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Posts Tagged ‘food’

… another year, that is.

Having met Mary the day before, we’d made plans and I duly went to meet her at Ewha Women’s University, where she’s a student. We went to a cat café – the first time I’d been to one, which is pretty astonishing, given how much I love cats. We were the only customers there until four schoolgirls came in later. There were about fifteen cats in the moderately sized café, perhaps more, of lots of breeds – longhairs with and without squishy faces, some tabbies, including something like an ocicat, and a calm, assertive pair of Siamese or similar cats that sat on our table and let us adore them. I’m not really up on cat breeds, so I can only guess at their types.

Idae Cat Café

The place looked very clean, but was a little smelly. The cats were mostly friendly and inquisitive, but some of them evidently didn’t like some of their fellow inmates. We got coffees for ourselves and a tiny cup of treats for the cats and mused on the kind of life the cats must have and must’ve had in the past.

Afterwards, Mary took me a museum on the nearby campus that contained lots of hanbok – traditional clothing – and furniture. We walked down the trench that is the main architectural feature of the university – as a building, it’s appropriately uterine rather than phallic – and had a look, and lunch, inside.

Ewha Women's University

For much of the day, we’d been expecting Matthew to join us, but he turned out to be excessively busy with work. We even went to see a film (One Day; annoyingly will-they-won’t-they-ish at first, but it grew on me somewhat; Anne Hathaway was especially lovely as the freckly, bespectacled, northern British protagonist) to wait for him. He turned up as we were having dinner and we had drinks together afterwards.

The following day, I played Magic and a new (to me) game called Zombies!!! with Eric. I’ve not hung out with him that much, but he’s a very nice chap and it was good to chat with him.

The next day, I went on a hike near Anyang – for which I’d especially bought crampons the day before from one of a series of outdoors gear shops I’d seen lots of times when I lived in Cheongdam. The crampons worked extremely well; having slipped and slid on packed snow the last time I’d gone for a hike, the grip provided made me feel especially stable.

The hike was organised by a couple of groups: Indigo Hill and the unfortunately named SHITY – Sunday Hikers Interested in Trekking Yet-again. It lasted over five hours and the weather was very cold and very sunny. The snow wasn’t very thick on the ground, but thick enough to beatify the landscape in that way that only snow can; it clung to the limbs of pine trees in lumpy lines.

Mountain Near Anyang

Afterwards, we went for a meal of chicken stew with lots of side dishes. The leaders of the group were very friendly – as, indeed, were all the hikers. There was an American guy who could apparently teach you anything – scuba diving, skiing, salsa dancing (but this latter only if you were of the opposite gender). I exchanged numbers with a few people. Later, a smaller group of us went to a singing room or noraebang in the nearby city, where I gave a rather unsteady rendition of ‘The Day That Never Comes’ by Metallica (and rather better performances of ‘We Will Rock You’ and ‘Strange Kind of Woman’). A cute hiker with not much English and the unusual name of Ok (pronounced something like ‘oak’) dragged me to my feet to dance.

The next day, New Year’s Eve, I met one of the hikers I exchanged details with the previous day for coffee. After meeting her, I headed straight over to Gangnam for the first stage of the New Year’s Eve event I’d signed up for on Meetup.com. This consisted of dinner at one of the chains of western-ish-style buffet restaurants that are popular in Korea – Ashley’s. The food was mediocre at best, but there was a limitless supply of four wines (which I mostly liked, so they were probably crap, too). I said hello to various people and exchanged introductions, sat with three American girls for dinner and we were joined by a Korean and a South African couple.

Afterwards, we had to take the subway across the city to Hongdae for the other part of the package – Club Mansion. There’s really nothing mansion-like about this place, but it’s one of the more exclusive places, apparently costing ₩20,000 to get in. I danced with a couple of women that I liked; had a brief and fairly innocent romantic moment with one, but, alas, I don’t think anything will develop between me and any of the three women I met that day.

I did quite get into the dancing – which is surprising. Shocking, even. The very idea of dancing usually fills me with a vague sense of humiliation. But with five glasses of wine and a few beers in my belly as well as no one around that I knew (and therefore no expectations on me to behave in the way that I expect them to expect me to behave), I was able to enjoy the time in the way that one is supposed to enjoy it. Mary also turned up at the club (which is how I know how much it cost), but we didn’t spend much time together.

Later, I hung out at the Hongdae Tom N Toms, waiting for the subway to open, with a young guy I’d met in the group of people I’d tagged along with. He fell asleep as we sat at a table and I was deeply engrossed in my smart phone – and pretty sleepy myself. When I woke him up to leave, he didn’t have his phone – the upshot being that it had almost certainly been stolen. Someone might almost literally have snatched it from under my nose as it sat on the table. The fact that my own phone may have been taken from someone in similar circumstances made me feel extra crappy – although not nearly as crappy as my New Year’s acquaintance.

That morning, I got back to Zach’s place at maybe seven o’clock. I woke up at 10:30 and decided not to try to sleep more. Matthew and I played Magic later in the day and I headed back to Cheonan in the evening.

