Today has been a great day. Ever since I was last here I have wanted to visit the Imjin battlefield. In April 1951 the British 29 Brigade faced a huge Chinese attack. They were outnumbered 7 to 1 and were trying to cover an area that should have been held by at least the times their own number. If they failed to hold then Seoul would fall and two vital roads to the south would fall into Chinese hands, with potentially fatal consequences for UN forces throughout Korea. They held for three nights and, while they were ultimately forced back with the loss or capture of almost a whole battalion in the Glosters, they broke the Chinese attack, effectively destroying an entire army. Today we saw the battlefields under the expert guidance of Andrew Salmon. Andrew is a Seoul-based journalist who has written two books on the British forces in Korea. Both are superb and I recommend them to everybody. More than any other history book I have read, they bring home both the military situation and the personal experiences of soldiers and civilians in that terrible conflict. “To The Last Round” deals with the Imjin and “Scorched Earth, Black Snow covers the previous year.
I had contacted him for advice on visiting the battlefield and as it turns out he runs very reasonably priced tours. This morning, therefore, he picked us up from the hotel and drove us up there. It’s been a fascinating day, seeing all the major sites and hearing about the battle from a phenomenally knowledgeable man who is also a top notch bloke. He also took us for an excellent lunch at a little Korean restaurant, which included a run down of Korean drinks:
“There’s a rice spirit called soju: don’t touch that”
“Oh, you know soju? Do you want to get some of that?”
We’re now back in the hotel after a lovely final dinner with scouse, Anita and Ralph. Tomorrow and Friday we’re going to have a little couple time in Seoul before heading back to real life.
Gloster Crossing. The first point of contact with the enemy attack. 16 men destroyed a battalion-strength attack.
Castle Site. This hill had been used to defend the route south for centuries. The Chinese placed a machine gun in a bunker on the mound behind scouse. Lt Curtis, already wounded, attacked it single-handed from where I am standing to take the picture. He was killed within seconds but managed to throw a grenade into the bunker, destroying the gun and saving the company. He received the Victoria Cross, one of two Glosters so honoured for this battle.
I’m writing this as we move through the closing ceremony here in Korea. It’s been a fabulous week of riding, shooting and having an all round great time with good friends old and new. The competition itself has threatened to dissolve into farce on an alarming number of occasions through a combination of bad organisation, impromptu rule changes and other causes, but I shall write about that at more length in a week or two, once I have had the opportunity to collect my thoughts and discuss it with some other people. The important thing is that we have all had fun. And Scouse would like me to mention how awesome he is, which I have scandalously failed to mention so far (everyone agrees… He is awesome).
Masahee is great fun and we are definitely going to import it, albeit in a varied form. Trey and Kat and I have started discussing possible rules. Several exciting new developments have begun here and in some countries I think this championships may be remembered as a crucial point in the development of international horseback archery.
The traditional dancing and music seem to have finished so I’m going to sign off now. Time for the awards. No, as I wrote that we were told it’s going to be another 10 minutes. Which apparently make it time for crazy photos. Just as well, since it’s rapidly becoming too dark…
20 of minutes later, we’re starting awards. And then soju…
OK, the tablet won’t let me post a video. On the bright side, I just found this picture on Claire’s camera from last night. None of the people pictured remember this…
There is a theory that states that soju does not give you a hangover. Being good scientists, Trey, Mike, Katrina and I (they may be mere colonials but they were game for a little science anyway) decided to test this theory to destruction.
It’s now nearly midnight, which is awfully late for this competition. I’ve had an awful lot of soju and we have, by careful scientific analysis, discovered the following:
1. My war arrow is bigger than anyone else’s;
2. Mike hasn’t paid for meat in 15 years;
3. both America and Australia would be far better off if they would just accept that the they were wrong and apply for readmission to the British empire;
4. neither Americans nor Australians know what’s best for them.
5. soju is great.
6. so is kimchi.
Having made this valuable contribution to scientific knowledge, I’m going to bed.
