Those kids — those indefatigable, indestructible, intolerable hellions. From the moment we arrived at our hotel somewhere in the mountains of some province somewhere in the Deep North…
..they never stopped running amok.
The place was huge and dark and kind of crummy. But it had a public bath, and I hadn’t been in one since Japan in 2009. Dinner was Korean but I got it down, and was then directed into the bowels of the joint, passing the kids affixed to screens in the coin-slot internet playground, and with some trepidation — but playing it cool like a pro — I revealed my ugly secret in the naked arena of the changing rooms.
Tattoo, I’m told, in Korea = taboo. I’m condemned to a summer of long sleeves in my day job, but anyway, boys, here they are. Six or seven blokes in the next bath were telling stories and laughing; I soaked alone in mine, troubles dissipating in the steam. Well, I mean, I didn’t start alone but for some reason the legroom suddenly increased…
I learned a lot about Korean education that night and the next. I was invited to join the other teachers in one of their rooms, where a big spread of fruit and cheese and snacks and beer and Ballantine’s was being attacked. I sat there like a tool for an hour while they all chatted and joked and outside the kids did whatever the hell they wanted.
On the whole trip, in fact, I never saw a pupil pulled into line for anything. They were allowed to run wild and fend for themselves. When I escaped to my room, with its heated floor and tiny oblong pillow, they were going mental in the hallways on three different floors. When my alarm bleeped at 4:30 some of them were still going. Maybe they had their own Ballantine’s stash.
The weather was awful, but I needed a walk. Under my umbrella, camera hugged close, I went up a lonesome dirt road into the hills…
..and wet, cold and dark as it was, it felt great to be alive.
I’d passed these gushing cascades but it was still dark; I climbed up to a lonesome farm and coming down, there was just enough light to squat under an umbrella with a tiny tripod. It was fun, sort of, but I fondly recalled the dry, sane stamp albums of my childhood. My hobbies needed some reappraisal.
After breakfast — I went with ancient pastries from the hotel store over rice and seaweed soup — the convoy headed into the southeastern outskirts of Seoul. The planned outdoor amusement park (compensation for all that culture) was ditched in favour of a drier indoor version: Lotte World.
Heaven for kids, Babylon on amphetamines for yours truly:
The vice principal was concerned that I’d disappear into the vortex of a city with more inhabitants in its greater metropolitan area than my entire country, but I safely negotiated the lovely subway system and was soon downtown — my first visit, and where better to stroll amid the rain and wind than an 11km stretch of exposed stream bank?
Well, I only had half a day — I needed a theme. Today’s was water, in all its most unpleasant forms.
This is the Cheongyecheon…
..a stream rescued seven years ago from the oblivion of concrete and a truck overpass by Seoul mayor, Lee Myung-bak, now the country’s president.
Seen as an example of successful green urban renewal, the scheme involved the waterway’s disinterment, resuscitation and extensive landscaping, bridge-construction and traffic redirection.
I enjoyed my walk, which covered much of both banks, but my masochist tendencies have been well documented on this site.
This is the point (get it?) at which I ran out of stream at the western end and headed back on the opposite bank:
Umbrella-mangling weather. The numerous bridges, old and new, provided brief shelter…
..but my hands were freezing into useless claws, my pants were soaked — and then the snow.
That was it. I recalled a Starbucks I’d seen earlier, and had a new mission. Inside it was warm and woodsy, cocktail jazz tinkled, beautiful women glided past every few seconds (Seoul: man…), and I encamped at a window bench with an enormous mug of passable latte and a pastry, watching Seoul-ites do good-humoured battle with their notorious elements:
I ran out of coffee, my fingers were working, so out I went, continuing east. The snow blew elsewhere. I really enjoyed the next hour or two, and eventually found myself in a fashion district called Pyounghwa.
At last even the rain stopped.
There were ducks and other birds, and I could see how pleasant the Cheonggye might be in a balmy Spring, if they have them in Seoul.
I covered most of the stream’s length, but I’d been firmly instructed to be back in the amusement factory by 4:30. I crossed over like this fellow…
..and aimed at the far-off station, beneath the imperious gazes of a succession of terrifying beauties, coldly appraising the work of a team of workers hand-dredging the stream bottom for garbage.
That was Seoul for me: cold, wet, windy, but somehow compelling. I’ll be back, perhaps for the Buddha’s birthday in a few weeks. Hopefully my timing will be a little better…
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote