Written by manatwork on 27 Feb, 2011
Seoul is one of the largest cities in the world with a population of over 10 million people. It ranked third among the top tourist destinations for year 2010. I was told that the Koreans do celebrate Chinese New Year, and in fact, I was…Read More
Seoul is one of the largest cities in the world with a population of over 10 million people. It ranked third among the top tourist destinations for year 2010. I was told that the Koreans do celebrate Chinese New Year, and in fact, I was pretty excited to go there on the 6th day of the 15 day celebration. But I was disappointed. There was not a trace of Chinese New Year festivities in the city. Ms Sun, who runs the hostel that I stayed at said that in Korea, the New Year is celebrated for only three days. And this is not my only disappointment.My first full day in Seoul begins with a stop at Gyeongdong Market. It specializes in traditional Asian herb, dried and fresh food, and ginseng, lots of them. There are outdoor and indoor markets, and also stalls that sell cooked food. As I do not read any Korean, I pointed at a picture to the person who took my order in one of the stalls. I had wanted a bowl of spicy soup but instead I've got a bowl of soup with pig's blood jelly! This is not for those who are unfamiliar with exotic Asian cuisine. After my meal, I take the train to City Hall, and make a visit to Deoksu Palace, which served as the king's residence twice during the Joseon Dynasty. Located at the center of Seoul, it is very popular among visitors for its beauty and tranquility. Weather turns out to be nice on my second day in Seoul. I make a visit to the Royal tombs of King Seongjong, and his second Queen Jeonghyeon and King Jungjong of the Joseon Dynasty. The stone figures of civil and military officials are over three meters tall, while the other objects of animals are symbols of strong sovereign power. Unfortunately, I am able to get up close and personal with King Seongjong's tomb only, while the other two are off limit. As the sun sets, it casts shadows off the tree branches onto the ground in the park. It is a pretty solemn sight indeed. Like most major cities, rush hour in Seoul begins at 4 pm. The subway can be pretty crowded, and here in Seoul, the experience can be quite cold. There is not even one trash reciprocator around as I enter the station for Insadong, another popular shopping district. The station is so clean, and the service is so efficient that it is an impossible task for the New York's subway to achieve. And, everyone just whisper to one another. Just a bit too clean and quiet for my taste -- it's like living in a perfect world, a little too prefect for me though.I had Korean dumplings and rice cakes in Insadong. Delicious! Things are a little pricey, but quality are certainly better. I make a quick stop at Itaewon. I suggest that you walk away from the main road and head to the alleys. Small family run businesses are a common sight, and I could feel the old charm and tradition surrounding the area.Back in the hostel, I have five LOUD Chinese women in my dormitory room. Oh my gosh! I visit Changgyeong Palace the next morning. It's a half hour walk from Jonggak station. The palace was added during the reign of King Seongjong to provide comfortable living space for queen dowagers. Back to the Jonggak station, I head to Namdaemun market. This place is huge! It is a traditional day and night retail and wholesale market with underground arcades. Even more, the classy departmental store, Shinsegae is just nearby. You can bargain at Namdaemun from anywhere between ten to twenty percent lower than the asking price. There are some very good quality quilted blankets (queen size) selling for $30 which might be worth considering if you happen to go there. However, you might come across lots of products coming from China which you might want to reconsider before buying.The weather in Seoul got colder on my last day. I meet up with SungJin, a very good friend of mine. He takes me to his favorite place to eat. We have cold soba noodles, steamed dumplings, and rice in hot pot. Another delicious and satisfying meal! We parted and I head to Insadong again. I see a few more interesting shops this time around. I've got a pair of dragons handcrafted in glass, and a couple of North Korean dolls. Then it is time for me to go back to the hostel to pick up my bag, and head to the airport.I came to Seoul to experience the market squares which I did. I came to Seoul to experience the food which I did. I came to Seoul to experience the lifestyle which I did. The city is full of charm and tradition but yet, its people seemed monotone; as the city progresses to become a major economic power, I would rather see a more at ease society, and a less structured city, one that is not so driven by perfection. Close
Written by Composthp on 25 Feb, 2011
8 years ago, I would not dare to visit Seoul on my own as everything seemed foreign, from the language to the street signs. A lot has changed since then, there are clear signs in various languages such as English, Mandarin and Japanese not only…Read More
