Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Uniform Code

One of the first things they ever tell you to expect about Asian cultures is the relative uniformity as compared to the West. So you might expect that when it comes to computers, Koreans might be less diverse and adventurous in straying away from Windows PCs, and you'd be right.

Now I'm a Windows user out of necessity but as security problems grow ever more and I fill my desktop with all manner of prevention tools, I find myself increasingly reluctant to expect non-technical people to have to - or be able to - maintain these machines with any degree of success. So when it came to thinking about what to buy for Korean Mother so that she could web-cam with us when we were back in the UK, I seriously considered whether a low-end Apple might fit the bill.

But I really wasn't putting two and two together. I use the Firefox browser and ever since I arrived in Korea I've come to realise how annoyingly prevalent the use of Windows and Internet Explorer (IE)-specific ActiveX components in webpages are. For a long time, I put this down to clueless Korean web developers, but recently I discovered that there was a more bizarre explanation. The Korean Government has mandated the use of ActiveX-based authentication technology for several years, which in practicality means that if you want to do online banking or anything of a similar nature, you have to have a PC with IE. In fact, so many commercial and other sites use ActiveX whether necessary or not it's like a plague. And what this ultimately means is that if you're an Apple or Linux user you're stuffed - so of course here, you're basically buying Windows or nothing.

Because Korean Mother isn't going to be banking online, but will probably struggle to understand how to use a computer to any great extent, we may eventually opt to go down the Apple route regardless, unless we can find an even simpler way of achieving the desired result.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007


By an unlikely and complicated series of events my partner ended up with her brother's phone for a few days - and vice-versa. It turned out that Korean Brother is a very popular guy, because through each afternoon and evening it seems like it's been ringing about once every ten minutes, and when it goes unanswered, the inevitable text message arrives instead. It seems he has about 60 contacts in his phone book, and judging by the deluge of calls I can only imagine that most of them have been phoning. For the first time it occurs to me that there comes a point at which one can have too many friends in Korea - making impossible to do anything else - if only through constantly having to answer the phone.

The thought is academic however; I have no such friends in Korea, which in a Catch-22 way means that I (a) don't need a phone, and (b) won't make any Korean friends on the basis that no-one wants to know anyone who's so strange as to not have a phone...

Monday, January 29, 2007

Used Cars

Some of our Korean friends bought a used car. It was several years old but miraculously only had 6,000 miles on the clock. What's more, because there was a tenuous six-degrees of separation style social connection between the buyer and the garage owner, he sold it to them for a really special price - 3,700,000 won (about £2,000). Not bad really for something which was supposed to be mechanically almost new.

Of course, as it turns out clocking cars is rife in Korea, everyone knows it goes on and in a curious kind of way everyone accepts it. While there is an official system of some kind which is meant to prevent this kind of thing going on, it seems as though the actual regulation of the rules is fairly slack and in fact, subject to some... flexibility with respect to the people administering them. In the UK, we have an annual MoT for any car above three years of age, in which the car is thoroughly tested for defects and compliance to emission standards. In Korea the test is once every three years, and judging from the amount of dirt I've seen a lot of vehicles throw out on the streets of Busan, I can only imagine that emission standards and air-quality are not matters which keep the Korean government awake at night. Just me.

Having bought the car, our friends went to a park to perform a ceremony where it was blessed for good luck. This involved putting up a table in front of it, pouring out some alcohol into a cup, and then pouring the alcohol on to each of the wheels in turn in order that the car would 'run well'. No photos of the event are taken though, as this may rob the ceremony of its spiritual value. Unfortunately the car didn't run well immediately as it needed to go back to the garage a couple of hours later to have its brake pads replaced.

A story from another car dealer somewhere in the greater social network was related to me later. Asked if he ever over-priced his cars when he sold to immediate family members, said car dealer said "of course, I think it's OK if I charge them as much as I can, as long as I take my mother out for a nice meal afterwards because it evens things up." Used car dealers are notorious back home, but it seems that even they have something to learn from how things are done here.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Drop Zone

While Korea might be a country that's proud of its connected society, after three months we still can't get our Internet Service Provider, LG Powercom, to provide anything more than the sorriest connection I've had the displeasure to use in years. Every now and again we phone them to ask why our connection keeps dropping, but they haven't a clue. Problems are escalated to the network team, who promise to call us back but contrary to most standards of Korean customer service never do. And when it comes to the question of why several of our favourite websites are inaccessible through their network, the only suggestion they can offer, incredibly, is that we switch to MegaPass - one of their rivals - who have no problem accessing these servers. Unfortunately though, they have us over a barrel - MegaPass can only provide us with a relatively slow ADSL connection in our building, so we're pretty much stuck with LG if we want to have a broadband connection of any kind.

In recent days connections have deteriorated further, and LG have started scheduling several hours of downtime for 'maintenance', which suggests that all is not well with them. I suppose this carries with it some hope that they'll eventually get to the bottom of their problems, but I won't hold my breath. One can only assume that LG don't do a lot of business with PC Bangs or at least have a better network backbone for them because if customers in those places had to put up with what we're experiencing I think there'd be a riot. Meanwhile, I'll have to endure the dropping connections affecting my work, while promising myself that the next apartment building we move into will be one serviced by a reliable Internet connection, provided by MegaPass, as LG recommends.

And every once in a while, there'll be yet more coverage in the UK on some amazing aspect of Korea's Internet society, and friends from back home will ask with great expectation what kind of connection I have, expecting some answer in the hundreds of megabits - but my answer is simply this - "a terrible one". Don't believe the hype.

Saturday, January 27, 2007


So my breathing difficulties continued all week and on Thursday I had to go back to the doctor's when my constant gasping was exacerbated by my inability to sleep more than three hours a night. I hadn't been out all week due to the advice to avoid polluted atmosphere (i.e. Busan), and the short walk to the hospital only confirmed that hiding in the relative cleanliness of the apartment had been a smart move.

Before long I'd had a chest X-ray and ECG, confirming that the relatively good news that while the bronchitis was now an acute case it wasn't pneumonia or a heart problem. So, after another three inch needle in my ass and more drug cocktails from the pharmacy, it was back to the one-room apartment to continue my experiments in stir-crazy. The doctor said to give things another couple of days, but after that we'd have to consider hospitalisation.

I tried to take some rest, but the drugs kept me wide awake - a known side-effect with some people - so I kept my eye on the financial markets on the grounds that it was less stressful watching my FTSE shorts than lying in bed watching Korean TV wondering about them.

