Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Korea - the first few days

Hello everyone!

So in spite of spending the last two weeks almost drinking myself to death, I made it to South Korea. I will try to update this blog on a regular basis, but no promises!

I thought I would use this blog as a tool to remember what I did, funny and obscure things that I have experienced, and to a lesser extent any general feelings I have while writing this. It's not going to go all emo on you, though. Besides, I can't go throwing a phone in the river as a) I don't yet possess one, and b) the river is quite far away.

Here we go...

So I arrived at Heathrow Terminal 1 in the late afternoon on Thursday. I was tired and a little bit hungover, the results of a final all-day Wednesday session ending in Metros. My 24kg bag was checked in, on a 20kg limit, which mysteriously increased to 30kg when I played dumb and said I didn't know such a limit existed. A promising start, then. I said goodbye to the parents, who, credit to them, didn't burst into tears. I accidentally almost punched my mum when hugging my dad, but I don't know if she noticed. I punch like a girl, we all know that.

Time passed quickly in the airport, and soon enough I was on my 9pm Asiana Airlines flight to Incheon, the airport that supplies Korean international flights. The flight was strange. I seemed to have the misfortune of sitting next to the only non-Korean on the flight, a middle-aged man who tried his best to tell me how amazing Asian girls are and generally just being quite naive about culture. And he snored loudly, rendering sleep difficult. I took the Korean food optio both times, and was surprised by how much I liked it. Except the kimchi. That was rough. For those who are unaware, kimchi is Korea's national dish. It is fermented vegetables, and is served with every meal as a side. EVERY MEAL. So realising I didn't like it gave me a sense of trepidation, to say the least.

I arrive at Incheon International on Friday afternoon. An hour early. This threw a spanner in the works, as I was meeting my dear friend Kelly at a specific time at a specific place, Songnae subway station. With no phone of my own, I opted to get there and call her from a payphone that I hoped existed. I got on the bus as instructed, almost forgetting to pay in the process due to trying to fit my suitcase on te thing. An evil stare from the driver made me hand over some won, and off we went.

I had no clue where to get off. I had the station written (I say written, I mean printed; as if I can write Korean yet) on paper, and showed the old man next to me. He shook his hands to say he didn't particularly want to talk. Fair enough, really. I was the only non-Korean on the bus. This amused other vehicles that stopped by the bus for an extended period of time, in particular an army truck of about 20 Korean soldiers. Lots of waving, pointing, laughing, shoulder shrugging, more waving. For about 5 minutes. Like the Eminem lyric, it were as if they'd never seen a white person before.

Turns out Songnae is the final stop where everyone gets off, so I follow the crowd and stumble upon a payphone. Naturally it requires coins to operate. Unnaturally, I don't have any. Note demoninations start at 1000, which is about $1. Trying to explain that I needed 'smaller money' to numerous people in the station didn't really work, until I said the word 'change'. "AAH, CHANGEY CHANGEY!" Cue lots of coins, and a phone call to Kelly. The bus had taken a bit longer than normal, so I was only 10 minutes early. I feel this doesn't excuse the fact that she was on her sofa when I called :). To be fair, her arrival was rapid, and big hugs and a short taxi ride ensued. Bags were dumped, presents were given (actual real teabags and a london underground t-shirt), and out to dinner we went.

Now a lot of you will know that I spent a month practising my use of chopsticks before I went away, using chunky wooden ones stolen from Wok to Walk, and became what I thought was reasonable. I lot of you will also know that I am left-handed. Turns out in Korea it is very bad form to use the sticks in your left hand. It also turns out that they only use skinny, metal ones. I used these in my left hand at the restaurant, not wanting to make a total arse of myself. I did. Spectacularly. I'd love to say I dropped a lot of the food, at least that would have meant I could pick it up. A struggle, put it that way. When I eventually picked things up, the food was again exceptional. It is so unique. The kimchi was better (I'm putting that down to the previous experience being plane food, which I rarely eat anyway), the rice was nice and sticky, and the numerous side dishes all added something extra to the meal. The main aspect of the dish, I think it was mulgogi but I can't remember, was awesome.

The food is very visible when walking around. Upon leaving the restaurant we walked past some fish tanks. "Pet store", I say. The volume and intensity of the laughter from Kelly made me realise that these fish were to be eaten. Culture shock, anyone?

This experience was quickly followed by my first experience of a Korean bar - a 70s bar called Woodstock that played any American or British music from that era that you requested. Korean beer seems OK, the poison was called Cass. Pretty weak, but with the jet-lag I became a bit tired. We met up with 2 of Kelly's friends, April and Dalen, both Americans. I am yet to meet another British person. Actually the only non-Koreans have been Americans. Guess the strong political ties may have something to do with that.

