Saward Abroad

"I shall always be haunted by thoughts of a sundrenched elsewhere." Isabelle Eberhardt

Month: September 2016

Seoul: Disney Castles and Fried Chicken

I’ll be the first to admit, I had no idea what to expect when arriving in Seoul. I’ve become way more chilled out about travelling over the past year and didn’t really do much research about Korea before my trip. So arriving into Seoul and realising how huge a city it was came as a slight surprise. It really shouldn’t, it’s one of the biggest cities in the world, coming in the top 5 in terms of population and metropolitan area. What I wasn’t expecting was how green it was. South Korea in general is a beautifully green country, and it’s something that had surprised me before but I wasn’t expecting it in a huge sprawling city. I’m from England where our cities (think London, Birmingham, Manchester) are beautiful and vibrant and I love them but you could never describe them as natural wonders. They’re all thoroughly industrialised and built up with a few parks dotted throughout. The view from my friend’s apartment in Yongsan was kind of mind-blowing. I know it may seem that I’m overreacting but seriously, check it out. Being right next to the river was awesome and the fact that there’s no buildings along the Han was baffling. Again, think about English cities – you can’t even walk along the Thames for more than half an hour in central London without having to divert around buildings.

View over the Han original

Totally didn’t lean out of 23rd floor window for this shot 

After a super lazy start to the day recovering from Boryeong Mud Festival and eating traditional Parisian patisserie from Gontran Cherrier (who knew, fancy pastries are super popular in Korea) we headed out into Seoul. We were hoping to hit up a beer festival but turns out we’d missed it by a day. One thing I will say about South Korea. It might be one of the most connected places in the world in terms of wifi connectivity but the use of websites to give information about upcoming events is appalling – trying to find out when and where things are happening is a nightmare! We’d headed over to Sinchon, an area known for its nightlife and student population. So obviously we’d gone on a Sunday afternoon. Perfect time to check out some bars.

western-desserts

That classic and well loved advertising duo, Uncle Sam and Mary Poppins 

 

My Korean friend had insisted that while I was in Seoul I had to try Chimaek, Korean fried chicken. It’s one of those brilliant words created by smushing two other words together. You’re supposed to eat it with a beer and so the name is a fusion of ‘chicken’ and ‘maekju’ (Korean for beer). Isn’t language cool? As you’d expect, it’s a perfect combination, slightly
greasy fried chicken and beer being the basis of so many late night purchases around the world. I’m trying to find somewhere that does it back here in the UK (any suggestions welcomed) because it was delicious. As you can probably tell, the food was one of the highlights of Korea for me!

Lotte World

This essential Korean experience ticked off my list, it was time to visit Lotte World. This is a huge complex, made up of the world’s largest indoor amusement park, an outdoor theme park, huge shopping mall, Korean folk museum and hotel amongst other things. The indoor park is open late all year round and what better way to spend a Sunday evening than on teeny tiny rollercoasters?

None of the pictures I took fully convey just how huge it is. You walk in and I actually had to stop to try and take it all in. It is colossal. In the entrance hall you’re greeted by a fully sized ice rink under an atrium style glass ceiling that has a monorail and full sized hot-air balloon ride running around the edge of it. And that’s just the entrance. You go into the park itself and there’s a maze of levels, corridors and stairs to find your way around. There were a lot of couples in matching outfits there, taking adorable (and slightly awkward on the guys part) selfies with their matching totally not Mickey and Minnie mouse ears on. I’d kind of got used to sticking out like a sore thumb with my short red hair and piercings but I felt really out of place in the super cute atmosphere of Lotte World.

It was surreal how much merchandise there was ripped straight from Disney. Maybe Lotte has a franchise deal going but there was everything from Marvel toys, Minnie mouse costumes and even the famous castle from the various Disney Worlds (though no idea if there’s a cryogenically frozen Korean Walt Disney underneath it). A personal favourite was the inside of the castle complete with walls lined with shields and swords as well as a replica war horse and knight, both in full armour.

See why it's called Korean Disney World?

See why it’s called Korean Disney World?

