In this journal:
a cat on a slice of toast;
a girl screams at an octopus;
a bearded guard with a battle axe.
I like to think of traveling as a curse, albeit a blessed curse in that regard. It is like a drug, once you start getting used to it, it will destroy your life. You cannot go back: just like heroin, once you have not got it for an extended period of time, you start to crave it, think about it, regret not having it right here right now. You cannot function normally: just like cocaine, you will do everything you can to support your addiction, work triple shifts, beg for money, and sometimes betraying people once so dear to you. You will lose everyone: just like meth, you find that people around you will think of you as eccentric and strange, but you would not care, and before long, everyone is gone from your life. However, this addiction is so damn nice, and the dopamine released, ahhhhhhhh… just so tight!!! Thankfully, this also means there are other travel junkies like me, and we can be together, taking hits one after another.
C.A.T. 17/18 itinerary
The travel bug bit me again just a month after my Round’aWorld 2017 epic, and I had to revisit some of my fellow addicts I met during the last trip. A careful look around all the tickets available at my disposal, I selected a ticket from Seoul to Santiago de Chile, then to Germany, before heading back to China. Since I had visited Chile just a month prior, I wanted to go somewhere I had not visited before. Oh I got it! Grande Norte, where the Atacama desert meets Andes highlands! It is settled then! Korean metropolis, then Chilean desert, then Germany festivities, what a strange hodgepodge!
Here I come, Seoul!
December 2nd, 2017, I arrived at Shanghai Pudong Airport early for my Spring Airlines flight to Seoul, and, as I went for check in, I suspiciously did not see anyone else going to Korea. The lady at the check in told me I bought a ticket for January 2nd, since today they had no flight there. It turned out that when I mentioned 2nd to the person buying my ticket, she just thought:”oh there is no way that Young meant next week!” So I had to run around all airline counters looking for tickets to Seoul, and since last minute is really not a Chinese thing because they need visa for everywhere, I had a lot of troubles. Asiana, nope, China Eastern, zero seats, China Southern, all gone, and I finally scored a relatively cheap ticket on Korean Air. Welp, by the standards of “walking up to the counter and ask when is the next flight”, it was not bad. Finally, after obtaining a physical piece of paper ticket as a throwback to 1980s, I got on board. Interestingly, and to some, shockingly, this is my first time visiting Korea, despite its proximity to my hometown, and popularity, even notoriety, for being an Asian’s first destination abroad. I met up with Agersch, a local Seoulite I met during the San Diego segment of Round’aWorld 2017. Maybe I am naive, but I had absolutely no idea what I can do in Seoul, excepting eating as if I am a lonely miserable bastard. Oh wait, I am.
beer and fried chicken
Of course, my very first meal in Korea had to be the iconic Korean drama food: fried chicken with beer. One of the most interesting aspects of the Korean food scene is that the food has become so intertwined with social interactions that some food are specifically tailored for certain types of groups. For example, fried chicken never has any individual portions, since it is a social food, mostly for couples on a date, or large groups celebrating a gathering. Thus, the minimum of a plate of fried chicken is for two people.
oh man I am Seoul-ed
If you are alone most of the time like me, then you may have a hard time finding certain kinds of food in Korea. Another perfect example of “people food” is ginseng chicken, a marvelous creation even to those who are not the biggest fans of this herb with a pungent smell, which some may even describe as a bitter stench.
ginseng restaurant in traditional sitting style
I made a Chinese tourist friend in the queue waiting outside, so I gladly joined him for a meal together. I almost always dine alone, thus I have developed a rather strong resistance to stares when eating in a high-end restaurant while slurping down three people’s portions without a care in the world. However, it is not practical to eat the ginseng chicken by myself, since there are so many side dishes that even I cannot finish it. Additionally, the soupy Korean food make for horrible take out options.
ginseng chicken with kimchi pancake
free ginseng wine!
outside of the ginseng chicken shop
But for a solo traveler like me, the perfect food is bibimbap. It is actually one of my favorite food in the world. It is large, and it can be done warm or cold depend on the season, and it is healthy while filling. All the ingredients have to be freshly prepared, and the sauces that come with it always make me feel like this is a better man’s salad. My favorite joint Bibili even offers bottomless bibimbap for 6000 Won! (1USD=1000KRW) Now that is a meal that I can do every day, realistically.
To be honest, food in Korea is just too good to pass up. In fact, Korea is the country I have the most intention to go for food. Let me explain. For example, I went to Norway, and I knew that 75% of my motivation to go there is for the majestic fjords and the arctic scene, and Norwegian food maybe constitutes 10%. Bolivia, just to make another example, is 40% scenery, 30% culture and 30% exotic food. Korea, on the other hand, is 85% food. Korean food is cheap, relatively healthy, absolutely accessible, and diverse. Most importantly, it is super tasty! Food is so integrated with culture, it is impossible to miss those fried chicken, cow tail soup and samgyeobsal while watching K-drama or listening to K-pop.
samgyeobsal (Korean BBQ) buffet for 9900 won!
So in Korea, eating alone is like dancing to silence, even for street food. A usual street stand only offers one kind of food, and to be honest, Korea does not have as vibrant of a street food scene as, for example, Thailand or Taiwan. Mostly the stands offer either meats on a stick, spicy rice cakes, kimbap (Korean sushi), or fried items. That is all. However, what makes it a difficult process is that most people have to debate what food to choose. That involves thinking with a friend, or a lover, and sometimes, even friendly quarreling.
street food stands
fried chicken stand
getting my fill of spicy rice cake
kimbap and spicy rice cake
Asd a result, I spent most of my time in Korea eating, or unconscious during post-devouring food coma. However, for me, that is the best way to experience Korean culture, since I am not really keen on K-drama or K-pop. Also, I am already fat with all the crazy food I had been having, so another roll on the belly was barely noticeable. Well, rather noticeable when I realize girls don’t even look at me anymore, but that is another story for another time, preferably when I am 12 drinks deep.
If you are here to learn about the Korean history or the political situation on the peninsula, then you will be sorrowly disappointed, since the food talk will continue for a while. I originally planned this journal to be as sophisticated as my Easter Island one, full of anecdotes and interesting tid-bits of history, then I realized I barely did anything worth noting other than gaining weight and losing the sight of who I want to be, so I decided against that notion. A detailed post like the Easter Island one would take months to finish, while I needed that much time to reconsider my life decisions.
the only action worth doing in Korea is eating
Agersch pouring me my fill of rice beer
Well, it is not like I completely missed out on the culture scene either. Koreans are staunchly nationalistic when it comes to their pride, and they definitely put their words into action. For example, the Koreans are famous for driving KIA and Hyundai exclusively, no matter in Korea or outside, and the best way to ruin a date with a Korean girl is by telling her you love sushi. For them, being Korean is not just lip work, but also real action. So it was not surprising when I get to see the Korean government promoting their cultural heritage. For a nation sandwiched between the giants of the East Asia influence sphere, Korea surely made a name for itself.
Bukchon village streets
One of the most impressive thing is that the Korean government encourages foreigners to participate in Korean culture personally, especially in the culture-centric Bukchon village tourist site. A tiny traditional house was set up, so anyone could take classes in knitting, water painting, shoe-making, etc., for free with a local master. I hope that more countries can do that, since globalization is slowly forcing out many traditional practices in Eastern cultures.
culture learning in a traditional setting
guards in front of Gyeongbuk Palace
Another cultural icon is the Gyeongbuk Palace 경복궁, the grand palace used by Joseon Dynasty, the most powerful in Korean history. I never had a chance to go in, but just watching the change of guards outside makes me feel that Korean culture is a distinct and proud one. Unlike other countries, Koreans do not use guns, but traditional long axes as the guardsmen’s weapons. They all put on those long, silly beard to imitate the ancient guards.
change of guards
Dongdaemun (동대문, literally Eastern Gate)
in front of Gyeongbuk Palace, with the famous King Sejung
Agersch and I waited for sunset here in the plaza, as I heard the view of the gate at night is very beautiful. However, it was in the dead of winter. I could barely stand in the harsh winds, yet for the sake of my blog, I decided to risk the chance of getting frostbites. Eventually, the result was more than satisfactory. We also paid a visit to King Sejung’s statue right on the plaza. He is the one who decided to invent a language for the Koreans so that they would differentiate themselves from Japanese and Chinese. Thus, he crafted this unique language, Korean, out of thin air. It is designed to be easy so that the Korean peasants could learn it as well, thus Korean is widely regarded as a simpler language.
Gyeongbuk Palace at night
cars passing through
However, when night truly dawns onto the city, it is time for modernism. There is no doubt that Korea is the most modernized Asian country culturally. Long gone were the old customs and rites, since Koreans never had a native religion, and also thanks to the multiple war that decimated whatever that could have been left behind. Take a walk around Hongdae area after 8pm, all you can see are neon lights, cheap consumer goods, karaokes, nightclubs, pubs, western cafes, and more things that belong to 21st century, and probably some that belong to 22nd.
