Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Dirty Magazine Pt. 1: Seoul

world-map seoul


A new year and a new travelogue! ‘Dirty Magazine’, (the reason for the strange title will become apparent), is something that I’ve had lying around for years and tells of my trip to Indonesia, (with a stopover in Seoul), back in 2002. It is, I believe, the first decent travelogue that I ever wrote.

My New year was none too thrilling being laid up in bed when the chimes rang, but that’s life and it’s better now than when the weather is good. So, if you’re laid up with the winter blues too, why not settle back and read all about my wanderings around South Korea’s capital city, a place with a lot of Seoul (sorry…).

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all the parts of this travelogue

Pt. 1: Seoul

Pt. 2: Jakarta

Pt. 3: Surabaya

Pt. 4: Sumbawa and Lombok

Pt. 5: Bali

Pt. 6: Yogyakarta

Pt. 7: Jakarta and home…




A trip to Seoul and Indonesia

The air was hazy and thick as the plane descended towards Incheon International Airport. So thick that you couldn’t see the ground until you were almost upon it. My thoughts were almost as foggy as the air outside. I was worried, just a little, but worried nonetheless. And for someone who worries rather little, particularly when travelling, that is a serious thing.

I’d been there before of course, a year ago. The airport had only been open a day and the sky was sunny and bright. On the sides of all the planes was emblazoned the slogan ‘2001 – Official Visit Korea Year’. But I wasn’t visiting, or at least not really. Technically I was, and I had done so the previous fortnight also, but does popping in and out of customs whilst in transit really count? I only did it to waste time and get the passport stamps, so in my mind it doesn’t count, not really. Thus this was my first visit to the Republic of Korea.

‘Why worried though?’ I hear you ask. After all, Korea is hardly that extreme a travel destination, not compared with Cambodia and Albania, and I coped with them all right. Besides, I live in Japan, right? If any country is similar to Korea, then it must surely be the Land of the Rising Sun.

Ok, point taken, but in fact it wasn’t Korea that was worrying me, I was only stopping there for a night anyway. No, it was the fact that I was alone, ‘on me todd’, by myself that was bothering my mind. This was a first, in all the travels that I’ve been on before I’ve either journeyed with a companion or two, or met a friendly face at the other end that would take care of all my worldly needs and wants. No, I’m sorry to say, but no extreme adventurer am I, no setting off alone to distant, unknown lands. Well, not until this time that is. This time, for a whole fortnight it was just me, moi. And that in my mind was a challenge. Could I cope with it? Would I go out of my mind with boredom, or would I meet lots of great new people? Would I even prefer to be alone, away from pestering friends? Who knows, but one thing was for sure, I was about to find out!

Straight after I’d returned from the Philippines in January I’d been on the phone to the travel agent. “Indonesia, what have you got? Get me to Jakarta, mate!” spake I. Why Indonesia? Simple, Indonesia is a Muslim country and at the moment the so-called civilised world seems to be in ‘Let’s attack Evil Muslims!’ mode. I wanted to protest, to stick two fingers up at the warmongers in Washington, and pour my hard-earned cash into the hands of a misunderstood people.

Hmm, maybe. Ok, so I wasn’t being entirely truthful there. Actually I’d thought first about going to Vietnam again, but it was pointed out to me by the wise how stupid that idea was since I’m making plans to go and live there in two years time anyway. So then I thought about India, (a former housemate was living in Bangalore), but that proved to be out of my price range, as did going back to Blighty.

“We’re off to China; Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai,” said Jen and Catherine, my Vietnam travelling companions, “you’re welcome to come!” But I was due to go to those exact same places in the summer in my trek across Asia.

“Where’s cheap?” I asked Risa, my friendly representative at Number One Travel.

“Thailand is 45,000 yen.” (225 pounds) she suggested. I thought of hippies. Bangkok is the epicentre of the hippie trail. Thailand is the hippie trail. Maybe not.

“Philippines, 50,000 yen.” (250 pounds). I was tempted, but I’d only been there three months before.

“Or there’s Jakarta for 44,000 yen.” (220 quid). Indonesia, former Dutch colony, hot, cheap and I don’t know a lot about it.

“I’ll take it.”

“It’s with Korean Airways, sir. You have to stop a night in Seoul to qualify for this ticket.”

“All the better.”

Thus it was set.

Islam, the second biggest religion in the world, a billion believers. It’s had a bad press over the last twenty years in the west; Palestinian terrorists, women shrouded in burqas oppressed by the Taleban, fanatics and veiled figures bowing down towards the Almighty Allah, waging war on the Free World! Yet how representative is that view of the Islamic world? About as accurate a representation as George W. Bush is of the West I imagine, we are not all ignorant Texans with an inability to speak English and consume pretzels you know. And so too, most Muslims are likely not to be crazed fanatics. Indeed most of the Muslims that I’d met seemed a world away from bin Laden and friends.

Here’s a little exercise then. Picture the Islamic world in your head, go on, do it. What images do you come up with, the Arab states, Afghanistan or Pakistan perhaps, maybe Iran. Swarthy men in headdresses leading camels across a parched desert, women covered in black kept safely inside a mud brick desert home. Yet how correct are these images? Well, there is an element of truth in them I don’t deny, but representative of the Islamic World they are not. By far the biggest Islamic nation is none of the above. It has no deserts and no more gunmen than your average Third World country. It has more Muslims than the whole Arabian peninsular put together, and culturally more akin with Manila than Mecca. That country is the fourth most populated state on earth. That country is Indonesia.

But if Indonesia is not Saudi Arabia, Iran or Iraq, then what exactly is it? The fact was, I hadn’t a clue, and I wanted to find out. Was it a bastion of US-hating fundamentalists, or was it a Philippines with mosques instead of churches? And the one way to truly find out what a place is like, is to go there.

And then there is Korea, another country that I’d long wished to visit. Well, sort of. Actually, it was always the northern bit that fascinated me, the last Stalinist country on earth. But alas, in true Stalinist spirit, it is only accessible to those on an organised tour. And organised tours cost money, more money than I have. Perhaps if I can actually sell some of the books that I write then one day… Buy a book please! Think of it as a good cause, the ‘Send Matt to Pyonyang Foundation’. I promise to write about it afterwards!

But there must be something to see in the south too. After all, they share the same culture. Not only that, but also how many countries have risen from third to first world status in only half a century? And how many countries have such a funky writing system? It must be worth a look at least!

On the journey into Seoul I was not as aware as I’d like to have been. Due to receiving very little sleep the night before, I kept continuously drifting in and out of consciousness. One minute we were travelling through an industrial wilderness on a fast toll road, and then the next thing I knew, we were in the midst of dozens of huge Soviet-style apartment blocks which house most of the city’s twelve million people. Then when I next awoke, there were skyscrapers everywhere, just like Shinjuku in Tokyo, except that the writing was in a different alphabet.

And through it all ran the mighty Han River, criss-crossed with countless concrete crossovers, but surging onwards to the Yellow Sea nonetheless. Seeing the river made me feel a little sad. It was the river that gave Seoul it’s life, without the river the city would never have existed. Seoul grew up as a port, trading goods from all over the Orient, the Han navigable up to that point. Yet nowadays no ships ply its waters. The breath of the Han must be twice that of the Thames in London, yet I saw not a single boat upon her, not even a pleasure craft for the tourists. She was now empty, instead of being the bustling heart of the city she was a void, an embarrassment to be crossed over on high concrete pillars, forgotten and ignored by the pulsating, business-orientated, modern city of Seoul.

A friend had recommended a hotel to me in the Kangnam-gu district of the city named Kum Sung. At Samseoung station, where the bus dropped me off, I hailed a taxi and showed him the card. The hotel proved to be only around the corner, reasonable and quite sufficient for my humble needs. What’s more, joy of joys, I discovered that it had a heated floor, something I’d not come across in any hotel that I’ve stayed at before; what more could a man want?! Tired as I was, I realised that I had only one day to explore the city, so against the wishes of my aching body, after a quick and refreshing shower, I headed off into the urban jungle, starting point, Hangnyoul subway station.

Seoul’s subway, whilst perhaps not as exciting as it’s socialist neighbour’s a few miles north, (no fantastic murals to the achievements of the Korean Proletariat here), functions well and is a convenient way of getting around the city. Or at least the trains function well and are on time, the sign posting is a little less brilliant. At every station I went I was directed by the signs to the wrong platforms, the wrong lines or simple around in circles. Eventually however, I got to my train, and after having purchased what was possibly the most disgusting cup of tea that I ever drank from a vending machine, (it had a salty taste for God’s sake!) I sat down and made my way to Samgakchi station, the stop for the Korean War Memorial, my main tourist site of the day.

The War Memorial turned out to be quite unlike I’d imagined it to be. What had I imagined then? Something similar to the War Museum in Vietnam I suppose; a few old planes and tanks outside a building filled with tales and pictures of atrocities by the enemy. Oh yeah, and a cenotaph.

I was right about the planes and tanks outside, and of course the tales of enemy atrocities inside. What I hadn’t prepared myself for however, was the setting. For a place dedicated to denouncing and demonising the Stalinist regime a few miles north, I thought it rather ironic that the huge structure that housed it all was as Stalinist as anything old Kim could have come up with. It was huge! A vast, imposing stone edifice, surrounded by ornamental lakes, (the process of being cleaned during my visit), and across the top, proudly proclaimed the memorial’s motto, “Freedom is not Free!” Very catchy I must say, and being a bit of a fan of Stalinist architecture and all the good Socialist Realism that comes along with it, I for one was impressed.


The Korean War Memorial, Seoul

Although the Lonely Planet had described this more as a war museum than a memorial, for the first few rooms it lived up to it’s title. The first consisted of statues of all of Korea’s most famous war heroes from the year dot, (well, excluding all the left-wingers of course). Above, on the ceiling, was a painting by a famous Korean artist, (famous in Korea but nowhere else I assume), of some shapes and symbols, which symbolised the agony and despair of the divided Korean people. Apparently. I couldn’t see it myself, I must admit, but I am a Philistine when it comes to modern art. The next few rooms continued in the same mode, one had a fountain and another ceiling painting which again symbolised the desire for unity, (or something cheesy like that), whilst another contained huge long paintings of the Korean landscape during the four seasons. Once more this symbolised the People’s Desire for Unity, and once more I didn’t get it, though I must admit to liking these paintings greatly, since unlike the others they were in the traditional style and so you could actually tell what the pictures were of.

Then it was onto the museum which I must say was one of the best war museums that I’ve ever set foot in, (and I’ve been in quite a few). Not only the 1950-3 Korean War was covered, but in fact every war conducted on the Korean Peninsular since recorded history began, (particularly those which the Koreans won it must be said), and a few other conflicts set elsewhere too. Not only were all the standard artefacts on show too (i.e. guns, armour, swords), but there was a replica of Admiral Yi-Sun Sin’s ship and an ancient war canoe, countless battle dioramas, a mock-up of a famous mediaeval fort, a chance to walk through the Vietnamese jungle with Korean forces and loads of videos of battle models.

I mentioned Admiral Yi-Sun Sin’s ship, so I suppose I should mention the Admiral himself, since he is, without doubt, Korea’s number one national hero type guy, and a man that any visitor to the country would be hard-pressed to escape, since statues and tributes to the great seafarer are everywhere. In 1592, the Japanese, newly united under Hideyoshi Toyotomi, decided to invade their smaller neighbour to the west. Although the Japanese forces were undoubtedly triumphant on land, their superior weaponry and discipline enabling them to overrun the whole peninsular in only a month, at sea it was a different tale. Yi Sun-Sin was the admiral in charge of the Korean fleet, a fleet that he equipped with his ‘turtle ships’, the Admiral’s great contribution to nautical history, the first ironclad vessels ever. In just six months of battles with the Admiral, the Japanese lost over five hundred ships, a colossal number when one considers that they controlled the land anyway. A great seafarer Yi Sun-Sin may have been, but unfortunately for him that didn’t guarantee the admiration of the ruler, the Admiral fell foul of the Yi court and was dismissed, although it must be added, later recalled when his successor was shown to be not in the same league.

