Sunday, 30 June 2013

Korea. Plus some photos.

WARNING: long post! Make a cuppa and strap yourself in!
Sorry for the delay between posts.
I am home now!

I arrived in Seoul last Saturday night, at around 10pm. I was in one of those fractious "I am hungry but I don't know what I want" moods. Which probably means I wasn't that hungry. I spent quite a while trundling around, and ended up on the Main Street of GANGNAM! I know! The only thing that was open at aound 11pm was Taco Bell, and other similar fast food shops. I also did not want to go to any place where I couldn't read the writing, which was most places. I know. Fractious.

Seoul is cut into two north and south halves by the Han River (Hangang). There is the side that is north of the river, which has many suburbs, and is older. The parts of cultural and historical significance are there, like the palace and the mock traditional villages. The area south of the river, Gangnam, is newer, possibly a bit glitzier, but there are more high-rises. The streets are a bit more grid like.

I was staying in the Gangnam part, two stations away from Coex, the massive convention centre where my conference was held. It had a large underground shopping mall.

Yes, Gangnam, as in that Ridiculously catchy and annoying Psy song.

The hotel, one of the Mercure chain, was ok. Functional. It had a poorly air conditioned gym, which I  availed myself of, and a rooftop bar, which I also availed myself of. The room fairies were very good at tidying up my stuff, and made sure they arranged my (too many pairs of) shoes in a tidy manner.

The conference itself was a bit meh, quite light on the stuff that will change my practice (that is what we travel across the world for, right?) but I managed to pick up a few interesting snippets, saw a bit of more humanities (rather than science) based research, and found some good contacts. It is all about networking, this research gig. Gotta keep the ear to the ground, and the finger on the pulse.

The Koreans really know how to throw a shindig (apart from provision of sufficient wine; they are after all catering to health professionals). The entertainment at the opening and closing ceremonies was a hoot. They had young drummer boys, hot young men and women doing percussion and chopping vegies and dancing, and the world's oldest choir. They also had a little girls singing and dancing troupe. They sang Waltzing Matilda for us at the closing ceremony. It was as cute as all get out. All the Aussies were a bit drunk at that point, and it was the night when Julia was toppled as PM, so the Aussie delegates got a bit rowdy at that point.

Now. For the interesting parts..
(FYI when I say Korea here, I am referring to South Korea)

Korea is quite a lot like Japan. Except Korea's road signage is better, but they have more of a code address thing rather than streets.

The subway/public transport system is astronomically good, and very easy to navigate, despite there being lots of different lines. Ugh. Who am I kidding. Most large cities outside Australia have a better public transport system than us here in Melbourne. It is seriously covetable. And it is clean.

The subway is full of people yapping on their phones, or listening to music, or watching Korean dramas on their phones.

iPhones are not that common in Korea. Korea, being a manufacturing powerhouse, makes Samsung and LG, and folks tended to use those phones. Usually they had a nice cover. Some even had their phones dressed up as a teddy bear. It was rather cute.

And speaking of cute, many Korean people are. Like they are in Japan. Cute as buttons (that is a sweeping generalisation but I will stand by it for the moment). The the little old ladies looked cute and small but could push you aside on the train to get to a seat. Well done them, survival of the fittest, no?

I usually do my level best to master a few words from the country I am visiting, as I love languages, but the only word I knew in Korean was thankyou. Some nice young men taught me it on the plane there. So I used it as often as I could, and said it as enthusiastically as I could and as loudly as decorum permitted. It was greeted with a good-natured giggle and something which I presume meant "you are welcome".

Koreans are big into cosmetics. The word on the street is that BB cream was invented in Korea. They have a massive array of the stuff, from the cheap, to the foamy, to the powdery, to higher end. The have BB cream specifically for men! They have even developed CC (colour concealer???) cream! Their cosmetics are relatively cheap (again, most countries are compared with Australia) and of quite good quality. It seems like every second shop is a cosmetics shop, and they often have 2 for 1 deals going. They have all sorts of skincare lines, pills, potions, serums, correcting creams, pore reducers, brighteners, whiteners. It was quite overwhelming, particularly to a cosmetics neophyte like myself. One little trick that I did not fall for was the "collagen water" or "skin balancing water" - basically a cordial-like drink sold at these cosmetics shops to make you prettier.

