A Travellerspoint blog

December 2005

Mmmmm. Duck.

I have no idea how it happened, or even why, but entering China was the easiest crossing I have done in years. Even a simple crossing from Derbyshire to Worcestershire (Wuss-ter-shire for all of our North American friends who continually pronounce the sauce incorrectly) is harder, although admittedly a bit of that is due to the lack of a mutual border and the need to get around Birmingham. Ah well.

I got to Incheon and on to the boat without incident. My expectations for licourice induced problems came to naught, and it was then just the matter of a 24hour crossing, which after the first 2 was about 20hours of nothingness and boredom. The start interesting only because the ferry went through a lock, which is the first time I have ever done so on an international ship before. It was almost like being in Panama...

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The Ferry entering the lock to leave the port of Incheon

The approach to Tianjin - actually, Tanggu, 50km away, but they sure as heck weren't going to tell us that beforehand - was notable only for the huge number of cargo ships all seemingly fine, but lacking anything resembling movement or people, which were anchored out to sea on the approach. It felt kind of like passing through a graveyard as we inched through literally hundreds of these moored ships, of which I can only guess were moored just outside Chinese territorial waters, for reasons unknown, but probably were actually quite exciting.

Entering China took me all of 19seconds.

No trouble, fuss, bag check or anything. The problem came outside when i discovered that there was nothing even vaguely resembling a ATM or Exchange office. The other 3 foreigners on the boat (we had studiously all ignored each other on the boat, only to club together on disembarkation) and I stood around like lemons for a while until we were shepherded onto a bus. We asked for Tanggu station, but that flew past, and then so did Tianjin, a city of 10million or so, which we had then expected to arrive at. Thus with limitde options, we just sat there pondering where the fr1ggin heck we would end up. It turned out to be Beijing, but not somewhere helpful. Oh no. An obscure University campus miles from anywhere. Groan. And so, in what must have been a strange sight of pilgramage to all locals, 50 Koreans and 4 white folk all with large rucksacks, proceeded down the road for a few kilometres in hunt of the metro. And in a stunning break with tradition, actually found it.

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Outside the Forbidden City at night

It was when I got off the metro and got hold of money that things started to go slightly skewiff. Jeff, my host, had just moved house that very day and at short notice was unable to put me up. Which left me at 8pm somewhere in Beijing without anywhere to stay. Long story cut short, but the wonderful Jennifer took a phone call from a sheepish Welsh guy around 9pm that night, agreed to put me up that night, talked to a taxi driver on the phone to get me where i had to go, and I proceeded on the utterly inevitable taxi journey across the city which led me to a statue of the chairman in a University campus barely 300m from my original starting point...

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The statue of the Chairman, in daylight hours. Dissapointingly, he is nowhere near as frequent in his appearances as was Lenin

The following day it happened. I actually had to do something vaguely work related. The big boss and a couple of colleagues were in town, and I, not exactly one to turn down free food and beer at the best of times, agreed to meet them. I can truly say now (especially to Kate, Jen and Clare who I seem to remember salivating over the sheer thought of Crispy duck in Thame that one time) that Beijing duck is truly fantastic. S*d bird flu, that duck is damned good. Much duck and a good few beers later (including Sten, and that really scared me. He sounded like a raving Alcoholic. Sven and David seem to be getting through to him at long last!), followed by a trek to, the, erm, not exactly traditionally Chinese Belgian bar and I was suddenly hit with the full whammy. I had to be at their hotel the following morning at 8am to go to a meeting. Shudder. 8am is not a good hour on work days, let alone on holiday.

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The girl is the wonderful Jen, my saviour regarding accomodation. The cheery looking man next to him is my boss, Sten, the evil guy who occassionally makes me do some real work, and forced me out of bed at a ridiculous hour on the friday morning

Some of you will be stunned to learn that not only did i make it (Beijing rush hour traffic and all), but I was actually early. The rest of you will just think that i'm lying through my teeth. By the time we'd left the meeting I seem to have been talked into doing more stuff the following week, although I'm not entirely sure how that happened. Oh well. After another free dinner (Mmmm. Ribs) with the guys, I headed off. Confused a taxi driver so much that he forgot to charge me, and then spent a few hours in a leaving party for one of Jen's friends, before taking in the Sanlituan bar district for a couple of hours, depressingly western, and barely a local in sight. I didn't come to China to be surrounded by Westerners, and Brits. If it was Brits I was looking for, I would have gone to Sydney. Boats allowing, of course.

