Thursday, April 25, 2013

South Korea 2013, Pt. 1: Waffling It Up.

Free waffles. Temporarily my phone wallpaper.
Well I suppose I have to start somewhere. The destination for 2013's Lunar New Year trip was made by majority vote, and heavily influenced by pop culture such the mostly pointless variety show Running Man, food and travel shows on the tube, and I suspect, the opportunity to ogle plastic women. I had the pleasure of abstaining from the vote, mostly due to my 'if it's free, count me in' stance, though I admit to wincing quite often.
In any case this is how probably the one person in my circle of immediate acquaintances most apathetic towards South Korea ended up on a plane to Seoul in February, rightly earning the temporary jealousy of the many Korean-addicts I know.

I've moaned about this point with my vocal chords many times already, so I might as well use my fingers to place it into text once again. Researching where to go was a horrendous affair, the first time in years of travel research that saw me put off by what I read. It's not that I think Korea is a disgusting country- not at all- but researching was hell thanks to the fact that:

(a) All Korean cities seemed to have a constant description, the only variance being that of size (how much smaller it is compared to Seoul),
(b) and distance (obviously, how far away it is from Seoul).
(c) Try researching things to do outside the cities, and it tends to be the same: hike, picnic, ski, surf, shop, eat  the same street food that you can get in Seoul.

I had to pick a place for the group to stay, and decided on an apartment-hotel in Gangnam, to grant ourselves the questionable privilege of being able to say that we stayed in the region made famous by Psy's silly song. We stayed there for about 5 nights, which gave me the privilege of temporarily becoming Foursquare Mayor of the joint (my gubernatorial stint didn't last long).

Deciding where I myself was to stay for my first night was much harder. I eventually chose a place called Seoul Base Camp, simply because they offered free waffles in the morning. Yay. The place was a little hard to locate, but I found it after a brief moment of panic with my GPS and a free WiFi connection coming from who knows where (I was standing next to a traffic light by a major intersection). The beds were in bunk style, but not chilly as reviews made it out to be- though the tiled floor was painful to walk on barefoot.

It was already rather dark outside, and bloody cold- about -15 Celsius. According to the guy manning the front (Jake?) it was the coldest so far, but would get warmer in the days to come (read: less cold, but still cold). I ended up going for a short walk and a light dinner and hot chocolate with a Texan-Mexican gal teaching English in some backwater town somewhere- Lupe, or something. Gave her a little dose of homesickness by talking about old telenovelas and playing A Puro Dolor on my phone.
A popular type of flavoured milk: banana milk.
I checked out on Day 2, a decision I wasn't too sure about at the time. Waffles in the morning as promised- with a healthy dose of chocolate and perfect morning lighting for a photo. I could have stayed longer for pancakes, but headed out instead, leaving my luggage behind. I pretty much killed my legs by walking more than I should have today. Item one the agenda was Seoul's BookOff, a Japanese second-hand chain, mainly selling Japanese books and CDs. My target: to fill up major gaps in my manga collection, which was achieved remarkably well.

My second mission- cosmetics (sorta). Got myself three sticks of lip balm, two of which I'm now in love with (green tea and canola honey), for my ever dry lips. Kissing would probably be a cheaper alternative, though I obviously do not have that readily available. Third on the list- K-pop CDs for an addicted gal. I managed to find one out of three, a Shinhwa CD. This item on the shopping list led to an amusing conversation at the record store:

Clerk: "We have a promotion going on, you get a free photo of a Korean artiste. Would you like a Shinhwa photo, perhaps?"
Me: "......" Long and awkward silence. I really hate this sort of silence.
Clerk: -smiles- "Perhaps a woman singer or girl band?"
Me: "Uh, Lee Soo Young...?"
Clerk: -confused- "I'm sorry, but I'm not sure who that is/we don't have her photo..."
Me: "......"
Clerk: "How about Girls Generation?"
Me: "Woman, I love you. That'd be great."

(In case it's not obvious yet, I did not say that last line in those words- but that's pretty much how I felt at that point. If it's not clear enough: Rescued. Like in those scenes in the movies where the serial killer is shot from behind just as he's about to lop your head off and sexually violate you post-mortem. Geddit yet?)

