Shortly before we left Korea, very shortly in fact - it was the day before, we travelled out of Busan to a nearby ski resort in the mountains where a pool and billiards tournament was being held. This was not yet another invented distraction to avoid the horrors of packing, but a genuine family obligation - Korean Brother was one of the competitors, and having made it through to the last 32 from a field of over 500 entrants, we could no longer avoid going and lending our support for the last day.
Since we lived in the south-western edges of the city of Busan, leaving it via its northern extremities involved an hour's travelling on the entire length of the subway line to Nopodong, as made famous by a thousand 'the train for Nopodong, Nopodong is now arriving' announcements, spoken in a disembodied voice I always imagined to sound like that of a computer plotting to take over the world in-between disseminating transit messages to the public.
Somewhere around the PNU district, the subway emerges from underground and the urban jungle dissipates so that by the time the train for Nopodong arrives you feel like you've been deposited in the countryside. A long road leading off into the uninhabited distance immediately outside the station does nothing to dispel the image. There are of course though, still the street vendors - feeding the small pocket of humanity still surviving by the entrance. Does anything else exist in Nopodong? Probably, but I have no evidence for it.
It was six-twenty in the morning when we set off, and as the train has neared its destination, the number of Buddhist worshippers preparing for a full day of devotions in their grey outfits had peaked. By the time we reached our destination, the few who remained headed off in the same direction as us to the remoter temples, though it is not spiritual enlightenment we were in search of, but rather a bus. The bus took us to an eerily-deserted town called Samseong where we switched to our final destination high up into the mountains.
Amidst the now bare ski slopes, the large main building of the Eden Valley Resort had an MBC ESPN outside broadcast truck parked in front of it. It was there to cover the finals, as it seems they are one of the largest amateur competitions in the country. Inside, out of ski season and devoid of tourists, the building was eerily quiet, save for a few esoteric-looking individuals - characters one and all I suspect - clutching cues, cue-holders and a variety of pool-related equipment. I felt like I'd stumbled onto the set of one of those subculture documentary films. It was clear that for some of the players remaining this was just another stop on the small-time competition circuit.
In the hall where the games were taking place there were two sets of tables - down one side these were conventional six-pocket affairs for the game of pool, and down the other, pocketless ones. It's taken me a long time to understand the existence of the latter, which are often the majority constituent of your average Korean 'pool hall'. For a long time, I assumed that a Korean version of billiards was played on them, given that there are only three balls, one red, one white and one, admittedly, yellow. But in fact it is a little more complicated than that - the Korean game is called 3-Cushion, which is a version of the game derived from Carom billiards, and essentially the requirement is to hit a ball, then three cushions, and then the final ball in order to score a point. This, it transpires, requires a great deal of geometrical thought. It's extremely difficult and widely popular. Korean Brother is quite good at it, and it was this game he was playing in the competition.
The remaining contestants in both games were mostly male, with a couple of females. Curiously, there seemed to be a contingent of German-speaking Koreans although I doubted the prize money - which amounted to five million won for the winner - justified entry from overseas. Korean Brother won his first game to enter the last sixteen, but in the game which would have put him into the quarter-finals, he met a particularly tough opponent and lost by a point in a very narrow game. It seemed a very creditable performance and by virtue of his points he was placed 9th overall, but he was disappointed - it transpired he'd come fourth in the same tournament two years previously. Even so, there was still some prize money and it wasn't such a bad amount.
I discovered on the way back that Samseong taxi drivers only consider their meters to be advisory. The driver who'd brought us had all-but demanded 50% more than the meter price on the grounds that as we were in the middle of nowhere he wasn't going to be able to pick anyone up on the way back. And it was clear that if we didn't pay we might 'have problems' finding a driver for the return trip. So by the time a driver was called to take us back, it was a given that he was going to be demanding more than the mandated price. Still, at least there was some haggling. While the taxi drivers in Busan have a reputation for taking some foreigners for a ride in more ways than one, there's no doubt that those from Samseong have taken the concept to an altogether more blatant level. This is one Korean town we don't need to come back to, I thought.