Many of you provided me email addresses and whatnot, hoping for updates while on the road. Or maybe you were just being polite and never wanted this at all, thinking my laziness would ensure this never happened. OH HOW YOU WERE WRONG. For those of you who were looking for updates, here you go. It’s a summary of my first month in South Korea.
Has it been a month yet? (Looks at calendar) Close enough.
I left Calgary at 7:20am on a Sunday morning, connecting through San Francisco before getting on the biggest freaking airplane I had ever seen in my life to go to Seoul. It was a Boeing 747, the biggest passenger jet in the sky. Rows were 11 people wide (3-5-3), and the plane was something like 70 rows deep. There was even a second story, where all the fancy first-class people sat. I looked, first-class cost $2700. Each way.
The flight was fine. They sell internet access (which cut out over Japan for some reason), and showed movies, which entertained me for a few hours. They also served us food twice, which was nothing short of amazing. I didn’t realize they did that stuff anymore. I got pasta the first time and eggs with sausage the second, and was so impressed with actually getting food that I barely noticed it was terrible airplane food.
So I got into Seoul at 3pm on Monday afternoon (around midnight on Sunday back home), and went through customs. That was easy enough but took forever, and soon enough I was on the subway heading into downtown. By the time I made it to the correct stop, it was probably 5:30. I got out, followed my meticulously saved directions to my hotel, and promptly got lost.
Like, really lost.
After about a half hour, some nice Koreans took pity on me. They found the hotel’s phone number, and tried to call it. Nobody picked up. They sent me in a vague direction (which did turn out to be right), and told me it was easy to find. So I wandered off again.
You can probably guess what’s coming. I once again got lost.
After another while of wandering (I later discovered I walked within a half block of the hotel and didn’t find it), ANOTHER Korean saw me lost and took pity on me, but not before telling me to stay at the hotel he worked at because it was nicer. At that point, I was pretty tempted to take him up on it. But he found the hotel on his phone and gave me great directions. I was a 3 minute walk away, and finally, after at least an hour of wandering around, I found my hotel.
You can imagine what was going through my head. Specifically, what in the hell did I get myself into?
So that was my first day in Korea.
That was about as bad as it got though. Over the next few days in Seoul I easily found my way around using the subway, which has English announcements. I went to Itwaeon (which translates to foreigner-town), where I looked at store after store of “antiques” and cheap sports jerseys. The selection wasn’t nearly as good as what I imagined, but I still picked up a nice Houston Astros jersey for the equivalent of $30. Yes, I know Houston sucks. I don’t care. It’s a nice jersey.
I also went to the Korean War Memorial, where I discovered two things:
1. The only war Korea has ever won was in 1953, which they didn’t even technically win, and only because WE helped them. They seemed pretty grateful for it, with some random Korean guy making a big deal about it to me. Uh, thanks, but I’m pretty sure I had nothing to do with it.
2. Every few years the North Koreans do something just to annoy their southern neighbors. Like when they dug a tunnel from the North to the South. And then, when the South found it and filled it, the North just redid it in a different spot. The North has no intent to ever invade the South. It just needs to keep poking so it can keep up appearances.
I also went to a baseball game in Seoul, but it got rained out after an inning. Stupid rainy season. More on baseball later.
After a couple days in Seoul it was time to take the train down to Ulsan, which is about 450 km away. I went on the KTX Express, a bullet train that reaches speeds of 300 km/hr, and that has free internet. I left at 8:25am, and was in Ulsan before 10, all for a ticket that cost $40.
Ulsan is a much nicer city than Seoul. It’s new, surrounded by mountains on three sides and water on the fourth, and has plenty of expats. Hyundai has their largest plant in the world here, along with a port where they build ships. Many Americans, Canadians, and Australians work for Hyundai as well as energy companies that have operations in the area. The area isn’t swimming with expats, but there’s certainly a higher percentage than the rest of the country. Approximately 1 in 1000 people here aren’t Asian, to put in in perspective.
So I get stared at a lot. Kids love me, but most are too shy to do anything but look. Sometimes I’ll wave at them, and they’ll get all embarrassed and act coy. Sometimes they’ll actually talk to me, which is usually accompanied with their mom yelling at them to leave the foreigner alone. I know three words — Cum-sum-nida (thank you), large-e (large), and way-gook-in (foreigner).
There are restaurants everywhere, mostly because apartments are so small that people get the hell away from them whenever possible. I don’t care for a lot of Korean food, but there’s some stuff I like. Korean barb-e-que is tasty, except the side dishes are weird. There’s lots of pickled stuff that comes with, most of which I’m pretty okay with not eating. Fried chicken is a thing, and it is delicious. And, of course, everything has to be spicy. They sure do love their spice here.
Fortunately for my weak Canadian stomach, there are tons of western restaurants too. The western chains tend to be a little more expensive than comparable Korean ones (but slightly less than back home), so it isn’t bad. There are many sort of mom-and-pop western restaurants ran by Koreans, which are usually relatively cheap and they speak decent English.
After a couple weeks of getting my bearings, Vanessa and I went to Busan, a port city located on the very south east corner of the peninsula. Busan is where the Japanese established themselves when they occupied the country (from 1890-1945), and is South Korea’s main southern port. Approximately 4.5 million people live there.
We went up the Busan tower (on a clear day you can see Japan, but no dice that day), along with going to the Busan/Japanese history museum, and some shopping district which had a whole bunch of people with portable carts selling stuff like socks, hats, electronics, and so on. They also had some delicious smelling street food, but we showed up right after lunch so we didn’t partake.
And then we went to a cat cafe.
For $7, you get admittance and a drink of your choice. For an extra $2 you can but cat treats, which will ensure that the cats will actually pay attention to you. Something like a dozen cats were in there hanging out, basically just killing time until somebody showed up with food. The cats were all very nice to you — for about three minutes. Once they figured out you had no food, they were gone.
It smelled pretty much like you’d imagine a cat cafe would smell like. Honestly, it was a little disgusting, and I’m not sure such a place would exist in Canada. It certainly wouldn’t be allowed to serve anything. Still, it was an interesting place to visit.
After that, it was time to go to my favorite attraction of the day — the Sajik Baseball Stadium, where the Lotte Giants were taking on the NC Dinos. OH BOY KOREAN BASEBALL.
The whole deal is much more relaxed than going to sports in Canada or the U.S. Lots of people bring in food from outside, and even inside the prices for stuff are much more reasonable (think convenience store markups, not stadium markups). There were many places to buy beer for less than $2 per bottle. Outfield tickets were $7, and even the best tickets in the place weren’t much more than $35.
All of the home team’s supporters sit down the first base line, and all the visiting team’s supporters sit down the third base line. Apparently the outfield is for neutral (or cheap) people. Each side has a guy with a whistle — along with four cheerleaders — who directs the fans to participate in chants for each player. It’s all very strange.
In case you were all wondering, the Lotte Giants came out victorious, 10-3. The game took nearly four and a half hours. I convinced Vanessa to stay for three and a half of those hours, which I thought was pretty good.
I think that’s probably enough for now. Stay tuned for the next one of these, which will confirm some Asian driver stereotypes. That’ll probably come in two or three weeks. Or not. Depends on how lazy I am.