This morning the pain in my back - probably from my lungs - was too much to bear and I spent my day sleeping and sweating it off, finally making it back to the land of the living late afternoon feeling like I'd been through a war, but finally a little better nonetheless, and breathing is getting easier.

This is a great place to be ill compared to the UK because the doctor's seem to care and the treatment is instant, but it's not a great place to have respiratory problems. You see a lot of Koreans wearing face masks on the street when they're under the weather and
if I manage to get myself out and about in the next couple of days again maybe I'll join them - I'm sure that's going to attract even more stares than I usually get!

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Paper Cut

The other day we needed to print out some documents, but we don't have a printer at home so we went along to the local council office, which provides a couple of Internet connected computers alongside a printer for use by the general public. Probably their intention is that people use it for council-related business, but they don't specify this. However, on discovering that the printer's output had seen better days - leaving a dark banding across the middle of everything we tried to print - we elected to try later somewhere else, given that we didn't exactly feel free to complain about it under the circumstances.

So today we went to a moderately-sized PC Bang where we hoped we might find a printer, but they didn't have one. I know by know that their main reason for existence is to function as gaming arcades, but the lack of any other facilities shattered any remaining illusions I had that anyone did anything much more serious there. There was a sign outside the PC Bang advertising a cost of 3,000 won (about £1.56) for thirteen hours access during the night - and no doubt there are plenty who avail themselves of the deal too.

The second PC Bang we walked into had a printer - though it looked suspiciously like an inkjet to me, but we didn't get very far because whatever the actual PC use charge we decided not to bother when they told us it was 200 won (about 11p) per sheet of paper printed. Given that we had twenty sheets to print, the total cost would have been £2.20. In Korea, where earlier I'd just eaten a wonderful oven-baked spaghetti dish in a reasonably nice restaurant for 5,500 won (£2.98), it struck me as a little excessive.

We didn't really solve our printing problem as such in the end. We mentioned it to one of our friends and they offered to print it out for us instead.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Shinku chitai

We have a one room apartment. It's not very large. Even so, the task of crawling around on hands and knees wiping the floor every day, as is expected in Korea, has finally proven a little too much for us - not that we really kept up the regime in the first place. That's a problem because while we've always endeavoured to keep the room reasonably clean - you know that one of the first things your Korean friends do when they come in is a quick hygiene audit.

So we succumbed and bought a cheap vacuum cleaner, and are finally able to reach those previously hard to get areas such as under the bed. We even run it over the room every day now, and we intend to keep up to this, at least until the novelty wears off. Somehow though, the flooring still manages to pick up dirty smudges here and there - cause unknown - and so we still have to do the hard scrubbing work sometimes.

In retrospect I wish we'd bought the vacuum cleaner when we first arrived, but it didn't seem like essential equipment back then. I'm not completely convinced it's hygienically necessary now, but it has proven to be a socially necessary addition to our apartment.

Monday, January 22, 2007


Ever since I got back from Gyeongju I've been having some breathing difficulties which I put down to picking up a bug of some kind, no doubt aided by spending most of the time there feeling rather cold. My condition got worse and I started waking up about once every half-hour during the night in a blind panic trying to gasp in some air while struggling against the pain in my chest.

If nothing else, given that such sleep deprivation is against the Geneva Convention I headed off to the doctor's this morning brandishing my brand new Korean Family Health Insurance card and a haggard look on my face.

The doctor - a PNU graduate much to the satisfaction and confidence of my wife - checked me out while typing 'dyspnia for 2 wks' in English into his computer. And I likely had bronchitis, or something very like it, so I shouldn't exercise (yay!) and I should avoid polluted places. "What, like Busan?" I almost said but just about avoided. The fact is that for all this is a coastal city, I have serious doubts as to existence of vehicle emissions legislation here and in any case, aside from that a toxic cloud of double-figure GDP growth economy wafted in over Korea from China just last week.

The doctor went on to suggest an immediate injection of something or other, but added that he guessed I wouldn't have it "being a Westerner". Now, I must admit I passed on the opportunity to have multiple neck injections when I put my shoulder out before Christmas, but otherwise I have no idea where this belief that Westerners are adverse to injections comes from. But there you are, that's our reputation.

So maybe I surpised him when I just said, "yeah, OK" - or maybe I said "I'll tell you everything I know", it was all becoming a bit of a blur as the need to sleep took hold of me again. Anyway, five minutes later a Korean nurse was sticking a three inch needle in my ass (yes, doctor, you neglected to mention where the needle would be going), though it seems I'm so insensitive that she was out of the door before I realised she'd already done it. After paying 3,000 won (about £1.62) for the experience, it was off to the pharmacy where I scored a series of drug cocktails for 2,200 won (£1.19).

Next we went to get a humidifier for our apartment. Lots of foreigners complain about Korea's very dry atmosphere and lots of Koreans - and foreigners - have humidifiers, but I was never consciously aware of it bothering me and I never saw the need for one. But the doctor had said we did, and that the dryness of the atmosphere was likely making my condition worse. So now we have an LG unit which looks like a giant custard pumping out moisture into our room. We didn't buy it though, Korean Parents loaned it to us.

But I still can't breathe so it may be chest X-rays tomorrow.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Message in a Cell Phone

I wish I'd been better organised before I left the UK for Korea. In retrospect, a lot of things which needed doing were left too late, and filing the accounts for the employee-less limited company I owned was one of them. As it was, I posted them the weekend before I left via the normal postal system, virtually guaranteeing on previous history that Companies House would 'lose' them resulting in the imposition of a one-hundred pound fine for their profit-centred operation.

In fact, the deadline was January 1st 2007 so realising that the first accounts had been 'lost' I sent them again using the Korean postal service, but unfortunately despite the great respect I have already gained for ePost which always gets things to the UK much more quickly than equivalent items coming the opposite way - these also got 'lost'. So I missed the deadline and Companies House will get the money they worked so hard for. So, on my third attempt I sent them last week via registered post from Korea. Two days later we received a text message saying that the letter had left Incheon Airport, the day after that another text message telling us the letter had arrived in the UK, and then yesterday, another text message telling us the letter had arrived at its destination in Wales.

