It has happened to us all at some stage, maybe it happened to you after a particularly long day at work, or perhaps you succumbed after another long, dull meeting, however it happened, we have all, at one time or another, fallen asleep on public transport, only to awake, normally with a trail of dribble running down our suits, with a guilty feeling in our stomachs and a host of fellow commuters judging us. Already pretty bad, the whole experience is made worse, when you realise that not only are you covered in dribble, but you have also missed your stop. Now depending on how lucky you are, you might be fortunate and find yourself a mere extra 5 minutes from home, thankful for the extra walk to sober you up; on the other hand you could be particularly unlucky, and be faced with the horror of waking up in the wilds of zone 6 on the last train home, trying to fathom your way out of those distant bastions of the central line - Epping, or worse still the enigma that is West Ruislip.
However, this is not a time to panic, this has happened before, and we know how to deal with it, and even in the truly worst case scenario (which we all know is that you have somehow ended up on the central line ‘loop’ somewhere between Hainault and Newbury Park) you are still able to get out, ask for directions to the nearest taxi rank, and fork over an extortionate price to get home.
Unfortunately when I woke up from my blissful train slumber this wasn’t an option for me, as instead of being met by the comforting and familiar sight of Londoners on their way home from another exhausting day in the capital, I was instead met by a gaggle of laughing Asian school girls, and a stern looking train guard who pointed at my rucksack sprawled on the floor of the carriage, indicating that it had strayed outside the official ‘luggage’ zone, and was causing a scene.
This was my first impression of Seoul – the bustling modern capital of South Korea, and as about as different from my sleepy, tropical island experiences of the last 12 months as you can get!
I re-adjusted my rucksack, smiled at the guard hoping I hadn’t broken any actual laws, and took stock of my situation – I remembered getting off the plane and picking up my bag from the carousel, I remembered navigating my way through the exquisite Incheon international airport towards the metro, and I distinctly remembered being faced with a flashing screen covered in indecipherable symbols beeping at me – I assumed this had something to do with tickets, and after mashing some buttons a bright green button mercifully bleeped at me and flashed the words “ENGLISH”, highlighting quite abruptly my linguistic deficiencies in the part of the world – I even remember getting on the train (nice and easy as the airport is at the end of the line and there is only one direction to head in) What I didn’t remember though was falling asleep and missing my stop.
“It’s fine” I thought wiping the dribble away from my mouth, “I can figure this out, I mean how hard can Korean be…” these of course turned out to be fateful words – Korean is bloody difficult to speak or understand, and basically impossible to read.
Even so, I persevered, and with a bit of common sense, and some luck I eventually found out that by some twist of musical fate, I had inadvertently found myself in the now globally famous Gangnam area of Seoul! Trying not to get my hopes too high, I got off the train and began to scan the crowd for signs of an international dancing sensation. Unfortunately I was disappointed, as I’m sure you will be, to discover that the real Gangnam has very little to do with the music video, and I didn’t see a single Asian in a tuxedo jockeying around a warehouse, or being straddled in a lift – nightmare. What I did find though was a map of the Seoul metro system, which although not as entertaining as the viral music star, was probably more useful.
Being a geography teacher, I do love an excellently coloured-in map, and the Seoul metro map is an excellent example, demonstrating the importance of good colouring-in over actual words or information (in turn justifying many of my lessons), and so with a few traces of my fingers, and by following a few arrows around the station, I made it to the right line, and forced myself to stay awake so I didn’t miss my station again.
When I did eventually find the right station it was almost 9pm and I was ready for a shower and some food. I bounded out of the station and began the short walk to the hostel I was staying in, and was instantly subject to another sensation completely new to me after so long in the South Pacific – it was FREEZING! Now after checking the temperature on the internet the next day, I discovered it was, at worst, 12°C – not exactly sub-zero, a fact which does not bode well for my return to UK shores in the midst of December. I donned my hoddie which hadn’t seen action for over a year (and smelt accordingly), and my faithful beanie, and marched as quickly as I could to where I was staying cursing my flip-flops and their lack of insulation.
Fortunately the BiBim Guesthouse where I was staying was wonderfully warm, as was the welcome by the owners Konda and the excellently named Panda. During my time there I never once felt I was staying in a hostel or a guest house, instead it felt as if I was just crashing with some of my friends, as was the fantastic atmosphere. Shower over, I delved into my bag to try and find some clothing that constituted ‘warm’ and came out looking like a ridiculous tropical hiker in my action shoes (without socks), linen trousers, hoodie and beanie. The cold issue had been dealt with for the time being, so next on the agenda was to find some sustenance, as it had been hours since I had eaten on the plane, and I had heard so much about Korean food, I was desperate to get involved, so I stepped back out into the arctic conditions, and went on the hunt for some food.
One piece of advice I had been given before going to South Korea was to look out for restaurants which had pictures on the menu next to the indecipherable hieroglyphics, giving you an insight into exactly what you are going to be eating. This is sound advice, but it struck me as a little unadventurous, it’s like wrapping your Christmas presents in cling-film – it totally ruins the surprise, and so I adopted more of a ‘Russian Roulette’ style of selecting dinner – looking at the prices, finding a dish or two which I could afford, and then blindingly firing off my order with an authoritative point as if I was fluent in Korean and knew exactly what would be coming my way – the key to this method is to react with apathetic indifference when your dish arrives regardless of what it is – fortunately my limited drama skills didn’t have to be tested too much, as each time I tried this method, the universe rewarded my bravery with a delicious selection of Korean food ranging from soups and noodles, all the way up to whole BBQ chickens, all of course served with the ubiquitous national staple kimchi – a delicious pickled cabbage which I came to love.
