Visiting Seoul on Business – March 2002
The ride from the airport to the Holiday Inn was very interesting. My driver would drive right up behind other cars in his lane at about 110 kph and then turn on his hazard lights and head lights and flash them until the car in front would move over. I never understood why he bothered, but it did help move through the traffic very quickly. However no amount of light flashing could help us once we hit the 7pm traffic in Seoul, we just had to crawl along with the rest of them.
I had to meet Larry, the guy I was working with, at 8pm for dinner. I was only just on time to do that, when I finally got into my room in the hotel. Boy was this room small, I think someone must have taken a chainsaw and cut a real room in half. It had most the usual things in it but it was just very small. The first thing I had to do was take a photograph of how small my room was, it was not a big photograph.
Larry and I found a bar on the ground floor, they had a lady singing with a group of string instruments and a piano, we decided this was a little hi-brow for us so we headed up stairs to a bar on the top floor. I found out that Larry knew enough Korean to get us into trouble almost immediately. We no longer got settled in the bar and the lady with the string band and the piano player turned up to play for us. After we had been there for a week we soon realized that the management had supplied this group of musicians to ensure that we gained at least some culture in Korea, as they were always in a bar where we were drinking.
Well I have done my first day of work in this city, a Sunday. It is kind of strange. The city is very big; it has a population of about 12 Million people. The drive from our hotel to work is about a 15-minute drive on a six-lane side road, the main roads are huge and the back streets are tiny. All the buildings are huge. Larry tells me he was here for 18 months in 1967 - 1968 and the space between our hotel and our work was just flat land. Now it is high-rise as far as the eye can see.
For dinner after work on our first night, we went out the back of our hotel into a market area. We decided we were looking for Japanese food, but only found Sushi, which was not what we were after; we hunted around and finally went to a Korean place that was called Korean Ribs. Larry said he was going to try Korean Ribs because he was from the state that had the best ribs in the world, and the town that had the best ribs in the state, and that was Texas.
Well this was absolutely tremendous; the restaurant had no other Europeans in it. Nobody spoke English at all. Fortunately the menu had a little English on it. We ordered fresh ribs and what a great feed. The table had a burner, sunk about six inches into the middle of it. The cooking plate was a ring that sat up like a headlight cover over the flame.
Most of the locals cooked their own, a bit like the stone grill. However, the ladies realized we were just dumb Europeans and cooked ours for us. They showed us how to eat the food and looked after us well. These were pleasant but very stern women, and we felt like we had better do exactly as we were told or we would be sent to the corner without any more dinner.
The ribs were cut up into pieces about 25 to 40 centimetres in size with a pair of scissors, there were no bones!! They were cooked with mushrooms. There were about eight side dishes in all, all in little bowls. These of course included Kim chi, which I now know is a marinated cabbage, which is flavoured with garlic and hot spice. There was some marinated raw meat, fruit in a sort of white dressing, maybe of a yoghurt base and several other things in chili and/or garlic sauces. Boy you could not get within 10 metres of my breath for days after. The food was eaten with chopsticks, and ladled onto lettuce leaves. So you took meat off the burner onto your lettuce leaf and added the Kim chi and other bits from the 8 or so bowls around the table, including raw chili, chili paste and raw garlic. Then you ate the lettuce with everything inside. Wow it was great, and all washed down with glasses of OB beer. I am sorry to harp on about this meal but it was wonderful and probably the best foreign food experience I have had. That is probably because it is the first time I have been out like that, where two Westerners just walked into a local food place and ate whatever they were served. It was a lot of fun communicating with the waitresses, and they were good fun once we overcame the language barrier. It is a good thing that Larry knows enough Korean to ask for beer and say thank you.
On our third night we went down towards central Seoul, but I don't believe we actually got anywhere near the centre of town. We went down miles of tiny back streets and markets, they went on for longer and further than we could walk. We ended up having another Korean feed, another place that did meals like that other night but not nearly as impressive. We walked past restaurants that were actually trucks parked on the side walk, with a tent attached to the back of the truck and tables and chairs inside the tent. The food looked great and the smell was fantastic. We have decided we will go back another night and have a meal like that. This is the second night I forgot to take the camera out, tomorrow I must regardless. I thought we were going to a standard part of Western Town tonight but it was completely the opposite.
The drama of the day is getting a Cab from our hotel to the Unisys office. Larry has to direct the Cabby with his few words of Korean and lots of hand gestures. Coming home is not usually our problem. We get in our cab and say Holiday Inn Seoul and it seems to work.
However, one particular night, we finished work at about 5pm and were heading back to our hotel. The road outside the office is six lanes in either direction. The cabs all sit smartly in a row, they are black purpose built cars driven by smartly dressed Koreans in suits, white shirts and ties.
We go to the first cab in the line, there are two cabbies sitting in it listening to the radio and talking. When we arrive they make a big fuss about getting organised and ensuring we get into the cab.
The driver gets directions from us and at the same time he turns the key, uh-oh? Nothing happens, he tries again with the same result. He opens the door and yells at the cabbie behind us. This guy drives down the lane next to us and does a three point turn in the middle of the traffic so he is facing the wrong way in the lane next to us, with the bonnet of his car next to the bonnet of ours. There is much waving of hands and discussion and the bonnet of our cab is opened. The guy who brought the other cab up gets out a pair of jumper leads and connects them to our car, then reaches into his cab; he connects the first, then he moves to connect the second. There is a huge spark and cable flies up.
Now there is a lot more yelling and waving of arms and he pushes the second part of the cable on again, this time with much more conviction. Again there's a huge flash of light, and a thick cloud of smoke comes out from under the bonnet of his car and when the dust clears, out comes a very blackened Korean, holding in his hand the cable with a clamp on one end and the other one completely melted away. He had obviously put the wrong clamp on the wrong battery terminal.
