Disposable Blue Rios – 2

Seoul 03/12/1999

Hey-ho Everyone,

Thank you all for coming to the today’s show. Sit back and relax as your host ducks and dives and tries to keep your attention.

Much has happened since my last issue. I’m finally speaking English again, still getting lost on the way from the subway to the guest house, thinking a lot about my Australian plans upon my return AFTER I get that bloody degree, and am so far not showing any adverse affects on my neck muscles from all the bowing and nodding the locals do.

My current guesthouse, Travellers A Motel, is exceptional. It’s more a backpackers than a motel, but don’t let that worry you. There’s single rooms available, as well as dorms. Upstairs is a coffee shop, rooms known as yogwans, which is a traditional Korean room where one sleeps on small mats and upstairs again are more rooms. Its four storeys high and is run by one family. I think the son and daughter of the Han family own the actual guesthouse on the ground floor and run it together. Mrs Han is the overseer of all the floors. She speaks fluent Japanese as a result of the Japanese invasion and occupation of Korea 1910-1945. Currently I’m sharing my dorm with Masa from Japan and James from England. Masa and Mrs Han have big talks every morning and I’ve had Masa translate a request or thanks, which is far easier than both parties (me and Mrs Han) trying to  understand the other. I can get my clothes cleaned for a very reasonable fee, which is neccessary as laundromats don’t exist in Seoul. Mrs Han also took care of drycleaning my dufflecoat, after I soiled it last Friday with the infamous Ice Choco Atrocity. It hadn’t been cleaned anytime this year, just wedged in the back of successive cupboards in Brisbane. I’m only including this detail to justify my drycleaning.

Before James and Masa arrived, I was starting to wish I could speak English with ANYONE. It’s wonderful being here, unable to follow what people are saying, then you’re handed a piece of paper and it’s “Yep, so there’s Jehova’s Witnesses in Seoul too…” There’s at least 10 daily newspapers and only 2 in English. Waiting for my train, I look over the Korean papers and try to understand the stories from the pictures or the way the paper is laid out. There must definitely be tabloid papers here, judging from the height of the headlines and the overuse of ! in said headlines. 

Also at least 10 radio stations on both AM and FM bands. Only one English one, that hopeless US Forces FM station. Today they did play Bowie’s new single, so I now move them up the tolerable scale just a wee bit. 

Korean TV is madness incarnate. More than five channels devoted soley to game shows or home-shopping. Then there’s local dramas and music videos which are exactly like ours in the West, only the faces and language is different. We watched Chinese Channel V earlier this week. The male presenter dressed and delivered his routine just like David Letterman. The music videos and pop stars are the same as ours, but more hair dye and hair product. Korea too has boy bands.

I’ve noticed too that in the music videos, the shots and camera techniques are exactly the same in China, Korea and Australia. All have the “road movie” type video with the singer in big hat miming while driving a convertible, or the girl singing while on swings, trying to get the attention of the prettiest boy in school. There’s no difference here or back there. Quite scary actually. The fashions too are American, as I may have previously recorded. Tonight we passed a shop that sells soley American football and baseball merchandise. On Tuesday while out walking in Oksu I spotted a Chicago Bulls shop, which sells nothing but stuff with the basketball team’s logo stamped somewhere. 

Almost all the clothing available from the markets are fakes, so it seems strange to see the official stores here trying to sell the same goods for a greater price. Brands such as Colorado and Chanel spring to mind. 

Yesterday myself and James, the Englishman en route to Auckland, walked through many palaces and shrines in the city heart. The first shrine we stopped in had protesters out front, so as we left I put on my journo’s hat and asked a flag bearer what Marvin Gaye said. “What’s goin’ on?”

The demonstrators were Korean private school teachers protesting against the owners of the schools, demanding better pay and labour conditions. There were perhaps 500 teachers sitting down singing and clapping. All wore red headbands and many carried placards. In the interests of subjectivity, I asked if I could buy a headband, but they were only for union members. 

I don’t think the teachers, some of whom looked young enough to be students themselves, were expecting any foreign media to observe as no signs were in English.

As we walked in to our first shrine, Chongmyo, were found ourselves behind scores of monks in pale outifts and white padded shoes. One of the monks whipped out his mobile and called someone. This seemed very strange. Further on into the open area, I saw a black light with white cardboard over it. Turns out a film was being shot there later that afternoon and all the monks were extras. But it seemed so real!

Later I learned another unsaid rule for Real Travellers. Real travellers don’t wait until six days into their journey to call their mother. I called, much to her surprise, and promised I will shortly after I’ve landed at Heathrow.

Sure, I know parents think the place could crash or something bad’s happened, but…Hang on, I’ve not told the Australian Embassy I’m here, so there’s no way anyone would find out. OK I was wrong. It won’t happen again.

I’m also dying to call Her, but I don’t know when she’ll be near a phone. 

The next stop on our journey was the magnificent Kyongbokkung Palace, just in front of the President’s home. The entrance is patrolled by uniformed and plain clothes police. In fact Seoul is teeming with uniformed police. Talk about It’s Raining Men, Hallelujah. Such as presence seems to me like a mild case of paranoia. Maybe they’re just in training for 2002 when Korea and Japan co-host football’s World Cup. 

Everyone must see Kyongbokkung. I’ve taken about eight photos, but it will never do it justice. An entire section containing ancient King’s residences is being rebuilt for 2002, but much of what already stands is original. Or as original as buildings can be after the Japanese ransacked and burnt much of Seoul’s wonderful palaces in their many invasions. I’ve learned of at least three in the past 600 years. No wonder Japan is sometimes left off Korean maps. 