After dinner at Lotte Department store's food court- where I reluctantly chose a bowl of beef bulgogi after wandering around in circles several times- I headed back to Base Camp. No longer a guest, really, but wasted some time while charging my phone, and took a bath before heading to the airport, to camp till the next morning, waiting for the rest of the group to arrive. I hate camping at airports, but due to timing, I didn't have much of a choice.
One good thing to say about Incheon International Airport. It's quiet. Well, relatively quiet. Quite unlike Sydney's airport, Kingford-Smith, which constantly blared loud and repetitive 'please do not leave your baggage unattended' 1984 big brother warnings public service announcements, making it near impossible to sleep. I doubt earplugs would have helped. Incheon, in contrast, was an oasis of calm. The magnificently stocked 7-11, which charged regular 7-11 prices and not inflated airport rates, was a blessing too. The only problem was that not all places are heated at night- I initially camped at the entrance to the train station since it was deserted and quiet, and eventually moved on to the slightly noisier and more crowded arrivals hall.

After the arrival of the rest of the group (I think I may have managed to get a little shut-eye) and some squabbling and a quick breakfast, we headed for our hotel in Gangnam. Location-wise it was probably a mistake- Gangnam itself was alright, but a little inconvenient, being so far from the main touristy locations in Seoul. Mind you, it's not really that far, but Seoul is a massive city, and to this day I still find it hard to point out where the centre of the city is. Ostensibly that point should be where City Hall or Seoul station is located, but if it's your first time in Seoul, good luck picking out either train station at first glance. Taking into account time spent between transfers as well, it took a fair bit of time to get anywhere.

Too much time has passed for me to remember precisely what we did that day. Judging the chronological order of my photos, it seems that we randomly wandered around touristy spots, though unfortunately many of the markets and shops were closed for Lunar New Year celebrations. We're so used to calling it Chinese New Year, that we'd forgotten that other people celebrate the occasion too. It was a major wrench in our plans, though luckily restaurants were still open, so we did have a place to eat lunch. We picked a Dak Galbi restaurant- a cramped little place in a 1st floor shoplot somewhere in Dongdaemun. Spicy stuff, good for winter, but not good for our stomachs, and definitely not for cramped places either. It didn't help much when it became apparent that the waiter over-ordered for us (the language barrier didn't help either).
I'm assuming we had dinner here. Well yes it's a fact that we had dinner here- it's just that my brain refuses to acknowledge that we ate here on the first night (as a group), and they spent the rest of the week pining for more. My uncertainty as to where to place this event temporally isn't a problem as much as my indignation at their adoration for what seems to be fairly standard, if perhaps well done, Korean street food: tempura prawns, beancurd skin+fish-paste strips, dumpling soup, etc...

Day 2. Presumably. We took off for the Noryangjin Fish Market, supposedly one of the largest in Asia (though perhaps not as large as Tsukiji in Tokyo). Time dealt us a blow again- many of the stalls were closed, and those that were open seemed to sell the same items. Most of the... stallkeepers? spoke Chinese too. Whether they Chinese emigrants who own the stalls, or employees, or Chinese speaking Koreans, I'm not too sure. What's obvious though, is how dead-set they are at fishing for Renminbi. Oh, and even with the market being reduced to one lane, it's still a lot larger than Sydney's clean but midget-sized market.

We had some fairly tasty (if rather sweet and oily) snacks just outside the market- some sort of pancake/crepe like thing stuffed with what seemed to be melted bean paste. While we were munching away this odd chap came along and decided to chat with us in Korean. We really couldn't tell if he was just extremely friendly and wanted to talk to foreigners, or if he was just plain bonkers (it could have been both, really).

A bit early for lunch, especially after that snack, but since we were already at the fish market, we moved onto our next target: maeuntang, aka spicy fish soup. Luckily some of the restaurants upstairs were still open, and we chose one which seemed suspiciously Japanese (to be fair it even said 'Japanese Food' on a signboard, but the staff were Korean (and one Chinese waitress), who when asked 'is this a Korean restaurant?' replied 'yes! We are Korean restaurant!'. To be fair the aforementioned waitress clarified this a while later: 'Korean owned Japanese restaurant'. The menu now made sense. We were somehow buggered into ordering sashimi, some of which I eventually dumped into the soup which arrived at the end. Now as for the acclaimed soup... well. What can I say. If you're Asian, stick to tomyam soup. Even if you're not Asian, you're probably familiar with Thai food anyway, and this maeuntang pales in comparison. Oh, and if you speak Mandarin, don't be fooled. It sounds a lot like mee fen tang (vermicelli noodle soup), but you won't find any noodle in it.