8 years ago, I would not dare to visit Seoul on my own as everything seemed foreign, from the language to the street signs. A lot has changed since then, there are clear signs in various languages such as English, Mandarin and Japanese not only near and around tourist landmarks but at subways, buses, restaurants, etc. Tourist information booths and tourist guides have sprouted around major sights and shopping areas, the latter can be found standing at intersections dressed in bright red (usually in pairs) in places like Myeongdong or Insadong. Kudos to them as they have to brave the elements to direct lost tourists to the desired destination. The official Korean tourism website is a good starting point for the latest information.The following are some tips when visiting Seoul.Free help-line1330 is a free telephone service for tourists in Korea, very much like a concierge service. It is available round the clock and is manned by bilingual staff.TransportMoving around Seoul could not have been easier with the extensive subways and buses. I prefer the former as you can avoid traffic jams. The T money card is perhaps the most convenient card to have if you intend to travel by bus or subway in Seoul and around Gyeonggi-do. This card can be purchased at any convenience store and at the subway station for a non-refundable charge of KRW 2500. It offers rebates and mileage (the latter requires registration at the T money website). Any unused value in the card can be refunded less KRW 500 at any convenience stores prior to departure. Seoul subway maps can be downloaded at the Korean tourism website or through apps market for smartphone/iphone users. To save on transport cost, we stayed in a central location near major sights as well as within easy access to subway line 1 and 3. Most sights and shopping areas are located along these lines.Do carry the addresses, map or names of the places that you intend to visit written in Korean. Smartphones with a camera are handy for taking snapshots of the addresses or maps which can then be used to show the locals when asking for directions. For day trips to Busan, Jeonju, Gangwon and Gyeongju, use the free shuttle services that are available for tourists only. These buses require advance reservations online via here. The buses are comfortable with business-class like seats, most importantly, these services offer direct routes and are FREE!Tax RefundsVisitors can claim tax refunds from participating stores with a minimal purchase of KRW 30 000. You need to ask the cashier before payment of purchases for the tax refund receipt. You will then be asked to fill in your particulars and given an envelope. Cash or credit card claimants can only be made at the airport.There are 2 kinds of tax refunds- Global Blue and local. For the former, claims can be made after you pass immigration, near Gate number 28 or at airports of participating countries such as Singapore, China, Japan and Russian Federation. These can be in the form of cash or cheque, the latter would be mailed to your preferred address.Local tax refunds are made before you pass immigration. Essentially, you need to inform the airport staff upon checking in your lugguge that you would be claiming tax refund. You would then need to proceed to the tax refund counter (we found one next to the oversize luggage check in counter) with your passport, luggage containing your purchases and receipts of the purchases. After inspection, he would then place the receipts into an envelope (please remember to fill in your name and address!) and dump it into a box. Refunds would be mailed to you later. Do check again that all receipts have been stamped. My friend was alert enough to realise that 2 of her receipts were not stamped and promptly returned to have it done.Note: DO separate the Global and local receipts into 2 envelopes. I did not do so when I presented my claim at the Global-Blue counter, the receipts were confusing and I was told that the receipts were not eligible for refund although they are from participating stores. I suspect these receipts were overlooked by the bored staff manning the counters. ShoppingHead for Myeongdong first if you can. This is a woman's haven for cosmetics and beauty products. Shopping here can be addictive as you would receive samples of their products just by walking pass the store, more if you make a purchase! My friend commented that she could have saved on her personal grooming products by coming here first to collect the samples to be used during the trip. Some of the highly recommended cosmetic/ beauty houses include Etude, Missha, Hanskin (home of BB creams), Skin79, the Faceshop and my personal favourite, Innisfree.For Chinese speaking visitors, do visit Gong Soon Sung at #50-6, Namchangdong, Namdamun (Hp 019-360-6013) for purchases such as seaweed, ginseng, kimchi and other Korean food products. This store is owned by a Taiwanese who gives up to 50% discount for tourists from Asia-Pacific region. Head for Dongdamun for the latest fashion and accessories, Insa-dong for antiques and Korean souvenirs, Samcheong for unique hand made accessories and shoes, Myeongdong for the young and trendy, Mario towns I, II, III and fashion town at Gasan digital complex station for imported brands like Levis, Zara at outlet prices (do take note however that the products here are from past season). Another place that offers good buys is the underground shopping area at the Express Bus terminal station (alight at subway station Express bus terminal). Goods on sale here ranged from shoes, flowers to linen. Close
