Friday, 27 February 2009

Day #0 - Arrival

»Day #0 - Arrival
Day #1 - Acquainting Seoul
Day #2 - Korean Wave
Day #3 - A Sip of Soju
Day #4 - A Cultural Evening

19 February 2009, Thursday
Come April, it will be my fourth year in Japan. Yet, there're still so many places I intend to visit. The only time I can travel, though, is the holidays. That's merely three or four times a year. Besides, let's not forget about the most important thing when it comes to travelling - money.

However, the Japanese Yen has risen like never before so I reckoned it was the perfect time to travel overseas rather than staying in Japan. South Korea was a good choice, since I know a number of people there. And more than that, as opposed to the strengthening Japanese currency, Korean Won dropped like never before. So, South Korea it was. I booked my tickets three months ago for a mere 35,000 Yen.

The most popular option is to travel by tour but considering that there were Samaritans who were willing to "adopt" me during my stay, and that I never like tours, off I went all by myself.
adventure noun
1. an exciting or very unusual experience, normally one where things are very likely to go wrong.
Of course I was very well aware that the language barrier might possibly get me screwed but that's the fun of it, isn't it? I'm glad that I can at least remember the Hangul though. Otherwise, things would be so much worse.

Seoul in 6 Days
The flight from Narita Airport took no more than two hours. At Incheon Airport, while still recovering from the ass cramp after the short ride, I was greeted by a sober immigration officer who scrutinized my passport like a archaeologist examining a piece of artifact. Outside, the weather was even more sober - thick mist and freezing temperature. At as low as -10゜C at this time of the year, Seoul's winter is harsher than Tokyo's. But when you're talking about sub-zero temperatures, you don't feel much difference anyway.

I was supposed to take a limousine bus to Gaebong Station - bus 6004 - where I would meet Adrian. But for some reason, the lady at the ticket booth directed me to the wrong bus. I guess when your workplace is a crampy ticket booth, screwing up stupid tourists can be an entertaining pastime. Luckily, I was cautious enough to confirm with the bus driver before hopping on, so no harm done.

Peeking out of the window during the one-hour bus ride, I couldn't believe the number of churches out there. At one corner of the block, I saw one. Then there was one more at the other corner. And there were plenty more in between. On the other side of the street, you get even more. Each and everyone of them extravagant and was almost swollen to the obscene size of the most modest cathedral. I've always heard that the majority of South Koreans are Christians but I've never expected to see such a sight. I bet there're more churches than hospitals in Seoul. And yes, if you didn't catch it, that was intended to be a sarcasm. Also, you'll surely be surprised to meet those fanatics who openly preach on the trains and by the roads too but I'll come back to that later.

On the bus, the TV was tuned in to the news. The first South Korean cardinal of the Roman Catholic church, Stephen Kim Sou-hwan passed away three days ago on 16 February. Obviously, he was a great man whom the South Korean loved. But I'd better keep to myself my opinions regarding spiritual leaders, however "great" they are claimed to be.

An hour's bus ride - by the end of which gave me another ass cramp - took me to the rendezvous point. I was still feeling dazzled as a stranger in a foreign land. The new environment overwhelmed the senses. People spoke in this foreign language that I couldn't catch; the signboards were written in peculiar combinations of circles and squares. It reminded me of my first days in Japan. And yes indeed, it was that experience which gave me the courage to venture to Seoul alone in the first place.

Adrian showed up ten minutes later and we headed towards his place, a dorm mainly inhabited by Malaysian JPA scholars, which they fondly call "Kampung Malaysia". The room was considerably big for two persons. And here, I discovered perhaps the coolest invention in Korea, the floor-heating system! Every house in South Korea is equipped with one, I was told. Boy, it really kept the room as warm and cozy as an incubator! Compare that to the cryogenic temperatures of my room in winter, thanks to the crappy antique heater.

We had dinner at a nearby restaurant, some dish with boiled kimchi and pork. Needless to say, it lived up to the reputation of spicy Korean food, but compared to Malaysian standard, it still had a long way to go. Then after taking a short break at home, believe it or not, we headed off again to another restaurant, this time for a birthday party. It was a hoff (beer parlor), actually. Something similar to a Japanese izakaya. Here, I met Ruben the birthday boy, an Indian guy from Butterworth.

"So, what brings you here to Seoul?" Ruben greeted me with a firm handshake.

"I thought that's obvious. For your birthday party of course!"

I didn't stay at the party long, though. But instead, left early so that I could make an early start the next day.

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