Thursday, 18 July 2019

Travel, then and now

Yesterday I was asked for a contribution to a newspaper feature about travel scams and, happily, had nothing to offer - apart from the story behind this photo, which pre-dates by decades the very word 'scam'. I wrote about it a couple of years ago here so I won't bore you with the details again, regular 😃 reader.

Looking it up though in the 1977 travel diary I wrote religiously and amazingly copiously at the time, I got sucked into reading a large section of it and, amongst many other amazements that include how innocent I was, how emotional and open - try scaling those walls today, reader, and brace yourself for the boiling oil - it was the sheer old-fashionedness of travel then that astonishes me now.

Yes, yes, the letter thing is an obvious one - such a slow and antiquated way to keep in touch (also, so time-consuming, writing those things out by hand). But, given the abysmal state of the postal service today, it was actually remarkably efficient. I kept anal account of all my letters written and received - using POSTE RESTANTE, people! - and noted that one of them, from NZ to Singapore, took only two days to arrive. Phenomenal. Plus the Poste Restante people would forward mail to the next address when you moved on.

As a counter-balance, though, telephone calls had to be booked at the PO or International Telephone Exchange, and cost money as soon as someone picked up the (landline) receiver at the other end, even if it wasn't the person you wanted to speak to. And when I changed my travel plans and sent a telegram ahead to my aunt in England, twenty words (I would be more succinct today) cost me over $20! That is Singapore dollars, though - US$8.50. But still plenty for me then, when I could buy myself dinner for S$2.60.
There's a lot in the diary about money. How expensive things were (and also how cheap), how I was always running out of cash - it wasn't always easy to find someone to cash a traveller's cheque even then - and lots of dithering about presents. Choosing, buying, wrapping and posting them took so much time and money, totally out of proportion I'm sure to the pleasure they gave to the bemused recipients back home. That's a weakness I haven't succumbed to for a long time - when I first started travel writing, I soon trained even my kids not to expect pressies when I came back, for exactly those reasons. I know. Harsh.

I had downtime in Perth, when I thought I'd try to catch up on news from home. I had to go to the State Research Library and request the latest newspaper they had, at the desk - and was given a copy of the Auckland Herald that was ten days old.

There are a couple of sad comments about seeing things I would have liked to photograph, but had run out of film; and a wondering comment about buying a couple of 36-exposure films from an in-town duty free store, and being given them in a sealed plastic bag to take away with me. That was the opposite of sending a postcard at the GPO in Jakarta, where I watched the stamp stuck on with glue at the counter and then was directed to carry it through into the cavernous back region to witness it being franked, so it wouldn't be literally ripped off - before being thrown into a huge and overflowing sack. I still have no idea if that one arrived.

Buses, trains and planes were polluted by smokers - even with pipes! - and you had to pay to access headphones to watch the movie that was shown on a big screen at the front of the cabin. On the other hand, when I bought a 20cm long sharp bronze paper knife during a stop-over in Bangkok, I was able to carry it back onto the plane...

But one thing hasn't changed. I still lose track of the days.

Monday, 15 July 2019

Getting the hump about cricket

In a novel turn for me, who lives a life of enviably self-regulated ease with a complete lack of work-related stress, I had to eschew my usual leisurely morning routine in order to meet an urgent deadline. I know! So unreasonable.
It was my own fault, having spotted a hook for a story, and pitching it to one of my editors. (Does that jargon make me sound like a proper journalist? Ha! Fooled you.) She then took me up on it and wanted it straight away, since the subject was actually news, of sorts: that the Hump Ridge Track in Fiordland has been added to the golden list of New Zealand's Great Walks. 
Regular 😃 readers will recall that I did this walk a few years ago and was lucky enough to strike lovely weather - by no means a given, in Fiordland, where annual rainfall is literally measured in metres. It was a really enjoyable tramp, starting with a helicopter ride across the bay and including two lodges, wine, venison, hot-smoked salmon, a hand-knitted hot-water bottle cover, 20km of much-appreciated boardwalk, lots of birds, spectacular views and some wonderfully picturesque sculpted tors reflected in still tarns. As well as lots of walking, scrambling, climbing, puffing and sweating, natch. It fully deserves its new status.
Sadly, though, it pipped the also-gorgeous Queen Charlotte Track to the title. Regular etc will remember that I did the first day of that tramp not so long ago, and was most taken with it - though the chance and, in NZ highly unusual, meeting with a couple of deer made it especially memorable. (Today's connection: the only other time I've met deer was the young white tail I surprised on Stewart Island on a ramble around the bays - where I went on the very same trip that I did Hump Ridge.)
Driven by the deadline, I worked solidly and filed the story, plus its images - always the most time-consuming bit of the whole process, by the way, since I've never yet had the self-discipline to sort my photos on return from a trip, so that they're selected, edited and captioned all ready to go when I need them. Yay, all done. And then the editor emails back: er, sorry, no room on the homepage today, something to do with cricket...* Sigh.
* Cricket World Cup, dear reader - strictly speaking, Men's Cricket World Cup, since the women's one has been and gone already. NZ v ENG at Lords, two draws and a subsequent debatable (and inevitably much debated) ruling giving it to England. The mere fact that I - me! - am writing these words at all tells you everything you need to know about the super-saturation this event has received here, despite taking place in the middle of the night.

