Zambia/Malawi and Svalbard were both way outside my frame of previous reference, but Canada is well within it. This is not because I've been here too often -- I later determined that it's been precisely 26 years since my last visit -- but because, well, it's a carbon copy of the United States. Urban planning is equated with strip malls and suburban sprawl, Wal-Marts and Costcos litter the landscape, soccer moms drive around in SUVs, traffic signage is identical and everything is oversized, including many inhabitants. I kept getting flashbacks to my previous existence in a leafy suburb of New York... And regardless of Michael Moore's assertions to the contrary, in Canada too the post-9/11 continental mood of omnipresent paranoia was downright unsettling after Europe, with automatically locking car doors, key cards needed to access parking garage elevators and signs proclaiming electronic surveillance, angry dogs and guard patrols everywhere, including inside the booths of highway restrooms.
Before a mob of angry Canucks assaults me with hockey sticks, I'll concede that there are enough non-American details to cause a little cognitive dissonance. The obvious one in bilingual Ontario is that all official signs are also written in French, and careful examination also reveals that the seemingly all-American mileposts use kilometers and the apparently all-American juice boxes are in liters. Instead of McDonalds at every corner there's a Tim Hortons (if usually with a McD's across the street), and PetroCanada gas stations did seem a little thin on the ground in the lower 48. And, of course, instead of wrapping up in the Stars and Stripes and holding an unquestioning belief that America is number 1, there are maple leaves everywhere and an equally firm conviction that Canada is number 1 (with the United States most certainly relegated to #2 or below). Sigh.
Ottawa is usually not on the top of a Canadian tourist's agenda, and the main reason I was there was to visit family. The town has a pretty bad rep as a soulless artificial creation in the middle of nowhere, filled with bureaucrats and snowdrifts of income tax forms. When founded, an American newspaper famously commented that the new capital was impregnable, as any "invader would get lost in the woods trying to find it", and most Canadians prefer to cast the blame of Queen Victoria for coming up with the harebrained scheme. With all this bad karma piled on it, I was actually somewhat surprised to find Ottawa rather pleasant-looking on a sunny late summer day, with stately buildings, grassy lawns, lakes and canals, oodles of museums, a bustling market, and most Brutalist government buildings from the 1960s sent to hide in well-deserved exile on the outskirts of town. The Parliament buildings are pretty enough and would fit in well in London, the capital of an empire spanning the globe at the time, but what megalomaniac designed them in 1859, when Canada was even more of a howling wilderness than now? The capital's most notable tourist draw, however, is the Canadian Museum of Civilization across the river in Gatineau, which packs in the world's largest collection of totem poles, some moderately interesting exhibits on whatever they're calling Canada's poor aborigines these days, and a surprisingly well-done and, yes, interesting exhibition of Canada's own history, complete with full-size recreations of villages, towns and cities through the years.
Excursion number two was to Montreal, which was more of the same, only now unilingually in French. Montreal's vieux ville has somewhat hyperbolically been called Paris without the jet lag, and for a select few streets you could maintain this illusion, at least if your Paris consists only of snooty restaurants and souvenir shops (not an entirely inaccurate description of its more central arrondissements, mind you). Having wasted nine years of my life studying French, I'm tolerably conversant in this maddeningly ugly and illogical language (hark, is that a crowd of Quebecois armed with baguettes joining the lynch mob?), but the zealously enforced language laws combined with the influence from south of the border combine to make travel in Quebec an endless series of Tarantino-esque "Royale with Cheese" moments. What's in the vending machine? Why, a bag of Cheetos(tm)-brand Fromage Etoufflés. What does LCBO's Le Party Zone retail? Big boxes of Herb's Cooler de Vodka, of course. But my finely honed absurd-o-meter was only pegged by the PFK outlet: that's right, in Quebec even Colonel Sanders goes francophone and hawks Poulet Frit Kentucky instead.
Thus inspired, I dedicated one day to sampling the best of Canadian cuisine. First up was poutine, french fries slathered with gravy and cheese, which tastes exactly how it looks and sounds. Montreal smoked meat was next on the agenda, although the only visible difference to a pastrami sandwich in New York was that the local bagel is smaller. For dessert, I couldn't help but sample a Beaver Tail, which is a flat piece of deep-fried dough slathered in sugar and cinnamon and, wait for it, tastes just like it to too. Unexpected bright spots on the culinary landscape, however, were the wide availability of rather excellent Middle-Eastern fare (no, not more kebab, but eg. decent pita, hummus and olives) and some pretty good lobsters too. As in the US, supermarkets are huge and bursting at the seams, and it's easy and fairly cheap to eat excellently in Canada... it's just a bit of shame none of it is actually uniquely Canadian as such.
Last and least, a half-day sampler of rural Canada in the shape of drive down the Rideau Canal to the metropolis of Merrickville (pop. 1,025), which has wisely opted to jettison smelly farm animals and all that tiresome rooting about in soil, substituting the cultivation of tourists instead. Firmly at the other end of the Franco-Anglo spectrum, Merrickville is a decent facsimile of an English countryside town, all stone buildings, expensive antique shops, disused mills and pre-electric factories (there's an "Industrial Heritage Complex" devoted to all the things you can do with a dam and good old-fashioned water power), and a slew of pubs with names like Goose and Gridiron or Monkey and Sprocket, offering bangers and mash, fish and chips, and seventeen gazillion varieties of beer on tap. Even the crowd of Harley-riding bikers in town seemed to mellow out, straighten their doilies and serve each other cups of tea when confronted with this, although admittedly the Ottawa Northern Stars weren't quite a match for the Hell's Angels in appearance or reputation.
Last edited by jpatokal; Sep 13, 05 at 3:42 pm..
Ottawa's Macdonald-Cartier Airport is bright, airy, modern and anonymous, although I was still a little surprised to hear it's only 1.5 years old -- somehow the styling (or lack thereof) looks a bit older, what with exposed ducts, black-on-white signage, and red LED gate displays. The airport was quiet on this Sunday morning, one Executive Class desk was open and I got my boarding pass and instructions to the lounge in seconds. Security had enough lane dividers to queue up a Jumbo but very few other pax: there was the American touch of making me pass my laptop through separately, and the underwear packaged in my carry-on were sniffed for explosives, so it's a good thing I skipped the baked beans.
The lounge is buried way at the other end of the terminal in a satellite building connected by what seemed like half a kilometer of corrugated aluminum sheeting, with no travelators either. My first Maple Leaf Lounge / Salon Feuille d'Erable, namely YOW's domestic lounge, featured jugs of juice with fruit flies buzzing around, a basket of fruit and yogurt, a broken beer machine and no other food (although uncleaned crumbs and half-used butter pats indicated that some sort of breakfast was probably provided earlier). Still, wifi was free (although there was a pointless registration page to jump through), there are nice views of the vast empty tarmac and there are some power outlets too.
