Archive for the ‘Korea’ Category

Shop ‘Til You Drop

The final day was spent shopping – or rather, in my case, watching other people buy stuff. We started in a ginseng shop where, for ludicrously large sums of money, one could buy capsules filled with dried root powder. If the promotional materials were to be believed, ginseng is not only a universal panacea, it also lightens your skin (a major preoccupation with many Asian people). The medical “proof” was ludicrous. For example, they cited a famous Frenchman (Mitterand, if memory serves me right), who had prostate cancer. He took ginseng tablets … and lived another six months! (Prostate cancer typically develops very slowly.) Being French, I suspect he was also puffing away at Gitanes and wearing a beret whilst carrying a string of onions. Shouldn’t The Powers That Be be telling us all about the miraculous medical powers of Gitanes, beret-wearing and onion-carrying?I would like to say I was surprised at how many people opened their wallets and purses to buy the magical powder, but I wasn’t. There is a quotation (almost certainly mythical) attributed to Einstein: “They say the most prevalent element in the universe is hydrogen; it isn’t, it’s human stupidity.” I was surprised, however, by how much money people were prepared to spend. One woman must have spent at least 800 dollars (US) on these pointless pills and potions.

Given people’s gullibility, do you think I could make a fortune promoting the virtues of Welsh leeks? I’d have to turn them into dust and package them in gold-coloured boxes whilst making outrageous medical claims, but I think it could be a winner. Millionaire row, here I come!

The only respite during a day of consumerist excess was a brief visit to a temple.

Buddha figures at a temple in Seoul

Then there was more shopping: luxury goods shopping mall; duty free shop outside the airport; duty free shop inside the airport. But it’s all too tedious to relate.

(That said, I was surprised to see the duty free shop outside the airport do a good trade in kimchee. I was only too glad never to have to eat the (literally) rotten stuff again.)

The flight eventually landed in the small hours of the morning, and the coaches arrived back in Ayutthaya shortly before the first light of day. It was good to feel warm again.

[k6]

Cuisine

Actually, I think the word “cuisine” doesn’t apply in Korea. It’s just food – and not very palatable food, at that. It was very monotonous: large quantities of sliced meat cooked at the table, either on a hotplate, or in a bowl of broth, served with an invariant selection of pickles (kimchee, bean sprouts, green leaves) and stodgy steamed rice. It was also not very appetizing. The very worst dinner was at a restaurant specialising in chicken in ginseng soup. An obscene quantity of chicken (well, half chicken of the driest and stringiest kind) in a bowl of what tasted like dishwater was vile. It may be that ginseng leads to a long, long life, but I’d rather die young than have to survive on
that stuff.Well, that was the lunches and dinners. The breakfasts were (to my tastes) even more appalling. There were the ubiquitous pickles, this time accompanying a sloppy porridge of boiled rice. Absolutely vile.

The tour organisers knew that the food wouldn’t appeal to Thai tastes, so they’d arranged some extras, specially imported from Thailand: Thai sukiyaki sauce, finely chopped fiery chillies, chopped chillies in fish sauce, tiny dried fish. Still, even these could redeem the irredeemable.

As a side note, I was surprised just how conservative the Thai people were when it comes to trying new food. At every meal there was a small saucer of a Korean chilli paste. It wasn’t bad. However, not once did I see a Thai person even try it; all the saucers except mine would be left pristine and untouched.

[k5]

More Fun

Next on the agenda was a trip to a theme park – a world of fun rides, ice cream and candy floss, tacky souvenir shops and wide-eyed kids. Normally I’d rather have a root canal than visit such a place of horror but, having no choice, I decided to make the best of it.It was bad enough taking a chairlift which swept through the park – remember the temperature was well below zero. Waiting time: 15 minutes. “Fun” time: 3 minutes. Things got even worse on the “Amazon Ride” (waiting time: 35 minutes). For this ride one sat on a sort of raft and then hurtled downstream over rapids and close to waterfalls with the ice-cold water sloshing up from below. To the great amusement of the students I was with I got comprehensively soaked. Afterwards I took refuge in a souvenir shop to warm up and dry off a little.

Forever the masochist I then tried sliding down a snowy slope sitting on a miniature inflatable paddling pool. Oh, the joys of having one’s shoes fill up with snow as one tries to control the speed! Even greater the joy as the snow begins to melt! (Actually, it was great fun, so I went twice.)

I also enjoyed what might loosely be called a cultural show. Dancers and drummers in traditional Korean dress. It was very much aimed at the young children, but I like to think I’m still young at heart myself. There was lots of dragging unsuspecting youngsters from the audience to join in, and of throwing small gifts into the crowd. I managed to catch a foam rubber ball, which I gave to a wide-eyed toddler next to me. (I could almost hear her think “why is this strange, white-skinned stranger with an enormous nose giving me his prize?”)

