In 1989, our Chinese artist friend, Weimin, was a student. Following the upheaval of the student protests, he requested to be sent to a remote part of the country to continue his studies. He was sent to Shanbei, a region in the north of Shaanxi province, where he stayed in a traditional ‘cave dwelling’ village called Ni he gou (which means ‘muddy river ditch!) in Jia county and painted village life there. He made great friends and since then has tried to return regularly. He invited us to join him on one of his trips, but we were unable to go at the time. A couple of years ago, the eldest son of the family he stays with fell sick and was in desperate need of a kidney transplant. The family could not raise all the money needed for the transplant on their own, so Weimin sold some of his artwork and sent word around his friends in order to raise funds to assist them. We contributed a small amount to the cause. Happily, Jiangwei was able to have the operation he needed and is now in good health. When we were planning our trip to China, Luke talked to Weimin about our route. Through him we were able to organise staying with Jiangwei’s family. We were excited about the opportunity to stay somewhere completely different and live closely with the local people, but we had no idea just how humbling and moving the experience would be.

We approached the little congregation of people waiting for us at the station and greeted them with ‘ni hao!’- smiling, shaking hands and embracing. Thankfully, they, like us, had downloaded translation tools on their phones, so much of our conversations were accomplished in this manner. Jiangwei introduced himself and his two brothers. Liangliang was the youngest at around 22, and we spent much of our time with him over the following days. The middle brother, Yanjiang, had got married a few days previously and was there with his wife, Wangming. Our first night was to be spent in Yulin, so that they could show us some of the sights nearby, and so Jiangwei drove us to our hotel. It was far more upmarket than we had grown used to! A huge double bed, lovely ensuite bathroom and even a chaise longue! We were exceedingly grateful to have such luxury after a night on the sleeper train, and it was surprisingly good value.

We had a super feast for lunch at a restaurant with Jiangwei and Liangliang, where they introduced some regional specialities. After lunch, we set off to visit a section of the Great Wall, Zhen Bei Tai, a bulky sandcastle-like fort close to Yulin. In English, its name means ‘Pacify-the-North Tower’. It was very different to the section we had visited in October at Mutianyu, having been built in a different dynasty. The snaking wall itself was not discernible to our eyes, and the brick was a completely different colour, reflecting the different materials available in the locality. Some refer to this tower as the heart of the dragon – if you imagine the Great Wall as a huge dragon, the head being at the Shanhaiguan Pass in the eastern province of Hebei and the tail at the Jiayuguan Pass in Gansu province in the west, then the strategic importance and size of Zhen Bei Tai earns it the title of the dragon’s heart. It was built in the Ming Dynasty in 1607 and is the biggest city terrace on the wall. During this time, there was a large horse trading market at Yulin, and the tower served as an observation post to help keep order between the Han and nomadic people. We walked along the ramparts, enjoying the 360° views of the landscape that was approaching desert to the north and was wooded to the south. We started to get to know Jiangwei and Liangliang a little better in spite of the language barrier, and found that we all shared a bit of a silly sense of humour. We were pleased to see that Jiangwei was looking fit as a fiddle; he was cheerful, confident and gently teasing of his little brother, who was sweet-natured, a little quieter and very smiley.

The children in the family all live in Yulin, as the job prospects are better in the city. After visiting the tower, we went to the Yanjiang’s apartment for tea and red dates, before heading out to a local mutton noodle restaurant. All three brothers and Wangming were there, so we made quite a merry party. They all ate so quickly that we were left well behind! Our chopstick skills didn’t hamper us quite so much as our inability to slurp – the noodles were so hot we couldn’t keep up without scalding our lips! Because of this, it looked a bit like we didn’t like the food, but it was tasty and by the time we’d had the obligatory second helping, we were fit to burst.

After dinner, they took us to the supermarket to get provisions for our stay in the village. We were a bit confused as to the purpose of the trip and what exactly we should be buying. We thought perhaps we should get vegetables with which to cook a meal, and after collecting some fruit I went to pick up an innocent looking brown onion. At this point, Wangming waved her arms in astonishment, signalled that we shouldn’t bite into it and urgently started to type into her phone, which translated: ‘it is an onion’ and ‘of the onion family’. It is true that there are plenty of vegetables in China that are quite alien to us, but this wasn’t one of them! Jiangwei told us his father would be cooking our meals and we were only to get snacks and extras that we would be unable to get in the village. Little did we realise that over the ensuing days we would be fed so well that the mere thought of eating anything additional would be enough to make our stomachs groan defeat. After having selected some items we thought might be appropriate, we made our way back to the hotel.


Tongli to Yulin

The next day was mostly wasted wandering about laden down with our rucksacks trying to get on the right public transport to take us to the pretty canal town of Tongli, near Suzhou. After a series of trains and buses and finally a rickshaw taxi with a very strong driver, we arrived at our hostel, which, unbeknownst to us was home to a demon kitten. Our room had bright orange walls and an ancient looking four poster bed with fetching pink net curtains. The young man in charge was quite a funny character, and quite deprecating about the town. He had been cycling around China and had taken the job to make a bit more money. Along the way he had taken some fantastic photographs and we talked about our route plans with him and he gave us some advice. He told us Tibet is the best place in China, but that we wouldn’t be able to get the same experience as the Chinese as due to political reasons, foreigners can only visit as part of an organised tour. We had already been resigned to the fact that it was a bit too far away for our trip and certainly the tours would be beyond our budget. Obviously we knew Tibet was a zone of contention, but what we hadn’t realised was quite how fond the Chinese people are of the region.

We had some tea in the bar and met the kitten, which was a small but feisty black and white tornado. It loved to pounce on anything that moved, including body parts, so we sat, nervously drinking tea and trying not to make any sudden movements in case it launched itself needles first on to our thighs. Eventually, when it got a bit over-exuberant and chasing string was no longer cutting the mustard and we had prised it off one too many times, I had to have stern words with it. After this, it climbed up onto my shoulder and licked my face and then curled up on my lap and slept, as if butter wouldn’t melt. Needless to say, the following day it was just as naughty, so I think it had worn itself out rather than actually been obedient!

Tongli town is actually a reasonable size, but the old town centre is very small and during the day you have to pay to get in. Our hostel was right in the thick of it, so we didn’t have to pay. We heard live music playing from a bar nearby, so that evening I took my flute and we went for a wander around the old town. It was refreshingly quiet out on the streets that lined the narrow canals. At the centre, there were three attractive little stone bridges which spanned the canals and faced each other something like the sides of a triangle. Walking over the three bridges is supposed to give you luck – each bridge signifies a different thing, good fortune, happiness… I can’t recall them all! We did it though, so we have it covered! There were still some Christmas lights up whose reflections twinkled pleasantly on the water, and a giant lit-up snowman looked as if he was regarding himself in a mirror. The old whitewashed buildings hooded with black tiles huddled around and willow trees draped their branches languorously into the canal. It was a lovely setting and no one else was around, so having my flute with me, I decided to play some mournful tunes on one of the bridges, feeling a little like I was in a film set, or possibly a novel by T.E. Shepherd. (That’s your first plug, Thomas! To everyone else: you can buy Mr Tumnal on Amazon, it’s a snip and very good!)