Written by dbsovereign on 13 Feb, 2011
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…Read More
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. Close
Written by SeenThat on 12 Oct, 2008
On Planes and AirportsUsing technologies half a century old and a medieval guild-like organization, modern airplanes and airports pose heavy dilemmas to the eternal pilgrim. Unnecessarily, airlines are often regulated by trade agreements between countries; most airlines connecting two given countries belong to them and…Read More
On Planes and AirportsUsing technologies half a century old and a medieval guild-like organization, modern airplanes and airports pose heavy dilemmas to the eternal pilgrim. Unnecessarily, airlines are often regulated by trade agreements between countries; most airlines connecting two given countries belong to them and national airlines enjoy unfair advantages at their home airports. That means competition is almost nil; the natural consequence is that we – the travelers – pay inflated prices and are offered obsolete technologies, delays and often, bad food. With the Concord gone and no other alternative technology to be adopted as a mass transport method in the next years, it seems the average speed of our trip will continue to drop, while a change in the industry’s practices is improbable. Are we heading back to the days of "Around the World in Eighty Days?" Would cruises become again a major travel option?Random StopsThis cartel-like arrangement of the industry means that we often find ourselves as "transit travelers" in unplanned places. The needed stop in a flight between Bangkok and Los Angeles would be determined by the airline we use and not by the shortest route available. Imagine the city buses using such an approach: Bluehound will always stop at its own terminal five kilometers north of downtown, while Redhound would use its own on the southern side of town, while I simply wanted to move from the museum to the coffee shop!Having found a convenient flight with Asiana, I landed in Seoul for eight hours.Spare TimeHow can eight hours in an airport be spent? In a previous trip, I spent a night at the San Francisco International Airport waiting for a connection from Taiwan to Phoenix; the place was so deserted that at 3 AM I found myself studying a defibrillator’s instructions sheet.I had never visited Korea and since first visits to travel hubs are always a prelude to a future and more detailed visit the visit was of special interest. Before the trip, I studied the airport website and to my delight found it offers tours to the surroundings including downtown Seoul. All along the way I tried to decide which tour I would pick. Markets or downtown? Temples or DMZ? I was scheduled to arrive at 8:20 AM, the perfect time for booking the tours.Once in Seoul, I would have anything between four and seven hours for touring the city; most of the tours offered fitted in this window. Usually that would be enough for having a glimpse of the city’s main sights.Fast Winds"Due to the winds we would be landing slightly before schedule," the captain announced at certain moment, and I pictured myself taking the longest tour of Seoul.Yet, with no explanation, we landed after our scheduled time and too close to the tours departure time to allow me booking one. Where there is no real competition, efforts and explanations are skipped.Eight HoursSpending eight hours in an airport is not easy. Resigned, I decided to stop at Au Bon Pain and to make a winning plan while enjoying a coffee and having a sandwich; I was hungry after having skipped a bad meal during the flightThe math was simple. Two meals would consume two hours; a coffee would take care of another one; that would leave five hours of wandering among the shops. Five hours shopping around? There was nothing I needed! Yet, I would be able to see the commercial side of the Korean culture. What do they sell and buy and more how they do behave in such a place. Do they prefer cellular phones or traditional tea? Shortly after, I found an internet connection and amused myself by uploading fresh pictures from the airport; shops, restaurants, works of art, news and movies completed the visit.Would observations based on an eight hours visit hold any relevance? As usual, such questions are questionable; the first eight hours in a country are seven times more important than eight hours in the 77th day. Then, our impressions of the new culture are fresh, sharpest, and the differences and highlights clearest.Unquestionably, I had eight hours for tasting the local culture. Close
Written by SeenThat on 09 Oct, 2008
On the Verge of Skipping Bi Bim BabTraveling from Thailand to Los Angeles with Asiana meant having three meals onboard. The first one was a very late dinner – or was it a very early breakfast? – on the way to the stopover in Seoul.…Read More