The following day, I met three people at an Indian restaurant near Cheonan Station for dinner. The food was great – I had a buttery chicken curry (can’t remember exactly what kind) – and the three women (Americans) were nice and friendly (as, too, was the chatty guy (American) who didn’t join us, but hung around for a while after he’d finished his own, separate meal). They’d all travelled varying distances for the meal – which someone had suggested on a Facebook group – and, with my hours of 2:00 to 9:30 and my determination to do lots of social stuff in Seoul and Daegu at weekends, I’m unlikely to see them again soon.

At some point in the day or two after the, dare I say, euphoria of New Year’s Eve, I had a kind of emotional crash. A small one. I don’t often spontaneously cry – by which I mean, not without reason, but without a trigger – but this was one of those times. I was feeling lonely and pitiful and kind of stupid. To some degree, I became someone else on New Year’s Eve and I was expecting him to be more successful at flirtation and romance than I’ve ever been. Naïve of me to think that kind of thing is ever easy.

Still, the year is yet young, and, in just a few days from now, I will have money to spare for trips and events and suchlike and we will see what happens.

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The first official day of my holiday, Wednesday the 26th, passed uneventfully. I did a bit of writing, picked up the rest of my medicine, discovered I somehow wasn’t covered by national health insurance, contacted my boss then heard from her that someone at the government had made a mistake and it should be sorted out by the next day. Later, I dropped some shirts at a dry cleaners for ironing, got a haircut, went to a kimbap place for dinner – where I met Namy, my other colleague; she’s off to America for a month soon, so she was with her replacement, a young Korean guy who used to be a student at the hagwon. They were both on their dinner break – the guy is evidently replacing me, too, while I’m off.

Afterwards, I watched Sucker Punch – which was better than I thought it was going to be. A little, anyway. It was completely silly – a mish-mash of computer game cut-scenes linked by a non-sensical escape plot framed within a deceptive melodrama. It worked, though; it was visually spectacular and perfectly well acted. I particularly liked the fantasy-within-a-fantasy structure and the denouement was pretty bold. I could have done without the pretentious voiceovers at the beginning and end.

I had a fairly early start the next day. I packed my suitcase for five days in Seoul, picked up my shirts, packed one, and headed off to the railway station.

I got off at Yeongdeungpo in western Seoul, where I met Helena, a very sweet woman I worked with when I worked in Gangnam. She drove us to a Homeplus, where we had shabu-shabu for lunch (shabu-shabu is a kind of soup that cooks on a hob on your table; this particular place was buffet-style, so you picked your own ingredients to go in the watery stock: bean sprouts, bak choi, spring onions, beef, baby octopuses, prawns etc; the man on the till when we left told us it was a Mongolian dish, though Helena said it’s common all over east Asia and Wikipedia says it’s Japanese but originally from China). We talked about our lives in the past few years; she told me what she knew of the other people we worked with. She seems very happy and know has her own cottage industry making leather wallets, passport cases and suchlike.

Afterwards, I headed to Sinsa and to Zach’s place. Zach’s out of the country, visiting friends and family in the States, but he very kindly agreed to let me stay there while I was up in Seoul. I retrieved the key from its super secret hiding place and let myself in. I got on the internet and signed up for a New Year’s Eve party; then I went to the KEB handily located just across the main road to transfer funds pay for it.

As I was thinking of what to do next, I remembered my friend Ji-hyeon. I’d sent her a couple of e-mails telling her I was due back in the country, but had had no reply. I searched my mails for a phone number for her and texted a message to it. A minute later she called and we arranged to meet an hour later. Fortuitously enough, she has recently started working in Sinsa, so she came straight from work to meet me for a coffee (well, she had hot chocolate).

The last time I saw her was at her wedding. She sent me an e-mail earlier in the year telling me she was pregnant; she now has a four-month-old baby boy. She showed me a video, and he’s a happy, bonny baby – they usually are. We caught up on each other’s lives, but we had barely an hour together as she wanted to get home to her son and husband.

I ate dinner then headed to Hongdae to meet Mary. I don’t know Mary so well, having only really met her a few times, but she’s a lovely person, so when she texted me in response to my Facebook message about my new phone number I was glad to arrange to meet her. We had a quite serious and occasionally gruesome conversation over a couple of drinks in a couple of bars. And we made arrangements to meet again today with Matthew for a Mary-led tour of Ewha Women’s University, where she’s a student.

And that’s what I’ll be doing very soon. This holiday is turning out to be extremely packed with social events and socialsing: seeing my three friends yesterday, meeting Mary and Matthew today, gaming tomorrow, hiking with a group on Sunday, New Year’s Eve party on Monday, dinner with some Cheonan people on Wednesday (I’ll finally get to meet some Cheonanites! (besides those I work with)). So much social interaction is quite unlike me, but, being stuck down in Cheonan and working the hours that I work, I feel that I have to take advantage of all such opportunities I can.

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A couple of weeks ago – on my first weekend back in Korea – I went up to Seoul on the subway. Quite impressively, Line 1 of the Seoul subway system comes all the way down to Cheonan and beyond. My journey up to central/north-eastern Seoul took two and a half hours.

I met a couple of friends for a few, too-brief minutes to pick up a box of things I’d left with them. I packed all the stuff into my small suitcase and left the box behind. I realised I’d forgotten to bring with me a box of chocolates I’d bought in the UK for them.