The text-message service culture still amazes me in Korea. Messages are received when ordering, when items are dispatched, when your bank debits or credits your account, when items are ready to collect, and it seems, when items are being tracked as well. It's surprising that while the UK is also text-obsessed, this hasn't extended beyond personal communication into the commercial world, and it's a great pity. While Companies House will do their best to prolong my agony, it gives me some comfort to know that my documents have officially been delivered and all I now have to worry about are the suspect motivations of British government bureaucrats.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Geulae geulae oneuleun anyeong

While walking down the street today I suddenly felt a couple of taps on my shoulder. Somewhat surprised, I turned my head to find a Korean high-school girl staring at me expressionless yet confidently. "Hello" she said, with a continued absence of expression, in a way that seemed to demand an answer. Shortly after I'd replied with my own hello, though I doubt I hid the surprise on my face, I got a follow-up question. "Who are you?".

By this time my wife and our friends, who we were walking with, had stopped talking about whatever they'd been discussing previously, and the silence which replaced it told its own story about the unusualness of this event. Nobody really knew what to do, but I was happy to go with the flow, replying before issuing my own 'who are you?' challenge in return.

Unfortunately amidst a crowded street it wasn't easy to catch the girl's name while dodging in and out of people coming the other way, and while I did eventually get it, we'd walked even further along our route with our unintended companion. With the name done with, and still without expression, she promptly stuck her hand out and waited for me to shake it, which I did. I threw in an 'Anyeong' which seemed to phase her slightly and I was relieved to finally think that I hadn't just met the girl from Kill Bill 2.

But the awkward silence and embarrassment of my friends, who had by this time decided there was something very odd about the girl themselves, was finally too much, and one of them stopped walking in front of her, blocking her progress, and as I was pulled away he told her that if she wanted to learn English she should find a private school. She didn't follow us any further.

When I came to Korea I thought I'd probably have many more experiences like this, but there have been surprisingly few, and none so strange as this one. And while, to be perfectly honest, I'm not sorry not to be approached by complete strangers on the street every day, I felt really bad about the way the girl had been so professionally bodyguarded away from me. So sorry, whoever you are.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Shark Tale

We took some friends who had helped out with the wedding to a Chinese restaurant, called Shark House. Unsurprisingly, they specialised in shark dishes, but the reason we took them was that despite being somewhat on the expensive side, they'd served us excellent food on the two previous occasions we'd been there.

The first time we went Korean Parents ordered what we thought was a very nice chicken dish in a sweet-and-sour style sauce, but the second time we went we ordered what we believed to be the same dish, only to end up with something different. This time, when the waitress came to our table, considerable discussions were entered into in order to ensure the correct dish was ordered, at the end of which she convinced us that we ought to order a particular dish, even though we didn't recognise the name.

When the dish turned up, it wasn't what we'd had the first time. I think we would have left it at that, but our friends seemed to be in a particularly militant mood and yet more discussion ensued as to what was to be done about this. While the discussions remained perfectly civil, if a little awkward, at some point the manager came over and made the executive decision that our dish should be replaced with something which wasn't as spicy as what had originally arrived.

The replacement was a sharks'-fin dish... which somewhat embarrassingly we realised was in fact the dish we'd eaten on our first visit to the restaurant. So, not chicken at all then. But I have to say, that even knowing what it was this time, I still thought it tasted like chicken - or at least - more like chicken than some of the mystery-meat we've been served which has been alleged to be chicken.

There was another lesson in this beyond being able to tell the different between chicken and sharks' fin, and that was the etiquette of restaurants in Korea. Apparently it's understood here that if there is an accepted problem with the dish you've ordered in an expensive restaurant the restaurant will replace it free of charge, usually leaving the original dish with the customers if there were no objections otherwise. For the purposes of definition, a sufficiently expensive dish is deemed to be 10,000 won - about £5.50.

At 18,000 won, our order was well above this limit, but the restaurant staff were reluctant to give any ground at first and this wound-up the rest of my party considerably. When a new dish was ordered from the kitchen, the original dish was taken away, to some surprise at my table - there had been some hope it would be left. I was rather more ambivalent though - while the waitress did convince us to order something we didn't think was correct - we clearly didn't know what we were trying to order either, and I can't help but think that in the UK there wouldn't have been any sending back of the dish let alone keeping the originally delivered order.

One final footnote. I wasn't sure about the ethicality of sharks' fin when we were in the restaurant, and what I found out afterwards when I looked into it was sufficient to ensure I never eat it again.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Lost in Space

After our morning in the Gyeongju Folk Art-Craft Village we travelled by kamikaze bus towards the centre of Gyeongju city and our destination, Gyeongju National Museum. Or at least, that was the plan; despite assurances from our driver - and why we should trust anyone who thinks a bus is just an overgrown racing car I don't know - we were let off in the middle of nowhere in particular with no clear idea of how to locate our target. The part of central Gyeongju - as the local guidebook deceptively calls the area - we were in was nothing more than wide open spaces punctuated by wide open roads, and it began to feel disturbingly like Bracknell, a town in England where I'd once lived which felt similarly soulless in its desolation. But, some signs and a fifteen minute walk later, we had at least found the museum.

In keeping with the local theme, the museum also covered a wide area and was dispersed over four buildings, with the grounds housing a variety of ancient architectural objects and stones. There were many interesting exhibits and we spent about three hours working our way through. What's more, after my run-ins with the no-photo brigade over the last two days, it was encouraging to see that this museum merely asked its visitors to refrain from flash photography inside its buildings.

As we completed our tour the sun began to set over the museum grounds - we left and walked through a nearby park which contained the burial mounds of various kings - though I'm afraid I don't know what the park was called. Nearby, stands the Cheomseongdae Observatory - 'the oldest in the Orient' proclaims the guidebook, although to be honest, it's not much to look at during the daytime. As we were leaving and had walked some distance , the lights came on and made it look quite wonderful, but we were late for our ride home by this time and were too rushed to go back to take a shot.

On our way to the museum we'd passed the 'Anapji Pond' area, which was an artificially created pond or lake in landscaped surroundings. Apparently it's beautiful in the summer but I don't think the winter season does it any favours as it seems rather bleak. We didn't go in.

Our final act of sightseeing in Gyeongju was to get lost. With no-one around to ask, we ended up trekking off in the direction we hoped was towards the city centre, but there were few clues to give this away. After going down and doubling back along a path through what seemed to be a very poor and haphazard area of Korean houses, we started to see lights in the distance as we went through a field beyond. As the path turned through some buildings at the far side of the fields, we were greeted to the sight of a busy road and neon lights out into the distance, and after a day of wide open spaces and not many people, I felt like a man walking out of the desert and back into civilisation.

