So Qingdao , what are you famous for? Ah, you were a German concession town were you? And you’re where the Tsingtao brewery is based? Excellent. I’ll have a pint. What’s that? It’s 50p? I’ll take two. Ahh…
My love affair with China (so much easier to navigate than anywhere in Africa, the Middle East or India ) undiminished, I arrived in Qingdao hoping to take the ferry to Korea today. Seriously, if this was India, I would have had to give five months notice, spent three days trying to find the correct window and drafted a memo the length of the Gettysburg address to explain exactly why I wanted to get on the ferry (as well as supplying the mortal remains of my great grandfather to prove I’m not of Pakistani descent). But this is China , so I just asked for a ticket, paid the money and got the ticket.
So I had a day to mooch around Qingdao . Nice little seaside town. Like Llandudno. If it was German. And in China . A couple of nice churches that somehow survived Mao’s Cultural Revolution and a pier with a splendid pagoda at the end of it. All pretty damn sweet. Oh and did I mention that a pint of beer is 50p? Actually, that’s if you buy it in a restaurant. You can get it at the 7 Eleven for like buttons. In fact, I think they pay you.
Strangely enough though, no bars. Or at least no bars that I could find. I found a couple, but they were closed. Maybe the beer-cheaper-than-water policy only works because the pubs aren’t open all day. They don’t want the Ibiza crowd turning up, do they?
It was lovely to see the old Pacific again, according to Andy in The Shawshank Redemption, the Pacific has no memory. Which may be bad for homeopathy, but it was good for me, as last time I saw it I was drunkenly mouthing obscenities at it from a beach in El Salvador . Although the fact that it purposely wet my shoes makes me think that Andy might have been taking out of his arse.
Soon enough I was embarking on the overnight ferry to Incheon, South Korea . The only other westie on board was a guy from all over the shop (as was his accent) called Dane. He had lived in the UK , South Africa , Hong Kong … you name it, he’d probably hung his hat there for a good while. We teamed up and got drinking with the locals. I was introduced to the HORROR that is Kimchi – Korean fermented cabbage (yes it tastes as bad as it sounds – and smells) as well as Cheongju – fermented rice wine. After giving both a try, I decided to stick with the beer. You always know where you are with beer. Did I mention it was 50p?
So I disembarked (hilariously described on the ferry’s website as ‘dismemberment’)…
…onto the native soil of country number 169, South Korea – a place at pains to remind you that it’s the only divided country in the world. Which it is. If you ignore Cyprus/Northern Cyprus. And Ireland/Northern Ireland. And Israel/Palestine. And North Sudan/South Sudan. And Somalia/Somaliland. And China/Taiwan. And Pakistan/Bangladesh. And Mongolia/Inner Mongolia. And Macedonia/Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. And Georgia/South Ossetia/Abkhazia. And Azerbaijan/Nagorno-Karabakh. And…
But pedantry aside, North and South Korea have been officially at war for over fifty years now (there was only a ceasefire, not a peace treaty) and now we have a crazy situation in which the southern half of the country is one of the richest and most progressive in the world, while the northern half is a basketcase and something akin to George Orwell’s 1984, if 1984 had been even more weird and depressing than it already is.
In 1980, South Korea had an economic output on a par with Afghanistan. Now it’s in the G20. Meanwhile, North Korea hasn’t just gone backwards, it has regressed to the point where it is needs to have its nappy changed by China every two hours. With a short-arsed madman in charge (and his freakishly similar-looking son poised to take over as soon as he croaks), the future is not bright for the poor bastards living in one of the last strongholds of (a-hem) ‘communism’. Or as I like to call it, ‘autocratic fasci-commie-nutty-meanie-bollocks’.
But the big question (that I hoped to answer this week) was this: How The Hell Are You Going To Visit North Korea?
