Thor's Korea Diary


Scouting Seoul

@ retrospective to April 2001

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It had been nineteen years. A fleeting three day visit on a circle-Pacific airline ticket, back in the time of the dictators. I had known little about Korea, and the images of Seoul which stuck from that drop in were mostly about being frozen to the bone on bleak grey streets, a yogwan with tiny incubator rooms, everything papered over including the windows, a single frozen tap in the courtyard, and a toilet that was painful to think about.

I remembered a pedestrian underpass, with a big bookshop below ground level where I bought a linguistic study of Korean verbs. And then there was a restaurant on top of the Lotte hotel/department store where the waitress airily declared that they only had servings priced for at least two people. I promptly started to walk out, and she changed the policy on the spot.

On that trip too, I was lugging an SLR camera with one of those cumbersome telephoto lenses. Later, when the photos came out of some Sunday shoppers in the streets, I was astonished at the number of people who were looking into the camera with hostility and suspicion. How innocent we were of the realities of life in a police state. Now I was back to work in Korea, but in Busan. Perhaps it was the memory of the cold which kept me away from revisiting Seoul all winter in 2000-2001. That and a reluctance to go stomping around the countryside until I had some feel for the rhythm of Korean life and custom.

Plans of travel multiplied as I became more at home in the culture, and could manage some rudiments of the language. But now the days were warming, and suddenly eight months had slipped by since I first came to work in Korea. This was, after all, a geographically small country, so it seemed a bit silly to be hiding in one of its corners without having made a pilgrimage to the centre. People kept telling me that anything and everything worthwhile was to be found in Seoul. The rest of the nation was merely an afterthought.

Some individuals can walk out the door at a moment┤s notice, with just the clothes they are standing in, and land up on the other side of the world with no sense of nakedness. I┤ve been moving all my life, yet books, appliances, gadgets and even packets of food nag to follow every step. Though I try to be severe with this clamorous following, some of them always weasel their way at least into a shoulder bag, so that like the Ancient Mariner, I carry a burden wherever I go.

Whatever lies forsaken in a draw has its revenge, for true to Murphy┤s law, if I don┤t take a camera, the photo-op of a lifetime will slip away, or if I don┤t take a torch, the city of destination will be plunged into darkness. Thus, even worse than the burden to be carried all day are the pre-departure arguments which rage with the spare pullover, and phrase book and the pocket compass. Time wasting too. Any fool knows that the wise traveler on a long journey makes an early departure. Yet here was a lousy five hour trip to Seoul, and it was already 8 a.m. before I┤d made it out the door.

A brief train trip from Busan to Haeundae a few weeks before had left a comfortable feeling. Rail should be the best way to go. The fast luxury trains were called saemaul-ho, but were nearly double the price of mugunghwa-ho, while the 4th class pidulgi-ho came in at 30% of the cost of fast trains. All of them were advertised as very frequent, so I wasn┤t expecting problems on this weekday. Just getting to the central station takes over an hour from my college in Bansong-dong. There┤s a tourist information office right on the concourse at Busan Station, which is really useful for the language-handicapped. On this morning though, the lady on duty seemed to be feeling sour, or was it Murphy┤s Law kicking in again? She punched some keys on her display and snapped "first available mugunghwa train in an hour and a half, standing room only". Standing, to Seoul? It seemed hard to believe, but trading through the good grace of an interpreter in an unknown language, you have to cop it sweet. Luckily there was an alternative. I sighed and headed for the express bus terminal, maybe another forty-five minutes by subway and city buses...

Intercity buses, in almost every country, are at the bottom of the prestige stakes. Families hate them, because kids are hard to keep tied down for hours, whereas they can wander around trains a bit, or whine for dad to stop the car for a hamburger and fries. No businessman worth his cufflinks would be seen dead on a bus, and civil servants spending the public's money expect at least a plane ticket or a hire car.

So buses are for backpackers and office girls and pensioners, prisoners on leave and labourers visiting their sick mothers. I've traveled on some awful buses -- windowless contraptions packed with peasants in the Sumatran jungle, knee-cracking death machines hurled down winding mountain roads in the Philippines .... But also some fairly good deals. So-called luxury buses are too expensive for the poor, and uncool for the rich, which means in some countries that you can often score a couple of empty seats to sprawl across. China, my last waystop, has some of the world's worst buses, but also some of the best -- lush Volvos loping along the new networks of motorways. Korea, as a small country with good roads should be ideal for fast intercity bus travel.

Busan express bus terminal will be on a subway link in a year or two or three. At the moment you have to juggle local buses to get to it. More time lost. Still, it looked pleasingly uncrowded. Although the railway station was claiming to have standing room only, there were no signs of mass migration at the intercity bus terminal. It took about a minute flat to land a seat on a "luxury bus" which was departing immediately. Just as well too, for by now "immediately" was 11.30am. For W25,500 I had an exceptionally spacious seat in a bus that was two thirds empty. There was even a seat belt, even if I was the only passenger who made any move to use it. Alas, that was the end of the luxury. The bare linoleum floor and scruffy fittings had the appeal of a public rest room. The vehicle's transmission was rough, and the suspension was designed for a fifteen ton container lorry. (Thinking about this later I realized that the tyres were almost certainly overinflated to minimize tyre wear and maximize fuel economy. The downside of course to overinflated tyres is reduced road-holding and a rough ride ... ).

Although the day was almost hot, inside the bus the air had that fetid quality of a refrigerator which has been turned off for a week. A kind of warm, dead, suffocation zone, but the other passengers seemed indifferent to it. They seemed indifferent to everything. I put up with this insult for an hour and a half, then walked up the aisle to the driver. "Aircon!" I growled, using one of those magical words which now seem to appear in all human languages. His head snapped back with surprise, then feigning an "oh, of course!" apology, he flicked a switch, and we could breath again. Until a repeat performance on the return journey, I thought it just may have been a slack driver. Now it is clear though, that like the overinflated tyres, it was the bus company's half-smart way of saving money. Or maybe, running to brainless rules like most organizations everywhere, some nit had marked a date on the calendar for turning on the air conditioning.

