Other than a passing understanding of the Korean War, a little knowledge of Korean food, and a biased Western media view of Kim Jong Un (who I’m sure is charming when he’s not eating burgers while watching peasants starve to death), I didn’t really know very much about Korea, north or south. Two weeks of working and travelling in South Korea taught me a lot, but also led me to the conclusion that it may be impossible to truly understand Korea.
This feeling began at Seoul airport, where I spent an unpleasant 4 hour transfer watching what I can only describe as a K-pop choir perform. I went to find food only to discover the extensive food court was hidden in the bowels of the airport. There wasn’t a single window. Assuming these were quirks of Seoul airport I boarded my connecting flight for Daegu…I had a lot to learn.
Despite the fact that English is used in all sorts of advertising and on road signs, it seems to be spoken only rarely. This makes eating, travel and using the toilet an adventure. I like adventure, but sometimes predictable can also be good. Call me old fashioned, but a toilet shouldn’t have its own power supply, come with a control panel with more options than a TV remote, or have a sticker warning you not to get water on the electrics. Nor should a visit to the ‘smallest room’ finish with your rear end receiving a shampoo (no pun intended) and blow-dry. I’m surprised there aren’t more fatalities.
There are, at least, toilets. In Europe if you want a public toilet you look for the nearest McDonalds. In Korea, there are toilets everywhere. The last time I came across a place with this many public toilets was China…Korean public toilets are superior on every level.
Food is one of the great joys of travel, although I find this works better if you have a basic understanding of what you’re eating. In the absence of a common language, or pictorial menu, I was forced to wander restaurants checking out other people’s food before ordering. Dumb luck had it that I didn’t have many bad food experiences, but that pre-supposes that you’re a fan of kimchi. If you’re not, Korea may not be for you.
No one can hear you scream in space, but after a week of eating Kimchi I’ll bet they can smell you in the furthest corners of the cosmos. Eating here also requires you to know your way around a pair of chopsticks, not the ordinary sturdy wooden chopsticks that I’m used to, but a devilishly tricky Korean version: needle thin metal chopsticks designed to make the novice look like an idiot. In one bar they took no chances, my spring rolls came with a pair of scissors and some ice tongs. Let’s just say I provided a lot of people with entertainment.
Of course, to eat it’s necessary to have the means to pay. This is not as easy as it may seem. Not many places take cards, certainly not outside the city. This leaves you firmly in a cash economy. Sadly, the Korean banking system has yet to join the 21st Century; in a highly developed economy ATMs don’t often accept foreign cards. This is not to say that Korean ATMs aren’t sophisticated. They regularly double as entertainment centres – playing music videos and showing TV clips – less regularly they dispense cash.
One day, after trying a dozen or more ATMs, I thought I was going to have to throw myself on the mercy of the British embassy. I’ve met British diplomats, mercy is not in their nature. I finally found an ATM that worked, to celebrate I took a taxi to the bus station for a trip into the countryside.
Taxis are a litmus test of a nation’s psyche. Taxi drivers in Korea universally wear driving gloves, in my experience this is rarely a good sign. Some are ‘professional’ leather gloves; others are clearly home made, possibly knitted by their moms. 97% of all taxi drivers approach their job as if they’re not just competing in NASCA, but have a shot at the title. None of them understand the English for, “Please, I’m begging, slow down before we all die. Look out for the school children. Arrrgghh!” Coincidentally, 97% is also the the number of Koreans who own and operate a selfie stick.
I did reach the countryside, unfortunately it was the weekend so I was joined there by several million other outdoor enthusiasts. The people of Korea take the countryside seriously. Most dress as if they are attempting an ascent of K2 – from the Chinese side. I have never seen so much technical walking gear, deployed for a short stroll on well maintained tracks guiding you around a temple complex. I’m not even going to mention the disproportionate number of couples who wear matching shoes.
One final piece of insider advice – every tourist map I was given was woefully inaccurate. Why bother drawing a map to scale, where physical features accurately relate to other physical features, when you can draw a map with nice pictures of trees, flowers and mountains? Even if there isn’t a mountain within 100km? Maps are far less helpful, but much prettier this way. I spent my first few days thinking I’d been given a map for a different city.
This is what I’ve learned about Korea. Not everything, just the important stuff. If doing battle with toilets and taxi drivers, navigating by maps that may not be for where you happen to be, or taking your chances with food, doesn’t discourage you from visiting, I’d say just go. You’ll have a lot of fun, or others will have a lot of fun at your expense. Either way someone is having fun and that’s the important thing.