On the Verge of Skipping Bi Bim BabTraveling from Thailand to Los Angeles with Asiana meant having three meals onboard. The first one was a very late dinner – or was it a very early breakfast? – on the way to the stopover in Seoul. The insipid, shapeless rice and the suspicious meatballs convinced me to skip the following meals during the last leg of the trip; I could no expect the airline to redeem itself with such a short notice. After landing at the Incheon airport I enjoyed several restaurants and prepared myself to a meal-less almost eleven hours long flight.The second plane was of better quality; it was more modern and included more varied facilities. Among the magazines and brochures provided to the passengers was a menu. I picked it up and studied the dinner and breakfast options, but only after the landscape below had disappeared under a thick layer of clouds. The dinner included two main dishes; the Western style one was "Beef Tenderloin Steak" ("302 kcal" was printed next to it). The Korean style option advertised "Bi Bim Bab" (396 kcal), a name that meant nothing to me; the short description next to it was an excellent example of vagueness.On the Verge of Skipping Bi Bim BabI have learned not to expect too much from Asian prepared Western style steaks and I was not in the mood for yet another rice dish. Planning to concentrate on the fruits and coffee, I watched the reaction of the Korean people near me when the stewardess approached them. All of them were eager to get Bi Bim Bab; "obsessed" may describe better their reaction."If I want just the coffee, it doesn’t matter which dish I order," I reasoned while asking for the same. The stewardess seemed very please of my choice, smiled, and passed me a loaded tray. However, on my way to pick up the desired fruits, I noted a small piece of folded paper; its title was "How to enjoy ‘BI-BIM-BAB’." That caught my attention.How to enjoy ‘BI-BIM-BAB’Written in English, Japanese and Chinese – and obviously skipping Korean – the colorful paper explained with many errors and inconsistencies (the dish appeared also as bibimbab) what Bi-Bim-Bab is and how to eat/prepare it. Yes, I was supposed to prepare it by myself.The approach was remarkable, and soon I found myself mixing the ingredients as per the instructions. A Korean woman sitting next to me was obviously amused by my careful study of the instructions and labels on the packed ingredients.BI-BIM-BABThe largest bowl on the tray included several vegetables (sprouts, cucumbers, sweet pepper, mushrooms and others) and minced meat (it was mentioned that octopus and wild-greens variations of the dish also exist). The first step was to pour over the veggies the smaller bowl with steamed rice; the last was a bit too sticky, but acceptably so for such a dish.Following, the gochujang (a thick red chili paste popular in the Korean cuisine) and the sesame oil were added. At first I was wary of the chili paste, but later I found it to be relatively mild. Then, the stainless steel fork and spoon were used for mixing up all the ingredients; unlike in other Asian cultures, stainless steel is the standard for Korean cutlery. The clear soup next to the dish was to be enjoyed together with it. Kimchi – the ubiquitous pickles of the Korean cuisine – completed the dish, though in a too small serving.Other side dishes included two excellent egg rolls, hard-boiled burdock and peanut, and steamed pumpkin. Overall, the result was excellent; the dish was rich and tasty, and displayed a remarkable mixture of textures and shapes. Moreover, it offered a true gate to the local culture; something it is seldom achievable during an in-flight meal.Last and LeastThe coffee and fruits became a secondary feature of the meal, but not an irrelevant one. A nice touch was that the coffee was guaranteed to be produced eco-friendly methods; it was a cup of decent quality for a flight, decent enough for asking a refill.The fruits served in flight are usually a weak point, which is understandable due to the conditions of a long flight. A peeled wedge of mandarin sitting next to small pieces of a green apple provided the first surprise; the second was a dried prune, which despite not being a fresh fruit added another nice touch to a meal that turned to be a good example that in-flight meals can be imaginative and provide a meaningful experience. Close
Written by Ishtar on 21 Jan, 2007
We were so excited when we got our tickets to Vietnam on very short notice that we never really made much of the terribly inconvenient and tiring route we’d have to take. The Star Alliance, which counts Delta and Korean Air as part of its…Read More
We were so excited when we got our tickets to Vietnam on very short notice that we never really made much of the terribly inconvenient and tiring route we’d have to take. The Star Alliance, which counts Delta and Korean Air as part of its circle, will always "award" you the most circuitous route they can find, and never expect to fly anywhere directly, without stopping, though Korean Air has daily flights from New York to Incheon in about thirteen hours, Delta routed us this way:
JFK to Las Vegas; Las Vegas to Korea; Korea to Ha Noi. Return trip via L.A. Yes, we were surprised to find we’d have to connect in Las Vegas with Korean Air, but apparently, many folks from Korea are now flying into Las Vegas for, um, gambling? shopping? perhaps it’s the museums.
