Not much to say about today, except that I keep loving Sydney more and more. Walked around several neighborhoods with very nice architecture (especially around an area called Ultimo), including two fairly well known gay neighborhoods (Surry Hill and Darlinghurst), both of which have beautiful, tree-lined streets. The food so far is nothing spectacularly creative, but it is tasty and generally well done. And again, it probably helps my impression of Sydney that the weather has been gorgeous and the people have been very nice. Especially my host and friend Nick, who is a hoot to hang out with in the evenings when is home from work. Tomorrow night we will head off to the capital of Australia, a place called Canberra, where we will spend the weekend learning about the Australian form of government, going to a history of Australia museum, visit with a friend of Nick’s who lives there, and attend a dance party best described as the Australian version of a gay hoe down.
I arrived to the most beautiful spring weather in Sydney, and I am sure this is coloring my experience of this place, because after one short day of walking around, I love it. I arrived at the Sydney airport this morning at about 8am, after my 10 hour flight from Seoul. One side note about that here: first class, business class or economy, I seem fated by the universe to have a screaming infant near me. Although this one may have had something especially wrong with him. Throughout the flight, his mother kept putting him on her back, and then her mother/helper who came along would wrap the kid up, and then cover him entirely with a plastic raincoat. I am not at all sure he could breath, and they seem to have this weird ritual down to a science. Besides depriving him of oxygen and possibly contributing to brain damage, I am not sure how or why they developed this odd positioning game and it made it impossible for the mother to take her seat of course. It did seem to calm him down a bit, but imagine having to do this every time your kid cried, I would kill myself. And of course the dad, who was in the seat in front of them, only turned around occasionally to make sure the women were taking care of the situation, and then went back to reading his paper. It could have been worse, the kid only woke up the cabin 2 times during the night.
Anyway, back to Sydney. It seems a strange mashup of familiar things that have been put together in unfamiliar ways. The trains are somewhat like England’s but somewhat not. The architecture feels quite American in places. And there is an old house type in Darlinghurst that reminds me exactly of the colonial house type I saw in Melaka (Malaysia). It is springtime as I said, and there are beautiful smells from jasmine and other flowering plants all over the city (well, at least where I walked down through the botanical gardens on my way to the opera house). And speaking of flowering things, there are Jacaranda trees everywhere and they are in full bloom (I haven’t seen those since I lived in Mexico City). I have seen species of birds I did not recognize, and the coffee here is really top notch. The people seem very American to me in dress and the way they carry themselves, and like Americans they are either ruthlessly fit or very much overweight. The city most reminds me of San Francisco, in its scale and charm and attitude of the people.
I think that title means goodbye. I am leaving this afternoon for Sydney, and really looking forward to the Australian (Oceanic?) part of my trip. Seoul has been great I am really glad I came. On my last full day I walked through some street markets, along Cheonggyecheon, and up towards Anguk and Samcheong-dong, a super chi-chi area of Seoul with a lot of cute shops and cafes. And then last night I met Jason and Kevin for the best BBQ I have had yet here, near the university in Hongdae, an area filled with shops and restaurants. In fact, when I started thinking about everywhere I had been in Seoul, it occurred to me that it is very easy to get the impression from the built environment that all these people do is shop and drink coffee (and maybe take walks in the parks a bit). There is of course much more to life here (and everywhere) than that, but shopping is definitely pervasive and striking. And this coming from an American.
- There are a surprising number of Christians here. Like way, way more than any other Asian country that I have been to. Churches are everywhere, and so is proselytization. Maybe that explains all the early Christmas decorations.
– Many of the shops and service establishments are tiny and in very out of the way places, tucked into seemingly unfindable nooks and crannies of back alleys and dead ends. How do these places survive and thrive? Or do they?
– Similarly, any type of business could be anywhere, they are all stacked up on top of each other in improbable places and sizes. A bar in a broom closet on the 4th floor of a walk up. A nail salon behind a piece of corrugated metal propped up between two buildings. A church on the 3 rd floor of an office building. A “storefront” made by taking over the side of a public, very steep staircase. (To be fair, this kind of micro organization of space and lack of zoning is the hallmark of many Asian countries I have been to, I just haven’t seen it in a while and it is impressive and disorienting to Westerners)
– Apparently they did away with public garbage cans several years back because people were dumping their private trash there (and thus avoiding taxes related to home garbage pickup), so there is no place to throw anything away. Now what happens in the public space is people will wait for one brave sociopath to drop some garbage, and then everyone feels safe to add to it, creating large public piles of garbage that apparently will then get cleaned up by the city.
– cell phone service (signal) is pervasive here, in every nook and cranny and deep underground. And everyone is always on their (mostly Samsung) phone.
– On several occasions, especially early morning when things are generally quiet, I have come across people repeatedly chanting some sort of prayer loudly while walking down the street.
– I note with some disappointment that the bibimbap I have tasted here does not compare well in quality to the ones I have had in NYC. I am sure I am not finding the right or better places to go, but I would still expect this to be one of the best things you find almost anywhere here, but no. Same story with the BBQ grilled meats, which while better in quality than the bibimbap, are not as good as what I have had at some places in NYC. The only real standout food wise so far has been the street food, most especially the meat and kimchi filled steamed buns I had the other day.
– Soju, on the other hand, is way cheaper here and I love it.
– I have had a great time here, especially with the people I have met. I highly recommend coming to Seoul. However, I feel that 4 or 5 days in Seoul is more than enough to get to know the place.