The museum cost 1,000 won
(about 54 pence) to enter and was really good value, but Anapji - which would only have taken us about fifteen minutes to walk round and wasn't very interesting given the season, was the same price. Cheomseongdae Observatory was 500 won - but it was a little bizarre given that you could walk within 10 meters of it for free. Most of the temples we'd visited the day before we around 4,000 won each - although a couple were cheaper. So, Gyeongju was a really cheap place to visit, although in the context of the pricing some places were much better value than others.

This was our last full day in Gyeongju and the next day we would head off back to Busan in the morning. Before I came I'd imagined Gyeongju, the capital of the ancient Silla Kingdom, to be like Nara in Japan - an ancient yet thriving city punctuated with scattered temples and historical sights, but it turned out that the Mongols had destroyed Gyeongju when they invaded and there wasn't much left of the old palaces and settlement in the central district. In the Museum there was a scale model of the old city, and an aerial shot of the geography today - it was mostly fields.

I never saw Gyeongju the city, whatever that is, and while I enjoyed my tour of Korean history - which I knew little about prior to this - I was only too glad to get back to civilisation. I realised that while I'm still drawn to Japan partly through an interest in Japanese history, the Korea I like is not the historical one but rather the one represented by the bright lights of Busan.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Village

On the morning of our third day we walked to the nearby 'Gyeongju Folk Art-Craft Village', a sprawling series of traditionally-styled buildings selling a variety of arts and crafts, although with the local region being famous for its pottery, this was particularly featured. While nobody appeared to actually live in the village, a few houses appeared to be private so I wasn't certain. In any case, it was more in line with what I'd expected Wolseong Yangdong Village to be, but had turned out not to.

While a couple of the shopkeepers were very polite, being extremely keen to sell something on a quiet winter day with not many visitors, a couple seemed to cross the line in their eagerness - one advising us that we shouldn't waste our time walking round the rest of the shops only to have to come back to hers at the end. Well thanks, but we'll make that decision ourselves.

We stumbled upon a large building with little to give away its purpose save for a small sign outside proclaiming that pottery was being made inside and to please come in. So we did, and watched as one of two potters performed their craft. Shortly after walking in, a Korean woman descended on us - presumably a curator of some kind - and launched into an English dialogue that made me feel like Tom Hanks in Volunteers when he meets the female sidekick of the local warlord. That's as much as I'll say about that - you'll either get the reference or you won't. While a little bit of effort is appreciated on my part, I don't think my wife appreciates being ignored as if she were Chinese or Japanese.

I asked if it was OK to take pictures - I was a bit paranoid after our experiences the day before - but I forgot myself when we were guided into another building nearby housing old pottery, and just as I was about take a photograph, our guide let out an alarmed 'No no no, no photo', and we were right back where we were at Bulguksa. I just can't figure it out to be honest - is it that they don't want photos of their history taken as it dilutes the experience for people who make the journey in person, or is it that they're afraid that flash photography will possibly harm in some small way what's on display? If it's the former then I'm sorry for them, and if it's the latter then just tell people not to use flash photography (it's not as if it's needed with most modern digital cameras anyway and mine's no exception). Oddly enough, later in the day we'd be at a proper museum with much older exhibits and they had signs up everywhere saying 'no flash photography', but people were otherwise taking photos without incident. While they make some efforts, often the tourist experience in Korea seems a little jarring.

I was getting to the point of being a little tired with pushy shopkeepers and photo-fatwas so we ate lunch and left - I never did get back to buy any traditional Korean craftwork.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Three Barbecues: A Blackened Comedy

A feature of the 'Pension' we were staying in was that there was a barbecue included with our room and the owners would cook for us one evening if we bought the meat. Having bought meat from the local mini-mart when we first arrived, we returned from our temple dash on the second day and asked the owners. We were given a choice of cooking upstairs on our balcony, or outside the basement area, which was still exposed to the elements, but afforded a little more shelter. We wisely chose the latter, though whether the whole barbecue idea was a good one is another matter.

So it was that in freezing temperatures, we stood - as it was too cold to sit - sucking in smoke and eating meat with sauce wrapped in vegetable leaves, a style of food Koreans call '쌈' (ssam). We drank wine to try and take the chill from the night-air, or perhaps just to ignore it, while I occasionally placed my hand above the barbecue for warmth. Our host cooked and ate a little with us, leaving us from time to time in order to attend to another barbecue happening outside one of the ground-floor apartments somewhere above us.

While we weren't the only crazy guests then having a barbecue below zero, this fortunately isn't a normal Korean cultural activity. Interesting though it was, it's an experience I'm in no hurry to repeat.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Raiders of the Shaolin Temple

We had planned to spend our first full day in the Gyeongju area visiting some of the local landmarks, mostly temples. Given that these were quite geographically dispersed, and in fact, not easy to get to given Buddhist tendencies to build in remote and mountainous areas, we were faced with the challenge of how to get around. A variety of sightseeing coach routes were available, but we really weren't sure about trekking around with a large group of other people and to a coach operator's schedule. The Pension owners told us they had an arrangement with a local taxi driver, and the upshot was we hired him to drive us around for the day for 100,000 Won - about £55 - which seemed a pretty good deal.

Our driver also turned out to be a registered guide to our first location, Bulguksa, a nea
rby temple dating back to 751 A.D. which was not only famous in Korea, but also became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. So he gave us a bit of a tour as well as taking pictures of us both, which turned out to be an added benefit of hiring him. It was very bright and sunny but terribly cold, so there weren't many other people at Bulguksa. While it must be a very beautiful place in the spring and autumn, it was nice that the place wasn't overcrowded because it felt more spiritual and I could take nicer photos.

Now this is where I ran into a bit of a problem. Or rather, I had a run in with a group of Koreans while wandering on my own. There's a rule in Korea that you don't take photos of the statues of Buddha inside certain temple buildings, and signs in Korean and English state "No Photos" at the doorways. I respect the rule. But standing about 50 meters away from a particular building trying to get a general shot of a courtyard with a small temple building in the centre I was suddenly accosted by said Koreans whose leader kept repeating the phrase "No Photos!" I wasn't too impressed with this particularly given the fact that because I was taking the photo from such a distance and at an angle it was highly unlikely that anything inside the temple would be visible, and certainly not the statue of Buddha.

