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Korea

I’m a wordy person.  If you read this blog, you already realize that. If you’ve ever had an actual conversation with me, you’d realize it’s the same long winded kind of storytelling.  A few friends have asked if I put up all my pictures that don’t appear here with snarky captions, so here we go.  As I travel, I have already seen people losing pictures and files when physical items get misplaced so I’ve decided to back up all my pictures on Flickr.

I’m joining Fiickr like it’s the mid 2000’s: Travel Photos.

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I had to sneak in one last Seoul joke.  I had a choice between a quick flight to Beijing or two train rides and a ferry.  Guess which one I chose!  I’ve taken a sleeper bus and a sleeper train.  It’s time for the sleeper ferry.  In America, ferries are small boats that take about 50 people from a short distance to another.  Nope, this was closer to a cruise ship with multiple restaurants, karaoke room, theater showing Closer (really?), and convenience store.

Like the Carnival cruise I went on once, this ferry had gaudy statues. Unlike that cruise, this was in the middle of the ship and not in the "Beauties" club and was surrounded by Asians taking pictures.

I love sailing but I don’t do so often because I suffer from awful seasickness.  Luckily this was a huge boat and I felt great the entire time.  I got into a room with 50+ bunks with curtains to give you privacy and electronic outlets.  This is way superior to the 15 or so Tatami mat rooms where everyone sleeps like sardines.  Compared to the buses and trains, this was the best sleeper option yet with the most room, but also the most expensive.  I settled in for some sea gazing in the strong cloudy wind and for lots of book reading and instant ramen.  I recommend bringing instant ramen, fruit, tea and a thermos to hold hot water for travel in sleeper trains and ferries in China.  Boiling hot water seems to be available at most bus and train stations and on most trains and ferries.

I was told as a kid to never take candy from a stranger.  We’re taught a lot of things as kids to protect us.  While on the ferry, I was across the bunk from an old Korean guy in a big old tour group.  He approached me while I was reading in my bunk and said something in Korean.  Of note, only two people the entire trip tried to talk to me in Korean, unlike everyone who thought I was Korean in Laos.  My bunk mate returned a short while later and said “I buy you ice cream!”  I politely told him no multiple times.  He sat down on his bunk, and a while later offered me what I assume was candy.  I declined this as well.  An hour or so later he came to my bunk waving two popsicles.  When I declined again, he just threw one on my stomach and walked away.  It was a wrapped Lotte brand popsicle.  I stared at it for a bit wondering what the heck to do.  Finally, my refusal to waste perfectly good ice cream won and I happily ate it.  I never saw my bunk mate face to face again as we landed the next morning, but I am thankful.  Awful things do happen but I am constantly wonderfully surprised by the random acts of kindness I receive from strangers all over the world.

Good bye Seoul, you were lovely. On the flip side, I'm on a boat!

From one cold foggy big city I landed in another, Qingdao.  My first sight was the cranes arching over rising high rise buildings, the beacon of modern China.  Imagine my surprise when I arrived at the train station at a huge magnificent European style train station.  Qingdao was occupied by Germans for a lot of the 1900s (even pre world wars) and therefore has colonial architecture and is the home of the famous Tsingtao beer.  Sadly, I did not realize Tsingtao is the best or at least representative of the quality of Chinese beer.  Sorry China, Laos has you way beat.  I don’t think I could’ve captured the charm of the city with its beaches, colonial architecture and Sea World rip off.

I only stayed a few hours before catching a high speed train to Beijing.  Although there are multiple trains a day, all the soon to leave ones were sold out of economy seats.  Given the choice between five hours in business class or seatless, I would have to say a seat sounds way  better.  The train was surprisingly non-smoking, courteous and quick.  I would recommend it.  I had originally chosen the ferry route to get some downtime to myself and it was supposed to be half as expensive.  Due to rising costs (138,000 KRW) and the unexpected train ticket addition, it ended up being the same price as the flight.  Still totally worth it and I would do it the same way all over again.

