Category Archives: East Asia

Shotgun Guide to Seoul

Welcome to Seoul! From an American/European perspective, the city is very much like Tokyo or Hong Kong. It has its subtle differences in people, places, and habits though. Enough with the intro, on to the guide.

Logistics

Your phone should work in Korea. You can get a 4G hotspot or SIM card at the airport without much of a hassle. Getting one in the city is a hassle. There’s a good amount of free wifi, but it’s not everywhere.

Busses and subway stations are all over the city. The transportation is generally quick and efficient, if not especially comfortable. Subway is your best bet, busses are mostly in Korean so not for the feint of heart. Look out for the little old ladies elbowing you out of the way to get a seat. A “T-Card” can be used on busses, subway, and taxis all across Korea!

Locations

Gang nam is the main business district. There’s tons of city things to do there. The 64 building is a popular place to go and look at the scenery from the top. The famous song about their style is apparently a parody.

Namsan is a mountain with a nice little hike and there’s a big tower at the top that’s good for views of the area. It’s near Itaewon which is the main foreigner area. It’s a nice place to walk around and can make for a nice day.

Hongdae is a college area with lots of bars and drunkenness. But they also have lots of live music – people playing music out on the street in parks on the weekends as well as in some of the bars. It’s a neat place to spend an evening strolling around.

The typical tourist sites all looked the same to me. The main palace was kind of neat to see but then others are just repeats.

Culture

Locals know of the best food, drinks, coffee shops, etc. Doesn’t matter where they take you, the favorites are all really good and the only difference for American palate is preference and location. Definitely hit up a Korean BBQ place. Very different from the US version (don’t bring your nice clothes, it gets smoky). And have some of the cold noodle soup dishes. Karaoke (pro-tip: it’s called Noraebang) is ubiquitous in time and location.

Koreans are friendly and helpful as a rule, but they might be considered socially awkward. Being less than perfect makes them feel embarrassed and ashamed. Every Korean seems embarrassed about their skill with English. So asking a question or interacting is likely to elicit a nervous giggle, and they may not answer you for fear of seeming not to be fluent. At least until they have a drink or two.

Koreans drink more on average per year than even Germans. Beer (makchu) is expensive and the local stuff is foul. But you’ll have a lot. Soju (distilled liquor) is a bit sweet and is used as Russians use vodka, but its half that strength. Makoli is a kind of traditional peasant’s drink that’s milky. There are some places that serve it traditionally in a bowl with a ladle you will share with the table. Definitely worth trying but know in advance that you’ll have a little diarrhea in the morning from the amount of yeasts in it (its a normal body reaction, not montezuma’s revenge). Bekseju is not to everyone’s taste but I like it. It’s called a 100 year wine because supposedly drinking it will help you live 100 years. Koreans change drinks often and there’s no such thing as the “beer before liquor” rule. Beware the So-Mak – a mix of Soju and beer. It’ll sneak up on you. Be prepared to drink with Koreans until 5-6am, get an hour of sleep, and go to work.

Korea is the most wired and technology loving place I’ve ever been to. Mobile phones are in everyone’s hands at all times. And everything has weird little jingles it plays. Even the toilet has like 50 features and plays a song. You’ll get used to it quickly.

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Poem On A Hof Window

Even if I die a hundred times so my bones become thick muddy soil, no matter. My spirit still exists, my heart toward my love will never go away.

-Korean poet, ㅋㅋ

Poem on a hof window

Poem on a hof window

A Recipe For Kudzu Soju

Kudzu is native to Korea. The scourge of the South, as we call it in America (not to be confused with General Sherman). Here they infuse an alcoholic drink with the roots. And it’s not bad.

It was introduced to the US from Japan and used in the South, supposedly, to fight soil erosion. The theory was that the fast growing vine would spread lots of roots into the soil, thus keeping it from washing away in the frequent heavy storms. Of course the problem is that it lays down only one root, meaning soil erosion still happens. But the vine grows over everything in sight, including cars, homes, telephone poles and trees. So that’s kind of a problem.