So I launched into a futile attempt at defending myself, pointing to the building in the best sign language I could muster and indicating I knew very well that photos weren't permitted inside the temple but we were outside and far away. He replied to my international attempts at communication with his own - the internationally recognisable smug smile of a self-appointed superior. He repeated "No Photos!" a few more times and I was half-a-second away from advising a short course of attempted asexual reproduction to him when I wisely thought better of it. Instead I opted to try and explain my position quickly in English which I knew he wouldn't understand and I thought would irritate him. He and his little lynch mob then walked off, laughing.

Paranoia inevitably dictates I conclude that had I been Korean, they'd have left me alone.

I hadn't given much thought to the whole business of Buddha photos before, but had assumed it had religious reasons. So I was surprised to discover shortly afterwards in the nearby gift shop all manner of photographs of Bulguksa's Buddhas available for purchase. So, perhaps the photo rule was really about not disturbing worshippers, because otherwise the whole thing was completely hypocritical.

Anyway, my experience of Bulguksa was somewhat soured, and
Buddhism and Korea didn't earn themselves any points either.


Very far up a mountain close to Bulguksa lies the Seokguram Grotto, an artificial cave into which beautifully carved figures of Buddha amongst others. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the authorities are so concerned about protecting the grotto that a glass window now separates it from the outside world and a security guard watches the visitors as they pass. Photos are forbidden although the Wikipedia page has one.

I don't know how it came about, but there are slates available which mainly international visitors write various thoughts, messages and prayers on. There wasn't much else so see though.

It was terribly windy and what I'll remember more than anything is how blue my fingers went as I
battled to take pictures of the views from the mountain. It's truly remarkable to see the mountains in the valley below and realise how much higher up you are.

King Munmu's Tomb
When King Munmu died he wanted his ashes scattered at sea - result, underwater tomb. In truth there wasn't much to see here but the beach was nice and the surf spectacular.

Gameunsaji Temple Site
Next it was on to this temple site, though there's little of the temple actually left now, save for twin pagodas, one of which was being repaired. Next to the pagodas stands a large tree, which our guide told us was the local 'village tree', a central part of shaman rituals.

Our third temple of the day, Golgusa, is quite famous for the martial arts practices of its monks - so much so that it had been featured in a TV programme back in the UK. The monks perfect their skills in the mountainous terrain and sometimes in small area in front of one of the temples, though there was no sign of life when we were there. Natural caves in the mountainside house small temples and high up in the cliffs is the Maayeyeoraejwasang Buddha statue carved into the rock. I actually climbed up to it - no mean feat on a somewhat average Meniere's day, but by the time I got up there I felt so ill I had to come straight back down - so no close up pictures.

Our final temple of the day (is it possible to get temple fatigue?) was Girimsa, which used to be so large Bulguksa was a subsidiary temple, but now the opposite is the case. We didn't spend long here as our taxi driver had said he would take us to a folk village if we were quick, so we just had a dash around. It was long enough to discover the inevitable vending machines underneath the otherwise beautiful building housing the temple bell. Sometimes I wonder about the whole tourism thing.

The temple was deserted and in a fit of spite and annoyed at the hypocrisy of the 'No Photo' incident earlier in the day, I took a picture inside one of the temple buildings. A minute later my conscience dressed as a Buddhist Monk appeared from another building and hung around us for no definable reason. We left.

Bomun Mulebang-a
On the way to the folk village we briefly stopped off here - the largest waterwheel in Korea. A mill is attached where flour used to be made.

Wolseong Yangdong Village
The final stop of the day was at a traditional Korean folk village, which is to say the architecture has been kept to a 15th to 16th century style - obviously apart from the church which defiantly ruins the view.

The local guidebook says the Wolseong Yangdong "is a folk village designated as Important Folk Materials No. 189". Honestly, I'm not really any the wiser. All the cultural sights in Gyeongju are, by the way, helpfully numbered and categorised in addition to being well signed in Korean, English and Japanese.

The village isn't just a tourist attraction, it's a place where people live, hence the sign outside one house requesting that visitors 'respect our privacy' and the implication that people should turn around and go away was clear. The existence of satellite dishes on the side of the houses and of course the telegraph poles not to mention other trappings of the modern world did little to add to the atmosphere.

One of the more impressive buildings was the clan house of the Yeogang I clan (National Treasure no. 412), but there was little to see inside. With my bad karma seeking me out after earlier Buddhist run-ins, I did however manage to head butt the side of the house extremely hard by walking into an unexpectedly low side-beam, leaving me with a headache for several hours afterwards.

There's something slightly surreal about being chauffeured around in a taxi as your personal transport all day, but it was very convenient, and meant that after our dash round some of the local sights, we could go straight back home for a more relaxing evening, or so I thought...

Friday, January 12, 2007

La Pension des étranges

Of the top ten things that you don't want to hear from the hotel you've just arrived at, the phrase "oh yes, we know about the problem with the sewage smell" must be way up towards the top of that list.

We'd arrived at the place of our honeymoon stay, a small guest-house or apartment complex comprising of separately contained units which inexplicably in Korea are known as "Pensions", though they have nothing to do with old people aside from perhaps, it seems, occasionally smelling like them. As it was, our 'pension' was styled along the lines of a Spanish villa complex, a little further away was an alpine chalet-style 'pension', and various other Western and Korean designs littered the landscape. I use the word 'littered' advisedly, because against a spectacular backdrop of 360 degrees of Korean mountains, it seemed as though the local council planning department - if indeed such entities exist in this country - had done their best to allow the locals to turn the landscape into an architectural zoo that could have been anywhere.

We'd booked a second-floor apartment benefiting from a glass-roofed attic and large balcony which were both too cold to enjoy. The room also proved cold when the heating failed twice. On the plus side, the staff were very helpful - picking us up from the railway station where our taxi had dropped us off - taking us to a local mini-mart to buy some food, and booking taxis for our trips amongst other things. We got a heater when the underfloor pipes failed, and on the third night when the sewage smell became too much again, we were offered another room, which given that we were leaving the next morning seemed too much trouble and we passed on. I suppose you can infer from this that it wasn't bad enough to drive us away, but the problems did spoil our stay even if we saw little purpose in getting angry about it. It was the owners' first year of business - and the new building's first winter of existence, so there were clearly teething problems. Fortunately we spent most of our time out.

On the second night, we shared a barbecue with one of the owners and a member of staff, outside in the freezing temperatures.

Before we left, we filled in a four-page feedback survey, and when it came to the key questions of whether we would come back and whether we would recommend the 'pension' to our friends the answers were a harsh but fair 'no'.

