Sunday, 13 February 2011

Korea: Busan, Gwangju, Seoul

From Tokyo I caught the awesome-looking but average-velocity shinkansen Bullet Train over 1000km south to Hakata/Fukuoka (the 5 hour journey would have been impressive if the Chinese equivalent I took a few weeks before wasn't 25mph faster and a lot less than £160, but it did have wifi and lots of leg room). After 1 night there which involved forcibly getting drunk on shochu and sake at the behest of 2 epitomical Japanese businessmen, I took a ferry across to Korea.

The visit to Korea for me focused on the capital, Seoul, thanks to the incredibly catchy advertisement that has been in my head for months since I started watching CNN on hotel room TVs, and a stop-off in Gwangju to visit Chris who I originally met in Delhi and bumped into again in Bangkok, and is now in Korea on behalf of a female (small world for sure, in more ways than one). More time was spent playing pool or asleep and/or hungover in Gwangju than I would like to admit so aside from having the company of Haena who is Korean, my insights only went as deep as the realisation that the young folk here are incredibly attractive and incredibly fashionable, with their lens-less black rimmed glasses and crazy hairstyles.

Seoul is a massively popular city with a huge number of Brits, Americans, Canadians and Australians there to teach English, and along with the fact it's pretty inexpensive, safe and has a lot going on, not to mention that the Korean girls seem to find something remarkable about Western guys (whether that is for better or worse; the continual giggling may have been genuine hilarity, or maybe it was just my beard), makes it a fun place to be.
With the long bus ride there and a flight booked to coincide with Cecily's return to Beijing from her hometown for Chinese New Year, I only had a couple of days to explore the city and brave the cold, but they were pretty full and took in a couple of palaces complete with changing of the guards ceremonies as they happened centuries ago under King Sejong the Great and generally getting a feel for Seoul's particular 'vibe', which even in the cold and quiet of the New Year celebrations exists along the pretty riverside in the centre of the city, and the bustling shopping and nightlife districts around Hongik University and Myeong-dong.

Most affecting though was a chance visit to an exhibition entitled 'Where Love Does Not Exist', displaying and describing life within North Korea's Prison Camps which, in my ignorance, I didn't realise existed. Thanks to the media and Team America I saw Kim Jong-il as a deluded but funny character to make fun of until he dies, but with stories of imprisonment in 'Complete Control Districts' and treatment reminiscent of Nazi Germany, I will think again. The most shocking story for me, in amongst many both tragic and graphic, was about the North Korean Cheerleading Team (I know that sounds like an oxymoron) - 21 girls sent to the South for the Asian Games in 2002 and imprisoned on their return for 'breaching their pledge not to divulge anything they have seen or heard during their trip'. It appears they are still imprisoned in TaehÅ­ng concentration camp for political dissidents where, if all is to be believed, they are treated incredibly badly, however with the controls the North has on such issues the only sources available are dissidents who have escaped.

"I was born in a political prison camp and lived for 24 years without knowing who Il-Sung-Kim and Jong-Il-Kim were. I have never heard the words 'love', 'happiness', 'contentment', 'unfortunate', 'injustice', 'resistance', and only discovered the meanings of these words in South Korea. These words are words that do not exist in political prison camps. Socialised with the bare minimum of words and emotions to perform addition and subtraction, and to follow work instructions, we were bred under physical violence as labouring slaves."
-Former prisoner of the 14th Gaechon Completely Control Zone Camp from Dong-Hyuk Shin's memoir.

Other stories included inmates having to eat rats and snakes just to survive,and punishment for breaking any of the prison rules being death.

So then I had coffee and read some Dickens.

That lead to another experience of hospitality and kindness to strangers reminiscent of Iran, as I was accompanied on my trip to the N Seoul Tower by new friend and Doctor of Oriental Medicine, Subeom. It was dark and misty so the view wasn't spectacular, but from 500m up (the tower is on top of a small mountain) the extent of the city on the Han River was impressive.

Seoul is a friendly city and Korea is an interesting country with an interesting history, ancient and modern, sitting somewhere in between Japan and China not only geographically but also socially, with people looking both ways and drawing on both modern cultures, however I couldn't quite place it or get a full perspective of it, whether because it is hidden beneath the mixed culture or the Korean culture just has blurred lines between it and its neighbours, or maybe I just wasn't there long enough.

Back in Beijing now for the remnants of the New Year celebrations (i.e. avoiding death-by-firework) before paying a visit to some other parts of China. As usual, photo posting is not working so will follow sometime.


  1. Really interesting blog!!
    Congratulations on 1 year of travelling, well done! hope it has been everything you hoped it would be!

  2. Fascinating stuff. The juxtaposition between the Korean prisoner's tale and you reading Dickens - hard to get a grip on either I should think. So have another beer and think of the Sportive on May 22!!!

  3. Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. Just remember to come home once in a while!!
    Love and miss you. BS xxxxx

  4. Thanks for the inspiring words Mr. Twain, err I mean Mrs. Tompkins. Very, very true and good to be reminded of : )

    Kim: Good to hear from you! Having not ridden for howevermanymonths the sportive will certainly be a challenge! Less beer more cycling...