Continued from A Seoul Searching Sojourn – Part 1, detailing my exciting exploits in Asia.
The Third Day
Another slow morning of booking and planning, and figuring out what to do for the day. I settled on Dongdaemun market and the urban stream. I wanted to finish the day exploring Gangnam to see the style that inspired Psy’s viral hit. Dongdaemun was a maze of every different kind of market, selling clothes, electronics, food, seeds, tools and more. There were many homeless people, and people collecting scrap metal and cardboard. It seems like a big problem in Seoul, but people don’t seem to be bothered by it. I encountered some strange homemade carrying contraptions, fashioned from bicycles and motorbikes. Compared to Japan, Seoul seems to have a greater number of terrible drivers, weaving through traffic, driving through crossings, and doing anything they can to almost hit people. The Third Day involved a hell of a lot of walking, as I wanted to take in as much of the city as possible.
Brunch was next. I stopped in a little café and ordered honey “bread” and a sweet potato latte. When I say ordered, I mean I tried to order, and instead had to stand looking at the woman behind the counter talking on her phone for several minutes. I was sorely tempted to leave, but hunger wouldn’t let me. I eventually got to order my honey bread, but I didn’t get honey. Instead I got garlic and cheese bread, which was still good, but a strange combination of savoury and sweet. These “breads” are popular in Seoul’s dessert cafes and coffee shops, and consist of a large slice of sweet bread dipped/coated in something then topped with cream.
People also seemed generally louder and ruder in Seoul than Japan. I’ve given up counting the number of times I’ve been walking through a door after people and they just let it close rather than hold it open for an extra few seconds. Don’t get me wrong, there are super friendly and helpful people here, like my tour guide at the palace, the random friendly guy, and the people who stopped me in the street to take a survey on my Korean cultural awareness. I’m just generalising, but it seems to be holding up so far. People tend to linger in cafes and restaurants after they finish eating, too. I got a blueberry earl grey smoothie and brought it upstairs to a room full of Koreans who had already finished their drinks, but weren’t budging any time soon. In Japan, almost all of my cafe and restaurant (and bar) experiences ended as soon as we had finished eating and drinking. People in Seoul don’t shy away from public displays of affection, either. In the same cafe, a guy and girl were making out beside me. In a full room. At four o’clock. In contrast, there was very little PDA in Japan.
Vanity – thy name is Seoul. It’s crazy here. Even in the tourist maps there are advertisements for plastic surgeons, and one of the “highlights” of Seoul is in Myeongdong, shopping for cosmetics. It’s the first time I’ve seen cosmetic shopping considered a tourist attraction, but given the sheer number of shops selling the stuff, I can see why. Clothes too. I’ve never seen so many fashion conscious people in my life. Dyeing hair was insanely popular, and fitted in with the cosmetic obsession. Photography seemed to form a large part of everyday life as well – photos of everything, everyone, and every location. And selfie sticks! I believe that particular plague originated from here, or was at least badly affected. What ever happened to self portraits. They didn’t have to become a “thing”. And rubbish…it’s everywhere! People litter like crazy. I don’t know what has made them stray so far into trash-ville, but I don’t believe it was part of Confucius’s teaching. There was a general lack of rubbish bins. Reverse psychology? Girls and guys alike spit on the streets. I apologise for my ranting, but I think I share more in common with the Japanese culture and way of life than the Korean one.
I did get to take in a show while I was in Myeongdong on the recommendation of a friend. Cookin’ Nanta is a long running musical show where the performers use kitchen implements to play music. I knew very little going into it and kept my expectations low, but I ended up really enjoying it. The theatre was compact, adding to the atmosphere. There are some good clips on YouTube, but it can only truly be experienced live, and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone planning a trip to Seoul. One of the things I had on my list for Seoul was Korean barbecue, but most of the places I came across up until that point were insanely expensive. I’m sure the beef was great, but I would need to take out a mortgage to afford it. I did some research and found a reasonably priced place in Gangnam. I made my way there and after some searching the area, I found the place. There was no English sign, and no English speaking staff. This was going to be a challenge. I took a look at the menu and my heart stopped briefly. This was the cheap place?! My wallet was going to be significantly lighter after the experience, but it would be worth it?
I ordered sirloin, and awaited my steak. The brazier in the centre of the table was filled with hot coals, and made up the barbecue of Korean barbecue. Moments later, the waitress turned up with a hunk of meat and proceeded to slice it and place it on the grill. Strange I thought – when would I get to cook my own steak? Apparently never, as I was not deemed qualified enough to be in charge of the grill, and would instead have to watch her cook my steak to death. I’m over exaggerating of course, but I was a bit disappointed not getting to have control over my own barbecue experience. That was the disadvantage of exploring the city without a South Korean friend. The waitress was helpful all the same, and explained using a range of gestures that I had to take a leaf, dip the steak in salt and oil and place it in the leaf, add various toppings (including a raw garlic clove!) then fold the leaf and eat the whole thing in one go. I was already aware of the procedure from my prior research, but the waitresses seemed generally concerned about my ability to eat and insisted on staying and watching me eat for an uncomfortable amount of time. From time to time they would glance over at the strange foreigner eating on his own, probably chuckling to themselves, but I was determined to enjoy this meal. After one too many garlic cloves later and some rather excellent beef, I ordered the finisher. A huge bowl of iced soba noodles, the traditional course following Korean barbecue. This was the right thing to do to fit in, but the wrong thing for my stomach capacity. I was about to explode, and couldn’t fit anything more in, but I was determined to finish it no matter what. And I was faced with the prospect of using the awful metal chopsticks yet again. Following the feast, I managed to pay for the bill and escape from the strange situation. My advice is to bring someone who speaks Korean, or knows the drill.
Turns out Gangnam style isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. All I saw were big brands and expensive shops, and cosmetic surgeons. Designer stuff doesn’t really impress me, and just makes Seoul feel incredibly Western and capitalist. Kinko’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Krispy Kreme, Baskin Robbins, Jamba juice, Starbucks, Popeye’s Chicken, the list goes on. There were big American names everywhere. As I was writing this on the subway someone came in and took my handle, then my seat. Bastard. Some people are so considerate. I started to grow weary Seoul fairly quickly. It’s a great place and there is a lot to do, but I couldn’t cope with the endless shopping and obsession with beauty. Like all places, Seoul has strengths and weaknesses. I find it difficult dealing with the extremes here, and perhaps I had visited too many big cities. Wealth is all around with designer brands, plastic surgery, plentiful cosmetics, fancy cars and expensive food, but there is plenty of poverty and homelessness. Not hidden like Tokyo, but very visible. Parts of Seoul are not too far removed from developing countries, with men collecting scrap metal and cardboard presumably to sell for a small amount of money, and the market atmosphere of Hong Kong. I made it back to the guesthouse to pack, but instead ended up going out with the manager of the guesthouse and his friend to Woodstock, an LP bar. It had the best music of any bar I’ve ever been, and we spent the evening solving the world’s problems.
The Last Day
My final day in Seoul started off with fun, packing and unpacking my case, trying to get it below the 20 kg weight limit again. I once again embraced the Westernisation, and had breakfast in Dunkin’ Donuts below my accommodation. A friend was looking for red pepper used to make kimchi, and as I had trouble navigating the Korean labelled market stalls, I thought the local shops would yield more success. Nope. I ran from shop to shop but none of them had it, and I was running out of time to get to the airport. My brief sojourn in Seoul had come to an end, but I had plenty of memories to take away with me. It won’t be the first place I revisit in Asia, but I will have to go back one day.