After some bumbling around we ended up at Gwanghwamun Gate- we wasted some time at a little museum underneath a gold coloured statue of some chap parked on a throne (oddly enough, not covered in pigeon poop- perhaps it was the season?). Entrance was free- we probably wouldn't have gone in if there was a charge- seeing as how majority vote had us walk into the neighboring Gyeongbokgung Palace, and right back out, after witnessing the changing of the guard (free of charge). I let them make the decision- can't help but wonder what they would have decided if I'd said that I wanted to go in on a lark (not that I wanted to).

Fast forward several minutes later- we were on the lookout for a popular dessert (or so I thought) store, the '2nd best place in Seoul' (this blog inspired me to look for it). That's the actual name. We passed by a few interesting sights- a building housing what seems to be supporters of Korea's claim to the Dokdo/Takeshima islands, a 'Naked Museum' (which the rest of the group ignored for some reason), a sculpture depicting a traditional Korean game (but just looks wrong), and some other random things before rushing into one of the overpriced Samcheongdong cafes- because one of us needed to use the loo (ironically the public loo was just several meters away).

After some average tasting cake (but lovely in pictures), we trundled along to the 2nd Best. It's quite an intriguing name, and said to be a sign of humility- yep, they're not the best, they're 2nd best. Whoever named the place was a genius. When a shop calls itself the 'best in the world', you'd automatically dismiss it as hogwash marketing crap. However by making yourself 2nd best- you can't help but wonder 'so who's the best'? to which there's really no way of finding out the answer. Oh, and you forget to lambast number 2 for being pretentious. Back on point- the place is tiny, and popular. There was a queue to get in, but luckily we didn't have to wait for too long. Once inside the lack of an menu with text comprehensible to me did me in, and I pretty much pointed to the menu and said, give me this, this, this, and this... which was a bit of a mistake as 4/6 of the items were pretty much variations of the same. As for the taste and whether it's worth going to if you're there- well, all I can say is that if you're used to tong sui, the experience will be rather underwhelming.

Filled to the brim with whatever we just had (herbal/ginseng/ginger/something tea or something), I made a random decision to wander around a nearby hanok village (traditional village, the equal of a hutong in Beijing). It rose quite high over Samcheongdong, offering a pretty view of the sunset- which is really all there is to do once you're finished with peeking at other people's houses.

It was pretty dark, so we headed down for home (and dinner, despite having stuffed ourselves silly earlier). We delighted a lady running a souvenir shop by stripping it down (note: exaggeration in effect), before finding ourselves a barbecue restaurant- part of the group (the carnivores) were raring for it so we had no choice but to oblige them. It was an Asian-style restaurant, meaning that there were no chairs, which led to several cramped legs. I discarded any sense of stereotypical male pride for a more comfortable (and equally stereotypical) feminine unidirectional crossed-legged pose... it still hurt after a while though. As for the food- I had enough beef to last a year. We only ordered the bare minimum, but it was still too much. It's just shocking how much meat these people can eat, going by the huge platter ordered by the group at the neighboring table...

Editor (i.e. me): Oh dear me. Look at the time. It's April already. Can't let it go past without a single post now, can I? I really don't think I can finish off the rest of this post before the end of the month (having forgotten my one para per day rule at some point). Therefore- it's a wrap for now, peeps. Don't hold your breath waiting for the continuation- I'll try my best to finish it off before August, at the very least, in case you're the type that likes tidy little schedules.


  1. "(a) All Korean cities seemed to have a constant description, the only variance being that of size"

    Sounds like Japan to me. A dingy grey on beige miserable buncha little shitholes of varying sizes.

    1. Can't imagine why you're still there, then. Heh.
      Guess it's like that for most cities though, unless there's something really distinct/special about the place to distinguish it from others.