Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Seoul Music

Me, trying to look cool, in South Korea.

As regular toffeewomblers will know, a few months back I spent a short time in South Korea. Here's what I found. Please excuse the puns.

Korea Guidance

You know how you feel when you look at a champion bodybuilder? That appalled fascination? That grudging respect? That mixture of ugh and wow? That’s the same reaction you get when you look at the South Korean capital, Seoul.

Because this isn’t the most pretty of cities. In places it’s downright ugly. Yet when you consider that the whole place has been built in fifty years, from scratch, after the devastation and carnage of the Korean war, then you can only gasp in admiration. Here is a vast, brawny, butch, kinetic, energising Asian metropolis of at least ten million people - that has been lifted into the smoggy sky in almost the same time it takes you and me to put up that pesky bedroom shelf.

Not that Seoul is all brashness and concrete. Within its hilly swathes of brick and breezeblock there are some corners that have a gentler feel, a defiantly feminine touch.

My first such discovery is at the national palace of Gyeongbokgung. This is a complex of pagodas, burned down by the Japanese twice (as the local guides are keen to mention). It’s kind of impressive, but also rather monotonous. But then I reach the side-pagoda of Hyeonghoeru; this floats above a placid lake, next to serenely empty concourses, with a curtain of blue mountains beyond. It makes for a strangely moving scene, despite or because of the hum of the nearby freeways.

And it’s not just ancient (or rebuilt) monuments that offer these gratifying moments of lyricism. For instance, just a few hundred yards from the main drag of Sejongno - noisy, pushy, frenetic - is tranquil Insadong. This retiring neighbourhood feels like a throwback to an older Korea, full of exquisite cafes, intriguing art galleries, wooden framed teahouses, and shy little restaurants - serving suckling pig with kimchi pickle, or the wildly more-ish native staple, of rice and spicy meat, called bibimbap. One of the teahouses, as I discover, even has little songbirds fluttering delightfully through its rafters. I just hope the birds don’t fall in the tea (‘waiter, there’s a thrush in my cuppa’).

Actually, if the birds did take a dive into the char, the locals would probably eat it. One of the most notorious aspects of South Korea is the nation’s penchant for lustily gulping down the strangest food items: like grasshoppers, octopus eggs, and dogs. On my second day in town I dligently hunt around for some of these items, and come up trumps with a tin of silkworm larvae, openly sold on the shelf of a downtown 7/11. These are very popular with kids, or so the cashier tells me.

Carting my prize back to the hotel I open up the tin of silkworm pupae. The larvae are soaked in soy sauce and vinegar and look like small rotting beans with a cancerous tan. The smell is even worse. Nonetheless I manage to force down a third of one bug - before rushing into the hotel corridor and hurling the entire contents of my mouth, and the can, into the very deepest bin I can find.

What kind of people would enjoy this kind of food? The sort of people who like to drink lots of beer. On my last evening in Seoul I head up one of the city’s wooded hills to take a look at the view (Seoul definitely looks better by night). The area I explore - Itaewon - turns out to be the alluring Hampstead of Seoul: full of affluent families, and their leggy student daughters. Itaewon also boasts plenty of bars, hotels and upmarket nightclubs.

For some reason I am expecting these places to be sensible, and decorous, or at least orderly and businesslike, as that is what Seoul is like by day. I couldn’t be more wrong. These places rock. The bars are full of drunken salarymen whooping it up, the clubs are full of their almost-as-noisy wives and girlfriends and, I suspect, whores. It’s an infectiously happy scene, and I’m beginning to see why the Koreans are known, to some, as the Irish of Asia. By the end of the evening I end up in sentimental group hug with a bunch of shipowners, as we all join in a maudlin singsong.

The next day I wake up with a Korean-War-sized headache. So I fly to the one place in the country guaranteed to soothe a hangover: Jejudo, the semi-tropical island that lies a hundred miles adrift of the Korean mainland. I have been told that Jejudo is the honeymoon capital of Korea. Whoever told me that is dead right. The place is chocka with embarrassed new husbands in ill-fitting dinner jackets.

Why do they come here? Because Jejudo has a lot going for it: accommodation, transport, dinners and drinks are as good, and even cheaper, as elsewhere in Korea. The local grilled fish dishes are also quite fabulous: check out the squid. Cactus tea is another impressive local speciality, along with those octupus eggs. And the beaches aren’t half bad, either.

Yet my favourite thing about Jejudo turns out to be none of these things. What I most like about the place is the haunting landscape. With its drystone hedges, bedraggled cottages, enigmatic stone menhirs, and rainswept green fields, Jejudo has something of a Celtic feel - it could almost be Connemara, or the Isle of Lewis. If it weren’t for the bashful oriental brides plucking tangerines from the trees.

Tempting as it is to loiter in Jejudo, until I am as tanned as brown as a soy-sauce-soaked silkworm pupa, I have one more stop to do. Back in Seoul I climb on board a bus. I’m heading for the DMZ, the so-called ‘Demilitarized Zone’ that still divides South Korea from the Stalinist North. I’m keen to see the very last frontier of the Cold War.

As we get on the bus, the tourguide makes sure that no one is wearing jeans. Apparently jeans are seen as ‘disrespectful’. This curious clothes policy enacted, we set off: heading through desultory suburbs, followed by mellow hills and sunlit paddy fields. Everything is calm, even jolly. But then the mood seems to change. The faces of the tourguides grow darker, even the sky seems to cloud over in sympathy. Finally, the border looms up.

It’s enormous. The lofty fences of steel and razorwire stretch over hill and dale - like a high-tech Hadrian’s Wall. What makes this incredible barrier even more striking is its utter seriousness. As the the guide explains, this 240km-long, 4km-wide strip of no-man’s-land, isn’t just for show. People are still getting shot here - defectors, frightened soldiers, fishermen.

Suitably chastened, everyone climbs off the bus, to go look at the two villages that survive inside this surreal ribbon of no-man’s-land. The first village, officially administered by the South, looks bright enough. A showpiece for capitalism. But then we discover there’s a curfew in the DMZ, enforced as part of the post-war truce agreement. Everyone has to be home by 11pm, or else.

As for the village run by the communist North - Gijong - that’s even weirder: no one lives here. It’s a ghost village. The only signs of life are vast arrays of loudspeakers, constantly blaring propaganda at the decadent capitalists in their respectful slacks. As persuasive tactics go, this isn’t very effective. Frankly, I wish I’d worn jeans.

Back in Seoul, I am ready to leave. But before I do, I get to witness one more extraordinary thing. Lunchtime. It happens like this. I am in the middle of sunny, smoggy, downtown Seoul, surrounded by the skyscrapers, the soaring corporate headquarters. It’s five to twelve, and the place is averagely busy.

Then the clock strikes noon. Suddenly the pavements are engulfed with people: black haired secretaries, white shirted executives, bustling office workers from LG and Samsung and Hyundai. And these people aren’t out strolling, they aren’t ambling to the sandwich bar. They are striding, marching, speeding. The tide of chattering, nodding, hungry, determined, bibimbap-seeking humanity is so powerful I am actually swept off the sidewalk and into the street, where a trendy kid on a motorbike nearly hits me.

I don’t know what that says about Korea. But it is eerily impressive. Like watching a brilliant young bodybuilder, flexing his steroidal muscles.

No comments: