When I was in Seoul last year I experienced the first cold days of the year with nights below 0 and frozen lakes in the morning. As I did not bring any warm cloths and was planning to go to Southeast Asia next, buying warm clothes was out of the question. I had to leave. So I asked my friends what would be the perfect time to come back, and they all agreed that either spring or fall would be perfect. Not too hot, not too cold, not too humid. Luckily I seized the opportunity to work a few weeks at Korea University in September, ideal time for a trip to Korea and neighboring Japan and Shanghai.
A350 – where eco is fun again
This time I flew with Lufthansa from Munich to Seoul, partly because it was only slightly more expensive than a connecting flight via Beijing, and partly because Lufthansa is using their brand new A350 on this route. The plane was introduced earlier this year and has even in the economy class surprisingly spacious seats, both in width and depth. The in-seat display is huge and quite sensitive. No more punching the seat to click. However, the selection was depressingly mediocre. I hardly found movies I wanted to watch and TV series were even worse. The real surprise was the dinner. I had the Korean beef with rice and kimchi plus a small tube of hot sauce. Finally plane food that had flavor! The 10 hours flew by and at 5:30 in the morning I was in Korea.
The first days were all pretty similar. I went to the office in the morning, had lunch with my lab mates and dinner with friends and lab mates, followed by drinks until late after midnight. Anam, the area around the university, is full of bars and restaurants which cater to the students that make up the majority of the people there. Also the number of non-Asian people you see on the streets is way higher than in other parts of Seoul, which gives the neighborhood an international and easy-to-immerse vibe, even without speaking Korean.
Sing like nobody’s listening!
On Friday after our labmeeting we traditionally went for dinner and drinks with a small pub crawl through Anam’s basement bars until my colleagues decided to give me a real Korean experience: noribang. Noribang is the Korean version of Karaoke, where you rent a small room, usually in a basement, which is equipped with a karaoke machine and some sofas. You select from the impressive list of Korean songs or the not quite as extensive but still sufficiently variable list of western songs, pick up the mic and give it a go. The screen shows the lyrics and plays some videos in the background. But the videos do not necessarily match the music you’re singing. My opening song “Fear of the dark” by Iron Maiden was backed by a group of 8 or 9 Korean girls dancing to what I guess would be a K-Pop song. It gave the song a different but still somehow suitable atmosphere.
Beasts from the deep
Saturday we went to the big fish market to try some fresh Korean fish. Walking through the hall with all the touts circling in on us it was not easy to focus on all the fish and other sea creatures that were on sale. From gigantic crabs to tiny shrimp, from big mussels to small octopuses. We walked around and my Korean colleague recommended to try one fish as sashimi and one very peculiar dish: raw octopus freshly chopped. The special feature is that the tentacles are still moving even after the octopus is chopped due to the nerves still sending signals. We got our fish and octopus and were led to a adjacent restaurant where the food was prepared and served. The sashimi was nothing extraordinary. Good, fresh white fish with black skin, a little bit too chewy for my taste, but ok. For me the big challenge was the octopus. Seeing the parts of the tentacle still moving, the suckers still sticking to the plate, so strongly that I could hardly pick them up with my chopsticks. Every year several people die because the tentacles get stuck in their throat. But the animal died to be eaten, so it would be a shame to waste it. I picked up a piece and ate it. A few strong bites on the surprisingly tender tentacle and it was gone. No tickling in my throat, no moving, all gone. The taste was really nice and fresh. But still, next time I’ll get my octopus cooked again.