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Home and away – and home again

15 November 2010 Leave a comment

I finished watching Prison Break on the ferry over to Korea. It got silly towards the end, in the sense that the writers seemed to have added so many plot threads that it became impossible for them to resolve them in a sensible, self-contained fashion. So (warning – spoilers follow), with Lincoln now trying to retrieve Scylla for the Company, working against Michael, and Michael recovering from brain cancer and working against his mother, a greedy, calculating Company operative who wants to sell Scylla for big money and is willing to kill to bump up the price, with Don Self gone renegade for no good reason other than it ups the drama quotient, with T-Bag toadying up to whoever holds the whip hand, with the FBI finally appearing to do something about all the mayhem, with agents for buyers for Scylla wandering in from the cast of Lost and being rapidly killed off, the hand of the writers intervenes to resurrect Paul Kellerman (killed off in season two) to solve everyone’s problems and hand the magic hard drive over to the UN. The denouement worked nicely, though.

Then (warning – spoilers continue) episodes 23 and 24 saw Sara imprisoned for the murder of Michael’s mother (she shot her in the back as the older woman shot Michael in the shoulder) and the series returned to its original theme – breaking out of prison. And we see how Michael dies. These last two episodes were probably meant to be a whole fifth season and the speed at which the plot flies by and the lack of tension (we already know from episode 22 how everything turns out) make them a damp squib compared to what went before.

I didn’t sleep well on the ferry – lots of rocking and rolling in the literal sense. I did a fair amount of reading. The ferry got in a few hours late, but I had my phone on and charged and Habiba called often for updates. I disembarked and passed through the Quarantine, Immigration and Customs with little problem, walked from the ferry terminal to Dong-Incheon Station and took the subway bakc home.

At home I was finally able to relax a bit in a familiar environment. I laid out everything I’d brought back from China on the table for Habiba’s perusal. She seemed very pleased with her gift – a pair of shiny, colourful bracelets – which I was fearing wouldn’t be quite to her taste. We had a leaving party to go to, but later in the evening we had a chance to (very successfully) try out the sexual position die I’d brought back.

The very next day we had an early start as we were taking a free bus down to Gyeongju a capital of one of the three kingdoms of medieval Korea and site of many tumuli – burial mounds – and other historical structures. We went with Jessica and shared a room at the motel, Nokwonjang, I’d stayed at a year and a half ago. (We had tried to check into a place a little closer to the bus station, but the old ladies working at the ‘Romance Hotel’, wouldn’t allow the three of us to share a room.)

We had a look round one park containing several tumuli – Daereungwon – and the pretty, pavilion-lined pond – Anapji – and east Asia’s oldest observatory – Cheomseongdae – on the Saturday evening. On the Sunday, after breakfasting and checking out and storin our bags at the railway station, we took a bus over to Bulguksa, one of Korea’s most important temples and saw the Dabotap and Seokgatap. The first of which (a pagoda that appears on the 10 won coin) was covered up with scaffolding and screens when I visited Gyeongju in 2009 – so it was satisfying to go and see it in the stony flesh.

Then we had lunch and took a bus up a mountain to Seokguram Grotto, a man-made cave that houses a beautiful statue of Buddha. We paid our four thousand won to enter the site knowing that we would have to be quick to catch the two o’clock bus back to get the free four o’clock bus back to Seoul. After a short walk, we arrived at the entrance to the grotto, but there was a huge queue of people, so we decided we didn’t have time and walked back to the car park. Shame – especially as Habiba and Jessica probably won’t return to this important site. I’d been there before, so I wasn’t heartbroken about it.

After two more bus rides and a taxi ride we were back at the Concorde Hotel in the big hotel area (by which I mean the area of big hotels) a little outside Gyeongju on the shores of a lake, which was our pick-up point for the bus to Seoul. The reason this bus was free was that it’s Visit Korea Year (2010 to 2012 … somehow). And, of course, we weren’t the only ones who wanted to take advantage of the freeness. In Seoul, at least one person had to be turned away; and in Gyeongju, several people were turned away – possibly because they hadn’t obtained tickets – the guide, while he spoke reasonable English, just didn’t express himself very clearly when trying to explain to the people on the bus. This delayed our departure a little, but, by the time we got back into Seoul and off the bus, it was nearly 11:30 – two and a half hours later than advertised. This meant Jessica couldn’t return to her home in Osan, a city south of Seoul, and had to stay at ours and go home in the pre-dawn darkness.

