Friday, March 11, 2011

13 Hours in Korea

6pm: The first time I really feel like I am overseas is getting on the transfer bus at Incheon Airport. Decked out like a belly dancer in gold and magenta swagging with tassels and trims and flowers, it causes several of our fellow travellers to gasp!

How my Nana would have loved this bus! All that magenta upholstery and trim!
Cities so often look the same, especially over distance. High-rise Schmighrise. It is up close that the delight really occurs. The only thing I really noticed about the vista is the number of clusters of identical buildings – not sure whether they were apartments or commerce or a mixture but there were at least ten around the harbour of up to 15 buildings all architecturally homogenous. I can’t see kiwis tolerating that level of perceived institutionalism in architecture – echoes of council estates.
Exceptions include a three building hotel, each topped respectively with replicas of the Empire State Building, the Taj Mahal and St Peters in Rome! Elements of surprise like this serve to remind us that we’re not in Wellington now! Oh and the enormous causeway that curves across the harbour in a mile long arc of steel and stone, rising up at one point no doubt to let taller ships through. Much of the harbour within this loop appears to be being reclaimed. Incheon seems to be growing.

The causeway stretching ahead in a graceful arc. An impressive piece of engineering.
Cars – lots of cars but not the chaos of cars I expected. You have to look long and hard to see a car that isn’t Daewoo, Kia or Hyundai. Buy local indeed!
6.45pm: In our hotel room, in a brand new hotel that we were told is 5 star but really it’s just new. The first room they give us is a smoking room and I quickly go swap for a room that doesn’t stink. The most amazing thing in our room is the space age toilet.

Houston, we have a problem...
It has a console with some frankly pretty graphic graphics that show clearly its other life as a bidet. I couldn’t however, find the flush button, and tried a couple to see if they would work. I watched puzzled as a metal pipe slowly appeared from under the room and started to spray me with warm water! I had to get through this impromptu shower to hit the stop button! Not having a change of clothes, I had to wear my wet top for the rest of the evening. As it turns out, I’m not the only one whose experimenting with the toilet caused a comedic moment.
7.15pm: Dinner? A buffet restaurant on level 15 with amazing views and bizarre décor. It’s as if two designers were involved – one doing horizontals and the other verticals. Walls of bright salmon pink wallpaper with golden globes floating on it and coral candy pink paintwork on doors and frames, while the carpet is a busy hatching of ochre, brown and gold, and the furniture all in browns also. EUCH! It wasn’t enough to put us off our food however, and we sampled lots of different things.
The whole hotel is a reminder of the maximalism of Korean décor – like the bus, no surface is exempt from decoration, and even using retro textiles there is no let up. As a card carrying maximalist I want to approve wholeheartedly but I just don’t get it. Still, it is charmingly alien.

A bad photo catching the carpet, wallpaper and lift doors on our floor, all in browns, all competing to be the busiest of them all!
6am: This morning we are awake at 6am local time, our bodies thinking it was 10am of course. The weather is crisp and sunny – like a colder version of a perfect Christchurch winter day.
7.15am: Breakfast time I am determined to go local, and follow a Korean gentleman around the buffet, taking a bit of everything he did. Tofu, glass noodles and seaweed, a boiled egg – and baked beans. Not the orange things we eat but actual green beans. This caused a lot of mirth for our fellow kiwis but they were delicious! The chef got quite concerned about the guests taking photos of his baked beans – which I suppose is an odd thing to do if you’re not in on the joke. All of this accompanied by miso soup, coffee and grape juice.
We are sat next to a couple of kiwi guys we had sat next to last night when I was shamelessly listening into their conversation, so this morning I make the effort to connect and we get chatting away as you do. Andrew lives in Brisbane now and is on his way to a trade show in Germany; Woody plays rugby for Scunthorpe and is on his way back from his brother’s wedding. He also fascinated me by putting away five platefuls of cooked breakfast! A third guy joins us who has the most amazingly long eyelashes I’ve ever seen on a living person who has not paid for extensions! He lives in the UK now and has been home for, of course, a wedding.
8.30am: We are right on the edge of Chinatown and as everywhere else around us is quite generically cityish judging from the panoramic view out of the 15th floor windows, the five of us decide to go exploring together. We choose a road that leads to some kind of temple on the hill beyond, and what I didn’t truly appreciate from such a high vantage point, is that the road really does go UP! It is mostly steps! I don’t think I am going to make it and suggest that the young, fit 25-35 year old males go ahead while I die quietly about half way up. My darling David however isn’t having a bar of it and chides me gently into just going a bit further, and a bit further, and as he purrs in my ear, it does indeed get easier. We are in a different world now – little brick houses and shops clutching onto a hillside, strange sculptures and a mixture of the very new and very old all clashing yet harmonising.

