Saturday, June 28, 2014

Art, Music, and Bingsus

29 June 2014

We keep looking at things to do in South Korea, and starting to make plans to travel elsewhere.  And then, we find lists of things to do in Seoul, things we haven't done yet, more places to explore, more interesting things to see and experience - and, well, we're probably going to stay in Seoul another week.  Or more.  We aren't sure, it's just that there are day trips to the beach, or terraced tea farms, or parks full of pagodas, or the various temples and palaces all around Seoul, or the ancient walls and gates that once surrounded the city back in the 14-somethings - well, you get the picture.  Lots more to do and see here, without schlepping our luggage and figuring out how to get around.

So yes, at least another week in Seoul.

And yes, those orange-y flowers really are that colour!

We discovered the Zoo Coffee café up the road, nowhere near the zoo itself.  But they feature cuddly plush toy animals, sorted by colour apparently.  For sale, possibly to fund animal protection programs?  Or endangered species?  The zoo?   We don't know, the sign was in Korean and the staff didn't speak any English.  But I really liked the atmosphere of this café.

We've been enjoying the cafés of Seoul, although they aren't like cafés elsewhere in the world.  The cafés of Seoul focus on drinks (coffee, tea, and juices), and Korean snack food - cakes, maybe scones or muffins, often bagels, and almost always bingsus.  (BING-soo)  A bingsu is a Korean warm-weather treat, although we haven't tried one yet.  The bingsu is crushed or shaved ice, layered with fruit, or sweet red beans, or sometimes cookies or something like that.  Sort of a parfait effect, in a really big glass.  Or maybe a cross between a parfait and an Italian ice.  Sometimes there seems to be some flavoured liquid poured over the ice.  People stir the whole thing and eat it with a spoon, usually two or three people sharing one bingsu.  I'm intrigued, but haven't found any place serving a small bingsu for one.  (I'd also prefer a berry bingsu, but they are hard to find.  Red bean and mango seem to be most popular, and, well, we all know that mango is my kryptonite.)

Not only are the manhole covers in Seoul intriguing - the grates around the trees lining the sidewalks are decorative.  With Asian cranes flying through blue skies and pink clouds.  Amazing!  Who makes decorative grates around trees???

Our subway station closest to the hotel, the Nambu Bus Terminal stop, is also the station closest to the Seoul Arts Center.  So of course one of the murals in the subway station is a mosaic featuring traditional musicians playing, well, traditional instruments - a few stringed mandolin-type of things, and what looks like maybe a sitar or autoharp (remember those from school?) or maybe a dulcimer.  Or a zither?  Definitely a flute or two, some bells, and a drum or gong.  

Anyway, it makes a great mural!

We've seen people walking in our area with cellos strapped to their backs, violin cases, maybe a few horns in cases - and it took a while to realize that they probably are musicians in an orchestra that rehearses and plays at the Arts Center.  We haven't seen any ads for concerts, but we've certainly seen the musicians.  I even saw one young woman in a café busily taping her music together so it would be one continuous score, needing fewer page turns.  Definitely professional musicians!

We went to Itaewon for burgers, and Richard wrote the blog on that experience.  (It's the blog before this one.)  The hat was happy to meet a bunch of friends.  I found Itaewon a little disorienting, since it seemed to be full of American franchises and oriented toward the US military base nearby.  After our immersion in Korean culture, finding this little ex-pat enclave was just weird.

We've found that Koreans are, in general, very helpful - we often have people who speak some English come over and offer to help us.  (Sometimes we're only trying to decide where to go for dinner.  But the help in figuring out where we're going is definitely appreciated.)  People are also interested in where we're from, since they don't seem to get as many tourists as other parts of Asia.  (One little girl, maybe two years old, came running over pointing and smiling at me, like I was a novelty - she was adorable, so I pointed my finger and we did the God-Adam-by-Michelangelo thing - or maybe an ET thing, depending on your point of view.  Her mother laughed and whisked the child away.)  I have to say, though, that Koreans seem, well, mysterious or inscrutable or something.  I'm sure part of it is the language barrier we've hit.  But like much of our time here in Korea, it's as if we understand part of what's going on, we comprehend the surface of what we're seeing, but there seems to be so much more depth that we just remain clueless about.  It might be what I think of as the crowded city syndrome, where people live and work and travel in close proximity, and thus have learned to keep their emotions close and guarded.  Private.  Or, it might be cultural.  Again, this is one of those things that we sense goes much deeper than our understanding of it.

So we'll continue to stumble our way through Seoul, and continue to try figuring things out as best we can.


