Archive for August, 2010

LG Twins v Nexen Heroes, Sunday 22nd August 2010, 5pm

August 30, 2010


After the previous days failure to see the game at Chungju and to even get to the foot of Woraksan I was quite determined to see some sport and do a bit of hiking. The sport was easy, LG Twins had a home fixture against Nexen Heroes at Jamsil that evening and picking that baseball game would give me plenty of time to get up into the hills first. I didn’t want to risk even the slightest chance of getting lost and so I played it safe and took the subway to Dokwabi where I could hike the same route on Bukhansan that I’d done almost six months earlier soon after arriving in Seoul. 

 My main recollection of that first hike was that it had been incredibly slippy underfoot. There had been a layer of snow and ice on a lot of the ground then and if I hadn’t been generously lent a crampon by one of the other walkers in the group I doubt I would have got around. This time though, any difficulty was likely to come from the extreme heat. The newspapers were warning against any outdoor activity whatsoever and I hoped that would cut down the numbers of other hikers on the route. 

 I left my apartment just before nine and by ten o’clock I was at Dokwabi. The subway journey, despite being twenty one stops, was easy enough as I got a seat early on. Once again I was entertained by someone taking advantage of the captive audience and giving a sales pitch. The product this time looked to be a couple of small elastic bands which the purchaser could slip over the ends of the arms of a pair of glasses and which would prevent their glasses from falling off no matter what the situation. The salesman demonstrated their effectiveness by fitting them on to his own glasses and then violently shaking his head. It worked well and he sold a few packets of them to the short sighted for a thousand won each. I like watching these demonstrations, mainly to try and work out what the product is supposed to be. This one was quite straightforward though and it helped the journey pass a little quicker. 

 Once at Dokwabi, I noticed that the number of hikers leaving the subway didn‘t seem to be any less than the last time I’d been here. Obviously I wasn’t the only one to assume that the heatwave warnings were meant for other people only. 

The remoteness of the mountains

 I hadn’t bothered packing anything to eat, working on the basis that there are always plenty of food stalls at the foot of any hiking trail over here and I would be able to pick up some gimbap or dumplings, maybe even a bowl of roast potatoes. Not this time though and I was reduced to calling into a small and not very well stocked convenience store where the best I could manage was a peanut butter sandwich and a packet of custard creams. Hopefully I wouldn’t need rescuing at any point as I’d be a bit embarrassed trying to explain away my poor preparation. 

 It took me three quarters of an hour to reach the first peak, Jokduribong. It is only 370 metres high but it was quite steep and the heat made it hard going. 

That's Seoul behind me.

I sat at the top for about half an hour, appreciating the cooling breeze and the views across Seoul. It was a little misty though and whilst I could see the World Cup Stadium I couldn’t pick up my office block south of the river. 

It's all out there somewhere.

There were a few pigeons wandering around and I thought I’d share my peanut butter sandwich with them. They seemed to have a much higher opinion of it than I did and before long there were about twenty of them at my feet, fighting over the crumbs as I tried to feed them all. It reminded me of a trip to Wembley with my junior school to see a schoolboy international thirty five years earlier. We’d arrived by train in London in the morning, popped into Downing Street to have a gawp at the front door of Number 10 (in those days it wasn’t closed off to the public) and then we’d gone along to Trafalgar Square to feed the pigeons before going to the match. I can remember having at least one pigeon on each arm eating out of my hands and another on my head, no doubt feasting on my nits. 

I kept the custard creams hidden away.

 Anyway, none of these pigeons sat on my head, they just ate the bits of sandwich as quickly as I could throw them to the ground. 

I retraced my steps for a while and dropped down in to the valley before making my way up Hyangnobong. At 535 metres this was a bit higher than Jokduribong and just as steep. There were a few sections that were scrambles rather than trails, some of them with railing or ropes to make it a bit easier. The route upwards provided good views of Jokduribong and in particular of the climbers who were making their way down. I couldn’t work out whether they had brought their own ropes to abseil with or whether they were making use of permanent fixtures. It made for an interesting break though as I watched them from across the valley. 

Jokduribong from the other side, you can see the abseilers if you look closely.

I got to the top of Hyangnobong at about noon. Or rather I got as close as I was allowed to get, with the actual peak being barriered off. At this point I had to decide whether or not to carry on to the next peak, Bibong, or to descend towards Tangchundae. Last time I’d been here we’d continued to Bibong but it had been a lot cooler then and I’d had more in my backpack than a packet of custard creams. I decided to head downwards. 

It took me about an hour and a half to reach the bottom, passing some raised platforms on the way that were occupied by groups of blokes drinking soju and makkgeolli. I also saw a few butterflies too, none of which were familiar to me. Once at the bottom I just hopped onto the nearest bus and waited until it stopped outside one of the subway stations before getting off. The system here makes doing things like that easy. I have a transport card, pre-loaded with money, that I just have to touch against a pad as I get on and off a bus. It means I don’t have to tell the driver where I want to go to, which is particularly useful for occasions like this where I don’t know where I want to go to until I see it out of the window. 

So, with the hiking out of the way I had the baseball to look forward to.  Jamsil is only three stops from my apartment and I was able to leave in plenty of time. I picked up a ticket from a tout outside for ten thousand won which might have been just below face value. At those prices, it’s not so important. It was for the red zone though, which is the lower section, beyond first base, prime territory I reckoned for being knocked out cold with a stray baseball. 

Even busier than the hiking.

I was in my seat in time for the National Anthem. Everyone stands for it and most of the people, including the players, put their hand on their heart ’American style’. I couldn’t help but wonder whether that small minority of people who are born with their heart leaning more to the right than the left use the other hand or whether it’s more a symbolic thing. As I’ve no idea which side my heart is on I just stood politely with my hands by my side. 

The National Anthem.

It’s probably about time that I shared a bit more of the knowledge that I’ve gained about how baseball works. I’d sussed the scoring fairly easily, as well as when the players are out, how ’strikes’ and ’balls’ work, and I’ve covered all that in an earlier report, but what I wasn‘t sure of at that time was what all of the players did. How many there were, whether they all batted, how the substitutions worked? Well, I think I’m getting to the bottom of it. 

When a team fields, they have nine players, a pitcher, a catcher (wicket keeper for cricket aficionados), a fielder who covers first base, a fielder who covers third base and two fielders who hang around near second base. I think it depends upon whether or not the batter is right or left-handed as to which of them stands closer to the base. The other three players loiter in the outfield waiting for the big hits that evade the close in fielders. There are plenty of subs in the dugout in case any of them pick up an injury. 

This bloke fancied himself as a bit of a cheerleader.

Of that fielding nine, only the pitcher pitches. If he turns out to be having a ’mare’, he will be replaced by a different specialist pitcher from the subs bench. Once a pitcher has been subbed he can‘t come back on again. Or so I believe. When it’s the fielding teams turn to bat, all of them apart from the pitcher get a turn. The pitcher is replaced by a ’pinch hitter’ who only has to bat, not field. Easy life for him then. 

What surprised me is that the best batter doesn’t open each innings like in cricket, although I suppose the difference is that you only need three of them to be out for the innings to be over. Whichever of the nine batting players was due a turn next when the innings ends will get first turn in the next one. It all seems very fair really. I think the away team always bats first. 

Something I noticed about the catchers is that they both wore number forty-four and that they were both a little sturdier than the other players. I don’t know if this was coincidence or if that’s how catchers are. A bit like the way that ice hockey goalies are bred to be about four-foot tall and a similar width. 

The LG Twins starting pitcher, twenty year old Choi Seong Min, was actually playing as the starting pitcher for the first time and he did pretty well lasting until almost the end of the sixth innings before being substituted with only one Nexen run on the board. The Nexen starting pitcher didn’t do nearly as well and he was hauled out of the attack in the third innings with his team already 5-1 down. The big lead for the Twins meant that they could afford to experiment a bit in the last three innings and they tried a total of three relief pitchers, I suspect to give them all a bit of game time. 

LG Twins starting pitcher, Choi Seong Min.

If I remember rightly, Sam Malone out of Cheers was a relief pitcher. It must be quite a daunting role as you tend to be called upon only if the other team is hitting your starting pitcher all over the park. And that reminds me, I once got refused a drink in the Cheers Bar in Boston,  for not having any ID despite being twenty-three. It might have been different if any of them had known my name. 

Thats enough of how the Korean baseball works for now. The stuff that goes on in the crowd is much more interesting. Between innings there is usually something to watch despite there only being a two minute turnaround. More often than not it’s couples being made to kiss on demand to their intense embarrassment. Occasionally though, like today, there’s a little gem. The entertainment on this occasion involved small children being lined up for a head shaking competition. Each had a digital monitor attached to his or her forehead and they then had to violently shake their skull from side to side whilst the monitor counted the number of times that their brain revolved in its cerebrospinal fluid. They did all take a small prize back to their seats where I imagine they sat quietly for the rest of the game contemplating a future selling elastic bands for spectacles in subway carriages. 

I think he finished third.

It’s all made even better by the people who supply you with food and drink. Blokes with big containers of draught beer on their backs walk around keeping you topped up. Old biddies balance trays on their heads that contain cans of beer and a few snacks.  It all makes life very easy. 

None of this queueing in the concourse malarky.

