Good for the Seoul…

…a solo exploration of South Korea’s capital.

As I write (for the first time in a long time) I am sitting in my parents’ living room, the sun has just come out and I am hoping it will stay out long enough to dry the rain-soaked streets so I can go for a run.

As ever, when I visit the UK, I am waiting for my visa and my contract to be re-newed so I can return to work.

Unusually, this all seems to be ticking a long quite nicely and I am taking advantage of the fact I am not chasing stamp-wielders and dotted line-signers to catch up with all my writing. With a feature on hold until someone replies to my many phone calls, a blog seemed to be in order.

When we last spoke, I was jetting away from the silence and peace of Mongolia, and heading to South Korea to round off a three week jaunt away from Qatar.

I had hoped to have a brief catch up with an old friend who, in the surprising way life has of throwing old acquaintances back at you, has followed a remarkably similar path to my own career-wise, but in Asia rather than the Middle East.

James, it turned, was being sent on deployment the day I arrived, and a confusion of timings meant we did not manage to cross paths. He did, however, lend me both his apartment and his girlfriend as tour guide to make my time in Seoul pass pleasantly.

I set out on the first day with little to no plan, and just headed to an area James had said was fun to explore on what was to be the first of many metro-based adventures during my six days in Seoul.

My first problem was similar to an issue encountered when first travelling in Arabic-speaking countries before I got a grasp on the alphabet – that I had absolutely no way of working out how to pronounce the words displayed on the signs. (There was English underneath, but my stumbling tongue still couldn’t quite form the right syllables in some cases.)  Added to this was the fact that the people I randomly approached either did not speak English or did not want to help.

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An accidental moment of bliss.

Luckily, having lived in a world of incomprehensible letters, I had painstakingly copied out the characters signifying my home station, and a few stops I hoped to reach along the way. In this way, and with the help of a friendly man who also taught me how to say “thank you” I made it to the City Hall stop and roved around, taking in the Seoul Art Gallery and a narnia-esque garden in the process. (This last bit by total accident – having no sense of direction means you see far more or a city than originally intended.) The biggest shock to my senses at this point was when the construction noise of Qatar was replaced by the sounds of insects filling the air.

I also came across an exhibition of art depicting the abuse of Korean women during the war. This gallery offered no english translation, but the power behind some of the images meant none was needed and I left feeling like someone else’s pain had washed in to me.

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Seoul on this first day seemed oddly impenetrable. I had, perhaps arrogantly, assumed English would be widely spoken, but this seemed not to be the case, and I felt useless having to pantomime my way through ordering meals and coffee.

Part of the culture shock may have come from the fact I arrived fresh from two weeks of an almost technological celibacy, only to land in a world of lights and machines and slickness.

I tried, especially when on the metro, to find relatable figures and behaviours.

The school holidays had brought out gaggles of early teenage girls, standing in groups of five or so in the middle of the carriage, giggling, playing with smart phones, all dressed the same to assert their individuality without moving away from the herd.

The differences between here and there surround the surface style. There is more neon, more animal motiffs on bags and shirts, they all look younger than their contemporaries in London, who age before their time.

I found myself wondering when these girls, with long, straight hair and short shorts transform into the uniform older women, with stiffly permed curls and loose-fitting trousers. Few examples of the intervening stages seem visible, the transformation appears absolute.

I voiced this with my guides (who I met up with a little later in the trip) and they laughed at my observation. The story behind why all the older women look the same is quite a poignant one.

The ‘ajumma’ – meaning ‘aunt’ (I think) – are seen as hard working, slightly pushy, older women. I couldn’t quite work out if it was a term of respect (as in South Asia) or a pejorative way of talking about the older generation.

Anyway, I was told that in the past, where times were much harder and working days were long and difficult, women would have these fixed, tight perms as they lasted and lasted and never moved and the women did not have time in the mornings to style their hair before heading out to work.

(A quick search threw up this post from someone better placed to explain the lifestyle.)

I got up on the second day with far more of a plan, and a determination not to be culture-shocked out of having a great time in a city so bursting with possibilities.

