Monthly Archives: August 2010

Woobang Tower Jump, Daegu

Written for the Say Kimchi News

I’ve always been a bit of a coward, yet paradoxically, always been pretty keen on scaring the crap out of myself. I think I forget the first part until right before I’m about to do the second. Last week I had a couple of days off work, so I decided I’d go to Daegu to jump off a building. Daegu is Korea’s third city (if, like many, you consider Incheon to be part of Seoul) and home to Woobang Tower, the tallest tower in Asia. They’ve built an amusement park around it, WoobangTower Land, which seems similar in scale to Gwangju’s own Family Land: pretty small, but not bad for an afternoon if you’re at a loose end.

Woobang Tower is 202m high (312m in altitude) and is similar in structure to the CN Tower in Toronto, formerly the world’s tallest free-standing structure (553m) and one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World. At the top of Woobang Tower is a revolving restaurant. There’s a 360° observation deck which gives you stunning, panoramic views of the city below which, incidentally, is huge. Coming from a small Irish town, Gwangju seemed sprawling to me (especially from the top of Mudeung Mountain), but Daegu is a massive step up in terms of scale. From the top of Woobang Tower, you really get an idea of how big it is.

We set off from Gwangju early in the morning and arrived around lunchtime. There were three of us, two jumpers and a photographer, and we met another friend in Daegu who jumped with us. We were all excited; laughing and joking without giving a moment’s consideration to what we were about to do. That was until the Tower became visible in the distance on the taxi ride to Woobang Land. It dominates the horizon. The closer we got, the taller it seemed and when we were within a few hundred metres of it, we saw a little gangway protruding from near the top. This was where we would fall from.

Feeling a little sheepish (and not a little sick) we made our way around the perimeter of the park until we reached the foot of the Tower. We paid (for three people, it was 100,000W, very reasonable) and got on the elevator for the 76th floor. The laughing stopped. Suddenly, it wasn’t funny anymore. Looking at each other for some sort of comfort was futile; the others were either praying or holding their hands over their faces. Yikes. There was a teenage girl ahead of us in the queue so we could see exactly what we had let ourselves in for and as she shimmied closer to the edge of the “plank”, white as a ghost, I felt nothing but sympathy!

The jump itself is not a bungee, which I initially thought, but a sky-jump. It’s like base jumping, except you have a cable attached to your back. Kitted out in the finest race suits this size of Talladega Nights, we decided on which order we would jump in (I was second) and then waited. As with most adrenaline-based activities, this is by far the worst part. Every sort of eventuality runs through your head until eventually, you’ve thought of all of the worst things that can happen and an accepting calm descends over you; at least for a minute. When my turn came I was led out to walk the plank. They strapped a harness onto me and explained a few things to me about what was going to happen. The problem is, I don’t speak Korean. I just smiled and nodded, such has become my custom in this fine nation.

I stood at the edge of the gangway for about a minute, getting properly strapped in. Then, I leaned forward, looking at the ground beneath me… it seemed like miles away! The attendant told me to let go and just like that, I was in suspended animation, 132 metres above a sprawling Korean metropolis. Hanging there, horizontally, was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve had. I was trying to squeeze out a smile, as the Korean guy is taking pictures of me (as part of the package, you get some photos and a certificate). And after what seemed like minutes (maximum hang time: 30 seconds), I was falling. This part is not frightening. You drop at a leisurely speed to a target at the bottom, where you’re released from your harness and left to ponder your “achievement”. Breathless and a little befuddled, I was greeted at the bottom by my friends. What a rush! For only 33,000W, the Woobang Tower Sky Jump is highly recommended.

Korean Grand Prix Preview

Written for the Gwangju News

On Sunday October 24th of this year, a cacophonous drone emanating from a stretch of tarmac in Yeongam, just south of Gwangju, will chauffer in a new era in Korean spectator sport. The country will join an elite band of 18 others in paying host to a Formula One Grand Prix. It is testament to Korea’s growing presence on the international stage that they have convinced F1’s governing body of their capability to host such a high profile event. Some speculate that it may bring even greater rewards to the nation than the 2002 World Cup. Should that be the case, Korean sport is in for a serious boost.