I get asked this a lot, just as I used to get asked about Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq (why does nobody ask me how I’m going to get to the Marshall Islands eh? Now for that question I have NO answer). My usual response would be ‘er… by stepping over the border…?’, but I guess I owe something of a more detailed explanation. In my research (yes, I did research this odyssey, believe it or not), I sussed out two ways of doing it.
There is a company called Young Pioneers Tour which runs trips from Beijing that enter North Korea on the train and spend three days shepherding you around Pyongyang before taking the train back to China. This trip would take five days in total and cost up to $1000.
I could visit the ‘Peace Village’ set up in the middle of the Demilitarised Zone (the DMZ) and enter one of the five white huts that literally straddle the border between the North and South Korea. Half the hut is in the sovereign territory of North Korea, so as long as I manage to walk to the far side of the hut, I can quite legitimately cross North Korea off my list. As I was going to be in Seoul anyway, this trip would take less than a day and cost $50.
For reasons that are glaringly obvious, I went for Plan B. Anyone who has a problem with this can meet me behind the bikesheds after school for a damn good kicking. Be the first person to visit every capital city without flying why dontcha? At the moment I’m a year over schedule and stupidly over budget: I’ve got bigger fish to fry.
So before this fish frying could begin in earnest, I had some housekeeping to do. Taiwan was giving me headaches as I had originally planned to take the ferry from Japan to Taiwan and then take a cargo ship or something back to China (probably Hong Kong). The bad news is that the Japan-Taiwan ferry stopped in 2007, yet another victim of low-priced flights. The good news is… well, I’ll tell you next week, but it meant that I needed yet ANOTHER Chinese visa (why oh why didn’t I just get a multiple entry one I’ll never know).
So I accompanied Dane off the ferry and onto the Seoul metro (nice!) to his backpackers (Inside Backpackers, would recommend) and there I booked a trip to the DMZ for the next day. The nice lady on reception found a visa agent for me to use – the Chinese Embassy in South Korea no longer accepts visa applications by real people. I headed over to the office and gave in my passport. But there was a problem. In order to get the visa by the earliest date (which would be next Monday) I would have to give proof that I had already been granted a Chinese visa.
And my Chinese visa was in my other passport. The group visa I got in Nepal was on a separate piece of paper, not in my passport. This meant I would have to hand in both passports. As I wanted to visit Japan this weekend, this was something of an arse. Eventually I got the guy to agree to give me one passport back tomorrow so I could still do the Japanese thing. Yet another bit of unforeseeable Odyssey madness.
To add a little flavour to proceedings, next Tuesday is a big public holiday in South Korea, so if I didn’t pick up my visa then, I would be waiting until the end of the month.
I headed back to the nice backpackers to pick up my stuff, but I would not be staying there: once a CouchSurfer, always a CouchSurfer. My host in Korea was a guy called John from Atlanta, Georgia who quite possibly qualifies as the coolest CouchSurf host of all time (up there with Gui in Mozambique), I mean, this guy WAS the Big Lebowski. He will be henceforth referred to as The Dude.
He had a tiny flat which managed to cram in at least five CouchSurfers Tardis-style, at any one time. When I arrived he was already hosting a couple who had been biking it from France all the way here to Seoul, which was mighty impressive. I mapped out a spot on the floor and cast out my worries.
The Dude wanted to go out on the raz, something I cannot for the life of me fathom why anyone would think was a bad idea, aside from the fact I had to be at the backpackers for 7.15am to do the DMZ tour. I’ve made tighter deadlines than that, and so The Dude and I hit the streets of Seoul looking for Seoul food and a place to eat.
We didn’t have to look very far. The Dude treated me to some authentic Korean barbecue (where you cook the meat yourself on a circular hotplate in the middle of the table) and then we hit the city.
Seoul is flashy, it’s lively, it’s neon, it’s welcoming, it’s loud – and, best of all, it’s pretty cheap (compared with other capital cities). We went to a string of different places, meeting up with The Dude’s rather large set of ex-pat mates from all over the world and getting progressively more and more intoxicated until at 3am I decided it might be time to come home for at least a couple of hours kip.
