urban exploration


Linseed factory hopperTowards the end of my first quarter in Toronto, I came across a local urban exploration group and (taking advantage of the relative freedom offered by a transit pass) headed down to a late-summer meeting. Toronto isn’t the post-industrial wasteland that certain other Great Lakes cities are, but there are a few sites that have so far escaped the exponentially-accelerating condo construction boom (an unfortunate consequence of lax planning laws, astronomical property prices and outright bribery of city officials). The general consensus was that we should check out a former rubbish processing plant (which I took to mean a compactor and/or incinerator), but it had been tramp-proofed and so, unable to get in, we moved on to an ancient linseed (flax) oil factory in the west end.

Toronto from the West End

A breezy redbrick building surrounded by grass-split tarmac, the oil factory presented much like many other former industrial buildings: long stripped of most useful machinery, covered in graffiti and thoroughly devoid of intact panes of glass. However, the labyrinthine basement with its nuclear reactor-esque furnace and the soft-tar rooftop with its giant seed hopper added an aura of grandeur and industriousness to the vast open rooms. The local explorers quickly pulled out professional photographic equipment and dispersed, leaving me feeling a little outclassed. Next trip: undetermined!

Linseed factory reactorsLinseed factory furnace

Linseed factory water tankLinseed factory wrenchLinseed factory window

Linseed factory basementLinseed factory water pipes

Linseed factory pipeworkLinseed factory pulley

Linseed factory lampLinseed factory grille

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One does not simply ski into MordorAs I was walking from the smoking crater of Mt. Naka (中岳) towards the less-active Mt. Eboshi (烏帽子岳) (a possible inspiration for Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke), I happened across an abandoned ski field. While ski slopes clearly don’t rate as highly as hotels or amusement parks, the place was still interesting and (given the rate of decay) had clearly been abandoned for some time.

Walk or waitChairlift motor

Abandoned polesThe chair lift, severe rust aside, was more or less intact, though the chairs had all been piled inside the main building (presumably when the place was closed down,to prevent them falling off). All the rental equipment – skis, boots, sledges, clothing and so on – was still stacked neatly on the shelves, and the offices seemed to be completely intact (even down to tea-making equipment). It looked as though the place had been abandoned almost overnight, with no effort made to salvage anything useful or even retain the business records. I didn’t have enough time to check the place out properly, but it was a superb addition to an already fascinating day.

Abandoned chairsNo more rentals

The last cupWaiting to restart

Seongyojang lotus pond (2)With most of Korea’s autumn festivals cancelled due to swine flu, we took a trip out to the east coast to catch the very last of the summer warmth on the beaches of Gangneung (강릉) at Gyeongpo (경포). One of our first visits was the Chamsori Gramophone and Edison Museum, which turned out to be around 33 % gramophones, 33 % household appliances from the 1950s and 34 % photographs of the museum’s owner with various dignitaries. The whole thing was captivating only in its ability to appal, and we left as soon as we reasonably could.

Gyeongpo bunkerKeen to wash away the feeling of tastelessness, we walked the couple of miles over to Seongyojang (선교장), the Korean equivalent of a stately home, and Ojukheon (오죽헌), the local folk museum. Both were quite quiet, the beaches being largely abandoned until next summer, and we were able to spend a pleasant couple of hours investigating roof end tiles, ancient plum trees, a traditional mask dance and the birthplace of both Shin Saimdang (신사임당) and her son Yi I (이이), currently depicted on the W50,000 and W5000 banknotes respectively.

On our way back to our hotel on afternoon, we happened to walk past a large boarded-up building that looked like it was once a beachfront apartment complex. Urban exploration sense tingling, we backtracked a little later on for further investigation. From the look of the place, it had been abandoned for quite a while as the inside was bare apart from the usual broken furniture and fittings that tend to accumulate with neglect. The upper floor didn’t look quite safe (we could see holes in the concrete) and the cellars were under six feet of water, so we confined ourselves to the ground-floor apartments which unfortunately turned out to be mere shells and not all that interesting.

Gwanno Gamyeongeuk (2)Gwanno Gamyeongeuk (1)

Seongyojang lotus pond (1)Abandoned Gyeongpo

Border guardOn our way back to the tour bus after a short hike, my attention was (almost subconsciously) drawn towards an area of scrub extending back into the hill we were parked next to. There was something I couldn’t quite place about the pattern of trees, wild grasses and clearings, but as the faded colours resolved into old machines and branches into rusted metal I realised we’d stumbled across that Mecca of urban explorers and Miyazaki fans – an abandoned amusement park.

The sign at the entrance proclaimed it to be 백암산랜드 (Baek am san raen deu; Hundred Rocky Peaks Land and by a quirk of homophones also Hundred Mental Arithmetic Sums Land), isolated on a rural site which I would have extreme difficulty finding again somewhere near the coastal town of Uljin (울진).