And in a final score roundup, LG Twins finished up easy 6-2 winners. Whilst all this was going on an injury time goal gave Jeonbuk a 3-2 win over Daejeon Citizen leaving them in third place in the table, a point behind leaders Gyeongnam. Lee Dong Gook didn’t score and was subbed at about the same stage of the game as new pitcher Choi Seong Min had been for the Twins. Following their FA Cup quarter final exit last week Jeonbuk have a League Cup Final against Seoul to look forward to on Wednesday. Unfortunately for me it will be played in Jeonju and so I’ll not be able to get there.

Hummel Chungju v Yongin City, Saturday 21st August 2010, 5pm

August 28, 2010

After their mid-season break the second tier National League teams were back in action this weekend so I had a few more options when choosing a match to watch. What swung it for Chungju wasn’t the potential quality of the football or the undoubted attractions of the town, but the fact that it’s right next to the Woraksan National Park and I wanted to get a bit of hiking in. I hadn’t been out in the hills for a month and Woraksan had a couple of interesting looking peaks that I fancied having a wander up.

Woraksan, near to Chungju

It all seemed quite a straightforward plan. I could catch a bus from Seoul Central City Station, watch Hummel Chungju take on Yongin City at three o’clock, then get a bus to Deoksu which is the village at the bottom of the hill, stay there overnight before spending the next day hiking and then making the return journey back to Seoul.

The first stage went well. It would have been an easy mistake to have bought a ticket to the much more popular Cheongju or even Cheongdu or Cheongdo. But I didn‘t. By carefully writing the name of the town down on a piece of paper and then handing it over at the ticket counter I managed to buy a 10,900 won ticket for the right destination on the ten o’clock bus. I even managed to pick up an English bus timetable for future reference. Obviously by that I mean a Korean bus timetable written in English; an actual timetable for the buses in England might just be a little less useful these days.

Central City Bus Station, Seoul.

It was a hot morning and as ever in Seoul there were a lot of Korean girls with extremely short skirts. A female western friend mentioned to me that its not unusual for western girls when they first arrive in Korea to look at the length of the skirts that the local girls wear and as they are much shorter than most western women would feel comfortable wearing themselves, to think of the local girls as ’sluts’. Conversely, she said, the Korean girls would never dream of wearing a low cut top and when they encounter western girls showing a bit of cleavage, they too would think ’sluts’.

I can‘t help but smile at the idea of two girls, each comfortable with their own culture, passing each other in the street and each of them thinking the same unsisterly thoughts about the other. As for me, I’m happy to cast an appreciative but discreet glance at  nice legs and nice tits, so the cultural differences work out quite well in that respect.

The hundred and thirty kilometre journey took two hours and I arrived at Chungju at noon. I had a look around,  picking up a couple of maps at the tourist information office and was pleased to see that the stadium wasn’t too far away. It was just a case of following the line of the river and then turning right at the big Buddha statue. I took my time in the heat and arrived at the stadium at one o’clock. There was an event going on next door to it that seemed to be a cross between a summer fayre and a market. There was a stage area where a bloke with a microphone was entertaining the crowds and there were stalls selling everything from seaweed to second hand power tools.

The seaweed stall

There was a Hite beer promotion too, where a van with a large plastic bottle on top was drawing a long queue of people who were being given the chance to win a variety of prizes, mainly beer, by spinning a wheel. I watched for a while and just as I was moving on I was shepherded into the queue by a tourism official. I didn’t really want to win anything that I’d have to carry up the hills the next day and I didnt fancy a drink either as I’d had a heavy week and was keen to have a day off.

A chance to win free beer

The previous night I’d been out with the lads from work and the night before that I’d been to the opening of an art exhibition with Jen. I’d never heard of Lee Hyun Joon whose stuff we’d gone to see, but as they were giving away free beer all night he’s now my favourite artist. If I’d called it a night after the exhibition it would have been fine, but we went on to a Japanese bar where I polished off a large carton of chilled sake too.

These tables were exhibits, but you could sit at them to drink your free beer. Very nice.

It was a bit of a relief therefore when the Hite people ran out of prizes and I was able to make my excuses and move on to have a look at the stadium. It’s quite similar to a lot of the older grounds over here, an oval with a running track and a small main stand that was the only part with a roof. It had a capacity of seventeen thousand and I watched through a gate as a couple of groundsmen watered what looked like a very good pitch.

View from inside the open gate

Unfortunately it turned out that I’d been given the wrong kick off time again, as a banner over one of the entrances was showing a four o’clock start. That wasn’t much of a problem, but I was keen to get out of the heat whilst I waited and so I went for a wander into the park next door and took refuge on a bench under a tree. With over an hour to go until kick off I stretched out on the bench and went to sleep. I was woken by a phone call at a quarter to four. It wasn’t for me, but like a lot of the calls I get it was for Ronald, the bloke who had been allocated my phone number prior to me getting it. It’s normally a bit of a nuisance, but as it served as an alarm call I was quite grateful for once.

I went back to the stadium, expecting a little more activity by now, but it was just as quiet. I hung about until about half past four and with no activity whatsoever thought I’d try and find out what was going on. Perhaps it was a five or a seven o’clock kick off.  I went into the ground via an open gate and walked around the running track towards the half way line. One of the two groundsmen who had been watering the pitch had gone but the remaining one was coiling the hoses. I mimed kicking a football and gestured at the pitch only for him to give me that crossed arm gesture that the bloke in my local takeaway invariably does whenever I turn up at around half past ten and they have no food left.

Never mind, at least I'll be able to walk up those hills.

Despite the internet listings and the banners outside the ground I didn’t take a lot of convincing that the game wasn’t going to happen. A complete lack of people anywhere inside or near the ground, coupled with the absence of nets suggested that something had gone wrong somewhere and I walked off towards the bus station. When I got there I called in at a PC bang and checked the Hummel Chungju website. According to that the game was definitely on but with a five o’clock start. Well, it was quarter past now, so what to do? I decided that I couldn’t just clear off without one last check and so I hopped in a taxi and went back up to the ground. Sadly, but not entirely unexpectedly, it was just as deserted as it had been forty five minutes earlier and so if the game was going ahead at 5pm, it must have been taking place somewhere else. I got another taxi back to the bus station, hoping that I wouldn‘t see a sign anywhere suggesting a kick off time of 7pm. I couldn’t keep turning up at the stadium every hour or so just to watch the grass grow.

I didnt get to sit here.

Still, the football wasn’t the main reason for the trip and I had the hiking on Woraksan to look forward to. I called back into the tourist office to find out where the bus stop for Deokju was. She pointed it out and then wrote the times of the buses down. The next one went at quarter to nine the next morning, getting there after ten. With all that messing around I’d missed the last bus of the day. Just perfect. Or not. That meant I’d have to find somewhere to stay in Chungju instead and then I’d have a pretty limited time the next day to get up and down the hill to fit in with the bus back.

I’d just about had enough arseing about for one weekend by this time and so I got myself a ticket for the next bus to Seoul and headed home. I checked later and the game had gone ahead but at a stadium just outside of town for some reason. This tends to happen fairly often in Korea. For what it’s worth, Hummel Chungju won 3-2.

Suwon Bluewings v Jeonbuk Motors, Wednesday 18th August 2010, 7.30pm.

August 24, 2010

Attending this Korean FA Cup quarter final was a bit of a bonus as when I’d discovered a few days earlier that it was a 7.30pm kick-off I’d as good as decided that getting there was not really possible. I’d been to Suwon a week previously for the South Korea v Nigeria game that started at 8pm and only just managed to make that. The half an hour earlier start for this game meant that it didnt really seem like a feasible proposition. I couldn’t quite get it out of my mind though and deliberately didn’t plan anything for that evening, keeping my options open in case I decided to give it a try.

What finally convinced me to go was that when I looked out of my office window at a quarter to six, it was pouring down. Not only that, but all of the three umbrellas that I currently own were in my apartment rather than under my desk. Bear with me, it does make sense. Well, more sense than a lot of stuff I do.  I remembered that the first time that I visited Suwon it took me an hour on the subway and so I thought to myself that as I don’t have to go outside of my office block to get to the subway, I could be at Suwon for around ten past seven without the prospect of the soaking that walking from the office to my apartment would bring about. Clever, eh? Perhaps. I might just have been delaying the inevitable encounter with the rain and I’d also no idea how long a taxi would take to get from Suwon subway to the Blue Wings Stadium, but in a classic piece of the short-term thinking that influences most of my actions these days I gave it a try.

It all went very well to begin with. I left the office bang on six o’clock and by ten past I was on the first train. I was at Sadang for twenty past where I made the first of two line changes and at ten past seven I arrived at Suwon where I was pleased to discover that it wasn’t raining. So far so good. There were a line of taxis  waiting outside of the station and I was fortunate to get a driver who was aware that there was a football stadium in Suwon. Actually there’s two stadiums, but as I was going to the more famous of them I wasn’t worried.

The plan fell apart as we hit the rush hour traffic and we crawled along with the game having already kicked off and me alternating between looking at my watch and peering at the skyline trying to catch a glimpse of the distinctive winged roof of  Suwon’s ground. Ten minutes after kick off we arrived there after what was close on a half hour taxi journey to cover perhaps three or four miles. He dropped me at the south east corner of the stadium which was an error on my part as I should have remembered that the ticket office was over at the north west corner. I walked the length of the winged west stand, noticing the Jeonbuk fans behind the goal in the south stand.