DAY 625: You Don’t Need To See His Identification
So after a literal 40 winks I was up again at 6am and heading across town on the excellent metro system (Liverpool, goddamn it, when I get back, you and me are having WORDS) to get to the backpackers. With nothing else to read, I was perusing the DMZ tour brochure when something rather ugly and red on the back page caught my eye: the words YOU MUST CARRY YOUR PASSPORT AT ALL TIMES.
I ran to the backpackers, but it was not going to happen. No chance. Forget it. Goddamn it – this is one of the reasons I have two passports, so I can go places while one is in an embassy – and both of them where with the bloody visa agent.
But I can go tomorrow, right?
Wrong. The tour was full tomorrow. There was no tour on Sunday or Monday and Tuesday was the beginning of this holiday – there wouldn’t be another tour for the next ten days.
So after a fit of swearing that would make Roger Mellie blush, I stormed back to The Dude’s flat with my tail between my legs. When the going gets tough, the tough get onto Google. They couldn’t be the only tour company in town, they couldn’t…
Thank the maker, I found another tour company and this one was nowhere near as unreasonable when it came to what time I had to get up in the morning: the tour left at 10.40am. I booked the trip, headed over to the visa agents, picked up my passport and Happy Days.
Friday night was a bit of a repeat of last night. It involved Seoul, a city I now love, some tasty goddamn food and something to do with beer. And possibly some dancing. We stayed out way past your bedtime, but I can do that because, contrary to what my teachers would have had you believe, I am big and I am clever.
What wasn’t clever was the fact that, on the eve of what would be a great victory (and great television) my camera, Javier, threw another of it’s periodic spazzes and this wasn’t a simple fix or even a cunning workaround: the cartridge that holds the video tape had completely gone la-la. Even if I did make it to North Korea tomorrow, there would be no High-Definition evidence. I bet on the TV show they say ‘Graham was told not to film, so he captured the experience on his phone’ or something. That’d work.
DAY 626: Through Early Morning Fog I See
This morning was infinitely more pleasant. I had time for a shower and everything.
I was even early getting to the hotel from which the tour departed: an unusual occurrence for me as I generally like to show up 30 seconds before anything departs, much in the manner of Sherlock Holmes. Just to put the willies up me, somebody had written something on my website along the lines of “they sometimes don’t let you walk to the far end of the peace hut”. That weighed heavy on my mind, but hey-ho, whatcha gonna do? If all else failed, there was always Plan A.
My bus buddy on the trip was a British guy called Mark Who worked in the video games industry. At LAST! Somebody with an interesting job! And if you don’t think working in the video games industry is interesting, then you are a fool and a bigot, you smell of turnips and your dog thinks you’re an idiot. The video games industry is bigger than Hollywood and, unlike Britain’s (ha!) television industry and our (oh dear god no!) film ‘industry’, our video game makers are some of the best (and most successful) in the world. Did I mention that the Grand Theft Auto series is Scottish? I probably should have. It’s made more money than the Lord of the Rings films, although you won’t hear anyone from the Scottish Tourist Board harping on about it, sadly enough.
Anyway, me and Mark got on like the proverbial house on fire as we chatted about Zero Punctuation and the upcoming Goldeneye remake. We were taken to places called things like The Bridge of No Return and then deep into the DMZ itself, a place where you can be refused entry for looking too scruffy or even – eek! – having long hair.
Luckily for me, the guy with the shotgun from Easy Rider wasn’t on duty today.
So before long we were in the ‘Peace Village’ where negotiations take place between representatives of the two Koreas. A line runs down the middle of the village, much in the manner of Felix Unger’s line in The Odd Couple. This is the line that may not be crossed: to do so would be an act of War. However, there are five small huts that straddle this line. During meetings between the north and south, the representatives sit on their respective side of a table which is positioned right in the middle of the room: the line of demarcation runs down the middle of it. I guess they have to be careful not to stretch out their feet: North Korea is, after all, a nuclear power (a fact that is truly terrifying).
