Archive for June, 2010

World Cup, 12th to 19th June 2010

June 29, 2010

I didn’t go to a World Cup until Germany four years ago, something that amazes me now. Although if I look back I can generally see why. From 1966 to 1978 I was too young. The next one in Spain in 1982 would have been a great one to go to however, I was seventeen and it was sandwiched between the summer after I’d left school where I’d hitchhiked around France and the year after when I’d partied in Ibiza. A world Cup in Spain seems like just the sort of thing I’d have wanted to do. Maybe my twenty five quid a week YOP Scheme didn’t stretch to it. Mexico in 1986 was too far away and besides I was at college in London, in the middle of a set of exams for a course that I’d rarely attended.

By 1990 I was married with a baby and the prospect of heading off to watch a World Cup was as likely as Bobby Robson actually naming me in the squad itself. I had managed to get myself divorced by the time the next tournament came around in the USA, but as a consequence was pretty skint and with childcare responsibilities. Same as with France 98. By the time of the 2002 tournament in Japan and South Korea I probably could have afforded to go and could easily have squared it with my kids, but I didn‘t bother. Perhaps I was put off by the reports in the newspapers of expensive flights and travel difficulties. A shame really, as when I visit some of the World Cup stadiums now I can imagine how good it must have been.

So Germany in 2006 was my first tournament and I had a fantastic time. So good that I resolved to go to South Africa and do it all again. I wavered a bit between tournaments, discouraged once again by the media forebodings about expensive flights, lack of accommodation and the near certainty that I would be mugged and murdered before I’d even cleared customs. As tends to happen with me though I bought the tickets on a whim one afternoon and that was that.

This happened about nine months before the tournament was due to start and before the qualifiers were even known. Cape Town was already sold out and so I’d gone for two matches in Johannesburg and one in nearby Rustenburg. My friend Paul, who had been to Germany with me, was happy to come along despite him not really bothering much with football these days.

We flew into Johannesburg on the second day of the competition, the evening of England’s game with the USA. We were staying in Rustenburg, where the match was taking place, but unfortunately weren’t scheduled to land until half time. By the time we got to Rustenburg the match was over and we were just in time for the post mortem, which centred mainly around Rob Green and his inability to prevent the tamest of shots from crossing the line.

We didnt have a match until the Monday, Holland against Denmark in Johannesburg, so on Sunday we decided to go hiking. First though, we had to collect our match tickets. In an attempt to cut down on touting, FIFA had decided not to send out tickets by post, but to make everyone collect them in person in South Africa. You could pick them up at any of the designated collection points and so we got Jan, a South African who worked at our guest house and who had very kindly volunteered to drop us off at the place we planned to hike, to detour to the local mall where the collection point had been set up. Jan told us that the previous day the place had been packed and that he had needed to pull a few strings to avoid a long wait. Hardly surprising I thought, with England and the USA in town. The next game in Rustenburg was one that we were attending, New Zealand v Slovakia in two days time, and somehow I doubted that it would have the same clamour for tickets.

When we got there, the place was empty, apart from security guards and ticket staff. The requirements for picking up your tickets were your passport and the credit card that you had bought them with. I’d brought neither, my passport was back at the guest house and the credit card had expired and been replaced. It didnt matter, my driving licence and the new credit card were sufficient and a couple of minutes later two tickets were printed for each of the Holland v Denmark, New Zealand v Slovakia and Argentina v South Korea games. It all worked very well, although I was grateful that we hadn‘t been trying to collect them the day before.

Jan dropped us off at The Kloof, a national park with a great big ravine in it. We spent a few hours climbing up it, alongside a waterfall and then hiking through the hills and woods around it.

It was a really hot day despite it being the middle of  their winter. This being Africa, I was hoping to see some wildlife and wasn’t disappointed. We saw some sort of deer get a bit skittish as we surprised it and then watched a Black Eagle gliding in the valley below us as well as dragonflies and butterflies that looked nothing like the ones at home. It was great to look out onto the plains from the top of The Kloof, it all looked so, well, African. I tried a Tarzan style elephant call, but it didnt have the desired effect.

Having hiked a bit in Korea lately where you often have to queue at busy sections of the paths, it was a pleasure to be away from the crowds. Once we got beyond the bottom of the ravine we didnt see any other walkers. We bumped into a couple of rangers cooling their feet in a stream and another group of them later, presumably on poacher patrol, but that was it.

We got down to the bottom again about four hours later only to discover that the short cut we had taken had meant that we had missed the monkeys that congregate around the regular path. A woman who lived nearby told us that they just come into the houses, raid the fridge and if anyone tries to stop them they are capable of biting your arm clean off. Sounds like my kids I thought, although I doubt that the monkeys put the empty food wrappers back in the fridge.

We caught the end of the Ghana v Serbia game in a bar where we knocked back cans of Castle beer at less than a quid a go before Jan arrived to give us a lift back. The place where we were staying was in the suburbs of Rustenburg and in a stroke of good luck was only about twenty minutes walk from the Fans Park. All we had heard before we came out were warnings about security, but Jan was adamant that it was safe to walk around Rustenburg at night. We took his advice and set off to watch the Germany v Australia game on the big screen.

We walked in the dark through a residential area, noticing just how much colder it had got since the hiking earlier in the day. I doubt that the temperature was much above freezing, although it was a very still night. All of the houses had big fences and gates, most of them topped with barbed wire. The windows and doors tended to have bars on them and most of the houses also had a guard dog and security signs promising everything from shooting to electrocution to anyone considering attempting to pop a Herald and Post through the letterbox.

We rarely saw anyone else walking, so whilst it seemed safe enough, I suspect that most people didnt feel it was advisable. We amused ourselves by barking at the guard dogs, setting off a chain reaction amongst them that probably had a few householders reaching for their elephant guns.

Once at the Fans Park we were searched and were quickly inside. It was a big field, possibly the grounds of a school and about the size of six football pitches. There were numerous food stalls around the perimeter, an enormous and well stocked beer tent and a stage and big screen at one end. The only downside was the lack of people. I’d spent a day at a Fans Park in Munich four years previously and there were thousands there, tens of thousands probably. Tonight though I’d estimate that the crowd was somewhere between two and three hundred. We had a few beers at fifteen rand a pop and watched a very good performance from Germany as they comprehensively beat Australia, before we got lost on the walk back.

Meanwhile, South Korea had beaten Greece in their first game giving them a great chance of qualifying for the knockout stages.It was also reported on the radio that condom sales had gone up fivefold in Korea following the victory. Typical, just when I’m out of town too. I dont think Lee Dong Gook got off the bench, no doubt they were keeping him back for the big game against Argentina on Thursday.  

Monday and it was our first game, Holland against Denmark in Johannesburg. We had looked into the transport options and the easiest way of getting there was to hire a car and driver for the day. Bartes turned up at 9am in his 4×4. He was a South African builder who was earning a bit of extra cash by doing driving jobs during the World Cup.

`I’ve just got to drop off the wildebeast head on the roof at a taxidermist first` he said as we got into his car. The place that we drove to was shut, but he was given directions to another before almost reversing over a Yorkshire terrier as he turned his car around. We got there without adding to the carcass count and went inside. There were plenty of stuffed heads on the wall and a variety of works in progress in the barn outside. Bartes tipped out the head from the sack on the roof and told us that it had cost him three thousand rand to shoot it and another three thousand rand to have it stuffed. By the time we got away it was already well after ten o’clock but it would have been the best excuse ever if we had missed the kick off.

We drove on to Johannesburg via the back roads, passing through a couple of townships where the houses were pretty basic. We also passed platinum mines, fields of orange trees and a sign saying `Hijacking Hotspot for next 4km` before we were dropped off at the Park and Ride at noon. It was very well organised, we queued for buses and within half an hour were at the stadium. It didnt take long to get through security and into the ground, although it then took us nearly an hour to find our seats as we were continually directed to our left, eventually performing more than an entire circuit of the stadium at various heights. It was very impressive though once we got to our seats, with a great view despite being in the second to back row.

The game itself was nothing special with Holland beating an unadventurous Denmark team with a couple of scrappy goals.

