Saturday, May 31, 2008 Korea (South) South Korea

A year in Korea (in one month)

Bbali bbali! [Enlarge]

As we've already mentioned, one of our goals for our year in Seoul was to make as much money as possible to fund the rest of our trip. Things are looking good on this front, but with a month to go we were really flagging. The split shift (working from 06:45 to 11:15 and then from 16:30 to 21:00) was bad enough, but we had also been taking all the overtime we could get in the time in the middle of the day. We were exhausted. Also, we were in danger of spending a year in Korea and not seeing any of the sights apart from a brief trip to Gyeongju. So for our last month here we decided to fix that by cramming everything into one month. This would be Korean-style bbali bbali (quickly quickly) tourism, which seemed appropriate under the circumstances. There was nothing we could do about the split shift, but we could refuse overtime during the middle of the day. Overtime is paid at a higher rate, and we didn't want to lose too much income so we compromised and opted out of mid-day work just three days a week.

Honestly, Seoul is not yet a world-class tourist city. There's not a huge number of must-see sights, which is why most westerners bypass Korea in favour of China or Japan. This is a shame, because there is a lot to see here, it's just not in your face.

Incheon fish market. [IMG_3628]
Assorted shellfish [Enlarge]

For our first outing we headed out of town to Seoul's closest port city, Incheon. This was our second time here, because we first hit land at Incheon when we arrived into Korea from China on the overnight ferry. At the time however, we hadn't been in a sightseeing frame of mind and we'd simply caught the first possible subway train into Seoul. This time we went with Misun, and had the whole day free. It was Buddha's Birthday, which in Korea means a holiday. We caught the express subway train from Yongsan station, using our Seoul T-Money card, and were surprised to find that the Seoul card is also valid on Incheon's bus network. We bbali bbalied around taking in sights like the fish market where friendly women seemed more interested in posing for our camera than selling their wares, and taking a ride on the viking ship at the fairground just after eating a huge Chinese lunch and an ice cream. Really bad idea.

These ajummas were friendly [Enlarge]

Approximately half way between our two offices is one of Seoul's five royal palaces, Deoksugung. It isn't the biggest palace or the most interesting, but it does offer a cheap escape from the noise of downtown Seoul. For 1,000 won (GBP 0.50 / USD 0.98) you can get some respite from the traffic and crowds.

There's one thing you never escape in Seoul though. Korean middle-aged women. These fearsome creatures are known in Korean as ajummas. The name just means "auntie", but that friendly name hides a formidable secret—these are aunties with attitude. Our students joke "there are three genders in Korea: men, women and ajummas". They have wickedly sharp elbows and wield a shopping trolley as a deadly weapon. They also have the world's most bizarre sense of style. Often an ajumma will be seen wearing a combination of surgical face-mask and huge black UV-proof sun visor pulled down over her face, which together with her standard-issue black perm, must mean that even her own family can't recognise her. To get around this she will differentiate herself from other ajummas with cunning use of mismatched sequin and diamante encrusted clothing in a variety of bright, sometimes luminous hues. Never, never, ever get in the way of an ajumma near the door of a bus or subway carriage. You will be barged, bashed and trampled into the dirt. An ajumma shows no mercy.

We have a theory that ajummas are, in fact, cloned at Seoul National University and are South Korea's response to the nuclear threat from the North. Honestly, if you marched an army of ajummas north from Seoul at 07:00 they'd be drinking soju in Kim Il-sung Square by 14:00 having knee-capped any KPA soldier who tried to stop them.

Deoksugung ceremony [Enlarge]

Ajummas aside, Deoksugung does have one must-see attraction: the changing of the guard ceremony. Forty or so blokes in bright Joseon dynasty uniforms march through the side streets of Seoul and up to the main gate of Deoksugung, with assistants hurriedly shooing the passers-by out of the way on the pavement. Then they parade around, blowing conch shell horns and banging gongs. After a while they march through the gate into the palace grounds, and wait while the commanders do some ceremonial handing over of keys. Then the guards march back out of Deoksugung and disappear back up the street, while Seoul's hungover office workers do their best not to even notice them.