Spent a couple of days doing not a great deal, except doing some wandering around. Much of it was trawling through some of the numerous markets, looking at all kinds of assorted cr*p, trying not to buy stuff I don't need (until I get a house to decorate, anyway), and practicing my bargaining skills. I picked up a decent knock off coat with removable fleece for probably a twentieth of what i'd have paid in the UK, and some socks (all sheep, of course) to replace the ones lost in the Seoul incident. Also realised that i'm now shorter on underwear than I had been when i left. What was this guy in Seoul up to?! The DVD stores are amazing, just for the sheer variety of stuff they had (most of which has barely hit cinemas) and also just how funny some of the covers are. Somewhere along the way of copying a film, they seem to manage to mix up parts of the cover (some correct, some relating to up to 4 other films, in sometimes 3 different langages), and also to install the wrong subtitles. Some of them seem to be for other films, and some are just random peoples conversations... Note must also be made of Paul's Steak and Eggs restaurant, unsurprisingly an expat haunt, where I had the best damned Fried breakfast I have probably had since my last trip to Greasy Lil's. And the (very) few of you who know what the heck i'm talking about there will understand just how long ago that was!

And so i trekked down to Shanghai to go to another holiday meeting. The best part of 3 days was spent indulging in the most amazing food and culinary delights, either arranged by the wonderful people i had got to meet - thank you DIST Shanghai - with a long feeling of dread (i had no idea what i was going there for, but it scared me) but turned out surprisingly well, or by Elysee who anybody who has ever one on to the TT and uttered the word Shanghai will know all about. Everybody lives for their stomaches in this place, and that works just fine with me.

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View from the Bund across to Pudong in Shanghai

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You know that for the Shanghai metro to have to have introduced such a sign, they must have had some serious trouble in the past...

I had a little scare wandering in to the hostel bar the first night straight into a Swedish language film, which took me a while to accept that i wasn't halucinating and it was actually being shown, and also caught King Kong on a stupendously fake DVD, complete with random people standing up, popcorn throwing, and the recorders hand coming over the camera to hide the light for a while) which turned out to be an OK film, but not really 3 hours worth. And i met a lovely Welsh girl, Helene. I know that i mention such occureences regularly, but i meet other Welsh folks so damned rarely in my travels that they are major events for me. If you don't like it, tough. Didin't have time for too much touristy stuff, but took a few wanders and saw enough to realise that I must return to have a proper look.

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Shanghai Old City

Trekked back to Beijing for yet another meeting, and this one really was scary. I had to talk and remember some of that w*rk stuff. I had no idea what the heck i/we were doing when i was actually still working, let alone several alcohol fuddled months later, and they expectde me to be professional, articulate and knowledgeable. These folks must be mad! And was topped off by a looooong sloooooow journey through Friday Rush hour traffic with the taxi driver getting utterly lost, a still bemusing concept to me. And finally, at about 10pm on Fri the 23rd, I was done. And somehow it was time for Christmas.

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Posted by Gelli 22:07 Archived in China Comments (0)

Hmmmmm...

No DMZ, but a funny wet smell

I'd love to say that my time in Seoul has been amazingly brilliant and wonderful and that everything went perfectly according to plan. So I will. My time in Seoul has been amazingly brilliant and wonderful and that everything went perfectly according to plan. By now of course, you know that i'm lying. In fairness, I have nothing bad to say about Seoul at all. It's just been a few days of good old sh1t happens.

And so, I failed miserably to contact a friend of a friend who was going to show me around and let me crash at his place, and instead had several conversations with a female Korean recorded message. By that point it was of course too late to try and score some free accomodation elsewhere, so lacking options, I checked into a hostel. Mostly empty, but with friendly owners and cheap so it was no big deal. However, said friendly owner then cunningly forgot to book me on to the DMZ / Panmunjon trip as he was supposed to (for Sunday), and by the time I had realised this and tried to sort my own for the Monday, I discovered that, equally cunningly, the DMZ is closed on Mondays to tourists, and the Panmunjeon tour had been booked out by a japanese tour group. Groan. And of course, despite a good 2 dozen companies advertising tours, they are all actually sending people on the same bus anyway, so they all fell through. Rats. And then, lack of conmmunication between the scheduling people and the companies own websote timetabling meant that I discovered that the boat I had planned to catch Wed only ran on Tuesdays. So in order to get to Beijing on time, I would have to leave Tuesday. Which meant that I didn't get to the DMZ area at all, which was the one thing I really wanted to, and is probably the only must see/do around Seoul.

