Tag Archives: Korea

Leaving Bishkek

Note: This is a true story, happening to me at the moment. I know that the last few posts here have been non-fiction, slightly out of place on what is ostensibly a fiction blog. We’ll just chalk it up to truth being stranger than fiction and leave it at that.

“Bishkek”

I am currently on a Pegasus Airlines flight from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to Istanbul, Turkey. I got out of Kyrgyzstan at last, although it was a complicated few days and is a great microcosm of the difficulties of traveling in the time of COVID-19. Don’t get me wrong, I love Kyrgyzstan, but I probably shouldn’t stay there forever.

To be fair, the problem wasn’t necessarily leaving Bishkek. The problem was more getting to somewhere else, but they are two sides of the same 5-som coin and I could not leave until I had somewhere to go.

Looking south to Bishkek City Hall and the mountains beyond

It started when I went to the airport two days ago, bound for Almaty, Kazakhstan. After the 40-hour trip to get to Kyrgyzstan, the flight to Almaty was almost an afterthought, only about an hour long and in the same time zone. I was running a bit late, but nothing too serious, as long as everything went well.

“Do you have a visa for Kazakhstan?” the man at the check-in counter asked.

“Americans don’t need a visa for Kazakhstan,” I said.

“Yes, they do.” He finally pulled up the airline website where it said that Kazakhstan had suspended visa-free travel for a list of countries, including the US, until the end of the year as a way to cut down on COVID transmission. I was thinking maybe it was an e-visa I could get quickly, just like I had gotten an e-visa in the Baku airport in about an hour one time. But not only did I need a visa, but also another authorization to travel there as well. In short: I wasn’t going to Kazakhstan that day.

I had known that Kazakhstan sometimes changed their regulations quickly, so I had only planned on two days there. However, I had looked specifically for these types of restrictions for all the countries I was going to visit and had not seen any hint of them. No one I had talked to in Kazakhstan knew anything about this either.

The main problem now was that my flight to Mongolia (through Korea) was leaving from Almaty in two days. It was an Asiana flight and since Asiana didn’t fly to Bishkek, I would have to check out in Almaty and check back in, something I couldn’t do without a visa.

So, the challenge became to find a way to Korea in the next few days. I had to get there before the morning of October 29 since there were only about 1 flight a week to Mongolia. If I missed that flight, I wouldn’t be going there this trip.

I went to a coffee shop in the airport and got a coffee and a pack of cookies. It was the evening, but I didn’t want to go back to the city before I knew when and where I could go. My first problem was getting to Korea. I found a route that would take me there on the 27th but it went from Bishkek to Turkey to Qatar and then to Korea. Not ideal, but possible. The main problem was that Korea required a quarantine period to enter the country and since I would be changing airlines, I would have to check out and check in again. So, I wasn’t sure how they would handle that: if I could just stay in the airport or if they would require me to quarantine. None of the explanations on the Korean travel website handled my situation.

I also found out that Korea now requires an electronic authorization form to enter the country. It wasn’t something I would have needed if I just had a layover there, but something I might need since I was changing airlines on different tickets. I did the online application and had to book a hotel in Korea to provide an address there where I’d be staying. The application fee was nine dollars, but definitely worth it if it was necessary.

At that point, I decided to go back and get a hotel for the night in Bishkek since it was clear I wouldn’t be going anywhere that night. I booked a room in the Grand Hotel in the northwest part of the city, as close to the airport as possible.

The Grand Hotel was not particularly grand. It was rated as a 4-star hotel, which was overly generous, but it was also $55/night, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. It had a Korean-love-hotel vibe to it (and not the nice ones) and although I had booked it for two nights, I soon decided only to stay one night (especially after I found that the small shampoo/shower gel bottles in the bathroom were not only old and refilled but also slightly dirty.)

Maxim Gorky Park, central Bishkek

The next day, the first thing I did was go to the closest Aqua Lab to get a new COVID test. It was October 26 and the one I had gotten to go to Kazakhstan was expiring that morning. In the time of COVID, a lot depends on getting a COVID test 72 hours before you will arrive at your new destination. This requires some delicate scheduling, as well as a very fast lab, especially when it’s a long trip.

Unfortunately, I realized as I was going there that I would be leaving the next morning. If it was not possible to get same-day results, I wouldn’t be able to fly, meaning I couldn’t get to Korea in time and couldn’t get to Mongolia. The rest of my trip would have to be cancelled for the sake of a few hours.

