Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

Installing QuietFloor Plus from Sound Service

Monday, March 12th, 2012

As part of my flat redecoration I wanted to add some floor sound proofing to reduce noise coming from below. I decided to use the ‘Gold Carpet System’ from Sound Service in Oxford.

This uses one layer of their SBM5 sound proofing mat (2mm) with a layer of their QuietFloor Plus (15mm) on top. The carpet goes over the top of this 17mm of sound proofing. No extra underlay is needed.

Ordering sound proofing from Sound Service

I placed my two orders via their online store. With the first order I got most of the sound proofing for the two rooms and corridor I was doing. The second order was for the remaining area of the final room. I placed a large initial >£1200 order so I could get free delivery. The second order was much smaller – as there was only a bit of floor space left I could order exactly the amount of materials I needed to finish off without wastage.

When placing the first order I got a “Microsoft VBScript runtime error ‘800a0009’ | Subscript out of range: ‘[number: 1]’ | /pc/customerOrderConfirmEmail.asp, line 237” error after making the payment which didn’t inspire confidence, but the order was listed in my online shopping account. Sound Service quickly confirmed that the order had gone through when I emailed them.

When I placed my second order over a month later their online shop was still giving the same error. If you get it just check your online account to make sure the order went though.

Sound proofing delivery

I chose next day delivery for a £12 surcharge and asked them to tell the delivery driver to call my mobile before arriving.

The next day the delivery man called me and I was able to meet him on the street. The order was on a standard wooden palette and he placed it in front of the door where I asked him to put it.

This first order weighed 620kg and I was lucky to have some help from the building’s porters to get the items into my flat.

quietfloor plus install 1

At the bottom of the palette are the 120cm x 60cm QuietFloor Plus panels. They are each about 10.8kg so they can be carried in ones or twos.

On top of them are the 180cm x 120cm SBM5 mats. They are rolled together 2 or 3 at a time. Each mat also weighs about 10.8kg, so when there are 3 rolled together that can be 32.4kg to carry if you don’t separate them!

Above that you can see the wooden perimeter strips, then in the box are 25 tubes of their acoustic sealant. The object that looks like an electric guitar is actually the sealant gun wrapped in a black bag.

You might need to spend some time cutting up the wooden palette, or make arrangements to dispose of it.

This is what the first order looked like after it was unpacked.

quietfloor plus install 2

Not shown is the ‘jointing tape’ which is inside the rolled up SBM5. It is in fact just plain electrical insulation tape.

quietfloor plus install 3

Preparing the floor

Before installing the sound proofing there are quite a few things that I did to prepare the floor.

First I removed the carpet and underlay. Both of these could just be pulled off the floor. I used pliars to remove any remaining underlay staples that were sticking dangerously out of the floorboards. I didn’t bother to remove staples that were fairly flush with the floorboards as they won’t be noticed after the 17mm of sound proofing + carpet are added on top.

Then I removed the carpet grippers.

I spent some time fixing the floorboard squeaks as some of them were really bad and it would be impossible to do once the soundproofing + carpet was laid.

Sealing the floorboards

Although the Sound Service ‘Gold Carpet System’ information doesn’t mention this, elsewhere on the site they do recommend sealing your floorboards before adding sound proofing on top of it.

I bought 25 tubes of their 380ml acoustic sealant to this (you get a discount if you get 25). The tubes are just under 26cm long so you’ll need a sealant gun big enough to take these cartridges. You can buy a correctly sized sealant gun from them if you want.

Accoustic sealant is very similar to the white bathroom sealant that you see everywhere, except that it remains flexible for longer which makes it good for floorboards which have a bit of movement.

I found that each tube would fill the the gaps between floorboards in an area between 1x1m and 1×1.5m. It depends how large the gaps are, and how much you use. I went through the room doing a square at a time and then using a damp cloth to smooth the sealant down.

quietfloor plus install 4

As you can see my application of the sealant was anything but neat but no one will see it later so don’t worry about small ridges or smears. After the sealant had dried I taped over all the joints with duct tape.

As well as sealing the floorboard gaps I also sealed around the edge of each room.

Laying the SBM5

The next thing to go down is the SBM5 mat. It is very thin – only 2mm, but it is very heavy. It is fortunately very easy to shape. At first I tried using a paper template around the doorways and then cut it with scisors, but then I realised that I didn’t really need to do this. I could just use a Stanley knife to trim it in place around the doorways.

quietfloor plus install 5

I laid the SBM5 down from wall to wall, and taped the edges together with more duct tape.