After dinner at a fast food dumpling place, we headed back to the source of the live music, the Riverside Bar, which was just next to the bridge which led over the river into the old town. There was a young Chinese boy with a blonde bowl cut and trendy clothes sat on a stool playing guitar and singing and the music was being pumped out into the street. He had a good voice and a pleasant, mellow sort of repertoire. We sat down with a beer and watched for a while, until I had the courage to get my flute out. I played along with him, improvising for a few songs, and then sang a couple of things on my own, including a song my sister Joanna wrote, called Jukebox Lover. It was a fun evening, and very quiet in the bar so not too intimidating. I noticed the guitarist’s friend singing along quietly in the background to one of his pieces and I asked her if she would get up and sing. She said she was shy, but when she did, she had the most beautiful voice; so rich and sonorous. At the end of the evening, the owner, a very friendly young man, asked us if we would return the following evening so that he could give us a free pizza each! Of course, we agreed!

We had a relaxing day meandering through the streets, following no particular plan, just going where it looked interesting. We passed a gondola full of black cormorants, perched morosely around the rim of the boat, and saw villagers washing clothes and preparing food by the canal outside their small houses. We ended up wandering out of the centre and into a sleepy backwater with small plots of land where straggly vegetables were growing. Every so often we would come across bundles of straw, which were sometimes covered with a tarpaulin. At the end of the path we reached another section of the river, where there were some small ramshackle boats moored to the bank. These boats looked like they were homes, but very poorly equipped ones. There were no proper living quarters, just a motley array of blankets draped around a frame. They didn’t look as though they would keep the elements out. This was the first time we had seen dwellings indicative of such extreme poverty in China and it was a stark reminder that there still a huge divide in the country.

On our way back up the path, we saw a well-dressed young lady with her little boy; a very cute, chubby little toddler who had clearly only just learnt how to walk. Every so often he would turn and gaze at us solemnly. It was quite a cold day, so he was bundled up well, except for his plump little bum cheeks which poked out of the slit in his trousers! Many children don’t wear nappies here and when they look like they need the loo, the slit is held open so they can relieve themselves, which seems to work pretty well, although their bottoms must get quite nippy! It was a funny sight walking behind this toddler with his little bare bottom and his serious looks.

That evening we made it to the Riverside Bar in time for our free pizza at 6pm, and very tasty it was too! We finished up with popcorn and fruit platter and listened to the guitarist again. We were soon joined by a young Chinese man who had moved to Australia and was back in China visiting his wife’s family. He was there with his wife’s brother who spoke no English, and we felt a bit sorry for him as he was side-lined from the conversation and eventually got up and left. However, as time wore on, and we found we were party to essentially a one-way conversation, we began to think he might be relishing the peace and quiet! He was a nice enough chap, but he really could talk the hind legs off a donkey!

We were so enjoying the laidback atmosphere of Tongli that we decided to stay another night. On our final full day, we borrowed a bicycle from the hostel so we could visit Tongli Lake, situated at the east of the ancient town. Luke pedalled the bike through the town with me perched precariously on the back and the locals laughed at us as we passed by. When we got to the lakeside I had a go at pedalling Luke, and after a few wobbles I was doing okay, but I wouldn’t have dared to do it in the town! We took the short boat trip across to Luoxing Islet, a tiny piece of land crammed with temples, the oldest of which was built in the Yuan dynasty. It has now known as a holy land of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, with a temple for each religion. The Confucian temple had a huge old bell, which for once you were allowed to dong for yourself with a heavy swinging wooden plank. It is always so tempting to ring the bells, and it is most satisfying when you do! There were very few visitors and we spent a pleasant and relaxing hour drawing and reading before taking the boat back.

We paid a final visit to the Riverside Bar to say goodbye and Luke helped out with a few programming issues for their website. We tried to get an early night as we had a long day ahead of us and we were both very tired; whilst I didn’t help much with the lack of sleep by setting the alarm an hour early, it at least meant we were off fairly promptly in the morning!

After a bit of a trek back to the station in Shanghai, we head to the ticket office to purchase tickets for our trip to Yulin, in Shaanxi province. This is not to be confused with Shanxi province, which is just over the Yellow River from Shanxi. The pronunciation sounds identical to us, but is clearly vastly different to the Chinese – ShanSEE vs Shansee – or something like that. You can guarantee that when we say it to a native speaker we will be unintelligible anyway, so pointing at a map works much better! Sadly for us, the only tickets left for our 20 hour journey were standing ones. The lady at the counter laughed at us and wished us luck when we said that we had to get that train and couldn’t wait another day.  However, we had arranged to meet the family we would be staying with the following day, so had no option.

Feeling slightly worried, but determined to make the best of it, we left our bags at the station and went in search of gifts for the family, food for our journey and body warmers as we anticipated it would be very cold in Shaanxi. A couple of hours later, having found ourselves a 2 for 1 bargain deal on body warmers, we headed off with some trepidation to catch our train.

We had prepared the Google translated ‘please can we have an upgrade?’ on my phone and showed it to the attendant as we boarded the train. They sent us to the restaurant car, where we sat and waited, thinking that we would be very grateful if we got to stay there for 20 hours. The staff found us quite amusing and we could hear them practising English words and laughing – ‘romantic’, ‘come here’, ‘no’, ‘hello’. After a short wait, a man came and we paid for our upgrade – we were to have beds after all! We couldn’t believe our luck! We had to walk 17 carriages down the narrow corridors of the train, bumping our bags along and being stared at as we squeezed by, but it was worth it when we got there. It was lovely and quiet at the far end, and our cabin was clean and cosy.

Shortly after we had settled ourselves in, a member of staff came to speak to us. Simin was a strikingly beautiful girl from Hohhot in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia and she was keen to practise her English. She helped us contact the family we were staying with to inform them of our train arrival time, and then we set to chatting generally. We told her we were from England, and before we had said whereabouts we lived, thinking we would say near Oxford as usual, she exclaimed, ‘Oh, England! I would love to go to Bicester Village!’ We couldn’t believe it! Of all the places in the UK, she picked out the shopping village in the small town we lived in. I knew Bicester Village was popular with Asian tourists, but I hadn’t realised quite how far its fame had travelled! I thought it was somewhere you heard about when you arrived in London. Of course, we said that if she ever got to go to that shopping paradise, she would be very welcome to stay with us.

We slept fairly well – certainly much better than if we had been standing up all night. At around midday, the train pulled into Yulin station and we disembarked, walking the length of the platform until we spied a small crowd of happy smiling faces holding up a sign saying, ‘Lucy and Luck’. Cue our next adventure!

Back to Shanghai!

After a short flight back to Shanghai, during which we met a British ex-ballerina (who had a very interesting life story), we returned to Rock & Wood hostel. This hostel was like a little haven for us – excellent WiFi, comfortable rooms and a relaxing bar – the perfect way to ease ourselves back into the hectic bustle of China. Of course, no matter how good the WiFi is, there is still the Chinese firewall to contend with, which left Google and Facebook out of bounds and annoyingly for me, I found WordPress was now off limits as well.

The first night back we had dinner in a tiny café that was full of locals. As usual, we did a bit of sketching and it was quite nice to have the unreserved Chinese curiosity again to break the ice! The next morning we walked from our hostel through the French concession to the excellent Shanghai Propaganda Art Museum. Just down the road from our hostel, we passed a run-down building which had some wonderful red stone carvings on the wall of 1900-style European ladies and gentlemen with parasols. They looked out of place as it was quite a dingy street, but they were all the more striking and charming for that.

The Shanghai Propaganda Art Museum is a gem of a museum hidden away in the basement of a residential building. It is the only museum of its kind in the world and houses the largest collection of propaganda posters from 20th century China. The posters were hugely important in spreading the Communist message to the masses, especially as many people would have had no access to television. However, only a few have survived as they were usually destroyed when new ideas needed to be communicated. Yang Pei Ming started his collection in 1995 in order to preserve these beautiful works of art and the rich history behind them for future generations. The propaganda posters date from 1940 to 1990 and as well as the striking visual impact, the messages gave us a fascinating insight into Communist China in the 20th century. The posters had been painted by highly skilled artists; their eye-catching colours, bold line work, judicious use of imagery and carefully planned composition all served to stir up emotions and manipulate the viewer. The hero of the poster would invariably be depicted as towering above you, as if your viewpoint was from below, which automatically makes you feel humbled, whilst the enemy (usually the US) would be weedy and snivelling.