But thank God for Aqua Labs. The tests were only about $20 and they could do it the same day. In fact, it was ready about 6 hours later. After I got that done, I took a taxi down to the Korean embassy. I wanted to make sure that there wouldn’t be any problems having to quarantine in Korea and I wanted to talk to a person who might know something. After ringing the bell and getting a guard that didn’t really speak English or Korean, I was brought in to talk to a staff member. I was prepared to explain the situation in Korean but the woman there spoke some English. She said it would probably be fine as long as I stayed at the airport and explained that to the people there.

I went back and checked out of the Grand Hotel (only paying for one night, luckily) and immediately went over to the Ramada, where I’d booked a room for the night. It was still cheap by American standards but much nicer and had a desk in the room where I could work. I booked the ticket for the next day and worked on emails for the rest of the day, stopping to walk over to get my COVID test results.

This morning I woke up at 4am and went to the airport. I was the first one in line when they started checking people in for Istanbul, which was probably good. The first question the man asked was, “Where is your Korean visa?”

“I don’t need a Korean visa,” I said, seeing flashbacks to two days before, “but I have this.” I pulled up the electronic authorization on my phone, which had been approved 12 hours after I had submitted it. He took a picture of it and also my ticket to Mongolia and texted it all to the headquarters in Istanbul. And then I waited there at the counter for half an hour. Finally, they said all was well and finally, I was able to leave Bishkek.

Leaving Bishkek’s Manas Airport early in the morning

Right now, I’m on a plane to Istanbul. I’ll have a 7-hour layover there, then flying on Qatar Airways to Doha, Qatar for a 4-hour layover. Then I’ll head back east to Korea, where I’ll have about a 15-hour layover in the airport. And then, with luck, I will fly to Mongolia. Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia are only one country apart ,but the trip between them will last somewhere over 50 hours.

And that is the reality of traveling during COVID: long layovers, reduced flights and shifting government regulations. But it’s been very productive so far, so I think it will all be worth it in the end.


The Secret Conversations of Kids

Alice sat in the café in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and sipped her coffee, watching her daughter Priscilla romp around, burning off excess energy. The other moms were discussing toilet training, but luckily Alice was through that by now.

“Mom, I want my cell phone,” Priscilla said. Alice pulled the plastic flip phone from her purse and handed it to her four-year-old daughter. It was a dollar-store variety that didn’t even take batteries and had a sticker for a screen.

Priscilla grabbed the phone and flipped it open with one hand. For a while, she went around the café, holding the phone up and pretending to take pictures of the display of baked goods, the walls, the cups for sale, even other patrons.  A few stopped to flash smiles and pose while Priscilla squinted at the sticker screen, moving the phone until it was in just the right position. Alice tried to keep an eye on her as she moved around.

Priscilla wandered back, flipping the phone open and shut. Then she looked down at it, flipped it open and put it to her ear.

“Hello?” She listened a moment. “Oh, really? I’m at the coffee shop now. Where are you?”

One of the other moms asked Alice a question and she turned to answer. Priscilla continued to talk and listen for a long time. She started to pace back and forth, her frizzy hair bouncing. At one point, she held the phone between her cheek and her shoulder to use both hands to gesticulate.

“I-O-WA,” she said, making lines in the air with her finger as if she were spelling the word. “I-O-WA.” She stopped and listened for a bit. “No!” she exclaimed. “Oh. My. Goodness.”

“They start early, don’t they?” one of the moms said, and the others tittered and agreed. They were all watching Priscilla’s antics now. A two-year-old of one of the other moms toddled up to Priscilla, reaching for the phone. Priscilla made a shushing gesture and turned away, cupping her hand around the phone.

“It’s amazing the things they pick up from us,” Alice said. “It makes me worried what else they notice.”

“Okay, bye!” Priscilla snapped the phone shut.

“Have a good talk?” Alice asked. Priscilla only nodded happily and bounced away to take more pictures.

*     *     *

“That’s quite a talk you had,” Subin said to her son Hojun when he stopped talking. They were walked from his preschool back to their apartment in Pohang, Korea.

She put the toy cell phone back in her purse. “I don’t know where you come up with this stuff sometimes. Honestly, I don’t even know where Iowa is.”

 

This was inspired by sitting in my local coffee shop today, seeing a little girl carry on a similar conversation on her toy cellphone.


So long, So-Yeon

First of all, thank you Rochelle for choosing my picture this week. The advantage of having your own picture as the prompt is that you know the complete context. Just as Thoreau says in the quote that Rochelle always includes, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see” and in this picture, I see the lines of Korean middle school students streaming up the long drive to the middle school just out of frame (you can see the lights of the soccer field in the background.)

