The Middle of Korea

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The middle of Korea and the middle of no where are different places. Come visit Cheongju Korea (if you like running and working in the semiconductor business and can’t get sent to Dresden to run by the Elbe).

By James DeLuca

It’s a warm Saturday afternoon with a healthy dose of sun and a light breeze. Since I’m in Cheongju, South Korea, a nice day outside usually means that I see the sun come up while in my taxi to the cleanroom and don’t come out until the stars are out.

Today was an exception. I couldn’t get any time scheduled for today to setup for any of my tests so I woke up at 7am with a strange, new and exciting experience ahead of me: a day off in Korea.

I got to Logan at 8am last Sunday for my flight. Boston to Chicago. Chicago to Tokyo. Tokyo to Seoul, landing at 9pm on Monday. From there I took the bus from the Incheon Airport to the Cheongju bus terminal and a taxi from the bus terminal to the Ramada Plaza. It was just past midnight when I finally checked in; I lost two days of running to that travel.

For reference here’s a map of Korea. From top to bottom: Incheon Airport {where I always fly into and out of). Suwon: (where I was for half of my trip in October-November 2010 and in February 2013 and February 2014). Hwaseong: (where I was for the other half of my 2010 trip and in August and in September 2014). Cheongju: (where I am now, October 2014)

It might not be safe to call Cheongju the middle of no-where but it certainly felt that way on the bus ride and my first few days at the hotel. It is a city of some 6-7 hundred thousand people, which while small by the standard of Seoul or Suwon which weigh in at 10 million and 1 million people respectively, it is still a bustling place compared to my little Oak Grove neighborhood in Malden.

I tend to be timid about running outside in Korea because the laws give the right of way to the cars and all the drivers know it. That style of driving coupled with city streets in Suwon which can be up to 10 lanes across leaves me to run a lot of treadmill miles. I say “a lot of treadmill miles” but those of you who have seen my log know that this is a lie. It should read “a high percentage of my mileage in Korea is on the treadmill”.

Even that isn’t so true anymore. My past 5 weeks in Korea have been 4 weeks in Hwaseong (actually Dongtan but you cannot see Dongtan on the map) and one week in Cheongju. My first run in Dongtan was 5 miles on the treadmill which but the other 18.8 miles I ran on that trip were all outside in the park across the street. On return to Dongtan on September I ran all 26.8 miles outside so my outside mileage is starting to catch up to my treadmill mileage.

Which brings me back to checking in at the Ramada Plaza at ~1am Tuesday morning. The place is pretty massive. It has a movie theater attached on one side and what appears to be the Korean equivalent to Walmart on the other side:

This is one of their beauty shots of the building from the internet. At only 21 stories it still dominates the skyline in Cheongju. The tallest buildings that I can see from my room on the 16th floor are perhaps 3 quarters as high as my room.

This bastion of westernness looks from the outside (and on paper) like it has all the amenities: pool, fitness center, breakfast, duty free shop, 4 restaurants, a top floor bar, a virtual driving range, sauna…

They also have ethernet cables. They even give you one for free when you check in because there is no wifi in the rooms which appear to have been last redecorated in 1976. The lack of wifi didn’t matter that much to me; hotel rooms are never so large that I really care that I need to plug in but they surprised me with another annoyance the next morning when I went down to the gym. It cost ₩11,000 to use the gym. Perhaps I would have been more upset about having to pay ten bucks to run five miles but since I just paid $175 for permission to run 26.22 miles next April I’ll call this one a bargain.

Jetlag and a cold hit the next morning and I didn’t run until Friday morning when I went down to the gym for a slightly less economical 4.75 miles which brings me to today (ignoring the week of 12-14 hour days in the cleanroom and just skipping to the running bits).

Actually it doesn’t bring me to today; I will digress and go back briefly to last night. I got back to the hotel relatively late and typed up my notes from the day to send back to the factory and then went out in search of some dinner. This was when I learned that the hotel is not in the middle of no where. It is perched at the edge of what appears to be a college town. The street that the hotel is on is quiet but any of the side streets opposite the hotel will take you into a town densely packed with pizza, chicken, beer and coffee shops. That walk convinced me that Cheongju was safe for a run outside.

Now we’re all caught up to this morning.

If you have ever watched a baseball game then you know and hate every time the announcers come up with the stupidest statistics to shove at you to try to fill the dead space which is 95% of the game.

“You know Tony, we have just seen history in the making. That was the first time a player on an away team has ever turned an inning-ending double play on artificial turf on a Thursday between Labor Day and Columbus Day while trailing by three runs with the batter facing a 2-2 count to a left handed middle-relief pitcher.”

That’s the kind of run I had today. It was my first ever 10+ miler in South Korea. Beyond that there are no superlatives to describe how I did on this run. It was not particularly long, neither fast nor slow and though it went up into the foothills of a mountain range the elevation gain was nothing to speak of. It was however a really nice run.

Cheongju from my hotel room. This photo is taken perpendicular to the direction of my run this morning. At least the start of the run (relative to this picture I ran right to left). The return from the hills was parallel to this picture and then turned right for the final loop.

I started down the street to the left from the hotel and just followed the road downtown, keeping the wooded hills to my left. The traffic was light and there were not too many pedestrians out to force me to weave through traffic. The buildings in Cheongju are more squat than the skyscrapers that Asian cities are famous for and the air tasted fresh save for when I ran past the small hole-in-the-wall restaurants preparing to serve lunch and was greeted by the smell of garlic and chilies.

The break from urban to rural was sudden with no buffer of suburban sprawl. I suddenly simply had no more buildings around me as I climbed out of the valley that hold Cheongju and into the surrounding hills. The houses that I did see scattered in the hills were smaller and more like what I saw at my visit to the Korean Folk Village in Suwon back in August than their modern high-rise counterparts just a few miles back down the hill.

Climbing further up into the hills I came across an observatory nestled amongst the hilltops. The slopes around the observatory were spotted with small greenhouses that alternated glass panels to let light in for crops and solar panels presumably to run the electronics onsite. On a steeper section a bit above the greenhouses there was a large bank of solar panels with no crops below. In the cleanroom and on taxis I always see the environmentally friendliness stickers which rank products to 1-5 on some government scale but I had presumed it all to be a bit of greenwashing given that the cities of Dongtan, Suwon and Seoul all appear to be lit up like Time Square year round. Today was the first evidence I’ve seen to the contrary.

Perhaps a mile or so up past the observatory the road leveled and started coming back down for the loop back into Cheongju. It is impossible to get lost running in this part of Cheongju if you are staying at the Ramada. You can almost always see it to point your way back home. It was just over an hour of running when I got back to the hotel so I ran past it to add on another 20 minute loop through another part of the city that I hadn’t seen yet.

By the time I got back up to my room to write this blog I had come to the conclusion that Cheongju is a bit of a runner’s paradise, at least in October. You probably wouldn’t bother coming here just to run but if you’re going to get sent somewhere for work you can do a lot worse then Cheongju and if you are here book a room at the Ramada but skip the fee for the gym. The streets and hills of this town are all you need. Tomorrow I will explore the run along the river bed that I noticed on my descent back into town on today’s run.


Follow James at his blog It’s Not the Years, Honey, It’s the Mileage.

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