A Korean Mouthful (Part 1)

The bridge disappeared off to the right; a grand concrete and steel span crossing Kanghwa Bay and vanishing out of sight in a thick mustardy haze. Whether land was a mile out or five, I couldn’t tell. The air was impenetrable. Disturbing as the scene was, I couldn’t fault the people of South Korea for this unfortunate first impression as the suffocating blanket of smog rolled south out of China, rising on the onshore breeze like a tsunami of pollution. I was warned well in advance of the seasonal dust storms blowing out of China’s massive deserts, but this was no dust storm. There, on public bus #6011 from Incheon to Seoul, I began to wonder just how pointless my eco-efforts back home were as long as China continued to make 20th century industrial mistakes on a 21st century scale. I’d see only half of this bridge again, out the left-hand window eleven days later on my way back to Incheon International Airport, and though these wouldn’t be the only times my senses were so assaulted (Seoul’s sewage system is vastly outmatched by the population, as told by my nose), the vanishing half-bridge was a reminder of how this peninsula’s future will be just as influenced by its neighbors as was its war-torn past.

We arrived in Seoul four days ahead of the rest of our small-town delegation. Kristin and I were staying in a small hanok located in a traditional neighborhood known as Bukchon Village on the north side of this sprawling megalopolis. Once home to the city’s nobility during the fifteenth century, and nestled between the palaces of Gyeongbokgung and Chandeokgung just a few short blocks from Insadong, a popular pedestrian center home to numerous antique and tea shops as well as a few dozen street merchants hawking a number of snacks and kitsch, Bukchon Village was now the focus of historic preservation. Our hanok at the Seoul Guest House was devoid of furniture save for an unnecessary television cart and was a generous 90 square feet in size. It had no windows; we slept on a pair of thin futon pads stretched out over unplugged electric heating pads in a room in dire need of a breeze. We wanted traditional and paid for Spartan. It suited our needs perfectly.

Seoul is a city unlike any I've been to. It's routinely ranked in the top 5 most populated in the world with estimates placing the population between 10 million (city core) and 20 million (greater metropolitan area). One need only stare at a map of Seoul's ten subway lines and nearly 300 stations to realize the scope of this capital city. Partially ringed by mountains and bisected by the Han River, there is the feeling of some natural splendor amidst the concrete, but not much. Seoul is a utilitarian city, designed not to impress through inspired design and architecture, but to move large volumes of people from drab high rise lookalike apartments to work and back again. Space is not at the premium it is in Japan, as evidenced by the lack of the island nation's famed micro-cars and the overwhelming presence of American-sized Hyundai Santa Fes, yet you do feel that few people in Seoul have much personal space. We certainly didn't.

We woke our first morning in Seoul, Easter Sunday no less, at the uncivilized hour of five o'clock and found ourselves alone in the city under a blue and surprisingly smog-free sky. Nothing was open. We were starving and each of the convenience stores and coffee shops in Bukchon were closed. In this primarily Buddhist nation, our predicament had nothing to do with the holiday I once celebrated as a child, but because Seoul is a city that stays up late. Instead of opening, these stores had just closed a couple of hours before we woke up. I spotted a few shopping arcades on the map and led the way into a labyrinth of shuttered stalls and shops, hoping something would be open, that somebody would have some food. We called out random turns at each intersection and wandered deeper and deeper into what, judging by the drawings on the signs, was a maze of shops catering to electricians and machinists. None were open. No people were to be seen. I'm thankful the sun always rises in the east, else we might still be searching for a way out.

