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Location: United Kingdom

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Some Korean Oddities

1. There are a lot of people crammed together in the same place. In the high fashion and shopping centres, it can feel very crowded, as we have to push through people all the time. On the other hand, there is little shoving, and people are very gracious about the hassle.

2. Eating Korean food takes a very different mindset to what we are used to. You can see pictures of what the food should look like - although sometimes this is cooked and sometimes uncooked, so if you fancy one of the dishes with the uncooked pictures, it can be very hard to work out what the meal will actually look like when you get served it. Also the meal you think you are ordering is only a small portion of the actual meal. You get a number of small side dishes as well. These may involve: Pickled cabbage, pickled radish, pickled small fish, pickled chillis, pickled onions and ... well, you get the picture. I wouldn't rave about any of them particularly, but the pickled radishes are the best of the bunch.

3. The streets are extremely clean - but there are no bins. I'm not sure if the two are related - but it's possible that they are. I've noticed that the lack of bins makes people simply take their rubbish home. Also wherever you get food or drink, it seems to be practice to take things back to where you got them from. So when people eat at a mall foodcourt they take their trays back to the window where they bought it. Although clean, safe, and with very polite people, we have noticed a number of homeless people - and a couple of beggars, who seem to be accompanied by a small tape player of music as they wander through the streets hoping people will drop money in their bowl.

4. As it's thanksgiving, people dress their children up in traditional clothes and play traditional games. Games I've seen include "wheel the hoop with a stick", "jump alternately on the sea-saw", korean ludo, and "throw the arrow into the pot"

Today we went to another palace. This was used for about half the Korean Joseon dynasty - in other words for about 250 years of the 500 year Joseon period - ending with the Japanese invasion. It was another spectacular grand palace, with ornate wooden buildings painted red and green.

Because of the age and risk of fire, there was no smoking allowed in the area, and they had fire extinguishers everywhere. They also insisted that people only came in as part of a guided tour. The tour guides dressed in traditional costume, and being part of a small group allowed us to feel we had the buildings to ourselves, although in the distance we could see other groups set off and leave along the same pathways.


Saturday, October 07, 2006

worrying times in Seoul

We've just come back from the tour of the De-militarised zone (DMZ) in Korea. It was very interesting and informative, and a sign of just how divided the two Koreas still are.

First we had a passport check, where a soldier came on board the tour bus and checked we were who we said we were - followed by a military film designed to "explain" the true facts of the Korean war. It was quite sobering, with archive war footage, and shots of soldiers marching and bodies coming back. We followed the film most of the way, but at the end it tried to make a point about how the DMZ was becoming a sign of hope for the future, which I must admit seemed a bit far-fetched. It's a big stretch of propaganda to make a several mile wide strip of heavily mined and fortified land dividing a country in two a symbol of hope. Both sides are still technically at war, for instance.

We were given another briefing by a Korean soldier, before taken to the third incursion tunnel. Apparently one day some villagers felt the earth tremble repeatedly under their feet. The government put down test boreholes and found that the North Koreans had been digging tunnels under the DMZ. At first they started with thin weedy tunnels, presumably to let commando troops into the South, but they soon turned to creating big wide ones that could take an army through in rapid time. The one we saw was a long way underground, and very cold and damp. Apparently it had been dug by dynamite by political prisoners. When the North Koreans were discovered and evacuated, they smeared coal over the walls, so they could claim the tunnel was an exploratory mine shaft. Or so our guide told us - although he was obviously a very pro-Southern army guy.

We got a look at North Korea from the top of a fortified observatory - 500 won for two minutes with binoculars. It looked much like the south, except they had cut down all the trees, and they had an enormous flagpole facing the south Korean's one. The base had ridiculous rules on taking pictures - we had to all stand behind a yellow line and try to photograph up a hill and over a low wall. Some resorted to stretching with their cameras over their heads, but really there was no way to actually take a picture. I suppose this was to make the North Koreans feel less like goldfish in a bowl, and yet give a sop to tourists who insist on taking pictures everywhere. I took pictures of people standing on tiptoe and trying to get a photo, instead, as that seemed more interesting.

The last stop was a train station, built as a real symbol of hope by the chairman of Hyundai (who was North Korean originally). It was a fully functional train station, missing only trains and somewhere to send them. The hope is that one day it will be a leg of a great trans-continental train system connecting Korea with Europe via China.

And from that hopeful sign we returned to our hotel and turned on the news, to find that on the day we had visited, South Korean guards had fired warning shots at five North Korean troops who had crossed over the border. And that the North was warning that they would carry out an atomic bomb test in the near future. Initial indications are that it might even be tomorrow. Many people in South Korea are worried understandably about this, as they doubt that the North Koreans have enough experience to calculate yields properly. Although the North Koreans reckon they will do the test in a safe location (probably under a mountain), if they get the bomb wrong it may blow the top off the mountain and irradiate us all with a radioactive plume of fallout.

As the Chinese curse supposedly has it, we live in interesting times.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Korean Thanksgiving

Today we went to Namsan, which is a large hill in the middle of Seoul.

What we didn't realise when we arrived in Korea is that most of the country would be closed for five days. This is the time of Chusok, or Korean Thanksgiving. People everywhere go back to their family home and give prayers to the ancestors. It is a time of celebration, with half-moon cakes and fun and games.

But unfortunately, all the transport is booked up ages in advance, and most of the shops are closed. We haven't been able to find an open bank for the past two days, so we are using atm cards instead of travellers cheques, and we are more or less restricted to Seoul.