On the plus side, the vuvuzelas weren’t a big deal, just a background buzz that you didn‘t notice after a while and there were no queues for the thirty rand Budweisers with most people joining the seperate queues for soft drinks. At full time it took an hour to get back to the Park and Ride and then another hour crawling through the traffic to get out of Johannesburg with us finally getting back to Rustenburg just before 7pm.

We nipped out to a local restaurant about fifteen minutes walk away where I had a steak with a snails starter. The snails were enormous, no doubt African snails and not European. They were very nice though, although I suspect that most things in garlic butter are. We had been warned before we went out not to accept a lift from anyone we met in the restaurant bar. Apparently someone had been befriended in there the week before and at the end of the evening had accepted the offer of a lift home only to be robbed at gunpoint once inside the car. We didnt make any new friends though and got safely back on foot.

The next day, Tuesday, meant it was New Zealand against Slovakia at Rustenburg.and it was a much colder day than the previous two. In fact, it seemed like an autumn day in the UK as I got up, with a cold wind blowing the leaves around the garden of the guest house. There were reports on the news of snow blocking remote roads near Cape Town and I watched highlights of Italy v Paraguay from the previous day amid torrential rain.

We got a minibus to the stadium with two New Zealand fans and a Sunderland lad who updated us on the progress of Cattermole and Zenden. He had been to the game at Rustenberg on Saturday evening between England and the USA and he remarked upon how much heavier the traffic had been. Not today though and fifteen minutes later we were at the ground and were straight in. Although the Sunderland fan did have his ambitious attempt to take four bottles of Grolsh into the stadium thwarted by security. FIFA, unlike the miserable gits at UEFA, are fine with you drinking in the ground, even at your seat, but they draw the line at you bringing in your own supplies.

Whilst the Soccer City stadium that we had been to in Johannesburg had been built specifically for the World Cup, the Rustenburg ground was about forty years old. It hadn‘t been updated much by the look of it and there were no electronic turnstiles, just people removing the stubs after you had been checked by security. We had a couple of Budweisers at thirty rand each, which whilst three times the price of the beers we had drank in the bar at The Kloof still weren‘t too bad value at less than three quid each.

There seemed to be a lot more New Zealanders at the game than Slovakians, although perhaps they were just a bit more noticable. Taking advantage of the lack of queues we had a couple more beers and went up to our seats ten minutes before kick off. We had a good position again, near the halfway line in the upper tier. It was an oval stadium with a capacity of about forty thousand, mainly open air with just the stand opposite to us having a roof. There was a running track around the pitch and a backdrop of hills in most directions.

It was only about half full though at kick off, which is disappointing in a World Cup. I’d seen transport issues blamed for empty seats at other games, but doubted that could be the case here. At half time it was still scoreless and we nipped down for a couple more beers to ward off the cold. We met the Sunderland lad again and he told us that the gates had been opened after twenty minutes to let locals in for free and this was helping to get rid of the empty spaces. They all got a food and drink voucher too. A nice gesture from whoever made the decision.

Slovakia took the lead just after the restart and looked to be well in control. The New Zealand fans kept behind their team all the way through though, singing `Super Chrissy Killen` even after he had been subbed.

In the dying moments New Zealand committed a few more people forward and snatched an equaliser causing wild celebrations amongst the fans near us. At the final whistle we came out to somehow find our van just outside of the turnstile with no other vehicle anywhere near. I felt like Sepp Blatter as we drove through the rest of the walking fans making their way back to the car parks and within fifteen minutes we were warming up in a bar watching the Ivory Coast take on Portugal.

We didn‘t have a game on the Wednesday and so had fixed up a trip to a game reserve. Or rather two game reserves. At the first one we went for a walk accompanied by a couple of guides, one of them armed with a stick. He had given us the safety talk before we went inside which pretty much consisted of do what he said and if a rhino charged towards us climb up the nearest tree as quick as we could. I dont think he needed to mention the `quickly` bit. Anyway we saw quite a few animals including impala, kutu and wildebeast. We were just on the way out when we spotted a couple of white rhinos, no more than about sixty yards away. I picked my tree just in case and we watched them for a few minutes before quietly moving on.

In the afternoon we went into the Pilanesberg Game Reserve. This one you stayed in your car and we saw just about everything but lions and leopards.

We spent about four hours being driven around by Morgan who must have thought that it was one of his better driving jobs.

In the evening we thought that we would have another trip to the Fans Park. It was much busier this time as South Africa were playing Uruguay and there must have been a couple of thousand people there. The vuvuzelas were particularly noisy as you got a double dose from the sound on the big screen match and also the people in the crowd. We had a go with them and it takes a fair effort to get a noise out of them.

We got talking to a couple of South African lads who were very keen for us to leave the park with them, either to see their car or to see their house, or to go to a bar. It was one reason after another and seemed a bit suspicious. They wouldn‘t sod off until a girl who seemed to have taken a fancy to me told them that I was going home with her. That did the trick. Unfortunately Paul was a bit worried that she was in on it with them and persuaded me that it was wise for us to leg it while she went for a piss. Anyway, we weren‘t missing much, the crowd was pretty subdued with South Africa getting beat and we saw the last two Uruguay goals back at the guest house.

The next day we had our final live game, Argentina versus South Korea, back at the Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg. Without the need to drop off a wildebeast head this time we got there a bit earlier and our previous visit meant that it didn‘t take us nearly an hour to find our seats this time. So we had a few beers and watched the Korean fans taking group photos and just about half the stadium wearing the blue and white stripes of what was for many a temporarily adopted nation. I had a tub of what looked like ice cream but was actually warm mash and gravy. Brilliant. It should be the next innovation at the Riverside.

We were on the other side of the stadium this time, still in the upper tier but lower down. Great seats. I was sat next to a fella from Honduras who was telling me how wonderful the Premier League was, not because of the big four, but because of the standard of the games between the clubs at the bottom. I don‘t have the foggiest about the Honduras league. In fact I dont really know anything about Honduras, so it was a bit of a one sided conversation.

It was a good game, with South Korea showing a lot more ambition against better opponents than Denmark had done against Holland earlier in the week. There were still a lot of empty seats though, possibly up to ten thousand and I’d noticed a lot of touting outside as people struggled to offload tickets. You know the score, two early goals for Argentina, Korea pulling one back just before half time and Argentina sealing it a couple more in the second half.

Lee Dong Gook made an appearance as expected, his first at a World Cup since 1998, but he didn‘t manage to get on the scoresheet. The Park and Ride was a bit slower this time on the way out, but it still worked well enough and we were back in Rustenburg by about 7pm.

Friday brought a change of scenery. We had told Carien, who owned the guest house where we were staying, that we fancied doing a bit more hiking and so she had arranged for us to stay at her Uncle’s farm, about an hour away and on the road to Botswana. They called it a farm, but it seems more like a game reserve to me. They have it stocked with a variety of animals, giraffe, zebra, wildebeast, lots of different types of antelopes and then stuff like warthogs. They make their money through tourism with visitors paying to stay there, some of them going on viewing tours and some of them shooting the animals.

I dont think thay got many hikers as they seemed a bit surprised that we wanted to just wander off without a vehicle and they gave us a walkie talkie so that we could get in touch if a leopard or something gave us a bit of a nip. We walked for a few hours, straying off the paths and were rewarded with sightings of giraffe and wildebeast.

When we returned mid afternoon, we were soon back out again, this time in a truck. I had decided that since I was there I might as well have a try at hunting. The plan was for me to shoot an impala, which is some sort of gazelle. Or a bit like Bambi, as Paul thoughtfully pointed out. I didnt see it as a problem, they are bred or bought in to be hunted and the meat is eaten. It’s not as if I’m taking pot shots at pet pugs for a laugh. They took me to somewhere quiet and got me to take a practice shot with the rifle, just to make sure that I wasn‘t likely to pop a cap in the ass of a ranger by mistake. I got within an inch of the centre of the target from about twenty metres, which was deemed acceptable and so we set off.

I must admit, I got a bit of a kick from riding around in the back of a truck with a loaded rifle in my hand. It took a tremendous effort to resist shooting anything I saw, from small birds to the truck’s tyres. After a couple of hours we found some impalas and one was pointed out to me. It was only about twenty metres away and I was told to go for a head shot. Problem was, a moving target wasn‘t as easy as the cardboard square that I’d hit earlier and I missed. The impala’s scattered and we didnt find any more. We did see more giraffe, zebras and kutu though and quite close up this time.

