Monday 23 October 2017

Forget Gangnam Style - Korea rocks

The Busan skyline
The Busan skyline
Gangnam district skyline, Seoul
SN Street Market, Seoul
Royal Palace, Seoul
A school day in Korea is a long one

John Masterson

The Gangnam Style song and PSY took me by surprise.

Here was this fellow that no one had heard of becoming King of YouTube. He was the first to pass the billion hits mark. And it took me a while to realise that he was taking the piss in a country where satire is only edging its way on to the agenda. He is having a pop at materialism, at sky-high credit card debt and the South of the River posers in Seoul who scrimp on lunch so they can be seen in Starbucks. And people lapped it up.

They talk of South Korea as an economic miracle. I probably watched the video on a device made in Korea. There is a fair chance my next car will be Korean. And now it seemed that irony and humour were being added to the mix. So, when the opportunity came to visit a friend who was living at this eastern end of Asia, it didn't take long to clear a good gap in the diary. I felt that a little exotic living was just what I needed and I could pose with the best of them. I just have fewer credit cards.

I landed in Incheon Airport armed with detailed instructions on how to get to Seoul in precisely 50 minutes (they were right) and then catch a train to Busan in the south. Gangnam could wait.

Irish film-makers will be familiar with Busan as the location that hosts an excellent international film festival each year. It is Korea's second city and, having found train one easily, and train two easily, I was there in a few hours. The public transport system of KTX and Korail has to be seen to be believed. It is cheap or cheapish, spotlessly clean, full of power points as everyone is on a tablet or phone, and fast. It goes on time and with TV displays in English at the stations, as well as on the train, it is probably easier to use than figuring out how to get from Dublin to Limerick. The local writing is Hangul, which has 10 vowels and 14 consonants and is so simple and logical that you get the hang of it quite quickly.

I arrived in Busan in time to see a fantastic display of enormous and minute art on Songdo beach. A cello 12 feet high stood beside a modern city where the tallest building was nine inches. As darkness fell, the lights turned on. It was a marvellous display and a great backdrop to my first meal in a local restaurant. Fish, fish and more fish. I am a fish-lover and there was a lot of choice. Then to bed in a pre-booked hotel courtesy of the internet. You need to book in advance but finding a hotel to suit your price range is simple. The Koreans are very au fait with technology and making it both useful and user-friendly.

The next morning was spent wandering around the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Korea. Photo and video displays give a very good understanding of the horrific war that took place in the 1950s. Then the headstones tell their own story of the reality of war. What is so impressive is that the country was on its knees some 60 years ago and is now one of the most successful countries in the world.

These are the people who make Daewoo, Hyundai, Samsung and LG to name but a few. How did that happen? Two reasons – education and hard work. Korea, a small country with a population of only 50 million, is now the world's twelfth-largest trading nation.

I next spent a few days in Daejeon, in the centre of Korea. It is also 50 precise minutes from Seoul on the high-speed KTX. It has a similar population to Dublin, is known as Asia's own silicon valley, boasts 18 universities and is home to some 20,000 research scientists. Daejeon was also the city chosen for the relocation of a substantial number of civil service departments from Seoul. Just like we did, except the Koreans didn't make a mess of it. It worked and Daejeon is now a thriving, interesting city.

We ate out each night and I drank some Cass which is the beer brewed in Seoul. I found a great bar called Terrace J which was perfect for pre-dinner drinks. Hundreds of local restaurants with good prices made it easy to go somewhere different each day.

I ate one night at a type of barbecue round table where they put hot coals into a dish in front of you and pull a type of chimney tube down from the ceiling to take away the fumes; a really enjoyable way to eat. We finished off with a glass of Soju, which is the local clear spirit and is maybe a bit like poteen.

The Daelim Tourist hotel in Daejeon, again internet-booked, was central and good value. You have to get used to taking off your shoes. Koreans do not wear shoes in domestic houses so, as you enter your room, you leave your shoes at the door. It was the same in some restaurants where you sat on the floor at a low table. All of this has resulted in Korea being the sock capital in the world. If you ever find yourself visiting Korea, you can rest assured you will get socks for a present. The upside is they will be a lot more colourful than what you are used to.