My destination today was Vancouver. Looking at a Mercator projector of the world, you might think it makes sense to cross the continent before heading 'west' to Asia, but a globe will give you a better view: sitting on a plane for 5 hours now won't get me much closer at all, since the shortest way to Asia lies due north and I'm actually moving perpendicularly. The very fastest way to Singapore would, in fact, be heading south to New York and then taking the SQ non-stop from there! But, as my gentle reader may have surmised, my appreciation of the American lifestyle or said country's security policies is a little limited, so I wanted to stick to Canada yet not cross the Pacific on its state carrier. Then how? Working Korea into the itinerary provided the perfect solution: YOW-YVR on AC, then YVR-ICN on SQ.
I had my first little premonition of doom when I headed back to gate 18 and saw a diminutive little A320 sitting next it. A single queue filed in and I settled down into my seat, which was designed for an American butt but not a Scandinavian's knees; I'm as incompetent with non-metric measuring units as I am at estimating distances, but the pitch couldn't be much more than 36". Aside from a lumbar support switch, any business-class frills were conspicious in their absence, with no in-seat power, no PTV, no portable DVDs and only a Stone Age Bell Mobile phone lurking in a hidden compartment. This flight was going to be a bit longer than I thought.
No drink service before take-off and we sat around on tarmac for a while since as, the purser helpfully explained, "there are lots of planes flying around and we need to wait for clearance". (Say it ain't so!) Fortunately the big-eyed Japanese FA provided some distraction. On takeoff the angry whine from the engine was deafening, although it did quiet down, and soon we were cruising at altitude over the endless lakes and flatlands of western Ontario.
Lunch-time rolled around, with no pretense at a menu. Appetizer -- no choices, eat it or leave it -- was cold mushy grilled eggplant (obviously AC has a surplus of the stuff) paired with dabs of lentils and a mild, vaguely tomatoe-y sauce. It was edible, but could have used a quick trip to the microwave. Dinner was "beef, chicken or salmon", I opted for the salmon and got a chunk of it baked (well-cooked but juicy) with a mild, vaguely peppery sauce, some mushy boiled potatoes and some really mushy, as in slips-off-your-fork-kinda mushy, carrots and turnips. Bread was served on the side, dessert was a solitary if tasty Swiss chocolate nougat ball, the only non-mushy thing so far, and that, I was slightly disappointed to find, was it. Hardly the worst I've eaten on a plane, or even in business class, but my expectations were a bit higher after the previous trans-Atlantic leg.
Service also fell quite considerably short of the previous flight's high standards, as the same two staff had to handle the entire plane, not just pamper us C folks. I amused myself by trying to figure out where I was, comparing lake shapes to the pathetic little route map in the inflight magazine, and glibly assigned the names of various Great Lakes to assorted ponds along the way... until I noticed that suddenly there was no land on the horizon in any direction and finally understood what that "Great" is all about.
I thought the meal service was already over when, out of the blue, a solitary hint of luxury appeared: a cup of ice cream (unspectacular) and warm chocolate chip cookies (delicious). I whiled away the next hour hacking on my hangeul practice program, trying to get to grips with Korea's writing system, and when my laptop batteries died I lifted up the shade and was treated to a jaw-dropping vista of flat Alberta bursting into BC's snow-topped Rockies.
I was sitting in a nameless little cafe in Gastown, just off Water St. It was 3 PM locally, but 7 PM in Ottawa, so I'd ordered the daily special of a chicken salad sandwich and beef barley soup from the kindly if mildly English-impaired Greek proprietor and headed upstairs to take a look at the advertised 'panoramic' views of the harbor. The little diner was deserted and its decor had doubtless not changed for 30 years, with chipped linoleum tables and the solitary poster of Greece on the wall so faded you could hardly make out the scenery. However, while there were mountains, water and even a ship or two in the distance, most of the panorama before me was filled with a Canadian Pacific Railway container yard, and only after looking at the scenery for a minute or two did I suddenly notice something: almost all the containers were emblazoned with HYUNDAI, and were thus coming from Korea, the place I was going to. I slurped my soup and enjoyed the moment, one of those little moments of nothing much when you're suddenly jolted out of a daily daze into remembering that this is travel, you're very far away from home experiencing something you could never ever do elsewhere, and you're alive.
I think I like Vancouver, enough that I can't glibly slot it into any box I know. New York does come to mind, especially the grungier eastern parts of town with its panhandlers ("Won't somebody buy a bum a beer?"), homeless bums rooting through garbage can looking for bottles, grimy alleys covered in graffiti, skateboarding punks and black-clad metalheads. Priorities, too, see distinctly New Yorky: a free newspaper I picked up screamed about a strange couple offering candy to a kid from a car window on the front page, and mentions in a small box on page 4 that somebody was shot and killed at an East Side intersection in broad daylight. Still, it's a bit too low-rise and (drive-by shootings aside) friendly to match, and there's a distinct West Coast vibe with coffee shops at every corner and Gastown's San Francisco-y "ye olde America" touristy kitsch.
Robson Street and the western parts of town present an entirely different picture: it's squeaky clean, the boutiques are expensive and, unlike inner cities in the US, it's sprouting new glass-fronted condo towers all over the place. I went looking for a bite to eat in the evening, and drank in all the second-generation Chinese cuties with twangy accents and enlarged breasts thanks to consumerism and carbohydrates, improbable numbers of dazed Japanese couples, the occasional gaggle of over-madeup Shibuya girls doing their best to look blase and too cool for all this (I thought they never ventured outside the Yamanote line), and even a flag-toting tour group of noisy aunties. Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Greek, Italian, and Mexican shops rubbed elbows in unlikely harmony and middle-aged white ladies queued up for dim sum at Hon's. I'd been planning to go for sushi, but the ever-so-slightly brisky weather and a Ezogiku shop convinced me to go for a wintery bowl of Sapporo miso ramen -- this was, after all, the last time I'd have the chance to feel a little cold for the next half year.
After guesthousing it in Norway, my lodgings for the night was the Four Seasons Vancouver, and I can't resist gloating that I scored it for C$130 -- and they upgraded me to a vast "Executive Suite" to boot. Not one but four bowls of nuts and fruits, along with an assortment of Perrier, Vittel and San Pellegrino were waiting for me, and I munched on my macadamias as I looked out the window and examined the Occitane au Province-branded shower caps in the bathroom. Alas, this arrangement was one of those "I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you" sort of deals, so please don't PM me asking how I got it
My original plan was to go for a dim sum breakfast in Chinatown, but the next morning I realized that dadgummit, I was about to leave Canada without ever tasting maple syrup, so I had to go find some pancakes. This desire turned out to be surprisingly difficult to fulfill, at least in the center of the city on a Monday morning, and I eventually ended up at a De Dutch outlet hawking mediocre pannekoeken at rather inflated prices ($17 plus tip for a single pancake and OJ!?). But hey, it was a big pancake and "The Canadian" set came with bacon, eggs and a jug of honest-to-Gawd maple syrup to slather all over it.
YVR airport was also rather new and pleasant, asserting its individuality by using white-on-dark-green signage instead of the standard white-on-blue, although I'm certain the interminable Airporter bus (45 minutes for 15 km?!) would drive me up the wall if I had to use it more regularly. I was FastTracked through security, managed to use up my remaining coinage on the plug adaptor I'd left behind in YOW (oops), and found a seat in the packed Maple Leaf Lounge to while away my time before boarding.
