First Impressions of Seoul

I am now in Seoul, capital of the Republic of South Korea, and by some measures the world’s most populous city, bigger even than New York, London, and Moscow with over 10 million people living here. The first thing that would surprise a visitor who has knowledge of this statistic is how quiet the city seems, or at least the centre part beside the Gyeongbukgung Palace. At nightime, albeit Sunday night, there seemed to be few people around and the walk to the office this morning for 9:00am took place in almost empty streets. So where these 10 million people are I don’t know; maybe they’re hidden behind the mountain which I can see from my room.


I am staying at the Somerset Palace Hotel Apartments, and for the first time in my life I enter the room to find it exactly like it is in the brochure.

Somerset Palace

The building itself is brand spanking new, but I get the suspicion that this is not the reason everything is spick and span and not a thing is out of place. The interior design is simple but very nice, and everything looks, well, in order. There are plenty of communal places to sit down with a variety of books on the shelves, none of which have ever been opened. (It amused me somewhat to find one on Israel; I must make sure I’m seen reading that at some point whilst I wait for my Arab clients to meet me in the lobby). The seats look as though they’ve never been sat on, and the paintings as if they’ve never been looked at. I feel as though I’m in a show home, yet it is surprisingly natural and pleasant.

There is a Starbucks on the ground floor, which is normally filled with Koreans ranging in age from 15-22 who are almost always studying a textbook or some notes, either alone or in groups. Some are even reading a newspaper. I noticed that Singaporians of similar age do this a lot too. Why they are not like British youth and out smashing windows, taking drugs, drinking Special Brew and sandpapering bus windows I don’t know. The room itself is superb, and the hotel provides white fluffy bathrobes – two of them – thus cementing its position among the truly great hotels of the world. A 100 Mpbs internet connection is provided free of charge. Hotels in Abu Dhabi, take note.

Last night my my Venezuelan colleague Juan and I went out to try to find some food. The first place we stumbled across sold only drinks, which we realised only after we’d sat down. Not wanting to be rude, we polished off a couple of Cass beers for a mere $4 each, or 4,000 Korean Won. For the quality of beer, it was a little pricey. The next place we came across was a brightly lit place which obviously sold food, and as is common in Asia there was a man outside whose job was to drag people into the restaurant and plonk them down at a table whether they wanted to eat or not. So we found ourselves sitting at a table in a large, clean, brightly lit restaurant decorated with wood, being served by a man who knew about three words of English and two women who were less well educated in the field of linguistics. The menu was brought out – all in Korean of course – and we were shown a pile of meat and not much else. So we held up two fingers and ordered that. We also ordered two Cass beers, not knowing any other brand they might have.

Within a minute or so we were surrounded by a dozen dishes containing stuff we did not order and could not identify. I think some of it was salad. The meat arrived, but we were alarmed to find it was raw, but shortly after a steel bucket of glowing charcoal was placed in a hole in the centre of the table, a mesh thrown on the top, and we had ourselves our own private grill. One of the ladies then started throwing the meat on, and cooking it in front of us. As a way of eating a meal, it was pretty good. But not being able to identify the surrounding dishes made it a bit strange, especially as we were prevented from eating some of them. Juan tried a couple of times with one, and each time the lady snatched it away. After the second time she went and had a whispered discussion with one of her colleagues, and when she came back she said just one word: jellyfish. So that cleared everything up. Of course, a photo was mandatory:

Korean Dinner

So that was last night. Today was our first day at the office, just a five minute walk past a huge Bhuddist temple from our hotel. Interestingly, the building we’re in – and I don’t know if this is true for all Seoul office blocks – evacuates in an emergency not outside but to the basement which, I am told, is designed as a bomb shelter. The client company employs 3,000 people all in the same building, and a good portion of these were queuing patiently at the lifts in a long straight line when I walked in through the revolving doors. They want to see my office block in Abu Dhabi, the lobby scene there in the morning resembles a collapsed rugby scrum.

Lunch time was interesting. We were taken down to the basement, where an enormous canteen feeds the entire building in an hour by way of a highly efficient and well respected production line system – the type of which could only ever work in Korea, Japan, Singapore and Germany. Any attempt to operate such a system in Venezuela would, according to Juan, result in a gunfight. The choice of food varied, in a range from chilli salad and rice with a whole grey fish to a chilli salad and rice with a grey fish soup. I chose the soup. The whole fish looked as though it had died of old age and washed up on a beach somewhere. I picked around the food, thinking the salad was like eating poisonous leaves in that they tasted like leaves from a tree and set your mouth on fire, and not particuarly enjoying the spongey fish which formed the basis of the soup. There was not a drink of water in sight, and not until you queued in an orderly fashion to place your dirty tray on a moving conveyor belt did you find a couple of flagons of tepid water and a stack of semi-clean plastic beakers with which to put out the fire in your throat.

Tomorrow we’re ringing for a pizza.


2 thoughts on “First Impressions of Seoul

  1. That “chilli salad” is the national dish, kimchi. It’s fermented vegetables, usually cabbage, and usually strongly spiced with chili pepper. Kimchi is served at pretty much every Korean meal. Once you get used to the spice level and the pungent odor, it’s actually pretty good for you, and adds a bit of fiber to help the digestion of the rice. Having said that, I’ve never found the fare in an industrial cafeteria (or canteen, as you’d call it) to be all that good.

  2. And one more thing: all those dishes you didn’t order are a part of standard Korean meal service. The general name for them is banchan, and there are many different dishes that can be served as banchan. The most common is kimchi (of which there are many kinds, not necessarily cabbage and not necessarily spicy, but always fermented), but another common one I’ve heard of is roast seaweed. Good stuff, that, but it can take a couple of tries to acquire the taste. The restaurant you went to was a Korean barbeque, a format which has been exported, first to Japan (I once ate at one outside of Toyama, 21 years later I’ve still no idea where the hell it is), and then to the US.

Comments are closed.