I’d like to go into more detail of Kyongbokkunng because the place itself is so very intricate. Unfortunately James is waiting for me outside of this internet cafe and my tummy’s also complaining. Today we scaled a mountain and I’ve not adquately rewarded it. 

More details next entry.

I’ve decided to stay here until next Wednesday’s 12 hr, 35min flight to London. I will catch a bus to a national park at the other end of Korea before then, though.

Thank you for reading.



Disposable Blue Rios – 1

Travelling tales – emails from the road, before blogs

Seoul, 29/11/1999

Hey-ho Kids!

I’ve finally found a computer terminal that seems to send messages rather than lose them. Perhaps the other machine back at my guest house breaks down when the messages are too large. Each time I’ve tried to do a mass send. I get some weird message in Korean I can’t understand and the hostess can’t translate. Twice in two days I’ve wasted more than two hours of my life. A bit like lectures with Cratis, but I digress.

I’ve found a cinema when I wanted one and plan on eating a pizza afterwards, as a reward for the unsuccessful attempts to send email earlier. I’ll see a Korean film about something. I wonder if I can follow a foreign film without the benefit of SBS’ subtitles? While waiting for the 6.30 movie, I’ve found a 24 hr computer lounge full of Korean computer geeks ready to take over the world. The gear they use is powered by Windows 2000, whatever that means. The huge towers are big, blue ‘Millennium’ units with huge, white sub woofers on the computer next to me. I’m number 31 and if anything goes wrong, I hope these kids can help.

Here goes attempt number three.

Tip #1

For any would be travellers to Seoul in November, or probably any other northern hemisphere country, BRING CHAPSTICK.

My lips have been punishing me lately. It took four days to find some chappo. The pretty lip gloss I had did wonders at street corners, but failed to stop the chafing.

Tip #2

When you leave Kimpo International Airport Terminal 2, be sure to copy down the taxi driver complaints number located on the huge blue sign to your left as you exit the building and at the beginning of the taxi rank. Also make a record of the taxi’s number plate and the Korean character to the left of the four digit number. Ensure your driver has his (I’m yet to see a taxi driver, cyclist or motor bike rider who is a woman) trip meter turned on. If he quotes you 5,000 won for the journey, pay only the 5,000 not the 40,000 he yells for when he dumps you in some weird intersection in a suburb you can’t read the signs for, after he twice phoned the guest house to get directions.

I’m nearly getting used to the amazing cold. Perhaps it’s the delusions that kick in when the temperature rises but a wee bit. It’s warmer today and the beanie has remained in my backpack, but around my neck remains my super cheap red scarf while my hands sleep warm in my A$1.50 gloves bought at the Tongdaemun markets.

For all those people back in Oz who heard me rabbit on “Oh, not me, I love cold”, feel free to blow raspberries. I should have qualified my remarks with “I love an Australian cold”. Seoul is the real thing. At the top of Mt Namsan, outside Seoul Tower, it was apparently -5 degrees Centigrade when I visited on Friday. I walked down the mountain to better soak in the view of this enormous, seething mass of humanity, pulling the beanie further down with each step.

When I left the first guest house yesterday, I could crack the ice layer that had formed in the bird bath. This cold is no joke, it told me.

Still, I sleep warm every night and the floors of the guest houses are heated. The first night at the Wow guest house, the hot water didn’t work, so I waited another day to bathe. I guess everyone smells the same under several layers of clothing. The layers also keep out the travellers’ smells. Wow was a dirty, smelly place, more expensive than where I now live. A sign in the bathroom said “please do not put paper in this bog”. Beside the toilet was a bin bulging with paper, so join the dots.

My new place is smaller, warmer and cheaper. The hot water works and upstairs is a coffee shop that serves as much toast as I like. Today I liked five slices. I ‘m forever in my sister, Merope’s debt for the Vegemite and apricot jam she put in my ration back. I think by the time I reach Dublin, I may need a crate shipped over, a la Shane Warne.

My dears, I have a feeling I should try and send this before the computer loses my message.

I’m thus far adoring this place. The only thing I have to thank the heavy presence on US forces in Seoul and surrounds is that all the stations in the subway network are clearly marked in English, while a voice also tells you which lines I can transfer to at a particular stop. The American Force’s own FM radio station, SHITE FM I think it’s called, has announcers who spend the day saying “how ya doin’?” and playing forgettable US numbers. (Amon, if we thought the announcers for B105 and MMM were bad, they’re taught by these idiots.)

To further annoy this traveller, Kenny Wee has released a CD for Christmas which is playing outside every music shop in the city. Can I please suggest an uncomfortable place for his sax? Yeah, I know it won’t fit there, but with some gentle persuasion….

The cold can be dealt with. Tonight three Korean female university students stopped me to record my observations of Korea for their English studies project. They then stood beside me and had a group photo taken. I hope more people actually stop me to practice their English, like they did to another Australia staying at Wow. I wish I spoke more Korean than “yes” (ye), “no” (aniyo), thank you (kamsa hamnida) and excuse me.

I like this place with each new day. Tonight it’s increasingly likely I’ll stay my full two weeks, especially if free accommodation happens soon.

I’ll keep you all posted as to my movements, both bowel and physical.

Expect postcards very soon.

Thank you for reading.