It was weird being back in Asia again! I had a great time despite the fact that it was rather a whirlwind excursion and the two long [non-stop, 10-hour] flights a week apart got me completely tired out.
Seoul was very modern and in places reminded me a bit of a cross between Bangkok and Taipei - though of course it is unique. I made a trip into an older part of town which was nestled in some tall mountains and has very narrow streets. These streets reminded me a bit of the sois or alleys in Bangkok because they're narrow and crowded. Most of the city has been built up in the last 50 years so unless you are in one of the older areas of town, it all rather looks very much the same. In the suburbs there are a lot of miles of just the same type of tall apartment buildings one after the other looking exactly alike - like dominos with different numbers on them.
I wasn't sure if the constantly overcast skies were due to the weather in general (consistently cold/grey) or partially due to the smog - perhaps it was a combination of the two. It was very cold (+/- 2 degrees a good bit of the time) and there was snow on the ground which made for some treacherous walking due to ice in places. Most people walk on a very narrow bit of walkway that has been worn away by others. If you step away from that bit, you're in danger of slipping. Luckily I had a good set of boots with me. I also wore long underwear and many layers of jackets that kept my neck and trunk warm, gloves for my hands. Many people walked around with their faces swathed in scarves. Needless to say, it's been years since I've had to deal with snow and that kind of cold.
What follows is a short piece I wrote while I was there:
Jolly Green Giant is alive and well in South Korea. He looms over me as I ride an escalator up into the inside of a large department store on the outskirts of Seoul. I wonder what Koreans think of his green skin. The other main source of green is the one of camouflaged soldier’s uniforms evident on almost every corner and representing the plethora of military men on leave. National service is required for all men who reach the age of 21, and making these men stand out against the stark, snow-covered terrain seems to be a priority.
Otherwise, the atmosphere seems to be relatively normal. Now that the North seems to be making noises about re-starting talks, any signs of previously-heightened tensions seem to have evaporated. I don’t see any demonstrations. As I enter a store, a suited man bows and calls out "hello" to me. I had thought this was something that only happened in Japan, but I guess this is one of those customs that has crossed over. Away from the hustle and bustle of central Seoul, there are not all that many that actually speak English.
The department store I have entered is hidden inside a labyrinth of car garages. I take a wrong turn, trying to find the grocery store I’d been told was in the building, and climb another escalator leading to a seemingly endless number of parking areas on multiple floors. Finally, after making my way back downstairs, and passing the suited man again, I make my way to the back of the store and find yet another escalator leading down into multiple tiers of basement – on the very bottom is the grocery area.
It is here in the food section that I find something that resembles other grocery stores I’ve seen in Asia. Almost everything is individually wrapped. Individual pieces of sushi - each wrapped in its own clear plastic wrap - are lined up in neat rows. A clerk uses a small spray nozzle to inject a mist of water between the leaves of some rather limp-looking bok choy. I marvel at how small the cheese section is…
Back outside in the slushy snow, I notice three uniformed schoolboys shod in tube socks and flip-flops, hopping over puddles, trying to keep their feet dry. They seem very happy. A young girl, holding onto her mother’s hand, stands at an outdoor vendor’s stall, chewing on a large piece of steaming octopus on a stick. I’m sure the hot food tastes particularly delicious in the near sub-zero temperature.
The food there was excellent. All the restaurants serve kimchi the way our places serve water - at least two or three different kinds. If you eat it up, they automatically bring you more. Ate at several different kinds of Korean places, and also ate some wonderful Indian food. One place specialized in these dumplings rather like steamed dim sum. The raw fish we ate at a Japanese place seemed especially fresh.