Saturday, 21 February 2015

Myeongdong (or, 12 Hours in Seoul)

“Do you have coat?”

The airline official looked concerned. It was, after all, minus 8⁰C outside. His observation was correct: I had no coat. Twelve hours previously I had been in a different hemisphere and an opposite season. Now I had neither coat nor notion as to what I was about to experience. What I knew was that I was in Korea, Incheon to be precise. Our airline, by necessity, was to provide us with a hotel. We knew not which hotel or where that hotel would be, we knew only to wait here, by this door, by the man so concerned by my lack of coat, until the bus was ready.

And so began a curious 12 hour visit to Seoul, in which we were given but fleeting glimpses of a curious city while being shepherded from pillar to post. As punishment for being pesky tourists who knew how to get a free hotel, we were at the mercy of a rigid, prearranged system — this bus, this hotel, this limited dinner menu. But this is not the moment to grumble: far from it. It was an exhilarating ride.

First, there was the bus journey. Blasted by an overly efficient climate control system, we sweated our way for an hour along — as it was evening — brightly lit motorway. Neon green and red signs directed drivers to unknown locations in indistinguishable Hangul script. Warning lights for road works not only flashed but swung on robotic arms, desperate to garner attention. Having had the fortune to travel a great deal, but mostly to English-speaking countries or, at the very least, countries using Roman script, this was a rare glimpse at the quite considerable rest-of-world. I knew my observations were simple, but I was mesmerized.

We approached Seoul. Everywhere were residential skyscrapers. Bridge after bridge spanned the straight Han River. On and on went the cityscape. The river itself was surprisingly wide, separating two halves of a city by so much that I could imagine two distinct cultures. (I later learned that the per capita income south of the river is double that of the northern bank: two cultures are indeed separated by the Han.) Every freeway was buzzing with traffic and both sides of the river were lit by thousands of windows reaching into the sky. And yet nothing was frenetic. Seoul was noticeably more built up than Incheon, but everything kept moving calmly. There seemed not to be overwhelming hubbub on either side of the Han — although it was hard to tell, given the river was so wide.

We turned inland, and that’s when we saw the colour. Everything was illuminated. True, indeed, that Christmas decorations, many flashing, many halogen, were still lit, yet even without them it would have been wall-to-wall vibrancy. Through these streets we weaved, straight to the Royal Hotel, in the centre of the shopping heart of the city — Myeongdong.

Given that we were at the mercy of the airline, it is at this point I should be saying that the Royal Hotel was rudimentary, that it did the job and that I can’t complain given that it was free. But I do not need to, for it was luxury. All staff were extremely friendly. Rooms were deluxe. There was even one of those fancy toilets with dozens of electronic buttons in a language I cannot read*.

A brief dinner later — free, if limited in options (we were clearly on the airline's menu, rather than the restaurant’s) — and we were ready to explore. To Myeongdong, without a coat!

Ten seconds later, we were inside again. As it happens, minus 8⁰C is not entirely comfortable when unprepared. But worry not, it was 10 pm and everything was still open. Myeongdong is wall-to-wall shops, some familiar, most not. We dipped in and out of them, each full of brightly colourful wares. Cosmetic shops lined the road of our hotel, full of products based on cute characters and unusual combinations. Outside, street vendors, swamped by overcoats, tended their stalls. Meats were being grilled. Pomegranates were being juiced. Everyone was friendly, if bemused by our inappropriate attire. Everywhere movement, sound or smells. Above us, hoarding after hoarding, illuminated, in unknown lettering and in every primary colour. All of our senses were stimulated.

We could last only 15 minutes, as the cold had cut through to our cores almost immediately. We returned to the hotel.

Breakfast was mushrooms, kimchee, bok choi and fish; cereals (Fruit Loops), fry ups and fruit. All, as we were coming to expect, were picture perfect. Not only was everything the colour it ought to be, but it was the perfect, most vibrant shade, and the archetypal shape too. The Royal Hotel was one for precision.