Even though we went later on in the day, the queues to get on the most popular rides were 45 minutes long at their shortest. We really wanted to go on The French Revolution, mainly because of the name to be honest. Who doesn’t want to say they survived that?! Unfortunately the queue for that was surprisingly huge – guess everyone wanted a shot at liberté, égalité and fraternité. We also couldn’t get on the hot-air balloon ride which looked amazing. You got in a basket underneath a giant plastic balloon and were then lifted up to the ceiling of Lotte World before making your way along a track that ran around the entire roof. Obviously the queue for this was over an hour and a half long and I have the attention span of an amnesiac goldfish so wasn’t prepared to wait that long. We did manage to go on an Indiana Jones themed water ride with a Korean family and a very excited small kid. I may have over-played my reaction to the drops and spins of the track somewhat for their benefit.

Lotte world balloonsThe highlight of Lotte World, however, had to be the Haunted House. After wrestling with the ticket machine (the problem when two waegukin go out without a Korean speaking chaperone) we headed in. It was… Disappointing. Not scary. Not dark. We were kind of hurrying through when we heard some loud screaming coming from up ahead. Not a pre-recorded tinny scream but a proper terrified, real-life human scream. Maybe it got scarier the further in you got? Around the next corner we found two Korean girls on the floor, almost crying in terror, hugging each other for support. Standing over them was a guy in a black robe with a pretty unconvincing skull mask on. He was trying to lean down and offer them a hand up but every time he moved, the girls started screaming again. My friend and I were by this point clutching the walls in laughter, watching as he tried again and again to help them. After a good few minutes he gave up and went back into his little cubbyhole in the wall. The girls practically crawled out of the house and the guy came back out with his mask off, shrugging at us. We were still cracking up with laughter, having to hold each other up at this point. Who knew Haunted Houses could be such a source of hilarity?

Banpo Bridge

I talked at the beginning of this post about how green Seoul is and we spent the evening wandering down to Banpo Bridge in the park that runs along the Han River. There was so many people out, cycling, drinking, eating, listening to music. My friend had told me I needed to see Banpo Bridge and had only told me that it was a ‘dancing rainbow fountain bridge’. Now, I’m a creative writer but even I couldn’t quite picture what exactly that meant. Turns out a ‘dancing rainbow fountain bridge’ is a bridge that has horizontal jets set all along its sides, with rainbow coloured LEDs and speakers. The jets move and fire off in time to the music, with a light show going simultaneously. Koreans really love their dancing fountains. Yet another surreal musical experience to add to the list!

fountain-bridge-seoul

Boryeong Mud Festival

Of all the slightly bonkers things I did in South Korea, Boryeong Mud Festival has to be the most surreal. What is a mud festival? It’s exactly what it sounds like. Think Glastonbury but warmer and without the music. The aim is to get as covered in mud as physically possible. I was an outdoorsy kid – growing up on army bases means you always have amazing woods to get lost in. But I was never allowed to wear white. I was a pretty clumsy tree climber and mud and blood make for a lot of laundry. Naturally when I found out we were heading to Mudfest I picked out my whitest, cleanest outfit. I’m a responsible adult now and I’m going to use that power to get as dirty as physically possible.

I expected Mudfest to have some ancient and spiritual history stretching back to before records began. Boryeong Mud Festival has actually, however, only been going since the late 90s. As you’d expect for a country famed for its make-up and cosmetics industry, the festival started out as a marketing vehicle for Boryeong mud cosmetics. Apparently the mud itself has been famous for years for being good for your skin (mine did feel lovely and soft after a day being covered in it!) and for Mudfest they collect huge vats of it from nearby mud flats. These are then transported to the beach where the festival itself takes place.

Our day started out super early in Seoul. Turns out Boryeong is pretty much halfway between Seoul and Mokpo so I was retracing my steps from the week before (check out my adventures in the south of the Korean Peninsula here). On the way we drove over the Seohae Bridge which is over 7000m long. I’m slightly obsessed with bridges and tunnels, I think it comes from being an engineer’s daughter. We also tried these snacks called walnut balls that were walnut shaped cakes filled with red bean paste. I have a love hate relationship with red bean paste. If you’re expecting red bean paste, it’s a quite tasty addition to sweet dishes. If you’re a tired, blurry-eyed European who thinks what they’re eating is Nutella – not so nice. I made this mistake a surprising number of times during my trip.

