Sunday 16 August 2009

Korea continued

After a nearly 6 month hiatus, rejoice! for the Manly Odyssey has returned:

From Korea

On our second day in Seoul we made an attempt to go out and see some sights before heading to John Frankl’s place to train, in the evening. Our task was somewhat complicated by the fact that it decided to cascade down with rain for a solid 3-4 hours in the morning. Rain in Asia is not like what we’re used to in Europe. When it rains here, IT RAINS. After realizing that no matter what we did, we’d get soaked we put on some board shorts and flip flops and headed to the Seoul Football Stadium.

During the 2002 World Cup the Nation of Korea went 100% bat shit crazy for football, the stadium was packed with fans for every match, people would be walking around draped in flags with painted faces, cheering on the hometown heroes. The stadium’s subway station opens into a sprawling, amphi-theatrical set of stone and steel staircases and the sight of the building loading into view, piece by piece with each progressive step taken is truly awesome.

The awesomeness ends there however because the Koreans are a tremendously fickle people that, as it turns out, don’t actually like football all that much. With a multi-billion won, monstrous steel and concrete donut occupying a piece of fairly prime real-estate in the Nation’s capital, it was decided that the best course of action would be to turn it in to a shopping mall. A shopping mall which almost nobody actually goes to. Much like ‘Hot Buns’ the place was eerily reminiscent of a zombie film. The shoppers seemed to be matched on a 1 to 1 basis by shop workers.

From Korea

We had a quick walk through the impeccably clean hallways, noted the flashing lights of arcade games and the smell of popcorn coming from the cinema and made our way back outside. Our next stop the, Korean independence war, torture museum.

The museum is housed within the various buildings that constituted Seodaemun prison (서대문 형무소), a facility built in 1908, at the end of the Joseon (no, not Joe Son) dynasty, by the Japanese, to torture members of the Korean independence movement. The greyness of the day added to the overall sense of tranquil, sadness found within the prison’s walls. The complex is made up of a series of separate red brick buildings all contained within high brick walls and set amongst an open gravelled park, dotted with benches, trees and water fountains. It actually had something of a feel of a Victorian era public school to it.

After a brief stroll around the grounds we made our way through the designated route, starting with a series of detailed panels filled with information about the prison’s history and then moving on, down a set of basement stairs, to the first of the cell blocks.

Although the presentation was a little ‘over the top’, featuring screaming, blood covered, mannequins and 3d cinema projections of Koreans throwing bombs at the Japanese during a procession; the museum served as an insight into Korea’s history as well as their clear distaste for the Japanese. The two nations have been at war many times throughout history and there is certainly no love lost between the two, even now.

From Korea

We headed back through the vibrant streets of Hongik to get some rest in our hostel before the evening session at Frankl BJJ, but not before consuming a pre-workout sweet potato latte, at our local, ruthlessly clean and efficient coffee-shop. It tasted exactly like Horlicks with just a hint of extra potatoey goodness. After so many weeks away from England it was pretty good to get a taste of home.

John Frankl has two academies in Seoul (as well as being a professor at the university and challenging Mickey Choi) we decided to visit the one at Apgujeong. The academy is located up a small side street, on the ground floor of an office block. Being on the ground floor means that the glass front door can be opened out on to the street, something which you feel immensely thankful for when its roughly 1000 degrees centigrade in the gym. The mat space is quite large, there were around 30 students in the class that I attended and we all fit very easily, without too much ‘clashing’ during sparring. There were a few English speaking people at the gym, both expats and Koreans who had studied in the States.

The number of purple belts, including the teacher that night, was a lot higher than what I was used to seeing during training in the UK. There were around 7 or so in this particular class and most of them looked to have held the rank for some time.

It is always very interesting to see the differences between academies when fundamentally, with BJJ, we are all learning the same thing. In this particular school there seemed to be a real emphasis on conditioning, something which I was particularly happy about since I hadn’t had the chance to really work on cardio for a long time. Our warm up involved countless breakfalls, rolls, shrimping and crocodile walking. All of which were made tougher by the fact that, due to the size of the mat space, each exercise was done in both directions thereby eliminating the restful walk back to the beginning of the queue that you see in almost every other academy.

The final part of the warm up included a typical layout of everybody in a circle following the instructor’s direction. We jumped, did push ups and went through an ab circuit. The final piece de resistance was a set of 90 ‘crotch thrust’ squats. Which are more or less exactly what they sound like. Squats that end with you thrusting your groin forwards much like this.

After completing this portion of the class we moved on to the technique. All of which worked from the turtle position.

The teacher made the point that if you play turtle position, it is really a neutral position from which both the top and bottom man have the opportunity to impose their game. We initially worked a drill where the top man attempted to maintain control while the man on the bottom would attempt to either sweep or escape to guard.

After this we went through some of the fundamentals for the top man.

  1. Maintaining hip to hip pressure when in a side ride
  2. Not linking your arms around the opponent
  3. When circling the opponent, maintain chest pressure

Applying these fundamentals made it much harder for the bottom man to escape when we tried the drill for a couple more rounds.

After this we worked the bow and arrow choke from the back.

  1. Top man begins in a side ride to opponent’s left
  2. Places right shin across opponent’s back and posts on left leg
  3. Right hand comes over opponent’s head and grips his left lapel
  4. Left hand grips opponent’s right knee
  5. Roll backwards and drive left (posting) leg into opponent’s side whilst pulling grips

After drilling the choke for a few minutes we spent a couple of rounds sparring from the turtle position and then progressed to full sparring for around another 20 minutes or so.

From Korea

The idea of specific sparring where you attempt to perform the day's technique against resisting partners is one that I found worked very well. Sometimes it seems like pure drilling is not enough. You often don't feel like you've genuinely learned a move until you've managed to use it, under pressure, in sparring. It is in these moments that your 'true' jii-jitsu is programmed in to you. The jiu-jitsu that you can rely upon when it really matters, in competition.

Although it would be great if we forced ourselves to just use the day's move in sparring ourselves, sometimes your ego will get the better of you or you'll find yourself playing against someone who always rushes to pull guard etc. This class' specific sparring really helped to avoid that.

