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July 2nd 2007
Published: July 2nd 2007
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When I started planning what to do around my trip to Mongolia, I quickly realised that, although geographically perverse, it would be easiest to fly to the country's capital, Ulaanbaatar, with Korean Air via Seoul. (For any airline nerds out there, of the two other airlines that fly from London to UB, Mongolian Airlines cannot be ticketed in the UK - an indication of its perceived (un)reliability - and Air China's flight times were not ideal.) Rather than have Seoul be another Singapore in my travel life - I have still never left Singapore airport, despite flying via the city state a number of times - and not knowing more than would fit on the back of a very small postage stamp about the Korean Peninsula, I decided that I would spend a few days in the city. Fortunately, my then newly-discovered travel companion for the Mongolia trip, Lisa, whom I had first met while we were both travelling round Namibia last year, decided that this was a reasonable plan and came along for the ride. Neither of us had much idea what to expect....

Within a couple of hours of landing, we decided with - at least in my case, customary - impetuousness, that we liked Korea. (People south of the border do not refer to their country with any qualifier, simply as "Korea".) Getting through the bureaucracy at Incheon International Airport was unusually, for airports, smooth and efficient; the airport itself, clean, spacious and airy. Locating the appropriate bus into town and buying tickets could hardly have been easier. It was a little more challenging working out which was Anguk, our stop, once we were en route, but we belatedly found out that the tanoy announcements were actually being translated into English; we had just been too far back in the bus to hear them properly. Otherwise it had been a little difficult to distinguish whether any "Anguk" we heard referred to the present stop or to a future stop. To ice the cake of our arrival, the owner of our delightful hanok (a traditional Korean house, this one converted into a guesthouse) could not have provided more detailed directions, although we were a little bemused at an instruction to "walk about 120 steps" to find the subway entrance, and another to "walk 20 steps" (no more, no less, it appears) before following his next instruction.

The Anguk Guesthouse itself was at least as delightful as we had hoped - and exactly as I would have envisaged had I known enough about Korean architecture. To the uninitiated (me), it has a very similar feel to what I would expect of traditional Japanese architecture. Ours was one of two rooms either side of the covered entranceway which led into a courtyard around which were a number of other rooms, all opening into the courtyard. Each room had a pair of pine geometric-designed latice-work doors at the top of a pine step/ledge that ran round the courtyard and lined the entranceway. These outer doors, when opened, revealed a pair of sliding doors that appeared to be made of paper - although closer inspection revealed them to be made of glass with paper pasted on top to create the right effect. Inside, our room could have been divided in two, had we closed the intervening sliding paper-effect doors, with a low bed in each. The first half of the room also contained a small (empty) fridge and a desk and chair with, to our amazement, a PC allowing us free access to the internet. Hence, although UK mobile phones do not work in Korea - Koreans unhelpfully use some really weird and wonderful network that is practically unique to them - we could at least email home to assure folks of our safe arrival. At the far end of the second half of the room, a door led to the sliver-shaped bathroom that nevertheless economically contained all the essentials. We could not have been happier with our lot, particularly when we discovered that we were only minutes' walk away from Insadong, a lively street containing boutiques, art galleries and, mostly on narrow side streets off the main drag, a festive array of eateries.

Food for us in Korea took one of three forms: bakeries, traditional Korean food, and the rest. Bakeries are clearly quite a "thing" here and our pursuit of breakfast or a light lunch led us into a couple whose smell of fresh baking alone could have been chopped up and consumed. The variety of sweet and savoury confections on offer was mind-blowing, and two of the more tasty that I tried contained pumpkin and sweet potato, the latter so freshly out of the oven it was practically still steaming. The accompanying tea and coffee wasn't always up to scratch, and it is still not clear why one place listed both "morning coffee" and "afternoon coffee" on the menu when both came out of the same pot. Still, the quality of the food made this a minor consideration.

Korean food takes a little getting used to. The first night we chose "stone pot" meals where the soup-stew arrives, not surprisingly, in a stone pot which is so hot that the meal continues to bubble for some minutes after its arrival. It certainly puts the Chinese and Indian sizzling dishes to shame in this regard. The accompanying bowl of rice is stirred in with the soup-stew, but I was never entirely sure what to do with the eight or more side dishes that appeared, containing varieties of vegetable (and, in one case, dried anchovy) in varying degrees of spiced marinade. We settled on picking at these bowls from time to time, alternating chopstick-fuls with our main dish. The total effect was delicious. The second night we treated ourselves to a vegetarian banquet at the much-vaunted Sanchon Restaurant, founded by a former monk who, Jamie Oliver-esque, now writes cookery books. Not surprisingly, given its founder, this place specialises in Buddhist temple cuisine in which dishes are made from the roots, herbs, plants and vegetables which can be found growing in forest and mountain areas. Chemical additives and "stimulant spices" are not used, but that doesn't mean the food is bland. It does, however, mean that not every dish suits the Western palate. However, as we had, at last count, 28 dishes in front of us, there were a number of options.

