Archive for September, 2009

Ever in a day

It was a busy weekend.

On Saturday morning I went, with Habiba, some of her colleagues and Charlie, on the Korean Foundation Volunteer Network’s latest event – a so-called Palace Break (after Prison Break). This was held at Changgyeong Palace in Central Seoul. I’d been there once before with Bo, but this time I saw some different parts, including the adjacent Dongmyo – a shrine for the dead kings of Korea.

Sean and Habiba 2

The event was a gentle treasure hunt, with five or six easy clues to decipher. It wasn’t really that much fun, but it was nice to go round the palace and to meet a few new people – our team consisted of Habiba and me and three attractive European women: an Armenian, and Pole and a Hungarian. They’re all in the country studying the language – although they all seem to speak it fairly well already.

Charlie and I had to leave early – before lunch – in order to go to work. After that we met Habiba’s friend Cybele and a couple of her friends in Itaewon for a very decent Pakistani buffet meal.

On the following day, the hagwon I’ve been working for on Saturdays organised a trip to Korea’s largest amusement park – Everland. I was invited, along with Charlie and Habiba – for free, no less. We were expecting to have to keep an eye on a group of children when we were there, but we were free to go and do as we pleased. And that’s what we did. Our child-free group was completed by Charlie’s friend Ju, who also works at the hagwon.


I hadn’t been to an theme park since a school trip to Alton Towers way back in the mists of time. It was fun, there’s no denying it, although I tend to look down my nose at such childish pursuits. We went on a number of rides, including the big rollercoaster, the T Express (sponsored by a mobile phone company), twice.

That was some experience. Although the queue was pretty long, and we were informed the wait would be an hour, it didn’t seem all that long a wait – about half an hour. The queue winds through the supports of the rollercoaster, and every few moments you hear the thunder of a car rushing by overhead and the screams of the passengers. Sometimes you can see the car whizzing past. It gave me the feeling of hunting some mysterious beast in the forest and every now and then catching a glimpse of it.

The ride to the top at the beginning takes you high up in the air, providing a good view of the rest of the park – except you’re not really concentrating on that. The first dip is ridiculous – you go down almost vertically. It’s pretty terrifying watching the world and the rest of the rollercoaster yaw upwards in front of you until you’re heading straight downwards. The rest of the ride was pretty good too, with lots of moments where you’d be thrown right out of your seat if weren’t for the restraints.

T Express

I thought that would be the outstanding highlight among the rides we went on, but a there were a couple of others that proved almost as exciting. They were both in ‘Rocks Ville’ (themed on 1950s America) and the both involved rows of chairs on arms that rose into the air and rotated unpredictably. The latter of these two was particularly violent. I thought it was fun, but the others seemed to think it was a bit much being turned upside down and suddenly jerked back and forth and round.

The weather was nice the whole day and the park wasn’t as crowded as imagination would have led us to expect. Some of the rides were out of commission – no doubt because it wasn’t peak season. On only a couple of occasions during our seven hours or so there did we run into students from the hagwon.

So we had a great time, but we weren’t entirely sure why we were there at all. The director of the hagwon had told me that he would get a free adult ticket for every ten child tickets he got – but there were more like five kids for every adult that went. Charlie suggested he just wanted some foreigners present to show off to the parents. Whatever, we were all grateful for him offering to take us.

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Air and water

On Sunday, Habiba and I went paragliding and rafting. The trip was organised through Facebook by someone called Shiraz Moe. This person had arranged for the same trip to happen on both Saturday and Sunday; as they’d been on the Saturday trip they weren’t around for Sunday’s expedition. Which made things a little confusing – but only a little.

We got to the pick-up point at Hangangjin Station about ten minutes before the scheduled leaving time of 8 am. There were a number of people going on the trip and the bus driver. We set off late – at 8:10 – apparently because some people failed to turn up. In total, there were 17 people on the trip, I think – including a handful each of South Africans and Brits and a Korean or Korean-North American couple. The guy of this latter pair became our translator for the day.

The outward journey took about three hours. There was a brief stop at a busy service station – the toilets were very crowded. I tried using a urinal, but, having a very shy bladder, that didn’t work out, so I had to wait five or ten minutes for a toilet cubicle. By the time Habiba and I got out the toilets there wasn’t really time to get a drink … but we did so anyway – and were the last ones back on the bus.