This is Claire now. I apologise for my inebriated husband. I just hope that the 4 drunkards don’t fall off their horses at qabaq practice tomorrow morning…
The above is reproduced as written at about midnight after one or two sojus. And some tequila. and maybe a beer. Top level athletes, us.
This morning we will be doing qabaq training, shooting blunt arrows straight upwards while twisting in the saddle. I shall try to get some pictures to post later.
And, for the record, it appears that soju really doesn’t give you a hangover…
I don’t believe this. Those who followed my blog from Jordan last May might remember that every time I tried to go swimming somebody arrived and told me that the pool was shut. This morning Claire and I got up at 6am to go to the outdoor spa, where we spent several happy hours at the same time of day last time we were here. Strangely, the water in the first couple of pools was no better than luke warm. Then somebody came and told us that while the swimming pool open at 6am, the spa doesn’t open until 9am. Which is the same time as the bus to the centre. We were not thrilled.
To give them their due, the hotel immediately refunded the admission money when I explained that we had only wanted to use the spa, which opens at 6am on Friday and Saturday. Saturday is the first day of competition but hopefully we’ll be able to get to the spa on Friday morning. In the meantime, I appear to have an hour and a half to kill before breakfast. Time to admire the view from the balcony…
Apologies for the late posting: today we have moved from the hotel with WiFi in the lobby to the hotel without WiFi, so I am writing in the hotel and we’ll upload it when we return to the centre in the morning.
This morning we gathered our things and moved to the Hwarang-do centre, where the championships are held. There we meet our friend who had already arrived and immediately started trying horses. I am sharing a lovely chestnut mare with Trey Schlichting and Mike Sabo. This has the added advantage that they are both much better riders than I am and will make sure the horse is running nicely 🙂 Claire is torn between a nice but unpredictable 3 year old colt and the horse she rode 2 years ago.
Today was then characterised by a decent amount of riding, some ground archery and (for me at least) fletching arrows. All was rounded off by an excellent Korean meal in the hotel. It feels rather later than 8.30pm, especially after quite a bit of soju, the local rice whiskey. Last time only one or two of us drank it but tonight the Texans and the Australian seemed to have endless supplies…
Tomorrow is scheduled to be more of the same, with the addition of shooting from horseback and the arrival of the Mongolians, the Poles and my friend Emil from Sweden, whose presence is an added bonus since he only signed up last week. We have an excellent group of people this year, both in terms of their sorting and from a social point of view. The dinner conversation ranged from the history of the kings of Britain to the relevance of Bernoulli’s theories of fluid dynamics to modern acrobatic aviation.
It’s going to be a good week.
This afternoon, after a relaxing morning spent doing nothing in the hotel room, we caught a bus to a Buddhist temple just south of Sokcho. Originally built in the 16th century, it has been successively destroyed by the Mongols, the Japanese, the Manchu, the Korean War and most recently by a huge forest fire in April 2005.
This was a very peaceful afternoon, with highlights including walking along the “Path Where Your Dreams Come True” (the trees above this path were strewn with cobwebs, each containing spiders like Shelob’s big brother), which connected with the “Heart Fluttering Path”. At the end of the latter was the “restroom for untying worries”! The buildings were beautifully rebuilt and the views over the sea were spectacular. If you’re going to build a temple then this is a lovely spot for it.
The trip along to the temple was marked by one other thing that struck me: several of the beaches in this area are fenced off with barbed wire. This is a reminder that Sokcho lies north of the 38th parallel and was, from 1945 until the end of the Korean War, part of North Korea. That country lies only about 50 miles north of here and Gangwan-do province, in which Sokcho lies, saw some of the fiercest fighting of the war, including the landing of NKPA (North Korean People’s Army) troops on the beaches not very far from here.
We finished the day off with a trip to the restaurant where we went last time we were here. It has a picture of a chicken as its logo, which led Claire to think that it might be Nando’s. It wasn’t but our request last time for whatever they recommended saw us eating an excellent meal of dakgalbi: chicken, cabbage and other veg stir fried at the table with a fairly spicy curry paste, served with lettuce leaves for wrapping the meat and veg in
served with a couple of kimchis (one a spiced pickled cabbage that is the ubiquitous dish of Korea, the other spiced cucumber wedges).
