You’ll have to forgive me for repeating some of my observations and impressions from last time I was in Korea. Although this is now my second time in the country, my previous visit was already well over a year ago – leaving those initial reactions to fade in the depths of my memory. As a result, much of it feels new once again 🙂
Perhaps after reading my Busan post, readers left with an impression that I don’t like Korea. This could not be farther from the truth. What is true, however, is that my arrival in Busan was preceded directly by three months in a country where I’m fluent in the language, know all the best hotspots, and have dozens of contacts in virtually every city in my area. Plus it was Halloween. Arriving somewhere I can’t speak, don’t know anyone, and can’t so much as order in a restaurant is naturally a bit of an adjustment. Not to mention the fact that I spent all but one day in Busan working at coffee shops 😛
All this went away when I got to Seoul and reconnected with Eli.
Eli is one of those rare friends who I can talk to only once a year, but the second we meet up it feels like we’ve been in touch the entire time.
The way I see it, everyone has different types of friends. There are the hilarious friends who keep everyone around them smiling with their humor; the social friends who make contacts and connections wherever they go; the superintelligent friends who are wonderful to chat with about psychology, astrophysics, or politics; and the adventurous friends who aren’t afraid to try new things in new countries. But unfortunately, it’s rare to come across someone who has all of this. Most of my genius friends would never come do shots of tequila at an all-night club, and most of my playboy friends couldn’t hold a 10 minute conversation about CPU architecture. Fewer yet would dare sneak away from a tour of a Brazilian mineshaft with a bag of candles and a flashlight to see what the Center of the Earth really holds 😉
That’s one of the reasons Peder and I grew so close so quickly: he’s one of the few that has all these traits. Eli is another.
Catching up and staying at his place, a shockingly spacious apartment a mere 5 minutes’ walk from the bustling college nightlife district of Hongdae, was great. As was having someone who’s nearly fluent in Korean to order in restaurants and chat up the locals.
The only thing that wasn’t awesome were first couple nights – when I didn’t have any bedding and slept on the cold, hard floor in a nest I constructed of my own clean clothes and towels 😆
But we fixed that one up pretty quick! And we were soon on our way to a truly fun-filled couple of weeks.
Korea is a culinary delight.
The food is so much more diverse, so much more creative, so much more flavorful, and so much more readily available than most everywhere I’ve recently been. The spicy food is actually spicy, and every meal comes with a huge variety of side dishes – often twelve or more – of such varying bright colors and tastes you scarcely know where to begin. And all the side dishes are always unlimited.
Then there’s the booth food, which absolutely saturates every corner of the country. Steaming oden and sizzling pancakes and wriggling fresh fish – everywhere you go there are people crowded around these carts snacking away.
My personal philosophy on eating is that I’m willing to try anything once. Many people will cringe at the thought of raw horse sushi (Japan) or kangaroo steak (Prague), but how do you know if you like something without ever having given it a chance? Is eating one type of animal really any stranger than another, or is it just our culture that tells us “cows are okay, but insects are not?” I guarantee you some folks from India would be just as disgusted with McDonald’s as we may be with raw octopus (Note: cows are holy in India).
On this trip, in addition to the countless booth foods, simmering BBQ’s, boiling soups, and picked vegetables, Eli and I sampled two brand new culinary experiences.
The first was dog.
Yes, that’s right. I tried it. And you know what? It was really, REALLY good. Sort of reminded me of barbacoa (shredded spicy Mexican beef).
The second unusual meal I’d never even heard of until Eli and I were walking around Hongdae and he suddenly blurted out:
“HEY BRO, HAVE YOU EVER EATEN CHICKEN ASSHOLES BEFORE?”
I almost fell on the floor laughing.
No, I hadn’t. But now I have. They’re crunchy.
I finally figured out why it’s been SO difficult to get money this time in Korea: My TD Ameritrade debit card’s magnetic strip was damaged!
Looks like I’ll be using my high-rate card until the replacement can be mailed ahead to my friend’s place in China 😥
…Speaking of cash, I just can’t get over how strange it is that the largest paper money in Korea is worth less than $10. Things are cheaper here than Japan, but it’s certainly NOT a third-world country, and luxury products – cameras, electronics, etc – are priced similarly to back home. Carrying even $300 cash requires a wad of bills so thick it’s almost impossible to close my wallet.
