Archive | September, 2013

So, what does Gangnam look like?

27 Sep

“Pali! Pali!” everybody likes to say. Faster! Faster! South Korea has been sprinting down the road to recovery since the end of the Korean War. As fast as PSY’s “Gangnam Style” anthem, mocking Seoul’s Ferrari-and-furs nouveaux riches, galloped to the top of the Western music charts this year, the city has emerged as one of the most hip (and most underrated) cultural capitals in the world. Cruise-line-proportioned flagships, architecturally bombastic headquarters, museums celebrating traditional houses to handbags, haute and hot restaurants are all competing for the attention of its 10 million increasingly affluent residents.

'The Reincarnation of Seoul' – New York Times

 

The love locks of Seoul

26 Sep

Reportedly, Koreans are the Asians that to the greatest extent wear their hearts on their sleeves. So N Seoul Tower might actually be the most loved up place in all of Asia. Kitschy lovey-dovey? Perhaps. But I loved it.

 

 

Seoul’s Fish Market

26 Sep

Noryangjin Fish Market puts even most large-scale aquariums to shame. Octopus is the market's unrivalled king; from tubs with squirmy baby octopus to stands offering more than a metre long octopus tentacles. There's the expected abundance of fish, prawns, oysters and clams, but also the more odd delicacies, like sea pineapple, sea squirts, sea cucumber, live abalone, sea acorn, sea snail and lots of other slimy things I'd never seen or heard of before – let alone expect to be eating half an hour later.

Koreans tend to drink beer with their sea pineapple. I'd recommend lots and lots of Makgeolli instead, the national 'farmers alcohol'. So toss back most of it with the orange, wriggly dish in the middle in the first photo below which is indeed the infamous sea pineapple. But, be sure to throw in some shots as well when you work your way through the exotic sashimi varieties known as frozen (!) and chewiest ever (apparently Koreans love the chewiest white fish around). Worst meal so far on our trip, but undoubtedly one of the most entertaining!

 

North Korea and the scariest place on Earth

12 Sep

I went to North Korea today. My sister claims my three-minute stay doesn’t really count, but since Bill Clinton once called the Korean Demilitarized Zone the scariest place on Earth, I say it does.

Because the real thing is not happening. It’s not because my curiosity is not begging me to go. But I can’t get past the comparison in the front of my mind. How would it be any different from time travel to Nazi Germany in the hope of peeking over some barbed wire to see the atrocities for yourself? There’s no need for some additional money in Mr. Kim’s pocket, and there would be no good coming out of that visit beyond a satisfied curiosity (which I assume would be offset by the grating moral thoughts kicking you in the stomach while there).

So, instead we went to the most heavily armed border in the world for a few minutes and some selfies.

As the name hints at, the Demilitarized Zone is a 4km wide strip of land between North and South Korea that serves as a buffer between the two countries. Running from coast to coast along the 38th parallel, the countries are cut almost cleanly in half.

On either side of the 250 km long divide, two countries are ready to go to war at a moment’s notice. The entire area is bristling with watchtowers, barbed wire, landmines, tank-traps and heavy weaponry.

The buffer zone dates back to 1953 and the Korean Armistice Agreement, which ended the Korean War. Once one of the most intense fronts of the Cold War, it’s still its relic and still strife with tension, hostility and also death. The North Koreans are unpredictable, and 500 Korean soldiers and 50 American soldiers have been killed along the DMZ since 1953. A fact I very much wished I had learned after and not before I walked towards the demarkation line myself.

Although the trip started as a cheerful outing with a bus load of tourists departing bright and early from Seoul, cameras in hand, it slowly got more exciting, as a dimmer switch beyond our control until tension filled the air. From the edge of Seoul and for the next 40 km, we drove alongside barbed wire and guard posts flanking the Han river. As we drew nearer to the Joint Security Area in the middle of the DMZ, we passed tank stoppers with dynamite and forests doubling as minefields. And we picked up a few American soldiers as our tour guides.

For me, and I assume for most of the thousands of yearly visitors, the highlight of the day was the visit to the blue house’s conference room. On top of the demarkation line – the formal border between North and South – in the middle of the Demilitarized Zone a few blue buildings host the talks between the two countries.

