Friday, 15 March 2013

Across Asia With A Lowlander: Part 1c: Seoul

world-map seoul


This week finds me in the South Korean capital again, only a few months after I visited on the Dirty Magazine adventure. This time though, I’m there to meet someone from way back, a Lowlander who I first clasped eyes on back in 1997 in the heat of the Israeli desert.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Book 1: Embarking Upon a New Korea

1a: Toyama to Pusan

1b: Pusan

1c: Seoul

1d: The DMZ

1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China

2a: Qingdao

2b: Beijing (I)

2c: Beijing (II)

2d: Beijing (III)

2e: Yinchuan (I)

2f: Yinchuan(II)

2g: Lanzhou

2h: Bingling-si

2i: Xiahe

2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

2k: Jiayuguan

2l: Dunhuang

2m: Urumqi (I)

2n: Urumqi (II)

2o: Urumqi (III)

Book 3: Steppe to the Left, Steppe to the Right…

3a: Druzhba to Almaty

3b: Shumkent to Tashkent

3c: Tashkent (I) 

3d: Bukhara

3e: Bukhara to Samarkand

3f: Samarkand

3g: Samarkand to Urgench

3h: Khiva

3i: Tashkent (II)

3j: Tashkent to Moscow

3k: Moscow (I)

3l: Moscow (II)

3m: Moscow (III)

3n: Konotop to Varna

japan-korea-map 2



15th July, 2002 – Anseoung, South Korea

I awoke that morn refreshed and enjoyed tea and toast with the Highlander before bidding him goodbye at Anseoung Bus Station and boarding the coach for an uninspiring ride into town. Surprisingly however, for the first time this trip, (Highlander excepted, I planned to meet him), I was sharing the vehicle with some other Westerners; a French couple who sat on the seats in front of me. Wondering quite what two French people were doing in the suburbs of Seoul, I strained to listen to their chatter, but alas it was fruitless. My understanding of the Gallic tongue never really got past “Je m'appelle Matt, j'ai douze ans et j'adore Stoke City FC,” so I soon gave up and swapped their words of wisdom for those of their compatriot, Mr. Verne, whose Eighty Days I finished as the bus pulled into the Seoul terminal. Quickly I alighted from the coach and plunged into the depths of the Metro system, catching a train to the Central Railway Station. I was hurrying because I was late and I had an appointment to keep. In Anseoung I'd said 'Goodbye' to the Highlander. Now, I was about to say 'Hullo!' to the Lowlander.

On the back of my Lonely Planet guidebook there's the following crappy comment:-

'Passport, dollars and Lonely Planet guide – the essential survival kit anywhere on Earth.'

It is sadly attributed to 'The Independent (London)' and annoys me intensely because it is a). Not true and b). Worthy of a Brown Nose Award. To be fair, most of the comments by reviewers published on the back of books are ridiculous. 'Colin Forbes has no equal!', 'A Gripping Achievement!', 'A Tour de Force!' What claptrap! Do you know what? I should like to become a popular published author for just one reason alone, and that is when someone describes my work as a 'Tour de Force!' I can ask the reviewer just exactly what a 'Tour de Force!' is, because I haven't got a bloody clue. But I digress, let's get back to the matter in hand. What I want to say is that if 'The Independent (London)' doesn't mind, I'd like to borrow and revise its words of wisdom and transform them into something a little more accurate. Thus:-

'Passport, Hard Currency, a Sense of Humour and a Lowlander – the essential survival kit anywhere on Earth.'

Yes, I mean that, and no I'm not looking for a Brown Nose Award myself, (although an Amstel would be nice if you're buying...). The question you readers might be asking though is who, or what, is the Lowlander? Well, let me explain...

Just over five years ago, I set out for the Holy Land to work as a volunteer on a kibbutz in the desert. Before setting out, a Jewish friend of mine who knew the place well assured me, “Don't worry, you'll be fine, just so long as they don't put you to work on chickens.” Well, I arrived, fresh-faced and nervous, only to be met by a harsh battle-axe of a lady who was apparently the supervisor. “Here's your room,” said she. I looked at the place before me. The description 'room' was barely applicable. Next she took me to the dining room where the toiling masses were eating lunch. “You'll be sharing your room with these two men,” she remarked. Two gorillas stared back at me menacingly. They looked as if they'd just returned from a Motorhead concert, not a day of work. I gulped. “Oh yes, and you're on chickens,” she added. “Start at eight tomorrow.”

That evening I attempted to get to know my new roommates. The first, a Swiss guy, was out, so I fell in with the second, a long-haired Dutchman. “Do you like music?” I started, (always good as an ice-breaker).

“Yes,” replied he.

“I like Bob Dylan meself.”

“He is not my favourite. I prefer Bowie.”

Oh, didn't know much about him except that he was once in a cool film called 'The Labyrinth' that had a very hot young lady in it. Better change tack. “I'm a bit worried about the chickens, I've heard that is is rather bad.”

“It is not bad if you don't mind to work. I was not worried.”


