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

Archive for the month “November, 2012”

Running up a mountain in Seoul and other adventures



Dear George,


I’m on the very efficient airport shuttle bus taking me back to Incheon airport from the Plaza hotel in Seoul, South Korea after 5 days of work following on from Malaysia. Knackered as always.


I’ve always had a soft spot for Seoul which grows each time I come. Unlike a lot of the fleeting visits I have to various cities around the world, Seoul is more inclusive and the people allow you into their lives. It’s an incredibly forward thinking country, embracing technology in every part of life, investing in education and valuing family life.


As part of my new policy to say yes to anything sounding vaguely different I found myself agreeing to a morning run (on a Saturday of all days) up a large hill with the N Tower on the top. I was invited at breakfast, looked out the window at the crisp, clear view and decided I had to, even though I haven’t been on a run for months. It is autumn at the moment and the colours are fantastic – reds and bright yellows against sharp blue skies. The perfect temperature too. We started in the city and soon found ourselves at the bottom of the peak, which seems to be a popular spot on a weekend for a walk/run/cycle. The leaves had been swept into patterns like hearts and shamrocks; the kind of detail in public service that simply doesn’t happen in the west. There was a great atmosphere, lots of laughing and smiles as we jogged on through the groups of middle-aged Korean hikers.


At one point we slowed and a trail runner started giving one of our group a push up the hill, shouting “faster, faster” with a big grin before taking our photos. The last section was particularly steep and painful, but worth it for the views at the top and the craziness that greeted us.


Those that make it to the summit are rewarded with various activities to keep you busy: there are traditional Korean costumes you can borrow for photos, some guards on a battlement complete with long beards and lances, some young martial artists demonstrating samurai sword skills and the campest karate exercise class in the world. I darted around taking photos of all of these and then started to join in with the karate just as they decided to stop. Mildly offensive I thought.


The run down was easy and glorious and I felt so good afterwards I went to the gym for another half an hour. Nobody likes a show off.


After work had finished later that day I headed out with some colleagues for a beer and a traditional Korean BBQ, the pinnacle of social eating. Any meal where you get to play with your food is good with me. I went on to to a bar in Shinchon where you order small, medium or large glasses, the largest of which is about a metre tall, and sit them in a frozen hole in the table to keep them cool. Two of the girls we were with were gay and wanted to show us “homo hill”, a few streets in Itaewon where the gay bars are. With my new yes policy I decided why not and jumped in a cab.


There were several moments of discomfort during the night (a guy trying to give me a massage, getting my arse pinched several times, one guy trying to full on gyrate against me) but it was an incredibly fun night overall. Most Koreans would be shocked that such places exist in their country I think – certainly the Korean we took with us was. It was different and the group I was with were fun and I needed a night out after a week and a half of non-stop work.


I’m so happy to be coming home, with no travel planned and a long Christmas break coming up. You’ll be 22 months old and it will be fun to see you tearing open presents and getting excited.






Kuala Lumpur: back after 7 years


Dear George,


I first visited Malaysia with your mum in 2002 as part of our tour of the world. We’d all but run out of money by then and arrived by bus from Singapore into Kuala Lumpur bus station quite unprepared for the squalor and chaos that greeted us. We were disorientated by the noise and mass of people, lack of any signage and pure contrast to Singapore and our luxury air-conditioned bus that had delivered us with smiles from ear to ear. The one-lmbed beggar shuffling towards us, the heat and the uncertainty of where we were going stressed us out a bit. We eventually found our way out of the dusty station and called a guy who picked us up and took us to his ‘hostel’ (his spare room in a leaking tower block in a fairly dodgy area). Suffice to say that I didn’t have fond memories of KL and we left after a couple of days to explore the Cameron Highlands.


My next visit was in 2005 for a work trip and the contrast to my first experience couldn’t have been greater. My boss flew me business class with Emirates, I was picked up by a hotel limo and driven to the club floor of the mandarin oriental hotel, overlooking the Petronas towers (one time tallest buildings in the world, setting for the finale of a heist film with Sean Connery and Catherine-Zeta Jones). I was stunned by the city this time around – great food, happy people – and the cobwebs of the late 1990s economic crisis had been well and truly left behind.


I flew into KL this time around for work again, but with a weaker pound and tighter budgets I could not stretch to my previous opulence. I still had a lovely view of the towers, but no executive privileges, rooftop pool or flowers on my bed this time. The city has changed a great deal. There is building work going on everywhere, old businesses moving into new tower blocks and the economic improvements are apparent by the cars people drive and the way they dress. But my my, the cars! KL is absolutely grid locked every rush hour or anytime it rains (most afternoons at this time of year) and it is next to impossible to get a taxi. The residents take it on the chin as part of modern life, but it is the worst experience of traffic I’ve ever encountered – I spent more time in cars than in the meetings they were taking me to.


No novel experiences this visit, just hotels, work, the odd restaurant to shovel beef rendang into my mouth with great gusto and a couple of drinks with colleagues in the heat.


You are 21 months old now and very cute. You say door, car, kangaroo, more, star, mama and dada, Eddie and potato and seem to pick up a new word every day. You are a natural comedian, pretending to cough up socks that you hold in your hand and hiding things from us. Last night you were trying to feed me sweets through the screen on Skype (and I was pretending to eat them). I’ve been away a week and it always gets more difficult being away from you longer than that.


I flew on to Seoul and I’ll write about that later.





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