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No.43 – Korea – A different kind of country

Jul 14, 2015 | Asia, Blog, Korea


At the airport I was met by Brad. In Facebook Brad has a group called “Korea by bike”

and we have been in contact for some time. I was very pleased that he took the trouble
to pick me up. The airport is on an island and the streets are closed to cyclists, so we took
the subway and rode directly to his house.



The subway in Korea is dirt cheap. A one way trip across Seoul costs little more than
one Euro, but you have to consider that you will spend 2 hours in the subway to get to
the other end. Seoul is one of the biggest cities in the world.

Skyscrapers, huge bridges, endless advertising signs and high tech at every corner
were the first impression in the country for me.


It was kind of Brad that I was allowed to stay with him and his family. Brad is a Canadian
and married to a Korean.


The apartment looked like anywhere in the world, however, it had a very special
feature – the beds. Floor heating ensures a very warm bed, because only a very thin
mat is used as a mattress. One lies, so to speak, almost directly on the floor.


The pillow was a square, almost hard, foam pad, which I couldn’t get used to right away.
The first night it was brutally hot while going to sleep because there was heat from
below, which I wasn’t accustomed to, so I opened the window even wider.
Although, on the other hand, I have to say that it is really comfy when you
lie on a cuddly warm mat.


I checked out Seoul together with Brad. We visited the palace and watched the people on
their weekend trip to the city.


Fashion is all the rage in Korea. College-age guys wear huge black glasses that obscure
half their faces. Some are even without glass, only the frame. With those they wear black
ankle freezers, white socks and brown shoes. The young students also make a very
feminine impression.


The older women are often dressed in many colors. So many loud colors in a color
combination for a garment is hard to beat and it amused me very much. In addition,
they wore huge baseball caps, often a funny towel for the whole face, in which the
nostrils are cut out nicely. Not even a little bit of skin could be seen. Even the hands
are protected from the sun with gloves.



I never saw jeans anywhere. Generally, outdoor clothes are fully trendy there beginning
at 40 years of age. The best Gore-Tex Jacket for a short walk in sunny weather.
Everything has to be super cool and expensive; otherwise it doesn’t seem to be good enough.


I was interviewed on Day 3 for the Korean TV station EBS News.


They had discovered me in Facebook. Other cyclists were also invited and I did my best.
A comical team.

A couple of cyclists accompanied me a short distance on the extremely well-built bicycle
path through Seoul. A futuristic concrete landscape surrounded me. Beautiful for me,
however, means something else.


Korea has constructed an incredible cycling network. Too perfect for my taste, even if it was well
worth seeing considering all the work and money that was invested in it.


There were tunnels only for cyclists. Obviously, it was built on old railway lines. Despite
everything, it was just amazing. There are no tunnels where the water drops from the
ceilings and non of them are pitch dark; instead, they are remarkably illuminated.
You ride into the tunnel and the light accompanies you in waves back to the
outside again.


Approximately every five kilometers there is a luxury toilet with toilet paper, some with
background music or funny flushing noises that you can turn on when necessary,
probably to distract others from your own noises. Sometimes, there were even
heated toilet seats. Very often, WIFI was also available.



For the bike paths, Korea created a pass system, where you can stamp a Bike pass at
different stations. But that’s kind of silly; for kids, however, it is definitely a great
motivating factor.


What I found comical were air pressure devices that are available in some places along
the way. People used them to blow the dirt from their clothes when they come back from
a walk on concrete paths to keep them from taking the “alleged” dirt into their cars.


On every corner, you can see Kia and Hyundai cars and a strange font, which I can’t
possibly read. The language sounds somewhat Nordic, rather than East Asian for me.
I think there must be a Mongolian influence in it. It is a very strange language with
eternally long words and strange combinations of letters when translated into the
Latin alphabet.


The street signs are often translated into English, otherwise mostly everywhere else
only in Korean.


Not very much happened the first few days. I had to once again get used to a new country
and muddle my way through the language somehow, because hardly anyone speaks
English here except a few young people.


Because of the language difficulties, it wasn’t so easy to order anything in the small
restaurants. It was nothing like other countries where you could just stand around,
then point to things you like.