But I digress. Here is the recipe.

  • Harvest in late spring. April or may.
  • Chop the root.
  • Fill the container about 1/3 of the way with the chopped root and soju for the rest.
  • Age for 100 days before filtering.

Supposedly if you take the kudzu that comes from that process and repeat, but age it for 5 years it is more delicious.

Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

Dylan Hard Rain

I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’

Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

-Bob Dylan “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

Monsoon season in Korea is coming. Today is the official start. And it’s a hell of a thing, apparently.

Seoul Jazz At Club Evans

Club Evans SeoulJazz is an art form that, by all rights, should be forbidden to Korean artists. It’s expression of a spontaneous idea that cannot be either right or wrong. That’s the point. there is nothing off limits or teachable or expected. It’s pure creativity and expression. It’s the kind of thing most Koreans publicly disdain. But within the confines of jazz music…well as long as there are some confines I suppose it’s alright with society.

High school girls in Korea have a uniform. Not just a dress code they have a uniform way of standing, acting, cutting their hair. For a decade and a half they’ve been molded into a one-size-fits-all model of the female gender. So what did this one bring to the quintet of free expression, release from expectation and formality?

Sticklike other than the staccato nodding and hand movements, when came her turn to let loose she did so with abandon. (Relative abandon. This is Korea, after all.) Her foot stamped out the beat and stomped on the pedals; her knees bent and rocked back and forth, she took up a stance to play; her head banged as her hands belted out soulful and technical notes, working the bridge like weaving a loom.

The keyboardist, too, had a story. After the first duel against the drummer, he himself took up the sticks and drummed. While the main drummer was like a cat with a mouse – expertly toying with the thing, sure of his limits and its – the keyboardist was a kitten – unsure of his power and skill or the moves of the mouse, but pouncing around the way exuberant youth can.

This is Club Evans (map to location, because it’s hard to locate in English), probably the best known jazz bar in Seoul. You’d never know its nestled above a 7-11 in an unassuming little space. If it weren’t for the windows you’d mistake it for a basement in Brooklyn or someplace. Well maybe the clientele and artists would give it away too. This is Seoul, after all.

One Poor Correspondent

“I’ve been one poor correspondent
I’ve been too too hard to find
But that doesn’t mean you ain’t been on my mind”
-America, Sister Golden Hair

I’ve been both busy and lazy but it’s no excuse for not writing more.

While I was in London everything was a bit too boring, normal and well-explored. And so was I. It wasn’t worth writing, let alone reading.

I’ve been living in Seoul, South Korea for a couple of months and that’s definitely worth writing about. From a Miguk (American) perspective there’s a lot of hilarity to be had resulting from expectation gaps and cultural differences. I’ve got some notes on that and, well, we’ll see how it goes with getting those hammered into reasonable posts.

And for the month of May I’m living and working in Mexico City. And this is what has got me back on the keyboard clackity-clacking out some new posts. A combination with some time on my hands alone and lots of things I want to capture have gotten the juices flowing again and that means new posts. Which is good.

You can always stalk me on Foursquare, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram and Photosynth.

Talk at you soon!

iTunes Fail

I keep getting “Please contact iTunes support to complete this transaction.” when I try to buy the Seoul Guide – Lonely Planet application. Hoping to find something to do in Seoul so that app would have come in real handy about now. I seem to have a lot of time on my hands so I guess instead of enjoying my vacation I can instead complain about the seemingly unending problems I have been having giving iTunes money.

First my account got hacked and somebody bought a bunch of gift cards (thankfully PayPal realized it and stopped iTunes from draining my account). Nice job protecting my account there. Either iTunes/Apple was hacked on that one or somebody spent a couple of days trying to guess my password – something you’d think Apple would have caught. Either way, shame on them. Then I had about 2 weeks when I couldn’t buy or update anything and going back and forth over email took forever to resolve anything. That sucked but things were finally resolved and now this issue. Random prohibitions on buying apps with no error, just a request for ME to contact THEM to so I can give THEM money.