Last night I was out for a night on the town with a lovely couple here (Kevin and Jason, who were introduced to me by my friend Gabe). They took me on a tour of some of Seoul’s neighborhoods by night, and I realized something fundamental about Seoul that I feel I had been missing before. There are many small interesting areas that are quite compartmentalized and a little difficult to find if you don’t know exactly where they are. Many times I had been very close to an interesting street or area and had not known anything about it, I had been stuck in some charmless canyon of a street with high walls and no shops or street life at all. Kevin and Jason (and their friend Guido who joined us) took me on a stroll through several of these areas, and they were teeming with life (I am sure it being Saturday night did not hurt anything). We walked through Insadong, up in a cute area near the Anguk station (where I had been a few days ago, but never saw this part), along the canal, had dinner and then ended up at a sweet gay bar (which felt more like a restaurant to me, everyone was sitting at tables) in Jongno. As is always the case, meeting up with a local is the best way to discover a place, and these guys were so great to hang out with.
Itaewon is a funny little area in Seoul. It is the expat area, chaotic and lively, with a bunch of places catering to expat tastes. There are a ton of coffee shops, French and Italian restaurants, bars and clubs, etc. And a strange proliferation of pubs and craft breweries. And lots and lots of old Korean men on the street during the day asking me if I want to have a suit made. The architecture of the area is pretty haphazard, hilly with winding streets. And there are a lot of trashed shops that are closed, and then a lot of mom and pop places selling odd items, and wedged in among those lots of worldwide brand stores like Nike and New Balance and such. The whole area is pretty dirty. And walking around this jumble of a neighborhood, and knowing a little about the history of Seoul, and being exposed to surely too much MASH while growing up, I kind of imagine this area as the place soldiers on leave from the war front came to when they wanted to get a hooker, father a war baby or two, drink heavily, let off steam and so forth, before inevitably returning to the war and the hell and craziness that is a mobile army medical team. The area, being currently so close to the army base here, probably still serves many of these same purposes today (I actually have no idea if the area even existed as such during the war, it just gives off that kind of vibe). It is also the center (such as it is) of Seoul’s gay nightlife, on a small stretch of sloping road known as “Homo Hill”. Although I am glad to have experienced it, the area very central, and my apartment a pretty good deal, I think if I return to Seoul I will try a different neighborhood next time, something a little less geared to foreigners.
Yesterday (still today for most of you) was a whirlwind walking trek across much of Seoul. First was starting in Itaewon, then heading over to and trekking up through the beautiful Namsan Park to the tower at the top, with great fall scenery and stunning views over the city. After that, it was a descent to the other side, passing through some great street markets and finding one of the tastiest treats I have had here in the form of meat and kimchi buns, fresh and hot from the steamer. From the markets, over to the Gyeongbok Palace by way of a collection of oddly shaped buildings that fill the landscape of the city. And finally, back to my place via the Myeong-dong shopping area. You can check out the whole collection of photos below:
As you may have noticed by now, there are a lot of small things I notice about a place, thoughts I like to collect that are somewhat random and not worthy of a post all their own. Here are a few from this place:
– Strangely, Google Maps provides no walking directions in this city, forcing me to navigate myself.
– I would not call Seoul an especially beautiful city, and contrasting it with Tokyo where I have just been, it is much dirtier and grittier.
– The subway here has some very nice things about it, like protected doors (no suicides here I bet!), and numbered exits that are a huge help in navigation, and for knowing where to meet people outside. They also have a very nice refillable card system for getting around. And the signs and announcements are in English as well as Korean which makes it all very easy to navigate. The direction of the trains is very clearly marked as well.
– There is much more English spoken here than in Japan.
– And unlike Japan, there is a lot of public talking, throat clearing, sneezing, coughing, and general noise making.
– There seem to be a lot more foreigners here than I found in Japan, but it could just be the areas I have been staying in.
– I have never seen so many varieties of coffee shop chain, it is really a battle for dominance.
– I can’t quite put my finger on the overall aesthetic of the modern architecture here, but if I had to sum up in one word, it would be “clumsy”
It is a bit odd getting used to being a solo traveller again. There is something nice about discovering things with a good travel buddy like Ken. Still, I have been really enjoying wandering around Seoul, which is a very different place than Tokyo, despite several people telling me that they found them to be similar. Today I got to know the subway system, which is really top notch, walked around tiny bit in my local hood called Itaewon, then made my way over to the impressive and somewhat creepy war memorial and museum. Although parts of the museum are really great, I find that it glorifies war way too much for my taste. The museum has artifacts and history on every war that Korea has ever fought, and there are a lot of them. The most interesting parts for me were the sections that deal with the Korean War and detail the history and timeline of the events. I felt like I had a much better understanding of South Korea after viewing those. And there are a few very interesting spaces in the building that are worth seeing for the design. After that I went to a cool area of old Korean houses called Bukchon, that had a lot of restored traditional architecture. I have a ton of notes on my impressions so far, but will save those for tomorrow’s post. For now, check out the pics by clicking on the image below:
I bid a fond farewell to Ken yesterday (about 22 hours ago, the poor guy is STILL in transit) and boarded my flight to Seoul, where I now find myself. Once I got in and settled, it was about 6 in the evening, so I took a brief nap before heading out to meet Kevin, Jason, and Uin (super nice friends of my friend Gabe) for dinner in the neighborhood. They took me to a great Korean place where we had things whose names I can’t remember (despite asking at least 3 times) and that now I wish I had taken a few photos of. There were some fried vegetables with a kind of savory pancake thing beneath, there was a spicy chicken dish in a thick broth, there was kimchi and beans and something else. All of it was pretty delicious. In any event, by the end of the evening we had all drank so much delicious soju that I could barely walk. I am staying in the center of Seoul, in a neighborhood called Itaewon, which is very lively and also happens to be the heart of foreign and gay nightlife here. I will head out soon to explore the area and take pictures and report back later on what I find.