Even on the plane from Beijing to Seoul, the volume had already dropped several decibels. No-one playing their phone at top volume or yelling at each other. And by the time we were on public transport, the difference was tangible. On a full bus, which in China would be deafening (the conductors yell over loudspeakers to make sure they’re heard over the cacaphony – and they talk a lot), we suddenly realised we were the only people speaking out loud – others were whispering, or sitting silently together . Suddenly, we were the noisy ones.
And it was so clean! The bus had slightly dated decor, but could have been fresh from the showroom otherwise. And people similarly had a scrubbed clean look – more so than London, never mind China. And, best of all, most things we needed were translated into English, most people seemed to speak at least a few words of English, and the way of doing things made easy sense, rather than being bureaucratically overcomplicated. So within an hour, we’d got wifi (lots of options, no VPN complications), got cash (tons of ATMs), got travel tickets, and got to our hotel… only to remember that I’d forgotten my laptop on the plane. Crap. But, of course, they had it and I just had to go back to collect, simples. Loving Korea already.
We were staying in Bukchon Hanok village in Seoul, an area of traditional ‘hanok’ housing close to the centre. The hanok houses are beautiful – very clean design, all plain wood frames and paper sliding doors; tiny rooms – just enough room to unfold the two futon armchairs into single beds, but no room to move after that. After the traditional Tibetan house in Shangri La, we were braced for it to be freezing cold – but it turns out that Korea invented the art of underfloor heating (ondol) way back in 5000 BC, impressively – back when all the rest of us were shivering in caves. So – toasty warmth, though those paper walls aren’t very soundproof. Luckily the neighbours finished their discussion early.
The rest of the area around was equally beautiful tons of tiny wooden houses, cobbled alleys and – of course – cherry blossom. Also a surprising number of people wandering around in traditional Korean dress – we realised soon that this was purely for the purposes of selfies, which are a religious ritual here: there are lots of shops where you can rent a traditional dress for an hour or day and go wander, pose and pout to your heart’s content. Even our hotel offered a free costume trial – which we gracefully declined: I can’t even carry off regular western feminine gear with any elegance.
All this was just a short walk from downtown Seoul, which was just what you’d expect: all massive modern skyscrapers, and shops, shops, shops and more shops. Seriously. Shops. Everywhere. As in, one small area might have several shopping centres, all with several floors of solid retail space, each about the size of a Westfields or Maceys – but all right next to each other. And all full of people buying, non stop. London, New York and Beijing can all hang up their hats and shuffle away in shame
There’s also a frankly terrifying number of beauty and skincare shops around. I hadn’t realised, but there’s a whole thing called K-Beauty, which is apparently a massive rival to J-Beauty (yep, Japan), which involves a morning regime of horrific complexity – I glanced quickly at the simplest 10 step plan, winced, and prayed they never found out about my, hmmm, rather simpler one. Though they could probably tell at a glance – in fairness, Korean women do seem to have a lot of irritatingly radiant skin.
But of course, half the reason for detouring via South Korea was the food. We wound up trimming Korea to just a couple of days, as Japan and China needed to expand. Doing justice to the country would take much longer. So we just tried to just do justice to the food meanwhile.
Bibimbap was, of course, delicious. It might be literally just rice’n’stuff (bi bim = various things; bap = rice), but it’s probably the best rice’n’stuff in the world, IMHO. Streetfood and night markets had fabulous offerings, which all smelt delicious, in a way the Chinese ones never really did somehow. And Korean barbecue in Korea, is hella different to London Korean somehow – infinitely better. Maybe it’s because they gave us a charcoal pot to cook over, rather than gas grill – with apparently magic coals, that kept glowing intensely for a full hour. Or maybe the meat was some magic Korean beef – it was melt in the mouth delicious. Or both. All very, verrrry good.
In Busan, where we were getting the ferry to Japan, we found Gamcheon culture village – an interesting adaptation of a former slum area: artists moved in and did various artistic things, residents painted their house a bunch of colours – and voila, a Thing was born. It’s a gorgeous area, mixing normal homes with random works of art, and the local residents seem to be prospering from the tourist influx. A very pleasant way to spend a few hours mooching around. We found a woodcarver whose work we really liked so we bought some stuff from him, using the last of our cash. And, a short while later, discovered that none of local ATMs would accept our cards, so we wound up walking a quite few kilometers before finally being able to get cash to get back to the hotel. Regretted that purchase – slightly.
Over 80% of the population live in the cities, mostly in rather drab high rises – the view from the flight into Seoul is particularly uninspiring. But, added to that, 70% of the country is mountainous – which suggests there’s some spectacular hiking to be done once you get out of the cities. Added to which, they take their saunas (jjimjilbangs) very seriously – multi storey affairs, with rooms for gaming, entertainment, food and snoozing (separate space for snorers!) as well as elaborate variations on the sauna (clay, salt, pine.
We’ll be back.