It was back to the lodge for a barbecue and the second England game on the telly. I fell asleep and missed most of it, although I was later told that wasn‘t necessarily a bad thing.

Next morning and I was back out in the truck again, this time without Paul who had got a bit bored with my previous days birdscaring efforts. We didnt find any impala, despite at one point leaving the truck and creeping through the woods. Walking with a rifle I felt like I was in the credits from Dad’s Army. As time went on it became obvious that we weren‘t going to find any impala. I was told that as there were some blessbok nearby though and it would be ok to shoot one of those instead despite a blessbok being a larger and more valuable animal. It didn‘t take us long to locate a few of them, on a hill about a hundred metres away. One of them was pointed out to me and I was told to aim for the heart, with a shot that would enter just under the front armpit. If blessboks have armpits that is.

This time it stood still and I brought it down with a shot that missed the armpit and hit it in the neck instead. Thats about a foot from where I intended, not too bad from a distance of a hundred metres away I thought. We drove towards it and then approached by foot. It wasn‘t dead when we got there but its life was quickly ebbing away as the blood flowed from the two neck wounds. By the time I posed for photos it was unconscious with an occasional twitch of its legs.

I had mixed feelings about killing it. There was still a sense of exhilaration from shooting the rifle and a sense of relief that after having driven around for six hours I hadn’t ended up with nothing more than the previous days missed shot to show for it. But it was quite sad in a way too. Despite the animals being bred for hunting and their meat, I’d still ended its life early at about five years old. Whose to say that if I hadnt turned up it wouldn‘t have had offspring, or had the benefit of another couple of years wandering about in the countryside? In hindsight I dont think I would do it again.

As we dropped it off at the butchery twenty minutes later, I gave it a pat, pretty much as you would a dog, and it was still warm. It will live on in a way though as I’ve arranged to have its head stuffed and shipped on to me so that I can hang it in the hall and use it as a hatstand.

And that was the World Cup. We’d only been there for a week but had managed to pack a fair bit into the time. It was as good an experience as Germany four years previously had been which was something that I didnt think would be possible. For those of you interested in Lee Dong Gook, he got onto the pitch again against Uruguay in the last sixteen game that saw South Korea eliminated. No doubt causing the rise in condom sales in Korea to be reversed.

Roll on Brazil in 2014.

Nexen Heroes v KIA Tigers, Sunday 6th June, 5pm

June 7, 2010

I’m on a bit of a roll with this baseball malarkey and last night I went to my third game in five days. That’s part timer stuff with baseball though. I picked up a fixture list when I was at the Hanwha Eagles game the day before and discovered that in the five month season that runs from late March to late August, they have a match just about every night of the week apart from Mondays. Each team plays 124 games in 148 days, with each game being between three and four hours long.

I wondered about whether they sell season tickets and who would buy them. You would have to be pretty keen to intend to go to sixty two home games, sometimes on up to six consecutive nights as well. Mind you, the fans do seem dedicated; there is also a big away following at all the games, often up to half the crowd, so it wouldn’t surprise me if some fans saw most of those 124 matches. You would need a winter off after a season like that.

Tonight’s game was Nexen Heroes against KIA Tigers. Nexen were the home team and they have a stadium at Mokdong, which is about an hour away from me. There is a football ground right next to the baseball stadium but from what I can gather nobody plays there these days. It was about a ten minute walk from the subway to the stadium, the route lined with people selling those inflatable sticks that you bang together, beer, fried chicken and other snacks. I bought a general admission ticket for 12,000 won and went straight in. At the turnstiles security were confiscating soju, but didn’t seem bothered about beer.

Unlike the other stadiums that I’d been to, this one didn’t have seating in the outfield, just along the sides. It was full though, with people having to move their bags and food off seats to allow latecomers to sit down. There seemed to be more fans from KIA than from Nexen and both sets kept up the noise all game. Neither team had cheerleaders though, just a couple of camp blokes who led the chants.

After the comment about the lack of a starting pitcher from the Doosan fan the previous night, I kept an eye on the pitching this time. The starting pitcher for Nexen struggled a bit, eight of his first nine balls were wides and the KIA Tigers batsmen seemed to spend more time walking to first base than hitting the ball. Tigers took an early lead and were 4-0 up after three innings. The starting pitcher was replaced about half way through and his replacement was himself taken off a couple of innings later. It doesn’t seem like cricket where you would rotate you bowlers. In baseball it seems like you bowl your best pitcher until he is either exhausted or is getting hit too easily and then you bring on your next best pitcher and so on. It seems a big workload for a six games a week schedule.

Nexen hit back in the fifth innings with consecutive home runs and drew level at 4-4. It was still all square at the end of nine innings and they went into extra time. I thought they played an extra three innings each, but something I’ve read this morning leads me to believe that they might just play single innings until someone wins, but to a maximum of three extra.

I didn’t stay till the end though. Three and a half hours was enough for me. The extra hour that three more innings would warrant is fine if it’s your team that is playing, but as a neutral who doesn’t care who wins, I’d seen as much as I wanted to for that night. So I can’t even tell you who won. Maybe I’ll have to pick a team to follow and try and build up some allegiance. Doosan Bears seem to have the prettiest cheerleaders, so I’ll perhaps I’ll overlook their lack of a starting pitcher and give them a bit of a try.

And that’s it from Korea for a couple of weeks. I’m off to the World Cup next where amongst other games I’ll be seeing South Korea take on Argentina. It’s the game that Lee Dong Gook is aiming to be fully fit for, so I might get to see the Lion King come off the bench to take on Lionel Messi and co.

Daejeon HNP v Gimhae and Hanwha Eagles v Doosan Bears, Saturday 5th June 5pm

June 7, 2010

This was quite a big weekend for the National League as it was the final day of the first half of their season. I know that doesn’t sound much like a big weekend, but it’s different over here. Instead of the fifteen teams just playing each other home and away for a twenty eight game season, they split it into two halves and the top two teams after the first fourteen games go into a four team play off with the top two teams from the second half of the season. I believe that if the same team wins both halves then they don’t bother with the play off.

So, going into the final weekend there were two teams level on points at the top of the table. Incheon Korail and Daejeon Hydro and Nuclear Power (try getting that on a scarf or in a chant). Daejeon had a slightly better goal difference so if Incheon were to take the title then they would have to better the Daejeon result by two goals. Both teams were at home and were expected to win. I’d already been to see Incheon Korail play, so I thought I’d lend my support to Daejeon.

An added benefit of going to Daejeon was that next door to their ground was the baseball stadium of the Hanwha Eagles and they had a game too, although in a poor bit of scheduling both games started at 5pm. Actually that wasn’t such a bad thing as the baseball games often go on for three and a half to four hours. This way I could watch the football, gate crashing their title celebrations and then nip into the baseball for the last hour and a half. Pretty perfect really and at the risk of giving the end away, that’s what I did.

Daejeon town centre

I got the KTX to Daejeon; it only takes fifty minutes and then booked into a hotel. Or a motel. Or a love motel as they are known. Intended for courting couples, they come complete with shakey beds, red light bulbs in a number of the sockets for that hooker and client fantasy role playing and a supply of condoms. I was by myself this weekend though so none of that stuff was much use to me. It did have a big telly, air conditioning and a computer in the room with free internet. And all for forty thousand won.

I expected the baseball to be busy and to save a bit of time after the football I bought my ticket for it in advance. 7,000 won for a general admission ticket.

 I paused at one of the old biddy stalls to get some beer and then made my way into Daejeon’s stadium. Again, there was no need for a ticket and I just turned left and walked upstairs to the centre of the main stand. I got talking to a Daejeon fan who was adamant that the President of Korea was sat in the VIP section in front of us. I pressed him as to whether he meant the President of the club, but no, definitely the President of Korea. I’d have thought he would have had more important stuff on his mind than the title prospects of Daejeon, but perhaps not.

As Koreans tend to do, the Daejeon fan quizzed me about England, generally in the form of what was the best of something. Who made the best football shirts, was it Umbro? What about universities? Was Cambridge better than Oxford? Rooney or Beckham? Ballantynes whisky versus Royal Salute? I couldn’t really grasp why he would care about it all, unless he was planning to spend his college years in the UK knocking back spirits and commenting upon the sartorial elegance of the footballers, but he was friendly enough. I decided to turn the tables a bit and discovered that the best Daejeon player was the number fourteen, Kim Yeong Nam.

