absentfather

Letters for my kids to read in the future, from around the world now

Archive for the month “April, 2012”

Jeju Island and the “Sea Women”, South Korea

Henyeh (Sea Woman) and her octopus

Dear George

I was excited to have a couple of business meetings set up on the holiday island of Jeju, off the south coast of Korea. It is kind of like Korea’s Hawaii, where couples go on honeymoon and retired folk go to play golf. The number of visitors is over 5million a year and the population is only around 500,000.

Because of work I didn’t get to see many of the tourist attractions, such as the volcano crater in the middle of Hana Mountain, the countries largest mountain and one that dominates the skyline wherever you are on the island. I did however have a drive around and was able to admire:

– the indigenous Jeju horse, famous in South Korea. They race it.

– the graves that are dotted all over the landscape. They are a mound that is walled with local stone to keep the horse out. They look very Neolithic

– the cherry blossom, which lined many of the roads and was in full bloom

Cherry blossom

On my only evening there last night I was taken to the sea by my hosts to try some local delicacies. The “Henyeh” (literally sea women) are divers who free dive into the ocean year round to harvest sea cucumbers, octopus and sea urchins. They are a local tradition but are dying out because no young women want to do the job. Hence they are now all old ladies in their 70s or older who brave the icy conditions and risk of sharks and drowning every morning to earn a crust.

Until recently they wouldn’t earn very much at all, but the Jeju government has realised their value and has implemented ways for them to generate income through selling their produce directly to tourists. We sat at their plastic tables and ordered sea urchin with seaweed, sliced sea cucumber and some winkles that you had to manipulate out with a cocktail stick. All eaten raw. I can’t say it was a taste sensation, but was certainly interesting. I was really impressed with the jolly Henyeh women who were really no nonsense and full of mischief. Ours wrestled with an octopus she had caught and insisted that we eat everything she had given us.

Sea Urchin

Later that night I actually ate live octopus tentacles that suckered my mouth as they went down and wriggled in my throat. A really bizarre experience, but supposed to give men stamina! The rest of the food was amazing: a barbecue where everything was cooked in its shell. I have never seen such enormous molluscs and it was really delicious, if not a little wierd. I also tried the local poisons – maloki, which is a milky rice wine and soju a rice spirit like sake.

Seafood BBQ feast

Seafood BBQ Feast

I’d like to take you and your mother to Jeju next time, it’s a lovely place.

Love

Dad

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The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), South Korea

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Dear George,

With a Sunday off and nothing to do I decided to pay for a tour of the DMZ, where South Korea meets its communist, totalitarian-regimed neighbour. After being picked up from my hotel quite early in the morning we set off along the Hangang river, which actually forms part of the border itself and is lined with razor wire and guard posts almost immediately after leaving Seoul. If anything is seen moving in the water it is shot. The DMZ is only around 50km from the centre of Seoul (and about 200km from Peongyang in the North) so getting to it takes an uneasily short amount of time.

The guide pointed out a few things on the way and gave a brief history of why the DMZ exists. I have to say I was pretty ignorant of the Korean war and the history of the peninsular generally, which is shameful given the number of times I have visited. It is a fascinating and unique situation that seperates a people in a terrifying stalemate. The Korean war had to end as nobody was winning and 6m people had been killed in 3 years – truly horrific. The armistice (not peace treaty) was signed in 1953 and the DMZ was formed, leaving the two countries still officially at war with each other.

The Zone runs all the way across Korea from one coast to the other and is filled with millions of mines. The razor wire is dotted with mine warnings.

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Mine sign

The DMZ is made up of a 7km militarised zone on the South which leads into the 2km DMZ proper, where the two countries can meet for talks. Our first stop was The 3rd Tunnel, which was dug by the north under the DMZ in an attempt to invade. It was discovered in 1978 because a defector told them about it’s construction and gets its name because it was the third one to be found. They have found 5 but other informants lead them to believe there are up to 25, the guide joking that one could be right under my hotel. We went down the interception tunnel built by the South Korean army once they had discovered the location of the North’s tunnel. It is pretty steep and goes down about 75m, then it meets the main tunnel which runs for about 1.5km. It is all blockaded at the bottom now for obvious reasons. Interestingly the north Koreans painted the walls with coal dust whilst building Ito they could pretend it was a coal mine.