It was a nice enough visit, but the weekend crowds were large and annoying. It’s definitely worth visiting Gyeongju, and it’s also worth going during the week.

The voyage home

15 November 2010 Leave a comment

The very first part of today’s journey (I’m writing this on the ferry) went well.

I got up at 5:30 in the morning darkness, showered and packed the remainder of my things that hadn’t been packed last night. I checked out of the hostel; there was a bit of a delay when I didn’t hand over the correct receipt with my keys – I needed the one that was specifically for the deposit, not just for the extra days that I’d stayed (and certainly not for the laundry service). I walked to Wangfujing Station, put my bags through the scanners that they have at all the stations and places like Tiananmen Square, bought a ticket for 2 yuan (about 20p) and took the subway to Beijing South Railway Station, where I’d entered the city the previous week. I had a McDonald’s breakfast (hopefully, my last fried, fatty breakfast for a while – my breakfasts at the hostel were generally fried eggs, toast, hash brown, maybe bacon, maybe cornflakes. I navigated the dimly lit concourse and found the correct gate for my train – the departure concourse is huge and has a series of escalators where travellers gather before being allowed to pass through the ticket barriers and down to the platforms. I got on the train and tried to ask a member of staff if two numbers on my ticket were my carriage and seat – I’m sure she said they were. When I got there, there appeared to be a man sitting in my aisle seat – he told me to sit in the window seat; I didn’t complain. The train left at 7:20. I got off the train at Tianjin when it arrived at 7:50 – the English part of the announcement helpful said that it would be a quick stop and people getting off should get ready.

This is where things started to go wrong.

I headed towards an exit of Tianjin Station; it seemed to be the only one available – signs for others had Xs taped over them. The station was huge and new. I ignored a couple of men who wanted me to hire their taxis and found a couple of toilets near the taxi rank – both were disgusting, so I didn’t go. Instead I queued up for a taxi. Once I got in, I couldn’t tell the driver where to go because he didn’t speak English, so, as he drove away, I fished out my ticket wallet, on which the woman at the Incheon office had written the name of the ferry terminal in Chinese, and I showed it to the driver. He looked at it and twigged where I wanted to go and off we went.

Superficially, so far, so good. However, the drive took a while. And then it took a while longer. And then it took longer still. Then I saw a sign that said ‘Tanggu – 30 km’. What’s Tanggu (besides being the Korean for billiards)? Tanggu is the city where Tianjin Passenger Terminal actually is. The driver seemed to be beyond the limits of his usual territory. 9 am, the time I’d been told be at the terminal by, came and went. I showed the driver a little map on my ticket wallet and he stopped and started asking other taxi drivers and pedestrians for help. It turned out the map on the wallet wasn’t relevant – probably the ferry company, Jincheon Ferry’s Tianjin offices. We kept going. I tried telling the driver I was in a hurry and I should have been there for nine. He seemed to tell me not to worry about it, we’d be there in ten or twenty minutes. He kept winding down his window to ask other taxi drivers as we went, though.

We got there towards ten o’clock and I handed over a massive 143 yuan. To find the value in pounds, you just have to divide by ten; £14.30 is not very much, but this is China – consider that the basic fare started at 8 yuan (80p). One of my souvenirs was to have been a full set of nice new Chinese banknotes. I had to hand over the hundred, the largest, of this set to pay; I thought my 100 yuan deposit from the hostel would have been enough for that and for my port fee of 30 yuan. I plan on buying another 100 yuan note once I arrive back in Korea.

I walked into the terminal, showed my ticket to someone behind a window, who told me to go to another window. The person there gave me a boarding pass, so I headed in through the main entrance – but was turned back because I needed my pass stamped. I went back to the first window and handed over the 30 yuan for the stamp.

Inside the main part of the building, after a baggage scan, there was a long line of people with boxes and packages on trolleys. A couple of them ushered me forwards as I tried to line up behind them. My bags were scanned for the second time in about as many minutes. Then I queued up for Immigration. But an officer asked me if I had a departure card – I didn’t and he showed me to the desk where they were kept. I filled one in, but was stumped over the box that asked for my flight number/ship name etc. The officer came back and wrote a couple of Chinese characters in there for me (although he botched one a bit). How very proactively helpful.

Once past Immigration I waited about five minutes behind a small crowd of people just inside the door for a shuttle bus to the ferry. When I got on the bus I realised the ferry was all of about 150 metres away. Oh, well. The wind was blowing hard as we got off the bus and climbed a staircase to gangway on to the ship.

