The last week has gone past in a blur of food, drinking and Norebang (or Kareoke). Not really knowing what to expect, I hit the ground in Seoul at about 8am, grabbed my bags and a not-particularly-authentic coffee and decided to brave the South Korean subway system rather than catch a taxi to my hostel.
Coming from Perth, where the defining experience on public transport involves being stabbed by a crack addict, this was a whole new world. I paid about $1 – half of which is refunded if you return your card/ticket at the end of your journey – dragged my ridiculously heavy bag on to the sparkling, nearly empty train, and sat back as it pulled away with a gentle whisper of efficiency. The hour-long ride was so smooth that despite reaching speeds of 100+ km/h I was able to balance my helmet on top of my bag the whole trip without it falling off. I took a photo of my helmet to prove this, much to the amusement of my fellow passengers.
I stayed in the wonderfully-named FunFunStay hostel, run by the unflappable Martin from Norway. After a quick break for a noodle lunch and an explore with Ben, an Italian guy I randomly met in the noodle bar, I headed back to the hostel for a hard afternoon napping, followed by cheap drinks at the local bar with the other hostellers. This really set the pattern for the rest of the week: napping, eating and heavy drinking. Followed by some napping, and more drinking.
In Korea, the spirit of choice is Soju, which costs about $1.50 a bottle in the local convenience store. It’s distilled from rice, and the two leading brands are respectively the first and third top-selling alcohol brands in the world, and coming in at about 20% ABV it’s a great choice for the traveler on a budget. It tastes about what you would expect for $1.50, but you’re soon so drunk that it doesn’t really matter.
In an effort to experience some actual Korean culture beyond the bottom of a bottle, on Wednesday I made my way across to the Jongmyo Shrine, a series of ancient buildings set in sprawling gardens; here, the spirit tablets of Korean kings are housed. By complete luck it was national culture day and I scored free entry. After wandering around the surprisingly empty grounds learning about Korean history I made up for the break from drinking by hitting the local markets for some deep-fried street food.
Munching on fried potato cake, I then proceeded to stumble upon the most amazing thing: the electronic supply area in Seoul. Hidden behind shops on the main street selling light bulbs, you can buy close on anything your heart desired for prototyping robotics and industrial control equipment – electronic components, pneumatics, control hardware, actuators and hardware like springs, screws, grommets. Some shops scattered around did rapid CAD prototyping and machining for boxes and faceplates. Others did some more serious machining and sheet metal fabrication. Wandering around, the shops slowly morphed into lab-supply places selling laboratory glassware (customised on the spot), chemicals and instruments.
After blowing two hours in engineers’ paradise, I headed back to the hostel for dinner at Martin’s favourite restaurant: all you can eat Japanese. It was ridiculously good. They had unlimited, self-serve softserve. I ate everything. On the way home, a busker performed an acoustic Gangnam Style to an enthusiastic crowd.
Now firm friends after 36 hours of solid drinking and Korean food, Carlos (from Ireland, living in Japan), Iman (from Belgium) and I headed out for after-dinner drinks. Not really dressed or appropriately ID’d for clubbing, we went for the classy option and knocked back bottles of $1 soju in a park (with beats and breakdancing), where awesome Koreans started chatting to us. This was followed by some very, very loud Karaoke. I regret nothing.
On Thursday evening I met up with the local Parkour Generations Korea guys, and spent a couple of hours training with them. I had missed their class on Tuesday due to my terrible navigational skills, so it was great to catch them before I left town. They’re awesome people, and I’m sorry I couldn’t stay and train with them for a few more days.
This really sums up Seoul for me: amazing people, eager to show you their country. Awesome food. Amazing party times.
Next stop, Busan.