I told y’all that China post wouldn’t be a one off.
Welcome, friends, to the rib-tickling, rip-roaring, raunchy (really? no, probably not), rambunctious, raw and ridiculous second installment of How is this my life? which offers zero advice to fellow travellers, asking instead the important questions like: What am I doing here? Did that seriously just happen? and, of course, How the fuck is this my life?
By some strange trick of the light or, more likely, lost in a haze of neon and soju (Korean liquor, drank almost exclusively in Korea and yet still ‘the world’s best selling alcohol’; which should give you a good indication of the drinking culture here), I find myself with just four days left in the Land of the Morning Calm.
Maybe this is what happens the longer you spend travelling – the memories begin to blur and as a result retrospect becomes warped; your sense of time squashed smaller and smaller into the corners of the rush-hour metro carriage of your mind. Certainly I think this has to have played a factor here. More so though, I think my surprise at time having passed so quickly is an inevitability when travelling through Korea – a country so small that instead of spread out, life is layered in thick, exciting, weird, picturesque, high-octane slabs in which even the most experienced traveller could lose themselves.
This comes through too in my lack of posts from Korea. I’ve only written one real piece of travel writing since being here, whereas in both India and China I was churning them out almost weekly. It’s perhaps a shame, too, that the only post from this place so far focused more on the negatives of travelling in general rather than the infinite positives of this country. Hopefully then, here I can spit some phat bars of praise for this most fiercely unique, surprisingly beautiful world leader in technology and plastic surgery (*cough* misogyny *cough*)
Ehhh, surely it shouldni be ‘surprising’ for a world leader in plastic surgery to be beautiful?
Aye, very good, smart-arse. Shut yer hole.
It’s 3am on a weekday night and slowly but surely my first night on soju is starting to catch up with me. Wandering through the quiet streets of Hongdae we stumble into the open air of a small park, only to find a group of maybe ten or more kids gathered round an amp like moths to a flame. On the mic is a Kazakhstani instagram star (apparently), bustin’ rhymes like he’s Busta Rhymes. Now, alcohol, if you didn’t know already, does weird things to you. Like making you think you can freestyle like Slug. Fairly sure I hit them with some MC Smally… On a brighter note though, my Korean brother Jin slays the microphone. He puts the s(e)oul in Seoul. With that, our two groups part ways. Later in the night (morning) we’ll find ourselves drunkenly belting out anything and everything from Radiohead to Sinead O’Connor in a karaoke club (noraebang) which mysteriously refuses to sell alcohol. We’ll sing our hearts out until the last of us is falling asleep in the other’s lap, and eventually decide to call it a night (morning) around 7, just in time to have our last cigarette on the rooftop of Seoul Base Camp hostel as the sun rose over the city.
How is this my life?
After a day of hiking, eating superspicysupertasty rice cakes, and having my beard felt up by overly-curious old Korean men, we (Claire and I) find ourselves in a raccoon cafe. You heard it here first, folks. A cafe, with raccoons. The product of a legit pitch made to legit investors to legit start a cafe where legit people came and bought legit coffee and then petted legit raccoons. I mean, I’m not complaining, just…
How is this my life?
No matter how fresh-faced I am. No matter whether I have my nicest (or at least my cleanest) outfit on. No matter how on fleek my eyebrows are. In Seoul I am always, always underdressed. In Seoul I am always, always underattractive (it’s a word now).
How is this my life? LOL jk. I just put that one in there to be funny. That’s always been my life.
It was funny, right. Right!? VALIDATE ME.
I’m walking through a cramped, claustrophobic tunnel which North Korea dug in an attempt to invade the South. I reach the end. I am now directly below the DMZ: the demilitarized border between North and South Korea, and ironically the most heavily armed border in the world (also home to the most petty back-and-forths, such as South Korea blasting K-Pop into the DPRK, or the DPRK building the biggest flagpole in the world just to outdo their neighbour’s).
How is this my life?
