I fell in love.
With a city. OK, so it's ANOTHER city to add to my list of loves. (I am already and forever smitten with Philly, Paris, and SF.)
Seoul, you took my scrill... and my heart.
I really needed the jaunt to Seoul. It seems like I've spent the better (er, worst) part of the last 2 months in Shanghai. Last trip, there was the stomach virus and now this trip a sinus infection. By last week, I was pretty freaking sick of being in China and feeling terrible. But when we got to Seoul, I felt like a new woman. (Well, I still felt like sh*t, but I didn't care.) I was in SEOUL!
We were picked up in a giant, macked out BMW sedan (businessmen have such a sense of pride about their cars in Korea) with all sorts of buttons and lights for Flora and I to use in the backseat.* Then we got to the hotel, which was modern and clean and had an actual minibar and a thorough room service menu (compared to the clean but c-r-a-p-p-y hotel where I stay in Shanghai). But on top of it all, the bathroom had a fancy potty! I tell you, life without a heated toilet now seems positively barbaric. I mean, how does the rest of the world manage?
* Side note: I was careful not to push anything too "foreign" after my previous Seoul mishap of being trapped in a bathroom stall with a projectile-douching toilet spraying all over the front of me. And then I had to go into a presentation and try to keep my cardigan constantly over my wet front. So take it from me, the what-does-this-button-do? thrill is not worth it. Stick to flushing and get out!
For a big city, Seoul is clean. Most any casual restaurant on any random street is clean and safe to eat at. You just may not be able to find someone to take your order in English... but if you don't mind trusting in your sense of adventure and have a good pointin' finger, you will get some food. And you will likely not be disappointed. Even the street food is clean... and good! See below.
Seoul is a very shoes-off city. It was nice to shuffle around in slippers at some of the suppliers' showrooms. It was like looking at fabrics in my bedroom! And even our hotel had pretty wooden and glass "shoe lockers" on each floor where you could store your shoes and put on a comfy pair of slippers so as not to muss your room.
There was also a radio-karaoke thing going on. I mean, there was lots of live singing on the radio, and not just from professionals. There seemed to be some competition-type shows where they would play a song and then random people would call in and sing the same song (in its entirety) over the background music. It was interesting.
It can be a little tricky to get around as English is not so prevalent, but with a good concierge who doesn't mind writing your addresses in Korean, you're fine.
Essentially, I think Korea offers some of the best elements of Japanese culture (the shopping, the food culture, the cleanliness) without the downsides (crazy crowds, kinky/repressed sexual underbelly).
Other random stuff that's cool about Seoul: Korean basketball on two channels on the telly, it was the World Design Capitol in 2010 (as voted by a fancy Industrial Design org), it has mobile tv and uses its own spritely CDMA cellular frequency so most outside phones will not work, K-pop is bananas, there's a big indie design emphasis with young designers making handcrafted jewelry and accessories, the AFN plays all the US television programs, kimchi all the time, they have cat cafes!
Let the cavalcade of street food begin...
These are what I think to be ho ddeok, which are flour shells filled with cinnamon and sugar. The guy fills the dough with the cinnamon mixture and forms in into balls (at the top of the griddle). Then he presses them down for maximum fry-ability. It was yum-yum-yum! Crsipy with a gooey sweet inside. But tricky to eat... one of them gooed hot cinnamon all over Flora's sleeve.
And one time, this old lady jumped into our taxi and insisted on being driven 3 blocks up the road. She would not take no for an answer. It was pretty awesome.