Friday, March 30, 2012

Seoul long and thanks for all the kimchi

It's a good thing I made some friends in Seoul who I could go places and eat ludicrous food with, otherwise my experiences in this city would have been mostly negative.

I don't have any problems with Seoul itself, which feels the same as any other fairly anonymous, oversized East Asian capital to me (so nothing special by default), but the problem was with some of the people I met/endured in its guest houses, who seemed to consist mostly (or at least most vocally at 4AM) of inconsiderate, borderline alcoholic, borderline racist, borderline rapist, out-of-work English teachers.

This was partly bad timing on my part, as it turned out my second visit to Seoul coincided with these expats' last week of freedom prior to the new school term/initiation, which would explain the spring break mentality of the new arrivals and old timers. But it was disappointing to have to listen to pissed Brits, Americans and Canadians after most of the people I met in other parts of the country were more polite Koreans. These Koreans don't tend to stay in guest houses when they're in Seoul, because they tend to actually live there.

The party hostels were good for one thing at least - I was more motivated to get the hell out of there and see more of Seoul's mediocre sights. Here are some final things from South Korea - maybe I'll come back, but like a cash-strapped parent I'll take my trip outside of half term. School's in, suckers! (If you're actually on my side with all this, I'm afraid you may be as boring as me).

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A childish day out again again again again again again (again)

If you're a white person, you might find it difficult to tell the age of people from East Asian countries, with their clear skin, cherubic complexions and more conservative style of dress compared to the wrinkled, sagging monstrosities you get back home.

I've met a lot of Koreans recently, who not only looked young, but bloody were, thanks to the Korean government offering extremely discounted rail travel to encourage foetuses to explore their country during study breaks. After a year and a half spent mostly in hostels where I usually represent the mean age, it was a bit of a shock to realise none of the people around me were even a glint in their father's cōleī when I was already at the height of my writing career. To rub it in, one person I met was even called 'Im So-young,' which is like a poor quality racist joke that actually happened.

If you're looking for ways to feel like a strange old man, I strongly advise hanging out with people seven years your junior. At least in Korea you have the advantage that age is counted differently than in Western countries, so when someone tells you they're 21 you can pretend they're actually 21 (and just on the border of socially acceptable), and not actually 19. If the alternative is spending my time with racist, out-of-work English teachers my own age, I'll take the local kids every time.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Brixham of South Korea

The tourism industry likes to go for the Santorini comparison when promoting Gamcheon Village, but I haven't been to Santorini. Where I have been is Brixham in Devon, England, so that'll do.

Boy, have I been to Brixham. It was my Nana's favourite place in the world (based on her extensive travels in several parts of England and Wales, and that one time her son forced her to take a ferry to Calais and back in an optimistic attempt to broaden her horizons), so that meant I spent many formative summers relying on joke shops, Sonic the Comic and Bruce Coville's Aliens Ate My Homework saga to stave off the boredom in the coastal town they forgot to close down.

Yeah, like I would have been in my element in Ibiza or something. I'll clearly end up back in Brixham when this is all over.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Busan-d another thing

I knew I'd end up back in Busan at the end of my Korea trip, to catch the boat to Japan. What I hadn't anticipated was a friend's medical emergency taking place around this time, and their need for me to bail them out of Singapore's extortionate hospital fees. This drained my Japan funds and meant I had to extend my stay in comparatively cheap South Korea for another month, spending my time writing about engaging topics like trust management and concrete epoxy coatings until I could earn it all back again. Still, at least it's something fresh to moan about - that's always welcome.

I can't think of a better country to be 'stranded' in though, especially as I'd met some good people in Gyeongju and had the chance to hang out with them more back in Seoul. But this did mean I'd now returned to Busan for a few days for no reason at all, especially as I'd have to come back again in another month. It's becoming the Kuala Lumpur of North East Asia. It's a good thing Korean buses are relatively cheap, so I don't have to worry about my criss-crossing journeys over the peninsula making any kind of logical or narrative sense.

Besides, it gave me the chance to see a couple of things I didn't have time for on my first visit, when I apparently broke my leg or something. Who offered to pay for my medical bills then?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Whoa-oah, we're halfway... where?

Every time I update this map, it feels like I'm dissing those countries in the middle.
Sorry Sri Lanka, maybe some day

When I left Scotland 18 months ago today, I'd only planned out about three weeks' worth of trips. I assumed I'd make the rest up as I went along. It was an ambitious, optimistic and possibly foolish level of trust to place in myself, but I'm pleased to say I didn't let me down. This is starting to sound a bit schizophrenic - I'd like to clarify there are definitely no psychological side-effects of travelling alone for a year and a half.

People have sometimes asked me how long I'm thinking of keeping this up, and occasionally I've suggested three years as a rough figure. This is based on previous phases in my life cycle that saw me spend three years studying in Lancaster followed by three years working in Edinburgh (prior to University I was in my larval stage and it doesn't really count as life). But really, it just depends if I get bored or find somewhere I want to settle down. These things haven't happened yet.

