Through immigration, fingerprints scanned, photo taken, luggage collected and the UK group, feeling a bit bleary eyed walk through the doors into Korea to be greeted by the smiling faces of tour leader, Master Zibby Kruk who is with Master George Vitale. Also waiting is fellow Brit, Dennis Murrell, who has made it to Korea via a two week tour of China.
Before we even have time to take in our surroundings, we are calmly but firmly hustled into a line and given a banner to hold out straight. It says “Welcome to Korea”.This is our first introduction to the many group photos that will be taken over the next nine days. With messed up hair and day old make-up, at least for some of us, we stare blankly at the cameras and try to muster a smile, while thinking, please just let me sleep. After standing there for what seems like an eternity, we gather our bags and like sheep, follow Master Kruk as he leads us towards the bus for the hotel. A soft bed and a good nights sleep seem to be only a short drive away. Little did we know that Day 1 had only just started.
It is just a short drive to the Best Western Airport Hotel and then a short rest as we are allocated our room mates and room keys and told to meet back in the lobby in 10 minutes. While our body clocks are telling us it’s breakfast time, our leaders are telling us it’s time for another dinner.
Fortunately, it is only a short walk around the corner to the restaurant where we are instructed to remove our shoes and led into a room with low tables covered with colourful but mostly unrecognisable food. There’s lots of grunts and groans as people try to find a comfortable way to sit on the heated floor, then it’s time to face the chopsticks.
Our dinner is Bulgogi, a shredded beef dish, served on clear noodles, with a pot of rice and an array of side dishes including Kimchi and shredded seaweed. Most people agree that it is delicious and despite it being their third or fourth dinner, bowls are quickly emptied and chopstick dexterity is put to the test trying the side dishes and wrestling with slippery noodles.
As we leave the owner thanks us, “Kamsahamnida”, bowing and pressing handfuls of mints onto each of us, so many that they are falling onto the floor. The habit of bowing when receiving anything will be quickly adopted by us all and will be hard to lose even when we return to the UK where bowing to the staff in Costa just makes you look weird.
Back at the hotel, we have time for a short rest. The Australian group together with Dave and Alex, have been located and should arrive at the hotel shortly. Once we are all together then the formal introduction to the Tul Tour can begin led by Zibby together with the other Tul Tour organisers, C.J. Oh, Sabina Kim and Brian Le Vu.
As this tour is as much about the history and culture of Korea as it is about Taekwon-Do, the first talk of the evening, given by volunteers from the Korean Cultural Society, is about customs and manners in Korea. We learn about bowing to say hello and thank you and and using two hands when offering and receiving something. Korea is a very polite society and Koreans believe that you should always show your respect to your elders, as they have greater experience and wisdom. One of the more important customs is Sebae, a New Year greeting, which in brief involves showing respect to the elders in the family by performing a long, low bow while kneeling. A well performed sebae is usually rewarded with a gift of money. Neil Plumbley finds himself nominated as the elder with his “daughter” bowing in front of him to show her respect.
We also learn about King Se-Jong and the Korean alphabet, Hangul. This was the last alphabet ever created, consisting of 24 letters which can be combined to create 11,000 sounds. It is the only alphabet whose creation is perfectly documented. Fortunately we are not expected to learn any Hangul before the end of our trip.
However, we are expected to master the chopsticks and Master Kruk has a competition lined up for us all to try. The atmosphere in the room lifts as previously sleepy participants rise to the challenge of showing off their ability to be able to move tube shaped snacks from one bowl to another. Our scores are noted and we’re warned that the challenge will be repeated at the end of the tour to see who has improved. Smug chopstick champions now realise that they should have held something back for the final round.
The final part of the evening is to receive our gifts. Each Tul Tour participant is given a backpack with a name badge attached. We’re told we should wear this every day just in case we get lost. At this point we realise that the profile pictures we’d given to Stuart months ago had been reproduced on the badges and are possibly not the most flattering. As well as the bags we also receive training shoes, towel, dobok and a jacket. The shoes are either too big or too small but by the following day, Elliot Walker has solved the problem of his tight shoes by shoving underpants into the toes. A tip that others seemed reluctant to emulate.
Day 1 finally ends with the sensible/boring people going to bed, while the party people head next door to the KGB bar.
We would like to thank Mr Stuart Anslow, the author Liz Porteous and the Totally TaeKwonDo magazine for making this article available for re-publishing in the moosin online magazine.