My time in Spain (The Basque Country). The JOB.


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I left for Zarautz in September 2015, my aim to stay for three years working at the Academy of English.Travelling from Manchester to Bilbao on a Sunday morning I landed full of positivity and ambition and that was to continue for a several weeks. My reception was efficient and I was introduced to the owners family but they were typically Basque and cold.

The apartment was large, old fashioned and on the face of it ok but at a cost of €650 a month. The next day was chaotic visiting the town hall, estate agents etc and beginning work at 10:30am. I had no timetable and was told it would evolve over the next two weeks. The apartment turned out to be a death trap with sockets that left the walls and a heating system that was archaic and didn’t work.

Eventually i was teaching 29 hours over 5 days when I’d actually agreed to work 4 days when I left the UK. My timetable included teenagers and adults studying for Cambridge exams and 3 corporate clients. Most of the students were great except the ones who’d studied English in summer camps overseas who were intolerable. They (the minority) constantly questioned me when I corrected their mistakes trying to change my language to fit their grammar rules. At this juncture i have to say they are taught in Basque at school and not in Spanish. My adult students were at a variety of levels but mostly lovely but my favourite work was in the engineering companies where everybody was essentially positive.

I worked with 3 colleagues the mother and daughter from the family and a San Sebastian local. The daughter was lovely if a little distant outside work, the mother was an intolerable control freak who cared about money rather than the quality of education, the guy from SS was on the autistic spectrum. I am going to close my comments about work because I want to celebrate the region in which I live. I lasted until mid-January when I resigned to retain my sanity.

 

Trans-Mongolia to Ulan Bator


Let’s be honest Beijing station is chaotic, I had my ticket so one could deduct no queuing but how wrong was I.  At the left of the huge plaza at the from of the station is a huge exit sign, to the right a huge entrance sign, simple! Not so these merely are set out to confuse and exist from an earlier era. I passed through security (slowly) at the entrance sign and found my self in a ticket hall, but you have a ticket I here, yes and so I exited chaperoned by a sweet lass who guided me to the real entrance. I was positioned at the end of one of the 100 metre security queues and after around 40 minutes gained access to the station proper. They had told us to leave 40 minutes before departure (to be on the safe side) but my anal 90 minutes had proved more appropriate.

Once inside I spent my remaining Yuan on healthy stuff like apples and tomatoes plus a couple of ubiquitous Snickers, it was after all a 26 hour journey with little information available about the catering arrangements.

We embarked and departed on time and the first change was my cabin; presumably to reduce cleaning time they moved me in with Verity a lass who hailed from Exeter.  Verity who worked for the MET Office was on an excursion to Ulan Bator before flying back to the UK, she carried a humdinger of a cold. My luck! We chatted animatedly for a few hours before V fell into a deep slumber punctuated by coughing fits. I looked to the scenery which was mainly industrial and dull and so opened my reading matter “Last Call From The Dining Car”, available in good e-book stores.  This collection of short stories relating to rail travel collated by Michael Kerr of the Daily Telegraph is a captivating enough antidote to the industrialised Chinese landscape. As we left the environs of Beijing the terrain became mountainous but barren and I reflected on the hardships the locals must endure for farm out a living. We passed empty terraces, frozen rivers and what looked like a number of mini-penetentaries, maybe relics of the cultural revolution? I saw at lease 3 new coal-fired power stations being built and a beautifully preserved walled city whose name I am still unable to confirm but it could be Kalgan.

The Chinese deny all Mongol influence in Beijing forgetting that Peking was seized by Gengis Khan in 1215 and was made the capital of the empire by perhaps the greatest Mongol Emperor the Kublai Khan. IT is the great KK who Marco Polo worked for. Eventually we reached the Gobi desert, one of the world’s great deserts, covers much of the southern part of Mongolia. Unlike the Sahara there are few sand dunes in the Gobi; rather you’ll find large barren expenses of gravel plains and rocky outcrops. The climate here is extreme. Temperatures reach +40° C. in summer, and -40 in winter.