One of the buildings at Gyeongbokgung Royal Palace

One of the buildings at Gyeongbokgung Royal Palace

Up and to the Gyeongbokgung Royal Palace, where a Korean/American girl and I drifted together in the manner of solo travellers everywhere and meandered about the place, before taking in lunch (I have no idea what I ordered – but it was delicious) and a calligraphy demonstration.

We then wandered off in our separate directions and I cable-carred up to N Seoul Tower (yes, I could have walked but *plurb* to you, I felt like being lazy.

At the top there are various over-priced places to eat and drink, a viewing station which I didn’t pay to go to, and a bunch of really fantastic displays made up of locks left by couples as a token of their love and relationship. It sounds tacky, I know, but the messages and the happiness kind of spills in to you once you get there.

Young couples also write their names on the fences.

Young couples also write their names on the fences.

Love lockets.

Love lockets at N Seoul Tower.

Guilt at not walking up came in to play, and I set off down the hill feeling all intrepid. This was eroded slightly when, during the course of my hike down the mountain, I was passed by a serene old lady, a women carrying a baby, and two blind men going the other way.

My happy wanderings brought me out at Bukchon Hanok village, a traditional 600-year-old urban environment preserved in the heart of Seoul. There, rather unexpectedly, my phone suddenly decided it could find a network provider after all, something it had completely failed to do in the more modern and shiny areas of the city.

Getting lost can be the best part of a holiday.

Getting lost can be the best part of a holiday.

Seoul is marvellous, but, as previously stated, somewhat mysterious at first. My trip would not have been half of what it ended up being without the wonderful Hyojin Kim who I finally managed to meet up with on my third day there.

Seoul Fish Market

Seoul Fish Market

Together with a friend of a friend we explored Seoul’s fish market, where you can purchase fish to be prepared in one of the many adjoining tiny restaurants – resulting in the freshest Sushi you are ever likely to eat.

Never able to leave my journalist hat in Doha, we also visited one of Seoul’s under-reported on slums, where I managed to conduct interviews and get some interviews which will hopefully prove useful down the line.

One minute from the slum, we sat on over-priced patchwork sofas in one of the most expensive malls in Korea, and I accepted the fact that my brain was never going to work in quite the same way since moving back to the world of reporting.

Oh, I also went to Gangnam st….ation. By accident. But still, there it is.

With all due apologies...

With all due apologies…

By this point in my extensive trip my joy of discovery was starting to wane and I will admit to a certain amount of happiness on my fourth day in Seoul when I was able to have a blissful lie-in before getting up to navigate grocery shopping before heading in to the real world for Korean barbecue and a night-time exploration of Seoul.

My fifth day was given up to packing and some last-minute exploring of the city in order to meet some people James had suggested I hang out with. The knowledge that soon my ready access to good beer and pork products would be coming to an end meant that I welcomed an afternoon exploring pubs and tea shops around the admittedly slight more westernised area of Seoul.

I was journeying home on the tube when began feeling desperately sad because one of the old women I described earlier was standing by the doors with a cloth pressed to her face. She removed it to reveal a raised, purple eye and cheek bone. No-one was paying her attention, no-one gave up their seat, I was reminded of London in the worst possible way, when everyone looks at the floor and doesn’t ask questions.

I felt trapped and isolated, wanting more than anything to speak to her, but knowing my message would never be conveyed successfully. I stood mute and screaming.

Then, she sat down between two other identical women and they immediately started talking to her, asking her questions, with faces full of concern. I was relieved they had just not seen, rather than ignoring her. I was more relieved when she mimed falling. In this situations one thinks the worst.

I felt so divorced from being able to be a caring member of this society.

On my final day I had managed to get on the full de-militarised zone tour (you need to book pretty far in advance to get anything other than the half day.)

IMG_0687It was an odd experience, walking through tunnels, seeing a train station with a sign boldly displaying “To Pyongyang” feeling the futility of the fact that the tracks just stop, that a train has never run, that signs stating “the beginning of unification” seem pathetically optimistic.