UPDATE: Finally!

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Blatantly, and - ideally - chillingly, entitled

I like to think that my stories are pretty easy reading, and I feel particularly comfortable about being able to write an opening that sucks the reader in, but - titles? Mine just suck, full stop. I find it really hard to write something apt and catchy, frequently succumbing to the nudge, nudge, wink, wink of alliteration, and they rarely make it past the subbing process. Usually the editor, much more practised at such things than I am, comes up with something heaps catchier. But not today, for my Viking Sun story in the Sunday Star-Times.

Sun - eclipse: yes, I see that of course.  But even though It's obvious and pedestrian and absolutely the sort of thing that I might eventually have come up with myself, all inspiration sapped by producing the story itself (my only possible excuse), I would never have written it - because it's just not true. One full day on a mid-level ship sailing between Auckland and Wellington? Yes, it was nice, and they did everything properly, and I didn't write anything I wouldn't stand by, but... "hard to eclipse"? Yeah, nah.

Sorry, Viking, but I've sailed with Silversea, to Alaska, to Montreal, to North Cape,  to Antarctica! All those destinations are what I call properly hard to eclipse - so hard, in the case of Antarctica, that it has actually kind of sapped my enthusiasm for any subsequent cruising. You can keep your Mediterranean, your Pacific Islands, even your Caribbean. The only thing that would really er, float my boat these days is deep Arctic - Svalbard, Iceland, Greenland, northern Canada. And I would want to do it on a smaller ship even than Viking Sun's 980 passengers. Half that is the maximum, thanks, preferably even less. Not fussed about fancy restaurants, big shows, pillow menus, all that - just a bit higher standard of living than I have at home will do nicely, plus cold and spectacular scenery, please. 

And *cough* for free, natch. Because I've just sold my SEVENTH Silversea Antarctica story to a fifth publication/website, bringing the total readership/coverage up to around 2.5 million. I think that's a decent return, don't you, Silversea/Seabourn/Windstar/National Geographic?

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

R D Robinson for God (unquote)

I've just finished reading When Running Made History by Roger Robinson. I'm not a runner. I was pretty fast as a kid, but that was very long ago, and now I rarely do even the downhill jogs that were an integral part of my morning routine until Tom Cruise ruined that for me (if you want to hear that story, you'll have to ask, regular 😃 reader).

No, the initial reason I read the book was purely because RDR was one of my lecturers at Canterbury University back in 1974, and the one who made the greatest impression on me during the whole four years I was at varsity. He was different from the others: English, droll, effortlessly learned, but also lean and fit. He made academia seem glamorous. It also helped that the subject was English III - The Novel, and he was lecturing us on Vanity Fair, Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Our Mutual Friend and North & South, amongst others. That sort of brilliance would reflect well on anyone. But Dr Robinson was so comfortable in those writers' company, so familiar with them, so clear-eyed about their failings, and also so honestly admiring of their achievements, that they all merged together, members of some enviable club of literary greatness which we mere students just peered in at through the windows. 

I wasn't the only one smitten. I know of others who worked tenuous references to The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner into their essays about the narrative role of Nelly Dean, or didacticism in nineteenth-century literature, in the hope of ingratiating themselves with a man we all knew ran marathons. I never stooped so low. So I've never forgotten going to his office to pick up my marked (handwritten!) essay and getting a grin and a "Super-good!" as he handed it over. And I kept the essay, warmed to the core by the margin comment about my style, and the final one about my cogent argument and fluent writing. The sliding off-topic criticism, not so much; though it was, and still is, accurate, I'm perfectly comfortable with admitting. I've made it my thing, actually.

Anyway, the book. I'm not going to review it properly, because that would be stretching the remit of this blog - but it is entertaining, and interesting, and very readable, and much more relevant to non-runners than you might expect. RDR (can't call him Roger. Or Robinson) traces the growth of running as, originally, an eccentric past-time/obsession mostly through his own lifetime but with historical references, right up to the present where it's both an unremarkable everyday habit and an important sport. He shows how running links with, demonstrates, even drives, some important social changes during that time. What really makes the story riveting, though, is his fortuitously - or possibly not - being on the spot for a number of major events - not just world record-breaks, but internationally pivotal things like the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombings.

So that's interesting whoever you are - but, for me, there's the extra enjoyment of so many of the places he mentions where he's run, or reported on running, being part of my life experience, too. From Wellington to Ross-on-Wye, Central Park to Hyde Park, Rome to Sydney, Kenya to Christchurch - every couple of pages, there was a ping! of recognition, and instant mental transportation. And that, of course, is what this blog is about, eh: connections.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Seoul, Day Four - A long walk and then a long sit

With thanks to Air New Zealand for this famil.

