Thursday, 12 April 2012

Days 217 to 222: Korean Fling

My last days of my first leg of these Wonder travels were spent in South Korea - a final fling before going home.

Those that know me likely know that I lived in South Korea for a little over two years, from late 2003 to early 2006. I was based in the city of Daegu, a 2.5 million strong sea of modern tower blocks and neon nestled within some mountain-ringed plains. As with many - most? - foreigners there, I was an English teacher, mostly teaching young children the alphabet and "I'm fine, thank-you". I had a terrific time, and fell in love with the madness and bustle of modern Korean culture. My last visit was three years ago, a fleeting glimpse on my way back from a holiday in Australia: I was eager to visit again.

Thus, I can only describe my feelings upon touching down at Seoul's Gimpo airport, after a two hour flight from Beijing, as verging on the joyous. It felt like coming home, or perhaps visiting an old friend or a bygone lover with whom the affections have never faded. There was an electricity in the air, although this was unfortunately more literal than I'd have liked - the static electricity in Gimpo was something else. Never in my 33 years of life have I experienced static shocks like I did pushing my trolley in Gimpo. The first time I touched it there was an audible crackle as I was zapped by a static bolt, and every few minutes my trolley seemed to recharge itself and again shock me. The longer I tried to avoid it, the more powerful and painful the zap. Sometimes it would discharge itself from the base of the trolley onto my legs, through my trousers. I ended up walking with a strange gait as I tried to keep my distance from the trolley, pushing it with a grimace on my face as I anticipated another shock. So yes, sparks flew upon my return to Korea, although they were considerably less figurative than expected.

Korea has no Wonders, and despite trying and despite my openly pro-bias towards the country, I couldn't find anything that warranted being on "the list". Seoul has some nice palaces, and Gyeongju and the vicinity has some great royal tombs and temples, but there are no showstoppers. Just last year though, Jeju Island to the south was voted in as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, by the ever-shady New7Foundation, which was of considerable pride for this ever-patriotic nation, but my own feelings are less than unequivocal enthusiasm. But natural Wonders aren't my thing, and without any man-made monuments to leave me breathless, my visit to Korea was entirely for a fine blend of nostalgia and socialising.

It all began - appropriately for Korea - with a whirlwind of booze. I have friends from Scotland and the UK now living here, and I headed to the small city of Anseong to meet them. It was Saturday, and my visit was timed uncannily well for a boy's night out - in Daegu. I arrived in Anseong, meeting Bowman and Ewan, and more or less downed a beer before being whisked onto a Daegu-bound train. More beers followed in quick succession, Ewan brought out an entirely unexpected bottle of Buckfast, a tonic wine of considerable notoriety, and the night became the oblivion of alcohol that one might expect. We were all pretty damn steaming by the time we'd even arrived in Daegu, and my memory melts down. I woke the next morning in a motel room, in a vile haze, and recalling that during the night I'd popped out the bar to deposit my backpack - which I'd been growing increasingly paranoid about losing - and had then realised I had entirely forgotten where the bar was. Without a phone, and with Daegu's city centre being a condensed mass of streets and bars, my efforts to locate the others were futile, and I had to return to the motel and promptly pass out.

I stayed the next couple of days in Daegu, primarily to catch up with my old Korean teacher. My Korean was, once, at its best, not too bad. This was largely thanks to my teacher, who does have a name but in the Korean tradition I've never used it - I still refer to her as "seonsengnim", i.e. "teacher.". Sadly, after years of disuse, like a worn ship rusting in the docks, my Korean is pretty abysmal now, although it's still functional with occasional flourishes. Whereas once, my conversation with the seonsengnim, plus her awfully pleasant friend who usually accompanies her, would have been conducted in Korean, it is now conducted in a weird interchange of Korean and English, mashed up into a paste and reformed into a new substance. The English of both has improved immeasurably over the last half-decade or so, meaning their vocabulary is now much superior to mine, but conversation feels more natural in Korean grammatical form. I met them for coffee and dinner one day, then lunch and coffee the following day, and enjoyed conversations that went to surprising depths of complexity - the European economic situation, religion in Uzbekistan, the merits of remaining single rather than marriage through obligation despite societal pressures. Imagine these topics as discussed by children in a made-up language, and you get the idea of how our conversation sounded.

It was a delight to see them again, and also a delight just to see Daegu again. My home for two years, and a two years quite markedly different from most of my others, there is no question it made some profound tweaks to my character when there. I arrived in late 2003 basically in the throes of a deep and sincere alcoholism, thriving on all-night benders, and unimagining of a lifestyle that didn't involve dark nightclubs flashlit with throbbing, pulsing strobes and mind-bending, blasting techno. I left in early 2006, with an enthusiasm for classic literature, an enjoyment of personal study, and a slightly more ascetic attitude that had my brother, with his characteristic flair for exaggeration, naming me "Spiritual Nev". Spiritual is never a word I would ever use to describe myself, but Korea arguably oversaw a period where I progressed from an adolescent immaturity to a slightly more developed character with a larger world view. Much, much less fun to go out with, I'm sure most would say.