And then we were back in the bus bound for Incheon, a second chance to see what we had missed on the journey that previous evening — churches and cathedrals nestled among the skyscrapers, the mountains that frame the city and the islands that pepper the gulf between the mainland and the airport. The sky was perfectly blue and vast, untarnished by cloud. It was cold, but the sun smiled, just like the toddler in the seat in front of us as we played the hide-behind-the-seat-pop-your-head-up-and-act-all-surprised game.

It had been a whirlwind 12 hours, put where we were told and efficiently provided for in the gap between our flights. For most of it, we had been asleep. Yet our snapshot of Seoul had been tantalising — we had seen barely anything, but knew that it was a bright and exciting place. It was clean and extremely friendly. We were agreed, one day we will come to have a proper look.

*Yes, I did.

Practical Post: Free stopover hotel in Seoul on Asiana Airlines

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Gunners Barracks

From the shelter of the terrace, I see a lizard. A thin sliver of a creature, he darts along the stone wall in stop-motion, basks in the sunlight, than darts along further.

I focus on the scene behind him, behind the wall: open water, yet land to my left, land to my right and land ahead. I am looking from the north to the south of an enormous harbour, with all its headlands and peninsulae; ferries, yachts, dinghies and cruise ships; beaches and pools; skyscrapers and harbourfront pads; forests and bushland. This is Sydney.

I turn back to our table. Tea is served. As a present, we have been given afternoon tea at Gunners’ Barracks, and what a treat this is: from panna cotta to salmon sandwiches, from samosas to scones, everything is unveiled before our eyes. The service is outstanding, the silver is spotless, and the view: priceless. Not even the threat of a kleptomaniacal kookaburra can spoil this moment.

With not a cloud in the sky, the harbour is buzzing. On the water, the Circular Quay to Manly ferries pass one another before us. A sailing teaching class weave around one another in the distance. Water taxis and speed boats streak the deep blue with white. The tourist jet boat zigzags the bays, thrilling (and drenching) its passengers. A sea plane comes in to land. Everywhere there is movement and life.


...We walk further into Middle Head, to the National Park at its tip. Here, at the fore of Military Road are concrete bunkers. From 1801 to the 1960s, this was the site of military fortifications – look outs and cannons and disappearing guns, tunnels and gun pits and faux ‘Tiger Cages’ used to train those deployed to Vietnam – reinforced and remodelled over time to guard Sydney from whatever threat it might encounter.

We dip into the shade of the bunkers, wandering through concrete avenues below the ground. Rusting metal studs jut from the ceiling in one; more modern Japanese graffiti is found on another, untranslated, on the very settlement maintained to once keep the Japanese out. (An objective it failed to do when three Ko-hyoteki midget submarines entered the harbour in 1942, culminating in the sinking of the HMAS Kuttabul.)

With little time to explore, and no tour guides on hand, we can only glimpse at the rich stories that underpin these walls. On this normal, yet beautiful headland, a far from normal piece of history lies just beneath the surface.

The lizard returns. It moves so fast, yet so briefly, so as to appear to exist either here or there, but never in a place in between. It occurs to me that this is a normal sight for anybody living in a hot climate - a lizard, basking in the sun - but for me, a Brit, this is not normal. I realise that in all that I have written, whenever I have commented on something under an assumption of irregularity, my reader, whose background or address may be very different to my own, might consider it regular. This is, after all, the Internet, available in homes everywhere. What does that mean of my reaction to such normal, yet not normal, things?

I have time to neither ponder this half-considered thought nor process how this beautiful headland is more than meets the eye, how normal can be anything but. I have not time to be troubled by what is and what is not regular, for the view has enchanted me once more.

I pour another cup of Darjeeling.

I look out from the terrace.

I bask in the sunshine.

I think: 'this’ll do'.