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In Korea great importance is placed on being beautiful.  This is a global inclination but I think that  beauty, or ‘prettiness’, is talked about often and more openly here than in western countries. 

So what is the Korean interpretation of beauty? Well, slim figures are big, as are high noses, small, white faces and eyelid folds.   The latter is one of the most common surgical procedures in this country – and cosmetic surgery is pretty common.  In fact, in ratio to population and on an international scale, South Korea has the highest rate of plastic surgery.

It is interesting to be told that my nose, which I spent significant teenage years trying to squash down with gaffer tape, is ‘good’.  One student even asked to touch it.  It stuck me, mid nose prod, how conditioned and subjective our concepts of attractiveness are.

And on the subject of conditioning, it bothers me that so many western models are used in advertisements, and that western physicality seems to play such a pivotal role in people’s perception of beauty. 

Like other Asian countries I’ve visited, white skin is coveted.  There are moisturisers with skin whitening properties and in summer the beach is an ocean of stripy umbrellas. I remember my initial reaction to this was ‘how strange’ and ‘why?!’ but it is perhaps just as strange as white skinned folk buying tanning oil and using sunbeds. 

Humans, it appears, spend a lot of time and energy aspiring to look like a different kind of human. What strange creatures.

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I embarked on my second Jimjilbang experience with two of the school nurses – my new favourite people in the world.

The spa we went to was top-end – the ‘this is how it must feel to be really rich’ end.  Situated in the biggest shopping centre in the world, from the inside of the bathhouse area you could be forgiven for thinking you had accidently boarded the Enterprise.  In fact, if they wanted a Startrek remake that will actually get viewers, going where no man has gone before would probably be a good start.

So, it started with the baths: same same as my previous bath trip only with hardcore underwater jet streams situated to massage (pummel) different parts of your back, an outdoor Jacuzzi (used post-sauna), and a serious scrubbing from one of my comrades who tutted gleefully at the amount of dead skin that rolled off my back after she attacked me with a skin grater.  I returned the favour.

We then donned pyjamas and rocked upstairs to the massive chill out complex.  The concept on which these places are built sits (or rather, lounges) very close to my heart: I think I have known all my life, particularly when the alarm shouted or I was travelling via rush hour tube, that this land exists.

Relaxation begins, of course, with a heated floor, the eating of boiled eggs and resting heads on small wooden blocks.  The eggs, I am told, really are the Jimjilbang thing.  However, like my perception of pillows made from wood, nobody seems to know quite why they are intrinsic to the complete experience.

Next we walk through tranquil fountains and rows of soft beds to check out the movies showing at the mini cinema, and begin our round of the various heated rooms, all of which have a specific theme – from green tea and red clay to sound wave therapy and charcoal.

We spend ten minutes in a massage chair and have a nap in a dome.  After sitting for a while in the hottest of all the rooms, we put on the provided coats (over our matching pyjamas) and walk outside in a bubbling, ankle-deep pool, the floor of which is made from small rounded stones to massage acupressure points as you walk.  When we make it out for a well-deserved lunch I feel like a goddess, or a baby seal – or some other clean, pure creature.

All of this is bloody good stuff if you ask me.  Probably why I go on about it so much.

There are a lot of them here.  Every time I get to the top of a mountain I feel glad to be alive, grateful to be here, happy to be me.  Like diving in the cold English sea, reaching the peak is something I never regret doing.  So even when I’m walking grumpily on an ice path with naught but a plastic, pointy stick as an anti-slipping device, or when the sky is grey and the upwards climb is steep and seemingly endless, in the end, the summit is always worth it.

My hike today included seeing 1000 year-old Buddha carvings and statues situated throughout the tree-covered, stoney mountainside.  Despite the ice, the walk was busy and at times I was traipsing along in a single-file line of around thirty people.  Hiking is a popular hobby here as you might imagine, and one thing I’m working out is that Koreans take their physical activities seriously.  So whether climbing 1000 feet or 100, on rocky terrain or a wooden walkway, chances are that a Korean person will be kitted out to the max, sporting proper hiking boots, walking sticks, sitting mats, caps, padded leggings and matching breathable sports jackets.  At top of the mountain today the atmosphere was jubilant, full of chatting, photo taking, well-equipped hikers. When I looked back at this spot from the next, the sight of so many people pootling about between the trees made me think of ants on a hill.

A lovely Canadian girl called Sarah has been my main mountain friend since I arrived.  Sharing a love of the outdoors we have together combated a few beautiful mountains – in shockingly normal clothes and trainers.   In this country, foreigners are still novel, especially taken out of the city and put up a mountain. In general, Korean folk usually seem rather pleased we’ve joined them for the spectacular view and are ever happy to help with onward directions or a glug of soju.

Not so long ago Sarah and I climbed to the flag-covered ‘White Cloud Temple’ at Tongdo, and caught the first snow of the year. Walking back down the road by which we had come, a monk stopped his land-drover to take a picture of us with his smart phone.  We first posed obligingly, and then laughed.  In this land we are as much the spectated as we are the spectators.  It feels fair.

Belén Lobos

Photojournalist- Periodista independiente

Sophia Sheridan

en-route to something, somewhere, it began...

another side of the world

Teaching in Yangsan, South Korea. Travelling where the wind blows.

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