After changing the trains wheels to Mongolian gauge we crossed the border in the middle of the night (it took 2 hours) and the terrain became more mountainous as we headed north. We finally arrived in Ulan Bator around 3:00pm. After changing some dollars for Mongolian dosh and negotiating a reasonable taxi fare I was deposited at my hotel the Danista Nomads. This fantastic hostel/hotel with an incredibly helpful host is around a fiver a night. It has large rooms, is well heated, offers good bathrooms and a dining area. I had of course, courtesy of Verity, got flu. I took a stroll but after an hour retired to my bed with a mountain of meds.

Next day I decided to press ahead with a trip to the Terelj National Park and booked a taxi for the day at 50 quid, expensive maybe but the only way to get there if not on an even more expensive tour. The National Park is located 65 km north-east of Ulaanbaatar and is part of the huge Khan Khentii reserve and was established as a Strictly Protected Area in 1992. The Khan Khentii park is almost completely uninhabited by humans, but it is home to endangered species of moose, brown bear and weasel, and to over 250 species of birds. The average altitude is around 1600m above sea level. The park’s most spectacular features were its huge granite blocks (Tors), which added to the spectacular winter landscape. Despite felling grotty it was an awesome if tiring day which included the Genghis Khan statue, Turtle Rock and the Monastery of Terelji.

My second day in UB was a pondering city stroll.  It’s not the most inspiring city and has awful traffic problems but between coffee shops I captured some characters and plenty of graffiti. It was Army Day and a display of rather soft military might was on show in the main square opposite the parliament building.

Later in the day I headed to the back of the city and the Gandantegchinlen Khiid Monastery. Built in 1840, it is the centre of Mongolian Buddhism. The Tibetan name translates to the “Great Place of Complete Joy” and in the past it was one of the main Buddhist centers in Asia having over 20 chapels and it was renowned for its library of religious documents. The monastery was severely damaged during the soviet repression of the 1930s and only few building remain among them, a chapel for 20 meters high statue of the Megzhid Janraisig god. The two-storey Didan-Lavran Temple in the courtyard was home to the 13th Dalai Lama during his stay here in 1904 (when he fled Lhasa ahead of a British invasion of Tibet). Young monks scurried about their business dissipating the carpet of pigeons, feeding of which is discouraged inside the complex. I was asked by family to record their visit on camera and for this I was handed a snack. Kids were snowballing unaware they were damaging the tranquility. Elderly Mongolians sported traditional dress and others encircled a knotted tree, touching it as they chanted.  An army of cats napped in the shade and a succession of kittens squeeled for attention.

My last day in UB was spend at the coffee shop trying to fix the disaster that is Apple Photos.  This works perfectly well on mobile devices but not on Macbook Air. I know I signed up to trial the BETA version but it’s now deleted as I admitted defeat. The wonderful hostel owner let me keep my room all day and was even taking me to the railway station to join the train to Irkutsk. The last hiccup was that my pension arrangements needed attention. David sent me documents to sign and return as the deadline was approaching. This meant I had to dash the 1.5km and back to the Central Post office, not easy with flu and heaving lungs but we made it. After 15 minutes of rest I was transported to catch my next leg of the journey.

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The Journey


It’s now 12 days since I left SK and I’m enjoying the liberation. I can’t say I miss the over zealous and misguided delusion regarding their national pride or the bizarre way in which business and work operate. I do miss my real Korean friends of which there are maybe 3 and the Westerners who became good friends during my stay. Frank Oh Bok Young has been a star first offering g me residence with Mrs Oh and himself for my final 10 days and going the extra mile to sort out the money transfer that the Koreans blame the English for not working. Blame that’s what Koreans do best!

Anyway SK is the past and the friends will stay with me forever as will the memories of times spent with my charges.

Beijing warmed me and clogged my lungs at the same time. My accommodation the Leo Courtyard Hostel which whilst formerly grand was cheap, decaying and bohemian and for $7 a night just what I expected. I suspect it’s myriad rooms had seen a maelström of seedy activities over the last couple of centuries. My first night was hell! A screaming banshee, who would be best placed on the floor of Canal Street at kick out time, decided he would put on a show that delivered aural hell. Needless to say my arrival at his door with a pair of scissors and at the Chinese translation of eunuch did the trick. The next 3 night proved to be perfect.

I awoke early and sampled the local dumplings and boiled eggs before crossing over to Quinine Street. Thankfully this shoppers paradise does not spark into life until 11am but I did get some interesting street snaps. What I have observed here is that the cult of Beckham shows no sign of waning.  He advertises everything from fashion to batteries and insurance. What I do admire is that there’s no air brushing of wrinkles :-).

