Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Episode 6: In Which DFM Explores COEX Mall And Later Finds Out The Dark Side Of Seoul's Subways

My last post took six hours to write, edit, and fill with pictures.  Consequently, I was not finished until well into the late afternoon.  I learned my lesson about trying to take pictures in poor light, so I decided to visit something inside.  Not having finished my Lonely Planet guide yet (I've really got to get on that) I wasn't sure exactly what was out there, but I had heard of the largest underground mall in Asia, the COEX mall.


Before I start, I've had requests to show the outside of the building at which I'm staying.  There it is (look at how steep the street leading to it is).  It is located across from "Scrooge Pub."  As I've mentioned before (I think) there are a number of restaurants on my street containing food of all different ethnicities - Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Indian, the list goes on and on.

This was the longest subway journey I've had so far, with two transfers (there are 9 or 10 different subway lines in Seoul and you have to transfer from line to line at certain stops).  It was also the first time I'd passed over to the South side of the Han River.  The trip was so long that I passed the 5 km mark and was charged an extra 18 cents (you can tell at the end when you scan your T-Money card on the way out of the station).  Conner, an English teacher from Victoria that I met later, tells me that he used to have a bank card that had the T-Money strip built right into it.  Conner also tells me that he's taught and studied in Japan, and that the Seoul subway system is by far the best.

In every subway station I've seen there are these glass cases that appear to contain chemical warfare suits to be worn in the case of an attack.  However, I've done the quick maths in my head, and given that at busy times there can be hundreds of people on the platform at any one time, I don't think there are enough masks to go around.

I came out of the wrong exit and wound up on the other side of the street from the COEX Mall.  There was no intersection to get across the 6 lane road, so I had to go back down into the tunnel and walk underneath the road to the other side.  In this part of Seoul everything is tall.

This was the best picture I could get given the lighting conditions.  This building is called the "Glass Tower" and every one of those windows appears much much brighter from the ground.  This building seems much taller from where I was standing too.  There was also a 6-foot or taller Korean woman coming out of a ritzy hotel behind me, and I wish I could have taken a picture but I didn't think it was appropriate.  She literally dwarfed her other Korean friends.

You come out of the subway and into the night, but you're a whole level below the street and other buildings (you can look up and see them).  It's quite an odd sensation.  This sign is over the entrance to the Subway station.  At first I had read this to say "Pee-pee-gee Pa-pee-gee Poo."  I saw a video advertisement inside with Korean pop culture sensation Rain saying this, and I almost cracked up.  Conner later told me that it was a slogan for a new movie theatre coming soon (apparently the 16 theatre Mega Box Theatre currently in the mall isn't enough), and that it was pronounced "Bee-bi-dee Ba-bi-dee Boo," which makes much more sense.

This is the inside of a Paris Baguette shop right near the entrance.  These Paris Baguette shops are everywhere in Seoul.  They're more popular than Starbucks.  Normally they are just a coffee shop with some baked goods, but this one had a much larger display of baked pastries.  In the bottom right of the picture is a tray of some desert that features a hot dog wiener roasted in a pastry.

BMW must be having trouble selling its new 1-Series Coupe (not surprised), because they were giving this one away if you could guess the number of balloons in the case.  Actually, I'm not sure what is going on here.  I hate the 1-Series Coupe so I did not bother to check it out.

Moving on to the inside we see a lot of clothing stores like you'd usually find in a mall.  This is the Hyundai department store.  In Korea Hyundai is absolutely huge.  Conner told me that they have been around for so long that they are now sponsored by the government of Korea and own just about everything.  SK and LG are other large corporations that offers a wide variety of services.

In case you needed evidence that everything in Seoul happens at night, check out the hours on this McDonald's.  American fast foods chains are very popular in Seoul and John was very proud to show me the new Burger King that had been built in Itaewon when he showed me around the first day.  Conner told me there was a protest against American beef one year that lasted one day.  The first day tens of thousands of people showed up with their Molotov cocktails and pitchforks (protests in Korea are notoriously violent), and then the next day nobody showed up.  Conner's reasoning was that they all figured out that American beef was used at McDonald's and this made them see things in a different perspective.

The sign above the characters says "Coby Town" but I couldn't find anything on the Internet about these guys.  All I know is that I see them all over the place in Seoul advertising just about anything.

Speaking of advertising, these iPod Touch like structures feature constantly changing advertisements on one side and a touch-screen map of the mall on the other side.

I found this stand selling assorted candies.  They were advertised at about 25 cents per gram.  I thought "sweet, I'm going to be able to fill this bag up for a dollar!"  I severely underestimated the size of a gram...  On the bright side I found a Loonie Coin chocolate in one of the containers.  I spent a few minutes trying to get a good shot of it in the too bright light and there were quite a few odd stares directed my way.