By far the most detailed rooms were those covering the Korean War. These interested me greatly since I knew virtually nothing about the war at all, other than that it was fought between the north and the south, in the early fifties, with a lot of interference from the Americans and the Chinese.

From looking through the exhibits I learnt a lot more. What happened is that at the end of the Second World War, Korea, (formerly a Japanese colony), was partitioned between the Soviets in the north and the Americans in the south, along the 38th parallel, prior to making a decision as to what to do with it. In the meantime both powers set up their own form of government to run the country during the interim period, which was (surprise, surprise), communist and nominally democratic in the north, and capitalist and nominally democratic in the south. With no settlement in sight, the communists in the north grew impatient, and so decided to reunite the peninsular by force. In 1950 they attacked, expecting the southern proletariat to rise in their favour. Rise they did not, but the army of the south, woefully ill-equipped was pushed back rapidly until within a few months, all that remained in capitalist hands was an enclave around the port of Pusan in the south. Then the Americans joined in, leading a UN force to restore the legitimate southern government. After landings near Incheon they rapidly pushed the communists back beyond the 38th parallel, and then proceeded to take almost all of the peninsular. An end was in sight, a capitalist victory it seemed, but that was without reckoning upon the Mighty Mao of China. He supplied Kim Il Sung (the President of North Korea), with a million men, and the capitalists were pushed back south. Around the 38th parallel, (i.e. roughly where the whole thing started), a stalemate soon developed, and three years later, on 1953, a cease-fire was signed. Technically the war was over, on paper it still continues to this day.

In my mind, the Korean War and the ensuing division of the peninsular was one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century. A war that lasted three years, and cost countless lives, yet it resolved nothing, and indeed the outcome could hardly have been worse. One could blame it on the Americans, for if it hadn’t been for them then there would have been a united, communist Korea, or one could blame it on the Chinese, for without them there would have been a united capitalist Korea. I don’t know whom to blame but the tragedy is plainly there to see, nonetheless.

The situation now is that there are two Koreas. The south is a prosperous, successful country, the thirteenth biggest economy on earth. That in itself is a staggering achievement, considering that at the end of the Second World War it was merely the poorer half of an impoverished Japanese colony. All but the most blinkered must agree that this situation is better than that in the north which, whilst probably not as undeveloped as the western press likes to make out, is without a doubt, stuck in the middle of a terrible famine caused by governmental incompetence and with an economy that contracts annually rather than grows. Looking at the situation like that, it would be easy to come to the conclusion that even the present situation is better than if the north had one; better only half the population poor than all of it.

Yet my gut feeling is that, had one side, capitalist or communist won, life today would be better for all Korea. It is my thinking that the northerners are so isolated, so rigid, so scared of reform precisely because there is a successfully government in the south just waiting to take their place. Had South Korea not existed, then it is likely that the North would have gone the way of China or Vietnam and reformed itself, having no serious enemies in sight. But alas, the worst outcome has come true, and whilst all Koreans may hope for reunification, the sad truth of the matter is, that the north is so far behind now, that fully integrating the two countries will prove to be very, very difficult indeed, if not impossible. The situation here is very far removed from that of East and West Germany.

Leaving the War Memorial, I realised that I was feeling more than a little peckish, so after a quick consultation of the guidebook, I headed up the hill, past U.S. Army bases and Swiss peacekeepers, to the infamous Itaewon district of the city. London may have it’s Soho, Tokyo it’s Shinjuku and Amsterdam that well-known locality behind the Oude Kerke, and Seoul is not to be outdone either. Itaewon has rooms rentable by the hour, every kind of junk imaginable on sale and some of the city’s finest and cheapest cuisine. I chose one establishment named ‘Il Song Jung’ and settled down amidst a host of aquariums, to sample some fine Korean fayre.

