So now we're boycotting palm oil and cashmere in the interest of saving the planet (in addition to previous boycotts of any recordings by the Captain & Tennille, and chia pets) and DH is pushing hard for a travel boycott of South Korea. South Korea has recently announced that they will be resuming 'scientific' whaling which is hard to understand given the somewhat universal condemnation that announcement is drawing. I've got two problems with this new passion- the first is that we had already booked our tickets out of Mongolia and into Seoul for a few days prior to the announcement, and secondly, if we boycotted every country that was doing something distasteful, our travel options would be severely limited.
As a much needed compromise, we had planned on returning to Korea in September to travel the peninsula and DH was pushing to skip that chapter and just explore Seoul and area now since we're booked in anyway. The gods of South Korea must have taken this decision badly and we were greeted with a torrential downpour when we arrived after a grueling red-eye flight. We were also greeted by that most delightful creature- the airport bureaucrat. Korea is another of those countries that puts your luggage through another scan before you're allowed into the country, and this bizarre security exercise netted my diving knife (keep in mind that this is a country that is in the midst of a nuclear standoff with North Korea- both nations are armed to the teeth but apparently my diving knife might upset this weapons race). Now I don't use this knife for much other than pseudo security and shaving (that's not really true but I thought the image would help me with Rita and Carol) but the idea of some mindless bureaucrat taking it was hugely irritating (especially after a red-eye flight) but it was the only way they would allow me into the country.
Incheon Airport is some two hours outside of central Seoul so we needed to take a bus that hydroplaned into town at top speed and dropped us in the middle of a major street with no idea as to where our hotel is and the storm at its peak. The end result was that we arrived in the lobby at 8:00 am completely soaked only to be told proudly by the desk clerk that check-in time was 2 pm. Now it was DH's turn to start a slow burn- she started spreading all of our wet belongings around the lobby and was just about naked when the same desk clerk magically discovered a room that we could check into early (disappointing as I wanted to see just how far she was going to go to make her point).
After drying as best we could, we ventured out and, less than a block away from the hotel, we discovered a full-on knife store. Not just any old knife store- this place sold those 2 foot kitchen knives that cut a human hair in half (lengthwise), hunting knives used to take down small dinosaurs, axes, and swords- big, honkin' medieval knight-type swords. I suspect there may have been a guillotine in the back somewhere. Every bumbling bureaucrat at the Incheon airport should be given a tour of this store- it probably wouldn't stop them from confiscating my tiny little blade (they need those heavy weaponry stats to justify their positions??) but at least they'd be a little embarrassed when questioned about the rule.
DH was giving me that look that suggested my time for venting was at an end particularly since no one, including her, was even listening. We hopped on one of those city tour buses that gave us a great overview of Seoul- we even got a close up view of Korean road rage when our driver took out a taxi. The next day we strapped on our walking shoes and took in most of the big ticket sights including the changing of the guards at both Gyeongbokgung and Deoksugung Palaces. Given the destruction during the Japanese occupation and the Korean War, most of the historical sites in Seoul are relatively recent restorations but I found the palace sites and ceremonies fascinating with a definite Korean twist. Koreans see most tour stops from an amusement park perspective complete with very strange photo poses, and a vocal exuberance that's not always in keeping with the respect due these historically significant sites. Rather than fight it, breaks were actually inserted into the various ceremonies to allow for photo posing and general mayhem. Very odd.
It's not just theses sites that are noisy- Seoul is a loud city, assaulting both the ears and eyes. Every restaurant meal was a headache inducing competition to be heard, shopping conversations were carried on from opposite ends of the store, karaoke bars were absolutely everywhere, and pity the soul that got stuck on a long elevator ride with a large family group. However, the most lasting impression I will take away from Seoul is that of the overpowering and colourful signage that occupied every square inch of some streets. This wasn't the slap and tickle arrangements of some large Asian cities but a well maintained and somewhat orderly cacophony of signage. Since most of it is in Korean, it was just colourful background noise for us, but how the locals could filter through the banners offering everything from food to massages was beyond me.