Suzhou moat bridgeA few days later than planned, I boarded an overnight train to Shanghai (上海) and once again entered China proper. As I watched the countryside whizz by, the sheet scale and pace of construction staggered me – there was not a single kilometre we passed that did not have either an apartment complex, road or train line being put together out of steel and concrete. Needless to say, the land itself was a Bosch-like chaos of litter, discoloured water, mud, factories and half-demolished buildings, and my reacquaintance with China was quite depressing.

I arrived in Shanghai just before lunchtime, met up with Dan (whom you may remember from previous exploits in Korea) and proceeded to find the Propaganda Poster Art Museum just over the road from his apartment. After a quick tour through communist history, we went in search of lunch and discovered that the two vegetarian restaurants in the area had both closed down (presumably due to lack of clientèle in meat-ubiquitous China). Our wanderings were frequently punctuated by the machine-gun-like reports of firecrackers going off – at New Year, everyone gets hold of as many fireworks as they can and sets them off in the street. For days after the main events, the roads and pavements are awash with tattered red confetti from the wrappings.

Left: The southern moat bridge in Suzhou. Below, left to right: Bao’en Temple from Beisi Pagoda in Suzhou.

Bao'en from Beisi (1)Bao'en bridge

Bao'en gazeboI had an extra day before moving on, and we decided to go to nearby Suzhou (苏州) as both of us had seen quite a bit of Shanghai already. Unfortunately, several hundred other people had the same idea and we couldn’t get a train until the afternoon (though it did give us the chance to check out M50, an art collective in an old warehouse complex not unlike The Custard Factory in Birmingham). Pointedly ignoring all the taxi touts (perhaps a mistake, as things turned out), we walked over the river to Bao-en Temple and hiked up the nine-storey Beisi Pagoda to the rather precarious viewing balcony hundreds of feet above the city. Suzhou is known as the “Venice of the East”, but the only water we could see was in the temple pond behind us. We picked our way down again and walked the few kilometres to the Master of the Nets Garden, a formal garden that turned out to be closed. As did all the others – the city more or less shuts down at dusk, and we were out of time all too soon.

Left: A gazebo in Bao’en Temple. Below, left to right: Candles in Bao’en Temple, giant incense sticks in Bao’en Temple; Views from and of Beisi Pagoda.

Bao'en candlesBao'en incense

Suzhou from Bao'enBao'en from Beisi (2)Beisi from Bao'en

Old Observatory (1)From Shanghai, I managed to get a train going north to Qingdao (青岛) despite the New Year-travelling masses still persisting (most people had Monday to Friday off, but had to work the following Saturday and Sunday as regular days) and presented myself at the brilliantly-used Old Observatory Youth Hostel for my final days in China. I spent most of my free time walking around the European-style streets and waterfront, though did not get to see the new Olympic facilities as they turned out to be sited several miles away. Such is the rate of redevelopment in China, I reasoned that there was a good chance I’d stumble across an abandoned building while exploring (and, indeed, I did find an entire neighbourhood in mid-demolition). However, the whole place is so derelict to start with that there is no sure-fire way to tell which buildings are abandoned and which are just dilapidated and still in normal use.

Left: The Old Observatory Astrodome. Below, left to right: Qingdao from Zhongshan Park, Qingdao from Gianxiangshan Park; A vine in Gianxiangshan Park, the Old Observatory Astrodome, teh French-built telescope in the Astrodome.

Qingdao from ZhongshanQingdao from Gianxiangshan

Qingdao vineOld Observatory (2)Old Observatory telescope

Weidong Ferry, the operator that runs the China-Korea passenger routes, has two near-the-middle-of-the-line ferries packed with useful facilities such as shops, saunas and eateries. Although a rough crossing would still inevitably mark me as a landsman, I was not particularly concerned about the level of comfort I would experience and prepared my ditty bag for the midshipman’s berth accordingly. I was therefore uncommon hipped when the shuttle bus pulled up outside that infernal slug, the Queen Qingdao – an ancient transport drafted in while the more opulent New Golden Bridge V was refitted. I quickly made my assessment of the new post: nothing in the convenience store except water, Tsingtao beer and Korean canned coffee; nothing in the restaurant except rice, soup and assorted Korean pickled side dishes; no entertainment facilities except a TV in the room; no bathing room; top speed several points off the wind so we would arrive at least five hours late; rust and holes in the deck commonplace; an exterior door wedged open with another door that had fallen off; broken structural supports fixed with Sellotape; all toilet paper used up before the ship was even out of the harbour (note: unfortunately, none of this has been made up or exaggerated). There were, however, three Nutmegesque consolations that made the voyage bearable: I had my own capsule-like berth and so did not have to sail sardine class; said berth had a working power point so I could at least use my laptop; the sea was extremely smooth and I barely felt any swell at all.

Gokoku guardianAfter a few days of major stress and running around, Amy and I had completed the process of posting, selling, recycling or leaving behind all of our possessions. We had an all-too-brief few days together, and then reluctantly separated for what will be more than two months. While Amy is allowed to leave her job early and still receive her holiday pay, I am not and therefore have to return to Korea in February on pain of losing two month’s salary. I decided to use this holiday efficiently and return to the UK to see my family (which I would otherwise have to do after leaving Korea, making my arrival in Canada even later), taking a side trip to Japan in the process.

Autumn/winter leavesHakata Port felt curiously familiar as I stepped off the jetfoil onto blessedly solid ground, but almost immediately asserted its authority as I was subjected to the most thorough customs search I’ve ever had (the officials went through everything – flipped through my books, squeezed my toothpaste, searched every pocket in every item of clothing, questioned me at length about my medical kit [“Are you a doctor?”], went through my passport [Why were you in South Africa? What about Mozambique?”] and got rice cracker crumbs all over the inside of my bag – but failed to find my laptop.). I finally got to a nice little hostel that wasn’t here the last time I was, about three hours after my ferry docked.

