03 December 2008

Journey Back to Seoul

It's all over, and I'm back in Seoul safe and sound.

My journey started with a short hop to Airport Express's Kowloon Station via a special free bus that runs every 12 minutes; as it turned out, it stopped right in front of my hotel. I appreciated riding it; just like all city buses and tourist motor coaches in Hong Kong, it was well-appointed in European style. In addition, all Hong Kong buses have automatic transmissions, eliminating the jerky shifts that categorize Seoul buses, which are all manual. I guess Seoul bus operators demand manuals for their cheaper cost and fuel savings, even though it must be hell to keep shifting through the massive traffic.

My original plan was to take the Tsuen Wan Line to Central, then take a long walk over to the Airport Express station there. It would've cost me $8.50 and forced me to lug my bags through the staircases in morning rush hour. Good thing I didn't.

I am at Kowloon Station, where it's possible to check in for some of the airlines serving Hong Kong, but I skipped that service. This platform sign advises me to board the front cars of the train for the airlines indicated above. The major airlines of Hong Kong are indicated with such signs, but Asiana isn't considered major, and isn't indicated.

I photographed the sign for a look at how airline names are written in Chinese. Very few foreign airlines have their names written phonetically; the vast majority get translated Chinese names. In the above, British Airways is written as "England Airline Company," as the character 英, which is most often used for England, is just as often used for all of the UK; there is no distinction made between the two. QANTAS is written as "Australia Region Airline Company." United is written as "Union Airline Company" though officially, it needs to have 美國 (America) added to the front, so that it would fully read "American Union Airline Company," to comply with Chinese airline naming conventions and to distinguish from a domestic Chinese airline of similar name. Airlines based in Asia have, and use, their official Chinese names.

It didn't take long for the ride back to the airport, where I disembarked at the check-in level. I first returned my Octopus for a $50 refund, then waited for the Asiana counters to open. I noticed that United (which indeed was written as "American Union Airline" on the airport's own signs) shared counters with Korean Air. Yes, my favorite airline and my least favorite airline, who belong to rival airline alliances (and are founding members in each), are right together.

At Hong Kong, departure immigration check happens before security, which is unusual. Once I cleared both, I took some time to walk around. I still had a good amount of Hong Kong currency to burn, so I browsed the duty free shops (to no avail) and the food court (where I ate a bowl of spicy Japanese ramen with Korean kimchi). I still had plenty of Hong Kong Dollars left, so I decided to sell $63 to get 10,000 South Korean won; it was a lousy exchange rate, but at least this almost paid my bus fare at Incheon Airport. The rest of Hong Kong currency - I am keeping them as souvenirs, and as my initial spending money for my next Hong Kong visit, as ATMs love spitting out $500 banknotes which are very unwieldy in their size and value.

Here's an airport scene. Although Cathay Pacific and its subsidiary Dragonair dominate the airport, there is plenty of service from both mainland Chinese and Taiwanese airlines. In this photo, EVA Air of Taiwan's Evergreen Group has brought in two widebodies.

In the distance, I can also see a United 747, in the airline's older color scheme boasting the phrase "Worldwide Service." Sure, it was probably the greatest lie ever painted on an airplane (United has had the most comprehensive international services of any US airline, but it is nowhere near being worldwide), but it nevertheless is a reminder of all the Pacific and Atlantic crossings I've done on United jumbo jets. I flew United exclusively for international itineraries until my current and recent crop of Asiana flights. The United 747 is operating a nonstop to San Francisco, after having come in from Vietnam earlier.

Finally, my Asiana flight is coming in, and it's a 747 as well. It will park next to its rival Korean Air, operating another 747 to Seoul and leaving an hour ahead of my Asiana flight. Korean Air would later also bring in a 737 from Busan.

The Asiana 747 has come in and is being serviced.

It's a Combi 747-400 (registration HL7417), with the rear 1/3 of the plane being used as cargo hold rather than passenger cabin. It's also fairly old, with only projector screens for entertainment; its air show is so old that its fonts are reminiscent of early 1980s Nintendo video games, and its Korean placenames use the older McCune-Reischauer romanization which hasn't been used since 2000. This plane felt outright primitive when compared to all the newer Asiana planes I've flown on lately; it felt similar to the various US domestic United planes I've flown in recent years. The radar dome on the nose is in the newer all-white color, however.

Asiana is currently in the process of converting its aging 747 Combi fleet to permanent freight-only duty, and bringing in the new, nicer 777s as replacements.

My flight operates with a South African Airways codeshare flight number. The South African flight from Johannesburg sits in the back, and coordinates with Asiana for through service between Johannesburg and Seoul. There is no other through service between the two cities. The South African flight will sit here until around midnight, when Asiana's evening flight from Seoul hands passengers over so that they can continue to Johannesburg.

