Monday 3 May 2010. From Gangnam I’m driven back to my hotel near Gwanghwamun. Lunch that day had been difficult to face – particularly the fermented skate: unpleasant enough at the best of times, but distinctly dangerous if you’re feeling badly hung over. Even in the evening I’m still suffering from the previous day’s festivities, and so I head off towards Insadong in the hope of finding a haejangguk (Hangover Soup) restaurant. Instead I come across a pork cutlet place which is even more what my stomach seems to be wanting. I sit quietly in the restaurant trying to think of some sensible questions to ask at my interviews the following day, drinking more (non-alcoholic) Korean cider than I would normally.
The streets around the Gwanghwamun and Insadong areas are festooned with lanterns (in preparation for Buddha’s birthday a week or so later) and advertisements for Gallery Hyundai’s next big-budget show, a collection of paintings by Korea’s favourite post-war artist, Park Soo-keun. If I have time later in the week, I’ll try to visit. But more immediately, as I’m in the area, a quick trip to Jogyesa is warranted: the courtyard is gradually filling up with hundreds of colourful lanterns – a pretty sight in the dusk of the evening.
There’s still plenty of time before the gift shops shut, so I execute a surgical strike on the more southerly of the two Lee Geon Man shops in Insadong. I always like browsing in the Insadong shops. Plenty of high quality traditional and modern-style gifts and accessories (and plenty of tourist tat as well). Lee Geon Man specialises in neckties, handbags and scarves with a hangeul design. But the thing I find irritating about the staff in the Lee Geon Man shops is that they insist on telling you, as soon as you start browsing, that, yes, the sophisticated almost-repeating designs that recall those of Dior, Gucci and YSL are in fact made up of Korean letters. It gets very tiring. So the objective is to reach the desired tie and indicate that I want to buy it BEFORE they tell you that its design is the Korean alphabet. If you’re quick enough you can just about do it, but it requires reconnaissance on a previous visit (and enduring the inevitable piece of obvious but well-meant information). And having thus indicated that I meant business, I was free to browse the silk scarves without much bother. A gift for me, and one for my wife.
My souvenir-shopping done, it’s time to work my way back to the hotel while browsing the window displays of Insadong. I am soon accosted by Christian Oliver from the FT on his evening perambulation. I met him on my last visit to Seoul. General chit-chat about London, Seoul, the Cheonan sinking, Shin Jeong-a, the Korean Pension Service’s UK investments, and the Korean War. I can’t remember how the last topic came up, but it furnished me with an anecdote about the last surviving partisans in Jeju-do and Jirisan which I would find useful later on in the week. Seoul seems full of happy coincidences.