Tuesday, December 30, 2008
The sun is out and the sky is blue but the temperature is still below zero as I step out to visit the Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul. Luckily the modern subway is not too difficult to navigate and the locals are happy to help with directions.
Out of the five great palaces of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), this was the most important one. ‘Gyeongbok’ means ‘shining happiness’ and was built as a tribute to the happiness and blessings of Korea’s royal families as well as the people of the nation. They seem to be a happy lot – job done.
I watch the changing of the guards before I buy my ticket. Their colourful outfits and flags remind of a parade or a festival, not a serious matter such as security. It is beautiful and I cannot wait to go inside, although my fingers are becoming more and more reluctant to click my camera for fear of turning into ice.
The architecture and Zen gardens inside the palace remind me of former visits to China and Japan, although the Korean version is a lot cuter. In fact, most things are cute here in Seoul – from the en masse Hello Kitty type phone jewellery and hair accessories to the paintings on the palace walls.
This place is filled with harmony, although it suffered the destruction of war, having been completely burned down during the 1600’s. I immerse myself in the history of this place and then turn around to see the skyline glittering beyond the tiled roofs. Seoul has indeed become one of the great cities of the world, with enough depth and life to compete with the best of them.
Once I exit the palace gates I walk through Insadong, a traditional area, towards the modern centre of the city. The tea shops lure me inside – ah, the East kindled in me a passion for tea that exceeds even my love for red wine. I enjoy the cup of warm brown rice roasted green tea that the shop owner offers me while looking at handmade ceramic tea cups and other tea accessories.
Then, just like that, the glare from the modern office buildings stings my eyes and I am filled with a shining happiness for the moments I share with Seoul.
Sunday, December 28, 2008
One of the first things a Korean would ask on finding out you’ve been to their country is: “What did you eat?”
Enjoying food in a social environment is a national pastime in South Korea. I arrive in Seoul on Christmas day to a host of trees dressed in fairy lights and silly teenagers singing Christmas carols in the icy streets. After shopping at the fashion boutiques and cosmetic shops in Myeong-dong my colleagues and I are soon drawn to the warmth of the traditional restaurants.
While the do-it-yourself barbeque restaurants are very popular they can be expensive and although street food is cheap and good quality, it is –10 degrees outside which is way past my tolerance level. So we opt for something in between; a local spot that serves Korean stir-fried dishes with sticky rice, as well as spicy soups. I choose bibib-bap which arrives in a fiery hot clay bowl. There’s rice in the bottom of the bowl and on top lies sections of freshly chopped vegetables and spicy noodles with a raw egg in the middle. The idea is that you stir it yourself in the hot clay bowl until the veggies are cooked.
Usually I try to stay away from meat while travelling but in South Korea they are very fussy about meat quality. Remember the mass protests against US beef imports in mid-2008? I try a few bites of a dish called bulgogi, which is marinated barbequed beef in thin layers served with sticky rice and local veggies. The marinade tastes similar to teriyaki sauce.
Of course, kim-chi is served with every local dish you can think of. Somehow it’s not really to my taste although I really like the Korean spice paste which is used with dishes such as stir fries and omelettes.
What is unique about eating in Korea is that they use stainless steel chopsticks here. I make a mental note to buy some as souvenirs. What amazes me on this coldest Christmas I have ever experienced is that teenagers are walking around in short skirts with bare legs and singing Jingle Bells before stopping for some sausages and snacks from the street vendors.
Strangely enough I don't feel sad and lonely so far away from loved ones on this festive day. Perhaps the warmth of the people, the hot food and the Christmas spirit is enough to keep the cold at bay.
Friday, December 12, 2008
“You can’t get more Mediterranean than Malta,” says Darren, a businessman who often travels to this small island, “I mean, its right next to Sicily – which also means loads of Mafia in the vicinity.”
This is my first time on an island in the Mediterranean and according to Darren I’m lucky, as Malta is the most beautiful of them all.
I would have to say that the stone walled farms, filled in with prickly pears and well preserved old buildings, are winning me over pretty quickly. My colleagues and I are spending our free afternoon in rental jeeps and although the flattering Italian daylight is quickly fading we still manage to fit in some sightseeing.
The most breathtaking of them all are the Dingly cliffs from where the Mediterranean Sea stretches right into the horizon. It’s the kind of place that one couldn’t get bored of judging by the way the locals never tire of telling us about Filfla, the speck of an island that is a mere breath away from the edge of the cliff. It is rocky and inaccessible but adds a lovely touch to the view.
From here we visit the legendary St Elmo fort, which outlived numerous attacks by the Turks in the 17th century. We look out over the city lights of Valetta from the walls of the fort. Someone points out St Mary’s church, where a WWII bomb was dropped through the roof in 1942. The bomb never went off and everyone in the crowded church was spared. This miracle also contributes to the strict Catholic values of the Maltese.
A stroll through the cobbled streets of Valetta makes me wish that my new found love was here to hold my hand. I romanticise about living a slow-paced, sensual life – but that’s only until we hit the lively bars where it’s pretty clear that the young people around here like to party hard.
They’re cool, the Maltese; and it's not only the accent. They’re friendly island people with strong values, Italian style (pizza & gelato!) and plenty of energy for anything fun.
Perhaps Malta is not only as Mediterranean as it gets, but also as good as it gets. It’s on my top 5 holiday list, for sure.