It's a great roof.

A couple of touts approached as I got near to the ticket office and offered me seats in the east stand for five and ten thousand won respectively. Normally I would have taken one of them but as I just wanted to be inside the ground as quickly as possible and I didn’t want to have to walk to the other side of the stadium, I  knocked them back and went to the ticket office instead. Fortunately there was no queue, less fortunately they told me that you had to be a membership card holder to sit in the west stand. I bought a ticket for the east stand for twelve thousand won and set off for my walk around the stadium, trying not to catch the eyes of the smug looking touts on the way past.

By the time I got into the ground the clock on the scoreboard showed that eighteen minutes had gone and that the game was still goalless. Lee Dong Gook was back up front for Jeonbuk, having missed the last two games due to his suspension for elbowing a Busan defender in the chops a couple of weeks earlier. There wasn’t really much of a crowd, with the upper tiers virtually empty. Jeonbuk looked to have brought a few hundred fans with them whilst Suwon had a very good turnout behind the north stand goal.

After recovering from his sore elbow, Lee Dong Gook is back leading the line.

The FA Cup winners qualify for one of the four Champions League spots over here and so it carries a bit more of a reward than just the glory of winning the trophy. ’Just the glory’ sounds a bit glib, I’d love the Boro to have `just the glory’ of winning the FA Cup. For the first few years of our existence we had never got beyond the last eight, the first one hundred and twenty one years to be precise and my childhood was littered with losing quarter finals at places such as Birmingham, Orient and Wolves. It was the Riverside years before we managed to get to semi finals and even once the final itself. But we’ve never won it and it doesnt look too realistic a dream for us in the near future.

We had a great chance a couple of years ago with the big boys having been knocked out and only a home tie against Championship side Cardiff between us and a Wembley semi final. Lee Dong Gook was still at the Boro then, but he was out of favour by that time and didn’t even make the bench in what was one of the most disappointing Middlesbrough performances that I can remember.

I’ve just googled the team from that day and we had some really useful players then, streets ahead of the ones that we have now. It was a team that was more than capable of beating the other semi finalists Portsmouth, Barnsley and West Brom and lifting the trophy.

Schwarzer, Young, Wheater, Huth, Pogatetz, O’Neil (Johnson 59), Arca, Rochemback, Downing, Alves (Mido 46), Sanli.
Subs Not Used: Turnbull, Boateng, Grounds.

But, whatever. It’s gone. Just like Birmingham, Orient and Wolves, all games that, perhaps with the optimism of youth, I had also expected us to win and ended up disappointed.

It was a scrappy remainder of the first half at Suwon with a few yellows being handed out, mainly to the Jeonbuk players. Luiz Henrique had a real go at the ref at one point, who you could see was desperate for the ball to go out so that he could call him over and book him for dissent.

Green Army.

Ten minutes before half time Suwon took the lead with a Kwak Hee Ju header after a disputed free kick was floated into the box. The Suwon fans behind the goal celebrated by bouncing up and down, similar to the way that Rangers do, edging a yard or two from side to side as they did it. They also waved their flags, two of which had the face of Che Guevara on them. He seems pretty popular at the football over here, Jeonbuk had no fewer than five flags with that iconic image on them.

Five Che's for Jeonbuk, two Che's for Suwon.

At half time I went in search of something to eat, having not had anything since lunchtime. It was fairly meagre pickings with a large bag of crisps being the best option. One of the differences that I’ve noticed between home and over here is the way people eat their crisps. In the UK we tend to open the packet at the top, the show-offs amongst us occasionally squeezing the bag to pop it open. In Korea though, crisps are eaten from the side of the packet, with a vertical tear being made and then the bag held longways. Just an observation.

The second half wasn’t much better than the first. I moved into the upper tier and closer to the Suwon fans as that was the end that Jeonbuk were attacking. The home supporters kept up a good level of support throughout the half with songs to the tunes of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da and Yellow Submarine amongst others.

View from the upper tier.

 Lee Dong Gook didnt really have any scoring chances, although on the whole nor did his team mates. Each side had a man sent off as the consquences of all the early yellows took effect and as the time ticked away Jeonbuk gradually threw more men forward. In the dying minutes they were playing with a line of four strikers as well as Lee Dong Gook roaming just behind them. The remaining four outfield Jeonbuk players had to somehow cover all the midfield and defence positions between them and some quite sizeable gaps opened up as they pressed for an equaliser. Inevitably Suwon broke away and in injury time Yeom Ki Hun added the second goal that sealed their semi final spot.

Two Nil and its all over.

As I left the ground at the end I was approached by a teenage lad who asked me if I was Joe Johnson. As the only bloke of that name that I’m familiar with is a fifty odd year old snooker player I was happy to confirm that I wasn’t. This tends to happen to me quite a bit, being mistaken for someone else. At the baseball game at the weekend I was asked if I was the pitcher’s Dad. It’s as if a foreigner wouldn’t be at a sporting event unless he had a specific reason for being there, other than wanting to watch the game.

Surely some mistake.

I checked for other famous Joe Johnson’s on the internet afterwards, doubting that mid-eighties snooker stars would have much of a fanbase over here and uncovered an American basketball player that seemed much more likely to have been the object of the lad’s question. Although that particular Mr Johnson was considerably younger and taller than me. Considerably blacker as well, come to think of it.

I can see the resemblance.

Having extricated myself from the autograph hunter I found myself surrounded by a group of younger lads, maybe ten or eleven years old. After the usual “Hello, how are you? You are very handsome“ that I’m sure they learn at school as the standard greeting to people from out of town, they asked me “Do you like Suwon?“.

“Jeonbuk“ I replied, to which they laughed manically and danced around, pointing at me whilst chanting “Loser, loser“. I think I preferred the simplicity of the old days where a local would ask you the time and if your accent gave you away as a visiting supporter, he just kicked your head in.

For the journey back I waited at the bus stop that I’d used the previous week and asked the driver of the first bus if he went to Seoul. “Sadang“ he replied to my delight.

My bus.

Sadang is only ten minutes away from my apartment on the subway and with a half hour bus journey to get there I was back home an hour after the final whistle. I’ll remember that for next time I want to go to Suwon and it’s not raining.

Samsung Lions v Hanwha Eagles, Sunday 15th August 2010, 5pm.

August 22, 2010

The regular baseball season is drawing to a close and so I thought that whilst there’s still time I would try and get to see a game at a stadium that I hadn’t yet visited. There are eight baseball teams in the league, but as Doosan Bears and LG Twins share the Jamsil Stadium there are only seven different ball parks. Actually that may not be true as I’ve a suspicion that one of the teams from the south might play their home games at more than one stadium. Anyway, I’ve been to four of the stadiums so far and as Lotte Giants were playing away I was left with a choice of Samsung Lions or KIA Tigers.

Samsung Lions play in Daegu and when I found that the Daegu K-League team were also at home on the same day it was an easy choice to make. The football was listed as kicking off at four in the afternoon, with the baseball starting an hour later. I’d been to watch Daegu before and their stadium is only about thirty yards from the baseball park, so it seemed a pretty good piece of scheduling. I could watch their match against Pohang Steelers and then call into the baseball game which by that time should be no more than a couple of innings old.

Jen asked me if I’d like to accompany her to a barbecue that a friend of hers was having near Gyeongju on the Saturday and as Gyeongju is only an hour away from Daegu it all fitted together very nicely.

We got the bus from Seoul to Gyeongju late on Saturday morning. It was meant to be early on Saturday morning but when we turned up to get the tickets it was two and a half hours until the next departure. The silver lining was that it enabled me to get an overdue haircut. It’s probably thirty five years since I’ve been for a haircut with someone else and in those days I used to go with my Dad. To my frustration the barber would invariably direct his questions to him rather than me. In that mid-seventies era when it was a major source of embarrassment at school to have even the lobes of your ears exposed, you did not want the barber checking with your oblivious to fashion father as to whether he had taken enough off yet.

Generally over here, I get by in the barbers with a combination of mime and gesture and I’ve tended to survive. However, once the hairdresser realised that Jen could speak Korean, it was as if I was six years old.

“Does he want it grading at the back?” and “Should I shampoo it for him?” were asked and answered without any reference whatsoever to me. I half expected to be told to visit the toilet before I left and to be given a lollipop for sitting still. The shampooing was very enjoyable though, with my head being rinsed for a couple of minutes with cold water. The temperatures in Seoul seemed to have taken another step upwards lately and I could quite happily have foregone the barbecue, the football and the baseball and just remained in the barber’s chair all weekend with the cold water washing over my head.

The bus to Gyeongju took four hours and then we had another short connection to get to Doug’s house out in the countryside. Unfortunately our late arrival meant that the original barbecue had finished and the guests departed. Doug was a great host though and we spent a few hours with him and his girlfriend, eating and drinking in his front garden miles from anywhere, with a backdrop of the hills and his dog at our feet. Doug grows his own vegetables, makes his own cheese and had apple makkgeolli to supplement the beer. Whilst I love my life, every now and again I get a glimpse of someone elses and can’t help but feel that I’m missing out somehow.