In a departure from my normal fantastical imaginings, this story is almost 100% true in every detail. Dangerous stuff, since it almost brought me to tears several times while writing it. But such is life. (By the way, click on the picture to see where it was taken.)

copyright David Stewart

copyright David Stewart

So long, So-Yeon

I gave them hugs in the classroom but we hug again at the door.

“We’ll miss you, teacher.”

“Don’t go.”

“I don’t want to,” I say, and mean it.

“I’ll write you every day.” I smile; it’s well meant, but won’t happen.

Last is So-yeon. She’s been that smiling, encouraging face in class ever since Grade 3. Now she’s in middle school and so grown up.

“I’ll never forget you,” she says. I wonder if it’s true, knowing it doesn’t matter.

Finally I wave and turn away, to another country and another school, leaving part of my heart in Wanju.

 


포크 주세요 (Fork Please) – Friday Fictioneers

Today I must beg your indulgence. I wrote today’s Friday Fictioneers story in Korean. Yes, it is pertinent, and yes, there is a translation. However, only the Korean version is 100 words long.

I wrote it with non-Korean speakers in mind, but still I’d like you to read the Korean first (there’s English in it). Try to make guesses about what’s going on before you read the translation. Consider it a metaphor for living abroad, when you can catch part of what is going on, but not the whole thing, and many times, not the most important nuances.

 

포크 주세요

외국사람 커플 들어갈때 식당이 조용했다. 다른 손님이 없었다. 3시: 점심과 저녁의 바쁜 시간 딱 사이 있었다.

직원이 와서 남자가 메뉴판을 얼른 보고 손가락으로 가리켰다. “Also, fork please. Fork?” 포크로 먹는 손짓했다.

“You should try using chopsticks, Mark.” 여자친구가 말했다.

그때 한국인 할아버지 들어왔다. 외국사람 커플 밖에 손님이 없는지 확인한 후에 자리에 앉아서 떡볶이를 주문했다. “그리고 포크주세요” 라고 말했다.

마크가 들어서 웃었다. “You see? Even Koreans are using forks these days. Chopsticks are history.”

할아버지가 코트를 벗었다. 왼손이 없고 오른손에 엄지 손가락만 남았다. 떡볶이를 받아서 포크를 느리고 아프게 들고 먹기 시작했다.

이제 마크가 웃지 않았다. “Maybe I’ll try chopsticks after all.”

 

_______________________________________________________________________

And now, the translation:

_______________________________________________________________________

 Fork, Please.

The restaurant was quiet and empty when the non-Korean couple entered. It was 3:00: right between the lunch and dinner rush.

The waitress came over and the man scanned the menu and pointed to something. “Also, fork please. Fork?” He mimed using a fork.

“You should try using chopsticks, Mark,” his girlfriend said.

Just then, an old Korean man came in. After making sure there was no one in the restaurant besides the foreign couple, he sat down and ordered. “Fork, please,” he said.

Mark heard him and laughed. “You see? Even Koreans are using forks these days. Chopsticks are history.”

The old man took off his coat. His left hand was gone and on the right, only the thumb remained. He got his food and slowly, painfully picked up the fork and began to eat.

Mark wasn’t laughing anymore. “Maybe I’ll try chopsticks after all.”

 


Leaving the Land of the Morning Calm

An old name for Korea is Joseon, which means “the Land of the Morning Calm”. It really is a beautiful country and it’s become home to me for the last decade or so.

Joseon

And now I’m leaving.

That’s right, we’re moving back to North America somewhere in about six weeks or so. Do I want to go? Yes and no. I’m really dreading leaving, especially all my friends here. I’m dreading telling my students (certain ones, at least. Others couldn’t care less) and seeing that look on their faces that will probably make me want to cry. I’m dreading all the inevitable hassles and changes that come with moving internationally. I’ve done it four times before, so I know what I’m in for. I’m dreading finding a job (well, FINDING one is great, it’s the looking that drains you). I’ve been looking for months now without even the whisper of an interview. I’m not worried, but it’s quite the slog.

This is us in a few weeks.

This is us in a few weeks.

Of course, I’m looking forward to seeing my family again and being closer to them. I’m looking forward to having our own house (eventually). I’m looking forward to drinking root beer and going to Tim Hortons. I’m kind of looking forward to owning a car again. I know it’s for the best and that it’s time to go, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

Anyway, as  you can imagine, I’m pretty busy these days. I’d be busy with just moving and looking for work, but I’ve also got several large projects that need to get done before I leave, ideally. So, that means a lot of little projects have to be put on hold. I won’t be posting as many stories for the next month or so. I’ll still be doing Friday Fictioneers and Sunday Photo Fiction, if I can. Also, please understand if I don’t read many blogs. I’ll try to read some, but it can take a lot of time.


