When? July 2014, A Steppe too Far, coming from Taipei, going on to Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Someone has a sense of the ridiculous- ludicrous planning. Didn’t get to bed in Seoul till after one, after bring met at the airport, and am picked up at 7.30 in the morning to go the Demilitarised Zone (DeeEmZee). It’s brimming with tourists, a total propaganda exercise and you don’t actually get to see much, but it is important to visit as a crucial part of what Korea is today. The DMZ itself, either side of the 38th parallel, can be viewed through telescopes, but it is now very foggy and little can be seen except for a stretch of greenery. Ironically, (I’m told) this is full of endangered fauna that can escape persecution here. There was a build the tallest flagpole and hoist the biggest flag competition between north and south, but the south gave up in the end. The flag on the north’s pole is so large that it only flaps if there’s a gale blowing. In between is the world’s most dangerous golf course and a couple of villages, but unsurprisingly few people want to live there, especially at the moment when politics n the north is so unpredictable. Another residential area in the north is completely empty – dubbed Propaganda Village by the Americans. We are told we can take photographs but only from behind a yellow line. From this area you can see nothing except the backs of the folk using the telescopes.
More interesting is the visit to one of the four ‘aggression tunnels’ discovered (so far), that the North Koreans have dug in a bid to invade the south. There’s a steep slippy climb down in an interception tunnel, followed by an exhausting clamber back up. The tunnel itself is low enough for me to bang my head several times (helmets are thoughtfully provided) and was camouflaged as a coal mine by painting it black, (though the logic of this escapes me). The third stop is at the sad, brand new station building that South Korea intended to use as a tentative initial link with Pyongyang. It cost billions to build, but permission to use the line was refused at the last moment. You can see the signpost to the track and use the spanking new toilets, complete with paintings hung on the doors and piped music (Moon-river). There are Ministry of Unification posters everywhere and an enthralling (if somewhat biased) documentary film on the history of the conflict and the continuing Cold War. As well as being politically frustrating it must be difficult being an isolated peninsula on the Asian land mass. They say the north is very poor, with the average salary assessed at 20 dollars. They have tours from the north too, at different times of the day, to avoid ‘misunderstandings’.
On the way back we drive through Gangnam, the affluent neighbourhood famous for its ‘style’. Lunch here is my first attempt at Korean food. It’s beef hotpot (bulgogi) and rice with side dishes. The legendary kimchi (pickled cabbage) is spicy but just about edible. My main issue is with the chopsticks. In Taiwan I was fine. However, Korean sticks are made of metal and not at all forgiving. I keep persevering, but the table (and I) are spattered by the end of the meal.
Just time to have a manicure and pedicure (one lady on each foot and one doing my hands) before catching the train south to Gyeongju . A stream of emerald paddy fields and low limestone mountains unfolds as we whizz by. This is another relatively wealthy country, with excellent infrastructure. (Home of Samsung and Hyundai). It’s a fast, reliable KTX bullet train. The station is also very modern, though about as far away from town as the average airport.
Hurray. Two nights in one place. Time to sort things out and sleep. Except that I keep dreaming about loud phone calls, till I finally awake to answer my mobile. It is an irate taxi driver who has arrived at Heathrow to pick me up a month too early.
I’m embarrassed to confess that the only Korean word I know is kimchi (other than the word Korea of course) so that won’t help my manners. It doesn’t help that there are about twenty different ways to say thank you. The Koreans are are a reserved and very etiquette conscious people. They (like the Chinese) don’t generally tip. In Korea they don’t even attempt to take your luggage up to your room for you either. Or maybe it’s the miserly hotel I’m staying in. They even charge to use the swimming pool. Breakfast euphemisms abound – canned fruit is labelled compote.
Electronics also abound. In addition to the fancy toilets (I’ve decided I’m not sure I enjoy baking hot loo seats that ping when I sit down – how hygienic is a heated loo seat anyway?) there is an electronic bedside panel in the Korean hotels allowing you to control everything from lighting to TV to air con. It would be very clever if I could read it. The pictures don’t always correspond very well. And I’m wary after the Mongolian toilet incident. There’s a power socket bar by the desk too with a bewildering array of possible outlets. I’ve not a clue what most of them are for.
It seems there are a lot of children around, school holidays have just begun – and Little Emperor syndrome persists. I had the back of my train seat kicked the whole of the two hour journey by two little darlings yesterday. There have been screams and thumps coming continually from several rooms in the hotel. I changed my room once but it was a definite case of frying pans and fires. Nevertheless, the children are cute as buttons, with their spiked up hair and big brown eyes. There are a lot of very pretty men and the young women are slim and elegant. My guide, Lae covers her arms with separate pull on sleeves and carries an umbrella to protect her skin.
It’s still hot and hazy. This area is prettily green and has a slower pace of life. Gyeongju is a very historic town known as The Museum Without Walls, as it is peppered with historical monuments. Most of them are UNESCO sites that date from the fifth century when this was the capital of the Shilla dynasty and they have been heavily reconstructed.