This one is nicer than the one I took from Korea – which is just as well, as I’m going to be on for a whole day. (The scheduled times are 11:00 on Thursday morning to 11:00 on Friday morning – which is a period of 25 hours, taking the one hour time difference into account.) The common areas are cleaner and they don’t have that savoury Asian dumpling smell that I now associate with Chinese people. The other ferry had a restaurant that was only open twice on the journey and for less than an hour each time. This one’s restaurant is more like a real restaurant. The bathrooms are less grim. The demographic on board seems less working class than my outgoing trip.

On that previous trip I’d shared a business class room with three others. This time I plumped for economy. I’m in bed 48 of what I think is a 48 bed dorm. It’s not too bad at the moment – I have an upper bunk, and, once you draw the curtains, it feels fairly private. The bunk isn’t tall enough to sit up in it, though. It also has no convenient power outlet. I’ve spent most of my time so far watching Prison Break in my bunk or writing blog posts out in the ship near a socket.

I’m at 75% charge now. It’s 7pm Korean time. I should start thinking about dinner.

Last days in China

15 November 2010 Leave a comment

When I tried to log into my WordPress account on Monday evening to post my experiences on the Great Wall, I encountered difficulties. I was able to log in through the main page, but I couldn’t access my blog at all. I could only assume that the presence of words like ‘Communism’ and ‘Mao’ had led to my blog being blocked. I had Habiba make the post for me – I would have included some pictures, otherwise.

On Tuesday and Wednesday – my last two full days in the Middle Country – I didn’t do a huge amount. Tried to do a bit of writing. Went to have a look at the CCTV (China Central Television) building – the one that has two legs connected by a bridge at the top. It’s a very big building. Mark explained later on that one of the nearby buildings, a more conventional tower, was built as a companion building – the latter symbolising the male member, the M-shaped building representing the female legs. The ‘penis’ had been gutted by fire after a celebration with fireworks went disastrously wrong. On there I passed by the British Abassador’s residence and the British Embassy. Maybe I could have dropped in to say hello to David Cameron. The Chinese soldiers in dress uniform outside were a bit scary, though.

I had dinner with Charlie and Mark each night; the first night we had roast duck and then went for a walk around a small lake – Hou Hai, I think – one of a series of linked lakes surrounded by park that I should have gone to in the daytime, but didn’t. This lake was actually ringed by bars, each one with a PA speaker outside blasting out whatever was playing inside (many bars had live music or karaoke). It was an interesting sonic landscape.

On the Wednesday, I finally took the plunge and bought a few souvenirs from a little maze of alleys crowded with stalls that I hadn’t actually known was there until I started exploring for gift shops. Along with stalls piled high with what we could probably safely describe as tourist tat, there were stalls selling meat shish kebabs or fruit shish kebabs or live scorpion shish kebabs (I assume they get deep fried before you eat them). I didn’t try any.

I was nervous of the whole haggling process and walked into a couple of shops and past a few stalls without stopping to be sold to. Eventually, though I got a small brass dragon as the first of my purchases. The process for haggling for this was typical of what happened for later purchases – or attempted sales on behalf of the stall-holders. I asked how much it was and the woman asked me how much I wanted to pay. I didn’t know so she typed on a large calculator, ’80’ (£8). I said, ‘Twenty,’ and she was all, ‘No, no,’ so I walked away. Then she grabbed my sleeve (arm- and sleeve-grabbing happened a lot) as I went and as I pulled away she said, ‘OK, twenty.’ And that was that.

The woman I bought my gift for Habiba from complemented my hard bargaining skills – I’m sure she just wanted me to buy other stuff from her. A man pointed out a mah jongg set as I browsed his stall. He wanted 650 yuan for it, but came down to 200 as I walked away. I didn’t want to spend that much money anyway – because I’m a cheapskate. I did also buy a pair of massage balls. Each being maybe three centimetres or so in diameter; one blue, one red, both with yin and yang signs on them. They have bells inside. Your supposed to roll them around in a circle on one hand without letting them touch each other.

Separately, I bought a couple of jars of spicy sauce and a few packets of snacks (one of which promises ‘Odd taste’) from a little supermarket near my hostel.

I also – following Charlie and Mark’s advice – changed my train ticket to Tianjin on Wednesday night to one for Thursday morning – the morning of my ferry from Tianjin to Incheon. This sounds dangerous, but, while I was supposed to be a the ferry terminal at 9 am, the bullet trains from Beijing run very often and early and only take 30 minutes to get there. If only you could go everywhere by bullet train.