Richard Speaks of Burgers

27 June 2014
Left Coast Artisan Burgers in Itaewon, Seoul

 "In all the various places we’ve gone, I always look for the best hamburger place in town.  And I’ve had some decent burgers.  But have longed for fresh meat, well-prepared, and presented in classic American style.  I discovered a column in Seoul magazine, written by “The Fat Girl” that recommended a new restaurant in Itaewon, that she found to be excellent.   It took about a week or ten days for us to get out there.

"The first thing I noticed was the smell of sizzling beef on the grill.  There were a number of people around, many of whom were speaking English.  I felt immediately at home.  The menu offered four kinds of hamburgers of a fairly standard variety, and several gourmet add-ons.  I chose my favourite burger which they called “classic,” which for me is a rare burger with raw tomato and raw onion.  I asked them to hold the cheese, pickle and lettuce, as well as the sauces, which for me interferes with the taste of the meat. I added a half order of fries.  Phebe opted for the grilled chicken with some excitement, as grilled chicken is not seen often on Korean menus.  (She added roasted jalapenos, one of those gourmet additions.)

"The burger came and I was pleased, it really looked good.  I took a bit and I was thrilled, the blend of meats was excellent, the preparation was very good.  It looked good, it felt good, it tasted good, it filled my heart with joy.  It was THE BEST hamburger I’ve tasted since we left the US.

"The restaurant is only seven months old or so, and is owned by several young friends from California.  They were very helpful and friendly, and have a wonderful little burger spot in Seoul.   Probably the best burger spot in Seoul.

"My moment of hamburger heaven.  Burger beatitude."

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Seoul-y Underground

26 June 2014

We've had a busy few days with walking - walking just about everywhere!

We started at Dongdaemun Design Project, which is a collection of museums, shops, cafés, all housed in an ultra-modern collection of buildings that look kind of like, well, either metallic mushrooms or a space station on some planet.  Sort of futuristic organic amorphous shapes covered in shiny metal plates, connected with concrete bridges and plazas.  Kind of interesting, a bit confusing, and easy to get lost amongst everything.

So we wandered around for a bit, although we hadn't found the cafés at this point.  (I told you, easy to get lost here.)  We also walked around the neighbourhood, and found interesting food - these long odd funnel things are hollow ice cream cones!  Really!  We couldn't figure out what they were, but they were in such interesting curling shapes that we finally asked one of the vendors - he explained that they're for ice cream and they just fill them with the ice cream.  Apparently they're used for soft ice cream, not the scoop kind.  Might be kind of messy, but they were just so cool to look at.  No, we didn't try one.

I decided to try one of the clay pot or bowl meals that Korea has made famous.  This is sugogi something dupbap - pronounced sue-GO-ghee DUP-bop - but yes, I don't remember the middle word.  Basically, it was stir-fried beef and mushroom on one side of the very hot clay bowl, rice on the other, very spicy chili sauce in the center, and then some vegs, seaweed, and sesame seeds on top.  With, of course, kimchee and daikon radish and various other side dishes.  Because that's the way Korean meals are served.  (And what's really fun about the hot bowl is that the rice keeps cooking and gets kind of crusty around the edges.)  I think of all the Korean food we've had, this might be my fave!  Really tasty!

We also went through some subway stops we haven't been to previously, and I found a wonderful collection of mosaics - we all know how much I love mosaics!  These were near the Seoul Arts Center, which isn't too far from our hotel - but seems to have its own side of the subway station.  Sort of hidden underground and totally unexpected.

It was one of those little art surprises that keeps popping up around the city.

Next day, we decided to find another one of Seoul's hidden gems, a somewhat secret stream in the middle of the city.  

But first, we found an interesting sculpture, sort of a Korean Atlas holding up the world, though in his hands, not on his shoulders.  Very strong and industrial, in the middle of the city.

We did our usual wandering this way and that, asking a few people on the street for Cheonggyecheon - which is sometimes written Cheong Gye Cheon, making it easier to pronounce - chee-Ong gye chee-ON - the hidden stream that runs through the middle of Seoul, one level below the street.

Cheonggyecheon has an interesting history - there were originally several streams that ran through the ancient city, draining the hills that ring part of Seoul.  Way back in 1406, the king ordered the stream to be dredged to help alleviate the seasonal flooding of the city.  The stream remained until the 1950s, when the city grew rapidly after the Korean War, and this area was paved over.  An elevated highway was built over the stream bed in 1968, and the area became an industrial and commercial center.   

In 2003, the Cheonggyecheon Restoration project began as part of an initiative to make Seoul more environmentally friendly and livable.    Of course, there was the usual controversy regarding displaced merchants, cost overruns, all that - but overall, the project is considered a great success and the result is a wonderful little park.