Full of delicious food, and with mixed feelings about having left the Pacific after a year and beginning my journey home, I collapsed into bed and revelled in the novelty of having a duvet over me for the first time since leaving the UK – maybe there is an advantage to being cold.
Initially I was due to have a week in Seoul before heading back to the UK, but not wanting to head straight home (I mean what am I supposed to do between now and Christmas really?) I decided to take my chances and find the cheapest flight to South East Asia I could, and then work it out from there, so after a quick google search and a blur of credit card details, I had a flight booked to Manila in the Philippines, subsequently cutting my already short time in Seoul down to a mere four days, not wanting to miss out, I got up early and headed out into the city to try and get a feel for this vast Asian metropolis whilst I could.
Over the next two days I must have walked marathon distances around Seoul, and travelled equally far on the ever increasingly straightforward metro system (thanks to the colouring-in). Walking the clean and modern streets, I felt like Marty McFly walking around 2015 Hill Valley – everything was so futuristic! Granted, there were no hoverboards or flying cars, but in their place were giant TV screens filling entire buildings, sleek, silver, modern looking cars, touch screen information booths, and everyone was attached to some sort of smart phone – I realise that this might not sound very futuristic to those of you living in the real world, but when a blender is considered the height of technology in Tuvalu, you realise just how strange this all seemed.
Every now and then I would pass an imposing statue or epic temple reminding me of the incredible culture and history unique to this part of the world, and then there were the palaces; giant structures built to utter perfection, and still an imposing presence today (if only for the hundreds of school trips rushing around inside each with their own speaker-wielding tour guide shouting out facts and instructions) it is hard to imagine how imposing these palaces would have seemed to a visitor coming from an ancient rural community.
In between cultural wonders, I placated my immaturity, by trying to spot hilariously translated signs – I won’t put up all my photos here, or give you too many examples (there are hundreds of websites and facebook pages dedicated to that sort of thing) but by far my favourites were posted in a very cool and trendy cosmetics shops, such as this classic:
I was getting hungry again, and having being told about the famous Dongdaemun market by Panda the night before, I jumped on the metro and headed towards the culinary mecca of urban Korean street food. I got out at the nearest metro station and trusting my sense of direction (always a good idea), I headed off with purpose to track down some deliciousness. I had been walking for about 10 minutes when I spied an exceptionally attractive Korean woman get out of a taxi in front of me and start to head in the same direction as I was. In my mind this could obviously only mean one thing – she was on the hunt for some delicious food too, and so would naturally be heading to the same market! We were kindred spirits both undertaking that most fundamental of pilgrimages. Maybe when we got to the market I could buy her a drink, or perhaps a tasty street snack, we could become friends, maybe more – with these ideas running around my head, and so convinced of our joint destination, that I forgot all about my sense of direction, and continued to follow my culinary mews towards the market.
It was only when I had to sidestep round a rowdy drunk, and avoid a well chewed wad of tobacco from hitting my face, that I realised we weren’t in the normally clean and well maintained streets of the city anymore, instead, I found myself on a street that at best could be described as ‘sketchy’ and at worst ‘down-right scary’. “Not to worry, just keep walking forwards, and avoid eye contact, and I’m sure it will sort itself out” I said to myself as the cute Korean disappeared into a block of flats, and I rounded the corner only to discover a dirty dead end full or rubbish and a large amount of shifty looking characters. Now lacking the prerequisite self defence skills, I decided it probably wasn't the best idea for me to hang around in this dark corner of Seoul, so adopting as casual a manner as I could muster, I nonchalantly looked into a rundown mechanics shop nearby, as if browsing for rusty spare motorbike parts, I then gave a slight disgruntled sigh as if yet again I hadn’t been able to find what I was looking for, before beating a hasty retreat, making sure to stay on the opposite side of the road from the angry drunk – I think we can all take a moral from this story!
Eventually I got back on track and I found the market, and wasn’t disappointed. Dongdaemun is a maze of shops and businesses, and along every walkway were hundreds of small stalls run by efficiently wrinkled old women, serving an array of food which defined the word omnivorous. Along with some of the more expected fare like noodles, wanton, BBQ, and of course mountains of kimchi, came other unidentifiable bits of meat, various strange looking fruits and vegetables, and ugly creatures from the deep which would have done better to stay underwater. Squeezing onto a bench at a nearby stall, I reverted to the tried and tested ‘Russian Roulette’ method of choosing food, and was rewarded with delicious wanton soup, a bowl of slimy green vegetables and noodles , and something which I think once used to be inside a pig...somewhere. Before leaving and heading back to the hostel, I tired chatting to the old woman behind the stall, but all I managed to say was hello and thank you, she then smiled at me, and told me I had an “Excellent face” - I made a note to stock up with some Radiant Glow Face the next time I saw some.
Little did I know that the next day I would have to use my "excellent face" to charm some angry looking South Korean soldiers….but that’s for another blog post!
© Andy Browning 2012