For me, there were wider issues in any case. Our 'pension' was in a rural location, something which had not been clear beforehand, and my idea of staying 'in' Korea's ancient capital brought with it images of rubbing shoulders with temples and other pieces of history, whereas in fact the closest I got to history at the 'pension' were some run-down Korean houses amongst the nearby fields and a forty-year old tractor parked by the side of our wall.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Wedding Date

Preparation and Waiting
The date for the wedding ceremony finally arrived on Sunday, and in the sense that I felt it was winding my Korean family up ever more tightly it couldn't come soon enough. Although scheduled for 13:30, my partner needed to arrive at the wedding hall by 09:30 and myself by 11:00, so we travelled together with my partner's best friend who was coming along to help out with the preparations.

As the actual process of changing into my suit and having make-up applied only took about fifteen minutes, there was about three hours of sitting around in a waiting room with other brides and grooms. In the UK the groom normally holds a stag-night, where large quantities of alcohol are consumed alongside riotous behaviour. I don't know about the behaviour, but it seems that in Korea the alcohol consumption is at least at the same level - one of the grooms remained slumped in a chair with his head in his hands for most of the duration. It was better than another of the grooms though, who was simply missing, having never made it to the wedding hall in the first place. Apparently, having second thoughts and doing a runner on the wedding day - something of a Western tradition in itself - is not at all common here, so his family merely suspected he had fallen asleep in a spa - which is where Korean men usually try to recover on the morning after the night before.

The Guests
Finally, we were ushered upstairs, negotiating crowds of guests for the various weddings that were starting soon or had just finished. My partner, in her wedding dress by this point, cut an unlikely figure battling through a sea of ageing Koreans in grey before we successfully commandeered an elevator to the wedding hall floor, where we were guided into a side room to wait.

Pictures were taken, and a man with a video camera ran around taking twenty-second shots from various angles leading me to the conclusion that the wedding video was going to resemble some avant-guard independent film when we saw it. The Korean Family began to turn up in suits and traditional costume for the women.

Before long I was told to go outside the room to greet arriving guests as is tradition with my Korean Parents - while my partner stayed inside the room. So we stood in front of four or five large arrangements of flowers on six-foot stands which carried various messages - I learned later that rather than being merely decorative they were in fact specifically sent for our wedding from various companies and organisations who Korean Father was connected with. Guests were greeted with rounds of 'Nice to meet you. Thank you (for coming)' in Korean until Korean Mother told me to drop the 'nice to meet you' bit and just go with the thank-yous. Most of the Koreans were fairly friendly though I guess one or two didn't know how to deal with me and blanked me instead.

I'd had no idea of course who was invited to the wedding, though I gathered it would be basically a mix of the (very) extended family and former police colleagues of Korean Father. What came as a bit of a shock though was guest demographic I was presented with; it seemed as though 99% of the guests were over fifty. In fact, as my eyes probed deeper down the large hallway towards guests arriving for other weddings, the demographic held out. Korean weddings, it seems, really are for Korean parents and their generation.

As our guests arrived they deposited envelopes with gifts of money at a side-desk. Some people didn't come - we had an eventual turnout of about 350 - but they just sent money instead. The money brought in - which goes to the parents not the children - covered the cost of the wedding arrangements although insofar as Korean Parents attended other relatives' and friends' weddings giving generously the whole world of monetary wedding gifts does not sound like a profitable enterprise.

The guests were seated in the wedding hall and watching a DVD slide-show of the wedding pictures we'd had taken a few weeks earlier.

The Western Wedding
At the designated time I walked in with my partner to the accompaniment of some indeterminate tune, while disco lights I hadn't previously noticed played their colours around the walls. Normally, the Korean father would have 'given-away' the bride as per Western ceremonies, but since I had no family present this was dispensed with. We walked down the isle towards the front while a heavy dry-ice mist streamed out of holes in the steps at the front before arriving in before our master of ceremonies - no priest or alter here of course. And that was kind of that. No rings were exchanged, there were a few 'yeses', some advice I didn't understand about trust and commitment was dispensed, we shouted something at the guests to much laughter, and we walked back down to the end of the isle - at which point we unceremoniously stopped to walk back to the front informally to have more pictures taken.

So it was very quick, non-religious, and because of the language barrier I was largely oblivious to the proceedings.

The Korean Wedding
Our wedding package included a Korean Wedding option in addition to the Western Wedding, so next it was off to a small traditional Korean room with mats on the floor and a small table to one side. We got changed into Korean costume, Korean Parents sat themselves behind the table, and there was much bowing. My partner held small cups and I poured some kind of Korean alcohol from something that looked suspiciously like an old copper kettle. The alcohol was then offered to, and consumed by the parents. After this, dates and chestnuts were thrown which my wife and I had to catch in a cloth which we held between us. The number caught indicates the number of children we would have. Unfortunately I turned out to be rather good at this so apparently we will have twelve children...

After the Korean Parents, close relatives followed and various bits of advice were again dispensed. There was more bowing and more alcohol was poured. Some more money envelopes were left, but this time they for us. And that's your Korean wedding. Somehow I'd expected a crowd of onlookers but it was in fact a very private affair which goes some way towards explaining why people perhaps prefer the Western style wedding these days.

Ceremonies finally over, it was up to the top of the building with its much admired view of Busan Docks, where a running buffet was feeding the guests of several weddings. We circulated around the tables we could definitely identify as seating our guests, once again saying our thank-yous and goodbyes in some cases. We'd actually missed some guests already as they had arrived straight from the Western wedding some thirty minutes earlier. It probably wasn't a bad thing though given that we didn't recognise most of the guests anyway.

When we left we noticed that the sign outside written on a paper-noticeboard proclaimed that this was the the buffet (amongst others) for the marriage of 'Kim ......' (my wife) and 'Kim Yeonggug' (me) - the latter translating as 'Kim UK'. So there you are - I am now known as 'Kim UK'. Realising his error, the man on the door prevented us from taking a photo by tearing off the sheet of paper, but he didn't count on my partner's best friend snatching it away from him. He wisely gave up at this point - he wouldn't have got it back.

We had planned to catch a train to Gyeongju, where we were honeymooning for a few days, but it took two hours, so Korean Mother had hired a taxi to take us on what would be a fifty minute journey by road instead. With some final goodbyes then, we were finally in the sanctuary of our car and off on our way.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Photographer

When I was told that we'd have an album as part of our wedding package, I wrongly assumed that this would comprise of a series of photographs taken during our wedding day. This is what wedding albums are in the UK - but it is not how things are done in Korea, where you take your wedding pictures before the event...

