Hongdae

The fact that Korea has largely retained its local customs, tradition and language, despite the outside pressures it faces on a daily basis is an obvious boon and attraction for travellers and expats alike. Yet, the very obvious and vast differences between Korea and most western countries, one of the main attraction of Korea, can become trying at times for expats who have an extended stay in South Korea. This is where the attraction of Hongdae kicks in.

The area around Hongik University in Seoul, commonly known as Hongdae, is one of mine, and many people’s, both foreigners and locals, favourite spots in the city. Due in part to the large amount of students in the area,it is extremely arty and for Korea, rather eccentric. It also has a distinctly European flavour about it, without losing its very Korean essence. Equally, it has not become a Western ghetto area, rather like Itaewon has.

With small boutiques, flea markets, weekly artist markets and a free market on the weekend, Hongdae is at the epicentre of the ever evolving fashion and trend scene in Korea. Shoppers will find plenty to browse through, and the number of Western visitors means that you have a better chance of finding your size than you would elsewhere in the country.

When your credit card has taken enough punishment, there are more than enough coffee shops, bars and restaurants for you to take a load off, and start preparing for Hongdae’s main attraction, the nightlife.

The place to be in Seoul for a great night out, Hongdae is at the forefront of the Korean and expat musical scene. With loads of clubs, you’ll find all music tastes are catered for, usually with  myriad of choices. FF is popular with the rock set, and plays host to many live bands, a fair number of which are foreign. Fans of electronica will find their fix at Club Tool, although make sure you’re dressed to the nines, as they pride themselves on being upmarket and stylish. Tinpan is the ubiquitous ‘meat market’ but entry is free and drinks are cheap, so it’s tough not to have a good time. Try time your visit for club night, when one entry ticket will get you entry into most clubs, as well as cheap drink specials. These are held on the last Friday of every month, and allow club hopping without having to fork out around W10 000 entrance fee for each new club.

New restaurants seem to pop up and close down at an astonishing pace in Hongdae,even by Korean standards. Many of these are open 24 hours, so you’ll never need to go hungry in the area. A special mention must go to Burger B, a few hundred metres down the road from Sangsu subway stop, in the direction of the university gates. For those craving a good old-fashioned beef burger and chips, you can’t go wrong here, and the prices are reasonable as well.

All in all, a great place to indulge in some hedonistic activities. It should go without saying that noraebang’s abound in the district, so if you can’t go for an evening without belting out some of your favourite tunes, never fear. While Hongdae may have absorbed some western tendencies and establishments, the presence of noraebangs, hofs, soju and pot noodles will ensure you’re never far from the ‘real’ Korea should you start to miss it.

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Published in: on 08/07/2010 at 8:41 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Doosan Bears

I’ve always been a big sports fan, and for my money, there are few better places in terms of atmosphere and excitement than a live sports match.

Now, I imagine that, along with most of the western world, I grew up watching American movies and TV shows. And even though I’ve never particularly enjoyed the sport of baseball, watching the game live at a ballpark has alway appealed to me, and seeing baseball games on TV or the movies just served to cement that fact. Blue sky, green grass, cold beer, hotdogs, big foam fingers and baseball caps, it’s always been something I’ve wanted to experience. If I could be picky, it would be the Yankees  at Yankee stadium in the Bronx, or the Chicago White Sox in, well Chicago naturally.

Life, as usual, as other plans. It turns out I would break my baseball duck, not in the US of A, but in Korea instead. Now, as with most things American, Koreans have embraced baseball in its entirity. A few months ago, I went to go watch the Doosan Bears take on Busan in the Jamsil Stadium, on the banks of the Seoul River . With the grass-green and the sky blue, the baseball dream was looking promising. unfortunately, the Bears were taught a lesson, going down 15 -1 (if memory serves correctly) and the game as a spectacle was over early.

