Santander Strike Again and should not be allowed to exist!

You will all love this I visited 2 Santander branches and the cash machines said both my card and pin were invalid. The staff in both branches refused to help me despite me saying I would be sleeping on the streets of Amsterdam. I was told this is Santander Germany and it’s not their problem I should have cellphone and call tge international number. Santander have been given my itinerary, the dates, hotels and contact numbers. Anyway I cycled around on the verge of a nervous breakdown and actually getting palpitations. Eventually I found a machine that gave me money from the Santander card using the “invalid” pin and also got some from my Capital One Visa that the Santander machine deemed invalid. God only knows how much it’s cost me. I won’t know until I get back but how the hell can I get money like this and not from the company I’m with. I will do everything in my power when I get back to take them to the FSA and destroy them nationally. I have a life’s mission!!!!

Sent from my iPhone

Moscow a cold exterior with a warm heart

The pungent carriages arrive in Moscow 4:42am. I’ve told my hotel (Godzillas 2) that the train arrives this early and informed  can I check-in. With this positive response I struggle through the barrage of rather scruffy “taxi drivers” and take the 30 minutes walk laden with my back-breaking (now broken) rucksack. Guess what no response from my accommodation which will be explained later.

I notice a certain posh looking 24 hour coffee shop “Coffee Mania” and so settle in there around 5:30am. The coffee is good but too strong so I have to ask for hot water, strangely it’s served with lemons. The croissant is microwaved into oblivion; I ask why and receive shoulder shrug, welcome to Moscow home to the 1980 Olympiad. In contrast the Eggs Benedict is a triumph which is weird after the sadistic treatment of the French pastry.

Around 7:00 am I head back to the hostel. still no response. After 15 minutes a woman with a face like a flat fish opens the door. I smile and say “Godzillas 2” before moving into the gap she’s vacated. I am then subjected to a torrent of abuse, more Killer Whale than flat fish. I give a stern one finger, sit on this salute, and head up the stairs to the hostel entrance. There’s still no response but miraculously I have a wi-fi signal from another coffee shop on the corner. I managed to email the owner. 10 minutes and apologies later the American manager arrives and we discover the Russian night watchman has done a runner even though he’d been informed of my arrival. My room and the off-suite WC and shower facilities  are delightful.

Later that morning I discover that in Moscow cars give yo right of way, major pedestrian crossings have timers and that not all Muscovites are miserable. Moscow is also open for construction with renovation work and new building schemes happening in all directions. The weathers a bit dowdy so I decadent to photograph Red Square and to wait for more clement weather. I visit GUM the showcase Victorian Galleria opposite the Kremlin, its beautiful but lacks soul but not Seoul. Koreans were present, how did I know? The uncivilised screaming and whaling alongside the two-fingered photo salutes. I return to my hotel despondent, will this exemplify my time in Moscow, these posses of Asian tourists?

Day 2 I head back to Red Square where I chatted hypocritically to some Chinese from Hangzhou. Further off Red Square in Alexander Gardens some other older Chinese tourists were standing forever in front of some guarded flame. I notice the incredulous Kremlin queues but was ecstatic about my ability to breath air free of fag ash in the adjacent Park areas. Passive smoking is so passe.

At the end of this utopian paradise my aim was  to head north-west following National Geographic instructions. In front of me is another fine example of communist planning, a six lane superhighway. At the other side of this impasse is the Metro but there are zero crossing points. I have to walk the full length of the Kremlin to find the only crossing point (as I come to expect) is another metro entrance. Thank you Stalin and all who’ve followed. You may have had firepower but you’d no f****** brains! So advice for anyone visiting Moscow buy a tank. Secondly away from the gorgeous smoke free zones you have to enjoy passive smoking! Don’t complain their cancerous fumes are provided free for your enjoyment. The number of wrinkled female smokers is only exceeded by the number of designer shops. The beggars outside Louis Vuitton and Gucci are there to make you feel even richer when you leave with your sparkles

I ventured inside the beautiful metro system for the first time and a lovely lady offers me assistance, otherwise I would have been lost. For me, and I am well versed in metro systems, this us the hardest to navigate. I made it to the start if my National. Geographic walk and what a shit walk, not recommended! I wandered off piste which was much more rewarding. Eventually I basked in the winter sunshine in Pushkin Square before heading south, down yet another boulevard designed for tanks, towards the Kremlin and the Bolshoi.

In the evening an amiable drunk tried to make a friend of me by offering  a 5 a side team of whiskers and boy Saturday AM I knew it. His bear hugs were also freely distributed. I read in the KyivPost that as the economic crisis sweeps through Russia, a dangerous trend is emerging in this heavy-drinking country: the rise in consumption of potentially lethal moonshine, medical alcohol or even cleaning products. I also read that they blame alcoholism on the integration of Mongolian genes. According to the World Health Organization, one-in-five men in the Russian Federation die due to alcohol-related causes. Prohibition is not on the agenda. I’m told Putin has cancer in his spine, its incurable but there is a doctor in Milan who maybe able to fix him. One can only assume that the cancer has spread to his brain.

