It is no reflection on Busan that the most memorable and eventful part of our visit was the coach journey back to the ship, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
On the way up to the park we stopped at a cafe where we had some unusual tea-like stuff. I connected to a free wifi, which is easy to do in Busan, and was able to send some emails. If I’d thought to pre-install mobile Skype I could have used my handset as a phone for free, but then it would have been the middle of the night in the UK.
What we certainly couldn’t do is make a conventional mobile phone call in South Korea. I really hadn’t known. When you have a quad band phone and it has been fine everywhere including China you don’t suddenly expect it to not work in Korea. It turns out that Korea and Japan have a telephone system which is unique unto themselves. No western phone will work there.
Once at the park we took the lift to the top of the Busan Tower. Looking down, the city is a patchwork quilt of pastel colours.
We could see the psychedelic red bridge our coach had crossed on the way from the ship, which was docked at Yeongdo-gu Island.
“Yeongdo” is apparently the shortened form of “Jul Young do” meaning the “island that produces quality horse breeds”, not that we saw any horses, thoroughbred or otherwise.
I’d heard that Americans were very unpopular in South Korea and that as Britons we might be mistaken for Americans and given a hard time. We couldn’t speak much to the Koreans as they had hardly any English, but they seemed friendly enough. One smiling gentleman came up to us in the park because he wanted to practice his English.
In front of the tower in Yongdusan Park is a statue of Korea’s 16th Century naval hero, Admiral Yi, who fought off 50 invading Japanese ships with only 5 tortoise-shaped boats. Maybe his tortoise boats made the Japanese ships turn turtle. Just a thought.
And there is of course the People’s Bell, in its own pavilion.
Taking the 4-stage escalator from the park, down past what looked like a playground but was an exercise park for adults, we came back down to street level and the shops.
We had to be back at the Phoenix hotel in time to catch the coach back to the ship, which was sailing shortly after lunchtime. There were lots of fellow passengers trying to get on the same coach. It was already standing room only when we squeezed on, but the next coach, the last one, would have been a half hour wait.
Naomi sat at the very front, in the “guide’s” seat. I was standing right in front of the huge windscreen, with another 25 or so passengers standing behind me down the length of the bus. I kept thinking this was dangerous as I had nothing to hold onto. As the bus set off and started to lurch around I felt very exposed. If there was an emergency stop I would go straight through the glass, so I crouched to give myself a chance of grabbing the dashboard.
Halfway into the journey a taxi driver cut in front of the coach and our driver had to brake. He did it as gently as he could get away with, but there was still a human avalanche inside the coach. I grabbed the dashboard, Naomi grabbed me, I had the weight of untold bodies on my back, but somehow we all regained our balance and no-one was hurt.
But the driver lost it. The red mist came down. He started yelling out of his window at the taxi driver. The taxi driver yelled back. I tried to motion to our driver that it was not worth it, but he opened the door, swept past me and Naomi and was suddenly squaring up to the taxi driver, who had also left his vehicle. Naomi had been carrying the camcorder in her hand and I thought she might try to record the punch-up, but she thought better of it. If she’d been spotted there’s no telling how the driver might have reacted.
A random passer-by intervened and no blows actually landed, although the driver came very close. Eventually the driver calmed down and drove us back to the ship without further incident. Highlight of the day really.
Thanks to JK Rowling’s Harry Potter, my green credentials are in tatters.
They were on a high after I acquired a hybrid car last week. OK, I got it as a company car because it will save me over £200 in tax a month compared with my previous car, was heavily discounted and will save me hundreds of pounds a year in fuel … and it is still a very neat car.
But no-one knows about my ulterior motives. I could have stood up and claimed I’d done my bit for the environment. No-one could have argued that I didn’t care about climate change when I booked a flight for a holiday abroad.
Unfortunately, that is all out of the window now because of Harry Potter, his damned Deathly Hallows and the related supermarket price war.