Feck.

I'm going to have to return here, just for that.

And then, to top things off, some b*stard decided that they couldn't make it as far as the toilet one night, and I awoke to discover that all my clothes and bag had been liberally covered in a fluid which smelt suspiciously like urine during the night. Grrrr. In a way, I was lucky that my clothes were on top, as it meant that much of my bag survived, and there was no permanent damage to things less easily cleaned, like books, camera and journal. A couple of books got soggy, but not too bad to be destroyed, and my MP3 player was swimming in urine. It still stinks. Arse. I don't know who did it, but with an extremely short list of possibles to begin with, there was really only ever one suspect. Feckin hell.

I should probably stop swearing, but whilst i've no problem with things going wrong and sh1t happening (although i'm happy that it didn't in a literal sense this time), stuff like that does annoy me a tad. And then, after doing all my washing and leaving stuff to dry all day, I came back to discover that another friendly person - or possibly the same one, I don't know - had decided that it would be funny to steal one of each of my pairs of socks. Not to be seen again.

As some of you are aware, I have a history with socks anyway. I was (am?) notorious at work for my socks, particularly due to the fact that I wander around in scoked feet, which are normally odd socks and have numerous holes in. There was even a sweepstake as to the number of holes I would appeart with running at one point. And 4 seperate people bought me socks for Christmas. Before I left, I went out and got a couple as well, so that I actually had some pairs of socks I could wear and almost be normal. And now, I don't. As well as the obvious loss of numbers, I don't have any even vaguely matching anymore, so will have to go and buy some. And some long johns, as it's starting to get damned cold. But long johns don't exist in this country. A coat would probably make sense as well. Me thinks I need to do some shopping when i get to China.

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Cheongyeonggung Palace

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Gyeongbukgong Royal Palace

Seoul itself is a vast city of concrete blocks, but is not without charms and sights. Some lovely palaces to traipse around, great markets to browse in and cheap stalls to haggle at, street food to be tried (most of it amazing), interesting people to be watched, and the inevitable hills to be climbed in the icy cold weather. And of course, relevant from a sports point of view due to Olympic and World Cup events in the recent-ish past. I quite like it, although obviously my lack of luck and inability to get to the DMZ have tempered my opinion a tad.

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An Arty shot of me using the floor/ceiling mirrors, and the view East from the Seoul Tower

Randomly, you cannot buy deodorant or long johns in Korea, and I really need to get hold of both.

As so, it's time to move on from Korea. It's an interesting country, and i've loved my time here. Met some great people. Seen some great stuff. had a few ups and downs. But of course i'll be back, even if just to get to the damned DMZ! But to be brutaly honest, all of that is irrelevant compared to the fact that my, urm, fiance got married withour telling me.

Kiki, have you any idea how much that hurts me?!

See you all in the next port of call.

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The Korean sign

Posted by Gelli 02:56 Archived in South Korea Comments (5)

The world of pretty toilets, and a postscript to the wedding

All we need now is a Harry Redknapp induced twist...

I had planned to just pass through Daejon, but that never happened. It was getting dark and cold, still covered in snow, and the alleged nearby bus station turned out to be a 45min slide away. At least if i break any bones in the ice here, i'm back in insurance coverage.

And so I undertook the not inconsiderble challenge of trying to work out which of the 300 motels in a half km radius from the bus station was not actually a love motel, so I could spend the night somewhere cheap and without too many optional extras. It didn't work.