Nobody had taught them that word-of-mouth is the most powerful advertising medium known. No wonder the bus was two thirds empty. At the risk of a generalization, I have to say that it is a fairly common failing in Korean commercial life. One recalls the Asiana flight from Australia, a ten hour trip which serves no food for eight hours, or on a more local scale, the milk cartons masquerading as a liter, but really only containing 930 ml , envelopes just too short to take an A4 sheet of paper, shrink-wrapped ginger root in the supermarket, sold by the gram with clods of earth still sticking to it .....

The motorway road trip from Busan to Seoul gives a strong sense to an incomer from Australia (where distances are vast and settlements sparse) of just how compressed South Korea is. Traveling up the centre of the peninsular, much of the way follows river valleys, wide and narrow, with only a few road tunnels . The road is rarely out of sight of human habitation, and much of the habitation is urban or semi-urban. You can see that the time may come when there is urban strip development for the whole corridor. That is, there are few visible rural villages, but many clusters of older 3 or 4 story apartment blocks, and a creeping rash of tall, thin concrete tower blocks of up to 20 stories, white or pastel, projecting nakedly from the landscape in clusters, or sometimes alone.

One wonders at the social systems (or lack of them) which are likely to evolve in these vertical towns of self-contained people boxes, each with its cable-TV, and unmbical cords to the national power and water grids. A small voice in my head says there must be something uniquely vulnerable about incubating 47 million people in breeding and feeding pens like this, but maybe it is the only way. It is apparently the next stage in human planetary evolution. I just hope they never have to flee to the hills again, because most might not survive the deprivation.

Parts of South Korea's indented coastline and waterways are very picturesque. It is not an adjective you would apply to a trip up the centre in April (this year anyway). Moving north, the land becomes drier. The tower block settlements have that barren, unloved look of industrial development zones; (in a nation of individual bungalows like Australia, family gardens and pride of ownership are on public display). At least as early as the 15th Century, Korea was infamous for its barren hills, stripped for firewood, and also apparently to make the land appear as unattractive as possible for invasion; (see Hamel's Journal, a description of the Kingdom of Korea 1653-66 by the shipwrecked Dutchman, Hendrik Hamel; pub. Royal Asiatic Society, Seoul 1984). Mercifully, there has been a massive, very successful reforestation program. Wooded hill trails are the best feature of this country.

At street level in cities though, greenery usually has to struggle to claim any space at all. The city suburbs rarely have sidewalks, let alone space for trees, while the straggle of tower blocks along the highway stand desolate, dwarfing the occasional shrub. Since individual urban dwellers don't have land, they can hardly make flower gardens. Therefore beautification is left to the bureaucracies, meaning several concrete tubs outside each public building, planted with multicoloured cabbages in winter, and violets in summer....

The bus trip to Seoul is advertised to take a little over five hours. Koreans tell me that in peak holiday times that can become a grinding all-day saga. On this Tuesday morning we were a bit luckier than that. The traffic moving out of Busan was steady, but brisk. Then, perhaps an hour and a half up the road, the little bubbles of side settlement began to stretch back across the plain, the strings of tower blocks became dense nests, and the air steadily clouded to an industrial smog. This had to be Daegu (Taegu in the old spelling), South Korea's third city. We skirted it, but the skirts looked unpromising to say the least. Maybe there's beauty hidden somewhere under all the makeup. However, hurry past with eyes averted we could not, for Daegu corresponded with a traffic bottleneck which lasted the best part of 40 minutes. This was about the point at which I invited the driver to give us some breathable oxygen.

When I was a boy, my old man would take mum and the kids for Sunday drives sometimes. It was a clever scheme because in those days in Sydney, only "genuine travelers" could get alcohol on Sundays, and a genuine traveler had to move thirty miles. This meant of course that on all roads leading out of Australian cities there was bumper to bumper traffic to a ring of hostelries at the thirty mile limit. Dad would slip in to down a beer or six while mum and the kids sweated in the pub carpark under the summer sun outside. Then, on the way home there'd be a trail of accidents by drunken drivers.... The main intercity roads were narrow strips of bitumen, with a single lane in each direction.

Well, the upside to this story was that enterprising orchardists, market gardeners, poultry farmers, and hucksters of every description, set up roadside stalls in remote unpopulated parts of the route (often the roadside gates of farms), where fresh produce was available at below city retail prices. Some of the more popular spots also grew roadside cafes. To mollify their fuming wives and mutinous children, the slightly tipsy fathers of countless families would pull into these stalls to buy buckets of sweet apricots or newly picked strawberries ...

As we barrelled down the dodgem tracks of the Busan-Seoul Expressway, which is a generic version of expressways the world over now, my mind drifted back to the rewards and frustrations of being a "genuine traveler" forty years ago. As an A-to-B exercise, the modern version was definitely a winner. In the matter of side distractions, it lost out completely. Orchard stalls there are none. Nor do you pull up to stretch your legs in little country towns. If they still exist somewhere beyond expressway vision, it is only as a haze on the horizon. You don't bump across rickety bridges in open farmland, and yield to a sudden impulse to pull off the road for a nap under some shade trees... Our luxury bus to Seoul allowed one break, the franchised stop with a huge carpark that sits in identical copies beside the world's expressways, and is frequently owned by a large petroleum company. There you could choke on a five minute bowl of noodles or buy a coke and fries, before returning to hibernate in the bus.