Back to natureGorillaball

Infinitely delayedOur guides allowed us a mere ten minutes to explore, and so we were forced to race around at breakneck speed, only scratching the merest surface. The car park had been appropriated for an area for local farmers to dry and thresh rice, and a flock of goats watched us warily from the safety of some bushes as we tried to decide where to go. I took off up the hill, passing a few defunct rides and buildings, and paused at the bottom of a gently sloping meadow that was once a sledge run. The path wound farther back into the hills, taunting me with its hidden relics as I turned back at the sound of shouting from the bus.

Waiting for winterObligatory Viking ship

The week began in promising style, with the majority of my assimilation into Korean society being completed. I was given my Alien Registration Card (an ID card for non-Koreans, which kind of parallels the Korean ID card), and managed to open a bank account at the campus branch of Shinhan. The assimilation then ground to a halt as, after a few phone calls to the Shinhan head office, I was flatly denied an international ATM card and credit card due to “foreigner fraud”. Presumably Koreans are easier to track down if they fail to pay back what they borrow, but given how much my building superintendent was complaining about people not paying their utility bills I lean more towards the opinion that this (illegal, according to the Korean government) activity is down to good old-fashioned institutional racism. My old nemesis, we meet again.

Back in the world of inquiry-based learning, having made it a point to pay my utility bill on the day I got it, my lectures took a turn for the more interesting as I began to figure out how much content I could reasonably expect to cover and the value of worked examples. I paid a visit to the library, and found the (English-language) fiction section rather heavy on the classics (as might be expected from a university) – with little time for browsing, I heaved a copy of C. S. Lewis’ collected works out of the door (in order to finally get round to reading The Screwtape Letters) and went to investigate the gym (quite quiet, and mainly full of students walking on the treadmills at a placid 4 k.p.h.).

At the weekend, I was greeted in Yongin by the smell of one of Amy’s frankly excellent soups and sneaked several bowlfuls during the course of the evening. My pancakes in the morning didn’t turn out as well as expected, though – I’d tried to modify a vegan recipe as we only had cow milk, and it went predictably awry (though the vegan ones I made later on made up for this mishap). The plan for the day was to gather a few munchables and head out to downtown Seoul to meet our urban exploration guru, who’d promised a rather unique experience. In this, he didn’t disappoint – we gained entry to an abandoned hotel (closed due to the entire city block being torn down and replaced), still full of most of the trappings that come with your mid-range Korean accommodation establishment. Apparently it had been too frightening to explore alone (one of the drawbacks of watching The Shining at an impressionable age) and so we tagged along for some investigation and photography (this has been more thoroughly blogged at daehanmindecline.com). The place looked like it had almost been abandoned overnight – bottles behind the bars were still half-full, there were unfinished drinks in the room salons, toilets had been sanitised and the rooms were ready for guests. We finished our tour with fruit and wine on the eleventh-floor restaurant and then left the place for the steeplejacks.

On Sunday we repaired to one of our preferred board game cafes in Hongdae, and spent a few hours vying for supremacy over Middle-Earth in a rather corpse-heavy game of Risk, Lord of the Rings-style. The battle could have gone on for days before someone eventually got an unassailable upper hand, so we called it quits and went home to face another week of our respective jobs. I arrived back in the office to find that a computer had been delivered, but that both the power and network cables had been misplaced, so, despite cannibalising my printer for the power, had another week without the distractions of immediate internet access (possibly a good thing from a getting-work-done point of view). I had my mandatory health check (including a chest x-ray – the unlucky dormitory students have to have one every month), my first student rebellion against work (with ten minutes of the lecture left I attempted teach a side topic, to universal moaning) and the near-daily experience of student reactions to the campus feral cat population (some are so afraid of the cats that they can’t walk by them; other feed them whatever snack they have handy e.g. Starbucks frappuccino).

The weekend saw Seoul Veggie Club’s long-awaited potluck dinner at a member’s fantastic apartment in Itaewon (I may have raved about the apartment last time I was there). The table was piled high with animal-product-free goodness (including a down-to-earth pie from me and chocolate cake from Amy), and I once again ate more than is probably healthy in one sitting. Amy and I completed a major shop as well, picking up a unreasonably aesthetic Mac Mini for her and the peripherals to turn it into one mean desk-occupying machine.

The next week of work went by extremely fast – despite finally getting internet access, I was preparing lectures significantly more efficiently having moved on to more familiar topics and gained some experience as to what kinds of things to include. I set my first assessment (an assessed worksheet) to wry laughs as the students realised that I’d personalised each paper to prevent blatant copying (collaboration and copying is expected, but at least each student will have to do her own sums), and had a large weight lifted from my shoulders on Wednesday as I received my first salary for the first time in well over eighteen months.

