Saturday 4 October 2014

South Korea, Seoul - Autumn 2014

"Oppa Gangnam style!" 
Tuesday, 30 September

8 weeks into my new job and living in China I hit a half term and an opportunity to explore this side of the world.  A flight to Korea for a third of what I would have paid from England was our second choice and Japan will have to wait for a while.  Seoul in South Korea is one of the fastest developing cities in the world and is home to the stomach turning dish of Sannakji; freshly prepared, still wriggling octopus.  Why else would I be here?  Octopus is clearly the most loved sea creature in South Korea as it is found all over the place in all possible forms: barbecued, dried, skewered, battered, deep fried, live, raw and candied!  No site of the Sannakji as of yet but Google tells me that it is around just difficult to come by when away from the coast.  This may be an issue as we have decided to spend our full 5 days in Seoul only venturing out for a full day tour to the demilitarized zone.  We shall see, we are lucky to have a couple of local friends of friends here so maybe some insider knowledge will help!

Seoul is like a super city.  It is the worlds leader in wireless internet and you can find a connection anywhere.  Our hostel is in Insadong; nicely central with bustling shopping streets, bars and restaurants.  Our first tourist attraction was the Seoul tower where a pint of beer was about £5 but you got to drink it with one hell of a view.  And if you didn't fancy drinking a pint with a view you can just as easily take a pee (well only if you are a guy... I presume?) and marvel at Seoul.

Yesterday we ate our first proper S.Korean meal.  S.Korean because it came with all the side dishes (Banchan) famous in Korean cuisine.  The higher the number of Banchan the more important the meal.  Lunch, it would seem, was reasonably important!  The most significant and always present is one of the national dishes; Kimchi.  Cabbage fermented and buried underground for a few months it gives a sour, spicy crunch to all meals.  Lots of small dishes make any meal more exciting!  We spent most of our day walking around Changdeokgung Palace, taking haduken photos (yup they look awesome!) and getting a feel for Seoul.  The palace looks like it is taken from a old age Kung Fu film so we couldn't help but feel like ninjas!  We were recommended to go see a show called DrumCats which was described as sexy Korean girls dressed in skimpy clothes and playing drums.  Now it has to be said, after 8 weeks in China, Korean girls are an absolute delight to look at! How much of this is a result of the immense popularity of plastic surgery here I don't know.  Seeing a woman with a full face of bandages is not uncommon!  Where else in the world can a man successfully sue his wife for bearing ugly kids because she kept her plastic surgery secret!?  Anyway, DrumCats, sounds amazing!  And it was for about 20 minutes.  Any more than that the rhythmic drumming turned into repetitive, droning noise.  They exhausted everything you could possibly do with a set of drums in the first 20 minutes.  Yer the attractive women helped a little but not quite enough.  They could have been naked it wouldn't have made a difference.  ummm well maybe a small difference but were talking an extra 10 minutes at most!  I jest of course; third of the price for a third of the time would have been perfect.  At least I had S.Korea's second national dish to look forward to for dinner!  In one day I have ticked off both of them.  Bulgogi or "fire meat" is thin slices of marinated beef barbecued in the centre of the table.  Each table has its own extractor fan stretching down from the ceiling, it all looks quite impressive, however, none of us left overly impressed.  We put it down to a poor restaurant choice;  middle of a touristy area, prices higher than expected and not a Korean customer in site.  We know for next time.
Today we got up at the crack of dawn and dressed appropriately as instructed by our tour guide.  No knees, no shoulders, no flags and no army looking outfits.  We had booked onto a full day tour, submitted passport copies in advanced and signed our life away for "entering a hostile area with the possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action".  Sounds like a great crack.  It actually was! We passed the half day tour and said goodbye to the majority of the group and I was genuinely glad that I got to carry on with the day.  And the second part of the day was by far the better half!  It was the part where we had to follow full instructions of no gestures (waving, thumbs up, etc), no photos(until told when and which direction to point your camera) and to not under any circumstances break away from the group in fear of being mistaken for a stray North Korean and being shot.  I found the whole situation fascinating!  It's like a sibling rivalry; at the boarder you can see the two nations' flags both enormously tall, the Northerns slightly taller.  For years it was the battle of the tallest flag taking it in turns making it a few meters taller at a time.  We visited one of many tunnels dug by the North Koreans to infiltrate the South and bought a ticket to Pyongyang at South Koreas' super special International train station.  I never realised the fact that South Korea is pretty much an island in the sea with the Norths ruling of no access.  To change this they managed to strike a deal that the South could run a train line through North Korea and finally be connected to the rest of the world by land.  The South built this amazing station, lay down the tracks all the way to the Northern boarder at which point the North pretty much said "Only joking you can't really build through here!".  Can't even begin to imagine how frustrating that might have been and I grew up with an older brother.  A thoroughly fascinating day and a must do if you find yourself in Seoul.