The day came when we had to travel to the other side of Busan to have our wedding photographs taken. Our schedule there began at 8am, requiring us to set off an hour earlier. Once there, we were sat down and makeup was applied over a period of an hour - to both me and my partner, which was a bit of a surprise. When we were done, we were then measured up for our first in a series of four outfits we would wear.

Once fitted into my first outfit - a long-tailed black suit - it was into the photography room which comprised of eight "sets" - basically different backgrounds for the photographs. The photographer proceeded to guide us into various poses, which in my case, involved a great deal of hand gesturing on his part, though he knew the words 'left', 'right' and 'stop' which helped.

And so the day unfolded. Change clothes, possibly apply more makeup, go back into the photography room, pose in a series of unlikely ways, and head back to the changing room for another round. The photo shoots were long, the various bits of waiting around inbetween sometimes longer, and the whole thing was wrapped up by two thirty when we chose out five photos we particularly liked, apparently for framing.

My outfits - which there was no choice of - were the long-tailed suit, another more conventional black suit, a Liberace style white suit which made me feel like a pimp, and finally, the piece de resistance - a traditional Korean costume complete with hat which balanced precariously on my head while squashing my ears with its considerable weight. The memorable backgrounds were a garden (inside of course), what appeared to be a girl's bedroom complete with teddy bears (slightly disturbing) and some kind of large stone wall affair which resembled some kind of dungeon (downright disturbing).

Now much as I would have liked to have taken photos of the day as it unfolded, I wisely decided that since I'd be changing frequently and moving around all day it would be best not to, so the only evidence I'll have in the end are what will be included in the album when it comes in a few weeks. It's tradition that the bride-to-be has a helper with her to fiddle with her clothing and ensure that she is looking her best, but while one of my partners friends volunteered, a staff member was provided for this purpose and the company was quite keen that we didn't bring anyone else with us - presumably to avoid any potential disruptions to their production-line-like system. But I wish there had been someone to take private photos of us because they would have been priceless.

We had to travel home through the subway with our makeup still on, which was rather embarrassing, and once home it took me about 20 minutes to get it off with a special solution. The irony is, they'll photoshop the images anyway for that final finish, and neither of us will look like we do in real-life anyway.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Shui shuo wo bu zai hu

My girlfriend's family have arranged a wedding ceremony for January, but before I'd left the UK I'd had to arrange to get a certificate of no impediment from my local registry office to prove I was eligible to marry. As things turned out, this meant getting a document that would give us an actual window of one month once it arrived, which it finally did at the end of October.

Now it's a fact that there were other problems in the meantime and the upshot of them all was that it was only by the second week of December that we were ready to submit the final paperwork, which we did, alone, in a dull local council office on a cold nondescript day. With little bureaucracy, and even less ceremony, it was done, and we were legally married in Korea. Then we went to the post office to send some Christmas presents back home, before returning to the apartment for an evening's trading. These are the legal necessities, but it was an incredibly empty experience and not what I ever expected for this day. For us though, it was the way things had to be done because the certificate of no impediment had a limited period of validity. With Korean couples, the norm is to go off on honeymoon and have the parents take care of the paperwork.

Friday, January 05, 2007

The Wedding Planner

I'd been here for two weeks when Korean Mother rushed us off to see a wedding planner at the local newspaper building, which curiously enough, seemed to also house a wedding hall business.

Much negotiation followed as to the composition of the wedding package, most of which I remained oblivious to. Half-way through the proceedings, we were whisked upstairs where we were shown three different wedding halls. One appeared to have been designed by Liberace, another by John Travolta while he was still in his Saturday Night Fever days (while the disco lights were impressive, I remained perplexed as to their application to a wedding ceremony). After choosing the least stylised (i.e. visually offensive) hall, which also happened to be the smallest and cheapest, we were taken to the top of the building to the banqueting area
where our host made a point of pointing out it's impressive scenic view... of Busan Docks. Well, whatever floats your boat I guess. In a city benefiting from many impressive views, dining over an outlook of several hundred shipping containers would not have been something I would have chosen to highlight.

Having failed to upgrade the provisionally agreed package over a drink, we then went back downstairs and into a side room where yet more discussions followed and we were shown some Korean costumes that we might wear. The conversation went back and forth, and although my girlfriend gave an occasional commentary it didn't seem to do justice to the quantity of the discussion. I began to feel as though we were being held hostage until we agreed to some upgrades.

Not that the 'basic' package we walked out with was in any way egalitarian. Aside from the actual wedding hall and banquet arrangements, we came away with an agreement to have an accompanying wedding album, and a series of facials and massages leading up to the actual day itself.

I walked away somewhat jaded by the experience. While Koreans might ultimately judge the wedding to be simplistic, by Western standards it was by no means a small affair.

Wedding Crashers

I came to Korea with my girlfriend and we planned to get married. I wanted a quiet ceremony because none of my very small circle of family and friends are able to attend, I wish to embarrass myself in front of as few people as possible if I have a Meniere's attack, and I didn't want it to turn into a circus that would leave everyone more stressed than they already were. So Korean Parents invited 600 people.

They say that girls start planning their wedding from the age of five, but while I didn't start thinking about such things until I was about twenty-five, I still developed some ideas of my own about the way I'd like the ceremony to be, the rings and other arrangements. Of course, in marrying someone there must be compromise, but the problem was that that I ended up not getting a vote. In Korea, parents organise the ceremony and so it was out of my hands from the start.

While I can tell you that the arrangements have been fraught with tension, even I don't know the full story because my partner chose not to tell me the details of much of what has been said. Knowing the
'Korean dramas' which unfold regularly in family life here I have the notion that it's been something of a war zone. My Korean Parents just don't understand why I appear to be such a problem. Of course it was because it was meant to be my day, and somewhere along the line it became theirs. This is just the way things go in Korea.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Under Two Flags

Korean flags have appeared all the way along Busan's major road routes during the last week. I've no idea what this is all about but it all feels vaguely Orwellian. I guess a Korean flag company has done very well out of it though - unless of course, it turns out they were made in China.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Blind Date

Korean Brother had a blind date today. Like apparently so many such dates in Korea, this one was arranged through extended family connections. Any hopes he had though of keeping the date low-key evaporated when the girl expressed the wish to meet in a hotel coffee shop, as opposed to a coffee shop elsewhere. The cultural significance of this difference was lost on me, but it seems to be the case that hotel coffee shops are seen as being a more formal environment where a meeting between two members of the opposite sex can perhaps seem more businesslike. My initial thought as a Westerner though on hearing the proposed venue, was that she was potentially planning ahead in a quite forward fashion... my mistake.