And so to bed…
Yes, Asiana Airlines serve Korean food on the flight! Luckily for Claire, whose passion for kimchi is bafflingly low, they also serve Western food. For me, the big bowl of bibimbap (spiced beef mince, finely sliced veg, rice, sesame oil and kuchujang – a distinctive Korean chilli paste) with egg strips and kimchi set me up perfectly for the flight, which was delayed in take off and landing, making it rather closer to 12 hours than 11. As usual, I was unable to sleep. This did mean that I had time to watch The Perks of Being a Wallflower) which would have been excellent even had it not included Emma Watson in Rocky Horror gear) and Iron Man 3 (as with the previous two films, decent enough but not a patch on Avengers Assemble).
My memories of Incheon from two years ago were of overwhelming heat and humidity (it was August last time). This time it was very pleasant and a nice easy coach ride took us to Seoul. Unfortunately the next two coaches to Sokcho were booked up so we spent 2 hours sitting in the bus station and eventually arrived in Sokcho sometime after midnight in pouring rain.
We’ve now had a very fine breakfast (it turns out that bacon, eggs, hash browns and kimchi does work) and are chilling out in the hotel. Our original plan had been to visit the Seorak-San national park but it’s still raining so I think we will probably have a relaxing day (I still have a load of arrows to fletch as well) and try Seorak-San after the Championships.
Tomorrow we head over to the Hwarang-do Experience Complex, where the Championships are held. I’m really looking forward to seeing old friends again and, in the bizarre Facebook world of horseback archery, meeting some old friends for the first time face-to-face. In the meantime, I’m going to sneak out of the room to use the lobby’s wi-fi without waking Claire…
This is picture I took on my walk to the local shop a few minutes ago. It shows a street corner that I remember well from two years ago as being one of the many things I love about Korea.
We are in a not terribly upmarket area in Sokcho, which is predominantly a fishing town. Where we are there’s a main road running past small shops, apartment blocks that could use a lick of paint and a few hotels (plus a huge church). And on the street corner, where in Britain we might find a small patch of grass, we have what you see in the photo. Those plants in the foreground and over the sidestreet in the background are beans. Two years ago they were growing chilis in the same spot. This, as I say, is just at the side of the road. I don’t know whether this is public land or somebody’s displaced garden but the sight of food crops being grown at the side of the road is something I would love to see more of where we live.
Anyway, there it is: it struck me when I first saw it in 2011 and is something that instantly endeared this country to me. Make of it what you will…
The British do many things well: village cricket; real ale in a country pub; Olympic cycling, rowing and sailing, even hosting the Olympics. What we don’t appear to do well is airport lounges. Claire and I are in the Servisair lounge at Heathrow, waiting for our 11 hour flight to Incheon and the 9th World Horseback Archery Championships. This is one of the perks of our bank: free airport lounges.
The first time we availed ourselves of this facility was at Istanbul, where we relaxed with a variety of delicious Turkish food. I was stuffed by the time we got on the plane, after about 8 helpings of a particularly nice dish of beans and chilies. So here we are in London: salt and vinegar crisps, plastic cheddar cheese and crackers, dry pretzels and some almost fizzy pepsi.
On the plus side, in a few hours’ time we’ll be in Sokcho, with all the kimchi, jang and ssam we can eat, washed down with a medium sized bottle of soju. Nom nom. And, since we’re flying Asiana, we just might get Korean food on the flight…
I hope to be updating this blog daily or thereabouts during the holiday. highlights of the trip are listed to include walking in the Seorak-san national park, the Champiopnships themselves, some chap giving an excellent talk on the history of horseback archery in Britain and a guided battlefield tour of the Imjin battlefield from award-winning author Andrew Salmon (whose book “To the Last Round” should be compulsory reading for all). I’m unlikely to stay much on topic, as those who remember my blog from Jordan will remember. On the plus side, I doubt that the Korean hotel will have such massive issues with the pool, so horseback archery might get a mention here and there.
And now I’m going to have one of the extremely bruised apples in this lounge and dream of raw fish and kimchi…