The markets have a spectacular range of food and clothing. And socks. Korea is quite mountainous and there are hundreds of outdoor wear shops. For half nothing you can kit yourself out for any outdoor pursuit in any weather, and I did. I intend unpacking all this great value gear soon.

And the food. A photographer's dream. And anything I ate – it's mainly meat, fish, rice and vegetables – was very tasty. I loved Kimchi, which is a fermented vegetable, usually cabbage, and is served with most things. I also went for the gimbap which literally means seaweed (gim) rice (bap). It is rice with a filling of eggs or fish or meat wrapped in laver seaweed and I could eat it for ever. There is a takeaway version in shops which is cut in triangles and called Samgak Bimbap which I lived on. I wouldn't miss a sandwich if I never saw one again. Vegans will get plenty of choice in Korea. Ask for Bibimbap. Delicious.

On the super trains again for the last few days in magnificent Seoul which is like an eastern New York. I stayed in a little guest house-cum-hostel in the university district which is a very economical way to stay in Seoul. It was called Pencil in the Hongdae area near the Hongik University and I loved the atmosphere. There were loads of coffee shops and little restaurants. I caught up on emails, but there was no need as free wifi is almost universal. And taking a taxi does not break the bank.

A Hangang river cruise is one way to see Seoul, so I did that and it was very enjoyable. A bus tour is another way, so I did that too. It is hop on and hop off. I went to see the Gyeongbokgung Royal Palace which is a must. Then a walk around the little streets of Bukchon folk village before ending up in a charming little tea house called Ameblo where, shoes outside, I enjoyed the most memorable ginger and honey drink I have ever had. I didn't want to leave but this was my last day. And I still hadn't been in Gangnam district.

The occasion called for a night on the town – and Seoul rocks – so I hit a few bars and then found a brilliant Turkish restaurant and sat down to eat while watching the world go by. One fascinating thing that I have never seen anywhere else before is the practice for young couples in love to proclaim this to the world by dressing identically. It had been a very interesting, instructive and fulfiling 10 days.

Returning on Emirates, I was lucky to travel in the very spacious part of the wide-bodied double decker A380, my first time on one of these fabulous aircraft. They say it is as close to a private jet as a normal mortal can get, and it certainly has that wow factor. I was just about getting used to having my own minibar at my seat, and studying my mattress for my fully horizontal sleep, when I realised there is a full regular bar at the back of the plane where you can sit up and have a chat. But wisdom kicked in and, with two long flights ahead, it is a pleasure to be able to get seven hours sleep before hitting Dubai. It makes all the difference if you are looking for a rapid return to normality.

That said, maybe next time I will postpone normality a little longer and linger mentally in a part of Asia that I liked very much. And now I know that Gangnam is a bit like Dublin 4, it exists everywhere and nowhere. You don't actually have to go there.

Emirates operates a daily flight to Dubai and then onwards to Seoul. From September 1, the airline is increasing this to two daily flights. Economy return flights to Seoul start from around €641 including taxes and €2,414 in business class. See

Take Three: The flag

The familiar red and blue which join to make an interlocking sphere at the centre of the Korean flag represent the cosmic forces. The red section represents the proactive force of the yang while the blue takes the form of the responsive force of the yin. The surrounding symbols represent heaven, earth, fire and water.

The school day

Korean children work very hard and this is a matter of controversy. The typical school day runs from 8 to 4, or 5 if there are sports. Then, after a trip home to eat, most children return to study from 6 to 9. Koreans explain their emphasis on education saying that "the only resource we have is our people." In 1945 the adult literacy rate was 22 per cent . Today it's close to 100 per cent. There is a lesson in there.

The food

Bibimbap is a very popular dish in Korea. It's a delicious bowl of rice served in a hot stone bowl with a topping of either meat or vegetables as well as a tasty red pepper paste. The word bibim means to mix and said mixing is done right there at the table.


Getting there

Emirates operates a daily flight to Dubai and then onwards to Seoul. From September 1, the airline is increasing this to two daily flights. Economy return flights to Seoul start from around €641 including taxes and €2,414 in business class. See

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