We are dressed in full outdoor gear; down jackets, thermal underwear, hats and gloves. Temperatures in Gangwon Province, South Korea can dip to -30 degrees Celsius in winter and we are taking no chances. Crampons and an ice axe would be useful but we make do with what we have; we are ready. We begin our descent.
Four seconds in and the lift judders to a halt between the fourth and fifth floor of our rundown motel; the emergency light flickers on and basks us in a faint red glow. There is silence, broken only by the buzzing from the electrics and the increasingly sharp breaths coming from my friend. “We are going to die,” she whispers seriously. “We. Are. All. Going. To. Die.”
I jab the red button and glance nervously at the others. Behind us, a Chinese couple hold their two-year-old boy and speak rapid-fire Mandarin while my friend begins to hyperventilate. “We’re just stuck,” I reassure her. “We’ll be out soon.” I fail to mention that the button doesn’t seem to work. I can imagine the woman at the front desk, her eyes glued to her soap opera while we are living our own drama just a few metres away.
We checked into the motel the night before; a tall, nondescript building in the middle of the rural town of Hwacheon. It was the only place we could find at such a late time, and we suspected it was a prominent ‘love motel’ for soldiers and their visiting girlfriends. The lift is like our room; small, musty and with a faint smell of urine.
With no signal on the one phone between us, we resort to old-fashioned methods of gaining attention. We bang on the walls and yell, only serving to create a monstrous reverberation within the lift and in our heads, and causing the baby to wail. His cries echo endlessly and are joined by whimpered mutterings from my friend.
We sit in semi-darkness. Our agitation, body heat and cramped confines create a vortex of humidity that reminds me of a better time the previous summer. Strange, it even begins to smell like Thailand, when a sewage pipe burst outside the hotel.
The baby has decided to pollute our container by filling his nappy. It now sits in the corner, the sixth and most unwelcome passenger on this journey. The Nappy reminds us of our own toilet situation but, on a positive note, it manages to silence my friend’s chants as she attempts to take short, sharp breaths or none whatsoever.
Through broken English and charades we introduce ourselves. The Zhangs are from Xi’an and are, like us, here for the annual ice fishing festival. “From England,” I say, only to be interrupted by an excited Mr Zhang. “Manchester United,” he says proudly. “David Beckham.” I nod, not willing to divulge that I am actually from Newcastle and have no clue about football.
We share the baby’s rice cakes but decline the breast milk, and offer what is in our pockets: a packet of chewing gum and a nibbled chocolate bar.
Though only half an hour has passed, the twilight zone has affected our judgment. We join in with a bilingual rendition of instsy wintsy spider which, in the flickering abyss and echoed acoustics, comes out rather gloomy and creepy.
Our calls go unheeded and the ten-second journey transforms into a one, then two-hour ordeal. It is only The Nappy that finally spurs us into action. With broken finger nails and curses that crack cultural boundaries, Mr Zhang and I pry open the metal doors, inch by inch, until we are forced to shut our eyes against the sudden onslaught of light.
I stare in morbid fascination at the sight before me.
The lift is barley four inches off the fourth floor.
We step out, the language barrier failing to hide our acute embarrassment and shame, and take the stairs. Ignoring the woman sitting at her desk, cackling at the latest romantic interlude on her tiny TV, we burst through the doors and into freedom.
We take in huge gulps of fresh air. And choke. It is -12 degrees outside; the lift isn’t looking so bad in hindsight.