It was the day before Riemer and I went to Disneyland that I decided to try Korea. I had been waiting for Japan for over a year, and it didn’t look like anything was going to change in the near future. And camping in Riemer’s living room, or in hotels in Utrecht even longer didn’t seem like a good idea. So it had to be Korea.
If you’ve been waiting a year for Japan, Korea is ridiculously simple. You apply online for entry permission (K-eta), you get an answer within 24 hours, you do a PCR test and wop. Korea is waiting for you. I bought myself a one-way business class gift, hoping to get some sleep.
I slept for maybe four hours (because sleeping with a FFP2 mask is no fun), and then it was time for the Great Korea Counter Slalom, or, the endless procedures at the airport. I had put all my paperwork (PCR certificate, printout of my K-eta and the four forms I had to fill out on the plane) in a folder, but at which counter they wanted which piece of paper was not always clear to me. I’ll try to recall it as best I can.
The first desk I encountered wanted my PCR certificate. In exchange, I got a sticker on my passport that most likely said the check was okay. I don’t remember for sure if there was another counter in between, but after that I found myself in a line for people without Korean passports. There was a small booth with sim cards, but I had an e-sim so for me it was not necessary. In the queue there were flyers hanging everywhere with a QR code, which you could use to download an app. Once it was my turn, I took a seat opposite a man in hazmat-suit, with mouth mask and face shield, behind one of those little Plexiglas walls. He wanted my phone, and helped me set up the app.
I don’t know exactly what went wrong, but my Korean phone number didn’t work. The internet via the e-sim had been working fine all along, but apparently it took a little longer to activate the number. The app wanted a phone number, otherwise the installation could not be completed. My Dutch number was not allowed.
Oh-oh, here we go, I thought. They’ll probably send me straight back. (Or back to the sim stand, at least.) But the man asked me if I had any other contacts. I didn’t. Then I suggested to use the number of the hotel I had booked for after the quarantine. The man made a quick call to the hotel to verify my booking, and then it was ok. Pfew.
The next counter was the quarantine check. A lady asked me if I had family in Korea. Didn’t have any. “Do you know that you have to be in a quarantine facility for 10 days then?” Of course I knew that. I hadn’t brought a suitcase full of snacks for nothing. I got a red card to hang around my neck, and a red sticker on my passport: quarantine. There were also yellow cards, which were later taken to the hotel, but they probably had different conditions or something? Anyway. Next counter.
Passport control. At last. Would they still throw me out of here? Well, no. I gave her the K-eta form (I think?), and the lady behind this counter asked me what I came to do. “Well um, I was actually going to move my business to Japan but yeah, they’re still closed, so I thought, let me check out Korea…” The woman laughed and let me through to the next step: my bags!
All in all, this hassle took about an hour and a half, I think. In the baggage hall, I took a moment to go to the bathroom, but thankfully, there were restrooms at several points along this route. I hear from people returning to Japan that it is different there. Anyway, my suitcase had been circling on the belt for an hour, so I quickly found it. I gave the nothing-to-declare bill to the customs officer, who thought I looked totally trustworthy, so I was allowed to continue.
The vengabus is coming
Now normally you go through big sliding doors and you’re in the country. Ready, finish, insert Mario flagpole sound. But not this time. I had to go through with my red ticket to a waiting area, where I met another Dutchman. He was here for work. He also had to go to the quarantine hotel, but well, then he could at least work in the right time zone. Not much later we were picked up and taken to the next waiting area. Note: these waiting areas are not much more than a section of the arrival hall with partitions around it. Here we sat for up to an hour, and I began to collapse. Here was no toilet, here I could not get out, and here I also had no idea how what where and when. Yes, we would be taken to a hotel. But were we going to wait until there were enough people? Until the bus was there? Until a hotel was available?
And then, an hour later, when we got on the bus, we were told where we were going. “You’re going to the Ramada hotel in Yongin!”, said a guy in hazmat suit, as if we were going on a school trip. By now I had knocked back an Imodium, because I find long bus trips terrifying. I was glad I had, because the big screen on the bus showed the expected travel time: “97 minutes to go!” Yikes.
The bus was stiflingly hot, because it’s winter here and Koreans don’t like cold, or something. At the airport, it was similarly hot. Next to me on the bus was a strange man who, like a true mafia boss, was threatening people over the phone. At least, that’s what it sounded like. Now I don’t speak Korean so maybe he was just angry that they were out of peanut butter, but the aggression in his voice was universal. He had his face mask hanging down on his chin, but I didn’t dare say anything. I kept my FFP2 mask firmly on in the sauna van.
Check check check-in
Fortunately, the bus driver drove like crazy, so within an hour we were at the hotel. My bags were sprayed with disinfectant and our red-ticket group had to take a seat in a sort of makeshift classroom in the hotel lobby. On the tables was a paper with instructions taped to it: “Delete the quarantine app from the airport, and install this other one.” My neighbour and I couldn’t get the app installed, for lack of phone number. “Oh, never mind then,” said a young agent in hazmat suit. “It’s not mandatory anyway.” Huh? Well, apparently you don’t have to use a quarantine app if you’re locked up in a quarantine hotel. Makes sense.
I filled out my bills: Allergies? No. Mental health issues? Not at all. I am Very Normal. I have no idea what would have happened if I did check boxes. Maybe they wouldn’t have given me a room on the twelfth floor with windows that open. Anyway. I was the first to go up, paid 891 euros (all-in!), received a key card, a bag with snacks and cup noodles (by now it was evening, and we had just missed dinner) and was allowed to go to my room. There, by the way, I was drummed out of bed that very night: PCR test! There was a lady in a white suit standing at my door with a cotton swab. She rammed it all but subtly down my nose and throat, and then I never heard anything about it again, so it must have been negative.
The first three days were quite tough: I was totally overwhelmed by the long journey and many question marks along the way, and I had to get used to the room, a new environment after all. (And I had my period, because I thought, that’s all right if I can’t go anywhere anyway). I would love to be able to go for a walk now and then, but of course that’s not allowed. So I open the window, stick my nose out, feel that it’s six degrees below zero and then the urge to go for a long walk disappears. Fortunately, the headache has subsided.
Ten days of this
But there I am, on the twelfth floor of a Ramada hotel in need of renovation, just outside Seoul, next to Korea’s largest amusement park, Everland. Unfortunately, I can’t see the park, but I look out onto a street lined with restaurants and hotels, a large tour bus parking lot, and a cute little light rail station. When I open my window, it smells like Japan. Or well, like Korea. Or actually even better, of food. But that smell, for now, is the closest thing to the travel experience that I will get in these ten days.
Because in other words, I have to sit here for ten days. I get three meals a day, cold but varied, and have a 20-pack of half liters of spring water (which I can have refilled indefinitely). I also get to put my garbage out every day at 6:30 p.m., in an orange bag with a big chemical waste logo. Every morning at 10:00 I am brutally awakened by a public address message. The first message asks us in Korean, English, Chinese and Japanese to take our temperature. The second message reminds us that we cannot smoke here, or face deportation. This message is in Korean, English, Chinese, Arabic(?) and Russian. Japanese would never do such a thing, I guess.
"So Toeps, how are you surviving?"
You may be wondering if it’s tough, such a quarantine. Now I’m only half way through, but the answer is no. First of all, I don’t have to think about anything. I don’t have to cook, I don’t have to go anywhere. What a peace of mind! Furthermore, I have internet, so I’m quite productive. The rest of the time I sleep. To be honest, I’m more afraid of the bus ride to the train station when I get out than of the next five days. Because this is wonderful.