Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Korea - The first ice festival

Hello everyone!

I had about 3 hours sleep Friday night/Saturday morning. I was up by 8am, but there was good reason for it. Today we were heading to an ice festival! We were off to Hwacheon, which is in the northeast of the country, as it was the final weekend Lee could do anything before having to leave. It's a reasonable distance from Seoul - the reason we had to leave Siheung so early was because we had to get across to the other side of Seoul to catch the bus. Needless to say, I wasn't feeling too hot, but I wasn't the only one. Indeed, others, such as Josh, seemed a lot worse.

It takes us long enough to get to Bucheon, let alone the far side of Seoul. It took a total of about 2 hours to get to the bus stop, and we covered in excess of 30 subway stops just getting there. Josh had to get off at one point, thinking he may be about to be sick. But we did eventually get to the bus station, and waited for our bus. The next one was sold out, so we had a bit of time to kill before leaving.

We grabbed a coffee, and, living up to the British stereotype, went hunting for a bar just after 11am. We were actually quite surprised to find nowhere open. I guess they need downtime at some point, as most places are open until 6am. We (half) gave up, getting cans from a small store. They sold Corona...in a CAN. Messed up. Where does the lime go??

A lot of military men were hanging around in the station, fully decked out in uniform. There were five of them all strung along five consecutive phone booths. Michelle took a photo of them, which could have been dangerous, but ultimately they ended up posing for pictures so it was all good.

Throughout all of this Josh hadn't shown up. We were concerned that he may have gone home, and these thoughts increased when he wouldn't answer his phone. We walked past the army men into the main area of the station. Who was waiting there? Who d'ya think. It was a great surprise. He had left his phone at home, hence not answering.

Our bus left just before 12. Like the cinema, the Koreans stick to the seat reservations that they have been given, meaning that many of us were split up. One guy, Chris, ended up having a Korean girl sleeping on his shoulder, which was quite funny. Me, Josh, Michelle and Lee were all sat near each other though, so we freely swapped horror backpacking stories (Serbia anyone?) and then dozed for a bit.

We weren't entirely sure of where Hwacheon was, and soon the bus was flying through the mountains. A bit too quickly for our liking, to be honest. The views were very nice though. More time passed, and we began to get concerned that this place may not exist, or that we'd got the date wrong. Our fears escalated when we drove by an open space with approximately ten tents on it, where people were ice fishing. Was that it?? Surely not.

Indeed it wasn't, and almost four hours later we arrived at Hwacheon station. We had been travelling for over 7 hours. Needless to say, we weren't exactly full of beans, but we bought our return tickets and were about to head off when a little Korean girl came into our circle. 'HI!!' she beamed. She then said hi to each and every one of us, with me being the last person in her order. She then looked at me for a while. 'EEL!' she shouted. Now my Korean isn't great, but I know that 'eel' is 'one', so I repeated it for her. She grinned. 'EE!' she shouts. 'ee' is 'two', so I again mimic her. We soon realise that she is making me count to ten, which I manage to do, and she grins before moving to interrogate someone else. Her mother soon intervened to get her away, but she was an adorable little girl.

So the Ice Festival. Worth the hype? I would say so. We had missed some of the activities, such as getting into a freezing cold tub of water to catch fish with your bare hands, but for some reason I don't feel too bad about missing that. Can't think why. It was cold enough anyway. There were so many people ice fishing. I have to admit, I didn't initially realise that the fly swatters they were waving around had fishing lines on the end of them, so until closer inspection it seemed like some bizarre interpretive dance routine. Though everyone else seemed to understand...

But are there really that many fish swimming under the frozen lakes of Korea? It turns out there are; they just ain't put there naturally. Either side of the area were large trucks, which were crammed with small fish. Next to the fish tank was a really cool sculpture of frozen water coming out of a large pipe. We got pictures once a small Korean boy had finished urinating next to it. They go anywhere! Other sculptures were just as impressive, such as this large tiger face. You could walk through the mouth into a neon-lighted passage, which was strange.

It's nice to semi-skate across the ice, never being sure of your footing. If you didn't want to walk you could always use the robot teddy. A mechanically-powered teddy carrying people across from one side to the other. Very creepy, the sort of thing you would see in a (bad) horror flick. Sign of the future? Watch this space.

As well as walking around, taking in the sights and people of this bizarre place, we also went on a 'bobsled'. First thoughts here would be a Winter Olympics-style chute, no? Not quite. It was more like a water slide, which shot out onto the ice. It looked like good fun, especially as we are more built than most Koreans in the queue. It got better when we were told 'foreigners for free!' Three goes for free. Being a foreigner gives us great privileges at times, and as a result we were talking up how far we could slide across the ice. From up high we also got great views of people falling over, which was hilarious.