The mixture of different abilities and styles was very good, something you don’t tend to see outside of large ‘international centres’ such as Seoul is the variety of training partners who often have trained in one or more other countries, with different instructors before coming to their current gym.

A couple of the guys had wrestled in college in America before and going up against these guys certainly presented a whole new set of challenges that I had never encountered before. I definitely discovered that my escapes from side control could use some work.

Another benefit of Frankl’s places is that there are loads of classes, if you come to visit you can train multiple times every day and train hard when you do. On the other hand at $25 a session, the mat fee was by far the highest we saw on the whole trip, although I’m sure if you plan on training more than once they would arrange some form of short term membership for you.

After training there was only one possible dinner option: more Korean barbecue. This time we headed in to Hongik with its seemingly non-stop party atmosphere. The streets were filled with University students eating, drinking and shopping (at intellectual property disrespecting establishments) and in many cases looking exceptionally hot. Seriously, on multiple occasions we saw women who were double-take, stunningly attractive, this place was at least on a par with St Petersburg.

From Korea

This time our barbecue joint was more trendy and modern, we had a brushed steel extractor fan that could be adjusted to hover directly over the top of particular sections of our grill and we sat in chairs that were raised up from the ground, whilst still wearing our shoes. What we really cared about though was the meat. Which in this case was completely awesome. We ate skirt, sirloin and fillet of sweet marinaded beef as well as pork and chicken.

On the walk home we saw a fairly inventive get rich quick scheme set up by an enterprising local. A tower of plastic taekwondo boards was set up on the corner of 2 streets and a cash prize was offered to anybody who could chop all the way through them. Many people tried and nobody succeeded, one girlfriend looked particularly irate at her newly emasculated boyfriend, the enormous stuffed toy she was already carrying evidently not enough to placate her. The guy’s throbbing, injured hand probably incapable of satisfying him that night either.

Friday 27 March 2009


Our first task upon disembarking onto Korean soil was to get our hands on some of the local currency, as usual, the first, closest ATM to the International arrivals area was unable to accept foreign cards. Conveniently enough though, the pet hotel located next to the ATMs was fully operational.

That's right, Pet Hotel. There were a series of brightly coloured lockers at the entrance to a supermarket into which Koreans were nonchalantly stuffing their hapless canine associates, before carrying out their weekly grocery shopping (using only domestic credit cards).

After wandering around and finally finding a working ATM (the Citibank one in case you're ever stuck in Incheon port with no cash) we were able to quench our thirst at, the previously mentioned, 'Sweet Buns'. This establishment is quite possibly one of the most unsettling places I've ever set foot in. It presumably started life as a convenience store, but most of the shelves were empty or housing only the remnants of large brown packages, the contents of which had long been sold. It looked a lot like convenience stores in zombie films; the obvious cleanliness the only indicator that its emptiness was not the result of ransacking carried out by the last survivors of some heinous, mutating virus. In the 10% of the shop that was actually usable there was now a coffee shop selling damn good coffee (the kind that tastes like a sour, earthen goblin drop kicking you in the mouth). The lady who worked there spoke pretty good English and was easily one of the nicest people to have ever lived. She was so friendly and helpful that it made the whole place seem even stranger.

With our thirst for coffee taken care of, George and I proceeded to search for the Underground stop which would serve as our entry point into Seoul. It is at this stage that we encountered our first taste of what it can be like trying to get to places in Korea if you lack local knowledge. It turns out that streets are usually not even named, it is only larger neighbourhoods which are. To make things worse, houses are numbered in the order they are built in not in the order they fall on a street. Sometimes the order refers to the time at which the house was built in relation to others in the street. Other times the number is an indicator of when the house was built in relation to others in its broader neighbourhood. Often both systems will be in place with different conventions adopted for different buildings on the same street.

Furthermore, in an attempt to 'modernise' some areas now use the less batshit crazy system whereby buildings are numbered in ascending order going up each street. This system is almost always used concurrently, alongside the 'traditional' Korean system, so as not to disorientate postmen. Confused yet? Try figuring out Korean directions in 40 degree heat with a 60lb pack on your back after realising you're at a dead end and have to walk back down this hill.

From Korea
At least it made for some good cardio.

Seoul's subway system on the other hand was pretty damn fantastic. It covers an area about the size of Hampshire (we were on it for an hour and ten minutes to go from Incheon Port to Hongik in Seoul), is all in English and is also super cheap when compared to London's abysmal offering.

Once we arrived in Hongik we made the, frankly rubbish, choice to try and find our hostel on foot. I'm not sure whether this was an idea borne from bravado, stupidity or both. What I am sure about is that you cannot find anything in Korea unless someone is physically pointing out the object or place in question, that or taking you there themselves. Even this, I expect, is no guarantee of success.

After about an hour of hopeless wandering, including an overt invitation to a bath house from an ex-pat homosexual, we finally gave up on looking for our lodgings. Our efforts scuppered by the Koreans' ingenious building numbering system. We called up the Hostel owners and had them drive us (for about 90 seconds) from the Subway stop to the front door of the hostel. We were relieved to find that our vehicle contained a fellow traveller who's efforts to find the hostel alone had proved equally fruitless.

In order to recuperate after a hard day's useless meandering we decided to track down a genuine Korean barbecue joint. This is one part of the trip that I had really been looking forward to ever since being made aware of the concept whilst watching Naruto. After being in China for a while, unable to track down any pieces of meat larger than a silk worm grub, the idea of being able to stuff our gullets with prime cuts of beef was nothing short of trouser modifying.

We walked around the spotlessly clean area of Hongik, looking around the various eateries until we spotted one that had sunken tables with hotplates set into them. This was the sign that we had been waiting for.

At the entrance to the restaurant we removed our shoes, placed them in a rack and ascended the 3 small steps to the wooden floored, dining area. There we were greeted by a waitress who spoke absolutely no English whatsoever, much like the amused patrons eating in large groups at tables nearby.

Not letting something as menial as a complete inability to communicate verbally get in the way of our meat-hunger we used a combination of gestures, the Lonely Planet's useful phrases section and smiling, to order some strips of prime beef rib.

It tasted like the flesh of a god.

As this was one of the more expensive cuts of meat, the side dish selection was as extensive as it was unusual. In addition to this, the tableware included kitchen scissors, wet towels and an inexplicably long tea-spoon.

