Monday, 22 October 2012

Twenty days Seoul searching

A view of Seoul at dusk from James' apartment.
I've spent almost the last three weeks staying in Seoul with my friend and former colleague James Young. It's been great taking some time off from hauling my luggage between hostels and feeling obliged to be a tourist every day. Instead I've slipped into the lifestyle of an expat, except I've not had to work as an English teacher unlike the group I've been mixing with. I guess I've been fairly lazy and have spent banks of days doing little except browsing the internet, catching up with some work and going out for dinner and drinks. This entry wont be a chronological story like previous posts but a summary of my time spent in Seoul.


Eating out in Korea is both cheap and delicious. Only rarely have I had a single meal served on a plate, usually it's lots of little dishes to share and pick from. The most common meal is Korean barbecue, which you cook yourselves on hot coals under a grill in the middle of the table. Raw beef and pork are delivered, sometimes marinaded, and are cooked on the table, often with garlic cloves, hot peppers and onion too. It's always accompanied by kimchi, a cold dish of spiced fermented vegetables, which is usually cabbage and is Korea's national dish. Also often on the table are dishes of bean sprouts, spring onion, a kind of fluffed egg and salad leaves, which can be used to wrap the cooked meat and eaten as a parcel. 

James barbecuing some beef.
The most alien dish I have eaten is nakji - raw octopus that has only just been sliced up and seasoned with sesame oil, and it still squirming and sucking to the plate. I'm not the biggest fan of seafood, I'll eat it but it's rarely my first choice; but this was something to try to say I had done it. The biggest challenge was actually grabbing the tentacle with my chopsticks. The diced limb of the poor creature was still desperately wriggling and sticking itself to the plate with its suckers, I'm sure through spasm and reflex rather than a futile attempt to avoid my awaiting jaws. Once in my mouth, I quickly chewed the hell out of it to stop it sucking itself to my wind pipe or whatever it had in mind, or in leg. It tasted quite nice, but maybe that was the sesame oil, the octopus perhaps had little flavour on its own, but I'm certainly glad that I tried this infamous dish. 

Street side sea food, cooking shell fish on hot stones in the table.
An octopus in a tank awaiting it's fate: a date with a plate. 
Nakji - live octopus tentacles squirming and sucking to the plate
There's also lots of street food, which is generally fried and battered, like tempura seafood or vegetables. Meat on a stick is popular too but is something I've seen all over Asia, particularly in China. There's a Japanese influence in the dishes as well, with a type of sushi roll called kimbap, noodle dishes and soups and a fried chicken cutlet with rice and a spicy gravy which is pretty satisfying. 
Battered street food, tastiest when you're a bit battered.
Street dumplings.
Steaming kitchens facing the street.
I got taken out by my friend Chris to try a whole young chicken stuffed with rice, vegetables and chestnuts, sat in a nice soup, the meat fell off the bone and is apparently a local delicacy. Another common dish is bibimbap, mixed rice and vegetables served with some beef and a raw egg, which you stir all together and as it's served in a hot metal cauldron type bowl the egg cooks as you mix it.

The restaurant serving the whole chicken in a soup. 


The nightlife in Seoul has been excellent, it's generally not expensive, there's a huge variety of clubs and bars and the entire night time economy seems to be devoted to youthful pursuits. There's also very many Westerners, which makes socialising that much easier if at times you forget you're in Asia. The whole country feels relatively Western, an Eastern version of the West, but the American influence is heavy. I even heard a USA chant one night, and felt a little repulsed. There's a big US military presence here, and the young rednecked troops can be spotted a mile off. Most young foreigners I met seemed to be English teachers, the pay and benefits are good and it's a comfortable lifestyle when there are no jobs at home. 

Young packed streets.
A weekend in the city.
There's lots of different areas to go out in the city, but all seemed really vibrant and exuberant. The pavements are flooded with young people; beautiful Korean women with everything except that knowing look in their eyes, highly stylish Korean men with boyband haircuts and well-cut blazers, and the slightly more rowdy foreigners spilling out of bars. My favourite area to go out was Hongdae, a slightly more artsy and student crowd than the more scenester and American Itaewon, but there were plenty of other districts offering lively neon streets and happening watering holes. 