On the other hand, there's lots to do here, as those people left in the city are enjoying their main holiday for a year. Namsan was really nice this evening, and full of happy people. They had some sort of ceremony on top, and kids got together and released a load of balloons, with little messages.

The top of the hill contains the relics of the original guard beacons which were used to warn people in Seoul about attacks - large stone structures that were filled with flammable material. Also there is "Seoul Tower"; we caught the lift to the top and looked out over miles of city. Up to then we hadn't realised that Seoul was so big, although with a population of almost ten million, in one of the highest population densities in the world, I gues it has to be big. We saw sunset over the city, and then the city lights come on, spreading out for mile in all directions.

Oh, and once again a couple of friendly Seoul-ites came to our rescue when it looked like we were struggling with how to work tickets. They came up, asked if we needed help, and advised us what to do. A very friendly city indeed.

Tomorrow, though, we see the other side of it. We are travelling to the DMZ, which is where South Korea meets North Korea, amid much tension.

Unfortunately, a city as switched on as Seoul has very tied down computers - which, combined with the language difficulties, makes it impossible to get pictures into this blog. But I've got a number of good ones, so hopefully once I find a compliant internet cafe I'll be sorted.

Edit - done it!

Yesterday we went to the Korean equivalent of Disneyland - Lotte world. As far as I can tell, Lotte is a company that specialises in high class department stores (with quite outstanding foot courts), and Lotte world is their take on a theme park.

It was excellent. There was a log flume, a series of swings and rides, and a giant monorail round the complex. Best of all was the attention to detail paid to everything. The "pharoh's curse" ride started off with a walk through a museum. There was a room full of paintings of Egypt, a room of statues, and an archaeological library. I guess this was all good queue management, but the level of realism on the statues and exhibits made it worth the walk. From the library room, we walked through a large sarcophagus and found ourselves on a dig in Egypt, complete with

finds tray and broken pottery. Then it began to get haunted, we heard the sound of rain and saw lightning through gaps in the walls. All this was before the ride began - which had us sit in a jeep and go through a roller coaster, complete with the roof partly collapsing and a giant snake. Most impressive of all was a room full of flaming braziers - so hot we could feel the heat as we passed.

There were a number of other rides in the same vein - voyages of sinbad and the "French Revolution", where we looped the loop in a roller-coaster. The most fun, though, was the "black hole", which was a futuristic take on a haunted house. We came up to a tunnel with a bridge through it. The bridge was static, but they revolved the tunnel (lit with stars) around us. It was almost impossible to walk through it, even though the bridge itself was not moving, and we staggered around like drunkards.

Naturally, being Korea, Lotte world had its own unique take on things. The majority of food choices were what you might expect - beefburgers, popcorn, nachos. But the one thing that had outlets everywhere, and seemed very popular, was the "fried squid in peanut batter". You got a paper bag full of slimy peanut flavoured rubber. Mmmm.

Oh, and to round it off - here's a couple of pictures of the grand palace we went to, where we caught the changing of the guard:

... the procession of the guard

... and a beautiful palace building on a lake:

Arrived in Korea

At last a chance to blog. Seoul is a very switched on city, with internet access to a large percentage of the population, but there seem to be very few internet cafe's. We've just changed hotels, and I'm writing this on the internet provided in the hotel room. Unfortunately Korea is just starting to have tourism, and so the computer works only in Korean or Japanese, so all of the menus and all of the messages I'm working by guessing at what they mean.

We've been here three days now - staying in a traditional Korean house, or Hanok. Here's a list of notable things about Korea:

1. There are few english signs. Particularly in the restaurants. Fortunately someone has a booming business in the plastic replica Korean food industry, as almost every restaurant has a mockup of 10 or so of their best meals done up in the window. Unfortunately half the time I still can't recognise them, even with a guidebook and a book I bought over here entitled "How to eat Korean food". The main problem seems to be that the main ingredient is unrecognisable. Is it pork? Squid? Tofu? You seem to only find out by ordering.

2. Korean food is, frankly, wierd to a western palate. There have been some surprising hits - mostly involving breadcrumbed pork cutlets - and some huge failures - mostly involving humongeous amounts of chilli. The wierdest experience so far has been trying to eat kippers served with picked cabbage with a pair of chopsticks.

3. Koreans like to dress up. The standard clothing for men and women is like the west, although Korean girls tend to dress more in short dresses with long socks. But every now and again someone walks past who has obviously spent a lot on their appearance. Wearing couture, for example, as if they were going out for a night at the opera, even though it's the middle of the day.

4. There are very few english speakers here, although people are very kind. On our first day we took the wrong bus from the airport, and got off when we found it out. But that meant we were in the middle of Seoul, not knowing where we were. As we studied our maps, someone came up to us, asked if we needed help, and walked with us to the subway to show us the way. Getting out of the subway, too, a man came up, explained that he was a university professor and zen monk, and walked with us part of the way to our hotel, so we could find it.

5. It seems very safe. Even at 12pm, coming back from a theme park along mostly deserted streets, we didn't feel at all worried.

6. People are big. Almost western big, and certainly larger than in other Asian countries we've been to. Perhaps the large number of teashops serving cream cakes has something to do with it.

7. Ordinary things in Korea seem to be done a little differently, so it can take some time to get used to them. I've noticed a couple of times that when I point at some writing to express myself, the western way is to run your finger under the writing, but in Korea they seem to take it that it is the writing the finger covers that is what you are pointing at. So where there is a list of things, we invariably get the item below the one we want.