Well, hardly little - the reinforced stream, with walkways and bridges, runs for some 8.4 km (some sources say up to 11 km - so roughly 3 to 6 miles) right through the heart of the city, then down to Jungnangcheon ("cheon" means small river, stream, brook, creek) - the Jungnangcheon empties into the Hangang River, which flows into the Yellow Sea.  The Hangang River is huge, and bisects Seoul into north and south, with numerous bridges and subway tunnels.  And salmon travelling upstream and up the various smaller tributaries, making Seoul seem much less urban.

Anyway, back to Cheonggyecheon - there are all kinds of art features along the way.  My favourite was a long long tile mural - the images are copied from the Wonhaeng Eulmyo Jeongni Eugwae which is a book containing paintings showing the royal procession of King Jeongjo, his mother the queen (Queen Hyegyeonggung Hong), and their entourage.  The most talented court painters of the time were commissioned to paint this huge piece of art, which is considered both a documentary of the time as well a wonderful example of genre painting of the period.  The figures repeat but also show individuality amongst the people, and give insight into the formalities, customs, and way of life of the times, especially among the royalty.  It really is a monumental piece of art, and was fascinating to walk along and view the tiles.

Then there was the Gwantonggyo Bridge, constructed in 1410 using stones from the former tomb site of one of the king's concubines.  The beautiful carvings were created for the tomb, but were used to decorate the bridge.  The bridge stood extant until 1910, when it was damaged while building a streetcar line in the area.  When the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project began, the bridge was unearthed and used to create this lovely bridge.
At the end of the stream (well, actually the beginning, since the water all flowed downstream from here) there was a little plaza with a market and some interesting artwork.  The seashell is titled "Spring" as is designed by Coosje van Bruggen and Claes Oldenburg - and is created to look like a shell rising up like a pagoda; inside, there are two "ribbons" hanging down, one in blue and one in "peony red," representing the unity of opposites in nature and the human spirit, as the sculpture rises up over the restored stream.

There was also a round sculpture made from bicycle wheels, and covered in yellow wishing ribbons.  It's a tradition we see all over Asia, that people write wishes or prayers on bright-coloured ribbon and tie them the trees, bushes, or special sculptures.  Sort of like the prayers that people place on the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  Only more visible, and more colourful.

We walked around for a while, past City Hall, over bridges, past sidewalk art, more sculpture, beds of flowers.  

Today, 25 June, was the 64th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War.  There might have been something happening in the plaza outside City Hall, we weren't sure.  Well, there was something going on, some kind of gathering.  Everything we heard was in Korean, so we aren't too sure what was said.  But there was this military looking vehicle, with all the flags, so maybe it was some kind of commemoration activity.  Richard has been asking people, but no one knew of any kind of event or commemoration of the date.  (Memorial Day is in July here, and that's a national holiday.  The beginning of the war doesn't seem to be a day that is remembered.  At least, as much as we could figure out.  It seemed as if people were at work, students at school, banks open - all the usual places that are closed for a national holiday seemed to all be open, business as usual.)

We found a temple, and there were two young men filming a commercial.  Something involving a crisp white shirt and briefcase.  Well, the hat thought this was the perfect photo op, so of course we had to take a photo.  Much to the amusement of the commerical photographer, who laughed at us but went along with it.

We checked out an outdoor market, and managed to find Shinsegae (shin-se-GUY), the big old department store in Seoul.  It's an interesting store, but the fascinating part was the basement level, the food department.  It's sort of an upscale supermarket, with all kinds of interesting foods.   

There was a fabulous bakery section, various meats, normal packaged foods.

And then the kimchee section.  Clay pots full of kimchee, various kinds of kimchee, probably various ages, too.  Kimchee is the cured, pickled, brined, aged nappa cabbage, full of salt and vinegar and tons of pepper, all tangy and spicy and a wonderful condiment.  Sort of emblematic of Korean cuisine.

But I have to say, all the melons with bright ribbons tied on the stems made a much prettier display!

Today has turned into a day off, a catch-up day, although we're heading to a new area tonight in search of gourmet burgers for Richard.  (And something less heavy for me.)

On my way to lunch, I met a clown.  On stilts.  Yes, a young Korean man with stilts under his slacks, face painted white with a big red heart on one cheek, stomping down the street.  He was waving to people, miming his conversations along the way.  He turned around and saw me, and gave me a big smile and wave - so of course I smiled and said hello and waved back.  And, well, in the way of clowns everywhere, he made me a balloon flower.  So I spent my lunch with a balloon flower on the chair next to me, and carried it around with me through Starbucks and then the little neighbourhood supermarket.

Because, well, when a man gives you a flower, you hold on to it.  

Besides, he wasn't offering any money for me for a change, LOL!