Old and New
Who knows what lies within?
Insadong street gets lively on a weekend.
Starbucks are everywhere in Seoul. This one is unusual in that the signage is in the local language.
It was very cold on Saturday night, and when I got up the next morning everything was covered in several inches of thick white snow.
As planned, I went to the Korean War Memorial on Sunday, which is actually a huge museum. I was impressed to see on the corridors as you walk in the name of every South Korean serviceman killed in action, and likewise the name of every member of the UN force – the bulk of whom were either from the USA (33,642) or Great Britain (1,086). There was a facility by which you could search for a name on a nearby computer and it would direct you to the exact spot on the walls. This was necessary, there were a lot of names.
The museum was excellent and the most impressive thing of all was the wording above the thousands of names of the fallen:
Our Nation Honours Her Sons And Daughters Who Answered The Call To Defend A Country They Never Knew And A People They Never Met
And this sets the tone for the entire museum. The incredibly refreshing central message of the museum is that the South Koreans are extremely grateful – even to this day, 52 years later – to the United States, Great Britain, and other UN countries who saved them from communism and the death and misery that comes with it. In stark contrast to the leaders of France and Germany to name but two, whose politicians see fit to regularly and publicly denounce the USA who lost thousands and risked thousands more defending “A Country They Never Knew And A People They Never Met” from the evil of totalitarianism, the South Koreans make it quite clear – if their museum is representative, anyway – that the USA and its allies did the right and noble thing in throwing the forces of communism out of their country. Whether this will still be the case once the threat from the North is gone remains to be seen; but for now it is, as I said, rather refreshing.
The museum itself is full of interesting exhibits, recreations, and film footage covering not just the Korean War but the Vietnam War (in which Koreans fought with considerable success), the Gulf War, and various UN humanitarian missions in the years since. One cannot help but feel a flush of pride when you see the British flag and the listing of the units which contributed to the effort to keep South Korea free. After all, this was a war to defend a people who having been finally freed from the Japanese were struggling to find their feet from a muderous puppet of Joseph Stalin and an equally murderous Mao Zedong who were interested only in pushing a ruthless communist agenda at whatever the cost, human or otherwise. It was a war which ought to make the backers of the Soviet Union, cheerleaders of the policies of Mao, apologists of communism, and those who vilify the USA at every opportunity hang their heads in shame.
Which is probably why, amongst such people (and unfortunately many others), it is generally known as The Forgotten War. Not so in South Korea.
Apologies for the lack of posts about Seoul. Truth is, for the first time in my life I’ve actually had to do some work. I’ve been in engineering meetings every day from 8:00am until 7:00pm every day, and it gets dark here at around 5:00pm. By the time I get home and have fed myself, I just want to collapse into bed. It is also below freezing here, which doesn’t make roaming the streets at night particularly tempting.
However, for the benefit of my readers I went up onto the roof of the hotel one morning just as the sun was rising to take these pictures of the city.
Tomorrow I have a day off, and I intend to use it to go to either one of the palaces or the war museum, which is supposed to be excellent.
Last night Juan and I were taken to a Korean barbecue by three of our Korean clients, and much soju was consumed. Soju is a Korean version of vodka, and it comes in little bottles which are emptied with astonishing pace. It is drunk by the shot, although without the ritual of grand speeches that accompanies drinking in Russia. Sometimes the shot is sipped, sometimes downed in one go – but the pace is high, and your glass is rarely empty. One of the little customs of drinking in Korea is that you should never fill your own glass, so if you want a refill you must first hand the bottle to one of your friends. The soju itself was not bad and far better than how I have heard it described, although I am sure there are nastier versions of it aboout. But having spent considerable amounts of time drinking varying qualities of vodka with Russians over the past year or so, drinking this stuff was child’s play, especially as I knew to keep eating after each glass – advice my Venezuelan friend was glad of. The biggest problem was that there was no soft drink chaser, and the only thing to drink was soju. As Korean food is spicy, you had to drink more of it than you should otherwise do without some sort of mixer – which was the primary reason why I woke up this morning with more of a headache than I’d have liked.
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.
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:
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.
Blogging for the next month or so will be taking place from Seoul, South Korea where I am going to be carrying out some technical work for a project of ours.
Let’s see what I can see.