Saturday today, so we got off to a later start – the shops don’t open till 10am at weekends here. We drove north again, along wide avenues and past some amazing buildings, including one big silver job that was all curves – a stadium of fashion, apparently. It was a high-end area with some very fancy shops, but our aim was Insadong market, a pedestrian street with offshoots – arty, quirky, colourful. There was a private Toy Museum with a life-size Homer and Marge outside, and small models of Wallace and Gromit inside amongst thousands of others. We passed a takeaway cocktail stall, a handmade traditional porcelain doll studio, lovely individual fashion shops (tailored exclusively for those with waists, sadly), bags, shoes – and, our first stop, a cat café.

Of course these are everywhere now, even in Auckland, but it turns out variations on this are a big thing in Seoul – there’s a sheep café, a raccoon one, reptiles, puppies and, we discovered a bit later, meerkats. We had a look at that one, and it wasn’t good – their raccoon was missing his tail, a lemur in a cage was agitated, and the meerkats were penned in a glass room. This cat one was nice, though – prettily decorated and inhabited by about a dozen mostly bored cats, some rescued, some donated. There was a munchkin, a hairless one, various coloured shorthairs, and one immensely fat cat who, they told us delightedly, weighed 7kg. That was a bit confronting, since mine at home recently weighed in at 7.5 – but he looks nowhere near as fat as this one. It’s all muscle!

We stroked and gave ear scratchies, drank our coffee, and moved on. I think the cat cafés are ok, knowing cats, but can’t approve of the others, which are just too unnatural. We carried on wandering along the streets and alleys, past an extraordinary number of skin-care shops where masks were the big thing. Not just face masks, but masks for lips, feet, thighs, bellies, buttocks and even breasts. We were given samples of face masks made from snails, even. Not sure that stuff would ever wash off.

We passed through an area of big glass buildings, street sculpture, neat landscaping, and it was all immaculate, despite there being no litter bins anywhere – honestly, I carried a paper wrapper for an hour before finding somewhere to leave it. We crossed over a small river that runs below road level through the city for about 14km, that long ago was built over, until one forward-thinking mayor decided, against strong public opinion, to resurrect it at huge expense. Now it’s just lovely – a natural-looking shallow river bubbling along over rocks, fringed with trees and well-used paths each side, and everybody loves it, especially in summer when they come down for a cooling paddle.

All that walking had got us a bit peckish, so Sue took us into a very ordinary café for dumplings. We should have realised from the long queue for takeaways outside that it was a little gem. We squeezed inside and around the worktable where people were kneading, rolling and shaping dough, up a steep wooden staircase and into a small room crowded with Formica tables, almost every place taken by women. They shuffled along though and we were able to sit down and wait for Sue’s choice of our dumplings to be delivered – which they were, very quickly.

There are few things less appetising, to my eye, than Asian dumplings: pale and sweaty: they never look cooked, and are totally untempting. Also, tricky to handle with slippery stainless steel chopsticks – but turns out it’s worth the effort. They were so yummy! Just the right level of spicy, and the fillings really tasty. We all ate far more than we’d intended, and Simon actually said it was the best food he’d had all trip – which was a bit of an insult to Dosa, the Michelin-featured restaurant, and the famous Bamboo House, but there you go. The people's food, eh? Hard to beat.

We kept walking, and eventually emerged from the maze of shopping streets back at the big avenue, by a gateway pavilion and section of the old city wall, and in amongst the traffic again, where faithful Mr Kim was waiting in the van, summoned by the super-efficient Sue. She was so good, friendly and well-informed and organised, she really did make our brief flit to Seoul feel like a proper visit, and gave us a proper handle on the city. But her job was now over, so we hugged and said goodbye back at the hotel.

The others were beginning their IATA conference stuff, so I sloped off to check out the reptile café – tortoises, lizards, a snake, check – which looked like more of a pet shop really, and then got sucked back into the Starfield mall beneath the COEX centre.

It’s vast – wide, airy halls past endless shops, many of them Western, and busy with well-dressed people. I went back to the free library Sue had shown us on the first day, and the art installation that was then draped in white plastic was now on display: shimmering rainbow panes in a big circle. Very lovely. As were the cakes in the little shop up on the mezzanine. There were people there to watch a grand piano recital but, truly, most were either doing homework at the desks or simply sitting reading books. It was good to see.

I also caught a K-pop concert near the food hall: two groups, one boys, one girls, doing all the moves to that catchy music, watched by tiers of fans. That K-pop thing, it’s so much more than the music – it’s an industry. We saw band names and faces everywhere, advertising everything from biscuits to face masks. I understand that exploitation of the artists has been/even is, a thing in some cases. The companies behind them are huge.

And then that was that: time for me to head home. Mr Kim picked me up, and we had a good run out to the airport, 1hr 10, and I enjoyed seeing those magnificent bridges again in the evening sunshine. Not so impressed to notice a Trump tower this time. My flight with Singapore Airlines left promptly at 11.45pm, and I slept despite being in a restricted-recline economy seat. Five hours later at Changi I triumphantly secured my tentatively-promised business class seat, and spent the Air New Zealand flight home in my own little lie-flat pod, mothered by the friendly cabin staff. I ate lunch, afternoon tea and dinner, all of it very nice, had a sleep, watched a boxed set of The Good Place, and arrived back in Auckland safe and sound at 10.25pm. 

