A little south by south-east of Seoul, near Yongin, is a hugely popular and enormous theme park called Everland. It has the usual components of a European theme park such as rollercoasters, fairground rides and popcorn, but also includes a zoo, sledging slopes, bird feeding (tuppence a bag) and a bizarre yet captivating parade (with light-festooned fairytale-themed floats and dancers, plus a banging techno soundtrack) in the evening. As it was winter, the “European” gardens were covered over and there were no fireworks, but that was incidental to a delightfully entertaining and occasionally silly excursion on a gloriously crisp and clear day. 2007 is the Year of the Pig, so the farm / petting zoo section had been cleared out and stocked with six different types of pig, and the animals usually kept there had been shooed away to other areas. The rabbits had been put in with the ducks and, unusually, the chickens had been squeezed in with the tigers (seriously).
Later on that same day, I was given the opportunity to try out a Korean institution – the jjimjilbang. A jjimjilbang is a large public bathhouse with various hot baths, showers, saunas, ice rooms, televisions, massages, movie rooms, libraries and PC clusters, open twenty-four hours and popular with the odd backpacker looking for a reasonably priced night’s accommodation. I experienced some delicious smoothies, very hot saunas (though 328 K was my limit) and oddly uncomfortable wooden pillows, and left the next day feeling very clean indeed.
Back in Seoul, it was time for the second haircut of my trip. I set out from the hostel to find a reasonably priced barber’s shop and quickly spotted one of the fairly ubiquitous red, white and blue revolving cylinders. However, when I opened the door I was greeted enthusiastically by a scantily-clad young woman and there were no hair-cutting implements in sight. It was then that I remembered that barber’s shop signs are often used as a front for seedier activities. I mumbled an apology (in English, as I was too flustered for any Korean) and made a run for it. The second place I came across had nicer decor but still no hair-cutting facilities (at least not for the hair on my head), and this time I gestured to the receptionist that I actually wanted a haircut before making my escape. The third place I found was the genuine article (clue for future reference: windows not made of frosted glass), and the staff derived much amusement from my sign-language request for a grade two clipper blade cut (partially from my method of grabbing the clippers and making swoosh-swoosh movements and partially from the fact that it’s a bit like a gangster haircut in Korea). All’s well that ends well.
Due to slightly changing circumstances (for those of you who read between the lines in my previous post), I decided to hang around in South Korea for a bit longer and took a WWOOF placement on a farm retreat at Ganghwado, out near Incheon. My first day consisted mainly of raking chicken droppings and leaves into piles and then setting fire to them, but it was refreshing to get back to the soil after so long. There are three generations of the same family living on site, which is kind of nice as there are four small children running around making pests of themselves all the time. On my second day, it was the grandmother’s birthday – so then entire family came over and I was politely told to play a song on my guitar (Cannonball, which seemed to go down well as I later had to write the lyrics down for two people). I also learned how to prepare Korean-style squid (though I didn’t have to eat it)! What you do is score the skin diagonally and boil it, wrap it round cucumber or carrot sticks and then slice it to make small cylinders. This is then served with the chopped tentacles and other bits.
For my first weekend off, I went into Seoul on both days – it’s an hour’s walk from the farm to the bus station, and if you replaced all the rice with beet and spinach the area could be North Yorkshire. It’s hilly with flat areas, windswept, bleak and the sky is so blue it looks like it’s been washed (though it could just be the contrast with Seoul’s pollution). It turned out to be a nature-themed trip, as we hit the Natural History Museum and Coex Aquarium on successive days and saw a multitude of animals (both stuffed and alive). I was convinced another museum mis-labelling has occurred – an ermine (Mustela erminea, a stoat in winter coat) had seemingly been recorded as a weasel, but it seems American weasels may also turn white (perhaps my success with the polar bear went to my head). The aquarium had axolotls (Ambystoma mexicanum)! Later, we checked out a brilliant and (probably) endemic Korean pastime – the board game cafe. This is exactly like it sounds – a cafe where you pay a fixed amount (usually by the hour) and have free run of a huge collection of various board and card games. Genius!
Back on the farm, the preparations for spring planting were getting underway. As I suspected, this involved much burning of anything even remotely flammable. Clearing the polytunnels turned out to be quite interesting – before the ground could be cleared, the various climbing plants (mostly bottle gourds) had to be removed from the walls and ceiling. Using ladders would be too time-consuming, so I was loaded into the front tractor scoop, raised to ceiling level and driven along the length of the tunnel, frantically ripping down plants as I went. The gourds had to be collected in the scoop (I couldn’t drop them on the ground for fear of the tractor running them over), and as it filled up I had to balance on the edges to avoid trampling them. By the time we reached the end of the tunnel I was practically walking on the tines.
The other blog-worthy incident of the past few days was a spectacular rat-catching, which was sadly only witnessed by one of the children. This particular rat was camping out in the deer feed bin and leaping to freedom when anyone opened the lid, thus evading capture. I managed to outsmart him by opening the opposite lid (there are two next to each other), pushing a load of feed into the other half and then clapping the feed scoop down before he tunneled out. I then pushed a snow shovel under the scoop and had the little blighter trapped (rather like catching a spider with a glass and piece of paper). Catch-and-release being my general philosophy, I hurried over to the other side of the farm and cautiously lifted the scoop, freeing a very dusty rat who is now probably right back in the feed bin laughing at my compassion.