Many of the posters had anti-US themes. ‘US imperialism is a paper tiger’ showed stocky little children beating a paper tiger with guns and a hammer and sickle; ‘US is the rotten imperialism and the camp of reactionaries (1951)’ satirically used the style of Eisner American cartoons, depicting an American whipping a black man, a boy reading a lascivious magazine, a cowboy with a loose woman astride his horse, the Ku Klux Klan shooting a man and a big, fat US president sitting astride a skyscraper with money running through his hands. Others targeted the UK (1958): ‘Overpass UK in 15 years! John rides ox, I am on horse, what a shame if he wins the game!’ Which is quite right when you think about it – the UK is tiny in comparison with China, but the economics of the time did not reflect this. Now the horse has definitely won! Other posters aimed to spur on workers to heighten production in agriculture and industry: ‘More pigs for more fertiliser to obtain high yield of grain!’(1959). One of the most interesting for me concerned the Great Leap Forward, where people were encouraged to invest all their efforts into producing steel: ‘Hail for over-fulfilling steel production of 10.7 million tons!’ (1958). Factories lit up the night with blazing chimneys, and buckets of molten steel shot into the air like fireworks. It was this so-called Great Leap Forward which led to the famine of 1959-1961, as farms were neglected and grain left to rot in the fields. Many posters were aimed at encouraging citizens to support their Communist allies against the US, such as ‘Defend Cuba Revolution!’ (1962), ‘US imperialism get out of Dominican Republic! (1965)’ and ‘Strive to resist US and assist Korea to defend motherland with our grain, our money and our life!’ This last was in 1951, and references the proxy war whereby Communist Russia took control in the north and the US the south, resulting in the split of Korea. Of course there were the posters hailing Mao: ‘Chairman Mao is red sun in the minds of world people (1967)’, with Mao’s huge happy face shining benevolently down on a parade of people of the world clutching red flags and holding little red books aloft. Then there were the posters from the Cultural Revolution, ‘Change the school into a tool of proletarian dictatorship! (1975).’ The posters were without doubt enormously powerful and wonderfully executed. It would have been nigh on impossible not to be swayed by their content if they provided your only glimpses of the outside world.

The most moving though, were the ‘dazibao’, or ‘big character posters’ from the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. These were posters made by the people. They would often start with a quote from Chairman Mao in red, and they were signed and dated by the author. Their purpose was to denounce people or things as contrary to Maoist ideology, and this would be indicated by a red line through the name. It was against the law to destroy or remove dazibao, but the accused or their supporters sometimes wrote over the denouncement in forceful calligraphy that expressed the anger, fear and paranoia prevalent at the time. People were encouraged to make these posters to criticise society and weed out undesirable ideas and many would target those close to them (including themselves) as well as teachers, employers and rivals. China used to be plastered with dazibao, but very few survived as they were ordered to be destroyed after Mao’s death. There were a couple of such posters in the museum. I have no idea what they said or who they were targeting, but one was overwritten and you could see the passion in the calligraphy. It must have been a terrifying time.

The final part of the museum was somewhat more light-hearted – a collection of ‘Shanghai Lady’ posters from 1920-1940. They were used to promote Western goods before the Communist movement, and the centrepiece was always a beautiful, often scantily clad, Chinese lady. The actual products, which were usually cigarettes and alcohol, took a back seat. Yet again, the artwork was superb, reminiscent of those old Pear’s Soap posters. Some of these artists would have gone on to paint propaganda posters.

As you can tell, I really found it captivating. Swinging from bewildering posters for Cultural Revolution approved ballet performances (female ballerinas in perfect arabesque pose wearing army uniform and holding rifles!) to posters full of hope for a bright future to the venomous dazibao, you can’t help but marvel at the tenacity of the nation, whether you agree with the politics or not.

After whiling away a good couple of hours in the museum, we continued our walk, ending up in the touristy Tian Zi Fang, a quaint network of alleyways lined with craft shops, bars and themed cafés. We had a quick look around a gallery dedicated to the Chinese impressionist artist, Ren Weiyin. In the 1950s, he used to run an acclaimed art academy, but five years before the Cultural Revolution, the authorities closed it down and Ren and his family were sent to a forced labour camp. They managed to escape after 9 months and when they returned to Shanghai, he was no longer allowed to paint for a living as it was seen as too bourgeois. To make ends meet, he became a shoe repairer, which he initially found degrading. He did this for 17 years, trying to make repairing shoes into an art form in itself, and doing his best to sneak out and paint when he could. He talked of walking out in the street to look at the dazibao posters and the confusion he felt. He spoke of being publicly denounced himself, and how despite the humiliation, he secretly felt pleased that someone had remembered him and thought he was worthy of an accusation. His paintings are full of vigour and are all the more interesting when you consider the circumstances in which they were made.

We carried on down the alleyways in search of the cat café, feeling curious about the concept and thinking we might enjoy some feline company. However, when we did find it, it looked a bit weird, with grumpy looking cats in little jackets being picked up and snuggled by suited businessmen, so we didn’t go in. We passed a teddy bear themed café, before plumping for a refined meal at a Japanese restaurant and a not so refined dessert at ‘Modern Toilet’. This scatological café was a four year old’s paradise, so it suited us quite nicely. The chairs were toilets with velvet seat covers, and each table was a sink with a fake turd in it, overlain by a pane of glass. The menu had an ‘appetising’ selection of toilet themed desserts. We went for a foamy hot chocolate served in a toilet shaped mug and a cartoon-like replica of something a dog might have left behind in chocolate ice cream form, served in a squat toilet shaped dish. It looked disgusting, but tasted lovely! The actual toilet in the establishment was disappointingly not restaurant themed. In fact, you could say it was bog standard…

Christmas break in Dong Tan

Elanor has been in South Korea for a couple of years teaching English to kindergarten pupils at a small school. The school is situated in a new city about an hour south of Seoul, called Dong Tan. Ele’s apartment was on the 11th floor of a block of flats and consisted of one large room divided roughly in two and a small bathroom. The kitchen was nearest the door and the bedroom and living area were on the other side by the large floor to ceiling window, which looked out over the park opposite and surrounding skyscrapers and neon lights. The window covered the entire far side of the apartment, and there were no buildings directly opposite, so that in the daytime the flat was flooded with natural light. Many people in Korea live in apartments very similar to this.

As soon as we set our backpacks down, we felt a surge of relief. We had two whole weeks in which we had no need to up sticks and move on. No unpacking and repacking! No hefting of heavy bags! No wondering where we were going to sleep! We spent rather a lot of our time over the ensuing days pottering about, playing games, watching films and reading (or programming in Luke’s case); not doing anything too taxing and therefore not really seeing as much of South Korea as we might have done. However, we did summon up the energy to do some things, so I will fill you in on those that might be of interest.