The next day it was a bit nippy but I’d already decided to head to Gorky Park down south by the river. It’s the capital’s central park, with more than 40 000 visitors on weekdays and 250 000 on weekends and public holidays. The official jingo says that “Since 2011 the park has been setting new standards, becoming Russia’s first world-class park and a space for recreation, sport, dance and outdoor games. It does now offer Free entry, Wi-Fi coverage, new zones of “contemporary design”, a well thought-out events programme and regard for people have transformed Gorky Park into an epicentre of life in the capital, making it one of the main points of attraction for youth, adults and the family alike.” The reality is a little different 50% is “under construction” but they are construction a modern art centre called the Garage and the skateboarding areas were vibrant.

The 119 hectare park was established in 1928 and took the name of M. Gorky in 1932. Avant-guard architect K. S. Melnikov was the main architect of Gorky Park, who in the late twenties of the 20th century designed the parterre that stretches from the entrance to Neskuchny Garden. Nowadays Neskuchny Garden and the Vorob’evy Gory wildlife sanctuary are part of Gorky Park. It’s not a winter destination but if you visit in Spring onwards I can see it will be a great place to while away and afternoon

My main affection for Moscow are the metro, its marble corridors, arches and wooden escalators, its piped classical music and sleeping attendants. I liked the people who opened up after initial coldness (keep smiling). My disaffection is about the over-inflated prices and masses of designer shops, tedious.

It was time to fly out to Prague, at the airport I had free WiFi and smiling staff supplemented by a wonderful Russian sausage. The announcements in English are superbly clear and Korea please note; they tell parents it is their responsibility to make children behave so that they don’t spoil other passengers experience of the airport. Sooo civilised!

The Aeroflot staff were extremely pleasant but it’s tour de force was the in-flight catering. As you know curved edges are fashionable note the Samsung Galaxy S6 but should this extend to insipid tasteless bleached white bread butties? The woman in front of me had the largest cold sore in recorded history, it covered around 30% of her lips. Uninhibited she tried to exchange tongues with her boyfriend most of the way. Disgusting!

I’m in Prague!


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Irkutsk to Moscow (4 days of near purgatory)

My steed was due to depart at 1:02am Irkutsk time but there had been confusion as my ticket displayed 8:02pm. I was assured that this was one and the same departure time the latter referring to Moscow time some 5 hours behind. My confidence had been boosted by the hostel host Ilya who had relocated from the Ukraine some 6000km away to settle in Irkutsk where he was now applying for Russian citizenship. He had tremendous English and had left the fearing for the safety of his young wife and two kids.

The station was a cattle market. I descended the gangway to the marbled under pass that gave access to platform 5. The carriages had not yet joined the train but some 9 minutes later they slipped slowly towards engagement. At this point mayhem let loose there was a sprint towards the carriages, I had to elbow my way down the Isle to reach my bunk. I was already exhausted 😃. And so it began my 4 day odyssey across Russia, no border crossings or changing of gauge and wheels; just scenery, reading, writing, playlist and the now familiar sound of whirring wheels. 

I was travelling “hard class” which is actually second class with a comfortable bunk, clean sheets and over zealous heating. My cabin companion was a powerfully built but smart Russian lady around 45 who had a warm smile but no English, we both hastily made up our beds and settled for the night. Soon we had the moonlit silhouette of a young couple, their brief encounter ended as she was ushered by the female purser into our carriage. And then there were three.

I awoke to beautiful golden sunlight kissing the silver birch which has become my favourite arboreal specimen. The ground blanketed with snow and the copper and blue sky almost Narniaesque in its beauty. I made up some coffee and settled down to read few more of my atmospheric rail prose before starting up my own trip notes. My powerful companion was only here for the first night and prepared for her departure with a series of warm smiles. I continued to absorb my tales of great railway journeys and as I read about the high Andes reflected on my friend JHs tribulations as he’s there at present.

We trundled on past swathes of forest, I caught site of two indistinguishable birds of prey but little else, human habitation seemed non existent in this unspoilt wilderness. Perhaps I should be reading White Fang? An hour later a ramshackle wooden village and a solo satellite dish punctuated the myth. A lunar faced kid with flabby thighs wrestled with his puppy (which looked like a Siberian Husky) as his grandmother laughed gustily while whole heartedly downing a steaming brew. Shortly after our first station appeared and the powerful lady vanished.

The station had a graveyard of military vehicles and a lost air, decaying buildings and graffiti proclaiming “punks not dead”. My remaining companion continued her slumber, it was now 10am, perhaps she’ll sleep the whole way? The smokers piled off to replenish their fix but no embarking passengers. One brave kid shuffled to the platform store in his flip-flops stabbing his toe on the tracks as he went. Three incredibly lithe almost emaciated shop assistants sucked on their fags as we drew away; next train whenever.

