Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Korea - The first trip to Itaewon

May 23-29

Hello everyone!

Back to earth with a bump after the delights of being a tourist in Japan. Back to the daily routine. Funny I should say that, as that's what I was teaching my kids this week. Things got a little confusing for everyone when I realised that my daily routine differs somewhat from the average Koreans. In a number of ways. It can be general things - they shower at night, whereas the standard Westerner will shower in the morning - or something more specific. They all hated it when I mentioned that I leave school at 4.30pm, and would ask them what time they leave.

Doing this lesson has really hammered home what a raw deal these kids get. The earliest anyone really finishes studying is 11pm. Some are in academies and private tuition classes until later still. And this is before they have to tackle the mounds of homework they get set from every lesson. Every one except mine, anyway. There's no way I could do that to them, my lesson isn't really important in the grand scheme of their education. It helps me stop moaning about being tired if I 'only' get six hours of sleep, whereas they often struggle through the day on four or five.

I threw it open to the class to make a daily routine from a Korean perspective, by asking them things they do everyday and drawing a giant spider diagram on the board. Some of them went for the obvious answers, but others were happy to volunteer more unorthodox answers. 'Teacher! I go poo-poo!' was actually quite a popular choice, and I guess technically true. Some answers, on the other hand, are either scandalous lies or just a bit concerning - 'I watch girls' being in the routine of one boy. I decided to go with this. 'Where?' I enquire. 'Oh teacher, everywhere'. 'How?' He couldn't make head or tail of that, so I helped him along. 'TV?' 'Aah yes'. 'Computer?' 'Yes'. 'Where else?' 'In school'. I had to stop at that point, mainly to save him from getting into serious trouble. Like having a sexual harassment charge nailed on him. Maybe I should teach the the word 'voyeur'.

I tried my utmost to keep it quiet this week because I had another half-marathon on the Saturday. I wasn't alone doing this one - over the course of a drunken conversation a month or so before, I had persuaded Jon to run with me. As I've mentioned before, it is getting hot out here, so the race was at 8am. It was at Yeouido, which is much closer than the previous one, but because of the time it was once again in my best interests to stay somewhere closer.

Naturally, the closer the better, so I headed to Yeouido straight from school. Yeouido is a very nice place, and a very classy place. This made finding a cheap, skanky motel very difficult. As in I didn't find one. It is home of the Trump Tower and the 63 Building, two reasonably famous landmarks in Seoul. Certainly two of the taller ones. Plan B, I hopped in a taxi and went to one of the nearby subway stations, Yeongdung-po.

This was more like the kind of area I wanted. Well, not wanted, but needed. It was rough, a bit dirty, and had back alleys galore. At the third time of trying, I found one for the acceptable price of 40,000W (the first was 51,000, and the second, maybe trying to one-up their rival, was a mere 50,000), and was soon asleep in my circular lovebed after my pre-race meal of my body weight in rice and a few donuts. All over the carbs.

Saturday morning rolls around. My first thought was that I had no energy. Obviously the carbs still hadn't been digested yet. But my legs didn't want to move. I got the feeling that this would not be fun, especially as it was a little bit warm already when I left my pad at 6.45am. I bumped into Jon and his friend, who I'm going to call Katie, in the subway station, and soon we were warming up. Everyone in our organised group was running as their nationality, which is why I had a Wales badge on. Poor effort compared to Jon's homemade England shirt, to be honest. We heard the marathon gun go off, so wandered over to get in line for the half.

We walk past the 5k line, past the 10k line...and into open space. Strange, that. I spot an Aussie in the 10k line and ask him where the half-marathon runners are. 'Kidding, mate? They've just gone!' I look up in horror to see the back end of what had been the half-marathon line passing under the start line. Good way to increase the heart rate, that. So soon we were off and running, and I was on my own after the first kilometre. To be expected really, as Jon had never run a race like this before, and was hoping for the 2 hour mark.

