Mama Kitty in Seoul City: An introduction to budget travelling through South Korea
As Gowri Jayakumar travels through South Korea, she'll be sharing her stories here. Stay tuned. In part 1 — Seoul.
The day I landed, I met with this lovely girl Chloe (her AirBnB host in India is a good friend of mine) who introduced me to someone, and more someones got together, and the first night, we were all at Apartment Club in Gangnam, drinking free champagne and watching rapper Bobby’s pre-album launch private party. That pretty much set the mood for the days to come!
It’s been a month since I got to Seoul. It’s my first time in South Korea. I am an independent musician from India, a former journalist, and a budget traveller through and through. I made a little jingle money in February, and was listening to Zion T in my room in Pune, and on a whim, booked my tickets to South Korea. Because Zion T is an artist from here. The cheapest return tickets I found on SkyScanner were spread over two months — 11 September to 14 November, and I am grateful for the timing: my birthday falls in this time. As I write this, I am sitting in my private room in Tony’s house (AirBnB), a neat little apartment tucked away near a beautiful forest park (Gungdong Park) in Yeonhui Dong. I needed a minute from my daily indulgences.
The first 18 days I stayed in Sinchon, at a guesthouse called The Chocolate Tree. My room was a shared four-bed dorm with an attached toilet, and I booked it on AirBnB. It’s a really tiny space but with the best crew ever, a kitchen and laundry downstairs, and easy-peasy access to superb restaurants, the subway station, shops, nightclubs, and a host of universities: Hongik, Yonsei, Ewha Womans University and Sogang to name a few. But my favourite part about living here, was its proximity to Hongdae (aka Hongik University area). A long winding park cuts through to Hongdae, I mean, there are parks everywhere anyhow, and they are clean, beautiful, safe, and just the best places to chill at. But let me first get to Hongdae Playground. It is here that I first discovered the Korean love of drink.
The Playground has a history. From the new friends I made here to the articles I’ve read, everyone has stories about the evolution of this space, and how the playground has morphed over the years to the state I discovered it in — a concrete empty space in front of Hongik University’s entrance with benches here and there. But it is a meeting ground for everyone: tourists, artists, students, passers-by, buskers et al. Buy your Magkeoli or Soju or beer from the convenience store beside it, and walk in there alone or with friends and just hang around, and you are bound to make new friends here.
Chloe tells me a number of famous hip-hop artists (MC Meta, rapper Olltii) used to spit some rhymes here before they got famous. Buskers walk in with their own sound system, set up and start performing, and it can be quite shocking at first. An array of sounds hits you in one go: K-hip-hop on one hand, old Korean ballads on the other, while the omnipresent K-pop percolates through it all. And here’s where the punks co-exist with exhausted office-goers who stop by at the end of the day to enjoy a drink in the open.
Before renovations earlier this year, the playground had play things: slides and swings and plants and trees, and was different... perhaps a more colourful sight than what it is now. It was a hot-spot for underground street performances, indie punk bands and a thriving local art scene, not necessarily with the vast number of tourists and expats it attracts now. But this is all hearsay and supposedly prior to its gentrification. Now the playground is not more than a meeting/resting spot amidst club-hopping, with busking hobbyists laying out their cards. A host of night clubs, music venues, artsy restaurants and the fashion-savvy Hongdae shopping street surrounds it. I love it all the same! The first three weeks, “hanging’ out” at the playground was a pre and post-party ritual.
Some of the clubs and pubs in Hongdae (that my friends or I have visited): Joon’s Bar, Mike’s Cabin; HIPHOP — Brown (Hapjeong), Club NB2; LIVE — Club FF, Gogos, Club Bbang; EDM — Club M2, Vera.
Nights in Seoul are colorful, all lit up, and filled with life. For quiet evenings, my hostel-mate and I loved climbing the hill along the city wall beside Dongdaemun's Heunginjimun Gate to get the best view of all that's old and new in Seoul. Evenings by Seokchon Lake Park with grand views of Lotte World Tower and Lotte Mart in Jamsil's Special Tourist Zone, and picnics by the Han River with it's dancing fountains were some of my favorite easy evening starters. From Han, Itaewon is a bus ride away, and this is the place to go wild! It is also home to two prominent clubs I enjoy visiting: Cakeshop and Contra! But more about Itaewon later.
So this brings me to safety. Club-hopping through the night, getting drunk in random playgrounds, especially while traveling alone ... what am I thinking? For someone who has lived all of her life in India, barring the occasional overseas travel, I’m thinking — finally, I am not worried. There will always be exceptions, freak incidents, and one must be careful and not naive. Having said that, Seoul has impressed me most with its safety for women. My Korean friends say it is because "we don't have weapons or drugs," but I think its people are just more sensitive, sensible, respectful, and peace-loving. Unlike India, the government lets its youth have its fun, and instead of cornering them, the police here protect them. The police in Seoul are not to be dreaded or hated. Instead, they protect and maintain decorum quietly, without intruding or interrupting or patronising its youth.
Yes, you'll find a bunch of opinions reiterating the misogyny that exists here, but it's nothing unique. From my experience, I see it in the projection of sexuality, in fashion, in media and in the products being sold — the same as everywhere! But it doesn't come in the way of public well-being, and no matter how short the clothes get, or how drunk the group is, people are concerned for each other, and not typically looking for any sly opportunity to misbehave. There is also this angle that I don't understand most of what is being said to really know if I should be offended.
Language: I had begun to pick up the Korean alphabet (Hangul) right when I booked my tickets, but quickly life and inertia took over, and those efforts went right down the drain. It makes a big difference to speak some, especially if you intend to stay longer than a month. While food and drink has served its purpose in helping me bond with many of the lovely people here, I can only imagine how much more fun and relaxing it would be if I could respond appropriately to Korean humor. And most signs, receipts, directions are in Korean. Basic questions: Where, how, when, what, and numbers and directions are efficient tools and will make life simpler.
Here’s a few to get you started (the next column in this series will feature more):
Annyeong Haseyo — Hello
Kamsahamnida — Thank you
Annyeonge Kheseyo — Good bye (I’m leaving)
Annyeonge Khaseyo — Good bye (you’re leaving)
Mah-Si-Soyyo — It’s delicious
Chincha/ro — Really?
Ne — Yes
Anyi — No
Kenchana — All right
Well. Let me not give it all away in my introduction. In the upcoming posts, I explore music, food, and Jeju Island. Stay tuned!
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