Last Friday, the day I received my Alien ID card, ended up being kind of crazy. After returning to the hostel, I went out again with my Canadian friend Kevin to see some “culture”. We walked to the big fine/performing arts centre in Gwanghwamun, and checked out an exhibition of photos about traditional Korean acupuncture. It was quite harrowing. Next we tried to get tickets to a performance of Wagner’s Nibelung Ring thingy but they were too expensive so we headed down to the Chonggyechon project – a shallow stream that’s been ‘rediscovered’ under a freeway running through downtown Jongno. It won’t actually be opened to the public until next weekend (when there’s a huge party that I expect will be packed with lasers, trad dancing and fountains) but already it’s looking pretty cool. For a city that’s ultimately an ashpalt and concrete jungle, just hearing the sound of water flowing is relaxing. The street is lined with apple trees and you will be able to walk along the banks of the stream and check out public art, murals, wooden bridges and so on. Nice.
We picked up a little box of awesome-tasting dumplings and then dove into Jongno to have lunch and a beer at a fried rice/ BBQ joint. The chicken was probably the hottest (as in spicy) I have had so far in Seoul. Afterwards we headed for a DVD Bang and watched “Silmido”, a recent Korean film about a group of street criminals recruited by the South Korean Army in the late 1960s to “slit the throat” of then North Korean supremo Kim Il Sung. The movie (based loosely on real events following a similar but unsuccessful attempt to murder South Korea’s president at the time) was pretty full on – almost half the film was taken up with bootcamp and its predictable progress: montage style sequences showing the recruits’ improvements in under-barbed-wire-crawling, hours of drilling, being beaten across the sloar plexus with sticks while trying to lift weights – I think you get the picture. The night before the planned operation, the recruits get obscenely drunk, one or two pretend to be women, wearing frilly white undies over their camo pants – yes, I think you get the picture. They become a team, like brothers. They sing songs together. Then the attack is cancelled and they realise the Army wants to “liquidate” them so they kill their guards, commandeer a bus and order the driver to head for The Blue House (SK’s answer to the, erm, White House). Of course it ends in tears of blood, and they all throw themselves on grenades.
We emerged into the Jongno evening to be greeted by crowds of twenty-somethings roaming the streets, couples mooning in that way that only Koreans can moon, a rain of detergent bubbles from a nearby club hitting our faces. We decided to head back to the hostel in Insadong before moving on to Itaewon later in the evening. As we were waiting to cross the eight-lane wide Jongno-gil we saw this crusty-looking street dog wandering around in the middle of the road, surrounded by trucks, cars and motorbikes but somehow avoiding becoming tomorrow’s dinner. At one stage it crossed back to the far side of the road, then turned around, looked both ways and headed back into the road again. Now, this was peak hour. The traffic was really full on. So full on, in fact, that I couldn’t bear to watch. That dog was surely going to be steamrolled into the pedestrian crossing and we would then face the prospect of having to cross the road and walk over it. While I had my gaze averted, however, I heard Kevin utter a loud shout of astonishment – and I’ll be damned but that clever dog had made it all the way across the road and was busily hunting for scraps at the street stall next to us. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard in my life – relief, disbelief and admiration mixed together. In truth, I could almost have tied a bandanna around that dog’s neck and called it a Jack Russell.
Once we made it back to the hostel we of course needed beer – I mean, this had been a very stressful afternoon. We grabbed a couple of two litre plastic “picthers” of Hite from the nearest grocer and then commenced to drink them rapidly, together with another guy, Matt, from England. This temporary commonwealth of drinkers then proceeded to a street stall in Insadong where we ate gyoza-style dumplings and drank strange spicy broth from miniature cups. Still hungry, Kevin decided to approach another street stall selling chicken satays with a sauce so hot we were forced to purchase three bottles of water fom the nearest convenience store, the laughter of the other patrons and their insistence that Kevin (aka Kevin Costner) and Matt (aka Tom Cruise) were “very handsome – I should point out that this part of Insadong features a large number of secret and not so secret gay mens’ establishments – still ringing in our ears. Kevin, mouth burning, then attempted to get some money from an ATM, which promptly swallowed his card. A helpful Korean bloke rang the service number and said that a technician would be there in fifteen minutes to retrieve the card. Matt bought another two litre pitcher and we settled in on the sidewalk to wait – but the technician arrived barely five minutes later, gave Kevin back his card and then rode off. This may sound like unbelievable service but when you realise that in Korea, they have shredders placed next to ATMs so that you can destroy your statements, anything is possible. We wandered down to the subway station but first had to drink the two litres of beer (this is okay on the streets but not the subway). Finally, we boarded the train for Itaewon. This post, however, is getting so long I’ll have to take a break here and return later with part two.