Hello once again, I write this after a few hugely entertaining weeks in the awesome ‘hermit kingdom’ where only 40% of the population aren’t called Kim, Park or Lee and where yesterday I ‘found myself lost’ in the biggest store in the world. It’s been one of the coldest Winters in memory here, virtually the whole country has been covered in snow and even the mighty Han that runs through Seoul was totally frozen over which was quite a spectacle. However, thanks to glorious sunshine reflecting off the snow I’m very tanned, covered in freckles and since Jonathan Tehoues late intervention last Sunday have a huge smile permanently imprinted on my face. Or maybe that’s just because I’ve enjoyed Korea so much.
In Seoul one of the tourist attractions is the recreation of a village that’s only 100 years old, which is fitting as even in the tumultuous 20th century few countries experienced a rollercoaster as much as Korea did. Whilst travelling in Asia and viewing different societies I’ve found my opinions and emotions on them to be much stronger than in other areas I’ve been to. So I found myself immeasurably frustrated by the unfairness and inequalities of life in The Philippines or Indonesia but just in awe at the sustained successes of the likes of Singapore or Taiwan; and Korea falls firmly in the second group. The first 45 years were spent under the brutal Japanese occupation before the country was cruelly split by the US and USSR who were just beginning to play the Cold War game. The Korean war is sometimes called The Forgotten War as the Vietnam edition stole its thunder later on, a nasty fratricidal conflict it is however in the Guinness Book of Records as the most international war in history (over 70 countries were involved in some way) as it became the first proxy conflict of the Cold War. The country remained divided and was left in ruins but within 50 years the country had completed an awe inspiring comeback. The transformation from a poor agrarian society to the G20 presidency with an Olympics and World Cup thrown in has been called ‘ The Miracle on the Han River’ and as with the other Asian success stories it’s been achieved primarily due to the almost stakhonovite work ethic of the people to improve their lives. Koreans work harder than almost anyone else on earth – (normally 6 days a week and taking more than 3 of your 5 days of your annual holiday at once is frowned on!) and this is most of the reason for the growth of its world brands like Samsung and Hyundai. The last 3 or 4 generations have gone through the wall in both economic and political hardships including a couple of strict military dictatorships and limited freedoms but Korea now boasts one of the best standards of living in Asia and in fact comes pretty high up on global lists.
My first stop was the seemingly boundless capital Seoul, whilst very few non Koreans could place it on a map it struck me as one of the best cities the world doesn’t know it has. There’s simply loads to do by day or night with a fantastic metro and a great set of urban parks meaning that despite its huge size (23m or so) it was actually quite a relaxing place to be- I’m not in India anymore. I managed to hook up with a couple of expats and had some epic soju nights followed by some painful football the next day but undoubtedly the strongest memory I have of Seoul will be the tour to the DMZ just 50KM away.
Bill Clinton described it as “The scariest place in the world”, which considering he has to share a bed with Hilary are obviously some pretty strong words. I don’t think I found it overtly scary but it is a creepy, eerie place with the sheer quiet being perhaps the most memorable impression I took of it. The armistice agreement from 1953 was that the 4km zone would be created separating the 2 sides and as a mined (to stop invasions from the North) no mans land it has become something of a haven for wildlife. On both sides of it are propaganda villages to show the other side how they’re living though of course neither are fair representations. In the South the government gives the farmers huge financial and logistical incentives to live there including no income tax and fully paid health and tuition costs but the Northern one is a set of empty but maintained buildings like something out of a horror film. The competition for biggest flag is currently being won by the North as the paltry 100m high flag pole in the South is dwarfed by their huge 160m effort which, topped by a 600lb flag is one of the biggest in the world. After entering the UN camp you’re allowed to see the negotiating tables which are still in constant use as the war never officially ended - only a ceasefire was signed. You technically cross into North Korea on their side of the table but as the American corporal barks at you to keep moving you were reminded you’re in one of the most potentially hostile places on Earth- as recently as last year a South Korean tourist was shot dead by Northern guards after wandering too far. The Southern soldiers were really creepy looking in static poses, strange outfits and huge sunglasses which reminded me of a cross between Mum-Ra from Thundercats and the sinister wardens in Cool Hand Luke. You’re also allowed to go to the ‘Bridge of No Return’ where POWs are returned to either side and which you may (or maybe just me) remember from Die Another Day when James Bond is released. The Northern soldiers don’t come close but have their binoculars firmly trained on you at the other end of the bridge which is quite an unsettling feeling. It really was a memorable few hours.
