Seoul and DMZ, South Korea: Where people don’t stare.

With a week of holiday remaining, myself and Nicki decided to leave China in search of something a little different. As part of our search for the cheapest flights we decided to spend a couple of nights in Shanghai first.

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20151001_144310Shanghai is renowned for it’s population, but we had not accounted for the swell of people for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Nanjing Lu in particular must’ve had half the population of the UK walking down it. I don’t think I have ever seen so many people in one place. We later came across the People’s Park where Grandparents were advertising their grandchildren. I have been trying to read a little Chinese recently and noticed that some of them were stating their grandchildren’s monthly income in addition to their age, weight, height and looks. We even found one man advertising himself and had a chat to him. Nicki informed him that the Internet is a different option.20151001_135546

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Aside from the crowds and the matchmaking, we were able to see quite a bit of Shanghai in the one full day we had, and even managed to include some fake clothes shopping. In my attempt to be a good haggler I offered 4 pounds as a starting price for one item. The response from the female vendor was (in English), ‘No, I am going to kill you’, with all the conviction of someone who actually had the intention of killing someone. I did not return to her stall.

Our second night ended early because of our early morning flight to Korea.

We eventually did make our flight, despite initially arriving at the wrong terminal. And we were soon in Korea and on the metro. The first thing we noticed about the Korean people was that they weren’t staring at us. There were no white people about, yet we weren’t the focus of everyone’s attention. We were comforted in this and instantly took a liking to the people of Korea.

In search of our hostel we took a lengthy metro trip to Jonguk, despite intending to get off at Jongak. The metro system in Seoul is so extensive that it must stretch across several cities.

We eventually did make it to our hostel with the whole afternoon to spare, albeit a little disappointed in the size of the room since we could stretch our arms to touch both walls. However, we spent very little time in the room anyway.

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We headed into the city centre of Seoul, with the impressive Tower looking over us. We wanted initially to explore the multiple markets situated around and found some nice Korean street food along the way. We then strolled around Myeong-dong, the most commercial area of Seoul.

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Although the crowds were not quite the same extent as those in Shanghai, it was a busy area and we were soon looking for somewhere to sit down. We then came across exactly what we had been dreaming of; a cat café.

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I got a little too excited in the cat café and probably paid more attention to the cats than I did to Nicki. In fact, I think she was as excited as me about it anyway.

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The café consisted of 20 cats who sleep until a customer comes in for a coffee and a box of cat food. They then pester the customer into feeding them for novelty. Although some people appeared to just come in for a coffee.

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After the excitement of the cats we headed to a night market that was set up for the weekend. We discovered an immense queue for food which we avoided before stumbling across a band of Korean old women singing ‘It’s Raining Men’. We settled with a beer beside the river and listening to an acoustic set as the night drew in.

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Later we decided that we were actually hungry so we came across a popular street barbeque under a marque. It was now about 11pm but all of the tables had a couple of people on it. Without thinking we sat on a couple of plastic stalls at a table where another couple had just settled down. The couple looked at us in disgust and informed us that we were not to join them. Thinking it was a one off we moved to another table, but were told the same thing. We would not have sat with random couples at home, but this was one of the customs we enjoy about China. We decided to score China vs Korea from this point, and this was a point to China. We were eventually told to sit on the table with the first couple, but they fled soon after without ordering. We felt like we had won the table.

On the following day we decided to leave the city proper and visit a Mural Village on the outskirts. The small village was situated up a steep hill and would not have looked special save for the fantastic artwork on the walls and stairs of the buildings. We had a nice time wondering around the village before settling down for a beer.

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Later that evening we headed to a Nanta performance. We had no idea what Nanta was before we arrived but it turned out to be one of the highlights of the whole trip. Essentially, it is a story told n a kitchen between cooks with little dialogue but lots of music with kitchen instruments and food. We decided on front row seats which meant we were regularly covered in carrots when the chopping beats got fast. Nanta is a must see if anyone visits Korea.

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After Nanta we headed to a bar street to watch some of the football. This is becoming a regular Saturday thing for us both, and I always feel a little guilty about it. However, it always seems to be Nicki’s suggestion and is keen to hear regular updates about my fantasy football team. I think she actually enjoys football if she has a Kahlua in hand.