We entered the middle hut and before anyone could tell me not to, I ran around the table and to the far side: Kim Jong-Il be damned, I was in North Korea!! Here’s a secret video I shot whilst in the Peace Hut:
A massive ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY countries now officially visited and just THIRTY to go (fifteen of which should be a cakewalk), I felt like cracking open the champagne, but the guards in this area looked a little stern for some reason, so I thought I’d best leave it until later. All too easy…
On the way back from the village I bought my ‘I went to North Korea and all I got was this lousy T-shirt’ T-shirt while Mark got himself some North Korean money. You could buy DMZ teddy bears and everything: I wonder if they have them on the North side?
When I got back to The Dude’s, my fellow CouchSurfers had been replaced by a couple of Turkish girls called Asli and Selma and a guy from Germany called Paul. Baffled at the prospect of why anyone would willingly stay in on a Saturday night, we headed out, drawn like moths to a flame to the flashy neon lights and scrummy scran that the streets had to offer.
Along the way we met drifters, strangers, vagabonds, rapscallions, ne’er-do-wells, scallywags, ruffians, thieves, princesses, courtesans, belly-dancers, disco-dancers, crusties, greebos, sex-kittens, pie-eyed galoots, slack-jawed gawkers and flannel-footed mugwumps.
Needless to say, we had a blast. I LOVE COUCHSURFING!!!
Day 627: The South of The South
Shaking a hangover off is an undisputed talent of mine, but making up for lost hours of sleep is another matter entire. This being the case I refrained from picking myself up off the floor (as was the plan) for a very, very long time. But now I needed to head to country number 171 – Japan – post haste. Now I had one of my passports I needed to get there and back before end of play tomorrow or else I would be more stuffed than a stuffed toy that’s just eaten a seven-course meal which consisted entirely of stuffing.
The plan was to head down to Busan the south of South Korea, get the last ferry over to the Japanese city of Fukuoka (please don’t ask me how that is pronounced, I’m told it’s Fu-Coke-Ah, but the way I say it would have me banished from the dinner table), spend the night and then return in the morning. However, by the time I got to the train station something happened that I hadn’t considered – the trains were sold out for the next few hours. Ah. As it only took a few hours to get to Busan (excellent, excellent trains BTW Korea – give yourself a pat on the back), I hadn’t really considered that possibility. As it was, and given the best laid plans of mice and men, I didn’t get to Busan until 9pm – too late for the ferry (or so I thought… I think they actually run until eleven).
So I checked into the nearest backpackers (the Indy hostel – seemed appropriate somehow) and resolved to get up at the crack of dawn the next morning. This resolve was slightly compromised by the other resolution I had set myself – find a KFC. After 4 days of nothing but Korean food, I was hankering for something that wasn’t weird or slimy or alive. I walked until well past midnight, but the flashy neon-lit streets of Busan hummed only one tune: my way or the highway. I made do with a burger from a street stall.
Day 628: Nonsense On Stilts
Would you believe that I not only managed to haul myself out of bed at 6am, but that I also managed to get a ticket for the first crazy ferry over to Japan – and man, was it a crazy ferry. Like nothing I’ve EVER seen before, the Beetle is a boat that does away with the age-old problem of the hull having to part all that water by simply (and seemingly impossibly) driving through the water ON STILTS.
Whoever invented this abomination of aquadynamics should be lauded and feared in equal measure. I take my hat off to you sir.
The journey was smoother than a silk cigar and before I really knew what was going on I was in Country 171, or Japan as people who aren’t on The Odyssey like to call it.