Above all that is the surreal way the place feels slightly like an amusement park. Signs and sculptures are everywhere. The propaganda reel says that when re-unification happens, they want the area to be a place of happiness and joy.

If Disneyland did military buffer zones…

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There were serious and interesting bits to the DMZ as well. You can stand facing North Korea, as heavily trained South Korean soldiers stand guard behind blue box-like buildings where the two sides can meet.

A low concrete line can be seen spanning the floor as the point that South becomes North.

By the end of the day, and the end of the trip, I was feeling exhausted. Nearly three weeks of adventures and new experiences and filling myself up with all the amazing tales I can now tell was been wonderful and refreshing, but I had never felt more ready to return to Doha.

Seoul is full of lights and sounds and unexpected corners that lead to hidden gems.

It is a city to explore, but it is also a city to share. The last few days of having people with me, showing me their favourite places and the hidden souls of Seoul made the tip better than I ever could have hoped, but it reminded me of the bad, as well as the good, of travelling alone.

I found peace being able to roam at my own pace, not stop until late, or coming back to the calm of the flat if it all became too much.

It is the singular joy of travelling alone that one feels no obligation to do anything and can enjoy a new place and savour it in ones own way.

With that, however, comes the loss of shared experience. A knowledge that to do something, to struggle through a mountain, or to stand in the baking heat to witness a particular event, is done purely to say “I did this” and to have no-one to laugh with about the arduous nature of the trials that were gone through so the reward could be enjoyed.

It is not to say I did not adventure and experience and live during that week.

Travelling alone opens doors to new friendships that might never have happened if the acquaintance had seen two people standing in a doorway instead of one.

As with everything, I would not change my trip, but I wonder how it might have changed if someone else were here as well.

Han river by night

Han river by night.

Cricket, tea…

…mountains, and beaches.

I have just realised that I have unconsciously adopted the Oxford comma into my writing style. Damn it.

Anyway, the encroaching Americanisms aside, I think it is high time I wrote up my jaunt to Sri Lanka, which happened way back in September.

Followers of the old blog might recall my double post chronicling (wait, one ‘l’ or two? Who knows anymore…) a trip to Jordan with a good friend from university. (I am actually planning to re-post that and other entries on to this site when I find the time and inclination.)

A large part of that trip involved a pervy driver moving his rear view mirror around to keep my friend in his sights at all times. This was not only deeply creepy, but also flies in the face of all reasonable safe driving practices.

As Uzi, my companion for this trip, is less blonde and considerably more male, we didn’t attract the same type of attention, although from our first stop the concept of people of opposite genders who weren’t a couple travelling together seemed to cause a surprising degree of confusion. Requests for two beds were met with confused look and, in one case, a plaintive cry of “but whyyyyy” aimed at a rather bemused Uzi.

Our visit to Sri Lanka was planned around the Twenty20 World Cup matches (that’s cricket, for all my friends from over the pond) so we were somewhat limited regarding the distances we could move from Colombo and Kandy, where the majority of the England and Pakistan games were being played.

Kandy Stadium at sunset - a pretty great way to watch the cricket

Kandy Stadium at sunset – a pretty great way to watch the cricket.

The first few days also didn’t really go according to plan due to me getting gastric flu just before our departure, resulting in various horrible experiences that created a close friendship out of what had originally been a trip planned on a mutual love of cricket and the knowledge that we wouldn’t kill each other after two weeks of being together every waking minute. (Every disgusting cloud has a silver lining, I guess.)

Once we got moving, however, I fell in love with Sri Lanka almost immediately.

You will all be relived to know I am not going to go into detail about the cricket, (summary: England were terrible in the midst of the KP debacle and having a good, but young captain and Pakistan lost to India. I switched loyalties as soon as England were eliminated and sported a Sri Lanka shirt for the rest of the trip, I saw the Aussie team warming down in the pool next to where we were having dinner and can’t remember most of the meal,) instead I am going to focus on the bits in between the games and the being violently sick.

First off, a shout out to our driver/tour guide/saviour Tyronne who is one of the greatest people I have ever met while travelling around. (If anyone is heading to Sri Lanka hit me up for his contact details.)