And so it continued for the whole conversation, not one agreement on anything, or any piece of common ground. Not only was I living in a shack and working in chicken hell, but my roommate was an obstinate Dutchman who looked like a cross between Lemmy from Motorhead and Aramis from the Three Musketeers, and whom I had nothing in common with and who probably thought me to be a work-shy, immature young idiot, (which I was). Yes indeed, Oh.

'But why are you telling me this crap?' asks the frustrated reader. 'I couldn't care less for your Israel reminiscences five years back. I wanna learn about Korea, China and all that sort of stuff. If I wanted to know about strange long-haired people in Israel I'd have picked up a Bible. What happened to this Lowlander fellow that you were going to tell me about?'

Well, the reason that I told that little tale, is because that shaggy-haired Dutchman is the Lowlander. Much as I would never have believed it at the time, we eventually found some common ground and more than that actually became friends. Much more than that in fact, rather good friends, and that's why, two months in Israel, two trips to Britain, several to Holland, a week in Switzerland, (visiting the other kibbutz roommate, he wasn't bad at all too), and a month in Japan later, I was now heading to Seoul Railway Station to meet my most established travelling companion.

2579_155318280304_2259229_n Three roommates in Kibbutz Revivim, 1997. The Lowlander is in the middle

We are a strange pair, (ok, to be fair, we're pretty strange taken separately as well), but for some reason it works. The initial disagreements proved to be a false indicator, (by the by, it seems to be a common thing with the Dutch that they appear cold and distant on the first meeting, see my Indonesian travelogue for another example), we actually have a lot in common politically and socially if not musically. But I am talkative and he is quiet; I have an annoying habit of going goo-goo over kids, he ain't interested; he is sporty and I am well, slightly more rotund. The list goes on. The main thing is though, we've never ripped each other to pieces in an argument whilst on the road, (though its come close), and we both offer something different and unexpected to each other's trips, which is after all the main reason for having a travelling companion. And besides, who else was I going to find who actually dreamed of seeing Kazakhstan?

I arrived at the station and in no time at all located the Lowlander. We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries but this was no time for conversation. 'And why's that?' you ask. 'Surely having a conversation is rather a good idea with someone whom you haven't seen in almost two years?' Well yes, fair point, and to tell the truth, I would have quite liked to sit down over a nice cup of tea and discuss the weather, but there again, I'd just come of a three quarters of an hour bus ride. He however, had done the same, preceded by over ten hours in a plane from Brussels, and wore a look that said, 'Get me to a hotel...quickly!'

And so we endeavoured to. A trip to the Tourist Information desk on the station concourse located one not too far away from the station and the nice bilingual lady phoned them up and booked us in. All we had to do was get there.

That however is no easy task in Korea, with it's strange alphabet and innumerable tiny streets. Despite the fact that we had been given a map and explicit instructions, the hotel did not turn out to be where it should be. Wearily we wandered the street, trying to match up the hangul characters and showing unfortunate passers by the piece of paper with the hotel's name inscribed upon it. With my heavy baggage and lamentable lack of Korean this was irritating. For the Lowlander however, it must have been hell. Thankfully however, one kind soul did know where our abode for the night was situated and it was not too much later that we crossed the threshold of the Yongyan Homrue where welcomed by a noticeably pretty receptionist, we were shown to our room.

The Lowlander then slept, as he was perhaps fit for little else at that stage. I however, having lodged satisfactorily with the Highlander the preceding night, was still bursting with energy and more than conscious that the city of Seoul had a lot to offer and that there was but little time for me to sample it. So, without further ado, I dumped the luggage, took a shower and then returned to the railway station.

Ok, so I know that it's sad, and perhaps with such limited time on my hands, I could have done countless other more productive things, but I'll admit it now, my first stop in the Tour de Seoul was the Central Railway Station, not because that was the place from whence one may travel to elsewhere, but because it is the railway station, and uncool as it may be, I like railway stations, trains and most other things connected to them. One of which being the tickets that you require to travel on them.

“You want tickets?” said the likeable lady on the Tourist Information desk who was obviously not overworked, (I honestly believe that the Lowlander and I were Seoul's entire tourist population that week, leastways, I'd seen no other).

“Yes, I collect them, from all different countries.”

“Oh.” This was obviously a new phenomenon for her, who had dealt with our hotel request with far more ease. “Where exactly do you wish to go?”

“Oh no, I'm not going anywhere, I just want any old spare ones that you might have lying about.”

My ticket collection, famous as a source of amusement to friends and family and a great source of pride to myself. It is quite impressive, in fact as ticket collections go, very impressive indeed, (although I'll admit to have never come across another). From it's humble beginnings in a pencil case owned by a seven-year old child, it has grown in an ensemble of bus, train, cinema, tourist attraction, ferry, plane, parking, (you name it, I've got it), tickets extraordinaire, now occupying two shoeboxes and the pencil case. Over fifty countries on all of the Earth's continents bar Antarctica are represented, and it is still growing. The opportunity to add a myriad of Korean National Railways specimens, (I prize rail tickets above all others of course), was too tantalising to miss out on, and thankfully the Tourist Information lady was sympathetic to my billetary needs, and together we went down some corridors and through a few doors into the depths of the Korean National Railway's officialdom, before arriving at a small room that was a ticket collector's heaven, being filled with bin bags, each one packed solid with those precious pieces of paper and card. I delved excitedly into the morass and emerged some minutes later a happy man indeed.