Buildings like this that seem to be a part of the hillside and as ancient as time itself are everywhere in Chinatown
Newer but still traditional houses
Men who seem as old as the building itself working on a very manual restoration
At the top of the steps, there is an amazing hillside park, given over to exercise! Scattered among the trees are exercise machines of all kinds. This is such a brilliant concept! I tried to take photos but was trying not to take pictures of the women using the machines as I felt that was invasive, so they are not great shots.

See the white tubular machines among the trees? Modern exercise machines, unpowered but still doing the trick. There were a lot more just to the left of the picture but occupied by self conscious women.
At the very top are the memorials to the uneasy peace between the two Koreas, built in 1982.
The straw garden fascinated us all – why is there a garden full of bundles of straw, some mad little pig perhaps? We soon worked out that it is winter protection for pruned rose bushes.

Pruned roses lovingly protected from the winter cold.
There are so many little touches like this that just draw the eye more than all the monoliths ever can.

A daisy chain fence, one of many cutesy endearing features of the hillside garden.
An elderly man in wasabi coloured windcheater and mandatory sun visor, jogging slowly but consciously up and down the hill listening to American radio, who says Hai to us all several times – it’s a grunt more than a word so we’re not sure if it is a greeting, an acknowledgement of our presence or him expressing how knackering his jog is! He is very determined and Woody had to get out of his way or it looked like he was going to get jogged over!
Three well dressed matrons in masks, one complaining about the state of the garden – she picks up a shovel lying in it and throws it down, the whole tone of her monologue is universal! “just look at the state of this place! Leaving tools out like this, it’s just not good enough!)
On the way back down the hill again, we take a different route and discover more little shops and buildings. Everything seems shut – is this because of the recession or the time of day? It is 9.30am so not really that early, and there were no signs of commerce at 7pm the night before, at least not from above, so I wonder what is going on. We see very few people at all the whole morning –most of them exercising on the hillside park. I would love to stop and ask questions but most of the people we see are at least middle aged and something tells me that we won’t have any words in common.

I had to take a photo of this warehouse full of used chain - there were at least three others in a row. Are they selling it, storing it, restoring it? So many questions!
Back at the hotel, I stop to write this stuff down while the impressions are still clear in my head, and before we know it, it is 10.20am and time to board the Belly Dancer bus again.
11am: Incheon airport – I am sat in a strange café that seems to have very little food on offer, but lots of filter coffee thank goodness.

A procession in the airport, at least 20 people and music too. No explanation for it, and I got told to move on after taking this photo. Why???
Today there will be nine more hours than normal to get through, and the wisdom of our well travelled kiwi friends is to try and tough it out awake.
So, 13 hours in Korea are nearly up and I’ve mostly seen Chinatown. Ironic! One thing is for sure, my reservations about Asian destinations are all gone. The little taste I have had has really piqued my curiosity and I may want to be back for more. It is a strange experience being on the back foot the whole time, not being able to ask questions or read signs. It is good for me.


  1. The Bellydancer Bus - wicked. You must have wondered what you were climbing in to. I'm glad IT wasn't pink! eeek..Very pretty.

  2. I want a bellydancer bus! What a fantastic post, I'm oozing envy. So glad that you got off to a good start!