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.