Daejon seems much the same as Busan and Daegu but not as much so. Admitedly I didn't stick around all that long, but there didn't seem any point. I did stick around long enough to somehow whack my second toe on something (which I never worked out what as there was nothing to hit, turning it into a lovely red colour and making it twice the size, but without any of the surrounding toes geting touched, and I don't know how that worked). Instead, I headed out to Gongju, yet another extremely similar sounding "G" place which is yet another former capital. This time, one of the Baekje Dynasty, who were the rulers back in the late 5th to early 6th centuries, or so I would guess. I trawlled around yet another fort, this one cunningly built on the side of a hill and virtually deserted, meaning that it was a tad slippery with all the ice. Before anybody says anything or the sweepstakers start to pay out, I know i'm asking for trouble sliding along an icy castle wall, about 20metres up, and with only a semi frozen river below. Took a quick wander around the rest of the town, although the museum (and one of the main reasons for visting) was predictably closed.

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Images of Gongju fortress

So I gave in, and got the bus back to Daejon. Although not quite how i intended. My suspicion was admittedly aroused by the number of buses heading back, compared to the number of those heading out, but i probably didn't pay enough attention and ask the right questions using my not entirely fluent Korean. And so it was, that whilst we did arrive back at a Daejon bus station, it sure as heck wasn't the same one I had left. It was on the opposite side of town. Waaaaaay away. And of course I had wanted to get a bus from the one I had originally left, to get to my days destination of Ansan. B*gger. After a little pondering, i did what any stupid Brit would do and cheated. I found a train station, and caught a train along the rest of the KTX new line to Yongsan in Seoul, instead of trying to get a bus across the city of Daejon. I just figured that it would be easier!

And so, entirely inadvertantly and annoraky that i keep up to date or even know such things, I added the entire dedicated high speed South Korean system to my completion of the Shinkansen in Japan. Why am I so damned sad sometimes? In Yongsan i managed to get on the subway with no problem, and an hour later found myself in Ansan, a satellite city of 600,000k or so, south west of Seoul, where I met up with yet another great CSer, again as the first guest, and from somewhere a bit unusual (Prince Edward Island), Jeff. The man has a great spelling of a great name.

I planned to use Ansan mostly as a base for the city of Suwon, East of Ansan and another satelite city to Seoul, but a tad more important and with a history which began before the inception of concrete tower blocks.

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Ansan at night, typical of the almost overbearing neon bombardment in all Korean cities

Suwon is known, allegedly, as the city of pretty toilets. And if that isn't a great reason to visit a city, I don't know what is. Unfortunately I couldn't find the published toilet guide book to religiously visit them all (i'm not sure how the rules would work though. On a pub crawl, it's relatively easy to have a pint at each stop off, but if you are forced to have a cr*p at each toilet on a toilet crawl - and there are 34 of them - you could be going for some time, or else need to have condsumed large quantities of laxatives before you start), but I still randomly came across a good half dozen or so. And whilst a toilet is normally just a toilet (when it's not a hole) the buildings were generally at least vaguely impressive - although I ask myself why they bothered - and toilets extremely well looked after. Expect pics of toilets to follow.

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Yup, it's one of the pretty toilets

I probably should be continuing with allsorts of wonderous stories of my latest mishap. But I won't. I've decided to keep that a tightly guarded story, known only to myself, the tree, taxis, hospital staff and 22000 Korean witnesses.

Suwon itself is also home to the Hwasong fortress, an impressive and still relatively intact (well, except the inside of the walls, obviously) 6km long structure built during the Jeongju reign in the late 18th century. The walls are great to walk around, with the possible exception of the Northern side which goes over a whopping great hill which is fine exceept the icy journey down can be a tad quicker that you were expecting... It was also one of the first to be built using western designs and technologies, so includes several innovations. It is also home to a relatively impressive looking - although currently being rebuilt - summer palace, used by the ruling factions as a stop over on there way South or on tours of the region. As with so many mouments, fortresses and temples in Korea, it's history is intrinsinctly linked with the Japanese. Virtually all buildings of note were destroyed (often by fire, sometimes by attack) by the invading Japanese, in at least one of the periods of Korean occupation by the Japanese. And often in several of them. It means that despite the rebuilding there is very little of substance in Korea which is truly original in it's complete form. Odd parts or buildings survived most attacks/fires, but they are essentially tokens rather core, which is somewhat depressing.

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Looking off the highest point of the Suwon fortress, and one fo the smaller gatehouses

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Typical Korean architecture, numerous identical and numbered white concrete tower blocks, in Suwon

And thus, before I regale you about Seoul (which I can't yet because I haven't actually got there properly), it is with great happiness that i should finish such a pathetic and mind numbing entry by entertaining you with what I hope to be the final installment of the story of my beloved (ahem) Kiki and I. I am sure there will be a twist to come, but at this moment I can't work out what it could be. If i could work Alain Perrin, Veli Zajec, Rupert Lowe and Sir Clive into this palava I would, but i can't. And I won't try. But astonishingly, somebody has done a deed for which I could never repay.