Afterwards, I headed to Apgujeong and to the HSBC bank (which stands, I’ve recently learnt, for Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation; I never knew that, but it explains the Chinese imagery in their adverts) to use my credit card to get some money; Korean banks don’t generally work with foreign cards, in my experience.

Back in Cheonan, I did more shopping for household items – especially kitchenware. On Sunday, I cooked my first meal in my new home – spaghetti bolognese … actually, specifically vegetable bolognese with fusilli tricolore. I’ve been cooking a fair amount since then – mostly vegetable curry and vegetable bolognese.

Yesterday, I got my first bread, cheese and eggs and had a lunch of fried egg on toast with Philadelphia, green olives and extra hot sauce. It was so good, I had the same again today. Need more bread, now.

Last weekend, I travelled to Daegu on the train and spent the weekend with Peter. On the Saturday, he was having a get-together, for which he made lentil soup and a Chinese aubergine dish. One of his other guests made chocolate cookies – in front of an audience. Later we watched a film (Brick, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt) that I became certain that I’d seen at the cinema when I lived in London; I didn’t recognise any specific scenes or actors, but it was nevertheless strikingly familiar.

Later, the cookie-maker led us in a joyfully politically incorrect game called Cards Against Humanity. Later still, that same gentleman took us to a bar in Daegu. The following day, Peter and I played Magic: The Gathering and, in the evening, he rushed me back to the station, where I was just in time to catch the 20:01 train.

I’ve been writing every weekday morning/lunchtime. I haven’t found a perfect place to write yet, though. The two branches of Starbucks in/near Shinsegae are too far away (I could go by bus, but it’s money I don’t need to spend); Ssangyong Library was far too quiet when I went there (it didn’t help that a man came and sat too close to me when he had practically a whole, quite large room full of empty seats to choose from); the Tom N Toms had lame coffee and loud music and overlooked a main street that filled up with students (by which I mean that young, Korean women are distractingly attractive); I thought the Caffe Pascucci at Ssangyong Station was pretty good on my first day, but, subsequently, the music got louder and more intrusive (even when I had my earplugs in and my headphones on to block out sound); I was excited to find a Starbucks in the E-Mart in Ssangyong yesterday, but today I found that the only power points appear to be built into a table in the middle of the café, and it was also extremely cold.

I hope to find the least worst place to write soon.

The only weekday I haven’t spent my pre-work hours writing recently was last Friday, when my boss met me at the hospital, where I picked up my medical report, and took me to the immigration office to apply for my Alien Registration Card. She paid for the taxi trip, but I had to pay for the immigration stamp (₩10,000). I can return to pick it up on or after the 14th of December – next Friday. Hopefully, very shortly after that, I’ll have a bank account and health insurance.

Work is going quite well; pretty chilly, though.

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Last week, after less than a week of waiting, I got my visa issuance number from my recruiter. The next step was to submit my application to the Korean embassy in London. I decided that I would go down to hand it in in person. This would allow the staff to see it first and let me know if there was any problem (for instance, I wasn’t sure whether I should also hand over my old passport with my previous visas in it) – and I would be able to see friends while I was there. I considered staying down in London so I could pick my passport up when it was ready, but it seemed likely that it would take the full five working days or longer to process (a British friend from Korea advised me that that was likely – he’d received his only shortly before he was due to leave the country) and London is expensive.

On Tuesday night, I stayed up to watch the BBC coverage of the US presidential election (elections to Congress weren’t covered in much detail). Americans got it right again – making up for electing George W Bush twice. Given that various Tea Party Republicans were voted out and liberal policies approved in referenda, I wonder whether Mitt Romney might have done a lot better if he’d been allowed to present himself as the moderate he supposedly really is. I eventually went to bed at 7am, meeting my sister and her kids on the way as they got up. I was able to rise again at the not unreasonable hour of midday.

The following night, I was in bed at about midnight and up again at five o’clock in order to get a 6:35 train to Manchester and an 8 o’clock coach to London (the outbound trip cost just £9 with National Express and the return £12.50 – which somehow managed to add up to £29.50 along with insurance, booking fee and so on).

The Korean embassy is on Buckingham Gate, just off Victoria and a short walk from Victoria Coach Station. The coach arrived at 13:20, so I got lunch from the Subway at the shopping mall adjacent to the railway station and arrived at the embassy just after 2pm, when they re-opened after lunch. The woman on duty at one of the windows inside told me assertively that the visa section was closed. I suggested to her that I could just hand my documents in, but that was unacceptable. As soon as I had this conversation, I realised that I’d been in exactly this situation some years ago, probably in 2008.

It wasn’t a problem though – except that my passport would be returned to me that little bit later and it would make planning my flight out that little bit trickier – I had time before my return coach in the morning to come back. I turned my thoughts to getting to my hostel down in the Isle of Dogs – the south-pointing peninsula bounded by a big loop of the Thames that is the location of Canary Wharf; it’s geographical feature that’s been familiar for many years because of the title sequence of EastEnders. I realised I’d forgotten to bring either of my Oyster cards with me, so, reasoning that I had plenty of time, I decided to walk.

I thought it might take a couple of hours – it took three. I got there a little after five o’clock, having walked along the north bank of the Thames for various parts of the way (and taken a few pictures of the attractively cloudy sky), and was starting to worry about meeting my friends on time (although we hadn’t actually set a time).

