A belated Happy New Year before January runs out! This month has been a whirl of catching up with work, keeping up with some family events back in the UK, renewing passports, renewing visas and a bit more besides. No obvious pause in sight as accelerator pedals are being pushed in various parts of the office but in some ways “that’s the way I like it baby, I don’t want to live forever” (I. Kilmister). More news at greater length should follow before too long.
Flying home for Christmas as Chris Rea almost said (driving from Geoje would take too long) and feeling the sense of occasion. My last visit to the U.K. was in May and seems like years ago.
A new route this time and starting with a new connection. Flying within business hours gives access to the Samsung helicopter service and what a boon it is, reducing the two hour drive to Gimhae Airport to a fifteen minute flight departing from the hilltop just next to my apartment.
The chopper itself was an eleven-seater of comparatively limo-like refinement compared to the four-seater that blooded me a year ago, yet it remained a very immediate almost tactile form of transport. The view from the window was superb, lit by the bright morning sun: the expanse of the yard, the winter-naked terraces of the island paddy fields, the immense new bridge being built between Geoje and the mainland. Next the vast industrial lowlands of outer Busan, still clearly being developed but including a massive container port that was deserted save for one MSC setting out part-laden (a sign of the times…?). So much of that coastline looks reclaimed, low and unprotected; what will become of it should the seas rise?
After boarding the bus that met us off the helicopter, I gamely followed the two Korean men who disembarked when it stopped only to find myself in the domestic terminal. Perhaps I missed a trick there… A bit of navigation got me to the international terminal and aboard the Lufthansa flight via a rather surgically bright lounge. A quick stop at Incheon for for crew change and a passenger top-up provided opportunity to experience a more dimly lit lounge modelled on an aged library before getting on with the longhaul business.
The sunlit view downwards remained virtually cloud-free and became majestically barren soon after the Chinese seaboard. From Beijing past Ulan Bator and heading into Russia (next marked stop: Irkutsk), the terrain was as beige and empty on the ground as it was on the inflight map. Variety was provided by rare dark patches of water and vast tracts of snow. Passing thirty-odd thousand feet above at near five hundred miles per hour and seeing the same expanse beneath for over an hour gave ample time to reflect. Low cloud interrupted shortly before the Sayan Mountains, clearing again over the Western Siberian Lowlands to reveal more of the same; this time punctuated by occasional single sodium lights or clusters of a dozen shining starkly in the dusk.
Travelling so far north at this time of year, we ran a close race with the sun to Munich and landed just before dark. With the connection to London delayed (I heard there was an inch of snow at Heathrow five days ago) that particular contest is certainly concluded. Now it might be more a question of getting home before morning but get home I will.
Season’s Greetings to you.
’tis almost the season to be jolly again: Advent starting tomorrow and nearly two months since my last posting (ahem). Maybe time passes faster when living this close to the sunrise. More likely I need to pay better attention to the frequency of my writing – I had better try to write at least once again before New Years’ Eve…!
What of note since last I wrote? My mother-in-law’s visit was a very successful fortnight. Evenings of the six weeks that followed were mostly spent in band practice preparing for a gig we played a couple of weekends ago, again a success. The gig was also the last night of an impromptu week that my brother shared with us and it was lovely to see him.
Work remains the constant throughout and nine months into my time here, I am still far from feeling that the next morning will be ‘just an other day.’ Just in case the complexities of building our one 77,000 tonne vessel are not enough to occupy the mind, doing so in a place where numerous similar-sized craft are going from drawing board to sailing on a regular basis remains a remarkable experience. One has to admire the industrious people of this island and not just those in the shipyards.
Compared to England, Korea still has four very distinct seasons. Chuseok took place at the time when autumn visibly came, the leaves started to turn and the crops were gathered. For a couple of weeks during that period, the roadsides were frequently covered in tarpaulins of rice as paddy fields were cut to stubble using sickles or occasionally small harvesting machines. This was not just a rural idyll either: I passed some road-works on a dual carriageway one afternoon and saw rice spread out in a coned-off area in the middle of the traffic.
