Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sparkling Korea

Dear Friends


Last month, I flew into Incheon International Airport on a chilly spring Monday morning. The temperature was about seven degrees celsius and it was graceful with all the cherry blossoms in bloom. This was my second trip to Seoul after a sixteen years lapse.
Korea is difficult to depict - to experience it is to understand it. It is an inhabited nation of about 48 million people. Koreans are primarily from one ethnic family and they only speak one language - Korean. With distinct physical features, they are believed to be descendants of several Mongol tribes that migrated to the Korean Peninsula from Central Asia. I found it hard to converse as English was rarely spoken. I found the Koreans to have very solid cultural traditions. Everyone bow to their elders and superiors. Not only listening to them, but doing exactly as the last word was spoken. No questions asked. I was amused at one of their traditions. Kim Jong Eun (state coach for the Penang bowling team) my translator, taught me the proper way of pouring and toasting a drink. It is rude not to take a sip when being toasted by a peer.
Seoul is a busy city. It doesn't matter what time of the day it is, the streets are jam-packed with vehicles and people everywhere. This is one of the cleanest cities I have ever been to. Not having much of a chance to explore it on my own, my itinerary was packed as the host wanted me to see the best the city could offer. One of the tourist attractions that I visited was the 'Gyeong Bok Gung' Palace or also known as the 'Palace Greatly Blessed by the Heavens'. It was built in 1935 and served as the main palace. This was a symbol of national sovereignty and was demolished during the Japanese occupation. Other than this national heritage, I also visited the Korean Folk Village. In a natural environment of 243 acres, I saw the different traditional houses and cultures of the Koreans. I could feel the ancestral experience from the many performances watched.
I flew to Korea for one reason and that was to bowl. At the invitation of Seong Nam City, a total of 21 of us made the trip. I found the lanes and the alleys different compared to home. The conditions were brutal with exceptionally slippery approaches. My team member, Chloe Tay slipped and fell next to me and I was mentally affected. With a high score of only 196 and a piteous low of 120, it was devastating. We bowled for two consecutive days and all I wanted was to at least bowl my average (of 185). It was not the winning or losing. I thought about it and realised that this was part of bowling. To be strong mentally and psyched up is needed for game maturity.They had some great talents which included bowlers from the Korean Professional Bowlers Association (KPBA).

Each day that we were there, our meals were provided. At local restaurants, we were served 'Korean' for all three daily meals . It was alright for the first two days but it got to me after that. Dishes are served at the same time. A typical meal normally includes rice, soup, and several side dishes, the number of which vary. 'Bap' or rice is the staple food for Koreans, it is eaten with almost every meal.(breakfast included) Korean rice is often sticky in texture, and sometimes it is combined with beans, chestnuts, sorghum, red beans, barley or other cereals for added flavor. Another must have at every meal is 'Gui'. It is marinated meat barbecued over a charcoal fire. The most popular gui dishes are meats, such as bulgogi and galbi. At every meal, a must have is definitely 'Kimchi'. Kimchi has been scientifically proven to be high in nutrition and is always eaten as a side dish. Cabbages and other vegetables are soaked in salt water, then seasoned with different spices before being fermented. There are many different types of kimchi, such as cabbage kimchi (the most common), cucumber kimchi, radish kimchi, cubed radish kimchi, green onion kimchi, and more. One of the lunches, we were served 'Samgyetang'. A young chicken is cleaned out then stuffed with various ingredients before being boiled to draw out a delicious broth.

On the last evening of my visit, I had some time to do last minute shopping. We were brought to a market area called Dongdaemun. Dongdaemun Market has been one of the major markets in Korea. Specializing in wholesale clothing, the market has grown large, having more than 20 shopping malls. The main street seperates Dongdaemun Market into two sections. Section 1 is on the side where Doosan Tower is found, and Section 2 is on the side of Dongdaemun Stadium. Huge shopping malls in Section 1 basically sell wholesale and retail goods, but mostly deal with general customers and tourists at retail prices.

Seoul is filled with wonderful scenery, from the brightest lights to the pretty cherry blossoms. The five days spent here was magical. I truly enjoyed the spring and the people. After all, it is a "Sparkling Korea".

Pictures of places I saw and friends I met could be found below this post; Scenic Seoul and Faces of Korea.

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