Installing the perimeter strips

Because the QuietFloor Plus is 15mm high you need to put wooden perimeter strips around the edge of the room (on top of the SBM5) so that the carpet grippers will be at the correct height.

With my first order I got 40 perimeter strips and I got the remainder in the second order.

They are made of a variety of different woods. Some of the light coloured ones are made of very soft wood which is very easy to screw down. The darker coloured woods are harder and are more difficult to work with.

They are all 1m long but there is some noticeable difference (1-2mm) in the widths of these strips. Some of the strips are perfectly straight, but others are quite curved. There is enough flexibility in the perimeter strips to be able to screw the curvy ones down straight.

I’d recommend drilling pilot holes in all the strips before laying them so that they can be easily screwed down. I chose to drill holes roughly every 20 cm.

quietfloor plus install 6

I then used a mix of 0.75 and 1 inch screws to secure the perimeter strips to the floor.

You can cut them with a hacksaw easily and a good tip is to use the harder wood stips whole and only cut the softer wood strips.

I sealed any gaps around the edge of the room with acoustic sealant.

Laying the QuietFloor Plus mats

The QuietFloor Plus mats consist of two layers of a rubber material (which in fact looks like it might be the same material as the SBM5 mat, with a layer of foam in between. On both sides of the rubber is some kind of coating. The raw SBM5 does smell very ‘rubbery’. The QuietFloor Plus mats don’t smell which is probably because of this extra thin coating.

Sandwiched in-between the two rubber layers is recycled foam. The colour of the foam seems to depend on what is being recycled. With my first order it was a yellow colour, and with the second it was a blue colour. It doesn’t matter though as you will never see this layer after it is installed!

Sound Service have a YouTube video where they show someone effortlessly laying the QuietFloor Plus panels in a perfectly square room. For me the installation of these mats was really hard work due to the amount of cutting required. My rooms aren’t perfectly square. They have doorways with wood trims, angled bay windows and support pillars on the edges.

My corridor was particularly difficult to do as there are 4 doorways on it which required a lot of QuietFloor Plus cutting.

I cut them using a Stanley knife. You can easily mark the cutting positions on the panels with a pencil. You’ll need to change your blades frequently if you want neat cuts. If the blades get a bit blunt then it catches on the foam in the middle of the QuietFloor Plus and drags. I swapped blades after cutting every 2-3 panels.

quietfloor plus install 8

Sometimes you end up with slight gaps between the panels – it is impossible to cut them all perfectly. You can fill the gaps with any spare bits of foam, or acoustic sealant.

I didn’t stick any of the QuietFloor Plus panels to the floor using their spray adhesive but in most cases I did put a bead of acoustic sealant around the edges of the panels before butting them together to make sure the seals were air tight.

Finishing off the QuietFloor Plus install

To finish off the floor I sealed any remaining gaps around the panels with acoustic sealant, and then taped over the joins with duct tape. And I sealed any remaining gaps between the edging strips and the QuietFloor Plus panels with more acoustic sealant.

Because of the extra 17mm of height in the room I had to use a door trimming saw to get the bottoms of the doors to the correct height for the carpet. The install may affect electrical and telephone sockets which are positioned really close to the door.

And if you are only installing it in certain rooms you’ll have to think about how to manage the change in height of the flooring from the rooms that have it to the ones that don’t. You may well need to refit any door edgings or buy new ones.

quietfloor plus install 9

The room was then ready for the carpet. You can see a before and after shot above.

The QuietFloor does make a very comfortable feeling underlay after the carpet has been laid. It will certainly reduce the noise from your footsteps a lot for your downstairs neighbours. An extra advantage is that the mats will smooth out small bumps or imperfections in the existing flooring.

It doesn’t stop all airbourne sound from the floor below, but it does reduce it a bit. Very quiet sounds disappear; other sounds are reduced in volume. It isn’t going to make much difference to louder sounds or loud bass noise. It is of course only going to reduce airbourne noise. Any noise which is flanking around via the structure of the building will still be heard.

However this is probably the best you are probably going to be able to do in terms of sound proofing without taking up all your floorboards, or building a completely isolated ‘room within a room’.

In total I think I used 43 QuietFloor Plus mats, 16 SBM5 panels, 45-50 edging strips, 27 tubes of acoustic sealant, many rolls of duct tape and a few hundred screws.

See the Sound Service website for more details of their ‘Gold Carpet System’ including prices and their installation guides.

