First, let’s get past the over-familiar, guidebook cliches written about South Korea: It’s a land of contrasts (often the first sentence of many travel guides); its one of the most rapidly developing of Asian countries (actually it was, but the economy has been slowing down in the last few years; the country doesn’t have any old buildings (kind of true, but not the full story).
First things first. Most passengers arrive at Incheon airport, the rectilinear building that was opened in 2009. The first thing you notice is how quiet it is. Korea is often referred to poetically as the land of the morning calm. It’s peaceful and quiet on the day that I arrive. From the airport it’s a one hour bus drive into the centre of town.
Seoul has been a popular tourist destination for many years and traveller numbers are growing every year. Whilst it has a reputation for being closed off to foreigners, it has become a very accessible city.
I wanted to do several things on my trip. Firstly, use the language which I have been learning for the last 16 months. Secondly, I wanted to get to know as many Korean people as I possible. Finally, I wanted to know how it would feel being a foreigner in a country whose population is over 99% ethnically homogenous.
You step on to the subway and typically you are the only white person on board. I keep my head down mostly. The wifi connection means that people can use their phones underground, but nobody bothers sending messages or makes calls, instead they use the countries’ message app Kakaotalk. Its free to send messages and emojis. I also notice how large the elderly population is. With one of the lowest birthrates in the world, South Korea has a huge army of seniors. Sometimes they look at me strangely and at other times they seem to glare, but it’s not always easy to tell. They can be very helpful as well. I go to Busan, and when my ticket won’t open the gate, an ajeosshi (old man) pushes me though the turnstiles at the same time as himself. Interesting fact – they have underground malls at most of the big metro stations. Some of them are easily 500 metres long. And they sell things everywhere. From piles of stockings, winter gloves and scarves, to food stands (the waffle craze is going strong) you can’t travel anywhere without buying something. The stations are huge (some have as many as fourteen gates) and all are very clean. They also have toilets just inside the gates, its very conveninet. The urinals are stationed directly on the floor, meaning that unfortunately it’s possible to aim and miss.
Old vs new
Does traditional culture still exist in modern Korea? Yes, you can find it if you know where to look. You can stay in a hanok (traditional Korean house) in the Bukchon area of Seoul. Girls dress up in hanoks (korean traditional dresses with voluminous and brightly cooloured skirts). The most popular Korean drama is currently Dokkaebi (and it cleverly sets itself in the past and present with a time travelling goblin played by Gong Yoo. Coffee has become extremely popular with several US imports (Starbucks, Dunkin’ Doughnuts, as well as Korean companies such as TOM N TOMS and Yoger Presso). I go to several but disappointingly they are all much the same. It is still possible however to go to a traditional Korean teahouse (tabang), where you can sit on the floor and drink various teas from beautiful Korean ceramics.
I had already primed myself for eating Korean food, and I have enjoyed many bottles of soju. But I wasn’t ready for the sheer amount of it. My first snack was grilled chicken, eaten standing up in the frozen streets near Jongno Samga station. In Busan, I eat the famous odeng (compacted fish cake on a stick) with a cup of fish broth. Everyhwhere in central Seoul you will see pojang machas, the tents that are run by seasoned men and women. I eat a plate of the sweetly spicy snack known as tteokbokki and I am instantly flooded with endorphins. Later in the university district of Hongdae I try a deep fried milyang hotdog on a stick (no bun) which costs WON 1,000, the equivalent of one dollar. If a stall has a long line, it’s usually good indicator of the quality. Korea is a fairly rule-based culture, but it seems you can do anything where selling food is concerned. I wonder why we can’t have the same thing in England, before realising that the red-tape and bureaucracy means that vendors can serve nothing more adventurous than burgers and ice-cream.
In the coastal town of Mokpo, I have some of the best food experiences of all. First, I visit a raw tuna restaurant. They serve different parts of the fish, which we roll up in thin layers of dried seaweed. I try the cheek and the liver, each part having its own different taste. We sit in a private room with curtains which are opened every few minutes by the waitress who has to crouch nearly to the floor to bring in new delicacies.