After the presentations of the players to the President, the game got underway, Daejeon were wearing an all red Adidas kit reminiscent of the one the Boro used to wear around about thirty years ago. If I squinted a bit I could see the Hodgson, Proctor and Johnston out there. Gimhae were in white shirts with red shorts.

After seven minutes the Daejeon number ten scored with a tremendous strike from outside the box. Five minutes later ‘Best Player’ Kim Yeong Nam was brought down by the Gimhae keeper who caught him head high with a kick that would have brought him ‘Best Ninja’ status. Kim Yeong Nam recovered to take and score the penalty and after twelve minutes Incheon Korail already needed four goals in their game to deny Daejeon the title.

I was a little surprised at the low attendance for what was probably quite a big day in Daejeon’s history. There couldn’t have been more than two hundred people there and they didn’t make very much noise. I think Gimhae brought four fans with them, but with those two early goals there wasn’t a peep out of them.

I was hearing quite a lot of noise coming from the baseball though. It was a bit like those snooker games on the telly where they have two table divided by a screen. The noise from the crowd on the other table always seems to come at an inopportune moment, distracting you from the game that you are watching and making the one that you cant see sound more exciting.

The expected rout didn’t come though and although Daejeon showed plenty of urgency in the rest of the game, word must have come through that Incheon were only drawing one each and that they would need a further four goals to deprive Daejeon of the title. The last ten minutes were played out at a gentle pace with Daejeon keeping the ball and Gimhae who had nothing to play for happy to keep the score respectable.

At the final whistle Daejeon celebrated in the way that any team does.

They sang along to ‘We are the Champions’, sprayed each other with champagne, bobbed up and down behind a banner and they threw the President in the air. Well, maybe not everyone does the last one, but given the opportunity I think they should.

I stayed for a few minutes and then when it had quietened down, made my way towards the baseball. I’d timed it very well I reckon as the fifth innings had just finished and there were four more to go.

It was 6-5 to the home team Hanwha who were batting second. The place was pretty full, with lots of families and small children. An hour and a half later it was over with Hanwha winning 10-6 and not needing their ninth innings.

The Doosan fans didn’t seem too downhearted, making plenty of noise and at one point all holding sparklers in the air. I envied them. I wasn’t allowed sparklers as a kid after I’d once turned one around in my hand as it burnt downwards and I’d taken hold of the still red hot tip.

It's not fair. I want a sparkler.

As I left the stadium a Doosan Bears fan commented to me that they were struggling because they lacked a starting pitcher. I don’t know if he is injured or whether they actually don’t have one for one reason or another. I dare say I’ll find out at some point as I get more into it. I couldn’t find a bar that I liked the look of, most were either underground or a couple of storeys up and empty because the Koreans were still at the stage of the night where they were eating in restaurants rather than drinking in bars. It was a warm night and I wanted to be out in the open so I got a can from a convenience store and drank it at a table outside. As my daughter would say, “Scruffy as”, which I’ve only just realized is abbreviated from a slightly longer phrase. Appropriate though.

My hotel

Meanwhile Lee Dong Gook was continuing his recovery from injury as South Korea went down to a late goal in a 1-0 defeat to Spain.

North of the border, the other Koreans had caused a bit of a stir at the World Cup by naming a striker as their third keeper in an attempt to give themselves more attacking options. Unfortunately the lad in question will be limited to playing in goal, which should be a fun experience for him. A bit more fun than the experience that awaits whoever made the decision when they get home, I suspect.

Doosan Bears v Nexen Heroes, Wednesday 2nd June, 6.30pm

June 7, 2010

I made my second trip to a baseball game last night. I’d had the day off work because it was polling day in a variety of local elections, but I hadn’t really done very much. I’d been out the night before with colleagues and had a bit of a hangover. At lunchtime I nipped out for a pint of milk but then changed my mind and got on the subway instead. It’s only three stops to the baseball stadium so I thought I’d see if there was a game on.

I know that seems a bit of an arse on in the age of the internet, but I’ve yet to find a fixture list in English for the baseball games and it is only three stops, which is about ten minutes ride. It was pretty quiet when I got there so I had a walk around the stadium, got some lunch and read the paper. They don’t cover the baseball games in the English language newspapers either, but they had the details of the World Cup squad. Lee Dong Gook had made the final twenty three despite not being expected to be fit until the second game of the tournament, the match against Argentina. The report reckoned that as Korea seemed to be playing lately with just the one striker; his best chance of getting on the pitch would be if they were chasing a late goal. Still, after being left out of the 2002 World Cup squad and missing 2006 through injury I expect he is relieved just to be on the plane.

Whilst I was there I tried to have a look inside the Olympic Stadium. I was hoping that there would be a door open somewhere and I could run the 100m. I’ve got a bit of previous for that sort of thing, recreating Mary Peters Pentathlon gold in the Olympic Stadium in Munich as few years back. I also re-enacted Gerd Muller’s winning goal in the World Cup final the same afternoon. I managed to swivel and shoot with a glass of wine in my hand too, which made it just that little bit more impressive, I thought, and made up for having to use an imaginary ball. Anyway, the gates were all locked, so I’d have to wait until another time to play at being Ben Johnson. Shame really, as after the previous nights drinking, my eyes had that yellow tinge that Ben acquired by having steroids for his tea.

There were a lot of statues and monuments to the 1988 Olympics, including a wall engraved with the names of the gold medalists. Steve Redgrave was on there, although that’s not surprising. He will have his name inscribed at more places than the most prolific graffiti taggers. As I read the names I recalled Malcolm Cooper winning his shooting gold and the hockey team getting theirs. I paused at the boxing list and noticed Lennox Lewis on the list for Canada and also Ray Mercer at the weight below. At light middle there was a Korean that I didn’t recognize, but I remembered his triumph. He was the lad who got that outrageous decision over Roy Jones. I don’t know why, but I couldn’t resist a bit of a chuckle.

As I wandered back towards the Baseball stadium a military helicopter flew overhead. I’ve seen one or two lately, no doubt as a consequence of the South getting its act together in case things escalate with the North. It doesn’t seem to be a big deal amongst the people in Seoul, despite this being the likely place that any missiles would be aimed. I prefer it that way, no sense worrying about stuff you can’t control so you might as well get on with life as normal.

Speaking of which, there was a queue at the ticket office and an electronic sign indicating that there was a game that evening between the Doosan Bears and the Nexen Heroes. It didn’t start for another four hours though at 6.30pm. That was a bit too long to hang around and so I got the subway back to my flat, undecided as to whether to return later.

By six o’clock I’d just about forgotten about the baseball as I was doing other stuff. I glanced at my watch, remembered it and thought, sod it, why not? An evening at the baseball sat in the sun with a couple of beers sounds ideal. I set off and fifteen minutes later I was there. I bought an 8,000 won ticket for high up in the main stand, Block 312 and three cans of Cass beer from one of the old biddies outside.

 I took my seat with a minute to go before the start, missing all the pre-match stuff like the celebrity introductions, the ceremonial first pitch and the national anthem.

It was another good night; Doosan Bears were well supported by an enthusiastic crowd. Later I moved further around the curve and sat near the few hundred Nexen fans, they made plenty of noise too. I drank my cans in the sunshine then got a couple more. I quite like the rhythm of baseball, the ebb and flow as they alternate batting with fielding every ten or fifteen minutes. There are some moments of tension too, as the batting team ‘loads the bases’ as I believe they say, or when a pitcher has already thrown the three ‘wide’ balls he is allowed. Even more so if he has also thrown two ‘strikes’.

Not that it really mattered, but Nexen won 7-1. I’ll probably get along to a few more games I think.

Yesan v Goyang KB, Saturday 29th May 2010

June 7, 2010

It had been over three weeks since I’d been to a football match and with the K-League shut down for the World Cup, I thought I’d take the opportunity to go to another National League game. Most of the matches were taking place on the Friday night though and as I don’t finish work until after 6pm they are quite difficult to get to in time.