Friday, 31 May 2019

Seoul, Day Three - Serious and silly

With thanks to Air New Zealand for this famil

Today guide Sue really came into her own. She rearranged our programme to avoid the crowds, took us straight to the important bits, and showed us fun things we would certainly have missed on our own. Plus, she talked to us candidly and thoughtfully about South Korea's history and politics, and gave our fleeting visit to Seoul much more depth than it would otherwise have had.

We started the day by driving across the Han River to the northern part of the city, and up Namsan, a steep and wooded hill, to the N Seoul Tower. The tower itself is 240m high, and has a great view of Seoul, which is vast - and also surprisingly green, despite all the apartment buildings and towers. And all around are rocky peaks and wooded hills, much of it well-used national parks. The observation deck (enclosed) has windows with helpful captions on - and also foreign city names and distances, on the appropriate sides. It was, I confess it, a thrill to see Auckland and Wellington included (we are very used to New Zealand being overlooked). Sue pointed out the sights, including surviving sections of the ancient city wall, and then took us to the toilets - honestly, the most fun bit of all. The cubicles' outer walls are glass, so you can sit there and gaze down at the city nearly 500m below - which might help with proceedings, possibly. Or the opposite.

Outside there was a section for the cliché lovers' padlock thing, completely over the top and really just a photo op - of which there were many today. It's early summer here and the trees are in fresh leaf, with a beautiful cluster of bronze maples contrasting with the green. Sue said in autumn the hill is at its busiest - very beautiful, but more visitors than leaves. As we walked back down to the car, we were delighted to hear, and see, a cuckoo calling loudly above us.

Then we headed along the motorway out of the city, past the World Cup stadium from 2002, through the DMC - Digital Media Centre, that tells you a lot about South Korea's economy - and under a bridge with a huge billboard on it depicting futuristic-looking soldiers. I thought it was a video game ad, but it's actually promoting the army, and the bridge itself is designed to be blown up in case of invasion from the north, to prevent entry to the city. Sobering stuff, and an appropriate introduction to our focus for the day: the DMZ.

After a fresh and dainty multi-course lunch served in small dishes at a pretty little fusion restaurant Sue chose, we continued along beside the Han River into the country past neatly-planted rice paddies. All very rural and pleasant - but then we turned to follow the Imjin River, which is separated from the road by a continuous high wire fence topped with coils of razor wire, with regular security cameras on high poles, and wooden guard huts, all facing north. It looked distinctly grim, so it was disconcerting to stop next at a funfair with rides and games. But that was where we transferred to our bus to the DMZ, in which, after passport checks and head counts, we drove over the Unification Bridge, zigzagging round a series of barriers at each end.

Our first stop was at the futuristic Dorasan railway station which was built to serve passengers travelling between South and North Korea, and, eventually enable people to travel by train from Seoul all the way to Paris. But of course politics have got in the way, it's been repeatedly opened and closed, and currently sits unused, a sad symbol of hope and the unfulfilled dream of unification. Inside there's a display of framed photographs showing leaders' handshakes and grins - but no progress.

The bus then took us to the Dora Observatory, a sleek and modern building on top of a hill, where Sue whisked us up to the open area on the roof with a row of telescopes. We looked across rolling green countryside and the river into North Korea, to a distant city and beyond it wooded hills, all hazy in the sunshine. We could see the South's tall flagpole, and the North's even taller one. It was just countryside, the same on each bank of the river, the north not bristling with fortifications, or laid bare - just a continuation of what is, or should be, the same country.

It was all a little anticlimactic, to be honest. I'd expected soldiers, guns, bare earth, fortifications, but more than anything it was a slick tourist operation, efficiently shuffling hundreds of visitors through newly-built halls every day. There was one soldier - a life-size cutout in fatigues, for posing with. If we'd been able to visit the JSA - Joint Security Area - where the blue buildings are and the table that straddles the border, it would have been more dramatic; but it's more often than not closed to the public, and was today.

Back on the bus, we were taken next to Tunnel 3, where Sue rushed us into a theatre to catch most of an excitable video telling the story of the discovery of four tunnels dug from the north, as a means of sneaking south to invade. There were maps with arrows, converging lines, and explosions over Seoul, and the bald statement that there are without doubt other undiscovered tunnels. And then the narrator suddenly switched to saying how the wildlife had benefited from the 4km-wide exclusion zone, where the animals and birds can flourish undisturbed. So that's all right, then.

We left all our gear in a locker, got helmets, and set off down the steeply sloping chute that's been dug to take visitors to a section of the original tunnel. This is roughly hacked out of the stone, with yellow paint showing where the dynamite used in their construction has been detected. The tunnel was narrow, steep, low, damp and claustrophobic, with every so often disturbing perspex cases of gas masks for emergency use. Right at the bottom was a concrete wall, and an electronic counter showing the number of days since the Armistice in 1953 - it read 24,000-something. There was also a security camera, which swivelled as not one, but two men took their forbidden cellphones out of their pockets, and took forbidden photos.

Of course - remember, I used to be a teacher, and rules are rules - I told Sue on them when we rejoined her at the top, and she told the guards, but they had missed seeing it on the bank of TV screens above them, so the perps got away with it. Peeving - I would have liked to take photos myself, but instead I did as I was told.

