Over the last ten years or so, the amount of Western travelers heading to East Asia has increased massively. South East Asia – in particular Thailand, Vietnam and others – swarms with Western tourists eager to travel to countries they perceive as being exotic, welcoming, safe, and of course cheap. There’s nothing quite like stocking up on oh-so-hilarious slogan T-shirts for the next few years. Travel in China continues to flourish, while Japan continues to hold a special place in the imaginations of young Westerners – A land of unparalleled technological prominence and wealth, further popularised by the recent cinematic success of Lost in Translation.

Recently, I planned to purchase a ticket from Sydney to London. A hell of a flight, as anyone will tell you, and as good a candidate as any long-hauler for an extended stopover. Why fly over half the planet, I figured, and not stop to see some of it? So when my request for a list of cities that could be stopped in without an extra charge forced upon me turned out to contain less intriguing destinations than I had hoped for, I handed over my cash to Asiana Airlines, keen for a week in Korea and its beehive of activity, Seoul. James Brown jokes at the ready, I arrived on a warm September night at the end of a hot summer.

But, like most of the friends and colleagues I spoke with about my impending jaunt, I knew little about South Korea or its capital. Apart from the war and the ongoing ‘Neighbours From Hell’ episode that is the relationship between the Republic of Korea (in the blue, southerly corner) and the Democratic People’s Republic (in the red, northerly corner), as well as the Olympics in ‘88, the World Cup in ‘02, barbeques and car production, not much at all, in fact. I did know, however, that Korea was indeed a wealthy country (12th biggest economy in the world, it turns out), and upon stepping out of Seoul’s newly built Incheon airport (the scene of the Dunkirk-esque landing seen by many as the turning point in the Korean war), this was soon evident.

It was also quickly evident that I should have spent a little more time learning the local tongue, (apparently, as Korean is based on an alphabet, it’s not as tricky as one might think) bbut I located the bus stop to the city, impressed by their frequency and the amount of men in official looking clothes milling around, intent on helping a bewildered and jet-lagged foreigner with a comically large backpack. Once on the bus, the onboard computers, for entertainment purposes, as well as the compulsory seatbelts (hey, that’s progress), the American sounding lady that piped up through the speakers before each stop, and the tractor-sized cars that overtook us on all sides, further impressed me. And while I take little interest in most things automobile, I know Daewoo, I know Hyundai, I’m even familiar with Kia But the Korean car industry is evidently booming, considering the variety of names roaming the multi-laned highways- what were these strange cars? The whole time I was in Korea, in fact, I barely saw, at least barely noticed, any foreign cars, apart from the odd novelty-value modern Mini. Soon enough, after passing through what appeared to be endless inner-city (the concept of suburbs with a well manicured garden doesn’t appear to have taken off too rapidly), with road after road of well-lit advertising billboards, not to mention block after block of apartments, completer with LG or Samsung branding, I was at my hostel (one of the few in Seoul). I had found Seoul Backpackers in the closest thing Seoul has to a touristy area, Insadong, with surprisingly little trouble. For locating places for the first time in Korea is no mean feat, for one glaringly obvious reasos – no street names, and often no numbers. Indeed, it seems it may only be for the proliferation of the internet in South Korea that people know where on earth it is they are going. Almost every company has a website, and those that know what they’re doing put a detailed map with directions on the site, lest they be relegated to obscurity. This proved tricky once or twice, but on the whole, you quickly get used to procuring detailed directions before heading anywhere in the city for the first time.

Next day, a trip on the smart, speedy and well-priced Seoul subway had me fascinated at the level Korean telecommunications is at. ‘Is that me?’ I thought, ‘or is that bloke actually watching gameshows on his phone?’ I was well prepared for a technological shock to the senses, but when a friend at Vodafone UK suggested that Korea was in fact up to 18 months ahead when it comes to this sort of intense gadgetry, such as digital TV in handsets, I was dumbfounded. Tokyo, eat your heart out. As the excessively-featured handset would not work upon leaving Korea, I decided some other techno-tastic device would be a suitable souvenir, and took to locating Yongsan electronics market. Well, what an experience that was. Yongsan is, they say, the largest electronics market in Asia. Whether this means there is a bigger market somewhere else, I don’t know. But you’d hope not. For Yongsan is not for the faint-hearted, the easily intimidated, or the foreigner who has not bothered to study Korean. Four multistoried buildings tower over a courtyard where a Korean punk band of sorts played, on top of its own train station, below the inbuilt Imax cinemas, complete with the fairground rides and crazy golf on the roof. I picked up a fancy iRiver MP3 player (Made in Korea, where else) for slightly less than in Sydney. Considering the amount of haggling I put in when I located a trader with decent English, it wasn’t as cheap as I’d hoped. This was though, admittedly, the one day I could have done with a guide.

