rt2k6 - Korea to Britain the hard way

2006-02-27 12:47

Beijing Tag

Overnight train from Dandong was bu hao - 15 hours on a narrow, hard bunk with no headroom. Lights out at 10pm sharp, and back on at 6. Deb had a somewhat better deal on the bottom bunk as she could sit up if she wanted to.

Met Paul and Ossie in the Beijing City Central Youth Hostel, had much-needed showers and emailed Stu and Toni to meet them in the middle of Tiananmen Square, but wait we did, and show up they did not. Lots of Chinese people wanted their photo taken with us, though. Wandered the hutongs south of the square, had lunch, left a message for them at their hostel, and repaired to the bar of the BCC to meet Paul and Ossie after their 5-a-side football match against some russians. Turns out they lost 30something-10.

We loitered around waiting, but eventually had to go downstairs to book into a room - upon doing so it turns out S&T had come here and asked the front desk, who didn't know about us since we hadn't yet booked in, and left without checking the bar. Hm.

Thence to a place called the Den near the Worker's STadium, where we watched the olympic Ice Hockey final in a bar crowded with Finns and Swedes; followed by the 6 Nations Ireland v Wales. I foolishly bet against Ireland, who won very convincingly, and as punishment will have to eat something nasty, of Ossie's choosing, at some point during the trip. The only real caveat is that it has to be a bona fide foodstuff. Yummeh.

This morning I check my mail again, and it appears that Stu didn't actually get my email about Tiananmen square - he suspects gmail might be intercepted or somesuch, which doesn't sound at all unlikely. Foiled by the Great Firewall Of China!


2006-02-25 09:16


Owing to a sudden flush of abject stupidity we almost missed the boat - we got on the Cheonan subway, not the Incheon subway on the same line, and then missed the transfer, and then transferred to a different line, and then gave up and got a taxi at great expense, and resulting in a stroppy phone call from the Dandong Ferry Company asking where in the nine hells we were. But almost isn't quite, and we did get on the boat after all.

A big rusty old clanger, but sound enough, and a smooth trip in relative comfort excepting the fact that koreans like their rooms superheated to about 40 degrees centigrade, so we had to go out into the icy wind on deck every hour or so to cool down. Economy class isn't all that bad - a big open-plan room partitioned off into groups of mats for about 8-15 people, marae-style, with one TV per partition. Ours broke down a few times, but I didn't much care since all the others wanted to watch were korean soaps and korean variety shows and koreans winning the gold medal in the speedskating, over and over and over again. I swear, I've seen every race a korean has come first in ten times if I've seen it once. And I've seen the one where they beat Apolo Ohno about a hundred times. I did catch the last 30 secoinds of Real Madrid v Arsenal, and Arsenal actually won, so I suppose it wasn't a complete dead loss. We shared with the Ki family, whose son Taemin (which coincidentally is the same name as my friend Yun Daehee's son) speaks decent english.

Those travelling on the Oriental Pearl II with us were generally a pretty hard-looking bunch. Mostly Koreans or Korean-Chinese from what conversation I could overhear, and they look like they've had tough lives. Some had electronic goods or big packages of stuff obviously for sale in Dandong; others seemed to be travelling with clothes and little else. An old lady on the bus from terminal to ferry in front of me was one of these last, and she cried silently all the way.

The Dandong Ferry doesn't actually get into Dandong - in the words of my dear friend Johnica, "it drops you off in the middle of butt-fuck Egypt", which I take to mean nowhere. The taxi scamsters were upon us the moment we existed the terminal, but Ki Taemin came to the rescue, and he and his mum found out the way to the bus terminal in Beijer (phonetic, since it appears on no map I can find). Though we'd agreed on a price beforehand, the driver still tried to con us into parting with USD10, or KRW10,000 or CNY80, for a ten minute taxi ride, complaining that Chinese money wasn't good enough. Not happening, pal.

The bus from Beijer to Dandong was about 90 minutes to cover 36km over mostly unsealed roads - there sure were a lot of eathworks set up around the place, presumably rebuilding the road, but nobody was actually working on them. All the houses are blocky red-brick jobbies, put up cheaply and falling down quickly. The only thing this part of China appears to produce are smoke, of brown, black, grey and yellow varieties; bricks (red) and rubble.

The overnight express train we found out about on the internet does in fact exist, and we have beds on it, so all going according to plan we might actuall make it to Beijing when we said we would. Don't come to rely on this, people.

Dandong isn't much to care about - it's grey, dirty, crumbling and fucking cold. Doesn't look too different than North Korea across the river, though there are people on the waterfront doing stuff - dancing and beating drums, selling North Korean money and other such tat, and hauling the odd crab or fish out of utterly filthy grey water, right by a sewage outlet. On the North Korean side we saw two people in a rowboat, a couple of people patrolling the far bank, and someone arcwelding. No lights or cars, no smoke coming from the chimneys, nobody riding what is probably the most desolately-located ferris wheel in the world. My camera is still on the blink, but Deb has photos which I'll nick at some point.