Naturally, we exited the DMZ through the gift shop, where we could have bought bags of DMZ rice, or DMZ soybeans, or packs of DMZ chocolate, or DMZ anything else, it seemed. Commerce rules, after all.

And that was that for the Demilitarised Zone. We drove all the way back into Seoul again, having a long and interesting talk with Sue about Korea's past, present and ideal future, and learning lots of unexpected facts - for instance, that young men in the south must do 18 months in the army, but in the north, it's ten years, and seven for women. And you have to dress neatly to visit the JSA because North Korea likes to take photos of people in fashionably-distressed jeans to show their people how badly the West is doing. We got stuck, inevitably, in traffic as we neared the city again - but were compensated by low golden sun lighting up the splendid bridges across the Han, the riverside parks where people played basketball and tennis, and walked their dogs, and lit up the tower blocks and wonderfully varied skyscrapers. It was a beautiful evening, and entirely compensated for the traffic jams.

It made us late, though, so it was a rush to get out for dinner at Bamboo House, the venue that had made Sue audibly gasp when we told her about it yesterday. We did a bit of gasping ourselves on the taxi ride there: we'd been stuck motionless in a jam for quite some time, and were cheerfully chatting amongst ourselves when the driver suddenly snapped and, without saying a word, suddenly wrenched the car onto the other side of the road, nearly collecting a pedestrian, and shot through an narrow gap, ending up nose-to-nose with another car coming the other way. It was a stand-off, then the other car backed off and our driver gunned away and around a corner to the restaurant, which was fortunately not far away. 

But all was calm and friendly at Bamboo House, where we were shown into a separate room with a long table set with barbecue grills. We were served entrées of bean soup, salad, pancakes and sauces, and then the main course arrived: two sorts of steak cooked by our chatty waiters (one of whom had lived in Auckland), cut up with scissors and served, sizzling, to us. Delicious. And of course the traditional drink of soju helped - 25% proof rice wine mixed with beer. I would happily have stopped at the steak, but then came noodle soup and dried fish, and finally yoghurt with berries.

It had been a long day, and we were now full to bursting, but it wasn't bedtime yet. Karaoke is a Korean obsession, and so we wandered along the busy street to find a karaoke bar. The first one required that we bought two bottles of whisky to hire the room and equipment, but the second was more reasonable and we had beers in a dark room with a spangly light, a screen and remote, two microphones and two tambourines. It was my first karaoke experience but the others were old hands, and we were soon scoring as high as 99 with songs from Abba to A-ha, by way of the Beatles and Beyoncé. It was fun, but one session was enough for two of us and we headed home, courtesy of yet another crazy taxi driver, while the others kept going, went to bars, were amazed by the increasing crowds of young people on the streets as the night wore on, and equally shocked by the drunkenness, and finally got back to the hotel at 3am.

Sad in Seoul

Oh dear. I've just woken up here in Seoul, and heard on RNZ radio news about the sightseeing boat sunk on the Danube in the centre of Budapest, killing seven South Korean tourists, with 21 still missing, currently. That's a bunch of connections I'd rather not have had.

I've both done a similar sightseeing cruise in Budapest - during the day, up the river, under those impressive bridges, past the magnificent Parliament building, possibly even in the Mermaid itself, it's entirely possible - and also begun a Danube cruise there on a river boat like the one that hit the smaller vessel. My cruise was with Avalon, but Viking is a company I'm familiar with, having recently had a few days on board one of their ocean cruisers, Viking Sun, from Auckland to Wellington. I can so very easily imagine it all happening - that is one busy river. And also one that has seen so much human tragedy, much of it caused by people, just like today.

Of course the local news on TV is all over it - all the passengers were from South Korea - and everyone here will be shocked and saddened. What a horrific thing to happen. I'm so sorry.

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Seoul, Day Two - Gangnam and style; also not

With thanks to Air New Zealand for this famil

The Newshub people were out early to do news at the DMZ so it was just Monique and me today being shown around Seoul by the lovely Sue. Our first stop was the Geongbok Palace. It's grand and spacious and put me very much in mind of Beijing's Forbidden City - same pagoda-type building with curled-corner roofs, intricately painted and carved inside, and surrounded by great open spaces behind high walls. Our arrival was timed for the daily changing of the guard which took place with the usual sort of ridiculously elaborate ceremony that men do so like to get deeply solemn about, wherever you are in the world. So there were long, colourful robes and hats with pheasant feathers sticking up, big flags on poles, a band with a conch, trumpets and drums, and solemn marching about in the courtyard.
To be honest, I was much more taken by all the women, and some men, in traditional Korean dress in the audience. They did look gorgeous, in their long full skirts and fitted tops, all flouncy and beaded and pretty colours. Some had hats too, and most wore very sensible sneakers underneath all that finery. I asked Sue why they were all dressed up, and she said, a bit derisively, "For the selfies" - and it's true, there was a great deal of that going on.

We went on through the Palace, past another pagoda in an artificial lake with carp in it, and on through the grounds and finally out the other side, where we saw the Blue House that's the President's residence, all set about with white-gloved guards in little guard houses. We walked on, along an avenue of ginkgo trees and flagpoles ringed with baskets of petunias, all very neat and colourful and tidy. Sue meantime gave us lots of history, ancient and more modern, perfectly candid and open.