Jamsil Staduim

It did give us time to watch a few of the more ‘Korean’ aspects of the game. As with soccer games, organised cheers and noise makers, orchestrated by hand and flag signals are all the rage. Interestingly, each side is given a turn for a song or chant. There is no booing, hissing, or trying to drown the opposition side out. All very civilised. hotdogs were, unfortunately in short supply. Instead, a staple Korean snack, dried squid is all the rage in the stands. A little chewy, and with a distinctive aroma (or just downright smelly depending on the wind direction) it does not hold a candle to a decent hot dog.

Ona  positive note, the beer was cold, and the atmosphere was grand. And until I find myself in NY or Chicago, the Bears will do nicely. I only hope they can up their game as the season progresses.

Published in: on 06/07/2010 at 8:43 pm  Comments (3)  
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A Peak Behind the Iron Curtain – Korea’s DMZ

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall at the end of the last century saw the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of communism as we know it across most of the world. Yet, a few lonely outposts still hold steady to this day.

One of these outposts is North Korea.  One of the most secretive countries in the world, we think (for we can’t really be sure) that the country is much like it was n the 50’s, following the violent civil war which let the South become one of the most economically progressive countries in the world, while the North went back to the feudal system. Communist style.

Anyway, the DMZ (or demilitarized zone), a 4 km wide strip of land that quite literally divides the two Korea’s has become something of a tourist attraction in Korea. Well, at least for foreigners. Koreans are not allowed near the place, unless they’re one of the thousands of soldiers who guard the thing that is. I do find it strange that they are not allowed to visit such an important historical and political site in their own country.

Anyway, a group of English teachers went on a day trip to the DMZ over the past weekend. A group tour is the only way to visit this part of the country,which is fair enough,since it is a heavily armed border between two countries still technically at war with each other. We choose the USO tour, as it is the only tour which takes visitors into the Joint Security Area inside the DMZ itself. This offers travellers the chance for some serious traveller kudos’ – the opportunity to step into communist North Korea.

Our tour started at Camp Bonifas, the  United Nations Command military post located just 400 metres south of the DMZ’s southern border. Here we had a brief slide show on the Korean war, and the history of the DMZ and how it came about. We also heard about the various incidents that have occurred along the border since 1953, the signing of the truce between North and South. Once we had signed a waiver, which stated that our trip to the JSA will “entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action” and been briefed on how to behave when there (no contact of any sort with the North Korean guards, obey all instructions at all times, only taking pictures at certain times etc.) we set off to the JSA. Nervously. I think for most people it has just sunk in where we were, and what we were actually about to do and witness.

On the way, we passed what Sport Illustrated has dubbed the ‘most dangerous golf course in the world’ a par three  which is surrounded on three sides by mine fields.  A little trickier than your average sand trap.

Anyway, upon reaching the JSA, you can look upon the North Korean’s buildings just metres on the other side of the concrete slab that indicates the border, and watch the North Korean sentries while they watch  you intently with binoculars, notebooks and camera’s ready to document any behaviour that they might think noteworthy. Then we all trooped into the pale blue prefab building that straddles the border, which is where officials for the two Korea’s occasionally meet. The table marks the border line, and walking around the table meant that we were, officially, in North Korea. If only by a few paces. At all times during our visit we were accompanied by ROK soldiers, who stand at their modified taekwondo position, known as ‘rock ready’. Add in their aviator sun glasses, military uniforms and the weapons strapped to their hips, and you’re reminded that this is definitely not Disney World. Indeed, our time inside the building was cut short when our American soldier/tour guide suddenly barked out the order,

 “Back to the bus. Move it.”

And move it we did. Tensions are always rather high at the DMZ, and the recent sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan and the 60th anniversary of the Korean War just served to amplify this tension. We later learnt that several armed North Korean guards had started walking towards the building we were in, hence the move back to the bus.

Inside the JSA, the large grey building is in the North. The blue buildings straddle the border.

Rock Ready

Next up, Look Out Point 3. Surrounded on three side sby North Korea, it offers excellent views of the Korean landscape, as well as of Propoganda Village, a jamming tower, the Bridge of No Return and various Korean lookouts. Propoganda Village, the only village inside the DMZ on the northern side is a bizarre little place. Well maintained by the North, this village is actually uninhabited, and is meant to look enticing to anyone who views it. It is also home to the world’s largest flagpole ( at 160 m) and the worlds largest flag (at 31m and 250 kg, it takes 50 men to raise and lower it each day!!).