And for that matter, there is also a United codeshare number, even though United has no evening departures out of Seoul that my Asiana flight can connect to.

And yes, Seoul is really written as 首爾 in Chinese now. 漢城 (Hancheng), the old name that the Chinese speakers had continued to use until a few years ago, is now history. However, Cantonese speakers will NOT pronounce this new name as anything remotely resembling Seoul. The problems over the Chinese name of Seoul continue to linger.

Hong Kong was cloudy, so I never got a farewell look at the world-famous harbor; I was lucky to get a glimpse of the highrise apartments of Tsuen Wan. As the plane continued to climb, a series of short subjects played on the projector screens, which included some South Korean current events. I hated seeing images of former President Roh Moo-hyun; it was his ineptitude and polarizing politics, not to mention his frequent gaffes, that had resulted in the current 2MB government, and I will hold him accountable. The South Korean economy is now shrinking, partly due to the global recession.

There was one bright spot however; a lower-level court ruled that the female employees of KTX bullet trains, which Korail had claimed were contract employees supplied from an agency and therefore not entitled to any benefits of their male counterparts, were deemed to be proper Korail employees after all, and entitled to benefits and representation. It was certainly very telling of South Korea's continuing Confucian social values and its status as the only country in the world with both a bullet train line AND such blatant sex discrimination. But change will come, surely if slowly. I don't think even 2MB will derail that.

I subsisted on a music channel consisting of old English-language pop, even though it was not all that old - mostly 1990s adult contemporary, featuring the likes of Celine Dion, Phil Collins, and Faith Hill.

After about an hour, I entered Taiwan. As I flew over the island's rugged mountain range, I was able to see its west side - where most of the population and industries are. Right now, I am looking at the sprawl and the development of Taichung, which, as its name (臺中) suggests, is in the center portion of Taiwan.

Now, I am about to exit Taiwan, at Taipei (臺北), the north end and the capital. Downtown, with its new fabulous skyscrapers, is right below me and can't be seen. But I can see the western outskirts, a mix of urban sprawl and rice paddies. Two airfields are also visible; the farther and larger of the two, with two parallel runways, is Taiyuan Airport, Taiwan's gateway to the world. Until recently, it had been named after Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, whose ironfist rule had tormented Taiwan natives and is now considered as much of a negative as it is a positive.

I'll certainly look forward to visiting Taiwan in the near future. Subway ads in Seoul do entice me to visit Taiwan. The main challenge will be the limited English aptitude of the everyday Taiwanese.

From here on, it's open waters of the East China Sea until I enter South Korea.

That snow-capped peak indicates that I have now re-entered South Korea. It's kind of hazy out there, but I can identify the peak as Mt. Halla, the southernmost and the highest mountain in South Korea (it's two kilometers tall). Halla is an extinct volcano just off the southern coast of Korea, and the island created by its past eruptions is now called Jeju. Even though Jeju is subtropical, the mountain is high and does get snow. Just like Taiwan, Jeju is one place that I must visit in the near future.

Already, I am in the middle of a very long, shallow descent into Seoul, as the sun sets. The rest of my flight route took me over Gwangju and Gunsan, following the west coast of the peninsula. Prevailing winds opposite their normal direction, however, meant that I had to shoot out into the Yellow Sea and approach the airport from the north; again, I got a look at some North Korean hills in the distance - with notable lack of lighting.

Immigration lines were excruciatingly long, due to a crush of passengers, from another Asiana flight from San Francisco, who had arrived a few minutes ahead of me. One of those in line was a loud white American whose support of the neocons was very apparent in his conversations; I almost wanted to welcome him to his puppet colony. I didn't do that, however, as I now think it's better for me to keep a low profile until I return to the US, then plot some moves to ensure future democracy in South Korea and end the Moonie menace. The first thing for me to do upon my return to the US, however, will be to undo the South Korean damage to American society, including California's Prop 8.

I was re-admitted into South Korea with no fuss and with another 90-day authorization, since I have places to stay at and no criminal records, and certainly don't have a track record of "subversive" activities in ways that the government can track. (If I later get an Alien Registration Number, sign up for a Korean Internet portal account, and speak my mind over there, then I'll be in a sh*tload of trouble.) Returning to my apartment from there on was a breeze - though it was almost strange to see traffic running on the right, and certainly very strange to see almost all vehicles on the road being Hyundais, Kias, and other South Korean domestics. A BMW 7-series showed its true colors by illegally driving on the shoulder in a traffic jam, but that's par.

Time to wrap things up, resume my regimen in Seoul for the little time I have left here, and look forward to my next phase of life that awaits me upon my return to the US.