The view from Doug's front garden.

At about ten o’clock we got a lift back to Gyeongju and checked into the nearest hotel to the bus station. This was quite a fortuitous choice as it’s the best hotel I’ve stayed in over here so far. For the connoisseurs of the idiosyncrasies of Korean love motels our room was on the top floor and had a six foot wide circular skylight above the bed so that we could look at the stars if there wasn’t much on telly. It opened and closed with a remote control and seemed a little like the sort of gadget that a villain in a James Bond film might use to launch missiles from an island hideaway. The room had disco lights in the bathroom and a small dance floor that also came complete with its own multi-coloured light show. We couldn’t quite work out how to switch off the flashing dance floor lights and so had to resort to covering it with a towel to diminish the effect. It had the usual love motel staples of a big flat screen telly and computer, plus the added bonus of a complementary bottle of red wine. I searched in vain for a humidor full of havana cigars but had I found them they would not have seemed out of place.

The dancefloor.

The next morning we went for a look around Gyeongju. It’s a town that seems to have a predilection for barley bread, with a shop selling it every five yards or so. We were going to look at the tombs rather than visit the bakers though, and in particular Cheonmachong, or the Heavenly Horse Tomb. This was the grave of some unknown royal from Silla kingdom and it had been excavated a few years previously giving visitors the opportunity to have a wander about inside. Disappointingly all the artifacts inside were replicas which made the sign stating that visitors should show respect towards what was an empty fake coffin a little bemusing. On the plus side, however, it was air-conditioned and so well worth the visit regardless of the authenticity of the artifacts.

The real stuff is in a museum somewhere.

We had a wander aroound the rest of the park, which resembled tellytubbyland, and looked at the other unexcavated tombs before getting the bus to Daegu where I had spicy tuna bibimbap for lunch.

Tinkywinky, La La, Poe and whatever the other one was called.

 This version of the rice dish was different to those I’ve had before as it’s eaten hot. It’s known as dolsot bibimbap and served in a red hot stone pot that I did my best not to burn myself on. Its an interesting variation and I quite like the way that the rice gets a bit crusty where it’s been in contact with the hot stone bowl.

We walked to the stadiums only to discover that the time of the football game had been changed and both matches now started at 5pm. Bugger. There was a large banner advertising the football and you could see where a patch saying `5pm’ had been stuck over the previous `4pm’. Quite why they couldnt coordinate the start times to accommodate fans who would like to see both games baffled me. The last time I’d watched Daegu, the conclusion of the baseball game coincided with half time in the football and the Daegu commercial staff were trying to entice the baseball fans into the football match for free. This time though, it was one or the other and as I’d seen Daegu play in their stadium before I decided that I’d rather watch the baseball.

After the previous weeks visit to the outfield at the Jamsil Stadium I thought it would be quite good to be a bit closer to the action and we got seats in the posh bit right behind the catcher for twenty thousand won each. They were front row and with a table in front of us for food and drink. The only downside was that it looked as if the roof didn‘t quite extend far enough to protect the first couple of rows if it rained. However, it was hot and sunny so I wasn’t too concerned.

On the way in we were given a bottle of chocolate water each. Yes, chocolate water. I’d heard of chocolate milk before, but this was a variation on those bottles of water that are usually flavoured with fruit or possibly more likely just sugar. I tried it, out of curiosity, and it was terrible. I like chocolate and I like water, but together, I dont think it will catch on. Fortunately there was another freebie, apple juice, to take away the taste and if that didn‘t work there was plenty of beer for sale.

The stadium was probably the smallest capacity of all those I’ve been to and there were plenty of empty seats. Samsung Lions are pretty much certain of their play-off place and perhaps Hanwha Eagles aren’t much of a draw. The home fans were loud enough, singing along at one point to Slade’s `Cum On Feel The Noize‘.

Like a lot of the games I’ve been to recently, the innings were being rattled through at a fair pace and within three quarters of an hour we had already seen the first three of them. It would have been even quicker had it not been for a lengthy delay for treatment after the batter had mistaken the catcher’s hand for the ball and tried to hit it out of the stadium.

Hanwha had the best of the early play including picking up a run when successive hits deep into the outfield that were both caught were in the air long enough to allow the bloke on first base to eventually make it all the way home. By the fourth innings though a Samsung home run had put the home side into a 3-2 lead.

At six o’clock it started to pour down with absolutely torrential rain that had the players running for the dugout and Jen and I scurrying to the back of the stand. Ground staff were quickly out with tarpaulins but the water was lying in pools around each of the bases. After a while I managed to get a glimpse of the Daegu game in the football stadium next door. The players were still out there, but it looked as if all of the fans were in the concourse.

I was waiting for the announcement that the match would be abandoned when the rain started to ease off and within a few minutes a combination of the drainage and blokes with brushes had cleared most of the water away. At seven o’clock we were off again. The only problem for us was that our front row seats were still ankle deep in water. Again the staff did the business and the excess was soon swept away and the seats and table dried off. We got another forty five minutes of action before the next thunderstorm arrived with the scores level at four apiece. We moved further back again, this time taking the seats of some people who had decided that enough was enough. A tramp had come in off the streets, more for a bit of shelter than the prospect of seeing the remaining innings I imagine, and he occupied his time by collecting up the uneaten fried chicken that people had left in their hurry to get away. He didnt seemed too interested in the chocolate water though.

We waited for the next lull in the rain and at half past eight we headed off to get the KTX not knowing if the game would be completed or abandoned. As we neared Seoul the baseball scores came up on the screen in the carriage and one of them had won 5-4. I don‘t remember which team won, but then I didn‘t really care. It’s still all about the occasion with baseball for me at the moment, rather than the result.

South Korea v Nigeria, Wednesday 11th August 2010, 8pm.

August 16, 2010

Last Wednesday I tried a couple of new things. Firstly, I went to see South Korea play Nigeria. I’d seen the national team play against Argentina in South Africa during the World Cup but after missing their warm-up game against Ecuador a few months ago in favour of a lantern festival, this was the first time that I’d actually watched them on their home soil in front of a Korean crowd. And then, after the game, I ate my first silkworm pupae.

I’ll start with the football. Mainly because eating silkworm is more interesting and so I’ll save that until the end. Plus the football happened first, so it keeps things in the right order.

The international matches are usually played at the 68,000 capacity Seoul stadium, but for some reason this game was given to Suwon, which is a city a little south of Seoul. I’d been there before and had walked around the ancient fortress wall before watching the K-League game between Suwon and Daejeon Citizen. On that occasion it had taken me virtually all day to get to the ground, a luxury that I didn’t really have time for when I have to work until six o’clock and the game kicks off at eight.

The schedule was too tight to take on the Suwon Fortress Wall Ninjas, so we got the bus.

Luckily I had a bit of assistance in fellow Teessider Alan, who I’d gone with to the Seoul v Suwon League Cup game a couple of weeks earlier.  Alan met me at the subway station in Gangnam whilst his wife waited in the queue for our bus. It meant that twenty minutes after I’d left work bang on six o’clock, we were already on our way as the bus set off in the rush hour traffic. Normally it takes about three quarters of an hour to get to Suwon, tonight though, with the extra match traffic it was twenty to eight before we arrived.

It was quite busy outside the ground.

Fortunately Alan had already bought the tickets and so it was straight to one of the lengthy queues to get in.  It was free seating, even to the extent of which stand you chose and after abandoning our initial attempt to sit under cover at the side of the pitch, we ended up behind the goal.

It looked as if we were in the away end at first, as the only people in there appeared to be Africans, but with the free seating policy it soon filled up with Koreans as well. There wasn’t any segregation, although there were a lot of police present and the Nigerian fans mainly took up residence in the lower tier.

This was a big game for Korea, their first under new manager Cho Kwang Rae and his promised 3-4-3 formation.. Unfortunately for Lion King fans, Cho had decided not to call up Lee Dong Gook and when asked about the omission of the 85 times capped striker he was quoted as saying;

“Lee Dong-gook is a good player. But I’m looking for more of an active player with strong passing abilities,” Cho said. “If Lee improves his conditioning, there’s always a possibility that he will return to the team in the future.”

So, whilst the door wasn’t entirely closed on Lee Dong Gook,  for another long standing player it was to be a farewell appearance. Veteran goalie Lee Won Jae had decided to call it a day at thirty seven. After sitting on the bench in South Africa in what was his fourth World Cup, he had been recalled to the starting line-up for a final appearance and a presentation had been arranged at half time to mark his service and 132 cap career. It would have been even more caps had he not been suspended for a year for partying with Lee Dong Gook and a couple of other players before an Asian Cup game three years ago. Still, all that seemed forgotten as the teams lined up for the national anthems in a stadium that was probably about two thirds full, but with a lot more people still queueing outside or stuck in the traffic.

Nigerian fans during their national anthem.

Judging by the noise of the crowd, there were a lot of youngsters there and any attacking movement by South Korea was greeted by the sort of noise that I’d last heard at schoolboy internationals. There were quite a few vuvuzelas too, not enough to recreate the South Africa drone, but enough to supplement the shrieks that were heard whenever South Korea got into the Nigerian half of the pitch.

Go on, sonny, put some effort in.

