painful. After a wait that must have been longer than the ride itself, a group of us mounted our steeds (via a platform made of breeze blocks and tractor tyres). There was a rein, but it seemed that riders were supposed to hold on to a door handle-type thing at the front of the saddle. I quickly got into the rhythm of trotting – arse bouncing up and down in inverse rhythm with the horse’s back. I remember my last lesson as a child – it was cold and there was sleet biting into my face; for the first time I managed to get my horse to canter a few paces (remember, horses have four gaits: walk, trot, canter, gallop). It was a bit scary. The horses on Jejudo seemed quite competitive, so mine was cantering along for a while without any particular assistance from me. I want to go riding again, now.

From there – another whistlestop break on our crowded itinerary – we went on to lunch. The most memorable moment at the restaurant was when a boy walked past the end of our table – where I was sitting – and reached out to fondle my goatee. I didn’t stop him – I don’t really mind that kind of thing – but I turned around to give him a look for a moment.

Next up was a visit to a place on the coast that had served as a film set for various things. The beach consisted of pebbles, stones, rocks, boulders of black, porous basalt – certainly a dramatic setting. From where we parked we walked up a hill to the clifftop that sported along its length a rather ugly dol tap (‘stone tower’ – a mound of stones built for spiritual reasons) thing concreted together, a small lighthouse, a wooden Colonial-style church, and a smoke tower that didn’t really tower. It was a pleasant view – the sea was a rich deep blue underneath a summery sky, and inland there was much grass with a few flowers here and there.

Rocky Coast

Then we headed to a hedge maze. This was OK. I got a bit lost on my first attempt because I failed to match the reality to the map (or was it the other way around?). I doubled back nearly to the start and managed to navigate my way to the end from there. At one point you need to cross a bridge that goes over a few parallel paths. From here you get a decent view of the conifer hedges, but I don’t think it helps much in finding your way. At the maze’s conclusion you climb more steps to a raised platform where you can ring a bell to celebrate your successful transit. I rang it, though I also thought it was a bit childish.

Maze Bell

We left the maze later than was ideal because people got stuck inside. And from thence we travelled to a place that had been described as a 70’s theme park. In fact, it was much more interesting than this suggests – it was a museum of life in Korea before the economic boom of … whenever Korea became an Asian Tiger. Inside were displays of farming equipment, crafts, even mock-ups of towns from previous decades. Outside were gardens, a recreation of a simple watermill, an enclosure with rabits and chickens. It was getting pretty dark by this time so it was hard to appreciate the outdoor part.

Traditional Weaving

I think after that we had dinner – which was neither particuarly necessary after the substantial lunch nor particularly good – then we were taken to Love Land. I’ll say at this point that it had been a long day with a throbbing foot, a meagre night’s sleep and lots of activities. As a result I was even less than less than enthused about this stop on the trip. Love Land is probably best described as a pornographic theme park – which is to say it’s a park with a pornographic theme. There is a smallish building with displays of sex toys, rubber genitals, photos of sexual positions. Outside is a much larger garden full of sculptures of naked women, couples, breasts and reproductive organs.

I looked for my roommates to be for a while as the party broke up on entering, then decided I would just head round by myself. There was an hour scheduled for this and I marched through in about 15 minutes. Once out I sat on a rock wall (not basalt this time) by our coach with my left boot of and let my foot steam in the night air. 20 minutes or so later when I was getting pretty chilly (except for my left foot which had its own source of heat) the driver and what I’m guessing were his wife and son (she was part of the staff for the tour, handing out kimbap and tangerines and so on; the boy was just along for the ride, seemingly) came back and I could get back onboard.

Our next stop was our hotel. Our little gang of four was given our room number first, and we were all happy to get into it. The room was a lot nicer than any of us had been expecting, with, for instance, a huge plasma screen TV – which we never tried turning on. The room was toasty with the under-floor heating. Although the four of us were uninclined to indulge in the revelries of many of the people on the trip (we could hear them laughing and swearing outside through two layers of glass doors). Genna produced a deck of cards and we searched our memories for card games we knew well enough to actually play. It was relatively early when we got to the hotel – about ten, maybe – so we had time for an hour or so of cards before hitting the sack at midnightish.

