2013 Travel Diary #35: Renewing old friendships

Walking between Euljiro and Jongno
On the walk between the Lotte Hotel Downtown and Insadong

Insadong, Seoul, Sunday 15 September, 3pm.  I have only just arrived back at the hotel from the Sajik Daeje when the phone rings. It’s time to meet the curator and gallerist I had arranged to meet the previous day. I set off on foot to the Lotte Hotel, where I catch up with her activities. It’s a while since I last saw her. Over a cup of tea in the ground floor café we talk about mutual acquaintances, her current curatorial interests which she balances with academic responsibilities at Ehwa, and my recent trip down to Sancheong and Suncheon. She decides she will try to make her way down to Suncheon to see the Garden Expo before it finishes, and maybe one day we shall visit the studio of Min Young-ki together.

We both have other things to move on to, and we say our farewells. I emerge from the air-conditioned comfort of the hotel and walk gently back to Insadong, just in time for the arrival of my early dinner companion.

Younee is a hugely talented and versatile musician, who is equally at home in classical, jazz and pop genres. She made a name for herself in the Korean pop world under the name Keys Piano, before going through a transformation. Younee is her given name, and has the advantage of lending itself to all sorts of English puns – Yooneeque, Youneeversal and the like. She made an energetic impression when she came to the UK a few years ago, performing on BBC radio, at the 100 Club (a noted rock venue, and she was particularly pleased to have performed at the place where the Rolling Stones had played many years before), at the 606 Club, and playing jazz piano duos as part of the Steinway piano festival at Pizza Express Soho (which might not sound like a prestigious music venue, but is.)

I meet Younee outside the hotel. She is looking incredibly chic in black figure-hugging jeans, a cute tweed cap and red pumps. We find a restaurant in Insadong and catch up on her life in music since she left London. Her performances in the UK had been impressive for their versatility and musicianship, but among all the different genres, where was the real Younee, where was her musical identity? This is the question she is now answering. But she’s in no rush, instead making sure that the musical direction is the one she wants to be headed in. I’m looking forward to hearing the results when her next album comes out.


We share a bottle of Cass and order a light meal. By the time we’ve finished my phone is already ringing. It’s Yi Chul-jin wondering where I am. Clearly my vague statement that “I might be freeing up from Insadong by around 7:30 and might be in the mood for a quick pint” had been interpreted as “I will be at Hyehwa Subway station at 7:30 and ready for a heavy session”. Still, I can afford the time, and so I share Younee’s cab as far as Daehakro. I soon find myself in a fried chicken joint with Yi together with contemporary dancer Lee Gwang-seok, leader and choreographer of Dance Company Midius, together with two of his students.

I’m amazed by the amount of abuse these dancers give to their bodies – cigarettes, alcohol, unhealthy food – but yet they still manage to keep in incredible shape. Lee is participating in the Seoul International Dance Festival the following month and together with Yi hopes to come to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2014.

I’m not in the mood for a heavy drinking session – I don’t want to wake up with a hangover the day I leave for home – so make my excuses after a couple of pints.

Although my SIM card eats up talktime, it seems to come with an unlimited data allowance, and I have the GPS permanently switched on. This educates me that Daehakro is not really that far from Insadong, so I decide to return to my hotel on foot, a half-hour stroll past the Changgyeonggung and Changdeokgung.

Gyeonghuigung at night

As I walk past the entrance to the Changgyeonggung I remember that early on Saturday mornings they have traditional music performances within the palace. I had tried to book a seat at one of these performances but found it difficult to do from London. Next time, I’ll plan further ahead.

When I get back to the hotel I start packing for the next day’s journey home. As expected the additional brochures and books I have accumulated make the case more unmanageable than on the outward journey, but nevertheless it looks like most things will fit in.

4-5 Sept Arrival
Introduction | 1 – Leaving London | 2 – Arrival in Sancheong
6 Sept The International Traditional Medicine Expo, day 1
3 – Preparing for the Expo | 4 – Honouring the spirits, feeling the gi | 5 – The official duties
7 Sept Sancheong’s finest potter, and the start of the hike
6 – An editing project is born | 7 – Min Young-ki’s new directions | 8 – Prayers to the Sanshin
8 Sept Jirisan
9 – Sunrise on Cheonwangbong | 10 – Breakfast at Beopgyesa | 11 – Mother Mago, the Goddess of Jirisan
9 Sept Sancheong, Gwangyang and Suncheon
12 – The recreation forest, and getting to know the Expo | 13 – The Sancheong Oriental Medicinal Herb Institute | 14 – Gwangyang and the journey into Jeollanamdo
10 Sept Suncheon International Garden Expo and arrival at Unjusa
15 – The Suncheon Lake Garden | 16 – Hwang Ji-hae’s The Lugworm’s Trail | 17 – Kang Ik-joong’s Bridge of Dreams | 18 – The Korean Garden | 19 – Mosquitoes at Unjusa
11 Sept Unjusa and back to the Sancheong Traditional Medicine Expo
20 – The temple of a thousand pagodas | 21 – Return to Sancheong | 22 – Tiger, Bear and herb: the traditional Korean medicine experience | 23 – The pillow of eternal youth | 24 – Yin, Yang and Ginseng
12 Sept More time at the Traditional Medicine Expo
25 – The Hallyu 4.0 Experience | 26 – The first round of farewells
13 Sept Sancheong and Hongdae in one day
27 – Last day at the Expo | 28 – Clubbing with the CFOs
14 Sept The Galleries and Museums
29 – Korea Artist Prize 2013 | 30 – New Connections | 31 – We are all heroes: Baseball and the Bull at Seoul Museum | 32 – The Seokpajeong: a haven of peace in Buamdong | 33 – An evening in Daehakro
15 Sept The Sajik Daeje
34 – The Gods of Land and Grain | 35 – Renewing old friendships
16 Sept Return to London
36 – The royal perambulation | Thank-yous

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