Propoganda Village, with it's ENORMOUS flagpole. Compensation for something perhaps?

Next up, we were shuttled off to one of the Tunnels of Aggression, just south of the DMZ. Fours tunnels have been discovered by the South, and are believed to have been dug to allow the North to move troops and equipment unhindered across the border  at pace. At 73 metres below the ground, the 3rd tunnel (which we visited) was only discovered with the help of a North Korean defector, and it is thought that there are more tunnels as yet undiscovered by the South….

Last up, a visit to Dorasan Station, the most northerly train station in Korea, and what would be the border crossing into the North. Would be if any train’s actually were allowed to cross the border. Built in 2004, the station was some concrete tangible evidence of the thawing in attitudes between the two Korea’s. However, recently, it’s been decidedly frigid on the Korean peninsula, with reunification looking as unlikely as it has at any previous time in the last 60 years. The station is quite eerie actually. Practically brand new and still sparkly, it’s quite dead apart from the tourists, and it looks and feels a little like a big white elephant. Apart from a few ‘feel good’ signs, “This is not the last train station in the South, it’s the first station towards the North” and a much photographed sign pointing towards Pyongyang, it has nothing going for it as an attraction. It is just a train station after all.

North Korea's capital, just a train ride away.

All in all, it was any interesting trip. For a few brief minutes we were able to walk into North Korea, and it was a startling and harsh reminder of the daily realties of what living in Korea entails for some of its inhabitants. More info on the USO tour can be found here, with some more details here.

Published in: on 30/06/2010 at 2:59 pm  Comments (2)  
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Hostel Horrors

Fresh out of school, all of 18 years old. I’m working in the UK and a mate and I take our first trip after a couple of months solid graft, off to the Emerald Isle over Easter. We had both done some travelling before, but always with parents, or school trips etc. We had even been eased into our time in the UK, with family friends helping us with accommodation and the like when we first arrived.

So our very first  backpacking trip, entirely on our ace. We were excited, and had plucked Ireland out of thin air because we knew we did not need visa’s. An hour on the old intraweb looking at our options, and it was off to Euston for the train/ferry combination to Dublin. That was the extent of our planning and prep work. And what a trip it was…. But that’s a story for another time.

10 hours later, after an uneventful train trip, and a ferry crossing largely confined to the bathroom (I was not made with sea legs), we find ourselves standing outside Dublin’s Bus Station, at 1:00am. On a Sunday. In the rain. Ireland doesn’t get green by magic you know. Where to sleep…? We hadn’t thought this one out. Never fear, we picked the best lit lane we could see, and headed off, sure that the luck of the Irish would smile upon us.

Youth Hostel. We could just make out the writing on the old weatherbeaten sign. Guess that should have been our first clue. Anyway, we weren’t in a position to be picky. The old fella behind the desk in the entrance hall/cavern from the Middle Ages was missing his front teeth, and had a great laugh when we produced our YHI cards that our mothers had told us to buy, “You’ll save so much money.” Thanks Mom.

Too much time has passed for me to remember what we paid for the night, what the hostel’s name was, or thankfully much else. What I will never be able to completely wipe from my memory is that it was in the Custom’s House area of Dublin, I found a syringe in my bunk, the mercifully brief appearance of (what I now know to be) someone flying very close to the sun scared the bejesus out of us, and when we crept out at the crack of dawn after not sleeping a wink, we stepped over a huge pool of blood in the entrance hall/entrance to hell. We were two rather shaken youngsters, who were just happy to be out of the place in one piece.

Thankfully, it was all uphill from there. That trip turned out to be one of my best ever, and after the worst possible first impressions, Dublin and I got along famously. I can’t wait to renew her acquaintance some day.

