Incheon, Thursday 5 September, 2pm. As I leave the plane at Incheon, one of the hostesses says: “I hope it’s alright. We tried to get most of the tomato juice off…” Ah, so that’s what my neighbour had been apologising about in the first place, before he added to the offence by tipping water on me as well. I hadn’t noticed in my sleep-befuddled state. I suppose at least the water had managed to dilute the effect of tomato juice. In typical British fashion, I don’t fuss, saying “that’s fine”, and then head off into the transit area to wait for my connecting flight to Busan.
The plane had been too hot, and I really needed that shower in the transit lounge. I secure my duty-free in a locker before strolling round the Incheon airport shops, and am irritated when I find that Blue Label is about 15% cheaper in Korea than it is in London. I’ll remember this next time.
Local time is mid-afternoon, and I need a coffee before my ongoing flight, but otherwise I idle away an hour or two catching up on the local news by reading the English language newspapers in the lounge and surfing on my tablet. The pages are full of the story of Lee Seok-ki, the assemblyman accused of plotting a pro-Pyongyang insurrection.
The connecting flight to Busan is one of the few that goes there from Incheon rather than Seoul’s Gimpo airport, and is laid on for the benefit of Korean Air international travellers who don’t want the hassle of changing airports to get down south. If you look for it on international travel websites you are unlikely to find it. But it’s there, and it’s very convenient. My onward journey is uneventful, though on being handed the customs declaration form I have momentary pause: only one bottle of duty-free alcohol is allowed, and I have two. I wonder whether they’ll notice if I fail to declare both, but as they are sealed in transparent plastic bags any deceit risks being quickly spotted. “Courageous Integrity” are the watchwords at my workplace, and having recently undergone my annual Corporate Values refresher course I decide that I should Live the Values and fill out the customs declaration form accurately. If asked to pay duty, I debate whether I should just ditch one of the bottles in the customs area to save the fuss of paying. But I’ve just been through the annual anti-bribery training too, and fret at the thought of anything that could remotely be construed as bribing a customs official. I feel that my compliance officer would be proud of me, but this is the last time I think of work for over a week. The office is a world away.
As I go through customs I hand in my declaration. The official frowns and wags his finger sternly at me, saying “one bottle!”, but nevertheless waves me through with a hint of a twinkle in his eye. It’s the first of many kindnesses I am to be shown on this visit.
For a busy stay in Korea it’s essential to have a mobile phone to make and remake all those dinner and other meet-up arrangements. In previous visits I have pre-booked a rental mobile phone, but nevertheless I also take along my own smartphone which has my address book and diary on it. This time around I had decided to minimise my technology clutter by trying a local prepaid SIM card in my UK smartphone. All the usual phone rental places whose desks you find at Incheon airport (landside) advertise them online, and I was told you could also buy them at bookstores and elsewhere. Incheon airport (airside) didn’t have any local SIMs for sale, only international ones. But at Busan Gimhae, once I had cleared customs, I managed to find a tiny desk called Premium Travel which acted as agent for Evergreen Mobile, who rent airtime from the Olleh KT network. Thanks to the intercession of my local friends Kyung-sook and Mr Byeon, who were at the airport to meet me, the travel desk sold me a SIM with 50,000 Won of talk-time and 1GB of data, five minutes after they were due to have closed at 7pm.
It all seemed to work fine, and soon we were making our way along the expressway to Sancheong County. I rang home (where it’s nearly mid-day) to confirm safe arrival, thus instantly using up about 10% of my minutes.
We were to have dinner with Kyung-sook’s teacher, the ceramic artist Min Young-ki, at his lovely traditional house in Sancheong County. During my last visit, I had stayed at Mr Min’s house for a night, but this time the guest room was spoken for. In recompense, he had insisted that my first evening in Korea this time should be spent having dinner with him. It was an offer that was hard to refuse. “Don’t rush. It doesn’t matter if you don’t arrive till midnight,” Mr Min had said. But we arrived relatively early, soon after 9pm, to be greeted by his son who was waiting for us outside with a torch. His wife had cooked a splendid dinner with a full range of side dishes (including her own special prawn dumplings and some seasoned pyogo mushrooms), some nicely tangy grilled fish, a central dish of galbi jjim, with the sweetness of jujubes and bitterness of ginseng in the broth, and red bean rice. A few glasses of soju helped it down. It was a most generous welcome to the country, and my tin of Fortnum’s biscuits looked like rather too poor a gift, despite being adorned with the insignia of the newly born Prince George of Cambridge.
After dinner we say our goodbyes and make our way to our accommodation which had been organised by the County Office1: into the official campus of the International Traditional Medicine Expo, through the numerous security guards and barriers, up past all the attractions. None of the landmarks look familiar until we reach the area near the Turtle Rock – for which see the next chapter – and we continue ever upwards, into the recreation forest, where a condominium of holiday apartments, a number of tent pitches, and several self-catering chalets have been laid out to provide accommodation for future tourists. We are to be the first occupants of one of the chalets – in fact, Chalet Number 1. There are two spacious rooms off a central hallway, plus a kitchen and two bathrooms. Outside, a pleasant terrace is laid out with picnic tables and benches.
We had been warned that as our accommodation was in the official Expo campus, and as the Expo was expecting thousands of visitors every day, we were likely to be virtually stranded during the hours of the Expo’s opening, unable to drive through the grounds for fear of injuring the visitors. The only option presented to us was to park our car at the entrance and complete our journey to and from our accommodation on foot: a half-hour walk. Hardly ideal if you are coming and going all the time, with plans changing during the course of each day. But some careful negotiation with our hosts in the County Office, of whom our chief saviour was Yoon Jin-gu, managed to get us a concessionary VIP pass and a licence to drive through the Expo campus at any time of day or night.
We take a room each in the chalet, and I try to get some sleep. It’s my first night sleeping on the floor since my last trip to Korea. Shifting uneasily between back and side, I know that in the morning my hips are going to be covered in bruises. And that is the case. And my tailbone too.
- As a goodwill ambassador for the County, I am lucky enough to have my accommodation fixed when I am there – though I pay my own way to get there.