On something of a whim recently, a group of us got together on a Friday night and decided to book a weekend in Korea. I’m not entirely sure from where the idea came, but having now returned, I’m very glad it did come. Seoul was the obvious choice of location insofar as it was the only place in Korea that any of us had heard of (except Pyongyang – and to be honest we were all looking for a more ‘user-friendly’ vacation than that) and so it was that on a Friday afternoon, we hopped in a cab to Pudong airport ready for a quick flight up to Incheon airport.
A quick flight.
In its defence, the flight itself was quick, but what we hadn’t counted on was that Pudong airport at 5pm on a Friday night is apparently the only place in China that does not have a staff to customer ratio of approximately 1:1. Seriously. Everywhere we have been in Shanghai so far has had so many staff available that we have seriously wondered how most of the city is able to stay open or economically viable*. But not in the second busiest airport in China (with over 60 million passengers a year passing through) on a Friday night where several check-in desks stood lonely and unattended like those girls at the dance in ‘Grease’ – you know the bit I mean, right? Nevertheless, once we had crawled through our security checks we boarded our bus to the plane, and promptly got on. And promptly sat there. For a while. Quite a while.
Now, being delayed on the tarmac is not a huge issue. These things happen; it’s air travel for crying out loud. It may not have been ideal, not least because we were still sitting on the tarmac (well, sitting in an airplane on the tarmac) at 8pm when we should have been landing in Seoul, but the real kicker came in the courtesy of China Eastern airlines’ regulations about when electronic devices should be turned off. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but most airlines nowadays ask you to put electronic devices on flight mode before take off, but if you are reading your e-book, or listening to music on your phone etc they are happy to let you continue during take-off. Oh, not here on China Eastern. No. Here at China Eastern, the rules seem to state that your electronic devices must be turned onto flight safe mode at least 20 minutes before take off (I know I am prone to exaggeration for effect, so let me state for the record that none of the timings here will be exaggerated) and thereafter cannot be used AT ALL. You need to pay attention to the safety briefing (fair enough) and then you have to sit there without a single device at your fingertips unless it’s one of those old fashioned books or magazines, since they already come in flight-safe mode. This is also not necessarily a problem; it’s not ideal, but takeoff doesn’t take all that long and you can get back to Sudoku or your Kindle, or your music in short order. However, once your departure is delayed by nearly two hours and during that time you are not permitted to use any of these devices, your patience can begin to feel tested. At least, it can if you are me. Oh well, at least once you’re airborne you basically have the whole flight to use your devices, right? Wrong. Here at China Eastern, everything must be turned off and completely out of sight at least 30 minutes before landing. This was enforced as the cabin crew came through the plane telling us all to stop doing whatever we were doing, and we duly obliged (because while we’re not above sneering about it on a blog two weeks after the event, we’re definitely not going to publicly express our dissatisfaction with a rule, no matter how stupid it may seem) like good citizens. This didn’t seem to bother the woman in the seat across from us who waited until we were in our final descent, pulled out her phone and took a call mid landing. Safety first guys.
So, here we were, in Seoul. We had booked a place via Air BnB (if you’re not on this yet, you really must try it out) and found a very nice taxi driver who took us as the final bus had gone, and we were at least an hour away. While the drive itself is not really worthy of comment, two things did catch my attention on the way into the city. Firstly, people seemed to be able to drive in Korea. This may seem fairly straightforward, but only if you’ve never seen the roads in Shanghai, which are effectively the real life manifestation of the TV show Robot Wars mixed with drivers who are somewhere between Sonic the Hedgehog and Stevie Wonder**. Secondly, the currency struck me as odd. Our taxi ride cost 90,000 Won. I don’t even know what that means. Is it expensive? If something costs 90,000 anything, surely it must be expensive, right? Well, it comes out at about £60 which for an hours’ drive for 7 people at 11pm in a major city is really not all that bad. I was still confused though, and our first visit to the cash machine saw me debate whether I should take out 500 Won before realising that this would be the equivalent of equipping myself with 34p for a weekend in London. Probably not going to get very far.
