Friday, June 21, 2013

Size Matters

For the most part, if offered a choice between "big" or "small", I'm going to pick big. I'm greedy like that.

Of course, there is always an exception or two.
But, after thirteen years of traveling, mostly through capital cities, it has become apparent I prefer smaller cities to larger ones. 

I would never trade my eight months in Tokyo, seven months in Beijing, four months in Seoul, or even the the six months we lived in Bogota. Wonderful experiences all. 

However, I much prefer my memories of Rome, Vienna, Phnom Penh, Paris, Kiev, Munich (not a capital, I KNOW), Prague or Montevideo. 

I like walkable, navigable towns. Cities I can really get a feel for, instead of constantly riding around in an underground train from location to location. 

Cities you can "escape" in less than 30 minutes on public transport. 

Cities where each corner becomes a memory, indelibly etched into your soul. 

Largo Argentina, Rome
Even after seven months in Beijing, I can only speak with some authority on small areas of the city. Tokyo as well. Half the time I didn't even know WHERE I was in Tokyo. Although that might have had something to do with the alcohol.

And then there are the really small capitals. Tel Aviv, Nicosia, Skopje, La Paz. Too small almost for city run public transport systems, which really leads to a lot of nosing around. 

But again with the exceptions, though, as I adore Hong Kong and London. 

What makes a city livable to you? Size? Weather? Attractions? 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Seoul Food (See What I Did There??)

As I have mentioned, FM and I lived in Seoul for four months in 2001. Outside of the Itaewon area of town (Little America), eating was a bit of a challenge. There were not a lot of restaurants staffed with English speaking workers, or in possession of menu's with English or pictures. 

Obviously, we didn't starve to death. But we also didn't get to experience much of the local food. We did okay on the drink, though.  

One thing you learn on the road is "Order what you want, eat what you get". They rarely seem to be the same thing.

That being said, I saw this sign the other day and thought, "Live octopus?". Must be a misprint.

 But no. Our colleague and friend Ned ordered the octopus at our local drinking establishment the other night. When it arrived at the table, it was still moving. Well, fluttering. But moving. Mad I didn't take a video. We ate it, and it didn't fight back, but still felt a little creepy. Although it wasn't exactly Sannajki (raw, live octopus), it was doing something on that plate.

 Which sometimes makes you very glad to see this. Although in fairness, I haven't yet ventured into a Taco Bell in Seoul.

After thirteen years of travel, we are pretty much done with seeking out the odd or unusual. My days of eating sauteed fish eyeballs and deep fried camel boogers are nearing a close.

We are not "foodies" (whatever that means), nor do I take pictures of every meal we eat (mainly because I'm usually too hungry to do it first, or I just plain forget). But we do like to eat. I'm just not planning my entire night around a certain restaurant or a certain dish.

The presence of "foreign" food outside of the Itaewon area has definitely been on the rise. While hanging around near Gangnam Station we wandered into a restaurant called Uncle 29 and had some cute little Mexican snacks.

Street food is ubiquitous in Seoul. From fish shaped fried sweet dough to actual fish like things. Tokkebi hot dogs (look like a really fat corn dog) or even hot dogs coated in french fries, meat on a stick, corn on the cob, Kimbap (rice rolls), Tteokbokki (fairly tasteless rice noodles in a very spicy sauce) and Hotteok (basically pancakes, some with sweets, nuts or vegetables). The carts give off savory and sweet aromas that can make you hungry even when you're not. 

 I'm not even sure what these things were, but the chocolate ones didn't appear to be the top sellers.

All those 6-8 year old kids who used to yell "Hello" at me and want to speak in English are now serving up food in restaurants around town. And their English has improved dramatically. It's possible for us to venture into almost any restaurant and have an English menu and order in English. The above Chicken Teriyaki was delicious.  The chicken pictured below was basically cartilage, however. Not sure that word translates properly. Very chewy and bland.

Another food that has taken the town by storm is fried chicken. KFC is here, along with Popeye's, but the local versions are available every ten meters. Korean chains that serve nothing but fried chicken, plus Mom and Pop's doing the same; all of them vying for that top spot of Best Fried Chicken in Seoul.