Not Yesan though, they had a more traditional Saturday three o’clock kick off and so that’s where I went. I had a bit of a mishap on the subway though where I got on the train going in the opposite direction. I didn’t realize until I’d traveled three stops out of my way and so I didn’t get to Yongsan railway station until 10am. There were plenty of trains to Yesan, but they were all booked solid for the next two hours. Fortunately you can buy a standing ticket and so that’s what I did. I paid 6,900 won (less than four quid) for a ticket on the 10.35am train, which got to Yesan an hour and three quarters later. It was quite a slow train, with plenty of stops, but it was direct so I wouldn’t have to change.

The train was starting from Yongsan station and so it was completely empty as it pulled into the platform. I noticed that it had a buffet carriage and so I got into that one, hoping there would be some unallocated seats in there. It was better than that though, as it had internet terminals, so I was able to sit at a computer and surf the net for the duration of the journey. It was just like being at work, but without the pesky interruptions for meetings or writing letters.

Anyway, in the hour and three quarters that I spent on the train I discovered that Yesan is famous for its apples and that Yesan FC, who are bottom of the National League, moved to Yesan two years ago. A move that was no doubt influenced by the prospect of all those apples. As I read about them I recognised their name and remembered that they were the team that I’d seen get beat at Incheon Korail on the opening day of the National League season.

Yesan turned out to be a quiet town, not really a place for tourists. In fact, it didn’t even get a mention in any of my guide books. Surprising really, particularly when they seem to make such a fuss about those apples. All of the shops appeared to be for practical things, like car maintenance, industrial equipment or trade places that sold stuff like light switches and sockets. I managed to get hold of a map from their town hall and discovered that I wasn’t too far from the football ground. I asked about hotels and was told by a girl with an extremely short skirt that showed off a pretty much perfect pair of legs they didn’t have any. Tourists all stayed at a spa town that you could get to in about twenty minutes in a taxi.

With plenty of time to spare I walked back into town and had a pizza for lunch before getting a taxi to the ground. The stadium didn’t look too busy. In fact, apart from a team bus outside there was no real sign that a match would be taking place. I walked through the main entrance and was stopped by a bloke at a desk. I was expecting him to tell me that I needed to buy a ticket from a kiosk on the other side of the ground. But, no, he had stopped me to hand me a paper bag with a sandwich and a carton of juice in. I thanked him whilst secretly wishing that I hadn’t just scoffed a whole pizza.

I took a left turn and went up some stairs, emerging as seems commonplace now, in the director’s box. I thought I’d adopt a lower profile at this game though and so I moved upwards a bit to a place more suitable for a lowlife with a couple of cans in his backpack. The stadium was oval shaped, with just the centre of the main stand above me having a roof. It had an artificial pitch inside a running track. Just before kick off club officials came up into the stand and shook hands with us. I have to say that they really seem to appreciate a bit of support here. Free admission, free food and a personal welcome from a club official. If I’d had my boots with me I’d have asked him if I could come on for the final twenty minutes.

In a further show of hospitality, both captains and the ref were presented with flowers before the start and then we all stood for the national anthem. Yesan, who were wearing an Italy strip last time I saw them, were dressed up as Chelsea today. Goyang, their opponents from the northern suburbs of Seoul were wearing white shirts with maroon shorts that looked like they had been washed a few times too often.

Within twenty seconds Goyang had taken the lead. The game was back underway again before the stadium clock had moved on from 15:00. As I settled back in my seat with a beer, I noticed how badly patched the artificial pitch was. It didn’t seem to affect the game though. To my left, just beyond the main stand were a small band of Yesan supporters, most of them with drums or tambourines. They kept the noise level up throughout the game. If there were any Goyang supporters in the crowd of maybe a hundred, I didn’t see them. Despite it being free to get in, there were quite a few people watching through the fence, having parked their cars on the road passing the stadium. 

Goyang were the better team, playing some very clever through balls, whilst Yesan tried to play on the break but were fairly easily contained. There weren’t any more goals before the interval and at half time I went for a slash only to meet one of the Yesan players coming out of the toilets as I went in. You don’t often see that at the Boro.

Yesan missed a good chance in the opening minute of the second half before Goyang went straight up the other end and made it two nil. If Yesan had taken their chance, people would have praised their attitude in coming out for the second half fired up, the coaches half time team talk, even their professionalism in remembering to go for a piss. By conceding themselves a moment later though, they will have been branded sloppy and half asleep. It’s a small margin between failure and success.

And that was about it, as the game finished up two nil to Goyang. As I came down from my seat and left through the main entrance, both sets of players were getting on their respective buses. So probably no showers in the dressing rooms either.

I walked back into town and then got a taxi to Deoksan, the nearby spa town that I’d been advised was the place to stay. The taxi dropped me off at the hotel suggested by the girl at the Town Hall, but it turned out to be a resort hotel where you had to be a member. I walked down the road for ten minutes and checked into the Ducksan spa hotel. That’s not a spelling mistake by the way, not unless they also spelt it wrongly on the sign on their roof. It cost me eighty thousand won for the night, which is quite expensive by Korean prices. When I checked in they told me that the hot spring spa was on the second floor. I asked them if they sold swimming trunks and they gave me a bit of an odd look before advising me that you didn’t wear any.

Maybe I’ve led a sheltered life but that seemed a bit odd to me, lolloping about in the nudey in front of lots of other people, albeit blokes. Still, I thought I might as well give it a try. You put all your gear into a locker and then just moved about between pools of differing temperatures and saunas, hoping that your privates didn’t shrink too much with the extremes of temperature or even worse, start to twitch if your mind wandered back to the girl with the legs from the Town Hall. Some of the men in there were having a shave and you could even have a haircut if you wanted. It was ok for about half an hour but then it got a bit boring.

It’s all very well sweating out the impurities in a sauna, but all that lost fluid needs replacing and as the hotel didn’t seem to have a bar I wandered back up the road to where there were a few restaurants. The roadside had recently been planted with apple trees, perhaps to try and build upon the Yesan reputation for apples. I found a barbecue place that looked ok, but it was one of those without chairs and so I had to sit cross legged on the floor. I had the beef, but one beer was enough as I’m still not supple enough to get my legs under the table.

The next morning I decided against another sauna and got a taxi to Sudeoksa. It’s the oldest surviving original Buddhist temple in Korea, dating back about eight hundred years. I had a wander around before the coachloads of visitors got there and watched some monks chanting and praying.

I could have hiked to the top of Mount Sudeoksan, especially since the taxi had made it easier by dropping me about halfway up at the temple but decided not to bother and got a bus back to Yesan. It wound through all the little villages picking up people wherever they happened to be standing. There were lots of rice fields and people planting new crops. The bus driver watched out for my stop, told me when we had got there and then pointed out the right direction to walk. I booked a ticket for the train back to Seoul and went for some lunch. Since I was here I thought I’d better try one of their apples and bought an enormous one from a greengrocer for 1,500 won. That seemed a bit excessive; just wait until the trees at the side of the road start producing, that’ll cut the prices. I got the train back to Yongsan station, arriving back at ten to three.

Meanwhile, South Korea were taking on Belarus in their final warm up game before the World Cup squad was finalised. Lee Dong Gook was still with the squad of 26, but training by himself in an effort to show that he should be fit in time for their second game against Argentina.

Hiking on Dobongsan and a trip to Hongdo and Heuksando, 21st May 2010

June 7, 2010

View from the bottom

This weekend coincided with Buddha’s birthday and so I got the Friday off work. Excellent. Many happy returns, Bud, the extra days holiday is much appreciated.  So, what to do? I was going away the next day with my hiking group for a two day trip to a couple of islands off the South coast and since that was more of a partying trip by the look of it, I thought I might as well get my hiking fix on the Friday instead.

 I’d been re-reading one of my guidebooks and it mentioned a hike in Seoul that was supposed to be pretty good. It was at Dobongsan, about an hour north of me on the subway and looked ideal. One of the things that I’m not too keen on when I’m hiking in Korea are the crowds, I like to hike in the company of a small number of friends, not hundreds of strangers. However, if you are going alone and don’t have a map or much of a sense of direction, I can see the advantages of the hills being crowded with other people all on their way to the top.