My new purser is a star and very helpful despite no Englishy. Even though I know I’m due three meals nothing on the paperwork indicates this and so I try with a mixture of signs and grunts to ask about this, she manages to understand and indicates that lunch will be served at 12 and in compartment….result! This leg I’m going to enjoy? As I listen to Janis Ian’s “In the Winter,” I ponder the harshness of the terrain and how hard life must be here, it really is wild and desolate and becoming monotonous.

My 2nd companion awoke, she is an Internet marketeer and on her way to a conference, she helps me order dinner and returns to sleep remarking she hadn’t had any for 48 hours, she’d been at a “flash-mob” Vodka party on Lake Baikal. I work out that a “flash-mob” event is one organised through social media. 60 people had attended the Baikal Vodka bash but the previous nights pub party had attracted zero bodies. She informed me that 6 people had died on Baikal yesterday when their VW had plunged through the ice; apparently the Winter has been relatively mild and the ice is not too thick this year. Apparently this accident us not too uncommon and of course perfectly avoidable.

We pass a St Bernard tethered to his kennel, he looks content but I want to sever the rope, obviously I can’t. Lunch is a vegetable soup but real not instant followed by chicken and rice, it was edible and welcome, our only meal deal of the day! We were then joined by a new companion whose stature can only be described as monumental. Anyone who remembers the 60s cartoon “Gigantor” will of course understand. At the next station we become 4 with an Agnetha look alike; it is an ergonomic miracle that 4 humanoids are able to inhabit this space. 

We’re joined by some fresh faced army recruits who peruse the contents of each cabin at least 4 times before settling in their own restrictive dorm. As the behemoth locomotive dragged us out of yet another station whose name and location I cannot confirm, the light started to fade. I know it’s Monday and 19:30pm Irkutsk time, I am certain I’ve been travelling for 13 days and I admit I miss the ability to engage in social media a little. So inside my cocoon of a compartment I curl up into a ball, serenaded by Bowie’s “Station to Station” and wave goodbye to the next 9 plus hours.

8 am Julia and Gigantor depart. J has left me a sweet message asking for her bottle of Baikal water to be photographed in all my destinations and then to be posted on Social Media. I will do my best if it survives. How many more characters will embark and disembark before Moscow? I prepared my last decent “real” coffee bag. 8:10 am and still no sunrise the only golden glowing from the army of smokers on the platform sacking on their breakfasts. As I’m not burning any energy I’ve decided to stick to the one allocated meal per day, I haven’t touched alcohol since Beijing some 10 days ago. The next army of citizens begin to get on board, I pray my cabin remains a two but have little confidence as the theme from “Black Beauty” warms my ears followed by Gershwin and Mahler’s “Death in Venice”. 8:21 am and we appear to have survived the latest influx of bodies so perhaps Agnetha Faltzog and I will remain together for the next two days? No Anna, Bjork and Benny just me and AW all Abbaesque. Aghhhhhhhh “on hearing the first cuckoo in spring”.

Someone’s cleaned the lavatory, these are the things that lift your Trans-siberian spirits. What sort of idiot pays to be coupled up in a coal house with mucky loos and average nosh without contact to the civilised world? This idiot 😀. My fellow travellers appear unloved and sinister all could slip into the next Bond movie without any stylists intervention. Gabriel’ Oboe from “The Mission” punctuates the gloom and warms the cockles, it is my favourite piece of music ever. Everyone on board could be Davros from Dr. Who, they personify miserable and make Chungju people seem bountiful and fun. I’ve decided that I’m certifiably to have forsaken Hong Kong, Vietnam and Sri Lanka for this route home but us an experience that’s currently raw and that I will reflect differently in time.

We rumble on through a variety of intermittent industrial and rural but alway grey landscapes as AF stats snoring in her pit. I’m warmed by the stories of rail travel that I’m reading and the travel playlists I’ve put together but inspirational is not a reflection on my current journey. I’m surprised how slowly we’re moving and by the absence of conversation something that I’d looked forward to the most. It is the Winter season but I’d expected few fellow tree wavelets to go French, Italian, Canadian or American of which there are precisely zero. It is a time to reflect on three years in SK, the next few months and future jobs which will not be in Russia or Mongolia. I still have no idea of my location but I am heading West which is correct.

In the bleak mid-winter frosty wind made moan! The light is so poor here even the ever present silver birch look dull and lifeless. AF has arisen from slumber but she’s unable or unwilling to make eye-contact, the cold war is over? I’m ravenous for Skype. She decides to tidy up but can’t ascertain what’s her shit and what’s mine! It’s easy I don’t have any shit, I tidy as I go along. I smile without response, the human condition eh. I decide to refresh with wet-wipes and some Aqua Colonia Pink Pepper and Grapefruit, she seems shocked. I’m English! She makes fake coffee and adds that awful long-life cream, while I sip on my jasmine green tea. I realise how fortunate and choosy travel has made me. Once I had love and it was a gas……..”Glory”, John Legend. One day when the Glory comes it will be ours, one day when the war is won we will be sure, we will be sure. Glory!