SQ17 YVR-ICN B777-200ER C seat 15A
Here's a riddle for y'all. I've flown on SQ17 before, in fact it was my very flight in Raffles Class, but I've never flown YVR to ICN (or vica versa) and the route hasn't changed. What's the answer? Simple: I flew only the continuing leg from ICN-SIN, which retains the same flight number. And now I'll be flying only to ICN, and continuing from there via BKK on TG.
The plane and SpaceBed are the same as on the previously reported SIN-JNB leg, so no more gushing about those. SQ touch of the day: rotating your drink glass so the Raffles logo faces you before handing it over. After a few tense moments in-seat power started working and I settled in for 10 hours, only belatedly realizing that this would, in fact, be an extended daytime flight. I'm starting to get time zones down pat, but the International Date Line still makes my head spin. Consider this: I leave YVR on the afternoon of the 12th local time, and I arrive in ICN on the evening of the 13th local time. However, while the virtual displacement is 26 hours, the actual flight time is just 10 hours. What's more, the flight will be in continuous daylight, so the night effectively disappears. Thus the best jet lag reduction strategy is to try to stay up as long as humanly possible, allowing perhaps only an 'afternoon' nap.
A Savoury Note
Prawns with orange, assorted tomatoes and shaved fennel with choice of lemon vinaigrette or thousand island dressing
The Main Event
Dak Jchim -- Korean style braised chicken with mushroom, spiced vegetables and steamed rice
The Cheese Board
Gourmet cheese with garnishes
A Sweet Note
Coconut and mango ice cream with raspberry coulis
The appetizer was unusual, zesty and tasty with the lemon vinaigrette, although I can't imagine eating it with the thousand island dressing. I'm not much of a prawn fan but this got full points. In comparison the main course was a little bland, while not actively bad none of the ingredients tasted like much. Come think of it, I've never had a decent Korean meal on a plane on either of SQ or OZ; maybe they're afraid that the quantities of garlic, chili and fermented soybeans needed for the real thing would cause mass asphyxiation from collective bad breath? The cheeses were quite edible when washed down with Taylor's LBV 2000, and while the raspberry coulis was zippy the ice cream was a little generic. In all, a fine meal, but a tiny bit disappointing for SQ -- AC's serve remains the best one on this trip so far.
I spent the next two hours watching the black and white orgy of violence, boobies and thongs known as Sin City. I'm genuinely surprised that SQ showed it, and without any blatantly obvious cuts to boot, and I couldn't help noticing that my seatmate opted for the slightly tamed Herbie 2 instead. Half an hour of napping, a round or a few dozen of Civ 3, and lo and behold, it was time to eat some more:
A Savoury Note
Smoked salmon garnished with assorted tomatoes and ranch dressing
The Main Event
Selection of dim sum -- Chinese glutinous rice with chicken, pork dumplings and chicken dumplings
A Sweet Note
Vanilla panna cotta served with assorted berries compote
The salmon was good, although I hadn't realized before that chives are a type of assorted tomato. The dim sum, while much better than the stuff SQ tried to feed me on the previous SIN-JNB flight, was still a little uninspiring, although a part of the blame goes to the fact that I just don't like bak chang (glutinous rice) dumplings all that much no matter how well you make them. The panna cotta didn't taste like much, except maybe vanilla, and that was that. Edible, sure, excellent... meh.
The initial weather forecast had been "partly cloudy", but this was downgraded to "light rain" as we started our approach. After a few dazzling moments of multi-layered cloud formations with sunlight dappling through we plunged into a milky -- and bumpy -- fog, and by the time we landed it was clear that the light rain had turned into heavy rain, namely the tail end of a typhoon. Not a tropical downpour, mind you, just steady hard rain that just soaks as well but keeps raining much longer.
I always get a bit nervous when immigrating to a new country for the first time, but the Republic of Korea stamped me in without a single word and neither did Customs have anything to say. I exchanged my remaining Canadian money into won in a jiffy, got some more money out of a Global ATM that was spiffy, and trooped up to the Asiana office to confirm that my reservation had not turned whiffy, all in under 15 minutes total -- two thumbs up for ICN! Then onto the bus and an interminable two-hour partly traffic-jammed commute through the suburbs of Seoul to my cheapo backpacker single room where I crashed. Final thought: why does even a lumpy mattress in a $20-a-night flophouse feel so much better to sleep in than a Spacebed?
Last edited by jpatokal; Sep 18, 05 at 1:22 am..
Korea! I've meant to visit for the longest time, but my plans have always been foiled by something or the other. My previous attempt was in 2002 during a month-long trip to Japan, of which I'd planned to spend a week in Korea... only it was the season of the 2002 Football World Cup, jointly hosted by the two countries, meaning rabid hordes of fans shouting Great Han People's Country (see above) had commandeered all the planes and ticket prices were 2-4x the usual. So until this day, the closest I had ever been was two airside transits at Incheon, where all I could do was buy gift packs of kimchi and gaze mournfully out the window.
Korea is, in many ways, the forgotten country of East Asia. China has always made its presence known by its sheer size, lately also in the economic sphere, while you can say "Japan" to any inhabitant of the Western hemisphere and they'll rattle back a string of Japanese stereotypes and cultural concepts: sushi Sony samurai Toyota geisha Hello Kitty kamikaze Nintendo kimono Hirohito zen cherry blossom... but ask the same person to think of something Korean, and odds are they'll draw a blank, unless perhaps they know where Hyundai cars or Samsung LCDs come from. Those who actually know some Koreans, perhaps second-generation kids in America, might be able to recall that they have a reputation as fearsomely dedicated students and even more fearsomely well-honed arcade and PC game players... but what else? With North Korea hiding in self-imposed seclusion and South Korea reduced to a virtual island behind it, only in the last few years has Korean culture made any impact even in its Asian neighbors, with the Hallyu (Korean wave) spearheaded by TV drama "Winter Sonata" converting millions of housewives to the worship of its mild-mannered bespectacled star Yong-sama.
My preconception of Korea was "like Japan, only different" and my initial reaction was to be surprised at (for once) how correct this conception turned out to be. This works both on the superficial big-scale level -- high-tech, great infrastructure, polite and reserved people who don't speak English very well -- but, more surprisingly, also in tiny details like the vending machines on the streets, the rounded corners and pastel colors of public buses, the signage in the subways, and even the rows of onigiri (rice balls wrapped in seaweed) on the convenience store shelves, only here they call it gimbap. But is it parallel evolution, Korea copying Japan, or -- gasp -- Japan copying Korea? More on this later.
For me, personally, the big if rather obvious difference between Japan and Korea is that the Japanese speak Japanese (which I understand), while the Koreans speak Korean (which I don't). Linguists still fight about it, no doubt with a few nationalist hatchets waved about in the process, but to my ear it seems obvious that the languages are related, with similar diction and features like insanely complex verb politeness levels, particle-based SOV syntax and vowel yotalization -- this being my new favorite linguistics term, denoting 'y'-sounds slipping into some syllables: ma/mu/mo becomes mya/myu/myo, etc. Knowing also that it can be tough to get around Japan without knowing Japanese, I figured it'd be a wise investment to attempt to wrap my brain around hangul, Korea's native writing system. On first sight, especially of the handwritten variety, you'd be well excused to think it looks about as comprehensible as Klingon: it was designed by a committee from scratch and is about as abstract as possible in appearance, consisting just of lines at right angles with some circles thrown in.