Another sudden increase in the density of buildings had to be the outskirts of Seoul. And as with Daegu, the silky blue rural sky had turned to muddy grey. Cities as large as this embrace many almost unconnected living spaces. In all great conurbation around the world, most inhabitants will only go to the downtown heart of the place occasionally, if at all. In Seoul's case, that centre is a confluence of valleys -- obviously of strategic importance as a control point in centuries past. Now settlement spreads into the hazy, polluted distance, smothering these radial arms which on the ground are no longer obvious to a traveler. The administrative line somebody has drawn on a map as city limits encloses around twelve million people. Just as life spilled beyond the stone walls of castle towns, so perhaps another twelve million continue to multiply along natural corridors, that area to the south being most fashionable (or perhaps furthest from the silent menace of armies massed over the near northern border). When I saw a large Walmart sign close to the expressway my interest picked up, and it seemed only a couple of minutes later that we passed through the toll booths, those bland modern equivalents of city gates, which still collect the king's tithe on hapless subjects.

The express bus terminal in Seoul is conveniently above a subway station, and incorporated into a large shopping complex. Barely pausing to look around, I caught a train to Jongno-3-ga station near T'apkol park. This was going from Korea's version of the very modern to a stone's throw from an umbilical cord to dynastic history, Unhyeongung Palace, hangout of the Heungseon T'aewongun, regent and last independent despot of the Yi Chosun line in the 19th Century. The T'aewongun had stone tablets placed by the roads, ordering Koreans to kill any foreigner on sight as a patriotic act. No one, however, attempted to swing a broad sword at my neck.

I was nevertheless perplexed and helpless, for Korea shares with Japan the world's most idiotic addressing system. Buildings are numbered according to their order of construction, not location, and only a handful of thoroughfares are marked with street names at all; (after this visit, the Seoul administration finally decided in 2002 the join the civilized world by introducing real street names and building numbers. Bravo). Anyway, no amount of careful orientation seems to survive emerging like a rabbit from a subway burrow in a strange city. Nothing appears as imagination has expected. You are immediately lost.

Seoul subways have lots of exits. A day later I was able to figure out that I had come out a whole block beyond the brief caricature of a map in my guide book. Slightly dazed, I wandered along a busy roadside in the late afternoon, hoping for some sign from heaven. Presently this brought me to a large park where all kinds of people hung about doing nothing in particular. Sometimes it pays to stand out like a neon sign, as any European does in this part of the world. As if to prove that atmospherics had improved since the T'aewongun's xenophobia, I was approached by a middle aged woman with circles of care under her eyes and a sympathetic manner. In very good English she asked where I wanted to go.

That was a tough question. Whenever I had asked work colleagues about a good, cheap place of lodging in Seoul, they waved their arms airily and said "stay in a yogwan". Yeah, but ... there are yogwans and yogwans. The brain module for practical details was missing on the assembly line where fellow foreign teachers were made, it seemed. So I didn't really know where I wanted to go. I was trading on a few accommodation names, listed in a guidebook and coloured with a careless adjective or two. The friendly lady looked over my shoulder, but the telegraphic descriptions perplexed her. At last, I pointed at a telephone number, and relieved to be useful, she seized her cell phone.

Given the long centuries of intrigue, murder, witchcraft and general harum-scarum that had passed over and under the ground we stood on in this ancient part of Seoul, you would have to expect a busy population of ghosts in the area. Some must have learned to get their radiation tingled in the new cell phones that now hung from every neck, and my new fairy-godmother found her own instrument engaged with extra-terrestial beeps. No matter. With scarcely a pause she put a solid arm out to block the path of a gangling young man who was hurrying by. His mind was obviously abroad on other matters, but he came against the arm, rocked back in mild surprise, and focused on the owner, then registered my foreign face.

There were several short, flat sentences of rapid Korean, and the young man located his cell phone in a back pocket. At least the phone worked, but the number was dead. I pointed him at the next number on the list, and actually scored a hit. Did the place have a vacant room? Yes, no problem. How to find it? Aaah, big problem. Well, it was apparently only a few minutes walk away, but how did you tell a foreigner to turn left at old Kim's noodle shop, and take the left track of two branching alleys, where bald Choi and young Park would be playing Korean chess on top of an empty oil drum... ? There were after all no street names ....

Another conference in Korean began, with the young man mediating the voice in the cell phone and the lady with circles under her eyes. Eventually a solution was packaged, wrapped and sealed, and put to the foreigner. Wait, they said; the "motel" would send someone to collect me (the skipped phone number had moved us upmarket a fraction from the yogwan). The lady nodded, and hurried off. I waited for the young guy to follow her, but he stood there shyly. At last I understood that he had been told to stay with me, to make a proper Korean link in the human relay. Now that I was a recognized obligation, a known human being, I could not be simply dumped.

He was, he said in halting English, a university chemistry student. I once had a flatmate who was doing a Ph.D. in chemistry, was apt to give sardonic chemical exposes of of the breakfast cereals I ate, could do a mean Tae Kwondo kick, and liked to dash off Faure scores on the piano. My new friend had a bad case of acne, and a hollow chest that would fracture on impact, but his heart was in the right place. We waited under the old palace walls, where late afternoon shadows cut the trees with sharp angles. Feeling guilty, I did my best to keep up a conversation. After ten minutes the lady of the circled eyes sauntered back. If I called into Seoul City Hall, she said, she could find me a good map, and they had some free computers for Internet access too. Right now she had to go.

After another call, the motel said someone would surely be there right away. I was expecting a dude on one of those ubiquitous maroon motor scooters to sweep me up for a life-threatening dash through the laneways. Instead, a bent old lady in cotton pantaloons and slippers suddenly waxed from an unobtrusive shadow. With a cackle, she motioned me to follow, then did her best to seize my shoulder bag. Relieved of his duty spell, the chemistry man hastened to depart with barely a nod (but when I got back to Busan there was a "hi, my name is .." e-mail waiting). Wizened she may have been, but my guide led a cracking pace through the twists and turns of narrow alleys. If we really were going to a witch's coven, my bones would be added to the soup, because there seemed no way to find a way out of this maze again.

