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Korean nights

Showers, hot showers, how I love thee.
When you guys last heard from me I had just left the island paradise of Malapascua in the Philippines and was jumping on a plane to South Korea … and now I've just stepped off a plane from Korea to Beijing. Six countries in seven weeks, does anybody else think that this pace is getting a little, well, shall we say, crazy?

But enough of my whining, let's here about Seoul.
My first reaction to the city when I stepped off the airport bus was, “My God, they've taken me to Tokyo by mistake.” In fact so much of Seoul's atmosphere — from the design of the subway system, to the back alleys filled with green grocers and fishmongers — is shared with Tokyo that it becomes easier to define the city by what it isn't in comparison to its Japanese cousin rather than what makes it unique from an international perspective. Just don't tell the Koreans that.

Resentment and contempt over the Japanese occupation of Korea up until the end of World War II (for which the Japanese certainly weren't hoping to win “The World's Kindest and Most Humane Occupiers Award”) still lingers today, and any suggestion that Korea still shares a strong bond with its former master will be met with adamant denials by the locals.

But there is no doubt the link remains. I think the best way to describe Korea and its people are as Japan's little brother: more naive, less jaded, friendlier and easier-going, … but forever trying to escape the shadow of their attention-grabbing and flashier sibling. This also means that South Koreans are, at least on a national level, intensely self-conscious and competitive when it comes to the foreign perceptions of their country. The first thing that Koreans will ask you upon meeting them is “Do you like South Korea?”, and if they find out that you've visited Japan in the past you'll get the inevitable query, “Which did you like better?"

The last thing on my mind upon arrival in Seoul, however, were the intricacies of Korea's socio-political hang-ups. The only thing I could think was: “C-C-old. S-s-s-o c-c-c-old.” Having only just acclimatised to the humid, 30 degree weather of SE Asia, the limb-numbing, parch dryC8 degree welcome of South Korea seemed like a cruel joke. I was suddenly very grateful that my beanie — that had come close to being ditched at multiple times throughout Malaysia and the Philippines — was lurking in the depths of my rucksack.

My first two days in Korea were spent feeling sorry for myself in a budget (although I'd like to know how anybody can call AUS $40 per night “budget”) motel. The rapid climate change and some seemingly clean food I'd eaten at a hawker stand on my first day had taken their toll and forced me to retreat to the safety of my bed and its nearby toilet. Apparently my stomach, having admirably weathered the storm of questionably-prepared, oily SE Asian hawker food over the past six weeks, was either unable or unwilling to accept the concept of vegetable-based dishes prepared in Korea's First World cleanliness.

My stomach ... was either unable or unwilling to accept the concept of vegetable-based dishes prepared in Korea's First World cleanliness.
the third day I finally caught up with Kylie, a friend from work who had arrived in Korea to hand over the company's business in the region to our benevolent CEO (Andrew) before taking up a new post as the newly instated manager of a rock band. Kylie very generously offered to let me crash on the floor of her company-funded serviced apartment, on the sole condition that I not mention her propensity to hum Rick Astley tunes while sleeping and her penchant for playing with scantily-clad Ken dolls in her spare time in my next Ramble from the Road.

I gave her my word.

I'd like to say that I spent my time in Korea gaining a greater understanding of its history and people, but to be honest the luxuries that only a developed country can offer proved far too tempting. When you've spent the past six weeks reluctantly willing yourself into ladelling cold water over your body every morning in a communal bathroom, for example, the sheer joy of taking a hot, high pressure shower in a private bathroom complete with freshly washed towels cannot be overestimated. In fact with the help of Kylie and her apartment I soon rediscovered many of life's simple pleasures: sleeping in till noon (which is otherwise impossible in a shared hostel dorm), watching CNN or just sitting in an inner-city cafe, chatting and drinking espresso after espresso until the early hours of the morning. Simply talking to people who already knew me, like Kylie and Andrew, without having to detail my life story at every turn, was a welcome change.

Tanks guarding the entrance to Seoul's war memorial. More of a museum glorifying South Korea's questionable triumphs throughout the conflict than a sombre memorial to those that perished, I was more impressed by the M*A*S*H parallels I was able to draw. Enlarge »
however, I willed myself into ‘seeing the sights’ so to speak and managed to take in the War Memorial / Museum (highlight: seeing a the helicopter from the M*A*S*H opening credits) and imperial palace after palace. While catching a train on the fifth day I met a Korean guy my age, who's Korean name I have no chance of remembering (Haek Dow, maybe?). He was eager to chat to a foreigner and even offered to show me around. Now, given my last experience with this kind of offer, I was understandably cautious. But ultimately he turned out to be a truly generous guy as he guided me around countless sights, managed to swing me a discount on my ticket to Beijing and even insisted on buying me lunch. In cash-draining Korea, I wasn't about to argue.

