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Seogkwan Dong, Seongbuk-Gu, Seoul - 7th April 2002

Dear All

As you would know, if you were doing the level of background reading expected in Korea, Friday was 'tree-planting day' here, and we had a holiday. This festival is not traditional or symbolic, but wonderfully functional, having been instituted in an attempt to repair the huge deforestation that was left by the Japanese Colonisation in the first half of the twentieth century and then the Korean War. Every citizen, once a year, was to take a day off work to plant a tree. But here's the thing: that is exactly what happened. At a stroke, or gradually I suppose, over the years [very similar in size to England and with the population now at 48 million - figures just out] the problem was solved. Every scrap of open land is full of trees, and the mountains tend to have trees even over their summits. Is it just me, or is it hard to think of models of national efforts of that kind that aren't about war?

I have to say that I didn't see much tree-planting myself, because the cast of the play took me on a tremendous day-trip to a little lake district, near a town called Chuncheon [at last a first line for that amusing limerick about a truncheon!] It involved waking at five o'clock, to get to the early train, for which we had just managed to get standing tickets.

I had been very impressed by my previous contact with Korean Railways in 1999, [it is still in national ownership, although with privatisation depressingly being regularly debated], which involved an express train, with a bowing guard of honour welcoming you on board, which ran to the minute. The expresses are called Saemaeul, but this one was the Mugungwhana, the cheap and cheerful second class train. I cannot say exactly how cheap, because we had paid a one-off fee for the whole day of about ten pounds to Chi-Ok, who plays Jeannie, and was our organiser. Cheerful I can confirm, though. There were people standing in every possible space, many of which would not have been possible for anyone bigger- on luggage racks, behind seats... We played noisy games all the way, with a good deal of giggling, and it seemed as if everyone else on the train was also in a group of ten, also giggling, but singing as well. Some seats were empty some of the way, and of course the students scouted the train every stop for any possibility of somewhere for me to sit, and then gathered round wherever that was for the next round of 'Ming,Mang,Mung' or the 007 game. Two hours later, on time to the second, we arrived, and had the first of three picnics by a pond - a kind of early Chuncheon luncheon, well OK it was still breakfast, but I had to put that there, because by lunch time we had gone out of town!

Forty minutes on a local bus, then a fifteen minute ferry on a big artificial lake, and a long walk up a river valley to a spectacular buddhist temple. The weather was the best it's been, the landscape really very familiar except for a few crucial differences. Nowhere I have been is completely wild, and all the mountains have box-offices at the entrances, and ticket barriers higher up, with set trails to cover. The paths often have cut steps, or banisters even, and there are lamp-posts. Apart from that, you can imagine walking up a popular stream in our dear lake district, looking for a picnic spot. Same pools, shady steep twisting paths, stepping stones and waterfalls. Now turn up the brightness, and turn down the colour control, taking away most of the green. Then every now and then, build a ramshackle restaurant, where people eat on little platforms above the water, under plastic or tarpaulin shelters. Oh and at the very top of the mountain, build a cluster of brightly-coloured temples filled with carved dragons and paper lanterns, and play a tape of chanting and bells. You have the picture.

Our second picnic was by the stream, the third was by a pond, and then back to the town for another impressive banquet of marinated chicken cooked on the table in front of us. We got back to Seoul at ten o'clock, and after getting on the wrong bus in my tiredness, I was back home only an hour or so later. The best 'tree-planting day' trip I've ever had, I would say.

On Saturday as if to emphasise how lucky we had been with the weather for the holiday, it rained very long and hard, and the streets ran again with dubious streams. I bought an umbrella, because I had almost come to blows with a man in the street who was trying to insist I take his.

Technology update. There is a new subway line, where the escalators see you coming and start moving just for you. This is a common tendency with machines here. The urinals do it as well - they don't move, though, they just start flushing. I think perhaps they may have developed this technology because it is not something that occurs naturally in people here, as a rule. I have tried to stop myself from behaving like John Cleese, and constantly muttering 'right I'll just walk round you then shall I?', and nearly adjusted to random intimate contact with strangers.

No time this week for political commentary, at a moment when we have a South Korean envoy in the North and some of George Bush's damage seems to be being undone. Nor for details of my contact with the chap at the embassy, who turns out to be Mike from Walsall, and who is getting us all tickets for the England warm-up game on Jeju Island in May. Meeting him delayed because the embassy bar wasn't open due to death in the Royal family. Thank you very much for your messages. I don't feel anything like as isolated as last time. The rehearsals are getting better, my korean is coming along slowly, and I've really had a very good week indeed. Enjoy the rest of the holiday.

lots of love


Letter Five