Alarms were set for 7:30. As I’d anticipated, I was awake shortly before this, so I crept to the bathroom to shower and get dressed. I toyed with the idea of showing off my deformed toe, but that would have been a bit weird. We weren’t the first to get to breakfast, but we were among the first. Once we found where it was, anyway, which was in a building adjacent to the rooms (looking back, I don’t remember seeing anything like a lobby or reception area – maybe that was in its own building, too). Breakfast itself was a disappointingly modest self-service affair after the luxury of the rooms. I mean there were no hotel staff at all on hand – you toasted your own bread, while the guy from Adventure Korea fried eggs.

Once we’d eaten Genna, James, Steve and I went down to the water’s edge to get some fresh air and take photos – including a few of the cows in a paddock right next to the hotel (if hotel is really the right word). Again our departure was delayed because of a missing body – some girl had spent the night elsewhere and was having problems getting a taxi to bring her back.

Cow

At the top of the agenda for Sunday was a Chinese acrobatics show. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this too much, but it turned out to be very entertaining. Some of the performers seemed very young. One part of the show had two young women lying on benches and tossing a pair of tiny girls about with their feet. The dexterity, strength and balance of the acrobats was impressive. The grand finale was a sphere of death – a maybe six or eight metre high metal ball walled with grilles so you could see in, in which a guy rode round on a motorbike. He went round the equator and then pole to pole. Then he was joined by another rider, and they followed each other round, then took intersecting paths so they narrowly missed colliding. Then another bike entered the sphere. Then another. Then another. And then two more. It was pretty ridiculous, but undeniably thrilling. I videoed the climax of this and I’ll try and get it up on Daily Motion soon.

As the bikers exited the ball, an announcement came over the tannoy, apparently telling the audience to get the hell out, because as soon as the lights came up all the Koreans got to their feet and rushed to the exit. Meanwhile, the whole troupe had lined up at the front of the performance area, just a few feet from and on the same level as the amscraying audience. The poor acrobats stood there waving and looking thoroughly miserable as most people ignored them.

Our next stop was a green tea plantation. Unfortunately, although the place evidently catered to the tourist trade (there was a gift shop) there was no tour involved in this, we were just set down by the tea fields and left to wander and take photos for a while.

Tea Plantation

Next was a botanical gardens (or should that be some botanical gardens?). Because of the lateness of our departure in the morning and because apparently some people wanted to spend an hour later on shopping, this visit was limited to half an hour. Not nearly long enough – you could spend a whole day there, I’m sure. The centrepiece of the gardens was a great circular glasshouse with a tower at the centre. Walking up the steps to the top was fun (in a way), but the room-sized observation deck at the top was quite disappointing – the windows were tinted and dirty and there was no open-air walkway. However, the landing directly underneath had openable windows, so I took a range of panorama shots (coming to a Flickr page near you soon).

Botanical Gardens

There supposed to have been a walk to a waterfall on the Sunday but that got sacked off for reasons already mentioned. Our final port of call before Jeju International was a souvenir shop. This was vitally important for some people; for me, two days doesn’t really constitute a holiday, and, although mementos are nice, I’m not into buying presents for every single person I know. I did buy something, though – a basalt grandfather figure about six inches tall – a dol hareubang (stone grandfather). This is a representation of the deol harubang – the vaguely Easter Island-esque figures that are another thing for which Jejudo is famous.

Dol Hareubang

Finally, it was back to the airport for our return flight – in fact, flights. I was on a different, slightly earlier plane because of my late booking. I suggested to Genna, James and Steve that we keep in touch and we’re now Facebook friends. I shook hands with various people said goodbye and headed to the security control. Shortly later, I met some of the people I’d just said goodbye to because their flight was just after mine and left from the same gate. The only other person from the trip on my flight was the guy from Adventure Korea. He told me that he had a pretty good job – not because he got to go on vacation every weekend, but because his only duties were at weekends, which left his weekdays free for university.

