안녕하세요! Annyeong-haseyo! Hello!
It’s been four days since I arrived in Seoul 서울 and while I’m not quite over my jet lag yet I am certainly ready to say that I am falling in love with this city. It’s a city that is simply full – full of activity, full of people, full of life.
This trip to South Korea is the exciting start of an exciting couple of years for me, embarking on the adventure of making my first feature documentary. For the next 5 weeks I will be researching the phenomena of hwangsa 황사, or yellow dust (also called Asian dust), which whips up into storms at the Gobi Desert and blows across the Yellow Sea to fall on Seoul and other South Korean cities and towns, mainly in the Spring.
Having researched this project for the past 6 months or so, it feels great to finally be here, on the ground. There is only so much research you can do from afar, and even in the few days I’ve been here I feel the progress I’ve made is significant.
I’ve had a busy first few days. I had one day of exploring the neighbourhood where my current guesthouse is located, Hongdae 홍대. Surrounding Hongik University, Hongdae is a very young and boisterous neighbourhood… which kinda makes me feel old. The streets here never sleep.
On my first day of exploring, I ventured to Bukchon Village 북촌한옥마을, a part of town sandwiched between two beautiful old palaces which consists of traditional-style Korean houses, or hanoks. It was an excellent way to start exploring – so very unique and beautiful.
I had read about a restaurant run out of someone’s home kitchen tucked away on top of a hill amidst the hanoks, so I went searching and with a little asking around (read: ridiculous pronunciation of the restaurant’s name, confused looks, strange gesturing, lots of pointing) was able to find it.
Here I ate my first meal, a hand-cooked traditional dinner I devoured in a room with paper walls. I have no idea what I ate and couldn’t order it again if I tried, but it was an excellent way to start my foodie experience in Korea. There was so much food it was ridiculous. About 18 plates with various vegetables, mushrooms, meats, soups, pancakes, pickles, fish… pretty extravagant really. I did my best, but you’ll see by the before and after photos that there should have been two or three more people helping me out. And this picture was taken after I’d cleared 4 or 5 other dishes. Good thing it’s polite to leave a bit of food on your plate here.
The next two days were taken up with interviews. I had pre-selected 6 candidates (out of a staggering amount of applications I received) for the role of fixer/assistant/translator for the film, and I have to say the quality of people applying for this volunteer role was crazy. It’s a very competitive environment here, I’m told, and the opportunity to work with a foreign filmmaker is regarded very highly. It was hard, but I selected two people who will work with me on the project assisting with tasks from research to coordination of interviews to translation. What an invaluable asset they will be to me – thank you!
In the evenings I have taken the opportunity to explore different parts of town. I have been to Insadong 인사동, a gorgeous part of town filled with coffee shops, teahouses, galleries and boutiques with a view of the city mountains. There are a couple, I haven’t figured out which are which yet.
I have also delighted in visiting a couple of the markets, of which there are many in Seoul. Dongdaemun Market 동대문시장 is open late. Until 7am in fact. That being said, everything is open late here. And starts late, my kind of place. Dongdaemun Market is filled with stalls upon stalls of clothing made in Korea, tourist trinkets, electronic paraphernalia, crazy products and all kinds of food. Oh the food! My personal favorite right now is the cakey-tasting fried thing with a cooked egg splashed on the top. 1,000 won will get you one delicious sweet and savory experience – and that’s cheap: 1,000 won is about $1. I’ve been eating them instead of dinner.
Food here is something else. I love it! Very meaty, but the idea of having small amounts of many flavours works super well for me. I’m becoming addicted to kimchi, and have taken to eating it for breakfast just like the locals.
Speaking of food, I ate a lovely meal (though I was blatantly ripped off as a silly tourist – oh well, fair enough) at Namdaenum Market 남대문시장. At the outside edges of this market are make-shift eateries, structures draped in clear plastic which houses several small tables and stools, a propane fueled grill, a deli refrigerator (or just a table, no ice…) full of meat and seafood and jolly chefs who yell their suggestions at you through plumes of smoke. I had bulgogi and ramen. Standard fare, but delicious.
Don’t even get me started on the subway system here. Gosh, I love public transit. This city is so well connected, and despite this:
…it’s super easy to use and safe and friendly and comfortable. Very high tech, with every stop announced in 4 languages. And then there’s the subway public art.
Today I visited Itaewon 이태원, an area bordering the US military base in town. Here you can find outrageous bargains on crazy pants and a whole lot of buff dudes with buzz cuts. I like this juxtaposition. In Itaewon there is also the Korean War Memorial which I planned to visit today, but ran out of time (crazy pants), so I’ll be back. There is so much history here, so much to be learned. I have a growing list of places visit and things to see (and eat), but up next is the Seoul Museum of History for some historical context. What a lot to take in!
While hwangsa has not appeared on the horizon yet this season, air quality is a constant concern for people here. A huge topic of conversation is what they call “ultra-fine dust” which is reeking havoc on people’s lungs and skin, causing issues with machinery and electronics manufacturing and creating all sorts of other problems. You see many people – young and old – wandering around town in face masks. After a stroll along the Han River, which cuts through the city, I think I may get one myself.
And so the research and exploration continues while here in Seoul we await the coming of the cherry blossoms and the yellow haze in the air.
Hongdae haze from the balcony of my guesthouse, early morning.