Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Flat Metal Korean Chopsticks

I'd heard the legends. A magical city, just across a small sea from China. An evil king to the North and a friendly army based throughout. Some even said their language was written as phonetic letters and not hieroglyphic characters. Others reported rumors of flat metal chopsticks and ubiquitous grills nestled between stores with signs in the letters of England and foods from the Occident. A vast underground system of tunnels to transport citizens quickly and easily, all beneath a city with rivers and mountains within a minute's trek.

I'm happy to report the tales are not tall and the legends are true. Seoul is pretty awesome.

Its been a while since I posted anything and I figured an update about my vacation to South Korea would be a good place to start. Unless you were in a cave somewhere, you probably know that on October 1st, China celebrated its 60th birthday. China is much older than that, but its Communist revolution happened in that magical decade when every country was throwing off imperialist shackles or outmoded forms of government and forging a new path.

If you were living in Beijing, you'd have known that the city had been preparing and practicing for this event for weeks and that on Sept 30 and Oct 1, pretty much everything was shut down to accommodate a massive parade and series of shows and fireworks throughout the center of the city. Some people I know weren't even allowed to leave their house during the parade because they were on or close to the parade route. Public transit was closed, as were major roads. Veronica and I decided to watch the parade on TV and then get outta Dodge and head to Seoul. Lucky for us, cabs were taking people to the airport.

Before leaving, we learned that our visit to Korea would enable us to experience THREE Thanksgivings this year. And I don't just mean three different Thanksgiving dinners. This year, October 3rd was Chuseok or Korean Thanksgiving. Before you ask me what Chuseok is, know that my answer is coming from wikipedia. The only things I learned about it from being in Seoul during the holiday is, many people where traditional Korean clothes - mainly children - and tourist attractions are much more crowded than usual. Wikipedia informs me that Chuseok is a harvest festival (Koreans are just like us!) and its celebrated with some special foods (namely a dessert), dancing and games. Kinda makes me want American Thanksgiving to involve more games somehow... like darts or Starcraft.

Speaking of Starcraft (how was that for a transition), Korea is the world capital of esports gaming. They don't take this honor lightly either. In Korea, there are multiple competing tv channels that run 24/7 game tournament coverage, complete with color commentary. People tune in and watch professionals (yes, players make tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands playing full-time) and analyze their moves in hopes to become the next Kobe Bryant of the Starcraft circuit. Other popular games included Counter Strike and some fighting games I didn't recognize. Some of you may know about a project I'm working on with my friend Jordan called Get Gosu. What you might not know, is that GOSU comes from a Korean word that means "the upper hand." We use it to mean "badass." Get Gosu is a competitive online gaming platform that currently automates and hosts multi-round counterstrike tournaments. We hope to expand to cover more games in the future. If only we could get a network to cover our tournaments...

The esports stadium we visited was in a gigantic electronics mall right near the Yongsan KTX station. From there we hopped a train to visit Veronica's cousin Rox who is living in a town further south. Good food and fun was had by all, as we helped Rox go shopping and set up her new life. Rox made friends with a puppy that looked like a pig at the Lotte Mart until the salesman/vet/guywithalittle English yelled NO TOUCH at her.

Lucky for us, Rox has been learning the basic Korean that Veronica and I neglected to prepare before our trip. So she was able to handle ordering in restaurants and thanking people that we ran over with our shopping carts when playing go-go-shopping-cart.

Later we headed north to a place I read about online that boasted excellent bike riding and views. As the train went further out of Seoul and further into the mountainous rural parts of South Korea we got a little worried. We were trying to visit a "recreational area" called Gangchan, which was between Chuncheon and Gangwon-do. When we arrived, we got off, not knowing what to expect - but not expecting much considering how deserted the place seemed to be.

As we walked into the "town" we saw many stands set up to rent bikes, ATVs and scooters. We got two bikes and started out on some nice little paths before exploring more hills and wooded mountain passes. Very glad we found the place - only wish we'd had more time there.

This rural part of Korea was the first time we'd seen squatter toilets the whole time we'd been in the country. In fact, we were amazed by how western Seoul is compared to Beijing or, well, pretty much any other city in China aside from Shanghai (and Hong Kong). The western chain stores and restaurants here actually carried food that might be seen in the west. (Wait you mean KFC doesn't have squid on a stick or fried fish balls in America?) People were fashionably dressed and observed social manners in a way that is all but foreign to us now (Waiting to cross the street? Not spitting wherever you want? Lunacy!).

Oh and Korean Souju is as cheap as Chinese Baijiu but tastes MUCH better. So that alone is reason to go!