 I got off the subway at Dobongsan and as expected just followed the swarms of hikers across the road towards the mountain. There were lots of stalls selling everything from hiking gear to food. I could probably have turned up completely unprepared and kitted myself out from scratch. As it was I limited myself to a bowl of potatoes and a neckerchief that was overprinted with a map of the National Park. Whilst I thought it might be useful for navigation, its main purpose was to keep the sun off my neck and to make me look like a twat.

Busy at the start

 I followed the crowd along the pavement until we left the road and entered the park. After a few minutes we came to a fork and almost everyone went left. I noticed a sign for something to the right, 350m away. It could have been a sewage works for all I knew, but I thought I might as well have a look anyway.  I wasn’t in a rush and one of the advantages of walking alone is you can go wherever you like. It turned out to be a temple, decorated with lanterns and with quite a few visitors milling about. I had a quick look and then had to decide between retracing my route to rejoin the throng of hikers or to press on up the path through the forest. I’d like to say it was a sense of adventure that kept me going along the unknown and much quieter route. But it wasn’t really, it was more an unwillingness to concede the gain in height that I’d already made. If I went back down to the main path I’d have to do all that uphill stuff for a second time.

A bit quieter here

 I pressed on upwards confident that the path must lead to somewhere and not too bothered which of the peaks that I got to the top of. There were a few other people heading the same way, but it was certainly the quietest I’d seen any route out here so far. After a while I came to a signpost that confirmed that I was still on the same mountain, although on a slightly less direct route which was fine by me. As I say, I wasn’t in a rush. About half way up there was a bit of a monument, although I’ve no idea what it was commemorating, and an hour or so later I reached the top. Some sections had been a bit strenuous and I’d had to haul myself up using the iron railings and rope thoughtfully provided, but overall it wasn’t too difficult.

Monument, about halfway up

 There were plenty of people at the peak, some in groups of a dozen or more, sat around elaborate picnics. There is a lot of effort goes into these picnics, with lots of different dishes, stools, blankets, even little napkins. A bit less effort from me though as I took my potatoes from my backpack. They aren’t too big on potatoes over here. As you may have guessed, it’s more a rice sort of place, and so they were just about the only ones I’d had since I got over here.

View from the top

 Now that I was back on track I could have a look at the guidebook again and it offered me a different option for getting down. I could walk a bit further along, nip up another peak and then descend via another Buddhist Temple at Mangwolsa. That seemed ok and that’s what I did.

 As I approached the temple there was quite a bit of noise, the usual drumming and bells. The path to the gate had been decorated with lanterns and there were more hung up inside. I stopped for a coffee and then went up the steps to a courtyard in front of the main temple. A group of Chinese girls were dancing in front of about a hundred people.

Happy Birthday Bud.

I watched for a while before they finished and the crowd dispersed.  I had a look around the temple and then made my way down the path and got the subway home.

I know, I know, but I didn't want my neck getting sunburnt.

 Next day was an early start. I had to meet my hiking group at 7.10am for the bus ride to Mokpo. The plan was to get a ferry there to an island about sixty miles away, Hongdo, stay overnight and then return the next day via a different island. We got there just before lunch and to my surprise it was pissing down. That was something that hadn’t entered my head. It had been so sunny the previous day that I hadn’t even brought a coat with me. It got worse, the organizer was informed by the ferry company that the conditions were marginally good enough to sail today, but the forecast was for rougher weather tomorrow and that if it materialized then the ferry wouldn’t sail. That would mean we would be stuck on the Korean version of Craggy Island on a day when I was supposed to be three hundred miles away at work.

 We went for lunch, before making a decision on whether to get on the ferry. It was crab soup, with crabs cut in half, shells and all, providing the flavour. In addition there were some small crabs as a side dish. They were about the size of a penny and you just ate them whole. I had a couple and it was just like eating a shell full of sea water. They were soft rather than crunchy and whilst they tasted very fresh, there wasn’t much to them.

 Of the nine of us on the trip, three felt we shouldn’t travel. I don’t like missing work when I’m supposed to be there and two of the others, both Americans, felt the same way. We let the other six get on the ferry and we cleared off to the pub. A few beers later we were on the train back to Seoul after an interesting but ultimately pointless day out. From what I saw of Mokpo, it’s a working fishing and ferry port. Most of the shops seemed to sell stuff like fishing nets, buoys, wooden legs, parrots, you know the sort of thing. We worked our way through wine, makgeolli and beer on the journey back and I was fairly merry by the time I got home. The next day I felt pretty rough, which I attributed to those two mini crabs full of seawater. I’d been fine before I had them.

 Meanwhile, Lee Dong Gook wasn’t doing very much, just waiting to see how quickly his injury would clear up and whether he would make the final squad of twenty three.

South Korea v Ecuador, 16th May

June 3, 2010

This was looking as if it was going to be an even busier weekend than normal as different events kept cropping up as it got closer and I tried my best to fit them all in. Friday night was a ‘teambuilding’ dinner after work where about fifty of us went to a local Korean barbecue restaurant. I’d been here a few times before and the food is always pretty good. A charcoal barbecue is set into a hole in the middle of your table and you cook your own beef and pork, cutting it into small pieces with scissors and then eating it with spicy paste and wrapped in a lettuce leaf. You wash it down with beer and frequent shots of soju. This time we were in the room upstairs where you sit on cushions on the floor beside low tables. As a foreigner, and a not particularly supple foreigner at that, I was given about eight of the thin cushions to sit on. It was quite a precarious seat, especially as the empty soju bottles stated to mount up. I made my excuses at about ten o’clock, pretty much the worse for wear and leaving most of them still at it. There is quite a big after work drinking culture in Korea. As I’m not looking to build a career, just dropping in for a single project, there’s no need for me to adopt any of the customs that I’m not keen on and if I had a young family as a lot of them do, I would probably resent the time spent drinking with the same people that I’d just spent all day with. However, as I don’t have too many other commitments and I find my colleagues to be good company, I quite enjoy ‘teambuilding’ events like these. Although I doubt my liver would agree.

Saturdays have developed into hiking days, with a regular group of walkers. This week’s walk was due to start from Hoeryong and was a fair distance by subway from my apartment. Fortunately we weren’t due to meet up until 12.30pm which allowed my hangover to settle a little. I set off just before eleven and after some poor choices of subway line and some unusually long waits for trains, at noon I was still a change of line and seventeen stops away from the meeting place. They would no doubt have waited for me if I’d asked, but I didn’t want to be selfish and so phoned ahead to let them know that I wouldn’t be able to join them this week. As I had my hiking boots on I thought I might as well have a bit of a walk anyway and got off the train at the next station. It was Eungbong, over to the east of the city and just north of the Han River that runs through Seoul. As there was a path alongside the river I decided just to follow it until I got bored. It was quite an interesting walk. There wasn’t much happening on the river itself, a little bit of dragon boat training and the odd jet ski, a few fishermen, generally with four or five rods each, but every few hundred yards there would be permanent outdoor gym equipment, basketball courts, five a side pitches and badminton nets. I even passed a croquet pitch where a few pensioners were having a quite fiercely contested game. It was all free to use and seemed well taken care of and very popular. A cycle path ran alongside the path I was walking along and was also very popular with a mix of cyclists ranging from those on top of the range bikes and kitted out as if they were setting off to the Tour de France, to students on hired tandems and families with small children on bikes with stabilizers.

I walked for about three and a half hours, covering about ten miles and ending up on the other side of the city. It wasn’t the hike I’d planned for, but I saw parts of Seoul that up until now I’d only glimpsed from train windows, so it was a worthwhile day.

My plan for Sunday had initially revolved around the South Korea v Ecuador match in the evening. It was the only home ‘warm-up’ game for South Korea and I’d suspected that the Seoul World Cup Stadium would be close to its 65,000 capacity as the Korean fans gave their team a bit of a send off. Park Ji Sung, who is a superstar out here and appears in adverts in just about every media possible, would be playing and I was anticipating a bit of a party atmosphere.

Then I found out that the Korean Derby was taking place on the Sunday too. I’d been to the racetrack at Seoul a few weeks previously for a normal race meeting and it had been pretty busy. Whilst I didn’t care which horse won the Derby, I was quite keen to see if the spectacle differed much from the regular races day. The American girl I’ve been seeing isn’t much of a sports fan but has quite an inquisitive nature and so was happy to tag along to the races and the match. Then she mentioned that there was also a big lantern festival going on that day too, no doubt as part of the build up to Buddha’s birthday in a few days time.