 Fresh squid grilled outside the zoo. Smelled delicious.

 Some of you may have noticed my sidebar of "Foods I Still Fantasize About". One of the first things I ever added to this list was a dinner of Pork Chops, coleslaw and taters at the Seoul Pub. Now, you might be saying, "REALLY?? Pork Chops in Seoul?". And they really, really, REALLY were good. 

That steak didn't suck at Wolfhounds, though. For $18, it better not!

But now they suck. So, I have to remove the pork chops from The Seoul Pub from my list and apologize to anyone who went there and ate them after they started sucking. Because they were most definitely not the same.

Sweets and pastries are also on the rise. And they even have sugar in them now! In the past you would see these delicious looking treats, then take a bite and instantly think, "WTH? Is there no sugar in here?". Think bland, dry and floury. They have it figured out, now.

We even found us some Eggs Benny the other day. Not quite the same, but a nice alternative to the hotel breakfast buffet. 

Some food is just not ready for fusion. Kimchi Pizza? Fuggetaboutit. I STILL do not like Kimchi. I don't get it. I like spicy. I like cabbage. I HATE Kimchi. Gives me a shudder.

One thing that HAS stayed the same is the serving of pickles with all pizza. Required by law. (Not really).

Deli across the street (Mama's Cafe) makes a mean Turkey sandwich as big as your head.
Macarons! Pretty sure this is a fairly new addition to the Korean palate. 
In addition to the fast-food restaurants listed, there is, of course, McDonalds, Burger King and Pizza (Sl)hut. Also, Krispy Kreme, Dunkin Donuts and Mr. Donut are everywhere. Starbucks and The Coffee Bean prevail on every corner. Dig a little deeper and you can find Baskin-Robbins, Coldstone Creamery, Subway and Quiznos. 

We don't eat there. At home. Or here. 

Okay. I might nip into the Baskin Robbins on occasion.  :-)

So, no. We are not eating Korean food every night. Nor, do I think, are the Koreans.

Eat well!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Looking Down on Seoul

It would be difficult to frown upon the city of Seoul and its people. Seoul started its emergence over 2000 years ago, and has been on the move ever since. 

Some interesting facts:

  • It has the world's longest subway system (by length)
  • Incheon Airport has been awarded the World's Best Airport seven years in a row.
  • Seoul's metropolitan GDP is 4th highest in the world, behind Tokyo, NYC and Los Angeles
  • The metropolitan area is home to over 25 million people, making it the second largest (after Tokyo)
  • Seoul has the world's most visited National Park, the largest indoor amusement park, the longest bridge fountain and the largest movie screen.
  • Hosted over 10 million foreign visitors in 2012.
  • DOES NOT SERVE/EAT DOG MEAT AT EVERY RESTAURANT/MEAL. (That's kinda a joke, but not really. Koreans are "known" for eating dog, but it is certainly a delicacy, and only served in specific, expensive restaurants. Plus, with the emergence of dogs as pets, interest has waned dramatically).
As I MAY have mentioned, Seoul has definitely changed since we were here in 2001. To get a better perspective, I visited both 63City and the Seoul Tower last week.

63City if the tallest buliding in Seoul, standing 73 floors high alongside the Han River on the cities southwest side. It is in the Yeongdeungpo-gu District. Say that three times fast. . . 

I am unsure why the building is named 63City, but the Observation Deck also incorporates a small art gallery called, what else, 63SkyArt. So off we go to the 60th floor. Also in the 63City is Seoul Sea World. The building was filled with Korean school children (under 10) today. Lucky me.
Looking up river to the west
Both of these pictures are looking north across the River towards downtown, but there is a MOUNTAIN (Namsam, where the Seoul Tower is) in the middle of the city, so you really can't see the whole are. You CAN see the tower, though on the upper right.

Outside of 63City is the Olympic torch from the 1988 games here in Seoul

And a pretty cool metal sculpture of a stand of trees.

Sunday showed some promise of good visibility. After lazing around trying to decide what to do watching the sky all morning, we headed off to the Seoul Tower. I did this in 2001, but have no recollection of how I got UP to the Tower itself. None. Nada. Zilch.