We were very excited to find a parcel waiting for us, which had been sent by my mother from England. She had gone to great lengths to ensure it arrived, even having to ring the Korean embassy to get permission for posting certain items. South Korea, it turns out, is extremely strict on what can enter the country via the postal service! Whilst the box contained Christmas treats, we were under strict instructions to open it as soon as possible so that we got the benefit from the contents during our stay. Obediently, the morning after our arrival, we sat on the bed with our cups of tea and eagerly opened the box. We were all very pleased to find three pairs of socks each, and Luke conceded that it was finally time for him to throw some of his socks away; the ones that were arguably more hole than sock. I think Luke has some sort of corrosive quality to his heels that eats away at sock fabric. There were several boxes of chocolates and chocolate biscuits which we gradually guzzled our way through over the next two weeks, a game of chocolate chess, some joke spy sunglasses which allowed us to see what was happening behind us, a lip reading game, a new t shirt each, a knitting kit for a bobble hat, some lip balm and a year’s supply of moisturiser! Apparently the lady at the embassy had been quite snooty with my mother, telling her that Korean moisturiser was much better anyway! Most excitingly, there were sachets of Nikwax techwash and waterproofing liquid so that I could rejuvenate my coat. It is strange what you find exciting when you are travelling!

That day we went to Song Tan, where the US army was based, to meet Ele’s boyfriend. Luke and I were supposed to be dressing as the elves to his Santa for Ele’s school Christmas party on Christmas Eve and we were seeking out costumes. After trawling the shops, we found a couple of potential items which could be cobbled together into a costume, including a rather fetching green jumper dress for me that looked rather like it was made from AstroTurf. We then were signed into the army base itself, having to hand in our passports first and so were officially on US soil! The base was huge, like a small US town, complete with bars, restaurants, a shopping mall and residential areas. The buildings inside were noticeably different in style to those in the surrounding area, so it really did feel like you were in a different country. We had one more look for elf outfits in the store to no avail, before heading to the bar where we had a couple of beers, Luke made an astonishing display of being good at pool and we were taught how to play shuffle board. The board was a long, narrow table covered in a fine layer of sand. Each team had three heavy metal pucks, which you took turns to zoom from one end of the table to the other, aiming to land them in one of the three scoring zones at the far side. If you were skilful, you could knock the other players’ pucks out of position whilst notching up a score for yourself. I can categorically say I have still not found my sport.  I had high hopes for this one, as it didn’t involve complicated rules, running around or throwing and catching, but it still required a degree of hand-eye co-ordination and I was distinctly average.

Later that evening, we went out for Ele’s pre-birthday celebrations with her work colleagues, finishing the night in a norobang (I’m not sure of the spelling, but it is the Korean equivalent of a karaoke room). They were a really fun bunch and it was lovely to meet her friends and see her so settled in her life out there. There is a thing in Korea called the ‘bang’ lifestyle. Bang means room, and there are rooms for all sorts of things – the karaoke rooms, the sauna rooms… there are even rooms you hire for romantic trysts. Couples traditionally don’t move in together until they are married, so this is one way they are able to spend private time together, especially if they still share their parents’ flat, and the rooms can be hired for short periods. The names of these hotels are gently suggestive, like ‘Fox Rooms’.

Dong Tan is a classic new city of high rises, neon lights, fast food outlets, convenience stores and cafés. There was a massive shopping complex in which there were all manner of high street shops, including a plethora of the ubiquitous outdoor clothing shops and an enormous Home Plus, the Korean version of Tesco (which is actually run by the same company). I spent an afternoon losing myself in the maze of the shopping mall, following signs for Home Plus, which always seemed to be just around the corner but never quite within sight. When I finally located it, I could hardly believe it had taken me so long as it was so huge. I spent a happy half hour seeking out ingredients for a birthday cake and was filling a bag with banana chips to weigh when a beaming shop assistant came up to me. She took my bag to weigh it and gestured to me that I really ought to have more. I pointed to say that I didn’t need any more than 100g as indicated on the price tag. She laughed, weighed my bag and when it read 124g I moved to take some out. She shook her head, adjusted the price to that for 100g and then got another handful of banana chips, put them in the bag for me and slapped on the label! I smiled and thanked her – I must have looked like I needed feeding up!

Once back at the flat, Luke and I set about making the surprise birthday cake for Ele. The oven was a very small, portable one and there were no big cake tins, so we had to improvise and use a saucepan. It was great to do some baking again – I had really missed it! Surprisingly, it all worked out quite nicely, and with only minutes to spare, we poured melted chocolate on top, arranged the banana chips and finished it off with a liberal sprinkling of colourful sugar stars and the requisite birthday candles. We popped the cake on its plate into the postal box we had received from my mum, which incidentally was the very same we sent to her from Japan. It had turned out to be a very good buy, and not something we had expected to be able to use again! We traipsed up the road, gingerly carrying the cake box, in search of the Korean barbecue restaurant where we were due to meet Ele after work. Luke spoke to the waiter inside to see if they could bring it out at the end of the meal, but he was thoroughly confused as to why we had a cake in a box, so we gave up! Dinner was lovely, and we were all in good spirits. Despite our strange secretiveness and instructions to close her eyes, Ele still seemed surprised when we whisked out the cake (or she feigned it well!) and we got some funny looks from people when the candles were lit and we sang happy birthday! This was definitely not the done thing in Korea! The waiters gave us a strange crimped knife to cut it with and we all had a big slab each, which nicely rounded off the meal.

Ele still had two days left to work, so we spent the next day in Seoul. It was a short bus ride to stylish Gangnam, and Luke had fun trying to spot plastic surgery victims! Apparently facial plastic surgery is really common here, which is sad as Korean people have nice faces anyway. The most sought after ‘improvements’ are eyelid surgery to give the upper lids more definition, nose jobs to narrow the nose and reshaping of the chin to give more of an oval shape to the face. It’s horrid really – Western facial features are thought to be the most beautiful, so people pay to westernise their faces.

Or first stop was a bookstore where Luke bought me a mystery Christmas present and I spied a beautifully illustrated childrens’ book about an enormous abandoned teddy bear. It immediately made me think of Eric and his salvaged bears, so we bought it to post to him. After this, we had grand plans to visit one of the many museums or palaces, but ended up on a much more exciting mission: to find some knitting needles so I could make my hat and some wool for a string for my mittens.

After a quick Google search, in which we perused Korean ex-pat knitting forums, we hit gold. We headed to Dongdaemun and found ourselves in haberdashery paradise. As far as the eye could see, the streets were lined with small shops stacked with rolls of fabric, shelves of colourful cotton reels, and a glut of shops specialising exclusively in sew-on embroidered badges. I was mesmerised. After some noteworthy miming, we were pointed down into an underground shopping arcade that was crammed full of knitting stalls. Heaven! We wandered along, until we found a stall with a group of women sat on stools knitting and crocheting. It looked quite sociable, so I asked for the needle size I needed and paid for them. I then went about getting the right colour of wool to match my mittens and explained it was to make a string. Luke could see by now that I was itching to get stuck into the knitting circle, and he was keen to get some drawing done, so he said I should sit down and make the string there and then. The ladies duly got me a stool and I settled down, whilst Luke ambled off a short distance to sketch the market.

I had no idea how to make the string, so one of the ladies showed me how to knot the wool by hand. I was sat next to two young Korean girls, who were students at the university, one of whom spoke very good English. Her name was Youngbin, and she had been to school in Ireland and had also studied in China. We had a nice chat whilst I battled away with my knots. The older ladies who owned the stall didn’t speak English, but were very welcoming and kind and gave me a sweet potato to eat as I worked. I was about halfway to completion, when one of them told me I should really be doing it double thickness or it wouldn’t be strong enough. She started me off again and got me a crochet hook and tried to teach me how to do it. However, I was hopeless and after about 10 minutes of watching me struggle, she shook her head and took it off me, crocheted the whole thing in about 2 minutes, measured it against my arms and then sewed it onto my mittens! I know that my sister Joanna will sympathise with her frustration, as she can’t abide watching me knit at my snail-like pace (a knitting snail would really be something, wouldn’t it?!). I sat feeling a little embarrassed, but very amused at the situation. Shortly afterwards, the market started to close up and we quickly had some photos all together and they gave me a clementine! Luke had done some lovely pictures of the market and he showed them to the little gathering before we left. The lady later sent me a message to say it had been lovely to meet us and she was pleased to be able to make the string as a Christmas present. Google translate really is a wonderful tool, if a little haphazard at times! After all this knitting excitement, we had to catch the bus back, so I think it’s safe to say our first foray into the second largest capital in the world was a little unconventional!