Good thing Android and Windows Phone 7 are out there, may force some customer service out of one of the companies. They’ll get my business. Of course you still have to deal with the near-monopoly wireless companies Verizon and AT&T. But that’s a rant for a different day. Another satisfied customer.

Kuala Lumpur

I had a layover for about 16 hours in Kuala Lumpur. The first thing I noticed on the bullet train ride from the airport to downtown is how modern the place seems. Especially after leaving India. Even the slums seemed nicer and not quite as numerous. There is light-rail, monorail, and metro buses. Less dust, dirt and construction. Lots of flashy tourist stuff. It’s not as crowded here on the roads, either. And the sound of horns is all but absent!

There’s lots of cookie-cutter buildings, but some very unique ones too. The cookie cutter seem to be high-rise apartments. If you’re familiar with the Petronas Twin Towers then you’ll know at least two of the unique buildings. Some others are scattered across the cityscape as well. I went to visit the towers to go up to the observation area, but they were out of tickets for the day. So get there early.

I ended up walking around in the park behind the towers. It was nice. Lots of young folks hanging out. Lots of old folks walking around. Some playgrounds. A cool place to have sitting in the shadow of that used to be the world’s tallest buildings.

I dropped in on a Hindu or Hare Krishna wedding. I’m not sure which it was, but it was interesting to watch. The video below is just a short part of the whole ceremony. The music was pretty interesting – what you can hear in this clip was not as interesting as what was going on during the rest of the ceremony. This was back in an alley adjacent to a Buddhist temple and a Christian monastery.

I ate at a street vendor. Food I didn’t recognize. Some strange fish or eel or something. It was odd – there was only one bone in it, but a big one right down the center. It was like a t-bone steak with a tail on it.  If anyone can identify this ichthyoid I’d appreciate it. The sauce there was very spicy, but it was a slow gradual burn. Nice.

Kuala Lumpur reminds me of Hong Kong. That makes since, because Kuala Lumpur was founded when Malaysia was owned by the British. So there’s obviously a large influence. But it’s more diverse ethnically, religiously and in language. That may just be foreign tourism, but I doubt it.

I ended up the afternoon watching the grey sky lose its color from a place called the Sky Bar on top of the Trader Hotel. By day it’s the hotel’s pool, by night it’s a modern dance club. Pretty awesome concept!

Then I caught a cab back to the train station which took me back to the airport. It was a good day of sightseeing.

 

Haggling Indian Style

I’ve had quite a few haggling sessions with local vendors, cabbies and others. But a technique I saw used in India is different than those I’ve seen elsewhere. It’s pretty effective though.

When hailing an autorickshaw (also called a tuk-tuk) from one Mumbai airport to the other, one of the police officers told me that I shouldn’t pay any more than 100 Rupee – but that the drivers would try to charge more because of time of day. Good information. So I flagged down one of the drivers and he started me off at 150. I countered with 80, he went to 120, but wouldn’t go lower. “Ni-time cost moah.” He continued, “Eet ees not pah-mitted to peeck ahp heeah. Beeg fine.” “Mahch chiper dan taxee.” I went to another driver and he started at 180 INR and gave me the same lines about higher cost for night time and being the wrong area for picking up customers.

I walked away from him too and the first guy came back and told me OK, he’d take me. For 100, I asked? 120. Back to where we left off – that’s not a negotiating technique. So I turned and started to walk away. He said OK 100.

In the vehicle he told me why he wanted more. Night time. Wrong area. Taxis cost 2x. Yeah I got it. A few short minutes later we’re at the other airport. I hopped out and went for my wallet. “Plis sah. 150.” I handed him 100. Again he told me of his woes. Night time. Big fines. He looked at me with big brown eyes. “Plis.”