It’s 7.30am and I’ve been out on the lash again. I feel a finger poking my ribs. I wake up to a disgruntled elderly local prodding me, and the faces of commuting passengers on the Green Line of Seoul’s metro system, disgusted with my complete lack of decorum. I am still very much very drunk. I have been asleep on the metro for two hours and have missed my stop twice. I have another half hour to wait till I get to Hapjeong station, and I am all too aware that I am the Quasimodo of this train carriage: I repulse and terrify. When I get back to the hostel just in time for the serving of breakfast, I will destroy several helpings of waffles before collapsing in a heap on the common room sofa, just as everyone else begins to wake up and start their day fresh.
How in the name of Blueberry, the God of Flavoured Soju, is this my life!?
I’m rough as sin (see above), traipsing aimlessly in the falling rain about Yongma Land: an old abandoned amusement park in one of Seoul’s many quiet suburbs. My pal Kat and I push each other around spookily derelict carousels, and back and forth in suspect, rusty swinging boats. A film crew arrives in flashy cars bearing the most glam and glitzy hair-metal (though more likely more shitty K-Pop) band. We find a stuffy, damp and stanky dinosaur costume which Kat convinces me to don. I am Godzilla’s runt brother, battering about dollar-ride cars and spaceships. My clothes will retain that thing’s ungodly smell for days.
How is this my life? (I love that this is my life)
The weather is amazing. Even the birds are bumpin’.
I head out to Seoraksan National Park, one of the most renowned in Korea for its soaring mountains and deeply cut rivers. And let me just tell ya: Korea knows how to do nature. Unlike China, it leaves its parks as untouched, ancient, untainted and beautiful as possible, and lets you cut your own trails (though providing you exciting trails if you’d rather stick to the more trodden paths which, given my record of getting lost (see my post on hiking in Hangzhou), I was happy to tread).
After a relatively tough hike up the side of Biseondae Rock, scrambling up hills and through cracks in the cliffs, sunlight beaming down through bright green canopies, I reach ‘the grotto’. This is a long-occupied Buddhist shrine found in a cave punched in a perfect circle a few hundred metres up a sheer rock face. The carved and metal stairs leading to the grotto were a tad sketchy, but traversing them was more than worth it, for the atmosphere and the views of and from the shrine. I sat in serene silence under paper lotus flowers for maybe close to an hour, just marvelling at the view, writing poetry and not thinking about anything. After a couple weeks of running around like a headless chicken, this was just the kind of R&R I was desperately in need of. As I began my descent I passed the monk who stayed in the grotto, and we exchanged a bow.
How is this my life?
As a history buff (and a realist) I’m more than used to my trips to historic sights turning up little more than a 20th century reconstruction or a few hardly discernible ruins. If lucky, you might also get some poorly translated English signs. If not, you’ll be stuck trying to recall that Wikipedia article (big up Wikipedia, fuck you every teacher I’ve ever had) you half-skimmed several months ago. Gyeongju then, was unreal (and I’m talking the proper use of the word, not like: here mate, your bird’s unreal). As the ancient capital of the Silla dynasty for close to 1000 uninterrupted years, Gyeongju dripped history with the propensity of a cornetto in the sun. I walked for hours through parks in the very centre of the city, seemingly every inch of which taken up by burial mounds bigger than yer ma’ (and yer ma’s hella big). In each and every single one of these mounds was buried a king, queen, prince or princess from the 6th century or earlier. Ancient regents lying undisturbed for over a thousand years, and if only I had Superman’s x-ray vision, I was looking right at them. H-h-h-historygasmmm. I even got to go inside one of these mothertruckers, which had been excavated and then developed into a space where visitors could see how the tombs had been constructed, and see the crowns and other riches discovered inside the coffins. What’s more, there were English language guidebooks available everywhere for free, with all the detail on the sights and the Silla dynasty you could ask for.