The Great Eastern Bestplace Inn turned out to be quite a pleasant place – very pubby downstairs, clean and whitewashed upstairs. Better still, my bed was £11.99 – half price. The shower, on the other hand was terrible: weak and uncertain in temperature.

I got the DLR and Tube back up to our rendezvous point in the general vicinity of Leicester Square. Drew met me as I was reading and drinking tea at McDonalds. We headed out shortly towards the big Odeon cinema, which has been our meeting place on more than one occasion – then headed back because Colin had gone to McDonalds looking for us.

Colin always has the information on where to eat, so we allowed him to guide us to an Indian restaurant. My Goa murg and mushroom rice was very tasty, but – shockingly – I couldn’t finish because I was getting a bit full. The meal came to around £55 for the three of us. Afterwards, we went to a Costa for coffee and more chit-chat. I introduced Drew and Colin to the pleasures of the Korean flower cards game, Go-Stop – or a simplified version thereof.

Then it was time to say goodbye for another lengthy period and we headed to our respective homes.

In the morning, I checked out of the hostel after a complementary breakfast of cornflakes, bread and jam and tea. Well – I left, anyway. There were no keys, only door codes, and I’d already paid, so there was no actual checking out to do. There was no one on the reception desk, so I couldn’t even tell them, ‘I’m checking out now.’

I returned to the embassy shortly before 10 o’clock. I went to the passport window, where there was a young woman on duty (not the same woman as the day before) and, before the word ‘Hello’ had barely passed my lips, she snapped, ‘Visa window open at ten o’clock. Take a ticket and wait over there.’

There was one other person ahead of me – a courier, judging by his high-visibility jacket. Once the visa window opened and this guy had finished he handed me the next number ticket (he must have taken two by mistake) and I handed my stuff over to the young Korean chap manning the counter. When I asked, he indicated I didn’t need to submit my old passport. There was a moment of humour when he passed me my yellow plectrum that had got stuck inside my passport when it had been in my pocket. He looked over my documents, I paid £80, got a receipt and that was that. I didn’t actually ask again (I’d already spoken to someone on the phone two or three days earlier) how long it would take, but a notice on the window made it clear I should expect it to be five working days (to which I added another day for it to be posted).

Afterwards, I made my way to a nearby Starbucks, got a coffee and on the internet, realised at nearly eleven that I had a coach to catch in half an hour, so off I went.

I outlined my progress to my recruiter in an e-mail, but as it was pretty much already the weekend, I didn’t hear anything back and haven’t so far. The worst thing that’ll happen is that they’ll book me a flight and I’ll be forced to miss it because I don’t have my passport, then I’ll arrive in Korea later and the school will have to get someone to cover any class time I miss.

We’ll see what happens next weekend.

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I think Habiba was feeling a little down on the coach to Bath: she wanted to spend more time in London and was understandably feeling awkward about being on my turf, hanging out with my friends. I called Alex to let him know that we were arriving. I saw him out of the window of the coach crossing the road away from the new bus station; I had to call him again to find out where he was. He looked quite different to how I remember him – his hair is nearly as long as mine used to be. I remember once suggesting he grow his hair long; he said No emphatically, explaining that all the shampoo would cost too much.

Alex paid for a taxi to take us up to his place – his mum’s place, I suppose. We had tea and chatted with them both, then it was back down to the city centre for a spot of sightseeing. Alex, with typical exuberance and generosity, insisted on taking us to a traditional sweet shop to buy various sweets of the traditional kind for Habiba to try, and to a Fudge Kitchen shop to get a pretty expensive box of fudge – all paid for by Alex.

We had a look inside the abbey – the first time I’d been in there, despite having lived in the city for three years. Then we wandered across Pulteney Bridge, peering into the shops that line its length, and to the labyrinth on the other side of the river. I decided to cheat by just walking to the middle.

To accompany the sweets and fudge, we bought Cornish Bakehouse pasties – the best pasties ever – and cookies from Ben’s Cookies and ate them in Victoria Square. After that we took a look at the Royal Crescent and the Circus then headed back to Alex’s. Alex’s grandparents were on a visit from Spain, so we took the opportunity to show Habiba what a good old-fashioned fish and chip dinner looked like.

The following day, leaving most of our stuff at Alex’s, we took the train to Bristol to spend a night with Lawrence. When we arrived, the weather was pretty crappy; we walked around Castle Park in the rain, up to the cathedral in the rain and off to meet Lawrence and his girlfriend Yivei in the rain. We went to a Chinese restaurant for dinner and had a pretty good selection of dishes to share. Yivei is Malaysian Chinese, but she’s lived in the UK for a long time. She seemed like a lovely person and I’m really happy for Lawrence.

The next day, we went for a long walk with Lawrence around Bristol. We went along Gloucester Road to the city centre looking for Banksy and others’ graffiti, explored the docks area a little and had lunch at St Nicholas’s Market; I dropped into the secondhand bookshop there, where, a few years ago, I’d bought the first of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, The Shadow of the Torturer – they had one of the other three books, but not the direct sequel. Habiba went to the South African stall and bought various comestibles. Our city tour culminated in a fruitless search for a good place to see the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

We headed back to Bath for a final night with Alex. Alex and I indulged in a night of Magic: The Gathering, while Habiba was on her computer. Around midday the following day, my dad and mum arrived to pick us up to visit my grandmother in Highcliffe down on the south coast.

