South Korea: A kaleidoscope of country, concrete, cool and Kimchi
The bus comes to a stop, the doors open, you are greeted by the mixed sound of Western and K-POP songs echoing in a valley of high rise apartment blocks, low laying restaurants, kooky coffee shops and countless convenience stores.
You step forward, into a reality unlike anything you have experienced before, a reality where innovative cutting edge technology, industrious sleep deprived work ethic and progress prioritized city life is beautifully contrasted with respectful rural farming tradition, music obsessed teenagers and majestic temple filled mountains.This is the quirky, cool and some-what cray cray country of South Korea.
The people, places and personality of South Korea
As you leave the bus stop brimming with Korean travelers of all ages waiting patiently for their transport to come and whisk them away, the South Korean atmosphere boots up your senses. An array of artificial advertising sprouting from all sides of the buildings confusing your brain with its mixture of Korean “Hangul” and English signs and posters. ” NEW” , “CAFE”, “BEAUTY”, “NATURE”, “LOVE”, “FUN” all appear paired with Korean characters that look like some form of computer code. Beneath the signs are cafes with English, French and Italian names, lined up side by side with traditional looking Korean restaurants that have something being fried, steamed or chopped in their windows.
You begin walking along the people packed pavements. Trendy men in business suits and fashion forward women in designer dresses pass you by, couples in matching mickey mouse shirts walking their petite pups led by pink leashes, kids play in city parks and the occasional Segway or bicycle zooms and whizzes through the crowds.
Suddenly! you collide with an old short Korean woman with a perm peaking out the top of her sun visor, wearing a garment garden of floral colored clothing and pushing a small shopping basket filled with root vegetables. She is as sturdy and strong as the largest Korean mountain, and almost bulldozes you off your feet ! You apologize profusely but she keeps walking as if nothing even happened. Its your first official introduction to an “Ajima”; an old Korean woman of a specific look and demeanor, who is my favorite personality of Korea. They are fierce, not to be messed with and do not care what anybody thinks of them. But they will always help out in emergency situations and once you get on the good side of an Ajima she will garnish you with gestures of generosity that include traditional candies, zip locked vegetable snacks and boiled eggs.
After walking through the high rise apartment buildings and low lurking convenience stores for a while, your nose will start to twitch in response to the sensational spicy smell wafting from the “Sikjangs” / food houses that sprout up on every street and in every alley of the city. Each restaurant offers up a “juk”, “guk”, “bibimbab”, “jigae”, “jjim” or “tang” of some kind, similar to soups, stews and stir fries, to sate your hunger pangs with a home cooked style of food that is common through out all of Korea’s eateries. The restaurants all also serve up a plethora of complimentary signature side dishes that differ from place to place. So each time you dine out its a new culinary adventure, as you never really know what you are going to get. This makes eating one of South Korea’s favorite past times, and it is as much a social event as it is a dining experience. The most famous and sociable eating experience is “Samgyabsal” or Korean barbecue. these can be identified by the sight of clusters of cheerful people sitting around a table with a barbecue pit or grill built into the middle of it and the the sound of laughter harmonized with the sizzling of thinly cut strips of pork emanating from the groups center . This pork based dish is self cooked and always enjoyed with a side of spiced vegetables, fresh green salad leaves and South Korea’s staple, Kimchi. Oh and of course Samgyabsals drink pairing of choice, the countries favorite ethanol infused elixir , Soju. An alcoholic beverage traditionally made from rice, wheat, or barley. It is enjoyed straight up clean and drunk out of shot glasses to the symphonic sound of “Gumbae!”, Its cheap and can be bought roughly anywhere that has a fridge, from corner stores to restaurants alike.
The Traditional Market
Eventually you will follow your nose to the most sense stimulating scene in South Korea, the traditional market! Nestled among the buildings, the sights, sounds and smells of something being fried, baked or battered will grab you by the stomach and pull you into the bustling bonanza of market stalls. On your left you notice cabbage being soaked in a stream of vinegar, peppers and spices, the ripe red Kimchi is being prepared by a warm faced Ajima. To your right a Jjeon”, Korean pancake, is being browned to perfection on a flat fryer, made with your choice of pumpkin, seafood, potato or spring onion, definitely not your conventional pancake. Ripping your eyes away from the tantalizingly mysterious street foods you gaze upon the glory of the landscape ahead of you. A rainbow of fresh fruit and vegetables streak beneath multi-colored stripped umbrellas and visors, Fresh and frozen fish swim in seas of crushed ice beds and glass containers like mini make shift aquariums, poultry and meat shock and disturb your innocent mind with their revealing and some what gruesome displays of animal carcasses. This sensory overload cause you to seek an exit. So you grab a deep fried snack and head back towards the mouth of market.
The Majestic Mountains
Your mind is racing and trying to process everything at a rate that makes you dizzy, you feel giddy but need some fresh air and a change of scenery. You look up to the horizon in hope of some way out of this concrete carnival and find a fantastic ridge of mountains bordering the city limits, not too far away. So you don your determined look and head towards the beginning of one of the many testing trails to rest your bewildered brain and tame a peak or two at the same time.
As you ascend the steep rocky inclines,you notice the mountain path is perfectly signed and plotted, tranquil white bark trees twist and contort around you and occasionally you are assisted by buttocks burning steel steps. In 3 hours you reach the top, reeling with hikers high, where the city below reveals its true motherboard-like panorama. From this vantage point it all looks like a computer chip-set made up of towers and processors, so modern and simply scientific. Then you turn your head and your real reward erupts around you. Humble green leaved trees as far as the eyes can see stretch up towards peaks higher than any apartment block, and serene bird life soars in valleys greater than any sprawling city plan. The marvel of the mountains makes its presence known and you realize what is so magical about South Korea. This magnificent mixture of mother nature and modernization. You realize the true beauty of South Korea is within its contrasts.