Archive for March, 2009
In between yesterday’s shopping and sight-seeing, we were drawn in by the smells of the street food stalls around Dongdaemun Market. We stopped in front of one, and ordered two savoury pancakes, two lots of spicy-chicken-on-a-stick. In broken English, the vendor asked us if we intended to eat it at the stall or take it away. And we said ‘take-away’, and that was our mistake.
Because, we soon found that, amongst the stalls and streets and people of Seoul, there weren’t very many places to stop and have a picnic. And looking around, it seemed that eating and walking just wasn’t the done thing. In fact, most of the Korean who were eating things-on-sticks seemed to be eating them at the stall. But we were on our way to Changdeokgung Palace for the 1:30pm English language tour, and didn’t have time to go back.
We wandered the streets. Our pancakes were getting cold.
Eventually, we found a park. Wandered in. Found a seat. Ate a few pieces of chicken which burned my mouth. Looking around, we seemed fairly out of place. The park was fill of elderly old men, many of them playing baduk (a Korean game with black and white stones). As we ate, one of the men came up to speak to us. He asked in English where we were from. Whether we were students. And told us we were in a Korean Seniors Park. I’m not sure whether he was just trying to tell us about the place or let us know that we shouldn’t be there.
We were running late for the palace anyway. There were a lot of old men. We only ended up finishing half a pancake. Next time, we eat at the stand.
Of course, next time may be another seven years from now, as we’re flying on to New Zealand tonight. Better go pack the bags…
When we first moved to London, I found shopping a nightmare. I had no idea what a ‘high street’ was, there were so many new shops, and I had to slowly work out where I could buy the things I needed. I remember being suprised to discover, for example, that the best place to buy stockings was in Boots (a chemist franchise unlike anything I’d experienced in Australia or New Zealand). And when I came to write a marketing plan about a festival website for my job interview, I had to Google the names of major camping stores – something I’d just know off-hand in New Zealand.
I don’t think I’d have the same problem here in Seoul. After two days in the city, it seems to me that individual shops are less important here than the type of goods sold. Want stationery? Go to ‘stationery alley’ in Namdaemun Market. Want to buy an engagement ring? We found a street of jewellery stores on the way to the palaces. On the outskirts of Dongdaemun Market, Matt and I wandered past shop after shop selling fabric and ribbons.
Of course, being the technology geeks that we are, ribbons and fabric didn’t excite us that much. We were more tempted by the sound of the Yongsan Electrics and Techno Mart. That sounded like lots of technology. Twenty-two markets worth of it, according to the guidebook. But, after an hour or so, and just two department stores, we walked away feeling that lots of technology was perhaps a little underwhelming. In I’Park mall for example, there was a camera floor, there was a home appliances floor, a games floor, and two computer floors. Each floor contained over twenty market stalls – each of which appeared to sell pretty much the same range of product. Perhaps as a result, there seemed to be many more shop assistants than customers. We walked between the aisles, frustrated that most items didn’t have a visible price, and knew that everytime an assistant said ‘hello’, he was talking to us.
Of course, we weren’t actually looking to buy a computer. If we were, then perhaps the selection would’ve been helpful. But to me, the whole experience seemed to be lacking something. For example, I’m not a fan of Mac computers, but I love the Apple Store in Regent Street. When it’s not too crowded, I enjoy that store: the helpfulness of the staff, the demonstration of the products, being able to touch things. To be fair, I think the language barrier has a lot to do with it. If I knew Korean, I don’t think there would be such a separation between store and customer.
Also, if I knew Korean, we may have found the rest of the electronics stores earlier. We arrived at Yongsan Markets, followed the English signs, ended up at I’Park Mall. Okay. So where were the other twenty-one markets we were promised? We went outside, round the block, round the block the other way, back inside, back into the station, out again, and finally – almost by chance – found a corridor which lead to a raised passage across to another store and the rest of the markets. By which time, it was 6:30pm and the shops were beginning to close.