Kelly's sofa was remarkably comfortable, and Saturday quickly came about. I spent a good portion of my morning itching my face, having not ben able to find my razor, and also practising my use of chopsticks in my right hand. We did this by putting some cereal (kinda like Frosties, but without the Tony the Tiger aspect to them) in a bowl, me getting the grip right, and then picking up individual pieces and moving them across to the other side of the bowl. Well, I had to do something to make myself acceptable with the sticks.

This was duly put to the test at lunch, when we met up with April, Dalen and another American called Matt. I think what we had is called galpi, an incredible idea. They give you the sides (if the picture works you can see how many there are, it's insane), and then put what resembles a barbecue in the middle of the table. They then put some meat next to the table, and you cook it yourself. The pieces are big, so you cut it with SCISSORS and then eat it in a similar way to a taco - but replace taco with lettuce leaf. It was so so good. Of course, this all came with soups and rice and kimchi and everything else - rice and kimchi come with pretty much everything.

Saturday afternoon was my first true culture shock, and the first time I questioned what the hell I was doing out here. Ironically, it was in a supermarket run by Tesco. Not actually Tesco, as Koreans like their own brands, so it is 'Home Plus - by Tesco'. Walking around, everyone bowing to us (I bowed at a car outside for letting me cross the road and he bowed back over his steering wheel, very funny), being offered so much food, hardly anything being written in English - I felt like I was in a daze. It made me realise the adaptations I will have to make - we found one block of cheese, a small block, which was 11,000, about $11. Cereal is almost 6,000 per box, so $6 or over 4 quid. Bread comes in small loaves, no more than 10 slices, and is about 3,000. So breakfast options began to seem low on the ground (they have rice for breakfast here, quel supris). Seeing packaged jellyfish 'meat' was very unnerving. It was a bizarre experience, but I told myself that I would get used to it. Probably not the jellyfish though, at least not yet.

The culture shock disappeared when we firstly went to a coffee shop to check the internet (and a failed skype call to the parents, trying to let them know I was alive), and then went out for dinner. The coffee in that shop was messed up, me and Kelly both left feeling tipsy and a bit fragile. For dinner April was occupado so another girl, Jen, came out with us. This was my first, and to date only, meal eaten in Korea without chopsticks. We had curry. Yes, curry. The Indian stuff. Very good curry as well, and fitting in with having curry on a Saturday night at home. This meal was also my first exposure to the national drink of Korea - soju. It seems like a watered down vodka (I have since been told it is about 12%), and doesn't taste that bad, contrary to what I was told about it before. But damn it's potent. 1 bottle gone and a strange feeling came across me, similar to what I experienced in the coffee shop. The best part of the meal was the family sat at a nearby table, in particular the little girl who kept on running up to our table and shouting "An-nyong-ha-se-io!", waiting for us to say it back, and then showing a wonderful smile and running back to her table. She was adorable!

Soju devoured, we headed to a club called Doubles. We got there before 10 to avoid paying the 20,000 (!) cover charge. I learnt a few things there: Koreans CANNOT dance without a dance mat underneath them; beer is damn expensive; and that I will have to get used to hip hop music on a night out. Good night though, until the jet lag kicked in again and I struggled to stay awake. Speaking of, a guy had actually fallen asleep on a seat in the club. I did the honourable thing and took a photo of him. Yes, I am still that guy.

In spite of the late night and alcohol, I was still awake at 7.30. Whether that was jet lag or the sun shining through the window, I don't know. But slightly annoying. Sunday I continued the chopsticks practising, even trying to pick up bigger things like pieces of apple. Not as easy as it sounds. Sunday was my first venture into Seoul proper, and was quite the day. Find out about it next time!

Love you all



  1. Hey! Cool to read about your adventures... any attempt I have made at keeping up a blog while traveling has failed, so I hope you fair better than I have.

    Maybe I will catch you on skype sometime in the future, no idea about time differences, but it's probably a pretty immense one regardless of where I am. Nice choice in profile picture by the way, glad you appreciate my photography skills :)


    PS. I'm in Istanbul. I booked that hostel you told me you stayed at, they have treated me to french toast for the free breakfast (!) and upgraded my room with no extra charge. Nice call on that one my friend.

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  3. change the design.

    It looks like my Nan's old living room..

  4. Bulgogi!! damn.

    will possibly be in tokyo in jan on work!

    have loooaads of fun!!