Luckily my stay in Seoul is short enough that I have not run out of bad “Seoul ____” jokes.  I love Korean food.  I grew up around a bunch of Korean people, getting used to the smell of a house full of kimchi.  I lived in Miracle Mile in Los Angeles, within a stones throw to the delicious mecca of Koreatown’s culinary delights.  I knew  that what food I know of would barely scratch the surface of what I would find in Seoul.  Deliciously, I was correct.

Our first evening in my soon to be married friend Linda took us out for dakkalbi at Yoogane in Myeongdong district.  This is a spicy chicken dish that cooks on a giant flat wok on the table.  I think you are supposed to cook it yourself but they took pity on us as foreigners and did it for us.  Neighboring tables had theirs with cheese and ramen while we only added rice.  Linda informed me that Koreans keep on eating after the meal, often stopping at three or more locations.  We took this to heart and stopped for popcorn and drinks, ice cream, hot chocolates while passing on a few street foods that we were too full for.  I did go back on another day to try the potato chip like spiral cut fried potato but was never hungry enough to eat the corn dog covered in french fries.  I would continue carrying out the spirit of Korean eating the rest of my trip, like I always do.

Delicious jokbal: soy and spice flavored pig's feet that you wrap up in lettuce leaves.

The next day I headed for Naedaemun market.  Markets are generally good places to find some cheap eats and this one did not disappoint.  The fried gluttinous rice hatteok (filled patty) and steamed buns were delicious.  There are numerous cheap and delicious noodle vendors all plastered with pictures of their appearances on the local news channel.  I’m convinced the local news must only be food based on how many restaurants use pictures of the local news as their sign.  There is also an entire row of women selling jokbal, roasted pig’s feet to be tucked into lettuce leaves with many types of banchan almost like a Korean taco.  The next night my friends took us out for bossam, a steamed pork with a layer of fat that is also eaten in similar fashion.  Both are delicious but I think I prefer jokbal.

The subways in Seoul are pretty comprehensive and a great way to get around cheaply. It almost makes me feel bad about making Seoul train jokes.  The other benefit of the extensive subway system is the chain Deli Manjoo who are in many popular transit points between lines.  You can tell by the sweet egg based cake smell as soon as you step off a train.  They sell custard filled egg breads shaped like corn and walnut shaped walnut flavored bread filled with red bean and whole walnuts.  These are those perfect street food that you get coming hot off the cast iron press and scream as you eat it the gooey center when it’s too hot, but then eat too quickly trying to finish them before they get cold.

Claypot sujebi hiding in an alley in an alley in an alley.

We found a delicious claypot sujebi restaurant that my friend recommended hidden deep within many alleys.  Sujebi is the ultimate poor man’s food as it’s just a meat or seafood broth with dough flakes, thin randomly shaped pieces of noodle dough.  They also had a surprisingly refreshing conch noodle salad laden with the freshest chiles we’d taste this trip.  One was hot and the other cold, perfect comfort foods for different types of weather.  Both were delicious in the chilling 40 degree weather here.

I am not a fan of Asian desserts but I do always love ice cream. Baskin Robbins fondue set.

Standard American and western chains seem to be way fancier when I find them in Asia.  The ice cream was no different as Baskin Robbins is a prime date locations packed to the gills with couples and young groups.  The ice cream ball/cake/fruit fondue was rather fun but their honey toast not only took forever but was an awful cake that looked like toast.

You wear what you eat.

Saying good food is in the markets in Seoul is a useless statement.  There are so many shopping areas that everything might as well be in them. I do not, however, expect to see my food all over my shopping.  These ramen socks were next to Starbucks branded socks.  I guess they really love their food out here.

The last hurrah is an old favorite: Korean BBQ! The copper pipe above the grill is a wonderful idea.

