South Korea Part 1: All Seoul’s Day

Seoul wasn’t very high on my list of travel priorities this year and the next so I was a little blasé about it when my family suggested we take a trip there last week. Having gone to North Korea early this year, I was expecting to be disappointed by Seoul’s bland superficiality, but in the end was quite impressed and pleasantly surprised by how interesting South Korea’s capital can be.

Some breathtaking views, at least. For complete unadulterated photos, visit my Picasa album.

Owing to dad’s military links (he was sadly unable to make it due to his busy schedule, and I promised to write him a formal letter of complaint), we were hosted by the Philippine defense attache and his wife — a friend of my mom’s — at their cozy apartment in Seobinggo-dong in Yongsan-gu, conveniently located near many tourist attractions including Banpo Bridge and the Seoul Tower. (More on these later.)

I got in late on Sunday evening and, as per the kind colonel’s instructions, took a bus to the city, where I was picked up by embassy driver Lito, who would take us around with a high-cheekboned smile in an official car replete with automatic sliding doors — Kia, of course — for the duration of our stay.

It was the perfect time to be in South Korea because it wears autumn very well. The days and nights were quite cold, sometimes dropping to nearly 2 degrees Celsius, but there was plenty of sunshine and clear, blue skies, which were a lovely contrast to the pinks, oranges, yellows and reds of dying trees. I brought home an assortment of leaves.

Apparently I’d missed out on a trip to the War Memorial the day I arrived (my brother’s very nice pictures here), but I did catch Mrs Maningding’s excellent bulgogi dinner, served with either rice or lettuce leaves. The secret was a certain bulgogi marinade that she gets from the US army commissary, two jars of which I brought home with me and successfully made grilled meat with back in HK.

We were guided across the city by our hosts, who tailored an itinerary of cultural excursions and plenty of retail therapy (for mom and her friends’ enjoyment), and good eats at Korean places.

For my first major stop early the next day, we headed to the reconstructed Gyeongbokgung Palace, where we got to catch the changing of the guards — who were all stoic and so smooth of skin that their faces looked like painted masks. The compound is swarmed by tourists from the mainland or Japan, as well as troops of local students, but large enough to yield some quiet corners where you can sit on a wooden bench under a romantic canopy of fan-shaped yellow leaves, and snack on spiral Cheetos. The painted wooden beams of the palaces reminded me a lot of North Korea.

There was a very pretty gift shop near a palace on a lake, where you could buy silk scarves, jewelry, books and cups of coffee. Next to it is a costume hut with a long waiting list (as it’s free of charge), which can lend you traditional costumes to pose with in the courtyard for about 5 minutes. I remember my mother advising us to stop and hug some trees so we can sap its energy by sheer osmosis. I also liked the burial markers, which made the honored dead look like tarsiers, and massive fertility symbols carved out of stone.

The palace complex was surrounded by major highways, a financial district and a small, posh neighborhood crammed with boutiques, museums, eco-friendly designer homes and artsy cafes. Exploring this place on foot, you start to sense what fairly upper-crust, young South Koreans regard as the ideal lifestyle: able to traipse around in four-inch ankle boots and cute outfit, fake lashes and dyed hair being stroked by an attractive boyfriend (rarely foreign, actually) dressed just as fashionably, while you both sit for hours, drinking US$5 lattes.

I cannot overstate how much the cafe culture is beloved here; every street corner seems to have at least five coffee shops in a row.

The telltale letter jacket lets you know there’s a university nearby.

There were also snack stalls that became our introduction to South Korean street food: ribbons of skewered fish cakes (odeng), squid tempura, deep-fried sweet potato and an incendiary bowl of rice cake slivers bathed in the most gut-wrenching spicy sauce I’ve had yet called tteokbokki. It clears your nasal passages straightaway.

During our trip, we hit a couple of similar shopping spots, most notably the Insadong-gil market, a cobbled street lined with every imaginable souvenir shop and boutique. Just like many parts of Seoul, it’s extremely tourist-friendly — clean, serene, with something akin to European charm (like that Swedish guitarist who’s singing ballads, sitting on a picturesque flowerbox for some extra won), and amazing courtesy and English fluency among shopkeepers.

There’s a mini-shopping complex here, five floors of graffitied walls and artsy shops, Ssamziegil. At the very top is a coffee shop/ restaurant where my brothers and I got some blueberry smoothies and cream-cheese croissants on Day Three, trying to make out the little Post-it messages plastered on its walls. There’s always a kitschy, alarmingly cutesy theme to everything.

On Day Two, we also visited the luxury Shinsegae department store in Myeong-dong, which was basically Central crammed into a 15-floor building, with Gucci and Tiffany’s at the bottom and a nice SkyPark — wooden benches and sculpted foliage — outside a jam-packed Starbucks and upscale food court on the 10th floor. There’s also a deli and bakery in the basement.

Behind this is the Namdaemun market,  by far the one I most enjoyed because of its relative chaos. It’s just a whole series of alleyways and sidewalks spilling with merchandise, mostly cold-weather clothing, cosmetics (the ubiquitous Missha, which sports the most metrosexual, lipstick-wearing male models. I think everyone bathes with BB cream) and even the odd K-pop tapes.

I especially liked the hawker stalls, where I sampled a ton of greasy treats. Koreans seems to be fans of fried bread products. I had one filled with yellow curry, cheese and lard; a fried round bun with some peanut butter inside; some pretty good kimchi ramen with a side of pajeon, the vegetable egg-and-flour pancake, with a side of reheated mandu dumplings; and later some deep-fried sweet sausages wrapped in a flour and vegetable batter. My brothers and I got lost after a while, and just sat on a bench in the cold, snacking on these things and repeatedly buying hot cans of chocolate drinks from a vending machine.