Back at Gimpo I decided to try getting an express bus – and did, but I don’t really thing it was much quicker than taking the subway. And I had to get off at a place a little short of Nowon then take the subway anyway – and then the regular bus from Sanggye Station. At least the limousine bus was pretty comfortable, with large seats and decent breaks (unlike the juddery local buses).

And that was Jejudo. If I can be bothered making plans or if I can tag along with friends, I’d like to go again and take more time doing the interesting things. Korea’s tallest mountain is on Jejudo (it was often visible from the various locations on our tour, capped with snow), an extinct volcano called Hallasan (1950m) – it’d be a good challenge to climb it.

Hallasan

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Quentin Crisp.

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Not that unusual, actually, but not a normal, run-of-the-mill one, either. I found out or realised a couple of days before that the Jeju trip I had thought was for the last weekend in November was actually on the 22nd and 23rd. Which means that I can start my Korean classes again on the first day of the semester and I don’t have to miss a session of the fortnightly Savage Land game. Which is nice.

On Thursday I went back to Eulji hospital for another round of treatment on my warts. The small pretty doctor who had been administering the treatment took a blade to my feet again and then I saw the dermatologist. When he found out that my warts hadn’t blistered much he recommended another course of action – injections of something or other to kill the warts. I asked him if it would be painful, and he chuckled and said it was about the same as the liquid nitrogen.

Liar.

The small pretty doctor saw me again and injected each of my warts with the contents of a pair of small syringes. Whereas the liquid nitrogen treatment slowly builds to a crescendo of pain on application, these injection were simply instant, sharp pain. It wasn’t fun. My foot didn’t think so either, as it kept autonomously trying to jerk away. Once the injections were done a nurse put some gel on my toe with a swab and wrapped it in gauze and tape. After that it didn’t hurt too much.

And so I went to meet Paul in Gangnam. I’d asked him to lend me his books from our Korean classes so I could swot up beforehand and get put into the level two class. Unfortunately, I hadn’t remembered that Paul had been in the level two class after I’d left – so he gave me those books when I’d really been after the level one books.

It was good to see Paul again. Hanging out with him and Rachell was one of my favourite parts of staying in Korea last year. Hopefully I’ll inspire him to return to the Korean classes himself.

I returned to Nowon-gu on the express bus (which I had to wait twenty minutes for – longer than usual) with my foot causing me no particular problems.

After our classes Botond and I agreed to go and see either Max Payne or Blindness, whichever was more convenient. It turned out neither were convenient, so instead we went to Boti’s place and watched some of the comedies I’d downloaded recently: the first episodes of Extras and Spaced, a B series edition of QI, and – best of all, because I haven’t seen them for years and Bo seemed to really enjoy them – the first three episode of the great Fawlty Towers (‘Don’t drive over any mines, dear.’ … ‘I fought in the Korean War, you know. I killed four men.’ ‘He was in the catering corps – he used to poison them.’)

At Bo’s place, as usual, I took my shoes off inside; we also had a look at my toe – there was nothing much to see – and I threw away the gauze and tape. Unfortunately, this allowed my feet to swell up and get quite painful. And the following day – now – they still are. They also have black blotches where I was injected – as the small pretty doctor predicted. First up on the itinerary for Jeju is a two-hour hike. Which is nice.

My foot on Friday night, before the Jeju trip:

Friday Night Toe

My foot on Saturday night, after Jeju:

Saturday Night Toe

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Randy Hickey, My Name is Earl.

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Earl Hickey’s Hindu doctor, My Name is Earl.

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Earl Hickey on joining a gang in prison, My Name is Earl.

