Monday 27 September 2010

I got Seoul but I'm not a soldier

I must have slept for most of the bus journey from Incheon airport into Seoul. When I finally emerged onto the streets, expecting to have to take a taxi to my hotel, I asked a cab driver if he knew where it was. He looked at me disbelievingly, and pointed over my shoulder. I was standing directly outside it.

A long shower failed to wash away the lethargy from my 5am start. I couldn't face the prospect of travelling into the centre of town, and chose instead to wander around Itaewon where I'm staying. It feels very different to Japan - more westernised for starters. American chains like Taco Bell and Quiznos sit behind market stalls peddling novelty socks and knocked off t-shirts. Bars are either upmarket, opening onto the street, or seedy looking, up discreet staircases that say things like "Western Bar".

There are a lot of foreigners; Indians, Americans, Europeans. Italian restaurants, curry houses, burger joints. It is the most ethnically diverse place I have been in Asia. I keep hearing the sounds of people clearing their throats and spitting. And the further I walk, the more Americans.

I peel up a side street and there's a change of mood. I have never, for a second, felt scared in Asia. Never felt like I'm walking down the wrong street or I need to be on my toes. A Korean guy walks past and looks at me strangely. It's disconcerting, but not really menacing. I can't work it out. I drop back down, and am amazed to find a huge second hand English bookshop; the penny still not dropping as I peruse the shelves.

By the time I find a decent looking place to eat something Korean, I've worked it out. The guy in the restaurant asks me where I'm from - "England", I reply. "Not soldier". He smiles; "You don't look like soldier", he reassures me. Outside the window a big black guy in US army fatigues folds his arms and leans back on his car. The Yongsan Garrison is a grenade's throw away. I devour a bowl of deliciously sweet, rich beef bulgogi and remember why I love Korean food so much.

I've almost certainly been drinking too much lately. I need a night off. Fortunately, the prospect of getting drunk in a "Western Bar" full of squaddies, hookers and the occasional spitting local makes an early night a pretty easy pill to swallow.

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