Having stopped for some refreshment at a local 24-hour store which was brilliant (both the store and the refreshment) we finally arrived at our apartment and promptly collapsed to bed, just 38km from the North Korean border. A bit unsettling perhaps, but 38km is far enough so as you don’t have to think about it, even if it’s not far enough to rule out something intercontinental and ballistic hitting you. The next morning, we awoke and headed for the city, beginning with a trip for breakfast to Butterfingers Pancakes. What struck us most about Seoul in terms of its difference to Shanghai (other than the fact that you could reliably cross a road when the green man was showing without fear of being cleaved in two by an errant van) was how American it felt. Shanghai feels western, make no mistake, and nowhere is that more prevalent than Jinqiao, but it feels generically ‘Western’. Seoul feels American. The shops are straight out of a Californian mall, and the cafes and diners that line the streets could be in Greenwich Village. It’s also very beautiful; although not as picturesque as parts of Shanghai, it does have a certain intangible buzz about its atmosphere which is hugely enjoyable. Perhaps people are more relaxed because they’re not terrified that every time they go near a road they are going to be flattened by an onrushing scooter. Who knows? After a bit of a wait at Butterfinger’s (obviously some scamps had heard of it before us and managed to beat us there) we finally got seated and presented with the most tempting menu I have seen in some time.
I love a massive heart-attack breakfast, and these all came with a lot of French toast, a lot of maple syrup, and a side of massive pancakes if we wanted them. I thought it could get no better…and then I read the drinks menu and saw that they served Mountain Dew. Not one part of the experience disappointed. The food was gorgeous, the drink was fantastic, and the prices were very considerate – although of course I say that with absolutely no idea whether it was cheap or not since everything costs several thousand Won, but it felt pretty reasonable, all things considered. If you ever find yourself in Seoul, I’d definitely recommend it.
Following that we caught the metro (brilliant, by the way) into the city and took the opportunity to look around the markets and shops of Myeongdong. With everything from familiar high-street names to tiny delis and street stalls, it was one of the few times in my life I could say I had genuinely enjoyed a shopping trip on which I bought nothing and basically walked around a lot. We met a man dressed as a cat, saw octopus being fried (a bit rancid, that one) and saw a few people singing songs with signs on their back warning us that the apocalypse was coming, and would be sponsored by a company called ‘GoBrite’ or something similar. Not sure what the GoBrite apocalypse will look like, but apparently it will be a musical, so that’s a plus. After heading up to a mountain on the edge of town to try and get a cable car up, before realising that the queue was somewhere between 60-90 minutes long (which is 800,000 minutes in South Korean currency) we headed back to our apartment to get ready for our evening.
The day was lovely, make no mistake, but the real revelations of the trip were yet to show themselves. Firstly, while flicking through the various TV channels available, we discovered the show ‘Unpretty Rap Star’. Before I go into more detail, a quick sidenote – the TV in Korea is every bit as mental as you’d hope it would be. We saw all sorts, and it was as utterly bonkers as it was wonderful. God bless you, Korean TV. Anyway, Unpretty Rap Star, we soon learned, was basically an X-Factor style show where a load of rappers battle each other for the right to be famous. Like the X-Factor, there was an awful lot (emphasis on the awful) of backstory, tears, context and suspense building before the big moment, but unlike the X-Factor, when the moment came, it didn’t disappoint. I won’t go into detail here; it won’t do it justice, but suffice to say that if you ever get chance, have a click on this and then imagine the seven of us dancing around the apartment to this song and quoting it ad nauseum for the rest of the weekend. (Just for reference, there is some ‘language’ in the song…be prepared!) Duly energised and full of Korean rap attitude, we went out for Korean Barbeque. This was totally marvellous; they put us at a table, lit some of it on fire, and promptly cooked our meat right in front of us as we sat and chatted. It tasted lovely and the whole mood was fairly joyous. If you ever go to Seoul, don’t miss the chance to try it out. The food there is really something. The club scene, meanwhile, takes a bit of finding. We walked around the city for a little while trying to find somewhere before the less energetic of us (me included, you’ll be surprised to hear) decided to call it a night.
