56 – All Calm on the Northern Front (as yet)

September 22

Morning flight with Cathay Pacific is a rare delight. The flight attendants are super nice and keep giving me booze. I reach my airbnb close to Mapu-Go world cup stadium easily on public transport and meet my host Eunyoung, who happens to be hosting an all-girls party the very same night (and I am invited). The young lady has more alcohol than food in her fridge. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Some actual food shopping first. The girls take me to the local fish market (apparently the best one in Seoul), where I become instantly the biggest attraction, everyone wants to sell me their fish and try their food. Believe me, I would love to live inside the market and eat everything. They store the fish alive in tanks and prepare it for you on request. It’s like being on the set of Finding Nemo, except you’re not looking for Nemo to bring him home safely, you want to eat him. And all his friends, while you’re at it. We buy some salmon and something that could be sardines and have it prepared as sashimi, and some prawns, which the guy just takes alive from the barrel and puts them in a container. To get them fresher than this you’d have to fish them yourself. What I do have to do myself though is preparing the prawns when we get home, because they are obviously still alive and the girls won’t ho anywhere near them. What would they do if I wasn’t around?

I also notice one strange thing: there is a very limited number of parking spaces in front of the building where Eunyoung lives and by the time we arrive back home, the parking lot fills up to every available place. And I don’t mean just double, or even triple row parking. Every available space, like when you play Tetris. I ask my host how do the cars get out, if needed, and she informs me that everyone just leaves their cars parked without a handbreak, and people just push their way out if they need to exit. Great system, I can imagine this working smoothly in certain european countries, Italy for example. Someone would get shot within about 30 minutes from the introduction of such system.

September 23

The girls are going to a nearby rock festival and ask me if I want to come along. Korean rock music? Of course I want to come along. It’s all extremely civilized. People neatly queue for everything, from the shuttle bus to beer, there are not many people standing under the stage, but everyone spreads a blanket in the picnic area and just chills. The bands come and go, and most of them sound OK, but then of course I don’t understand a single word, they could as well be “Korea’s got Talent” drop-outs. At some point, the last act before the headliner, a group of middle-aged men in bright pink tuxedos, appears on stage, and the audience goes wild. And to be fair, the band starts playing kick-ass rock’n’roll. Later on they’re joined by a couple of guys a little bit on the fat side sporting silk kimonos over basketball outfits, who start doing some sort of hiphop. I’m like “WTF is going on here”, but the audience is pissing themselves laughing, so I assume that whatever is happening on stage, they are not taking themselves too seriously. Then comes the actual headliner, a band called Nell, a duo of nerdish looking boys with guitars. They sound ok, a bit harder boyband. My gift to the girls: I go ask the sound engineer for the setlist (his response: “sure, but they are Korean” – no shit), and the girls melt. Thing to remember and to be repeated in Europe: 500 ml bottles of water half filled with tonic water, frozen overnight, and a bottle of gin smuggled into the festival grounds. So one can pour the gin over the iced tonic and enjoy a cold cocktail. Ingenious!

September 24

As a thank you for the wonderful day I’ve had I cook gulash for the girls. It comes out surprisingly well, although this is the first time I eat it with chopsticks and sticky rice as side dish. I feel like I should actually see something in Seoul, so I pay a visit to the Leeum Samsung Art Museum. I could as well be the most stunning museum I have ever seen. It’s inside a beautiful modern building, every visitor gets a supermodern audio guide (it’s sponsored by Samsung after all), and the collection is a clever combination of traditional korean handicraft (ceramics, porcelain, calligraphy) and both korean and international modern and contemporary art. Conclusion of the day in Gangnam. Lots of bars, restaurants, karaoke bars, it feels a bit like Shoreditch. And a couple of craft IPAs in a random bar also cost me as if I was in Shoreditch.

September 25

I finally get to do some sightseeing. I have no intention to see all the palaces in town, so I pick one, the choice being Gyeongbokgong. Despite having been built in the 14th century, nothing of the original palace survives until present time. Therefore, no building within the complex is older than some 25 years, but unlike in China, there is a good reason for it. Gyeongbokgong was completely destroyed when Korea became a colony of Imperial Japan, and official building of the new regime were built on the same grounds. In late 1980s the Korean government decided to restore the palace according to its original design, not as a historical landmark, but as a political statement. Understandably so.

September 26

Morning trip to the Demilitarized Zone. The usual tour: the Liberation bridge, the Dora observatory, from where we can steal a quick peak into North Korea. Kind of. Although the guide insists we are very lucky and the weather is clear, you don’t really see much, because the day is hot and rather hazy. Two propaganda villages flying the respective flags, and that’s about it. Not that I was expecting much more, to be honest. The walk through the infiltration tunnel is much more interesting, as is the visit to Dorasan train station, which is very new and ready to dispatch trains to Pyongyang (with goods, more than anything else, it would be their connection to the continent, while as now they have to ship all their products via sea), the way the things are going right now, it doesn’t look like there’s going to be much traffic north anytime soon.

Next stop – Seoraksan National Park

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Waiting for the bus to the next destination

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