Thursday, 7 January 2010

Korea - The first Korean New Year

Hello everyone!

This post is essentially going to be about two nights - Boxing Day and New Year's Eve. Needless to say I got pretty drunk on both, so details may be a bit vague or just plain wrong. But here we go...

Boxing Day was on a Saturday, so a good night to go out. Me, April and Kelly were joined by Dalyn as we ventured into Seoul in the late afternoon. Dalyn hadn't joined us on Christmas Day as he was ill, which must have been pretty rough. Being away from home at Christmas is strange, but to be ill would be horrible. It was impressive that he actually came into Seoul with us.

Impressive, but also a bit silly. You see, it was pretty cold, and the light dusting of snow had stuck. Add into all of this a Siberian wind and you can imagine that it was pretty cold. Not ideal if you're ill. But Dalyn wasn't the only one feeling the effects of the winter chill. I had naively forgotten to bring a hat, a scarf or my one glove. I opted to combat the cold, at least on my face, by rolling up my top over my face, as you can see. It may look like a flu mask, and a lot of people wear them out here, but it's one of the two jumpers I was wearing under the jacket.

We walked past one of the palaces before heading to our destination - Insadong. Insadong is described as one of the main tourist attractions, and reminded me of Las Ramblas in Barcelona. The main part is a long, straight street, with lots of people, and almost as many people trying to sell stuff. Though there were a few Westerners wandering around, there didn't seem as many as the books suggested. It's a very pretty place.

We soon headed inside to get ourselves some Man-du. I have had the two main ingredients of this dish - water dumplings and spicy soup - but separately, so this was a new experience. These water dumplings were also rather large, and they sit in the soup. Once you pluck one out of the bowl you can split it on a plate before dipping it in soy. The cutting process isn't easy, as you have to use a combination of a spoon and a copstick or both sticks, but I'm getting used to it. What I'm not quite used to as yet is the cold rice tea that occasionally accompanies a meal, or is brought at the end. It tastes like a liquid rice cake, and I don't really see the appeal of it. But, this aside, mandu is the perfect dish to have on a cold day, and warmed us up brilliantly.

I was still waiting to be paid, so had no money in my new Korean bank account, and had used up my spare cash over the past two days of heavy indulgence. As it was a Saturday, the one place that would accept my British card, inside the bank, was not available to me. This put me in a pickle, and left me no choice but to pay on my card, quite an expensive thing to do with international charges. The idea was that if I paid for everyone, and then they gave me cash, then I would have enough loose money for the day. I tried the more obvious one of the two, my Mastercard, and got concerned when told that it hadn't worked. My Mastercard hasn't worked once since I came out here, and its something that I really should address. I pulled out my Nationwide card, more in hope than expectation - what chance does a debit card have if the credit card doesn't work? Amazingly, it did, and we were soon on our way.

Having become warm in the tearoom, it was then a bit of a shock to be back out in the cold, especially as the temperature seemed to have dropped further still. We went to buy ourselves a sweet treat, on April's recommendation. They were called 'hot sweet things' - no special Korean name here. And the name has a Ronseal quality to it - it does exactly what it says on the tin, per se. They were very very hot, to the point where you have to leave them for the first minute to avoid burning your face off. They were very very sweet, with the cinnamon goodness soon oozing out of the middle. A bit sticky, but very nice.

Whilst eating this I began to lose sensation in my fingers, to the point where I decided that gloved were now a necessity, not a luxury. We bought hotpockets, but I opted to keep mine for later, meaning that the urgency to buy gloves was increasing. My head was also beginning to freeze, making the purchase of yet another hat rather tempting.

I ended up buying both, and with a bit more vibrancy about us we went to walk around the backstreets of Insadong. It's pretty picturesque, and reminded me of a continental European city. Neat little coffee shops and restaurants were dotted inbetween small rustic buildings. The English on some of their signs was a bit unorthodox, particularly the menu that proudly proclaimed itself as a 'Happy Virus Menu'. Having walked around for a bit, we started dreaming about how good a Baileys and hot chocolate would be on a cold evening such as this, so we ventured into one of these shops. After all, it did tell us that 'It will be a nice memory'. You have to be tempted by that.

