Thursday, February 15, 2007

Four days in Seoul

If I had to describe Seoul in 15 words or less, this is what I would write: Seoul has lots of concrete buildings, good food and hard-working riot police.

It’s not exactly the most profound description ever written but I was only there for four days, which was barely enough time to skim the surface. My first impression of Seoul was made on the 50-kilometre bus ride from the airport to the city centre. The crowded highways were fenced in by rows of towering concrete apartment complexes that went on for miles in every direction.

I suppose this is what happens when you try to cram more than 20 million people into one area. Although it wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing city in the world, it was definitely buzzing with energy.

My favourite part of the trip was the food. Korean food is hot and spicy and unbelievably delicious. My friend Sony, who now lives and works in Seoul, took me to a barbeque restaurant the first night I was in town.

Barbeque restaurants have a grill set into the table, on which you cook strips of meat. After the meat is cooked, you put it in a leaf of lettuce and load it up with pickled vegetables, sauce and raw garlic. Then you roll it up into a little package and eat it. Yum!

Sony took me around to all of the main tourist attractions. We went skating.

We went to a palace.

We sampled Seoul's famous nightlife.

We even went to the aquarium, which had a strange assortment of household appliances doubling as fish tanks.

What was even weirder was that we kept running into hundreds of riot police everywhere we went.

The most surreal part of the trip was watching four busloads of riot police pour out onto the sidewalk to break up a protest of four people. Yes, one busload of riot police for each protestor!

I later learned that the government has a “zero tolerance” policy against potentially violent rallies. The four-person protest we saw didn’t look like it was about to become violent but I suppose “zero tolerance” really means “zero tolerance.”

Another highlight of the trip was meeting up with my friend Lee. Lee is a Korean who came to Vancouver for a one-year internship in 2005. We swam on the same swim team while he was living in Vancouver. Lee offered to be my personal tour guide and translator for the weekend.

I took this picture of Lee on February 10th. I asked him why there were still Christmas decorations up all over Seoul. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know. Maybe they are just lazy.”

Not only was Lee my personal tour guide and translator, he was also the perfect ambassador for his city. I experienced the warm Korean custom of being pushed, shoved and stepped on wherever I went. But Lee felt badly that no one apologized whenever they pushed me or stepped on my feet or cut ahead of me in line. So he took it upon himself to apologize on their behalf, which meant I couldn’t move two feet without Lee pulling me aside and saying, “I’m sorry.”

He said he was so impressed by the way everyone in Canada always said “sorry” for the slightest grievance that he has made it his personal mission to transform Korea into a more polite society.

Lee also took me out for a traditional Korean breakfast, which was centred on soup, rice and kimchi.

Anyway, I’ve just skimmed over the highlights. We had many more adventures but these are the only pictures I have that don’t totally suck. Overall, it was a fun trip but way too short.

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