We made the decision to leave our hostel (The Box) after a 2-night stay and find somewhere a little better for a similar price. We found a room in a place called Bong’s not far from the universities which was 100 times better. This was fortunate as Nicki was struck down by a bug for the day.

Despite doing my best opportunity to nurse her I took the chance for a haircut whilst she slept in the afternoon. This was a mistake. The young lady who cut my hair did so in a professional manner, but with very limited success. I have since had it partially rectified.

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The day also consisted of a brief walk around an area called Insadong, which is good for souvenirs and trinkets, but bad if you don’t like flies in your milkshake.

The evening ended with Nicki feeling a little better and Arsenal embarrassing Manchester United.

Our next stay started with a visit to the Seoul Tower, which is synonymous with the city. Neither of us wanted to admit that we didn’t expect much from the tower experience and we would be lying if we said we found it life-changing. The 360 view from the top was impressive but I do not think it was the best thing we did in Korea. Perhaps we had been spoilt up until this point.

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As we had risen early to beat the crowds to the tower we spent the next few ours venturing into a nearby national park. Seoul’s metro system continued to amaze us as we would enter from the hussle of the city centre and exit surrounded by hikers at a mountain’s edge. We enjoyed the hike and the fresh air as we walked aimlessly along a trail before returning to the city for dinner.

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On our final day in Seoul we saved the venture we anticipated the most; the trip to the De-militarised zone between North and South Korea.

We met our coach at a hotel and travelled 45 minutes to an observatory where we were given lots of information about the history and conflict between North and South Korea. It made for fascinating learning but both of us were surprised (quite naively) about the one sided view being portrayed. There were lots of very cleverly worded phrases to help demonise the North Korean side. It was clear that there was still a lot of fear, especially as the war continues to threaten.

One of the most interesting parts of this leg of the tour was the introduction of a North Korean defector. This lady had escaped via China and had been given asylum by the South Koreans. She told us about life in the North and how people respect Kim Jung-Un far less than his predecessors and that all school children actually believe all the stories about him when they are at school. She said that she has a far better life in the South but does miss her home and family in the North. There was a lot of talk of hope for a unification here.

After being given lots of information we were given telescope binoculars to look over the river onto the North Korean side of the border. We were able to see North Korean people working on the farms on the other side. Our guide seemed a little too happy to point out the lack of trees on the other side ‘because they don’t have electricity so they burn them’.

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There was a really interesting point in the tour where we visited the ‘Bridge of No Return’ where people crossed into North or South Korea when it divided. It was a day that millions of people’s lives changed forever and some families separated for life.

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We then had lunch with the other people on our tour before heading the the JSA (Joint Security Area) where we were able to cross the line from South to North Korea. It was an uncomfortable place to be in, and even more uncomfortable to take photos of. We were standing in a conflict zone where soldiers stood on either side staring at each other all day in case one of them flinched. It was a tense atmosphere. However, being able to step into North Korea has made me want to see the country more.

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The experience of visiting the DMZ was an eye-opening one and a really interesting day. It is something that I am glad we did and I can only hope that there is a unification resolution at some point in the future, however unlikely it might seem now.

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We ended a thought provoking day with another traditional Korean meal (without the national dish of Kimchi this time) and relaxed watching The Interview in the evening as it seemed poignant after the day we had just had.

We then had to get another early night because we seem to have a habit of booking early flights.

Despite our early flight we still had a 5-hour delay in our transfer city of Qingdao. Yet were were provided with lunch and a beer to keep us happy and we were home by the evening.

Korea was a great chance to experience another Asian culture and the Korean people definitely won the points game despite the lack of table sharing. Seoul is a city I would recommend to everyone visiting Asia and I certainly wouldn’t rule out another trip there in the future.

Rwanda: Murakoze

It’s difficult to consider how quickly our trip to Rwanda crept up on us amid the hectic and stressful school life at home. This left the slightly unnerving feeling that I had underprepared for a week rural Africa. Yet, if Rwanda has taught me one thing it is that life doesn’t need to be stressful and mastering the art of ‘just being’ has been added to my to – do list. We can certainly learn from Rwandans in that respect. Fortunately, Justina, the colleague I was lucky enough to live this with, was also quite keen on the Africa approach to life.