In fact we did come to a kind of castle, a compact five stories of neat brick with candy-sugar window sills painted cream, and little turrets for the birds of warning. It was a genre that I had come to recognize in Korea as the "love hotel", a practical convenience in a culture where privacy and secrets were both hard to come by (and as in so many small things, a never-to-be-confessed echo of Japan). Couples on a short time lease may have been the house's daily staple, but they had clearly hosted foreign travelers before. A small black & white sign by the door listed the establishment's virtues in English. We pushed through a glass door, and waiting in a tiny glassed in box was the manager, a man of unctuous courtesy who was sure he could find me a room on the 4th (top) floor.

We went on an inspection tour, just to be sure, up the steep staircase, past shelves of what seemed to be soft-porn videos for the titillation of dull lovers, to a door which opened directly onto another door. Was this double insulation to keep the cold fingers of winter out, or the S&M squeals in? Not for me to know. A square meter of linoleum inside the second door was taped off as the polluted zone, where you removed your shoes, and most of the rest was for a double bed. A bathroom nested in one corner, free skin lotion and two condoms supplied, and a satellite TV set perched on what may have once been a dressing table. OK, it wasn't the Waldorf, but I wasn't royalty either. It was clean, quiet, and the hot water worked. For 25,000 won a night we called it a deal.

I went to the window to see how the world had changed, and was charmed to find a varnished sliding sash of small panes behind the workaday street windows, reminders of the rice-paper partitions which were once so picturesque and fragile. Now it was early evening, and any colour had bleached from the buildings crowding close. Dark outlines suggested the blocky, practical walls of 20th century concrete, hemming in older chaotic roofs of swooping tile, some hidden behind high walls, others ramshackle little shops facing into alleys. There were, however, few people to be seen in this quarter at this hour. Even with a 4th floor view there was no easy way to orientate. Somehow I had to find a way out of the confusion to big-town Seoul and dinner, then find a way back again.

As a direction-seeking animal, I'm reasonably equipped, unlike my mother for example, who has trouble remembering which way to turn on a water tap. Since coming to the northern hemisphere though, I've discovered ruefully that many subtle cues which I hadn't even been aware of, are frequently miscued, and unless I plod through the logic of a location, doggedly noting landmarks, I'm apt to get things exactly 180 degrees out of whack. I don't know if it is because shadows fall on the wrong sides of trees, or the winds are different, or whether some chip implanted in my brain like a magnetic lodestone between the eyes needs resetting. Regardless, even in the best of all possible worlds, it is dead easy to get lost in a new city, especially one that has almost no street names, and no house numbers that are in any rational order.

I circled out of the motel with a good deal of caution, making little forays in different directions, gradually expanding the perimeter of knowledge. Mine host had kindly supplied a kind of hand-drawn locality map. It mentioned such useful things as a fruit store, a rice-cake store, a store (sic!), a bakery, a pharmacy, a Korean restaurant, and a hair shop. No doubt they were spots where he had friends. But with the disarming logic of a local denizen, he had failed to note down that there were other fruit stores, rice-cake stores , stores general, bakeries, pharmacies ... and so on. Nor had he bothered to mark in anything as boringly obvious as a railway station or a bus route.

After about twenty minutes of exploration I had deduced that we were somewhere in the hinterland of a larger block of major roads. One of these roads, to the north, led past Changdeogung Palace, and on to Anguk Subway (Line 3), while a parallel road to the south held one of the exits of Jongno-3-ga Subway (Line 5). A further block south again was the major artery of Jongno Road itself, with the Jongno-3-ga exit for Line 3. Jongno Road was pulsing with traffic and pedestrians, mostly youngish. The general mood of the area was reminiscent of Nampodong in Busan

I strolled past the multistory frontage of Pagoda Language School, ablaze with white neon, and welcoming clients into a couched lobby with a scattering of trendy computer screens for internet access. It would have done any international hotel chain proud. Language schools have a special place in this society, consuming up to 30% of middle-class savings, and Pagoda is playing its privileged role to the hilt. Just past this landmark, the narrow side alleys became glittering with neons of many colours, restaurants, game parlours, clubs, cinemas. Swarms of teenagers and twenty-somethings were out go get their idea of a life.

Decades of a barely adequate income have ingrained in me the habit of avoiding any establishment that looks like charging for the ambiance of its lighting, or massaging the fashion-conscious egos of their patrons with a hefty bill. On the other hand your plastic takeaway hamburger and noodle joints for single office girls are also hardly the place to go for a balanced meal. Sooner or later in every city one finds a few honest, unpretentious cafes offering good food at workingmen's prices. But the first forays into a foreign place can be a finickety business of disasters and serendipity, of trial and error, and often settling for anything before starvation sets in. It's no easier if you can't read the billboards, or speak the language to ask questions.

On this evening I finally surrendered to a fishburger and a plate of salad selections which was weighed out gram by gram by a solemn middle-aged man. To either side of me were pairs of teenage girls driving the poor fellow to distraction by asking him to add a little of this or subtract a little of that as they calculated their calories and weekly budgets, unsupplemented by the financial bravado of a boyfriend in tow.

Up some narrow stairs you could find the wiped-down splendour of a McDonald's-type eatery. The patrons perched on chairs fixed to laminex tables, and I managed to claim one above the streetline, where I could watch the local wildlife in its mating rituals below. Since I don't know a soul in Seoul, there didn't seem much else to do but to keep trudging up Jongno Road as a rubberneck. What's to be seen depends upon what you are looking for I suppose. Just as a nondescript middle aged man lumbering along the pavement is invisible to teenagers on a mating drive, so their brand of street theatre only fleetingly engages him. Still, central Seoul at least has its architectural compensations. It has more class than Busan, less the air of a functional rush job, prefabricated from concrete slabs since the 1950s. Tonight though the only place to draw me in was a large bookshop with an English language section somewhere in the basement.

There's a certain morbid fascination in the prices of English language books in Korea, at this time in its history anyway. Except for a few of the staples from "learning English" sections, notably a clutch of out of copyright 19th Century novel translations, the price of imported books is astronomical. Now here's a topic which does get me animated!