We walked up then through an even older part of the city, Bukchon Hanok village, where 14th century traditional houses have been gentrified inside and are lived in by rich people. We climbed up stone steps along narrow alleys draped with the usual Asian tangle of power lines, with pots of peppers and greens flourishing outside the houses, and it was all very pretty. So pretty, that it's become a tourist must-do - which is, of course, why we were there ourselves - to the irritation of the residents, especially when said tourists are Chinese. So there are notices everywhere telling visitors to be quiet, in fact to whisper, and there are actual official hushmen, and women, employed to stand on corners shushing people who talk too loudly.

Next Sue took us to Gwangjang Market, which is a network of narrow streets covered over and pedestrianised, where everything imaginable is sold, but mainly food. Well, that was our focus anyway, it being lunchtime by now, and we drooled over all the stalls being manned by neatly-dressed women with bright lipstick, who smiled and flapped menus at us and offered samples. It really did look delicious - all manner of fried foods, and salads, all freshly cooked and crispy. Sue took us to her favourite, where we sat on plastic stools and were served the specialty mung bean pancakes - much more delicious than that might sound - and ground pork ones too, served with kimchi and raw onions in soy. Really nice, and washed down with cloudy rice beer.

It was good that we ate before continuing our tour, which took us next to the part of the market called Raw Beef Alley: exactly as described, where people were tucking eagerly into plates of raw mince with a raw egg in the middle, and other less easy to describe dishes. There were live octopuses in small tanks, all manner of fermented food piled up, meals ready to take home to cook, baskets of spices, mung beans being freshly ground and kneaded - and everywhere people perched on stools and benches, being served straight from the wok or barbecue. All super-authentic.

Our next stop was Garosugil Street, to wander along looking at the beautifully displayed fashion, bags, shoes and fripperies there - colourful, minimalist, artistic. We went into one pop-up demonstrating the new Samsung TV that was so like a fairground show that we expected to pay money: lights, mirrors, screens, clever devices. There was so much to look at along the street, it was a real entertainment too. And everything looked so beautiful that even a non-consumer like me could almost have been tempted.

The tour then morphed into a K-pop homage. Now, of course you know, dear regular 😃 reader, that I have my finger welded to the pulse of popular culture, but I do have to confess that, apart from being vaguely aware of BST, I'm not up with K-pop. Of course it's huge here, and Gangnam (say it with a K, not a G) is the centre of this culture, especially K-Star Road, which is lined with big shiny doll mascots named after the most famous bands. We went into SMTown, which is five floors of K-pop memorabilia - interactive photo booths, larger-than-lifesize posters, a museum, displays of awards, photo galleries of stars, 3D printed miniatures, pop videos and, of course, a shop. It's an industry, truly.

Finally, we wandered through the huge mall beneath the hotel, which is confusing and includes a 16-screen cinema (the Korean movie industry is also huge) and an aquarium as well as big-name shops from all over - and an amazing public library donated by the management, with books free to read on site, but not borrow. It was very well-used, and looked amazing. And then it was time for a rest at the hotel where, to my horror, I discovered the chambermaid had left all the lights turned on in my room including, total mystery still, the ceiling ones over the bed.

Later: inspired by the essential need not to sleep tonight under dual spotlights, I did eventually track down the controls for those two lights: not a regular wall switch like all the others but, sneakily, separate buttons on the alarm clock by the bed, labelled in tiny writing. I mean, really? Tch.

Dinner tonight was at Dosa, a low-profile and quite small modern restaurant down below street level, which was my first-ever Michelin-starred experience. It was pleasing that as we were seated, Lorde was playing, and then we were straight into choosing which tasting menu we fancied. Shockingly, both featured, as course #2, guess what? Only raw beef with raw egg yolk. Officially, there were nine courses - which we accompanied with a bottle of very nice Argentinian Malbec - but several others were slid in, starting with a little cone of something containing fois gras and topped with candy floss, which was a worryingly bizarre combination. The presentation throughout was imaginative and fun, incorporating at various points lights, flowers and a log, and everything looked gorgeous and, happily, tasted great too. Even the raw beef was an interesting mix of flavours, and served much more imaginatively than in the market. The roast octopus was almost delicious enough to make me forget the poor creatures trying to escape their little tanks . My Iberian pork was nice, but I wish I'd chosen the beef all the others had which (I had a taste) was wondrously tender, juicy and flavourful, and closed down the conversation for quite five minutes. The icy noodles that came next were weird, and hard to eat, but then came a pear-shaped mango and coconut sorbet and then a sprinkle of tiny fancies to end it all. Excellent. Thank you, Air New Zealand.

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Seoul, Day One - A long way to the loo

With thanks to Air New Zealand for this famil
It feels very weird to have dinner as usual and afterwards sit down on the sofa to start watching our habitual programmes - and then, at 7.30pm, to get into the car and drive to the ferry to begin a journey to South Korea. Bizarre, even. With an overlay of anxiety because the pre-dinner news featured an item about the increasing unreliability of Waiheke ferries, and I really didn't want to fall at the first fence.