The local fishermen also follow the changes. At a subtle level this can be seen in the restaurants with their fish tanks outside where one or two different species of fish now can be seen on offer. More obviously, we saw nets of whitebait being laid out to dry on the Hakdong pebble beach one evening, similar to the spreading of the rice. What stopped the surrounding seagulls from diving in and helping themselves, I could not explain. Perhaps they are better behaved here than their English cousins.
Autumn is now definitely winter. Deciduous trees that wore red and gold are now bare; huddling for cover amongst the evergreens. Similar gaps can be in the shipyard as global downturn in the industry makes its mark. Work continues at a pace regardless.
’tis the season to be jolly as this weekend is the festival of Chuseok. Generally described as the Korean equivalent of Thanksgiving, Chuseok is timed on a lunar cycle to fall at this time of year and in old English terms might best be compared to the Harvest Festival. It is also very much a time for family gatherings and the exchanging of gifts, so similar to Christmas too in some ways.
As a child I used to take some sort of food-related offering to school or church during Harvest Festival. Most Chuseok gifts follow the same theme with large boxes of apples and presentation packs of fish or sausages or ginseng root or such like being sold by the armful in the couple of weeks leading up to the holiday.
The seasonal gift that particularly caught my eye was the presentation pack of Spam. For anyone who has experienced post-war English school catering and/or enjoyed the work of Monty Python, twelve tins of Spam in a gift box being carried away in glossy, Spam-branded, boutique-style carrier bag is quite a sight to behold.
Unlike Harvest Festival or Christmas, Chuseok is a four-day national holiday over a long weekend. This made Friday and Saturday at work very quiet indeed as the yard was all but closed. In a place where twenty-five thousand people are usually loudly busy from before dawn ’til after dusk, it was eerie hearing silence all day and seeing barely a dozen souls during the ten-minute drive between the front gate and the office.
All those people had to be somewhere and we found them on the highway yesterday evening. The Saturday morning of Chuseok is typically a time for traditional ceremonies with the family. Many who have travelled to be with their kith and kin then get back on the road that afternoon and head home.
When I finished work on Saturday, we caught the bus to Seoul in preparation to meet my mother-in-law off the ‘plane at Incheon. The journey usually takes around four hours. On this occasion, we hit the first of the traffic jams after three hours and it took a further two hours to reach the Nambu Terminal.
We were the lucky ones: there is a dedicated bus lane on the highway approaching Seoul and we were able to whisk past much of the traffic. Had we been driving in a car, our five-hour journey could easily have lasted twice as long or more.
At time of writing it is Sunday in Incheon and we are in a room at the Hyatt Regency with a view towards the airport. The terminal building looks fancifully like the skeleton of a giant aircraft that has been partially excavated from the ground. Curved structures of glass and unpainted metal describe the front of a fuselage and a huge wing with two engines while the control tower behind marks where a tail-plane would be.
Back to reality, Mama’s flight is due to land mid-afternoon after which it is an hour’s transfer by bus back to Nambu Terminal and we are back on the road south to Geoje. We are not sure what to expect of the traffic but each of us will have a good book at the ready.
So far it is a hot, sticky summer here. The rainy season appears to be finished or at least winding down. Some of the precipitation has been flood-heavy but even during the wettest days the temperature has remained warm and the ‘dry’ periods in between have matched high-twenties temperatures with humidity percentages in the nineties. Now the blue skies and bright sun are becoming more frequent again and it is most definitely holiday season.
Last week the shipyard had its official one week break, during which time nearly every member of the twenty-five thousand-odd workers downed tools. For those of us continuing to work it was an eerie change of atmosphere. The constant background buzz of sirens, grinders, welders and engines fell silent. The mad rush-hour flood of mopeds, motorbikes, cars and coaches diminished to a trickle.
Ironically enough, there was still a miniature morning rush-hour at the front gate: many of the holidaying workers bringing their families to meet an armada of Samsung coaches to take them to a Samsung-only beach for the day where they could cram themselves onto the beach with their other Samsung colleagues for company. Kraft durch Freude springs to mind…
In the meantime, the other ninety-nine percent of the yard’s acreage did a passable impression of a ghost town; the only signs of activity being re-surfaced and re-painted patches of road and quayside as crews performed what appeared to be an annual rush to get everything mended at once. No stone was left unturned: we even had a couple of power cuts in the office one day while the yard grid was switched off for routine maintenance.