Published in: on 25/06/2010 at 10:59 pm  Comments (5)  
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Backpack Basics

So, apparently ‘travel blogs’ are meant to be filed with useful, fact filled posts about gear, places, schedules and the like. Not random, nonsensical posts about whether travelling actually requires travelling (because that’s just silly). 

So, here goes. 

Backpacking. As obvious as it seems, there is a backpack involved. Now pay attention, this is important. Your pack will be house, your garage, your storeroom, your safety blanket, at times, it’ll be your all. So don’t skimp. Equally, you don’t need to refinance your house. 

  • Quality, particularly around seams and the zips is a must. This will be the area taking the most wear and tear.
  • Size. Now, bigger is not better here. Anything over 75 litres is going to be tough to carry for any sort of distance. Equally, a well packed 75 litres is roughly 20 kilograms, the default weight for many airlines before they start charging overweight tariffs. It you need to pack more than 20 kgs on a backpacking trip, you’re doing something interesting (Who am I to call somebody wrong).
  • A day pack. Many packs come with a detachable day pack, which means that your main pack can be locked up in a hostel, while you carry only the essentials with you on a day’s sightseeing. Secondly, the day pack can be attached to your main pack when travelling long distances, one pack is easier to handle when using public transport.
  • Waterproofing. The advantages of this are obvious. IT KEEPS YOUR STUFF DRY!! If the material is not waterproof, make sure your pack has a rain jacket.
  • Can the multitude of straps be tucked away? Nothing will tick baggage handlers off more, and nothing increases your chances of a rip or breakage than loose straps.
  • A waist strap. Non negotiable. It’ll make carrying a heavy loads that much easier on your poor shoulders.
  • Try it on before you buy. Make sure it can adjusted to fit your body size. It MUST be comfortable.
  • Last, and possibly most importantly – you need to choose between a traditional ‘top entry’ pack or a ‘side entry’ back. For my money, it’s a no brainer. Using a top entry pack will mean that you spend far too much time unpacking and repacking your kit, to get that elusive piece of gear. When you need your iPod before the 2 day bus trip from Hanoi to Saigon, odds on it’ll be right at the bottom of your pack. A side entry backpack will solve all the problems.

Right, that’s it. Informative, fact based and (kinda) impartial. 

My bag is a K-Way Transit 75. It gets two thumbs up from me,and naturally has all the features mentioned above. Read more here

Published in: on 24/06/2010 at 10:34 pm  Comments (8)  
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Soccer fever

Soccer is a big deal in South Korea. Being incredibly patriotic already, soccer is a natural outlet for all patriotic Koreans (which is basically all Koreans).

Ever since Korea co hosted the 2002 WC with Japan and they made the semi finals, soccer and soccer players have cult celebrity status in the country. The country virtually shuts down during matches, and everywhere you look, all you can see are thousands of supporters clad in red, complete with stick on tattoos, horns and bang sticks. Typically, this being Korea, the supporters are organised, and the games are frequently interspersed with organised war cries, with the most popular being “Daehan Minguk! clapclap clapclap clap”

South Korean soccer fans cheer for the South Korean World Cup soccer team as they watch a live TV broadcast of the 2010 World Cup Group B soccer match against Greece in Port Elizabeth, at Seoul City Hall Plaza June 12, 2010- REUTERS/Lee Chung-Woo

Saturday last week, fresh off the exhilarating opening night of the WC,where SA drew with Mexico and came just a few cm away from what would have been a famous victory, saw SK’s opening match against Greece. We choose to watch with thousands of other supporters at Seoul’s City Hall Plaza fan park. With literally thousands of people, absolute pandemonium broke out for each of Korea’s two goals, and the persistent rain did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of all involved.

 Last week Thursday saw Korea suffer a hammering at the hands of the Argentinians. We watched closer to home, in the local Wa stadium on a big screen. Filled close to capacity, the supporters did not let the mere fact that they were losing get them down, and they supported the “Red Devils” to the final whistle and beyond.

South Korea vs Argentina - Wa stadium

Today is the crunch match against the Nigerians, and it promises to be another festive evening, regardless of the result. Before that, I will be hoping that SA can save some face against the troubled French, and regardless of the result, will be shouting for them this evening.