Later that day, sleepy from all the brain-melting, I napped in the woods of a park situated near this insane astronomical observatory (oldest in Asia) built in the 7th century by this kick-ass female monarch. I awoke some time later as the wind was picking up, blowing the soft pink petals of falling cherry blossom from the ridge of the hill, through the beams of sunlight, down on top of me. Talk about romantic as fuck. Keats would eat that shit up.
How is this my life? How does this place even exist?
We (Matthew J Cruz, Marieke the Swan, Katinka(bell) – my companions for the majority of Korea – and I) are on Jeju island: the ‘Hawaii’ of Korea (a little generous, I will admit). So far it’s been gorgeous (enough for my pale Scottish skin to get frazzled – now golden brown though, ja feel me Ru and Mum!?), but today there’s a storm brewing. So instead of a day by the sea or hiking in the mountains, we decide to visit the subtly named ‘Love Land’. Essentially, some punk art-school kids from Seoul or Busan or some shit decided that they weren’t edgy enough already, and so created an open air sculpture park… of giant penises. Giant penises. Giant vaginas. Giant hetero (always hetero, Korea is 100% #NoHomo) couples boning. Wooden penises. Metal penises. Donut penises (see photo evidence below). Lots and lots of sex and sexual organs. As the storm descends and our very bones are drenched, wind throwing us around like ragdolls, we move from sculpture to sculpture: a quarter repulsed, a quarter impressed, a quarter nonplussed, a quarter wondering what the filthiest, least original pose we can strike would be.
Seriously man, how is this my life?
Just as it did on China, one of the few suns I have left in Korea sinks on Jeju’s horizon, as the aforementioned crew and I sit out on the rocks, down by the sea. In the middle of our cosy wee circle is a bowl, a pot, a vat, a veritable cauldron of Marieke Cuisine-style vegetarian spaghetti/ramen fusion. There’s enough for a small army, but we make a decent dent, all the while sippin’ on our bowls (Asian style yo!) of beer and soju (legit they are great to mix). In the failing light of dusk the waves take on a gorgeous hue. A heron settles on the rocks nearby, looking out toward the mainland. We’ve got Matt’s speakers, and my iPod, so I’m going through my Atmosphere and Eyedea back catalogues, before introducing the Dutch/American group to some bands from home. It’s selfish perhaps to hijack the music like that, but getting a slice of home when I’m in such a beautiful location, with beautiful people, some 5,400+ miles from Scotland, I feel truly happy. The alcohol keeps us warm, the music happy, the food content, the view and sunset at peace.
How is this my life?
The more I travel, the more it becomes entirely ordinary to have your mind blown every day, to experience some aspect of culture entirely alien to you, to find yourself in unique situations – such as those above, and a thousand more – all with such frequency, variety, and magnitude it makes you wonder if maybe you’re actually still in the Matrix, and none of this is really real.
Nevertheless, just because you’re used to the fact of these things happening, doesn’t mean that when they do you don’t stop, shake your head in disbelief, and ask yourself how on earth you ended up here.
Of course sometimes it’s because some old guy’s grabbed your beard out of pure curiosity, and you’re like: haha… dinnae. And sometimes it’s because you’ve just watched a girl who’s had her nose, eyes, cheeks, and lips done take five minutes readjusting her pout and fringe before taking a selfie and you’re like: fuck patriarchy, fuck capitalism, this place has lost its shit, is there any hope for humanity? etc. etc. But on the by and large, its because something incredible or funny or beautiful or heart-warming just happened, and you’re like: seriously, when is someone up the stairs gonna realise they dished out an accidentally large portion of luck and drag my sorry ass back home to minimum wage and chores and real life shit?
That hasn’t happened yet, though, and so here I am – just four days away from moving on to my fourth country, plans progressing for my bruvs Shaunster and Luke to come meet me in South America, and no sign of the how is this my life? moments stopping any time soon.
With love for my people back home, for the Base Camp crew who made Korea so special, and for big Chazza Bannerman: newly 21 and still one of the coolest mufuckas I know.
What more’s in store for this intrepid traveller? Find out next time in How is this my life?