There's every reason to give authors a return on their sweat (heck I write myself, and get sweet nothing for it), but these elitist prices have nothing to do with that. It's all about charging what they think a small coterie of highly paid foreign executives will put up with, and bugger the rest of us. Korea is not unique in this. Hong Kong is probably the worst offender. But it does go to show how well-intentioned legislation, like copyright, is always bent and exploited by the hustlers.

Welcome the day when there are print-on-demand terminals on every street corner, linked to the personal databank of each writer and directing subscriptions straight back to him. Bookshops could be mere sampling libraries, taking a small fixed fee on each purchase, and publishing houses could compete in terms of what they really are today: special purpose advertising agencies. If the writer really wanted such an "advertising publisher", he could either pay them a fee, or offer them a cut. In either case, they would be business clients, no better or worse than the ad agencies hired by breakfast food companies and politicians, Above all, we have to get rid of the idea that the publishing house selects and arbitrates "quality" in a godlike manner, then dictates price and access to the market .... but I'm digressing at a tangent to the wonders of Seoul ... (smile). As things stand here, the best trick is to scan shelves, then build a wish list for international Internet ordering: enough to reduce the impact of shipping charges.

As a Korean language na´f, I'm mildly interested in learn-Korean books, a much tinier market than the monster demand for learn-English stuff. Miscatalogued in an irrelevant section, I eventually came across a book/tape set on Korea from the "Teach Yourself" series. I rather like the style of this series: the dialogues let you get a handle on a chunk of the language, plus there are comprehensive vocabularies, and coherent explanations of what's going on. Even the exercises in the Korean editions were more imaginative than usual. Most locally written language learning books for foreigners in China and Korea have explanations written in Chinese or Korean, no doubt satisfying for the authors, but useless for the elementary learners. My ruminations had burnt the time. By now they were pushing us out of the store for the night, so I made a mental note to decide about buying the book later.

After a long trek back to my love motel, the hot shower was a luxury compared to the lukewarm dribble that my dormitory in Busan could manage, when it worked at all. The two free condoms remained unused, but I experimented with a slather of skin lotion, and wondered doubtfully about my new aroma. The pocket handkerchief of floor space mocked any thought of routine push ups, body presses and stretches, so the double bed had to do double duty. Its twangs and groans no doubt sounded appropriate and familiar to any voyeurs attached to hidden microphones in the lampshade.

Breakfast self-catering in a place like a love motel is a bit tricky. True, they did supply a mini-fridge hidden under the desk, and even two free samples bottles of the vitamin "fibre drink" handed out by chemists in Korea. On the other hand there was no sign of a way to boil water, or even the hot water flask usually ubiquitous to Asian hotels everywhere. I had bought some "gang neng-i", unsweetened puffed corn, apples and milk to kick the day off. That could be supplemented later with a roll or two from a corner takeaway. The morning schedule of satellite TV seemed to be a choice of meaningless infotainment grabs from CNN, and the swarms of boneless, bloodless animation critters that all children under nine are supposed to crave daily. Cut.

Out on the streets, sobered by washed morning light, the subtle greys and greens seemed peaceful. The city had a certain dignity, even grandeur. The barrage of traffic had not yet begun. Here and there a street sweeper pushed her cart. I walked towards the diplomatic quarter of Anguk, and at the subway entrance stood two watchful policemen in navy blue, a reminder perhaps of deeper social tensions than a casual tourist might suspect.

Well, what was the agenda? For a brief day or two in Seoul it could have been the prescribed tourist circuit of palaces and museums and quaint markets. I lived in-country though, and could do the museum bit anytime. I had no obligation to take National Geographic photos of people in funny clothes or snakes in baskets for the school projects of middle class children in Pittsburgh or Chicago. In fact, after three years in Asia, the quaintest thing I could think of finding was a Walmart discount store, and had a vague plan to find a way back to that long blue roof our bus had shot past on the outskirts of the city.

The truth of course is that a city is not constructed from its official tourist highlights. Every city has infinite faces, and will scan differently for the stamp collector, the bird watcher, the gourmet, the dealmaker and the lecher. Cities as accretions of concrete and refuse have much in common; also as taxi stops between Hilton Hotels and the glittering glass facades of banks and corporations they have much in common.

For me, each city was bound to play out according to the mental state I bought to read it with. By nature, I am the quintessential outsider, living between the cracks in the floorboards of both the richest and meanest environments. As a very poor, suntanned, scruffy nine year old on the outskirts of Sydney, rubbish tips were my greatest delight, and I can remember bringing home a set of abandoned cooking pots for my mother as a major triumph. To this day, I feel like an impostor even in an upmarket department store.

I mock these inhibitions in myself, look into the dull eyes, the tinsel fashions and silly self-importance of people who take to palaces of affluence as to the manner born, but in the end, inescapably, I am more comfortable nibbling a takeaway bun alone on the pavement, than sharing a "power breakfast" with the self-appointed masters of the universe. So learning Seoul in my way had to be a marathon of streetscapes, of long walks down roads that might lead nowhere in particular, and just occasionally might yield up a memorable vignette or an unexpected encounter.

One priority had to be to lay hands on some kind of city map. Luckily the station at Anguk had a little tourist office which was able to oblige. Anguk station itself had some pretensions to class : subdued wall murals, a traditional music store, and so on. It was unlikely to be the busiest spot in town, but it was a self-conscious gateway to "traditional Seoul". The lady of the circled eyes had yesterday invited me down to Town Hall for access to free e-mail, so that also seemed like something to put on the list. But first I wriggled through the subway system to a big bookshop I had heard about, the Uji Book Center at Ujiro-1-ga.

I had barely emerged from the subway steps, maybe looking a bit bewildered as usual, when a pudgy young man in a light grey flannel suit introduced himself and asked where I would like to go. My destination, the bookshop, was an easy take since it fronted into part of the subway, but he insisted on searching out the shelves where I might find what I wanted. The counter girl was sulky. It was five minutes before her official starting time, and she wasn't doing overtime for anybody. My host persisted primly, and she waved her hand vaguely at one corner of the store. Actually they didn't have what I wanted, but that had become secondary to the relationship with this stranger. Was he following a diktat of hospitality conscience, or did he have some other agenda? I finally guessed that my helper really was a man in a hurry who was doing his bounden duty as he saw it. I thanked him effusively, and freed him to rush off to salaryman-land. It was beginning to seem though that there were people in Seoul who were willing to help strangers in a way that almost never happened in Busan.