The ferry chugged up on time, though, and all was well - until the second fence, the SkyBus to the airport, which simply didn't turn up. The printed timetable promised one at 9pm, but it didn't come, and then I noticed that the electronic sign said the next one would be at 10pm. Phoning for clarification was no good: the help number took me to Melbourne, and the local number I eventually found hidden away simply stated, when rung: "This number cannot respond to calls from mobile phones". Er, what? 

So I stomped off to take a taxi, which was the extortionate rip-off I expected: $94. That's three times the SkyBus return fare, and almost three times what a pre-booked Cheap Cap would cost. Painful. Trust me, complaints are in process.

[UPDATE: Full refund promptly actioned, with apology. Consider me mollified.]

But then it all got better: I met my Air NZ host and Newshub companions, we checked in Premium, and breezed through to the fancy new Koru lounge to wait for our 11.55pm flight to Singapore. Sadly, not in Business class, but Premium Economy which, since my last flight was in Qatar Airways' Business, felt rather more economy than premium. But the seats are wider and more spread out, there's a nice pillow, and though the seat doesn't recline as far as an Eziboy, which is my personal measure of such things,  it does have a footrest and it was still possible to get comfortable enough to sleep adequately. I skipped the dinner that some people opted for - breakfast was nice.
We arrived at Singapore a bit late because of headwinds, and were officially escorted to a buggy to be whisked what seemed miles past endless fancy shops and people looking vacant in massage chairs, to our gate for the Singapore Airlines leg to Seoul. This was, disappointingly, economy class (I KNOW!) and it did feel like it too: an A350,-900, 3:3:3 configuration and very snug seats. Truly, I had no-one next to me, and am neither wide nor tall, but even I felt cramped. The TV screen was so close I had to put my reading glasses on and even then it wasn't comfortable to watch. And, they took half the 7-hour flight to get around to serving dinner, which was an inordinately long delay. Good thing it was worth waiting for - delicious Korean chicken rice. A great omen, I hope.

We landed mid-afternoon, breezed through their big, airy airport and were met by Sue, our local guide, who took us to a minibus with flowered curtains and fringed pelmets above the windows, in which we drove the unexpectedly long way into the city. Like 62km! And Sue was hoping, since we were ahead of the rush-hour, that it would take "Only 90 minutes".

And, in fact, it did: away off the island of Incheon, past many green hills, over the bridge to the mainland, and along the Han River, spanned by a variety of bridges, all impressively engineered and busy with traffic. We passed the Lotte World Tower, looking Shard-like, the stadium built for the 1988 Olympics, which still looms large in the local consciousness, uncountable numbers of tall apartment buildings, lots of trees, and, finally, the vast COEX convention centre which includes our Intercontinental hotel.
It's five-star but, spoilt by my hotel history, my room seemed pretty standard to me - until I went into the bathroom. Well! There it was, my first electric toilet. The first shock was that the seat was heated, but I soon, er, warmed to that idea. I studied the options for washing, and drying, and can report that the process is pleasant, accurate and effective. I shall return; and not just because nature requires it.

For dinner we kind of piked it, going to a recommended US Gastropub in the vast mall beneath the hotel - Devil's Door. It's built like a brick warehouse with a huge screen above the bar, showing a Korean baseball game - it's one of the biggest sports here, who knew? - and served food in battered enamel buckets, that kind of place. We startled the waiter by each of us ordering something, and understood his astonishment when the food arrived (very fast). The portions were huge! But it was all very tasty and we did a valiant job of eating most of it.

Then we popped upstairs to the 30th floor to look at the night view of the city - pretty good - and to have yet another drink, before finally retiring to bed and the day's final unexpected result. You know how there's always one light in a new hotel room that you can't find the switch for to turn off? Always. Sometimes I've had to ring down to reception for help, the switch was so cunningly hidden. Well, tonight, I couldn't find it to turn the ceiling lights above the bed ON. That was novel. And no doubt tomorrow will bring more surprises.

Monday, 27 May 2019

Rotorua Canopy Tours is stoatally different

Ziplines. They're everywhere these days, hardly anybody ever calls them flying foxes any more, and I've done plenty. They're always fun, especially if you do a tandem one with a friend, and I'm always up for another. Because of my trust/lack of imagination issues, I never feel nervous about accidents, and simply enjoy whizzing along, just mildly irritated that I invariably end up going backwards. So it was easy to say yes to trying out Rotorua Canopy Tours recently. 

Of course, with so much competition, there's a strong focus on providing a point of difference, and RCT has two. For a start, they really are up in the canopy - and of not just your boring old pine forest, but between 1000 year-old rimu trees, above a pocket of the scant 5% of virgin native bush left in New Zealand. So that is special - and the engineering is impressive, too. The lines are fitted between the trees with as little trimming as possible, there are elegant spiral staircases up around the trunks of those big old trees, and dainty swing bridges linking the zipline sections. One of these has side-wires only knee height, so that's an enjoyable novelty (you're still safely clipped on to a line overhead). It's all been very well, and sustainably, done - and that's RCT's second focus.
When they started up in 2012, the Dansey Road Scenic Reserve was a shadow of its current self: full of bare branches, empty forest floor, and no birds. RCT set up a vigorous programme of trapping, and in the first two weeks killed over 800 possums, rats and stoats. They kept at it, experimenting with a variety of traps and methods, and decided to concentrate on the NZ-invented self-resetting Goodnature trap (I've got one - so far it's only caught one fat hedgehog, which is officially a pest but I'm still sad about it). Now they have a partnership with DOC, and some of each punter's ziplining fee goes into the fund for keeping the programme going. 