Korea’s new wing back formation worked pretty well with Choi Hyo Jin  in particular getting forward at every opportunity and after a quarter of an hour Korea were in front with a very well taken goal from Yoon Bitgarem. Fifteen minutes later and it was time for retiring goalie Lee Won Jae to depart to get showered and changed for his half time retirement ceremony. Unfortunately for him, as his replacement stood waiting to come on Nigeria scored from a set piece and his last act as a player was to pick the ball out of the net. The applause as he left the field was a little muted, perhaps a consequence of the unfortunate timing as much as anything.

Lee being subbed so that he can smarten himself up for his half time presentation.

A few minutes before the break South Korea were back in front with the wingback Choi Hyo Jin making a well timed run to finish off a chance from a very cleverly placed through ball.

Half time brought the Lee Won Jae retirement show and we were treated to a lone trumpeter playing the Pet Shop Boys ’Go West’, a display of drumming and on the big screen a highlights reel of just about everything he’d ever done bar the late night drinking incident.

An emotional Lee, who was now looking very dapper in a suit and tie, made his way onto the pitch with his daughters, received a couple of presents, made a speech, hugged his goalkeeping successors  and finally, to great applause, bowed to all sides of the stadium.

Farewell to Mr Lee.

After all that the second half was a bit of an anti climax. There were plenty of substitutions but no more goals and South Korea finished up winning 2-1.

There were big queues for the buses so we decided to go for something to eat afterwards and let the crowds clear. We went into quite a small restaurant and as we sat down a couple of small dishes were placed on the table, a bit like tapas. Except that when I lived in Spain I didn’t ever get given silkworm pupae to eat.

I don't think that they will catch on in the UK.

I’d seen and smelt silkworm at some of the stalls in the street and managed to walk past without being tempted. Still, its different if they are put on a table in front of you and although I’d only had a couple of pints at the match I thought, why not? They tasted a bit like Oxo, although I’ve no idea if that is because of the seasoning or whether that is their natural taste. They were soft, not crunchy, but they weren’t filled with pus in the way that maggots are. Or at least they didnt seem to be. I just ate them one at a time and maybe had half a dozen in total.

Chopsticks seemed appropriate, I doubt I could have eaten a spoonful of them.

For the main course we had dotorimuk, which is made of acorn starch. I’d had this before at work and unlike the silkworm it’s a nightmare to eat with chopsticks.  It came with a variety of vegetables which were a little easier to handle.

We got more vegetables with ours.

We washed it down with dongdongju, which is a fermented rice wine, a bit like makkeoli but with more flavour and alcohol content. I hadn’t drank it before so it was yet another first for me in a night of new stuff. An hour or so later the crowds had cleared and we were able to easily get a bus back to Gangnam.

LG Twins v Samsung Lions, Sunday 8th August 2010, 5pm

August 11, 2010

This one should really have been all about Messi against Lee Dong Gook, Barcelona versus the K-League Allstars. The Catalans were in town last week, playing a pre-season friendly against a team made up of K-League players selected by popular vote. Lee Dong Gook got enough votes to start up front for the Allstars which would give him another opportunity to compare his talents with Lionel Messi, currently regarded as the World’s best player and only a few weeks after their last encounter in the South Africa World Cup.

It wasn’t a full strength Barcelona team by any means, all the World Cup winning Spaniards had been left at home and as the game drew nearer it looked as if Messi wouldn’t be playing either due to a lack of match fitness. The organisers kicked up a fuss, revealing that Barcelona had a clause in their contract stipulating thirty minutes of pitch time for the Argentinian and by match day the understanding was that he would make `an appearance’. I’m not a big fan of pre-season friendlies, particularly ones featuring mainly a reserve squad, but Messi is Messi. If I’m quite happy to travel a couple of hours to see a third division game, it doesn’t make sense for me sit at home when Messi is playing in the city where I live, even if he is likely to turn out for less than half an hour.

I’d seen him live before, playing for Barcelona in the Spanish and Champions Leagues and for Argentina in that South Korea World Cup game, but you can’t really have too much of a good thing. Unless it’s raining, that is. I came out of work at ten past six to torrential rain. Even with an umbrella I was soaked within fifty yards as the rain bounced back up from the tarmac and so I decided to go home and watch the match on the telly instead. Anyway, as I said to myself as I dried off, he’s no Georgie Best.

Messi came on as a sub after half an hour, with the K-League Allstars leading 2-1 courtesy of a very well taken Lion King header. The Argentinian missed a couple of chances and scored two good goals before being withdrawn at half time after what must have been the allotted fifteen minute compromise cameo. Barcelona’s reserves rarely seemed to break out of a stroll and finished up winning by five goals to two.

So, which of these two played for the Boro?

Jeonbuk were playing on Saturday, in a table topping clash with Seoul. I wasn’t going though as I was `teambuilding’ instead. This was a works day out that consisted of an early morning start, two and a half hours on a train, then an hour and a half on a bus, lunch at a seafood restaurant, ten minutes standing on a beach, fifteen minutes on the bus again, an hour at a tea plantation, another hour and a half on the bus, half an hour riding a `railbike’, another hour and a half on a bus followed by two and a half hours on the train.

My colleague Mr Park at the tea plantation. Later we had green tea ice creams.

Bonding through adversity was the objective I think, although the occasions where we weren’t being transported from points A to Z were very enjoyable.

The Sunday football games in the K-League were all kicking off too late in the evening for me to be able to get a train back the same day and anyway, I’d had enough of looking out of a window for one weekend. I went for a bike ride down by the Han river again, three hours this time, which just about finished me off. I’m starting to get the hang of the gears and so went a fair bit faster than usual. As I didnt fall off I regarded it as a successful morning out.

In the afternoon I went back to the river, this time for a boat trip in the company of the American girl I’ve been seeing.

The view to the North. It's the direction that the missiles will come from.

The trip was a very pleasant way to spend an hour or so, watching the waterskiers and people paddling about on surfboards. They had some pedaloes on the other side of the river, the ones that are shaped as swans, which looked like something that might be worth a future visit. One of the best things though was that the boat jetty was right next to the Jamsil Stadium Complex. That’s the one with the Olympic Stadium and amongst others, the Jamsil baseball stadium. As the boat trip finished at four thirty, it made perfect sense for us to pop along and watch the game between the LG Twins and the Samsung Lions.

The Olympic and Baseball stadiums. How convenient.

There were queues at the ticket office and so when we were approached by a tout I was quite happy to take a couple of tickets off his hands. He asked for twenty thousand won for two seats in the outfield, which is the bit furthest away from the action. I’ve never been in that part of the stadium so thought it might make an interesting change, but as the game had already started and I could buy tickets from the ticket office for six thousand won apiece, I certainly wasn’t going to pay over the odds. I offered him face value, which he accepted and then due to a bit of arseing around with the money he ended up with fourteen thousand. It didn’t seem worth arguing over a quid.

The seats in the outfield give you a great overall view of the stadium and made me wish that my camera could take wide angle pictures so that I could fit it all in. Actually, it has since occurred to me that it probably does take wide angle photos, it’s just that I’ve never done much more than use the automatic settings. Our seats were a little too far from the action though and next time I think I’d go back into the main stand. Still, like the boat trip, it was a very pleasurable way to idle away some time on a hot summers day.

It was wider than this.

Jen knows her baseball which is a bit of a bonus, and so I was pleased to be able to have someone to quiz on the bits that I hadn’t quite worked out. She has watched a fair amount of Major League Baseball in America and wasn’t overly impressed with the standard of the Korean League, particularly the amount of balls being hit behind. She was also a bit surprised at the way the fans supported their teams too. In America, you make a bit of noise to put the other team off. The inflatable sticks that the Koreans wave and bang together as part of their songs would be used at the likes of basketball games to try and distract the opposition at free throws. She was impressed though with the way that the losing LG Twins supporters continued to back their team all the way through the match, regardless of the score. In America, the fans demand success and a losing team would get the same sort of barracking that the Boro get these days whenever we aren’t a goal up within the first twenty minutes.

Samsung Lions, as you might expect from a team currently in second place in the standings, were always on top and finished up 8-3 winners. The defeat moved the LG Twins down in to sixth place and outside of the playoffs. With the season drawing to a close that’s not the position to be in unless you are looking forward to your holidays.

And whilst all this was going on, Jeonbuk Motors were playing at home to league leaders FC Seoul. Lee Dong Gook was suspended for that elbow in the chops last week but a goal from the Brazilian Eninho was enough to give the Lion King’s team the win and to move Jeonbuk ahead of Seoul. Jeonbuk were denied top spot though as former leaders Jeju United won 4-0 to regain pole position on goal difference. 

The crowd at Jeonbuk was listed as being over thirty thousand, but I’d expect it to have been more like twenty. It’s still a large turnout for this league though and probably not too dissimilar from the attendance at the baseball. Next week Jeonbuk travel to Changwon to take on third placed Gyeongnam who like Jeju and Jeonbuk are also on thirty one points. Before that though, it’s international week with Nigeria providing the opposition for South Korea. They don’t have anyone thats quite the standard of Messi, but I’ll pop along anyway.