The City Hall was a mere whistle stop from Ujiro-1-ga, although I didn't realize that immediately, popping up out of gopher holes from the underground. The edifice stood almost alone, marooned at a corner of the Deoksugung Palace grounds, where great tides of fast roadways cut it off from the skyscraper heart of the new city. It was clearly preserved as a relic of ornate colonial granite architecture, with sweeping steps, and brass doorknobs, and a uniformed commissionaire to welcome respectable citizens. One of its most interesting features for a visitor with a sense of geography was the large city relief map against an outside wall. Little lights went on when you pressed buttons next to a list of landmarks, but it was especially useful in showing up the radiating river valleys which the city's development had overwhelmed.

Immediately behind the airy lobby was a very modern display area-cum-information bureau. A young lady fluent in English dug me out yet another city map, and showed me how to get to various places, although she was flummoxed for a minute by my enquiry about Walmart. Tourists, after all, were supposed to come to look at the Deoksungung Palace. Sitting at a table around the corner I found yesterday's guardian angel. Apparently she was a volunteer worker, together with another older lady whose language skills were useful to redirect straying Japanese. Their common language was Korean, which alas I didn't share, but in the rickety way of cross-language conversations we struggled on for a few minutes.

Somehow the talk got around to bedsheets, for I had complained that they couldn't be bought in Korea, or at least were never displayed. Nonsense, my domestic experts said. You just had to know what to ask for. If you wanted a bed sheet, you had to request a "rug". Hmm, mysteries of the new Asian Englishes. A good place to buy "rugs" the ladies continued enthusiastically, was Namdaemun (South Gate) Market. That was about ten minutes walk away, and they gave me elaborate directions.

I actually had no plans to spend the day walking around with an armload of bedsheets, but after checking my e-mail I did traipse off in the direction on Namdaemun. It was a pleasant morning of bright sunlight, and the air was still a little crisp. The shops on the way down to the market had cluttered display windows and dark interiors, the kinds of places about which you say to yourself, "surely they have to be a front for dubious activities, or the last retreat of some family inheritance". Nobody could make a living out of such somnolence. Namdaemun Market itself seemed relatively compact, although it ran to several bustling levels. It was exotic, perhaps, for package tourists from the West, if such creatures existed in these climes (I saw no sign of any in Seoul at all), but oriental markets were as familiar to me by now as any franchise in an Australian shopping mall.

The road continued on to Seoul Station, which sat a little abjectly amidst a clutter of traffic overpasses. The station itself was an uncomfortable marriage of Japanese imperial domed architecture and red brick, upon which had been brutally glued a great cream rectangle of utilitarian non-design, the place where nowadays rail-terminal type things actually happened. Nothing could disguise the fact that this corner of the city was definitely down-market. Down-and-outs, living in the clothes they stood up in, hung about the small car park, while a police van waited discreetly off to the left. I hurried inside, past the pillars of ATMs, and the ubiquitous coffee machines dispensing minuscule paper cups half-filled with brown liquid. The main concourse was brightly lit, though it had little to offer me. I did buy a couple of hot flapjacks off a cheerful woman, who slipped them steaming into a plastic bag for a thousand won. Then somewhere deep in the bowels of the place I found a walkway to yet another subway entrance.

As a traveler, you must have a Quest. It doesn't matter much what the quest is. This is a kind of psychological equivalent to the boring job that everyman plods off to each day, or the routine of housework which every housewife persuades herself is central to an ordered universe. It is also why tourist agencies stay in business, inventing routines for people who lack the imagination to dream them up themselves. You can hunt for unusual bottle tops or collect kinky cigarette lighters. The point is, when you have a goal, you have an excuse to kick in other people's heads, starve yourself for a world record, or head off to the South Pole. Once embarked on a journey of the heart, or of shoe leather, the world is coloured with meaning, no matter that your destination may be, after all, a mirage.

Ah, but it is the tragedy of a skeptic, such as I, never to be blessed with amnesia, to always remember that the end probably doesn't matter, and therefore become castrated of any sexy killer instinct. Like a world-weary gambler who goes to the casino just because it is open, I'm apt to embark on journeys that are absurd and dispensable. So my perverse goal, short-term today, had become the mythical Walmart. According to the lady in the Town Hall, that was quite an adventure. Catching city buses, it would have taken forever, but the huge subway system snakes its way everywhere. In this case it meant going pretty well to the end of one of the lines, to a place called Ori on the very southern outskirts of Seoul's conurbation.

When I am appointed emperor of all things below heaven, one of the offerings I am going to require of subways is an electronic vista-window in the ceiling, which shows you just where you are going in the upper world, as you burrow through the bowels of large cities. Today, being entirely subterranean, I had to travel blind like a mole, through roaring tunnels for an hour and a half, as people came and went. The passengers seemed to change as we progressed from the yuppity business centre to the dreary suburbs. By the time we got to Ori, my fellow passengers were mostly retirees, and doughty ajumas, those urban peasant women who hunt in packs and form attack V-formations to commandeer whatever seat is available, or whatever doorway happens to open. Anyway, when I emerged once more, blinking into the sunshine, it was late lunchtime.

Ori was obviously a rather modern creation in Korean terms. The boulevards were broad, there were footpaths, but few people. This wasn't the scene of crowded dongs (wards) with narrow alleyways, and little shops without awnings facing bluntly onto the street, or old ladies sitting behind bundles of cabbage and thawing piles of fish. No, this was the new urban landscape of the international megalopolis.