Quite a full on day was followed by a busy evening.  I managed to convince the others to join me on the hunt for Bibimbap, another Korean special which is a mixed rice bowl containing meat, vegetables, a fried egg and Gochujang; the dish maker! Gochujang is the tastiest sauce ever.  A bit like a spicy Hoisin.  It's made from fermented chilli paste and our hostel has two barrels of it brewing(?) on the roof!  Everybody went out drinking afterwards and I went clothes shopping in Dongdaemun night market.  I definitely made the right decision! Koreans have good style and I was shopping until 1AM in busy, hassle free markets.   New shirt, new scarf, new tie and new jacket! 

"Eeeeh... sexy laady"
Friday, 3 October

I have been practising my chopstick skills for 8 weeks now and just when I thought I got the hang of them I came to Korea and learnt that I don't even know how to hold them!  Flat strips of stainless steel adopted and developed from a war ridden Korea.  We were told that silver chopsticks were used as they tarnished at the presence of poison during the Japanese invasion.  Now war free (kind of) the metal chop sticks remain to make the lives difficult for any non Korean.  A long stainless steel spoon accompanies the chopsticks but it is seen as bad manners to use the two at the same time which, at the moment, is the only way I'm getting fed.  Luckily most street food comes on sticks!  Street food here has an enormous variety but the most common is easily Octopus.  I have had dirt cheap Kimbap rolls that look and taste like sushi and eaten like the UK's equivalent to sandwiches; Tteokbokki which are chewy rice cake pieces in a sticky spicy red sauce served with tooth picks and fishcake stuff on skewers bathed in a broth which I didn't manage to catch the name of.  I think I'm more sold on Korean street than anything else.  It's more exciting and has much more too it.  Korean restaurants in London gave me high expectations of the food here and by and large these expectations are not completely met.  The food's still great, just not my new favourite cuisine!

I'm not sure what came over us today but we decided to climb Seoul's tallest mountain.  Seoul has a lot of mountains for a capital city and trekking is a popular outdoor pursuit here.  We were clearly under prepared comparatively to our fellow climbers who were kitted out head to toe in trekking gear.  830 meters is nothing we thought.  That's less than a single kilometre!  Piece of cake.  Far from it.  Ill-prepared we rationed our water on the way up and had nothing to drink on the way down.  Half way and 2 hours of constant uphill climbing we were motivated by lying locals on their way down telling us it's only 20 minutes to the top.  It was seriously hard work and I was ready to jump off if the views from the top were not worth it.  They were breathtaking and felt like a real reward for almost dying.
As if the DrumCats were not enough I managed to convince the gang to see possibly the strangest bit of theatre I have ever put my eyes upon.  Nanta is "the longest running show in Korean history" and is all about food.  So one can only presume that is has got to be good right!?  Lets say it was a real insight to Korean humour.  They love the slap stick!  There were grown adults literally crying over a man falling into a bin?!  I certainly recommend the overall experience...  Others probably wouldn't.  Another weird experience was using the toilet there! Now I understand it's a little weird to have posted two pictures of toilets in my post but they are both equally important.  This one had a load of buttons and my curiosity just had to see what each one did.  A back sprayer, a front sprayer, a dryer, a seat warmer and a flushing noise maker for the nervous pooers.  Just make sure you are sitting down when you're pressing all of these.  And don't spend to long in there playing, I had people come look for me!

Yesterday was the last chance to hunt out the Sannakji.  I would have cried if I went home without experiencing it.  With advice from the lovely lady at our hostel (who laughs at my constant questioning about Sannakji) we headed to Seoul's great Noryangjin fish market.  Here I bought 3 live baby octopus and carried them in a bag to a kitchen for it to be prepared.  This kitchen was preparing all sorts of things customers were bringing in from the market.  What a great idea! The freshest seafood possible.  I hadn't been too worried about eating Sannakji until the sweet girl at the hostel told me that people have choked to death as the suckers can cling on to your throat when you swallow.  Great, as if the fact that they're moving wasn't enough to put you off.  Traditionally served with leaves, sesame oil and a spicy sauce.  Dip in the oil (to minimise the grip of the suckers!), add the chilli, wrap it up in the leaf and chew like you've never chewed before!  The last note being the most important.  It doesn't help that it's pretty difficult to chew.  Raw octopus is a lot like over cooked octopus except slimier and wrigglier.  You feel it gripping to your lips, cheeks and tongue as you manoeuvre it around your mouth!  There is nothing else like it.  No real taste other than what is with it but it was an experience and a long awaited dish ticked off of my list.

There was just one more thing to consume before going home and a night out on the town was the only place to get it.  Soju is the Koreans choice of tipple and was consumed in copious amounts with local friends of friends.  Made from rice it tastes like watered down Vodka.  It is a social drink, served by the bottle to be shared among many, drunk from a shot glass and downed in one in sync.  Followed by drinking games using the Soju bottles!  Traditional?  I don't know.  Either way a brilliant night out finished a superb week in Korea.  I managed to fit in most Korean consumptions and experiences except plastic surgery and botox; it's always nice to have a reason to come back to a place.  :o)