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I’m a Seoul Sister (Sorry, I had to)

2013 April 7
by Zoe Strimpel

A quick dispatch from Seoul, in the form of interesting things I’ve learned since landing here on Thursday morning.

Transport is almost excessively well supplied, clear and functional. On arrival in the airport, I asked for the KAL Limo and was pointed towards a well-marked door where, indeed, not just one KAL limo drew up but a different one every two minutes. A nice man told me which one to wait for that would take me directly to my hotel: the 10:52. Iwas the only passenger in the spacious leather-seated bus, yet the charge for the hour’s drive from Incheon Airport to the heart of Gangnam was only 15,000 won – about £9.

The subway is my new hangout. In most foreign cities, not speaking the language or reading the characters makes taking enormous underground systems through megalopolises too daunting for words. Yet the Seoul subway is pleasantly clear: English where you need it; good signage; nice machines for dispensing tickets, and a map that reminds me of London’s – huge and sprawling. Nobody stares at you making you feel stupid and weird, either. As for the trains: they are frequent, spotless and very wide. A pleasant trumpet tune announces the imminent arrival of each. There are TVs in the cars, with the next stop announced in Korean and English, written and spoken, as well as the lines you can transfer to and their colour coding (eg “line number one, the dark blue line) – otherwise, you can enjoy scenes from Korean history relevant to the spot, makeup ads etc. Also curious but kind of cool: people stand without holding onto the numerous shiny handles provided, in a very straight line facing the seats. The subway costs £1.20 for a ride of 45 minutes, with no extra charge for the people watching. Everyone, but everyone, is engrossed in their large Samsung Galaxy Notes.

The food is unbelievably good, as you’d expect of a culture that openly fetichises it (who knew?) and insists on garlic and chilli with cabbage (kimchee) morning, noon and night. In Korean, after saying “hello” you don’t say “how are you?” – you say “Have you had breakfast/lunch/dinner?” There is a massive, diverse and eternally tempting street food scene, whether you fancy sweet and spongy and hilarious “fish breads”, chilli-smeared rice cakes with fish squares, deep fried seaweed-wrapped rice, tofu sweets, dumplings or green tea pancakes. Wagyu beef Korean BBQ for $30 a head goes down a treat too, especially washed down with local beer, large green leaves like steroidal nettles, fried egg and beansprout salad. Posh dinner features milky broths of transcendent delicacy, paper-thin green tea pancakes with grated mushrooms and radish, and the most insanely good beef stew, called bulgogi, I could imagine. (“Mine’s the bulgogi!”)

The bathouses. A bathouse is a place to go where you can do lots of things communally (only communally). These include a)soak butt naked in green tea, b)get scrubbed butt naked in front of everyone, c)get your whole face threaded under two weird lamps next to butt naked women walking about buying things and drying their hair d)sleep as long as you want on yoga mats, possibly drunk e)purchase potatoes and yams and then go roast them on coals IN the sauna f)get your fortune told, g) get nail art done, h)get cupping done all over your body while wearing a mask that will make you look like a dead person or grotesque mannequin, i) play arcade games, j) listen to a lecture on posture, k) eat at a restaurant, l)get a massage.


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