They're rightfully proud of what they've achieved: on my visit, it was visible from the moment we got out of the van. Virgin bush is thick!  I'm used to being able to see through the tree trunks, but here it was a, well, forest of green. Ferns, vines, fungi... and above it all, towering trees thick with leaves and epiphytes. And birds! Noisy, and bold - RCT has a special licence to feed native birds, so I held out my hand with a mealworm on it, and a bouncy little North Island robin flew down to grab it. Cute.
We heard all about the birds we might have seen, if people hadn't been so greedy and careless - moa, Haast's eagle, huia, NI takahe and lots more, all gone extinct in 800 years - and, later, the detail of the company's efforts to preserve what's left. And then we got on with the ziplining - six of them, 1200m altogether, one 400m long, one tandem set, and all way above the forest floor, invisible now under the solid green canopy of tree leaves and tree fern fronds (which are especially beautiful from above: like a crown). 

It was such good fun. There were only three of us - the others were a US couple three days out from their wedding - so we had time to sit on the cliff walk, dangling our feet over the void 50m below, and have a cup of coffee, a biscuit and a chat. The clipping on and off was reassuringly brisk and efficient, Kiwi guides Emily and David were cheerfully laidback and droll, the day was bright and sunny, and the zooming along was exciting. We finished with an 18m controlled abseil, which one of us (not me - you had to ask?) did upside down. 

Rotorua Canopy Tours - recommended.

Saturday, 25 May 2019

The rough before the smooth

I paid for my own travel to last week's TRENZ conference in Rotorua. Last year they flew me down to Dunedin FOC but, since Rotorua is less than a 4-hour drive from Auckland, they laid on a coach from the airport instead. Getting to and from the airport would have cost me more than taking a coach from Auckland Central right into Rotorua, I discovered, so I opted to go by Skip Bus. What a revelation: it cost just $24 return, standard fare, and the bus, far from being the backpacker-level transport I expected, was just your regular, comfortable, long-distance coach, that left on time, had free WiFi, and was super-efficient. Amazing value. Recommended! 

So, anyway, to get some more immediate payback than I'll achieve from my more general begging around the exhibition halls, I arranged to stay an extra night and do some stuff. Said stuff was a zipline outing with Rotorua Canopy Tours in the morning, followed by a treatment at the Polynesian Spa. Excitement followed by relaxation, was the selling-point. Made sense. And it would probably have worked, had I been a more touchy-feely type. Not a big fan of the massage, I have to say. I've had plenty, most of them free, and the only ones I've actually enjoyed and felt beneficial were one delivered by a former sports masseur at Uluru, and the medicinal ones I went to back home after dislocating my shoulder in Norfolk.

All the others were mainly just intensive moisturising sessions, really. A couple made me feel uneasy. Many were physically uncomfortable, and not in a beneficial way. One left me with bruises. This one? It started fine, the usual fluffy robe, hushed lounge, herbal teas. The Spa is right by the lake, surrounded by steam from pools fed by two geothermal springs. There are 28 pools, all different temperatures, some acidic, some alkaline. What I should have done was go for a wallow before the treatment, but there wasn't time (I have done it before - it's lovely).

Instead I was taken to a chilly treatment room and laid out under a towel, wearing disposable knickers, while the oddly-named Dante rubbed an exfoliating mud/kiwifruit pip/ground walnut shell mixture all over me. It was hard to relax, especially when she got to my thighs, where the prodding was painful. Then she slathered on a different mud treatment, which went on nice and warm, but soon cooled, wrapped me in a towel and left me for a while to reflect on the marvel that people pay good money for this. The best bit was then stepping into a hot shower to rinse it all off - that  was glorious. But after that I had to get back on the bench for the moisturising, with honey and lavender, which was ok; and then Dante delivered a scalp massage, which was SO uncomfortable I was gritting my teeth and willing it to be over - but it went on forever. Horrible.

Finally the treatment came to an end and I - of course - said, "Lovely! Thank you, Dante", and scuttled out of there, determined that I will never, never, submit to a free massage again. (Unless it's feet. Foot massages I do enjoy.) And I didn't even get to soak in the pools because it seemed a waste of what would otherwise have been my money to wash all that moisturiser off straight away.

UPDATE: Massages are like childbirth - the pain is soon forgotten in the pleasure of the result. And, regular 😃 reader, there was a result: my skin afterwards, a week later, is still noticeably, delightfully, smooth and soft. I had no idea I'd been so barnacly. All that exfoliation - polish, to use their unexpectedly entirely accurate term - had an actual, empirical, beneficial result. Who'd have thought it?


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...