Do you think like a Korean student? Take the quiz.

Yesterday, I played a game with a few of my middle school classes. It was a basic Taboo or Hot Seat style game, where one person comes up to the front and doesn’t look at the TV. A word and picture come on the screen and the others on their team have to describe it without saying the word or using any Korean.

It was amazing some of the ways they came up with to describe things using their limited vocabulary. Some were fairly obvious, like “Justin ____” for the word “beaver”, since Koreans pronounce “Bieber” and “beaver” the same. For others, they used Korean as a base, like “rock whale” for dolphin, since the Korean word for dolphin literally means “rock whale” (although I’m pretty sure the rock part of that is just a homophone for something else). Also, for the word “pear”, they pointed to their stomachs, since the word for stomach and pear are the same in Korean (not that anyone guessed correctly using that clue. They usually just passed on that one.)

And then there were some others. Take the quiz and see if you can guess the answers based on the clues that they gave (and which their friends used to guess the word correctly.) The answers are at the end.

Quiz

1. “firefighter’s friend”

2. “chicken changed”

3. “Edison” (plus pointing up)

4. “Pizza’s friend”

5. “white water”

6. “small round cake”

7. “bird king”

8. “lion’s friend”

9. “Korean number 1 food”

10. “Made in _______”

 

How many could you guess? Scroll down to see how you did.

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Answers:

1. “police officer” (They tend to link these two jobs.)

2. “kitchen” (Korean students always mix these two words up, so they see them as related.)

3. “light”

4. “chicken” or “pickles” (This had two, since they closely relate pizza and chicken, but also when you order pizza here, pickles always come with them as a side dish, even with delivery.)

5. “milk”

6 “muffin”

7. “eagle”

8. “tiger”

9. “kimchi”

10. “China” (even in Korea, a lot of things are manufactured in China, so they are used to seeing Made in China.)

quiz


Exploring a Haunted School

This is a true story. As you probably know by now, my wife and I like to explore abandoned buildings at night, especially ones reported to be haunted. We don’t really expect to see anything, but we keep our eyes open.

Not my picture, but the view as we climbed up the slope to the school.

Not my picture, but the view as we climbed up the slope to the school.

Chungil 2

Last Friday night, we went to the Chung-il Girl’s High School, in Daejeon, South Korea, which was closed in 2006. It’s reportedly haunted and I’ve seen some pretty shaky evidence, but it is a huge structure: 5 stories plus the basement, holding 3000 students at its height. We went after work on Friday and got to the school about 9pm. There were spray-painted signs on the entrance saying things like “Forbidden” and “You must not enter” but we did anyway (of course).

I didn't get great shots, since I only had my phone, but you get the idea.

I didn’t get great shots, since I only had my phone, but you get the idea.

The basement was cool, although not that big. It had a trench cut into the concrete floor with water running through it and you could hear the faint tinkle of dripping water. The light of the flashlight shown off the water and reflected on the walls, making a cool shifting pattern of reflections as I moved the light. I could see someone getting freaked out if they were by themselves down there, and their light suddenly went out, and the rusted metal pipes that blocked the basement from the next section started to creak, ever so slowly…

But none of that happened to us. The school was constructed in an L-shape and we walked the length of it and then up a floor and made our way slowly up the floors until we reached the roof. Most of the classrooms were empty, although a lot had graffiti on the walls.

This says "die". We are terrible at following instructions.

This says “die”. We are terrible at following instructions.

The most interesting rooms were the art and music rooms, since they had things left behind. In the art room was a stack of old drawings that I looked through a little.

20140411_21552820140411_215555

20140411_215712There was a lot written on the music room chalkboard. It kind of looks like a song, but the last line says something like “for impact, make the follow-through loud.” The funny thing is that three of the words are English, written in Korean letters, like “polo seuroo” (follow through).

In one room, we found the words “Absolutely don’t turn around” spray painted on the wall. There was nothing behind us though (that I could see).

충일여고 Exploration

We didn’t stay in there too long; no more than half an hour probably. We had missed the last bus back to our city by then so we grabbed a hotel nearby and stayed the night. We were thinking about sleeping in the school, just for the experience, but it was a bit cool and there was no bathroom (my wife’s objection). The hotel where we stayed was named the Lotto Hotel, and their thing was that they gave you a lottery ticket when you checked in. I didn’t check it to see if we won, since I didn’t know where to. Probably we had a better chance of seeing a ghost than winning the lottery that night.

20140411_214250

 


A slice of humanity on the bus

All writers should take the bus, at least every now and then. Or the subway. Really anywhere where you can observe a lot of different people up close. I take the bus almost every day and I see some interesting people.