I am a Potter fan, so is my wife, so are my three kids. Everyone wanted a copy. No-one wanted to wait for their turn to read it. Meantime, Asda supermarket were selling the books at £5. That’s £5 for a 600-odd page hardback book with an official RRP of £17.99. When you can buy 3 of the damn things more cheaply than the RRP for one and everyone is desperate for a copy you end up with a houseful of them like they magically mastered the art of breeding.
When in a few days everyone in the family has finished the book, are we going to stack our respective copies neatly on a shelf? Does any one household really need to keep more than one copy of the book once everyone has read it? Replicate this across thousands of households and recycling bins at supermarket carparks everywhere will soon be stuffed full of Potterbooks. We are in the era of the disposable hardback book.
Even allowing for the fact that the books will have been manufactured in part from recycled paper, that spells Avada Kedavra for at least 37 major forests, 12 copses and half a medium sized grove when you think of the popularity of Potterbooks globally.
Think of the number of Deathly Hollows in our forests thanks to the Deathly Hallows. And I contributed by buying multiple copies.
I feel so dirty. I shall go for a drive in my environmentally friendly car to cleanse myself spiritually, … just as soon as I’ve finished the next chapter.
It troubled me, when preparing photos for earlier blogposts about our Far East cruise, that I’d had to alter the colour balance to get the sky the “right” colour.
Take a look at the picture below which first appeared in my post dated 3 July about the Chinese city of Dalian which we visited in late April.
This is how the picture looked before photoshopping.
Now I make no apology for using Photoshop on the pictures I present in my blog. It is perfectly legitimate to crop, resize, adjust for exposure errors, optimise contrast, maybe correct some verticals or sloping horizons. Manufacturers of digital SLRs pretty much expect you to do some post-processing (essentially you have to if you are using “raw” format) and the cameras are set up accordingly. More particularly, I am not “lying” or distorting anything, or at least not trying to. That is why it bothered me when I found the picture had a yellow cast, assumed it was spurious and used Photoshop to dial it out.
Was the sky really yellowish? Was it some quirk of the way the camera works or evidence of a polluted atmosphere? I wasn’t sure. I did not particularly recall the sky being obviously yellow when I was in Dalian, but then your eyes adjust quite rapidly if the effect is slight. I do not recall having trouble breathing or any odour suggestive of pollution. My nose is not the most sensitive but Naomi can detect a gas leak at three miles, and would normally have made some mention.
All the same, going back over the photos taken in China, groups of them, taken over a limited period in a particular place, display a yellowish tinge. Notably Dalian and the smog over the Huangpu River in the environs of Shanghai. The photos in that set originally had a strong brownish-yellowish cast, and even after correction in Photoshop the pictures still bear traces of a brown cast.
I don’t think the camera was lying. The Exif data recorded with each shot indicate the camera’s colour temperature was set to daylight mode. That suggests the yellow is real, not some artifact resulting from the combination of ambient lighting conditions and the camera’s settings. So my removal of the colour cast was probably wrong, distorting reality. Making Dalian’s sky look like the Med when it should have had a tell-tale yellow tinge.
China does come in for criticism about pollution of the atmosphere, particularly around the big industrial cities.
“This morning, sitting on the plane, I saw the bluest sky I’ve ever laid eyes on. The clouds broke over the Indian Ocean at sunrise, and the pale dawn reached up toward indigo overhead. I forgot what a blue sky is supposed to look like, even in Dalian”
We only had a morning in Busan (pronounced “Pusan” or maybe the other way around). The Statendam docked round the back of some island or other and we had a 45 min bus journey to town. The dropping off point was the Phoenix hotel, conveniently situated for the shops which is where most of our fellow mariners decided to spend their time. I cannot understand how these people can think of nothing to do but shop at every port as if the globe were no more than a giant shopping mall.
Naomi and I headed off to the famous Jagalchi fish market by the waterfront.
You can have any size of whitebait.
I AM THE PINCERS! (Never mind – it’s a private joke and best kept that way, anyway this settles the argument.)
We left the noisy but colourful fish market, with its stalls and restaurants, and went behind it to the waterfront. There are whole families half hidden at the back of some of the fish-stalls, under canopies, spending all day mending nets.
