First Glimpse of Seoul

When the alarm goes off and it’s still dark outside during the Australian summer, you know it’s early. Add a 3 hour time difference and it works out to a 2:30am wake-up for your intrepid hero in preparation for a 6am rendezvous with the bus outside Wesley College. The impending adventure brought me to full consciousness in short order and I was locked, loaded and ready to roll in good time. We dribbled out of the college in various states of dishevelment to meet a bright eyed, bushy tailed Shirley and Dave, the bus driver.

After a quick photo, we were up and away – the bus ride, airport queues and last-minute bag weight stress flying past my consciousness (despite the fact that I still had yet to register what an adventure I was in for).

The Gallivanting Gong for today goes to Shirley for capturing this candid shot in the pre-dawn Sydney light.

Australia's Finest

Australia’s Finest? From left to right: Joanna Holland, James Oughton, Derry Doyle, Luisa Cools, Michael Varnay, Lucinda Campbell, Clinton Phosavanh

Fairly late in the piece, I found out that Korea is a gift-giving society and it was expected that I give small gifts to all and sundry with reasonable frequency. So thank heavens for Duty Free, where I could supplement my jarrah chopping boards with some small tokens of appreciation. It may have been duty free, but that doesn’t stop the shops from whacking an obscene price tag on Australian delicacies and it was with great pain that I parted with nearly $100 for 750ml of honey and a small bag of honey roasted macadamias. Daylight robbery… but pittance to pay for the generosity of my host family and the corporation that I would be working for. In hindsight, I only wish I had stocked up on more!

Before too long, it was flight time and I was glad at first to have a window seat… but not long into the flight, I was severely regretting my seat allocation! Perhaps I’ve become accustomed to the old red eye express – flying during the day meant that I had the burning sun beating down on my side of the plane for the next 10 hours. The inside of the plane was almost too hot to touch and led to an incredibly uncomfortable flight. On a positive note, I was sitting next to a cool Mongolian lady who teaches geology at a university in Mongolia. She was visiting her daughter in Australia and we struck up a very amiable (if hesitant and a little broken) conversation. It amazes me that so many people have a basic command of English and always serves to remind me how linguistically lazy we are here in Australia. I did my part though and remembered how to say “goodbye” in Mongolian (bairrda). So next time you find yourself in Mongolia….

The other positive about the flight was that we were served a Korean staple – Bi Bim Bap (rice with vegetables). Very nice.

10 long hours later and we stumbled off the plane and into Incheon airport, Seoul. Lollygagging at the back of the plane, we arrived at the baggage collection to find all of our bags waiting in a neat pile beside the carousel. Welcome to Korea – not only are they so efficient that they had cleared the carousel in about 20 minutes, but it’s perfectly ok to leave bags unattended because a) there are so few radicals here; and b) everyone is so honest, there’s no risk of theft. What a great place.

We were met at the airport by Mr Hugo Bae (of POSCO), who had no trouble recognising us amidst the tide of black bowlcuts. Mr Bae is what we Aussies would describe as “a top bloke.” We got to know him a little better later on after our 1hr bus trip to Gangnam and the Ibis Hotel (probably the fanciest place I’ve ever had the pleasure of staying). He took us out for what is apparently a Korean staple – 치맥 (chimaek or fried chicken and beer). For those that know me for the health nut that I am, I was a little unenthusiastic at first… but it sure was delicious! As we munched our way through an enormous amount of fried chicken, we discovered that four of the eight are virtual non-drinkers (your good author included). Not ideal in a country where drinking is considered an important part of the social/work balance – there’s even a saying that goes something like “The true nature of a man comes out when he’s got a few under the belt”. Not to worry –  after downing a pint, I had a taste of Korean wine, soju (소주) which is really agreeable. It’s often mixed with beer, but I prefer it straight – it’s not too heavy at only 20% alcohol or thereabouts.

As I mentioned before, whilst at dinner we learned more about our gracious host Mr Bae. Turns out he’s been in a film – this is the riddle he gave us:

– It’s a famous film series that was based on a series of books and is made once every few years

– It was very popular in the 1960s (and has been ever since)

– The main character is very cool

– It was filmed in England…

Kudos to Michael (the resident film buff), who nailed it – Die Another Day, of course! Supposedly he’s on at about 5:23 as a North Korean driver… will have to have a look when I get back to Oz and see if I can spot him. In any case, film-star or not, he’s a top bloke and a gracious host – keeping the chicken flying, the soju flowing and the interns very full and happy.

Some of the others were keen for a night out with Mr Bae (who willingly obliged), but Joanna, Clinton, Michael and I decided to retire for the night in the lap of luxury at the Ibis.

I didn’t manage to capture many snaps in the initial hours, but take a look at Clinton’s blog for some excellent insights, witty prose and top notch photographs (he’s a semi-pro).

Thanks all for staying on board and putting up with the delays… more news as it flows through the fingertips.



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