We wandered along the jogging path through the manmade canal, Cheonggye Stream, and practiced saying anyong haseyo (hello/good morning) to the smiling runners we passedWe spent much of that first day in Seoul searching for the most outrageously named counterfeit clothes we could find at  Namdaemun Market. The ten-buck Bulgari and Gucci watches merely whet our appetite for ogling fake goods; it wasn't until we spotted the fake outerwear that we realized what a treasure trove this place was. Kristin spotted a fake Pore-Tech jacket with a "The Black Face" logo (we'd later spot one with a "The Red Face" logo in Busan -- so wrong, but so funny) and my big find was a pair of sandals with an otherwise indistinguishable red, white, and blue "Fira" logo. Unable to help myself, I promptly did my best animated Kim Jong Il impersonation and sang a few bars of "I'm So Ronery." Ultimately, our favorite was a tribute to a timeless movie classic; a hat that simply stated "I Love Cake: Goodgies Never Say Die". Baby Ruth, anybody? The upscale Myeongdong shopping district, home to very legit boutiques carrying every American, Italian, and French luxury brand you can name was just a few short blocks away, but we were far more interested in the festival-like atmosphere at Namdaemun. Trying to stick to a budget of just 120,000 won per day ($100 US) as practice for our round-the-world trip, we lunched on chicken heart skewers and ddukboki (rice cakes in a spicy red-pepper sauce) at a pojangmacha with a small plastic table and stools. We'd come to realize that each of Seoul's markets specializes in its own local street food, all the more reason to carry plenty of spare change and resist the temptation to have a sit-down lunch in a restaurant.

Knowing that our time in South Korea would unfortunately take the form of a guided tour come Wednesday morning and that I would have to surrender all independence and be led unwillingly from one cultural site to the next as an honorary -- and very appreciative -- guest of local government, I set to immerse myself in real-world Seoul as much as I could in the short time we had. I struggle to think of a better way to accomplish this than heading to Jamsil Stadium for a game between the LG Twins and Doosan Bears, Seoul's two baseball teams. Watching the Korean teams on television during the Olympics and World Baseball Classic only tells half the story. While there's no denying the talent on the field isn't quite on par with your average Major League club (though they are very, very good), we American fans are downright bores compared to the Koreans. This wasn't a baseball game we attended; compared to an MLB stadium, this was like going to a Brazilian soccer match.

For starters, nearly everyone in the 30,000 person crowd had a pair of inflatable clapping sticks (including us) and at least half of that crowd could be heard banging them together every moment of the game. I sat mesmerized in the first inning as the fans of the Doosan Bears, sitting along the third base line, clapped in unison during every at-bat. Supporters of the LG Twins, the home team that night, tried to outdo them once the pitcher had gotten the count to two strikes. Each side had their own style and each had their own unique songs for nearly every batter that came to the plate. The noise was tremendous, thundering through the stadium into the night sky, and never let up. Nine nonstop innings of singing, banging, and stomping. The only time the synchronized banging of the clapping sticks yielded was during the sixth inning stretch when a couple of fans were invited onto a miniature stage for an impromptu karaoke contest. 

The choreographed use of the ubiquitous clapping sticks and singing was a far cry from the uninspired "Yankees Suck" chants that serve as the height of fan creativity at MLB games back home, but it wasn't the only difference. The game turned on a sixth inning fly ball to right-centerfield. The right fielder ran over and seemed to have the clearer play on the ball, but was waved off by the center fielder moving in. The center-fielder presumably lost the ball in the lights. It fell, untouched, eight feet in front of him. Nobody booed. The Doosan Bears took the lead on that play and never gave it back. The non-catch happened right in front of us and the other LG Twins supporters we sat amongst, yet nobody disrespected the player for his error. Everyone was disappointed, for sure, but I can only assume the fans knew he felt enough shame and there was no reason to pile on. The fans immediately went back to their singing and stomping as the pitcher struck out the next batter. We moved over to stand amongst the diehards near first base for the final two innings and were overwhelmed by the passion. It was only the third game of the season and it had all the electricity of a pennant race, multiplied (click here for video; forward to the 3:00 mark for where it really heats up).

Kristin and I fared much better in our search for breakfast the following morning, a Monday. We'd visit the same small cafe in Bukchon Village both of our remaining days in Seoul and sit for an hour or two, drinking our coffees, eating our spongy bagels with their vanilla-flavored butter,  and relaxing. Traveling can get pretty exhausting if you don't sit and do nothing every now and then; I learned this lesson fast. Kristin couldn't escape mandatory reading for business school and was nose-deep into books on leadership and the economy of China whenever not scribbling away in her journal. I was reading "Dark Star Safari" by Paul Theroux and simultaneously wondering if I would ever make the leap from writing strategy guides for videogames to writing about real places, like Theroux. Would I ever possess his mastery of the language? Could I ever be as perceptive? Would I ever dare attempt a trip like his? Or should I just go on trying to master my own niche and accept my lot? Traveling can get pretty depressing if left to sit with your thoughts for too long; I doubt I'll ever learn this lesson.