The small fishing boats all seem to have sofas installed on the deck. Every one is a different style and colour. At last I know what happens to the vast stock of sofas advertised on TV by World of Leather et al. I couldn’t work out who on earth was buying so many sofas in the sales.
This was last Thursday’s show, billed as “School’s Question Time“, an annual special edition where sixth-formers take over the role of producers and one of the five panellists is a student.
Had Jonathan won the final face-off he would have appeared on national TV on a panel alongside Ed Miliband, Davina McCall, Sayeeda Warsi and Douglas Murray. The student spot actually went to 18 year old Charlie Bell who was great on the show. Kudos to Charlie.
All the same it was a wonderful experience for Jonathan and for Naomi and I as his parents.
Jonathan had two full days in London this week as a guest of the BBC, including participating in a mock Question Time chaired by David Dimbleby, by way of an audition, to decide which of the 5 student finalists would make it onto the show. A video of the audition in Question Time format has been posted online by the BBC here. Watch for Jonathan’s answer to the second question, about the balance to be struck between security and civil liberties. He’s right. You have to stick to the fundamental principles you’re fighting for or you’ve already lost.
Along with the other finalists, Jonny was a guest of the BBC for the actual recording of the broadcast show on Thursday evening at Cadogan Hall, Sloane Terrace, and was allowed to invite two guests of his own. There’s no way Naomi and I were going to miss it.
Actually, I very nearly did miss it. I had been attending meetings in Leeds all day then flew from Leeds Bradford airport to Heathrow. I was lucky to make it alive to Leeds Bradford, having nearly been run off a narrow country lane by a speeding white transit van helping itself to swathes of my side of the road as I was trying to negotiate a corner with a high stone wall to my left. I got through but the nearside wing mirror housing smashed against the wall and the mirror was left dangling by the heater wire and clattering against the car. I stopped, caught my breath, managed to reassemble the battered mirror housing and made it the final 2 miles to the airport.
The flight was delayed nearly an hour due to bad weather. On landing I took the Heathrow Express to Paddington then found the only taxi driver in London who didn’t know where Sloane Terrace was. I told him it was near Sloane Square. As he approached the square I noticed we were just passing Sloane Terrace to our left. There was the big blue BBC outside broadcast van atopped with aerials to rival Jodrell Bank.
By the time I got in to the auditorium they were two thirds of the way through the recording. I found where Naomi and Jonathan were sitting. Naomi had been off work and had been in London most of the day.
This is the best the camera on my phone could do. The back of Naomi’s head is in the foreground.
We enjoyed the VIP buffet that followed the recording and had the opportunity to exchange a few words with David Dimbleby. He comes across as very warm, charming and genial. Jonathan made the most of the opportunity to chat to the celebrities and to network.
The word was that Jonathan had come within a hairsbreadth of being picked. Should he have been chosen for his shot at 60 minutes of fame? It would not be fair of me to question Question Time; the choice was really down to the sixth-form producers. I have the feeling they wanted someone who was a more obvious champion for politically minded youth whereas Jonathan is someone with astute political opinions who just happens to be young. A subtle difference, but Charlie did very well and I wish him all the best.
Our last port of call in China was Dalian. I had never heard of it before we booked the trip but it has a population of over 6m.
Whereas with other cities there had been no shortage of obvious must-see sights, for Dalian we were less sure about how to make the most of our visit so decided to play it safe with an organised shore excursion.
This followed a Mariner’s Club cocktail party in the ship’s show lounge (the Van Gogh Lounge). It is just a promotional event for HAL’s loyalty scheme, rewarding elderly and wealthy people who have spent 10 years of their lives on board HAL ships with gold medallions and suchlike. The captain also announced there would be soon be a new ship to join the Statendam, Nordam, Oosterdam, Rotterdam, Ryndam, etc., etc., in the HAL fleet. It would be twice the size of any of the others, have 10 show lounges, 6 swimming pools and hit new heights of luxury. The woman next to us quipped “I guess they’ll call it the Expensivedam”.
Ha, ha. They won’t of course call it that but it will no doubt be “damn expensive”.
