Monday, May 14, 2007

What is Kimchi? And other cultural considerations

Kimchi, potentially the defining national dish, is essentially spicy pickled cabbage, served with almost every meal, breakfast lunch and dinner! Apparently consumption in Korea is 25kg per person per year, and many families have a special Kimchi fridge (or two!), as it needs to be held at the right temperature - too hot and it will over-ferment, too cold and it may freeze, plus it's very strongly flavoured - I can't imagine many other tastes surviving prolonged exposure to it.

The most common type is baechu kimchi, made from cabbage mixed with garlic and gochujang (red pepper paste), but kimchi is also made from radish, cucumber or other vegetables. It dates back to the 13th century, and used to be buried in the ground or kept in large jars through the winter. Now of course most is bought from the market or supermarket. One eats it on its own, or with other foods, perhaps wrapped up in a piece of lettuce with some rice. Yum!

Korean girls (vs Japanese) and fashion
There's a big difference in style between these two otherwise quite close countries. I would compare it to France and Italy in Europe - France (Korea) tend to wear more elegant, ladylike chic outfits, simple but pretty, whereas Italians (Japan) are almost too stylish, wearing more progressive, sometimes crazy clothes, on the cutting edge but for a fashion simpleton like me, looking ridiculous. Suffice it to say that I think the Korean girls are a very well-dressed bunch, very conservative, lots of pretty skirts and dresses, not much dyed hair, simple shoes, all very nice.

Yes Sir!
Korea is the most Confucian nation in Asia. At the heart of this are the Five Relationships, which prescribe appropriate behaviour between ruler and subject, father and son, husband and wife, old and young and between friends. People in senior positions should be authoritarian rather than democratic, and one's status is usually based on age and occupation.

So anyone you interact with, you have to quickly work out who is senior and who is junior. This affects the appropriate language to use. With friends or those more junior, hello is a simple Anyong! For anyone older, or more senior, Anyonghasaeyo is the respectful and appropriate phrase. So meeting Koreans, the first question they ask is usually how old are you, perhaps in an indirect way, like "I finished school in xxxx year, how about you?".

Are you in or not?
They then ask where you went to school, or University. This is because Koreans are incredibly "group" focused - contrasting with the Japanese, where the individual is the unit. The suggestion is because Koreans have had a rough old history, filled with invasion after invasion, and so they've learnt to stick together for support. Anyway, which school you come from, which years you did your national service in the army etc all put you into a "group", and if you are inside a group, people are incredibly kind, polite and hospitable. If you're outside this group, it's as if you don't exist, and Koreans feel no obligation to be polite to you.

One can see this in queues, where the Koreans think nothing of openly pushing and shoving (something I experienced stepping off the boat), and the driving, which is very aggressive and incredibly dangerous, as people chop and change lanes and jump signals. Plus travelling on your own in Korea often feels quite lonely - everyone is always eating and drinking in a group - unlike Japan where the bar is always being propped up by a bunch of loners!

Damn Foreigner!
As a foreigner you are also likely to be treated differently. Koreans seem to be more helpful (without being prompted) than the Japanese to confused-looking types like me, but they'll also be ruder to you when they feel like it. Korea is a one-race country, but interestingly because of sons being more important than daughters (women keep their surname when they marry by the way), and female infanticide, Korea is now having to import brides as there are far more men than women, and the ratio predicted for 2010 of men to women of marriageable age is 128:100.

So in 2005, one in four marriages involved one of the partners being foreign! Very surprising. This will of course change the demographics greatly over time, and Korea will have to adjust and learn to accept "foreigners". It also can't help things that Korean girls tend to be a rather pretty bunch, so I'm sure plenty of foreigners will be (are…) marrying into the race given half a chance.

Back to the story
Back to Seoul on the early train, changing at Dongdaegu on to the KTX. It's funny that in general I find my KTX journeys too short - a nice long ride is good for a snooze, but no such luck, Korea is a very small country at 300km/hr! I meet Jina and her friend Jin, and we walk past Gyeongbok Palace and up Inwangsan mountain. There are military installations all over it, possibly because it overlooks the Prime Minister's residence, but also I suspect as it is a strategic point overlooking most of Seoul.

Picnic spot

There are plenty of people about this Sunday morning hiking, or picnicing near the top. Unfortunately, as is usually the case, it's quite hazy. It's also pretty damn hot!

Made it

N'Seoul Tower in the haze


Back down along a traditional fortress wall..

Mini-Great Wall of China Saodaemon Prison, which is where the Japanese held Korean freedom fighters, hence a fairly emotive place for Koreans.

Just like Jailhouse Hostel in Christchurch NZ!

In the basement, one can walk past the torture chambers where there are mock-ups of what went on, complete with nasty-looking Japanese guards, piercing screams and fake blood all over the place. No love lost between these nations, though the youth seem to be forgetting these old grudges - Korean food is incredibly popular in Japan, as are Korean soaps.

Damn Japanese

Long march outta here

There's a book festival on in the grounds, and there are lots of kids dressed up in tuxes! So cute!

As Eri would say, ngggogogogogrrrrrr

Over to Samcheondong, a trendy shopping area with lots of boutique shops and a mix of old and new houses, lots of little art galleries etc.

We eat traditional Korean food.