Baileys was always going to be difficult to get hold of, and harder still to explain to a Korean waitress, so we soon gave up on that. However, the menu contained an option that intruiged us - chocolate makkoli. Makkoli is rice wine, and supposed to be a pretty decent drink to have in the winter. Alcohol in hot chocolate - mission accomplished!

Or so we thought. Dalyn opted for a standard hot chocolate, but the rest of us were bold and chose the choco makkoli, so ordered three. The waitress looked at us in shock, and soon walked off giggling to herself. Slightly unsettling, but we soon realised why she found it funny. The cup was tiny, similar in size to a petri-dish. But the liquid was in a pot. A very large pot. And we had three of them.

I let April and Kelly try it first, and we soon realised the kicker. It was chocolate makkoli, we got that bit right. But assuming it would be hot, or at least warm, was a bit of an error on our part. It was pretty cold. And the chocolate used in it wasn't fantastic. But there was a lot of it, so we ploughed on, me quicker than the rest.

About halfway down my pot, the chocolate began to hit me, and I felt pretty full. But I don't like to waste alcohol, we all know that, so I kept going. And going. Everytime I had to refill my glass I was hoping it would be the final drops, but the pot had some strange quality that suggested it would go on forever. I finally got to the bottom, feeling fat, tipsy and triumphant. What a triumvirate of feelings, eh.

The girls couldn't finish theirs, and April kept pouring more into mine throughout this ordeal, so I actually drank quite a lot. Upon leaving, after I had paid on my card again to have more cash, we headed back to Bucheon and hit up a couple of places. I remember we tried to get into Mister Africa but the place was full. One place that was open was a bar that had a cow handing out flyers - I felt obliged to get a picture with him. We ended up at a place called Gorillaz, where pitchers of beer and a peach soju cocktail were bought and quickly disptached. We were joined by more people, some who we knew, some who we didn't know.

The drinking culture in Korea is fascinating, and the attitude is rather refreshing. In essence, everyone has to keep pace with each other, and they play games amongst their table regarding how much they can drink, and the speed they can drink it. I don't know what these games are as yet, but I have seen the two consequences, and indeed saw both on Boxing Day. One is fairly obvious, particularly as Koreans do seem to struggle to be able to hold their drink - the one who wins a lot gets hammered and normally ends up being carried out. This happened twice on this night, once very early, with the first guy unable to actually stand, and the later one actually being a girl, who again couldn't stand up. Fair enough.

But the other consequence is that the loser often has to go to another table, full of strangers, and befriend them. Maybe it's a bit like doing a forfeit if you lose. We observed one young man, cheered on enthusiastically by his table, stumble over to a table of three Korean women, sit down and start to chat to them. It seems like an unwritten rule that the women have to play along with this, whether they want to or not. these women didn't seem overly keen, but the patriarchal leanings of this society dictate that they have to allow the man the opportunity to befriend them. One guy then came over to our table. His English was impeccable, and we were all happy to play along and let him entertain us. Turns out he spent a bit of time in Seattle, so was very familiar with Western culture and customs. A very nice guy.

I have to be honest, I don't remember too much after that. Me and April were drinking until close to 6am, when we decided to end our strangely deep discussions about having kids and I hopped on a bus back. The only reason I know this is because I had a text telling me this information the next day.

But the bus ride is where things went south. I got on the right bus to get from Bucheon to Siheung...and fell asleep. I get a shake from the driver, open my eyes and find that I have no clue where I am. What is worse is that the bus driver is ushering me off the bus. I look at the time - 7am. Great. Luckily, the stop for buses travelling in the other direction is across the street, and I'm soon back on a bus heading for Siheung.

I hear Korean in my ear. Oh no. I passed out again! End of the line. Where am I? I keep saying to the driver, 'Siheung' and he keeps shaking his head and ushers me off the bus. Before I get off, I notice the time. 8am. Brilliant. I'm still very drunk at this point, and stumble out of the bus station towards the main road. I then look across and see Bucheon station. I was back where I started. 2 hours later.

While waiting for yet another bus I popped into a local takeaway joint (I was drunk, remember) and looked at my options. Looked, not understood. I tried to order the cheapest thing, whatever it might be, and I tried to order in Korean. 'Hana, juseyo' I say, trying to point at the top of the board above me. I can't reach, so grab a pair of scissors off a table and tap them against my choice. This woman has seen it all before from Westerners, and responds in broken English. 'One?' Rather than appreciating her efforts, I ignored them, and tried to order once again in Korean. The same thing happened, and then, remarkably, I said: 'Anyo Englishee! Anyo Englishee!', which means 'No English!'.