SK Wyverns v KIA Tigers, Sunday 1st August 2010, 5pm

August 9, 2010

I’d walked past the SK Wyverns baseball stadium at Munhak not long after I’d arrived in Korea, whilst on my way to an Incheon Korail game, but five months on I still hadn’t managed to get back there to see a game. The regular baseball season finishes this month so I thought I’d better make the effort to get there before it’s all over until next year.

I’d got back from my trip to Jeonju to see Jeonbuk Motors at around Sunday lunchtime and as the baseball game didn’t start until 5pm, I had a bit of spare time. Enough spare time to be able to ride down to the river on my bike. Sunday, as you would expect, is a much quieter day in Seoul than the other days of the week and so it was easy enough to cycle the twenty minutes or so from my apartment to the River Han. Streets that would normally be full of traffic and pedestrians are certainly a lot easier to negotiate on a Sunday lunchtime. Even so, I still spent most of my time riding on the pavements. Everyone does that over here, including the motorcyclists. Whether it’s kids on scooters or pizza delivery men, they all just ride on the pavement, venturing on to the road only when they want to use a pedestrian crossing or when the pavement is blocked by parked cars, fortune tellers, street vendors selling golf balls or sports socks and old blokes who have peaked too early on the soju and are sleeping it off.

Riding alongside the River Han is a lot simpler, there are dedicated cycled tracks along both banks and with very few uphill sections it’s easy to get into a bit of a rhythm. There’s usually something new to see as well, the on-going programme to install sporting equipment into just about every available space is progressing well and this time I noticed what I assume will be a temporary swimming area for the summer. Mind you, I don’t think there will have been much actual swimming going on. The place was full of families having a day out and the swimming pool had so many kids in it that it was strictly standing room only. There were that many of them packed together that I couldn’t be entirely certain that there was actually any water in there with them.

River Han

I rode westwards along the south side of the river for about half an hour before turning back. I knew the subway trip to Incheon would take a while and so I didn’t really want to be out on my bike for longer than about ninety minutes. Finding my way back to my apartment wasn’t as easy as you might think it would be. Firstly I have an absolutely terrible sense of direction and secondly, I can’t resist taking short cuts. Of course, if the short cut takes me off course, I can never quite seem to compensate properly and get back on route. Twenty minutes after leaving the riverbank I should really have been just about home. I wasn’t of course, but instead I found myself at a subway station that I recognised as one that I often visit for a haircut and which is at least a half hours walk away from where I live. Still, at least I know my way back from there.

When I first came out here I had long hair, it was dyed brown as I reckon that long grey hair makes you look as if you are one step away from sleeping in the gutter. With my dress sense I can’t afford to have too many other tramp like qualities, not if I want to get into bars and restaurants, that is. Unfortunately, the long brown hair was too much trouble to persevere with. If I cant express myself well enough to a taxi driver to have him take me to a landmark feature like a World Cup Stadium, there’s no way I could have explained to a hairdresser exactly what I wanted. So, to the disappointment of my colleagues, I had it all shaved off. I think that quite a few of them failed to recognise me at first and probably assumed that long haired waster who had previously sat at my desk had been sussed out and fired.

I tend now to visit the same barbers every three weeks or so, the one in the subway. It’s staffed by three Korean women who speak very little English, although they have managed to establish my age, job and whether or not I have a wife. As I already know what their jobs are and have little interest in how old they are or whether they have a husband, the conversations tend to be a bit one sided. I was in there last week for a number five cut, which is about the equivalent of a number three in England. I asked for a number three the first time I went in there and it was so closely cropped that my head squeaked when I rubbed it. So by trial and error, I’m now settled at a Korean number five.

The bloke in the chair before me wasn’t even getting his hair cut, he had just popped in to tell them his age and marital status before having his head massaged with an electrical contraption about the size of a house brick. I think I’d last seen something like it in a Victoriana museum, next to the stuffed kittens dressed up as a wedding party.  It was explained that in the olden days doctors used the brick-like vibrating device to cure `hysteria’ in their female patients. These days though it is apparently used to stimulate hair growth. An ideal piece of kit, I suppose, for a barber wanting to increase trade. The hairdresser pressed it against the head of the man ahead of me in the chair and vibrated his skull until I was convinced that his eyeballs would soon be hanging by their optic nerves, somewhere level with his chin.

You thought I'd made this up, didn't you?

One other notable item in the barbers is the machine where you pay. Instead of just giving your six thousand won (about three quid) to one of the women, you are supposed to feed it into a machine. As a foreigner, I’m not expected to be capable of carrying out this task and so I give my money to my hairdresser, she feeds it in to the machine for me and then when no change comes out she gets a key, opens up the front panel and manually extracts my change from inside. It all seems a little pointless and strikes me as not much more advanced than when we were in junior school and built a computer which consisted of a large cardboard box with one of the cleverer kids sat inside. You would write `6 + 3’ on a piece of paper, post it through the letterbox and he or she would return the answer in no more time than it took to find the bit of card with `9’ written on it. It was cutting edge technology in 1974.

I left my apartment for the baseball just after three o’clock. I’d remembered that last time I’d been to Incheon it had taken me an hour and a half to get there and so this should have been sufficient for a five o’clock start. As you might have guessed though, if you have been reading this stuff for a while, it wasn’t enough. One of the subway lines that I had to use went to more than one destination. Not just right or left, but different locations in the same direction. I wasn’t paying attention, got on the wrong train and by the time I’d retraced my steps and got to Munhak, I’d spent two hours, twenty minutes on the subway. To put that into perspective, thats about the same time that it takes to reach the far south of Korea on the KTX express train.

Wyverns fans at first base, Tigers at third.

Fortunately baseball games last for a long time and getting in to the stadium half an hour late wasn’t much of a hardship. I bought a ticket from a tout outside for face value, saving me a trip to the ticket office and ridding him of a ticket that I’m pretty sure that he thought he would have been stuck with.  I was very impressed with the Munhak Stadium, it has a capacity of 28,500 and for today’s visit of Kia Tigers it was near enough full, with some people even sitting in the aisles. I was allowed to go just about anywhere for my 7,000 won ticket, except for the really posh area behind the batsman. If I’d got there early enough I could have had a barbecue as there was an area dedicated to those who wished to cook their own food.

Barbecue area.

They also had standing areas, smoking areas and for those who like to stretch out a bit, they had a grassy section where people were having picnics, pitching tents or just sleeping in the late afternoon sun.

Munhak, better than Wigan.

A couple of years ago I went to watch LA Galaxy and they had a similar grassed area as the the upper tier behind one of the goals. It was a lot less crowded than today at Munhak, but the same principle and a pleasant way to stretch out and watch a bit of sport in the sunshine.

Los Angeles, better than Wigan too.

I can remember going to Wigan back in 1986 with the Boro and standing on what would have been a grassy bank behind the goal if the weather had been a bit better. Instead, on a day memorable for us seeing the floodlights of a stadium and nipping into a nearby pub only to emerge at ten to three to find ourselves outside the rugby league ground, we watched the game on that occasion from a mud heap behind the goal. No picnics, tents or barbecues back then.

I watched the baseball from a variety of vantage points, trying out the different parts of the stadium. Confusingly, the SK Wyverns fans waved red inflatable sticks, the colour worn by the KIA Tiger’s players. The SK Wyverns players wore white, whilst the KIA Tiger’s fans brandished yellow sticks. I soon got used to it though.

SK Wyverns fans

SK are top of the league with KIA down in sixth place. If SK can maintain their position until the end of the season it will give them an automatic place in the play-off final, a sort of Korean World Series. As for KIA Tigers, they would have to move up to fifth place to qualify for the post-season games and then play the team that finishes fourth. The winner of fourth vs fifth then plays the third placed team and so on. League position seemed to be counting for little though as KIA Tigers had taken an early lead by the time I arrived, a couple of home runs within the space of five minutes later in the game took them out of reach of SK Wyverns and gave the away supporters cause for celebration. 

After two home runs in a row.

As the game drew to a close at eight o’clock the visiting KIA Tigers led 7-0, which must have been quite a surprise for the table-topping Wyverns. 

Final score.

I got myself a tray of deep fried pork dumplings on the way out which were well worth the undoubted clogging of my arteries and they were certainly a lot easier to eat than the dried squid I’d had the previous evening. Fortunately I managed to select the right trains on the way back and by resisting the urge to attempt any short cuts I was back in my apartment no more than an hour and a half after leaving the stadium.

Jeonbuk Motors v Busan l’Park, Saturday 31st July 2010, 7pm

August 5, 2010

This was meant to be one of those days where I managed to see two matches, but it turned out to be just one of those days.

I’d watched Jeonbuk’s last two league games, away at Daejeon and Gangwon, and whilst I’m enjoying following their season I really want to get around as many different places as possible. I’d already been to their home town of Jeonju, so I hadn’t really considered going to see them for a third week running. Not until I saw that the K3 team Jeonju EM were at home to Seoul Martyrs in the afternoon.. That meant that I could go along to Jeonju for the third division game, see a new ground and then treat a trip to the World Cup Stadium for the Jeonbuk Motors fixture in the evening as a bit of a bonus. Does that need for justification sound a bit geeky? It does to me too, but it’s the way my mind works these days.