The rafting and paragliding were held a separate places at a town near Pyeongchang. Paragliding was first up. Our bus was met in the town by a minibus from the paragliding school, and they led us to a place just outside town with a small river wending its way between small forested mountains, farmland occupying the narrow plains between the hills – typical Korean landscape. The weather was fine – paragliders could be seen meandering down from a nearby peak against the blue sky.


The school gave us a brief training lecture (the Korean guy amongst us translating when the staff’s broken English didn’t suffice – after which they relied on him for all the translation). Then they divided us into three groups. Neither Habiba nor I were in the first group. Which was good, as we both needed the toilet. It turned out that I was in the second group, while Habiba was in the last. However, once the first group returned to earth, the second and third groups were ferried up to the peak together along a narrow, winding road.

Paragliding Centre

Once up the at the take-off site, I dressed in my black and red jumpsuit, with kneepads, gloves and helmet. I was the last of my group to go. I didn’t really feel nervous at all – unlike the talkative Canadian girl who kept insisting she was going to be sick or pull out (she did neither). The mountain was 400 metres high, apparently and afforded a decent view of the surrounding countryside – it was a little hazy, and the sunlight reflecting off the haze made the air milky.

The View from the Top

We all flew tandem – the instructor sitting behind us. Take-off technique amounted to running towards and partly down the cleared area of slope by the take-off site until the canopy caught sufficient air that it pulled us away. After that you just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Captain Maybe

Which was nice. The instructed made a few turns and chatted a little as much as his English and my Korean allowed. I took some photos and videos, but mostly just took in the view. The ride was smooth and relaxing – almost relaxing to the point of being boring, but not quite.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

For the landing we approached an area of sand that had been cleared among the rocks at a bend in the river. I lifted my knees as we’d been told – and landed hard on my arse, dropping my camera in the process. It hurt a bit, but it was nothing serious. The instructor quickly got up and unbuckled me from the rigging. I thanked him, and that was the end of my go.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

We then had a long wait for the remaining few to come down, as our equipment had to be ferried up to the top once again. Habiba was the last person to come down. She looked very happy (in her tight-fitting black and yellow jumpsuit).

Lieutenant Habiba

After that we went for a lunch of kimchijigae at a restaurant in town, then it was off to go rafting.

I was a little underprepared for the rafting – the clothes I should have worn are at Bo’s place, so I was wearing my grey shirt and jeans. I managed to swap my boots for a light pair of bright yellow rubber slippers. After some waiting around we were taking downstream from the centre to a point where three dinghies were waiting for us at the side of the river.

Sean and Habiba

The river was placid – it consisted of longish stretches of flat water disturbed every now and then by barely submerged rocks; at the bends it was pinched in by the rocky river shore. Wooded hills rose on either side of us and hid the sinking sun. It was very pleasant, but the feeling of being in the midst of nature was spoilt a little by the omnipresent road, and bits of rubbish on the strand.

Fourteen of us did the rafting, so we split ourselves into two groups of five and one of four – this latter consisting of Habiba, me, a lad from Sheffield and a girl from somewhere on the island of Ireland (who were a couple). Our instructor was a young Korean guy with very limited English. He had us repeating a simple, two-word chant in time our paddling strokes – ‘One! Two!’ and we’d say ‘One! Two!’ ‘Yong! Cha!’ ‘Yong! Cha!’ ‘Ui! Sha!’ ‘Ui! Sha!’ ‘Letch! Go!’ ‘Let’s! Go!’

The rafting never felt very dangerous – the river was pretty gentle and rarely seemed particularly deep. We paddled backwards and forwards, racing occasionally with the other dinghies – or having splash fights (at least until one of the South African women told us all to stop). At the end of the ride we had a race – which our raft won. Our prize, it seemed, was to play a game called ‘viking’. This involved gathering in the back of the dinghy and rocking back and forth – aft to fore – until the thing capsized. Wow. What fun. Actually, it was kind of enjoyable, but just a bit random and unexpected.

