Yes folks, that’s right – a blog post concerning a day that happened precisely two months ago…I’m a little behind, but I have been scribbling furiously in my notepad, so it’s just a case of digitising it all! Enjoy.
Sunday the 11th January
Sunday began with an unusual breakfast choice…curried rice. Although very different from what I’m accustomed to, it was nice and certainly provided a hearty kickstart to the day! From what I hear, some of the other interns are having some difficulty adjusting to this type of breakfast and also to the generosity of our hosts, who cook up enormous servings and encourage us to “Eat more, eat more!” Reminds me of the Italian eating culture in the Doyle/Olivieri clan…
Full to the eyeballs with rice (full as a goog, as we’d say back home), I wobbled after Appa as he showed me the way to the subway station and it was time for my first solo attempt at navigating Seoul’s public transport system. Thankfully, my home is not far from Sillim station (right at Paris Baguette, across the bridge, right at 5T5 coffee) and Sillim is on the green circle line, meaning that it’s fairly easy for me to travel anywhere in Seoul.
I was also relieved to discover that the subways have both romanised and Korean signage and voice-overs, which helps a lot. It’s times like these that I realise with a stab of guilt how difficult it must be for tourists to travel in Australia (particularly if they have limited English skills).
This seems like an appropriate place for Doyle’s Travel Tip #2: Carry a Hard-Copy Map. You never know when you will find yourself in a tough spot with no WiFi, credit or battery and besides, it’s a romantic notion to exercise one’s navigational skills with a battered map instead of consulting Mr Google at every turn.
Call me a control freak, but I also like to be able to follow my route so that I have a sense of direction in a new city. One simple transfer later and I was headed up the steps toward Exit 5 at Gyeongbokgung Palace station where I rendezvoused with the ever punctual Lucinda and her Korean sister (yeodongseng 여동생), Jaei. As the others dribbled up in 5 minute intervals, we learned that Luisa had taken the initiative to wait in a cosy café close by – not in the freezing cold outside the Palace like the rest of us muppets. Wise move…
We strolled around the palace grounds drinking in the architectural splendour and trying not to worry about our frostbitten toes too much. I was particularly taken with some of the lavish interior decorations, which reminded me of the opulence at Versailles in Paris (albeit in a much more oriental fashion). Although we lacked an audio device or guide to the different buildings, I understand that Gyeongbukgong is where the Kings of the Joseun Dynasty resided with their households and also where they conducted government. It was built in 1395 and has actually been destroyed twice by the Japanese – once during the Imjun War (of 1592) and again by Imperial Japan in the early 20th century. It is still in the process of restoration, with an expected completion date in 2035.
Gyeongbukgong is also a shining example of the great contradiction of Korea – a beautiful cultural heritage site surrounded by skyscrapers and modern architecture that have a tendency to worm their way into almost every photograph. Likewise, the hastiness of Korea’s approach to urban development while the restoration of one of the pillars of their cultural heritage languishes in modernity’s dust cloud. Ahhh Korea!
Within the Palace complex is the fascinating National Folk Museum, which depicts Korean life in ages gone by. Doyle’s Travel Tip #4: Visit the Folk Museum! Folk museums are always worth a squizz (as I discovered in Brugge) and this one was no exception!
A good hour spent in the folk museum had allowed feeling to return to our extremities so we braved the otdoors once more to walk to Samcheondong-gil, a trendy little restaurant/fashion precinct, where we stopped for lunch. The locals were out in numbers and it was a moment of realisation for me as I came to understand that these sorts of jampacked streets, cafes, and restaurants are par for the course here in Seoul (we’re not in Kansas anymore). Yet another culture shock for a simple man from little old Perth. Lunch was not without incident and Clinton (the joker in the pack) managed to encourage Michael to take a bite out of a handtowel by convincing him it was a marshmallow mint. Much to everyone’s amusement, the same trick worked on James an hour later after lunch (despite the fact that James had witnessed the preceding events at the table). Australia’s Finest – and the first of many bumbling Hoju moments. Samcheon-dong is very close to Bukchon Hanok Village (an area with many traditional houses), so we wandered through the streets for a time before ducking into a house and climbing a few flights of stairs to reach an apartment-café with a stunning view over the city (and some excellent green tea).
I’m not sure how the other residents feel about having tourists tramping up and down the stairwell all day but I guess that’s part of the territory when you buy in an area like this. It was all vey relaxing and I could have stayed on for an hour longer…but of course we have so little time here that we were keen to pack more activities in. So it was that we headed off to Myeongdong – a fairly fancy shopping district where we were assaulted by the bright neon’s, bustling streets and hustling street food vendors that are seemingly ubiquitous in this city. The train ride itself is worth a mention – our first experience of the sardine style of transport evident in many major Asian cities. To be honest, I don’t mind it – there’s some sort of thrill that comes with being a part of the overwhelming crush of humanity. The passengers all sway with the movements of the train and the crowd keeps its feet as a whole – there’s a certain poetry to it all. Perhaps not so pleasant in the heat of summer, however.
For dinner, we treated ourselves to dakgalbi (닭갈비) – a very Korean-style delicacy and similar to paella. A great wok was plonked down on the bunsen burner built into the table and in went rice and chicken and a little bit of everything else. The staff drop in to give it a stir every so often and before long, it’s ready and it’s every man for him or herself as the diners load up their little bowl and have at it with a pair of chopsticks.
Speaking of which, I think we’ve all put in a pretty good showing with the old chopsticks and the locals are often pleasantly surprised (to the point of making a remark). This evening, we also had our first taste (pun intended) of the fabled Korean food prices – our mountainous dakgalbi and hundreds of little kimchi side dishes rounding out to a grand total of around $6 each.
In another first for your boundary-breaking hero, we trooped off to a Korea institution… noraebang 노래방 (singing room or karaoke). The accompanying photo gets the Gong for today.
There must be thousands of these little studios dotted around Seoul – belting out ballads in front of your friends is something of a national pastime, it would seem. Descending down the stairs and into the den, it wasn’t hard to see (or hear) why almost all noraebangs are underground – some of the wailing emanating from behind ‘soundproof’ doors was truly horrific.We paid for our 1hr session, headed in and began leafing through the songbooks – luckily there is a section in English or we might have been up the creek. Before too long, we had murdered our way through some of the classics (Livin on a Prayer, Brown Eyed Girl, Lose Yourself) even Gangnam Style got a run. Michael gets a special mention here by displaying an encyclopaedic knowledge of noraebang songs, a penchant for Bryan Adams and a powerful falsetto. Ever resourceful, your man Doyle slipped the recorder on for a few tunes – the results were just as spectacular as you might expect.
In between the howling Hojus, our friendly companion Jaei showed off a mean set of pipes and the combination of Doyle and Varnay (Michael) posted a rare score of 100% on the Enrique Iglesias classic, Hero.
Eventually we came to the end, sheathed microphones and exited with a strange emotional mixture of sadness and triumph…until we passed the counter where the staff were crying with laughter at our non-existent vocal talent. Seems as though we made the St Cecelia warblers choir sound like angels in comparison.
On the way home, I snagged some persimmon and strawberries for my host family – I’ve read that fruit is a good gift here – and I’m happy to report that it went down well. With the evening dwindling away to a close, I did some ironing (Korean style), which thoroughly impressed Eoma. Old Damo taught me well. Then it was time for bed in preparation for the big first day at work tomorrow.