Architectural mish-mash

About time the rubbish was collected


It comes with a fantastic number of side dishes (the Government have apparently tried to regulate - to no avail - the Korean side-dish system, as so much food gets wasted), then up to the Silk Road Museum that I looked for on my own before. I discover why I had so much trouble finding the damn place - despite English signs all over the area guiding one to it, there is no English name on the actual building!! The building housing the museum I infact admired for a minute or so when walking past, thinking "wow that looks like a nice house" - when in fact it was the museum I was looking for! Doh!

The route

Inside there was a reasonable amount of interest, but almost no English signage. Shame as a Silk Road trip surely has to be my next great trip. In fact I almost did that instead of the RTW I'm on now. Stashed in my bag is my Silk Road map, as purchased as Stanfords in London, and occasionally I take it out and show people, only if I think they'll appreciate it though :)

Haute culture


Up top there was a very nice tea house though, and we enjoyed a couple of pots before leaving. As the girl who served us said, with little hope of understanding any reply, "Is it deeeelicious?"!

After wandering along Insadong,

Jina and Jin both head off, leaving me to my own devices, so I decide to use the time visiting a jjimjilbang, or public bath. Apparently you haven't "done" Korea until you've tried one. LP recommends a few, including one near Hongik University, called Dongbang. It's described and shown on their map as just behind Pizza hut out of exit 5 from the subway - sounds easy to find, eh? Well I can tell you that it's nowhere near Pizza Hut out of exit 5.

Thankfully I'd written the name of the place down in Korean, as, no joke, I had to ask about 6 people for directions. I walked around where it was supposed to be, but finally asked and was pointed along the way to near Seokyo Hotel. There I asked again, and was sent a couple of blocks back from the main street. There I had to ask a couple of parking attendants, who sent me behind their building. And so on and so forth. Even when in the correct building, there was no sign in English - the security guard barked P2 at me.. Presumably meaning B2 - Basement 2nd. And there it was!

In, handed over the modest sum of cash, and deposited my shoes in a small locker. Took this key through to the mens' area, passing the shared gym and sleeping area, where people just sleep on the floor, using a small block about the size of a pencilcase for a pillow. In the next area, a chap takes my shoe key and gives me a locker key. There are naked men about here, so I presume this is where I undress. Some guys sit around watching TV or snoozing. Into the buff, and into the main pool and washing area.

So, there's one wall with showers, soaps etc, where one washes. They have a large pile of towels near the entrance, and pink abrasive cloths to use for scrubbing. I have a good wash, then head over to the pools. There are several of various temperatures, a large cold one at the back, a jacuzzi one, a bamboo pool - each of these probably has space for about half a dozen people to comfortably enjoy them at any one time, apart from the cold pool which is bigger. Then there are two saunas, one of which is hot, and one which is just plain ridiculously hot.

So I head straight into hot, then cold, Swedish "instant stroke" style! After a couple of iterations, it's into the sauna, medium one first. Medium one is damn hot already. Once I'm perspiring like crazy, I decide it's time for the next one. In this, you can hardly breathe, and the bench hurts to sit down on. There's a little egg timer - I presume you're not supposed to spend too long here, though it's really not an issue, I don't last more than about a minute.

Out back into the cold pool again then! Then a bit more relaxing in the normal pools. I can feel my flesh buzzing with the circulation of blood. Good feeling. Out into the changing area, a good drying off, and out. My first Korean jjimjilbang done! I only missed out on having a massage in there (extra cost), and sleeping there, though I think it would be a bit weird to stay overnight (no issue though - they are open 24hrs).

More tea, vicar
Next morning I headed out to buy the JR Rail pass I'd need when heading back to Japan. I popped into the JAL office, and enquired about changing my flight from Cathay to JAL, as Japan Airlines have now joined OneWorld, plus Cathay have stitched me up by flying me to HK via Taipei - I wondered why the damn flight was so long! Turns out this would have been okay, except my ticket was reissued before 1st April, when JAL joined, so they can't do it. Much excitement in the office though, as mine was the first OneWorld Explorer ticket they'd have to deal with - cue the whole team being involved, phone calls, leafing through manuals etc. I went off to a travel agent to get the JR Pass whilst they carried on, and still waited 15 minutes when I returned before getting the no.

Yu and mi, me and you and you and you...

After met Yumi and together went for tea in Samcheondong, just a couple of doors down from the Silk Road Museum. What a beautiful tea place. We ordered iced fruit teas, which were lovely, and some green tea cake.

Pondering the menu

The tea itself

Then we headed down to COEX to see some art. COEX is an enormous complex, with shops, cinemas, hotels and art galleries.

Some good shops here

Unfortunately there was an Art Fair on at the moment, which we couldn't enter, and the other gallery was shut, so no luck! Next across the river to the W Hotel for a drink. The bar there, the Woobar was nice, with a view over the Han River, but the prices! Cheapest wine, a bottle of NZ Pinot Noir from Central Otago (i.e. around Queensland) for 210,000w, i.e. 110UKP, which is probably worth about a fiver! Not somewhere I can afford to hang out very often!

Beauty spot

So tired


We eat in a bbq place near my hotel that I've passed several times - it's always packed and even now at midnight on a Sunday is quite busy. The reason? It's good, and very cheap. Well it's nice to try the place, as I've walked past it so many times.

Meat ready.. Where's the grill?

The other place near my hotel that I didn't try is a restaurant in the small alleys serving grilled fish. All day a chap stands outside the restaurant grilling whole fish chopped in half. The smell is great. I think it's a breakfast thing. Next time…

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