And from there it was onto the platforms to take the obligatory photos of Korean locomotives with which to bore friends and relatives and fascinate fellow train lovers, before finally leaving the pleasures of Raildom behind and hopping onto the Metro train bound for Youi-do island.

Youi-do is (apparently) Seoul's answer to Manhattan; an island in the Han River upon which the booming modern face of the country has taken residence. The DLI63, South Korea's tallest building, (the unfinished 105-storey Ryugyong Hotel in Pyonyang is the peninsula's highest), is there, along with countless other skyscrapers and temples of finance, and the country's domed parliament building. This indeed is the place to head for if you want to view the modern Korean success story in full flow.

I however, was visiting for an entirely different reason. I'd read with interest in the guidebook that the church with the world's largest congregation also sat on Youi-do. South Korea's enthusiastic acceptance of 'Born Again' Protestant Christianity fascinated me and I figured that this would be the place to see it in all its glory, as Youi-do's Full Gospel Church boasts over forty thousand churchgoers on its books, which is considerably more attendees than most Premiership football teams manage to attract. Now, I've always been a bit partial to hymn singing and All Round Adoration of the Almighty, and so the idea of attending a mass Mass here sounded appealing.

Unfortunately however, services were on Sundays and today was alas, a Monday, and so a Communion with Koreans would probably be out of the question, but nonetheless a trip would be of interest anyway. I was however to be disappointed. When I finally did locate this famous Mansion of the Messiah, I found it to be a rather nondescript brick building with only a huge white cross on the top to indicate that it was in fact a church. 'Hmm, perhaps more impressive inside?' thought I, ascending the steps. Alas though, I was never to find out, for the building that houses the world's largest concentration of Christians was well and truly locked. 'Reverend Cho welcomes you!' exclaimed the sign besides the entrance.

“Not bloody likely!' muttered I in an annoyed retort, and with thoughts less pure than they perhaps should be, I marched away.

full gospel church 

The Full Gospel Church, Youi-do: But not full of Gospel on Mondays…

If my visit to the island was a trip to Seoul's economic heights, and to the Full Gospel Church an attempt to reach her spiritual peaks, then my next objective was to reach their physical counterpart. In the centre of the city lies a hill and on top of that hill stands the Seoul Tower from which one may gaze across a stunning modern cityscape. Or at least that is what the tourist blurb claimed. Now I, being one for getting high and surveying the scene knew that this was an opportunity not to be missed at all, and so by Metro, taxi and cable car I journeyed to the Seoul Tower.

That the tower occupies a position that should command views across a 'stunning modern cityscape' as claimed, I do not doubt. It is high enough and Seoul is stunning, modern and city enough to constitute all the necessary ingredients. The blurb writers had forgotten (deliberately?) one important factor though, that being the city's thick and oppressive smog. Two hundred and forty metres off the ground, I gazed out of the plate-glass panorama windows onto an expanse of dull grey-brown cloud, through which the outlines of office buildings could just about be made out. Anything further than a mile away was completely obscured.

seoul smog Seoul Panorama: browny-grey

Disappointed with the view, I turned instead to listening in on the conversation of some fellow visitors who were conversing in my native tongue.

“In which direction is North Korean then?” asked a portly Statesider, obviously of considerable means.

“This direction,” replied his companion, a smartly-dressed Korean businessman, “about fifty miles away.”

“Fifty miles, is that all? Jeez! D'ya hear that dear? Fifty miles!”

His weary-looking wife nodded.

“So if North Korea attacked, what damage could they do?”

“Probably they could destroy a lot of what you see here.”

“Jeez! But the important question is, do they have noooclear capabilities?”

“Well perhaps so, perhaps not. Officially not, but it matters little, they could do a lot of damage anyway.”

“Yeah man, but that is what matters, noooclear capabilities!”

I exchanged a glance with the weary wife who detected my amusement and smiled back, before descending in the lift and returning to the hotel.

The Lowlander, now refreshed by sleep, was more talkative and ready to hit the bright lights and big city. He, like I, was also hungry, so I suggested that we head for Itaewon, as I knew of nowhere else, and thus Itaewon way we did wander, and very soon ended up in a traditional restaurant where we ordered Bul Kogi, Korea's excellent do-it-yourself barbeque-style cuisine, where one sits around a low table with a flame grill in the centre, and cooks pieces of marinated red meat to the level of one's preference; a vegetarian's nightmare, but heaven for a Lowlander and a Midlander.

And so it was that we caught up on old times, talked of the trip ahead and quaffed Korean ale, before moving onto the German-run bar of the previous evening, quaffing more European-style lager in a European-style setting but with a genuine European drinking partner.

And thus Lowlander and Midlander met once more, and the Trans-Asia expedition truly got underway.

lowlander seoul Drinking with the Lowlander in Itaewon

Next part: 1d: The DMZ

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