Alas, the hype was ill-judged. The rubber dinghy you sat in did indeed go down a chute resembling a water slide, but the inside was the same texture as a dry ski slope. Not conducive for flying across the ice. It was interesting, but we only used one of our three free rides before moving on.

We had to get back to the bus stop as the last bus was at 7.30. We wanted to try to get on the 6.30 bus as we had arrived in time, but it filled up quite quickly, and we weren't allowed on. We thus had an hour to kill and, due to the swelling number of people wanting to head back to Seoul, we had to spend most of it outside in the bitter cold. I think it's safe to say that most of us lost some feeling in our feet at some point, even with the beer trying to take our minds off it.

We achieved this by playing a very long game of...well, I don't know what you call it, but I have done it with my students. Give a topic (ours was food for this), someone says a word, the next person has to say a word related to the topic beginning with the final letter of the previous word, no repeating, yadda yadda.

The bus duly arrived - sometime after 7.30 - and parked a little bit away from the parking booth allocated to it. This wasn't good news for us. We were at the front of the queue. The problem is that Korean people don't seem to understand the notion of a queue, thus all sprinted towards the bus to get on. Luckily, there was someone directing, and she quite sternly told the queue jumpers that we were getting on first. Nonetheless, people were still jostling and pushing each other to get on the bus. I think accepting being in a queue is a very British trait.

So to our long journey home. It didn't take nearly as long, especially the bus ride, partly because we carried on our game, but switching our category to musicians and bands. We were the only people talking on the bus, which may have been linked to the bus stopping after just over an hour, pulling into another bus station, and everyone being ushered off onto different buses. Except us. We were told to get off...and then told the bus we needed wasn't there. Oh dear. This could have been catastrophic. However, we were soon pointed to another bus (which seemed to be the same one as we had been on before), and it left. With no one else on it. We had our own bus!!! Aaah, to have the space to sprawl out over two seats, magical.

In time, more people got on the bus, but we carried on with our game and were soon enough back at the station. I think it's Gangbyeon, but can't remember, I wasn't paying too much attention. We got back reasonably quickly, and went for a couple of drinks back in Siheung. I slept for a long ol' time after that day, but it was great fun, and the kind of adventure which I like.

Not much else of note happened this week. On Tuesday evening I went to Bucheon to an Italian restaurant, as it was someone's birthday. The main thing of note here was the birthday cake - it was made of ice cream. Bit strange that, and as good as it was, I'll take a sponge cake with custard any day of the week. What I wouldn't take is what Kelly bought from a street vendor on the way to the Italian. It looked like a muffin, and the outer layer was cake mixture, albeit smelling strongly of egg. But there was a white bit in the middle. Oh, wait, that's where the smell is coming from. There's an egg in the middle. It was OK, but I'll stick to meat-on-a-stick as the food of choice from street folk.

The other event of note happened on Thursday. The day before I was looking through my phone when I came across a number with no name. I decided to text it, to see whether I knew who it was, and expecting that to be the end of it. A response, saying it was a girl called Anna, and that she didn't know who I was. That made two of us. I then did something I simply would not have done at home - I called the number, and asked if she wanted to meet up, saying some rubbish about wanting to put a face to the name. Remarkably, the woman agreed. Must have been charmed by the accent, but I had no clue who she was. In effect, this was a blind date.

So Thursday evening we had agreed to meet at Bucheon station at 8. I got there on time, and stood outside the large e-mart store. I couldn't see any Westerners, but there was one woman sat down across the station who may have been. She looked up, smiled, and walked over. Did I recognise her? Not a chance.

Did she recognise me? Well, her first words, 'Aah, Matt from Wales, how could I forget?' suggested that she did. We went to a galbi place and then onto a bar, and it was good fun. Nice to see that I have grown some stones since coming out here, at least. She's been here for almost a year, so was telling me all the places I should go to. Including one, called samcheok, which has a park full of penis statues. Hmm...

This week I have been talking about countries of the world with my kids. I asked them to describe America in one word - obesity was such a funny response, I didn't know their vocabulary extended to ripping it out of the Americans! I also played a game where they had to point out a country I shouted out on a blank map. That got competitive - kids throwing each other out of the way and almost breaking the TV screen in their desperation to tell me where they (wrongly) thought Pakistan was. Good stuff.

One week of winter camp to go, then back to the grind...of doing nothing! :)

Love you all



  1. 'Matt from Wales' do yourself a favour mate and say 'Matt from Britain' or 'Matt from the UK' or better yet.. lie!

    Some punk American called me Welsh the other day, nearly had to spark him out

  2. Doesn't make much sense saying that to a Welshman does it...