The four of us got back into the rafting centre bus dripping wet. It wasn’t too cold – at least until we got going and the wind streamed in through the open windows. Back at headquarters we changed into our spare clothes; the boys changed mostly in silence, while in the adjacent tent room the girls chatted about their tattoos and stuff.

Then we all got back aboard our bus and embarked on the journey back to Seoul. Because of all the people doing the same thing – people coming back from a day or weekend break – the traffic was pretty bad for a about a hundred kilometres outside the capital. It took about five hours to get back. Habiba seemed to get increasingly unhappy about this, but she managed to get some sleep. Once we arrived back at the pick-up point, we jumped in a taxi and had it away on our toes and were back at home some time just before midnight.

It was a good day all in all, despite all the travel involved – and all for ₩122,000 (about £60).

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Going home

On the Tuesday morning of my trip back to the UK, after another breakfast of toast with cheese and ham or jam at the hostel, I checked out and headed up to Victoria Station with my heavy backpack and laptop bag. I had been hoping to meet up with Linda from the Liberal Democrats in Camden, but we couldn’t make it happen. I spoke to her on the phone from the station, though. £1.10 doesn’t go very far when you’re calling a mobile – fortunately, Linda was good enough to call back.

Although, I was at a loose end for much of the time in London, I would have liked to have stayed there longer – to settle in a bit and relax, to do some proper sightseeing, and most importantly to get to see more people – Colin, Morgane, people from the Lib Dems.

From Victoria I got the Tube up to Euston to await my train back to Runcorn. (Did I mention before how small London Underground trains are compared to the Seoul Metro? They’re tiny.) The train ride went OK. Although Runcorn is on the main line from Euston to Liverpool, my cheap ticket (£23.50) had me change at Crewe, where there was a slight delay.

Runcorn Station, while it looks just the same from the outside – a bland little 60s or 70s cuboid – has been completely refurbished insde. It’s now all clean and white and modern. It’s strangely incongruous with Runcorn’s general tired grottiness.

I walked the mile or so to my parents’ home. My mum was at home, along with their new dog, Bobby (who was there the last time I visited) and half a dozen somewhat sickly cats. Absent were my dad (at work) and their old dog, Pip, and my cat, Fluff – both of whom had died in the past year.

I was disappointed that I hadn’t heard anything about Fluff before now, but that level of communication is par for the course between me and my family. My mum said she’d been sick and seemed to have been getting better, but then suddenly died. She wasn’t that old – no more than ten, I think.

I gave my mum a variety of presents – some silver-plated chopsticks, some ‘dragon’s beard’ sweets, some black rice and dried seaweed – kim. We had the rice and kim for dinner the next day along with some trout. The evening I got home, though, we went to a pub restaurant on the edge of town where I had just about the most English food I could order – fish and chips with mushy peas and apple crumble for desert. I showed them various pictures of Korea and Habiba and told them about same. During my stay I also spoke on the phone to my grandmother, Nana. She’s from Austria; it’s been a very long time since I last spoke to her – she sounded a lot more Teutonic than I remembered.

The next day – after some confusing communication – I met my former manager, Ann, along with another old colleague, Karl. We had a cup of tea together (well, I had tea, she had coffee, Karl abstained) in the central square of Shopping City (I wonder how well its new (actually, now fairly old) name of ‘Halton Lea’ has caught on). Ann has just taken redundancy from the Department of Schools Children and Families or whatever it’s called these days (it was the Department for Education and Skills when I was there, having just been renamed from the Department for Education and Employment). However, as soon as she left, she got some temp work back in the building. With a lump sum of three years’ salary and lots of free time, she’s in a pretty enviable situation.

Later on Wednesday, my dad drove us over to Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire, where my sister lives. My niece and nephew, Nelly and Tom, both gave me big hugs. I also got to see the new addition to the family, Maisy, who was six weeks old at the time. I gave out more presents, more traditional sweets, more rice and kim, plus a flexible wooden snake for Tom and a pretty wooden comb for Nelly.

I stayed there for two nights. On my full day on Thursday, I went to Manchester for a little while. I was thinking of getting presents, but I ended up just getting stuff for myself – the new Steven Erikson book, Dust of Dreams, The Name of the Wind by a newly published author called Patrick Rothfuss, plus a batch of new Magic: The Gathering cards, the first I’ve bought for about three years.