Christmas Eve dawned and along with it our inaugural performance as Santa’s elves. Ele set off for work a little earlier, whilst we readied ourselves with our costumes. Luke was a poor excuse for an elf in our first attempt at a costume, looking more like he would be escorted off the premises should he set foot in a school. After a quick raiding of Ele’s wardrobe, we cobbled together something more suitable for the pair of us and, running late, we had to march down the streets clad in red and green with horribly clashing accessories, looking even more crazy than usual. ‘Father Christmas’, arrived shortly afterwards with a friend, and we readied ourselves for the Christmas party. The classes filed in and sat on the floor, whilst we arranged ourselves cross-legged on either side of Santa next the Christmas tree. The children ranged in age from 2 to about 7 years old, and were all very cute! Each class took it in turns to get up and sing a little Christmas-themed song in their sweet broken English, complete with actions of course, whilst we beamed goonishly and clapped our hands with appropriate elvish enthusiasm. After the little concert, the classes returned to their rooms and we took it upon ourselves to merrily march them back, one class at a time, to Santa. We then brought in sacks of presents and with help from the teachers, read out the names for each child to collect a gift from Santa (which had been provided by their parents, shh!). They each had to pose for a photo and only one child cried, and every single one was good enough to save their present for Christmas day.

After their duties were performed, the elves made their way to the supermarket to buy Christmas day provisions. As we passed the nut and dried fruit stall, the lady who had given me the free banana chips beckoned me over and surreptitiously pressed a handful of almonds into my palm! I grinned and thanked her and made her a little paper crane, which I delivered to her on our way out. We succeeded in finding pretty much all we needed for Christmas dinner; we even came up trumps with the cranberry sauce! Of course there were no turkeys, but we would never had fitted one in that oven anyway, and chicken was a good replacement.

Christmas day dawned and after opening presents, we made a start on preparing the feast. Luke gave me a book of Korean poetry – in Korean! – I will have my work cut out deciphering it, but it will be fun. Korean writing looks a bit like how I imagine alien writing would be. It is actually phonetic, so if you learn the Hanguel alphabet and how to read the arrangements, you stand a fairly good chance of being able to sound out words. The writing system was pioneered by a Korean king, Sejong the Great in 1446 century, and was intended to be a logical script to replace the use of Chinese characters which poorly represented the language. The ‘words’ are made up of square blocks of two or three characters; each block is one syllable. When I have decoded my first poem, I will post it on here! I got Luke a card game and a toy ping pong set and Ele gave us a little pile of gifts each, including much needed hand-warmers, which we were very excited about!

Christmas dinner was, if I may say so, a remarkable feat, and Luke most certainly established himself as an excellent cook (past overly-browned toast incidents aside). We crammed the chicken layered with bacon and encircled by roast potatoes and home-made pigs in blankets into the tiny oven, and managed to get all the veg ready at the appropriate time. After stuffing ourselves, we forced down some apple crumble and custard. Ele and her boyfriend played chocolate chess but were incredibly restrained and didn’t eat a single piece, though we did eat plenty of chocolate at a steady pace throughout the day! It was a lovely laidback affair, and we were really pleased we managed to Skype family as well, before rounding off the day by going up to the roof to fly paper aeroplanes.

After an appropriately lazy Boxing Day, during which I narrowly beat Luke at chocolate chess and we devoured all the pieces, the three of us felt we needed to get out of the flat, so we headed to Seoul to see one of the palaces and the aquarium. Unfortunately, we arrived on the one day in the week the palace was closed! We wandered down some touristy streets browsing the shops whilst in search of lunch and I bought Luke an enormous handkerchief for his constantly dripping nose. Ele duly noted that I had a drippy nose as well and gave me a handkerchief of my very own a few days later!

We visited the Coex Aquarium after lunch and spent the rest of the day in there. There was a great section on native Korean fish, with a slightly disturbing sign above one species, the long-snouted bullhead, which read: ‘these fish are very rare and have not been found in Korean rivers for 40 years. It is the most delicious fish among all the fish species.’ The Koreans do like their food, so I think those poor fish never stood a chance! There was no mention of, ‘we probably shouldn’t have eaten them all, we should do more to conserve our native species’; the sentiment was more, ‘it’s a pity for them that they taste so good, but what can you do?’ I suspect something may have been lost in translation… In fact, South Korea is now becoming proactive about conservation of its native species, which is ever more pressing given the rate of urban development. They are building a group of huge glass biodomes and other buildings as part of the National Research Centre for Endangered Species. Species such as the Korean stumpy bullhead and the black-faced spoonbill will be bred at the centre and studied, with the eventual aim of releasing them once more into the wild. Provided the Koreans can curb their appetites, there may yet be hope! Interestingly, one of the most wildlife-rich places in Korea is the demilitarised zone, which is a like a vast nature reserve, as no people live there. In other words, the most dangerous place in the country for people is a haven for nature!

Luke and I did some sketching at the aquarium, and I crouched to draw a picture of the pacu, huge fish with very cute faces. Three of them seemed quite curious and lined up along the front of the tank watching me, so I felt I had to show them the picture I had drawn. I hope they approved, it is hard to tell with fish. The majority of the tanks were spacious and well designed, but there were also a few where there was one large fish in a very small tank and I felt sorry for them. There was also a very silly room where home appliances and other every-day objects had been made into fish tanks. I don’t care how funny it looks, a washing machine does not make a nice home for a fish! They had a few mammals and penguins as well; often their enclosures appeared too small or lacked interest so you could tell they were bored, but the short-clawed otters looked to be having loads of fun rolling and romping about! They were very cute. There was one who had fallen asleep on a log; he would get droopier and droopier and then his head would slip off the log and he’d jerk awake, only to repeat the process again. Every now and then one of the other otters would scamper up and pat him as if asking him to play, and he would look blearily at them and slump back. It reminded me of a small child trying to wake a parent up at an unsociable hour in the morning. We finished the day by doing the requisite dance on the Gangnam Style podium in Gangnam – a small stage on the street where you can press a button and do the actions to the hit song.

Later in the week we went ice skating – something I haven’t done for years! After hobbling up the stairs and changing my skates three times, I finally found a pair that didn’t hurt my feet. None of us fell over, but I didn’t find it quite as easy as I used to!

Luke and I had arranged to meet up with Injae, the Korean man we had met on the train and the ferry in Japan, and his grandchildren. He was staying fairly close to DongTan and was keen to give his grandchildren a taste of Korean culture as they live in Australia. We met them at a train station and piled into the car. Injae had planned an action-packed day out for us all. Daehan (8) and Hanbee (6) were very sweet children and we had loads of fun being silly with them and being able to be the big kids we are at heart. It was so nice to see Injae again as well; he has a real love for life, a great sense of humour and you could tell his grandchildren adored him. Our first port of call was a snow park, where they had a toboggan run and rubber ring style sledges. It was brilliant! We all marched up the slope, towing our rings behind us (well, Hanbee had some help from me!) and then lined up at the top, shuffling forwards until it was our turn. When the time came, we pushed ourselves off and went sliding down the slope, spinning as we went and colliding bumper car style at the bottom. Then it was off up to the top to do it all again! After the sledging, we went to a magic show. The tent was packed and we were right at the back, but the act was really very convincing! He started by making origami shapes out of a piece of white paper – the aeroplane turned into a penguin and the penguin turned into a dove. Then he put the paper dove inside a book and I thought he was going to open it and a string of paper doves would come out, but, no, it was a real, live dove! I think I may have been more impressed by this than the children. His sleight of hand was really good – that, or it really was magic!