From Korea
Can you guess which one is the pickled crab?

With our meat lust sated, for the time being at least, we shambled slowly back to our quarters (with a map the hostel owner kindly furnished us with) and drank some Korean green tea, which tastes like it's been made with water used to boil rice, before resting up for training at John Frankl's the next day.

Thursday 2 October 2008

Voyage to the Hermit Kindom

Although the departure area at Qingdao International Ferry Port is somewhat less bustling and Orwellian than its counterparts in The West, we were still subjected to various searches and scans before being allowed onto the New Golden Bridge V, our vessel to Korea.

The main reason for the searches was not to deter terrorists but smugglers. With the prices of electronics and traditional medicine so cheap in China, many Koreans gladly pay the lowest possible fare (about £46) to sleep on the floor of a room with 48 other people in order to smuggle some Chinese produce back home.

It is not surprising then that my backpack would arouse some degree of suspicion at the customs point. As my 25kg bag was hauled onto a metal table by a pair of undersized Chinese border officials, small rabbles began to gather in anticipation. 'What could this unusual creature be carrying in his mysterious sack of wonder' they potentially asked themselves. The answer, as it turns out, was that I was carrying a number of containers of fish oil, ZMA and BCAAs, enough to somewhat avert the horrendous effects of my previous blood sausage and noodles diet. As the guards probed curiously through the containers I had to try and explain to them that what they were holding was not medicine, but sports supplements. Legal, sports supplements devoid of any traces of tiger penis, gazelle bladder or otter venom. This was achieved in the traditional way that Westerners achieve most things in the Orient, acting big and silly with little apparent embarrassment. I acted out lifting some weights, hit a double biceps pose and mimed shoving the capsules down my throat whilst saying 'duanlian' (Chinese for exercise) repeatedly. This seemed to get the point across and even broke the ice to the extent that the border guards started laughing, pointing at each others biceps and prodding at mine.

The boat itself was pretty awesome, considering we were spending just under a day on it, there seemed to be plenty of amenities, many of which served as our first introduction to Korean life. Having never really read about Korea before planning this trip, I was curious to find out as much as possible about the country before getting there. Whereas some of our other ports of call - Russia, China and Japan - have had a huge impact internationally, Korea is a country whose culture is largely unknown in the West. All I really knew about Korea was that they build cars and electronics and being a hi-tech economy, they probably live to a degree of comfort similar to people in Japan. So little has been known of this country across the ages, that it has been dubbed by many a historian as 'The Hermit Kingdom'.

From Korea

Korean points of cultural interest:

1 They love the Internet, particularly LAN gaming

Presiding over the central atrium of the boat were a row of sleek looking black computers, sat atop glass tables, with black leather chairs. This, it turns out, was but a microcosmic representation of the 'PC Bangs', internet cafes usually filled with hundreds of computers, which now dominate Korean culture.

Nowadays as a Korean youngster you have one of two options, you join an after school club to excel in sports, languages or maths; or you spend every possible minute of your free time sat in an air conditioned, darkened room with hundreds of other people, playing video games.

Korea's induction into the group of internet connected nations was a rather unusual one. For many years the internet was limited to use in universities and national government agencies, then something unusual happened. Blizzard entertainment released a PC game called Starcraft, for some reason this particular game captured the imaginations of the entire nation to the extent that in 1998, before the game came out, only about 50,000 homes had internet connections, now that figure is over 12Million (over 70% of the population).

You may even remember reading this news story about one 28 year old gamer who died of exhaustion after spending 50 straight hours in a PC bang, chain smoking, drinking energy drinks and playing Starcraft.

2 Koreans eat in a very unusual way

The restaurant on board was super-easy to navigate thanks to the fact that at its entrance stood a glass cabinet filled with plastified replicas of the food on offer. We simply pointed at what we wanted, paid for a meal ticket and handed the ticket to a waitress who then handed us our instantly prepared meal.

The first point of interest was the fact that our meal came in 'pieces'. We had a large metal bowl of rice each and surrounding it were 5 or 6 smaller bowls filled with various pickles, chillies, vegetables, a vaguely meat looking thing and an egg. Our cabin mate, who was sat with us for dinner - a half Korean half Chinese man who spent the majority of the voyage in his pants watching TV - explained to us that we just had to mash everything together into a big slop.

It actually tasted alright for something so lacking in proteinous goodness (a common theme in Asia, with the awesome exception of the rampantly carnivorous Mongolians). Aside from the fact that our meal didn't come pre-assembled, we also noticed that all the cutlery was metal, including the chopsticks and the water cups. If you think you're pretty good with chopsticks try eating some slop with metal ones, I guarantee that there will be a least a moderate degree of soilage involved.

The reason for this abundance of metallic tableware is down to an old legend. There was once an emperor of Korea who after enforcing a number of unpopular policies in his homeland, became so worried of being poisoned by one of the palace staff that he made sure that the every food receptacle and its associated paraphernalia was made of silver. The reason for this being that silver has the unique property of reacting to most common forms of ingestible poison (as well as being corroded by eggs).

From that point on, it became tradition for all emperors to eat from silver, as a result it became popular for the upper-classes to do the same. Finally this filtered down to all of the Korean populace, most of whom were too poor to afford silver, and so (much like chavs with their 4 carat gold jewellery) most simply made do with cutlery made from any sort of metal in order to show that they too were just like the emperor.

We actually discovered a couple more interesting things about the Korean food culture once we left the boat - including one of my most highly anticipated events of the trip: Korean barbecue - but you'll have to wait until the next post to hear about them.

3 Public bathing is kind of a big deal over there

The Lonely Planet guide book has a fairly in-depth section talking about bathing culture in Korea. It seems that it is entirely normal for men to bond at bathing houses, just hanging around with their wangers out chatting about the latest video game, methods of galvanising tableware etc. There is nothing homosexual about it at all apparently, most Koreans will tell you that homosexuality is just something invented by Westerners and that it doesn't affect Koreans at all. Yet somehow, George and I felt that we weren't ready to embrace this aspect of Korean culture at the boat's fully operational bath house, we weren't that liberated... yet. So here instead is a wholesome photo of George in his bunk.