The inaugural South Korean Grand Prix will attract a crowd of around 130,000 to the newly built Korea International Circuit and officials have been scrambling to find ways to accommodate the masses due to descend on South Jeolla. Car parks are under construction, hundreds of shuttle buses are to be laid on. This sleepy, rural community is about to get a whole lot louder, but a few days of autumnal madness will undoubtedly bode well for the region’s finances.

F1 has long since been tagged as a rich man’s sport, filled with charmers and playboys like Flavio Briatore ( former Benetton and Renault head honcho, former beau of Heidi Klum and larger than life impresario, now banned from the sport because of his part in the Crashgate scandal in 2008) and Eddie Irvine (straight talking and flamboyant Irishman, former Ferrari driver and once a squeeze of Pamela Anderson). Ticket prices are often condemned for being astronomical, unaffordable by locals in many venues. The South Korean Grand Prix will do well to avoid such criticism. The cheapest come in at around 165,000 Won. For the best seats, you can expect to pay upwards of 1.2 million. The locals may have to be content with a thunderous hum, rattling their windows. But the money invested in the area through tourism will more than make up for the racket.

Unsurprisingly considering it’s the world’s fifth largest producer of cars, this is not the first time Korea has attempted to host a GP. The government previously attempted to capitalize on the industry’s standing when they reached an agreement to host an event in 1998, although a lack of funding hindered the construction of a circuit. Malaysia won the race to host another F1 event in Asia and the blogosphere’s rumor mill is rife with allegations that F1 CEO Bernie Eccleston managed to keep the money originally paid to him by race promoters. Indeed, the 2010 race has not come to fruition without a few hitches, either. There were whispers right up until the beginning of the summer that it would not go ahead. Initially, doubts were harbored over whether the course would be ready in time. Promoters, Korea Auto Valley Operation (KAVO), however, were at pains to dispel such fears, announcing that the track would open on September 5th. Perhaps of more serious concern to the survival of the race has been the recent unrest between North and South Korea. Political uncertainties on the Peninsula sparked rumors that the GP would be moved to a venue in Europe, with Magny Cours (France) and Motorland Aragon (Spain) mooted as potential replacements. But with the checkered flag looming ever nearer, it would seem the organizers have avoided such measures and that the event will go ahead as planned.

The deal the Korean committee has struck with the governing body will see the country host a Grand Prix every year for the next seven, with an option to extend the deal for another five. The course itself has been compared with another Spanish track, that of Valencia. Designed by Herman Tilke (the brains behind circuits in Abu Dhabi, Malaysia, Bahrain, Singapore, China and many other venues), it’s the second longest track on the calendar, trailing only Monza in Italy at 5.6 km per lap. Along with Turkey and Brazil, it’s the only track whose racing direction is counter-clockwise. The estimated average speed for an F1 car around the course is 212km/h, with a maximum speed of 320km/h, meaning the quickest cars should be getting around in about 1.5 minutes.

And with the race being number seventeen of nineteen, you can be sure that there won’t be any drivers holding back. After winning the Hungarian GP in Red Bull’s Mark Webber (Australia) is hoping to seal his first ever championship crown. He leads 2008’s champion Lewis Hamilton (McLaren, UK) by just four points, with his teammate Sebastian Vettel (Germany) trailing by a further six. The party travels to Belgium, Italy, Singapore and Japan before making its maiden voyage to Korea in October. The Japanese have traditionally put on a spectacular show and their Korean counterparts would no doubt be delighted to emulate them. All eyes will be on Yeongam on the weekend of the 22nd to see if they can do exactly that.

What does the future hold for Gwangju Sangmu Phoenix?

A recent article in the respected English football journal When Saturday Comes explored the direction taken by the Japanese Football Association in creating a successful professional league. Last year, the J-League drew an average crowd of 19,000, compared with the mean gate of 25,000 at an Italian Serie A game (Serie A being in the top 3 most vaunted leagues in the world). The author opined that part of the reason for this has been the healthy competition between the J-League and its Korean counterpart, the K-League. “What is interesting,” he mused, “is the way that the improvement of Japan and the J-League has also had a positive impact on the quality of the South Korean team and the K-League.”There can be no disputing the progress made by South Korea’s national team over the past decade and the league as a whole has risen in profile and stature. But the news has seemingly yet to filter down to the people of Gwangju. The city’s local team, Gwangju Sangmu Phoenix, had an average attendance of 7,719 in 2009, the second lowest in the K-League. The figure is an absolute travesty when you consider the facilities the team boast at the Guus Hiddink World Cup Stadium, but a little more palatable when you consider some of the facts. Sangmu is the sporting division of the Military of South Korea and Phoenix is the professional football club. The playing staff is made up entirely of young Korean professional footballers serving their obligatory two years national service. Fifteen players sign for the team every season. They spend two seasons in Gwangju before returning to their previous professional club.