20 minutes later I arrived at the North Gate of Tiantian Park home to the Temple of Heaven. The parks free to Beijingers but 35 yuan gives full access to foreigner visitors. At £3.78 a bargain and it’s worth the ticket price just o see the day-to-day activities of the cities senior citizens. You can read historical stuff here but I’ll just lay down my experiences.

The first of the days entertainment was the mass troops of ballroom dancers who choose their spots carefully so the sounds of the ghetto blasters don’t mix. There is always a leader whose male and often incredibly camp. Maybe staying in the room next door to me? The participants glide in effortless harmony across the tarmac and the pleasure the emirate is immense. Further along another all girl group were performing to ABBA. Their performance was a mix of Disco and Tai Chi. The next act were playing keep puppy with the ballasted shuttlecock. It’s called Ti Jian Zi – The Ancient Art of Shuttlecock Kicking. They demonstrate awesome skills as the shuttle goes over their heads they simply back heal it into play.

At the Corridor of Longevity some octogenarians chatted intensely while others listened to outdoor performances of what I assumed to be songs from the Cultural Revolution. Each rendition was met with hearty applause and appreciation. Some 10 minutes further on the skills of the Top spinner were on display. They lash the conical object continuously to make it spin on ice or smooth ground. Various names are given to the sport in Chinese. In 1926, a pottery top was unearthed from the Huituling Cultural Ruins in Xiyin Village, Xiaxian County, Shanxi, which is evidence that tops had existed in China over 4000 years ago. Its become a popular sport again across all age ranges.

I forgot to mention that I also visited all the historical attractions and as its low season nothing was too overcrowded. The obvious highlight is the Temple of Heaven itself, on this occasion four soon to be wed couple were posing for album portfolios. I also enjoyed the Long Corridor where a variety of craft stalls are set up and the aged go-go dancers continue their performances.

I exited at the East Gate and headed north in search of wi-fi. The bastard Koreans charged me a penalty fee for paying off my account. Yea I said off the remaining seven months but incurred a penalty for doing so.  I was intending to buy a global sim but shelved the idea in the wake of my financial rape! Fortunately I found a Cafe Bene which you may or may not know is a Korean company. The coffee price mirrored Korea i.e. too much but the wi-fi was free and a strong connection. I discovered by good fortune that the collection agency was 5 minutes walk away in the Beijing Business Centre. I negotiated the dumb struck security guard and headed up to the 5th floor, it was 1:00pm. All the staff were asleep at their desks but a woman stirred as I coughed. “Lunch”, “yes please”, “no, sleep time”, “ok”. The man who appeared to be in charge entered the room, rubbed his eyes, took my passport and produced my Trans-Mongolian first leg tickets. With that I was on my way to the Forbidden City.

Little did I know but the Asian Economic Convention was taking place adjacent to Tiananmen Square. have you ever experienced Chinese Security? Even on the subway every bag is x-rayed but this was worse. The whole north side of the square was sealed off with only access to the underpass after passing through security.  The queue for the initial testicle frisk was 300 metres long and took 40 minutes.  This merely gave you access to the spilt underpass, to the left Tiananmen, to the right The Forbidden City, it was like Wembley Way but 3 times worse. This was the queue for the baggage x-ray and we were allowed through in batches of 30 or so. some 35 minutes later I exited the underpass having spend 75 minutes crossing 50 metres. That being said the actual place itself was much more user-friendly than on my previous visits in 1990 and 2013, the crowds around 50% of normal volume.

I had taken the centre and right routes in the past for this reason and the fact that the sun was high in the West I took the left or West path through. The Chinese have expunged all memory of the Mongols from Beijing but its was they who originally constructed a palace here. Genghis Khan captured Beijing in 1241. By 1264 Genghis Khan’s grandson,  Kublai Khan became the Great Khan and moved the Mongolian capital to Beijing. Tired of raping and pillaging China Kublai Khan decided to rule it. He became the Emperor of China and started the Yuan Dynasty. They designed the walled city as a Mongolian cultural haven free from Chinese cultural influence. From the safety of the walls, the Mongols would rule China through dictating orders to Chinese Imperial officials to carry out.  A hundred years later a Chinese peasant, Chu Yuan-Chan created a very large bandit army and evicted the Yuan, declared himself the new Emperor of China. He moved into the Forbidden City and started the Ming Dynasty.  Three hundred years later, the Manchurians conquered China and became the last residents of the Forbidden City.  The Qing Dynasty lasted until 1911, when Dr. Sun Yat-Sen ended Imperial rule with the formation of the Chinese Republic. In 1949, Mao Tse-Tung declared the People’s republic of China from the Gate.  Now his portrait is placed there to commemorate that historic event.  Long live Chairman Mao!