The last night we decided to see if Korean BBQ in Korea is different from what we’ve had in the states.  Indeed it is.  The pork belly tastes better than any of the chewy nonsense I’ve eaten back home.  Cass also appears to be the best beer in the area, as everything else is way too watery for my tastes.  Beer is only had with food in this country, but luckily bar food here is delicious.  In our five days we ventured out for fried chicken twice.  Korean fried chicken (they make all sorts of KFC jokes) is usually a spicy and sweet affair that leaves your fingers covered in sticky sauce as you chug light beer.

My sister’s question about Korea was whether kimchi is everywhere.  I saw it at just about every meal in a spread of banchan (tiny cold plates).  Fried chicken and beer was the one time we never saw it as it usually just gets a simple pickled white daikon radish instead of a spread of red kimchi or spicily dressed vegetables.

Thanks for a delicious visit Seoul, I’ll be back to try all the other stuff I didn’t get around to.  I feel like I didn’t even get to half the things I wanted to eat.  Here’s my google map of delicious Seoul eats (I have a map like this for most major cities I’m in long enough): Seoul Eats Map.

 

 

The onslaught of beautifully designed modern Seoul peeking behind a rare historical neighborhood.

I came to Seoul for a wedding and just did not know what to expect.  From a rural village wedding in China to what I was told is a fashion show extravaganza in Seoul.  All I knew is that Seoul is a big city.  It has certainly proven to be that.  What I’m surprised by is how well public planning was done or how many buildings and spaces I just stand staring at awe and appreciation of.  Their endless sprawl of buildings is cut by a man made river landscaped with rocks, small waterfalls, well lit waterways and lots of plants.  The river is bordered by interstates, but under those are bike and walking paths with parks, sacred trees, and replanted areas.  The national museum is in a former US park with a gorgeous building and has excellent curation and layout.  It is not until we got to one of the royal palaces that the history of war ravage destruction is more obvious.  Korea has charged forward with  modernization that is certainly more aesthetically appealing and pleasant than anything I experience in China.  There is a dark underside though, as Koreans now work ridiculously long hours and have one of the highest suicide rates in the world (even above Japan’s!)  The hard work turns into some long nights as there is definitely a strong alcohol culture here as well.

The wedding itself was as advertised by my high school friend: fast and like a fashion show.  It was like an American drive thru wedding without a car.  The altar was surrounded by spirals of LED lights, the walkways leading up to it covered in color changing lights and fog machines.  Grooms seem to almost run up he walkway to speed up the process.  At one point, the couple is led to an area where they are in sequence to watch a color changing LED self filling fountain of champagne glasses as they quickly link arms to down a sip of champagne before being handed a knife to cut a slice from a cake a foot away.  It is both impressively and terrifyingly efficient.  The entire ceremony lasted all of 20 minutes as people in the hallway and even in the back talked super loudly.  After the ceremony you are led into a buffet area that may as well be a war zone.  I watched one old Asian lady almost bowl me over carrying two heavily laden plates.  The highlight of this was seeing my lovely friend in a traditional hanbok and watching the next two speed weddings on the televisions spread throughout the eating area.

The view from the hill Seoul Tower is on. The bottom right corner is all the locks that lovers place on the fence before chucking the key over the mountain to hit unsuspecting hikers.

On my last day I tried to go to the Leeum Samsung Museum.  It looked like an interesting mix of modern art and traditional art in a spiffy building.  Alas, I have the worst museum luck and it was closed on Mondays.  Slightly defeated, I dragged my friend up a random path that said “playground” for a kilometer straight up.  We ended up on an large empty road surrounded by police completely confused.  Two seconds later, a giant motorcade of black American cars with American flags drove by.  We can only assume we saw President Obama’s motorcade drive by for the ongoing nuclear summit.  Apparently I will get the closest to the president thousands of miles from either of our homes.  We continued onward and upward, stumbling upon a botanical garden and then the path up to Seoul Tower.  From there, I could see the endless sprawl of the city pocked with random hills of nature.  I came not knowing what to expect but I have ended each day impressed by such a seemingly forward thinking and design-centric city.