The train takes as long as it takes when you’re flying you don’t see anything…..glory me! The pretty coloured boxes that the rural Russians inhabit punctuate the goose grey landscape as I warm to the improving light, the surreal gloom was finally lifting. AF packed up her Christmas napkins and attends to her coiffured blonde bonce, the cabin temperature becomes less oppressive as the night time heating is turned down. I ask myself what do folk do to entertain themselves here? Not much the little voice answers. My mind wanders to bohemian Prague and Berlin but that’s a week or so away. “Time after time I’m telling myself that I’m so lucky”, Chet swoons through my cans, “No one’s ever gonna love you more than I do” say the Band of Horses.

I’d already jettisoned images of Dr Zhivago, Julie Christie and sleigh bells as they’d been replaced with factories, power plants and slag heaps. Ideas of photography had been well and truly bamboozled by the sealed windows, the scenery has been mostly flat and uninspiring and the rivers frozen caviar black. That said there is so etching seductive about doing nowt and reflecting on others doing very little. I’ve yet to explore the restaurant car if there is one, apparently the Russians don’t but tonight I will. Something to savour.

I’ve defaulted to Moscow time splits now 06:12 I’ve gained 5 hours onto my life. I’ve also defaulted to Inheritance Tracks and Desert Island Discs. John Waters chooses two typically eccentric tracks, the first about car crashes and the second a Johnny Cash interpreter singing about truckers on amphetamine. Haley from Corrie chooses a Ewen McColl track her dad’s (now deceased) favourite. It’s beautiful.

“Days in the sun and the tempered wind, and the air like wine, and you drink and you drink until your drunk on the joy of living.”

Sympathy for the Devil rocks the airwaves then Radioheads Crushed like Sardines. Beautifully layered and full of contrasts, like architecture or fashion, the best music is like this. Mark Rylance treats us to Coleman Hawkins “Body and Soul”, appropriate as the coach now starts to smell of army, the overnight fire-pot temperature fuelling the aroma. I wished I’d downloaded more podcasts for this trip, I quickly realised the silence of non-communication has a perfect antidote in the conversations of others.

As we speed forth lunch arrives which is Sauerkraut plus a burger tough as horses hooves. The aroma of military bodies is supplemented by the sound of PS3s, they’ve commandeered every socket in the corridors with extension wires trailed under carpets to their pop up games rooms. Freddie King comes on “Help me make it through the day”, chosen by the famed producer Robin Miller of Sade fame. Mick comes striding in with Gimme Shelter the greatest intro of any rock song. These are the morsels that keep me sane.

It has just registered we are half way to Moscow, forty hours down and forty to go. This eternal journey would test the most ardent railway enthusiast. I set out thinking I may become one at this juncture I can confirm that I will not. It’s a marathon never to be repeated. T.S. Eliot no less said, “You are not the same people who left that station or who will arrive at any terminus.” Well T.S. Who am I to argue with a literary great, I’m different indeed, different in that I was prepared to be overjoyed by the experience of intercontinental rail travel but ultimately I’m not!

I investigate the restaurant car and I’m informed just noodles (dry ramen) and chocolate bars. I work out that this is the winter menu there’s obviously not enough foreigners to fill the coffers. I disagreeably understand as the Russians bring aboard their own food. The earlier meat lunch rumbles in my gut so I take meds to dispel any chance of fully fledged Delhi Belly. Hence dinner is Jasmine Green Tea….again!

AF departed at 1am to where I have no idea, I returned to my by now ubiquitous sleep. On the journey I slept around 70% if the whole time, yes it’s that uninspiring. By morning no one replaced AF so I hoped between here and Moscow (another 24 hours) I’d have the cabin to myself. The scenery was the same yellow grey industrial landscapes covered in snow all belching forth pollution similar to that north of Beijing. Outside one station an old dog covered in the snow chained to a kennel that could have provided zero warmth. For me there is no humanity where there is no kindness to animals.

“Out on the wild and windy moors,” we are caught in a blizzard as the landscape improves, there are many rolling hills, viaducts and valleys it reminds me of the Peak District. I’m astounded to see a Mousse but worried to see hunters in the distance carrying armoury. The silver birch are grey there’s no sunlight to show of their shimmering hue, many have been savaged some 2 metres up and there’s little sign of replanting. I play “Wild is the Wind”; both versions Bowie and Nine Simon and realise what this trips given me is a genuine re-acquaintance with music lyrics, it’s time-out, real time-out, beyond any I’ve taken in 20 years or more. For that it’s been a blessing.

“Music is my first love and it will be my last, music of the future and music of the past. To live without my music is impossible to do, in this world of troubles my music pulls me through.” – John Miles

First Aid Kit and Blue Roses have hit my consciousness on this journey, simply beautiful. Kanye West can p*** off because I’m blessed with Beck. If you see me walkin’ down the street then…….walk on by. When you feel so tired that you cannot sleep, stuck in reverse. And the tears come streamin’ down your face when you lose someone you can’t replace. When you love someone and it goes to waste, could it be worse?