Fixing squeaking floorboards

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

Floorboard squeaks and creaks can be very annoying but there are a few ways you can try to fix them.

Screwing floorboards down

If individual floorboards are squeaking one potential solution is to screw them down to the joists. You’ll need to locate where the joists are. This is usually very easy as you can see the existing nails/screws that are holding the floorboards to the joists.

When screwing into floorboards you need to be very careful to avoid any water/gas/electricity supply cables/pipes. You can use a pipe detector to help you locate them.

If you put screws very close to the existing nails there is less chance of hitting anything important.

I used a mix of 1.5 inch and 2 inch wood screws. They need to be long enough to go through the floorboard and into the joist.

After locating which floorboard was squeaking I drilled a pilot hole. I used a drill bit with an attachment that drills the countersink at the same time. I set the height of the countersink so that the drill bit would just drill through the floorboard, and not into the joist.

fixing squeaking floorboards 1

Then I could pop the screw into the hole and use another drill to drive it into the joist. It can be very useful to have two drills, one for drilling holes, and one for screwing down the screws. This can save a lot of bit swapping.

fixing squeaking floorboards 6

I found this method to be effective where an individual floorboard was squeaking. I didn’t find it helped in the case where a joist was squeaking.

Expanding foam filler

Where an individual floorboard was squeaking the noise was limited to that floorboard. In some cases the squeak was activated across the joist along a series of floorboards. For these squeaks screwing down the floorboards didn’t seem to remove the squeak as it didn’t prevent the joist from moving.

I tried a different technique. I got some large expanding foam filler canisters. Either 750ml or 825ml. These cost from £8-£11 each.

fixing squeaking floorboards 4

I then drilled a hole next to the creaking joist big enough to fit the expanding foam nozzle into. This hole does not go into the joist, it goes into the cavity next to the joist. As this is drilling into the floor cavity you have to be especially careful not to hit any pipes or wires. Make sure you use a pipe detector, and don’t drill any further than the depth of the floorboard. You can see a typical hole that I drilled in the photo above.

I sprayed in a bit of water (the instruction on the expanding foam say this is necessary for the foam to cure).

fixing squeaking floorboards 2

Then after shaking the can I sprayed the full contents of it into the cavity. Then I left the foam to harden for a few hours. This technique has successfully removed the squeaks from my floorboard joists.

fixing squeaking floorboards 3

It may be a good idea to wait a few weeks before putting down any flooring in case you find any other areas that need treating.

I’m guessing this technique works by immobilising the joist and the surrounding floorboards. If the foam stops the floorboard/joist from moving then there is no sound.

The space under my floorboards is very small – it is only about 4 inches. This technique may well not work if the space under yours is much larger.

I’m also not sure how long term this solution is. It has now kept the squeaks away for about one month. It is possible that over time the foam will compress and the floorboards will start moving again. I’ll update this post some time in the future with more results.

Argos shoe rack

Monday, March 5th, 2012

I bought a 4 tier flat pack shoe rack from Argos. Here’s a link to it on their site, and below is a photo of what it looked like after I assembled it.

argos shoe rack 7

As with much of this cheap Argos / Ikea flat pack furniture assembling it was not as straightforward as it should have been.

The problem was that over half of the pilot holes on the end slats had been innacurately drilled. They were drilled too close to the edge. There are other reviews on the Argos website that point out the same problem.

argos shoe rack 1

If you try to drive the supplied screws into one of these holes which is too close to the edge the wood splinters.

argos shoe rack 3

The only solution is to redrill the pilot holes at the correct position. I worked out that for this item that the holes should be slightly off-centre. I used my Challenge Xtreme 18v cordless drill (also from Argos) to do this. Here are my re-drilled slats.

argos shoe rack 4

I could then start assembling. There are 56 screws so you’ll really want to use a cordless screwdriver / drill to drive them in rather than using a manual screwdriver.

argos shoe rack 2

I did the end pieces first, and then put the long slats in before turning it over to do the other end.

argos shoe rack 6

It is best not to tighten the screws too much at first until you have checked that all the slats are correctly aligned. Once they are correctly aligned then you can do the final screw tightening.

argos shoe rack 7

Splashing kitchen tap

Saturday, March 3rd, 2012

My kitchen tap generates a lot of spashing water when it is turned on. This is because a single solid tube of water pours out of it. Even when the tap is only lightly turned on a lot of water splashes up over the draining board and work top.

I used to think there was nothing that can be done about it until I became aware of ‘tap aerators’. These inserts work by mixing air with the water to make it more bubbly and reducing the pressure of the water stream.