Anyway, we’d have about an hour to make the connection, then we’d arrive at Incheon and not depart until the next evening. Why? Because the flight, which departs to Ha Noi daily, would leave before we could arrive from the USA. I have been a loyal Delta flyer for many years, but this is beyond asinine. You cannot even suggest to Delta that they give you a direct route.
Thus, I began to make plans in New York on how we could spend a day in Seoul. It never occurred to me to check the distance between Incheon and Seoul, nor did I bother to look up the distance of a particular shrine that was recommended by my acupuncturist, who is Korean. All he said was to hail a cab, and give them the name of the shrine. It is so well known, we’d be there in no time. I will not fail to mention that said acupuncturist hasn’t been to Korea in at least 20 years, and his memory may have gotten dim.
I remembered our experience at Changi Airport when we had a longer than expected layover, and decided we’d probably spend the night at the transit hotel at Incheon. Well, it was sold out, so that made it impossible. There is also a hotel called Incheon , but don’t let the name fool you. It is outside the actual framework of the airport. Dealing with where to stay became secondary when we realized that our luggage was lost. Since we arrived at 6am the next day, the airport was not exactly teeming with staff, so it was increasingly difficult to find someone who could help us. Let me explain that Incheon Airport is humongous. The majority of personnel do not speak English, and that really shocked me. Thankfully, the people in the offices and behind some of the counters have the basics. We had to find the Korean Air offices that deal with lost luggage and see what they could do; we also stopped in with our friends at Delta, and though they were terribly helpful, they at least confirmed to us that our luggage had never left New York. I understood that they were trying to route the luggage through L.A. where daily flights occur, rather than thru Las Vegas, where there are flights twice a week. Korean Air gave us KRW938,000 (a dollar is worth 938 won, so about $100) for our pain and suffering. That actually took care of our food for the 2 days we were there.
After a concerted effort to try to depart Korea a day earlier, and have our luggage forwarded to Ha Noi, a very alert Korean Air agent reminded us that our Visa did not allow for an earlier arrival to Vietnam. I am grateful for that, in retrospect, as our arrival in Ha Noi was a bit bizarre to say the least.
At that point, we were ready to find a hotel and collapse in it. So, the Sky Hotel happened to us. As check out was at noon, we decided to return to the airport and check out the shopping, use the Internet, and of course, check the baggage arrivals.
Thankfully, the luggage had arrived, and we had to retrieve it at some distance from the offices on the third floor, but relief overcame annoyance. We proceeded to check in immediately, even though we were eight hours early for the flight just to get rid of the bags. Now we’d have time to appreciate this state of the art airport. One thing I did notice is that for such an enormous airport, it does not seem to move a commensurate number of people. The only time you see a crowd is when people are boarding at a gate. Otherwise, the foot traffic is quite light.
For those of you in transit for a couple of hours or so, there is a transit lounge on the 4th which has boxy armchairs and wooden tables, and if you’re savvy enough, you can configure something that can support a horizontal body. A snack bar (unopened when we arrived) is also present for quick bites, or a drink, but nothing earth shattering. Instead, we went downstairs and I had a delectable cream cheese bun with Earl Grey Tea. Korean buns are all the rage in New York, and more and more patisseries are opening in Queens featuring these amazing buns with gorgeous stuffing. The Internet station is on the second floor, and for 3,000 won (about $3.20) you get an adorable orange and white cyber pass for an hour. Except for the numbers and the company name, everything on that card is in Korean. On to the shopping!
There must be a tremendous demand for Korean seaweed. Not only can you buy it in almost every shop that has foods, but also there is a stall completely devoted to seaweed and every shape and form you can imagine. Also extremely ubiquitous is Korean Ginseng, recognized by most to be superior to its competitors, and Royal Jelly. Don’t count on buying any books at the GS Bookstore: they are all in Korean. Also, contrary to what I had read, their cultural magazine called Seoul , and which is published in English, was not available. Also surprising was a pharmacy on the premises: I tried to get some Motrin, but all they had were boxes of 10 caplets of generic ibuprofen.
Major American and European brands share the space on the third floor, and I will list a few for you, though I am not particularly interested in any of them: Gucci, Bulgari, Ferragamo (I do love his shoes!) Chanel, Max Mara, Samsonite, Cartier, Swatch, Coach, Escada, Rolex, Boss, Versace, Hilfiger and Dior. Also interestingly different were the displays of refrigerators at the airport. And of course, you can find liquor galore, perfumes and cosmetics, electronics (no bargain), tobacco products, chocolates and other sweets.