So my first full day in Beijing came to a close and after a hearty dinner of pork, green beans and egg fried rice I retired exhausted for an early night.

Day two began with an early breakfast of dumplings and the focus was a trip to the Great Wall which has been a tourist magnet since China opened up and devoured foreign currency post 1989. The first popular section was at Badaling due to its proximity to Beijing. I’d visited there in 1992 to observe Americans practising their golf swings. Two years ago I’d gone to Mutanyu a little further afield, commercialised yes but less so with fewer people. This time I decided on the Jinshanling to Simatai section which involves a 3 hour drive and offered a 6.5km trek along the wall, which has been renovated but less so than the other tourist areas.

Our group was only 8 people and other than 3 swedes and 3 Chinese we saw no other visitors. The climb to tower 5 caught the breath as the air felt thin, we were to trek to the highest point at tower 26. The sections here were especially steeper and a greater challenge than the other places I’d visited and my companions were good fun. The views were spectacular and the lack of crowds only added to the experience. Most of us napped on the way back, a tiring but fulfilling day.

My final full day in Beijing started with a stroll around Shichahai which is aa area North West of the Forbidden City which includes three lakes (Qian Hai, meaning Front Sea; Hou Hai, meaning Back Sea and Xi Hai, meaning Western Sea), it covers a large area of 146.7 hectares (about 363 acres). So I emerged from Line 2 to face a polluted 4 lane highway but doubling back behind the station I emerged at the lake shore. The Back Lakes area is known as Shicha Hai and combined with other man-made pools to the south, these lakes were once part of a system used to transport grain by barge from the Grand Canal to the Forbidden City. Prior to 1911, this was an exclusive area, and only people with connections to the imperial family were permitted to maintain houses here (a situation that seems destined to return). A profusion of bars and cafes has sprung up around the lakes in recent years, providing ample opportunities to take breaks from your walk.

Beyond the lakes, stretching out to the east and west is the city’s best-maintained network of hutong. Many families have lived in these lanes for generations, their insular
communities a last link to Old Beijing. This early morning it was awash with folk giving their pets a daily constitutional, people engaged in many activities (Table tennis, gym, fishing). Rickshaws picked up the days first customers, a woman and her husband braved the sub-zero temperatures ably protected by their snapping pet pooch. Butchers prepared meat for the locals and many restauranteurs and the bakers could not keep up with demand.  It took around three hours strolling to circumnavigate back to the station were I retraced my steps towards the Drum and Bell Towers. Wandering through the maze of hutong’s is a fascinating way to see life pass by.

After a tasty Szechuan lunch I traversed to the main shopping area of Wanfujing (my idea of hell) but did a quick hop back to see the Galaxy Soho Complex designed by Zaha Hadid.  Here from a distance everything looked well but on closer inspection it was another failed implementation of a futuristic design.  Miss H’s firm need to get a grip of these projects (ass the DDP in Seoul) which are often late and badly finished or not finished at all (in this case); this one is predominantly empty after 3 years!

And so my fourth trip to Beijing was over and after a few beers at Beers 89 near to my hostel I retired ready for the first leg of my Trans-Mongolian Adventure.

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Retracing the Past


As I’m nearing the end of my stay in SK I’m re-visiting past tramps and the last weekend before Christmas the north part of Jongno became my stomping ground. For 10,000 Won (6 quid) you can visit 4 Joseon palaces (Changdeokgung, Changgyeong, Gyeongbokgung, Deoksukgung) and the Jongmyo Shrine in the Jongno area.