Instead of a solid jet of water, with an aerator you get a bubblier softer stream of water.

In order to be able to fit an aerator the end of the tap will need to be removable. I used an adjustable spanner to get the end off as it was tighely screwed on.

water tap aerator 5

Here is the old insert. To work out what size of aerator you need you’ll need to carefully measure the diameter of the thread. Mine was 22mm.

water tap aerator 3

I ordered this 22mm aerator from Amazon, and it arrived the next day. It arrived in a tiny package with no instruction, but it isn’t too hard to figure out how to assemble it.

water tap aerator 2

I put the above pieces together like this:

water tap aerator 4

Then I screwed it into the tap and gave it a test. It did aerate the water and reduce the splashing but there was an obvious leak around the edge of the insert. One of the reviews on the Amazon produce page also mentions this problem. It could be due to the short thread length, or because my tap doesn’t have anything inside it for the supplied washer to compress against.

I solved the leak with PTFE tape. An essential item if ever you are doing minor plumbing work.

water tap aerator 6

I wrapped about 40 cm of the tape around the thread and then trimmed the top bits so they didn’t block the flow.

water tap aerator 7

I then screwed this back into the tap whilst it was turned on until it was far enough screwed in to create a proper seal.

And here is the final result. On the left you can see the original water stream. It is clear because it is pure water. On the right is the aerated stream which is cloudy as it is mixed with air bubbles.

water tap aerator 1

The reduction in splashing has made this a worthwhile purchase, plus the chrome colour of the aerator cover looks much better than my old black plastic tap end.

Door trimming saw

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

If you are installing a new thicker carpet, thicker underlay, or wood flooring you may find that your doors need trimming for the flooring to fit underneath.

There are several ways to do this:

  1. Remove the door from its hinges and cut it using a hand saw or circular saw.
  2. Cut it in place using a hand saw or circular saw.
  3. Use a special purpose door trimming saw.

I decided to trim mine using a door trimming saw. These are expensive to buy, and you aren’t going to use them much, so it can be a lot cheaper to hire them. I hired one for the day from HSS hire. Here is a link to the door trimming saw I hired for £36.84 (the prices on their website don’t include VAT).

I had to order it a week in advance as they said it was a very popular item and fully booked.

Here is what the saw looks like. It is a circular saw with a very thick enclosed blade. It is designed to be slid along a flat floor, and the 4 screws at the corners near the bottom allow the height of the blade to be modified.

hss door trimming saw 1

The blade comes out of the front when you push the spring loaded handle forward. The amount the blade comes out is only just enough to cut a standard door, so you will have to keep it fully pushed forward to make the cut.

hss door trimming saw 2

Each of the 4 height screws has measurements on it so it is easy to set the saw to the correct level.

hss door trimming saw 3

There is a vacuum port to suck the sawdust away, but I found that my Dyson hose was the wrong size to connect to it. I got around this by using masking tape to connect the hose to the door trimmer.

hss door trimming saw 5

To help prevent the bottom of the door from splintering I wrapped masking tape around it.

hss door trimming saw 4

Then I started using the saw. First turning on the vacuum, then the saw. When it is at full speed you can begin cutting. You should check the instructions to make sure you cut in the correct direction. In the case of the saw I was using the cut had to be made left to right.

The saw is very noisy and even with the vacuum sucking away most of the sawdust there was still enough dust in the air to set off the room’s smoke alarm! Because the blade is enclosed and hidden away from your face it should be fairly safe to use, but you should still wear safety glasses in case you get a rogue flying splinter.

It took about 3 minutes to cut each door by sliding the saw slowly from left to right. I found that it won’t get close enough to the door frame to cut the very edge, so I had to do the final 1cm with a hand saw. I could then finish off by giving the edges a quick sand, and then repainting any bits where the paint had flaked off.

hss door trimming saw 6

Even with the vacuum running there was still loads of sawdust on the floor. Here are some of the pieces that were cut off the three doors that I did.

hss door trimming saw 7

It is still hard work to push the blade through the doors, but much easier and more accurate than using a hand saw.