At a time when football is becoming ever more international, more glamorous and more colourful, the opportunity to watch eleven soldiers struggle to produce the desired level of cohesion and quality needed to challenge the big guns of Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma and Suwon Samsung Bluewings simply doesn’t register with the locals.Sangmu are not allowed to sign any foreign players because of their military status and as such, the side really doesn’t have the wow factor perhaps required to drag the punters away from the (erstwhile) successful baseball team Kia Tigers.

It’s particularly difficult when you consider the imports on show elsewhere. Ulsan Hyundai, for example, are lining up this season with Colombia internationals Juan Estiven Velez and Carmelo Valencia. Seongnam’s attack has been spearheaded by their compatriot Mauricio Molina. Montenegran striker DejanDamjanović leads the line for FC Seoul and just about every other K-League outfit boasts players plucked from foreign leagues.

But that’s not to say a trip to the World Cup Stadium to support Sangmu isn’t worthwhile. Coming from Ireland, the local teams I grew up with could only dream of the amenities the faithful of Phoenix enjoy. The ground has a capacity of 44,118 and is an all-seater. Transport links are convenient and the fact that you can bring your own beers and do a quick food shop at the adjacent Lotte Mart means a Gwangju Sangmu home game makes for great day out: with a family or friends. Alas, the stadium doesn’t attract anything resembling a full house. I attended the K-League’s Round 11, when the visitors to Gwangju were Gangwon FC. The attendance was a paltry 2,367 (the stadium was under 5% full), but the quality of football on show was impressive, and the fervour of some of the fans that had attended was admirable. A troupe of bare-chested ultras led the chorus: banging out a steady rhythm on drums and chanting as though the stadium was heaving. For the most part though, the occasion was marked for its comfort and the mildness of the afternoon. Regular attendees of professional football would rarely describe their endeavours as pleasant, peaceful or tranquil, but the afternoon ticked all of those boxes.

Sangmu were in the driving seat for the most part and their dominance paid off when Kim Dong-Hyun broke the deadlock early in the second half. They held out for a narrow victory, although Gangwon rarely looked like troubling Seong Kyun-Il’s goal. The Sangmu line-up contained midfielder Kim Jung-Woo, who went on to impress in the World Cup in South Africa, playing in all four of ROK’s games. It pushed the side up to a respectable ninth position in the table, which would be their best showing for six seasons should they maintain it for the duration of the season.

The future of football in the city, though, is in the balance, with some interesting developments afoot. The city’s mayor has this year pledged his full support to a local citizen team to kick off in 2011. Such a move would certainly offer a lifeline to the beautiful game in Gwangju. Sure, they would be able to sign overseas players (although many argue that those willing to ply their trade in Korea are only doing so because they couldn’t cut the mustard elsewhere and are looking to make a quick buck), but the consequences run much deeper than this. One of the cornerstones of creating a solid fanbase is loyalty; amongst both fans and staff. With the current system, players can play a maximum of two years with Gwangju Sangmu before returning to their “parent clubs”. With an independent team, they could nurture their own youth players, cultivate cult heroes and produce players synonymous with the Gwangju brand: a feat that is impossible in their current guise. How gutting it must be for regular followers of the side to watch their best players getting shipped off season after season.

Player allegiance is another issue that could be rectified. It is a timeworn fact that players perform better where they are wanted and where they have chosen to be. Having been plucked from such an environment and placed in the line-up of the country’s military team, their performance levels are liable to drop. If Gwangju wish to be truly competitive in the K-League, the creation of an independent side is a necessity. And hopefully then the World Cup Stadium won’t cut the lonely figure of a white elephant on the Sangmu horizon.