MudFest 2k16

We arrived in Boryeong at lunch time. The Mud Festival has two breaks a day where they close for people to eat. We took the time to grab some drinks because another grand and venerable tradition of Mudfest is maintaining a steady level of drunkenness. Luckily the weather was kind of perfect – warm but overcast without ever raining. I’d have got supremely sunburn if it’d been better weather as mud isn’t the best sunscreen. We spent the lunch break sat on the beach with a few beers. Soon as Mudfest reopened, we headed in, ready to get mucky.

The first place we found was a big pool where you could go and splash mud at each other but it was disappointingly watery. It only stained rather than destroyed our clothes. Not good enough. After a bit of hunting I found a trough full of good, thick mud. And started a mud fight by throwing a load right in my friend’s face. Pro tip guys – if you wear contacts, come prepared with swim goggles so they don’t get messed up when you inevitably get a face full. Pretty quickly we were all filthy and my childhood dream of ruining a white shirt had been fulfilled. My mother would have been so proud.

 

Mud fest Johnny and I

Good thing someone remembered his GoPro!

 

There were various stalls around the edge of the mud zone (personal favourite was the Foreign Interpretation Assistance Unit – like SWAT for lost, drunk waegukin) and one was doing face painting with coloured mud. After queueing for about 45 minutes we realised we need numbers in order to actually get painted when we reached the front so one of our group dived into another queue while we waited in line. Then when we eventually made it to the front, my friend and I (the guy from the zorbing incident in New Zealand) were told we were too dirty to have mud painted on our faces. Another good idea that I should share here – have someone in your group that actually speaks Korean. Then when you’re frustrated and have no idea why someone won’t paint your face, you don’t have to just rely on increasingly abstract hand signals. Having to clean up meant another queue to wash the mud off our faces. This proved a bit much even for my British love of queueing but eventually we made it to the face painting station. Between the 3 of us there was a cat, an advert for Korea and a superhero. Being a comic book nerd, I was more than happy with this.

being-painted

 

Boryeong

After some ramen and a few more beers we wandered a bit further along the beach and heard some chanting. When we checked it out there was a man climbing a ladder of knives. Yep. You read that right. There was an old man climbing a ladder (more of a staircase really) of knives in time to chanting and drum beats. Then some women dressed all in white carried white globes down to the sea where they floated them away. We couldn’t work out what was going on beyond it being some form of ancestor worship and I still haven’t really got any idea. Any suggestions would be welcomed!

The weather was starting to turn at this point so we headed for showers before we got rained on. In England, unlike the rest of Europe, we’re not really big on communal, public nudity. If you go to a swimming pool in the UK, chances are everyone will keep their swimsuits on to shower afterwards. Go figure, we’re a famously repressed nation. Not in Korea. There was no swimsuits in the showers at Boryeong. Luckily the water was so freezing that it distracted me from my innate British awkwardness.

 

Mud fest colours

One thoroughly destroyed white shirt? Check

 

There was still a while to wait before the main event in the evening so we camped out in a coffee shop. In there with us were some girls who were taking selfies, showing them to their friends and then touching up their make-up to take more selfies. Apparently this is a popular past time in Korea. It was something that struck me while in Korea, and I’m definitely not the first to say it, how image conscious the whole country is. Even at Mudfest there were a lot of girls with full faces of make-up trying to not get dirty.

K-Pop in Korea

Finally it was time for the evening’s entertainment to kick off. What could possibly be better than spending a day throwing mud at your friends? PSY. That’s right, the K-pop star that smashed YouTube records with Gangnam Style back in 2012 and then seemingly disappeared in the UK music scene. He’s still massive in Korea and I had an awesome time listening to some of his big hits. It was one of those moments in life where you just look around you and think “Is this really happening right now?”. Dancing on a South Korean beach to Gangnam Style live just about topped listening to it with Mokpo’s dancing fountain (it’s a close run thing let me tell you).

 

PSY

 

Boryeong Mud Festival was utterly bonkers. I have told everyone who’s asked me about Korea about it. It seems such a uniquely Korean event, even down to its creation coming from the cosmetics industry. If you’re in the Peninsula at the beginning of July, or even anywhere near Korea, definitely check it out. It’s an experience that will stick with you. Even if you have to throw out the clothes you wore. 

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