It is incredible what can be achieved in four days. Steve Wozniak designed the first Apple computer, Romeo wooed Juliet, married her, got banished, returned and died and Jesus managed to get crucified, atone for all of mankind’s sins and resurrect himself- and he had a day to spare. On the four days that I was granted for holiday away from the hotel at which I work in Japan, I travelled to South Korea to watch the Winter Olympics. Although I did not make any technological advancements, feature in the world’s most notorious romantic story or offer salvation for the human race, I did successfully manage a cheap extended weekend visiting temples, watching iconic sporting events and getting drunk thirty-five miles from North Korea, which is debatably equally as impressive. My story doesn’t offer inspiration from great intellect or enthralling sacrifice, but from the infatuating ability to be simultaneously useless and practical, combined with resourceful budgeting and the kindness of others. It all started as a joke. Just popping over the East Sea for a few days to watch some skiing but after a bit of research the possibility grew to become potentially achievable. Ski instructing isn’t a financially lucrative industry and the monetary problems persisted to be the main obstacle, but in a world of budget airlines and couch surfing, travelling on a shoe string is an attainable feat, and on a whim of spontaneity, flights to Korea were booked.
After an exceptional night celebrating the Chinese New Year, which ended in a hot tub at two AM, it was finally time to utilise my short break and jump on the first bus heading to the airport. As I had booked an early flight it was a journey that was tight for time, so when my bus clipped another upon parking at a service station half way through the trip, the half an hour information exchange didn’t help to alleviate any stress and turned to check in procedure into an accelerated affair. The other end of the flight was where I realised I had no idea what I was doing. As soon as I disembarked the plane I was lost. I had made no plans of how to travel to the hostel I had booked in Seoul, I had none of the local currency and I hadn’t even packed a suitable plug adapter. Useless. I was so excited for my trip that I had completely ignored any requirement for logistical planning past the point of arriving on Korean soil. After a brief period aimlessly stumbling around Incheon airport, gathering inconclusive translations and trying to figure out how to log into the free Korean WIFI, eventually I gathered enough information to pick a train that would get me close to my hostel for the night, and headed off into the city.
There something unfathomably enjoyable about aimlessly wandering around new places. Sticking in a pair of earphones, jamming out to your favourite tunes and stumbling about a foreign city is wonderfully gratifying, and an efficacious hangover cure after a soju fuelled night out. After a forgotten unforgettable night beginning with a Korean barbeque and copious amounts of alcoholic rice beverages a stroll through the backstreets of South Korea’s capital was a remarkably relishable experience, enhanced perhaps by the ongoing effects of the previous nights drinks. Rambling through the city, taking in the architecture and the sights whilst trying to work out why the stamp on my hand said Thursday, despite it being a Saturday, I found myself crossing the Han river before finding the national assembly. With Korea’s intriguing history and ongoing situation with their northern neighbours there were a lot of interesting monuments to be observed as I headed for the train station to begin my journey east to Gangneung and the Winter Olympic games.
One of the reasons this trip became a reality is the wonderous world of couchsurfing. Due to the ridiculous hotel rates and unavailability of hostels, I turned to the popular accommodation app for a place to sleep. Having never used the service before I was delighted when Cristin replied to my message inviting me to stay with her family. Once I had arrived at the apartment block in Gangneung I knocked on the door to no answer. Five minutes of intermittently knocking and ringing the door bell went by unanswered, leaving me confused and doubting if I was in the right location or if it was all a prank. After a little sunbathe on the roof, taking in the skyline of the coastal city I tried again at the door, which was opened by bemused looking Korean woman. After a sustained stare I was able to clear up the situation and was warmly welcomed into her home. My couchsurfing host had gone to the cinema, her mother explained as she did the dishes, and I was invited in to make myself at home. Whilst discussing my time in Japan, the winter Olympics and her life before her husband boisterously bounced into the room. I already knew that Korean’s are incredibly kind people, but this guy exceeded expectations. Despite speaking no English, and my limited (non-existent) Korean, he still insisted on lecturing me on Korean history and the old empire, utilising a map and pointing to a surprising success. The real bonding came from one of the world’s most loved games- football. Despite his following of Tottenham, the north London rivals of my Arsenal, we were able to enjoy the highlights of their game against Juventus as he would say the number and name of every player, every time they touched the ball. Every single time. Being particularly excited every time South Korean star Son Heung-min gained possession. Despite not having met my host yet, my couchsurfing experience started stunningly.
My host family had already demonstrated an incredible display of kindness by welcoming me into their home offering me a place to stay for my short trip for the Olympics, but this was just a glimpse into their magnificent Korean hospitality. As congenial as it was to welcome a complete stranger into their home for a couple of nights, especially an overgrownchild who slightly smelt on arrival, and going above and beyond to provide me with breakfast and dinner and allowing me to make myself feel at home was remarkable, but what they did on the first night was one of the most genuinelyamazing acts of kindness I have ever received. I was delighted to find out that the family was also going to the Olympic games on my first evening, and they agreed to give me a lift to the mountain cluster where they would watch the men’s ski jumping as I spectated on the aerials qualifiers. As we got caught up in the traffic on the peripheries of the ski area my host inspected my ticket, and after being worryingly quiet for a few minutes she solemnly informed me that our destinations were not meant to be the same. At PyeongChang I ponderedover my options after processing my monumental misunderstanding that put me over an hour away from my desired destination. I could view the events from the Olympic plaza on the big screen or blow up my budget by scrounging another ticket at the entrance for a different event, this is when my Korean guardians descended with the most gracious gift of good will to ever come my way. A feeling of irrational guilt for what was entirely my mistake or just an impellent drive of benevolence concluded in the family purchasing an extra ticket for me, so I could watch the ski jumping. Embodying the Olympic values of friendship, respect and excellence, this act of unselfishness is a memory I will treasure as it epitomizes the multicultural kindness attitudes of the games, and I respect the excellent friendship it represents. Their generosity allowed me to enjoy the marvel that is ski jumping in the amazingly diverse and friendly atmosphere that the Winter Olympics creates and soak up how lucky I was to be on the other side of the world, travelling an outstandingly hospitable country, watching a wild discipline of a sport I love. And it only got better from there.