Friday came, and with it my inauguration into Shin Sa Hwe (approximately: New Teachers’ Club), the Department of Education men’s association. This was set up sometime in the 1970s, when feminism (at Ewha, at least) was at its height and the male members of staff (traditionally the big cheeses) felt rather downtrodden. It meets once a quarter for dinner and drinks, and as a male member of staff the dues are taken directly from my salary. I was expecting something suitably high-brow, and the sushi restaurant we went to was certainly that. The staff prepared several vegetarian courses specifically for me, we were treated to a short presentation about Prof. Kim’s recent trip to Easter Island (the same guy who recently went to the North and South Poles), and I got to meet some of the elusive faculty. After dinner, the party moved on to a bar and I bowed out to meet Amy and Dan at a different bar (that played generally excellent music) a few blocks away.

Having done a lot of shopping for Amy last weekend, she wanted to return the favour and we went to Dongdaemun (a market area for clothing and fabrics) to search out some curtains to replace my dingy and uninspiring ones. The fabric market caters to every taste and requirement you might have, and there are hectares and hectares of floor space crammed with booths specialising in just a few things. I found some reasonably-priced fabric (from someone who turned out to be an Ewha alumnus), ordered my dimensions and arranged to have it made into curtains for a mere few thousand won extra. We ventured into the “fashion” arcade across the street, only to be assailed by endless rows of eye-wateringly psychedelic golf shirts and blouses and quickly retreated to a safer establishment. I tried a few shirts in the “Dandy Club”, but my Western frame was sadly incompatibly with even the largest ones – we headed back to Sinchon for some nachos, cable television and Carcassonne (I found a copy in my local department store and quickly snapped it up).

Seoul Forest deerSunday proved to be nicer weather-wise, so we caught the subway out to Seoul Forest, a park just east of the city centre (I’d been expecting an actual thick forest, with hindsight perhaps a little over-hopeful in Seoul). We’d intended to go straight in, but got sidetracked by a flea market outside – small stalls lined the road selling items scrounged from places we couldn’t even begin to imagine. Aside from ancient valve-driven electronics and old army gear (including ammo crates – hopefully without the ammo), there were the usual obsolete games consoles (which means Playstations over here), bizarre ornaments and a “luxury” stuffed squirrel. We finally tore ourselves away and hired some bikes to zip around the place with, investigating the newly-built marsh ecosystem area and doing some deer-watching. In a final victory for recycling, I found a second-hand furniture shop on my way home and managed to lug a table and chair back with me (admittedly in two trips) to get me a step closer to having a fully-equipped apartment.

The recent trend of no communication for a while followed by a brief update continues, and will most likely not abate until mid-March when I’m settled in Korea, stop travelling and go back to making unoriginal observations on the news and the things happening around me. Until then, my commiserations on a less-than-awe-inspiring read.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, little of note happened during my last few weeks in Yongin. Both Amy and I were on holiday, and had no major projects to keep us distracted – if we hadn’t had books, games and wireless internet we may well have gone insane. We joined a small volunteer group to go clean up the oil spill on Padori Beach, but were beaten back by heavy snow and ended up drinking soju in a meat restaurant somewhere in Icheon. On New Year’s Eve we trooped out to Hongdae with Anne and Dan, had a lot of buffet salad food and ended up being given free champagne in a cosy lounge bar. I got an e-mail on New Year’s Day to tell my that I’d got the job I was going for, and so much of my remaining time was spent thinking about how best to organise myself for the coming year.

2008 was only just underway when we received an invitation from a fellow forgotten place enthusiast to go and have a look round an abandoned university in the centre of Seoul. The university closed down a few years ago and moved to a different campus, but the site is only being cleared and renovated for re-use now (and extremely slowly at that). We wandered up to the main gates and quietly ducked into the science faculty, treading broken flasks and chalk underfoot. It wasn’t as eerie as the theme park at Okpo, but the corridors and general neglect lent it more of a computer game atmosphere – almost as if we should have been heavily armed and on the lookout for zombies or aliens. After a quick exploration, we walked up a neighbouring hill and down (past a relocated grave site) into the music, drama and art departments. The art department was a little disturbing in places due to graffiti and murals of schoolchildren, but we didn’t have any major freak-outs. Workmen started clearing out the main building just as we were leaving, so the site might not be there for much longer.

A week or so into January, I came back to the UK for the first time in over eighteen months and marvelled anew at the unique and beautiful landscape. Incessant rain has kept me indoors for much of my time here so far, but that gives me time to sort through my various possessions and decide what will be required in Seoul. I’m essentially sitting on my hands regarding a work visa, as my employer will simply e-mail me when it’s ready and I then have to scramble to the nearest Korean embassy (possibly in Canada, as I’m heading over there at the end of the month). I also have to design an entire curriculum for my students, and will most likely raid Huddersfield University for relevant texts.

Having been out to Sheffield to see some friends, my current plans are to go up to Scotland this weekend, and to hit Birmingham on my way back to London at the end of the month. I’ll than have just under three weeks to make my way across Canada, and after that it’s back to the world of work (until my first holiday, at least).