We visit a delightfully painted Mahayana Buddhist temple and grotto with views across to the mountains. There is chanting in several of the halls, the rhythm being maintained using a beater on a wooden fish. In Korea the lotus is especially revered, so supplications are made by hanging lanterns to represent these (in China it’s wind chimes). Electric bulbs have now replaced the rows of candles. It’s not quite the same. Luckily, it’s lotus season and the enchanting lakes are covered with the huge pink and white blooms. More unusual are the softly undulating grass covered tumuli where the Shilla kings and queens were buried with their treasures under mounds of granite. There’s also a (slightly) leaning royal observatory tower. Finally, a visit to a restored folk village. It has traditional houses for the more affluent, with typical curved tiled roofs and an old school established by a philanthropist. A party of school girls are role-playing traditional ceremonies such as tea making. Nearly all of them wear glasses. Lae says this is because the apartments where they live are so dark and they all work so hard, reading most of the time. Adjacent to the village is a very new looking smallish wooden carved bridge across a small inlet. It is still under construction on the site of a historical king’s bridge. Lae assures me that, because the workmanship is so fine and intricate and the materials so expensive it has cost 25 billion dollars so far. Yes that is a ‘b’. Everywhere is beautifully maintained. I’m not surprised if the investment has been so lavish. Piped music is also installed everywhere, the sounds, fortunately are relatively in harmony with their surroundings.
Lae informs me that she is buying me a proper Korean lunch. We stir fry our own pork with herbs on a hot plate in the centre of the table. This is surrounded by so many side dishes, mezze style, that the table would be groaning if this were the Middle Ages. I suspect that my stomach will be groaning later at the amount I eat. Most of the plates contain different types of vegetables and soups (and pickles of course), but there is also fish and chicken gizzards. I am instructed to use large assorted lettuce and cabbage leaves to eat the pork taco style, wrapping the rice and meat with spicy sauces inside the leaves. Delicious. (Except for the chicken gizzards.)
The Koreans also like their fun and kitsch. There are several neon lit mini Vegas strips and a tacky fun fair in town. Despite this I’m even more impressed with Korea so far than I was with Korean Airlines.
There was Karaoke coming through the ceiling last night. There are five events rooms to rent. Today the road leads me to Busan, the second city of South Korea. En route I visit the country’s most famous temple, Tondosa. Some of the Buddha’s relics are apparently secreted in the small stupa here.
Then, onto the city itself and the fish market. Unlike other markets I have visited there is no ice in sight – all the fish are sold live. You never saw so many squirming bodies squashed into a glass tank. And all shapes and sizes. Crab and lobster, sea squirts, sea slugs ( I can’t begin to tell you what they remind me of – a very weird pornographic movie), sea cucumbers, flat fish, ribbon fish, belt fish, lots of eel and octopus. One of the latter makes a bid for freedom and is squashed back into his bowl. You buy what you want to eat and take it upstairs to the restaurants where they cook it.
Lunch is – not fish but chicken- stewed in a hotpot with ginseng and rice. I also have ginseng liquor to drink – rather like sake. I’m still waiting for all this ginseng to take effect. Busan has vibe. It has the most famous beaches in Korea and they are packed with umbrellas and sunbeds. There are rafts of restaurants and bars, a different beat emanating from each of them. A voice over a tannoy continually exhorts the sun bed occupiers to behave well and stay safe. I sit in a beachfront cafe and take it all in. Those of you who are regular readers of this column will know that an ant attack is featured on every trip. Today is the day. Big black ones. They even bite my back – and I am sitting upright.
I’m staying traditional at breakfast time and sticking with eggs. When I can find them. Most of the Asians seem to indulge in what looks like lunch to me, meat soup, rice. Today’s hotel has a noodle and tempura bar with a long queue. I can’t face that first thing in the morning. Fruit is not much in favour, (although there is plenty in the shops) and yogurt is rare. Lots of sweet sticky pastries. I have to keep reminding myself that’s it’s considered very rude to blow your nose at the table, especially when I’m eating spicy food.
Today is a lazy catch up day. I’ve taken all my clothes to the laundry, I’ve done my ironing and I’m joining the masses on the beach. Most of the Koreans don’t actually sun bathe. They are swathed in towels from head to foot. When they swim many of them wear body suits or tops with hoods. The children are completely covered as well, being further swamped by Hello Kitty buoyancy jackets. It’s a mixture of modesty and a reluctance to expose skin for both health and beauty reasons. Light skin is considered far more attractive. Talking about skin colour, I haven’t seen another Caucasian face for days. There are a few American voices around but they emanate from families of Korean origin. The main beach occupation seems to be taking group family photos.