It was my intention to avoid the crowds as best possible and so I waited from 8:40 am (in Siberian winds) for the Changdeokgung ticket office to open at 9 am; It didn’t of course, despite the staff entering through the side door at 8:45 am. My ticket included an organised tour of the Biwon “Secret” Garden at 11:30 am, something I’d experienced and partially enjoyed/endured before. This experience can be tortuous as you are regimented around by a gorgon eyed tour leader who speaks with a well-defined American Korean accent. Wanting to enjoy my day I decided to give it a miss and to try and stay one step ahead of the crowds my focus was to give my new iPhone 6 plus its first outing.

The UNESCO World heritage protected Changdeok Palace was the second Chosun Dynasty palace built in 1405. Meaning “prospering virtue,” the palace replaced Gyeongbok Palace amidst political struggle over the throne. It was also caressed by arson during the Japanese invasion but rebuilt in 1609 to be used as the state palace. It was a serene experience to wander the complex with only birds and a few volunteers for company. The blue hue of the snow complemented the vibrant jade pigment of the buildings. Fresh snowfall had the graphic imprints of birds feet and icicles glistened as the sun tried to push aside the clouds. I wandered up the hill passing through the small gate to the Changgyeong (Flourishing Gladness) Palace. In the last years of the Joseon dynasty, the Japanese Imperialist occupiers built a zoo, botanical garden and museum in the palace compound with a view to symbolically undermining the royal status of the dynasty. The palace was restored in 1984 with the removal of the structures added by the Japanese.

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The grounds are my favourite in Seoul, the red bark and blue/green needles of ancient pine trees always look better in winter and the faint smell of pine needle scent perfumes the air. Volunteers worked tirelessly to clear the snow and to sweep the dirt paths to improve grip. The temperature was around -8 degrees so I was surprised to see another stoic traveler setting up his tripod, it was just too bloody cold! I of course took a few snap of my own whipping out the iPhone then returning both it and my blue pinkies to the relative warmth of my mustard blanket. I spent around two hours pottering around the grounds, stopping off at Daeonsil (Glass House) before trotting over to the adjacent Arario gallery for some Ethiopian Sidamo.

The next part of my winter architectural safari was in Bukchon Village. Flanked by Gyeongbokgung (West), Changdeokgung/Changgyeong (East), Jongmyo Royal Shrine (South) and Samcheong Park (North). Bukchon is a residential area in Seoul with many hanoks (traditional Korean houses), some of which are coverted into commercial properties (restaurants, shops and guest houses). OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABukchon is also apparently called “the street museum in the urban core.” As I passed the sites of old street murals that had been whitewashed over I wondered if this was the decision of residents or the tourist board making sure the area is constantly refreshed with new photo opportunities. As I climbed the hill to the village summit, it was still noticeably quiet as the tourist hoards and coaches had not arrived. I took a break visiting the courtyard of a preserved hanok house before walking over to the observatory to take green tea. By now the mist had burned away and the sun was causing melt from the rooftops. In saying that, the North Seoul Tower atop Mt Namsan was still undefined in the distance; but the view outback across towards the Blue House and Mount Bukhansan was crisp and clear. Looking down from the rooftop terrace I could see an elderly resident was working feverishly to make the entrance safe for visitors. The observatory is the top floor of a family house and the host an older lady who could possibly be an Octogenarian. She is a fine host and the meager cost of accessing the sun terrace is 3000 Won which include green tea or coffee as refreshment, she is never pushy about you moving on.

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Next I descended the near vertical staircase that provides access to Samcheongdong; the faded murals are the last remnants of the time when artists settled here in protest at plans for re-development. Of course gentrification has taken place but it’s thankfully become a boutique shopping area rather than an place of nondescript concrete high-rise housing. I settled in Cook’n Heim for a New York burger, Zen Kimchi does a good review of the place here.

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The Museum of Modern Contemporary Art (MMCA) is close by and the new extensions are a dramatic location for photos in strong sunlight. Across the road is the entrance to my next palace Gyeongbokgung.

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Yi Seong-gye founded the Joseon Dynasty in 1392 and designated Hanyang (now Seoul) as the capital. He had a new palace built there and named it Gyeongbok (Felicitous Blessing) Palace. It was burned to ashes during the Japanese invasions of Korea from 1592 to 1598 and rebuilt in 1867. Visitors to the palace can watch the Royal Guard changing ceremony every hour from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m in front of the main gate. I prefer the North area where the gazebo sat inaccessible (as always), today in the centre of the frozen lake. I pottered through the palace grounds and again stopped for coffee noticing the skin on my hands was as last Winter cracking from the cold and dryness of the wind. After applying mums Palmers Cocoa Butter Formula (TM) I saw the changing of the guard for the umpteenth time. I cannot help but be sympathetic to the actors who must be frozen standing motionless for the 5 hours shift at the entrance to the palace.