Because I needed to get back for my passport, Fukuoka only got a cursory glance, I’m afraid. But there wasn’t much to see. My friend Stringer tells me this is a big Yakuza city – the mayor was recently assassinated – but from where I was standing, it looked like a big Ya-loser city: all concrete and overpasses and dull. I had an hour before the return journey, so I thought I’d give the place the benefit of the doubt and go for a walk – I also needed to find an ATM – my departure tax could only be paid in yen.
I didn’t find much. Just some streets and some buildings and a 7-Eleven. Maybe the port area is just poo and the rest of the town is ‘happening’, as the kids say. Had I more time and more money, I would have loved to head up to Tokyo on the bullet train and hang out with Stringer, but not this trip, I’m afraid. I took my Yen and headed back to the ferry terminal.
Biff bash bosh I was back in Busan (man that Beetle is FAST) and within an hour I was hurtling north on a train. I guess because I’ve never been to Japan before, and it’s one of the few countries that I hadn’t been to before The Odyssey began that I really really wanted to see, I felt like I owed Japan an explanation.
The yachting season around the Pacific ends in December. If I don’t get to The Marshall Islands before then, there is little chance of me getting there before NEXT MAY. Sorry Japan, I really, really need to get them there skates on. But don’t worry: I’ll be back.
I arrived in Seoul just before 6pm and I ran like the wind to the passport agency, praying to Bacchus that it was still open. I knocked on the door. No answer. I knocked again and opened the door… thank the god of wine… it was still open. But my passport wasn’t there. It had been picked up by the German guy and the Turkish girls that were CouchSurfing at The Dudes.
You fookin’ LEGENDS!
I headed back to The Dudes he took me out on his motorbike (did I mention he was a DUDE?) razzing it about town like we weren’t made of squishy human bodyparts. Weeeeeee!
Day 629: Octopussy Galore
With my passport in hand and North Korea and Japan in the bag, there was nothing keeping me in Korea save the craic. As I mentioned a couple of days ago, today was the start of a big festival here in Korea, so I was worried that I might not get a space on tonight’s ferry back to Qingdao in China.
Luckily for me, Asli and Selma, the Turkish girls, had got the very same ferry as me a couple of days ago and had befriended the captain and the first mate (very resourceful – I should have brought them with me). Selma gave the first mate a call on The Dude’s phone and he said he’d meet me at the terminal at 4pm and sort me out with a ticket.
What a guy!
So we headed out for lunch, and since this was going to be my last Korean meal, The Dude wanted it to be special: so, inspired by Oldboy, we headed out to eat some traditional Korean LIVE OCTOPUS. Stupidly, I took all my bags with me, which was a BAD CALL as no sooner had we left the flat but the heavens opened and it rained down so much it made the Niagara Falls look like a light shower. Everything (especially my shoes) got SOAKED. Rats!
But eventually we made it to the fish market, bought the –ahem- merchandise and headed over to a nearby restaurant (accessed by wading through a torrent of hooky overflowing drain water) and sat down for the coolest meal I’ve ever partaken in, if only because I felt like I was Captain Kirk having to eat the crazy alien food on some crazy alien planet and – let’s face it – octopuses look like crazy alien beings.
The tentacles squirmed around in my plate. You have to dip them in oil so the suckers don’t fix themselves to your oesophagus on the way down. Then chew it well (you don’t want it attaching itself to your stomach lining) and it’s down the hatch. GULP!
As somebody once said; you should try everything in life at least once, with the exception of incest and country dancing.
I got to the ferry terminal in Incheon bang on time (thanks to The Dude paying my fare – we were all out of working cash machines) and to my surprise there were still tickets available for the ferry so I didn’t have to bother the first mate. I got stamped out and clambered aboard: back to China, for the third time.
So then, South Korea: you’re a great little place ain’t yah? Not as autocratic as China and not as expensive as Japan. Gastronomically and culturally a nice mix of the two. Could do with a few more cash machines that take foreign cards, but other than that, you’re doing a great job, carry on.