 

Coming out of the Freedom House (intended as a meeting point for relatives between North and South, though never put to use as the North suspected most of theirs would simply defect if given the chance), you see these blue houses as well as a myriad of South Korean soldiers frozen in battle stance, fists squeezed tightly, before your gaze goes upwards to the grey large building in front that’s across the border. And that’s where there’s a tiny guy with binoculars staring back at you. Laughable, if it hadn’t been so eerie. If that little guy were to walk down the steps and across the demarkation line, the US would automatically be at war. South Korea is formally still at war with the North, as no peace agreement has ever been signed.

Tourists are taken to the blue houses (also painted blue inside) on tours both from the North and South. For my tour group from the South, the excitement was obviously about walking around the massive desk in the middle – where the Armistice Agreement was signed and that straddles the border between North and South and onto the North for a few minutes.

 

 

From time to time, North Korean soldiers have been known to walk up to the windows and look in while tourists vastly overcrowd the place. But not today. I know, because just like everyone else I was posing by these windows, making sure I stood just behind the desk and on the North side of the border.

 

Among the other highlights was the walk in one of the tunnels dug secretly by the North Koreans under the DMZ for use in a potential invasion. Four have been discovered so far, though the assumption is that there are dozens.

Along with the few minutes at the Dora observatory tower, where ten-folds of binoculars are lined up so you may look into the North, the tunnel and the demarkation line meet my needs for peeking into a communist dictatorship and I’d much rather continue my stay down here in the South. It’s an interesting peek into history for a tourist, though a sad reality for Koreans.

 

Seoul in a few photos

11 Sep

Friends, I realise it's time to roll up our sleeves and give you an update. We're now in Seoul, a city that is nothing like I expected. But it's one week in, and I only have a breezy first impression. So, let's do a bullet list!

* Seoul is the city children across the world unknowingly make drawings of. Though the architecture is at times more exiting, the overall impression of large parts of this city is of cookie cutter type buildings. But there's also the frequent contrast between temples and skyscrapers.

* It's smart. Like the stands with umbrella locks provided outside buildings on rainy days, the child seat for toddlers in special toilets for mothers, the free translation hotline advertised in taxis you may call if your taxi driver only speaks Korean. Or if the restaurant of your choice is full, there's the piece of paper hung by the door where you simply sign your name and number of people to keep easy track of the queue and allow you to do something else for the next few minutes than ogle the people at the table you want. And it's the clean public toilet just there where you need it, neatly advertised on the main road.

* It's tech-savvy. Everyone has smart phones – and everyone seems to pull them out when on the metro (free wifi!). The coolest kids even sport antennas so that they may properly watch TV while whiling away their time between stations.

* It's plastic. This is the plastic surgery capital of the world. Plastic surgery ads are everywhere. It seems easier to spot the young people who have yet to go under the knife than to spot the ones who have.

* It's incredibly stretched out. Thankfully, so is the metro – just make sure to bring your Kindle or smart phone to pass those next 40 minutes somewhat sensibly. Or you can sleep…

* It's safe. It's impeccably clean. Everyone's well dressed. We're the scruffiest people in town. Contrary to South East Asia, no one wears flip flops. We do (and people stare at the 1EUR bargain I picked up in Indonesia).

* It's shopping. I thought Bangkok was overwhelming – but compared to Seoul, the Thai capital seems almost limited. Though if you're a European size 38/M or larger, there will be no trousers and only a few skirts for you in this city. It's also surprisingly uniform. Much of the fashion (except the itty bitty skirts) is similar to the Scandinavian style. Though I am struck by how an entire city appears to have agreed on the colours beige, blue, cream-white, green as well as navy stripes.

* It's coffee. Everywhere. Everywhere you go, there's a coffee shop, or a block lined with them. Perhaps because people crave caffeine alongside their 12hour work days or because apartments are notoriously small and it might be easier and preferable to meet friends at a cafe.

* It's tasty. Wonderful, wonderful food – as long as you steer clear of all that pickled stuff. Or bring a boyfriend who happily eats it for you.

 
A quick word on what's next:

We've now finally planned the next few months of our journey. Although it seemed to have no end in January and Asia really was our limitless oyster, we're now drawing closer to the point where we would actually like to see it end.

So. Our plan now is to spend another two weeks in South Korea, then we'll be in wacky Japan for three weeks before we leave Asia altogether and go to New York (hurrah!) as a slight detour before we finally head back to Europe again – which should be at some point in November.