Well, I’m all for festivals, even more so if there are naked flames involved, and so we thought we would try and squeeze that in too. First stop was the races. The crowds coming out of the subway were bigger than the last time I was here, which given that it was Derby Day wasn’t much of a surprise. The silkworm pupa on sale outside the station didn’t seem any more popular mind, despite the extra crowds. I was wondering if the 800 won admission charge would change with it being Derby Day, and it did. We were just waved through the turnstiles without having to pay.

After that though, it was all pretty much the same as the last time I was here. There was maybe a slightly larger crowd but no other indication that it was any different to a normal race day. I picked up an English form guide and discovered that the Derby itself wouldn’t be run until five o’clock. Well that didn’t really fit in with our plans so we hung about for about two hours, watching only three races due to the way that the races are so well spaced out around lunchtime and then cleared off to the Lantern Festival. There were still people coming in as we left about three o’clock and maybe that was the best way to do it. If I’m here next year on Derby Day, I’ll saunter up about half an hour before the big race, stick my bet on, collect my winnings and then celebrate with a tub of silkworms on the way out a few minutes later.

So next up was the Lantern Festival. My plan had been to spend a couple of hours there and then head off to the match. When we got there the streets were packed with people. There were stalls along the roadside offering various lantern making activities, insights into various different types of Buddhism and selling a variety of food. I had some sort of beans from Nepal that looked like peas, some of those clear noodles and some spicy dumpling that might have been pork. We were given lanterns with candles in for the parade later that evening and I thought that rather than dash off I’d rather miss the football on this occasion and stay at the festival. I might not get another chance to experience it all again, whilst I’d be watching South Korea play Argentina in the World Cup in a months time, that would probably be a bit better than a friendly against Ecuador. Apologies to those who read this far hoping for a match report, but that’s a risk you take with this blog. Still, if you keep reading I might tell you the score.

Anyway, it got dark and there was a lantern parade, which whilst it was quite impressive, wasn’t as much fun as I’d hoped it would be as we didn’t manage to find the place where everyone lined up. Instead of marching down the High Street brandishing flaming torches we ended up watching the parade from behind a barrier manned by policemen that looked no older than twelve years old. I didn’t even get to light my lantern. After an hour or so of floats and lanterns, we cleared off to a bar for beer and raw tuna.

Meanwhile South Korea won 2-0. Lee Dong Gook played just over an hour before being subbed with an injury that puts his World Cup participation in doubt. Interestingly, the match was reported as being a sellout, although attendances do get exaggerated here. It’s possible then that had we left the festival before the parade to get to the match we might not have got in, meaning that in the same day we would have turned up for, but failed to see the Derby, the Lantern Parade and the South Korea v Ecuador game. That would have been some hat trick.

Geomdansan, 8th May

June 3, 2010

This was another weekend where my plans kept changing. It was the final week of the K-League before the mid-season break for the World Cup and initially I’d planned to head south to watch the game between Gwangu Sangmu and Gangwon. It wasn’t a game that particularly stood out from that week’s fixture list but what caught my attention was the nearby butterfly festival. A lot of places in Korea seem to try and publicise themselves by having festivals of one sort or another. The bullfighting one at Cheongdo being a prime example. Hampyeong’s big idea though was butterflies. Cheaper than bulls and less trouble if one escapes.

We used to catch butterflies in nets when we were kids, although we never really knew what to do with them once we caught them. Sometimes we would put them in a biscuit tin, sometimes a Tupperware container. If we remembered we would put a few holes in the lid to let some air in, although in the case of the Tupperware containers that didn’t always go down well with our Mams. Invariably, though, they all seemed to die within a few hours of being caught, which we took to be proof of the short life cycle of a butterfly rather than any consequence of our care regime.

I shot one once, when I was a bit older. It made the mistake of settling on a rock whilst it was my turn with the air rifle. I didn’t even put a pellet in the gun, just shot it with air from a range of about an inch. It just disintegrated. Anyway, I don’t do stuff like that these days, not least because I don’t have an air rifle, and so a trip to the butterfly festival before going on to a K-League match seemed a pretty good way to spend a weekend.

That was until a group that I’d been hiking with when I first arrived in Seoul suggested a trip to Jirisan. Jirisan is the second highest mountain in South Korea at 1915 metres and a weekend trip to tackle it would have meant an overnight bus ride and a 4.30am start in the dark. I liked that idea and so the butterflies would just have to wait for another year. Unfortunately, not enough other people fancied the early start and so the trip was cancelled at the last minute. I’d got my hiking head on by that time though and so I skipped the football and butterflies and went up Geomdansan with my other hiking group instead.

A bit crowded at the top

Geomdansan, at 657m, is nowhere near as high as Jirisan, but some stretches were a bit of a slog. It was enjoyable though and we had a bit of a picnic at the top before stopping at a barbeque restaurant at the bottom. There was plenty of makgeolli drunk on the way around with more at the end and a few shots of soju. I didn’t see a butterfly all day though.

More graves in the middle of nowhere

Whilst I was enjoying myself in the hills, Jeonbuk didn’t have a game. I don’t think it was their turn to miss out because of there being an odd number of teams in the K-League. It was more likely to be as a consequence of them having an Asian Champions League Game against Adelaide United in Australia four days later, which they won 3-2 courtesy of a Lee Dong Gook goal four minutes from the end of the second period of extra time. The lack of a final K-League game meant that Jeonbuk finished the first phase of the season in eighth position with sixteen points from ten games, eight points behind leaders Ulsan Horang-i, but with two games in hand.

Suwon Bluewings v Daejeon Citizen, Wednesday 5th May

June 3, 2010

On Wednesday, we got the day off work as it was Children’s Day. An excellent concept, in my opinion, where families are encouraged to spend the day together. Unfortunately my children were six thousand miles away, so I decided to go to a football match instead. Somebody asked me recently if I miss them, now that I’ll only see them every four months or so, and I suppose that I do. Not as much as you might imagine, as I talk to them on the phone a couple of times a week and we send each other emails. What I do miss though, is them being children and there’s nothing I can do about that. I really enjoyed them being young. I have a great relationship with them as adults, but it’s not as much fun. They have their own grown-up lives now and I’m a smaller part of it than I was when they were kids. It’s just the way it is, I suppose.

I had a couple of different options for my choice of match. I had looked into going to Jeonbuk’s away game at Chunnam Dragons, but there didn’t seem to be a train back afterwards. In the end I settled for Suwon Bluewings against Daejeon Citizen. Suwon is a city just south of Seoul and you can get there with about an hours ride on the subway. When I got there I took a bus to Paldalmun, which is one of the main entrance gates to the Hwaseong fortress wall. The wall runs around the old city, it was originally built over two hundred years ago and is about three and a half miles all the way around. I thought I might was well have a wander around it before going to the match.

First though, I wanted something to eat. I stopped at a little café and had some pork dumplings. They were very nice, although as they had been deep fried I suspect that they probably weren’t too good for me. When I came out of the café I followed a sign for a palace, thinking that it would be something to do with the fortress wall. It wasn’t really, but there was a display of people dressed up in period costume, although which period I’d no idea, waving swords and sticks about. I watched them for a while and then conscious that I’d a wall to get around before the match I thought I’d better let them get on with cracking each others skulls and left them to it.

Careful, sonny

On the way to the wall I passed a hairdressers. The barber’s shops here are denoted by a red and blue pole outside. The only problem being that only some of them offer haircuts whilst the rest of them are brothels. I think the general rule is that if you can see inside and they have barber’s chairs then you will probably get a haircut, otherwise you won’t. To make life difficult, some do offer haircuts as part of an overall package at, I imagine, a bit more expensive price than a regular trim.

I had stuff to do so didn’t really have time to have some hairdresser fiddle with my bits afterwards, but I could have benefited from a haircut. It had been five weeks since the Japanese barber had shaved my head and some bits of it were starting to stick up at odd angles. The hairdresser’s shops have a different coloured pole to the barber’s, with a bit of yellow in them, so I thought I’d be safe with that. I went in and waited until the girl had finished with the old biddy in the chair. She didn’t speak any English, but I was able to mime the shaving of my head. To be fair, there wasn’t a lot else that she could have done with it. Maybe burnt the stubble off with a blowtorch, I suppose, but I was hardly likely to be looking for a curly perm or to have it highlighted. Ten minutes later and I was back outside after having my hair cut and washed for six thousand won. At that price I don’t think there was much prospect of any hanky panky.