At this point I was starting to realise just how popular the DMZ is for tourists. Around 5 million come every year and it seems most of them are incredibly loud Chinese middle-aged women on huge organised tours. They were ruining my day a little.

We pushed on to the observatory where you can look over the DMZ into North Korea. This is where you get an idea of how terrifying the place is. The south is covered in trees, the north is totally bare, the reason being that they don’t want to offer defectors cover to escape (and also that they need the wood in the winter to heat themselves, they can’t afford to import oil). The north has a flag on a pole that is 159m tall, dwarfing the south’s 99m pole. These were the subject of a petty flagpole race to see who could have theirs flying higher. There is a large aerial that sits ominously behind the DMZ to the north that is a signal jammer, stopping any tv, radio or phone signals to the north to keep the people in the dark. Such a bizarre place. Unfortunately you have to stand behind a line to take photos and can’t from the edge so the photos I have don’t really give you an idea of scale or any detail.

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People that do try to defect or even try to communicate with family in the south face public execution and this happened recently when phones were used near the Chinese border to call the south. They were caught and executed. Makes you mad that a regime can abuse its people to stay on power, to deny them the freedom and wealth that the south benefits from because they want their throne. If the two countries were now united (very unlikely) it seems to me that the south would face a huge issue economically.Image

Viewing platform

Some fun facts:

– North Korean men have to do military service from 16 until they are 24

– They have a standing army of 1.6 million compared with South Korea’s 600,000

– The “Sunshine Policy” from 1997-2007 saw the building of an industrial site owned by the South built in the North. Cheap labour, but fantastic for relations. This ended with the reelection of the conservative government in South Korea and tensions have since escalated again

My last stop was the train station built during the Sunshine Policy years that now lies unused. It was hoped this would link South Korea with the north but also China, the trans-Siberian railway, Asia and Europe. The facility is amazing, but there are no trains and no people. You can get a commemrorative stamp with Pyeonyang on it there, but not in your passport or some governments have a hissy about it at their borders. I stamped a 1000 won note.

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I’m glad I visited, purely for my understanding of the political situation and Korea’s history. It’s an eerie place that almost doesn’t seem possible and I just wonder how long it can last without something going very wrong.

Love

Dad

Business Class on the A380

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Dear George,

I mentioned a while back that I was booked on to the Airbus A380 in business class flying from Beijing to Dubai with Emirates, but realised I haven’t written about it. For a plane geek like me it was Incredibly exciting and something I had been looking forward to since the big bird was first flown 3 years ago.

Emirates are my favourite airline. They have routes everywhere I travel to (except Taiwan), their lounges are great, their staff well trained and they seem to have put more thought into the traveller’s experience coming first compared with their rivals. The lounge in Beijing Capital airport doesn’t let them down with the usual array of hot food, comfort and well stocked bar.

The most noticeable thing about being a business class passenger to start with is that you travel up an escalator in the terminal to separate you from the economy passengers that occupy the lower deck. The whole of the top of the aircraft is dedicated to first and business class passengers. I was directed to my window seat by attractive staff (another thing they have right! Don’t tell your mother I said that) and was surprise that is was just me and my cubicle – no seat next to me. Window-me-aisle. The cubicle has a little bar section on the non-window side that has soft drinks and snacks and the space underneath the tv screen in front lifts up for extra storage underneath (shoes, etc). You get a glass of champagne/juice when you sit down, the Emirates leather wash bag (stocked with bvlgari potions and the best freebie I’ve received from airlines) and noise-cancelling headphones.

Behind business and in front of first class is a bar area. This is the coolest thing I have seen on a plane – a fully stocked bar with staff there to mix whatever you like. As a test I ordered a martini and it was actually really good.

The rest of the service is the same as other business class services on Emirates – complete with 4 course meals, chocolates and smiles.

I would say that if you are travelling on your own it is fantastic. You are encapsulated in your own little world and it is a very comfortable one. If you are with someone then the set up is a bit too insular and other, more open plans are more sociable. I suppose you can always just head to the bar for a chat. D be interested to see how other airlines have kitted the A380 out.