The code starts to crack when you realize that every bit in a block of hangul represents a sound and that the bits are all logically and phonetically related, with various rotations and transformations of a single character meaning that the vowel changes, or the consonant is aspirated, or the diphthong is yotalized, etc. After perhaps 4 hours of hacking at Declan Software's ReadWrite Korean, I think I can safely say that I can now read Korean better than Thai, which I've been studying on and off for two years! I hereby tip my hat at King Sejong's committee, now if Kim Jong Il could just reform the distinctions between aspirated/unaspirated/tensed consonants and front/back/wide/low vowels out of the language then I'd be speaking like a native.
* * *
The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.
After the last night's muggy rain the next morning was crisp and clear. I started off my tour with a bang, although I was hoping it wouldn't be of the literal kind: this morning's destination was the Joint Security Area (JSA) in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating South and North. This is certainly one of the more unusual places you can go as a tourist and indeed, for all their Internet savvy, the Korean companies I contacted seemed to do their best to dissuade me by not replying to any of the reservation forms I sent from their webpages nor my follow-up emails. I finally bit the bullet and called up Panmunjom Tour, who could get me on... but only onto a Japanese-language tour, which was fine with me.
The division of Korea into North and South is one of the great pointless tragedies of the 20th century, surpassed only by the murderous lunacy of the North's hereditary dynasty and its willingness to starve, torture and slaughter its own people in its determination to cling to power. I've followed events in the North with a morbid fascination for as long as I can remember, but have also resolved not to prop up their regime with a single won. As soon as the long-awaited collapse finally comes, I'll be on the first plane to Pyongyang -- but for now, all I could do was get as close as possible.
So bright and early in the morning I subwayed my way to the Lotte Hotel, a 1300-room monolith in the heart of the city, and found my tour bus, packed with a rather motley bunch of Japanese and a solitary Italian who didn't speak Japanese or very much English either. Our young chirpy tour guide, inevitably named Ms. Lee, started a non-stop patter in almost (but not quite) accentless fluent, idiomatic Japanese that by turns described the DMZ's history and sights and did her best to scare the bejesus of the Japanese tourists, who loved it. ("And remember, every moment when you're in the JSA, a North Korean sniper has a rifle aimed at your head!") It's well over an hour by expressway to the DMZ, so she had plenty of time to talk, and once she started retelling the story of the Korean War I zoned out and started looking around. As I'd already seen on the bus from Incheon, the roadsides were protected by barbed wire and guard towers, many with soldiers standing at attention, and the defenses got more and more elaborate as the border loomed closer.
Our first pitstop was Camp Bonifas, the US/ROK camp "In Front of Them All" guarding the entrance to the DMZ. Here we had our passports checked twice, changed buses to a UN-operated model and signed the waiver quoted above. Nutshell summary as provided to me: the DMZ is a buffer of 2 kilometers to each side of the demarcation line marking battle positions at the end of the Korean War -- or, rather, the status quo as South Korea never signed the armistice and the war is, in legal theory, still raging. There's nothing at all in the DMZ except two showcase villages, one by the South and one by the North, and the only contact point between the two sides is the former village of Panmunjeom, now turned into the JSA, a 800-square-meter patch of land jointly policed by both sides. And this was where our trip would be taking us today. Stay with the group at all times, the group moves in two files, no photographs without explicit permission, no pointing of fingers, no jeans, no sleeveless tops, no miniskirts, no sandals, no kidding.
And then into the DMZ. A triplicate barrier of barbed wire and some anti-tank barriers ready to detonate at a flick of a switch, a final checkpoint and UN-blue signboard, and then we entered a sun-dappled forest of buzzing insects and chirping birds. After driving slowly through it and entering the JSA, the bus pulled up at the South Korean "Freedom House" and with military precision we were split into two groups and marched off. Mine headed straight for the conference rooms, where a carefully aligned line of microphones divided the meeting table and its countries in two. Stern-faced South Korean guards in clench-fisted taekwondo poses stared grimly ahead as Japanese tourists posed for shots, everybody proceeded to hop, skip and jump between North and South, and I almost caused an international incident by placing my lens on one of the side tables (eek! don't touch!). Suddenly a flurry of activity and I felt a chill run up my spine: a line of North Korean soldiers in brown was marching past and took up positions outside the conference room. But unlike the South Koreans, who can hide behind their glasses and thus look menacing even if they're dozing, the North Koreans have no protection and thus looked downright human, blinking and dodging our looks as everybody oohed and aahed and snapped away through the glass. Certainly the bizarrest zoo exhibit I've ever seen.
"Mina-san, jikan desu" ("Honorable everybody, it's time"), cooed the guide, and the group was shepherded out and to the next sight, the nearby Peace Pagoda that affords views over the JSA. Turns out there was a tour group on the North Korean side too, waving at us and us back at them. To the west, you could see the North Korean village of Kisong-dong, equipped with a 160-meter flagpole (the world's tallest and duly in the Guinness Book of World Records) to trump the 100m flagpole on the South Korean side. The village looks large, with multi-story concrete buildings and all sorts of facilities, but as nobody actually lives there -- no lights, no smoke, no laundry -- it's dubbed the Propaganda Village.
"Mina-san, jikan desu", and our 15 minutes were over. One more loop by bus to another sightseeing point with better views of the village, then a drive-by of the site of the 1976 Axe Murder Incident (where a group of American and ROK soldiers trimming a poplar tree were attacked by DPRK troops) and the Bridge of No Return used to return POWs after the war, and that was it, total time less than an hour. One final stop in Camp Bonifas before lunch: the inevitable gift shop, where you could pick up chunks of barbed wire from the original demarcation line (a steal at W25,000) as well as chocolate-covered ginseng. A hasty lunch of bulgogi later we headed back to Seoul.
I'd planned to hit the royal palace of Gyeongbokgung in the remaining hours of the day, but a discussion with the Italian guy convinced me that the less well known Changdeokgung was a better shot, and it was 5 min away from my guesthouse to boot. It can only be visited by guided tour, but I made it in time for the last English tour at 3:30 PM, and was very glad I did: the place is gorgeous. More colorful and ornate than the austere Japanese palaces and temples, yet simultaneously more restrained and subtle than Chinese ones, the palace has recently been given a thorough work-over and looked absolutely splendid. (The first row of pictures earlier were all taken at Changdeokgung.)
Then it was time for dinner at Sadongmyenok, a famous little dumpling shop buried in the alleyways of Insadong, and I walked past it around three times before realizing that the Lonely Planet map was useless. I strained my hangul-recognition skills to the limit, spotted a sign pointing into an alley, and hit the jackpot with a soup of the three of the largest dumplings I've ever seen (these things are almost as big as my fist) and a vast spread of banchan (side dishes) served up for all of W5000 ($5). Lip-smacking good. Then, as my final assault before succumbing to jet lag, I set out to duplicate a gorgeous nighttime photo of Namdaemun Gate in my guidebook; turns out you need to clamber on some office building's door to get it, but with a tripod and some creativity you can still manage a decent shot or two.
