Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sparring Sky

This is why you have to surround yourself by a diverse group of people - they let you know about stuff you wouldn't otherwise have found out about or wouldn't have tried out!

Such was the case mid-November when we went to see Sparring Sky by Delfos at the Teatro de la Ciudad.  They were giving but two presentations.  I had never heard of them.  But I happen to know a former member (who not long ago presented his own piece) and, voilà! there we were!

So, Sparring Sky.  Fantastic.  The dancers have this very peculiar style that reminds you of tribes, of animal herds or avian flocks.  In my eyes, the group flows gracefully between mundane imagery, kink references, and a touch of alien-like animalness...  Pretty cool, in my humble opinion.  Check out their website (click here), and maybe catch a performance?

Monday, November 24, 2014

Land of the Morning Calm - Odds and Ends

I'm afraid this is the post where everything else I couldn't place in a narrative of sorts falls in.  So it's gonna be messy, and it's gonna be random.

Here it goes!

Flying in, flight out!

The views when flying to and away from Seoul were gorgeous.  On the way there, the rugged red-tinged mountains with a soft cloud cover were amazing.  On the way to the airport for my return flight, the big orange blob the sun was rose slowly over the sea, casting a long orange-red reflection on the grey water (no pics to prove that, take my word or else!).  On the flight out, the famous mud flats shone nice under the sun.  

Honouring the dead

304 people died in the sinking of the MV Sewol on April 16th.  This is obviously an open wound and people are still mourning and expressing anger in public spaces over the horrible loss of so many young students.

Unneighbourly neighbours...

The subway system, which boasts the biggest train cars I've ever seen, also doubles as refuge in case of a chemical or nuclear attack by the crazy regime up north (how unPC of me; also - it's an effed up regime, so whatever).  Screens in the stations show, between ordinary pop and make-up ads, instructions on what to do in case of attack.  And shelter signs appear in Korean, Chinese and English (phew!).

Sup, handsome... woof!

Just check these übercute dogs stretching or "checking things out" at this pet shop, one in a long row of pet-shops along one street.  Awww...

Oy, Kolya!

Need a loaf of true Russian bread?  Need to buy it in Russian? Along with some Armenian vodka or South-Moldavian wine?  There's a Russian-speaking district for that!  Na zdorovye!

Fresh is sometimes too fresh

This obsession with having things so fresh they're almost alive when they hit your plate... and when it comes to animals as intelligent as squid... what a shame.  Sad.

Why do my chestnuts taste fishy?

No, really, why do my roasted chestnuts have to be right next to dried octopus bits and fish who-knows-whats?

But the views!

The squid and octopus tragedy notwithstanding, what lovely views of the Sungnyemun gate at night and of the city with the mountains around.  Really really nice.  

And this is the end of my Seoul posts.  Korea, I shall be back!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Land of the Morning Calm - Eat

One of the best things about Korea (and, in my case, arguably the best thing, period) is food!   When I used to live in Toronto I would eat Korean food almost every week.  Yes, parts of it can seem meat heavy and pretty anti-vegan.  But there's enough vegan stuff that, for me, was pure heaven. Especially since most of it was spicy!  So this opportunity to eat Korean food in Korea itself was precious, and I made as good use of it.


My very very favourite ever is bibimbap (비빔밥).  It's quite a simple dish, actually, with a bed of rice, namul (that is, sautéed and seasoned vegetables) and gochujang (chili pepper paste).  And once it reaches your table, you mix and stir everything together yourself.  And it's so, so good!   This one here is from a tiny (couldn't seat more than 20 in very, very cramped conditions) place near Deoksugung (see my previous post Land of the Morning Calm - Red).  This dish usually comes with a raw (or sometimes fried) egg on top, and the place was so local that nobody spoke English except  a couple of students that were having dinner there,and who helped me explain I didn't want any egg or anything animal in it.   

And you know what's also great?  Banchan (반찬)!  See those two smaller dishes?  When you go for a meal, it's customary to serve a number of little side dishes.  Since this was a modest, simple place, I just had these two - kimchi (김치, which is spicy-sour pickled cabbage, and which I totally love!) and some pickled radish.  Plus a small side bowl of noodles.  Oh my, so good. So good. 

Even at Incheon Airport, when I left Korea, airport Korean fast food was delicious!  And accompanied by banchan!  And those kimchi noodles?  Yum!  I mean, airport fast food - yum?  At least it is so in Korea!


When walking around Korean markets you'll find plenty of stuff on skewers.  For the vegan likes of us there's plenty you cannot eat, but there's also this one very tasty option - rice cake skewers (떡꼬치)!  First of all, I love rice cakes (떡볶이), which are basically made of soft rice cakes and a sweet chili sauce.  Then to have that on a skewer while walking around Myeongdong (see my previous post)?  Super good.   