Only one thing is certain: I'm not going back there.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

My racist, parochial tastes

I've made no secret of my general dislike of English people I meet abroad, due to a number of bad experiences. For the record, this has been less of an issue since I left Thailand last April, and since then I've just developed an aversion to Caucasian people in general, which is much less racist.

Obviously I've met plenty of really good ones too, but in general I've noticed I feel much more comfortable walking around foreign streets and seeing only locals, always being a bit disappointed when another white guy comes around the corner or gets on the subway. Maybe I just like feeling special? Or feel that standing out for my race is preferable to standing out for other reasons, like being a weedy, speccy Harry Potter lookalike (I was here first, damn you!) Or maybe I just like being left alone, and feel I'm less likely to be involved in a random conversation with a stranger if we don't speak each other's languages (if anything, the reverse is true). Whatever the reason, it's clearly a bit insane.

But for all this rejection of my home country and my championing of interracial relations (partly to redress the embarrassing, ignorant racism of my school years - but also because Korean girls are extremely pretty), my tastes are surprisingly and hypocritically Anglophile.

That's not to say I'm always up-to-date and on board with the latest British trends (I'm certainly not - how dare you!), but sometimes it might seem like I'm not even opening my mind to embrace art and media from other cultures. That's not entirely true - it's just that most people I meet seem to enjoy the type of Western rubbish I'm already aware of and trying to escape from, or equivalents from their own countries that seem to be basically the same in a different language. Kids today.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Never mind the Bulguksa

Yes, yes, alright, it's another Korean temple complex. I appreciate we're all getting a bit bored of these red gates, sloping roofs, stone pagodas and massive clanging bells now (I'm not bored of the bells), but since Bulguksa is a pretty significant temple, I had to see it before I left Gyeongju.

I'm drawing a line under Korea's Buddhist heritage now. Just as I said after visiting the Mother Temple at the end of my Bali trip, and Preah Khan after an exhausting two days of temple trekking in Cambodia, I'm through with temples in this country.

It's not like you're really seeing Korea's heritage when you visit these places anyway, as the Japanese pretty efficiently burned everything of interest down during their various invasions over the centuries. Although Bulguksa was restored to its original eighth century (AD751-774) form, you're still taking photos of something built in the 1970s. Like the thousands of tourists who take photos each year of the 1980s facade of Hatshepsut Temple in Egypt, which is this blog's top non-glamour hit. You idiots! I have nothing but contempt for my readers.

Are you still there? I like you really. Here are some final things from Gyeongju.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Valley of the Kings of South Korea

With its generous selection of important dead people buried in oversized tombs along the west bank of a river, walking around the necropoli of Gyeongju reminded me of Luxor's Valley of the Kings (and Queens - let's not be sexist, even though it was Egypt where that sort of thing is actively encouraged). It wasn't as good though, obviously. I knew when I toured Egypt that I'd peaked in terms of historical sightseeing, and it's all been a futile waste of my time and yours since then. Still, if it keeps me from Photoshopping my face onto Scott Bakula I'll take any excuse to get out.

I was surprised to see these Super Mario Worldesque mounds popping out of the ground when I arrived in Gyeongju, and even more surprised that no one seemed to be paying any attention to them, instead flocking to sites of negligible historical value that had briefly featured in some Korean TV drama or other. But at least this meant I'd get some clear photos to make up for my washed out photos of the similarly shaped Chocolate Hills in the Philippines.

It was probably around the time I reached the fifth set of identical, featureless mounds of turf that I realised why the Koreans aren't so enthusiastic. Still, they look quite nice at sunset.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Gyeongju glad the banana's gone?

Another week, another increasingly unpronounceable Korean city. After the limited appeal of Jeonju's Hanok village, Gyeongju's abundance of mountains, valleys, forests, lakes, tombs, temples, grottos, shrines, pagodas, pavilions, parks, monuments, museums, villages and archaeological sites was a little overwhelming, especially as I'd originally only planned to come here on a day trip from Busan. What a naive, handsome fool.

I only managed to see about half of what I wanted, but I guess that's just more reasons to think about returning to South Korea in the future - always leave 'em wanting more. Or at least take advantage of my borderline obsessive compulsive need to catalogue everything.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Hanok, knock. Who's there? Jeonj. Jeonj-who? Correct

Jeonju (전주) then - another historical Korean city, another nice morning of sightseeing and another tedious afternoon bent over my laptop and a crumpled tourist map double-checking whether 'Gyeonggijeon' has a double 'g' with my increasingly poor eyesight and wondering why I didn't just go to Wales or something. Oh wait, that would be even more frustrating - at least the Korean language has vowels.

Jeonju was the capital of the Hubaekje Kingdom (900-936 AD), making some of it very, very old. Hanok Village is the nice bit, filled with old-style slopey houses (in an architectural rather than a racist sense), optimistic art shops and nice hills with occasional dead stuff. It's sort of the Malacca of South Korea, and like that Malaysian city I ended up killing more time here than my patience would have preferred, as I couldn't afford to leave. There are worse places to get stranded.