A smiling young lady appears with lot bread filled with pickled vegetables, she says 100, I explain i have 80 or a 1000 and so she gives me foreigner discount. They’ve recycled yesterday’s side salad methinks but the bread is delicious. The second one has mashed potato, sounds bland but it isn’t. Now it’s less claustrophobic I’m enjoying this final day more. Elastica say they’re “Ready to Go”, so am I but not just yet. 

We pass a petrified forest and in its geographical centre a factory spews out God only knows what but I’m glad I’m secure behind quadruple glazing, perhaps that’s why all the windows are sealed? Tom Helen and Geike Arnaert sing about “Home” as we pass acres of felled timber, there’s a huge barren area right and left which I presume was formerly forested. Some token replanting has taken place. “Roam if you want to, roam around the world.” so much of the industrialised landscape is not actually producing, there’s no activity whatsoever. This reminds me of the track between Dudley and Birmingham New Street, the decaying former industrial heart of the UK. Advertising is non-existent and nowhere else on my travels have I ever seen that. Livestock is also conspicuous by its absence, maybe it all ignites and comes to ife in Spring? When does Spring kick-off, it is nearly April? 

Eighteen hours to Moscow, 62 behind me. On board we lose some military and gain some families and the air is remarkably fresher, the lavatories significantly cleaner. With the amount of Jasmine Green Tea I consume I could fill the Chungju Dam. We pass countless graveyards and the beautifully tended resting places add colour to an otherwise grey vista. The Russian people obviously have great pride in family and memories. There’s an awesome little church with recently clad lead domes, it stands out magnificently amongst the other mostly derelict wooden buildings. A break in the cloud cover and the birch shimmer again, a woodman appears with his dog and a couple of rabbits. But, there’s no kids, no snowmen, no schools, in fact I haven’t noticed any since we left Irkutsk. I haven’t seen or heard laughter or for that matter an argument or disagreement everything is so placid. The only three products I’ve observed are timber, coal and military vehicles. I can smell lunch.

We continue trundling towards Moscow some 12 hours now. There are more roads and signs of development. Huge factories still corrode and show no signs of life other than the ever present graffiti. We know the Russian economy is far from healthy but this is long term industrial decline and a reflection of China’s emergence as an economic power. As yet I can see no evidence of foreign investment as is the norm with healthy nations. The final batch of military boys depart, if they were born here I know why they’re in the army. I pray I’ll keep my own cabin as more passengers prepare to climb aboard. I appear to be lucky.

And so this is the Trans-siberian experience, not at all what I expected and something I never necessarily wish to do again. Whilst I normally prefer travelling alone (I normally meet new folk to chat to) this is the exception. Bringing a mate is the only antidote. For those of you who have committed an act in life for which you wish to punish yourself then take this trip by all means but there are more enjoyable ways of executing self-flagellation out there. I enjoyed my stopovers in Ulan Bator and Irkutsk though they were a little tarnished by the flu and now after this 4 day slog I’m looking forward to the Godzillas Hostel plus Moscow and after that the joy of Europe but for now arriverderci it’s 4:42am Moscow Kazanskiy Station and I have a hostel to find my great Trans-Siberian adventure is over.