From Korea

4 Convenience stores are absolutely everywhere

Much like almost every street corner in Korea
, the boat featured a 24 hour convenience store. These things are awesome, you can get everything from sushi to miniature hoovers at any hour of the day. When you are travelling on a budget, improvising your own meals out of the cornucopia of goods available is more or less a necessity. As long as you steer well clear of the instant coffee, you're pretty much guaranteed to get something cheap and tasty, at any hour of the day. Speaking of which...

5 Their instant coffee is batshit crazy

Being a fan of coffee, proper coffee, upon waking after a good night's sleep at sea I immediately headed to the convenience store to purchase what I thought would be a vaguely adequate powdered coffee beverage. What I actually managed to purchase was so ferociously unusual that my brain's logic centre could barely compute what the hell was going on.

I peeled open the foil lid of my iridescent purple coffee cup to reveal the contents inside, not a sachet, or a 'pod' but two metal tea bags filled with 'coffee'. After letting this curiosity brew for a good 15 minutes, I tasted the contents, it tasted a lot like what I imagine a horse's ass would.

As luck would have it, on the topic of coffee and ass, I was ok because immediately upon disembarking at Incheon port;, I managed to get myself a cup of coffee that actually came out of an espresso machine, at this fine establishment:

From Korea

Tuesday 26 August 2008


In contrast to the bustling hell that was Beijing's train station, the train that we took to Qingdao was a highly efficient mechanised beast. Fully reclining seats, complimentary mineral water and sliding glass doors were the order of the day. We pulled up to Qingdao station at around 10 at night and grabbed a taxi up a series of hills to the old observatory where our hostel was situated.

We were told by the receptionist that our reservations had been screwed up so we would have to stay in the hostel's most basic lodgings, everything else was fully booked. The receptionist grabbed a torch and lead us down a series of labyrinthine, outdoor, concrete steps (with no banisters) in almost complete darkness. The 'room' was situated at the very bottom of a dark path and occupied half of a semi-subterranean breeze block building the entrance of which was a huge steel door which the receptionist seemed unable to operate due to the rust surrounding the lock. Upon finally entering the room we were instantly met with a fairly challenging, two pronged, olfacto-visual attack. On the one hand we could see 18 beds crammed together into a room - although the term bed is a little kind - burlap sacks nailed to wooden benches is a little closer to the truth. What little paint remained was peeling off the walls and dank silken leftovers indicated that even the arachnid residents had given up hope of pursuing a worthwhile life in these surroundings. In addition to this there was an overwhelming smell of human excrement, the reason for which became immediately apparent upon opening the door to our 'en-suite' facilities. In lieu of a toilet there was a soiled pit in the ground, a pit which, rather efficiently, not only served to carry away fecal matter but also the water from the shower which was located directly above it. Never before has not showering made me feel so clean.

In spite of all this, the hostel made up for its lack of room based amenities with its awesome rooftop bar. It turns out that the hillside locations of observatories make for awesome views onto the cities that they overlook. This photo gives you an idea of how outrageously sweet the hostel's location was:

To top things off, the bar had seating that appeared to be made out of the World's most luxurious beds, huge, foot thick sponges which were perfect for crashing out on, should burlap sacks on wood not really be your thing.

On our first full day in Qingdao we wandered about with not much of a plan at all. We saw a series of German buildings, including a variety of incongruous churches, all remnants of German occupation. The town is primarily famous for its main export Tsingtao (Qingdao spelled the old fashioned way) beer, which was created by German occupants, desperate for a fix of their favourite hops based drink. The local method of serving is somewhat different to that found in Germany - or pretty much anywhere for that matter - as street vendors prefer to pour fresh beer into giant, heavy-duty, plastic bags the majority of which become filled almost entirely with foam. We saw more than one person walking down the street with a 2 kilo sack of beer, the side of which was pierced with a straw while the contented owner guzzled back the frothy liquid inside.

This, however, was by no means the most unusual sight we encountered during our time in Qingdao.

Unusual sight 1

Right on the pavement, in the middle of the city, huge rows of fish split open and left to dry amongst old pieces of chewing gum, chocolate wrappers and, most deliciously of all, dog shit.

Unusual sight 2

Like some fundamentalist Christian's rapturous fantasy, we saw a pair of shoes who's owner had seemingly disappeared mid stride, stood before a pedestrian crossing.

Unusual sight 3

Whilst standing in the queue to buy a ticket to the Qingdao aquarium, a seemingly endless series of ever more irrelevant shops punctuated by some token fish tanks - the first sold dried fish products (which we were in no hurry try) and stuffed animals of sharks, the last resorted to selling tea and model ships in order to empty the hapless patron's pockets of their last remnants of cash- a juvenile praying mantis somehow appeared on my bottle of coke. A bottle of coke which was in my hand, far from the ground or any trees which could have housed such a creature.

Unusual sights 4, 5 and 6

By some stroke of quasi miraculous luck we managed to bumble our way to a bustling food market, serving a range of tasty foods from throughout China to all the locals.

There we were first greeted by 8 Muslim men in full on Muslim clothing selling kebabs and naan bread whilst dancing with passionate and jubilant force to European, hardcore techno. Fair enough, considering the kebab vendors next to them had a man with inexplicably large hammer, hitting dough whilst topless save for an incomprehensible red oval - also to music, as their marketing tool.

If I were to tell you that there was a dog on one of the diner's tables you'd be forgiven for thinking that it was the unhappy ingredient in some Chinaman's delicious lunch time feast. What actually happened was this: a woman decided that rather than eating alone, she would take her inexplicably small and stupid looking dog to lunch, holding it in her left hand while she fed it with the chopsticks in her right. Of course it's altogether possible that she was merely taking the dog out to fatten it up with her favourite food with the idea of eating some weird and extravagant favourite food within another food amalgam at a later date. That way we're both right. Hooray.

We didn't tuck into a platter of piping hot canine parts (on this occasion) but we did still manage to rustle up a rather more interesting concoction than what one might usually enjoy for breakfast. We started off with stir fried aubergine with peppers and onions (top) descending rapidly into boiled starfish (left) and pan fried silk worm larvae (right) served with a Gatorade bottle cap filled with a dried spice dip (centre).