We sped through nearby Gyeongbokgung Palace, a grand royal residence torched by angry Koreans in 1592 after the frightened leadership fled the city for fear of Japanese invasion. It was rebuilt some 300 years later and is impressive for its size and for the brightly-colored paintings that adorn the ends of each and every roof beam. Too bad about the chicken wire being needed to protect it from pigeons. We wandered the myriad dirt paths that linked the dozen or so buildings; we gawked at the iron dragons perched on the corners of the hip-and-gable roof; and we climbed the stairs of the primary structure and stared out over the palace grounds to the gate and noticed no less than twenty tour buses offloading their cattle. We sprinted down the stairs, out the temple gate, and escaped to Anguk Station.

Three subway lines and 9 stops later we emerged on Yeouido Island, a massive island on the south side of the Han River and home to Seoul's financial district. Nearly every worldwide banking acronym from AIG to ING has their logo on the side of a towering building here, but that's not why we came. We came for the parks, or more specifically to see the cherry blossoms and to rent a bicycle. South Korea's President Lee Myung-Bak is working hard to get Koreans cycling and is actively pushing for cities like Seoul and Busan to build more bike paths. Two such paths run along either bank of the Han River and stretch for over 40 kilometers.

A young couple approached us as we were exiting the subway station at Yeouido to tell us the park is all torn up for construction and there's nothing to see. "Sorry to tell you this, but you came here for nothing." He was the first westerner we had seen since leaving the airport. He was pale, red-haired, and had a baseball cap on and what looked like lacrosse shorts. He seemed a bit overly friendly, and a little too eager to share this major discovery. He knew something we didn't and wanted us -- westerners that we are -- to know it. The female half of the couple, a cute Korean of about 25 years, quickly cycled through the photos on her camera to show me the destruction. It was true, the riverside park was one giant mound of dirt, laced with orange plasticized fencing, and sprinkled with heavy machinery. 

"What about the other parks," I asked "are they torn up too? We were really hoping to go walk around Yeouido Park and then rent a bike."

He didn't know there were other parks on the island. In fact, though he made reference to the Lonely Planet guidebook, he clearly never looked at the map it came with and focused too much on the recommended sites. The island has no less than four parks. Only the one along the river and nearest the subway was undergoing renovation. So we smiled, thanked him for the tip, and continued up the stairs. We hurried across an eighteen-lane intersection to Yeouido Park, where we whiled away a warm spring afternoon. We walked aimlessly along the paths watching children feed enormous strawberry-red carp in a pond; we sniffed at the cherry blossoms floating to the ground on a gentle breeze; and  we smiled at the sight of business men in fabulously tailored suits sitting on the grass licking ice cream cones. It was lunchtime in one of Asia's most important business centers and we were among thousands of Seoul's wealthiest in a beautiful park, all out for a midday walk. Some even making use of the exercise equipment, suit jackets and all. Not to be left out, women in skirts kicked off their heels and walked along the winding Zen-like stone path designed to stimulate the pressure points on your feet and toes. Kristin and I bought a couple of giant buckets of instant ramen at a lunch shack in the park and slurped our noodles alongside the well-heeled, both of us outrageously underdressed for present company.

Knowing it was our last night in Seoul, we thumbed the guidebook in attempt to find a restaurant that we could splurge a bit on without disappointment. We settled on a place that specialized in black pig -- they smoked it outside then it was grilled table-side. Plus they had soju, and we were certainly in the mood for a drink. Unfortunately, Lonely Planet's directions to Jongno Gol couldn't have been more wrong if the guidebook author had been dyslexic. Each of the exits in Seoul's massive metro stations are numbered and face a particular orientation on a specific side of the street. Get the number of that exit wrong and all of your further directions become useless. Now, as an imperfect guidebook author, albeit of videogames (I commonly describe what I do by saying I write travel guides for fictitious places), I can sympathize with the author and understand that mistakes can and do happen. That said, we were really, really looking forward to eating at this restaurant and he certainly didn't help our cause.