UB to Irkutsk

As recently as 1989 it had taken up to two years to get a visa to Mongolia and UB had been devoid of traffic with the exception of a few Lada’s. 30 years of cold war with China had a legacy of wide Russian style boulevards (I’m romaticising), Soviet military planes and the odd tank. Now the same visa is not even required such is tourists importance, particularly in the summer months. The cars are Japanese and Korean; the buses all Korean; the cosmetic shops all Korean; everywhere Korean restaurants and Samsung investment in property development. The economic neo-colonialism of Mongolia by the Korean Cheobals is entering the mature stage. Understandably the Korean economic miracle is revered in Asia I just hope the Mongolians fail to adopt the same character traits symptomatic of SK society, that is disingenuity and misguided superiority.
There’s always a romanticism around great train journeys and the characters who inhabit a shared space for 24, 48, 64 hours or more. In this instant the purser whose sole aim in life was to turn milk sour and the lady who appeared to have a background in finance as she poured over hand written notebooks full of numbers. Every item of clothing clashed from the green and fascia roses on her fleece to the charcoal and turquoise abstract patterns on her blouse. She was though extremely kind providing me with a Russian style vapour rub to help my cold. Is this a front? Is she involved in espionage? Is she reporting back to Putin? Will I meet my maker in Red Square?
The carriages on this Russian behemoth are less accommodating than the Chinese ones. Stan Laurel would rest comfortably but for us Oliver Hardy’s it’s a little cramped. I slept most of the 10 hours to the border where a scam was in full swing a local entrepreneur climbed aboard. Mongolian currency has little or no value outside the country. I had piles of it worth around £1. He of course could change this for Russian rouble at a less than favourable rate which equated to 50p. As he exploited each cabin he pointed to the station toilets (the train toilets were closed for the 2 hour stopover) where his partner manned the equally exploitative desk. £1 for a pee! Guess who didn’t pay?
The bearded Aussies next door had seen and done more than any travellers in history. One thing I can confirm is that they probably made more noise, 21 years old and Marco Polo is pants to them.
The guards come on board as the purser reads his tabloid staying alert at all times. It is surreal, like a movie scene where passengers cower waiting for the Gestapo to lead them off for interrogation. I smile profusely, lovingly making eye contact which has the effect of making them rush; their intimidating behaviour reduced to the impact of a Tory government on social mobility. I realise quickly these are probably the secret police because they are swiftly followed by a handsome smiling fellow with immigration written on his one piece uniform. “Look at me” he says grinning ear to ear, ” it is you” he titters as he takes my passport to check the visa records.
We’ve waited around 5 hours at the border and I settle down to read “Last Call For The Dining Car” as the sun rises over the graveyard of outdated railway machinery. We are but two carriages still awaiting the addition of a Russian locomotive and it’s entourage. Goodbye Mongolia brief but relatively sweet; This is Russia, my first and probably last visit, though I gave been offered a job interview in Moscow. With Putin’s grace I’ll be here for 10 days before heading to Prague.
The purser appears with tea for the accountant, polite and courteous to her he obviously hates foreigners; we agree. It must take an immense effort to conduct your life with forced schizophrenia.
The rumbling of the Aussies continued punctuated with what sounded like a Wigan accent. It turned out she was adopted in Beijing when a war erupted between her and a now ex fiancé. How travel so often broadens the mind but often destroys loving relationships. The accountant dipped stale bread in her builders brew while I sucked on the now global fallback of Halls Mentholyptus. The “travellers” discussed their $15 a day budget and left no one in any confusion as to how important their existence on planet earth is. I descended into my classical playlist and wallowed in the drama of Bartolli’s Ma Mama Morta and the shorts contained in my reading matter, all relating to train travel. At times like these my Cans are ambrosia to my ears.
We eventually leave the station at 10:08am some 6 hours after we arrived! To my left are some intriguing mounds, what do they contain? The remains of Russian dissidents? The landscape is Scandinavian, rolling hill covered in snow, risen rivers and silver birch in abundance, evergreen pines kiss the horizon. Time for my playlist of Sigur Ros, Choir of Young Believes and Asgeir. This landscape is utopian. Twentieth Century Schizoid Man locks all the windows because the eternally enthusiastic travellers are leaning out to record their snaps and selfies. Oops we stop again for another security check, the present leg just 19 minutes old! This one consists of stern looks only lasting some 3 minutes, there must be full employment in Russian immigration.
Occasionally my companion says something in Russian, I smile and shrugs, she giggles and we both move on, her to her notebook and me to this blogging lark. An Eagle soars over the train, it’s impressive wingspan more noticeable as it stops by the window. Now there’s are two, do eagles live in Pairs? I think Blue Peter taught me that they do.
We stop again and I discover they think one of the carriages is not connected properly. I feel I’m on a movie set, all the world’s a stage and everyman must pay his part. Panic over we proceed, Bjork and Antony fill my Momentums. Then the bombshell, there appears to be some kind of no man’s land; we haven’t yet negotiated the Russian side of the border. Our previous interrogators must have been Russians on the Mongolian side. The travellers discover it will be sometime before we reach the Russian officiators and during this time the lavatories will remain closed!
Jose Gonzalez informs me to Stay Alive as he did to Walter in the Mitty movie. We pass 800 metres of cylindrical rolling stock containing hazardous waste which is surely destined for the veins of opposition leaders. Listen to Jose and agree with Putin. A very young, blonde and sapphire blue-eyed immigration officer got on board and scanned my visa followed by a butch female rottweiler who apparently was the drugs and illegal immigrant initial sniffer dog. All this of course adds to the experience. The real sniffer dogs arrive and the Aussies are asked to open all their bags but this decrepit old creature is left alone; it’s 11:35am. My head was still thumping from the cold so I took meds and closed my eyes. 12:15am and we’re still here but I’ve made a  new friend Chuka Myamba an artisan jewellery maker who despite having no English implores me to follow his Facebook…..12:51pm still stuck here……bitch of a train. 13:20pm I’ve just been informed that the whole crossing should take 10 (Ten) hours so at best we could leave at 14:00pm at worst 20:00 pm. We eventually left at 15:15 pm, my espionage theories were in tatters. My accountant had clasped her rosaries and prayed most of the way but now switched carriages, maybe she’d prayed to get away from my coughing and spluttering. She was replaced by a young Russian businessmen who looked uncannily like a stocky Steven Gerrard.
30 minutes later Mr Schizoid and his female counterpart came into my cabin smiling. Previously unable to communicate in any way about station stops, access to food and water or any other essential pieces of information, they managed to smile and say “items for sale”. Sod off! Stevie G continued to make a series of calls to enhance my aural pleasure. I retired to the comfort of my playlist still feeling groggy from the effects of cold meds. What do we think bruised knuckles signify?
Meanwhile I’m becoming FOBY I want to nap all the time, how relaxing is this train melarchy? 21:45pm Russian time, Ulan Ude. Lots of shunting as more stock is added still no information about length of stopover or money changing facilities. I have 70 rouble and have eaten 3 apples in 24 hours!
At Irkutsk some 36 hours after departing UB I was elated to find my hostel the Dobriy Kot was only 500 metres from the station, hallelujah, no mafiosi taxi drivers to negotiate . And how impressive large double room, great WiFi, lovely bathroom and a kitchen if you want to save more pennies. All for £12 a night.
I was still ill but soldiered on. Irkutsk is a rather dull place of decaying property, no public conveniences, churches and graffiti but with some pretty good coffee shops and a new area called 130. This has faux old timbered wooden houses doubling up as modern boutiques dissected by a modern mall. Apparently it was a Siberian place of exile in the past…poor bastards. According to Wikipedia:
“By the end of the 19th century, there was one exiled man for every two locals. People of varying backgrounds, from members of the Decembrist uprising to Bolsheviks, have been in Irkutsk for many years and have greatly influenced the culture and development of the city. As a result, Irkutsk eventually became a prosperous cultural and educational center in Eastern Siberia. During the Communist years, the industrialisation of Irkutsk and Siberia in general was heavily encouraged. The large Irkutsk Reservoir was built on the Angara River between 1950 and 1959 in order to facilitate industrial development.”
So its gone the way of other industrialised cities, downhill and I see little encouragement for its renaissance.
Tomorrow at 1:02am my 4 day train journey to Moscow begins.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Seoul: The Last Fling (Avec Trois Musketeers)