During the World Cup in the Summer I felt pretty sorry for the commentators who were under strict instructions to refer to the 2 Koreas as the ‘Republic of’ and the ‘Democratic People’s Republic of’ rather than just South and North. I never saw any signs or official announcements which referred to the country as ‘South’ Korea’, maps often don’t show a border and there’s no doubt that reunification is the ultimate goal of both sides of the peninsula. Like Taiwan and China they are ‘one people’ and the labeling of South and North implies that they’re somehow separate which no-one in Korea believes. However, in the last 20 years amongst the younger generation the belief has grown that reunification would be too difficult to manage as the two countries have developed into two of the most distinct societies in the world. Under the Dear Leader the Northern society has devolved into a system more akin to Confucianism on MDMA than anything Engels et al envisaged , meanwhile via some of the lowest tax rates in the world and extensive market deregulations the South has become one of the worlds most capitalistic societies. Aside from the GDP gap, as those fantastic night photos from space show, the never ending display of neon lights in highly urbanised South Korea make it one of the most switched on areas in the world but in contrast North Korea is black with no internet or mobile phones and the power goes out by 7pm even in Pyongyang. The lifestyle gulf between the two sides means any reunification would need to be excruciatingly tightly controlled over perhaps 30-50 years and would make the problems in Germany since 1990 look miniscule.
During the war the North was only able to remain Communist thanks to the introduction of Chinese troops forcing the southern troops back to the DMZ line and once again, as with so many of the big geopolitical issues in Asia, China appears to hold the key to a solution. The last thing China wants is a new war on the Korean peninsula as it would result in vast numbers of refugees crossing its borders as well as the possible threat of a nuclear fallout so it’s believed that behind the scenes they’re lobbying the Kim family hard to adopt Chinese style economic reforms. This would also be good for the Chinese as it would be another big trading partner but in the short term those in charge in the North seem unwilling to change things too much. The history of Korea is a sad one of being continually bullied and having their culture (tangible or not) destroyed by their bigger neighbors in Japan and China. Yet the recent national story is one of survival but they’re still not totally free yet; as one of the last unresolved issues from the Cold War and obviously an issue the people feel so strongly about I found myself really hoping those in the North are free to rejoin their brothers down South again as soon as possible.
After Seoul I took a brilliant overnight ferry to the island of Jeju which was about as far removed an experience as can be from the PELNI ships in Indonesia earlier on in the trip and summed up why Korea was such an enjoyable place to travel in. About 10pm an announcement came over the loudspeakers that there would be a disco on deck so I checked it out and was greeted by the bizarre and wonderful sight of a mini rave of sorts. They had a singer and rigged up some strobe lighting but I couldn’t stop laughing for the first few minutes; it was about -3 excluding any wind chill and snowing with the East China sea giving the boat a nice list to dance to. There were about 60 people gaily tanked up on soju and going for it wearing brightly colored Goretex jackets. The average age was about 42, I was the only foreigner onboard and for some reason all the blokes kept pushing me into dancing with their wives as the boat threw us around. Gloriously entertaining it only lasted about 10 songs as it was just too cold but they finished with a great little firework display and then all the passengers started plying me with soju and yummy makkoli (milky rice wine) so I went to bed very drunk. Happy days.
Jeju itself is one big volcano sitting a few hours off the Southern coast and is the prime holiday destination for Koreans. The volcanic sand beaches lead up to the huge crater peak in the centre of the island and has some impressive volcanic phenomena including the globes longest lava tubes which were great to walk in. The volcano is South Korea’s highest peak and being extremely easy to climb is one of the best places to see Koreans participating in their national pastime of hiking. Korea was a nice change from virtually everywhere else in Asia in that sport is very popular on all levels. Aside from their consistent top 10 finishes in the Olympic medal tables and World Cup appearances, at grass roots level people of all ages and both genders are much more active with hiking being the most popular activity in a country which is 70% mountainous. Just outside Seoul is the worlds most visited national park and the vast crowds of hikers are an amusing sight as they outdo even Germans in how professionally equipped they were. They all seemed to spend several hundred dollars on brand name hiking clothes with all the accessories like crampons and as I was wearing construction boots and a hoodie I did feel a bit out of place. After taking the late ferry back to the mainland outfit wise I fitted in much better when I spent the night in a jimjiblang. They’re basically saunas that you can sleep in and would have to rank as one of my favorite things. Maybe ever.
You put your stuff in a locker then proceed to the (segregated) baths where there are pools of different temperature, whilst you have to go nude it’s very family friendly and definitely not somewhere Justin Fashanu would hang around. After bathing you’re given a blue t-shirt and shorts outfit to wear (girls wear pink and kids yellow) and you can then spend the evening in a variety of ways: getting something to eat, watching films or even karaoke. You then pick a sauna room at the temperature you desire, go to sleep on the floor and then wake up and go to work or catch your onward bus or whatever. Simply brilliant, even during the week they’re really popular and seeing as they cost about a quarter of the price of a hotel bed I just wish they’d break out of South Korea!
