Archive for December, 2006

Hemi in Seoul

Monday, December 11th, 2006

I had the opportunity to fly out to Seoul, South Korea for some business. Naturally I got all excited, as I have never been to Korea. Luckily, Paola got me a Lonely Planet Guidebook at the library, so I was able to prepare myself for the trip.

I landed at Incheon Airport past midnight on the night between Wednesday and Thursday Dec 6/7. The driver who took me to the hotel in Seoul, about 75 minutes drive, was also gracious enough to teach me the 2 most important words, in my opinion, for foreigners in a new land. Ane-hoo Ase-hoo (Hello) and Kam-Sa Hamni-Da (Thank you). Repetitive usage over the next few days proved useful in garnering smiles and extra care from locals.

On Thursday we had back-to back meetings from morning till 4pm. Although it was a gray drizzly day, the moment I got back to the hotel I quickly changed from biz suit to jeans and Fleece jacket (winter is cold in Seoul), grabbed the camera and ran out to explore the city. First stop was the little hill right next to hotel (Namsan Park) with the Seoul Tower on top. Great views of the city include the combination of old and new architectures, slums and hi rise tech buildings, and endless streets filled with cars and people, dotted with mountains to the north and west.

Later, as it got dark, I sauntered down to Namdaemun (South Gate) which is a nice structure that was the south entrance to Seoul 500 years ago. interesting to see how the roads are built around it. Right next to this edifice is the Namdaemun market, which is open almost 24 hours a day. Like any open air market, it had its share of stalls selling clothing, shoes, foodstuff, chachkes, souvenirs and plenty of atmosphere. Interestingly, I was barely accosted by locals trying to push me to buy stuff. Could be because this is the market mainly for locals, there are 2 markets where US soldiers normally go to (They serve in the DMZ on the border with North Korea, 50 miles away). Obviously I didn’t bother checking the tourist traps.

The next day, in between meetings, my local host and I had time for lunch. He was going to take me to eat Korean Bar-B-Que, which is a very western style meal. I asked him if he would kindly take me to a real local eatery, such that he normally eats in. He was very surprised, but obliged perfectly by taking me to a non-descrepit, almost shabby underground restaurant where there is no menu. We ate stuff that I can’t even pronounce, but the main idea is small dishes of various pickled veggies, fishy stuff, rice, and the main bowl of a stew with meat. Everything is eaten at the same time using a spoon and chopsticks. I can’t say that it was the tastiest meal of my life, but it was certainly interesting. And super spicy. The meal began with a bowl of warm water, which had some boiled very soft rice at the bottom. A reminder from the old days when after preparing rice and eating it, the poor peasants would refill the pot with hot water, scrape the bits of stuck rice off and pour into bowls for drinking.

Speaking of which, my host, in his 40’s, embodies the amazing transformation of Korea in the past 30-40 years. He was born the youngest of 5 siblings to poor parents in a village near the border with North Korea. Many nights he went to sleep very hungry. In the 60’s Korea was a very poor country. Through hard work, he was able to to go to university, and after serving a mandatory 3 years in the military as a communications officer, was able to get into the high tech industry and grow with it. Today he lives in a nice suburb south of Seoul with his wife and 2 kids, in his parents’ house (tradition that one of the children, upon marriage, continues to live with and take care of the parents). During our time together, we talked much about Korea, the US, and Israel, comparing the similarities and differences.

After a few more meetings, it was time to part, and I was touched when my friend offered to have me for dinner in his home the next time I visit Korea. This is considered very rare in Korea and Japan, as homes tend to be fortresses of privacy. He also presented me with a small parting gift. I was touched.
Friday evening. Switching again to people-wear, I hit the streets and found myself in Deoksugung (Palace of Virtuous Longevity) for a nice evening stroll, to the beat of ancient Korean music playing on the grounds’ PA system. From there I continued to Myeong-Dong, fashion center of central Seoul, comprised of many boutiques blaring loud western music (Kylie Minogue seems to be very popular) and dishing out very western clothing. Why would I visit such a place? The streets are actually very narrow alleys, pedestrian only, lined with coffee shops, restaurants, street vendors, and gazillions of locals out at night, although the temperature is only 5 Celsius. It was great to see people out and about, alive, consuming the best of western fashion made in China. BTW, did I mention that Korean women are very pretty?
On Saturday, I had half a day to explore before heading off to the airport. I got up early and by 7am was at the Noryangjin Fish Market, which is open from 1am for most of the day. This is the central and largest fish market of Seoul. Anything the ocean has to offer can be found there. Most memorable are the large squids, eels, jumbo prawns, and rays.
I took a subway from Noryangjin to another part of town where I planned to visit a Shaman temple on a hillside overlooking the city. Unfortunately, the walking instructions in my 2003 handbook were outdated. Instead of a small village leading to the temple, there is a huge construction project going on. I wasted an hour trying to circumvent the cranes and buildings but couldn’t find the shrine.

Taking the subway again, I returned to central Seoul to visit Gyeongbukgung (Palace of Shining Happiness) which was the central palace for a time in Korea. Today it is mostly reconstructed. There is a nice ten story pagoda there as well as an Art museum which I didn’t bother to visit. From the palace I continued to explore the city, mixing additional historical sights with bustling streets teeming with people. I subsisted solely of food eaten from street vendors (well it looked clean to me!), and got to taste some delicious stuff. Super spicy. However, a small pancake filled with sweet chestnut paste has to be my favorite. Towards the end of the walking tour, I found myself seeking out a stall with this tasty treat, just one last time.

I am writing this blog on the plane flying back home. A great moment was just before boarding the plane. I thanked the security people who frisked me with a “Kamsa-Hamnida” to which they smilingly replied “Korea Ko?” (do you speak Korean?). For me, that means proper immersion has been achieved 🙂

Click on the image below to see the photo gallery. Please note that there are 4 pages of pictures. Enjoy!

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