So we haven’t bought a computer in Seoul, and we haven’t bought fresh fish or lace or antiques or jewellery or antiques. But after only two days here, I feel that if I was going to buy any of those things, I’d know where to start looking. And I guess, in a big city, there’s some merit in that.
It’s 4am here in Unseo-dong, and I am a girl full of awake. It probably doesn’t help that I fell asleep as soon as we got back to the hotel last night. Oh well, we’re moving on to New Zealand tomorrow night, and that’ll be a different time zone, so it’s probably not worth getting too used to this one.
Yesterday was Monday here. Obviously. And yet, there were those hours on Sunday which disappeared from my life during the time change on the flight, and I can’t helped wondering what happened in them. It’s still Monday in the London.
In Seoul, things are closed on a Monday. This fact was in the Lonely Planet. However, somehow, we neglected to read the ‘except Mondays’ and the ‘Tuesdays-Sundays’ in the descriptive text. So we turned up at Gwangwamam station in the Downtown district (after over an hour of airport-shuttling, busing and subwaying) to find a sign which said ‘Monday: day off’. Fine, we thought, we don’t need a tour bus. We’ve got legs. So we walked on those legs up to Changdeokgung Palace. The guidebook said that you could only explore the palace on a guided tour. There was an English language one at 11.30am. We got there just in time. And of course, it was closed.
However, in a competition between culture and consumerism, the latter would appear to win hands down in this city – so, we decided to give up on the palaces and spent most of the rest of the day browsing the shops (or rather the markets and department stores). Namdaemun Market needed a map of it’s own, as there was such a variety of vendors, selling everything from kimchi flavoured chocolates to padded coats, street food to pickled ginseng root. But what I got most excited about was ‘stationery alley’: shop after shop of all the stickers and notepads, poorly phrased English captions and cartoon characters, that my geeky little heart could wish for.
And across the road from the Market: Shinsegae Department store, the Korean equivalent of Harrods, or at least Elys of Wimbleon. A far calmer shopping experience, but with price-tags which were beyond our reach (even with the fairly decent pound to won conversion). Later in the day, we also visited Lotte World, south of the river: another huge department store, with it’s own bowling alley, icerink, and indoor theme park. Amongst all of this, our purchases were some photo stickers from the arcade and a bulgogi burger from Lotteria.
The other attraction we found that was open on a Monday was N’Seoul Tower. It’s not a hugely tall tower in itself, but it is on top of a rather large hill. We braved a rather shaky (and crowded) cable car just to get to the base. From the top, we took pictures through slightly grimy windows of offices and apartment blocks, a palace or two and some historic houses, and evidence of humanity as far as the eye could see.
It’s 5am now and Tuesday. Breakfast is being delivered at 7am, and then it’s back into Seoul. Back to Gwangwamam station and the tour buses, to see what this huge city can offer us today.
There’s a chapter in Lessons to Learn called ‘On Arriving’, set in a Korean airport. It’s full of Christmas music and boy scouts speaking in broken English, two men called Mr Park, an INFROMATION DESK and a young English teacher struggling to take it all in.
Seven years later, I’m back here. This time, I’m sharing the trip and the soju with Matt. This time, I’m flying in from another big city, a home called London. But the language here is still foreign and the neon lights are as shiny as ever. We’re staying in Incheon Airport Town: another of those places which springs up from nowhere, another of those places which is surrounded by nothing. Our hotel room has a spa bath, heated floors, a computer (with a wireless connection) and an ultra-violet ray sterilizer.
We wandered a couple of blocks earlier, browsing the choice of restaurants – and were slightly alarmed by the claw machine which appeared to let you win a live lobster. Eventually we settled on Korean barbeque, where the owners cooked beef and bulgogi on a hotplate at our table. On the plane, we were served bimibap, along with instructions on how to mix all the various ingredients (rice, hot pepper sauce, mushrooms, cucumber, etc) together. On our way back to our hotel this evening, we stopped at the convenience store for chocolate snacks and green tea icecream.
While we could probably spend our three days here eating non-stop, tomorrow we’re heading out to explore Seoul. I’m taking a Bookcrossing copy of Lessons into the city with me. This is where it started. It’s strange to be back.