Celebrating Korea's lone goal against the Argentinians

Published in: on 22/06/2010 at 2:44 pm  Comments (2)  
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Odd or not

Things that have stood out so far in South Korea

  • Public transport. Cheap, quick, easy and safe.
  • Staying off the busses at 10 to avoid the post school rush. Yes, 10pm!! These kids work far too hard.
  • Mirrors, mirrors everywhere. Trains, lifts, petrol stations, even cell phones all come with mirrors. It’s no longer odd to see half a dozen people crowed in front of the mirror on the platform for 10 min while they adjust their hair or makeup.
  • Matching his and hers underwear on shop mannequins. On that note, couple wear. The best I’ve seen were two T-shirts, his said Jack, and hers said…..Jill!
  • Men in flashy suits passed out on the bench at 4:30pm. Business is conducted over drinks, and it appears more the merrier. Being drunk in public is very definitely par for the course here. Even being absolutely legless.
  • Men and their enormous handbags.
  • Pavements. This is where Koreans park their cars and where take out delivery drivers on motorbikes prefer to ride their bikes. This is not where pedestrians walk. You have been warned.
Published in: on 18/06/2010 at 9:59 pm  Comments (3)  
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Does travelling require actual travelling?

Random question perhaps?

I ask because of my thoughts while watching the opening ceremony and match of the 2010 World Cup, proudly held in SA!! We watched at a little hole in the wall restaurant, beer and soju in hand, with the TV balancing precariously on empty soju crates, and neon as far as the eye could see. Yet, thanks to the wonder of tech, I felt like I did a RTW trip in a few hours.

First off, the obvious example. There, in front of me, live and in colour, pictures of my home town, my president, millions of my flags, my anthem and general SA vibe. Local bands who I’ve watched repeatedly now gracing the international stage!. Which is always excellent!! Nothing like a little patriotism.

Watchin African soccer, in Asia.

Then, thanks to the equivalent of $7 on a few pieces of plastic and some impressive engineering, I travelled around the world. Friends and family from back home checking if we were being patriotic and watching the soccer. A few friends bragging about being at Soccer City. An old friend from varsity stuck in the office in Canary Wharf, lamenting the fact he could not get out of the office to watch. An old colleague in the UK who had bunked work and was in my old local, sipping on the first pint of the day with the footie on the telly. An old flame at PWC in NY who was watching in the office. A friend in Ecuador who had risen early so to not miss the festivities. Expat Saffa’s in Perth who still get teary when they hear the national anthem.

So, the question is, have cellphone (or modem), will travel. Or am I simplifying a little too much.

P.S. Have a look at these pics to get a feel of what I mean.

Published in: on 15/06/2010 at 10:26 pm  Comments (4)  
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World Cup Fever

I will admit it, I’m jealous. Very jealous not to be in SA right now. The vibe, the feeling, the crowds, the excitement is palpable.It feels like we’ve already won something, they way our country has come together and uniting behind our team. In fact, it’s had the very effect we were hoping for, uniting the people behind the country as a whole. 

I was (and still) am sceptical about spending so much money on a sports event when we have so many other important things to  be done in out country. And let’s face it, South Africa will not recoup the investment it has laid out for the soccer. Yet, apart from the stadiums, much of the investment on public transport and general infrastructure will almost certainly impact positively on SA and it’s people for years to come. 

Yet, there is the intangible factor. Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it best, when asked about if the cost of the WC can be justified. 

“Man can not live on bread alone. He needs something to dream for, to inspire as well.” 

Mandela with the Cup

The general feeling inside the country is plain to see. Yet, the positive exposure and airtime SA as a country is getting outside of its borders is fantastic, and would be virtually unobtainable otherwise. I watched two CNN anchors blowing vuvuzela’s and explaining South Africa’s climate and geography (and they did a fair job as well) for five minutes this morning. It’s on every channel, outside every store, where ever you look.