Goodnight Seoul -- I'll be back, but not on this trip.
Last edited by jpatokal; Sep 20, 05 at 10:18 pm..
I surprised even myself by staying up until 11 PM and waking up a little past 7 AM; who ate my jetlag? Speaking of eating, the hostel's breakfast turned out to consist of toast and jam, so I set out in search of something a little more Korean... and ended up chowing down on a humongous walnut-and-cream-cheese bun from a cafe called Paris Baguette. <burp>
Getting to Gimpo the cheap way entails sitting on Subway Line 5 for some 20-odd stops out, and needless to say at morning rush hour it was packed as I got in. The crowd gradually thinned out though and I got a seat halfway through the 50-minute trip. Gimpo Airport station is equidistant from the domestic and international terminals, so there were still a few hundred meters of travellators to slog through; I can't recommend this route if you have much luggage, but with carry-on only it was OK.
Once in, I was surprised to find that the airport looked all new in sparkling white, I was expecting something much dingier as Incheon has now taken over the position of pride. Odd note: Korean airports actually seem to use the three-letter ICAO airline codes, so flight displays say eg. "KAL KE102" or "AAR OZ8811". I checked in and got a printout with a barcode as my boarding pass, went through security to look for a lounge, then went right back out when informed that the lounge was before security (grumble). The lounge had more pastries from exactly the same shop and wireless LAN lurking under the easy-to-guess SSID of "000D0B6D7744", I surfed for half an hour before heading to the gate. This time, however, security wasn't going to let me through so easily: rooting around in my carry-on reveals a metal canister of maple syrup, and the rather English-challenged guard was at a loss to understand what it was or what to do about it, even after he opened it and sniffed the contents. Fortunately, a passing businessman noticed my predicament and explained in Korean that it was siroppeu, which was deemed satisfactory and I was sent on my way with due apologies and inept attempts to help me repack my baggage.
Load this weekday late morning was 80%-ish, I had a window and two seats next to me, a good thing as the one-class seats were predictably cramped and my knees appreciated the ability to intrude into my neighbor's airspace. The weather was, once again, gorgeous and I spent most of the flight gawking out the window, first at the immense expanse of Seoul and then the deep green mountains. Drink service consisted of a choice between OJ, green tea, black tea or coffee, I sipped at my juice and accepted a rather tasty peanutty sweet to go along with it.
PUS-HIN by bus
The Korea chunk of my trip is a pretty good illustration of the complexities of ticketing an RTW. Here's a rough sketch of how my planning went:
Plan A: A visit to the subtropical island of Cheju, so YVR-ICN-CJU-ICN-BKK.
Plan B: But then I figured that Cheju sounded kinda boring and I spend enough time on supertropical islands anyway, so a recommendation from FT I alter my plan to YVR-ICN-PUS-BKK, with a direct flight to save some miles.
Plan C: But turns out there's no direct PUS-BKK flight on *A the day I want to fly. YVR-ICN-PUS-ICN-BKK then?
Plan D: Hey, I could replace one ICN-PUS flight with the KTX high-speed train... but no mileage savings, so maybe not.
Plan E: And on second thought, I'd have to get up early to catch the sole morning PUC-ICN flight, so let's work in an overnight layover in Seoul: YVR-ICN-PUS-GMP/ICN-BKK. And this is what I ticketed.
Plan F: Gee, it would be fun to visit the DMZ though. How about I stretch the layover to two nights?
Plan G: Oops, JSA tours are not available on weekends. Maybe I could flip the itinerary around to go to Seoul first: YVR-ICN/GMP-PUS-GMP/ICN-BKK.
Plan H: Two layovers in Seoul? I'll suck it up and fly back early in the morning: YVR-ICN/GMP-PUS-ICN-BKK.
Plan I: Looks like there's a direct flight to Jinju, which would save me a bus trip. Would YVR-ICN/GMP-HIJ/PUS-ICN-BKK work?
Plan J: Asiana wants a US$135 change fee for the privilege, so it's back to Plan G with a bus excursion: YVR-ICN/GMP-PUS-(HIJ)-PUS-ICN-BKK.
Like GMP, PUS is an older terminal that has been given a recent retrofitting, signage was plentiful and 100% identical to GMP. I had it all planned out: I'd take public bus 310 to Sasong subway station, cross the street to the Seobu bus terminal and hop on a direct bus to Jinju. Alas, Lonely Planet proved useless yet again when line 310 failed to exist and it would be nearly two hours until the next limo bus to Sasong. I queried the helpful tourist info desk, who suggested a bus to Masan (every 20 minutes) and transferring there to Jinju (every 10 min), a suggestion I gratefully accepted. The plush airport limo bus had signage and even announcements in English, but ever paranoid I worked out how to recognize the hangeul for si-oe beoseu taminal ("intercity bus terminal"), an investment that duly paid off in Masan when I was dropped on the street without a Roman letter in sight. But the terminal was there a block to the left across the street, I spotted my new hangeul friends again in the underground passageway, and got the right ticket for the right bus.
My lodge for the night in Jinju was the Dong Bang Tourist Hotel, chosen solely on account of its convenient location, full facilities and suitable price. Yes, I understand that there is potential for misinterpretation in the name, and the type of uncultured riff-raff who find places like, say, Chiang Mai's fine, upstanding Porn Ping Hotel somehow "funny" would also be amused by the concept of a Dong Bang Tourist... but I did not crack a grin when their business card proffered the handy phrase "Take me to the Dong Bang Hotel" in hangul; I did not smirk when the room service menu suggested a "Dong Bang Breakfast" (a very pleasant way to wake up, I would add); I did not guffaw when a sign outside advertised the "Dong Bang Game Room" (say honey, how about a round or two of Hide the Sausage?); I did not snicker when the "Dong Bang Mini Bar" offered some "Jerked Meat" as a snack; and I did not do my best James Brown imitations ("get on the scene-ah! uh! like a...") when I found the "Dong Bang Night Club" downstairs. No, I just rolled about on the ondol floor laughing my ... off and pilfered all the logo-branded Dong Bang Tourist swag I could find. These guys would rake in the dough if they opened a branch with a souvenir shop in Bangkok.
But Jinju's far enough out in the sticks that tourists, dong-banging or otherwise, were a rare sight and I trotted over its main sight, the Jinju Fortress. This is Korea's Gettysburg and Alamo rolled into one: in 1592, a force of 3,800 Koreans held off over 20,000 Japanese invaders in the first Korean victory in the brutal and pointless Imjin War, but one year later in 1593 the Japanese came back with a force of 70,000 to finish the job and the defenders were slaughtered to the last man, woman and child. Japan's misguided attempt to use Korea as a stepping stone for conquering China still ended in defeat largely thanks to brilliant admiral Yi Sun-shin's navy sinking all their ships, but Koreas paid a huge price with cities razed and hundreds of thousands killed... and the Japanese didn't even learn their lesson, as they tried once again in World War II with the same predictable yet this time even more devastating result.
