Thursday 30 May 2019

Seoul, Day Two - Gangnam and style; also not

With thanks to Air New Zealand for this famil

The Newshub people were out early to do news at the DMZ so it was just Monique and me today being shown around Seoul by the lovely Sue. Our first stop was the Geongbok Palace. It's grand and spacious and put me very much in mind of Beijing's Forbidden City - same pagoda-type building with curled-corner roofs, intricately painted and carved inside, and surrounded by great open spaces behind high walls. Our arrival was timed for the daily changing of the guard which took place with the usual sort of ridiculously elaborate ceremony that men do so like to get deeply solemn about, wherever you are in the world. So there were long, colourful robes and hats with pheasant feathers sticking up, big flags on poles, a band with a conch, trumpets and drums, and solemn marching about in the courtyard.
To be honest, I was much more taken by all the women, and some men, in traditional Korean dress in the audience. They did look gorgeous, in their long full skirts and fitted tops, all flouncy and beaded and pretty colours. Some had hats too, and most wore very sensible sneakers underneath all that finery. I asked Sue why they were all dressed up, and she said, a bit derisively, "For the selfies" - and it's true, there was a great deal of that going on.

We went on through the Palace, past another pagoda in an artificial lake with carp in it, and on through the grounds and finally out the other side, where we saw the Blue House that's the President's residence, all set about with white-gloved guards in little guard houses. We walked on, along an avenue of ginkgo trees and flagpoles ringed with baskets of petunias, all very neat and colourful and tidy. Sue meantime gave us lots of history, ancient and more modern, perfectly candid and open.

We walked up then through an even older part of the city, Bukchon Hanok village, where 14th century traditional houses have been gentrified inside and are lived in by rich people. We climbed up stone steps along narrow alleys draped with the usual Asian tangle of power lines, with pots of peppers and greens flourishing outside the houses, and it was all very pretty. So pretty, that it's become a tourist must-do - which is, of course, why we were there ourselves - to the irritation of the residents, especially when said tourists are Chinese. So there are notices everywhere telling visitors to be quiet, in fact to whisper, and there are actual official hushmen, and women, employed to stand on corners shushing people who talk too loudly.

Next Sue took us to Gwangjang Market, which is a network of narrow streets covered over and pedestrianised, where everything imaginable is sold, but mainly food. Well, that was our focus anyway, it being lunchtime by now, and we drooled over all the stalls being manned by neatly-dressed women with bright lipstick, who smiled and flapped menus at us and offered samples. It really did look delicious - all manner of fried foods, and salads, all freshly cooked and crispy. Sue took us to her favourite, where we sat on plastic stools and were served the specialty mung bean pancakes - much more delicious than that might sound - and ground pork ones too, served with kimchi and raw onions in soy. Really nice, and washed down with cloudy rice beer.

It was good that we ate before continuing our tour, which took us next to the part of the market called Raw Beef Alley: exactly as described, where people were tucking eagerly into plates of raw mince with a raw egg in the middle, and other less easy to describe dishes. There were live octopuses in small tanks, all manner of fermented food piled up, meals ready to take home to cook, baskets of spices, mung beans being freshly ground and kneaded - and everywhere people perched on stools and benches, being served straight from the wok or barbecue. All super-authentic.

Our next stop was Garosugil Street, to wander along looking at the beautifully displayed fashion, bags, shoes and fripperies there - colourful, minimalist, artistic. We went into one pop-up demonstrating the new Samsung TV that was so like a fairground show that we expected to pay money: lights, mirrors, screens, clever devices. There was so much to look at along the street, it was a real entertainment too. And everything looked so beautiful that even a non-consumer like me could almost have been tempted.

The tour then morphed into a K-pop homage. Now, of course you know, dear regular 😃 reader, that I have my finger welded to the pulse of popular culture, but I do have to confess that, apart from being vaguely aware of BTS, I'm not up with K-pop. Of course it's huge here, and Gangnam (say it with a K, not a G) is the centre of this culture, especially K-Star Road, which is lined with big shiny doll mascots named after the most famous bands. We went into SMTown, which is five floors of K-pop memorabilia - interactive photo booths, larger-than-lifesize posters, a museum, displays of awards, photo galleries of stars, 3D printed miniatures, pop videos and, of course, a shop. It's an industry, truly.

Finally, we wandered through the huge mall beneath the hotel, which is confusing and includes a 16-screen cinema (the Korean movie industry is also huge) and an aquarium as well as big-name shops from all over - and an amazing public library donated by the management, with books free to read on site, but not borrow. It was very well-used, and looked amazing. And then it was time for a rest at the hotel where, to my horror, I discovered the chambermaid had left all the lights turned on in my room including, total mystery still, the ceiling ones over the bed.

Later: inspired by the essential need not to sleep tonight under dual spotlights, I did eventually track down the controls for those two lights: not a regular wall switch like all the others but, sneakily, separate buttons on the alarm clock by the bed, labelled in tiny writing. I mean, really? Tch.

Dinner tonight was at Dosa, a low-profile and quite small modern restaurant down below street level, which was my first-ever Michelin-starred experience. It was pleasing that as we were seated, Lorde was playing, and then we were straight into choosing which tasting menu we fancied. Shockingly, both featured, as course #2, guess what? Only raw beef with raw egg yolk. Officially, there were nine courses - which we accompanied with a bottle of very nice Argentinian Malbec - but several others were slid in, starting with a little cone of something containing fois gras and topped with candy floss, which was a worryingly bizarre combination. The presentation throughout was imaginative and fun, incorporating at various points lights, flowers and a log, and everything looked gorgeous and, happily, tasted great too. Even the raw beef was an interesting mix of flavours, and served much more imaginatively than in the market. The roast octopus was almost delicious enough to make me forget the poor creatures trying to escape their little tanks . My Iberian pork was nice, but I wish I'd chosen the beef all the others had which (I had a taste) was wondrously tender, juicy and flavourful, and closed down the conversation for quite five minutes. The icy noodles that came next were weird, and hard to eat, but then came a pear-shaped mango and coconut sorbet and then a sprinkle of tiny fancies to end it all. Excellent. Thank you, Air New Zealand.


the queen said...

Your description of the food booths makes up for any K-pop deficits. I am only aware of Psy and BTS.
Also, if I ever go to Seoul I will ask for Sue.

TravelSkite said...

Sue is indispensable. She not only knows about ancient history, but K-pop too, as well as everything in between.


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