This is a short post as I’m in the throes of concluding my three years in SK prior to my March 10th Departure for China. We did have a holiday to bear before I left and so the three musketeers and I headed to Seoul for a last few days. China, Mongolia, Russia and Europe beckoned but this was a last chance to say goodbye. The lasses and I took two long walks; the first through Bukchon and up the stairway at the back of Samcheong-dong Park returning via Insadong to our digs in Jongno.  The second from Hansung University station following the Seoul wall over Naksan and through to Ihwa-dong and Dondaemun, then strolling back via Chungmuro to sample some derelict back-streets and graffitti. On friday we met up with some of my CELTA mates in Hongdeae. I stayed on to potter around and sort out my Chinese and Russian visa’s before heading back to Chungju to clear the flat for its new occupant. IMG_0017

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Fear For Your Future

The latest opinion polls are frightening, if the dark ones return to power and further decimate what binds our country together I fear I’ll never want to return.

I’ve discovered Ed Balls struggles to control a stammer and he says it sometimes appears to make us think he is confused. I sympathise but he needs someone to de-clutter how he explains stuff as it simply appears he’s bungling along ad-hoc most of the time. Whatever we think about Osborne, generally speaking he appears to get “his” message over, even if we hate the bastard. His comments on the Greece situation were clear and concise.

In summary that is Labours problem they don’t communicate effectively, they’re too wrapped up in focus groups and trying to convince us they’re ordinary when most of them are not. I’d like to see a plain English manifesto, in fact they should get that into the public domain right now; stick to the message of what they will do for the majority clearly costed in black and white. The Europe situation is a good example, bulleted advantages with a clear explanation of why they will fight our corner and how they are determined dissipate the bureaucracy. Who’s the spokesman on Europe, is it Alexander? Another thing only 520 jobs rely on Trident, they’re f******* engineers for Gods sake, their skills are transferable, build our own trains instead of importing German and Japanese ones!

They’ve had 4 friggin years to work this out and are failing miserably. I despair.

New Beginnings

That time has come, the time to say goodbye to Chungwon High School. It’s been quite an emotional period since returning from the CELTA in Chiang Mai. After receiving provisional confirmation that I passed I posted an updated CV on a plethora of ESL job websites. Even though I clearly state on my resume that I don’t want to teach little kids (CELTA Uggh!) I’ve been bombarded by a legion of Chinese spin doctors telling me that their school or academy is the best and they are waiting with open arms for me to arrive and teach their angelic darlings. Well bog off I don’t want them, jumping up and down and imitating a children’s TV presenter ain’t floating my boat!  Whilst I’d prefer a stint in Berlin there are some interesting positions in Dubai, Italy, Vietnam and Thailand which merit further inquiry.

Back to the present, I returned to school for the graduation of my 3rd grade; we’d been through it all together arriving on the same day in 2012. The soul wrenching obsession with rote learning and 16 hour days had taken its toll but I hope I planted the seeds of individualism in the minds of my charges. There is a world beyond the corporate suffocation of Samsung and LG. Needless to say a few tears flowed.