The next day, and having worryingly convinced Kylie's friends that the three of us worked for an S&M ‘adult content’ production company (HITwise, get it?) during a house party the night before (which in my defence, Kylie, was all Andrew's idea); I stumbled around the markets of Namdaemon, where countless stalls sell everything from winter jackets to pickled ginseng. Stopping at a pet stall, I stooped down to admire the baby tortoises up for sale from a plastic trough, thinking how much they looked like my class pet in Grade 3, Speedy Gonzales, for whom I had been appointed “pet monitor” every fourth week.
And that's when I heard the meat cleaver slam against the chopping board.

I'd love to say that I remember the name of this monument in the centre of Seoul, but that'd be a blatant lie. The guy with me is a young local who single-handedly restored my faith in kind strangers after the you-know-what-with-the-Rohypnol incident. He showed me around for the day, bought me lunch, and then even fanagled a discount on my onward flight. Enlarge »
Rising, I saw the stall owner — with a cigarette dangling out of a corner of his mouth — deftly working a knife under the shell of a newly decapitated adult tortoise while his middle-aged customer looked on with detached interest. I stood there mortified, watching as the top and bottom shells were swiftly removed and the tortoise's innards were separated, removed and washed before being unceremoniously dumped into a plastic bag and handed over for some cash. The stall owner seemed to mistake my look of queasy curiosity for one of culinary fascination and gestured that he'd teach me how to repeat the process.

No way.

“Come on, Ally,” I told myself, “you can do this. Wasn't this trip all about experiencing new things? How many people can say they've killed and cleaned an amphibian for human consumption? Think of the stories you'll have to tell when you get back home!"

Steeling myself, I cautiously picked up the meat cleaver as another tortoise was placed on the now crimson chopping board. The stall owner stood there with his cigarette threatening to drop from his grinning mouth at any second, motioning for me to bring the cleaver down hard on the creature's neck.
If my Neolithic ancestors could slaughter boars and elephants then I could surely manage one lowly tortoise.
I hesitated for a second while images of a compassionate eight year old boy feeding his pet tortoise flashed through my head, competing with those of the stall owner clapping me on my back with pride. I couldn't do this, could I? Of course I could. I'm human, after all … if my Neolithic ancestors could slaughter boars and elephants then I could surely manage one lowly tortoise.

But when my prey seemingly realised something was up and looked towards the sky (although I'd swear it was into my eyes) I caved, lowering the cleaver back down to the board and, ignoring the sniggers of the stall owner, walked away happy that I'd never landed a job in as a butcher's apprentice.

That night, with Kylie and Andrew now living it up in the bright lights of Tokyo, and having moved into the familiar musty dorms of a Seoul youth hostel, I met a few other backpackers who I headed off with the next day. The Korean government was running free tours of the city (lunch included) and none of us were about to pass up the offer. But what started out as a pleasant tour took a turn for the strange when our group was hijacked midway through the day by the director of the “Department of Public Toilets”. Apparently Seoul, in its typically self-conscious style, had grilled tourists about what they hated most about their visits to the country. The unanimous answer had been “the public toilets”.

So, in a great illustration of just how eager the country is to please foreigners in the lead up to the World Cup next year, the government ordered a massive clean up operation of the country's loos. And now, proud of their success, the director felt obliged to show us his handiwork. Our helpless group was bussed, confused and amused, from public toilet to toilet while the director pointed out his department's improvements (flowers, music and clean mirrors) while we just stood there wondering just how we'd managed to end up exploring the inner-workings of Seoul's sewerage system with a guide who took every
if you see a photo of me standing hesitantly in front of a Korean urinal ... you'll know why. It wasn't by choice, believe me.
opportunity to take promotional photos with us for some publication or another.

I guess the moral of the story is that if you see a photo of me in a newspaper, standing hesitantly in front of a Korean urinal while a middle-aged local stands beaming in the background, you'll know why. It wasn't by choice, believe me.

During my last night in Korea, and with the help of the young clerk at the hostel I was staying at, six of us (three Brits, one Dutchman, a yank and myself) hit the town to check out the local nightlife. After dining on some local grub (including some delicious char-grilled baby squid from a hawker) we headed to bar after bar before finally indulging in a favourite Korean past time: pool. Now I'm not the best at pool by anybody's standards, but while playing against the locals I learned two invaluable lessons.
First, if you see signs for pool halls on every street corner, it's clear that the Koreans love this game, and are going to be good at it … so don't keep betting more and more money, or yelling ‘Double or Nothing!” every time you lose, just to save face. You'll end up with a very, very light wallet. Second (but most importantly), just because the “if you lose a game without potting a single ball you have to run around the pool table with your pants down” rule exists in Australia, don't assume that it's globally recognised, practised, or indeed even known about. Trust me, having a barful of Koreans stare at you in disbelief as you stand there proudly with your jeans around your knees is not something that you'll recover from anytime soon.

And now, after a short (1 1/2 hour) flight, I've landed in the capital city of the world's largest Communist superpower, wondering whether China was such a wise addition to my itinerary. It's been the most feared part of my trip so far, simply because of the country’s size, cultural isolation and the constant fear that I might bump into Richard Gere trying to act in yet another anti- Chinese propaganda film.

Will I survive? Stay tuned to find out.

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