There is much more yelling and waving of hands and the poor man has to go back under his bonnet again but this time he connects them the right way around. Our driver starts his car, and away we go, leaving his mate on the side of the road with the smoking cables, smoking attire, and his car facing the wrong way in peak hour traffic.
Although the days were clear, and the temperature was around 12 - 14 degrees C, the air was always thick with haze and smog. Visibility was no more than a couple of kms at any one time, on the best of days. With that came the smell, and it was not unusual to see locals walking around with cloth filters over their noses and mouths.
Larry and I found a couple of other "interesting" places as well. In the building next to the Holiday Inn is a big office block. On this building, on the side door next to the hotel entrance, is a sign saying Casino, Coffee and Beer. We decided to venture down into the basement it pointed to, to see what it was all about. We found lots of little businesses, travel agents, flower shops etc. There were also places here that at first looked like bars, however there were corridors of lots of rooms. These establishments were very smart, and had lavish wood grain panelling on the walls. A doorman was at a counter just behind the doors.
We asked at the first one we came across what this place was. After a lot of difficulty trying to understand this guy's English (and he our very very bad eight Korean words) we established this was a Whisky House. Well that didn't seem right, there was very little sign of Whisky. We asked how much, and he said 1 Million Wan!!! That is about $400 Australian, we were just beginning to twig where we were when a door opened. Behind it we saw about 5 girls sitting around a table playing cards. We were beginning to understand what a Whisky house was. We visited one more, to just check our theory, and apart from the fact that this next one was 9 Million Wan, it was the same. There were three or four of these establishments under this building in the basement, they were all open and a part of the normal shopping environment. However we noticed the shopping was more geared towards gentlemen's shopping, with flower shops and barbers etc.
On the Saturday Morning I decided to take a longer walk than I had done before. After seven days I had come to know the area out the back of the Holiday Inn quite well. There is probably about a half a square kilometre of shops, restaurants and markets. These all service an area of high density housing above them.
I ventured along a road that followed a railway line and went past some more districts of high rise apartment blocks, eventually it ended up in a very large market area. This was similar to the one at the back of our hotel, but it was bigger, more diverse and definitely poorer. Most the food here was sold out on the street with vendors selling fish, both fresh and dried. Vegetables were everywhere and there were hundreds of different types of beans and seeds in every colour of the rainbow. There I saw little old ladies sitting on the pavement with nothing more than a sack on the ground in front of them as their shop and a handful of lettuce leaves or spring onions were laid out for sale. There were other places that were big markets with several people running them.
The shops were tiny and piled high with a mish-mash of stuff, of what ever it was they were selling. The fruit stores, of which every second stall seemed to be, were the most organised. They sold melons, some of which I did not recognise, and I was too stupid to take a picture of. One fruit was a fat oblong fruit, which was of a deep lemon colour with stripes down it. The fruit shops were full of strawberries, melons, apples, oranges and nashis. The nashis were the size of melons, I have never seen them so big. It was spring time, and that I suspect is why there were so many strawberries on sale.
The butcher’s shops were always nice looking places, small but very western in the way they stored and displayed their meat. It was clear that meat was very expensive, but not completely beyond some people. It was sold in 100-gram amounts, and when I thought of the meals we'd had I remembered beef was always on the menu, however the dishes only ever had a small amount of beef with a lot of side dishes to go with it. The meat was always sliced thinly in all the meals.
Fish however was sold completely differently; there were two major methods I saw.
The first and most prevalent method I saw had the fish laid out in boxes on the pavements, with a large board nearby to cut it on. All fish is sold whole, and I was surprised at the lack of smell around the fish sellers, and I never, ever saw a fly or other insect, either around the fish or anywhere I went in Seoul.
The fish was always laid out very orderly, I saw one vendor who had a box of prawns, and each prawn was laid out in a pattern within a box, again these were just on the pavement in a box with NO ice!! They sold all kinds of fish in this fashion.
The second method I saw for selling fish, was live fish in tanks. Many of these fish were very big, and all the tanks I saw were outside the shops. I did not recognize any of the fish other than squid, crab and lobsters.
Another shop of note was the baker, who had a huge array of breads and cakes, most of which looked fairly familiar, and smelled wonderful. The presentation in these shops was really a work of art, as it was with the confectioner's. You could stand and look at these shops for ages and just imagine the wonderful tastes. I was fascinated by the tailor's, there seemed to be a large number of these little shops with only one or two people in them, and a tailors mannequin, all part of the normal shops in the markets.
Walking the streets in this market district required a honing of skills that I had developed in the area around the Holiday Inn. The nice cars and odd motor scooter were replaced with mainly motor scooters and old vans, and also hand pulled carts. There are NO footpaths here, at least back by the Holiday Inn there were sometime pavements, if only one or two feet wide. Here the road was the pavement and vice-versa. You have to hear the traffic coming behind you and make a slight step to one side to let it go by. Nobody seemed to get flustered and it all worked well. Even though sometimes you saw motor scooters that were so loaded with produce of some kind you could not see the guy driving them, and they would travel very fast through the people, weaving around the streets. Definitely a wonderful shopping and walking experience.
Saturday afternoon, I had to head back to the airport and home, the weather had packed it in and was now raining quite heavily. I caught the airport shuttle from the hotel and stared out the window at the hundreds of plastic domed tunnels in which were growing the vegetables for Seoul, and wished I had more time to look around this fascinating country. Oh well, that's the way it is when we just fly in for business, there is always the "maybe next time" thought.