Intangible Korea

This is the first in a series of five flashback posts from my career as an English language teacher. It will focus more on the adventures I have had and will take me up to my new adventure, which will be leaving Norwich and moving up north. Each unedited post will come from a different country and will be accompanied by some photos and a previously unpublished or ‘unlisted’ YouTube video from my archives. They will be published and shared with a #tbt (Throwback Thursday) hashtag.

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The first ‘adventure’ post was originally documented on Off Exploring, which at the time was called STA Travel blogs. The whole website was started by a guy called Andrew Ace, as was recently explained in an email asking for donations, which I have done, to keep the site running:

“Off Exploring was launched in 2003 by Andrew Ace for his own Australian gap year. It quickly caught on with fellow travellers, who recognised the benefit of having a proper record of their trips to look back on.”

Intangible Korea is about a trip to the far north-east coast of South Korea. I was joined by my work colleague, Garry, who originally came from the most Easterly point of the U.K, Lowestoft. Twelve years later, he is living and working in Osaka, Japan, having spent a few years living in both South Korea and Southern China.  We are still in touch and I can tell you that he was very excited to hear of the recent pedestrianisation of Norwich city centre.  What follows is an unedited version of the post originally published on 10 February 2008:

With the owner of the Charmsori Gramophone Museum and Garry Roffe

Lunar New Year. The population of Korea get in a car, on a train or take a bus and go to see their relatives.. eat rice cakes, wear traditional costumes (‘Hanbok’) and younger ones bow to their elders for money. With time off work, I decided to go on a little adventure with Garry, again, as company.

Wednesday 6. Also Cleaning Day for a lot of people. Took the 7.50am bus from Changwon to Chungju, and not Cheongju as I originally bought a ticket for, in the middle of Chungcheongbuk-do. An almost deserted town, probably because of the new year, No significant traffic problems getting there. A gateway to other places, it seems, nothing to write home about. Took the 3pm bus from Chungju to Gangneung, variously spelt Kangnueg or Gangreung, depending on which system you use. Again, no significant traffic problems. 2 hours later we were on the eastern coast of Gangwon-do. Picked up a local map at Tourist Info and embarked on a long walk from one end of the town to the other, eventually finding a Jazz Cafe which wouldn’t serve us alcohol – well not a single shot of whiskey anyway – just coffee. Again, fairly deserted, save for a lone man trying to sell single fireworks on the semi-lit Gyeongpo beach. We managed to find a friendly fish-based restaurant in Sushi Center and had, erm, Sushi and hot Kimchi Jjigae. Despite the general lack of people and not a full moon in sight, we declared, once again, that this was the life. Having a fluent English speaking waitress helped. We hitched up in a 24 hour Jjimjilbang – the Golden Water Dreamland – or something like that – and stayed the night. This one featuring chemically enhanced water… or rather, sea water with nowt taken out – lots of purifying sodium and magnesium. My only faux pas was ending up in a female only sleeping area… it was dark, so an honest mistake. I didn’t sleep particularly well.


Thursday 7. An interesting wander around the intangible world heritage town of Gangneung, where you can buy all the dried squid you will ever need. Took a walk along the edge of Gyeongpo Lake, which contains Gangwon Provincial Monument No.2, to a family mart to catch a 202 bus to National Treasure No. 165, The Ojukheon Municipal Museum. Home of Saimdang Sin, model mother and Korea’s most respected woman. A talented writer and artist, who lived in the 16th century, no other woman apparently came close to beating her onto the front of the new 50,000 Won bank note, due to come out later this year. One of her sons, Yulgok Yi Lee, was a great philosopher and scholar. He adorns the existing 5,000 Won note. Then came a visit to the surreal Charmsori Gramaphone and Edison Science Museums. The largest private collection of gramophones, TV’s and other Edison paraphernalia. An amazing collection and a labour of love and life’s work for the proprietor and president, Son sung-mok, who has visited more than 60 countries putting it all together. Rather than join the Korean-only tour we made our own way round, stopping for 2 hours outside the music hall to watch Tim Burton’s Charlie and The Chocolate Factory on, seemingly, the only modern DVD player and TV in the building. We became one of the exhibits ourselves, making ourselves comfortable. We obviously caused a stir because, as we left, Son sung-mok himself was there to greet us, offer us a free memento of our visit and partake in a photo op. We discovered it was exactly a year ago when it was re-opened and a link between the two museums was completed. Nothing else today would quite top this, and a trip down one of many evacuation routes to Tofu village ended in disappointment – it was closed. We did, however, find time to meet families out for a stroll on New Year’s Day before being shown a King Crab (W72,000 per kg) being boiled. Had an overpriced meal by the sea which involved raw seabream, clam, sea squirt and juk (rice porridge). A better night’s sleep at the same jjimjilbang, before getting up early to make the bus to Seoul.

