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20111208 Thu, Seoul, Itaewon. - Adam
midendian
midendian
20111208 Thu, Seoul, Itaewon.
Twenty-four hours after arriving in Seoul and I am more than a little impressed. Indeed I am a bit baffled why I never thought to visit Korea before. I keep wanting to think things like "this is like a smaller Tokyo, twenty years ago", or "this is somewhere between Japan and China", but no, Korea is definitely something entirely unique. (Well okay it is in fact somewhere between Japan and China, obviously; and if I had to put it on that continuum it would certainly be closer to the Japan end.)

Yesterday's flight from SFO was one of the better long-hauls I've ever flown, which set things up nicely. Whatever part of Singapore's business model that lets them fly their planes a third-empty should really catch on with everyone else. (The Singapore A380 flight I was on in October was even more empty, though I assume that's from a bit too much slack in the LAX transpac market. I wonder how long it will be before everyone universally regrets buying A380s?) SQ arranges their 777-300ER's economy as 3-4-3, which gets you the most chances overall of a not-miserable seat (unlike, eg, the 2-5-2 economy in United's old 772 layout), but on a full flight does mean you have two people to scramble over to get up. Of course, with SQ's empty planes, this is solved by just asking at checkin to be moved to a row with no one next to you, so I had three seats to myself, starboard, over the wing, plenty of room to lay down and sleep and generally feel completely relaxed about the whole thing. (Most of my flight seemed to be families doing the epic SFO-ICN-SIN-BOM-* run, which I found completely miserable at the age of 29, I can't imagine doing it as a 5 year old.)

My flight parked at "Concourse A", which lacks anything but transit services. To get to passport control and baggage you take a little rubber-tired people mover (it's the Mitsubishi kind, but practically indistinguishable from the APMs that Bombardier/ADtranz have sold to seemingly every airport in the western world now). When I passed through ICN last March (on previously-mentioned SFO-ICN-SIN-BOM trip), I never left the building and had no idea we weren't in the real airport! It's all lovely, though, in that blandly-innovative glass-walled 21st-century airport sort of way (a style which I must admit, Beijing Capital Airport has really set a new bar for!). From customs it's a long, long walk to the other side of the building, following the signs for the "Airport Railroad" (which is old-timey terminology I find quite endearing!). By the time I figured out if I was in the right place, I'd just missed an AREX train and it put me on the next one, in a half-hour, giving me plenty of time to sit on the platform and study the maps and hilariously-over-prepared selection of emergency equipment (the vault of gas masks is particularly awesome). The trains themselves are fairly uninteresting and look a lot like the latest refresh of N'EX/JR Narita Express trains, with perhaps a less sleek color scheme. (By this point I was already pretty impressed with Seoul, but I also had to remember that Beijing also looks very nice while you're still at the airport…)

It's actually been quite a few years since I dropped into a country where I couldn't at least pronounce the basics of the script (China excluded--while I can't read any Chinese whatsoever (the limited kanji from Japan travel is unhelpful, since the pronunciations are far beyond just a dialect apart!), but I'm not exactly completely unfamiliar with Chinese). Other than seeing it around in Tokyo, San Francisco, and Los Angeles (particularly Los Angeles!), I hadn't thought much of hangul. I realized on arriving in Incheon that in my mind I'd been regarding it as, I dunno, a sort of decoration. I guess at some point I was probably just as blind to Japanese/Arabic/whatever too, but it's been a long time since they've seemed like complete noise, even if I still understand very little. I'd completely failed to take the language/script barrier seriously while planning this trip (as if I actually planned this trip, lulz), and hadn't even looked at an alphabet. So on the AREX train, I enabled the Korean hangul keyboard on my iPhone and started trying to copy things off advertisements and safety cards, building adorable little syllables. The system is really pretty cool and you should go look at it if you are interested in such things and haven't yet.

Thankfully I had done enough planning to verify my hotel's address with Google Street View, to know that the location on the hotels.com map was completely wrong. (Street View is easily the most valuable tool Google offers travelers!, especially for countries with addressing systems that are confusing (eg, Japan, Korea) or non-existent (eg, all of Latin America). Though the new phonetic (de-)transliteration support in Google Translate is an easy second most awesome feature.) The hotel is completely ridiculous, some sort of half-assed mod fantasy. There is a giant Warhol-esque Marilyn Monroe staring down from the wall at me as I write this.