There could be little doubt however with respect to her desire to bring her sister along as a chaperone, which while not unheard of here was perhaps a little unusual, and certainly beyond Korean Brother's experience; he was left scrambling around to put a more formal outfit together before going off to a spa to get thoroughly cleaned up.

He called by at our apartment after the date, yet again mysteriously arriving just before a scheduled pizza delivery - perhaps he's not the only member of the family who's psychic. Now I'm told he's a very fashionable guy, but the long-tailed jacket, mismatched suit trouser fusion undertaker-pop-star look solicited an unintended 'oh my God' from me when I opened the door. Still, it doesn't seem to have had the same effect on the girl, as apparently the date was reasonably satisfactory despite the chaperone loudly slurping her coffee all the way through it.

Oh, and the girl turned up in blue jeans...

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year

Despite a general awakening at six in the morning, there wasn't enough bathroom time for the gathered clan, which left us rushing towards Haeundae Beach with no guarantee of arriving in time.

I had no preconceptions about the 'Sunrise Festival', so was surprised to discover just how many people were out on the street as we made the short distance to the seafront road we needed to take. Coaches parked in the road, and illuminated boats headed out to sea where those on board could enjoy a better view of the expected sunrise. But some people were walking away from the seafront, and glancing at the horizon I began to suspect the reason why - an area of the horizon was obscured by cloud and I suspected that was where the sun was due to rise.

So we raced through the crowds - most of whom had probably been up all night as is the way in Korea - as though we were late for an evacuation, reaching Haeundae Beach about two minutes before the expected event at seven-thirty. But it seemed we were a little early in any case, sunrise was a few minutes later. Not that it mattered - it was cloudy.

At 07:34 the appropriate part of horizon was still obscured when fireworks were released, a boat shot water into the air, and thousands of balloons were released by the crowd. A cheer of sorts went up, although somewhat half-hearted - as you'd expect under the circumstances. Some people began to file away, but the rest of us stayed - the clouds were sufficiently sparse as to offer the tantalising hope that we might yet see what we came for.

Yachts sailed passed with New Year messages, an impossibly long kite flew over the bay, helicopters from the TV stations flew overhead filming us, and I've-Got-A-Jetski-Kim raced up and down the bay for reasons I can only guess at.

And we were finally rewarded half-an-hour later as the sun broke through the cloud-cover to finally reward us with a beautiful sunrise which was all the more appreciated for the warmth it brought with it. The tide seemed to be coming in, so it wasn't a moment too soon either.

The excitement over, we filed off the beach passing the KBS TV crew as we went. I was sorely tempted to hang around to see if they'd snag me for an interview but my partner was rushing away at some speed so there went that probably ill-advised plan. Hungry, we found another pastry store like Paris Baguette, but fortunately not Paris Baguette, one of a chain called Tours Les Jours, where we bought some breakfast, eating it hungrily on the way back to the apartment.

Rushing to catch up with the group after stopping to take some more photographs of Gwangalli Bridge, I managed to fall on some steps and twist my ankle thus getting my New Year off to a good start. Why I think I can behave as if I haven't got Meniere's Disease sometimes I don't know. My injury only got worse as the day wore on as well. They don't tell you when you start
blogging of the stupid things you'll start to do to get that perfect shot for your photo library.

Back at the apartment, I remembered that we were supposed to have a traditional Korean New Year's breakfast called '떡국' (ddeoggug - pronounced 'dug-goog') - a rice-cake soup which in this case was embellished with egg and seaweed.

Now thoroughly stuffed, we made our way home until next year. But the day's schedule was not yet completed. Korean children are expected to see their parents on New Year's Day if they can, so immediately afterwards we went to their apartment and shortly after that went out to a restaurant. I was assured if we did this they'd leave us alone for the rest of the day.

We got home and slept, uninterrupted, and without the feeling of being in a cooking appliance this time.

새해 복 많이 받으세요! ^^

Which means (if you've got Korean fonts installed!), "Hoping you'll receive lots of good fortune in the New Year".

New Year's Eve

We were invited to the Haeundae area to stay overnight at a friends' apartment again, this time for the New Year Sunrise Festival held on Haeundae Beach.

Shortly after arriving a meal was cooked, and the ten adults and four children present settled down to eat. In typical Korean fashion, the meal began while one of the women still cooked in the kitchen, and two of the men grappled with a portable barbecue, fortunately at the opposite end of the table to where I was sitting.

Sunrise at seven-thirty meant we had to be up at six, but we also needed to stay up until midnight to see in the New Year officially, so with some time to kill we went for a walk along the seafront before finding our way to a PC Bang where we played Kartrider - though unfortunately it wasn't 'affiliated' so we didn't score extra points or get any extra equipment for the duration. But Nexon were running a 50% more points promotion to maintain punters' interest on a day they really should have been doing something else. My partner fell asleep at her computer and her friend was so tired she slumped in her chair but still consistently finished above me in the races.

Later, back at the apartment, where they were still eating, I was introduced to 'Korean Poker' (also known as 'Go Stop'). Unfortunately it appeared to have more rules than the Inland Revenue and after several years dealing with them my tolerance for such things is almost non-existent. Having unsuccessfully tried to hide a slightly pained look from my face after winning my second game and not understanding why, my hosts proceeded to play amongst themselves with myself gladly watching. As cards were disposed of they were thrown down onto the 'table' (OK - the mattress in this case) with such force that they make a slapping noise, not to mention giving your upper arm muscles a good workout. It seems Koreans like this in-game explosion of violence and there were smiles and frustration all round. It was very Korean. Normally Stop-Go is played for 100 won per point and is a very popular form of gambling here.

Midnight came and my partner and I kissed in what should have been a private moment, but we were seen and there was much commotion - such public displays are not common in Korea. Our hosts had another friend staying with them, and she
excitedly invited her husband who was also present - but had just emerged from the bathroom - to mimic the gesture, as 'that's what they do in the West'. Instead she got the towel thrown in her face - and I guess you could say that that's what they do in Korea. It was playful - but nevertheless the message was clear.

Many apartments in Korea have underfloor heating. Our hosts left it on overnight which might have seemed like a good idea at the time given the cold temperatures outside, but it was so hot sleeping on a mattress on the floor that I dreamt I was trapped in a microwave.