On the way back from the river to the railway station it started snowing, but a smart kid showed us the way to a PC room, from which I type this missive. Will be on the train in an hour or so, and thence to Beijing.


2006-02-23 12:13

So far, so good

We are now officially homeless, jobless bums.

Some months ago, we foresaw that there would be difficulties in getting ourselves extricated from jobs, etc, and planned out in some detail just how we would go about it. I am pleased to say that so far, excepting delays, everything (absolutely everything) we have planned has worked out in our favour, and now that it's been successful, I'm happy to reveal a few juicy bits of ... um, common sense. Well, not really juicy.

Living in Asia is about learning how to manage people, and the most important aspect of managing people in Asia is learning to manage face. The Korean word is 'kibun', in maori it's 'mana', in Cory Doctorow's world it's 'whuffie'. Kibun, but most curiously use of our own, rather than the massaging of someone else's, has been the key to our success in this particular obstacle course. Throughout the year we did any and all things which were asked of us - working overtime, working stupid hours, doing a camp between Christmas and New Year, unpaid work and all such stuff which goes along with being an ESL teacher. This laid a groundwork of good faith. Good faith goes a long way here; but while it trumps a certain amount of malice and general obstinance, it unfortunately does not trump plain dumb incompetence, which exists in boatloads everywhere, but seemingly in armada-loads in Asia. I could rant here about the failings of kibunocracies as opposed to meritocracies, but 100,000,000 other arrogant honkies have ranted about that already and it's old hat. What does trump incompetence is the quality which I refer to as Not Being Completely Fucking Useless, which more polite people probably call competence. In a kibunocracy, competence isn't enough to get you what you need; you need kibun to back your competence. Without kibun, no matter how right you are, nobody will believe a single thing you say, or even bother to try and verify what you tell them, just on the off-chance you might be Not Completely Fucking Useless. Good faith, in this case, bought us an amount of kibun - a microscopic amount by Korean standards, but in conjunction with a certain amount of Not Completely Fucking Uselessness, it's been enough.

A side note here: I am extremely intolerant of incompetence, even in small amounts.

So Deb and I took as a given that someone, probably multiple people in multiple different positions, would fuck something up due to Being A Useless Bastard, and make our life tricky, so we came up with a plan which had multiple levels of Competence Redundancy - we figured out exactly what needed to be done, and how to do it, so that when Useless Bastards Fucked Shit Up due to Being Completely Fucking Useless, we could just tell them how it was supposed to go down and hopefully they'd manage it on the second or fifth try. This sounds arrogant, but as it happened we were absolutely right.

We knew we were owed nine working days leave, and we also knew that there would be a week or so at the very tail end of the contract when we would likely be called back to work, for the 'winter term' which is all of a week long, plus some admin and so on. We aimed, as any sane and sensible person would, to take this hard up against the end of our contract, and the key to securing this was the surprise decision that Stu and Toni would come to visit during exactly that period. As strangers to Korea, the onus was on us to provide them the best possible experience; essentially getting that time off work became a matter of preserving our kibun as hosts and friends. Under other circumstances, I suspect that we'd have been asked to make exceptions for special cases - oh, just come in for a half day; just come to this one meeting; this one class ... but under these circumstances, to ask us to work would be to insult our guests, and to insult our honourable guests would be worse than insulting us, so nary a peep did we hear from the bosses. Step one: secure the leave. Achieved.

Once leave was secured, the trick was to convince the Office of Education that we should be able to a) leave our jobs and home and korea before the end of our contract, during the time that the leave was running; and b) that we should be all paid out before same. Thinking logically about it, there is absolutely no gain to the employer by NOT granting these two particular boons, but as with any deviation from procedure, it requires a little bit more activation energy. Lacking enough direct kibun for this, we leveraged our situation as People Who Have Done Stuff For No Tangible Benefit in the past, and called on the guy for whom we'd done a fair bit of said Stuff - Mr Lee, the VP of one of the main skools, who has been friend, advisor and interpreter this whole time. Mr Lee has absolutely shitloads of kibun, and a conservative application of it by him on our behalf was sufficient to get an in-principle agreement to leave and get paid early. Step two: secure assurances permitting our timely release. Achieved.

All going fine, right? Getting tickets and visas was relatively easy, and the only real incompetence involved was our own - not turning up at the embassy on time, forgetting passports, etc. You'll be pleased to know I'm as intolerant of incompetence in myself as I am in others.

