on… semi-spontaneous excursions

Posted: 02/05/2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , ,

A few weeks ago I was feeling unusually restless after my working week, I usually feel restful, or at least too tired to do anything of consequence. I finish work at 20:30 on a Friday so I usually just crash, or go for something to eat locally. This particular day was one of those spontaneous occasions where I ended up doing something rather strange. After completing various chores  at home I still had itchy feet and almost without thinking, I packed a bag and headed out to the express bus station. This is actually less spontaneous than it sounds because I usually keep a small travel kit ready packed in case I ever decide to travel without having time to pack. This consists of a toilet bag with sachets purloined from hotels, flights etc, a travel towel and some spare clothes. I walked the 40 minutes to the bus station, almost a straight line from my neighbourhood, and then bought a ticket for the 23:30 bus to Seoul. This gave me enough time to get a drink and some chicken before boarding the bus. I was still wired on the bus so I watched a film on my laptop, by the time the film reached its closing credits the bus was approaching the expressway exit in South Seoul. Psychologically, the journey was no great feat, it seemed almost local as I had not prepared for such a trip, mentally that is. My first journey to Seoul some months earlier seemed more epic in nature than this little jaunt because I was thinking about it for three days beforehand.

The bus passengers spilled out of the bus and seemed to scurry off in all directions until I was left wandering through the bus station alone. They clearly had well practised paths of departure and well rehearsed exit strategies. I on the other hand, had only been in this Bus Terminal once so everything seemed unfamiliar, especially because  on the previous visit it was packed with people, and it was daytime. I managed to follow some of the passengers to the exit near the subway station and main road. It was approaching 02:30 so things were quiet but not dead, this is Seoul remember. Obviously the metro line was closed at this hour so I decided to wander to the intersection to get my bearings. I had never been in this exact area of Seoul before so I wanted to know how close I was to the river. The river gives me comfort because it makes it impossible to get lost if you follow the course. A normal person would have got a taxi but I had this weird thing about the River Han. After three visits to Seoul I still hadn’t really seen the Han so I thought, it’s half past two in the morning, it’s too late to check into a hotel or hostel, I think I’ll have a walk over the river.

When I arrived at the bridge I realised that most people wouldn’t choose to walk over the Han. There are several bridges for bicycles downstream but the bridge I was trying to get over was clearly for cars. There was a pavement though so I wasn’t deterred. The size of the river is staggering, I was so taken aback by how big it was that I actually timed it on my stopwatch.From one bank to the other, timed just as the road meets the riverside banks and paths, it was just under 11 minutes. I walked at my usual brisk pace so it would probably take more time for a normal paced walk. I tried to calculate a similar walk at home or in other places I have stayed but I still can’t fathom it. Over 10 minutes to walk over a river! The river looked black and empty from up high, and the complete lack of pedestrians added to my general feeling of alienation. This area of the big city, at this time in the morning, made me realise how most of what I could see was not meant for me. Each side of the river was lined with expressways, slip roads, flyovers and and various other barriers to the pedestrian. The entire landscape was fitted for the car, not for the human. I suppose all the concrete designed for the efficient transportation of vehicles is necessary in such a busy city. However, I cannot help wondering how many journeys are necessary and why they need so many roads, and so many lanes in those same roads. If the rate of car users and the number of journeys is exponential, then one day most of the city will just be roads. Despite my complaints there are walking and cycling paths on both sides of the river, and they are flanked by outdoor exercise machines and the usual array of leisure related urban furniture. These river paths are both useful and well used, but they didn’t help me with the direction and convenience of my walk.

Once I reached the north bank it seemed quite unfamiliar as I had never even seen it from the train window and didn’t recognize any of the landmarks. I decided to head in the rough direction of the U.S Military base at Yongsan. This is a large area which is bordered by the cosmopolitan Itaewon area on one side and the National Museum on the other side. I skirted round the southern side and headed for Yongsan station. My plan, somewhat vague I admit, was to finally reach Yongsan station where I could either wait for a morning train or head to a local 24 hour Spa place. My spontaneity is usually safeguarded by some basic knowledge, otherwise it ends in disaster. On this particular occasion I was well aware that there was a 24 hour Spa near Yongsan, I was also aware of the basic route to get there. What I didn’t know was how safe it would be at this time or how far it was. It was pretty safe and very far.

After the sterile inhuman route I had followed, it came as something of a relief to see people and shops. The life on the opposite side of the large station, at this time, was a few street stalls selling things on sticks. Things on sticks dunked in tanks of red chilli sauce is a common street food everywhere in Korea. There was a sliding scale of louche characters eating at the small plastic tables, the steam from their noodle dishes condensing on the plastic walls of snack tents . The scale of louchiness was funny to see from my sober eyes, I was also very awake after my brisk walk so all sensations were heightened. There were salary men navigating the tricky phase between being drunk and having a hangover, there were youngish types refusing to call it a night, blue-collar workers who had the misfortune of working nights and there were full-blown tramps trying to cobble money together to buy things on sticks. The older women were either touting for custom or packing up their things and getting ready for tomorrows round of eating things on sticks. The dimly lit alleyways contained some hovel like bars and figures in shadows. It all sounds rather seedy but this is Korea. I once came back from drinking at about 4 in the morning and saw a teenager in pajamas and flip-flops buying chicken in my local Lotteria (McDonalds type place). It really is a very safe country, even at 3 in the morning in the biggest city. I think there was nothing really unusual about the streets near the station other than the fact that I was there. There are many cities in the world where walking in the streets by a major station in the early hours would be seen as borderline suicidal. Compared to places like Milan, Manchester or Buenos Aires, this place seemed far from dangerous.

My journey from the expressway flyovers and the dimly lit vice holes  took me quite some time. Many people, including myself, would be asking the question, why not get a taxi? I actually asked this question to myself several times en-route, and answered in the negative each time. The simple answer to this question is, I don’t know.  I think I may have taxiphobia. It’s irrational like most phobias but I just hate taxis. I have enough Korean to get to any station, even in Seoul. I know the main roads and major landmarks so I have no fear of being ripped off. I just seem to hate taxis. It’s not just a Korea thing. I cannot remember the last time I took a taxi in the UK either. It always feels like I’ve lost when I resort to taking a taxi. I like buses and trains because they are logical and have stops, times, maps and colour codes. Taxis are anarchic, unreliable and selfish. They are a product of humanity trying to isolate itself from humanity, like net curtains and Leylandii hedges. If transport systems are reliable there is no need for taxis. Taxi drivers choose their own routes based on incompetence and ignorance.

I scaled the steps in front of Yongsan station half expecting something to be open but everything was fully closed. The station was vast and silent, every entrance was wrapped up by metal shutters.  I turned round and drifted back down the steps to the forecourt of the station, from here I finally caught a glimpse, then an eyeful, of the  7 story Dragon Hill Spa. I cannot understand why I had never seen this place before, probably because I was not looking for it. It is in the same school of architecture as love motels and theme parks. A kind of Disneyesque rendering of neo-classical Masonic tat. A pastiche of a pastiche. It was also enveloped in neon and flashing Christmas style lights. Despite the aesthetic assault I was genuinely happy to have reached the destination which I half suspected I would end up at. In case you are wondering, many of the Spas in Korea allow you sleep there overnight. You still pay the basic entrance fee, between 8000 and 12000 won (roughly 4 – 6 pound sterling). Such places are ideal for restless semi spontaneous people who don’t book anywhere to stay.  The spa was a real experience deserving of a separate entry.

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