Now, I know this post is called "Eat", but where else am I supposed to put the drinks?   Remember my previous post where I mentioned we started a night out at Hongdae with Korean food and unfiltered rice wine called makgeolli (막걸리)?  Well, this one here below is a picture of a bowl of makgeolli. To me, it somewhat resembles unfiltered Japanese sake (濁り酒).  Anyhow, any alcoholic beverage you get in a big bowl and serve with spoons into smaller bowls belongs in my list of favourites.  Plus it's just 6-8% alcohol, so you can enjoy plenty without any serious problems!

And you know what else you can enjoy in Seoul?  Good coffee!  Yep, these people are serious when it comes to coffee!  I mean, in so many places I've asked for an espresso or a ristretto an got something similar in volume (and strength) to an Americano.  Well, see this photo below?  That's a double ristretto.  Before drinking any.  And that's a pretty tiny cup.  This might probably be the very first time I had a proper ristretto ever!


Finally, and because any post about food should end with sweet things, I was happy to find these two, both in the open air market of the commercial area of Myeongdong.   First, roasted chestnuts!  I first had these in Beijing, and I enjoy them so much, especially on cool autumn-winter nights!   It's the kind of thing I really do avoid buying, because I can go through a bag of these goodies in one sitting! I was very happy to find them in Seoul.   These should count as comfort food for the soul.   

And I also found kkultarae (꿀타래).   Apparently they're a version of a sweet from China, but I never saw them there, so this was completely new for me.  Yay!  Anyhow, the thing is, the confectioner starts with a ring of starch or maltose or some mixture, then stretches the ring, and brings it back together, and then stretches again, each time getting thinner and thinner strands until they're hair-like thin!   Then you put some nuts or chocolate bits or some other sweet stuff and wrap it up!  The end product looks a bit like a mix between a tiny pillow and a cocoon.   Frankly, it's a strange sweet.  The moment you put it in your mouth there is one strange sensation of all these strands.  Then, that mixes with your saliva and is also changed by your mouth's temperature, and it sort of melts!  And then you get to the filling.  So glad I got to try this!  I wanted to buy some at the airport before leaving, but I couldn't find any.  If you see them anywhere, don't think twice and have a bite!

Now, you go get your hands on some Korean food, pronto!  

I'm almost done with my Korea posts.  Not bad for such a short work trip, eh?  Gotta make good use of whatever little free time you have!   Next time, my last post - the "odd" things!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Land of the Morning Calm - Night

Of course, exploring Seoul could not just mean visiting historic sites.  And fortunately, work didn't extend late into the night.  And in these big active Asian cities, nightfall does not mean the day is over, either.  Au contraire, it's just the beginning of the discovery of another exciting side of a place!

The future

It's just by chance I came to this place.  I was talking with a colleague about places to see, and he showed me a photo of Zaha Hadid's Dongdaemun Design Plaza (or DDP, 동대문 디자인플라자). All I needed was one look at the photo to know I had to go there.  Absolutely.

So, at the first chance I had, I headed for an immersion in the futuristic atmosphere of the DDP.  The building holds an gigantic space for exhibitions and the like, but even if you're not in the mood for attending any, you can simply walk around and look at the building and the city from countless super cool angles!  Please note:  No, not all of  Seoul is ultramodern and shiny and techy, of course.  But this whole area does give you the feeling of being at the very edge of modernity.  Really, it's impressive.  And, in my humble opinion, beautiful.

The beautiful

And talking about beautiful, and especially in this part of town full of fashion, you couldn't but notice all the ads for beauty creams and beauty treatments aimed at - who else? - men!?  I sure hope Jean Paul Gaultier is selling his male make-up products here, because I can't imagine where else it would be as mainstream as in Seoul!  Personal beauty is a big deal most everywhere I've lived, for sure, but the degree to which hair dye, make-up and all of that has become part of the male image in Seoul is quite impressive.  And that pic in the middle?  Just three super groomed Korean guys doing a very stylized dance promoting some gym.  Had they been promoting some dance academy, or some beauty institute, you wouldn't have had the slightest doubt.

I wish I could have stayed more in Seoul.  I wonder if foreign men living in Seoul allow themselves this much freedom?  After all, if you're competing for attention, and you're surrounded by super fashionable Korean men, you must up your game, eh? 

Lights, ads, lights, ads!