Friday 8. Another pleasant, 3.5hr traffic free trip from the East Coast to Seoul. I finally met up with Diane Hall and Nina Wolinski, two teachers from the Gyeongju hagwon which i had originally applied to work for. We met them in Starbucks in Insadong, recovering from a night before. We also met Daisy Gonzalez, a mexican living in L.A. and Claire Smith – sporting an Aberystwyth University top – the same uni that Garry went to. So they shared a mutual interest in all things Aber! I showed interest in but then declined the opportunity to visit the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) on the North Korean border. A quick subway trip to the 63 Building, tallest building in Seoul, on Yeouido, some photos and we were back on the subway to Itaewon. We quickly met up with Ji-na and 4 other singletons – Lee, who we met last time, the tall Yun-jung, the lovely Han Hye-jung (Vickie) and another very shy girl whose name escapes me. We visited Hapjeong, where myself and Garry eventually ended up in another 24 hr jjimjilbang. Apparently it is very Korean for matchmaking to go on… if you are single people want to know why. Anyway Ji-na was the only ‘attached’ person and was this evening’s ‘co-ordinator’. For an unknown reason, I felt slightly subdued… but the evening was fine, i just wasn’t on my best form. But I got on with Yun-jung and especially Hye-jung, an English Institute teacher, and i hope to see her again.

Saturday 9. Hungover. a variation on makgeolli killed me off. One by one, everyone made their excuses last night and left. I found myself woken by the sound of a vacuum… i had crashed on the first piece of floor I could find, surrounded by the usual mixture of pink and blue. Despite not feeling great, I had a large breakfast – although not the bean sprout soup i asked for – and we headed to a few markets. First stop, Noryangjin Fish Market, the Billingsgate of Seoul – where an abundance of fish and seafood awaits in this extremely large warehouse. Giant Octopus, King Crabs, Rays, eels and meongge (orange sea squirts !) Also some tasty looking black lobsters – W30,000 per kg. We weren’t in a mood to taste anything, however, and it made me feel a bit nauseated. Separated by only one subway stop, Noryangjin and Yongsan are quite different – but they are situated on either side of the Han River. Had a better look at the Electronics Mart there, where i bought my camcorder, 8 stories high of every kind of electrical item you can imagine. Then onto Namdaemun Market – stopping off at National Treasure No.1 – unfortunately Shinhan Bank was obscured by an huge, ugly, giant gate… (sorry, that’s a joke for Garry only). The landmark is officially called Sungnyemun (literally “Gate of Respecting Propriety”). See Stop Press – below!

The day improved, with a wander round Myeong Dong, side-stepping the preachers and frantic shoppers. Seoul seemed to returning to it’s busy self after the holiday… and we had our first surreal experience of a DVD Bang. If things in Gangneung had been intangible, then our evening’s entertainment at Feel, was the most surreal so far… a converted garage full of a lifetimes worth of junk, Shin Kyung-so greets anyone that dares to step downstairs dodgy renditions of Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel songs. When we got there we found 2 other punters, by the time we left we were the only ones, outnumbered by musicians and staff. I sang a few songs, of course, limited by what he Kyung-so knew. Chucking out time was 11pm – plenty of time to race across the city to Gireum and spend our 4th consecutive night in a jjimjilbang.

Sunday 10. Getting a good night’s sleep at a jjimjilbang is never guaranteed. Korean men snore and like to clear their insides with charmless gutteral spits. Not having a pillow doesn’t help, either, but I managed to get a few Zzss in before we headed home, via Dandaemun Market. I think I caught a cold overnight, however, as I didn’t feel great on Sunday. One of the more intriguing markets, Dandaemun has many modern fashion shops, while the far more interesting Pungmul Flea Market is a kind of permanent car boot sale tucked inside a concrete stadium. Offering everything from feather dusters to knife sharperners, from power tools to porn. We didn’t buy anything, although Garry was tempted by the knife sharpeners and vegetable dicers. In fact, despite visiting lots of markets I bought nothing to ‘enhance’ my life. So, we made our way home, via a hamburger at Loteria, Korea’s McDonalds, at Seoul Express Bus Terminal. Me, sniffing all the way.

We had met some more Koreans, English Language teachers, and had a reasonably successful lunar holiday adventure, having some intangible and surreal experiences along the way. We experienced no predicted holiday traffic problems. Lots of memories and more contacts outside of work to make my social life better.

By Gyeongpo Lake

STOP PRESS: My landlady has just knocked on my window and given me some ttoek (rice cakes) to welcome the new year.. and i have eaten them.

STOP STOP PRESS / BREAKING NEWS: Sungnyemun or Namdaemun – Korea’s National Treasure No.1 – which I showed Garry on Saturday afternoon, has been destroyed by a fire which begun on Sunday night.


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