Dalian’s city centre is modern and clean.
Part of the tour involved a visit to a local resident’s house, with an interpreter on hand so we could ask questions. It was a retired lady who appeared to live on her own. I guess her husband had died and the one son had gone to work in a different city. Naomi was sure the whole thing was staged for PR purposes but HAL claimed it was their idea, not the PRC’s. It may well have been genuine enough – the block of flats was not exactly luxurious.
The woman had a small vestibule, one sitting room cum bedroom with a TV in it, a kitchen and a bathroom. It was all spotless and tidy. There was mains electricity and piped water, but no piped gas. The tiny kitchen seemed to rely on a calor-gas powered wok.
Around ten of us from the ship sat in the living room and were offered tea and fortune cookies. The discussion was hesitant – no-one seemed to know what to ask. I asked if things had improved in the last 10 years to which the answer via the interpreter was an enlightening “yes”. When I asked in what ways I did not get an answer at all. Maybe the flat is bugged and the woman was scared to say the wrong thing. Who knows? I bid the woman “Xie Xie” for her hospitality and departed with the others.
Note: the video below and all other videos in this post are high bitrate. Depending on your Internet connection speed, data transfer may not keep up with playback so the video may keep stopping and starting. If so, just pause playback until the data download has built up a big “head start” then start playback again.Vodpod videos no longer available.
We went to the local market next.Vodpod videos no longer available.
The ice for the fish market:
We were taken to lunch at a new and up-market city centre hotel. There was some entertainment by a troupe of Chinese children thrown in, and hosted by our tour guide who asked us to call him Joe. In the video clip below Joe apologises for the fact that our lunch does not include as many courses as the Chinese Dowager Empress Tzu-Hsi once enjoyed at a single meal. At the time, I didn’t know what he was going on about. It is only with the benefit of having recorded him, and the opportunity to do some Googling, that I now know who he was referring to.
High bitrate video, 1:52. Introduction and first item of children’s show:Vodpod videos no longer available.
High bitrate video , 3:09. Second item of children’s show:Vodpod videos no longer available.
Next up – the Dalian Women’s Mounted Police School.
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They were supposed to put on a display but there was a foul-up and our tour guide, Joe, called us out of the grandstand with the bad news. We were later refunded.
Kite sellers in the city centre.
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I really am running behind with the Far East part of my blog. I notice that when I was actually in Dalian I was blogging about Hong Kong, and even then conscious I was not keeping up. We’ve been back two months from our Asian cruise and in the meantime I’ve been to Berlin (via Holland) and to Venice (returning via Treviso, Marco Polo, Gatwick and Stansted, thanks to Ryanair cancelling the flight home).
Naomi and I were the lucky ones. We looked on as mothers of young children burst into fits of uncontrollable sobs on being told they were facing yet another night camped out in a small airport with next to no facilities, with no idea when or how they were ever going to get home.
Certainly we suffered inconvenience, uncertainty and had to go to some lengths to get ourselves home, but we didn’t have to sleep at the airport and even enjoyed an unexpected bonus (more on that later). The biggest problems for us were around the impact of being a day late returning to work. We had to make a lot of phone calls and Naomi in particular had to call in favours so that the pharmacy department at the hospital where she works could open for business.
The trouble with lastminute decisions
We had returned to Venice, to revisit the scene of our honeymoon 25 years earlier. In fairness we had already been on our special Silver Wedding holiday, a cruise to the Far East. But that had been slightly premature – our anniversary is 13 June, but that is the height of typhoon season in South East Asia so we had taken our cruise a little early, in late April and early May. Our friends laid on some wonderful celebrations for us on the day itself but Naomi still had the itch to go back to Venice in June so I booked a long weekend via lastminute.com. June 13th was a midweek and work logistics made it difficult, so we had booked the weekend of 23/24 June, taking in Monday 25th and returning to work on the Tuesday.