The final ‘activity’ of the day was to go to the hot spring baths on the same site. As usual, men and women bathed separately, so I was to take care of little Hanbee. Thank goodness it wasn’t my first time! She had never been to a bath house before, so I felt the weight of cultural responsibility. We ascertained that we both had to be naked, but that everyone else would be as well and she told me in her cute Aussie accent that she was a bit shy about it and I told her it was okay, because I was too. She was so well behaved and once we were inside, didn’t seem fazed at all! I attracted a lot of curious looks, being the only Westerner and in charge of a small Korean girl. I explained all the things we were supposed to do, and after showering ourselves clean we went into the warm pools. We soon were surrounded by other small children who wanted to play with us – mainly because I was the only adult in the place that was playing games and I looked different and silly! The games mainly involved pouring tubs of water over my head, which I managed to allay for a short period by introducing clapping games taught to me by my niece, Sylvia. After getting changed, I dried Hanbee’s hair and on her instruction tied it up in rather messy pigtails, which I patched up with hair clips. We met the others outside and Luke told me he had had a similar experience, except the boys preferred swinging on the bars over the pools like monkeys.

Our final treat for the day was another Korean barbecue meal, which you must know by now is one of our favourite things! We met Injae’s sister at the pharmacy she runs with her husband and she took us to the restaurant. We had so much delicious food; it seemed to keep coming and we were all stuffed and sleepy afterwards. Injae’s sister very kindly paid for the whole thing, then we returned to the pharmacy and waited with the children whilst Injae and the others talked. Customers came in for vitamin drinks – they come in small pots and people would pay, down them, and throw the empty pot in a box by the counter. There was a nature documentary on television about lions and there were some cute lion cubs. We thought, ‘this looks like it’d be nice for the children’. How wrong we were! It soon began to turn dark and sinister, as the young adult males who were supposed to be babysitting started to play rough with the cubs. Tension was high and we tried to talk loudly over the stressful commentary and dramatic music to distract the children from the impending doom. When the advert break came, we heaved a sigh of relief, until a crocodile reared out of the water and took a chunk out of a passing antelope and Hanbee called out, ‘I saw blood!’ Luckily, she didn’t really seem to mind (children often find this sort of thing more fascinating than horrifying) and we were soon getting back into the car and waving goodbye to the sister and her husband. Injae insisted on driving us back to DongTan, but the sat nav directed us to a field! Luckily, Ele lives near some very tall skyscrapers and a large hotel, so by heading in the general direction and asking other drivers at traffic lights, we finally arrived back. Daehan and Hanbee were sound asleep by this point, but we thanked Injae and vowed to meet up again on the Australian Gold Coast! We just need to get there…

The 31st December dawned and we lazed around all day with no plans, until at about 8pm we suddenly decided to get our acts together. We looked online for somewhere fun to go to in Seoul and caught the train in, booking ourselves a hostel on the subway. It was very cold outside, so all three of us were well bundled up so we could watch the ringing of the huge Bosingak bell at midnight in the bell pavilion at Jongno, which means ‘Bell Street’. There has been a bell here since 1396, but due to wars and fires, it is no longer the original. It used to be situated at the centre of the castle and at 4am and 10pm it would be struck 33 times to declare the opening and closing of the four city gates. Nowadays, it is only ever rung at midnight on New Year’s Eve, but in keeping with the old tradition, it is always rung 33 times. I am not sure of the significance of the number 33, but I imagine it gave people plenty of warning to get in or out of the city gates!

At around 11.30pm, after checking into our hostel, we joined the swarms of people heading to the square, and found ourselves a place in the crowd just to the left of the pavilion. A band was playing rock music and two big screens showed the presenters talking about the past year and introducing the 33 people who were to ring the giant bell at midnight, none of whom we recognised. In common with other oriental style bells, this bell did not have a clapper and is rung by striking it with a large wooden beam attached by ropes like a swing. The atmosphere was happy and lively and more and more people arrived as we neared midnight. Television cameras swept over the crowds I enjoyed watching the excited realisation on peoples’ faces as they spotted themselves on the screens. Sadly we were not to have our 2 seconds of fame. Midnight arrived and the bell was duly rung. Performing our duties as representatives of the British Isles, we crossed arms, held hands and sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’, to the bemusement and amusement of those around us! They were still ringing the bell when we finished (which didn’t take long as we only knew one verse) and we decided to head out of the square with the throngs. It got a little like a rugby scrum as the police were inexplicably forcing people through a narrow channel, so we kept hold of each other’s hands and went with the flow. I was relieved to be out of the press of the crowds; it was only on the plane to Shanghai a few days later that we discovered the awful news of people being crushed to death on the Bund during the course of the New Year celebrations, which made me think that we should be cautious of massive events like this in the future. We went to a street side tent café for a late dinner and to toast the New Year with makkoli, before heading back to the hostel.

On New Year’s Day, we went to a Studio Ghibli exhibition in Seoul. Luke had been disappointed in Japan as tickets to the Studio Ghibli museum were all sold out. Studio Ghibli are the Disney of Japan, who made films such as Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro, which are renowned for their imaginative plots and beautiful animation. The exhibition was a homage to around six of their most famous films, with life-size models and set reconstructions, so it felt as if you were walking through the Ghibli world.

In the afternoon, we treated ourselves to a few hours at Dragon Hill Spa, a kind of multi-storey bath house theme park. On entry, you are given a cotton t shirt and shorts. The ground floor is communal and there are various sauna rooms, salt rooms, and cold rooms. The place is open 24 hours so you can sleep here as well if you want. In the centre there was a large hall where people lazed around and ate traditional iced desserts with fruit. Around the perimeter were rows of massage chairs. We had wrist bands that you scanned to start up the machine – at the end of your stay, they tally up all your scanned items and you pay for them.  I must have scanned my band a few times by accident as my massage chair just kept going! After about 20 minutes of vigorous pummelling, I felt refreshingly battered, if that is possible. We then headed to the segregated areas where we had the usual baths and then Ele and I had an ‘ajumma’ scrub down, which is where you lie naked on a slab and a middle-aged lady exfoliates you to within an inch of your life. Despite my best efforts, months of travel had probably left me grubbier than the average person. She took pleasure in showing me how much dead skin was coming off my body, and after she rolled me onto my side I was somewhat disgusted to find a little grey marble of my own skin had found its way up my left nostril! (I apologise for the details, but I have to tell it like it was). I left the bath house greeting the New Year like a new person, super-clean, tingling and red raw. Afterwards, I managed to have a quick Google hangout in a café with friends from home; it’s always so nice to catch up, even if they had to look at my ear because the speaker on my phone wasn’t loud enough!

A couple of days later and we were saying goodbye to Ele. We were very sad to be leaving her behind (I wanted to pack her in my rucksack!), but felt nicely refreshed after our days spent sleeping and recuperating and had more energy to devote to our next stint of travel in China.

We had quite a different sort of travel experience in South Korea, having spent our time mainly divided between working on the Jeju farm and living with Ele in DongTan. Things that stood out for us were the kindness (once again!) of strangers, the wonderful food, the cute way they end English words with an ‘e’ sound (‘go over the bridgey’, ‘look at the fishy’), the high-tech society and the love of the outdoors. We made some very good Korean friends and we have kept in touch with them since leaving. Juseong is always sending us photos of his hiking escapades! It would be good to return one day and explore more of the countryside and historic towns. We would definitely recommend South Korea as a holiday destination if you would like to explore somewhere oriental with a rich history, with all your home comforts but a lower price tag than Japan.


