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31st August 2012

Tough Miles Blog 9: South Korea

Pete here again:

Clearing the bikes through South Korean customs can only be described as an absolute pleasure. A big leather sofa, multiple glasses of iced-tea, an air-conditioned office and English-speaking officers. The entire process was over within less than 2 hours most of which for us was spent surfing the web over their free wi-fi connection. Service with a smile? Wow, we really had made it out of Russia. It was time for change. 

The bikes were due on a Seattle bound container ship the following morning so there was no room for error. It was a four or five-hour drive to get down to Busan in the south following a stunning coastal road where we would spend the night before waking at the crack of dawn the following morning to arrange the shipment to the U.S. The road surface was quite possibly the best we’ve seen since we left Romania and the road signs were in both Korean and English. It had only been an overnight ferry since we left, but Russia already felt like a million miles away. Time was looking to be on our side so we pulled over for a bite to eat in a road side cafe. We’d heard rumors about Korean food and my expectations were not incredibly high but I certainly didn’t expect particular dish to give us both a savage 4 day dosage of the shits.

When we arrived at the port in Busan the following morning and located the office we required, our bikes were searched and the relevant paper work signed off. It was equally as pain-free as entering the country the previous day but it was no easy task handing over the keys to our bikes to the dock worker with a big smile on his face. Christmas had obviously come early for this guy and something told me that our ride to the port that morning was not going to be the last for our bikes on Korean soil. We had no idea what the next two weeks had in store for our bikes or even if we would ever see them again but we had very little choice. All we could do was to cross our fingers and wait patiently. All of the tools, spares, camping and riding gear were strapped to the bikes. We walked off with only the clothes we required for the fortnight separated from the bikes so we didn’t get stung on excessive baggage fees on our flight over to the states. The tents went in wet. I can’t imagine the stench on the other side. 

We boarded a train up to Seoul, the capital of South Korea and realised their love for technology was not a myth. Jon kicked back and enjoyed the free on board Wi-Fi whilst I spent a large majority of the trip vomiting from the dirty meal we’d had on the ride to Busan. The look on the old lady’s face as I opened the toilet door made it quickly evident that I had in fact misread the signs and had been hogging the female toilet for quite some time. She was a feisty little number who was not afraid to draw attention to my wrong doing. I smiled apologetically and walked away but she was still evidently fuming as I walked back past her for round two. 

We settled in nicely to our new hostel and met a Korean/ American guy named Matt. Although Matt was originally born in the U.S, he spent a considerable amount of time growing up in Korea meaning he could speak fluent Korean. Nobody deserved the title more so he was soon awarded the new name of ‘Junior Skipper’ both in memory of the previous Skipper we lost in Vladivostok and in recognition for his ability to show us a cracking time in Seoul. The Koreans are a hands on bunch and it’s quite normal to be cuddled by a male member of the party as you walk down the street. That’s quite simply the way it is so the sooner you get used to it, the better.

 

Junior Skipper had a whole host of activities lined up for us in and around Seoul, the most memorable of which for me was the Korean BBQ. The concept sounded great. Each party sits around their own table with a BBQ in the middle. The food is served raw on a plate and you cook it yourself as you sit and drink the evening away. We’ve all heard about the Koreans love for dog meat so once Matt had confirmed that wouldn’t be on the menu that night, I was happy to go with the flow. What followed made me wish that we did opt for the dog meat option after all.

Cow intestines large and small with a side helping of tongue was what we had in store. On the side was kimchi, a cabbage dish naturally fermented with chili flakes underground often for months before being served. The entire city stinks of the stuff so we had to give it a go. The tongue proved rather tasty however the intestines were so chewy that even a small bite would go round and round in our mouths for what felt like minutes before it was in any suitable form to swallow. In fear of offending our host we tried our best to get it down us. I found the easiest way of managing that was by taking a small mouthful followed by a swig of beer and swallowing it whole like a tablet.

 

Hardly an ideal first dish after running on such a fragile stomach.  When we realised there was KFC in town we had 4 in 2 days.

Junior Skipper recommended we checked out some of the main site seeing areas of the town and before we knew it, we were signed up for a trip to the eerie demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. It was the first time  on this trip we found ourselves on an official tour bus with an official  tour guide, Ronald. ‘Big Ron’ as we later named him was armed with one of the dreaded clip on microphones. It was clearly going to be a long morning. His ability to make a genuinely interesting topic sound more humdrum than sitting through a health and safety lecture was quite remarkable and I distinctly remember spending the majority of the trip fast asleep in the back of the bus before being awoken and ushered in to what we can only assume to have been Ronald’s brothers shop where we were we had the fortunate opportunity to buy ‘genuine North Korean cigarettes’. Most of the demilitarized area is restricted so as far as a sight seeing experience goes, there really is little to see out there however the little information I did manage to extract from Ronald’s scripted speech proved an interesting insight in to how the area is currently monitored on the South Korean side.

The War Museum presented a moving display based  on the Korean war, a subject embarrassingly never touched upon in the English curriculum during my school days. We finished up the afternoon with a trip to the Seodaemun prison where Korean freedom fighters were held in horrific conditions under Japanese rule. The prison has since been very nicely restored as a memorial to those who suffered there.

 

Reading about Japanese torture techniques is one of those sickening things that you can’t understand why you continue to read on but you still do anyway. 

Having recovered from the mental torment of the Korean BBQ and feeling content with our sigh seeing efforts, notably the best to date I must add, we were well and truly ready to get back on the night shifts and see what Seoul’s nightlife had to say for itself. I’ve always put karaoke in the same ‘avoid at all costs’ category as fancy dress when Im back in the UK but it’s so big in Korea that there was clearly no avoiding it. After a few bottles of strong rice wine at less than a pound a pop, feeling confident I could beat Junior Skipper on the microphone, I found myself performing Whitney Houston’s ’I wanna dance with somebody’ to a crowd of 6. Brookbanks gave a rendition of Michael Jackson’s ’Thriller’ his all and if my memory serves me correctly, he even ended with a 180 degree spin and a grab of the balls.

I’m ready for a steak, get me to the States. Home is in Seattle and the fate of this trip is in the dock workers hands.

Keep ‘em coming guys… The target still feels a long way off! www.justgiving.com/toughmiles