Snowy days in SeoulWHEN the outside temperature plunges to a teeth-chattering -1°C, you really appreciate a heated toilet seat.
I'm not entirely convinced about the warm-water sprays that take care of the ablutions from two different directions, but avoiding a frostbitten bum to match my frostbitten nose and fingers became a pleasure in frostbitten Korea.
It’s almost worth going to the loo even if you don’t really need to, because a glowing posterior while the rest of you is shivering really does give you a nice warm fuzzy feeling.
The Koreans have some aspects of living down to a quirky fine art.
Like parking cars outside the department stores. It’s quite a sight when warmly wrapped parking attendants wave the cars in and out of gaps, giving a solemn, courteous bow to every driver. But all I wanted to do was steal their glorious, bright red coats to protect me from the cold. Discovering that it snows in Korea was a surprise, but when the chill wind blows you remember that this is a little annex perched on the edge of China and Russia.
It’s been a tough life for the country and its people, but a visitor to Seoul sees little surface evidence of that. About 11-million people live in the city, soaring to 15-million if you include the suburbs. It’s one of those sprawling places where you can spend several hours a day in traffic, even though the roads are wide and driving standards are politely Asian.
Getting around is easy too, because Korea is remarkably English. Road signs and street names are dual language, many shops and restaurants have English names and advertise their wares in English, and the average Korean speaks far, far better English than the average Englishman speaks Korean — or any other language.
South of the river a new city has developed over the past 30 years. There are a few of those ugly utilitarian 1970s buildings, but this is mostly a place of gleaming golden skyscrapers.
The number of building sites shows it’s still a city under construction even though Seoul has been the capital for 600 years. Yet even in the older quarters practically nothing has survived from ancient times. One exception is the Blue House where the president lives and works in the shadow of the Dragon Mountain.
The Blue House, more formally known as Cheong Wa Dae, has 150000 blue tiles on its roof, each individually baked to make them strong enough to endure for hundreds of years. The building is little more than 25km from the border with the enemy North Korea, which keeps the guards permanently on their toes.
One of Seoul’s central roads is wide, straight Tehran Street, named in thanks when Iran was the only country willing to sell Korea its petrol. “Korea doesn’t have any natural resources of its own so it imported everything,” my host explained. “Iran was the only country that would supply Korea so it formed a very good friendship.”
An extensive subway system and easy-to-understand bus routes already let you zip around to museums, art galleries, parks, palaces and preserved cultural villages where the old stuff now congregates. You can catch a tourist bus to see the major sights, or take a leisurely boat trip along the Han River.
Tourists leaflets are everywhere, and my group eagerly grabbed one called “I Love Shopping”. I couldn't find one called “I Hate Shopping”, which doesn’t seem to be an option.
There are massive malls and bustling street markets, and in a fitting tribute to Seoul's capitalism there's even a Currency Museum — to which admission is free.
One leaflet recommends a visit to Seodaemun Independence Park, built on a prison site where patriots were martyred by Japanese colonialists. The prison cells and execution building have been restored so you can “experience what it was like to be imprisoned and tortured”. Thanks, but I suddenly prefer shopping.
If you need your fix of caffeine you can choose from any of 200 Starbucks branches, even though the Koreans themselves are not a nation of coffee-drinkers. Ginseng yes; caffeine no.
Häagen-Dazs, the unavoidable McDonalds and other western chains also pander to tourists, or to ex-pat workers craving a break from the noodles and sticky rice that appear for every meal.
Australia's Outback Steakhouses are a regular refuge for western businessmen, just as a plethora of curry houses caters for Middle East and Indian visitors.
Food is everywhere. Every other shop seems to be a sandwich bar or a deli, a Chinese restaurant or a pizza outlet. When you want to eat Korean, though, there is naturally no shortage of choice.
In one rather dreary-looking shopping centre we went down to the basement where the smart and gleaming Zizzy restaurant lay in wait. The buffet was full of fascinating delights and intriguing shapes, colours and tastes.
My colleagues raved about the sushi, declaring it the best they'd ever tasted. It was certainly fresh, because we watched the chefs rolling it.
The fried pork was exquisite, and half a dozen other dishes were equally delightful if unidentifiable. Only the desserts were a disappointment, because no matter what colouring and flavouring you add to sticky rice, it always tastes insipid.
Perhaps the only way to give a sticky rice dessert any flavour is to dip it in kimchi, that icon of Korean cuisine that involves pickling cabbage in chilli.
The Koreans are so deadly serious about it that even in western-style eateries a bowl of kimchi comes with your meal. If you do get addicted, there’s a kimchi museum where you can marvel over the pots and bowls used to make it and store it, and as a final treat you get to make your own.
Another local delicacy is bibimbap, a bowl of steamed rice mixed with vegetables and gochujang, a chili pepper sauce.
If you scratch below the surface of Korea the war is still clearly in the national psyche. Ten million people have been split from their families by the north-south dividing line, and the demilitarised zone is a routine feature on tourist agendas.
My visit didn’t allow time for that, but despite efforts to reunify the nations I expect little has changed since I last made the journey. The same guides will be leading tourists through the same underground tunnels and citing the same propaganda, with both the North and South claiming the tunnels were dug by the other side in preparation for an invasion if hostilities escalate.
But on this visit the only apparent sign of racial discord were posters on shop windows wishing us Happy White Day. Our South African group did a cringing double-take and quizzed our guide.
Nothing too alarming, she assured us. White Day is a harmless bit of fun when men give white candies to their girlfriends. A month later the shops put up signs declaring Happy Black Day, and the women cook black noodles for their men.
Just to make sure nobody feels left out, people with no partner get to celebrate Happy Friends Day later in the year. How any sad person with no friends consoles themselves while the rest of Korea celebrates is a mystery. Maybe they join the displaced foreigners in the Outback Steakhouse, so they don't feel like the only lonely person in a city of 15-million.