Sunday came and saw us explore a bit of Bosingak Bell Pavilion, (well, the streets around it) featuring a couple of huge portions of fried chicken and an equally huge ice-cream. Walking around Seoul, a city of 10 million people, we felt surprisingly unencumbered by others. It’s fair to say we weren’t in the very heart of the bustling metropolis, but nevertheless it was nice to feel chilled out in a city of such size, scope, and life.
Then it was time to board a train to the airport to start our journey home. We had wisely booked ourselves on the 6pm flight home to ensure that we wouldn’t be too tired for work on Monday, so as we headed back to Incheon, we weren’t anticipating a lengthy stay.
Oh, how foolish we were.
Arriving at the gate, we were told to check in using the online ticket booth passport scanning robo-check-in machine. (I think it’s called the ‘Oh-My-God-How-Unhelpful-Can-A-Single-Machine-Be-At-Least-When-The-Robot-Revolution-Comes-If-They-Are-All-This-Useless-We’ve-Got-Nothing-To-Worry-Aboutatron 9000‘) This went well until we were told that two of us weren’t booked on this particular flight, despite this being patently not the case. We were then told it was because what we were trying to get on was the 14:25 flight, not the 18:25, even though it was now 16:00 which is, military clock fans, later than 14:25. It then transpired that this particular flight had been delayed because it couldn’t land in Shanghai due to bad weather. Each flight that had been due to leave Incheon during the day was now subject to a 4 hour delay. We waited downstairs until such time as we’d been told we could try again. We tried again, but the machine now changed its mind and decided that different members of our group now didn’t count and couldn’t check in. At this point we were told that we couldn’t simply check in at the desk, but would need to go via the online machines, which were by this point completely overwhelmed by people trying to check in for various flights to Shanghai. We were also told, at different points, that the flight would leave at 6, 8, 9, and 10. Predictably, this was not well received by any of us. Fortunately for us Incheon has a nice enough food selection on the rough side of check-in, so we were able to get a nice burger and fries to help us through the wait. Eventually we found our way through check in, where we began the last wait of the journey – or so we thought. Originally a couple of us had been hoping to watch the Spurs v Arsenal game as we would be landing at kick-off time and might make it back to the flat for the second half. In the end, thanks to the rather wonderful airport wifi at Seoul (which puts every public wifi I’ve ever seen in the UK to absolute and utter shame) we watched 86 minutes of the game before finally boarding the plane.
And so it was that at 1am we finally landed back at Pudong, a mere 30 minutes after we had all been firmly instructed to turn all our electronics off. Back to an AQI of 124, a fog that rivalled Victorian London and a taxi driver determined to do the entire journey in a) silence and b) third gear. Seoul would have been hard to leave anyway, but this made it that much harder. Since it had actually been quite hard to leave, we were just grateful to be back in our own bed, at 2:30 and ready for the alarm to go off 4 hours later.
It’s rare that when I get back from a place I genuinely feel that I could go straight back and be perfectly happy there. Seoul is one such place – it was fantastic and I’m looking forward to a return visit one day.
*Actually, we know how they do it, and it makes us sad. Why pay one person RMB100 an hour when you can pay 10 people RMB10 an hour? On the plus side, it means everyone who is working in a totally empty noodle place down our road has some company when they’re on shift. Funnily enough, it doesn’t seem to have much effect in the restaurants in Jinqiao, where the service is so slow you can legitimately order your burger at the start of happy hour on a Monday night and only finally get to eat the damn thing once happy hour has finished and everyone else has left and you have died of a wasting disease. Anyway, I digress.
**Yes, all drivers in Shanghai are blue, and can play keyboards like funk demons.