Our 2am arrival in Kigali, and Africa, was a confusing one. We had expected our motel host to be there on our arrival. Having not yet become accustomed to ‘Rwanda time’ we decided to get a taxi to the motel instead,  conceding that he had forgotten our arrangement.  When we did arrive at the hostel via a long bumpy dirt track we met by a suprised receptionist who informed us that John was now waiting for us at the airport. We all had a laugh about it in the morning.
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Once the sun had risen we were able to see Kigali in all its glory. I was overwhelmed by my own ignorance: presuming that all of East Africa would be a sandy yellow. Rwanda is somewhat more fortunate that other African nations since it has a bit of a tropical climate where the ground is fertile and the skies regularly open. This creates a very green and abundantly healthy landscape.

Kigali, as a capital city, does not possess all the beauty of other regions within the country. But it offered us a good basis from which to start.
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We began by walking into the centre to obtain permits for our Gorilla trekking at the weekend and instantly regretted forgetting to apply sun cream. We then navigated our own way to the Genocide Museum with a few hic – ups with our bearings on route.
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Attending the Genocide museum was a shocking but essential way to introduce us to Rwanda. The Genocide, like all others, appears beyond human capability and it was hard to comprehend the scale murder in the country only 20 years ago.
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The genocide can be regarded as the last act of Old Rwanda and what we have seen since is the New Rwanda with its growing prosperity under the leadership of Paul Kagame. Rwandan people are not keen to talk about the genocide and are very interested in where Rwanda is going next. There are lots of positive things happening here.
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We walked back to the motel for the evening and took in the sights and sounds of African life which had been alien to us both up until now.

We then got a taste of traditional rwandan food. We made a habit of trying something new wherever we went.
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The next day we were back on the move and headed north to Musanze where we set up base in preparation for out trek to track gorillas the following day.
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It just so happened that the hotel we stayed in was where Diane Fossey stayed during her time in Musanze. The hotel left the room as it was when she was there.
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We attempted the art of ‘just being’ during the afternoon and enjoyed a few Rwandan beers and the football before retiring for our trek early in the morning.
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The next morning we were picked up in a jeep and driven towards the national park where the Gorillas were to be found. As we waited at the foot of the mountain we were greeted by murakoze sounds of African drumming and dancing which instantly lifted out morning blues.
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We were joined by our guide and a Croatian doctor as we began our ascent up the side of the mountain. No mountain gorillas have ever survived in captivity because of their lack of immunity to diseases closer to sea level. For that reason I will only ever be able to see a mountain gorilla in Rwanda, Congo or Uganda. This made it a truly once in a lifetime opportunity.
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Our climb up the mountain soon caused a few puffs as we tried to cope with a combination of altitude and heat.
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During the trek, our guide spotted a small chameleon in the bushes. We all got a chance to hold him as he tried to sus us out with his beady eyes.

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As we entered the greater vegetation up high we were joined by a few trackers who would help us find the family of gorillas we were looking for. The tracker explained how we could locate the Gorillas using poo. The example in the picture was supposidly a day old as it was dry but still maintained it’s original colour.
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We eventually came to a stop beside the area where the Gorillas were thought to be. We were then instructed to leave our sticks behind as some of the older gorillas have memories of poachers armed with spears and we may have provoked them.
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We hacked through some of the dense vegetation before finding our first gorilla: a mother with her new born baby. All 3 of us were completely taken a back by how close we were to a wild gorilla but remained vigilant for any change in her behaviour. Stunning.
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Close by was the rest of her family. Happily resting, grooming and eating. It was spectacular to be so close to them all. I don’t really think I can express it in words so I’ve added a few pictures instead:
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Within the family there were a few good stories. One of them was the presence of Maggie. She was the oldest gorilla in the family which meant she was one of the Gorillas researched by Diane Fossey before she died. This made her extra special.
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We also met the most volatile of the Gorillas: the second silver back. He is not the alpha male and therefore has no women. This makes him moody angry and lonely. We saw all of these emotions in our time with him.
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Finally there was the alpha male, referred to as ‘the president’. He has the biggest back and hands I’ve ever seen. He didn’t like us very much and had his head in his hands most of the time whilst his infant son groomed him.
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We needed to leave before out staying our welcome.