Random Korean girls who weren't interested in foreign drunken charms.
Quiet bars for a midweek drink.
Awash with neon and opportunity.
Random Korean guys who joined us for a night.
Street stuff.
Ordering from a touch screen menu direct to the table - the future is now.
Suzie Q's, a very cool bar in which the owner played great tunes and requests from his vast record collection
Apparently the owner is kinda famous.
I wanted to take his picture, so I did.
Same with this girl, I don't know who they are.
The nights last long in Seoul, and quite a few nights I was able to ride the subway home at 6am rather than take a taxi. You don't need to spend much either. Bottles of soju are available in every convenience store, they cost less than £1 and at 20% will get you on your way, meaning you only need buy a couple of beers throughout the night.

Impromptu sing-song in a convenience store whilst buying soju.
Some evenings involved pub games like pool and darts, others were more Asian and we ended up in private karaoke rooms singing until our throats were sore. The Koreans were much more open than the Japanese and seemed more keen to mix with us, although generally the locals and the foreigners were pretty divided, but not with any hostility, more a mutual respect. Korean girls can be quite shy too, a bit like the Japanese, and it seems you'd have to be dating before they consider anything, so I soon gave up the idea of chasing them. Many of them, possibly the majority have had plastic surgery, and it's a socially accepted norm here. I only saw one or two that looked more like Michael Jackson than they perhaps ought to, and generally it's very subtle but you can soon begin to spot it. Lots have had their eyes widened, to look more Western, others have had noses thinned and straightened, and generally are prettier than the girls who haven't had any work done, which I guess is the point. My perspective of plastic surgery is a little disapproving, seeing it as vain and cheating, but actually, is it any different from say wearing braces to improve your smile? I wore braces for years as a teenager so perhaps I'm a hypocrite, and I've still got shit teeth. 

Underground pool halls.
Karaoke nights.

Out and about in Seoul

A view from Bomun.
Missing football a bit I decided to go and support Seoul FC on my first weekend in the city, and I wanted to check out the World Cup Stadium. The football itself was not a bad standard, if a little slow and there weren't many chances in the game, with top of the table Seoul beating mid-table Gyeongnam 1-0. It wasn't as exciting as my beloved Posh, but how could it be? The huge stadium was half empty, and tickets cost about £10. The home end had good support with fans in Seoul colours and there were plenty of flags and noise from the stand behind the goal. The away end was almost empty, save a dozen hardcore supporters who had made the trip to watch their team lose. The atmosphere was a little manufactured, with cheer leaders and a man on a microphone trying to get the fairly apathetic fans to encourage the home side.

View towards the city across the World Cup Park.
Pre-match warm up.
The home faithful in good voice and number.
Away fans - not 'Who are ya?' but 'Where are ya?'
A rare away attack - I'll miss photographing live football matches.

Another weekend I joined James with some teachers from his programme on a guided tour of Changdeokgung palace, which dates back to the middle ages (though all reconstructed) and featured a number of impressive buildings and Koren style gardens. Like lots of heritage sites in this region, the palace was heavily damaged during Japanese occupations, and today only 30% of the royal structures survive. 

Injeongjeon - the main hall.
In the gardens.

One weekday evening James and I visited an exhibition by world photojournalist Steve McCurry, who's most famous shot in the National Geographic cover of the Afghan girl with the piercing eyes. The exhibition was fantastic, really inspiring and a kick up the arse to be more proactive with my photography. 

Walking to the exhibition.
Walking back from the exhibition.
Riding the subway.
I paid two visits to Seoul's flea market, a truly fantastic and fascinating jumble sale selling everything you can imagine and more. It was a bit like a post-apocalyptic department store, nothing new could be manufactured and the only goods in circulation were relics from times gone by. Old style telephones, SLRs, furniture, bric-a-brac, clothing, stuffed animals and vinyl collections. The hipsters of London would cream themselves over such an Aladin's cave. 
Wanna buy a watch?
An avalanche of items.
Old SLRs. Beautiful objects in their own right.
We bought a type of honey tea from this man, it was a type of health drink, which tasted OK.
Pickled snakes with healing properties, apparently.
A sex stall - second hand vibrator anyone?

I went for quite a few explores of other areas. I went to Gangnam, made famous by the recent world famous chart topper, Oppa Gangnam Style by Psy. I've been doing the dance lots of places too, to the delight of many Koreans. The area was fairly hip, lots of people sat in street side coffee shops and lots of big commercial stores with music blaring out. It was young and trendy, a little pricey and nothing special. Apparently it's the area where young Koreans flaunt wealth in nightclubs to gain status, it's all about being rich and looking cool. I'll leave them to it. 