A contact of a contact, we pretty much thought we would only use him for the airport pick up and the long journeys between cities that would take too long by train. In the end he became an indispensable source of wisdom, information, and advice and he helped us out nearly every day of our trip, from ringing people to find us a room in a fully-booked city to letting us leave all our bags in his van so we weren’t weighed down while room hunting or sightseeing.

The road between Colombo and Kandy offers stunning views, the greenery was breathtaking, (this might be due to the fact that we were both coming from a steel and glass city in the middle of a sandpit – I have been known to bounce up and down in my plane seat on the first aerial view of England’s patchwork fields on my trips home) but after taking that road several times, sometimes overnight straight from a late-night game to be in the next city in time for an early afternoon one the next day, the long journey would have been considerably less fun if not for Tyronne’s stream of information about Sri Lanka, stories about the aftermath of the war, and the glimpse he gave us into the religious and social make-up of the country he so obviously loves.

With four major religions, disparate societies, and topography that spans beaches, mountains, tea plantations, and major cities, it is safe to say I would happily settle in Sri Lanka and never get bored of the place.

As this happened some time ago, the actual order we did things in has escaped me, but Uzi and I managed to see a plethora of places that did not involve cricket stadiums.

The botanical gardens in Kandy were a treat, coming as we were from the flora-deprived Doha, and we spent a happy few hours wandering, writing, and snapping away. Uzi also noticed with great joy that it was cheaper for him to get into tourist attractions than it was for me with my unmistakable English-ness obviously acting as some kind of faulty signal of wealth.

I didn’t really begrudge the cost though, it was still fairly cheap and anything to help Sri Lanka’s economy and efforts towards eco-tourism is fine with me.

Also, it looked like this:

A couple taking a stroll through the Botanical Gardens - Kandy. I loved their umbrella

A couple taking a stroll through the Botanical Gardens – Kandy. I loved their umbrella.

On another visit (or possibly the same one, I just can’t be sure) to Kandy we went to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, a Buddhist temple that houses a tooth of the Buddha himself, although I was mainly interested in the monkeys that scamper about in the garden.

Flowers offered in prayer at the Temple of the Scared Relic of the Broken Tooth

Flowers left in prayer at the temple.

On the Buddhist flag, blue represents loving peace, kindness, and universal compassion; yellow is the middle path - avoiding extremes; red shows the blessings of practice - achievement, wisdom, virtue, fortune, and dignity; white represents the purity of Dharma; finally, orange represents the wisdom of the Buddha's teachings.

The Buddhist flag at the temple.

Guides in the temple have to be fully accredited so we could not use Tyronne for this part of the journey. The guy we ended up with certainly knew his stuff, but was far too keen to hammer through the tour and direct where we went. Both Uzi and I take a far more wandering-about-and-looking-at-stuff approach to everything and at one point had to tell him to chill out and let us sit and contemplate stuff for a bit.

On the Buddhist flag, blue represents loving peace, kindness, and universal compassion; yellow is the middle path – avoiding extremes; red shows the blessings of practice – achievement, wisdom, virtue, fortune, and dignity; white represents the purity of Dharma; finally, orange represents the wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings.

I pretty much just annoyed Uzi until he let me go and play with the orphaned elephants

I pretty much just annoyed Uzi until he let me go and play with the orphaned elephants.

Fairly early-on in the trip I managed to annoy Uzi into going to the elephant orphanage on the road between Colombo and Kandy. Some of these organisations have received some criticism for not preparing the animals for re-release and for making profit from tourists, but strives are being made to address these issues and a lot of the money raised now goes to conservation and preservation

Needless to say, my nieces and nephew all got an elephant poo notebook...

Needless to say, my nieces and nephew all got an elephant poo notebook…

of the country’s wildlife. My particular favourite way of making money were the slightly over-priced but utterly brilliant products made from elephant poo.

This guy is a mahoot - they take the orphaned elephants for food and a bath in the river every day.

This guy is a mahoot – they take the orphaned elephants for food and a bath in the river every day.