One of the most interesting features of Incheon Airport is its Korean Wave Cultural Center. For the uninitiated, the country’s photos, video images, and personal belongings of famous Korean actors and pop musicians represent the Korean Wave. The trend is one of the strongest in Asia.
Another memorable moment was spent trying to call Ha Noi from a public phone at the airport. Forget your phone card, it doesn’t work here at all. You will have to purchase one of their phone cards, and you really need to follow instructions very carefully, lest you get a female voice on the other end, most likely telling you that you’re an idiot. In general, I would say that if I ever return to Korea for a visit, I would not do it in December, as the temperature is downright cruel. I also would not plan my duty free shopping at Incheon, as I like to find real bargains. I’m sure that Seoul would give me something to write home about.
Written by Paul Bacon on 24 Mar, 2006
Throughout the year I spent living in the southern half of the Korean Peninsula there was a massive contrast which I noticed in the local community that completely fascinated me. It was namely the division between young and old, modern and antiquated. The disparity between…Read More
Throughout the year I spent living in the southern half of the Korean Peninsula there was a massive contrast which I noticed in the local community that completely fascinated me. It was namely the division between young and old, modern and antiquated. The disparity between the technologically advanced present and the rural under-developed past, which can be seen over the shoulder of every computer-game obsessed teenager, was curiously hypnotic to me.In Seoul or Busan, Daejon, Suwon, and the like, the generation gap is somewhat blurred and does not appear to be anything like the giant crevasse that it is in the countryside. Out in the wilds of Chungcheognam-Do (province in the northwest) there was a line as clear and as imposing as the DMZ between young people and their older relations. The kids I taught were in the main bedecked in modern brand-named clothing, and were always to be seen with cellphones, MP3s, or computer dictionaries. Whenever I asked them what they had been doing on the weekend or the previous evening, I would get the standard response of watching either a DVD or playing internet games—the most popular titles being StarCraft and Maple Story, whatever the hell they were. They did, though, have a refreshing attitude to the foreigner in their midst. The majority of them were keen to learn and almost all of them wanted to play or chat.The difference between the kids with whom I spent most of my afternoons, and the older generation within Taean where I lived, was shockingly stark. I am aware that age brings many differences in personality and outlook. My own grandfather and I, who are separated by nearly 60 years are not always on the same page it has to be said. However, in Korea the difference is particularly marked. I always wondered as to why it was so and perhaps the best explanation is the stratification of society along age lines and the deference with anyone blessed with, shall we say experience, is treated.Once Koreans marry, begin to have children, and lose the first flushes of youth, they become known as ajima and ajoshi. The men, or the ajoshi, tend to carry on their lives as before, drinking copious amounts of soju—traditional rice based spirit—and spitting on the floor. For the women though, the change is far greater. After maybe their second child they chop their hair short and begin to wear hideous, dated clothing that previously they would not have been seen dead in. It is as though any youthful glamour is sucked right out of them. Once a woman reaches ajimahood she loses much of her vitality and independence and it becomes a slow decline towards becoming a grandmother or almoni.In Taean, the ajima and almoni represented everything that has changed in Korea over the past 50 years. Since the end of the Korean War, and the division of the peninsula, the South have come from being a ravaged one-time colony of Japan into one of Asia's most developed and technological astute nations. The young people represent the latter identity, whilst anyone beyond 45 is perhaps still anchored in the former and has been overtaken by the rapid progress.I remember my first glimpse quite vividly. It was September—my first week in Taean—and viciously humid. To combat the heat and my growing thirst I stepped outside for an ice-cream and Gatorade. At the entrance to my school were a huddle of middle-aged ladies. They were all dressed in the type of clothing that is synonymous with their status; it was polyester, ill-fitting and was decorated in hideous, garish patterns. They all also had short-hair that looked as though it had had one too many goes under the blow-dryer and too many set of bad highlights. Almost as one they turned towards me and stared indignantly. I was genuinely taken aback. Up until that point I had been greeted with nothing but enthusiasm. I was soon to learn, though, that despite being heavily respected by younger people, many older Koreans were just downright rude. I had countless encounters with ajimas where I found doors close in my face or walking sticks placed forcibly on my toes. It was particularly bad when trying to catch a bus as invariably I would always be forced out of the way, and see a flurry of heads covered in short frizzled hair surge in front of me.I have to admit that even as I left Korea I could not really understand how the country had come so far in so little time, to go from the ajima to the kids I taught, in just 50 years. For my entire year, every time I was bundled out of the way by some badly dressed ageing peasant woman, I consoled myself with the fact that I was heading to my air-conditioned classroom to teach kids with a bright future. Close
Written by Paul Bacon on 20 Mar, 2006
I was standing in the doorway of one of the classrooms in the school at which I made a living teaching English to Korean children. Through it I could see a female colleague of mine sat at her desk, powdering her nose and checking her…Read More
I was standing in the doorway of one of the classrooms in the school at which I made a living teaching English to Korean children. Through it I could see a female colleague of mine sat at her desk, powdering her nose and checking her eyeliner. A young Korean lady touching up her make-up is not a particularly unusual sight, it has to be said; it seems few of them would ever dare to venture beyond the doorway of their homes without their faces caked in 'beauty' products. However, in this case I was a little confused. M-Ran, my work-mate, was about to teach a class of poorly behaved kindergarten kids, before moving onto her timetable of equally misbehaved elementary schoolers. I wondered just who she was aiming to impress with her pristine appearance. So, I asked if she thought her pupils would be impressed by her impeccable foundation.