Last Thursday, I was taking the bus out into the countryside to one of my four schools. I was sitting in the back when a mentally handicapped man and an older man got on and sat down next to me, the  handicapped one closer to me. He was interested in my book and pointed at it and gave me a thumbs up. Then he motioned to the older man and said, “He’s my dad.” This caused the older man to start laughing, so I didn’t know if he really was his father or not. I just said, “Oh, really?” “Oh, I see” and such things, since he kept saying it.

A lot of the people on the bus were older and seemed to know each other, so I felt like I was in kind of a community meeting. Then the handicapped man said, “He’s fifty” pointing to his “dad”, who started laughing even harder and said, “Yeah, I wish I were fifty again.” I really liked the older man; just a jolly sort of fellow.

A middle-aged woman came back, and saw there weren’t any seats left, so I gave her mine. Her husband was still standing up, with his backpack on. “Hey groom!” she yelled (Korean woman often call their husbands “groom”, although I’ve never heard a man call his wife “bride”). “Hey groom! It’s going to be a long ride. Take off your heavy backpack.” He took it off and put it on the floor with a grin. “That’s my groom for you,” she said. I saw other older women smiling and nodding as well. They understood.

The two men who were sitting next to me got off a few stops before me and the handicapped one gave me an awkward high-five. I smiled and said good bye. I went back and sat where they had been sitting and the woman I had given up my seat to apologized. I’m not sure why but possibly because she thought the handicapped man was bothering me. “Not a problem,” I said. “It’s okay.” And I meant it. I may never totally fit in here in Korea, but I do enjoy being a part of things anyway.

*

By the way, a few days ago, I posted something called The Mystery on the Bus, recounting another experience I had on a bus coming home from school. I asked people what they thought was going on. The first virtual high-five is for Carmelita, for the wackiest idea (I almost wish it were true), and the second is for EadesyBeadsy, for what I think is the most likely answer. Good job!

High five!

High five!


April Fool’s Day in Korea

Here in Korea, they celebrate April Fool’s Day, although it is called “manujeol” (만우절), which literally means “the festival of ten thousand fools.” (Why is it when Asian languages are translated into English, things come out sounding like something from a kungfu movie?)

Anyway, it’s not as big a thing here, although it does exist. One poll I saw (that I have absolutely no way of verifying) said that 89% of Koreans admitted to having lied on April Fool’s Day, as a joke, presumably.

"April's Fool's Day will be made into a national holiday in 2012." Yeah, obviously this was a joke.

“April’s Fool’s Day will be made into a national holiday in 2012.” Yeah, obviously this was a joke.

I wasn’t expecting much when I went to school today, since I don’t think I’ve ever seen any real April Fool’s Day pranks here, besides things like students saying, “I want to give you a million dollars.” (two second pause) “Haha, April Fool’s!”

Then I walked into my last class and saw this:

20140401_151512

Half the desks in the room were tipped over and some were backwards. Now, this is a middle school, so at first I just thought it was normal chaos, until someone mentioned April Fool’s and I finally got it. (Of course, they also said that the 2-1 and 2-2 classrooms had been switched, which happened to be true.). That’s YB (his initials) up there in the picture, sitting quietly at his desk. He is one of the best students a teacher could ask for. I would have been pretty surprised if he had been down on the floor, pretending that gravity had flipped 90 degrees.

I like that this kid still seems to be reading his English book down there.

I like that this kid seems to be actually reading his English book down there.

I didn’t let them leave them like that, but it was a good laugh. With all the zombie-like, checked out students in middle school, it’s nice to see them show some creativity and initiative, even if it’s only in the direction of a prank.

"Lying on the floor? It's all an illusion! I'm just studying here."

“Lying on the floor? It’s all an illusion! I’m just studying here.”


The “Now” of a Foggy Ride to Work

First of all, apologies for not producing as many long stories these days. I have a few in the works, but I just don’t have much time these days. I’ll post them as they are finished. This post is a true account, something I was thinking of as I rode to work today on my motorbike.

Taken in Wanju, South Korea

not taken today, but similar

I rode my motorbike out along a small highway going out of the city this morning. I passed the Ajung reservoir and Kirin peak beyond, the tops dissolving into the nebulous grey of the fog. All this was reflected perfectly on the still surface of the reservoir. Besides the hum of my engine and the other cars, the world was silent.

I thought, “This would make a great picture. Maybe I should stop and take one.”

Then I thought, “But pictures are all about later–about the Then. And they can never compare to the Now.”

So I didn’t stop. I continued on, over the mountain pass and down into the next valley where my school was, soaking in the wondrous beauty all around me and enjoying the sublime Now.


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