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The train to Paris was fast – it only took 80 minutes, just about long enough for us to get settled in and watch the first episode of the new season of Game of Thrones. At Gare du Nord, we waited about half an hour in line to buy some tickets for the Metro then made our way down to the home of our next host.

Pierre was the latest in a growing line of great hosts. As soon as we arrived, he treated us to a lunch of salad and home-made pizza. He was a friendly, gentle guy with a great collection of fantasy and sf, lots of Japanese stuff and board games including both English and French versions of A Game of Thrones and Battlestar Galactica.

We didn’t do much for the rest of the day – except in the evening, when we went to meet Habiba’s friend from university, Andy. He turned out to be a sweet, talkative guy with a flamboyant dress sense; he told us a lot about the art world. We had dinner at a small, pub-ish restaurant; they had burgers; I had one of the French meals Pierre had recommended earlier (he didn’t have too many recommendations as he prefers Asian cuisine): duck confit with potatoes. It was very tasty – salty and crispy round the edges.

The following day, Pierre took us on a walking tour of Paris. We started at a Roman amphitheatre, went on to the Panthéon, where various personages from French history are interred, through Luxembourg Gardens, site of the French Senate, on to Notre Dame, stopping for lunch at another small restaurant (I had poached eggs in chive sauce for a starter and steak for my main course; Habiba had a prawn salad and lamb kebab; Pierre outdid us by having bone marrow on toast and steak tartare (ie, raw minced beef, which he mixed with a raw egg yolk and and various condiments)).

After lunch we went into Notre Dame, visited the nearby Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation, had fancy ice cream, walked along the Seine a little way, passing Pont Neuf, into the Louvre courtyard – site of the famous glass pyramid – into the nearest part of the Tuileries, the long park in line with the Champs Elysées – the Arc de Triomphe was visible in the distance – by the Palais Garnier – the opera house – to the Moulin Rouge theatre and the nearby area of sex shops, and to Montmartre, where we went into the Church of St Pierre (no relation; Pierre explained that the name – Pierre, or Peter – was related to the fact that the church was on a hill, St Peter being the ‘rock’, the name thus related to words like petrify) and finally to the Sacré-Coeur Basilica.

This latter is fantastically beautiful inside, especially above the altar, where there’s an enormous gold and blue mosaic of Jesus. You’re not allowed to take photos inside, but that doesn’t seem to stop anyone – there were even plenty of flashes going off. I got told off by an African woman after I took my last shot.

The following day, Habiba and I went to the Arc de Triomphe, walked down the Champs Elysées and finally reached the Eiffel Tower. We waited in line for some time – not that long: we elected to go up the stairs to the deuxiemme étage rather than take the ascenseur. At the second level, we took the other lift up to the top. From there the view was pretty breathtaking. It’s astonishing to think that a building over a hundred years old still dominates the skyline in central Paris. The city lay low and flat below us; the only rivals to the tower were Sacré-Coeur on its hill and the business district way off in the distance.

On the way down, I was possibly nearly pickpocketed by a little boy with his female relatives – they looked to be Roma. He was darting about in the crowd, probably just playing, but at one point he had his hands on my back pockets. When we were down and out we realised that Habiba was going to be late for her eight o’clock date with Andy – she got there late, but successfully hooked up with him.

I headed back to Pierre’s where I met a couple of his friends, Bertrand and Agnes (pronounced ‘Ann-yes’) – the latter of whom bore more than a passing resemblance to Angelina Jolie – and we played A Game of Thrones late into the night. The game proved to be like a smaller scale but more complicated version of Risk.

On our final day, we didn’t do too much sightseeing; I had promised to go to the Louvre, but going to bed at about 3 am argued against it. We did have a little dinner party in the evening with both Pierre and Andy, though. The following day, we headed to the not-too-distant Gare de Lyon to embark on a very long journey to Venice.

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While, of course, we wouldn’t have travelled to Turkey without expecting it to be nice to some degree, we were pleasantly surprised by the country. It’s quite unlike any other country I’ve been to; it has a pretty unique mixture of European and Middle Eastern culture and climate.

Coming from a city like Seoul that is dominated by its modern office and apartment buildings along with a few pine-covered mountains, Istanbul was a great contrast. The thing you notice most about the city, especially the touristy Sultanahmet area, which is where we stayed, is the mosques. They tend to sit on top of the hills, minarets arrowing into the sky, each looking much like the Hagia Sophia. Periodically, the call to prayer goes out from all of them, echoes bouncing back and forth across the city. There’s an undeniable beauty to the spiralling songs, but the whole idea of everyone stopping what they’re doing five times a day to worship some mythical being is the mark of totalitarianism.

On a happier note, Istanbul was also remarkable for the number of cats. It was like visiting Ulthar. Every café and restaurant seems to have a suprisingly well kempt stray lazing by the doorway. Mostly, they seemed clean and healthy – and friendly, too. We petted quite a few and they readily lifted their heads for a scratch. One of the friendliest cats I encountered was at the ruins of Ephesus. It was a pretty small white and ginger bitch who purred enthusiastically as she rubbed up against me. I didn’t pet her, however, as her ears were horribly infected, red and swollen, the tips nothing but scab. She didn’t seem to be in any discomfort, though.