With so many places offering food and drink, it’s hard to find somewhere that only serves alcohol. Seoul has very few British style pubs. The one I went to was Cask, a wrong-headed attempt to make an upmarket pub, with table reservations and a beer sommelier. One beer here costs 8 dollars. Only a few minutes away I stumble across one of my best finds. Situated above a chicken restaurant and a karaoke room is a hof. I go alone, a daunting prospect. Luckily the barman sits down with me and shows me some drinking games. I try them out on a group of female students on one of the tables next to me and they are impressed enough to spend the next few hours drinking with me.
Whilst it’s rare for traditional Koreans to eat and drink alone, there is now a craze for solo dining and eating known as ‘honsul’ and ‘honbab’. Honsul Couple was also a recent Korean drama starring SHINee. There are even solo noraebang (karaoke) rooms for people who want to sing without the horror of others watching them. I tried one and it was a very liberating experience.
I believe that you should be able to go anywhere on your alone and meet up with someone, make friends. Sadly it doesn’t happen too much in London, where people are more concerned about themselves than other people. But I has several encounters where I met up with people in this way. When I left the girls at the hof, I walked into a pizza place and ate it at the table. Pretty soon I meet a bunch of Korean guys and we start talking. Then someone suggested going on to somewhere. That meant more food and drinking, the place being a yang gochi joint, and I got to try the latest Korean food trend, which is to rotate skewers of lamb over a charcoal barbecue.
What can I possibly say here? Except that – with or without plastic surgery – they are some of the best looking women you will find anywhere in the world. Whether young or old, fashionable or cute, they are all different but at their core they have something about them that is unmistakably Korean. When you approach them always be polite, friendly and respectful. I didn’t always get the best reaction, but it was always interesting.
With the popularity of British culture currently very high, Koreans are very interested in learning about England. I met several women who wanted to practise speaking English with me.
When a big new Korean film is released, everyone goes to watch it. A country smaller than the UK has a very healthy film industry. Recently released Crime thriller Master beat Star Wars to the number one slot at the box office. Its star is Lee Byung Hun, who recently appeared in the American film remake of the Magnificent Seven. I watch it at the luxurious cinema chain Megabox in Busan. Cartoons are also very popular, with Japanese anime Your Name currently topping the box office. In Seoul, I try a DVD room, a place where you can watch a DVD in a private screening room. I watch a Korean film Shinsegae (New World) which also happens to be the name of the country’s largest department store. It’s possibly the most violent Korean film I have watched.
K-pop has been the biggest thing in Asia for the last several years and shows few signs of slowing down. Not everyone loves it by any means and some Koreans hate it. When I was staying in Gangham, I found a Dunkin’ Doughnuts store right outside the offices of JYP Entertainment. I was surprised to see that most of the women waiting to catch a glimpse of their idols are middle-aged tourists from Japan. Right now the biggest acts in K-pop are the Korean/Taiwanese/Japanese girl group Twice and boy band 2PM. English music is also very poplar and it seems that Koreans love romantic ballads by Sting, The Bee Gees, and Ed Sheeran.
Politics and protest
Nowadays everyone must surely be aware of the political storm surrounding President Park Geun-hye. Even sub-zero temperatures couldn’t keep the protestors away from the streets of Seoul on the Saturday I visited. But away from the main pro-democracy protest calling for the President’s resignation, there was another protest defending the president against all the charges. The pro-park rally gathered outside Seoul Station, where they sang the National anthem and waved the Korean flag. There was a slightly sinister air about it. The old guard, who supported Park Chung Hee (dictator until 1979) obviously don’t want things to change.
The best of Korea
Here are some of the places I enjoyed visiting on my trip:
Bukchon Hanok village: I stayed here with Miho for three nights.
Busan, Seoul’s second city is only three hours away from Seoul by train. The food is different and the people speak with a different dialect. I found it to be very laidback and relaxed.