Friday, 27 March 2009


Our first task upon disembarking onto Korean soil was to get our hands on some of the local currency, as usual, the first, closest ATM to the International arrivals area was unable to accept foreign cards. Conveniently enough though, the pet hotel located next to the ATMs was fully operational.

That's right, Pet Hotel. There were a series of brightly coloured lockers at the entrance to a supermarket into which Koreans were nonchalantly stuffing their hapless canine associates, before carrying out their weekly grocery shopping (using only domestic credit cards).

After wandering around and finally finding a working ATM (the Citibank one in case you're ever stuck in Incheon port with no cash) we were able to quench our thirst at, the previously mentioned, 'Sweet Buns'. This establishment is quite possibly one of the most unsettling places I've ever set foot in. It presumably started life as a convenience store, but most of the shelves were empty or housing only the remnants of large brown packages, the contents of which had long been sold. It looked a lot like convenience stores in zombie films; the obvious cleanliness the only indicator that its emptiness was not the result of ransacking carried out by the last survivors of some heinous, mutating virus. In the 10% of the shop that was actually usable there was now a coffee shop selling damn good coffee (the kind that tastes like a sour, earthen goblin drop kicking you in the mouth). The lady who worked there spoke pretty good English and was easily one of the nicest people to have ever lived. She was so friendly and helpful that it made the whole place seem even stranger.

With our thirst for coffee taken care of, George and I proceeded to search for the Underground stop which would serve as our entry point into Seoul. It is at this stage that we encountered our first taste of what it can be like trying to get to places in Korea if you lack local knowledge. It turns out that streets are usually not even named, it is only larger neighbourhoods which are. To make things worse, houses are numbered in the order they are built in not in the order they fall on a street. Sometimes the order refers to the time at which the house was built in relation to others in the street. Other times the number is an indicator of when the house was built in relation to others in its broader neighbourhood. Often both systems will be in place with different conventions adopted for different buildings on the same street.

Furthermore, in an attempt to 'modernise' some areas now use the less batshit crazy system whereby buildings are numbered in ascending order going up each street. This system is almost always used concurrently, alongside the 'traditional' Korean system, so as not to disorientate postmen. Confused yet? Try figuring out Korean directions in 40 degree heat with a 60lb pack on your back after realising you're at a dead end and have to walk back down this hill.

From Korea
At least it made for some good cardio.

Seoul's subway system on the other hand was pretty damn fantastic. It covers an area about the size of Hampshire (we were on it for an hour and ten minutes to go from Incheon Port to Hongik in Seoul), is all in English and is also super cheap when compared to London's abysmal offering.

Once we arrived in Hongik we made the, frankly rubbish, choice to try and find our hostel on foot. I'm not sure whether this was an idea borne from bravado, stupidity or both. What I am sure about is that you cannot find anything in Korea unless someone is physically pointing out the object or place in question, that or taking you there themselves. Even this, I expect, is no guarantee of success.

After about an hour of hopeless wandering, including an overt invitation to a bath house from an ex-pat homosexual, we finally gave up on looking for our lodgings. Our efforts scuppered by the Koreans' ingenious building numbering system. We called up the Hostel owners and had them drive us (for about 90 seconds) from the Subway stop to the front door of the hostel. We were relieved to find that our vehicle contained a fellow traveller who's efforts to find the hostel alone had proved equally fruitless.

In order to recuperate after a hard day's useless meandering we decided to track down a genuine Korean barbecue joint. This is one part of the trip that I had really been looking forward to ever since being made aware of the concept whilst watching Naruto. After being in China for a while, unable to track down any pieces of meat larger than a silk worm grub, the idea of being able to stuff our gullets with prime cuts of beef was nothing short of trouser modifying.

We walked around the spotlessly clean area of Hongik, looking around the various eateries until we spotted one that had sunken tables with hotplates set into them. This was the sign that we had been waiting for.

At the entrance to the restaurant we removed our shoes, placed them in a rack and ascended the 3 small steps to the wooden floored, dining area. There we were greeted by a waitress who spoke absolutely no English whatsoever, much like the amused patrons eating in large groups at tables nearby.

Not letting something as menial as a complete inability to communicate verbally get in the way of our meat-hunger we used a combination of gestures, the Lonely Planet's useful phrases section and smiling, to order some strips of prime beef rib.

It tasted like the flesh of a god.

As this was one of the more expensive cuts of meat, the side dish selection was as extensive as it was unusual. In addition to this, the tableware included kitchen scissors, wet towels and an inexplicably long tea-spoon.

From Korea
Can you guess which one is the pickled crab?

With our meat lust sated, for the time being at least, we shambled slowly back to our quarters (with a map the hostel owner kindly furnished us with) and drank some Korean green tea, which tastes like it's been made with water used to boil rice, before resting up for training at John Frankl's the next day.

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