It was then a case of retracing our steps before a shirt trip back by jeep to Musanze.
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We were back by early afternoon but it felt apt to reward ourselves with a beer, the arsenal game and some goat.
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The next morning we woke up ready for another adventure. We were greeted almost immediately after waking up by an enthusiastic gentlemen wearing a tie and a fantastic smile. This was Bernard, our host school’s head teacher.

After a quick breakfast we jumped in the car with Bernard and headed East towards our school in Runaba, Burera district. On the way we passed some amazing sights including the Lake Burera. Bernard was kind enough to stop the car to let us take some pictures.
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Once we arrived in Runaba (following a pit stop for a fanta) we unloaded the car before meeting Christopher and Christophe for a beer in the local village. During this time we discussed a lot of things.

One of my contact lenses fell out during a conversation and it provoked hysteria amongst our Rwandan friends who had never seen such a thing. They stared in wonder at the tiny lense that fell out of my eye and were in awe at Western technology.

Conversation then turned to politics and we were fascinated to find out that the ‘one cow per family’ policy had been administered throughout the country. Every family is entitled to a cow but no one is allowed to sell it. The benefits of this on families is amazing. Everyone seems to adore Paul Kagame as president for what he has done since the genocide.
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We spent the rest of the afternoon taking in our surroundings and familiarising ourselves with the priests that we would be living with for the remainder of the week.

We woke up very early the next morning to attend service at the parish before school. We were surprised to see so many children at the service at 6:30 am. The view from beyond the church was great.
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We were then ready to start work. We were to spend the week working our way up through the school. Bernard initially called a staff meeting in one of the classrooms where Justina and I were required to introduce ourselves before hearing introductions from the rest of the staff.

We then headed to the Primary 1 classes who were having their first ever day at school. What became immediately obvious was the lack of space in the classes to cater for so any children. Some small benches had 8 children sat on them.

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Following our stint with the little ones it was time to introduce ourselves to the children at break time. It was clear that the children were glad of our presence and we found ourselves followed like the pied piper wherever we went.
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Our school had raised money for the Rwandan children and with that money we bought basketballs for the children and paint to renovate their blackboards. We saw an immediate impact of both of these things and the staff were incredibly grateful for our school’s gifts.
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Over the next few days we observed, taught and learnt in the classes around the school. We were both amazed with the amount of English being spoken a day taught but equally amazed with the children’s positive outlook on life.
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Over the course of the week it really dawned on us how much the fortune of our children at home is taken for granted. They have access to countless games and resources, the children at Runaba do not. They have access to running water, the children at Runaba do not. They have books and Internet to research, the children at Runaba do not. We couldn’t help but feel that our children need reminding of this.

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Throughout the week we introduced the children to new experiences. We showed them what bubbles are:
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We showed them baloons:
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They got introduced to soft toys for the first time:
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A child in my class in England even very kindly supplied the children in Rwanda with Loom Bands…which they loved:
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Despite all of this, we had objectives to fill and we worked hard to awknowledge the extent that the school had responded and acted upon previous visits.

We were spending as much time with the priests as we were with the children and over the course of week we became very good friends with them. I even ended up playing in a basketball match with one of them. I established that I am not a good player….which was apparent when school children laughed at my failings.

Every night we ate with the priests and prayed with them. They are given the finest food in the village, which we ate with some guilt. They helped us with our french and added humour to every meal. It has to be said that they like a beer or two too.

It’s hard to put the whole week into a few paragraphs but I’m also aware of my tendency to waffle. For that reason it has to be said that it was a reluctant good bye at the end of the week.with the priests. As part of our ceremony we drank a bottle of whisky. It seemed an apt way to part.
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Before we left Runaba altogether we were to complete our mission by delivering a meeting with the senior teachers of fee school. We sat in a small conference room in the village of Rusumo and drank beer sith our rice whilst exchanging ideas of where to take our partnership next. It was great to be heard and have an opportunity to discuss what we had seen. I think the teachers enjoyed themselves too (especially as hey got to ride us on their motorbikes).

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We had time for one final visit to a maze factory before returning to the priests house for a final rest before our return to Kigali in the morning

All in all I don’t think I can do this week justice without writing a book. For this reason I am hoping that the pictures can do most of the talking.

In essence, the partnership between my school and Runaba should go from Strength to strength because they have as much to offer us as we do to them.

Murakoze Rwanda.