This is a store that sells nothing but Doc Martens shoes.  Different name though.  I researched it and apparently Dr Martens is the official name of the company.  I have the fashion sense of James May (you'll have to research that reference on your own).

Enter 6 Fashion Square.  This is a store that sells a lot of name brand clothes from Armani, DKNY, etc.  So, what do they put out at the front of the store to draw in the customers...?

That's right, the most glamorous of Haute Couture footwear - Crocs.  There were even special Crocs fitters to make sure you had the right Crocs for your outfit and you could add various gems to your Crocs to make them more flashy.

Evan Records Cafe.  I spent some time in here trying to see if I could find some funky K-Pop.  Ironically there was just a small K-Pop section compared to the massive American music section.  Even more ironic was that for a store with so much English music I could not seem to find a single employee that spoke any English.

I got to the COEX Mall too late to check out the Kimchi Museum or the COEX Aquarium (2 of the 4 major attractions located in the mall), but I did find the Bandi & Luni's book store.  This place is so massive that it needs its own floor map to help customers get around.  Take the biggest Chapters or Coles bookstore you know, and then treble it.  That's how big this pace was.  I went to the children's book section thinking I might be able to pick up some new words.  But, I got discouraged when I didn't recognize any of the words (i.e., none of the words sounded like their English counterparts).

As with most things Korean, hype is important.  As Conner explained to me, Korea has only recently made moves to modernize and so apparently they haven't quite mastered the balance between clever marketing and turning your product into a joke...

I also went to the Mega Box Theatre to watch a movie, the fourth major attraction, but I couldn't figure out the names of any of the movies.  I figured that if I couldn't even read the titles I'd be better served to come back later when I had learned some more Korean.  I'd probably enjoy my time a bit more I reasoned.

The last stop was the Food Court.  I expected this to be a bit larger.  I bought this gelato cup from a small booth as I came in, but then I quickly had the buyer's remorse when Conner showed up with his massive pizza slice.

Conner told me many interesting stories about life in Korea as he had taught here for two years and had seen much more of the country than I had.  One of the craziest stories was his Electric Fan Death experience.  Although Seoul is the most technologically advanced city in the World perhaps, the rest of Seoul is still caught in another eon as far as its thinking is concerned.  Life here is very class oriented and information is analyzed based on who said it and what his/her social standing is.  Every summer the Korean government apparently issues warnings that falling asleep in a closed room with an electric fan running will cause you to die from either hypothermia or suffocation.  His girlfriend is Korean and her parents were quite worried about his safety when he slept with his fan on.  As far as he could tell someone must have told someone, who told someone high up in the medical profession, and now it is considered universal fact.

By this time the Food Court was closing up for the night and the janitor wanted us to leave so that he could clean.  As I was starting home,thinking about all the crazy stories Conner had told me, I had an experience of my own.  The Number 2 Line (Green Line) is a major subway line in Seoul and for some reason everyone wanted to ride it at once today.  I'd heard stories of packed subways in New York, etc, but this was something else!  

I tried to get out at my stop but there was just no way I could make it to the door.  At every station more people would cram on than had gotten off and soon the car was getting dangerously full.  The car was so full that the person in front of my was jamming my arm into my stomach which was making it difficult to breathe.  But this tiny woman behind me was so squished that I honestly thought she would get seriously injured or worse.  I was wondering how long I'd have to stay on the train before I could get off?  Eventually we came to what must have been a very popular stop and almost a quarter of the car emptied in one mad rush.  I was not going to get stuck on this car any longer than I had to, and so I pushed and shoved just as hard as everyone else and eventually we all poured out of the car.  Once free of the carnage I stumbled around in a daze until I could find a wall to lean against.  It was by far the most incredible experience I've had so far.

Luckily this stop happened to connect to an alternate route to my place and so I was able to get home without too much trouble.  Oddly enough the connecting line to this one had almost no one on it, and I had a pleasant conversation with a Korean man who was excited to tell me about his friend who opened a restaurant in Vancouver (Koreans love Canadians, but far too many drunk American soldiers have soured them somewhat on our Southern neighbours).  He taught me how to say "when," "where," and "how." ("On-jay," "aw-dee-ay," and "aw-ta-kay" respectively.)  These will come in quite handy for getting help from now on.


In my alley on the way back I found this ingenious device for drivers of SUVs to see behind them when they back up.  It's a mirror that allows the driver to see the rear bumper and anything close to it.  Reversing cameras be damned!

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