Having had a less than totally pleasant time in India, I’m always on my guard when it comes to being approached by strangers when in foreign lands. Our experience in Turkey, however, was quite benign. People wanted to sell their services, but they left you alone if you said No, thanks. One man approached us as we got off the bus in Selçuk and I was automatically suspicious, but he turned out to be very helpful, offering us information about buses and taxis and then pointing us towards our hostel’s meeting point when we told him what we were doing.

As you might expect from its East-meets-West status, Turkey has both western- and eastern-style toilets. The sitting toilets have a little spout thing that sticks out from the back of the bowl rim and doesn’t appear to do anything. Many toilets also have the ability for the user to customise the amount of flush. For instance, some toilets have a kind of double-sided button on top of the cistern; you push one side down to flush and you push the other side down to stop it.

We had our share of Turkish coffees while we were there, too. It’s very bitter, thick stuff served in a little espresso-style cup. You need sugar or syrup in it to make it palatable. The last third or quarter of the cup is a gritty sludge that it’s inadvisable to drink; if you stir the coffee, you mix that sludge in with the rest of the drink. Tea was likewise served strong and black in little urn-shaped glass cups. We like our capuccinos, but they tended to be pretty mediocre in Turkey.

On the subject of food, my overriding impression is that Turks like their bread. Coming from South Korean, where the bread tends to be sweet and crappy and many people literally confuse cake with bread, the amount of good bread on offer was a pleasant change. Habiba was ecstatic about our hostel breakfast in Istanbul – a buffet of green and black olives, feta cheese, tomato, cucumber, egg and thick slices of crusty, rabbit-shaped bread. Rabbit-shaped because each loaf was cut down one side of the top before it finished baking.

Many meals would come with a basket full of such bread. Most of the meals we had were very good. They tended to be somewhat saucy and oily and pretty mild. After red pepper-heavy South Korean cuisine and our own spicy cooking, a lot of the meals seemed quite bland. A couple of highlights were bruch at a place in Istanbul called Van Kahvatlı that had lots of bread and cheese, and in Selçuk, we went to a restaurant called Wallabies where I had a chicken curry that was mild, but tasty.

Overall, we were very happy to have visited to Turkey. Looking around the shops and stalls in places like the Grand Bazaar, you realise you could come here just to buy beautiful things with which to fill your home. I limited myself to one cat ornament. We only went to two town, and it seems like we could have visited a dozen places and been just as impressed with each one. Another time, maybe.

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New Year’s Eve saw Habiba and me meet some friends at British-style pub in Itaewon for dinner – most of us had fish and chips (I also had one beer). We then repaired to a cocktail bar for a couple of quite tasty drinks – a Green Fantasy and a Chocolate Martini, for me. And finally, we headed to a party at someone’s home nearby. Whilst there I had one shot of something fruity, two or three cups of wine and a few of beer.

My roleplaying buddy Matthew joined us towards midnight – and he discovered an area of of common interest with the host Moira – international peace and development. I chatted to a trio of Canadian guys – one who could pass for Korean, but is actually Vietnamese and Chinese (but Canadian) and his white visiting friends.

At midnight, we counted down and were happy.

On the way home I started feeling what I like to think of as ‘nauseous’ – although some authorities state that the correct adjective is ‘nauseated’. When we got out of the taxi, I was sick into a drain. I slept well enough, but in the morning I felt wretched. During the course of the day, I vomited maybe another seven times – usually with nothing coming up other than a bit of thick, orangey stomach juice. Habiba and I just watched TV all day; eventually, I started to feel better and managed to eat a good meal for dinner (one of Habiba’s soups).

The previous day, before meeting for dinner, I’d gone to Itaewon early and spent a bit of money at What the Book. I bought – finally – the tenth and last book in Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen, The Crippled God. I’m a bit wary of reading it, as the series has declined since the early books – or at least, my interest in it has declined. I also got an issue each of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Realms of Fantasy. I did some writing, too.

If I have a New Year’s Resolution, it’s to concentrate on creative writing again. It’s a project that I’ve neglected over the past year in favour of working on my roleplaying game and running a campaign. The RPG has been a challenging project, and one that I feel I’ve struggled to do justice to – although it’s also been lots of fun. It’s with a certain amount of relief that I’ve decided – once the current scene and its aftermath have been played through – to stop running the game. I’m going to suggest a weekly gaming night of Scrabble, Munchkin and whatever other things people want to play – maybe even a different RPG. I’ll only be able to participate in this for a few weeks until Habiba and I leave the country at the end of February.

The time that I’ll save not working on the game will be ploughed into working on stories. The last time I was writing, I was working on a piece about hunting fairy-like creatures. I will return to that, but right now I’m working on a new one. And when I say ‘right now’, I mean it almost literally: I paused work on it here at the local Starbucks because I was feeling tired and I thought writing this blog post would wake me up. The coffee has probably helped, too.

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Habiba and I have been back in Korea for a couple of days now. I’ve just finished uploading photographs and videos from the trip, but, while we were away, I had very little time for blogging, so now I want to write about our travels.

