Sunday, April 04, 2010

Seoul'd out

The day started horrendously; bright light was streaming into the room, harsh enough that I had to wear sunglasses to navigate the route between bed and writing desk, and my girlfriend was being sick in the toilet from the comedy wine that she'd drunk in 7-11 the night before. After I'd finished my account of the night's travails, we staggered out to a taxi and sped over to the Holiday Inn, to meet up with everyone from the night before for a bus tour of Seoul.

Our tour guide introduced herself with a string of syllables I had no ability to remember, 'but you can call me Jenny' – a name that bore no resemblance to the Korean that it abbreviated. That's different to Hong Kong, where people also have an English name that bears no relation to their Chinese one, but while the Koreans have names that are recognisably English ones, half the people in Hong Kong have English names like 'Banana' or 'Centipede' or 'Laboured Stereotype About Another Culture'.

I missed all the beauty of Seoul by passing out and waking up at the bottom of Seoul Tower. This is a very tall building on top of a hill, which gives a good view of the city. However, the windows are covered in grime and the city itself is under something of a haze, so the views aren't as great as, say, Taipei 101 where you can actually get outside and view the city without there being a pane of glass in the way. On the other hand, there weren't three floors of shops selling bizarrely ugly jade statues and other knick-knacks, so there's pros and cons to either structure.

Also, there's a teddy bear museum at the Seoul Tower. No such thing at Taipei 101, nor at any of the other tall buildings I've been up. And I've been to the top of a few high structures in my lifetime.

After the tower, we went to a tour of Changdeokgung Palace. This is like a minimalist, rural version of the Forbidden City; lots of large buildings designed for one person to sleep in at a time. The king slept in a different house to his queen, or at least had to be back there after any conjugal visits to his wife. I'm not saying that she was actually a very large spider, but those are the kind of animals where the female devours the male after sex. I'm not saying that; I guess I just want you to draw that conclusion.

The palace was pretty impressive, although since it all had to be rebuilt after being burnt down (something of a leitmotif of the wooden buildings of Seoul, coupled with all the invasions and wars they've had) it did feel a little uniform. It was also spread out more than the Forbidden City; although it's over a smaller area, it's not continuous; you walk through a thicket of trees to reach one building, and then another path to the next. The Forbidden City is just building after building after building, until you're utterly fatigued with Chinese history and want to run off to the nearest McDonald's for a break; Changdeokgung is more restful. Although that may have been because it wasn't absolutely jam packed with tourists.

There's also a secret garden, but they've signposted it. A rudimentary error, that.

Lunch was bibimbat for me; we dined with some American students who'd never had this before. I was rather surprised, but then it took me until I was 31 to eat any Korean food, so I suppose it doesn't display that much unworldliness. It was pretty good, although I suffered a lot for sitting down on the floor – my old ankles no longer want to bend to accommodate sitting cross-legged.

For the afternoon, we had a choice of extending the tour or going shopping. Given the choice between culture and purchasing tat in tourist shops, it was always clear which way we'd go, but after an hour of looking at a million identical jewellery boxes with a Korean flag engraved on them it was time to go back to the hotel and recuperate.

I would have spent the rest of the evening asleep, but at about eight we got up again and rendezvoused back at the Holiday Inn, to prepare to go out for another night. Despite my failure to stay awake for much of our tour of Seoul, I was sceptical that one should travel all the way to a foreign country just to go to a bar full of shouting halfwits and get drunk. I can do that at home, if I want to. We spent a couple of hours trying to decide what to do, and then took a couple of taxis over to Hongik. And that's where our trouble began.

Taxis in Seoul seem to take fairly random routes to their destination. Every time we went from the Koreana to the Holiday Inn or back again, it was on completely different roads; sometimes going north, sometimes south, sometimes on the freeway, sometimes not. And when we headed over to Hongik, our two taxis diverged and we arrived at our destination quite separately. And nobody had a mobile phone, so instead of being able to find the others, the two guys I was with and I trudged around for an hour, looking in vain for three girls. (Well, there were three girls we could have found, but if we had, I suspect we'd have got in a lot of trouble.) Hongik wasn't quite the paradise of bars that the guidebook had suggested; everything seemed to be closing up apart from the 24-hour KFC and there was a big queue of people waiting to get into taxis, but precious few new arrivals.

After an hour of this, and having no way to find the others (because even if we looked in every bar in the area, we were beginning to suspect that they'd been taken somewhere completely different) we packed it in and took a taxi back to the Holiday Inn. I was made to feel at home again; the first taxi driver said it would be 30,000 won to go there – the driver of the second taxi we tried had his meter running, and it was only 12,000. It's not just London that's filled with chancers trying to fleece unwary passengers.

My girlfriend had made her way back to the Koreana by this point; after fifteen minutes without finding us, they'd split and gone drinking / gone home. By the sounds of it, their taxi driver had deposited them somewhere completely different to where the guy at the Holiday Inn had told them to go. I would conclude from this that men are more persistent at waiting in the cold for an unlikely event, whereas women are more pragmatic at not standing around in a vaguely unpleasant environment. And then I'd carry on sulking because I had to spend an hour in the middle of the night wandering around.

A bit like being a feckless teenager once again, come to think of it. So if nothing else, there's a pretty efficient time travel machine in Seoul.


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