The crunch really came when we got paid. We did in fact get paid, on time, just as Mr Lee had organised, but (as always) there was a hitch. We were paid our final pay and bonuses, but not paid for the return portion of our plane tickets - ~KRW900,000 each, or about a month of good livin' in southeast asia. This was explicitly Not Acceptable, and just as we had predicted, it was the result of a someone Being Completely Fucking Useless. But we had predicted it, and were prepared for it, and consequently called Mr Lee and asked him to tell the supervisor responsible for the payment to pay the amount of the tickets, as per the receipts we'd already provided them. We needed to close out our bank accounts that day, but as it was only 0900, there was plenty of time to get it all sorted, no worries and no drama.

The catch here is that we'd burned up much of what little kibun we had by asking for the leave during a time when we could conceivably have been called in to work, and asking to leave early, and asking to be paid early. These were all pretty big requests, but they had been granted and, based upon the fact that they'd been granted, we'd made plans which couldn't be changed. So when Mr Lee called back and said that the supervisor had said that the return portion of the ticket was only paid on renewal of the contract, not at the end of it, I really had no choice but to read to him from the contract. It is really quite insulting for someone as humble as me to lecture someone as senior and kibunworthy as Mr Lee in such a way, but the fact remained that I was right.

Our supervisor simply did not know the contract very well, which is Pretty Fucking Useless, but not only that, she hadn't actually bothered to check the fucking thing before stating, as her final word on the matter, that no payment should or would be made. Even when I told them what Article and Section of the contract provided for this payment, they didn't check. This qualifies as Absolutely Rank Fucking Uselessness and if I were king, would be punishable by making the person EAT a copy of the nine-page fucking contract with hot sauce on, using only a teaspoon.

It eventually took six very strongly worded phone calls to Mr Lee, and a threat to get on a bus and go to the supervisor's office with contract in hand and the appropriate clause marked in yellow highlighter, demanding cash payment in full, before the fucking supervisor reached into her drawer and took out the contract, looked at it, and said "Oh yeah, whitey's not so stupid after all." She eventually paid us an amount about KRW35,000 less than we were owed, with no explanation as to the variance, but by this time I'd already wasted an entire day, and was happy to just have it sorted.

All's well that ends well, I suppose. I now have nil to negative kibun in that particular office - so little, in fact, that Mr Lee cancelled the farewell dinner for us. The ridiculous thing is that I was right. I was 100% correct in every detail, and yet because I was arrogant enough to stick to my guns and insist on my full entitlement, my rep is toast.

It's good to be leaving.


Dream Love Chair

While staying at the Samsung Motel in Jonggak, Seoul, Stu and Toni are fortunate enough to have one of these:

FuckMaster 9000

Stu calls it the FuckMaster 9000, but as you can see from the name plate:

Dream Love Chair

its real name is Dream Love Chair. None of us can quite figure out how it's supposed to function, but nevertheless it looks like an awful lot of hard work.

And, yes, this is one of the more perverse things we've seen in Korea.

Addendum: My good mate DirectHex was good enough to point out the instructions for Dream Love Chair.


2006-02-19 16:58

Da Mo

Well, the journey has begun. Our mates Stu and Toni are here from NZ, and we start things off with a trip to Busan, which we'd somehow managed to avoid for three years.

It's now 2300 and Deb is having a shower, after which we will go in search of grilled fishies. Never know how much you miss the sea until you live in the mountains for a year.

The point of today's trip was Hae-In Sa - arguably South Korea's most auspicious buddhist temple, home to the Tripitaka Koreana - the oldest wooden printing blocks in the world, 80-some thousand of them - and a place of remarkable tranquility. We've been there three times.

Sitting on the Dragon Steps around dusk, we were shown by various monks into their dining room, and given a meal, more or less just because we were there at dinner time. No soup, they apologised, because we were the last to arrive. Simple food.

As we were leaving, one of the monks gave me a picture of Da Mo (Bodhidharma), the founder of Chan (Zen), to bring us good luck. The monk had no idea, of course, that we were about to leave on a journey which would take us back to where Da Mo was from, India - he just said that whether we believed or not, it would bring us good luck.

According to wikipedia Da Mo is "depicted as a rather ill-tempered, profusely bearded and wide-eyed barbarian. He is described as "The Blue-Eyed Barbarian" in Chinese texts."

Some would say that's not altogether too different from me.


2006-02-18 01:18

T Minus 41 Days

Today is Saturday January 14, 2006, and we leave in 41 days. We have one more week of work remaining.

I've just finished setting up this site, but as yet there's no real content here.

If you want to know more about where we're going, click the [about] link at top right and follow the links from there.

If you spot any bugs or have any suggestions, click the [link/comment] link to the right.