As you’ll appreciate, it’s winter here in Korea, so it’s pretty chilly. We planned to head off to the airport immediately after Habiba finished work on Friday the 24th of December, catching an express bus to the airport. I carried both our large backpacks and my small one to the bus stop and bought a couple of tickets. Habiba turned up after six o’clock and we waited. And continued to wait. It was rush hour, so eventually, as Habiba lost the feeling in her extremities, to take a taxi. The ride took a long while, creeping along the expressway while we anxiously eyed the driver’s navigation display and its ETA. The nearly two-hour ride cost about ₩60,000 – about £34.

The nighttime flight out was fine – I read Moby-Dick most of the way. Once at Cebu Airport, arriving in the early hours of the morning, we had nothing to do but wait for morning and for the first ferries to run. There wasn’t even any where to buy water, as far as we could tell.

Our plan was to take a ferry from Cebu to Tabilaran, the capital of Bohol, an island province immediately to the south of Cebu. From there, we intended to take a bus or taxi from the city on the south-west corner of Bohol to the nearby island of Panglao, specifically a beach on the southern side of the smaller island called Alona Beach.

We took a taxi to the ferry terminal – Pier 1, I think – and tried to buy a ticket for the early ferry at six o’clock. The terminal was a pretty run-down, dirty place, populated with various tired Filipinos and foreigners. We asked a man at the terminal fee desk where we could buy a ticket and his response was a vague, Over there. We didn’t really know what to do, but I overheard some other travellers talking about tickets that they’d bought. With their help, I figured out that there was no 6 am ferry, it being Christmas Day, but we could take a 7:30 ferry to a different place and take a bus from there to our destination.

I queued up and bought us a pair of tickets, and some water, and, as I headed back to Habiba, was button-holed by a couple of young women who asked to tag along with us. After more uncertainty over where to go we squeezed through the crowd waiting to board and got on a small orange speed ferry. The trip to Tubigon took an hour or so, during which time I heard the first of three renditions of Bryan May’s ‘Too Much Love Will Kill You’ that day, and also got my first sleep of the day.

Habiba and I and our fellow travellers, Ivy (a Singaporean living in Hong Kong) and Mara (a Romanian also working in Hong Kong) hired a man with a minivan to take us to Alona. However, we needed the bathroom before we went anywhere and Habiba spent a while changing into more summery clothes – which made the guy frantic to get us on board. Once we did and got underway, Ivy realised she’d dropped her wallet somewhere. After heading back to the ferry terminal and looking for it, she concluded it was lost. One of the other people in the van said she worked for a radio station and would put out an announcement about it, although nothing came of that as far as I know.

The drive to Alona was another hour or more. We entered our hotel, the Citadel Alona Inn, a fairly modest but nice place, and left our bags in their small, empty bar. We couldn’t check in for another hour or two, so we had breakfast and walked down to the beach.

Alona Beach was a fairly narrow strip of sand about 500 metres long backed by a dense row of mainly bars and restaurants and a few shops. Our hotel was a five-minute or so walk from there, along a dirty, uneven road that was home to more shops, eateries and hotels. Many of these places were run by ex-pats – the resorts seemed to be especially popular with Germans; there was a Helmut’s Place, for example.

Although our hotel served food, on the evidence of our one and only meal there, it wasn’t terribly good. Apart from that, and the diminutive dimensions of our room and double bed, the Citadel Alona was a good place to stay. It was clean and attractive, and – very importantly – provided free drinking water. There was no hot water in the taps, though – so all showers were cold. That’s not too bad in a tropical climate, but I think showers, like tea and coffee, should be hot.

Just across the road from our hotel was another one called ChARTs, which had a restaurant called the Art Café. This was a very nicely designed place, all artfully moulded stucco walls, and – surprisingly enough – lots of artwork. This place became our favoured location for breakfast and coffee, lunch, too, sometimes.

Another nice thing about the Art Café was that the staff were friendly and attentive – but not too attentive. Many of the other places we ate and drank at were quite relaxed – to the point of being difficult to get served or pay your bill at. Our main hangout at the beach was like that. At Oops Bar, near the left-hand extremity of the beach as you look out to sea, we often ordered smoothies first thing and then didn’t pay for them until hours later when we left – and we had to remind the staff that we’d bought them.

Oops Bar (which I’m guessing is owned by a Brit – I saw him directing the young waiters in moving some huge plant pots) had about five pairs of sunbeds beyond its beach tables and chairs. These are open to anyone who claims them – and with no apparent pressure to buy drinks or food. And claim them we did, on a pretty much daily basis. One night, we also had dinner there – ostrich steak. It was good, but very tough – it was particularly hard to cut. It look and tasted much like beef.

Amongst other culinary delights, we tried a fish grill one one occasion. The restaurant had a table with shallow containers holding ice and a selection of fresh fish, big prawns, squid and so on. We shared a green parrot fish. One of the more interesting drinks we had was a calamansi juice. Calamansi is a green citrus fruit about the size and shape of a large marble; it’s also very sour. It’s used to good effect by squeezing one over a fish or other food. Perhaps our favourite meal was Thai curry, fried rice and spring rolls at a place near our hotel that specialised in hot woks. Although we waited a long time for our meal the one time we were there, when it came it was delicious and huge. Experience had taught us to expect much smaller portions.