After walking around a block or two I found the surprisingly quiet entrance to a Carrefour mega-store. Playing the usual caricature of language fragments, I enquired of bemused floor staff how to find the competition, Walmart. It took them a little time to twig, but eventually one of the ladies found a piece of paper and drew me a kind of map, which seemed to suggest catching a bus for eight kilometers or so into the never-never of a highway out of town. There was a general impression that the bus was not too frequent. Then a floor manager came along, and pompously corrected the lady's map, putting her arrows to face in the opposite direction. It all sounded too hard. I didn't know which bus, or what direction.

Let's face it, did I REALLY want to go to Walmart? What did I want to buy anyway? No, it was more of a nostalgic cultural expedition, like visiting a famous museum with mass produced artifacts. In 1982, passing through Hawaii, there had been my first and only encounter with a Walmart, so in the hierarchy of interesting shops it had the virtue of novelty (Walmarts don't exist in Australia).

At the top of that hierarchy the all-time winner for me had been a kind of craftsman's hardware store called Tokyu Hands, five stories of fascination in Tokyo's suburb of Ikekaburo. At the bottom I rated the Japanese/Korean notion of a department store -- those mirror, glass and marble halls of lipstick and Luis Vuitton handbags, the vacuous floors of so-called designer clothing at ridiculous prices, and a pathetic incapacity to supply materials and tools to make or fix things with. Places like Walmart, K-mart or Carrefour were at least part-way towards being useful, though what I'd seen of the Korean versions fell sadly short of their Australian cousins. Maybe the making, fixing, tinkering ethic didn't go with living in twenty story apartment blocks, or maybe it was that old Confucian derision for fashioning anything with your hands.

I considered the short amount of time I had left in Seoul, and getting sensible at last, decided that it might be a richer contribution to enlightenment to head back towards the centre of town. I did have another absurd errand in mind, to hunt down some electronic bits and pieces. That implied a trip to Youngsan, which the map said wasn't far from Itaewon. For my fellow foreign teachers a trip to Seoul seems to be code-speak for a visit to the foreigner bars of Itaewon. I had no particular enthusiasm to check out the reputed expatriate heart of Seoul, or at least the off-duty stamping ground of 38,000 American GIs (not that they were likely to be visible in anything like that mass).

In the main city itself, let alone out here at Ori, there were very few foreigners at all to be seen. In those terms you could scarcely call Seoul an international city although it certainly outshone my recent waystop of Wuhan with its hundred odd big noses amidst a Chinese ocean of seven million... (perhaps my rarity value had encouraged the surprising courtesy which the citizens of Seoul had demonstrated). Most places were bound to seem monocultural alongside my hometown, Sydney, or even Australia itself with its 24% foreign born population (double the American ratio). In Sydney the word "foreigner" was an anachronism, but in Seoul one was definitely a foreigner, albeit kindly treated. For example, the surprise of hearing any foreigner speak a Korean word often means that regardless of pronunciation many Koreans have great difficulty in tuning in to the simplest requests.

In Ori subway station I asked the attendant for a fare to Youngsan. He blinked twice and handed over a ticket to some place I had never heard of. Once again though, fortune smiled. Behind me in the line was a dignified be-suited gentleman who quickly intervened and snapped something at the unlucky ticket seller. Corrections were hastily made. In elaborate English my new friend introduced himself and told me to "follow him". He was a retired official of some kind who gave me his name card, featuring a spare, elegant script printed vertically.

When I pulled out a miniature subway map we both had to squint, so then he insisted on making a gift to me of his small folding magnifying glass. He wasn't going quite to where I was going, he explained, but something would be arranged when the time came. I wasn't at all worried. After all, a subway system is a reasonably rational set of squiggles, and I could more or less see what I had to do. There would be a change needed at some place could Oksu, apparently to an above-ground line. Oksu was just over the Han River bridge. I tried to make some cordial conversation, and did the usual self-promotion of handing over my net site address; (I really do want feedback from knowledgeable Koreans, but few are both English-literate and Internet-literate).

As we came towards Oksu, my warden looked around the carriage, and fixing a beady eye on a young fellow who was standing nearby, tugged the front of his coat imperiously. There followed a brief conversation. It emerged that the young man was also going to Youngsan, so was therefore instructed to accompany and direct me. He looked a little unhappy about this, but etiquette forbade him to ignore such a senior gentleman. Since my new assigned guide spoke not a word of English, neither of us could decently extricate ourselves from the obligation. At the point of departure, I shook hands with the old gentleman, then mutely followed the young fellow onto the platform. It was quite crowded and I fully expected him to lose me in the crush of bodies. However, each time he got a few steps ahead he would pause patiently, mutely, never meeting my eye, but turning slightly like the owner of a dog which has darted off for a moment in the wrong direction. So walking two steps behind I tracked him up steps and down steps, waiting on platforms, standing in the next train. He was always there, never speaking a word, never looking at me, never losing me.

The exit at Youngsan itself is, well, rather remarkable. It is a nondescript platform in an old industrial landscape, grimy, with spidery steel steps clawing up to an overhead covered walkway. At the head of the steps though there is no ticket collection, no barriers. Rather, the walkway leads off in either direction, quite a long way on the arm we chose. A busy river of bodies flowed for several hundred meters it seemed, and emerged into a kind of cavernous hall which looked for all the world like an international border crossing into another country. We clicked our way through the turnstiles. Now surely, I had to release my guide. I clapped him softly on the shoulder and nodded "thank you". Obviously relieved, he managed a quick smile and disappeared into the crowd.

The place where I had found myself was in fact a large merchandising hall for the Korean universe of computers, CD players, cell phones and other electronic gadgetry. This was Hong Kong on the Han River, although the prices unfortunately were by no means tax free. For all its glitz, the electronics market at Youngsan has your typical (limited) Korean range, and nothing that looked like the electronic component stores that interested me. Beyond the large merchandising hall at the railway turnstiles, the area was accumulating a collection of electronic/electrical retailers and wholesalers, old warehouses converted into warrens of nestling agencies, nearly all selling the same as their neighbours. One section might be given over to electric fans, or air conditioners, or PC computers.