Today's Jinju Fortress is a pleasant green park on the banks of the Nam river, littered with monuments to the wars' heroes and a branch of the National Museum devoted to the war. A charitable description of the museum would be "jingoistic", but it did hammer home how much of what we (and the world) considers intrinsically "Japanese" is in fact taken from Korea, by friendship or by force: green tea, Zen Buddhism, porcelain pottery, styles of architecture, sushi, all imported wholesale. In fact, a rather plausible conspiracy theory alleges that Japan's Imperial family is in fact originally Korean, and the reason the Imperial Household Agency refuses to allow any archeaological work in Nara's ancient imperial tombs is the fear they would reveal something that proves the connection. (The very shape of the tombs, known as kofun in Japanese, is strikingly similar to Goguryeo-era Korean tumuli.)
A less intentional side effect was what you could read between the lines in the exhibits. Korea's long-ruling Joseon Dynasty was built on absolute Confucian domination of the peasantry and hereditary slavery, with blind obedience as the sole virtue and painful death as the only punishment. The ruling class bought off China by sending vast amounts of tribute as gold, silver, cloth and virgins for the Chinese emperor's harem each year, and in all was so oppressive that not a few disgruntled Koreans actually joined the Japanese invaders to fight against their erstwhile masters. In its entire recorded history even South Korea has only known democracy of a sort since 1992, when the first civilian president was elected, and North Korea has regressed back into Joseon's totalitarian caste system to the extent that, instead of the south's Hanguk, they've even adopted Choson (Joseon) as the official name of their country, language and writing system.
Enough politics -- it was time to eat. Jinju is famous for two dishes, and of course I had to sample both. At lunch I opted for bibimbap, a bowl of rice topped with meat and all sorts of veggies, to which a dollop of spicy gochujang paste is added and then mixed up vigorously before eating. Sounds simple but can be excellent, particularly the dolsot variety served in a scalding-hot stone bowl that cooks the edges of the rice to a crisp as you eat. And for dinner I tried something a little more expensive, namely grilled eel. I'm a great fan of the Japanese version (unagi), basted with a sweet soy-based sauce and eaten as is on rice, but Jinju style is to add a dab of the ubiquitous gochujang, some chilli and garlic according to taste, then wrap the whole thing in a sesame leaf (this being the first time I realized such a thing even exists) and devour. It was OK, but no more then OK -- the sesame leaves have an odd peppery taste and the eel wasn't anything special either -- and my appetite wasn't much improved by one of the side dishes, namely a bowl of boiled silkworm larvae (beondegi). Now I'm a pretty omnivorous kinda guy and will happily chow down on any part of any animal, but I usually draw the line at insects. But these came without ordering and I do also make it a rule to try anything once, so I shrugged, made sure I had something to wash it down with, picked up a grub, and bit off its head. Inside was featureless gray mash, which didn't really taste like much of anything, although the little taste it did have was not particularly pleasant and my hind brain was jibbering "ewwwww, you're eating bug brains", which didn't help. Consciously suppressing my instinct to do precisely the opposite, I popped the rest in my mouth, chewed as fast as I could, swallowed and pushed the plate away to the corner of the table. I'm still glad I tried it, if mostly so that I now don't have to do it again.
HIN-PUS by bus
Same as earlier, only by a direct bus this time. And I cursed my lack of hangul ability when I tried to buy a can of soybean milk for the journey (the Korean variety is excellent) and ended up with sickly sweet banana-flavored cow milk instead.
Graceful rooms, coffee shop, room of quiet meeting, fancy restaurant for very tasteful the newest foods, Korean restaurant noble conference rooms of all sizes and shower stall, all-weather rest place with physical strength control. After all the GWANG JANG TOURIST HOTEL is yours.
Lured by such promises I made the Gwang Jang Tourist Hotel my all-weather rest place, turned my physical strength control to maximum and set off to explore.
Busan's a port city, with all that entails. Right opposite the hotel and Busan station is the Choryang Foreigner Shopping Area, which is Busan's combined Chinatown and Russiatown, meaning ornate red gates and statues of Confucian daddies stroking their beards juxtaposed with corner shops selling vodka, pickles and, true to the name, heavily made-up female foreigners of mostly Russian and Filipino persuasion, waiting to be purchased. My quest to find a bottle of Russian champagne to bring back, already once foiled at Barentsburg, stayed fruitless and I skedaddled out before a horde of babushkas could ambush and ravish me. After a detour to Yongdusan Park, home to Busan's eminently skippable tourist trap the Busan Tower (which I duly skipped, but only after picking up some hard-to-find postcards in the gift shop), I headed a few blocks down towards Nampodong. Here the city center smartens up and becomes a little more Tokyo-like, a crazy neon mishmash of boutiques, restaurants and love hotels with throngs of young people strolling about on this Friday evening.
I set my mind of finding a decent bowl of mul-naengmyon, Pyongyang-style buckwheat noodles in iced broth and hence a perfect antidote to a sweltering day, but soon realized that it's kinda hard to find a specific food item when it takes you 10 minutes to "read" (as in, painfully attempt to decipher) a single signboard, and there are approximately 17 signboards per square meter. I optimized my algorithm to look only for the last character of each signboard: ''-bap'' means rice, ''-tang'' and ''-guk'' mean soup, I was looking for ''-myeon'' but it had to be ''naengmyeon'' and not, for example, ''ramyeon''... an hour later I was still wandering around, hungry, until I passed by a shop for the second time and reparsed a string I had already dismissed. Score!
Mission accomplished, I headed past Busan's bopping nightlife and went to bed early, but not after seeing what kind of fare the TV's 40+ channels had offer. Except for CNN and NHK, every single channel was Korean -- just how many channels does this country have? One was showing a program I thought was mythical, namely youngsters in race car driver uniforms emblazed with corporate logos sitting in front of computers playing ''Starcraft'' before a live studio audience, complete with cheering fans and swooning girls holding up fan posters. Another fixture in these cheap motels seems to be channels of softcore porn, although thanks to either strict censorship or an inexplicable nationwide foot fetish the actors seem to spend most of their time sucking each others' toes. Perhaps this explains why, despite garish love motels on every corner, South Korea's birthrate is the world's lowest.
The next morning I cleansed my eyeballs with a visit to Beomeosa, a sprawling temple complex just to the north of town. It was big, it was bustling, and it was quite beautiful -- the same overall designs as Seoul's palaces, only a little more weathered. Whether by purpose or coincidence, I know not, but while the city is just a few kilometers away, you can't see a single housing complex or other hint of Busan's vast concrete sprawl, just lush forest and misty mountaintops. An 8.8-km hiking trail leads from here to Geumjeong Fortress, and with more time and better shoes at my disposal I would probably have tackled it. Next time?
Up next was some cleansing of a less figurative sort at the Heosimcheong spa (or "Hur Shim Chung", as they insist on spelling it). The spa claims to be Asia's biggest, and while the fine folks at Noboribetsu Dai-Ichi might disagree, it certainly is vast: it's got hot tubs, tepid tubs, cold tubs, boiling tubs, outdoor tubs, foot tubs, sitting tubs, outdoors tubs, strawberry milk tubs (!), waterfalls, saunas, a swimming pool and 2,000 Korean men, boys and toddlers staring curiously at a solitary foreigner in their midst. (I was glad I'd adhered to the precepts of galactic hitchhiking and brought along my towel to maintain a shred of dignity.) And that was just the spa floor: downstairs there were steam igloos heated to 80, 50 and zero degrees, oxygenated rooms, charcoal-filtered rooms, infrared heating rooms, karaoke rooms (disguised as "meeting rooms", but the crooning from within was unmistakable), a PC gaming room, a beauty salon, a restaurant and a miniature movie theater. (Do excuse me if I left out a few.) Total cost for all-day entry: W8000, or approx $8. Very much worth a visit.