Later on, I went to the large Tesco on the edge of the small town of Whaley for a few things for gifts. I got a 4kg bag of basmati rice – taking rice to Korea may seem like taking coals to Newcastle, but Indian rice isn’t that easy to get hold of (but not impossible). I also got some herb teas and a teapot.

Early on Friday morning, I caught the train to Bath (via Stockport, Brimingham New Street and Bristol Temple Meads; the most expensive of my train trips at £64) where I met my friend Alex. He offered to carry a bag for me so I offered him Habiba’s big blue backpack, stuffed full of clothes, books and random stuff. He declined. We went to a Cornish Bakehouse for a delicious spicy chicken pasty (for me, at any rate) (90 pence cheaper than in London), then to Sainsbury’s to stock up on snackages for the night.

When we got back to his place – he lives with his mum in a detached house above town; I didn’t see his mum, Jackie – she spent the night with her boyfriend – when we got back to his place we basically played Magic, ate and drank (tea for me, rum and coke for him) until about 6 am when I decided I really needed a bit of sleep. We had fun. Alex is in training to become a plumber – if he can make a go of it, it could be a good move: people always need to use water, after all. He also, as he did last time, filled my hard drive with a load of films – probably enough to keep me and Habiba entertained for the next 18 months.

Alex is a really friendly guy, full of exuberance and always ready to lend a sympathetic ear. It was good to see him, and relive some of the old days when I was at university and roleplaying and playing MtG on a regular basis.

Although I thought we’d left the house early enough on Saturday morning to get to Bath Spa Station in time for my train at 12:13 (£30), it turned out that wasn’t quite the case. We walked down into town at about 11:30, playing ‘A ship came into the harbour carrying a load of …’. The longer it took and the closer we got, the more I started worrying about the time. At the station I had to use the ticket machine to pick up the tickets I’d booked online. I got to the platform just as my train was closing its doors. I hurried onboard just behind a girl who was similarly tardy.

The train went to Paddington, where I got the Heathrow Express to Terminal 5. I finished reading Titus Groan, and at Heathrow, I swapped that book out of my bag in favour of Dust of Dream. I also squeezed in as much stuff as possible into Habiba’s blue backpack. On the plane from Heathrow to Beijing I started reading the Steven Erikson book, got some sleep and watched Aliens vs Monsters.

At Beijing, strange things happened. Slightly unusual things, anyway. I and another Brit teaching in Korea were met coming off the plane by a member of staff, then escorted through Immigration, past Baggage, on to a bus to another terminal and up to Check In. All for no particular reason that we could fathom. My plane to Incheon left fairly soon, but the other guy had a four-hour wait.

While checking in, the woman asked me whether I had a bag to check in. I tried to get the woman to confirm that my bag was checked through to Incheon, and she said Yes. Once I’d gone through security I didn’t have that much time before my plane left, so I decided against exchanging £5 (my last Sterling note) for whatever it is they have in mainland China in order to buy a cup of tea.

I waited for my flight to start boarding, then queued up and handed over my boarding pass. I was then told my bag hadn’t been delivered by British Airways and that I should contact them once I got to Incheon Airport. Oh. Um. There wasn’t really anything I could do so I got onboard the plane and worried and wondered whether I should have waited to pick up my bag at the first terminal after all.

Nevertheless, I managed to fall asleep for a bit before we took off – during which time the plane was delayed for nearly half an hour. It arrived in Korea similarly late, and, by the time I’d been to the bathroom, through Immigration and walked from one end of the baggage hall to the other almost all the bags on the carousel had been taken – and there was Habiba’s backpack.

Habiba herself was waiting for me outside. We had a bite to eat and a drink and headed back up to her place … which is now our place.

Overall, it was nice to get back to Britain, but it wasn’t long enough, really. Not nearly long enough. And, to be honest, it didn’t feel like going home. I’m very used to living in Korea, now, lots of aspects of life here are very comfortable. So coming back here – and especially coming back to Habiba – feels much more like a homecoming than the previous week when I visited friends and family.

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