Jeju is a honeymoon island, which was the intended destination for the ill fated ferry full of school children earlier on this year. I am flying over from Busan. That is if I can get to the airport. The traffic is terrible, worse than London. It takes an hour and a quarter ,creeping across huge spaghetti loop suspension bridges and through endless tunnels. When I finally leap out of the van it doesn’t help that the name of the airline is onlywritten in Korean script on my ticket. However, I am eventually checked in and waiting to depart. I’m going right off flying after all these latest crashes. And the departure lounge is full of wailing cuties.
I can’t decide if I like Jeju or not. It’s cloudy to the point of being foggy and places always look better in the sun. It lacks the curved tiled roofs of the mainland, very country club, partly wild and partly agricultural. The roads are lined with tangerine stalls. There are 365 small volcanic peaks. But I can’t see much of them or the large volcano in the centre that spawned the whole island. I was expecting dramatic scenery from a destination billed as the alternative Hawaii but I’m not sure it is. By the sea there are volcanic outcrops and a few formations. It gets more lively on the south coast at Seogwipo (Soggy-po) where there is a miniature Giants’ Causeway with basalt pillars.
I’m touring the north and west sides today. The island is trying hard to keep the tourists happy. The coast is edged with resort areas and coffee shops and there are a plethora of weird museums and attractions. The bonsai garden is pretty. I pass on the Teddy Bear Museum ,Hello Kitty Island and the Greek Mythology Museum, dip into the folklore museum and decide at the last minute to sample the Alive Museum. It’s full of paintings and 3-D scenarios where you include yourself for dramatic, quirky or plain ribald amusement and take a photograph.
Lunch is Korean BBQ. Marinaded pork (with side dishes obviously) is grilled on charcoal under a swinging ventilation shaft. Very tasty – definitely one to repeat.
A great hotel, really elegant with every facility you could think of: opera soloist cabaret and a TV in the outside jacuzzi. Such a huge breakfast buffet that I have to sample some of the less usual offerings. Sweet potato soup. And scones with cream and black currant preserve. And scrambled egg and bacon.
First stop today is a waterfall cascading into the sea. It’s still restricted viewing- the fog won’t lift. Then a rural folk village. This one is partially inhabited and the house are much more spartan, with thatched roofs. The toilets are in the pigsties – it helps feed the pigs! Two old ladies feed us buckwheat pancakes with daikon radish and millet balls. There is also fermented millet to drink. I don’t recommend it. I’ve had so many odd things to eat this morning I’m now feeling decidedly queasy.
Exercise is called for. Next stop is the longest lava tubes in the world and we walk down these for a kilometre. Finally, a very stiff climb up a volcanic cone called Sunrise Peak for a view that was probably amazing. if it was clear. We need to fortify ourselves for the expected altercations with the Chinese tourists who don’t take any prisoners. The Koreans feel the same way about the Chinese and Japanese as we do about the French. So – street food. Twisty fried potato on long sticks and sweet tangerine juice.
Below the peak the famous female divers are performing. They sing and dance, as well as demonstrating their fishing, to bring in the punters, who will hopefully buy their catch. They date from the time when Confucian philosophy was adopted; women were expected to stay at home and keep house and the men did the work. The tax on the sea cucumbers, abalone and sea snails that they fetched in was so exorbitant that the women started to do the diving instead of the men. Confucius he say ‘ don’t tax women – they don’t work’. (Well that’s the male version of the story – the women just say the men found it too exhausting). The tradition has gone on over the centuries, except that the women, who are mostly elderly and wrinkly, now wear wet suits. The Korean interpretation of Confucianism still prevails in many areas, however, as women are still mostly expected to cook and clean, even if they have a job.
A very late lunch, due to over indulgence earlier in the day. Korean food is turning out to be the most interesting aspect of the country. A sea food restaurant – the aroma of fermented fish sauce hits you as soon as you go in and I have to ask for a side room. It’s possibly the most nauseating smell on the planet. Grilled snapper, which looks vaguely western, but is cut in half longitudinally, with the head at the top of the plate. Abalone soup with whole crab and prawns. Very spicy, but not too bad once you get past the mouth like appearance of the abalone. Whole anchovies and slightly fatter small fish rolled in soy and honey. Nice. But the sticking point is the dish of raw crabs cut up (still in their shell) and soaked in vinegar. You suck the flesh out of the carcass.
There’s no one to meet me at the airport as arranged but I finally make it into the city. A walking tour of three palaces, a ‘secret garden’, the main arts and craft tourist street (think Portobello Road meets Brighton) and the big Lotte Department Store (slightly downmarket Selfridges). I am footsore to say the least, but I think it fair to say I have experienced the frenzy that is Seoul. Other than the palaces it is overwhelmingly modern and teeming with shops and cafés on main streets and up little alleys. Puns on the name proliferate – Soul of Asia is possibly the nicest. I try street food for lunch and end up with a sweet doughnut flavoured with onion. It’s typical that the most engaging part of the day is totally unexpected. I encounter the changing of the guard twice – at two different palaces – and the spectacle, old style costumes, moustaches, big wide hats, solemn faces, is highly entertaining.