One of the other things I’ve loved about being in Korea is its cultural prowess, indeed in terms of producing entertainment I’d pick it out as my favorite country in Asia. In part because I’ve been away quite a while now, even with the internet and satellite TV I really have been well out of the loop of Western culture in Asia, certainly commentators who refer to ‘a global homogenization of culture’ are for me way off the mark in Asia. Aside from missing Big Brother Champions League (who won?), I’ve got no idea how Peter Andre has fared since splitting from Jordan, sorry Katie Price (or is it Reid or something else now?) and I’ve seen literally maybe 8 or 10 Hollywood films in 20 months. Unfortunately only the biggest, most expensive Western films make it to Asian cinemas so the likes of Saw 6&7 and Resident Evil: Extinction will have to wait til I return. I’ve seen only the worst Hollywood can offer in the form of Salt, Avatar, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen and God help me GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra; terrible one and all but it’s definitely music I’ve missed the most.
Again I’m not exaggerating when I write I heard maybe 10-15 American songs in the first 18 months of this trip, I can pick out individual songs by a few artists and whilst you can probably imagine it’s hard for any man to go so long with no Girls Aloud, the one English song I did hear was We’ve Gotta Fight for this Love by Cheryl Cole (sic. how did that go then Chezza?).
As anyone who’s been to Thailand will confirm Bob Marleys Greatest Hits on a loop is the compulsory bar CD in SE Asia but generally speaking on the radio for instance the locals just are not interested. In South America I really got into quite a few acts and some of their songs became a soundtrack to the trip but that hasn’t happened in Asia. With a couple of exceptions (Indonesian grunge and Burmese pop stand out) I haven’t overly enjoyed the music, I don’t believe the tonal languages lend themselves to singing and even the famed Bollywood songs in India didn’t do it for me as they always had the same whining love song style rhythm which grates on your ears very quickly.
Somewhat surprisingly China has much more Western music and some fantastic films although that’s mainly from Hong Kong but I think Korea’s been my favorite. Whilst not too well known outside of Asia their dramas and soap operas are akin to the Egyptian or Mexican industries in terms of their continent wide popularity and as film buffs will tell you modern Korean cinema ranks as one of the worlds best. Musically too the production values are much slicker than elsewhere in Asia and you even get to hear things like hiphop which I highly approved of. Korea’s also well known for ‘K-Pop’, producing very catchy songs by very pretty girl/boy bands and I seem to enjoy them a bit too much with my favorite being The Wonder Girls, who are indeed wonderful…
Korea has the nickname of The Hermit Kingdom as for centuries they cut themselves off from the world ala Tibet, Korea nowadays rarely makes the headlines and beyond the split peninsula issue few people know too much about it. Also despite being a pretty big country (50m popN) it’s now effectively an island little visited by foreign tourists and outside of California there’s no real communities of note abroad. Therefore its something of an unknown quantity to most Westerners but nonetheless I found it an immensely enjoyable and easy place to travel in. Despite the tricky language (too many syllables) there’s information in English up everywhere, it’s incredibly safe and in a nice change from China its relatively compact size meant getting around was quick and easy. Koreans were wonderful to be around too, super generous and friendly I’d pick them out as the politest people I’ve come across, where even the bus drivers say hello and thank you it’s the sort of place where seemingly nothing goes wrong and it’s difficult to see what could stress you out.
Koreans are also a very good looking people (maybe the most attractive in Asia), although they had an unfortunate overemphasis on appearance- female Seoulites in particular would have to rival Italians or Muscovites as the vainest people I can remember seeing. Much of the life of Korean girls seem to revolve around shopping in designer clothes stores then spending 20minutes on the metro using the vanity mirror built in to her mobile phone cover to do her makeup. When she’s a bit older and arrived at her destination she can use one of the many plastic surgeries dotted around and even later in life she’ll likely go to a hair salon and get the ubiquitous ‘bubble perm’ which seemingly every woman above 50 must have.
One of the most prominent aspects of the vanity craze is all the ads for skin lightening cream which has been a constant all over Asia; Asians traditionally associate darker skin with working outdoors and therefore poverty so lighter skin is a long held beauty trait. It was probably India where it was most blatant- the bestselling lightening cream for men called ‘Fair & Handsome’ would have ads where a dark skinned boy tries to talk to a girl and gets ignored then puts on some cream and voila he’s in! In Korea, a lot of middle aged women look disconcertingly like MJ in his later days but Japanese women maybe take it the furthest with their ugly, ‘super size’ sun visors and full arm length gloves giving them a ghoulishly unattractive level of whiteness. Although that’s not to say that ‘white people’ are seen as more attractive full stop. Rather than Brad Pitt and Claudia Schiffer, the ‘Asian beauty perfection’ often shows mixed race Eurasian models with perfect Asian hair and features but very (i.e. photoshopped) light skin which frankly nobody barring maybe air hostesses (Ryanair don’t operate in Asia) seems to look like. I don’t get it.
I ended my time in Busan which despite being one of the worlds biggest ports is a surprisingly pleasant place to be with pine trees and brightly coloured houses covering the hills rising up in the city centre. Walking around the harbor area in the sun yesterday I can’t help but feel a tad sad to be leaving, I had to veto going to North Korea on visa/cost grounds (eg little change from $2000 for a week) which represents one of the biggest disappointments I’ve had so far on this trip. However, the alternative aint exactly a bad one as tonight I take the ferry to the Land of the Rising Sun…