The chopsticks used in Korea tend to be made of metal, unlike those used in the other chopstick-weilding countries around it. This dates back to the era of Joseon Dynasty when the kings used silver chopsticks on the basis that, it was alleged, the silver would discolour in the presence of poison. (Needless-to-say, there was also a bevy of attendant women to try each of the king's dishes first; the silver chopsticks were simply an additional precaution.) To use silver chopsticks therefore became a symbol of high status, and the habit percolated down to the masses, albeit in a cheaper form.

The third night, I have to confess, we abandoned Korean food. We had had fairly unremarkable Korean food at lunchtime during the USO DMZ trip (about which I'll be writing a separate blog) and decided to change tack. We therefore took ourselves south to Itaewon, the area near the US military base. Unsurprisingly, we found many more Westerners and their families around, the majority, we assumed, service personnel. In keeping with demand, this area is more anonymously Western in feel, with more examples of international retail chain shops and restaurants. Mind you, the McDonalds' sign looks a lot better in Korean script! On a backstreet parallel to the main drag, we found a wide range of eateries and drinkeries, from the obligatory Irish Pub, to Egyptian, Thai, American, Australian and, our choice, Indian. Unexpectedly, I had a better Indian meal there than I had done during my attempts to assuage my curry cravings in London in June (though no offence meant to those with whom I was dining on those occasions: it was my fault in the choice of dish).

In short, if you go to Seoul, you won't starve!

It wasn't only Incheon International Airport that was scarily clean and efficient; Seoul's underground railway system could teach the London Underground folks a thing or six, with its cheap tickets (the equivalent of US$1 to travel up to 12 km), clean and airy stations, and spacious, air-conditioned trains. My only criticism would be the possible over-engineering of station exits: at every station, you are confronted by six or more possibilities, and the accompanying map does not always put north at the top.

Seoul-ites, unlike the inhabitants of many capital cities of my acquaintance, are usually friendly and extremely helpful. A number of times, we would pause, map or guidebook in hand, to confirm where we were and where we were going, only to have a local wander over unprompted to see if they could help. On the odd occasion when we solicited help - simply by trying to pronounce our destination in Korean and looking questioningly at our target - we would get a smile and a pointed finger indicating the right direction. On our last day, we had not even stopped when we were accosted by a wizened old man who waved his arm round in circles, saying "mountain, mountain". Admittedly, our first reaction was confused suspicion: was this some local weirdo? But after a couple more windmill impressions, the man convinced us that, if we wanted to walk up the hill to see the temples (we did), we should turn left through the building site, rather than continue up the hill as instructed by our year-old guidebook. We thanked him - "gamsa hamnida" coming more easily by then, though it always took us a few hours each day to warm up to using this phrase by instinct - and were rewarded with a wide grin and a charming "have a nice day". He was right, too. The "golf course on the left" that the Book had told us we would pass en route up Inwangsan was now the seed bed for several identikit high-rises. Without his help we would either have wasted some of the precious time remaining before we had to go to the airport, or given up on our goal as the rain was getting heavier.

Yes, I have been the rain god again. Actually, I don't feel so bad this time. We knew that this was the worst time of year to visit Seoul. July is the peak month in the rainy season, and it was warming up nicely for this: during our stay, it was hot and muggy, and, for the most part, grey and overcast, plus/minus rain which usually fell as persistent drizzle but came down in a more serious fashion to say farewell to us on our last day. Contrast Namibia where I brought the rains a good 8 weeks' early and Ulaanbaatar where, on the last 18 hours' experience, I appear to be triggering the rains several weeks' early.

One of the first things I read about Seoul was that it had had the proverbial bombed out of it during the "forgotten" war. When I saw the BBC's beautifully timed programme on the Korean War only two days before I left, I could understand why. To my reckoning, Seoul was overrun and retaken four times in two years, and, of course, the country suffered under other invaders long before this. I was not expecting much in terms of historical buildings. However, the Koreans are proud of their heritage, conscious of the value of tourism as you might expect from a country that has hosted both the Olympics and the Soccer World Cup within 25 years, and not lacking in a won or two (make that billion won or two: there are approximately 900 won to the US dollar). Renovation is everywhere. For example, it is anticipated that it will take literally decades to restore the principal Joseon palace, Gyeonbokgung, otherwise variously known as the Palace Greatly Blessed By Heaven or the Palace of Shining Happiness. In the meantime, there is plenty to see here. On the hour every hour during the middle of the day - unless it's raining, in which case their fabulous costumes might look a little less fabulous - there is a changing of the guards, a process whose lavish colour and panache is a far cry from that at Buckingham Palace. I'm not sure that anyone goes round and checks the Grenadier Guards' outfits in public, nor that any of the Blues & Royals have painted-on facial hair, but in Seoul these aesthetic points are vital to create the appropriate atmosphere for the centuries' old ceremony.