Dancers at Everland

At one point there was a lion dance with two lions. Then a third lion joined in, which surprised the first two lions. The third lion then … how can I put this delicately? … pooped. One of the dancers then grabbed the incontinent lion’s coat which came off, revealing the beast to be … a golden pig! (It’s currently the year of the golden pig.) The miscreant beast was then chased unceremoniously off stage.

And then it was back to the coach, to its warm embrace.

[k4]

Elephants on Tightropes

According to Seneca, Romans were entertained in their amphitheatres by the grand spectacle of elephants on tightropes. This has long been one of my favourite images, though today it may have been eclipsed by “Thais on Skis”.After a short drive from our hotel we arrived at a ski resort where our feet were measured and we were provided with appropriately fitting fibreglass boots, skis and those sticky things you use to push yourself off. Putting on the boots I felt like Peter Weller in RoboCop as I clicked tight the clasps. The sensation was further heightened as I clumped the short distance to the beginners’ ski slope – though perhaps my lurching gait was closer to Frankenstein’s monster.

After 20 minutes’ brief instruction we were set loose on the slope to slither and fall at will whilst Korean children, some no more than three years old, expertly navigated around us. There were plenty of collisions, but the only thing injured was my pride.

It was a delight to see how much the Thai students enjoyed themselves, oblivious to the biting cold. By the end of the couple of hours some were becoming quite proficient, taking the chairlift to the top of the slope and skiing down again and again. My achievements were somewhat more modest, inching my way up the slope for a few metres, skis at right angles to the slope, then cajoling my skis into an A-shape so that I could slide with a modicum of control for a few seconds before tumbling to the ground. I have long harboured an ambition suddenly to discover in a moment of revelation that I am an old-aged prodigy at something; I guess that thing isn’t going to be skiing.

ski slope somewhere in Korea

[k3]

A Jacket and Tie Day

I haven’t worn a suit since the day I arrived in Thailand. However, I was under strict instructions that I had to look smart for the second day. None of my suits still fits me, so I had to make do with a jacket and tie.The day started badly with an hotel buffet – one where I struggled to find anything remotely palatable, or vaguely recognisable. I ended up with three chunks of banana and a small waxed-paper cup of something that bore a vague resemblance to coffee.

The first stop of the day was the KIA factory, where they make cars (mostly SUVs) and some vans. After the obligatory company video showing glamour-shots of cars going around a track at high speed, filmed at a jaunty angle, and vaguely aspirational waffle about how KIA wanted to be in the top 5 manufacturers worldwide by 2010 (they’re currently number 2 in Korea), we had a tour of parts of the factory. We saw where t hey pressed body panels, though it was pretty quiet there, and, more interestingly, the assembly line. What I saw reminded me very much of my Vauxhall days, more than 20 years ago. Then, the Vauxhall production line had a few robots, but perhaps 90% of the work was done by hand. Here the ratio was reversed. Great stretches of the assembly line were nothing but robots. And unlike the old GM robots, which stood either side of the line and performed a single tax, some of these robots rotated, performing 3 or 4 different functions on car parts which passed around them. Much has changed, but the small of the plant – a heavy, oily perfume – was the same as I remember from all those years ago.

In the afternoon we visited Korea University, the third ranking university in Korea. The campus we visited, the main campus, is on a sloping site, and as one enters the grounds the main hall is dramatically ahead and above. The style of it, and of most of the buildings, is a modern baronial: square towers with crenelations paired with mock Gothic windows. The university is only just one hundred years old, but they try to create a sense of place and of history with these concrete travesties.

We were shown around by a second year student who spoke very good English but, more impressively, had mastered the art of walking backwards, gesticulating to right and left as he talked, without looking around.

The facilities were modern and impressive. I didn’t dare ask the Thai students what they thought, it was so much more lavish than the rather run down facilities at their university.

Since it was just before the start of the new academic year there were various groups of freshpersons bring shown around and inducted into the University’s traditions. Some such groups were involved in some kind of drinking game, and a few of the groups had become quite raucous.

Then more shopping. This time in a 2 km long corridor, lined on both sides by stalls selling cheap clothing. No natural light, a narrow, oppressive walkway, and surrounded by tat. Not my idea of a quality shopping experience. And if 2 km of tat wasn’t enough, there were two more storeys of the same above. There was nothing I’d want to buy, but if I ever have a need for a canary yellow top hat, or a gold-painted handbag I now know where to come.

The Thais I was with, however, found plenty to buy. By Thai standards the prices were far from cheap, but the range was enormous. And unlike Thailand where a lot of goods are fakes, there was no evidence of counterfeiting here, just a plethora of previously unheard of, European-sounding brands.

One student was excited by his purchase of 5 brightly-coloured, ready-knotted silk ties. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the label read “polyester”, not “silk”.

Watching the students barter was interesting. In Korea you might get a small discount, whilst in Thailand the discount is usually much larger, so the Thais initial offers were way too low. Some Korean shopkeepers immediately lost interest and sent the would-be customers away. However, if bartering did start, the Thais would be cheerful and light-hearted about it, the Korean shopkeepers dour-faced and sullen.