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I was up quite early on Thursday, the day of my date with Sukyung. First stop: Eulji Medical Center for liquid nitrogen applied to the foot.

The blisters from my previous treatment had long since stopped being painful and were healing well, although many of the warts were still intact. Once on the small Skin Clinic ward a nurse put some gauze on my toe then squirted water on to it and left it to soak. After a few minutes the same small, attractive doctor came round and attacked the dead skin with a blade. Then she concluded, as I’d already done, that I need another round of treatment.

I went back to the payment station outside the clinic and paid. After a short wait the doctor once again pressed liquid nitrogen-impregnated cotton wool buds into my warts. As I’d expected, it was a little more painful than last time, but only very slightly. I went away trying not to limp – that just makes my foot and leg sore in extra places.

And off I went to Lotte Avenuel Cinema near Euljiro Ipgu station (from Eulji to Euljiro) to buy two tickets for Quantum of Solace. Sukyung had asked earlier if it was OK if she brought a friend. Of course, I said that was ‘goaenchanhayo’ (‘fine’). Then she told me her friend was unwell – had lost her voice, in fact – so I should just buy two tickets. Which I did.

On my way back to Eunhaeng Sagori I received a phone call from someone who is organising a trip to Jeju Island at the end of the month. I’d expressed an interest, but hadn’t actually signed up; partly because of laziness, partly because she’d stated on the Facebook page ‘Gallivanting to Jeju’ that if she didn’t get 30 people signed up she’d have to cancel the event – and as the deadline passed there were only 20 or so. Anyway, she called me to say that if I could transfer funds to her in the next couple of hours I’d be in – albeit on a slightly earlier flight than everyone else.

So instead of spending an hour in Starbucks, I went to the KEB branch near Nowon Station (Eunhaeng Sagori means ‘Bank Junction’ and of the several banks in the area, not one is a KEB; and my stupid hagwon refuses to pay salaries into accounts with any other bank). Using the transfer function was a lot easier than I’d feared – the machines have an option for English. Once I’d made the transfer I decided to update my passbook. I thought the machine could automatically turn to the right page, so I ended up with my recent transactions printed over the information on the first page. D’oh.

With that done there was just about time to get a drink and croque monsieur from Starbucks to take into work. At the end of the working day I probably dawdled a bit too much. When Sukyung called me at eight o’clock I was at Dongdaemun Station waiting for a transfer. But I was pretty close. When I got to the box office there was no sign of her; I called her and she told me she had gone of exploring. While I was waiting, I headed to the toilets to apply some body spray. Walking out of washroom, I got a call from Sukyung asking me where I was. D’oh.

We didn’t have much time for anything but heading straight into the flick. As I usually do, I enjoyed the movie. It probably wasn’t as good as Casino Royale because the novelty of the new style and direction – well, is no longer new. The digital picture was crystal clear, although I thought the screen seemed too small for the auditorium. The fight and action scenes were pretty brutal and interesting; the part where Bond and a bad guy fall through a glass ceiling and the camera follows right behind was pretty memorable – but then it was in the trailer. Not sure how much I liked the female protagonist – she was too tanned and sulky. The really interesting thing about the film is that it is undeniably the second episode in an ongoing story. The man Bond captures at the beginning of the film (which is previewed at the very end of Casino Royale) escapes and his organisation remains a mystery to be solved in a future 007 installment.

The film ended and we left. I was conscious that we didn’t have a huge amount of time left for actual socialising (as opposed to silent proximity), but we ended up at a bibimbap restaurant where I had bibimbap and Sukyung had prawn dumplings (which I helped her finish off). Anyway, we talked for a while, although it didn’t quite feel as comfortable as the previous couple of times I’d seen her. Still a pleasant evening, though.

I don’t know if there’s anything else on the horizon for us – she’s been at a conference today, and I’m expecting to roleplay tomorrow. Maybe next weekend.

Finally, while my foot was quite painful for most of Thursday, on Friday the pain had subsided and there were no fresh blisters to speak of. I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

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