Most proprietors seemed to spend their lives sipping coffee and reading newspapers. Perhaps they had salesmen out in the field, or a few loyal customers. Being slow-witted, I've never been able to understand how many small businesses (anywhere) actually pay the rent. The municipal history of Youngsan has not been on my reading list, but looking around at the decaying industrial environment, overlaid with enthusiastic projects like the electronics retailing hall, one could almost smell the political hyperbole about a new Silicon Valley. In China, probably Korea too, the city elders of any burgh which has a collection of computer shops talks of its emerging Silicon Valley as a coming saviour to the treasury.

Now what? Still a few allotted hours to spend. Maybe I should take in a fleeting glance at Itaewon after all, to confirm every prejudice. How nice it would be to insert an "however" here. Well, it was even tackier than I had imagined. A half kilometer strip of forgettable shops, and on both sides of the road, a ragged straggle of tourist stalls, selling a mixture of clothing and the universal kitsch which you find in tourist stalls everywhere. Perhaps Itaewon had grown to cater for all those mostly not-too-bright GI boys, who could feel right at home in a good ol' American holiday spot. It amazed me that anyone else would come here just to buy a pizza from an English language menu. The signature personality for this corner of town seemed to be an aging American officer, scrubbed pale and pink with laundry soap. As he stepped off the curb he held the elbow of his Korean lady, now perhaps his Korean wife, who was on the cusp of transformation into a middle aged ajuma with carefully permed hair. In public she looked distinctly edgy as "the foreigner's woman". It was all a little sad.

As the day slipped away I made a hasty exit down the electric gopher hole, and emerged once again to a darkened Jongno-3-ga. My little shopping chores had been an unreserved failure if getting the goods counted, but now I decided to retrace last night's expedition, and splash out on the "Teach Yourself Korean" book. Back in the spacious basement of Youngpoon Book Store, almost sure this was the right place, I tried to repeat the previous accidental find. The object of desire had no homing beacon on it, so getting scientific the salesgirl consulted her computer data base, and assured me earnestly that there was no such publication for sale here.

Doubtful, puzzled, I retreated to the street and slogged west for another half kilometer, to yet another intersection. Foot weary, like a cheated conquistador, plunging ever deeper into the unmapped wilderness, time and opportunity were slipping beyond grasp again. With failure came a caveat on my plan to catch an early morning bus the next day. Discouraged, I turned east yet again, plodded sulkily past the Youngpoon store, and just before closing time reached the only other obvious candidate, the Jongno book centre. One peek into the lobby persuaded even my confused memory that this wasn't El Dorado.

Time to go home. Time to eat. Not another wretched cardboard takeaway though. Lady Luck showed a twinge of compassion. A few hundred meters to the west of Jongno-3 station I gambled on one of those cafes with coloured wax mockups of their meals in the window. I could even stroll in and pretend to be knowledgeable by memorizing the Hangul label on the display. Dinner came in a lacquer boxed tray : spicy soup, steel chopsticks, a bowl of rice, little dishes of pickled vegetable, and salad. The agassi briskly snipped up some lightly crumbed fish with her shears. It was good, honest fare for a modest price.

After several minutes a florid fellow in the centre of the cafe apparently took a different view. In a loud voice voice he summoned the manageress, and stabbed his finger angrily at the offending food. At first she tried to conciliate him, but when that didn't work, stoutly defended her chef's cooking. The altercation went on and on, with the whole kitchen staff hovering at a doorway in the distance. Eventually the florid man stumbled to his feet, and still arguing furiously, he was edged out the door. Public honour was now at stake, so the mama-san brusquely seized the guilty tray, and carried it to a table near her cash register. There she plumped down and proceeded to finish the serving off, munching grimly. From time to time a waitress would perch birdlike on the edge of a chair at the same table, and take a peck from the food too, to show proper loyalty. With a roadshow like this thrown in, the indigenes won hands down over the previous night's insipid snack.

It's amazing how a good night's sleep improves the world's complexion. As I bounced down the stairs of the love motel next morning, the unctuous host lisped that final word in every hotelier's vocabulary : "checkout?". Well no, not quite yet. I really did want to find that goddamned book. Figuring on a house to house search, I studied the map and caught a subway to the farthest point west I could conceivably have wandered two nights before. That was Gwangwhamun station. Home to the final Quest had to be somewhere along this strip, or Seoul was a gremlin's box of illusions.

Right off the train this time was the Kyobo Book Store, a prosperous place whose layout looked vaguely like a possible match. Yet once again, the hapless presence of a foreigner attracted swift help from a stranger. She was a wiry madam of at least sixty, taut as a bow string, with short, sensibly wrapped, iron grey hair, and wearing a little knapsack. Nobody could have been further from the squat cabbage sellers of Busan's pavements. She was probably some kind of academic. Without fuss, she asked what I was looking for, and immediately set off to find the floor manager, confiding along the way in perfect English, that with a wink and a nod in this shop, I could wrangle a 10% discount.

Alas, they had never heard of the book either, so it was back to walking in the sunshine. At last, coming abreast of the Youngpoon store, I looked at it darkly and on an impulse clattered down its steps. This time, ignoring all official help, I half closed my eyes, invoked any mediums, muses or other friendly spirits who might happen to be drifting by, and invited my feet to move by instinct to some likely spot in the wall of books. And there it was. Not on the database indeed! The clerks were of course happy to accept a cash donation, but entirely uninterested when I dryly pointed out the failures in their organization.

No matter, now I was free to head out of town, back to the other end of the Korean world, where the citizens of Seoul only ventured once a year in the heat of a few days of summer holiday. Remote Busan, my home in the steep valleys of Bansong-dong, but for these soft-speaking northerners, merely a place for the annual migration, where after endless traffic jams they packed shoulder to shoulder on baking sand, by the tepid waters of Haeundae Beach.


* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.


"Scouting Seoul"... copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved
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