LKL’s 2008 visit to the land of morning calm was not a terribly well-planned affair. I was over in Hong Kong on a business trip, and managed to tack on a Korea extension at the end, which was little more than a long weekend. The itinerary ended up as follows:
- 14-15 Feb: The ruins of Namdaemun
- 16 Feb: Sweetpea and the Secret Garden
- 17 Feb: Busan
- 18 Feb: Meetups in Seoul
- 19 Feb: Buamdong and home
Thursday night 14 February: I arrive at Incheon, sail through immigration and customs, no wait for baggage or mobile phone rental, and buy a 14,000 Won ticket for the shuttle bus to a hotel in the City Hall area. Someone makes sure I’m queuing in the right place, and before I know it I’m at the Lotte Hotel. Get into a taxi. The driver doesn’t know where my hotel is, and can’t understand the map I have carefully printed off. We improvise our way to the Insadong Fraser Suites.
Friday morning 15 February: as I have made absolutely no arrangements for the weekend other than organising a hotel and sending tentative emails to a couple of people to say that I might be in Korea sometime in February, it’s time to start fixing things. One arrangement which I made on the flight from Hong Kong, which I shared with a colleague from our Seoul office, was a lunch date. Jin-a was worried that being a foreigner I might not be able to cope with “spicy” food. But on convincing her that I should be treated just like a Korean we go to a tiny street cafe behind the Deoksugung: Namwon Chueotang. A foreigner would not really know it was a restaurant, and would be puzzled by a lack of menu. The clue is in the name of the establishment: we are soon seated and the ajumma brings us the speciality of the house: steaming Chueotang.
Friday afternoon 15 February: stroll down to Seoul Station to check out the lie of the land and buy a ticket for the KTX to Busan. Am entertained by the fervent singing of evangelical Christians in the station forecourt, who seem to be holding an open-air service. The spirit of brotherly love does not seem to have reached one particular ajoshi, who approaches a pair of twenty-year old girls (complete strangers) emerging from the subway and slaps one of them in the face before wandering off. The girl looks understandably puzzled.
Walk back to the City Hall area via Namdaemun to view the devastation. Lots of people milling around. A little van plays a funeral dirge over some loudspeakers as a man tolls a handbell. The burning down of Korea’s National Treasure Number One is one of those events that stays in the memory. People tend to remember where they were and what they were doing when they first heard of the terrible event on 10 February 2008. Rather mundanely, I was in the lift in our Mumbai office and was checking emails on my mobile phone.
There was not much to see: the ruins had largely been covered in white sheeting stretched over a scaffold frame; but gaps had been left so that people could see some of the charred remains.
A quick visit to say hello to a few people in our Seoul office, and I’m at the Deoksugung just as they put on the changing of the guard display.
I elect not to join the queue to have my photo taken with the chief guard, and instead buy a ticket to wander around the grounds and visit the art gallery where they have an interesting exhibition of two twentieth century Japanese and Korean artists. I’m there at just the right time, as the winter sun gets low in the sky and is able to illuminate some of the underside of the palace roofs. In the light of the Namdaemun arson attack, the eye couldn’t help noticing the fire extinguishers dotted around the palace campus. Then back to Insadong to recuperate in preparation for the evening.
Friday evening 15 February: meet with Paul for the LKL / Kimchi for Breakfast meetup. Some food to line the stomach somewhere in the Seoul Station area: seafood and belly of pork barbecue. The side dish of South Jeolla stinky fish with the ammonia kicker is best avoided. Off to see the bars of Itaewon. First up, the Bungalow Bar where a few cocktails are downed in a bar with a beach feel: pleasantly warm sand covers the floor. Then off to Bar Bliss to meet Seoul’s friendliest barman, Ted Park (below), after which it all becomes a bit of a blur.