But this time, we took the cable car.  I probably did this last time, but just blocked it from my memory. I don't like these things.

The downtown that is hidden by the mountain from 63City

North Seoul Tower. In the top 100 places to visit in Korea. Duh.
This pic is upriver. I took it in 2001. Notice the blue sky and white puffy clouds. I miss that.
Same(ish) shot today. Really doesn't look like much has changed. Strangely.
Same with these two shots (above and below). Above was in 2001, below on Saturday. I think the windows were cleaner in 2001.

Obligatory selfie of us at the Tower.

Standing at the geographical center of Seoul. Which just so happens to be at the base of the Seoul Tower. 
After a nutritional and traditional lunch of hot dogs, french fries and beer, we booze cruised our way home on foot through Myeong-dong, Eijuro, and Insadong. A thirty minute walk that took us 4.5 hours, countless beers (including a roadie apiece) and some much needed snacks.

A good day looking down on Seoul.

Da 'Hood

Although we are living just seven minute walk away from FM's worksite on the main thoroughfare in downtown Seoul, a two minute jaunt out our back door delivers you directly into the heart of Insadong.

Formerly, Insadong was one of the richest areas of Seoul, home to most government officials and other such muckety mucks. During the Japanese occupation, most wealthy Koreans were forced to sell of their property, which led to the area earning the title of Antique Street. 

After the occupation, many antique dealers remained and were joined by artists, rejuvenating the "dong" into one of the most vibrant and Korean custom oriented areas of Seoul. Full of cafes, tea houses, souvenir stands, boutiques, art galleries and restaurants, locals and tourists alike flock to this well-preserved area.

Including us.

Leaving out our back door and crossing the alley delivers you into a small, mazelike garden owned and maintained by the Jogyesa Buddhist Monastery.

However, before you reach the Temple, you will encounter the VERY first Seoul post office. Who's architecture really doesn't vary much from the temples, palaces, etc we keep stumbling over. . . First established in 1884.
And where you can currently buy these. . . stop the madness. 

Main Jogyesa Temple
If heading into Insadong from Anguk Station, you will be greeted by these "resident alien" looking guys

And from Gyeongbokgung by this large sculpture of a caligraphy brush.

Insadong used to be two towns, In and Sa, divided by a stream. Now this fountain stands as a reminder and a small (see left part of photo) rill runs down the main street.

I headed over to the Unhyeongung Palace, a smaller Royal dwelling on the eastern border of the district. I liked the three distinct architectural designs visible here.

UnHyeongung Palace
Unlike a lot of the palaces, this had some of the rooms set up to show what they would have traditionally looked like and were used for. Although a "little" cheesy, it did make the palace come more alive for me than many of the others I've seen. This is depicting a traditional tea ceremony.

And this is a traditional kitchen set up.

It was a very cute little palace (smaller now than in the past) in a very tranquil setting with a seventy cent admission charge.

Cutting back to the west, I zigged and zagged through some old traditional alleys. People are still living in here. As I passed I could hear typical living sounds emanating off the stone walls. This is the zig. . . 

And then the zag
Almost immediately I'm back on the main road and eager to check out
 a building I just recently read about, the Ssamzigiel, inside this doorway.

Although very picturesque and full of psuedo-artworks, it was basically a mall. Now, if there was a beer garden up here on the roof, we'd be TALKING!

There were however, sheep made of metal on the roof.

Art and grafitti in the stairwells

Looking down on the street. The tallest building on the right is our house!

Looking north from the roof.

More looking from the roof.
Insadong has a lot more to offer than just this quick glimpse. It was our last stop home on Sunday after going to the Seoul Tower and then booze-cruising home. We enjoyed a nice snack and some ice-cold Cass in a beer joint and will return for many meals I'm sure.

Oh. And THE BEST Italian restaurant is just on the western border. Called Agio. Really was delicious.
So cute, two floors of Italian charm in the middle of Insadong
Check out that wood brick oven!
Homemade pasta plus good, crispy pizza. And not pricey at all!