Somewhat belatedly! I hope you all had lovely Christmases and are all well. Thank you for reading about our escapades and for your nice and funny comments.

Rendezvous no. 2

We arrived back in Busan and headed to the same youth hostel we had stayed in previously, had a massive lunch and wandered around the markets. I bought a new hat with ear flaps and large pom poms on the chin tie that was much warmer than my current hat in preparation for the colder weather in the north and found a pair of replacement hiking shoes for Luke in one of the many outdoor clothing shops. We then warmed up with cake and hot chocolate and made plans to meet up with Juseong the next day. He had been our saviour when the Jeju ferry was cancelled the last time we were in Busan and we had nowhere to stay, and he was keen to meet again and show us more of the city!

We were up early the next morning and, bleary eyed, we overshot on the subway by one stop, Luke already having had to forgo one ticket and return to the hostel because we forgot the present for Juseong. Luckily there was a bell to push and a friendly boy came to bleep us through so we could go back the way we came. We arrived a little late, but were pleased to find Juseong and his friend, Han, were there to meet us. His friend was equally smiley and friendly and was also a keen photographer. We sometimes felt we were back on our wedding day having our pictures taken for the album! They took us on a hike up to Baemoeasa temple, a beautiful series of colourfully painted old wooden temple buildings, nestled in the hills overlooking Busan. Most of the buildings were original, but one had been burnt down by an arsonist a few years ago. It had been faithfully rebuilt and the paintwork was especially vibrant. The path leading up to the temple complex was lined with strings of rainbow coloured lanterns, and there were huge, worn stone statues of tortoises. We spend an hour wandering and peeping into the different buildings, including one tiny temple dedicated to the mountain god, part of a Korean religion prior to the arrival of Buddhism. In front of one of the buildings, we saw hundreds of bricks of terracotta coloured bean curd drying in the sun below a persimmon tree. The branches were bare save for the bright orange fruits, which glowed against the blue sky like tiny suns, and birds chattered as they flitted merrily from fruit to fruit. We were pleasantly surprised to be treated to a free lunch at the temple canteen. It was huge inside and we sat around one of the many wooden tables and had generous portions of vegetarian bibimbap out of stainless steel dishes. We were amazed that we didn’t have to pay at all for it; it was quiet in there that day, but I can imagine it gets really packed in summer, so it must cost quite a lot to run. After eating, we clambered up to the top of a nearby hill to see a small hermitage, from where there were wonderful views over some of the districts of Busan and out onto the sea. It was a fantastically clear day and we were even able to see a Japanese island from our vantage point.

We made our way back down towards the town, and Juseong stopped to buy some traditional rice cake and red bean paste sweets. We all sat on the back seat of the bus and shared them, along with a bag of sweet potatoes given to us by Son’s mother, which had gone all syrupy inside. After an hour or so, we got out and they took us to see the Korean International Film Festival building. It was an enormous, swooping steel modernistic building boasting the longest cantilever roof in the world. There was a Guinness Record plaque to commemorate this achievement, which, not being well up on architecture, meant very little to me! Under the shelter of this magnificent roof there was an open air cinema where you could watch films in summer, but in the winter months it housed an ice rink. Inside there were more cinema screens and Juseong told us that he visits once a week to watch films with his wife; it would be brilliant to have this on your doorstep, it’s so much grander than your average Odeon. Another plus point (or not?) is that it is next door to the largest shopping mall in the world! This also sported a Guinness Record plaque.

We took a short stroll to arrive at an office block, one of the tallest buildings in Busan and with marvellous views of the Hyundai coastal area. Luckily for us, Juseong’s friend worked in an office on the 40th floor. We drank tea in the lounge overlooking the sweep of the bay and watched the sun set. It was without doubt the most stunning cityscape I have seen – the bridges that arched elegantly across the estuary were lit with colourful lights and skyscrapers of glass and steel reached skywards against the curve of the horizon, reflecting the setting sun. Below we could see a spaghetti-like network of roads that wove around the buildings, and as the sky darkened, car headlights lit the highways like strings of Christmas lights.

Our next stop was a small café at the bottom of the building, where we bought dinner for our new friends as thanks for their generosity. After eating, we continued our walk along the coastline, stopping to take photos of the illuminated Diamond Bridge and marvelling at the eerie glow of the distant fishing boat lights. The boats themselves had tipped over the horizon, but the reflection of their softly shining lamps, strung out like pearls where sea met sky, beautifully illustrated the curve of the earth. We passed rows of posh hotels and a shipyard jostling with fancy yachts and day-tripping boats, one of which was rather amusingly named ‘hyperdick’; perhaps a reference to the owner’s lack of boating etiquette? Crossing over a small bridge onto an island, we traversed a wooden gangway that lined the coast where a statue of a woman sat gazing mournfully out to sea, before eventually descending onto Hyundai beach. In summer, this beach would be packed with the hip and trendy, partying and drinking cocktails, but in winter it was all but empty. We slipped into the lobby of one of the fancy hotels that faced the beach and took a ride up the see-through escalator for more city views, which brought us to the end of our tour of Busan. We thanked Juseong and Han profusely; they had been incredibly kind to us and we had seen so much more than we would have done had we explored on our own.

The next morning we wandered to the dockyard to sketch the tugs and fishing boats. It was another gorgeously clear day and we were sorry that we would be spending the best part of it travelling, but were very excited to be finally seeing Ele, Luke’s sister. On the way back to collect our bags, Luke went in search of some wool to make a string for my mittens as I kept dropping them. He was unsuccessful, but whilst I wandered ahead I came across a starling panting on its side in the middle of the street. People walking past were ignoring it and the poor thing looked very stressed. Glancing surreptitiously from side to side, as if about to perform a petty crime, I swiftly picked it up, cupped it between my hands and strode down the road looking for somewhere safe to leave it. As I walked, I gave it a little stroke on the head and whispered to it, which almost certainly made it more scared, but made me feel better. Passers-by were looking at me with a mixture of surprise and disgust. I found a patch of small bushes with a sapling in the centre, checked the bird over for broken wings or legs and concluded it had merely been stunned. The frightened thing was then deposited in the safety of the bushes and left to its own devices. Back at the hostel I washed my hands well and got talking to a lovely family from Singapore with whom I exchanged details in case we ever make it there! When Luke returned, we saddled ourselves up once more and set off for the station. We passed the bush where I had left the starling en route and I peeped in to check on it. It was still there, but on seeing me peering at it, it flew to the top of the tree and promptly did a poo! Success! I was very pleased it had saved this little performance for when I came back.

The rest of the day was spent on public transport as we took a circuitous route to the station in the north of South Korea where we were to meet Ele. Unfortunately for me, I had drunk rather a lot of coffee and there were no toilets on the coaches, so much of the journey was spent wriggling in discomfort! It was all worth it though when we found Ele waiting for us at the station café. It was so wonderful to see a familiar face after weeks of travelling! We had really enjoyed making new friends, but there is nothing quite like the comfort being able to relax around someone close to you and share news. We were very much in need of settling down and unwinding, which is just what we intended to do over Christmas.

 (P.S. We are currently in China again with even more restricted internet than last time, but Luke has figured out something terribly clever so I can post my blog again! I will try to trickle it in so it isn’t too much at once!)

Back on the mainland: rendezvous No. 1!