At the time of writing this I’m in the nose cone of a KLM 747-300 heading from Schipol to Incheon airport in Seoul. The North Koreans are defying a UN demand that they don’t test fire a long range missile this week, so hopefully it won’t all escalate whilst I am there. I’ll write about my trip as usual.

Love

Dad

Rhino Tracking in Botswana

Dear George

Today was one that I’ll remember forever. I went Rhino tracking in the bush just outside Gaborone (pronounced Hab-or-own-eh) in a game park called Molokodi. I have to say that whilst getting dressed at 6am this morning that I was dubious of how good the park would be and my expectations weren’t high. I arrived at about 7:15 and set off with one English speaking guide and one tracker who carried a rifle.

We started in a typical safari truck and followed some trails, scanning the sand for Rhino prints. In the meantime I saw a large male giraffe, some impala, an ostrich, some warthogs and their piglets, a kudu and a fluttering of brightly coloured bird species. The weather was perfect: not too hot and really crisp and sunny. We found some tracks after about 45 minutes and set off on foot throught the bush to follow them.

The tracker knew it was a female and calf and showed me how he identified where they had been – prints, rocks turned over, recent tree damage, etc. We came across some warm Rhino poo after about 45 minutes and I knew that we couldn’t be far away. It was really exciting. The tracker crouched down and pointed. Around 50 yards away through the trees we saw them weaving in amongst the scrub. The baby heard us (or could smell us) and bolted off, so we had to follow them both on foot again. We got slightly closer for a few more seconds and then they ran again. This went on a few more times until we manoeuvred downwind from them. They watched us closely but let us get much nearer. Scarily near. My heart was racing, but eventually they seemed pretty comfortable that we weren’t a threat and settled down. At one point they even lay down in the sun, probably tired from the chase.

I took hundreds of photos, and it was a really magical experience. After a while they started to move off and we didn’t bother them this time. Instead we trekked back through the scrub trying not to get caught up in the huge spiders webs that hang everywhere with terrifying-looking spiders in the middle of each. We saw some more birdlife then made our way back to the truck which took us to see a tame cheetah in an enclosure. His parents died when he was young so never learnt how to hunt. You can even stroke him, which is pretty scary. Amazing growling purr that he makes and such a beautiful animal.

We had lunch by a very scenic lake and then headed back to the hotel where I had to get changed and do a bit more work. I was on a total high. A great experience.

Love

Dad

Botswana

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Dear George,

Botswana is a new country for me and I couldn’t wait to see what it was like. Landing in the early morning on the tiny strip that serves as an international airport I looked up at that huge African sky once more and felt a warm feeling. Your granny is South African and so when I was growing up we spent a lot of time in this part of the world. The colours, the smells, the flora and the pace of life are very similar and it rekindles childhood feelings of holidays and family.

Batswana (the collective noun for a group of people from Botswana) are incredibly laid back and jovial. It is a country with relatively few problems compared to many of its neighbours – a high GDP, no civil unrest, good (and improving) infrastructure funded by the money from diamonds – but they do have the continent’s current epidemic, HIV. It is a problem here as it is in many African countries, but the government manages to pay for 80% of treatment and looks to be doing a great job of educating the population too, a sure sign that things will improve.

I’m staying in the Gaborone Sun hotel and Casino, which is great and yesterday it felt more like I was on holiday than on a business trip. I sat around the pool in the afternoon, swam, went to the gym and managed to get sunburn on my shoulders. Work has started today, but is still at a leisurely pace and in a nice setting. The flights in and out of the country are not too regular, so I have to stay one extra day, which I think I will use to look around the city and maybe go around one of the game parks, although I am assured that they are no better than the safari parks in the UK, so might just be depressing.

The people here are incredibly friendly and there is a general feeling of happiness when you are out and about. When I booked my hotel from the UK I spoke to a woman called Pearl who had me laughing out loud. We were haggling over the price with her telling me that I sounded as if I could afford to pay the full price and me telling her I was very poor. Eventually she agreed to give me the room for half price if I brought her some chocolates from England. I saw her today and gave her a box of Cadburys and she was so happy. It made my day. Small gestures that mean a lot to people and make you feel warm inside.

More soon

Love

Dad

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