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Crossing the main road I stopped to observe a protest which it transpired was about the live harvesting of organs which has apparently become prevalent in China. I was now in Gwangwhamun Square adjacent to the giant statue of Sejong where sweet red bean soup was being handed out free (too sweet). I climbed the steps of the Sejong Centre for the Performing Arts knowing I could take a short cut through the back-streets to my next palace.

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Faux Santa’s were preparing for a Christmas Carol Concert and at the foot of the rear steps was the ticket office for Sebastiao Salgado’s Photo Exhibition “Genesis”. Sebastião Salgado is a Brazilian social documentary photographer and photojournalist, one of the great photographers of current times. His work is revered by moi and the current Genesis exhibition is sensational. Using a monochrome palette Salgado has created a collection of breathtaking images from incredibly remote destinations.

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Genesis is the accrual of over eight years work and exploration during which Salgado made 32 trips to some of the most extreme and far-flung corners of the planet. This exhibition brings together over 200 works of wildlife, landscapes, seascapes and indigenous people. It also aims to raise public awareness about the pressing issues of environment and climate change. It is a reminder of the breathtaking beauty that still exists on our planet.

A ten minute walk south-west brought me to the Seoul Museum of History which was incredibly chaotic with a cacophony of noise emanating from a poorly managed concert in the central atrium. Passing swiftly out of the back entrance I came to my next venue. Initially called Gyeongdeok Palace, Gyeonghui (Serene Harmony) Palace was built in 1623. It was not built as a main seat of government but as a kind of royal villa. I walked around the back and up a hill for a better view and came across a school of martial arts practitioners in the local park. They offered me rice cakes and Makgeolli, which it was rude to refuse. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Once back inside the complex I wandered to the rear where there is normally a freshwater spring. In this instance it was frozen solid much to the chagrin of the local Ploceidae who ferociously pecked at the surface . Three elderly Korean couples made fun of the overuse of “danger” tape which was strewn across the historic landmark. One particularly animated guy pointed out that a number of fire extinguishers were fixed solid to the structure because of the constant cycle of thaw, freeze, thaw during the Korean Winter had rendered them immovable and useless.

I left the complex taking a right and crossing over into Jeong-dong. At the heart of this area is the quaint street of Jeongdong-gil that runs along the stone wall of Deoksugung Palace, a few diamonds of cultural heritage exist in this part of Seoul, remnants from Korea’s past. Jeongdong-gil was quaintly designated y the local government as a “Beautiful Street for Walking” in 1999.

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During the Joseon era (1392-1910) this was a residential area for court officials and yangban (the upperclasses) due to its close proximity to Gyeongbokgung Palace. In the late 19th century, when the Hermit Kingdom parted its doors to Western influence, the first Waygooks (foreigners) settled in Jeong-dong and the area became known as “Legation Street” or the “European Quarter.”

Before 1880, foreigners could not live within the city walls of Seoul. The first American envoy to Korea was gifted land in 1884. The opening of the U.S. Embassy brought a flash of foreign settlement to the area from France, Germany, Russia and Britain. Western education, religion, and medicine took a minimal foothold in Korea. The area thus became the Embassy quarter, a base for Christian missionaries and a centre for contemporary education. If you are in Seoul and wish to visit the area the website Discovering Korea Jeong-dong contains a detailed review of it’s attractions. My main reasons to visit this area have been the excellent coffee shops, the Seoul Museum of Art, the Ginko trees in Autumn and the Honey Ginger Tea at the Deoksugung glass Café.

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I stopped to watch a new company of actors suffering as they re-enacted the Deoksugung “Changing of the Guard”. Next I traversed the dangers of Sarong-daero landing at Seoul Plaza in the shadow of the monstrously over engineered City Hall. On the far side of the Plaza yet another over-policed protest was taking place; the boy soldiers affectionately rubbing each others hands to keep warm being the riot shields.

