The Longest Day

I’ve just returned from a five day trip to South Korea with a group of MBA students. Much of the time was spent in a state of absolute exhaustion – that was, when I wasn’t bitterly cold … or asleep. Sadly, I lack the Thais ability to sleep anywhere, at any time (they say that if sleeping were an olympic sport, the Thais would win gold every time). Even so, large parts of each day’s coach journeys passed in semi-consciousness, so I can’t really comment on Korea’s landscape, other than to say a lot of it was covered in snow, there are lots of rivers, and the countryside is punctuated with hideous groups of tower blocks, whilst the towns consist of much larger groups of hideous tower blocks. But here’s how it all began …I arrived at the university business school at 6 p.m., as instructed. Most of the 70 or so students were already there, chatting excitedly. Some had their partners and children there to see them off. I sat in the air-conditioned office waiting ready for the off. I waited. And waited. And waited. On asking, I was told that the buses (two of them) would be there at 7 p.m.. They eventually arrived a little before 8 p.m.. They were double deckers – though far more comfortable than the image that such a designation summons in the British mind. They were painted on the outside in the garish manga designs so beloved of Thai private bus companies, and inside were attired as some tart’s boudoir (not that I know what such a place looks like).

The journey to the airport was uneventful, and check-in reasonably prompt; the queues at immigration, though, were nightmarish: I had more than 40 people ahead of me in my line, so it took well over an hour just to be permitted to leave the country. Then there was the usual couple of hours wandering around the over-priced and over-crowded shopping mall that is Suvarnabhumi. (Yes, despite all the blatant corruption and legal actions against them, King Power is still refusing to give up its monopoly.) Eventually, foot-sore, I headed for the cold, uncomfortable metal chairs at the gate to finish my wait.

The students were still bright and energetic, taking turns to photograph each other, groups forming and posing with practised alacrity, positioning themselves just-so, smiling with well-rehearsed ease, and occasionally raising two fingers in a “peace symbol”.

The flight, with Thai International, was unremarkable: poor food, no entertainment system, and no alcohol at all. And little chance of sleep. The flight only lasted 4 ½ hours, but you were woken half way through for (a thoroughly mediocre) breakfast.

At Incheon airport we were greeted by long lines at immigration – though fairly fast moving. Part of the speed was caused by the selection of 10 of the Thai students for further questioning elsewhere, though eventually all were admitted. (Our guide later told us of previous incidents involving Thai groups where the entire group had been detained. Whilst Thais don’t require visas to visit South Korea, there is clearly racial profiling going on when they arrive. I passed through immigration in a fraction of the time it was taking each of the Thais.)

The first visit of the day was to Nami Island, a small island on a lake surroundedby mountains. It’s been converted into a kind of theme park, with lots of kitschy statues …

Kitsch sculpture at Nami Island

… ice sculptures, cutesy restaurants and various displays. It’s most famous as being where the Korean soap opera “Winter Sonata” was filmed. This production was popular across much of Asia, and brings in lots of local and Japanese tourists. Winter Sonata was basically a love story, and many of the visitors are young couples. Nami Island is also a popular honeymoon destination.

To get to the island we had to take a ferry from the mainland through the ice-crusted lake. It’s a short trip, only five minutes or so, but it’s enough to make it feel ones going somewhere different. As you approach you can see the first of the ice sculptures.

Nami Island ice scupture

The weather was bitingly cold. There were snow patches on the ground, the remnants of a heavy fall a few days ago. Tall conifers in vast drifts or in straight avenues cover the island.

Avenue of conifers at Nami Island

The attractions held little attraction for me; far more interesting was watching the students who took photographs at every opportunity; no hole to peer through, ice arch to stand under, or grass hut doorway to crouch in was left unexploited. (The head of the MBA program took an amazing 1,400 photos in less than two hours!) Somewhat self-referentially, one of the most popular places to be photographed was in front of boards covered in collages of photos of the park.

The afternoon was spent traipsing around an apparently famous market – actually more a collection of streets which had about much going for it as a 1960s concrete monstrosity-type market. (Think “Arndale Centre”). The goods on offer were shoddy, and the food stalls (which usually interest me most) offered a pathetic array of dubious-looking fruit, veg, meat and fish. The only surprise was to see lots of strawberries for sale – and they actually tasted rather good.

The meal on the flight had left my intestines the worse for wear, and I had to make an emergency call on a public toilet. (OK, maybe that’s too much detail.) I was rather surprised to see a fancy, Japanese-style electronic toilet in the cubicle. In the bitter cold, it was a joy to find that the seat was nicely heated. (But it did take me several attempts to work out how to flush the thing. I pressed all the buttons in turn, to no avail. Then I noticed the pedal down at floor level.)

After dinner we eventually arrived at the hotel at 8 p.m.. At this point I’d been awake for 36 hours, so it was straight to bed to spend a night interrupted by strange dreams.

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