Two weeks ago I went to a meeting in Seoul, South Korea. I’ve never been to Korea before and knew very little about it, apart from the fact that the country was split and that North Korea was an isolationist regime with nuclear ambitions which sounded rather scary. Last time I had the chance to visit the country, the security situation was looking dodgy and I decided not to go on grounds of safety. Of course this time everything was calm and negotiations were looking positive. This all changed while I was there as North Korea unsealed its reactor and stated that the USA had reneged on its commitments, but this had no noticeable effect in Seoul.
I have previously visited Beijing in China and was impressed by mile upon mile of high-rise apartment blocks mixed in with commercial developments, separated by very wide avenues which offset the crowding to give a feeling of space. Seoul was similar, though the buildings were taller, more closely packed and more modern (at least in the areas we passed through on the way from the airport in our plush limo-bus). Apart from the idea that if someone were to push just one tower block over, the whole lot would go down like dominoes, it struck me that there is very little space for recreation.
The city of Seoul is spread out along the Han river in the northwest of southern Korea, quite close to the demilitarised zone which separates the north from the south. I found out a little of the chequered history of the country when I visited the famous palaces which housed the royal family until 1910, and the museums nearby. These palaces are reminiscent of the Forbidden City in Beijing, with very ornate carvings and bright colours. Many of the palaces have been damaged by invaders during the 20th century and are in the process of being restored to their former glory. Civilisation in Korea goes back thousands of years, and encompasses the roots of Japanese society, a fact which has only relatively recently been admitted in Japan. It’s clear that Korea’s modern history is one of repetetive conquest, and there seems to be quite some remaining resentment with nearby neighbours, particularly Japan, which invaded in 1908 and annexed Korea in 1910 until the end of the second world war in 1945. At that time Korea was divided into the North, administered by the USSR and the South, under the control of the USA. There followed a few years of calm until the North invaded the South in 1950, triggering the Korean War. This happened 10 years before I was born, and was sufficiently recent that I have childhood memories of its horror, presumably picked up from adults who remembered it. The two parts of Korea are still officially at war, though both would seem to want to make peace. As ever, they are pawns in larger conflicts.
To some extent my visit to Korea was more a question of running the gauntlet than enjoying the ride. I was not comfortable with the food and was a little concerned about my health. In the event my health was fine. The food was another matter. We stayed in a wonderfully posh hotel which has its own theme park attached, and at the start of the week I ate mainly in the bar, which had a small selection of poor imitations of American staples including a club sandwich, with a fried egg in it. The sushi was apparently wonderful but not to my taste. Breakfast was the saving grace; the hotel offered by far the most comprehensive and exciting breakfast buffet I have ever seen, with cereals, breads, fruit (including fresh lychees), eggs, omlette, meats, noodle bar, asian salads and more. Later in the week I discovered the lunch buffet, which was another step beyond amazing with its selections of sushi so attractive that even I had to have some. And the desserts were beyond my dreams. What a lovely idea to offer small glasses of pulped fruit juices as a dessert, and in so many varieties, including the relatively familiar mango to raspberry and others. All this for a mere $70 or so (ouch!).
We had much less success in the hotel’s extrordinarily expensive and poor posh Chinese restaurant. What a load of rubbish! Sea slug, or sea cucumber, is something which I shall not be trying again. Imagine having a really bad cold and not enough to drink, then blowing your nose. Enough said?
One night we ventured bravely forth around the lake to a part of town where there was a concentration of restaurants, lit by brightly coloured neon signs. Operating the well known (?) principle of game theory by which you find the first restaurant which “will do” and then select the next place which is better than that one, we chose a Korean barbeque restaurant which looked clean and had reasonably happy-looking clients. Our table had two tubes descending from the ceiling, which turned out to be an extraction system for BBQ smoke. The waitress knew two words in English: “beef” and “pork”. This turned out to be enough, and we ordered several different kinds of beef and one of pork. Along came a bowl of hot coals and a huge tray of fascinating salad leaves (large, fresh and succulent looking) and peppers, and bowls of strange sauces and all things strange. The salad I decided to leave, on the basis that I didn’t know if the water was to be trusted – shame, but I have to be careful. The meat arrived and was cooked for us by the waitress. We dared to sample it and dip it into odd things while drinking Soju from small glasses. Soju is the local spirit and is made from sweet potato. We were quickly pleased.
I was impressed by the helpfullness of the few Korean people we met in the street. Twice we were approached while looking lost by people whose only interest seemed to be directing us where we wanted to go or explaining how the efficient, clean, bright and nice-smelling underground system worked. There were a few unwanted taxi touts at the airport but apart from that we were hardly hassled at all.
And the hotel brought me a birthday cake without being asked!
Lemongrass’s Korean birthday cake