Removing carpet grippers from floor boards

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

If you are completely re-doing the flooring of a room (to go from carpet to wood flooring, or to lay sound proofing for example) you might need to remove the old carpet grippers. Here is how I removed the carpet grippers in one room. I used:

  1. A chisel with a fine sharp end that could get under the carpet gripper
  2. Another item to use as a fulcrum under the first chisel. I used a smaller chisel but I could have used anything of similar size and solid such as a screwdriver or piece of wood or metal.
  3. Safety glasses. A lot of DIY guides say to use safety glasses but of course you never do. In this case you really should – especially when removing smaller strips of carpet gripper. They are covered in sharp nails, and they can fly off the floor when levered up. I’ve had some that have shot up well above the height of my face when they suddenly pop out of the floor.

removing carpet grippers 3

The method I used was to start at one end of a carpet gripper machine and push the sharp end of the chisel under the first nail. The using the other chisel as a fulcrum I slowly levered the nail out.

removing carpet grippers 1

If the gripper is really tight on the floor board you might need to hammer the chisel gently to get it below the gripper, but I never needed to do this. In all cases I was able to push the end of the chisel under the gripper a little by hand, and then work the nail out.

Then I moved onto the next nail. I found that on a strip of carpet gripper the first nail might take about 5 seconds to get out, but then the next ones might take 2-3 seconds. I was able to remove the grippers pretty quickly, and intact using this method.

removing carpet grippers 2

It is even possible to reuse the carpet grippers after they have been removed using this method, but because the nails are now pushed down, and slightly curved after being removed they are a bit arkward to hammer back down. New carpet grippers are really cheap so it is probably less hassle to buy new ones than to attempt to reuse them.

If you do want to reuse them then I’ve found it is easier to remove the fixing nails and then use new nails/screws to secure them. To remove the nails I used some combination pliers to push the nail up a bit, and then some diagonal pliers to twist and pull the nail out. I can get each nail out in about 10-15 seconds doing this. Wearing thick gloves on the hand holding the carpet gripper will stop you cutting yourself.

Ikea assembly service

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

My flat is full of Ikea furniture. And until now I’ve assembled it all myself. I’ve either had it delivered by Ikea themselves, or used one of the taxi vans outside the store to get it back.

For my new Ikea PAX wardrobe I decided to get it assembled for me. The main reason is because of its size and weight. The wardrobe is 236cm high and 200cm wide, made up of two 100cm wide parts.

Each wardrobe half is 56kg and needs to be assembled on the floor before being raised to vertical. It has two sliding doors which are each nearly 30kg each. These need to be assembled on the floor before being lifted onto the frame.

ikea pax wardrobe assembly service 3

Because of the size and weight, this wardrobe needs two people to assemble it. As I didn’t want to risk my life by assembling it myself I started researching Ikea assembly services. There are lots of flat pack assembly companies around the London area.

eXpress Wardrobe

I decided to try eXpress Wardrobe whose slogan is “No More DIY Torture”. I sent them my Ikea list giving them the names, article numbers and prices of everything I wanted.

  • PAX Wardrobe with sliding doors, oak effect, Malm mirror glass/oak £465 (£120 * 2 + £345) / 801.215.31 * 2 (oak frame) / 801.830.05 * 1 (oak sliding door with mirror) / http://www.ikea.com/gb/en/catalog/products/S29875492/
  • KOMPLEMENT clothes rail £8 / 601.411.63 * 2 / http://www.ikea.com/gb/en/catalog/products/60141163/
  • KOMPLEMENT shelf (2 pack) £42 / 601.215.27 * 3 / http://www.ikea.com/gb/en/catalog/products/60121527/
  • KOMPLEMENT drawer £88 / 901.214.46 * 4 / http://www.ikea.com/gb/en/catalog/products/90121446/

Two days later they sent me an Ikea shopping list via the Ikea website and also their quote. The Ikea parts cost £603, and then they quoted £85 for pickup and delivery, £20 extra because I’m on a higher floor (the large items won’t fit in the lift) and £97 for assembly.

I agreed to their quote and gave them three suggested days for that week. A day later they confirmed that they could make one of the days and so I paid my 35% deposit. The 35% is calculated on the cost of the Ikea items, not the pickup/delivery/install charge.

Before the delivery day I cleared the room so they would have as much space to assemble as practicle. Here is the big empty space waiting for my wardrobe.

ikea pax wardrobe assembly service 1

Delivery / assembly

They had agreed to arrive between 9:30am and 10:30am. At 9:48am they sent me a text to say they were running late and apologising for this. They said they’d be here between 11am and 12:00.

At 11:30am their van arrived and they started unloading the parts from their van. By 11:45am they’d started bringing the things through my door (it is a bit of a trek up the stairs to the flat).

ikea pax wardrobe assembly service 2

Before they started assembling I asked them to let me know when the frames were vertical so I could get them positioned in the correct place, and they later checked which positions I’d like the drawers to be placed at.