What I got was rice and kimchi in a box, with a slither of egg on top. Thinking that I wanted to have this quickly, I spent most of my remaining 8,000W on a taxi to get home. I ate up, quickly realised how disgusting the stuff was, and then went to bed at about 9am, waking up at 6pm.

I woke up to snow. Lots and lots of snow. I opted against leaving the flat, the hangover was pretty rough. Apart from going for dinner with Brittany and then meeting people for a couple of drinks on Tuesday, I hung low and tried to save money for New Years. I could hang low as school was not open.

Well, my school wasn't. It makes sense that hagwans are open as often as possible, as parents pay a lot of money for that privilege. I did have to go to school on Monday to pick up my Christmas box from la famille. It was when I was hanging around there, waiting for the DHL van, that I noticed that Sorae middle school, just across the road, was OPEN. I found that rather strange, but it's not something I can complain about.

Aah yes, New Year. They do celebrate this one in Korea, but they also follow the Lunar calendar so there is another celebration in February. I won't be around for that, which I can explain away another time, but I was pretty excited for this one. Of course, most people had to work, and those in hagwans get screwed in this respect as, even on New Year, they are working until around 9pm.

Of course the flip side of this is that those of us who work in public school get to start having fun earlier. So me, Ellen, Julian and Codey all met up, had a beer or two, and then began to make the epic trip into Seoul at around 7pm. The latter two hadn't gone to the toilet before boarding the bus to get to Bucheon station, which was a bit naive to say the least. As I've mentioned before, traffic here gets ridiculous between 5 and 9. Codey in particular was struggling to survive, even considering relieving himself out of the back window. The bus seemed to be at a standstill on the hill which separates Siheung and Bucheon, so they decided to take some initiative and get off the bus at the next stop, in the knowledge that there were buses behind us so they wouldn't be significantly delayed.

The problem was that we didn't know exactly where the stop was. As a result, it was rather unexpected when the doors suddenly opened. Julian hopped up and off straight away, but Codey, in a fair amount of pain at this point, moved gingerly towards the door, which began to close. Imagine this as being similar to trying to keep open an elevator. The natural instinct for Westerners is to put their leg out, a movement that is picked up by the sensors and re-opens the doors. Obviously this technology has not quite come across to the Korean peninsula. Codey puts his foot out - and said foot is squashed in the doors. Ouch. The bus driver, oblivious to what is happening behind him, then starts to drive! Lots of shouting soon makes him aware of the situation, and the doors are opened, allowing Codey's foot to breathe, and him to relieve. Rhyme!

Ellen and I were watching this from the comfort of the backseats of the bus, and the traffic soon cleared. We met up with Julian and Codey at the station, where they told us that they were, ahem, caught in the act. Westerners setting a good impression, I know, but when you gotta go, you gotta go. We then met Kelly and her friend Phil at the station soon after, and headed up to Hongdae.

Hongdae is the partying area of Seoul. I'd love to go into more detail about what it is like, but this was my first and thus far only time I had ventured up there, and there are gaps in my mind. There are a lot of places to go, and a lot of people there, though not as many Westerners as I had anticipated. We initially went to a bar called Gogo's, which had an indie-rock vibe to it. Our target place for the night was a club called Via, just down the street, where we could get in for only 5,000W as we knew the special password. Less than 3 quid to get into a major club on New Years, not bad at all. Especially when it was 2-4-1 on drinks.

Kelly and Phil had gone to nearby Sinchon for a bit, and were planning on meeting us at Via. The original four of us got there to find it pretty much empty, however, so we headed back to Gogo's. Gogo's was where we celebrated the striking of the clock for midnight, and it was a lot busier so probably a better place to do so.

We had been joined by others at this point, one of whom, Alicia, had her camera out. I haven't seen the pictures, and am not 100% that I want to, but I do remember a few of us being upstairs in Gogo's, where there was a mini-stage and a pole. Put two and two together here, folks. I did indeed swing around the pole for a bit. I did also slide down the pole and end up on my rear end. I've been informed there is a picture of that, and if I seem acceptable in it I will put it on here. But still, not my proudest moment.