There was an ice cream place that took your two scoops of ice cream and put them on a circular plate that seemed alternately heat and chill the ice cream while the woman chopped and kneaded fruit into the ice cream with a pair of spatulas. Finally, the mix would be scraped off into a roll and put in a polystyrene cup with a couple of toppings of your choice. We had that a few times.

Whilst eating, it was very common to be approached by a small group of young boys who would start a half-hearted rendition of a random Christmas song. Whenever this happened to us, we just shook our heads and the kids moved on to the next table.

In terms of activities, we spent lots of time on the beach and in the water. Our friends Ksan and Jun-hong lent us their goggles and snorkels, so we swam out into the warm, shallow waters to gaze down at the hidden world of little fish, sea urchins and starfish. Our first such expedition took us quite a way out among all the boats anchored offshore. Habiba and decided to head back – she suggested we swim fast. However, I’m not such good swimmer, so I quickly got tired – and then got seawater in my snorkel, which doesn’t have a valve on the top. Scared of drowning I had to stop and try and stand on the sea bed, hoping I wouldn’t stand on a sea urchin. After a rest, I was able to swim back to shore, which, while it wasn’t far away, seemed to take about ten minutes. That aside, the snorkelling was lots of fun. Maybe in twelve months’ time, I can get some more swimming practice in.

I think Alona Beach compares favourably with Ko Phi Phi in Thailand (where we went last year). It’s a little less touristy, less intense. Although the quid pro quo is that there’s less choice – less in the way of eating, drinking and shopping. On Ko Phi Phi, there were lots of diving shops and travel agents lining the narrow avenues leading to the beach and the hotels. While such places were present here, lots of business seemed to be conducted by guys who would stand around by the entrance to the beach and ask passersby by if they wanted to go on this or that trip. We did both this trip and that trip, but that’ll be the subject of another post.

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When I tried to log into my WordPress account on Monday evening to post my experiences on the Great Wall, I encountered difficulties. I was able to log in through the main page, but I couldn’t access my blog at all. I could only assume that the presence of words like ‘Communism’ and ‘Mao’ had led to my blog being blocked. I had Habiba make the post for me – I would have included some pictures, otherwise.

On Tuesday and Wednesday – my last two full days in the Middle Country – I didn’t do a huge amount. Tried to do a bit of writing. Went to have a look at the CCTV (China Central Television) building – the one that has two legs connected by a bridge at the top. It’s a very big building. Mark explained later on that one of the nearby buildings, a more conventional tower, was built as a companion building – the latter symbolising the male member, the M-shaped building representing the female legs. The ‘penis’ had been gutted by fire after a celebration with fireworks went disastrously wrong. On there I passed by the British Abassador’s residence and the British Embassy. Maybe I could have dropped in to say hello to David Cameron. The Chinese soldiers in dress uniform outside were a bit scary, though.

I had dinner with Charlie and Mark each night; the first night we had roast duck and then went for a walk around a small lake – Hou Hai, I think – one of a series of linked lakes surrounded by park that I should have gone to in the daytime, but didn’t. This lake was actually ringed by bars, each one with a PA speaker outside blasting out whatever was playing inside (many bars had live music or karaoke). It was an interesting sonic landscape.

On the Wednesday, I finally took the plunge and bought a few souvenirs from a little maze of alleys crowded with stalls that I hadn’t actually known was there until I started exploring for gift shops. Along with stalls piled high with what we could probably safely describe as tourist tat, there were stalls selling meat shish kebabs or fruit shish kebabs or live scorpion shish kebabs (I assume they get deep fried before you eat them). I didn’t try any.

I was nervous of the whole haggling process and walked into a couple of shops and past a few stalls without stopping to be sold to. Eventually, though I got a small brass dragon as the first of my purchases. The process for haggling for this was typical of what happened for later purchases – or attempted sales on behalf of the stall-holders. I asked how much it was and the woman asked me how much I wanted to pay. I didn’t know so she typed on a large calculator, ’80’ (£8). I said, ‘Twenty,’ and she was all, ‘No, no,’ so I walked away. Then she grabbed my sleeve (arm- and sleeve-grabbing happened a lot) as I went and as I pulled away she said, ‘OK, twenty.’ And that was that.

The woman I bought my gift for Habiba from complemented my hard bargaining skills – I’m sure she just wanted me to buy other stuff from her. A man pointed out a mah jongg set as I browsed his stall. He wanted 650 yuan for it, but came down to 200 as I walked away. I didn’t want to spend that much money anyway – because I’m a cheapskate. I did also buy a pair of massage balls. Each being maybe three centimetres or so in diameter; one blue, one red, both with yin and yang signs on them. They have bells inside. Your supposed to roll them around in a circle on one hand without letting them touch each other.

Separately, I bought a couple of jars of spicy sauce and a few packets of snacks (one of which promises ‘Odd taste’) from a little supermarket near my hostel.

I also – following Charlie and Mark’s advice – changed my train ticket to Tianjin on Wednesday night to one for Thursday morning – the morning of my ferry from Tianjin to Incheon. This sounds dangerous, but, while I was supposed to be a the ferry terminal at 9 am, the bullet trains from Beijing run very often and early and only take 30 minutes to get there. If only you could go everywhere by bullet train.

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