There were two of them and they very quickly had the PAX wardrobe frames in place and positioned according to where I wanted them. They then spent their time assembling the sliding doors which are clearly the more complicated part of the wardrobe.

They both worked hard to get it finished and were polite when they needed to speak to me. They must have done plenty of these PAX wardrobes before as they didn’t need to reference the manual.

By 1:20pm they had both doors on and were assembling the 4 drawers. And by 1:45 they had left leaving me with my giant new Ikea PAX wardrobe.

ikea pax wardrobe assembly service 3

Above is the outside and below is half of the inside. I didn’t know at exactly what height I wanted the clothes rail or final two shelves to be placed so I wanted to put them in later rather than having them fitted.

ikea pax wardrobe assembly service 4

Finishing off the wardrobe

To save a tiny bit of money I’d told them when requesting the quote that I’d do the wall mounting myself. I did the wall mounting and then made a few finishing touches to the wardrobe.

  • I stuck some extra buffer pads inside the sliding door so that the doors are quieter when opened.
  • I screwed in some corner braces under the bottom shelves so that they can take more weight. The 6 plastic shelf holders that Ikea supply for the shelves look a bit flimsy.
  • I oiled the sliding door, and sliding drawer mechanisms. Better to oil the drawer mechanisms before the drawers start filling up.

Paying and conclusions

I chose to pay via bank transfer rather than PayPal / Google checkout. There is a 3.5% surcharge for PayPal / Google checkout payments so it seems more sensible to pay direct.

The amounts I paid were:

  • Ikea shopping list: £603 (35% of this paid in advance as a deposit)
  • Pickup and delivery: £85
  • Higher floor surcharge: £20
  • Assembly: £97
  • Parking: £7:40

Total = £812.40

They had done a good job with assembling the wardrobe. It looked the way I wanted, was where I wanted, and had required very minimal effort on my part. I’d certainly use them again if I ever buy another piece of flat pack furniture which is too large for me to assemble myself.

The only work I was left with was squashing and putting all the cardboard boxes in the recycling (they don’t take away your packaging).

You can find out more about eXpress Wardrobe’s service on their website at http://www.expresswardrobe.co.uk. They also have some great speeded-up assembly videos on their YouTube channel if you want to see them at work.

Panmunjom, DMZ and seeing the North Korean border

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Whilst on holiday in South Korea I went on a tour of Panmunjom and the demilitarised zone by the border of North and South Korea.

panmunjom dmz tour north south korea 4

There are lots of agencies running similar tours, and there are differences in what places you see on each tour. I booked about a month in advance via email for the ‘DMZ & Panmunjom’ tour run by the Panmunjom Travel Centre. They run several different tours, the one I went on was known as the ‘combined’ tour as it visited the DMZ and Panmunjom.

The day started shortly after 8am by registering at the Lotte Hotel in Seoul. The tour cost 120,000 Won (about £65) which I paid on the day, and after they checked my passport I was given direction to find the bus.

About 80% of the people in the bus were Japanese, and they’d separated the English speakers out and put us at the back of the bus so we could get English commentary. As the bus rode northwards the tour guide gave us some background on the Korean war and how the DMZ was created. She also explained about the security procedures that would take place once we reached the DMZ. On the bus was a lady who had defected from North Korea and we got to ask her questions before we reached the DMZ (she wasn’t allowed in this area).

panmunjom dmz tour north south korea 14

When we reached Camp Bonifas (named after a soldier who was killed by the North Koreans in 1976) a South Korean soldier came onto the bus to accompany us for the tour. He checked our passports and also had a look at what we were wearing. One of the other English speakers (an American) was singled out because he was wearing a t-shirt with an American theme. The tour guide explained that the soldier wasn’t happy about this. North Koreans don’t like Americans, so wearing this t-shirt would draw attention to him. Luckily they carry some spare clothes on the bus for people who are wearing the wrong kind of clothing. He was given an ill-fitting shirt which he had to wear whilst in the areas that would be in sight of the North Korean guards.

We drove through the DMZ and saw soldiers on the way, most of them lightly armed with just hand guns. When the bus reached the Joint Security Area (JSA) in the village of Panmunjom we got off and went into the Freedom House to watch a video about the history of the area.

Next we were allowed to walk to the front of the Freedom house from where we could see the North Korean side of the JSA. If you look at the top left of the photo towards the North Korean side, on top of their Panmungak building you will see another group of tourists. They are in North Korea and are on the North Korean version of the JSA tour. Neither we nor they are allowed to cross the border. They were waving and shouting at us, but we had been given instructions not to make any guestures, or say anything over the border.

panmunjom dmz tour north south korea 2

The blue ‘sheds’ straddle the border, and there is a small concrete block inbetween them which marks the border position. We were allowed to go inside the one on the left which is the MAC Conference Room where both sides can meet.

panmunjom dmz tour north south korea 1

Inside the conference room we were allowed to walk its full length crossing the line that marks the border. The border goes through the middle of the conference table. We were allowed to have our photo taken with the UN soldier who is in his ‘taekwondo pose’ but we were under strict instruction not to touch him – one lady got told off for trying to touch his arm while posing for a photo!

Back outside in the JSA we could see a North Korean soldier watching us through binoculars – they still wear old Soviet style uniforms. The UN soldiers and South Korean soldiers look quite distinctive. The UN soldiers look muscely, wear sun glasses and stand in motionless taekwondo poses. The South Korean solders are thinner, wear softer uniforms and casually walk around, many of them are young conscripts.

panmunjom dmz tour north south korea 3

This below shot shows the classic poses of the two sides. On our side two UN soldiers have positioned themselves so they are half covered by the conference rooms. This is to give them cover, and also to allow them to signal back to our side without being seen by the North Koreans. On the North Korean side two soldiers face each other, the idea being that if either of them tries to cross the border (a mere foot away from where they are standing) they other will shoot him. The North Korean soldier who is facing away from the camera is there to try to make sure no one else from North Korea tries to defect.

panmunjom dmz tour north south korea 4

We got back on another bus (a so called military bus – but it was just a bus, nothing unusual), and were acomponied by both our South Korean soldier and another military vehicle as we drove around some of the other sights in the JSA including the ‘Bridge of no return’.

The bus then drove to the ‘Imjingak Tourist Resort’. There are a selection of sights here such as a peace bell, memorial altar and this ‘freedom bridge’.

panmunjom dmz tour north south korea 5

We had lunch at a large Korean restaurant that seemed set up to receive coach groups. I’d requested a vegetarian meal in advance and so had a tasty vegetarian bibimbap.

After lunch we went to the Dora Observatory from where you can see the village of Kijŏng-dong, which the South Koreans call ‘the North Korean propaganda village’. The North Korean flag may only be a few pixels wide (towards the upper right) in my photo but it is huge and weighs 270kg.

panmunjom dmz tour north south korea 8

They have a rule here that you can only take photos behind the yellow line. The only way to get a decent photo is to hold the camera above your head and keep taking pictures until you get a good one.

panmunjom dmz tour north south korea 7

Next we went to the ‘3rd Infiltration Tunnel’, the 3rd such tunnel that the South Koreans had discovered. The North Koreans have dug many such tunnels over the years across the border. The tunnels were dug by hand and dynamite.

panmunjom dmz tour north south korea 9

You can take a small train down into the tunnel to have a look. No cameras are allowed in the tunnel so I only have a photo of the train. The actual tunnels are cramped and very roughly cut from where the rock has been dynamited.

panmunjom dmz tour north south korea 10

Our final destination before heading back was Dorasan Station. This station was built to connect North and South Korea but was only used briefly before the North Koreans closed the border.

dorasan station south korea 01

Now it is just a touist attraction. You can buy a platform ticket to go through the doors to Pyeongyang and walk on the platform.

dorasan station south korea 02

This is the very quiet platform of Dorasan Station looking in the direction that trains to North Korea would travel.

dorasan station south korea 03

After having seen the station we got on the bus for the final time back to the Lotte Hotel in Seoul. Overall the trip is well worth going on. It is expensive, but it isn’t possible to see all these sights unless you go with an organised tour. Before booking a tour make sure it visits the places you want to see as not all of them go to the same areas.

Air France VLML vegetarian in flight meals

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

After booking a long haul flight with Air France I used my booking code on the ‘Manage your reservation’ section of their website to try to select vegetarian VLML meals for my flights. Their website allowed me to select a vegetarian meal for one of the flights, but not the other.

I therefore called up their customer services centre, and after managing to navigate my way through their menu system got to speak to a real person.

I asked for a VLML vegetarian mean for all my flights, and after she asked if I wanted a VGML meal, we managed to get the right VLML one booked.

The VLML code if you aren’t familiar with the airline meal codes stands for vegetarian lacto-ovo meal. It is vegetarian (no meat, no fish), and dairy products are allowed.

VLML meal 1 – Dinner

When it was time for dinner the flight attendant brought my VLML meal straight to my seat. I didn’t need to ask – and I got my meal before everyone else (I think they do this with the special meals to make sure they go to the right person).

air france vlml vegetarian in flight dinner

The main item was (I think) two rolled omelettes with tomato sauce. It was very tasty. There was also a salad with camembert cheese, an orange, apple compote, a stick of bread, and a chocolate cake. The omelette was the highlight, followed by the chocolate cake.

VLML meal 2 – Breakfast

When it was time for breakfast I again got the correct VLML meal brought straight to my seat (if you order a special meal you are probably best off sticking to your allocated seat rather than changing at the last minute). And again I got my meal before the other passengers in this section.

air france vlml vegetarian in flight breakfast

For breakfast they had given me an ordinary piece of bread, a croissant, some canned fruit, and a caramel Alpro Soya. The bread wasn’t very exciting – and the Alpro Soya was the highlight of the Air France breakfast.

General

In terms of getting the VLML meal orders correct Air France did a perfect job. You can’t get much better than having the right meal brought to your seat.

In terms of content, they could do a bit better. The portions were quite small and the breakfast lacked imagination – two types of bread (although as this is a French airline multiple types of bread is to be expected!). If they doubled the amount of omelette for dinner, and gave something like corn flakes as an option for breakfast, it would be a better VLML experience.

Stopping political junk mail

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

Junk mail is always annoying, there are many different types, and different steps are required to stop each type. Stopping junk mail is something I’ve previously written about, but if you want to stop political junk mail, or canvassing phone calls my previous advice won’t help you.

political junk mail

If you are on the unedited electoral roll then the political parties are entitled to contact you for electoral purposes. You can ask to be removed from the unedited register and this might reduce the political post you get. It might not though – and it could take some time to get removed.

Facing an avalanche of political junk mail in the run up to the general election, I decided to contact the three parties directly to ask them to remove my address and phone number from their lists of people to contact.

I decided to send each of the main parties the same polite message via the main contact form which is on their websites.

I sent the messages on Friday 16th April at about 7:30pm. Below are the three screens confirming that my message had been sent.

three parties contact us forms

Who will win the political junk mail removal contest?

Almost immediately I got an automated email from Labour saying that they had received my message and it had been forwarded to the appropriate team.

The next day – Saturday 16th April – I got my first real email reply. It was from the Conservative party chairman’s office. The lady explained very politely that it is perfectly legal for them to contact me as I am on the unedited register, but that she would ask my local Conservative office to remove my details from their list so that I don’t get contacted again.

One day later – Sunday 17th April – I got an email message from my local Conservative office confirming that they had removed my details. The man who contacted me did say that I might still get mailing which were already in the system – which is fair enough. As a bonus he told me how I could get unaddressed mailings from other organisations stopped as well.

So just two days after sending my message we have a clear winner – The Conservative party. Not only did I get two prompt replies from two different people, but they also replied at the weekend which I found quite impressive.

Which party will get second place?

The week went by with no reply from either Labour or the Liberal Democrats. I was thinking that neither of them would send me a reply.

But then on the 26th April I got a reply from the Liberal Democrats. The lady who replied told me that my request to be removed from the mailing lists has been passed to my local Liberal Democrat office.

Maybe I’m not 100% there with the Liberals yet – but I think I can safely declare them to be the runners up.

The losers

And Labour who have sent me no human response are the losers. If I do get a response from them I will of course update this post.

Events and conclusions

Here’s a quick summary of what was sent and received.

  • Friday 16th April 7:30pm – Sent messages to the three main parties.
  • Friday 16th April 7:39pm – Received automated email from Labour.
  • Saturday 17th April 2:34pm – Got a personal reply from the Conservative party chairman’s office.
  • Sunday 18th April 7:22pm – Was sent a personal reply from my local Conservative branch.
  • Monday 26th April 11:43am – Received a personal reply from the Liberal Democrats campaigns department.

Here are the rankings:

  1. Conservative Party – the clear winners.
  2. Liberal Democrats – an honourable second.
  3. Labour Party – a dishonourable silence – so far!

Does any of this have any bearing on the upcoming general election? Maybe not, but it is interesting to see how much importance the major political parties attach to a simple request submitted though their official websites.

Update May 2010 – The results perfectly match the order of influence in parliament after the election. I bet Labour are wishing they’d replied to my message now!