Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Episode 11: In Which A Building And A Freeway Disappear, And The Average Temperature of Downtown Seoul Drops 3.6 Degrees

Woah, what a busy first two full weeks! I even originally typed in three weeks, because it sure has felt that long. Seeing as how this would be my first weekend being able to stay home, I decided to try and get some rest and catch up on life - I have been a week behind in just about everything it seems.

Since returning to Korea I have only seen one friend, Hyeun A on the first Saturday, but even she is upset that I haven't talked to her since then. Well, it'll be at least a week more for her because this weekend I decided to see Charles.

Charles is a Korean whom I met in Canada when he was studying English at the college in which my rock climbing gym is located. He had been asking to see me since I came here and I decided that this weekend was probably the best time to take him up on his offer of lunch.

I had originally hoped to have a relatively quick lunch and then perhaps see someone else for supper, but even though everyone in Seoul seems to always be in a hurry it also seems genuinely impossible to get anywhere fast. Actually, let me rephrase that: It is genuinely impossible to get anywhere fast from where I live.

I used to think that I was a bit inconvenienced living in Itaewon because it had no transfer stations to any of the other major lines. I always had to go two or three stops this way or that way first before I could transfer. Now though, I would give my right pinky toe to live there again and not have the ridiculous 1 hour commuting distance from where I live to anywhere fun. That said, I still enjoy my new neighbourhood, especially the crazy non-existent traffic rules that see people walking down the middle of the road, an uncontrolled major four-way intersection, and cars parking two wide on the narrow streets. But I digress...

When I met Charles it was a beautiful, sunny day out. Before we could eat lunch we had to first find some British office of something or other, because Charles wanted to apply to take a British English fluency test. Within about five minutes of our arrival, a massive thunderstorm broke out and monsoon-like rains battered the windows and the street below. I couldn't understand how such a large storm could come literally out of nowhere, but within another fifteen minutes it was gone again and the weather was sunny and warm. All I can say about that is, "really strange." (Sorry, I've been living around too many people for whom English is a second language, and "strange" is used to describe everything.)

After Charles finished his application we went to find a restaurant "famous for delicious, traditional Korean food." However, even Koreans like Charles can underestimate how quickly things change in Korea. It had only been a year since his departure, but never-the-less the building in which the restaurant was located had been torn down, and the restaurant gone. Undaunted, and with Charles determined to give me some good Korean food, we went to a nearby restaurant for some nakji bokum.

Despite being told by many Koreans it was "not octupus but like octopus," nakji is in fact octupus. Nakji bokum involves mixing fried octupus legs together with vegetables and spicy red pepper sauce (although that's not saying much, since Koreans love spicy food so much I've even seen them put pepper sauce on pineapple).

The restaurant at which we were eating this nakji bokum had earlier been featured in a prominent Korean television drama. According to Charles, a woman in the show was suffering from stomach cancer. Whether she wanted to thumb her nose at the disease by eating spicy food again before she died, or she had beaten the disease and was trying to celebrate I don't know, but either way she came to this restaurant to eat some spicy food. In fact the table at which we were eating had a framed picture from the show, featuring the two actors eating some supposedly spicy food not far from where Charles and I were then sitting.

Whenever I go out eating though, Koreans never seem to believe me when I tell them I can eat anything. The waitress at this restaurant even made a point of asking Charles if I could "handle" it. They needn't have worried, as I nearly finished off the whole giant bowl save for three pieces of octopus leg (my stomach was so painfully full I just couldn't stuff them down). The meal was nowhere near the spiciest or hottest thing I've eaten in Korea. Hot green gochu pepper dipped inssamjang sauce take first place in that category, followed closely by maeuntang (long time readers may recognize that name as the spicy fish soup with gochujang - gochu pepper paste - and kochukaru chili pepper I ate in Gyeongju that had the fish head in it).

After the nakji bokum I took Charles to the nearby Coldstone Creamery I had noticed on the way over. Charles told me that he usually ate ice cream at Bakin Robbins, but I assured him that this place was better (Coldstone Creamery is the ice cream place I took Hyeun A too back in April, my last week living in Itaewon). After buying him the Coldstone Creamery signature Cheesecake Fantasy ice cream bowl, he was forced to agree as well.

Charles wondered how I could eat the ice cream after I complained about my stomach hurting just fifteen minutes later. I explained to him that much like a dog always leaves a little bit of urine left to mark his next tree, I always leave a little bit of my stomach for desert. On second thought, perhaps a cow's stomach would have been a more tasteful analogy...

After lunch we went for a walk down Cheonggycheon. Charles told me that the roughly 6 km man made stream was the work of a former Seoul mayor, the late Lee Myung-bak, and helped him to later become the President of Korea. [Note: Lee Myung-bak is not dead, he is still the President of Korea. I had confused him with Roh Moo-hyun. My appologies.] The site was home to a real river some fifty years ago, until Korea built a freeway over it, and then a second elevated freeway over that.

The $281 Million US removal of the freeways was not completed without opposition, but (according to Wikipedia) it resulted in the decrease of automobile traffic to the downtown area by 2.3%, and an increase in bus and subway ridership to the downtown area by 1.4% and 4.3% (or 430 000 people) respectively. Furthermore the water and trees decrease the average the temperature of the surrounding area by 3.6 degrees centigrade compared to other parts of Seoul. I was also happy to hear from Charles that most Seoulites now consider the project to be a success, as I can say from my own experience that it is a rare pleasant environment in an otherwise grey coffin of soullessness. While the walk was lovely, I eventually had to get head back home. My walk, though, was not the only good thing to come to an end this day.

There is a fruit stand on my way home that I frequent once or twice a week to do all of my fruit shopping. The owner is a nice man in his late forties who is always happy to let me practice my Korean on him, and usually gives me some sort of deal for being a nice young foreigner. Tonight when I stopped in to get my weekly fruit haul I noticed that my beloved nectarines were missing. Apparently each season has its own fruit, and the season for nectarines has come to an end. There is some consolation though, as Lee told me Winter's fruit is the famous and delicious Jeju-do tangerine (mandarine orange). I was fortunate enough to catch the tail end of this season during my last visit here.

(Charles, standing in front of the statue of Admiral Yi Sun-shin in downtown Seoul. For thse of you who have a 50 Won coin handy, you can see Yi Sun-shin on there too. [Note: No you can't. Yi Sun-shin is on the 100 Won coin, not the 50.] This famous admiral is noted for defeating the Japanese navy during the Japanese invasions of Korea from 1592-1598. He is also remembered for designing the Geobukseon, or "turtle boat," that ruled the Sea between Japan and Korea during the Joseon Dynasty. Behind the statue is the President's home, The Blue House, and Seoul's tallest mountain range, Bukhansan, on which I spent considerable time hiking and getting lost as well as running a half-marathon back in April. One block in front of where Charles is standing is Cheongyecheon. Charles explained that this placement was part of the East Asian Feng Shui sytem of creating harmony in one's environment.)


  1. Ha ha. Saying "the late" means the guy is dead, does it not?

    Great article, though. Looks like you're having good weekends.

  2. Shoot, you're right. I confused him with President Roh Moo-hyun. A thousand apologies to the Koreans, I'm going to kill myself now.

    Also, Lee Sun-shin is on the 100 Won coin, not the 50. I'm going to kill myself twice now.

  3. Lee = Yi in the world of "Westernised" Korean names.