Yongsan market, however, is by no means the only monster-sized market in the capital. Seoul is a young city, and young Koreans appear to love shopping. This format of the mall/market hybrid is repeated to dizzying affect right across town, with certain areas literally buzzing at night. More than once I became totally engrossed and suitably lost in the modern day-bazaars of clothing stores, neon lights, food stalls, and the almost nauseating K-Pop bands set up to entertain the thralls of teenagers. I spent only a single week in Korea, but it was enough time to realise that the city barely sleeps. Some areas tingle with activity to the wee hours, with ‘Hof’ bars (beer and fried chicken, hell yeah)) squeezed in between countless small restaurants across the city. Other areas feature so many restaurants and bars of all sizes, including the happening borough around Yongik University, that it’s hard to understand how they possibly make any money. Yet food is an important part of life in Korea. Traditional cook-at–the-table BBQ joints are almost as numerous as the market stalls that proffer affordable nibbles, from dried squid to Korean style sausages, while small family run restaurants squeeze themselves in, enticing the visitor in with their myriad small bowls of Kim Chi offered with each dish. In fact, by the time you tuck in to eat in Korea, there are so many small dishes provided with each meal ordered it’s hard to know where to start. In addition, Kim Chi (roughly, pickled vegetables, although almost anything can be thrown in) is such a part of life that there is a museum dedicated to it. Perhaps if I’d stayed another week I would have made time. Maybe two weeks.

Yet the glory of Seoul is that, as you might expect from a city of ten million, the amount of cultural attractions far surpasses the amount of trips one can make in a week. While there, I visited countless palaces, many reconstructed to their pre-Japanese invasion levels of glory, not to mention various Buddhist temples and pagodas squeezed in between glass and steel skyscrapers. A hike through a building site up to the old city wall to sit in the forested hills overlooking the sprawling metropolis proved a highlight, as did one of the various modern art galleries Seoul has to offer, not to mention the huge, overbearing, intrinsically detailed, and only slightly propagandistic war museum, located next to one of the world’s largest concentrations of US troops in the borough of Itaewon.

And this brings us to the one issue that dominates domestic politics in South Korea- the issue of the North. It’s easy to dismiss the issue as an international one, but for many Koreans, it is an issue of living in a split nation, where progress towards unification often takes the form of ‘one step forward, two steps back’, particularly since a certain President Bush took office. I left Seoul on two occasions – once to stay overnight and visit the remains of the glorious ancient Silla kingdom in the town of Gyeongju, (whereupon I met a friendly Dutch cyclist who had just taken 18 months to cycle from the Netherlands, but I digress), as well as a day-trip to the Demilitarised Zone between the Stalinist North and capitalist South, the last and meanest cold war frontier. Korean nationals may not visit the DMZ nor the actual border which dissects it, but I, along with a busload of Japanese, was ferried in and handed over to a mixed group of South Korean and US troops, who promptly shouted orders at us, kept us in formation, and frequently prevented us from looking anywhere but straight ahead. This was, of course, after signing a waiver disallowing me from suing should Northern soldiers shoot me. Fair enough, I thought. It was group tourism with a difference, but worth it, just to stand inside the UN treaty buildings on the border, spy the world’s largest flag and pole (trust me – big), and get a few sneaky zoom-pics of North Korean soldiers marching around in their pointy Soviet era hats. Of course, it was all over far too quickly, but it was nonetheless astonishing. For 50km down the road form this ‘axis of evil’ stalwart we were back in Seoul, again amongst the multistory electronic billboards, the unimaginable wealth, the carefree youth and unending shopping centers. I wanted to go up and grab people to tell them what perils lay half an hour to the north – if only I could have prised their attentions away from the phones with the tellies on them.


Hello world!

October 4, 2006

Hello viewers. I, Bill, have set up a blog in order to publish, on my own terms, the informative and/or ranting articles I produce. After haggling with the Guardian, El Pais, Le Monde, NY Times, etc etc, I give up. I can’t work for that money! So here we go.