I meant to try some silkworm larvae, or beondegi, but failed to notice the numerous stalls selling these at Namdaemun, and was unable to find them in the following days.

The price differentials seemed a little arbitrary to me, which made it perplexing to figure out whether or not I was getting value for my money. For example, it costs 5,000 won for a burger with Coke and fries but the same price for one tiny frappuccino. Or there were 50,000-won jersey gloves, but 29,000-won ankle boots. And most telling, it’s 11,000 won for an iPhone case AND a whole sushi buffet. I don’t get it.

I think up to that point, even after visiting some very interesting cultural gems, like the folk architecture at Namsangol Hanok Village (see below) and its lovely garden on a chilly Tuesday morning, I still wasn’t convinced about the city’s merits. Sure, it has an efficient public transport system, feels like a larger, calmer version of Hong Kong, has Wi-fi everywhere (even outside an outhouse) and its residents seem to regard tourists with tolerance — just a heartbeat short of warmth. But, amid all the surface value (the cosmetic-surgery ads for better faces and folded eyelids and the careful presentation of everything) where was Seoul’s soul?

The turning point, I think, was when we caught the light show at Banpo Bridge on Tuesday evening at 9. We walked from the apartment, following a strictly demarcated pedestrian lane, next to a bike lane, next to a car lane, to the Han River, which had a promenade on one side that offered gorgeous views of the Seoul skyline. On the water, there was a cruise ship where you can apparently have dinner and a short tour of the coast.

As the music started, beginning with some acoustic and rock ‘n’ roll K-pop, followed by (surprise) The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” and the jets of water, colored lights projected on, started dancing on one side of the bridge, and as the college-age Korean couple started drowning in each other’s lusty stares with the full moon overhead, I almost choked from the romance of it all.

The next day was even better. My brothers and I formed a breakaway squad and decided to explore the city on our own, finally finding some personality in Hongdae, an area that I think mixes that struggling-artist ethos with a hopping bar scene quite well. Nearby is Hongik University, the institution that spawned the 20 artists who made the erotic sculptures at Jeju Loveland park, on a southern island an hour’s flight away, which I wanted to do a story on but failed for lack of interviewees.

Here, we explored the basement Trick-Eye Museum (3571-1 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu; 10am to 9pm; Admission fee is 13,000 won), which basically desecrates famous works of art (or invents naughty classics) by letting people interact with each painting, scenery or sculpture like so:

It was in stark contrast to Gangnam, popularized by that famous song, which turned out to be a bit dull. Maybe I was asking too much, expecting to come out of the train station (if you do navigate the subway, download this life-saving app called Subway Korea) into a glowing UFO of men in shiny tuxedos, Barbie-doll women and maybe even Psy galloping straight at me, ready to welcome me as ambassador of the republic — but Gangnam was just your ordinary central business district. Its key attractions being some shopping malls, a red-brick Marriott and the kimchi field museum.

Still Gangnam Style cannot be escaped: Psy is everywhere now — on hoodies, ring binders, advertisements for anything from cookies to refrigerators. And every Korean I asked to dance Gangnam with me for a video immediately went front and center for the camera.

Gangnam style?

Which is why walking around Hongdae, I suddenly start screaming, “Yes! Yes!” because we had found a Hello Kitty cafe. And next to it, a cat cafe called Cats Living, where, for 8,000 won, you will be ushered into a Hallmark card, past shoe check, bag check and a hand-sanitizer spritz. The price buys you a free drink, plus free rein to interact with 30 cats, each a different color and temperament, some wearing ribbons and bells around their necks, some eager to steal your coffee, others content to just doze, regardless of the constant clicks of our cameras.

The question you ask is, Why? As the shy waitress explained to me, in a disastrous interview because she couldn’t speak a lot of English, the owner is a cat lover who just wanted to share this passion with the world, notably caffeine addicts. They get an average of 30 visitors per day, one for every cat, including celebrities. (My first cat meme on Vimeo.)

Surrounded by calicos and tabbies, my brother Nico then discovered he was allergic to cats, as his left eyeball turned red and swelled to the size of a ping-pong ball.

That night as well, after dropping off our littlest brother at home, his allergy sufficiently subsided, Nico and I looked for a dive bar (didn’t think we’d find one), not knowing we would end up just meters from the museum we visited earlier in the day to find Bar Da, an excellent, tiny sliver of room that looks like it was cobbled together with nails and tape. The atmosphere was welcoming, the music was pretty good (blues to punk without being schizophrenic about it), the prices pretty cheap, and the walls covered with snapshots of people who’d passed out drunk on the tables.

It was just so nice to find something like this amid a sea of techno-pumping clubs and flashy bars with all the girls dolled up, their cheeks flush with either soju or rouge. In other words, I was quite relieved that in a city of bright lights and seemingly little substance, you can find flashes of character.

Next: Comparing the Two Koreas!
Corrections: The car we used was a Kia Carnival, not a Hyundai as previously stated. The words “heavily Photoshopped pictures” were replaced by “very nice,” in consideration of brother’s feelings.

The earlier goals:

Barring visa problems, or a major typhoon, I would like to accomplish the following in South Korea’s capital:

  1. Make a parody video of Gangnam Style, and visit Gangnam itself for some insight.
  2. Eat a live octopus, with video, a la Old Boy.
  3. Get recognized by a North Korean soldier from the other side of the DMZ. He will have to say over the PA system, “Hey, didn’t I see you here a few months back?”
  4. Check out liposuction prices. Given the high per-capita rate of cosmetic surgery, I am guessing it will be cheap.
  5. Try to fly to Jeju Island to check out the erotic park.
  6. For Halloween, cavort around as a normal human being.

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