After having perused a menu that I couldn’t read, (but it did have little pictures), I chose a small bowl of chicken soup and something named pibimbap which, (the owner assured me), contained rice and meat. Thus, having ordered, I sat down to eat the complementary kimchi. Kimchi is Korea, you can smell it as soon as you get off the plane and they eat nothing else. Or at least, that is what the Japanese say if you ask them. But there again, they are a food obsessed nation, and when you ask anything about a different country, you normally get told straightaway about the staple diet of the natives. Nonetheless, the Koreans do have a love affair with their kimchi, which is basically a side dish consisting of hot and spicy pickled cabbage. As side dishes go, it’s not bad, and whilst in Korea, do as the Koreans do. Besides, it comes free with everything, and the quality here was noticeably better than the quality of the kimchi across the water in the Land of the Rising Sun; even someone with taste buds as blunt as mine could spot that. Having filled up on the free food however, I was then presented with what I ordered, and immediately wished I hadn’t bothered. It was not that the food was not good, it was in fact very good, (although the chicken soup was a wee bit bland it must be said), but the problem was the size. The waitress, (who was, I must add, quite bonnie), had assured me that the dishes were small. Now, I know not who talk her the limited English that she had, but they obviously messed up with the word ‘small’. Koreans are small, as are toothpicks, hundreds and thousands and average attendances at Vale Park. Small things are, (in my experience), not normally big. These dishes however, would be better described using the latter word, or alternatively, the word ‘huge’ would have been appropriate. Thankfully, my appetite is also huge, and so I set to in an effort to finish, something I almost did, although in the end the chicken soup defeated me. Full and bloated I stumbled out into the fast falling light and had a look around Itaewon.

After wandering around the junk shops for a short while, I then ventured into the back streets, tiny alleys wide enough only for two at most to walk abreast. This was the traditional Seoul, alleys with small courtyards, around which one finds tiny dwellings more suited to the third world than the first. Down one alley I found a Buddhist temple, another was blocked by washing; it was a nice break from the soaring modernity of most of today’s city.

I’d taken the subway from Itaewon into the city’s heart, the Kwanghwamun District. Gone was the sleaze, here was a carbon copy of Tokyo or Osaka. All around stood the towers of commerce and at street level large shops crammed with buyers. I walked leisurely towards the railway station, pausing to go into a bookshop, and to admire the Namdaemun Gate, which sits in the middle of one of the city’s busiest interchanges, and adorns many a tourist brochure. The gate, dating from the late 14th century was one of the main entrances to the old city. It now sits stranded in the middle of a roundabout, but is impressive nonetheless and a potent indicator that all in Seoul is not as new as it seems.

Namdaemun Gate

The Namdaemun Gate

Behind the gate lies the Namdaemun Market, one of Seoul’s many Oriental bazaar-type markets, that sell everything from vegetables to Osama bin Laden T-shirts. I wandered around for a while, buying a traditional Korean doll, (my mother collects them you see), before heading down the road to the railway station.

Upon reaching Seoul Station I got a sense of déjà vu, surely I’d been here before? It was soon explained by the plaque on the wall; the station was built by the Japanese during the occupation of the peninsular and is modelled on Tokyo’s station buildings. Seoul’s however, were better kept and less crowded, and I was satisfied. After all, my main purpose in visiting the railway terminus was to see if it would be a suitable meeting spot for four months time, when I was to meet a Dutch comrade in the city, before we embarked upon our Marco Polo-esque jaunt across the Asian land-mass. Suitable it was and thus satisfied I took the subway back to Seoul’s World Trade Centre, which unlike New York’s was still standing, and what’s more, was adjacent to my hotel.

Next to the World Trade Centre, was a shopping complex, and as it was still fairly early, I decided to lose myself within it for a while. After a little searching I soon found what I had been looking for, a huge bookstore, with the finest selection of titles that I’d seen since leaving the U.K. I browsed within for an hour or so, and eventually emerged with some Tolstoy, a book about Palestine and another about North Korea; ideal reading material for a trip to Indonesia, maybe?


World Trade Centre, Seoul

Next part: Pt. 2: Jakarta

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