It's in Itaewon, which is a neighborhood that can quite safely be called Americatown--it has the same combination of parody and banality that Chinatowns in the west have, except with Americans (and a few other random foreigners). The US Army's Yongsan garrison is right here (I can see it from my backyard!), so Americans looking to get drunk and eat burgers are not in short supply, and Itaeown is well equipped. But, even outside Itaewon, Seoul seems much more diverse than your average Asian city (even metro Tokyo).

Christmas and christmas trees are everywhere here, that's true all over the world (even China!), but the skylines in Korea have actual crosses sticking out of them!, which is very strange for me, to see centuries-old shrines in front of Presbyterian churches, buddhas and jesuses living together! And it's hard to walk down the street in Itaewon without someone telling you how much Jesus loves you (often you get a lollipop afterward, so it's still better than going to the dentist). If you're not in Itaewon for military reasons, it seems like you're probably here in support of a church, and both of these add up to an extremely improbable number of families walking around with Southern accents here. Very very strange.

In further misplanning, I'd not accounted for the weather in the newly-lightened pack I have this week. It never warmed up above around 1º today, which is really limiting my ability to be a walk-around tourist, and I fear I will leave feeling like this trip was a waste 'cause I'm a wimp. I'm here until Sunday morning (though I'm moving downtown tomorrow, since Marilyn-hotel was full for the weekend). I'll do my best to walk around some more tomorrow (I want to visit the Cheonggyecheon project at least), but I'm thinking I'll spend Saturday doing a high-speed rail daytrip down to Busan. Not only might it be warmer down there but it'd be nice to see where all those giant boats in California come from (and where baby LCD panels are made!).

Speaking of trains, Seoul has a fantastic metro, easily on par with Tokyo. (Seoul's bus network is amazingly extensive, and probably explains why the metro isn't super crowded like Tokyo's. Although Tokyo's bus system is also extensive and super crowded, heh.) Anyway, I'm not much of a souvenir collector, but I do usually take a few bits of train/metro junk with me. Maps and brochures, but most importantly: RFID payment cards. I have quite a stack of them from Japan alone (every JR Group member company has one!, as well as each local transit company). But Seoul's RFID 'card' is the most awesome I've bought: it's a mobile phone dongle thing, about a quarter of the width of a typical smartcard. Unlike most systems, you actually buy the device, not just a "deposit" with the operator, so they're open to a lot of personalization. Licensed T-money chips are apparently readily available and people are putting them in everything. This was the dream of all these systems all along, before they get clogged with government boringness.

Anyway, Sunday I'm flying to Narita, staying in Tokyo a few days for old times' sake, hang out at Narita a couple days to work and watch planes, and then it's back to SF again, via LAX. Continued frustration over moving around too often and not too doing more moving around :)
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Comments
bluepapercup From: bluepapercup Date: December 9th, 2011 10:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
Seoul sounds neat! I am fascinated with the transit dongle. I agree, it's what we all dreamed of they announced integrated transit cards here. Want!

Most of the Korean-Americans I know are somewhere on the "mostly" to "very" Christian spectrum, so it doesn't surprise me that there's lots of crosses in the city. I am surprised at the prosyletizing, I somehow hadn't expected that.
midendian From: midendian Date: December 10th, 2011 01:14 am (UTC) (Link)
I couldn't take one thing or another from the fact that there's so many Christian-raised Koreans in the US, 'cause that's often one of the reasons people end up in the US. But I apparently it is representative! According to the 'pedia, a fifth of south koreans are protestant: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_South_Korea I only got the proselytizing in Itaewon, so perhaps it's just aimed at the military people?

Seoul is not quite as comfortable as japan for me, but a lot of it is the language barrier (luckily english is much more common here than in japan! presumably due to the video gaming industry...), and the food. In Japan I'll eat pretty much anything they have to offer, but there's certainly Korean food that is a bit too scary for me (and they eat loooots of beef here, which I don't particularly like, even covered in kimchee). Anyway, you should totally visit Seoul some time :)
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