After some souvenir shopping at the ludicrously pompous Lotte Deparment Store in Seomyeon, which was buzzing with shoppers looking for Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) gifts -- how about a W500,000 box of ginseng or a fashionable gift set of Spam? -- I headed off to swat two remaining shrimps with a tunafish, namely by taking in Gwangangri ("Gwangalli") Beach and eating a dinner of traditional Korean raw fish (heotjip). Gwangalli is quite a sight at night, when the huge Gwangwan Bridge crossing past it is lit up, and it was filled with canoodling Koreans. At least half were probably coming from or going to the Millak Raw Fish Center at the northern end of the beach, where the first floor retails sea creatures and the nine floors above it chop them up and serve them to you.
I picked one at random and was presented with a choice: set A, B, or C, at 30000, 40000, or 50000 won respectively. "Flounder it", I thought, "this is my last night so let's see the best that Busan has to offer", and chose C. My table soon started to fill up at an alarming rate, and here's a reconstruction based on the photographic evidence above, with inline commentary.
Part One: The Freak Show
Live tiny octopus (sannakchi) -- Korea's most infamous Fear Factor food candidate, the octopi had been duly chopped up before serving, but I hadn't expected them to keep on moving for a full half an hour afterwards. Damned difficult to eat too, as even quiescent bits would suddenly reanimate and latch onto the plate with all their suckers when you tried to peel them off with your chopsticks, but actually rather tasty when properly anesthesized with wasabi and soy sauce. I ate about half. Sea squirt -- I'd heard horror stories about these things in northern Japan (it's hoya in Japanese) but had never seen them before. Lonely Planet accurately summarizes the taste and texture as "rubber dipped in ammonia"; I choked down two and gave up. Thin strips of mystery fish meat with chili sauce on shredded giant radish and lettuce -- Chewy and fishy. Two were enough. Some sort of raw cockle -- My least favorite shellfish. One was plenty. Mystery shellfish -- So hard it didn't even dent when poked with a chopstick. The only thing I skipped entirely.
Part Two: The Less Freaky Show
Japanese nigiri-zushi with pickled ginger -- Just two pieces, promptly eaten. Fresh abalone -- This was very good: firm, but not just cartilage. Grilled scallop with herbed butter -- Good. Pan-fried salmon with a soy-based sauce on sliced onion -- Not bad. Spring onion pancake (pajoen) -- Greasy. Half of it was plenty. Chinese pumpkin simmered in sugar -- Quite good, but didn't really sync; this is a popular dessert in Japan (kabocha-ni).
Part Three: The Actual Raw Fish
Sashimi platter with three kinds of fish and kimchi -- Evidently this was supposed to be the main event, but I found the quality of fish seriously disappointing: it was fresh alright, but most cuts were very chewy. Also, the Korean style of eating this is to place the fish on a lettuce leaf and layer kimchi, gochujang, garlic and whatnot on top -- but then you can't taste the fish at all anymore!
Part Four: The Remains of the Fish
Jjigae-style spicy fish head soup -- Simple but very tasty, I was reminded of Hungarian korhely halaszle (drunkard's carp soup). And I couldn't help but think that the same fish was much softer, and tastier, when cooked. Banchan platter: kimchi, pickled radish, pickled chillies, sweet black beans. Beans were very good, the rest were OK. Rice. I ate about three bites and was charged W1000 extra for it.
Would I order it again? No. Am I glad I tried it once? Yes. But Tsukiji's sushi shops have little to fear from at least this particular joint; the Korean style of slathering chili and garlic works great with grilled meat, but just doesn't make much sense to me for something as delicate as raw fish.
Last edited by jpatokal; Sep 22, 05 at 9:35 pm..
Would I order it again? No. Am I glad I tried it once? Yes. But Tsukiji's sushi shops have little to fear from at least this particular joint; the Korean style of slathering chili and garlic works great with grilled meat, but just doesn't make much sense to me for something as delicate as raw fish.
I've only done sashimi in Korea once, but I have very fond memories of the experience. Several years ago in August (the travel month), one of my friends exercised a few time share nights (I gather lots of Koreans own time shares) and we headed for Soraksan and the beach nearby. Upon arrival, my friend introduced me to the practice of condo ting (if anyone is familiar with this concept that completely evades google, kudos to you), and we headed for the stretch of sashimi joints near the sea. Our subsequent meal was nothing short of intense. Eating the octupus was a bit of a battle because it kept on trying to grab on to the inside of my mouth; the intensely hot chili sauce only made my quarel with him more exciting. And, the soju I washed him down with was also a nice touch. Aside from the octopus, the other fish was pretty good too (and quite similar to the stuff I had during my recent weekend in Japan).
Programs: CX, OZ, MU (+AY, DL), Shangri-La, Hilton
A fascinating read. I have to admit actually learning a lot about cities I had thought of knowing well. Travel can be elevated to a form of art and the grand tour tradition is still not dead.
Eating seafood in Korea is a social event as moondog mentioned. It's a good excuse to knock back soju with the guys and people are ready to drive insane distances for the perfect evening by the sea.
Btw, one of the reasons that I have enjoyed the Dong Bang sauna ( and this includes all better hotels ) a lot is indeed the lack of overt curiosity. Just worn out BTDT businessmen who only want to relax and sleep and no noisy kids in sight.
Still waiting for the Chuseok finale...
Last edited by mosburger; Sep 22, 05 at 3:35 pm..
Programs: NZ*G, OZ*S, QFroach, Former 'bottom-feeder' AC*G
More trip-reporting goodness from jpatokal... just what I like to see.
I'm impressed by your efforts with recognising hangeul in Korea, though I agree that they are easier than they appear. I managed to memorise part of the symbols for a certain type of restaurant (specialising in the traditional style 'banquet', where before you know it your table is heaving with about 50 different bowls of food of varying levels of palatability and recognizability) as I didn't want to be dragging our guidebook around Seoul when we went out in the evening, and to my amazement navigated my way to an excellent little place in Insadong. I hadn't really thought through what would happen next, however, as I spoke no Korean and the charming proprietor spoke no English. In fact, the only word we both had in common was birru, so at least our drinks were taken care of. In the end, we just trusted in fate, and the food just kept on coming... no still-wriggling octopus though, thankfully.
You're right, Korea does seem to be the forgotten country in Asia, and for some reason Seoul has a reputation as being incredibly boring, whereas I found it fascinating.
Programs: SQ TPP, BA Gold, CX Gold, SPG Plat/LTG, Hyatt Dia, Hilton Dia
Originally Posted by jpatokal
Part One: The Freak Show
Live tiny octopus (sannakchi) -- Korea's most infamous Fear Factor food candidate, the octopi had been duly chopped up before serving, but I hadn't expected them to keep on moving for a full half an hour afterwards.
Been there, 'watched' (not 'done') that.