Anybody who was missing the crush of humanity needed only to head south towards the beaches. Geoje has a reputation as a major holiday destination for ‘mainlanders’ and I have seen the proof. A group of us took a boat trip from the harbour at Gujora a couple of Sundays ago. Gujora Beach next door is one of the island’s most popular sandy beaches and the traffic was nose-to-tail for miles around, car parks and verges packed. What would normally be an easy half hour’s drive took us three times as long that day, making the ‘getting away from it all’ at sea particularly welcome.
The holiday traffic should be mostly over by September, leaving the remains of summer and what I am lead to expect will be a lovely autumn to enjoy quieter countryside corners of the island once again.
Time continues to fly around here but now in a growingly musical manner. I have joined a couple of bands and at the beginning of last month played a first gig with one of them.
Our venue was the Foreigners’ Club: a very friendly place down the road in Okpo. With a line-up of drums, bass, guitar, and two singers we had put together an acoustic set of fifteen songs (all covers) in the space of about seven rehearsals. Nerves tingled a little as we got under way but with a good-sized and appreciative crowd in attendance we soon found our stride and enjoyed a very successful evening. Alas, it may be a while until we play again as work and holiday travel commitments are intervening heavily but we will be back.
Sunday the following week was a warm, lazy day for taking a scenic drive round the coast. Three of us were out and having spent a good couple of hours in the sun, we were looking for a place to get a drink. As the road passed through a small village perched thirty metres or so above the water’s edge, I caught a glimpse of a sign advertising Hof (a local tap beer) and coffee. We turned around and went back to it.
The sign was attached to a very closed-looking establishment. We could hear music coming from a veranda upstairs but that was the only indication of life. As we turned to leave, someone shouted down from above, inviting us to stay and come up. The next thing we knew, the door had been opened by a smiling woman and she had led us in.
Upstairs on the veranda was a laptop plugged into a hi-fi amp and a group of five people, three of whom were brandishing alto saxophones. They were taking it in turns to fire up a backing track on the laptop and play lead. The little group was very enthusiastic and the standard of playing high. We were sat down, offered refreshments and invited to relax and enjoy. With the convivial company, the good musicianship and the beautiful view out over the sea it was a pleasure to accept the invitation.
It transpired that our hosts were a saxophone club. The strongest player of the three was a teacher leading the other two; he also played in a jazz quartet. Seeing that band in action would be a definite pleasure. Maybe somewhere sometime…
Moving on from gate-crashing to attending a ticketed concert, last week saw us at the Geoje Arts Centre listening to a classical music ensemble called Ditto. Essentially a string sextet plus a pianist, they are all handsome young chaps who play with a winning combination of vigour and accuracy.
Opening with a delicate duet of violin and piano playing Beethoven’s Romance for Violin and Orchestra No. 2, they built steadily to a full sextet for Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence at the end of the programme and made good work of some very challenging pieces throughout. The crowd would only let them go after three encores and as we left the auditorium we passed a queue of mostly school children waiting for an autograph signing session. Clearly a talented and popular group of musicians, it was encouraging to see such a response. I wish them the very best.
Last Saturday night, a small group of us went to check out a newly opened “DJ Bar” in Okpo. The place was empty and the DJ was laptop mixing an uninspiring collage of hip hop but there were some turntables in the booth. Could be the start of a future story…
What a mad couple of weeks. We reached a significant milestone at work yesterday with the successful launch of the hull (see below). It floated serenely out of the dry dock and is now moored at the quayside where further construction and outfitting will continue. The hard work leading up to the pre-dawn rise that morning was definitely worth it; the loud horns of the tugboats as the vessel cleared the dock gate sounding triumphant in the still morning air.
Our hull departing dry dock (see the man on the aft deck of the tug for scale)
As the weather gets warmer, the days are rushing by all the faster and I realise I am even an integer older. The celebration was a visit to Seoul last weekend, staying in the New Wing of the decidedly well-appointed Lotte Hotel.