Around the corner was the start of the fortress wall. It had been quite badly destroyed during the Japanese occupation but had been rebuilt using the original plans. I’d picked an uphill bit to begin with and for the next fifteen minutes had a steady climb until I was able to look down on the town. The wall was an impressive sight, although I couldn’t help but think that it would have been breachable by anyone with a twelve foot ladder. Perhaps they didn’t have them in the olden days.

I'd just walked up that.

Every hundred yards or so was a gatehouse or a temple, all with helpful explanations in English. A bit further around was a great big bell that you could ring for a thousand won. You hit it with what looked like a railway sleeper on a couple of ropes and you got three goes. The first was meant to signify gratitude and respect for your parents, the second was for the health of your family and the third one was to bring about the realisation of your dreams. Well, I don’t have too many dreams, not if you exclude the recurring one with Konnie Huq and the baby oil, but I was happy to toll the bell in honour of my parents and the health of my family.

I rang that. Three times.

Job done, I continued around the wall for about another thirty minutes until I came to an archery ground. It being Children’s Day, there were plenty of families shooting at the targets. I watched for a while, recalling how I used to take my children to Sherwood Forest when they were small. My son would dress as Robin Hood and fire arrows at my daughter, who would have to be anything from the Sheriff of Nottingham to a deer, depending upon whatever storyline my son could think up.

Safer than Sherwood Forest.

I’d spotted the Bluewings stadium from one of the higher points of the fortress and when I’d got about three quarters of the way around it was time to leave the wall and head for the stadium. It had been built for the 2002 World Cup and had a very distinctive roof, shaped to resemble a pair of wings. I bought a ticket for the East stand for 12,000 won, mainly so that I could get a good view of the winged roof opposite. There were no free pizzas this week, but we did all get given a banana on the way in instead.

No pizza this week

I wasn’t expecting a classic, Suwon were bottom of the league, with Daejeon just two places above them. There isn’t any relegation from the K-League so it doesn’t have the drastic financial implications of relegation in England, but the Suwon fans weren’t happy with their lot. There had been a few protests against the manager, Cha, and the rumours were that if they lost today he would resign.

Suwon fans

It was a decent sized crowd, with my stand being virtually full and with a lot of noise from the Suwon fans behind the goal to my right. It was goalless at half time and the best chance of the second half fell to Suwon’s Brazilian substitute Juninho. Yes really, but not him, and not the one who used to play for Lyon and who possibly still does either. There must be a Juninho factory somewhere. Brazil I imagine. That would be the sensible place to have it. Anyway, I was hoping that the crowd might sing his song, so I could join in for old time’s sake. Any chance of that disappeared though when he hit a penalty straight at the keeper.

Ole, ole, ole, ole, Juninho, ho, ho..

Daejeon lost a player with a quarter of an hour left when he gave the ref a bit of slaver and picked up his second yellow card. Despite the last few minutes being end to end stuff, it finished goalless. I ate my banana and headed back off to the fortress wall to finish the remainder of the circuit, before getting the subway back to Seoul. Meanwhile Jeonbuk lost 3-2 at Chunnam Dragons to slip to seventh place, five points off the top of the table. Lee Dong Gook didn’t get on the score sheet this week and was substituted after an hour.

The Wings

My Beautiful Mint Life, Sunday 2nd May

June 2, 2010

My Beautiful Mint Life. It sounds like I’m showing off doesn’t it?  Well I’m not. Ok, maybe just a bit, but that’s the nature of blogs. They tend to either be a rant against the world or a bit of a smug ‘look at me, aren’t I having a great time’ sort of thing. I’m not really one for ranting, more for trying to have a great time so I suppose this blog falls into the latter category.

Anyway, My Beautiful Mint Life isn’t my latest attempt at telling you how wonderful everything is. No. It’s a festival, a music festival. Great name, eh. Perfect for a Teesside festival where those of you who don’t live there probably wont know that ‘mint’ is the word of choice for describing something that you quite like. Except this one wasn’t in Teesside, it was in Seoul.

One of the things that I have missed whilst I’ve been in Seoul is going to see bands. Hang on, perhaps this is turning into a ‘rant blog’ after all. I could have seen Bob Dylan about a month earlier, but it clashed with my trip to Japan to get my visa. Apart from that there hasn’t really been much else going on. I’ll particularly miss going to festivals. In recent years I’ve been cutting down on them, giving up Leeds and V, but I’ve still been going to the likes of Glastonbury and End of the Road when the opportunity arises. So the chance to see a music festival over here was something that I was keen to do.

Although I couldn’t have been that keen, as it ran for two days and I only went to one of them, the second day, Sunday. Another thing that I’ve been missing is going hiking (see, definitely one of those rant blogs, I’ll be complaining about work colleagues not appreciating me and locals pushing in front of me in queues next, it’s how these things work), so I decided to go hiking on the Saturday. The downside of this was that something had to give and this week that was the football. Apologies then, if you actually read this because you have an interest in Korean football. Although if that’s the case, then you’ve probably realized that you have to wade through an awful lot of dross just to find out the Jeonbuk result. Skip straight to the end now if you want to find out how Lee Dong Gook got on.

Seoul Racetrack from the top of a hill

So on Saturday I hiked up Mt. Cheonggyesan with a hiking group that I’d found on the internet. They were a friendly and interesting bunch, a mixture of mainly Koreans and Americans, with the odd Brit as well. Particularly odd, I suspect they thought, but that’s just my way. We walked for about five hours, with frequent stops for makgeolli, that milky looking Korean rice wine, bits of cake and pretty much any excuse for a chat that we could think of. One of the benefits of hiking with a group is that you don’t have any responsibility for where you go. I quite like that. It’s laziness I suppose, but as navigation isn’t one of my strong points, it’s a lot more enjoyable to leave it to people with a map and a sense of direction. At one stage when we were near the top we were able to look down on the racecourse that I’d visited a few weeks earlier and we passed some old burial mounds as well. When we were back down again we called into a Korean restaurant for more makgeolli and a barbeque. As the new boy I had to make a speech, which despite being kept down to about fifteen seconds, I was later told was too long. Fair point.


Sunday I didn’t have to make any speeches, but I did have to do a bit of navigation. I’d been seeing an American girl and thought that I’d take her along to the festival for a bit of company. Some things I prefer doing alone, the trips to football matches, for example, but some things benefit from having a drinking companion and, for me, music festivals fall into that category.

It was a bit of a trek to get there as it took place right on the outskirts of Seoul, three stops from the end of Line 3 at Jeongbalsan. I’d naively assumed that it would be signposted from the subway exit, but it wasn’t. We wandered about aimlessly for a while before I spotted a sign for it, quite close to the subway exit as it happens. We bought our day tickets, exchanged them for wristbands and went in. It wasn’t a particularly big festival, set in the grounds of a college I think. There were three stages, a main stage with tiered seating, a second stage where you just sat on the grass and a third stage that we didn’t bother even walking around to. There were probably about a thousand people in there, so it was easy to get around and get served.

It was a very pleasant way to spend a day, sitting in the sun listening to music whilst knocking back a variety of drinks. I started with beer, switched to bags of sangria that resembled blood bags from a hospital, tried beer with tomato, which I wasn’t too keen on and then moved onto some other stuff which I no longer remember. Possibly tequila sunrises. Without the accompanying coffee this time though I think.

The bands were pretty good, mainly folkie type guitar bands, with the odd acoustic one thrown in and a little bit of easy listening and jazz. Towards the end there was a flamenco style band who were very well received. It got a bit colder as it moved towards the finishing time of ten o’clock, but I’d brought a coat so that was fine too. My Beautiful Mint Life indeed.

Meanwhile, for those of you who are keeping up with his progress, Lee Dong Gook scored an injury time equalizer for Jeonbuk in their home draw with league leaders Gyeongnam. He was also named as one of the six strikers in the provisional World Cup squad of thirty. A couple of the others are pretty young and inexperienced, so as long as he stays fit it looks as though his good run of form will earn him a trip to South Africa.