Another fun part of town?  In fact, a part of town that reminded me a lot about Japan!  Narrow winding streets, businesses cramped up high, countless bright ads extending up...  Welcome to Myeongdong (명동)!  One of Seoul's main shopping districts, with access closed to traffic most of the day and night, I had just too much fun wandering around at night with some colleagues, window shopping, tasting stuff (food - that's another post altogether!), people-watching... I know, you're supposed to come here to buy stuff, but you could easily just come for a walk and it'd be worth it.    (I think I just heard a couple of my more shopping-addicted friends faint and hit the floor after reading that last statement)

Beer + Saké + K-Pop!  

By now I guess you could be thinking "Like, yeah, all you did was see pretty buildings and go window shopping? that was all your night activity?  sure?"  The obvious answer is - of course not!  I don't know what long-term residents think about Seoul's nightlife, but for my very brief visit, I have to say I had tons of fun! 

There's basically two districts you can hit.  One has a hipper, younger, cooler crowd (it's close to a university).  That's Hongdae (홍대).  And that was my first real night out.  And it was a long one! We started with food and some amazing unfiltered milky rice wine called makgeolli (막걸리) that is served in bowls and poured with huge spoons (loved it!) and soju (another Korean alcoholic beverage) with ginger (more awesome!).  Then, we stumbled upon the strangest of combinations - an izakaya pub!  An izakaya is a Japanese style place for drinks and food.  A pub... that needs no explanation.  The best of both worlds?  An izakaya pub in Seoul! Right?  So Korean food and soju and makgeolli was followed by some very airy Japanese snacks and junmai saké.  By now the group was getting unsurprisingly loud, I'll admit.     

The cherry on the (Korean) cake?  Though most of the group bailed, there were three of us left who really wanted to go dance.  We were about to enter a hip-hop place when one of us (not me, I swear) mentioned he'd never ever heard K-Pop.  And what was just across the street? the I ♥ K-Pop nightclub!  It was just too tempting, and we went in (or down, as it was underground).  

Korean beer, Korean pop music (K-Pop), a 100% Korean crowd (except us), and a very explicit sign about what you could and couldn't do in the club's toilet.  The perfect ending for the night!

Homo Hill? 

All of that would have been more than plenty.  But I was planning on not sleeping at all my last night in Seoul so I would fall asleep on the flight back to North America and adjust more easily to the huge time difference.  So I had to plan one last night out with my colleagues, right?  But instead of heading out to Hongdae again, I suggested we go to Itaewon (이태원).  I mean, like at Hongdae, there was a crazy huge concentration of bars, nightclubs and restaurants but, on top of that, it had a street known as "homo hill", where most of the gay/LGBTQ hangouts were.  The nickname? Not very PC, that's for sure.  But I had to go take a look...

Now, before hitting "homo hill" we did go to a few other places.  But, if you ask me, they were fine, but not what you'd call fun.  Maybe we didn't choose well.  I don't know.  Although at one of them someone did compliment my beard, which doesn't happen very often since I left Toronto.  So that was aplus, LOL.  But anyhow, once we hit "homo hill", the serious fun began.  Well, at first, it was more intriguing than fun, as there were quite a few smaller bars or clubs with names like this:

There must have been at least ten with signs that read "Lady Boy Bar", or "Trans Bar".  We didn't go into any of those, so I can't comment on what exactly they meant.  But there was this one we did go into.  Or, more accurately, that we were dragged into! "Always Homme"!  I mean, the staff were so enthusiastic and they pretty much plucked us off the street with particular gusto.  Now, though the bar had no special show or anything, the host/owner was super funny and he made quite a few rounds to our table, and that was entertainment enough!  Especially since he spoke very little English, and none of us spoke any Korean!  Plus, the bar had this very... peculiar decoration.  All in all, a pretty good place for a very relaxed time just before...  

...just before we headed next door, to Trance, for a drag queen show!  I think that was at around 2am or so.  Yep, these people party into late at night!  As for the drag queen show, my mates (who I'm not sure how many live drag queen shows they'd seen in their life) and me were having a blast!  They did American songs, traditional Korean songs, and K-Pop.  A very complete show, eh?  

There, I think that's enough about nights in Seoul.  And by now you probably think all I think of is partying (instead of thinking - where does he get all that energy? extra-long work-days, 15 hour-jet-lag, and he still goes out???).   Next post I think it'll be... food? Nom nom!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Land of the Morning Calm - Red

So, believe it or not, this was my first visit ever to Korea.  Even after a total of 7 years in China, I had never contemplated travelling here.  For one, Asia is immense and I had way too many countries in my bucket list - and I'm still missing plenty! - and Korea, being somewhat similar to both China and japan (in my mind), was at the very bottom of the list.

And then, five years after I last set foot in Asia, this work trip came along, and off I went to this place I hadn't bothered to give a second thought to (despite my total love for Korean food, mind you).  