We travelled to the capital by bus because it was not only cheaper but quicker than flying: about four hours centre to centre. British readers need not fear our enduring the cramped accommodation and delays one can suffer on National Express when looking travel by road. The Geoje-Seoul Express offers large reclining seats and legroom equivalent to Business Class cabin by air and the highway leading into Seoul has a bus lane that enabled us to whisk by a fifteen kilometre queue of heavy holiday traffic. All for a very reasonable 65,000 Won return ticket – about thirty-five pounds at current rates.
Arrived at Nambu Bus Terminal, we took a taxi from the neighbouring rank and headed for downtown. Similar to our experience in Busan, the driver appeared to be a seasoned road racer (albeit a pensionable one) but with the snarl-ups at the traffic lights being quite appalling in some places and the main streets being many lanes wide, I could understand his keenness to cover ground fast when able.
Our route northwards was broken halfway by the Hangang River. It is huge; as in half a mile wide huge. You can look at a tourist map of Seoul and draw lazy comparisons with central London: river flowing east/west with a small meander southwards, Yeouido district a bit like the Isle of Dogs pushed westward. Cross any one of the numerous bridges for the first time (Banpodaegyo in this case) and you realise that the scale is very different. From the middle of this river you can see far more of a huge city than you will see from any point mid-Thames. Our taxi driver managed to keep that view brief while setting a personal best for the standing quarter in recompense for a particularly obstructive intersection.
After check-in and a lunchtime snack we strolled down to Toegyero: bike street. Moving from Azerbaijan to Norway to Korea has been a progression towards increasingly two-wheeled society and I am itching to get back in the saddle. A quarter mile of this street is packed with shops selling motorcycles, mopeds and accessories. We came, we saw, we did not buy but the experience will stand us in good stead.
Our first evening in Seoul was unsurprisingly spent atop the Seoul Tower. Perched on the summit of a wooded parkland mountain and accessible via a very scenic cable car ride, the tower is nothing too spectacular to look at as architecture but its observation deck and restaurants afford fantastic views over the city. A word of warning if dining in the Korean restaurant: don’t order the knuckle if you expect the English meat-on-the-bone because what you will receive is actual knuckle in a broth. Crunchy.
Downtown Seoul at night, as viewed from Seoul Tower
Saturday was grey skies and rain as per forecast but we were not disheartened. Our day was spent conducting a leisurely tour of the city lead by a charming man from the Azerbaijani Embassy who happily escorted us around places such as the Gyeongbokgung Palace (including the Korea Folk Museum), Itaewon and the Deoksugung Palace by Seoul Plaza. Two out of three are rare places of historical import that have been salvaged from the recent wars. Itaewon is a tourist strip with a US military base at the end of it where much is typical tat but places like the Italian restaurant, Macaroni Market are well worth a visit for those who know.
Peace in the grounds of the Gyeongbukgung Palace
We rounded off Saturday with a visit to Club Volume, a nightspot touted as being one of the city’s more switched-on haunts. The décor and the crowd certainly looked contemporary and the house DJ’s were spinning Electro-Trance in a convincingly modish manner. We missed the visiting DJ duo touring for/with Anjunabeats (alas) but with advertising including upcoming performances from Ferry Corsten and a Godskitchen night, it looks like there is a fairly lively dance scene to enjoy in Seoul.
Sunshine returned for Sunday and we took a slow mosey south of the river in search of a gallery that transpired to be closed. A quick visit to a peaceful park with two royal shrines later, we returned to the bus terminal and headed south satisfied. We might only have scratched the surface of Seoul but we saw more than enough to warrant a further visit.
Ancient Deoksugung Palace, rubbing shoulders with modern Seoul
Spring has most definitely sprung on Geoje Island. At time of writing we are enduring a heavy April shower that has lasted most of the day but up until this morning we have enjoyed two weeks of warm, dry afternoons with the temperatures often hitting the mid-twenties when the sun shines and it has been doing so frequently.