The Dandong Ferry Company runs three boats per week from Incheon, South Korea to Dandong, China. We'll be taking the one which leaves on Friday, February 24 2006 at 1730 hours. Weather and sea-gods permitting, it'll get us into Dandong 15 hours later on Saturday 25 at about 0830. Intend to spend only one day (possibly one night) in Dandong, then get a train straight to Beijing to meet Stu and Toni.

There are three prices: Deluxe Room, KRW~220,000; Standard Room, KRW~150,000; Economy Room, KRW~120,000. Needless to say, we're going for the cheapest.

Fun fun.


Reliwaiwance on technology

Thiwaszk iwaskz iwa biwad omen. Whiwale cleiwaniwang my liwaptop, IWA skzomehow, deszkpiwate beiwang iwancrediwably ciwareful, miwaniwaged to get some diwamn iwaiwater iwan the skzeyboard.

Now the fucszkiwang a, i iwand w keyskz each do 'iwa', iwand the diwamned s, z and k skzeyskz each do 'skz'. IWA'm goiwang to the skzhop todiway to skzee iwaf IWA ciwan get a piwart, but iwat looskzskz liwaskze IWA miwaght need iwa new liwaptop.


What's this all about, then?

It's a trip from Korea to Britain, by any means other than air.

But why?

The famous answer, sometimes misattributed to Sir Edmund Hillary: Because it's there. Mallory said a few other things, too:

"The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, 'What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?' and my answer must at once be, 'It is no use'. There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behavior of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It's no use."

-- George Leigh Mallory, 1922

These sentiments are as true now as they were then. We're not going to be charting untracked wilderness or discovering new continents, prospecting for wealth, researching hitherto unknown languages or religions. We're not going to be feeding the hungry, curing cancer or bringing about world peace. We certainly aren't going to be making any money, and we probably won't have enough time in any given place to learn any new languages or cultivate our conduct. George continues:

"So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won't see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for."

-- George Leigh Mallory, 1922

'Joy' is a word not commonly used nowadays, outside advertisements for a certain brown, fizzy, caffeinated beverage, and I suppose it's a goal which has always been secondary to more concrete considerations, but joy is to be found in all things. I need to clarify this: joy is not the same as fun, and the state of being joyful is not the same as the state of happiness. Joy is a complex of many different factors, some of which are perhaps not even positive; an aggregate response to something profound. If I understand Mallory's meaning to be akin to Beethoven's meaning, it's the exultation of transcendence.

I'm from a small town in a small country very far removed from the rest of the world. I've felt, and wouldn't be surprised if other New Zealanders have felt like the kid with his nose pressed against the glass, looking at the world out there, but stuck in here. I'm not claiming to be hard done by: New Zealanders are blessed with a beautiful, exciting, spacious, peaceful and comfortably wealthy country, which most people are not. But there's a bizarre sort of inertia when you grow up so far removed from the world; the activation energy required to actually get your arse into gear and leave the place is very high, and to do so on a permanent or semi-permanent basis is much higher. But there's joy in them there hills, and in the rivers and mountains, the cities and slums, the deserts and oceans of the world. There must be.

That world, those mountains and rivers and cities and whatnot, are nothing without inhabitants. People are the catalysts for joy, and also for misery and such. So the joy to be found in travel is in part the understanding of how people work; and further, how the people of a land relate to and integrate with that land. People and cultures and things are only alien outside their proper context, and by entering into their milieu, things about a people which were formerly alien can become mundane. Or at least understandable, on some simplistic, childlike level. Childlike is ok, we all have to start somewhere. Perhaps we'll also bring a little joy to some people on the way.

Why are you going to obscure_or_dangerous_or_otherwise_unlikely_place?

Though not by design, our planned route takes us through almost as many lands and cultures as it's possible to go through. I say it's not by design, but it's not by accident, either. This trip is about experience, and it's about a transition from one stage of our lives to another. There's a concept in biology called 'cline' - the gradual change in an organism over geographical distance. The fundamental principle of a cline is the fact that any two neighboring organisms are fairly similar to one another, but those organisms distant from each other on the cline, while being recognisably the same thing, are radically different.

Using the term loosely, and probably to the horror of population geneticists, it occurs to me that Europe and Asia is positively thick with ethnic, historical, linguistic and cultural clines, and thanks to war, trade and religion, the supercontinent is itself the biggest of all human clines. The places in the world which are obscure, dangerous or unlikely are no less interesting than the places which are easy and friendly, and further, it's precisely because they're interesting, in cline terms or of their own right, that they're dangerous or unlikely. Afghanistan, the ancient buffer between Persia and India; the more recent buffer between the Russian and British Empires, and the current centre of religious/secular conflict in Asia, is perhaps chief amongst these. A nexus of several clines, and also a disruption of clines.