She was not amused at my little enquiry, and mumbled something in a mixture of English and Korean, which sort of sounded like she was saying something along the lines of wanting to look nice regardless of where she was, or who she was with. I wandered away chuckling, but soon began musing on how much time Korean women devoted to their appearance, or dare I say it her vanity, was almost a microcosm of the country itself.
In the 21st century, Korea is in many areas heavily developed and looks impressively modern. Seoul is the classic example of this: bright and new, almost in both appearance and outlook. However once away from the capital and the other major cities, things change. While even in small towns and villages there are still plenty of big, slinky new cars and enough neon to drown out half of Nevada, the covering is not as thick and the country's blemishes and imperfections are plain to see.
My adopted hometown of Taean was little more than a fishing and farming village in the country's northwest. Despite being out on the coast, nearly 2 hours from any city, there were plenty of signs from modern Korea: my office was air-conditioned, there were several western-styled bars, and the facilities in my school were exponentially better than at the school I had attended back in England some 10 years earlier. However, as comfortable as the modernity made my life, it was what poked up from beneath the painted visage of the community that fascinated me.
The side of Taean that gripped me was neither sanitised nor developed, rather it was the side where I could walk through the market and find fish being sold from a bucket in the gutter and pigs heads from plates on the floor. It was the side where just a mile from town I could find old women hunched over, tending to their rice fields, just as they had done for generations. It never failed to coax a smile across face when a brand new SUV skipped around an antiquated, three-wheeled tractor carrying a bundle of cabbages driven by an old man with a face so wrinkled his features would disappear into the creases of skin.
The way I saw it, it is as always the blemishes, the realities of a place that make it interesting. In Korea I found them particularly interesting when they were in such obvious contrast with the new coverings that are being created.
For the record when I eventually saw Mi-Ran without make-up in something of her natural state, I was shocked how pretty she was. I don't know if there is a metaphor there, maybe she stands as a symbol of Korea's deeper beauty, or maybe she is just an example of the modernity being a mask that covers a truer reality, make of it, and of Korea, what you will.
Written by super-d on 26 Oct, 2000
Built by the King of the first Yi dynasty, these structures collectively served as the royal palace for about 200 years. Before 1592, it housed some 500 buildings, but do to consistent Japanese invasions over hundreds of years, the palace has since been reduced…Read More
Built by the King of the first Yi dynasty, these structures collectively served as the royal palace for about 200 years. Before 1592, it housed some 500 buildings, but do to consistent Japanese invasions over hundreds of years, the palace has since been reduced to only a few. In 1995, the Korean government organized and financed the latest ambitious reconstruction effort and have managed to return some of the buildings to their original splendor (approx. 10-15 buildings).
National holidays in South Korea are frequent, and on days such as these, the number of Seoulites and tourists alike who flock to sites such as Kyongbokkung Palace are many. This day was no exception. However, given that this was my first opportunity to get a taste of traditional Korean architecture, I was not easily bothered.
On a hot mid-August day in Seoul, we took the subway to the ancient palace (Chonglo station, line 3). Amidst this great construct loom many modern buildings, a striking reminder that outside these historic walls, lies the 21st century in waiting. The entry fee is a mere W1000 (about $0.80US), although on this day families got in for free, so it was just I, the foreigner, who had to fork out the cash.