On the beach near the Marriott in Busan while being entertained by a supplier. As someone who doesn't eat seafood of any description I was rather bemused watching him and 5 friends partake in this, while politely refusing the continuous offers to try it.
Even more interesting was watching the woman who was serving in the little shack near the beach remove 2 of them from the tank and proceed to rain down these hefty blows from behind the counter with a rather frightening looking instrument, before returning with a smile on her face and numerous plates of 'moving food'.
My alarm clock rang at 05:15 AM and the "fun" part of my vacation was over. The rain that had greeted me on my arrival came back to say goodbye and a taxi took me to the airport a little too quickly, as at ten to six all the Asiana counters were still closed. Five minutes before six a line of giggling Korean girls in normal clothes walked in behind the counter; at six on the dot a line of expressionless khaki-suited robots in heavy make-up and Boy Scout scarves took their positions on the battlefield and checked me in. With a pitter-patter of high heels one more robot was dispatched to open the Asiana Lounge on the 3rd floor (again before security) and I took possession -- I think this is the first time I've had a lounge all to myself. (Any other frequent flyers on this flight probably sleep in a bit longer.)
Security too was sleeping on the job this morning, but a shock awaited me on boarding -- this aircraft had an actual business class! The back of the bus (row 10+) was the expected 3-3, but the first three rows (1-3) were 2-2. This early morning PUS-ICN flight is designed solely for connections to international flights (exhibit A: yours truly), so evidently they have enough hot shots willing to pay a premium... although I'm not sure if this is standard practice or just an equipment change, as my ticket didn't contain the word "business" anywhere. And indeed, all you get is legroom and buttroom, the drink service was identical on both sides and again consisted of soft drinks and a candy-coated peanut. Halfway through the flight we got high enough to witness some fascinating cloud formations, like puffy icebergs floating across a glacier of dark grey storm, and I recalled the views of Esmarkbreen half a world away...
ICN's midget-sized domestic section (all of 5 gates) rattled in emptiness and I scurried over to the much more bustling international side of the terminal. Check-in was smooth and I even received my boarding pass for my connecting, but separately ticketed, flight from BKK to SIN. At security, that darned can of maple syrup again posed problems, and I finally understood why when the display of Bad Items showed a can of lighter fluid identical in shape and size. When stopped and told "cannot take", I corked the bottle, dabbed my finger in and licked it clean. An initially shocked reaction turned to something approaching understanding and I was waved on my way.
Much to my dismay (and contrary to what I seemed to recall), there were no Lotteria outlets -- Korea's answer to McDonalds -- to be found on past security in ICN, and I was denied my traditional Korean last meal of a kimchi burger. For lack of better options I ventured over to Baegoe King and ordered a Bulgogi WHOPPER Jr., only to find that, for the first and last time on this trip, my attempts to pronounce Korean had been misunderstood and I got an Original WHOPPER Jr instead. Weeping, I headed to the Silver Kris lounge and consoled myself with a can of Nostalgia Drink Soojeonggwa, an odd but not untasty Korean drink of cinnamon and random spices, and plugged a 100BaseT cable into my laptop to soothe my withdrawal pains.
ICN-BKK TG659 B777-200 seat 12K
As I headed to the gate the boarding call for Asiana's one daily flight to Sendai sounded and I recalled my my first visit to ICN, when I'd boarded that very flight. Today, too, boarding was on time and I briefly exulted in my 3.8 seconds of fame as an object of public envy as I joined the business/first boarding line and then turned left to the business/first boarding door (was this really the first one so far on this entire trip?). Load on this Sunday morning flight was abysmally low, I counted 9 people in the 49-seat business section, giving us an 18% load; I had a window with the next 5 seats empty.
Having flown regional TG biz thrice before, my expectations for this flight weren't very high. Indeed, the aircraft was one of the older 777s that form the backbone of Thai's fleet, with no in-seat power and no video-on-demand as expected, but there was a little personal TV looping five (very bad) movies. A second positive surprise was that we received an actual amenity kit, although the pretty triangular Thai-style bags of my previous flight had been replaced with a rather anonymous brown-black plastic thing more befitting Lufthansa (or, for that matter, Asiana). Food has generally been a comparative high point on TG's flights, but today was a bit of a letdown after SQ/AC's best efforts:
Marinated Prawns, Vegetables Chaudfroid
Mixed Green Salad with Vinaigrette Dressing
Beef Short Rib Korean Style, Steamed Thai Hom Mali Rice, Pak-choy
Assorted Breads, Crackers, Butter
Cheese and Fresh Fruits
Sponge Cake with Lemon Cream Mousse
"Vegetables chaudfroid", for those of you who skipped French class, translates as "broccoli jello" -- the favorite dish of neither Bush Sr nor me. The prawns were big but cold and the marination seemed to consist mostly of sesame oil, although a squirt of lemon did liven things up. Despite my earlier misgivings I tried the beef short rib (bulgogi, the very thing missing from my earlier burger) over salmon (Western-style), chicken (Korean) or pork (Thai), but alas, TG joins OZ and SQ in offering utterly tasteless Korean airplane food. At least they had the decency to provide a tub of gochujang to drown the beef and stringy boiled Chinese cabbage in.
Today's cheese platter consisted of, as the purser helpfully explained, "Camembert and sorry I don't know." (Based on the big holes, hard texture and vaguely sharp taste, it was a young Emmental.) I skipped the port (Cockburn's LBV) and tried the sponge cake with lemon cream mousse, which tasted like it had crawled out of economy.
BKK-SIN TG409 A330-100 seat 32D
I'd timed my transit to be just over an hour, which was perfect: a quick trip up into the Royal Orchid Lounge and then to the gate. As usual, Thai security didn't bat an eyelid over my syrup can of doom. Into the tube by the business/Star Gold line, but out from it by the economy door (oh, woe).
This flight was packed to the gills. I buried myself in the Economist and waited for lunch-dinner. Fish with potatoes or prawn curry with rice? I picked the curry, and was rewarded with my first taste of a Thai red curry in a month -- heavenly. The salad on the side was an odd mix of apple, grapes and peanuts, which I realized with a jolt was in fact a toned-down version of yam polamai (Thai savoury fruit salad), only they'd gone a little easy on the fish sauce and a lot easy on the chili. Full points for creativity though. Dessert was a rather bland bread pudding and I had my tray cleared in time for drink service.
Programs: CX, OZ, MU (+AY, DL), Shangri-La, Hilton
What a fitting end to a classic RTW journey, one of the most typical Asian business commutes.
As for Korean burger joints, I'd say BK has an egde over Lotteria. The BK "koreanized" products still have that nice grilled meat taste and portions are large enough for breakfast or lunch. Lotteria creations tend to be too fancy, small in size and bloody expensive. For Korean fast food chains, I'd go for Nolboo pork and kimchi combos with the usual salad wrappings and side dishes.
For non-lounge food ICN highlights are the Transit Hotel Korean restaurant and the Hyatt Regency "8" lunch/brunch buffet. The former is good for Korean standards while the latter offers a gourmet buffet with sushi, oysters and other seafood, Korean flavours and a splendid cheese/dessert selection. You can also book a private ( panorama ) dining room for meetings.