The verdant hillsides that surround us now luxuriate in differing shades and textures of green as the conifers are joined by their deciduous relatives. Fine, pale pinks of cherry blossom have been replaced by vibrant reds and purples of azalea. Tulips and pansies planted here and there have bloomed to add further bright splashes of colour.
Yesterday and the previous Sunday we were able to borrow a car and go exploring the extremities of the island. The majority of terrain here is hills and valleys right up to the coast with few large areas of flat land. It makes for some entertaining, winding roads and some beautiful scenery.
The island is not especially large and a leisurely circumnavigation can be completed inside a day. Two shipyards and the road bridge connection to the mainland dominate most of the north side. Add the high-density buildings, population and traffic that accompany such industry and you have the urban hub of Geoje where rush-hour can be just as frantically static as anywhere else.
Head southwards and within moments the tower blocks disappear, the traffic thins and the countryside extends its welcome. There are several beaches to visit of both sand and pebble varieties, each set within its own attractive, tree-lined bay. Just off shore are numerous small, sheer-sided islands that are probably uninhabitable but make superb additions to the scenery. Parts of the south coast are designated national parks, hopefully to preserve their natural beauty.
One of the many small islands off the coast
Tourist maps of the island show all manner of attractions seemingly right next to the road but we have found most of them very difficult to spot. Signposts for such things as waterfalls, ceramic art galleries and a Confucian School have all managed to disappear once we have got within a kilometre or so of the alleged destinations. During our searches we have managed to find a nascent miniature version of Kew Gardens and local Buddhist temple instead, neither of which was marked on the map.
Geoje Island is reportedly a popular tourist destination for mainland-dwellers during the summer and judging by the crowds and coaches we have seen already in some places, I can believe it. We will continue our coastal explorations as long as we can before the high season arrives, then perhaps turn our attentions inland. Who knows what we will find.
Azaleas as far as the eye can see…
This weekend is reputedly the high point of the annual Cherry Blossom festival that started a couple of weeks ago. Japan may spring more readily to the western mind when thinking about famous places for flowering cherries in bloom but that is by no means the only place in which to find them. There are dozens lining the roads in and around the shipyard for example and they have been looking lovely since the weather started warming up around three weeks ago.
The number in the yard pale into insignificance though when compared to the trees in Hadong: a town a few hours north-west of here on the mainland. Hadong is known throughout Korea for having a road several kilometres long lined either side with cherry trees that form a beautiful avenue of blossom each spring. That fame has even been immortalised as the setting for scenes in a popular film. Last Sunday a coach-load of us went to see for ourselves.
We chose last weekend because being the first of the two weekends in the festival it was generally known to be the less busy one. If that held true this year, I pity the folk who are trying to visit the area today. In the four hours it took for us to reach ‘journey’s end’ on the way out, we must have spent two of those hours inching along in traffic jams covering the last quarter of the distance.
The final hour was passed crawling along the famous road itself and from what I could see it is indeed beautiful. It winds along a valley just a little above the lowest point. To one side is steep dark stone, to the other a succession of perfectly manicured tea plantations with clipped and regimented green bushes looking like they have been prepared for a palace formal garden. On both sides is a steady line of tree upon tree upon tree linking branches overhead and at this time of year providing a canopy of delicate pink blossom for mile after mile.
With our coach having a low roofline it was difficult for anyone taller than a small child (i.e. most of us) to appreciate the sight without carefully timed neck-craning. Neither were we able to stop and get out for a look along the way as there was nowhere to park. When we reached a place to stop at the end of the road, we were just out of view of it all which was unfortunate but we had good things to look forward to.
A short walk away was Ssang-Gye Buddhist temple. Dating back to the eighth century A.D. it has undergone several renovations; most recently in 1975; and is still very much a working temple rather than a museum piece, with monks in residence.
The walk leads up the mountainside along a stream that looks clearly to have been there as a water source since the foundation of the temple as all the buildings are composed around it. Even with thousands of visitors stomping around, the place managed to maintain an air of calm and there was no denying the beauty of it, both natural and man-made. I hope the photographs below might help give an idea.
One of Ssang-Gye’s many beautiful buildings
Cherry blossom over the roof-tops
Some of the building artwork with stone lantern in the foreground