I followed this with a two-day literary & travel inspired extravaganza of a winter camp. Students participated in quizzes, poster making and cooking to a backdrop of “Where the Hell is Matt?”. The scene setting was to divide them into 4 teams whose inspirations were the fictional characters of Philleas Fogg, Captain Nemo, Pi Patel and Doctor Who. The evening entertainment was “Around the World in 80 Days”, the Steve Coogan vehicle.  Whilst the movie flopped at the Western Box Office; the inclusion of Jackie Chan was a pull for Eastern audiences, the kids loved it.

At the camps conclusion I met my replacement teacher Alex and as is the “special friendship” between the USA and the UK we arranged our hand-over of both jobs and the apartment. I was then told my time in school was over but I will return on the 25th for a leaving party.

That evening I went for dinner with my departing third graders and a great time was had by all chomping on unlimited Shabu Shabu. The morning after I headed to Seoul to organise my Chinese Visa the next to last piece of bureaucracy before I depart for my trans-siberian train experience and onwards to Europe. The final piece in the jigsaw will be my Russian Visa which I’ll organise next Monday after the Korean Lunar New Year Celebrations. Michelle and I are heading to Seoul for my leaving party and will catch up with EW and three colleagues from the CELTA in Chiang Mai.

I am so looking forward to my journey home and finding new work post CELTA and I’m hoping to keep the blog active (connections permitting) on my journey home.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A Touch of Cultural Leprosy

Oh Korea you try so hard and still come up short but I’m impressed by the gains made over these last three years. Today was about the art or practice of taking and processing photographs. Korean photographers never cease to disappoint me, even though they have the canvas in the monotonous ritual that is the work orientated existence of everyday Korean life. They often fail to capture it because they don’t extract any soul and they lack creativity. Korean photographers simply imitate others. To be influenced or inspired  by others is not the problem but you have to get what they’re about to inform your own style.

I’m struggling because I have photo heroes; Lowy; Frank; Leibowitz; Alvedon; Arbuss; Penn; Man Ray; Brandt; McCullin; Ritts and Klein but I can’t imitate. My style is about frame, form and geometry because of my engineering background. I wish colour inspired me but it frightens, noire is where I’m comfortable. If I have to choose one photo I wish I could have created it is simply about the colour and it’s Liebowitz’ image of the White Stripes, it quite simply is Americana personified. Today I went to see two photographers who i didn’t think would complement each other, I was surprised. First I need to say visiting galleries mid-week in Seoul is a pleasure, the memories of which I will take away with me. No screaming kids or wailing banshees annoyed with their over-indulgent boyfriends, just students and women doing lunch; almost wonderful.

The two photographers Linda McCartney (at the Daelim, Seoul) and the lesser known and more respected 🙂 Henri Cartier-Bresson (at the DDP, Seoul). McCartney’s exhibition, which is the first comprehensive retrospective of her works worldwide, presents 190 of her iconic photographs of sixties rock and roll, her family life and nature. Born in New York she documented the “swinging sixties” with her portraits of stars such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Aretha Franklin and Simon & Garfunkel. The palpable atmosphere of closeness and informality in her fresh, candid photographs makes her approach to portraiture unique. On the other hand Bresson’s work, through obviously influential, appears much more contrived and admittedly staged. He is the draughtsman she is the artist; controversial but in my opinion true. McCartney’s family snaps demonstrate her distinctive personal style: a casual elegance combined with an instinctive feeling for capturing the subject at just the right instant. Again the Breton dichotomy raises its ugly head, his portraits seem contrived hers resonate with soul. Hers exude class where his lack class but have high draughting merit and skill (my opinion!).

Good-looking, urbane, the rebellious child of French haute bourgeois privilege, he (Breton) networked effortlessly, and had ready access to, and friendships with, the political and culture beau monde of his time. Bresson had advantage as did our Linda; he used that advantage to capture the significant others of his day as did she but hers have, I believe, a greater honesty. That said I loved both exhibits; Bresson’s technically superior but Macca’s had the soul and moved me once or twice to a wet eye moment.

The Koreans of course cannot relate to either, it’s art, it’s publicised so its something to consume along with cosmetics and Dunkin D’s. Linda’s exhibit was more accessible to them; many know Hendrix and the Beatles but on my visit they were giggling over the cute animals that are part of the McCartneys life in Scotland. At the Bresson exhibit there was nothing familiar and they scuttled around without seeming to appreciate even his draughting skills.

I’m now done with Seoul and soon Korea; tomorrow I head back to the very “Dullju” for a last few weeks. Korea I thank you for being there when I needed a new challenge and a change of direction; I thank you for making me realise that my education was great and your system is fundamentally flawed. I’ve seen beautiful places and met lovely people but your country and its culture doesn’t inspire me or leave me wanting more so it’s arriverdverci, goodbye and good luck to you. I feel you’ve lost your way; come a revolution that may change but essentially I fear not. I hope I left a form of legacy but I fear that didn’t happen either. You gave me a haven to rejuvenate in but nothing more.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.