Hongdae at night
There is absolutely nothing to do in Seoul at night other than eating and shopping, and to be honest, that should satisfy everyone. I accompanied Agersch to buy cosmetics. Yes, cosmetics is likely the biggest chemical industry here. Chinese people smuggle billions of dollars of cosmetics because those are just wayyy too good. I am no expert myself, but even I understand why these cute packaging may attract attention.
you seem sad, wanna taco ’bout it?
hamburger with laced cheese, the only laced thing I will touch tonight
I also later went to a taco restaurant opened by an American (sacrilege!) on the other side of downtown, since having a little bit of variety is always good. Even though the taco is definitely different from the ones I have had in Mexico (see it here, here, or here), but it was soooo juicy and sooo good! I did not realize that my tears were falling onto those succulent babies while I was taking the bites. Also their burgers, ahhhhh! So juicy! Thanks to those Americans having a such large military base right north of Seoul, I get to eat burgers this authentic and brilliant! Viva colonization! (wait, what?)
meow meow motherfucker
Then we visited a beautifully decorated cat cafe. Yes, cat cafes. This kind of new culture spread across the area like a wild fire. You have seen hedgehog cafe in Tokyo, now I bring you the OG, cat cafe in Seoul. You pay a bit and you pet cats while enjoying bottomless drinks, what else would you ever desire in your life?
hooman, does this look like the face of satisfaction?
napping time: every hour!
After leaving heaven, I bid farewell to Agersch. Ever since meeting her in San Diego, I knew I would see this girl with a heart of gold again soon. Do not fret, we would pet cats again soon in the next trip. Upon returning to my hostel, I was petrified by what was presented in front of me.
An octopus, about the size of an overgrown dragon fruit, was sliding across the kitchen floor, leaving a trail of slime, while a girl with a kitchen knife was frantically screaming and running in circles. Kitchen was a mess, as if it was a battlefield covered with dirty water and utensils. Chairs, plates, plastic bags everywhere, lying in all directions but facing up.
The girl’s name is Alexandra, and the octopus’ name is Nick (I gave it the name). Alexandra heard it is customary here to eat octopus raw (according to Agersch, it is false), while the tentacles are still wiggling, so she bought Nick from the seafood market and was trying to cut Nick’s head off. However, she underestimated octopus’ slimy-ness, and Nick fell onto the floor and she had been screaming ever since.
Alexandra v.s. Nick
I offered help, because in what other time would you be able to say you helped a girl chop off the head of an octopus so she could eat it raw while the tentacles are still grabbing on to her chin? Yeah, I guess it is a no. I put Nick back to the chopping board, and began rapidly slicing, with Alexandra’s screaming going on in the background as constantly as a security alarm. In no time, she had a twitching tentacle in her mouth. (I promise you this is not a hentai site.) Just another normal day on the road, right?
Gangnam on the other side of the river
For the last day, I woke up early for a walk along the Han River. I saw Gangnam on the other side, and could not help but begin the viral dance. Then, a quick train ride took me to the airport, where I began my real legs of this travel. First, a 13 hour flight to Madrid, then another 12 hours to Santiago, where I connect to another 2 hours to Calama in the north. Whoever says my travel style is easy, here is the definitive proof that I suffer every day.
waiting for my flight
organized Seoul airport
While I was transiting in Santiago, I saw a flight with a special welcoming gate, which is one that welcomes the 20 millionth passenger to ever travel via SCL airport, and he got a giant handshake with the mayor, and got free something for life. (could not hear it because there were too many people.) I do not want to be the person to deplane right before him!
20 millionth passenger!
To be honest, I had low expectations going into the beginning part of the C.A.T trip, because I had to take the flight originating from Korea, so I did not pay too much attention for Seoul. However, I was pleasantly surprised. I always knew Korean food is legendary (I have incurable Korean BBQ addiction), but this time Agersch showed me it has much more than just barbeque. Pots, pans, bowls, plates, fryers, can all present you marvelous food options, and if you know me well, you know that for me, it is the most important part of travel.
barley tea cooking station
Thus, I am sure that I will come back (and yes, I did, for 4 times, just for the next trip only!) and enjoy more food Seoul has to offer. And yes, you can say, I have been Seoul searching here, and yet, I found my true calling: food.
Agersch will return in the Voyager series