Written for Gwangju News

Boryeong Mud Festival: Not all it’s cracked up to be

July was a busy month. It was always going to be. My girlfriend visited me and stayed the duration. Naturally, we wanted to make the most of it. I had spent May and June tossing ideas around, deliberating how to squeeze the absolute best from our weekends. My working schedule (3pm – 10pm) meant we couldn’t do much travelling during the week. That said, we still got plenty done. The life of an ESL teacher (particularly one employed in a hagwon) is a nocturnal existence. I must’ve had twenty suggestions or ideas about things to do on our four weekends together, but throughout that time, there was only one constant: Boryeong Mud Festival.

It’s been called “Asia’s Number One Festival”, and not just by the press releases. Every sinner we spoke to eulogized it. Nobody, it seemed had a bad word to say about it. Until now. July, especially the early part of the month, is monsoon season in Korea. It rains, heavily. It’s clammy and sticky, but not very sunny. We weren’t surprised to arise on the Saturday on which we were making our way north to Daecheon (the city where Boryeong beach is) to overcast skies. We weren’t even disappointed as the heavens opened above our train carriage. We were in excellent spirits, our whistles whetted by a couple of early morning beers en route.

But as soon as we touched down at the festival itself, we felt a tingle of discomfort. The atmosphere was one of anticipation, but not in a good way, more anxiety. As we made our way to the changing areas, people were jostling past, being unfriendly and rude. Skipping ahead in queues (and not just the ajumas – older ladies in Korea that seem to have rite of passage through even the busiest terminals) and generally throwing daggers from one end of the place to another. We got some food. There was a lot of hustle and bustle – nothing new in Korea – but a little more sinister.

This was not what I’ve come to expect from the country. Looking around me, it was pretty clear why: there were no Koreans there. The crowd was comprised of ESL teachers and GIs on vacation from one of the numerous bases scattered around the country. “What the hell…” we thought, tucking into a bottle of soju. “Everything will be alright when we get a roll in the mud.So we finished our food and soju and headed for the entrance. We were greeted by one of the poorest set ups at a festival I’ve ever seen.

What was billed as a Mud Festival was really just a load of people getting drunk on the beach. There was an area of mud-based activities; slides; baths; wrestling areas, but you had to queue for a long time to get near any of them. One person told me she’d been queuing for over an hour to go down ONE mud slide and they closed it when she got to the front of the line. No explanation, no justification, just rudeness and mismanagement. We attached our disgruntled bodies to the back of a seemingly never-ending line of mud-hungry westerners. After about 30 minutes, we had had enough and bailed (luckily, on our way back to the beach, we came across a small mud bath and went for a dip. This was to be our only mud-based experience at Boryeong Mud Festival 2010).

The rest of the day we spent swimming in the sea and drinking on the shore… not a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon, granted, but it was to a backdrop of GI aggression. Later that evening, we went into town to eat. We found ourselves a Korean tour guide who led us to a shellfish restaurant, ate his share of food and promptly scarpered before picking up his share of the tab. The owner continued to try ripping us off. We refused; one of my friends got his Korean girlfriend on the line, which put the willies up the owner: we were onto him. We watched some fireworks and returned to the beach, where we figured we’d spend the night drinking beer, singing songs and having fun. Predictably, it wasn’t to be.

After a late night skinny-dipping session, we fell asleep on the beach, awaking to find our bags gone. The next morning we found them a few hundred yards away, with the stuff strewn all over the beach. My Sony mp3 player was gone, as was my friend’s mobile phone… a fitting end to a pretty disastrous trip. Since I came to Korea the people have been honest, cordial and hospitable. These three sentiments went out the window at Boryeong Mud Festival. I don’t want to come across as a naysayer, because the internet is full of people blogging negatively about Korea.

I am not.

I love it here, which is why the festival was such a shock. To be robbed in Korea is virtually unheard of. Most people I’ve spoken to seem pretty sure it was a westerner that did it and I have to agree. It’s commonplace at home, but that doesn’t excuse it. The entire atmosphere at Boryeong was wrong. In future, I’ll be careful to avoid gatherings like this. I didn’t come 6,000 miles to experience the shoddier traits of the western world. This weekend was isolated and I hope to keep it that way.