Gangnam side streets.
Late afternoon Gangnam.
You can waste your money on all sorts of things.
I met up with my friend Chris for a hike around the old city walls, and security was tight as it looked down onto the Presidential complex, I had to show my passport and fill out a form to complete the walk. Autumn was beginning to kick in and the leaves were starting to turn, and although the air is starting to cool the sun is still warm and I worked up a bit of a sweat, before going for lunch.

Old Korean neighbourhood - not many of these left.
Autumn beginning to show her colours.
A tiled wall I posed in front of.
The entrance to another of the palaces in early evening.
Traffic rushes by in the city centre.
Commuters on the subway.
James and a tired old lady wait for the train.

The De-Militarised Zone

The DMZ is the name for the border between North and South Korea. Although called the De-Militarised Zone, it must be one of the most militarised zones on the planet, with barbed wire, land mines, checkpoints and outposts everywhere. I wanted to take a trip which included Panmunjeon, the part of the border where the two countries come face to face with shared buildings and negotiation rooms. Typically I left my booking until the last minute and this trip was full, so I had no option to take the other kind of tour, which didn't include the best bit. The half day trip I took visited a number of places, including Freedom Bridge over which prisoners were exchanged, a Unification Park with a viewing platform to the north, and Tunnel 3, dug by North Koreans as an invasion route to the south. I enjoyed looking through binoculars towards the north, I could see farmers out collecting the harvest by hand in the field, accompanied by crappy looking tractors. There was a small town on show too, which is one of the propaganda villages, which aren't inhabited and are just there to appear as if the country is affluent. You weren't allowed to take photographs from the edge of the platform, so instead I had to stand five metres back and shoot the camera high above my head to peer above the parapit. The tunnel was interesting too, but for some reason no pictures were allowed, and I can't think what state secrets were at risk after all it was now a tourist attraction.

Freedom Bridge. 
One of the monuments in the park.
Soldiers at the train station which links the two countries, it's not in use but is ready incase unification takes place.
The view of North Korea, the border town a few km away.
South Korean school children look at their northern neighbours.

 Deokjeokdo Island

I took a trip by ferry to Deokjeokdo, an island an hours boat ride away from Incheon, the city which borders Seoul. I intended to go on a Wednesday, but the subway took far longer than expected and so I missed the afternoon ferry, and stayed in a motel in Incheon's port for the night. I took the next morning boat to the island, which is hardly inhabited and there's not much on it. The island was very pretty with beautiful clean beaches, but it was just a little too chilly to relax in the sea. When I arrived I hopped on a bus to take me to a village and checked into a bungalow for the night. After this I had no more money, so decided to hike across the peaks of the island to the other small village in search of a cash machine. After three hours up and down rocky hills and through pine forests with no drink in hand, I made it to the other side of the island. I found two cash machines, but neither would accept my card, saying I'd entered an incorrect pin, which I hadn't. I had to count up my Korean pennies to see what I could buy to feed myself for my stay without resorting to scrumping from the farms or shoplifting from the store. I had about £1.50 to spend, and bought a pot of instant noodles and tin of peaches, which would see me through my 24 hour stay.

The view from my Incheon motel.
Hiking up the island in search for cash, food and water.
Views across the bays.

I decided to walk the coast road back as my hamstrings were hurting after scrambling up the hills and preferred the tarmac terrain. I spent the afternoon on the beach, collecting shells for no purpose, and built a bit of a sandcastle, as no one was about to feel embarrassed by such childish pursuits. I sat there until the tide washed every trace of my fortress away.

Buoys, not berries, in the woods.
I think these were rice fields. There was lots of farming on the low lying parts of the island.
Chillies drying in the sun.
Walking back along the road.
A little chap I came across.
Glimpses of beaches through the pine forests.
My local beach, all to myself all day.

That evening I found the skies to be clear and as there was barely any light pollution thought it would be a good chance to have a practice at some star photography. I lay out in the sand listening to my ipod in the dark for a few hours as I experimented with exposures, before returning to my room to finish off the tin of peaches, and fall asleep watching an American movie on a cable channel.

The boardwalk to the beach early evening, an unavoidable tripod shadows.
A crescent moon over the sea.
The moon and the Milky Way over the East China Sea.
Close up of the Milky Way with a shooting star trail.

1 comment:

  1. I really like your story in Korea I'm also Korea Fan...thank you to share your story...I have been to Korea before and planing to go again on new year...I will share my story too ^ ^