Daegu, and Korea to take the larger view, seems to me to enjoying an ongoing maturity. Perhaps when I was there, it was reaching its late teens in terms of national swagger; these days I would describe Korea as being like a confident young professional in its late 20s. The energy of Daegu was immense. The city centre is as vibrant as ever, with an eye-popping number of coffeeshops as though single-celled organisms given unlimited space and energy to propagate. Everybody is well dressed, the streets are filled with the buzz of conversation and music, and there can be no doubt: Korea is successful. It is a nation blooming, a nation that is poking holes in its protective shell and getting to grips with being part of a wider world. Never the most cosmopolitan of nations - Koreans are notoriously proud of their ethnic homogeneity - there is nevertheless a wholehearted embracing of the English language and Western styles and fashions, all moulded into a uniquely Korean form. As my seonsengnim confirmed, there are a great deal more foreigners these days, especially English teachers as the push is in full steam for better spoken English and thus better global communication. This was echoed in the spoken English I heard during my brief stay. Korea's swagger has, from my brief surveying, changed from asserting itself to being asserted. It's a wonderful thing to see. Korea is a wonderful nation.

And like the best of modern nations, everything is so easy, so efficient. Getting around is an absolute pleasure. Transport is everywhere and it's cheap. Hungry? Food is everywhere, at all times, and it's delicious. Every streets has numerous convenience stores - you buy beer any time you feel like it. Ok, the cities might not be conventionally beautiful, unless you're especially partial to colossal whitewashed slabs of tower block concrete, but they are hellishly handy for anything you could want, and are great fun to be in. Friendly too. Every shop or restaurant welcomes you, people are helpful, children are curious and schoolgirls very partial to saying "hello" before giggling and running off, and streets are safe. Korea isn't perfect, it's not a utopia, it has a lot of issues that bubble under the surface - but if you're just visiting for a week and therefore only skimming the surface, oh what a fresh, clean surface it is.

So the first couple of days were spent in Daegu, feeling that warm glow of nostalgia and parental pride towards a blossoming child. The remaining three days were spent in Anseong, getting drunk.

In Anseong - or nearby, if I'm going to be pedantically accurate - is where Nadia and Bowman live. They have an apartment on the 12th floor of a block that give terrific views over the town and surrounding countryside, and that was where they generously put me up for three nights. When travelling for a long time, it is a joy to meet familiar faces. By good fortune, Wednesday was general election day for Korea, meaning they both had a day off from teaching, and by better fortune every Tuesday was quiz night. A group of them arrange a weekly pub quiz in an Anseong bar, and due to the Wednesday holiday and a bumper crop of newly arrived teachers, it turned out to be a packed attendance. Also, I love pub quizzes, regarding myself with no pretence of humility as a connoisseur of the art. I take them very seriously, and believe all in attendance should do likewise.

This, off the top of my head, is the third quiz I've done on these travels, the first being in Sydney and the second being a shambolic farce in Siem Reap (the Highlands are not a "county" in Scotland). These two saw respectable but unremarkable performances, but happily my quiz record for these travels ended on a high as Bowman and I tasted the meaty stew of victory. We won the equivalent of about £10 each, and proceeded to blow our winnings on a marathon of drinking that didn't end till 8 in the morning, sitting outside a corner shop on plastic chairs, surrounded by empty beers and in a state beyond incoherence. In between, piecing the night together, seemed to constitute drinking games involving beer and soju with a rowdy group of foreign teachers. It was an impressive feat of drinking and a great example of Korea's 24 hour culture being heartily used and enjoyed.

The next day - and my final full day in Korea - was understandably slow to start. Upon Bowman and Nadia rising, we discussed for some length what we were going to do that day, with walking on Suwon's old city walls being the chief idea. We talked about this at such length that eventually there was no time to do it, but this was for the best as we were in no state to manage such exertions. The simple process of walking to get a bus did me in.

For my final evening, we went to Suwon to eat galbi - self-barbecued meat - with other friends, the aforementioned Ewan, his girlfriend Seon-A who I also know from Aberdeen, and a girl Sarah, who I know from the tour in North Korea. Having not eaten all day, I was ravenous, and we all managed our way through a fabulous amount of meat, with a hearty dosing of beer and soju washing it down. It was the perfect way to end my brief visit to Korea, and a hugely enjoyable finale to the travelling as a whole.

Because - that's it. I write now three hours into a twelve hour flight, from Seoul to London. The World Wonders Travels Part 1: Asia are almost at an end. Two-hundred-and-twenty-two days of travel, fifteen countries, twenty-two Wonders, a couple of hundred beds, countless beers, and just one bitter argument (Burness wanted to take a tuk-tuk for £0.60, I thought this was over-priced and unnecessary; we were both pretty drunk), it's all in the past and come to an end. It's been great, but home is great too, and with a world of pies, pubs and good beers - and a fiance - to look forward to, I must admit I'm relishing the prospect of that simple wonder known as home. Bye-bye Korea, bye-bye Asia; hello Scotland.


  1. You're looking forward to a fiance? Something to tell us, Niall?

  2. Should that be two e's? I always get this word mixed up.


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