I have already mentioned the diverse topography of the country, and this goes hand in hand with a mix of weather – sometimes all of them in the same day. Fortunately, because we were there for cricket, the monsoon season was not on our side of the country, but we were hit with pretty much everything else.

On one of the down times between games, we headed up into the mountains and Nuwara Eliya. Nicknamed ‘little England,’ the tiny town is like an Agatha Christie novel in the middle of a mountain range. Rose-lined gardens, cottages, hotels decked out in 1940s and 50s style furnishings, I honestly wouldn’t have been surprised to see Poirot fastidiously making his way across one of the immaculate lawns.

Uzi on our walk round the lake in Nuwara Eliya, or Sri Lanka's 'little England.'

Uzi on our walk round the lake in Nuwara Eliya, or Sri Lanka’s ‘little England.’

Our mountain adventure had two main components. One was a hike through Horton Plains National Park at 5am to see a drop dubbed ‘World’s End.’ The freezing temperatures at the start of the walk meant that Uzi and I were both wearing more layers than we had for several months, much to the amusement of Tyronne who informed me English people normally didn’t feel it as badly as me. Apparently being in Doha has made me incredibly nesh.

So. Much. Tea. Tea pickers, usually women, a paid by the weight they manage to pick each day.

So. Much. Tea.

We also took time out on the drive up to stop off at a tea plantation/factory/museum to learn about the tea-making process. The pickers, usually women, are paid by how much weight they manage to pick each day, with a minimum requirement. While it can be dangerous sometimes, with snake bites and other injuries, plantations like Mackwoods also provide education centres etc for the families. The tea is dried out and goes through a whole bunch of processes (technical I know) and is then bagged up and shipped out.

The tea is dried out and goes through a whole bunch of processes (technical I know) and is then bagged up and shipped out.

Bagged up tea, ready for shipping.

From the bone-level cold of the mountains to the warmth of Galle, Galle Fort and Unawatuna, the beach where we stayed in an amazing guest house called The Kingfisher (as recommended by Tryonne.)

With the beach came some much-needed warmth and relaxation. As we were not there in tourist season there was not the pressure from shop owners to come in and buy their stuff that you might expect. I really enjoyed the attitude of ‘I have awesome stuff, you can buy it or not, it is still awesome.’

In Galle Fort we also found Vintage Posters & Postcards, owned by some friends of friends that stocks (unsurprisingly) vintage posters and postcards of films made in Sri Lanka, as well as adverts for Ceylon’s new railway, tea, and (to my delight an immediate purchase) a poster advertising the first test match between England and Sri Lanka.

Unawatuna also boasted the best prawn and mango curry I have ever eaten. Seriously, I would fly back just for that.

Sunset at a restaurant near Unawatuna beach.

Sunset at a restaurant near Unawatuna beach.

One of the last games we went to, along with Tyronne as a final thank you, was Sri Lanka vs England. A lot happened in that game, incluing me being used as a sign post for everyone else on the embankment (the Sinhalese for “I’m near the tall English girl, come find me” was apparently thrown about a fair bit near where I was standing,) but mainly what happened was that, ignoring a few idiots, all the Sri Lankans on the embankment with us were friendly and funny and perfectly happy to rib and be ribbed by two random tourists. Also, I might be on quite a lot of Sri Lankan’s Facebook pages looking confused as to why people are taking my picture.

A final word, which is kind of about cricket and kind of not. When we booked our

We gave these boys some tickets to the England vs Afghanistan game - 50 cents for a whole lot of happy!

We gave these boys some tickets to the England vs Afghanistan game – 50 cents for a whole lot of happy!

tickets for the games, Uzi and I were both confused by how cheap the seats were. When we arrived we realised it was so the locals, adults and children alike could afford to go and watch the games from the embankments. This is a great example of the over-all impression I got of Sri Lankans; that they care and they think about the people that matter and live and work there. The T20 CWC was for them, we just turned up.

Your typical Colombo street scene, right next to where we picked up all our tickets.

Your typical Colombo street scene, right next to where we picked up all our tickets.