I know I’ve said it before, but I’ve just got to say it again: the level to which Korea is saturated with free WiFi internet is just astounding. It’s literally EVERYWHERE. I used to use my TyTn cell phone to scour for wireless signals before booting up my laptop, but here there’s no need. Every single time I turn it on…I’m online. No matter where I am. It’s amazingly convenient.
I wish everywhere in the world were like this 😆
I also mentioned in the last post how Korea is like Bizarro Japan.
I think Eli characterized it even better: “Dude, didn’t you know? This place is like Japan Lite,” he told me.
I wonder if someone who’s been to Japan, but not spent an appreciable amount of time there, would see it as obviously as we do. The languages sound almost identical – and in fact, I’ve been able to guess quite a few Korean words just by knowing the Japanese. Eli, who’s only been living in Seoul for 2 months, can already communicate almost completely – thanks to his Japanese head-start. Looking around the subways, you’d almost swear you were in Tokyo. Their 就職活動 is exactly the same. Their TV shows clearly follow an identical model – right down to the silly music, overacting, and subtitling of their own language for emphasis. Even K-Pop sounds like a slightly altered version of J-Pop.
But beyond the countless specific examples, it’s more of a general overall feeling. I’m sure many Koreans wouldn’t like hearing it due to their sad history with Japan over the past century, but that doesn’t change the fact that on a whole, the culture truly does appear to be following Japan’s model. Peder, myself, and Eli all experienced it.
It’s like Japan, only not. It’s Japan Lite.
Normally when I go abroad, I have a shopping list of purchases to catch up on. But due to all of the time commitments of traveling – both fun and logistical – as well as a personal hatred of shopping, I rarely get to it all. In Egypt, for example, I did manage to get a travel hookah – but forewent about 10 other items from my list in order to make time for work, sightseeing, blogging, and studying.
But not this time. This time I did it all.
When I bought my backpack in preparation for my first backpacking trip ever – 5 weeks through Europe in 2004 – I had no idea I’d get so many miles out of it. I went for the cheapest piece of crap I could find. 19 countries later, it still keeps on truckin’ – but only just barely. Parts of it are held together with fishing line, the material is frayed, the interior frame is bent, and the outer daypack is long gone. Considering the amount of traveling I do, I’d say I’m long overdue for an upgrade.
And Korea is the perfect spot. With its enormous shopping districts, favorable exchange rate, and prevalent outdoor hobbyist culture, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
So what did I end up with? 70 liters of pure backpacking badness – expandable on top by an additional 15, and by 5 on both sides. It was a tad pricey, but already well worth it. It’s got a built-in rain cover, a detachable daypack, two bladders to carry water, and pockets galore.
My old pack has served me well. RIP.
In addition to the backpack upgrade, Peder and I spent an entire night shopping in what was quite literally the wildest market I’ve ever seen. Anywhere.
Dongdaemun is open 24/7, packed, and sprawling. A combination of outdoors booths, underground shopping centers, and skyscraping malls, this shopping district – which was literally buzzing until we finally headed home at 4am – has got an area for everything. There’s an area for power tools, an area for shoes, an area for fashion, an area for food, an area for christmas decorations, an area for electronics. It’s got EVERYTHING.
If you’re ever in Seoul, give it a look. In the evening. Even if you’ve got nothing to buy. The experience alone is well worth it.
By the time we started back towards Eli’s, Peder and I had spent a full 13 hours touring the city by foot. With no rests. But it was his last night before heading home to Norway, so we decided to push on a bit further – and walk back the entire length of the city. We got home just an hour before he had to leave for the airport, passing by Seoul’s red light district on the way.
Did you know Seoul even had a red light district? I sure didn’t. It was small, but right there in plain view for all to see: clear glass windows with sad-looking women sitting on bar stools under dim red lights, just waiting to be picked.
On Saturday night, as Eli and I were getting off the subway in Itaewon, guess who walked up to say hello.
An old buddy from UCSD.
I’ve now run into a classmate from San Diego in Downtown, Kyoto; I’ve stayed at a hostel in Egypt owned by a friend from Japan; I’ve encountered a college friend in Korea; and I’ve stood at the foot of the Statue of David next to a friend’s college instructor from Irvine. All completely by chance.
The world really is a small place.
This post is getting long. I’m gonna cut it in half here and continue in the morning** 🙂