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After our time in Japan it was on to South Korea. We went with to participate in the World Curling Federation annual congress, again representing Saudi Arabia. This was held over 3 days in the Olympia Parktel in Seoul, which was – as the name suggests – a hotel adjacent to the park area where much of the 1988 (summer) Olympics took place. As official delegates we were provided with private road transport from Incheon Airport to the hotel, very nice! 


Helpful hostess at the airport summoning our transport

Seoul is another of the eastern Asian mega-cities, weighing in at 10 million souls. It occupies mostly low-level land bordering the Han River in much the same way that London does with the Thames, but Seoul is encircled by mountain areas which result in the city being very densely populated, high-rise living is the norm. and a density of 43,000 people per square mile. That’s the equivalent of putting all the inhabitants of Perth into apartments in its South Inch park – cosy!


Seoul sunset

So we didn’t have a lot of spare time for tourism in Seoul. An option had been to visit the demilitarized zone adjacent to North Korea, however the access arrangements in the DMZ had been reduced in the aftermath of some northbound defections and we decided against that. Instead we decided on some retail therapy and headed towards a recommended site, the Coex Mall in the Gangnam (yes, same place as the song) area of the city. We took the metro which was nice and cheap, and had a curious ticket system. You bought your ticket from a machine, went through the access gates, took your journey and and exited the gates at the far end. And then you took your ticket to another machine and were given a partial refund, as if it was a deposit-return bottle. We exited the metro at Samseong, the Coex Mall stop, and then couldn’t find the mall. It turned out to be completely underground! As well as a good selection of shops, we had been encouraged to visit the Starfield Library. This turned out to be a huge bookstore, on 3 levels with an open airy feel to it. 


Starfield Library bookshop

After a decent mosey about there, we resurfaced and went a short distance to the Bongeunsa bhuddist temple. This was open and welcoming and quite a relaxing area in the busy city.



In the four evenings our hosts the Korean Curling Federation had arranged cultural trips for the delegates. The first one was to the floating island in the river off the Banpo Hangang Park. This was at a nice rooftop restaurant with international food. The second night was a private visit to the National Museum which was nearer the city centre and north of the river, followed by a dinner in the nearby Itaewon district. The museum was in a very modern building and contained ancient treasures, temple icons, royal jewellery, incense burners, tapestries and statues, some dating back over 1,000 years. It seemed incongruous then that half of the museum guides were robots. 20230913_184841jpg

Robotic museum guide. They don't like going in lifts. 

The third night was undoubtedly the highlight. After a traditional dinner in the city centre we watched a performance by the Myeongdong “Nanta” theatre group. This was a silent(ish) comedy live show which revolved around a busy hotel kitchen, with the cast of four actors drumming, performing acrobatics, chopping vegetables, juggling, dancing, cooking and occasional audience participation. I’d never heard of it, and had no expectations, but it was one of these shows that will live long in the memory.


Nanta show in progress

After the WCF congress, we had a gala dinner in the Parktel which was very enjoyable. Unfortunately on this occasion our pre-advised request for no shellfish in food was met with exactitude, and we just missed out on a couple of courses and no alternatives offered. This is a very minor gripe, our hosts were exceedingly well organised, generous, hospitable and friendly.

We had a free day on the last Saturday, and after checking out of the hotel we took a taxi and put our suitcases in left luggage in the central station and went to explore the city centre area. This culminated in a trip up to the top of Namsan Tower, reached by cable-car to the summit of the city-centre hill. From the top we had a panoramic view of the city, and a coffee. And after that a return to the station, collected the bags and took the train to the airport for the flight back to Riyadh.


Seoul street scene

Korea has a national alert system which sends a message to all mobile phones in certain circumstances. This is something that is being introduced in Britain, so it was interesting to note how it was used here. On our first day I was out in the park next to the hotel, about 5pm, and I heard and then saw a large military helicopter going overhead, heading north. It was quickly followed by many others, and I counted 36 of them, generally in batches of four to six. They were quickly followed by approximately 40 military jets, all again heading north. And during this, my phone made an urgent bleeping noise and a message, in Korean, came up on my screen. As Seoul is less than 50km south of the North Korean border / DMZ, I was a tad concerned that the nuclear neighbours in the north were up to something. However, looking around the park, other people were also consulting their phones and then continuing calmly with their own activities, walking, talking, cycling, jogging and whatever. No signs of panic. That made me feel a bit more comfortable, and when I returned to the hotel and asked the receptionist to translate the message, it was about a child in the city who had gone missing, and gave a description and urged citizens to look out for him.

Korea was nice to visit, and interesting, but it isn’t going onto my list of places I’d rush back to. That’s probably an unfair opinion as we only saw the capital city and didn’t visit any of the other areas.  

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