Tangsuyuk and jajjangmyeon seteu. [IMG_3954]
Tangsuyuk and jajjangmyeon seteu [Enlarge]

We've loved the food this year. Korean food is tasty and cheap. The family-run restaurants tend to specialise in a particular style of food however. If you're with someone and can't decide what style to go for, one tip is to try a food court. These are typically found in the basement of office blocks and they consist of a collection of small restaurants around the edge of a large seating area. On a board, near the entrance, is a huge menu. It's organised by restaurant, and you look down the list and place your order and pay at a central till. They give you a numbered ticket. You help yourself to water, napkins, etc, and find a seat, then watch the restaurant you've ordered from for your number to flash up on the laser display. Service is efficient, but basic. You collect your own food and return your tray when you've finished. Many of the supermarkets also have a food court, usually with very realistic-looking, conveniently numbered, plastic models of the dishes. Don't think of a food court back home—bad food which is badly overpriced, badly cooked and badly presented—the Korean version is very different.

Namsan Cable Car [Enlarge]

We couldn't leave Seoul without going up Namsan Tower. It's been as much a part of our daily landscape as Namdaemun was. Perched on top of Namsan (South Mountain), the tower is visible from all over Seoul and is only a few hundred metres from our apartment. After months of waiting we finally achieved a rare combination: enough free time and a clear day without Seoul's usual haze. We decided take the expensive way up to the base of the tower, the cable car from Myeongdong.

We got a great view from the top of the tower. Having been in Seoul for a year, we could spot all the places we knew, and seeing them from above made it possible to put together all the pieces of the city into one big picture. We had a beer on a terrace looking out over downtown Seoul before it was time to go back to work.

Korean musicians [Enlarge]

One of Glenn's colleagues has been learning to play the Janggu—a kind of drum. On our final Saturday in Korea she took part in a concert along with lots of other foreigners. We went along to lend our support, to her and the other groups, which ranged from beginners to advanced levels. There were also some Korean professionals playing (see picture). It was great, but very strange to see so many Westerners dressed in hanbok.

Other places seen in May: Olympic park (good place for a picnic), Seodaemun prison (not really worthwhile to be honest), a traditional tea shop in the country (courtesy of one of Glenn's students), Lotte Department Store (a disturbing experience in so many ways), a long walk along Cheonggyechon (a little strip of nature in Seoul), lots of bus rides to nowhere in particular, lots of new restaurants, a few museums. We feel more cultured and less exhausted, and ready to start our round the world trip again.

Thursday, May 08, 2008 Korea (South) South Korea

Korean War Museums of the world: part 3

War Memorial of Korea. [IMG_3606]
Bronze statue [Enlarge]

Although we've been in Seoul for the past twelve months we haven't really done much in the way of tourist attractions, so we resolved to remedy this by doing all the ones we fancy seeing in one go. So for our final month in Seoul we have refused overtime three days a week. Our sightseeing starts today.

You may recall that in April 2007 we visited the DPRK, a strange land more commonly known as North Korea. In Pyongyang we were taken to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum where they told us the story of the Korean war. Then on our way out of the DPRK we stopped off at Dandong on the Chinese border and visited the museum of the War to resist U.S. aggression and aid Korea, where China's part in the conflict was documented and exhibited. So today we thought we'd go for the hat trick and check out South Korea's version of events in the much less emotively named War Memorial of Korea.

The three versions of reality are essentially as follows:

  • According to North Korea, the US started the war with a completely unprovoked incursion across the 38th parallel. And they have evidence to prove it.
  • According to South Korea, the North started the war with a completely unprovoked incursion across the 38th parallel. And they have evidence to prove it.
  • According to China, it doesn't matter who started the war—China finished it with a heroic push across the Yalu river to repel the UN forces who were threatening Chinese territory. And yes, they too have evidence to prove it.

So in our third Korean War museum, right next to the main US Army base in the Yongsan district in the heart of Seoul, we played our own little game of spot-the-difference. There was lots of military hardware—some friendly, and some captured from the enemy. There were flags and uniforms, some with bullet holes. There was propaganda, and historical documents, photographs, video footage. All the same so far. Yet of course the story had a completely different spin on it.

In short, the South Korean museum was a lot sparklier, more hi-tech and warmer than the one in Pyongyang (advantages). But it also had noisy school tours, and lacked the stern Rosa Klebb-esque museum guide (disadvantages).

As a museum the War Memorial of Korea is very thorough, and well worth a visit. The entrance fee of 3,000 Won (GBP 1.49 / USD 2.91) is good value. Finding the place is easy, but finding the ticket office is not (even if you can read the Korean signs). It is bizarrely tucked away down a little alleyway outside the museum entrance. The museum has an English language website with all the details you need.