After this nutritious breakfast we felt ready to take on the World and were sure we'd be able to face anything that Qingdao could offer us. We were wrong, we could have eaten the heart of Pegasus served on a bed of mandrill faces and not been ready for...

Unusual sight 7

Unusual sight 7 involved one of those moments in life where a combination of disbelief and unpreparedness leave you unable to truly comprehend the magnitude of what you have just witnessed. As is clear from the photo taken at the rooftop bar, Qingdao is a large and vibrant city which houses a number of skyscrapers and the various financial institutions and high level shopping boutiques that come with them. It is in the heart of the commercial district where we stumbled across an unusual couple, firstly there was an elderly Chinese gentleman wearing shorts and a simple shirt along with a plain looking hat, a man that could easily blend in at any seaside town. That is, if he wasn't travelling with his unorthodox companion; a boy of about 12 or 13 in a plain white t-shirt, unassuming enough save for the fact that he was naked from the waist down. A sight which George described as "a party sausage sewn to a lychee".

That's right, at some point in the day the child's parent or guardian had decided that this boy was ready to leave the house. Its not like this was some destitute kid surviving on the streets either, the fact he was wearing a clean, new t-shirt was an indicator that his family could afford clothes, it's just that they had decided to funnel all of their resources into clothing that all important torso region of the body whilst leaving the lower body exposed. The weirdest thing is that nobody walking down this busy shopping street found this unusual, the kid didn't look happy or sad to be devoid of trousers he just looked oddly at peace, maybe this aura of authoritative, calmness is what made his parents allow him to leave the house that way. "Hang on you forgot your shorts", "No mum, I won't be needing those".

It was with the memory of Unusual sight 7 fresh in our minds that we boarded our ship to Korea, a short 24 hour voyage from Qingdao to Incheon. We would be leaving the country of China behind although only for a few weeks; plenty of time, we hoped, for the people there to purchase a set of rudimentary britches.

Wednesday 6 August 2008


Slight omission from the last post re: the reason why the security guard wouldn't let us wrestle at the sports palace. It turns out that the people wrestling there were the Olympic freestyle wrestling team, they were preparing for the Beijing Olympics. We would have been annihilated.


The first impression that Beijing makes nowadays is very different to the one that it cast as little as two years ago, on my last visit to the city. It seems that in preparation for this summer's Olympics Beijing has undergone a significant transformation. In the airport all the signs are in English, the floors are a polished marble and even the escalator hand rails shine with an overwhelming cleanliness.

Our, super-new, air conditioned, lcd screened shuttle bus to the city centre lead us through a series of ultra wide boulevards lined with monolithic shopping complexes awash with neon. In contrast to this our hostel was located in one of the city's hutongs - a series of seemingly never ending alleyways filled with 3/4 size houses and market streets. Although some of the hutong houses have been renovated by upwardly mobile Beijingers the majority of them still have no internal plumbing of any kind, the streets' public toilets serving as common bathrooms for hutong residents to chat outside, playing cards until the early hours of the morning.

The hostel itself (Red Lantern Hostel) was pretty special, like something out of a kung-fu movie. Open balconies facing onto a zen garden courtyard with a restaurant serving Blue Mountain coffee for 10RMB (80p) a cup, as illustrated by George below.

With a couple of days to kill before we could get down to some BJJ we decided to go and visit the sights. It turns out that Beijing indeed has some sights. The Temple of Heaven, The Forbidden City and The Summer Palace are all on the UNESCO World Heritage list, no mean feat considering most countries don't manage that many entries. The hyper-opulent Temple of Heaven, an ancient complex of sacrificial altars and temples set in an enormous park in Beijing's centre was particularly impressive despite being dwarfed by the other World Heritage sites in the vicinity. Seeing as its taken so long to get the photos up, here's another to show you how awesome the temple is:

As impressive as the sights were, interacting with the people of Beijing was also a fairly entertaining experience. You tend to forget that a quarter of the World lives in China and that as such a lot of internal tourism takes place. Beijing's tourist attractions are filled with people who travel there from far-flung rural regions of the country, places where they have only ever seen Westerners on TV. It seems that no matter how outrageously magnificent our surroundings were, for some people George and I were the main attraction. At the Forbidden City one girl stopped dead in her tracks after seeing George and began strafing sideways whilst looking at him, half shocked, half aroused managing only to utter the word "how?" over and over again in Chinese. Not five minutes later a large group of school kids asked to have their photo taken with me and immediately copied the obligatory jiu-jitsu hang loose sign that I threw out for the camera. Somewhere in Anhui province those kids will all be greeting each other that way for the rest of their lives.

Finding Beijing jiu-jitsu club was a fairly arduous task. If you're clever and get a map off the website it is probably really easy. When you write the address down on a scrap of paper in the hopes that you'll somehow shamble your way there, things get a little harder. It turns out that most buildings in China don't display their numbers on the outside, even when they do there seems to be little rhyme or reason to the numbering. Things become even harder when the place you are searching for is within a series of tower blocks which all have the same road number along with a 'sub number' for each particular tower.

The entrance to the club (once we found it) was awesome, the place is located a few floors up in a skyscraper, through a set of glass doors with the club's MMA organisation logo cast onto the wall behind. Once again our hosts were in the luxurious position of not only having toilets but also showers and changing rooms. Something we don't see much of back home. The place also had the feel of a trendy magazine editorial office to it, a few students were hanging around on chairs reading and a large desk with a computer filled one corner of the main room with a water cooler and a large set of coloured plastic cups next to it. The view from the window was somewhat more awe inspiring than Subway down in Bedminster as well, giant illuminated skyscrapers looming in from all directions through the wraparound windows on two sides of the studio. I think there may have been aircon, but as we found throughout our travels aircon is not made to deal with tons of sweaty people exercising in a confined space in countries where the nighttime temperature barely drops below 30.

The instructor, Pedro Schmall a Carlson Gracie black belt, lead a fairly different class to the ones taught by our Pedro back in Bristol. There was a far greater emphasis on stretching than cardio, with particular care taken to work the fingers and toes to prevent silly injuries that could sideline you unnecessarily for a week. In terms of size the class was pretty similar to what we're used to, around 15 students, although here the majority were white belts.