The problem with relying on a service such as lastminute.com is that they tend to use cheap no-frills airlines which fly from (for us) inconvenient airports. In our case that meant Ryanair, and a long car journey from our home in Cheshire to Stansted to get our flight. To add to that, Ryanair don’t use Venice’s principal airport, Marco Polo, which is close to the city, rather the newer and smaller Treviso airport which is around an hour’s bus journey out of town.
Worst of all is that Ryanair accept no responsiblity for any of the consequences of their failing to provide a flight at the scheduled time. If they decide to cancel, for whatever reason, you are on your own. I see it as a kind of “reverse insurance”. With normal insurance, everyone pays a small sum so that the few unlucky ones who have some calamity befall them can get financial recompense, and everyone else at least had peace of mind for their outlay. With Ryanair, everyone pays less for their air travel but those who are affected by problems such as cancelled flights are absolutely stuffed.
As for whether this affects a few or more than a few I don’t have the data to determine. From my own experience, never having flown Ryanair before, the rate of cancellation affected trips is 100%, but then a sample of 1 is not exactly statistically significant.
The downward spiral begins
We enjoyed Venice just as much the second time, if not more so. We are still in love with the place, but come Monday 25th we had to bid a sad Arrivederci to the palaces, canals and the gondolas and make our way by Vaporetto to the bus station at Piazzale Roma to get our “official” bus laid on to co-ordinate with the 22:35 Ryanair flight to Stansted.
As we arrived at the bus stop the place was in turmoil. The driver had just informed fellow passengers already in the queue that there had been a road traffic accident on the route to Treviso and he couldn’t guarantee we’d get to the airport in time. Some passengers stomped off to get the train. Naomi and I chanced the bus, along with most of our co-travellers. We reasoned Ryanair would delay take off if most of the passengers were held up on route. Still, it was a tedious and stressful journey, starting off with an hour crawling in a traffic jam up the causeway to the mainland. Nevertheless, our driver miraculously got us to the airport in what should have been plenty of time to get the plane, but then the next bombshell. Our flight had been cancelled due to mechanical breakdown. We were told we could go on the 18:00 flight the next day, Tuesday, and transferred our booking having briefly explored alternatives but we were already too late for the British Airways flight from Venice Marco Polo to Gatwick.
A bed for the night
The immediate priority was somewhere to stay the night. Our problem, not Ryanair’s apparently. We were told we could get a list of local hotels from the information desk. Rather than queue I called my personal travel and bookings agent in Berlin, Jonathan. I reckoned he’d be sat in front of a PC with nothing more urgent to do. Within 15 minutes he’d booked us in at the Best Western Al Fogher 3-star, about 5 minutes by taxi from the airport. Bless him.
Arriving at the hotel at around ten past eleven at night the restaurant was closed, but the pleasant young lady on reception pointed us to the pizzeria across the street. She told us it closed at 11:30 but it seemed to stay open a lot later than that. I waltzed in and employed my best restaurant Italian “Due pizze margharita e due birre Moretti per favore …” When they came they were the most delicious pizzas we’d ever tasted.
The hotel was fine. Comfortable and clean. Breakfast included. We spent most of the morning sorting out work. I had to alert people to my continued absence and get things organised. It was tougher for Naomi as her job is more “real time”. She was supposed to be the pharmacist on duty at her hospital. She had started making arrangements the night before, having alerted matron and cobbled something together so the pharmacy could open.
We needed lunch and had some time to kill. The hotel lent us bikes so we could cycle the half mile to the walled historic town of Treviso. What a gem! A worthy holiday destination in its own right. It more or less turned a weekend break in Venice gone wrong into a two-centre holiday. I’ll cover our visit to Treviso old town in a separate blog post.
Cancellation after cancellation
We showed up at the airport around 4-ish, ready to check in for the 6pm flight. It was evident that a load of people had slept rough at the airport. We started to chat to some of the other passengers sharing our predicament. Someone mentioned you could get a cancellation certificate for insurance purposes. I duly showed up at the ticketing desk and asked for one. It took a while to get my certificate as, in the middle of processing it, the woman behind the counter started to look sullen and in due course ashen. It turns out she was getting a message that our 18:00 flight had in turn been cancelled, again citing mechanical failure. It was as this was announced formally that the human tragedy started to unfold, as people who had had a miserable night, tedious day, coping with tetchy kids, hungry, thirsty and tired, hanging on to the thought of an impending flight home, realised their nightmare was far from over … and lost it.