Maizuru treesFukuoka isn’t considered a very large city, but I certainly felt the distances as I spent a day walking around the major temples, shrines and parks (all separated by several miles). One thing I wasn’t expecting was the temperature – from -10 °C in Seoul, I was going to +20 °C – within a few minutes I had removed my jacket and was seriously considering shorts. The clement weather meant that I was experiencing a pleasant late autumn again, complete with fiery trees and the occasional insect.

Tochoji treeKushida torii

Kushida lanternsOhori Park

Gokoku toriiLantern within a lantern

For what felt like the hundredth time, I trudged off the bus at Busan’s main bus station and boarded the subway for the hour-long ride into the centre of the city. I arrived at the ferry terminal in plently of time for the afternoon jetfoil to find that all fast ferries had been cancelled due to poor weather, and so, fearing a rough crossing but having little choice, reluctantly booked onto the overnight service. While the ferry itself was luxuriously appointed (including a public bath), the peasants travelling second class (myself included) were piled into communal sleeping spaces with sleeping mats to fight it out amongst themselves for floor space. Of course, there was one atrocious snorer in our room and neither the constant pitching and rolling of the boat nor regular hails of pillows could silence him. I suspect it was a fitful night for all except one.

Once safely back on dry land, I made a beeline for the Korean consulate and, having been shooed off a low wall by the security guard while waiting, dropped my passport off and took in Fukuoka’s main facility for people wanting to do some paperwork (the excellent Rainbow Plaza). I spent a peaceful night at an internet cafe (with an actual flat-bed booth), headed out bright and early to pick up my new visa and got back to Korea in time for dinner (I was expecting some furious checking at Busan immigration, but the official barely glanced at my passport and, despite my having written “work” and “one year” on my form, was about to blithely stamp me in as a tourist before I pointed out that I needed my visa validated). More hectic apartment-equipping and lecture-preparing followed, with the occasional aside such as university paperwork and musings on how much I’m contributing to the Chinese economy with the amount of stuff I have to buy.

With our holiday time fast diminishing, Amy and I took the opportunity to climb Namsan (a hill-cum-park roughly in the centre of Seoul) and then wander around Namdaemun market a little before going back to Yongin for what proved to be a weekend full of wholesome goodness. We began with some thoroughly excellent food and several rounds of board games, and the following day went out to play some football, jump some rope and shoot some hoops. The weather was glorious, and, as far as I can remember, a good time was had by all.

Term-time came around quickly, and I turned up on my first day to find that I was pretty much left to my own devices – no meetings, few requirements and a quiet office in a separate building. My first lecture, as expected, was a little nerve-wracking, but it got easier as the week progressed and now I only have to fret about my students understanding what I’m trying to explain to them and how to get chalk dust out of my best suit. On Wednesday, I was told that the coming weekend would be a “freshwoman orientation” at the university’s conference centre and countryside retreat and that my presence was required. I made my preparations (cancel Friday’s lecture, to a cheer from my students) and turned up on Friday morning to find that the 0820 “sharp” start time was slightly flexible as we eventually rolled out around 9.

Gosari (2)We arrived to the sound of food being laid out, and later on to the sound of kitchen staff scrambling to make something vegetarian as I meekly took a few pieces of cabbage from the only steam tray free of meat. The first order of business was the introduction of the faculty to the students, and I stammered out a few niceties in Korean before sinking back into merciful obscurity in the front row of seats. The longest-serving (and thus the most venerable) member of staff gave a lecture about his recent visit to the North Pole (to collect rock and plant samples), and we then had some free time before dinner. I elected to take a walk up a nearby hill and, returning around an hour later with my short hair and grey jacket, was almost mistaken for a monk. The after-dinner activities centred around groups of students doing variety show-style performances and hilarious (despite me not understanding any of the Korean) quizzes involving staff members, and after an hour or two the teachers and scholars retired to separate pastimes for the remainder of the evening. The teachers went to a local traditional establishment for a little food and a lot of dongdongju (a kind of sweet rice wine) – it’s culturally required to keep up with the toasts, and as far as other staff members told me I made a good impression. We tottered back around midnight – to go to bed I thought, until someone turned up with a crate of beer and two bottles of whisky. Thankfully, this was designated “free talking” time and I was allowed to retire early in my English-speaking-ness.

Gosari (1)Breakfast was taken bright and early, despite a few severe hangovers, and everyone trooped out to nearby Mungyeong Saejae, a provincial park and the only route between Busan and Seoul in ancient times. Old gates, watering points and traditional huts dotted a gently undulating path amongst huge mountains and clear air, and by the time we reached the other side a few hours later there was general contentment at the though of lunch and some rest on the bus back. We arrived on campus to the sound of a traditional dance being played out on the steps of the student union, and headed to our respective homes to enjoy the rest of the weekend.

Mungyeong Saejae (1)Mungyeong Saejae (2)

For me, the rest of the weekend began with Anne’s birthday. While I was off on the orientation, Amy, Anne and Dan had taken a long day trip to a series of limestone caves, and I was shown some jealousy-invoking photographs as we waited for our food in a swish Italian restaurant. The food and wine left us eager for dessert, and so we headed back to Sinchon where Amy had prepared an ambrosial multi-cake bonanza (vanilla and chocolate sponge cakes glued together with strawberry cream cheese, Battenberg-style). Next, we hit a local bar (described to me as “the best bar in the world”), drank a few drinks in the wood-and-cushions setting, played some Carcassonne (yes, they have board games!) and watched the local wildlife shimmy and shake to what could have been the playlist from Birmingham’s student union. I will be returning.