I sensed something was wrong with the directions almost immediately and decided to ignore them post-haste. We wandered around on the wrong side of a busy avenue (the crosswalks were underground) for a few minutes before journeying to the other side. I had a map of unnamed streets and a dot corresponding to the location of the restaurant. Addresses don't exist in any meaningful way in Korea, especially in Seoul. In many ways, this was just like using one of the maps I include in my own guidebooks, minus my expertly-crafted instructions on where said secret item is located. We wandered down a couple of alleys until finding one that zigged and zagged in agreement with the lines on the map. Yet where the map showed just one alley to the right, we found three. I led us down the first one, a narrow path barely wide enough for three people walking abreast. We passed some bars, a couple of sketchy restaurants, and a brothel posing as a barbershop. Not an english sign to be found anywhere. We reached the end of the alley and were just about to turn around when I smelled it: smoked pork. I breathed deeply and followed the scent down an alley running perpendicular. It was dark, we were between buildings in a back alley, and it certainly didn't look like any place tourists would venture. Yet that delicious scent intensified with each step and just a few short minutes later we were sitting on a floor cushion, legs crossed, shoes off, with a bottle of soju and a waitress placing a cauldron of red-hot coals in a grill in the center of our table.

I'd like to say the night ended with a drunken taxi ride back to the hanok where we made love and capped off a wonderful day overseas wrapped in one another's arms. And I can, after all it's my story, but that wasn't the case. Well it was, but not before breaking one of my cardinal rules: Don't pay for an elevator ride. Ever. I can't tell you how many visitors I've had to talk out of taking the lift up into the Space Needle in Seattle on account of it being a giant ripoff and there being better (and free!) views of the city to be had from a nearby park. You'd think I'd take my own advice, but no.

We left the restaurant and promptly hailed a cab for Namsan Mountain in the center of Seoul where we then paid 15,000 won for two tickets on a cable car that leads to the top of the mountain where the city's iconic N'Seoul Tower is located. Again, think Space Needle. The ushers packed about 50 of us into the cable car. Nobody could move; we couldn't even turn around. At the top we realized that the powers-at-be cunningly planted a number of trees so as to block the views of the skyline. If you wanted to see the city lights at night, you had to ride the elevator. Another 15,000 won for two, thank you very much. We hemmed and hawed and ultimately decided that we were eight time zones from home, dinner was cheaper than we expected, and what difference does twelve bucks make anyway? I'm embarrassed by how easy it is to convince me to do something when I'm traveling.

The windows on the observation deck were filthy on account of the periodic April dust storms and the constant pollution but even if they weren't, a ring of horrendously-placed fluorescent lights in the ceiling made it all but impossible to see much more than a glare and your own reflection. We walked the ring and noted the signs indicating that we were over 8,000 kilometers from Seattle and nearly 12,000 kilometers from our family in New Jersey. I tried to take some photos, but it was pointless. And it's not as if Seoul has a really distinguishable skyline anyway. If anything, we were inside the one noteworthy feature in the night's sky. I suppose I could have taken a photo of the floor.

The cable car was much emptier on the way back down the mountain. Once there, we brushed past the extortionists in the black "translation services available" taxi cabs and walked back down the hill towards Myeongdong and into the city until spotting one of the silver cabs. We had one more day in Seoul on our own and used it to explore Bukchon Village's nooks and crannies and to hike up to a Shamanist Shrine on Inwangsan Mountain, where we heard an otherworldly blend of instruments and chanting emanating from the closed doors of Guksadang shrine. We sat outside quietly and listened to the Korean Shamanists for several minutes, before continuing our hike up the mountain to Seoul's fortress wall. As suspected, the views (free!) from atop Inwangsan far surpassed any we could have hoped for from N'Seoul Tower. Lesson learned. Until next time...

*This is the first of what I expect to be a three-part story. Please submit any comments or questions either here on the blog or by emailing them directly to me via the link on the top-right corner of the page. I hope to have part 2 completed within a couple of days. Kamsahamnida.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

great reading. can't wait for pt II! ellen