Thursday, May 03, 2007

Spicy KOREA - Land of the Morning Calm

Before coming here, honestly, what did I know about Korea?

* Rapid growth of economy, but didn't realise how rapid. Samsung, Hyundai, Daewoo (Daewho?!)
* Korean war - relatively recent, US something to do with it
* Football World cup and Olympics
* Delicious and spicy food
* Beautiful girls
* Tough characters
* Seoul, Busan and Daegu Cities
* Periodic mass-marriages, as there would be a photo in the London Metro every so often!

Not that much really. I hadn't a clue what Seoul was like, or a single landmark to expect. And I don't have a guidebook. So, should be interesting...

Kampu Ferry
My plan for leaving Japan is to take a ferry from one of the ports in the south, Hakata, where I'm staying, or Shimonoseki, the choice being dictated primarily by which day the ferries run on. It turns out to be Shimonoseki, a short train ride away. In fact it's just 19 minutes on Shinkansen and another 10 on a "rocal" train, but I feel the absence of my JR Pass - it costs about 10UKP! The port itself is famous for a shopping centre there, hardly gripping stuff, and there's a good fish market, though when I arrive I discover this is a decent distance away and I'm not in the mood for too much pottering about with my full pack on.

It feels a bit run down and dodgy, as all good ports should. I take advantage of the presumably rarely-used mens toilets on one of the women's clothing floors of Daimaru department store, and as my bowels are playing up slightly, I make good use of the electronic shower capabilities of the loo! The roof garden has a.. view.. over the surrounding area, then I find a bookshop, as I'm in dire need of a guidebook, ideally LP, for Korea. Given that this is a port terminal which pretty much exists because of the ferry traffic to Korea, do you think it would be unreasonable to have guidebooks of the place. Yes apparently it would be. Several copies of Winnie the Pooh though. Oh well, I settle down in Starbucks for a wait of a few hours, Green Tea Frapp to while away the hours.

Later I fold and treat myself to another Vie de France visit, though I'm quite good, having a salad and green tea in addition to a (cough) okay some pastries! Comfort food. Finally the hour of boarding approaches, so I head back up to the terminal. It would appear that there are about 500 old Korean women on the boat. Is this some Saga Korea holiday favourite route? Strangely hardly a grey hair in sight. Anyway, the only other non-Orientals are a Dutch couple, whom I get chat to. They sound even more disorganised than me - they turned up to Japan without a JR Pass, a mortal sin. However they do have LP Korea, so one up on me there.

On to the boat and up to my cabin. I've gone for a first class cabin - the 2nd class is basically lying on a tatami mat in a room with about 20 other people, which I've done for the Beppu - Matsuyama ferry before, fun experience but I'd rather have a bed thank you very much. However, I'm not sure based on jumbled conversations buying the ticket whether I'm in with one, three or no other people. Turns out none, I have a double bunk all to myself., marvellous. I take advantage by hopping in my private shower then hitting bed ultra-early.

Ferry to Korea

Well-used hose

Boat, which for your information weighs 16,000 tonnes, is 160m long, has 8 decks and accommodates 500 passengers (I was right about how many old Korean ladies there were on-board), sets sail at 7:30pm. There are restaurant and bar facilities, but I'm just taking advantage of my bed. Dutch couple call me at 8pm and ask me if I want to go to dinner. I have to confess about already being in bed. How anti-social!


Ahhhh bed

I sleep very well with the gentle rolling of the ship, and wake quite early feeling refreshed. Still a few hours till we disembark at 8:30am. However what do they start doing at 6am? Waffling away on the ship PA system, in Korean and Japanese! I'm not sure what they're saying, but it might be something about breakfast being served in the diner. 2 1/2 hours before we come in! Surely they could have saved the noise till 7 or 7:30am?

Off, and through Korean immigration and customs without too much pain, though I did enjoy being quite deliberately pushed and shoved almost all the way down the gangplank by very small old ladies! Apparently when I return I may get a grilling, as this route is the cheapest route off Korea or Japan, so is frequently used for "visa runs" by those operating off tourist visas and working illegally. Incidentally there are much faster services that do this crossing - there's a hydrocat called the Beetle2 which takes about 3 hours to cross. It's more expensive though, and by taking the ship I save getting a night's accommodation, plus arrive with a full day ahead of me.

The tourist information lady is very helpful in managing to get me cash out of one of the two ATMs that are in the arrival hall. They're identical, both Busan Bank, but only the left hand one works for foreign cards. The right one goes through all the motions but spits out a rejection slip at the last hurdle. Of course! Then it's off to find LP Korea then head up to Daegu (this plan is very much being made up as I go along). I use the coins that Garam gave me on Easter Island to buy my first subway ticket (about 70p), along to Nampo-dong shopping area, whee there is allegedly a bookshop. There is, but it's closed, as is everything else in the area at 9:30am. I decide I don't particularly want to wait potentially a couple of hours in the area, so head off to the main station.

Incidentally, I'm obviously back on "just arrived in new country" security mode. I went to buy the second tube ticket, didn't have change, and only had 10k notes. The machine only accepted 1,000 notes. At that very moment, an old chap wandered past and offered to give me change. Out comes the wallet, and he counts out 1,000 notes. For background info, there appear to be old and new notes in circulation here, different colours etc, and I have no idea what a fake would look like! Anyway, he counts out.. exactly 10 1,000 notes. An alarm bell rings. If he had 9 and made the rest up with coins, I would have probably gone for it. Having exactly 10 seemed very suspicious. I explained myself away saying I needed to go to the shop anyway, so thanks but no thanks. Afterwards thinking back, it was probably fine. I generally get the feeling that Korea is fairly safe. Not as much so as Japan, where one could leave one's wallet in the middle of the Piccadilly Circus equivalent and have it returned to you, but still, fairly safe.

There does seem to be a lot less English about than Japan, especially signage.

Well I know they're all hot, that's a start..

One explanation for this (which I've just invented) is that Korean doesn't ever need to use English words. It is said to be one of the purest languages, this is because it was created specifically as a language (rather than evolving), using the scientific principles as to how languages should be formed at the time (1400s I think). Thus using a small number of symbols, it can create almost any sound (contrast with, say, Japanese where there's no distinction between R and L, hence "EngRish"). It also means they can write any English phrase using Korean characters and read it out loud correctly. So no need for those vital clues, like shop opening times in Japan, that help one navigate these countries.

At the main station, I exchange my rail pass. It's a much easier process in Korea as you can apply for the pass online, and hence in theory whilst in Korea. Then hop on the next train up to Daegu, after another fruitless search for LP in the station bookshop. The chap offers me an English Atlas of the world. Helpful, but no thanks. As we get on the train the lady looking after our carriage bows and says hello. The trains are based on French TGVs. Periodically the train flashes up its speed on the TV screens. 299.7km/hour. KTX is supposed to be the world's 5th high-speed railway (presume this refers to order of construction). It's not the Shinkansen, but it's nice nevertheless. Although it has to be said their on-board cappuccino is a grevious insult to the Italian concept.

More soon on Korean food and the wonderful hospitality of Korean people, plus their obsession with being hot at all times!

No comments: