This is my long-delayed account of three days in Korea last month. That’s South Korea, of course; the North Korean tourist industry has never really got off the ground, although it does sound a fascinating, if scary, place. South Korea is different enough from everywhere else I’ve ever been that it’s worth observing some of the little things.
We flew to Incheon airport, the new international airport that serves Seoul from what appears to be a bit of reclaimed land attached to an island off the west coast of the Korean peninsula. It’s an airport, and they all look the same.
The pavement in Seoul is a dangerous place. In some countries, people cycle on the pavement. In some places, it’s illegal, but cyclists do it anyway (and I’m one of them, having a greater fear of hospital emergency rooms than court rooms). In Seoul, however, motorcycles travel on the pavement. There is no escape from motorised transport. The motorcycles generally have enormous racks jury-rigged onto the back of them for carrying outsize loads. I get the impression that it’s a phenomenon across Asia—the fewer the wheels, the larger the load. From three adults on a bicycle in Japan to a Vietnamese pig farmer and his entire family, holding an animal under each arm while riding a Honda scooter (OK, I made that one up), there seems to be a negative correlation between the number of wheels and the bulkiness of the load.
Seoul is a bit dingy. It has the same run-down air as most British towns, although with less dog mess. The paving slabs don’t quite provide a flat surface to walk on; things are dirty; buildings just look old. It’s quite different from the situation in neighbouring Japan.
Another thing that struck me was the popularity of brick as a building material. Since it’s hardly ever seen in Japan (due, I expect, to its inability to resist the frequent earthquakes) I had not expected to see it in Korea, either. But there were so many brisk buildings that it added to the strangely familiar air. If you hid the Korean signage, you could as easily be in Birmingham.
Myeongdeong is Oxford Street with Hangul. Don’t bother. We did find a really good restaurant just outside Myeongdeong, however.
Food is cheap, tasty, and invariably red. If you don’t like spicy food, don’t go to Korea. You will starve. There’s not much choice for vegetarians either: the vegetable kimbab (rice and filling wrapped in seaweed like Japanese makizushi) we ordered had ham in it, which wasn’t a vegetable last time I checked. However, if like me you like meat and chili, it’s a fantastic place to eat.
In addition to the food itself, the culture surrounding food is fabulous. You need only order the main dish, and you will be supplied with side dishes of vegetables and pickles, including the famous kimchi (spicy pickled Chinese cabbage) and its close relations. Even better, when you run out of side dishes, you get more for free. What service!
On the other hand, though, when you enter a restaurant in Korea, don’t pay too close attention to the floor. In all the places I visited, they were filthy. The tables and cutlery, however, were clean, and I didn’t suffer any problems after eating the food apart from increased flatulence, a direct result of eating all that pickled cabbage, I’m sure.
They speak Korean. Obvious, I know, but worth remembering. There are some bi- or trilingual signs in places like the subway, but English won’t get you very far. Japanese is more widely understood, but not by much. Armed with the ability to pronounce Hangul (the simple phonetic Korean script), the numbers up to the ten thousands (since there are something like ₩1300 to €1, you need those big numbers), and a few simple words and phrases, I was able to get through most situations, including finding and ordering ramyon (noodles in soup) and maekju (beer), getting the 24-and-under discount for N——’s tickets for the Cheongdeokgung palace and graciously declining it for mine (hey, it was only a few thousand Won), and get around on the subway. I was quite excessively pleased with myself!
The subway system, by the way, is excellent. The tracks themselves are of such a monstrously wide gauge that there is ample room inside the carriages, and the driver at the front of the train has the diminutive appearance of a doll in a shop window. A ticket costs less than a quarter of the price of a journey on the London Underground.
Blind beggars are frequent on the subway. They make their way slowly through the carriages, stick in one hand, bowl in the other, with a speaker system rigged to them and playing mournful music as they pass. I can only assume one of two things. Either Korean social security is inadequate, or they make enough money off begging to make it a viable income source. Since many of the beggars appeared to be blind due to cataracts, an easily and cheaply treatable ailment as I understand it, I suspect the former. It’s sad to see someone blind for the want of a scalpel, a plastic lens, and a few hours in the hospital.
In Japan, every train journey is accompanied by a succession of hectoring announcements asking passengers to turn off their mobile phones. In Korea, they seem to have fitted enough antennae in the tunnels that it is possible to use your phone even whilst travelling underground at 50 km/h. An impressive technical achievement. Every carriage was full of people receiving and making calls, but the notable fact was that they managed to do so surreptitiously and politely.
I’m interested in ethnic musical instruments, so when we passed a traditional instrument shop, I couldn’t resist dragging N—— in while I browsed the wares. Luckily, the owner spoke fairly decent English, and I was able to enjoy a chat with him. My eye was caught by the range of danso, an end-blown bamboo flute like a shorter shakuhachi, and I bought one on the basis that it was cheap, small, and I could play it on my first attempt.
The strangest thing: While browsing in Family Mart (a convenience store) next to Seoul Bus Terminal at midnight, looking for breakfast for the following day, a stranger started speaking to me in Russian. I said, “English.” He said, “Uzbekistan.” Then he bought an ice cream for N—— and me.