Just last night I discovered that the wonderful girl had got her wish, and it is with huge congratulations and a in no way heavy heart that I must wish Kiki and her new husband, Christian, a wonderful and long lasting marriage. I don't think I know the poor chap, so cannot comiserate him personally, and have no interest in further details (or if the ring did fit his finger), but admit that I am vaguely curious as to the circumstances surrounding their meeting, and the time frame involved until marriage. But not nearly enough to ask. Sincere-ish Best wishes to you both, and Christian, when you realise what has happened, I know some people who for a small fee can arrange you with false papers so you can flee the country and take on a new identity.

I'm now half expecting to be asked to become a godfather in 9 months time.

Posted by Gelli 00:46 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

Of lots of wooden blocks and a recent drugs offence

The road north, and to the sides, from Busan with winter rapidly arriving

And so it was that I was back in Korea. I'd only managed 3 days on my previous pass through, although that was essentially down to the fact that I wasn't supposed to be there and never expected to be in Korea at that time.

But now I was, and it was time to look around.

I spent a good few days wandering around the Busan area, sometimes in the company of my host, Marie (who put me up last time, and astonishingly, was more than happy for me to return - I should point out that it's her fault I got arrested and strip searched, but I won't), and sometimes not. Several bowls of Dong-dong ju were consumed, along with soju and not unextensive amounts of Korean BBQ. God damned it, i love the food here, despite some of it being slightly on the warm side. Got to see human nature at it's finest (a healthy dose of real life is a good slap in the face and leveller every now and again), trekked around Beomosa, a large and wonderfully decorated temple complex in the hills above Busan, and including the inevitable mountain climb. My first Korean temple, and a pleasant surprise and break form the Japanese varieties, simply because they are so colourfully decorated.

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Beomosa Temple, and one of the guardians

Those Koreans didn't mess around. The Geumjongsan fortress above Beomosa is admittedly not fully intact anymore - most of it is completely gone - but it wasn't done as a stop gap measure. Built on top of a mountain, the walls were a stunning 17km long, and with a height of up to 12metres, thats a feck of allot of people needed to carry a feck of allot of stone up dirt tracks to build the fortress. Which is really put into perspective when you realise that the whole thing - complete with all the other buildings within it - took less than 2 years to build. Admittedly there probably wasn't a large union presence, and health and seafty regs were possibly not the strictest, but thats still impressively quick work! Took atrek around Yongsan Park, and was propositioned by two (extremely stunning) Russian prostitutes near a tuperware stall. Why me?

Somehow found our way back to the Dragon bar we'd been at last time, where muggins got the pleasure of leading Marie and her bf, and her cool Korean language exchange friend Yoon to - who all living in the city - despite only having been there once before. Surely it should be the locals and residents who show the guest the way? Oh well. I wandered around Haeundae in the East of the city, notable mainly for it's beach which on sunny summer days gets a staggering 750,000 odd people into a short stretch of barely over a km, and maybe 50m deep. Thats allot of people fighting for not allot of sand. And of course, to the Chinese consulate where I gave them my application and passport and then prayed very hard indeed.

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Inside the Dragon bar

With my passport taking 5 days to process, i headed north. First to Daegu, Korea's 3rd largest city and home to the obligatory huge numbers of near identical concrete tower blocks, as is the Korean way. Stayed with a lovely CS American girl (i know, I know. I can't believe that i wrote that either. This is happening way too often. I'm not supposed to like Americans, but some of these people are making it damned hard on me. I probably need a few slaps around the face with a wet cod to help restore me) called Erin http://www.erindoeskorea.blogspot.com, who introduced to me the delights of the weekly foreign bar - I had seen a total of one other foreigner until that moment, and suddenly there was hoardes of them. No idea where the feck they came from. And slightly worryingly the doorway to the bar had singles bar writen in English on it. Although that was upstairs and we went downstairs, i'm sure Kiki would kill me... - one of the best burgers I have ever eaten and some fantastic gimbap (approximately Korean sushi, but without the raw fish) and mandu (dumpling type thingy-majigs) from the old lady across the road.