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Opposite the Japanese 30’s architecture of Seoul Library the Ice Skating Rink opens every day from 10am until 10pm, Sunday to Thursday and 10am – 11pm on Friday, Saturdays and Public Holidays. It costs 1,000 Korean Won per person for an hour session which includes skate hire. At this stage in the afternoon the sun was at its high point and the rink had started to melt! Hundreds of kids waited noisily for the surface to be “hoovered” so that they could gain access. Once on the ice the buffoonery was a major comedic experience for me as the Korean nation is the most spatially unaware of any inhabiting this Galaxy. I am eminently sure the bruised bums, ribs and knees would have seen them retiring to the hospital directly from the plaza.

Needing a pee I wandered through the crowded bowels of the Seoul Finance Centre where the masses gorged on a variety of “Korean Style” Western delicacies. This of course results in them having their appetites satisfied but most (after hiding from the sunsets of the year) are left with consumption complexions and a major vitamin D deficiency. Escaping the darkness I emerged at the Cheonggyecheon Stream which is a barren utopia of peace and quiet in Winter. Emerging at the steps adjacent to the English Language School’s Pagoda Tower I made my way through the underground bookshop across to the historic Tapgol Park and onwards the days final destination.Processed with VSCOcam with a8 preset

Jongno Halmeoni Kalguksu (Grandma’s Kalguksu) has been a fixture in the Jongno area since 1988. Serving only Kalguksu (knife-cut white flour noodle soup) and Kaljebi (soup with buckwheat knife-cut dough flakes), the restaurant is a local favorite. Both soups are made with only fresh, quality anchovy soup stock and hand-made noodles and are served with a side of Geotjeori Kimchi, made fresh at the restaurant each morning.  After a $6 feast of carbs I rolled back to my digs for a nap.

That nap lasted until 9:00pm and MCFC were on TV at (9:45pm) so I nipped out for a bouteille de vin rouge to enjoy in the lounge. A 3-0 victory for striker-less City was a perfect end to a lovely day, I slept well!

On Sunday I had my usual early breakfast before heading towards Naksan Park and Iwha-dong Mural Village. As Seoul expanded, some neighbourhoods clung to the past in the face of rapid development. Some situated on the slopes of mountains (big hillocks) remained relatively untouched due to their undesirable location and poor demographic. They’re called dal dongnae, or moon villages, since being on a mountain puts them closer to the moon. While many have been demolished in recent years as land values soar a few have survived. The locals wishing not to be displaced were encouraged by community artists to allow their often poorly built dwellings to act as art canvases.

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Ihwa-dong is a moon village, situated on Naksan (“san” meaning mountain), it was and still is a thriving location for bespoke tailors and seamstresses. Steep stairs, narrow alleys, and quiet squares are (mostly at weekends) populated by small groups of adventurous tourists. No coaches here!IMG_0173
There are a few cars and delivery bikes zooming around but generally it’s an area retaining its character. Young entrepreneurs have opened small cafes and craft shops and the enterprising owner of the shop at the top of the “fish steps” now cooks breakfast pancakes in the busier months. As the place is located adjacent to the Seoul Fortress Wall it’s popular with tourists and hikers alike.

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After sampling the Korean Pancakes I followed the path of the wall down to Dondaemun to fill up with “Hangover Soup”. Despite not having a hangover to cure it is good Winter food.  Gomtang/Galbitang – Beef-based Korean soup is a popular Korean hangover cure because of its protein-rich broths. The slices of beef (gomtang) or beef right off the bone (galbitang) help fill you up on a -10 degree morning. It’s so good you’ll forget what you’re nan taught you about manners; if you’re hungover and hurting or not, you’ll find yourself slurping every last drop of soup.IMG_0180

After a hearty fill I once again visited the DDP looking for a Shoulder-pod S1 the last piece in my travel kit for the Trans-Siberian adventure come next March. IMG_0186

It transpired I was unsuccessful and so I eventually settled in a cafe to order from the USA. The  DDP Design Mall is awash with Christmas merchandise and they have even managed to transpose some stylised  reindeer on the concrete staircase.IMG_0189

It was time to head home to Chungers so I took the subway to the EBT and luckily I only had a 15 minute wait for the Express Bus.

PS I received this lovely message from one of my morning class students Park Mi Rae (Jade)IMG_0234