The class we attended was on a Friday and as such was a review of the week's positions. This particular week the class had focused on escapes from the mount. Pedro gave really detailed instruction on how and why each escape worked and taught in a 'decision tree' style where each mount escape followed on from the next as a reaction to your opponent's possible responses.

After drilling for a while we went onto positional sparring. Everything was going well until I went up against one particular guy who seemed to have a particularly strong resistance to my Ezekiel choke. I had rolled from the mount into a high guard in order to add pressure when suddenly the guy's eyes started rolling into the back of his head, Pedro quickly jumped in having spotted the fact that his student had lost consciousness. I have never actually had someone go limp like that whilst rolling with them and the experience was unusual to say the least.

I felt like a complete horse's ass for turning up at the club and doing that to one of their students but I spoke to the guy after and he was very cool about the whole thing. He said that he knew he should have tapped earlier and I apologised as profusely as possible for the whole thing, we actually sat and spoke for a while, discussing the finer points of choke mechanics.

George was even less fortunate with his time on the mat. During the positional sparring he jarred his knee while mounted on top of his opponent, re-aggravating an old injury and quite possibly sidelining himself for months. Pedro and Andy Pi (a purple belt who owns the club and who previously trained in Torrance with Royce and Rorion Gracie) were really helpful, grabbing some ice and getting some mats for George to elevate his leg on. Pedro kept telling George, who even in this condition wanted to move around and kick his leg about to keep it static and to always elevate an injury above the heart so that blood won't flow to it. A sound piece of advice which seems to make a lot of sense.

After rolling with one of the club's MMA fighters, a short, heavy Mongolian followed by Andy, one of the strongest purple belts I've ever rolled with, I got my ass completely handed to me by Pedro. The combination of fatigue, heat and lack of consistent training mixed of course with my general inexperience lead to him asking me in a concerned voice "Are you ok? You aren't resisting at all." A humbling experience for sure, but after seeing George bust himself up I wasn't about to go home tired when I could be getting some decent training in.

If you're ever in Beijing I would emphatically recommend stopping by, the atmosphere is great and it seems that there is a large contingent of regular students here who are all eager to learn and more than happy to leave their egos outside. The club also has several pro MMA fighters under its wings who train full time and whose fights are featured on a 50 minute, weekly TV slot that Andy has secured to get MMA the mainstream exposure it deserves in China.

Sunday 27 July 2008

Wrestling with Mongolians


We arose on day 2 in Mongolia after a cold night spent in the ger, it seems that our lodgings were located in the middle of some sonic battleground for the city's dogs. We were nonetheless absolutely ready for our wrestling session when we awoke at 7:30 to our, traditional Mongolian, breakfast of bread, jam, tea and eggs.

On our walk to the sports palace we saw the usual sights, open manholes, the burnt out communist party building and a man passed out in the middle of the road, face down in 32 degrees of heat.

When we entered the sports palace we saw the same security guard who had been there the night before, a young guy in his early twenties who was not expecting to see us again. When we asked where the wrestling was he just laughed and went to grab some of his colleagues, then something fairly unusual happened. One by one all of the people who he had now amassed at the front desk engaged in a ridiculous policy of trying to look busy. This involved them playing ringtones on their phones, reading books or pretending to write on pieces of paper, it was becoming ever more apparent that they did not want us to wrestle there at all. After watching this act of buffoonery for a full five minutes we decided to leave in order to hire a Mongolian speaking guide who would hopefully be able to help us to find out what the hell had happened and assist us in our quest to wrestle some Mongolians.

We made our way to a cafe called 'Chez Bernard' (home of the most overpriced food and drinks in all of Mongolia) as we had heard that this was the place to go if you wanted to hire a guide. We spoke to the manager, a woman in her early thirties with immaculate hair and nails wearing a designer dress and sporting some extravagant mobile phone that was doubtless capable of performing any number of alarming and esoteric acts. She said that if we wanted a guide it would be $20 for the day and that she'd be there with us in half an hour and so we came to meet Achdintoya (Acha for short), the girl who we were hoping would make our wrestling dreams come true.

Acha suggested that our best bet would be to head out of the city and find some nomads to wrestle as they were usually very keen to test themselves against "outsiders" and would spend most of their free time wrestling anyway.

We stopped by the Wrestling Palace hoping to get ourselves a wrestling costume from the shop we'd seen in there the day before. For those of you unfamiliar with Mongolian wrestling costumes here is a picture:

Legend has it that full shirts were worn in competition until one year a woman became the Mongolian wrestling champion. Presumably people found out she was a woman after she got super pumped from winning and ripped her shirt off in front of everybody. Thereafter all wrestling contests were held with open fronted shirts so that no women could enter and humiliate the Mongolian men.

It turns out that the Wrestling Palace only had costumes in two sizes, children and extra massive, so Acha suggested that we stop by The Black Market to see what the costumes there were like. Before heading off we quickly spoke to the receptionist with the cauliflower ears to see if he knew of any good places to wrestle in the countryside. He told us that not only did he know where some wrestlers were but that he'd drive us out there himself and introduce us to them. Things were starting to look very promising indeed.

Within 15 minutes we were at The Black Market with The Receptionist waiting outside in his car. The Black Market is a place that every guide book recommends against visiting, not only are there a large number of pickpockets and thieves as well as merchants all too eager to rip off gullible tourists but there have been incidents were tourists have been stoned by the locals for taking pictures of the stalls. Acha seemed mildly amused when we brought this to her attention and assured us that she'd get us the best possible price as she is a Mongolian. Sure enough 20 minutes later, after making our way through the cramped and dusty, narrow market we were the proud owners of our very own Mongolian wrestling costumes.

We set off to the mountains with a bag filled with traditional gifts as suggested by Acha; biscuits, cigarettes and Riesen chocolate chews. It turns out that the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar are filled with gigantic mansions that wouldn't look out of place in LA, the difference between UB and LA being the price, a 10 bedroom house in UB costs around 200,000 pounds. Nonetheless it was surprising to see quite how affluent the people of Mongolia have become considering the country's recent tumultuous history. It was also interesting to see how, sure enough, every house we saw had a ger set up in the garden no matter how lavish the main living quarters may be.