I thought I had been lucky because, happening to be at the front of the queue, I was first to book on that night’s (i.e. Tuesday’s) 22:35 flight. We were surprised though that they then proceeded to book lots of other people onto that flight. But that was the regular flight – would it not already be pretty much booked up?
To be cautious we started to look at alternatives in earnest. I tried to call the travel insurance service provided by my firm. I get annual cover for myself and family, but the number I had was out of date. I got through to a secretary back at the office and she called back with the right number. After several calls I established I was covered for alternative transport.
Meantime a rumour started to go around that the 22:35 flight would not be running. The staff at Treviso were denying it but the flight was apparently showing up as cancelled on the Stansted website, or so people were being told by relatives and friends in England. We checked with Jonathan who confirmed the rumour.
Ryanair loses No Confidence vote
We were not going to take any chances. I rang the BA Executive Club who could only offer two Club Class seats on that evening’s Marco Polo to Gatwick flight for around €800 each. I was not sure the insurance would cover Club Class but booked it anyway. We got on the phone to Jonathan who booked us car hire at Gatwick.
I managed to get hold of a taxi and we shed no tears on leaving Treviso airport for Marco Polo. The latter was not, at first, any more endearing. Where Treviso had been small and starved of people actually travelling anywhere, Marco Polo was much larger and a bubbling mass of humanity. Queues everywhere.
We found our way to BA’s local agents, S.A.V.E., to pay for our tickets. The woman at the desk told us we could get tickets cheaper than the rate quoted by the Executive Club. She did something opaque and arcane on her computer then issued us return tickets to Gatwick for a total of a little under €1,100. Not sure what we’ll do with the return flights back to Venice on 15 August.
There followed a long wait at the crowded airport, mainly sat in the cafeteria trying to do work. No laptops so it all had to be done on our PDAs. Thank heavens for Microsoft Word Mobile and PDAs with usable keyboards.
By 8.30pm a long queue had formed for check-in, even before the desk number had been listed on the departures screens. The ticketing paperwork suggested we were on Club Class so I jumped the queue to the priority Club Class desk. The check-in clerk was confused because the system was showing two separate bookings for us – the original one booked by the Executive Club in London and the more creative one booked locally when we paid. It turns out we were actually on economy but were not required to go to the back of the queue.
Executive Lounge leaves sour taste
My Executive Club silver membership number was on the boarding cards so we were allowed into the executive lounge. Naomi wanted a white wine spritzer. The bar staff had no sensible lemonade so came up with a local concoction involving Campari. It tasted like petrol. Campari had been my late father’s (b’shalom) favourite drink – he’d given Naomi a taste once. She’d found it repulsive then and her opinion has not changed. It was my first taste of the stuff and I concurred. We took a walk on the viewing balcony, found a waste bin and emptied our glasses.
The last leg
Our flight got in to Gatwick at around 11.30. A long walk later we found Hertz and picked up a Ford Focus for the one-way to Stansted. We were contemplating satnav hire (including extortionate £30 charge for one-way hire) when Naomi reminded me she had GPS on her PDA and Co-Pilot installed. No windscreen bracket so she held it on her knee. To be honest the signposting on the motorway was clear enough anyway.
It was less obvious at Stansted where to return the keys. The Hertz rental return car park was deserted. Naomi found the desk in the terminal building and then couldn’t resist checking the arrivals board for evidence of the Ryanair flight from Treviso. There was none. Yes! Vindication!
There followed a bus ride out to the right zone of the car park. The funniest part was the conversation on the driver’s radio which was broadcast to the whole vehicle. “Fred wants to know if you can find a torch to take to zone Q …” “Tell him I think I know someone who carries a torch for me …”
Car was still there. We took turns to drive through the night. Home at 6am, a very brief bit of kip then up for work …
Never again will we fly anywhere with Ryanair, last minute or otherwise.