Even in South Korea, a country renowned for being quite insulated and inward looking, people have been coming up to me and pointing at the flag on my backpack and shouting “Nam agog?” (South African), aaah, World Cup, and then chattering excitedly in Korean. That did not happen three months ago. 

Go Bafana Bafana, I hope you have a good one tonight. Go South Africa,I hope and pray that this will a truly awesome World Cup,and we can build on this passion and fever in the future of our wonderful country. 

Viva Mzanzi 

It's time

Published in: on 11/06/2010 at 3:17 pm  Comments (2)  
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Temple Stay Hysterics

One of the things on most visitors “To Do List’ when the come to South Korea is a temple stay at a Buddhist temple. Regardless of your religious views, it can be a very interesting, informative and authentic immersion in the culture.

Unless of course you happened to come on a particular temple stay with us to Magoksa. It would have been a very interesting trip, but perhaps not quite as authentic and relaxing as some of the other visitors to Magoksa would have excepted.

It all started at 3:30 on the Sunday morning. I’m sure many a regretful story starts at around that time in the morning, except, unusually, this is when we were waking up, instead of just going to bed as on many weekends.

Magoksa Temple

One of the highlights of a temple stay is following the monks around on their usual everyday routines and duties. So if morning prayers start at 4:00am, you’re up praying with them. Hence the 3:30 wake up call…..

Anyway, off the whole lot of us trooped off to the temple in the pitch black of night. We were quite a diverse group of almost exclusively foreigners, with Americans and Canadians as usual forming the bulk of the group. However, we had met a couple of South African girls in the mix, and so we had a little Saffa group going on. Once we got to the temple, we found that the beautiful wooden temple was too small to hold all 80 of us for the morning bows. All 108 bows. So we weren’t to upset to stand at the back and watch the others do there bows, and get a good workout at the same time. At that’s when the trouble started.

Pitch black outside, the temple is dead quiet apart from the low chanting of the monks in front, and the smell of incense hangs heavy in the air. It’s quite a sight watching the monks, and 40 tourists, crammed in like sardines, bowing in front of the large golden Buddha. Until one of the South African girls we’d met lost her balance and fell over. Since everyone was standing so close to each other, this set off a game of human dominoes, which completely ruined the mood inside the temple. We could not contain our laughter at the back, and had to go stand outside for a little. So much for a peaceful and spiritual start to the day.

Dominoes anyone?

Next up, meditation time. We moved on to hall, and were met by a monk who was going to show us the ropes for the mediation. Showing us the lotus position and explaining the concept behind mediation, the last thing he said before we were expected to sit silently in the lotus position for 30 minute is that this would hurt. What?! Thankfully though, he gave us a lifeline. If we were feeling too sore and stiff from sitting in such an unfamiliar position for so long, we were to stand up QUIETLY for a few minutes to shake your legs out. Easy really.

Except if you’re my mate sitting to my left. Ten minutes in, and I can sense him fidgeting and struggling. Taking the easy way out, he stands up. Rather, he tries. Since his legs have gone dead from the awkward sitting position, he promptly falls over, HARD. On wooden floors, which echoed beautifully though the silent hall. Just to make sure he disturbed everyone, he also knocked over a few empty water bottles, scattering them to all corners of the hall. Meditation shattered.

Unfortunately, it does not stop their. Banished to one corner of the hall for breakfast, we were by now famished. A Buddhist breakfast is quite a process, with some very specific rules. Firstly, it’s eaten in complete silence, and what ever you dish up must be finished, including the water used to wash your dishes with afterwards. Well, that would have been good to know before we asked for extra helping of the soup (Yup, soup for breakfast). Except it appears someone switched the soup for what tasted what cold, used dishwater would taste like. This realisation very quickly led to an outbreak of giggles (I know, we sound like teenage girls here, really what was up with us) that just could not be stopped. Once again, the strict rule of silence and quiet went out the window.

Breakfast

So, a word of warning to anyone who is planning on going on a temple stay. Choose who you bow, meditate and eat next to very closely. It could make all the difference.

Published in: on 09/06/2010 at 5:48 pm  Leave a Comment  
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