That’s a similar technique some of my neighbors use when I have them do yard work. We negotiate to a rate I’m happy with, then after they’re done ask for more because it was bigger than they’d thought. I turned away the tuk-tuk driver. I usually give in to my neighbors.

It’s not that I’m a softie for Americans, it’s that the situations are different. I’m never going to see the tuk-tuk guy again. My neighbors know where I live. And a lot of the times they’re looking out for me when I’m not around so it pays to keep them happy. And if I know their tactics I can get to the real rates for things and not get suckered. Well not too bad anyway. And each negotiation becomes a reference point for the next one. “Last time you came back and asked for more – are you going to try that this time?”

Just beware this haggling technique when in India and understand you may get hit up for more after you get what you want.

Arriving in India

Half a world away, across 13.5 time zones, enduring 18-20 hours of flight time and a layover, endured four straight airplane meals, I have arrived. Mumbai. Formerly Bombay. The airport was a good welcome to the country. Hot, sticky, dusty, loud, smelly, crowded, and chaotic.

As someone told me before I left, India is an assault to the 5 senses. That’s not always a bad thing – sometimes the combat does you well. For example, the smells of a very spicy curry wafting from a roadside stand. Or the overpowering taste of some new and unknown fruit. Or the shocking blast of air conditioning upon stepping out of the sweltering heat. Yes, India is a land where your senses will be overwhelmed. The whole country seems to live like that, going from one extreme to another.

India’s clash between its history and its future is also a contrast. In many ways it still operates in its historical pattern and in some ways it has left that behind. In India much moreso than in any other place I’ve been, people still wear the traditional dress. Sarees, Bindis, Kurtas, are everywhere. Traditional garments seem to outnumber western ones, even in the cities. And bureaucracy reigns supreme in most places. At the airport going through security I was stopped because my ticket wasn’t stamped. It was one guy’s job to simply stamp the ticket at the counter. Even though I’d used the automated kiosk a red mark needed to be put on it for it to be valid.

India has a large upwardly mobile population, as well as a large population stuck in poverty. Still somewhat stuck to its old ways, India’s caste system is still somewhat in place, though on shaky ground. This also means that the tradition of servility is in place. Many of the wealthier Indians and foreigners hire full-time servants for things like driving, cleaning and cooking. I’ve been told these salaries may range from $40 to $250 per month. But that is changing, too; as opportunity comes to India money and business success is becoming the new caste structure. Some formerly from the lowest caste have become multi-millionaires.

And India can be very confusing. For example, Mumbai has two airports separated by 7 km – both with the airport code BOM. So if you’re flying into the country there, then on to another area keep this in mind. Nothing like getting caught at the wrong airport and wondering where your flight is. By the way, the going rate for an autorickshaw (also known as a tuk-tuk) ride from one to the other is about 100 Rupees – $2.50. Learn how the Indian drivers haggle.

India reminds me somewhat of China. And that’s not surprising. Both countries are climbing their way from third-world to first-world status seemingly in a generation. The pace at which each country is modernizing is shocking. And with that modernization come the natural byproducts of construction, squalor beside luxury, cultures intermingling, over crowding, breakdowns in etiquette, etc. It’s very much the feeling of a runaway train going at full speed. You’re going somewhere really fast but staying on the tracks is problematic.

In India this is more of a problem than in China because India is a democracy. Whereas China can shut down production in one area and relocate it overnight, India must nudge the free market. And controlling the direction of the economy means that bribery and corruption are natural outgrowths. This is something both countries have been struggling with in recent years; trying to get it under control. China simply executes those it deems guilty, but India cannot take such a harsh stance. From the feel of things, India seems to be doing a better job of reigning in corruption. China seems to be paying lip service but only needs an occasional scapegoat.

But despite its current challenges, India is a great place. It’s a country moving upward in the world. Quickly modernizing and becoming connected to the rest of the world.