After driving for an hour or so on ever degrading roads we finally pulled up at the wrestlers' training camp. The wrestlers had set up shop in the Mongolian equivalent of Butlins, terraced rooms and decrepit looking playgrounds being the order of the day in Mongolia as in Britain. When we arrived it looked as though a lot of the wrestlers were sleeping, we offered some cigarettes to the ones who were wandering around the camp and waited for Acha to explain what we were doing there.

From Mongolia

After speaking to a couple of the younger looking wrestlers Acha informed us that we would not be able to wrestle with them because they were preparing for Naadam and as such it was considered unlucky for them to wrestle with "women or children". Quite which of these two categories the wrestlers considered us to fit into was unclear but one thing was certain, they were not going to wrestle us without the permission of their coach and he believed strongly in adhering to superstition.

Not wanting to waste a trip and still deeply committed to wrestling some Mongolians, we decided to do what any men of action would do; go to the most geographically proximate guys we could find and challenge them to a wrestling match. Just outside the grounds of Mongol Butlins we saw some men milking horses and sent Acha over to see if we could look inside their ger and wrestle with them. As soon as we stepped into the ger we were each handed a bowl of 'airag' a drink made by fermenting mares' milk in plastic barrels. The liquid had the consistency of regular milk but had visible strands of transparent liquid in amongst the white, presumably from where the milk had curdled. The airag smelled like rubbing alcohol and tasted like fizzy, sour yoghurt. A fairly sizeable departure from my usual pre-workout protein shake.

We sat and chatted for a while with the family who owned the ger and found out some fairly interesting facts:

-Although the family all had mobile phones and jobs in the city they would spend every summer living in the ger, up in the mountains

-The family had a whole herd of horses that would be sent to professional 'babysitters' during the winter and then handed back to them every summer

-Children wrestle pretty much from the second they're born, recreationally and in school

-When asked what they knew of England the family instantly mentioned Man U and Princess Di

-One of the men was convinced that in England there are restaurants that don't allow Asians to enter

After our verbal, cultural interchange ended we made our way outside for the physical one. It turns out that The Receptionist had sent word out that some Westerners wanted to prove their might against locals and had gone around picking people up in his car while we were in the ger talking. George and I gave a brief BJJ demo to the Mongolians, something which they found tremendously amusing. Not surprising really, considering that we had effectively just been rolling around in horse shit for their entertainment. Acha insisted however that because the horse shit was dry it was considered to be clean, very re-assuring.

From Mongolia

After a brief explanation of the rules - via the medium of charades - the first bout was underway. George faced off against a young Mongolian who looked to weigh about the same as us, they pummeled for underhooks for a while and the Mongolian attempted a body-lock takedown George quickly countered and took him down by hooking his leg.

What happened next was like something out of a film. The Receptionist, a man who hadn't spoken to us all day, a man who spent most of his time on his haunches smoking next to the car, calmly stood up and ripped his shirt off. He revealed a leathery muscular body, the type you only ever see on old men who have spent a lifetime on physical labour, all traps and biceps no fat on him at all. He looked George in the eye and said something in Mongolian, we didn't have to speak the language to realise that he wanted to fight for the honour of all Mongolian men after seeing George win. So that is exactly what he did.

After a heated series of attempts to secure underhooks from both parties, The Receptionist pulled at George's sleeve, as George pulled back The Receptionist dove beneath him shot his free arm between Georges legs and lifted him clean into the air, dropping him on his back an instant later. He then challenged me and did the exact same thing. Receptionist 2 Us 0.

Wanting to reclaim some honour for the Westerners I fought a smaller Mongolian who, despite his size, was pretty damn strong. He shot for a single leg on me and I managed to secure double overs on him. I then realised that I was in a perfect position to go for a full overhead suplex. So that is exactly what I did.

My attempt was received by cheering and clapping from the Mongolians even though I actually lost, due to the fact that my shoulder touched the ground before my opponent came crashing down next to me. Flamboyance 1 Actual ability to win 0.

Magnus was introduced to a particularly unpleasant strand of Mongolian medicine after cutting his knee open in one of his bouts, bleeding continuously and profusely like some ailing haemophiliac. Acha took a piece of cotton wool, set fire to it and then jabbed the flaming, bubbling mess straight into his wound in an attempt to curtail the flow of blood.

After taking on a few more bouts we said our goodbyes to everybody and headed back to the city for, yet another, buffet. BD's Mongolian buffet is apparently a chain restaurant from The States, the only chain restaurant in Mongolia in fact (there was a notable lack of McDonalds and Starbucks in UB places whose presence is felt on the street of almost every other city in the World). What the buffet lacked in authenticity however it more than made up for with heaping fistfuls of awesome. There was a salad buffet which, this being Mongolia, contained an enormous amount of cold meats as well as a vat of the tastiest lamb ribs I have ever come into contact with. The buffet proper involved a series of steel containers filled with every raw meat imaginable (including lamb tails) followed by an island of sauces. Once you had piled up a suitable raw meat mountain on your plate you passed this over to one of the chefs who used a pair of v shaped swords to cook your meal for you upon a giant, heated, donut shaped slab of metal.

After another night spent in the ger we made our way to Chinggis Kahn airport for the only part of our odyssey (save for the start and finish) carried out via airplane - Mongolian airplane. It turns out that the Chinese government had bought all the train tickets between the UB and Beijing in the run up to the Olympics, presumably so visitors would have to fly in and see how clean and shiny the airport now is.

Chinggis Kahn airport had the ruthlessly clean air of downtown Zurich to it coupled with the overall size of Bournemouth airport, unlike Bournemouth airport its walls were adorned with portraits of bloodthirsty warlords with wry smiles on their faces. The plane itself was very new and didn't fall out of the sky at all, in this respect it exceeded our expectations. The view of Mongolia from the sky was incredible, the landscape slowly evolving from city; to swamp; to mountains to desert.

Within two hours, as we descended through the layer of clouds which had marked the Southern edge of the Gobi desert, the stunning neon sprawl of Beijing came into full view.

Sunday 20 July 2008

Wrestling with Mongolia


Upon arriving at Ulaanbaatar station we quickly met up with our host Gaan. He drove us straight to the hostel in the style of all Mongolian drivers, batshit crazy and dangerous as hell. Absolutely zero adherence to even the most rudimentary of traffic signals.