I spent a day trawling the streets at random and peering into the markets (I love markets like this where you can buy anything at all, and with all the sounds and smells), and also through the numerous oddly specific areas, similar to Istanbul - Motorcycle street, kniting alley, medicene road and Rice Cake Street to name but a few. Took a trip out to Haeinsa, a temple complex West of Daegu, up in the forest covered mountains and wonderfully untouristed (until the bus loads of kids showed up at the end). Yet more lovely decorated temples, hills to climb, and also home to the UNESCO listed Tripitaka Koreana - a set of about 82000 wood blocks, on which have been carved the entire Buddhist scriptures and teachings, and essentially constitute the worlds first book.

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The Tripitaka Koreana and shots of the Haeinsa temple complex

Kevin didn't put the tent up, and had actually left it in Busan, and hence it didn't rain.

And I was also taken to do something so unusual and unlike me that it has to be noted. I was taken to the cinema. So, accompanied by Erin and another CSer/Engrish teacher, Ryan, we went to see Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I am aware that may not sound like a major event, but I belive that the last thing I saw at the cinema was probably Titanic, in my first year at Uni, and before that quite possibly Who Framed Roger Rabbit for Andrew Gordon's 9th (maybe?) birthday waaaaaaay back when. I'm not a cinema goer. But it was actually damned good. I've not read the books, and only seen 1 and a bit of the previous films, but as a stand alone bit of entertainment, it was a great film. Admittedly the one that Ryan and I would really like to see would be Harry Poter and the Jehovah's Witness, but that might be a stretch too far. I really must get around to reading the books.

Cunningly leaving Erin to be horribly sick for the weekend (and inadvertantly stealing her LP guide), I spent a couple of days in Gyeongju, the former capital and a major Korean drawcard about an hour to the West. Wandered around the wonderful Bulguska temple complex, home to the finest Silla dynasty temple in existence, and climbed the mountain up to the Seoguram Buddha (of Sakyamini) grotto, yet another place where Korean workers must have had a distinct lack of fun in transporting such a huge lump of rock up a tiny track to the top of a mountain. No, I have no idea what the difference between Silla and non Silla temples is, as they all look the same to me. The only difference I can come up with being the inclusion of the word "Silla".

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The Bulguksa complex

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Seoguram Buddha building from the outside, and the temple at the base of the climb

Woke up to a covering of snow and ice which proved to me that winter is really here. I suppose that it is december, so thats no big surprise, but I now have to figure out how to survive the cold when i'm not really kitted out for it, and without spending lots of money. Gyeongju city is kind of odd because it contains a large number of Tumuli, large grass burial mounds of Silla kings and nobles, doted randomly around the place, which helps give the city an unusual feel to it. To the south, the area is litered with so many burial mounds, temples, stone Buddhas and Pagodas that they are still being found on a regular basis by people just wandering around and going even just a few metres off the path, which makes an interesting wander south past Wolseong Park which led to my imagination predictably going into overdrive about what else could possibly be waiting to be uncovered there. I won't bore you with the results, but I did pay a trip to a bookies after one idea hit me...

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Silla Dynasty burial mounds in Gyeongju city

With trepidation, I returned to Busan, where for the sheer heck of it I stayed at Emily's instead of Maries, took in a night of trivia (or a quiz for those who don't speak North American, which was the first one I had done since leaving the UK, and gave me any number of strange flashbacks and memories from my Oxford days. Who else remembers little Dave??) and then headed to the Chinese embassy to collect my visa. So convinced was I that i would have my application rejected due to a "recent drugs offence", and so prepared was I to argue my case, that I was completely at a loss when I left the consulate all of 90seconds after entering, complete with the requested double entry visa. I'm now convinced that i'm being set up for when I actually enter, and they are just toying with me.

And thus, bemused but with passport in hand, I headed from Busan for probably the final time this trip, dropping into Daegu to return one stolen LP and gain a lovely cough from Erin, and via the high speed KTX to Daejon. Which i really should write about now, but really can not be arsed doing, so It will have to wait.

And if Riz Ree happens to be reading this, I hope Simon has you back on his leash.

Posted by Gelli 23:59 Archived in South Korea Comments (3)

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