Saturday, October 20, 2007 Korea (South) South Korea

Settled in Seoul

Dolsot bibimbap [Photo by abex]

We've been struggling for blog material since we stopped travelling and started our year of working as English teachers. So we thought we'd answer a few questions that people have emailed us or asked in comments about what general life is like here in Seoul. We didn't realise that people were interested in the mundane stuff, but thinking back, we had no idea how the Koreans lived before we came so it's no wonder that folks want some details.

Let's start with the food. Not much is known about Korean cuisine outside Korea. Western food here is expensive and so we mostly stick to the local food, which is easy, since it is really good. On our initial training course on How to Become an English Teacher we were introduced to Dolsot Bibimbap and found it to be very tasty. Bibimbap is mostly rice, served with a mixture of raw and sauteed vegetables, such as julienned cucumber, mu (daikon), mushrooms, doraji (bellflower root), laver, spinach, soybean sprouts, and gosari (bracken fern stems). You dollop in a spoon or two of spicy red pepper paste and stir well. Dolsot Bibimbap is served in a blisteringly hot stone bowl. A raw egg is added just before serving, and it quickly cooks in the hot bowl. The rice carries on cooking on the sesame oil-coated sides of the bowl, resulting in yummy crunchy bits.

There's loads of other great foods on offer in Seoul besides bibimbap, but it can be difficult to know what you're getting—not many of the authentic places have an English menu. So we don't always know exactly what we're going to be eating, but so far it's all been good! We have grown to absolutely love Kimchi (super-spicy fermented cabbage), named by US Health magazine as one of the healthiest foods in the world. It comes with every meal and forms part of many main dishes such as Kimchi jjigae (Kimchi stew), and even as a pizza topping. We haven't found ourselves challenged to eat a plate of grubs or anything nasty (although silk worm larvae are readily available as a handy snack from street stalls).

We haven't tried dog yet either. That Koreans eat dog is well known, and they are sometimes a bit embarrassed by it, knowing as they do that westerners find it a bit weird. It's not actually a popular dish, especially amongst women and younger people. Those who do eat it go to great lengths to point out that (of course) it's not people's well loved pets that get butchered. The dogs are specially bred on farms. Which doesn't make it any different from eating cows or pigs. Actually, the Koreans think we're strange for eating lamb—to them it smells unpalatable. We'll probably try dog meat soup before we leave.

The best thing about Korean restaurants are that they're really, really cheap. A very filling lunch costs KRW 5,000 (GBP 2.67 / USD 5.32), including all the kimchi you can eat. It's cheaper than eating in the apartment. In fact when you talk to Koreans you soon discover that very few of them do any cooking at all!

Our plan to earn back what we've spent so far is going well, but to achieve this we're having to be very careful with money. Every won spent is one more we have to earn back so we've been trying to limit our spending to necessities like food and transport. Transport here is good and cheap. A journey on the bus or subway is KRW 900 (GBP 0.48 / USD 0.96), a little more if you go all the way across town, or beyond the city limits. That's a third the price of the London Tube with an oyster card (an eighth the cash price) and half the price of the New York Subway. The subway is incredibly clean, and outside of the morning and evening rush hours, you even get a seat! Buses are more basic, though still pretty clean. They are very fast too, as their drivers are all red-light-running, two-wheel-driving, brake-screeching loonies. Standing up on the buses is a challenge, although it never feels unsafe as the other traffic knows to get out of the way.

The supermarkets improve week on week. When we arrived, HomePlus (a partnership between Samsung and Tesco) stocked a passable Australian cheddar cheese—better than any cheese we'd had on the road. At time of writing they have begun importing real proper Scottish cheddar of a brand we'd buy at home! Result! We can also get Kellogg's breakfast cereals, and fresh milk is very popular and widely available. Proper teabags are no problem either. Teabags and fresh milk: for Brits abroad nothing else really matters.

So, we work, eat and sleep—surely that's not all? Of course not. We don't have a TV—it just didn't seem worth buying one, as the English language channels here are a bit rubbish. We manage to catch the odd TV show online, or watch DVDs bought cheaply from the dodgy man in the subway tunnel. Every month we shell out KRW 41,800 for broadband internet (GBP 22.35 / USD 44.48). This is a bit steep, but it is very fast and we use it a lot, for everything. The other bills are very cheap though: the total for electricity, gas, water and two cellphones is about KRW 70,000 per month (GBP 37.45 / USD 74.76)

City Hall, Seoul [Enlarge]

We also invested in five months of Korean classes which were well worth the money. We are beyond beginner level now, though we lack the necessary vocabulary to communicate much more than asking the price in shops and giving taxi drivers directions. It's enough, just about! We will never master the many Korean levels of politeness though (there are at least seven). Luckily, as westerners, expectations of us when it comes to appropriately respectful speech are very low.

There's loads of free or very cheap entertainment available in Seoul if you look for it. There are some great places to just wander about. Downtown in Seoul (a twenty-five minute walk from our apartment) we can stroll along the recently re-developed Cheonggyecheon (Cheonggye Stream), surrounded by courting couples and carefully selected and maintained wildlife. We are able (almost) to forget that we're in the middle of a bustling multinational city. Also downtown are the trendy, touristy areas of Myongdong and Insadong. Even if you're not interested in shopping for designer labels or tourist souvenirs, you can have fun here people watching. Street stalls sell intriguing snacks which change with the seasons. We are now in prime roast chestnut time, and it seems you can get (whole) flattened dried squid all year round. It's chewy but actually surprisingly good.

N Seoul Tower from Haebangchon [Enlarge]

Even closer to home is Namsan (South Mountain), a big hill stuck right in the centre of Seoul—with a predictably commanding view over the city. A local yellow bus, the number 02, will take you to the summit for just 500 won, or you can join the locals and walk up for free. On a clear day, we're told, it's worth shelling out an extra 7,000 won when you get to the top to go up the N Seoul Tower, originally a TV mast but now a tourist attraction on the summit of Namsan. From the observation deck it is alleged that you can see the West Sea (what we call the Yellow Sea), and Kaesong in North Korea. We've been to the top of Namsan but haven't been up the tower yet. We're waiting for perfect weather.