Plastic surgery is also quite big business; though I could not read the writing, there were a lot of ads on the subway for plastic surgery judging by the before and after pictures. Westernisation is the name of the game, and big eyes, full cheeks and less-flat noses are de rigeur.

Also, much like in Japan, most ladies carried a designer handbag. Or a good fake. Designer handbags are also de rigeur. How does the average person afford them, I wonder?

The traditional Korean food was in a similar vein to Japanese food, very clean flavours, but quite heavy on the meat and seafood. Perhaps not as fancily presented. Myself and a few colleagues partook of a Korean dynastic-style banquet. All average Korean meals are served with Kimchi (pickled cabbage with garlic, chilli, ginger and sesame oil) and other unidentified substances.

Like Japan, department stores are a big thing. The food courts in the bottom floor are unbelieveable, and they have lots of samples. I did a few laps, stealing little morsels.

I am always very interested in the history of a country I visit, and Korea has a very varied history. On my couple of days as a tourist, I saw a few museums, but filled the gaps with wikipedia. I found the War Museum quite one sided. Basically, (and apologies if anyone knows better than me and you can feel free to politely correct me) but a brief history is this:

  • Korea is from the word Goryeo, which was one of the first dynasties.
  • From the 1300s to the 1800s, after the Goryeo dynasty, was the Joseon dynasty. Lots of good things happened during this period; the Hangul script was developed (prior to that they used Chinese or Japanese), they were big into Confucius, they developed their culture. A few times, the Japanese tried to Annexe them, and banned the use of Korean Language and basically suppressed everyone.
  • From the late 1800s/ early 1900s, to just prior to WW2, the Japanese ran the place.
  • WW2 occurred. Japan was bombed. Korea was taken from the Japanese and split into halves; the Russians influencing the communist north, and the Yanks influencing the capitalist south.
  • in 1950, North Korea decided that there needed to be a unified Korea, so with the assistance of the Chinese and Russians, they invaded South Korea. Seoul fell soon after. The US and UN were quick to retaliate, and sides changed a few times. After the war was fought, the division basically went back to where it was, and the border is now heavily fortified (the so called Demilitarised Zone, the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters).
  • Mainly it was US soldiers helping out (this is the basis of the series MASH) but there were contingents from Australia, New Zealand, Colombia and others. 
  • The Korean war was not well known about, as it was soon after WW2 and then there was Vietnam. It was really the first big Cold War stoush.
  • The South Korean economy flourished from about the 1960s. Many big brands that we know and love, like LG, Samsung, Hyundai, Kia and Daewoo are Korean.
Now, the US influence is undeniable. American chains are everywhere, and Koreans who speak English often do so with an American accent. The rates of obesity are higher than nearby Asian countries.

It is kind of sad that Korea has never really had charge of Korea. They have never had self-determination, and it is hard for them to have a visible individual culture appreciated by many foreigners, like they do say in Japan.

Well, that was a rather long babble! Please enjoy my photographs.

view from Hotel - Happy Valley, HK

Lychee Mojito, Sevva, HK
View from Sevva, HK

Tory Burch Wrist Candies, My immaturity

Me displaying chinese egg tart. Yum.

Veuve et Gateau. Mais Oui.

Pork and Truffle Dumplings (OH YEAH), Din Tai Fung.

Bibimbap, Korea

Kimchi and Other Unidentified foodstuffs. No, I didn't.

The Secretary General of the UN said hello.

Amazeballs Korean orchestra.

Nanta. Google 'em.
Little drummer teenagers.

Ice sculpture. OTT, tacky, but a bit awesome.

Gas mask access on subway. (!)


  1. Being half Korean, I loved your take on it. Yes Korea is pretty amazing and it is a great place to visit but they don't market themselves towards it. But next time you go, you should definitely go to the bathhouses. It is a huge ritual and a great way to spend a day or at least half. Culturally very different but so addictive. Korean food is also very healthy but flip side is that I was so used to eating whatever I want and never gaining weight that the portions of western food doesn't quite have the same effect!

    1. Thanks CSW!
      I actually did avail myself of the hotels spa facilities- they are much like onsen... I was by myself, so I could enjoy it in the way you are "meant" to!!