Back in Via I got talking to a Canadian girl called Michelle for a while. She was cool, but drank vodka with water, which I found odd. Reminded me of ripping Mohammed for drinking whisky and water all the time, utterly pointless. Her and Alicia headed back to Gogo's after a while, and it was strongly suggested that I go with them. Of course, I did, but for some unknown reason I got held up, and when I got to Gogo's I couldn't find them. I kept looking for a while, but instead ended up talking to random people, as I often do after a few. In particular, I remember talking to a South African called Malcolm about cricket, and Makhaya Ntini, for a long long time.

I soon realised that I hadn't really eaten since lunch, and began to fear how this may affect me as the night progressed. I found a street vendor and went for a timeless Manchester night out snack - the chicken kebab. It was good as well, that's how drunk I was. I normally can't stand them after eating them regularly from Kebab King in freshers year.

Eventually I headed back to Via to see if anyone I knew was still there. As I went through the entrance I saw a familiar face - Josh, who I hadn't seen at all throughout the night. He offered me to come along with him and his friend Jon to a different place, so we headed over to another club called Cocoon. This was a hip-hop club, so not exactly my place of preference, but we were meeting one of Jon's friends there, so (very) reluctantly paid the 20,000W entrance fee.

We stayed there 5 minutes.

It was heaving in Cocoon, the dancefloor seemingly resembling a herd of cattle in a pen. Realising that the chances of finding Jon's friend were slim, me and Josh cut our significant losses and moved on, while Jon went on one last search. Outside, we started talking to three American soldiers. One of them said that we was soon leaving for Istanbul, which happens to be one of my favourite places on this little planet. We started talking in the cold for a while, until Jon resurfaced. I hadn't even realised that Josh had wondered off. We didn't see him again that night.

At this point it is worth me mentioning the cold snap that had hit Seoul on this particular night. The snow that had fallen over the previous days had, unlike in Bucheon or Siheung, begun to transform into ice. It was very slippery. I didn't use the word 'melt' here for a reason. Snow simply just doesn't melt at these temperatures. It was between -13'C and -16'C on New Year's Eve. What I found out a few days later was that this stunning fact actually didn't factor in the wind chill. Including this, I have been told that it resembles -27'C. You do need to drink a lot in order to not feel that, so I guess my antics had value!

The final place we went to was called Oi Bar. It's a hookah bar, but we stuck to beer. It's furnishings are unique. The inside is built to represent a cave. It reminded of the caves they have in Star Wars, looking as if part of the desert had been transported across to Korea, yet it also had numerous water features, giving the place a strange glow. You had to take your shoes off and place them in a plastic bag before entering, which added to the mystique. It's actually quite difficult to describe, but it's a very cool place. We sat on cushions, which is something my legs struggle with when I'm sober, let alone when I have been drinking for almost 12 hours. Jon had friends who were already there, and they were all very nice people. The atmosphere of the place is very chilled, and that is reflected on how people act in there.

Well, most people. We were talking about something, and one of the girls then said something off-the-cuff, almost in jest, along the lines of not wanting American troops to be here. Not the thing to say as an American soldier is walking past. Cue argument. Me being me, and drunk, and the subject being politics, I couldn't help but wade into the argument. I became fully entrenched in an increasingly heated debate when he called me English. Oh dear. He then turned to a Kiwi in our group and called him an Aussie, so geography was obviously not his strong point.

We debated for a while before the soldier's friend persuaded him to go away. He was drunk, admittedly, but very passionate. Perhaps a bit too passionate to carry on our discussion, at least. 6am soon came around and Oi bar was closing, so I went to the toilet before we made our respective journeys home. I find a urinal, unzip, and then hear a voice. The soldier had followed me into the toilets to carry on our discussion. I gave him one minute of my time outside the toilets, and then left him abruptly to catch up with Jon.

Jon was staying at a place in Seoul, meaning that I was facing a long trek back. Public transport doesn't function between midnight and either 5am or 6am, I haven't worked out which as yet. I got back to my place at around 8.30am, and passed out. It was a fun way to bring in the New Year. As for the first day of the New Year...that didn't really happen for me.

I've now been here about 5 weeks, I'll give you all my thoughts on that next time!

Happy New Year! Love you all,


No comments:

Post a Comment