After the success of the bus trip to Gangwon last week, I opted to travel by road again and made my way down to the Express Bus Terminal at about ten o’clock. It was a bit of an arse on to be honest, involving queueing for a ticket in a hot building only to be told that the Jeonju buses went from a different terminal, which was described to me as `outside’. Well I went outside and I couldn’t see it. It turns out that the buses for Jeonju depart from the Central City terminal which is cunningly concealed inside a shopping arcade across the road.

There was a ticket window helpfully marked `Jeonju’, but somewhat less helpfully it was shut. I then joined a queue for an automated ticket machine, only to get to the front  and discover that it was solely for collecting pre-booked tickets. After asking for a bit of help at the information desk I managed to buy a ticket to Jeonju for 17,000 won. Whilst the buses seemed to depart every five or ten minutes, it must have been a popular destination as the first seat I could get was in thirty five minutes time on the 11.05am bus. This was scheduled to get me into Jeonju for 1.55pm, just over an hour befor kick off in the first game.

This is where you buy your bus ticket.

The bus was described as luxury and I was pretty impressed. It had a two and one seating configuration and I got a single, wide, reclining seat with plenty of leg room. What wasn’t quite so impressive was the time it took to get to Jeonju. At 1.40pm we pulled off the motorway, not because we had arrived, but because we were making a stop at the services.

One of these was my bus.

We finally arrived at Jeonju just after half past three, over an hour and a half late and with no prospect of me getting to the Jeonju EM game until into the second half. I decided to give it a miss. Looking on the bright side it would give me an opportunity to justify to myself a further visit to Jeonju.

I managed to get a couple of English maps of the area from a very surly girl in the tourist information office who clearly resented having to give them away and then went to check into a hotel near to the bus station. If I tell you that I had a choice of paying 15,000 won for a room for an hour or 35,000 won for the night, that should give you an idea of the sort of hotel it was.

My hotel.

The manager showed me to the room and as I’ve learnt to do here I removed my shoes before entering. There were a pair of flip flops at the door and I put them on. He quickly told me to take them off again, so I did and just walked around in my bare feet. It was only as he left and put the flip flops on himself that I realised that I’d stepped into the footwear that he had removed himself as we’d gone into the room.

The room was clean, although eccentrically decorated and complete with a big flatscreen tv, air conditioning, a fan, fridge and what looked like two judo suits hanging by the window. Ideal for those couples with a wrestling fetish, I imagine. It also had a condom machine on the wall, perhaps for guests who are too shy to buy their condoms in public. For those of you who believe in attention to detail, it was a thousand won for a pack of two, one ribbed, one plain.

I suppose the wallpaper is ok if you are only staying for an hour.

It was about time to get something to eat before the match and as Jeonju is famous for its bibimbap, thats what I got. Its basically a bowl of boiled rice that you mix up with a few other vegetables, mushrooms, beansprouts, that sort of thing, a bit of red pepper paste and a fried egg. A few side dishes came with it, kimchi, green beans in garlic, noisettes of spam and some gherkins. Not bad for six thousand won.

Full up, I stopped at a 7-Eleven, picked up a couple of cans of Asahi and got into a taxi. The driver didnt understand `World Cup Stadium’, so I showed him a photo of it on the map that I’d earlier managed to prise from the grip of the surly tourist information girl. `Ah’ he said, `World-uh Cup Stadium’. I obviously need to work on my pronounciation.

Note the greeter, below a slightly oversized banner of Lee Dong Gook.

It was fairly quiet outside the ground as I drank my cans, although there was over an hour to go to kick-off and I got a ticket for the East Stand, opposite the tunnel, for 10,000 won. I could have sat behind the goal like last time I was here for less, but I fancied a change. It was as well I had eaten, as apart from crisps and pot noodles, just about the only thing you could get were squid.

Six sick squid for six quid. Or something like that.

They are dried and you have to warm them up yourself on a little camping stove.

Someone warming his squid.

I got a couple of beers and went into the stand to watch the highlights of previous matches on the big screens before the teams were announced. Lee Dong Gook was starting but the Croatian lad who had come on as a sub last week and made such an impact was back on the bench.

Jeonbuk, wearing green shirts and black shorts to Busan’s white shirts and red shorts, took the lead after five minutes, with their centre half, Sim Woo Yeon, scoring from a header after a free kick into the box. Jeonbuk were playing with just Lee Dong Gook up front of a midfield five, but he seemed to have a bit more support than he had received the previous week at Gangwon.

Gooaaal, 1-0 Jeonbuk.

Eighteen minutes into the game and that was it for the Lion King. Wengeresquely, I didn’t see the challenge, but the linesman flagged and advised the ref that Lee Dong Gook had elbowed a Busan defender in the chops. He disputed the red card, as you would, but was soon back in the dressing room. Brilliant, I travel for four and a half hours to get here and he lasts less than twenty minutes. The Busan defender was temporarily removed to have his head re-assembled on one of those little golf cart stretcher things.

Don't mess with the Lion King.

Seeing someone driving on the pitch reminded me of a Sunday League game I played in that also featured a sending off. Back then, the lad  had also struggled to accept the decision and rather than simply getting changed, he returned in fury in his car, driving across the pitch and aiming for the bloke he had tangled with, the ref and anyone else that caught his eye. I was safely down the other end in goal, and as I was as likely to catch his eye as I was any well placed shots, I could watch with a certain detached amusement. Disappointingly, Lee Dong Gook took his sending off with slightly better grace so we were spared the wheel spins and the tyre marks.

Jeonbuk reorganised into a sort of strikerless 4-1-4-0 formation that just invited the pressure from Busan and a few minutes before the break they equalised. After a quick half time beer, I was feeling a bit peckish so I waivered and got a squid, with another couple of beers for the second half. I missed the restart as I gave the mollusc a quick blast on the camping stove. It was a fine balance between warming it up and setting it on fire, a balance that I wasn’t entirely successful with.

Just a little bit on fire.

I’m not sure if heating it was intended to soften it a bit, but it didn’t and it was like eating shoes. I discovered that the best technique was to leave a piece in my mouth for a while to soften it before chewing. It did take my most of the second half to work my way through it though.

The game looked to be heading towards a draw until in injury time Jeonbuk sub Kang Seung Jo nipped in with a goal. The Jeonbuk fans must be starting to expect injury time winners these days. After the final whistle I struggled to get a taxi so hung around for a bit outside the ground and had a couple more beers at a food stall whilst chatting to some Jeonbuk fans.

No squid.

They were understandably pleased with the victory that took them up to second place in the table, two points behind new leaders Seoul who had beaten that morning’s front runner Jeju United. Next week Seoul visit Jeonbuk in a game that could see Jeonbuk move into the top spot. I expect Lee Dong Gook will be suspended for impersonating Dean Ashton and if I go I’ll be taking the train.

Doosan Bears v Hanwha Eagles, Fri 30th July 2010, 6.30pm

August 3, 2010

This one was a bit of a last minute decision. I didn’t have anything arranged for Friday evening and as I was walking out of work I thought, yeah, why not? Fortunately, my apartment is only two or three minutes walk from my office and I quickly got changed, travelled the three stops on the subway and was outside the Jamsil Stadium for five past seven, thirty five minutes after kick off. That doesn’t sound right. Thirty five minutes after the first pitch is better, I suppose.

I’d had a few stares from people on the subway and realised it was my tee shirt that was interesting them. It was a British Sea Power one and it didn’t look like many of those doing the gawping were familiar with the band. I suspect that most thought it had some sort of nautical or military theme, although why some old bloke would be wearing it would probably have baffled them. They’ve had a bit of trouble with their Navy lately, so perhaps any mention of sea power is a little bit tactless. Mind you, the number of tee shirts that you see over here with complete nonsense written on them in English is incredible. I think the designers just select a headline from the newspapers and change a word or two so that a phrase that made no sense due to being out of context becomes doubly irrelevant by making no sense in any context. I suppose then that British Sea Power probably wasnt too much out of the ordinary after all.

Once at the stadium I dodged the blokes outside selling off their remaining boxes of fried chicken. I hadn’t had my tea, but wasn’t entirely convinced that the chicken would be at its best after at least an hour of being touted about outside the ground in eighty degree temperatures.

Despite the game having already started there were still a few people queueing at the ticket office. I got my usual eight thousand won ticket (thats just over four quid), for high up above first base. This is the area where the home fans sit, whilst the away fans tend to take third base. Mind you, I move around that much during the game it doesnt really matter where I get a ticket for.

I hadn’t even checked which teams were playing before I set out. The Jamsil stadium is shared by the Doosan Bears and the LG Twins, so there is pretty much a game every night of the week except Monday, which is the day off in Korean baseball. Tonight it was the turn of the Doosan Bears and they were playing the team from Daejeon, Hanwha Eagles. I’d been at one of the reverse fixtures the previous month and Hanwha had ran out fairly easy winners. Despite the previous score, it’s Doosan who have done the better of the teams this season and with not long to go to the play-offs they are currently third out of the eight teams in the league. Hanwha aren’t doing quite so well in seventh. The top five (I think) make the play-offs but I’ve no idea if Doosan are safely in there yet or whether Hanwha still have a chance of moving up to fifth.