My legs still didn't want to work, so I took my mind off them by admiring the wonderful view. Another run alongside the glistening River Han. Looks so much better now than it did in winter, when much of it was frozen over. What helped the cause was that the sun was often hiding behind some light cloud, thus meaning we weren't exerting ourselves in the fierce heat of the rising sun.

Same as last time, we ran up one way and back down the same road but on the opposite side. I had been weaving through traffic - no other way as we were just about the last to start - and had counted that there were seventeen Westerners ahead of me. I thought that I would count the number of Westerners between me and Jon as I came back. One...two...wait a minute. That was Jon! Less than 200 metres behind me! How slow am I going!! I started grunting 'pain is weakness' to myself, as I seem to do when I am in a lot of pain from running, and accelerated.

At about 13km I was alongside a Korean man with a watch, so asked him our time. 1:06. I've had enough boring running sessions to know that I was on course for a PB at this point, and only a little outside the ambitious 1:45 target I had been gunning for before the first race a month previously. There was no big second wind this time, no inspiring track (Lifehouse did come on, but didn't have the same effect this time), and I was really struggling to keep moving when I got to 19km.

When I got to 20km I noticed two people with balloons pretty close in front of me. The people with balloons are the pacemakers, and these guys had their pacemaking time written in big numbers on their balloons. 1:45. CHARRRRRGE! I sprinted past them, and kept bombing on. And on. And there was the finish. I'd done it!

Incredibly, Jon finished minutes later. Top effort. My time was texted through to me later as 1:43:29. Delighted was an understatement. It was makkoli time. The group we were with do these events a lot, and stick around afterwards to celebrate. By sitting on ice blocks naked, amongst other things. And then drinking beer off the blocks. We stuck to the normal games, flip-cup and the like, and then soon left.

Two random things with this race. One: the man in the picture was a mentalist. He carried round loads of flags, which were undoubtedly heavier than I was at this point. Two: there were people still finishing when we left hours later. Incredible stuff.

We went to meet people in Seoul Grand Park. Does what it says on the tin, that place. Glorious sunshine at this point, which we enjoyed. Also saw a rabbit. Only this rabbit was on a leash. Ridiculous. Very cute, but one of the most bizarre things my eyes have ever laid eyes upon.

From there we went to get food in Itaewon. This is the foreigner district of Seoul - a lot of US soldiers spend their nights here. People found it strange that I had survived six months without wanting to go, but I guess I like Korean food that much and don't really get on well with American soldiers (New Year's). We headed to a Turkish restaurant. The one thing people say about Itaewon is the quality of the food. Mine was great - other people didn't fare as well. Jon, for example, who removed his food in the bar we went to next.

This bar is called the Wolfhound. Nice enough place, seemed like a standard British pub-cum-bar, a bit like O'Neills. In spite of this, I was seriously flagging under the lack of sleep, so ordered an Irish coffee. Wow. The strongest, most brilliant Irish coffee I've ever had. Three or four sips and I was back to normal - half the mug and I was bouncing in my seat. Amazing stuff.

Soon after, I was going to meet some friends nearby, so got my stuff together. Jon couldn't see his bag. I spotted one by the bar, next to a tall Western man. I ask him if I can see if this is my friend's bag. Sure, of course you can, he responds, though in a slightly odd tone. So I lean down, and then he grabs the bag. Then tells me it's his bag. And then swears at me. I would have undoubtedly got into an argument, but just at this juncture Jon found his bag, and my friends told me to drop it. Don't think I've been missing anything by not frequenting Itaewon.

So where was I going? Homo Hill. Yep. I had gone to see my friend Steph, and her friend Eric wanted to find a partner for the night. Not many gay districts in Seoul, so he didn't get the opportunity often. Some of the dancing I saw in the bar we went to, Soho, was insane. We didn't stay around for long, actually, instead ending up in other bars and laughing the night away.

I'm sure I'll be back to Itaewon, but it wasn't the best first impression of the place. I'd go back just for the Irish coffee, though. And besides, I'd just completed a half-marathon, nothing was going to sour my mood!

Love you all


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