Gaan's driving however was nothing compared to the bombshell he dropped on us as soon as we sat down in the kitchen of the guesthouse, our backpacks still on the floor next to us.

Gaan: "So, maybe you don't know the situation in Mongolia now"

Us: "Not really. What's going on?"

Gaan: "There was a general election last week and the old communist party won. Not many people believed this, me included. They all went to Sukhbaatar square and threw everything from the party headquarter windows. Printers and chairs and paintings from the walls. Then they burnt it."

Us: "Holy shit"

Gaan: "The prime minister declared a national state of emergency four days ago. This is the first time in Mongolian history"

Us: "Oh"

So now we were seeking not only to engage in feats of athletic prowess with a notoriously proud and physically powerful people; we were doing so whilst they were in the midst of total political upheaval.

From Mongolia

Our accommodation was awesome. The 3 of us had a 6 bed 'ger' to ourselves. The beds were basic wooden frames with ornate looking shells crudely shambled onto them to give a veneer of 'authentic' quality. There were no actual bed sheets or pillow cases but that really didn't seem to matter, neither did the lack of running water or plumbing in general.

Our first impression of Mongolia had barely had time to form when, upon exiting the guesthouse and walking down the Gandam Temple Street, an immensely excited old man insisted on shaking our hands vigorously. For no apparent reason. After shaking all of our hands, whilst laughing uncontrollably, tears of ecstasy streaming down his face he took things to the next level by passionately embracing George's neck.

Before we actually made it onto the main road in central Ulaanbaatar, Peace Avenue, we all very nearly died. It turns out that there are a large number of street children living in the sewers of Ulaanbaatar (6000 or so at the last count) and to them a manhole cover is merely a useless, heavy barricade to their home. To us, on the other hand, it is the one thing stopping us from plummeting down jagged, scatological, portals of pain to our certain doom.

With wide open eyes and necks tucked firmly into our torsos we proceeded to the Naadam stadium where, for 3 days every year, the world's largest wrestling tournament is held. The place is awesome. All around the outside there were various pictures depicting wrestlers locking up with each other, shooting for doubles and performing the obligatory falcon dance, carried out by wrestlers when they defeat thier opponents.

In order to cope with how unbelievably sweet the Naadam stadium was we decided to track down a nearby restaurant which, we had heard, served up something called a Mongolian warrior battle platter. Surely, we thought, nothing could have a name like that and not be ball-crushingly awesome. We thought wrong. Instead of a series of steaks served on a rhinoceros' rib cage, garnished with ground up unicorns and doused in babies' tears; we were presented with 3 foo foo little specks of insignificance served on 'fashionable' glass plates. It took every ounce of self-control within me not to dropkick the waiter over the horizon as soon as he disrespected us with his meagre offering. In the end we settled for quietly eating our food and then paying the bill. I'm sure though that deep inside though, he knew. He knew.

We spent the next few hours visiting a few different temples, all of which were in pretty dire states of disrepair and all of which showed a peculiarly Mongolian depiction of Buddhism. Mongolians don't believe so much in reflection and serenity as they do in cold bloody murder carried out by a series of ghoulish beasts, particularly this guy:

Here is a list of horrors we saw depicted in the temples:

People who's tongues were being ploughed with sharpenedlades
Disembodied heads with organs hanging from them via their spinal cords
Women being raped by laughing gods
People being eaten whole by goats, dogs and even cows
A guy having his wang bitten off by a pack of dogs
Deities trampling the 'ignorant' beneath them
People being boiled alive
People being skinned alive
A man having his stomach pulled out of his body while people pitched stakes into its corners

The number one wierdest:

Gods terrorizing peasants with guns

With the Mongolians being a nomadic people their capital has moved around on a regular basis, because of this the temples we visited weren't much over 100 years old. I have never before seen gods depicted carrying guns in a place of worship or anywhere else, outside of Stargate. for that matter.

After a hard day of sightseeing we figured we'd head to the Wrestling palace (an altogether different place built solely to house wrestling competition within UB) to see if we could join in with some type of training. We tried to communicate this to the guy at reception (who was sporting a fairly decent set of cauliflower ears) but he didn't seem to understand. Either way, he let us just walk about and check the place -which was deserted- out which was pretty damn kind of him. All around the outer hallways were portraits of previous Naadam champions from the past 150 years or so as well as various bits of scaffolding, pipes and cans of paint. The inside had modern looking multi-tiered seating with a large carpeted area for the competitors, it seems that the Mongolians don`t believe in the use of mats.

From Mongolia

After running around like a pair of idiots, taking photos of ourselves on the competition area and climbing the awards podium we decided to head back downstairs to speak to the receptionist again. We tried pointing at George`s monstrous ears and pummeling for underhooks to show him that we wanted to wrestle but all he could do was tell us when Naadam was. We walked away feeling slightly disappointed but still in high spirits with one more potential wrestling venue still on our to do list: the sports palace. Basically just a leisure centre but Mongolians are so absolutely sweet that they call pretty much anything a palace.

The sports palace was right by Sukhbaatar square, where the rioting had just gone down and also the location of the best ever government building in the world: The Mongolian Houses of Parliament. The building dominates Sukhbaatar square with its massive, sand coloured columns and blue tinted glass as well as an enormous, widescreen statue of Chinggis Kahn sat on a throne at the top of its steps. Rumour has it that just beyond the front door is an inner courtyard containing the most badass Ger in all of Mongolia, the place where all foreign dignitaries are welcomed to the country. That is some savage dedication to the Nomadic lifestyle.

In this noble and manly a location we were sure we'd be able to find ourselves some willing opponents and so burst through the doors of the Sports Palace, eager to get started. Right in the entrance hall there was a bronze state of a wrestler plus there were actual people walking in and out of the foyer. Things were finally looking up, or so we thought.

After carrying out our previous routine in order to communicate the fact we wanted to wrestle, the security guard just laughed in our faces. We kept hanging around though and made it clear that we really didn't intend to leave without wrestling. Eventually the guard asked for the help of a man who he knew spoke some limited English. He spoke enough to let us know that wrestling practice was at 9am and 7pm safe in the knowledge that we now had a time and location for our first go at Mongolia's national sport.