Upon entry, we were greeted by a small tourist office, complete with English-speaking Korean employees and an abundance of travel literature for tourists visiting spots such as this in Seoul and around the country. I quickly snagged a few brochures and made for the temples.
At first I was in awe given that Canada, or North America for that matter, simply doesn't have the history to possess buildings this old for all to see in modern day. Canadian Parliament is the closest I've seen, and it's original construction dates back barely 100 years. These buildings are definitely from another architectural age. Fantastic. The traditional style is impressive, and gives off a cozy impression, as if time spent inside would ease the mind.
The palace is a maze of buildings of different sizes and shapes. Some are clustered together, while others stand apart, separated by their own moat, or garden.
We spent the day roaming around, checking out the King and Queen’s quarters, the conference building etc... When heat-induced exhaustion kicked in, we found refuge by a large moat surrounding a garden and temple. An artist was present, immortalizing this beautiful scene on canvas. If only I could paint....
While the experience was tarnished by the on-going construction effort, along with too many picture-snapping tourists (I suppose that makes me a hypocrite-although I only took a few choice shots), it was still a pleasure to see something so far removed from western architecture.
Although a literal description can provide some understanding of what these ancient buildings look like, only pictures can really do them justice. Enjoy...
Written by super-d on 20 Oct, 2000
It is midsummer in South Korea and I've been here for two months. Being from Canada, the contrasts between the two countries are quite extreme. But given that I came to this small, culturally unique country for that very…Read More
It is midsummer in South Korea and I've been here for two months. Being from Canada, the contrasts between the two countries are quite extreme. But given that I came to this small, culturally unique country for that very reason, my time here is being thoroughly enjoyed.
This entry features my first hiking experience in Korea. Being Canadian, I have had my share of domestic hiking excursions, but did not expect the Korean version to be so different from the more familiar. Kwanaksan (san=mountain) is located within the city limits close to Seoul National University, and given its close proximity to some of the city's urban areas, it is easily accessible, and its peaks serve as pivotal points for your viewing pleasure. Although Kwanaksan's highest peak only reaches 1500 m, the hiking trails are long and very steep at points. The climb is enough to leave a person of average physical condition gasping for air upon reaching the top.
The trip: We entered the park after paying a small admission fee of W2000 (about $1.60US) and began walking down a wide paved path along the base of the mountain. On our left were a series of make-shift shacks and shelters, housing small businesses supplying foods, iced water and nourishment for the day's hikers prior to their assent up the mountain. We stopped for bottled ice-water given that I had no idea when we would have another chance. Continuing along, the path became more narrow and the pavement was replaced by well-worn rocks and packed earth. It was obvious that this place is well-used by the city's residents on a daily basis. Not only were the paths (one for the majority and one for the older folks) well worn, but the number of people climbing and descending around me was shockingly alien to me. At first I was bothered by it, simply due to not being accustomed to being around so many people in a wilderness environment, but I soon relaxed and began to appreciate the Korean take on the hiking experience. They are very diligent, and well out-fitted, leaving me feeling a little ill-prepared with only a t-shirt, shorts, hiking boots, and small pack sack.
About half way up the mountain, we came to a leveled-off plane where many people were gathered, taking a break from their climb. A vendor was present, selling makoli (Korean traditional rice wine), and assorted vegetables with a spicy samjang sauce (a tasty mixture of peppers, garlic, sesame oil, and soybean paste). This little snack quickly immortalized this place as the rest-area to end all rest areas. The climb continued for another two hours, most of it following the river's bank, hence consistently providing us with a serene view, and a cool breeze to quench the summer's heat. However, about 80% of the way up, the incline became much steeper and the quest to reach the top became more of a challenge.
On the way back down, we stopped again at the main temples atop the mountain for some rice and kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage-the nations trademark food staple). Although food here used to be free for those climbing the mountain, and financed by the church, due to the steady increase in climbers, it now costs a mere W1000 a plate ($0.80 US).
Descending the mountain was much faster and easier for obvious reasons. We also found many alternate, more isolated paths to choose from. To avoid getting lost we simply stayed in reasonable proximity to the sound of the river. Upon reaching the starting point I was pleasantly spent and in the mood for some delectable Korean edibles, along with a couple of domestic pints to quench the day's thirst. But that will have to be a separate entry, as there is much to say on that particular subject. Stay tuned....