The next day, after checking, re-checking and checking again the location of the ski slalom and making sure I was heading to the correct scene, I ended up in the Yongpongalpine centre, and was relieved to be greeted by a big hill with a lot of poles on it, and some men in lycra going between them very fast. As I settled in for a day of watching the tightly clothed gentlemen rapidly slide down the icy descent I caught sight of a familiar face. Britain isn’t renowned for its abundance of famous skiers, but ski Sunday presenter Graham Bell is figure most English ski enthusiasts will recognise. I’m not normally one for irritating people for a photo but I thought my mum would appreciate and update of my weekend in Korea so I plucked up the courage to annoy the ex- Olympian, who was more than happy to get a snap and have a good chat about skiing. I thought to myself it was a lucky coincidence to bump into a fellow Brit in the carnival crowd at the foot of the hill, but the coincidal theme was only just beginning. As soon as the conversation with my famous friend ended, I was shocked to hear another English accent as the trio of guys next to me enquired as to who the familiar face was. The natural path of the chat continued after replying ‘that guy from ski Sunday’ into the affirmation of their obvious nationality, to which the strong British accents replied ‘England’. The process which every Englishman goes through when bumping into another is the slow procedure of narrowing down our native country until both hometowns are established, or at least the nearest big town. After months of similar conversations with guests of the hotel I was working at in Japan, the conversations never went well with a lot of restricted oriental knowledge about the geography of Western England…
‘Have you ever heard of Gloucester’ was always an optimistic start, followed by a hopeful ‘there’s a rugby team and the Cheltenham races up the road’
Looking back to blank faces, the area would be widened, ‘Do you know where Bristol is?’ The nearest large city, an hour away. ‘It’s on the west side, kind of near Wales?
Still, no hint of awareness. ‘Oh, you’ve heard of London, yeah its kind of close to London’. Conceding defeat, I renounce my heritage and say I live near the capital. Which is on the other side of the country.
However, under these somewhat bizarre circumstances I had a sliver of expectation when encountering fellow Brits atthe foot of the hill where the lycra-wearing men were still throwing themselves down the ice.
‘Have you ever heard of Gloucester’ was the optimistic start, again followed with ‘there’s a rugby team and the Cheltenham races up the road’
Three slightly shocked faces looked back at me. Was my hometown once again a mystery? Did they have an inherent hatred of it? Had they visite88d and experienced a tumultuous time? ‘Yeah we know it, we’re all from Cheltenham’ one of them replied.
I couldn’t quite believe it. the succeeding conversation further narrowed down our similarities to the point at which we discovered we went to the same school, just a decade apart. Astonished that after months of hardly anyone recognising the city, I had ended up in South Korea on a whim to watch some skiing and managed to find people who not only knew where I was from but grew up there as well. As the Olympians impressively flew down the slope dodging poles, we compared our times at our school, discussing everything from the teachers and the games we played to how the building had changed and the clubs that we used to go to in town. Enjoying the sun and the surprisingly cheap beers, as well as the slightly scary entertainment from the slightly scared looking North Korean cheer squad the rest of the event was gladly spent enjoying the extraordinary situation in this strangely small world.
For my final night on the Korean peninsula I reconvened with the slalom trio in Seoul with no money and nowhere to stay, but with a brilliant plan. To save withdrawing anymore cash I would be sensible and restrain from booking a hostel as I would have to leave early for my flight and commit to staying up all night in vibrant Seoul until the first train to the airport. Foolishly, I believed that this was a safe financial decision and I would have the restraint to make it a cheaper option than a hostel and be in a sane frame of mind to catch my flight.
By the first hour, the little money I had left had been blown on beer. By the second hour a hostel would have been cheaper. By the third everything starts to become harder to recall and by the fourth its mostly hazy. My genius plan had not been a success in its initial aspiration, but man it was a fantastically fun failure. Exploring the nightlife and bars of Seoul was spectacular. Well priced drinks, fun bars full of friendly people and the lively backdrop of K-pop. All night was spent bouncing down neon lit roads lined with inviting bars and tempting offers of soju and unintelligible music, and with the euphoria of a holiday well spent that went remarkably successfully, my last chance to party Korean style was utilised emphatically.
When I woke up at the end of the train line, with an hour till my plane took off, no money and no clue where I was I didn’t have this nostalgic retrospective view I have now, and instead slumped into an inebriated panic that I would fail to make it out of South Korea and back to work the following day. By complete fluke my good fortune continued as the final stop was Incheon airport. The wrong terminal, but the right, ludicrously large airport. There are a few major advantages in this situation when you wake up drunk and full of soju 1) you’re not hungover 2) you run really fast 3) Dutch courage helps shout ‘I’m late’ whilst waving your ticket and politely cutting queues. This magnificent combination sent me flying through the airport (no pun intended), dancing my way through the check in desk, security and passport control all the way to my gate where I joined the short line before being the last one to board the plane.
Designing a computer, creating an epic love saga, saving mankind- and going to the Winter Olympics, all debatably equally as impressive.