Well, these unforeseen trips are the best.  It was like my trips to the Philippines, Portugal and Scotland - they had never entered my mental map, and they proved amazing destinations I'd go back to in a lightning second!

So, my very first surprise?  As we flew over Korea I looked down and, lo and behold, I kept seeing shades of red and orange everywhere!  Could it be true?  Was I just in time for watching autumn leaves in full colour?  in Korea of all places?  I mean, my favourite season in Canada was autumn - I loved the cool temperature, and I absolutely adored the colours of fall.  So you can imagine the prospect of seeing red and orange and yellow leaves made my mind race with excitement!  My way from the airport to the city, full of beautiful trees in all shades of red and orange, convinced me - no matter what, I was going somewhere to see that.

And that's how, after a door-to-door trip of some 24 hours, I dropped everything at the hotel and set out immediately - lest I accidentally fall asleep - to find a park or any green area to enjoy the Korean fall in my one single free afternoon.   And I got plenty, plenty more than that!

Sungnyemun (숭례문)

My hotel was close to a number of historical sites.  Though I wasn't particularly interested in them (all I could think of was trees! red! leaves!), I also knew this was an opportunity that might not repeat itself, so I figured I could do both nature and architecture.  And that's how I came across this gate: Sungnyemun (aka Namdaemun).  Obviously, I immediately felt home (home as in back in China), as not just the style, but also the idea of a gate like this to enter the city was very close to what I had seen in Beijing.  Not the same, of course, but close enough.  And it felt good.  Funny, eh?    Of course, the setting, with all the modern buildings with Korean lettering surrounding the gate, and little details in the style (like the use of certain colours, some patterns), were a good reminder that this was somewhere else.  And man did I love that stark contrast of old and new!

But that was just an appetizer.  From there, it was just another short walk to my next stop, where I got all the leaf peeping I needed...

Deoksugung (덕수궁)

There's not much I can tell you about this palace, except that it's from the end of the 16th century, that it was the home of Korean kings and emperors, and quite frankly that I'd say it's a must see.  Plus, after seeing Sungnyemun, the gate, I was perceiving more and more tiny details that didn't seem Chinese, but local, like the colours and design of their dragon and flower motifs, or the shapes and flow of the roof charms. 

As well, I was super lucky to be there just in time for a change of guard!  a traditional Korean change of guard? really? just like that on my first chance visit?  a-MAY-zing!  Obviously, I lacked ALL context and imagery, but the procession itself, the drummers, the flags... that was one fantastic introduction to traditional Korean culture.  And, like the buildings and decorations, at first sight they reminded this ignorant dolt somewhat of China but, on a closer look, you notice the hats, the shoes, the sashes... and you do notice this is something else.  Loved it!

But I also got what I was looking for - my beloved fall colours!  And I wasn't the only one enjoying them - I'd say most people were there more for the red leaves than for the buildings.  And why not? The buildings stand there year round.  The leaves?  They're a short once a year show!  You really can't imagine how much I missed this, and how happy it made me to see it again.   

Oh, and did I mention that, when I was about to leave, a group of young schoolgirls asked to have a photo taken with me?  I couldn't say no!  Cute random encounter, and comfortingly similar to other experiences I had had in China.  I know, I know, I could stop comparing stuff to China.  But hey, China was home - and a beloved one at that - for many years, so let me be.  

Now, that would've been plenty for a day.  Especially for the day you arrive after such a long trip and where the time difference is 15 hours.  But though I'm usually an advocate for moderation, when it comes to travel and sightseeing... I really can't pace myself!  So I kept walking further north, until I reached...

Gyeongbokgung (경복궁)

This palace from the end of the 14th century is the largest palace built by the Joseon Dynasty, the last dynasty to rule Korea and the dynasty that left one of the biggest cultural legacies in the peninsula, and is also considered one of the most beautiful palaces in Seoul.  And with good reason!  This immense complex is packed with gorgeous buildings and towers, has mountains as background, has countless green areas and ponds and canals, and enjoys as much or more attention to decoration as Deoksugung.   Look, and nod in agreement:

Of course, by the end I realized I had done the equivalent of landing in Beijing, gone straight for the Forbidden City, and done a full tour of it and all adjacent areas.  Just simply way crazy much.  And not unlike me to do something like that, too.   

Anyhow, that's not all I did on my first day (nope, I could have taken it easy, but this is barely half of it), but I'll make an effort to keep this post series thematic instead of strictly chronological.  Seoul, what a pleasant surprise you gave me on my very first afternoon.  But I've still got to talk about nightlife, and modern Korea, and odd stuff...   A trip of discovery, most definitely.