Thursday, 2 October 2008

Voyage to the Hermit Kindom

Although the departure area at Qingdao International Ferry Port is somewhat less bustling and Orwellian than its counterparts in The West, we were still subjected to various searches and scans before being allowed onto the New Golden Bridge V, our vessel to Korea.

The main reason for the searches was not to deter terrorists but smugglers. With the prices of electronics and traditional medicine so cheap in China, many Koreans gladly pay the lowest possible fare (about £46) to sleep on the floor of a room with 48 other people in order to smuggle some Chinese produce back home.

It is not surprising then that my backpack would arouse some degree of suspicion at the customs point. As my 25kg bag was hauled onto a metal table by a pair of undersized Chinese border officials, small rabbles began to gather in anticipation. 'What could this unusual creature be carrying in his mysterious sack of wonder' they potentially asked themselves. The answer, as it turns out, was that I was carrying a number of containers of fish oil, ZMA and BCAAs, enough to somewhat avert the horrendous effects of my previous blood sausage and noodles diet. As the guards probed curiously through the containers I had to try and explain to them that what they were holding was not medicine, but sports supplements. Legal, sports supplements devoid of any traces of tiger penis, gazelle bladder or otter venom. This was achieved in the traditional way that Westerners achieve most things in the Orient, acting big and silly with little apparent embarrassment. I acted out lifting some weights, hit a double biceps pose and mimed shoving the capsules down my throat whilst saying 'duanlian' (Chinese for exercise) repeatedly. This seemed to get the point across and even broke the ice to the extent that the border guards started laughing, pointing at each others biceps and prodding at mine.

The boat itself was pretty awesome, considering we were spending just under a day on it, there seemed to be plenty of amenities, many of which served as our first introduction to Korean life. Having never really read about Korea before planning this trip, I was curious to find out as much as possible about the country before getting there. Whereas some of our other ports of call - Russia, China and Japan - have had a huge impact internationally, Korea is a country whose culture is largely unknown in the West. All I really knew about Korea was that they build cars and electronics and being a hi-tech economy, they probably live to a degree of comfort similar to people in Japan. So little has been known of this country across the ages, that it has been dubbed by many a historian as 'The Hermit Kingdom'.

From Korea

Korean points of cultural interest:

1 They love the Internet, particularly LAN gaming

Presiding over the central atrium of the boat were a row of sleek looking black computers, sat atop glass tables, with black leather chairs. This, it turns out, was but a microcosmic representation of the 'PC Bangs', internet cafes usually filled with hundreds of computers, which now dominate Korean culture.

Nowadays as a Korean youngster you have one of two options, you join an after school club to excel in sports, languages or maths; or you spend every possible minute of your free time sat in an air conditioned, darkened room with hundreds of other people, playing video games.

Korea's induction into the group of internet connected nations was a rather unusual one. For many years the internet was limited to use in universities and national government agencies, then something unusual happened. Blizzard entertainment released a PC game called Starcraft, for some reason this particular game captured the imaginations of the entire nation to the extent that in 1998, before the game came out, only about 50,000 homes had internet connections, now that figure is over 12Million (over 70% of the population).

You may even remember reading this news story about one 28 year old gamer who died of exhaustion after spending 50 straight hours in a PC bang, chain smoking, drinking energy drinks and playing Starcraft.

2 Koreans eat in a very unusual way

The restaurant on board was super-easy to navigate thanks to the fact that at its entrance stood a glass cabinet filled with plastified replicas of the food on offer. We simply pointed at what we wanted, paid for a meal ticket and handed the ticket to a waitress who then handed us our instantly prepared meal.

The first point of interest was the fact that our meal came in 'pieces'. We had a large metal bowl of rice each and surrounding it were 5 or 6 smaller bowls filled with various pickles, chillies, vegetables, a vaguely meat looking thing and an egg. Our cabin mate, who was sat with us for dinner - a half Korean half Chinese man who spent the majority of the voyage in his pants watching TV - explained to us that we just had to mash everything together into a big slop.

It actually tasted alright for something so lacking in proteinous goodness (a common theme in Asia, with the awesome exception of the rampantly carnivorous Mongolians). Aside from the fact that our meal didn't come pre-assembled, we also noticed that all the cutlery was metal, including the chopsticks and the water cups. If you think you're pretty good with chopsticks try eating some slop with metal ones, I guarantee that there will be a least a moderate degree of soilage involved.

The reason for this abundance of metallic tableware is down to an old legend. There was once an emperor of Korea who after enforcing a number of unpopular policies in his homeland, became so worried of being poisoned by one of the palace staff that he made sure that the every food receptacle and its associated paraphernalia was made of silver. The reason for this being that silver has the unique property of reacting to most common forms of ingestible poison (as well as being corroded by eggs).

From that point on, it became tradition for all emperors to eat from silver, as a result it became popular for the upper-classes to do the same. Finally this filtered down to all of the Korean populace, most of whom were too poor to afford silver, and so (much like chavs with their 4 carat gold jewellery) most simply made do with cutlery made from any sort of metal in order to show that they too were just like the emperor.

We actually discovered a couple more interesting things about the Korean food culture once we left the boat - including one of my most highly anticipated events of the trip: Korean barbecue - but you'll have to wait until the next post to hear about them.

3 Public bathing is kind of a big deal over there

The Lonely Planet guide book has a fairly in-depth section talking about bathing culture in Korea. It seems that it is entirely normal for men to bond at bathing houses, just hanging around with their wangers out chatting about the latest video game, methods of galvanising tableware etc. There is nothing homosexual about it at all apparently, most Koreans will tell you that homosexuality is just something invented by Westerners and that it doesn't affect Koreans at all. Yet somehow, George and I felt that we weren't ready to embrace this aspect of Korean culture at the boat's fully operational bath house, we weren't that liberated... yet. So here instead is a wholesome photo of George in his bunk.

From Korea

4 Convenience stores are absolutely everywhere

Much like almost every street corner in Korea
, the boat featured a 24 hour convenience store. These things are awesome, you can get everything from sushi to miniature hoovers at any hour of the day. When you are travelling on a budget, improvising your own meals out of the cornucopia of goods available is more or less a necessity. As long as you steer well clear of the instant coffee, you're pretty much guaranteed to get something cheap and tasty, at any hour of the day. Speaking of which...

5 Their instant coffee is batshit crazy

Being a fan of coffee, proper coffee, upon waking after a good night's sleep at sea I immediately headed to the convenience store to purchase what I thought would be a vaguely adequate powdered coffee beverage. What I actually managed to purchase was so ferociously unusual that my brain's logic centre could barely compute what the hell was going on.

I peeled open the foil lid of my iridescent purple coffee cup to reveal the contents inside, not a sachet, or a 'pod' but two metal tea bags filled with 'coffee'. After letting this curiosity brew for a good 15 minutes, I tasted the contents, it tasted a lot like what I imagine a horse's ass would.

As luck would have it, on the topic of coffee and ass, I was ok because immediately upon disembarking at Incheon port;, I managed to get myself a cup of coffee that actually came out of an espresso machine, at this fine establishment:

From Korea