Overall, Gyeonbokgung seemed to me to be a smaller, cosier version of the Forbidden City, with large numbers of individual buildings separating the members of the royal family, spacious courtyards, streams and walkways, gardens and lakes, and Feng Shui having dictated every detail. The number five was particularly auspicious, even in the king's private lfe. Apparently, Joseon kings did not live long. Taking five meals a day, working hard (most kings started their meetings at 4 or 5 am; the legendarily hard-working King Sejong started at 3 am), and taking no exercise at all (kings were carried everywhere) did not make for longevity. Not surprisingly, there were processes for ensuring the king's succession even if he didn't live long enough to have a son by the queen (as he only "went to" the queen once a month, when it was deemed auspicious to do so, and only then if nothing else - such as rain or a headache (!) - prevented him from doing so, it would have entailed a small miracle for her to produce a son); there was usually another wife or concubine, to whom such strictures did not apply, who would have had the necessary son. That son would then be adopted by the queen.

We had less success in our attempts to visit temples. Each time we tried to visit Jogyesa, the largest Buddhist temple in Seoul, it was full of worshipers and we kept a respectful distance. I find the quiet, self-contained and completely unself-conscious display of religious devotion quite humbling. Being either confused or agnostic myself (if those aren't simply the same thing), I admire those who clearly derive comfort and benefit from their beliefs. Each person there appeared to be oblivious to the others. The only sounds were the occasional drum beating and grey-robed monk chanting. On our last day, we ventured up Inwangsan in search of the shamanist temple there. It is apparently a mystical area, full of temples and other spiritual places; the Book urges people to spend more time there than simply seeing the sights in order to soak up the atmosphere. But the atmosphere didn't get a look-in when it came to things for us to soak up: the rain was first, second and third in the queue. When the rain drew breath, I ran up the remaining steps to see what there was to see, apart from precipitating H2O.... and found the temple also to be subject to reconstruction. I don't think that the polythene covering was simply to keep the rain off. Anyway, I did run up further, and found the mysterious Zen rocks, which the Book (Lonely Planet, in case you needed to ask) described as being akin to a Salvadore Dali painting. Not surprisingly, there is a shrine here too, and, out of respect for the umbrella-protected devotee, I kept my visit to a minimum before running back down to rejoin the sheltering Lisa.

I always find it fascinating to pick up a local English-language newspaper, if I can find one. The Korean Times gave me a taste of what was to come on the next day's tour to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). There was a front-page article about a new "South Korean-led theater war plan" that will be drawn up by the end of 2009 and which will aim "to deter and execute a retaliatory offensive against North Korean forces" should war break out on the Korean Peninsula. North and South Korea have, after all, only signed a ceasefire, not a permanent agreement. It was a chilling article....

Another article described the intended compensation for farmers suffering losses as a result of the free trade agreement that South Korea has recently signed with the US. It was to prove timely that I had read this article: on our way out to dinner that evening, we saw a demonstration gathering to protest against the potential impact of this agreement. Although the mood of the crowd appeared to be curiously festive, the spectator who explained the reason for the demonstration to us suggested that it WOULD get violent so, not being obviously not American, we should get out of there. We did, passing a few more aggressive, Samauri-style head-banded types on our way. I blame Lisa: she tends to attract this sort of thing, apparently!

On a more frivolous note, the Spice Girls' reunion was described; the cartoon beside the editorial was of Tony Blair puring tea from a tank-shaped teapot with the caption, "Make tea, not war"; and there was a Garfield cartoon. The paper also has an interesting type of educational section - for those wanting to learn Korean. Articles in this sectin are in both languages. I did not explore this further: I was having enough trouble with pronouncing the Korean for "thank you" correctly.

Now, no sooner have I mastered that, than I have to do battle with Mongolian, a language delightfully described by Tim Severin as being "like two cats coughing and spitting at each other until one finally throws up".

I will write up the DMZ trip shortly, but, for now, there is a Chinggis or a Khaan or a Gobi Gold with my name on it....

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