[k2]

The Longest Day

I’ve just returned from a five day trip to South Korea with a group of MBA students. Much of the time was spent in a state of absolute exhaustion – that was, when I wasn’t bitterly cold … or asleep. Sadly, I lack the Thais ability to sleep anywhere, at any time (they say that if sleeping were an olympic sport, the Thais would win gold every time). Even so, large parts of each day’s coach journeys passed in semi-consciousness, so I can’t really comment on Korea’s landscape, other than to say a lot of it was covered in snow, there are lots of rivers, and the countryside is punctuated with hideous groups of tower blocks, whilst the towns consist of much larger groups of hideous tower blocks. But here’s how it all began …I arrived at the university business school at 6 p.m., as instructed. Most of the 70 or so students were already there, chatting excitedly. Some had their partners and children there to see them off. I sat in the air-conditioned office waiting ready for the off. I waited. And waited. And waited. On asking, I was told that the buses (two of them) would be there at 7 p.m.. They eventually arrived a little before 8 p.m.. They were double deckers – though far more comfortable than the image that such a designation summons in the British mind. They were painted on the outside in the garish manga designs so beloved of Thai private bus companies, and inside were attired as some tart’s boudoir (not that I know what such a place looks like).

The journey to the airport was uneventful, and check-in reasonably prompt; the queues at immigration, though, were nightmarish: I had more than 40 people ahead of me in my line, so it took well over an hour just to be permitted to leave the country. Then there was the usual couple of hours wandering around the over-priced and over-crowded shopping mall that is Suvarnabhumi. (Yes, despite all the blatant corruption and legal actions against them, King Power is still refusing to give up its monopoly.) Eventually, foot-sore, I headed for the cold, uncomfortable metal chairs at the gate to finish my wait.

The students were still bright and energetic, taking turns to photograph each other, groups forming and posing with practised alacrity, positioning themselves just-so, smiling with well-rehearsed ease, and occasionally raising two fingers in a “peace symbol”.

The flight, with Thai International, was unremarkable: poor food, no entertainment system, and no alcohol at all. And little chance of sleep. The flight only lasted 4 ½ hours, but you were woken half way through for (a thoroughly mediocre) breakfast.

At Incheon airport we were greeted by long lines at immigration – though fairly fast moving. Part of the speed was caused by the selection of 10 of the Thai students for further questioning elsewhere, though eventually all were admitted. (Our guide later told us of previous incidents involving Thai groups where the entire group had been detained. Whilst Thais don’t require visas to visit South Korea, there is clearly racial profiling going on when they arrive. I passed through immigration in a fraction of the time it was taking each of the Thais.)

The first visit of the day was to Nami Island, a small island on a lake surroundedby mountains. It’s been converted into a kind of theme park, with lots of kitschy statues …

Kitsch sculpture at Nami Island

… ice sculptures, cutesy restaurants and various displays. It’s most famous as being where the Korean soap opera “Winter Sonata” was filmed. This production was popular across much of Asia, and brings in lots of local and Japanese tourists. Winter Sonata was basically a love story, and many of the visitors are young couples. Nami Island is also a popular honeymoon destination.

To get to the island we had to take a ferry from the mainland through the ice-crusted lake. It’s a short trip, only five minutes or so, but it’s enough to make it feel ones going somewhere different. As you approach you can see the first of the ice sculptures.

Nami Island ice scupture

The weather was bitingly cold. There were snow patches on the ground, the remnants of a heavy fall a few days ago. Tall conifers in vast drifts or in straight avenues cover the island.

Avenue of conifers at Nami Island

The attractions held little attraction for me; far more interesting was watching the students who took photographs at every opportunity; no hole to peer through, ice arch to stand under, or grass hut doorway to crouch in was left unexploited. (The head of the MBA program took an amazing 1,400 photos in less than two hours!) Somewhat self-referentially, one of the most popular places to be photographed was in front of boards covered in collages of photos of the park.

The afternoon was spent traipsing around an apparently famous market – actually more a collection of streets which had about much going for it as a 1960s concrete monstrosity-type market. (Think “Arndale Centre”). The goods on offer were shoddy, and the food stalls (which usually interest me most) offered a pathetic array of dubious-looking fruit, veg, meat and fish. The only surprise was to see lots of strawberries for sale – and they actually tasted rather good.

The meal on the flight had left my intestines the worse for wear, and I had to make an emergency call on a public toilet. (OK, maybe that’s too much detail.) I was rather surprised to see a fancy, Japanese-style electronic toilet in the cubicle. In the bitter cold, it was a joy to find that the seat was nicely heated. (But it did take me several attempts to work out how to flush the thing. I pressed all the buttons in turn, to no avail. Then I noticed the pedal down at floor level.)

After dinner we eventually arrived at the hotel at 8 p.m.. At this point I’d been awake for 36 hours, so it was straight to bed to spend a night interrupted by strange dreams.