Our journey to the airport was nice and relaxed; when we arrived, we indulged in hot chocolate and cake and bought some Jeju souvenirs for our new Korean friends. Once in Busan, we caught the bus to the nearby town of Changwon, where Son was waiting to collect us. It was so lovely to see him again; we really felt like we were meeting up with an old friend, even though we had only spent a few days together previously. He looked very well after his weeks of walking in Spain, and we set off for the Changwon street food market, catching up on each other’s adventures since we had parted in Irkutsk. We wandered the stalls and Son explained the different foods on offer, which we then sampled – topokki were fat cylinders of rice starch and slithers of fish cake served in sauce, kimbap is rather like sushi (rice, meat and veg rolled in seaweed) and hottok is a like a puffed up cross between a doughnut and pita bread, with a sweet syrupy centre. I have no idea how to spell the names, and we probably have remembered them wrong! The topokki were definitely the trickiest to eat, as despite my improvement in chopstick skills over the past few weeks, the rice cakes were slippery little beggars! It is also more common in Korea to have metal chopsticks at restaurants, which are harder to use as they have less grip than wooden or plastic chopsticks. Luke is good at using chopsticks – my technique is entirely my own, but it works for me! VERY occasionally someone will compliment me on my chopstick usage (Luke gets this all the time) and then I feel a little glow of pride, and I feel I have to check that Luke has registered it.

After the market, Son drove us out of town and into the countryside to his mother’s house. There were steep sided forested hills on all sides, and the little villages we passed were quite a contrast to the shiny high rises of the cities, the buildings often having traditional curved oriental roofs, a somewhat ramshackle appearance and their own vegetable patches. Son’s mother is a Buddhist monk (or whatever the female equivalent is; nun doesn’t sound quite right), and her house is annexed to the temple at the top of the village. The entrance to the driveway was flanked by large and fearsome looking stone protection gods, and there were other Buddhist statues scattered about the area outside the temple. There was also a not quite so fearsome looking small protection dog as well that barked and grumbled a greeting to us. The temple was quite small and newer than others we had visited, but pretty all the same, and the location was peaceful and secluded. Son’s mum came out to greet us – she was very smiley and welcoming. Like all Buddhist monks, her head was shaven and her clothes were simple and traditional. Son’s sister was also there, and we saw some of her beautiful flower paintings around the house. Son took us to see the inside of the temple, with its red drapery and golden Buddha statues, and showed us how to pray before the Buddha. Son is not Buddhist himself; his mother became a monk when they were younger, and from that time he and his sister lived with their father. Shortly after we arrived, a skinny and very noisy ginger and white cat turned up. She miaowed very loudly until Son’s mother gave her some dog biscuits. Apparently she had never seen the cat before! We suspected that she might decide to stay given the hospitality she was shown, and we certainly saw quite a lot of her over the next couple of days.

We ate dinner with the family sat cross-legged on the heated floor around a low table in the kitchen, and afterwards we all sat under the same blanket and watched Korean soaps, cookery shows and game shows! We had been told that Korean soaps all tend to have the same storyline – some sort of love triangle, with a pretty, hard-done by Cinderella type character, a dashing but undeserving man, a nicer but misunderstood man and a bitchy woman. That sounds more like a love square, but you get the idea. We weren’t disappointed. As we moved on through Korea, we saw the same soaps again and again and you didn’t need to speak Korean to get the gist of what was going on – they were pretty dreadful, but people really get hooked on them! My favourite characters were the manipulative women, whose every evil thought could be traced upon their faces; but only when the other characters’ backs were turned. The cookery programmes were equally entertaining – sometimes they show you how to cook a meal, but more often they visit restaurants where they might film enormous stacks of dishes being brought out, whose height they measure with a tape measure and you watch the public slurping and gasping and exclaiming how great it all is. One programme showed a seafood restaurant where octopus was the speciality. The poor octopus came out writhing on a plate, was dunked in boiling water and then had its legs snipped into pieces whilst it was still alive and wriggling. That really turned my stomach. I don’t eat octopus anyway, but if I did, that would have put a stop to it! It just seemed so mean. As for the game shows, we didn’t have a clue what was going on. They were very silly and strange!

The nearest sizeable town to the village was a famous hot spring resort. The next morning we went to the bath house – Luke went with Son, and I with his mother. It was much the same as the onsen we had visited in Japan, but this was our first time being escorted by another person. And I with a female monk! Luke and I were both a bit nervous about being naked in front of people we knew (albeit vaguely in my case), but we needn’t have worried. Son’s mum really looked after me. However, it was quite amusing as she had a very particular way of doing things which confused me somewhat, especially as we could only communicate by mime! She was emphatic about doing things right, but what right was, I couldn’t quite decipher. I was given two small towels on entry to the bath. One towel was left behind in my locker, the other I was to bring with me. We picked up the usual plastic bowls and then she told me to put my clean towel in the bowl of water and indicated for me to wash it. The towel was clean: I had no idea why I was washing a clean towel, but did it anyway. We cleaned ourselves and I went to go and wash my hair. And so, through the medium of mime:

Son’s mum: No, no! Not like that! You must first wash it with soap!

Me: With this?! (Holding up a bar of soap, somewhat uncertainly)

SM: Yes! Not one time, two times!

Me: Wash my hair two times with soap? What about the shampoo we brought?

SM: Shampoo, yes, but first wash hair two times with soap!

Me: Right, got it. (?!!)

I went and obediently washed my hair twice with a bar of soap and then (and only then) used the shampoo. With squeaky clean hair (literally), I proceeded to the baths. There were four large baths in total. The first was a pleasant 39°C, the second was quite hot at 42°C and was, in fact, a bath of green tea. As I gingerly eased myself into the steaming green water, I noticed my wedding ring was taking on a strange colour. It very quickly changed from silver to gold – I thought perhaps the acidity of the water had stripped it of its outer layer of palladium, exposing the gold underneath. I had known this would happen over time with wear, but had not expected it to be an instantaneous reaction in a green tea bath! I wondered if Luke’s ring had done the same thing. Interesting, I thought, and surreptitiously studied it to try and get used to the new appearance. The last two baths were cooler, and the final one had a massage jet in it, which was really powerful and gave my back a good pummelling, leaving it feeling a bit tingly and strangely itchy afterwards! After the steam room and the sauna, we returned to our shower stations, where we showered again, brushed our teeth and I washed my clean towel once more, feeling a little stupid. The towels were then wrung out and we used them to pat ourselves dry, so it made a little more sense in the end. Son’s mum tutted at my posture and gave me a quick and firm shoulder massage, pointing out that my muscles were really knotted – no doubt from weeks of hefting rucksacks around!

We met Luke and Son outside, and we all felt quite droopy and relaxed. The first thing Luke did was show me his wedding ring – his had also turned gold. We had thought the changes would be permanent, but over the course of the next few days, they gradually reverted to their original silver colour, so it must have been a staining effect rather than an erosion.

Back at the house, we went out into the garden to help chop down some dead trees for firewood. When we had finished, Son’s mum had fun dusting us all down with a cloth until Son had to put his arms over his head and run away! After working up an appetite, we had a feast of Korean dishes, including delicious pancakes made with batter and shredded pumpkin which we ate dipped in soy sauce whilst drowsily catching up on the Korean soaps.

The following day was our last, and Son’s mum had made us a rice cake soup for breakfast, which is traditionally eaten on Korean New Year’s Day. Son very kindly gave us a present of walking socks, something which he knew from his own experience would be greatly appreciated by us. We thanked his mum for her hospitality and Son drove us to the station. As usual, we were sad to be saying goodbye, but we really feel that he is someone we will see again at some point, and it will be easy to pick up where we left off.