There wasn’t a very big crowd at all, the lowest I think I’ve seen here, with the stadium less that half full. The visitors were already leading 4-0 as I took my seat and cracked open a can of Max. I’d missed the first innings and Hanwha’s second. Not that it makes a lot of difference to my enjoyment. Each team gets nine innings in total, so there was still plenty to see.

The early Hanwha runs were at odds to the rest of the game, where the pitchers had the most success, both sides rattling through their innings at a fair pace. By the time I’d finished my third can, we were already into the seventh innings and it wasn’t even half past eight. The crowd had swelled a bit as the evening progressed, it’s cheap enough to just drop in halfway through a game and still feel like you are getting value for money. I didnt recognise many of the songs but a little oddly, Doosan sang along in English to Modern Romance’s Best Years Of Our Lives, whilst Hanwha had a song that pinched the tune from Karma Chameleon. I felt like I’d walked into one of those Eighties nostalgia tours.

Not long after nine o’clock it was all over, I’d seen two runs in two hours of baseball with the visitors holding on for a 4-2 win. As I came out of the stadium the Hanwha players were already boarding their bus for the hours journey south, still in their kit. And the blokes I’d passed on the way in had just about got rid of their remaining chicken.

FC Seoul v Suwon Bluewings, Wednesday 28th July 2010, 8pm

August 2, 2010

The Korean League Cup had reached its semi final stage and my local team Seoul FC were still in it with a home tie against Suwon Bluewings. Jeonbuk were in the other semi and as they are also still in the FA cup, Champions League and in contention for the league, it could turn out to be quite some season for Lee Dong Gook’s team.

The 8pm kick off meant that if I got away from work reasonably promptly then it was quite possible for me to get there in time for the kick off.

The issue of what time to leave work is an interesting one over here. The culture is for people to be seen to be working long hours and whilst the official finishing time is 6pm, almost everyone is still at their desks a lot later. I tend to leave at about quarter past six, the fifteen minutes being my nod towards the Korean way. Thats a bit like the Pennine Way but with musical bogs rather than peat ones. On the rare occasion when I’ve still been in the office after seven, very few other people have left for home and it is more usual for them to be still at their desks beyond 9pm. Mind you, the productivity isn’t great. Once you consider the cigarette breaks, the trip to the canteen and the surfing of the internet, there isn’t much time left for meaningful work. But the important thing in corporate Korea is to be seen to be there.

I’m lucky. I dont have to play that game. I’m not a long term staff man and when this project finishes I’ll just move on like The Littlest Hobo. Albeit hopefully with fewer fleas. For those keen to advance their careers though, the way forward is long days with little time available for families or League Cup semi finals.

I’ve actually no idea how important a trophy the league cup is seen as over here. In recent years the English version has had a bit of a resurgence as the demanding owners of the big four seek some silverware in return for their investment. As a Boro fan, it’s obviously a big deal. If you discount the Anglo-Scottish Cup where we beat those well known Highlanders Fulham in the mid seventies, it’s the only thing we have ever won. I remember listening on the radio to us losing to Man City in the semis thirty odd years ago and the home semi final against Liverpool in 1998 where we overturned a first leg deficit in the first few minutes is probably the best atmosphere the Riverside has ever seen.

Marco Branca - As debuts go, that was some debut...

I wasn’t expecting anything like that at the Seoul v Suwon game, despite it being a derby of sorts. There isnt the same passionfor football here beyond the small number of hardcore fans.

Anyway, I got out of work as quickly as I could and got the subway up to the stadium. Early evening is probably the worst time to travel on the tube here as the trains are packed full of commuters looking to get home. It’s hard to imagine anywhere being warmer than the Seoul streets in July, except perhaps for the Seoul streets in August, but the subway in the evening manages to crank the temperature up another notch or two.

I’ve recently come to the conclusion that the best place to be in Korea in the summer is in a cave. I’d visited one last Sunday after my trip over to Gangneung for the Jeonbuk match and it was fantastic to walk into a place where the temperature suddenly dropped thirty degrees or so. It was like stepping out of a sauna and into a fridge. I’d got a couple of buses from Gangneung to the Hwanseon Cave and then had a bit of a trek up to the entrance.

This was one of the buses that I took.

I did cheat a little by using the monorail for part of the way, but even so, it was still a decent uphill walk. What was interesting though, was the way in which the temperature changed in the space of a couple of yards around the entrance to the cave. If you took a step forward, it got cold, take a step back and the air was noticably hotter. I couldn’t resist bobbing backwards and forwards, hot,cold,hot,cold. I couldn’t do it for long because people started staring and pointing so I settled for cold and went inside.

To be honest there wasn’t much to see inside the cave. There was a walkway of over a kilometre, but no real notable features. I’ve seen much more interesting rock formations in other caves I’ve been to, but that didn’t matter. It was cold and that was enough. Every now and again a section of the cave would be given a name for no good reason, `Valley of Hell’ or `Palace of Dreams’ or something and a perfectly normal rock would have a sign telling you that it looked like a lion or a dragon. They didn’t really though. One rock was supposed to resemble the Virgin Mary. All I can say is that it’s no wonder she couldn’t get laid.

As I approached the exit I slowed down, eager to prolong my time in the cold and damp tunnel, but all too quickly I was back outside in the warm air. Quite why subways cant be modelled on caves is something I’ve been wondering a lot since then. In fact, quite how people were ever enticed out of caves into apartments in the first place has been weighing heavily on my mind too.

Still, I survived the hot subway journey to the match and got to the World Cup Stadium about twenty minutes before kick off. I was meeting a fellow Teessider, Alan, and to save a bit of time he had already sorted the tickets out for behind the goal in the main Seoul section.

There was a reasonable crowd by Korean standards, perhaps ten to fifteen thousand, helped by a decent turnout from local rivals Suwon, although I suppose that you could say that was a low turnout when you consider that it was a semi final.

One of the things that caught my attention was the number of officials. In addition to the referee and his linesmen, we had a couple of those goal line fellas too. I don’t think I’ve been to a live game where this experiment has been going on before, so I kept my eye on them. They were dressed the same as the other officials, unlike the ones I saw on the telly wearing tracky bottoms at a Europa League game last season. Just as an aside, how weird is that? UEFA’s second most prestigious club football competition named after a Middlesbrough Parmo House. We’ll be seeing the top four qualify for the Club Bongo League next. I know this will appear as total gibberish to any of you who aren’t from Teesside, although if it helps I suspect that it’s probably just as incomprehensible to a lot of the people from Teesside too.   

The extra officials didn’t have flags and didn’t appear to be connected by microphone to the ref. Probably just as well really, there are a few refs that I’m sure hear too many voices in their heads to begin with, so I doubt an extra couple would be particularly welcome. The goal line blokes didn’t do a lot. If someone went down in the box, they didnt make any signal whatsover. Not even to confirm to the ref that it was a fair challenge. An hour had gone before I saw one give a bit of guidance over whether it was a goal kick or a corner. They looked a bit lost really. I’d have given them flags and allowed them to point theatrically for corners and goal kicks, just to let them feel involved. All they seemed to do was write the bookings and the substitutions down. There weren’t many yellow cards, but with each team using the full League Cup allocation of five substitutes, it kept them a bit busier than they would have been. The fourth official, or the sixth official as I suppose he must be now, was very involved though. He stood by the edge of the pitch all the way through, shouting instructions like a Dad at a kids game and at any free kick near him he would intervene to ensure that the defending team were the full ten yards back.

The other thing I noticed were the vuvuzelas. At Gangwon last week there were two blokes with horns in the Jeonbuk end. Blowing horns that is, not wearing them on their heads. Although after ten minutes of listening to the horn blowing it wouldn’t have surprised me if each of them did have a couple sprouting from their skulls. Ive come to the conclusion that two horns are fine on a cow but are maddening at a football match. It just doesn’t work. They aren’t blown to lead a chant like an air horn would be, they are just blown to draw attention to the prick blowing them and to annoy anyone within ten yards. At South Africa it worked because the thousands of horns conbined to create a humming sound that small numbers of horns just cant do.

Seoul seemed to be encouraging the use of the vuvuzelas, selling them at the ground and then every now and then, usually at a Suwon set piece, the big screen would display a message exorting the faithful to blow their horns. It worked pretty well however, not by South African standards, but with enough horns to create a bit of racket and to fire up the rest of the crowd.

Dejan Damjanovic opened the scoring for Seoul in the second half, prompting official fireworks to be set off behind the goal almost before the ball had hit the back of the net. The Seoul fans then let off fireworks of their own, some of them those repeater types that send a new one up every two or three seconds. I love the smell of fireworks, I’d make them compulsory at all matches.

The lead didnt last long and within fifteen minutes Suwon had scored twice and looked to be heading towards the final before an equaliser from Lee Seung Ryal eight minutes from time set off a second wave of Seoul fireworks and took the game to extra time. Another goal apiece from Damjanovic and Lee Seung Ryal finished Suwon off and with the flares supplementing the fireworks, Seoul were through to the final.

In the other tie Jeonbuk beat Gyeongnam 2-1, with Lee Dong Gook getting the opener, his fifteenth goal of the season. A better record in the group stages earned Jeonbuk the right to stage the final on Wednesday 25th August. A shame really because if it had been in Seoul I would have been able to get to it. Whilst I’m usually the first to leave the office, I’d have to be sneaking out mid afternoon to get to that one.