For the Koreans, everything is tidy and in a refrigerator. In addition, the food is so foreign
that I wouldn’t know what to point to.

Aerobics and body building are totally hip here. On every corner, there is outdoor
workout equipment and especially older people trained on it. In the morning, the people
do their gymnastic exercises on the small green islands between the concrete
landscapes. Not like in China and Taiwan in a group; instead, every man for himself.
With an extremely serious expression.


It appears that people in Korea go into the cellar to smile, or perhaps they only share
their joy between friends? Anyway, it looked very bleak to me.


I would even say that I see here another world, a completely different world.


The people are very shy, but once they have thawed, many of them are friendly and helpful,
although very stuffy and rule-oriented. Somehow it seems to be even worse  here
than in Germany.


Or maybe I’ve been gone from home too long and can’t really remember anymore?

They behave very ambivalently here somehow, because despite their rule-following
tendency, they like to go through red lights and push themselves through crowds;
in my view, they are also very selfish in their conduct. Perhaps it is similar to the way
it is in Germany. It came across as being simply negative to me.


It was raining cats and dogs when I saw the sign for SPA/24 hours at a distance.
A Jimjilbang came to me as if summoned. Brad had explained to me previously how
such a Jimjilbang works. 8000 Won – about 6.50 Euros – is what it costs here for one
night in a large room including the use of all the wellness areas. It was exactly what I
needed in the freezing weather, and probably the cheapest pleasure in all of Korea.


I got a pink robe and 3 towels and made my way to the bathroom. Shoes go into the
first locker, then the clothes a few meters further into the next locker. The robe is only
for the night and you walk naked into the wellness area – men and women are separated.
In reality, it was a classic sauna – a bathhouse without a swimming pool. There were
small bathing pools at different temperature and a dry sauna.


I found the bathing facilities interesting. Low small washbasins, ladies sitting on small
stools who spend hours scrubbing their skin there – honestly. When I showered
and soaped in the classic manner, it didn’t seem quite right to me, because a short
while later, a Korean old lady came to me and started scrubbing my whole body
with a very rough washcloth.


I thought that was pretty funny. You go to a bathhouse and then, you are washed by
a woman you’ve never met before. Afterwards, however, I learned that that it was
normal to help each other in that way and a friendly gesture. However, the whole time
I felt odd in front of everyone and very observed.


You sleep in the pink robe, directly on the heated floor. In the room, the air was so dry,
however, and so hot that I slept near the window, because after spending the night
at 35° C in a stuffy room, the next morning I would have a headache and wouldn’t
know how to make it through the day. After I was all alone, I opened the window
fully and still had serious problems dealing with the heat from the floor.


The rain continued to accompany me. Nature was just at the beginning stage of spring
and everything was very bare and unappealing. On top of that, I rode on a bike path that
was flat as a board along a river through the countryside. There were no cyclists except
myself in sight – just a white median strip and arrows to show which direction I had to cycle.
Nearly every kilometer, a sign showed how far it is to Busan, the second biggest city in
the south of the country.



It is noteworthy that the Koreans managed to keep the cyclists completely away from
the traffic. You almost never cross a highway and then you are redirected elegantly
with huge signs and painted surfaces on the street, or even onto specially erected bridges.


At one point I could not believe it. The bike path went straight to a house, which stood
on a cliff. To the right was the highway, and there was no more space at all. To keep
the cyclists from going onto the highway at all costs
(the house stood in the way for about 30 meters) a wooden bridge was built on supports
so cyclists could go around the house.


The cost of such a cycle path must have been immense.

As far as I’ve noticed, the network of cycle paths is also very unpopular with many Koreans,
because no one knows for whom the many cycle paths were actually built.


I admit it openly and honestly. It was boring to cycle there and I lost the desire to ride
there very quickly. Nothing ever happened. The scenery was always the same, the trail
with no surprises –  every night next to the bike path there was a kind of pavilion to set
up the tent and the next day take the perfect asphalt trail under the wheels, surrounded
by concrete and somehow strange people.


When I met cyclists, they were usually very reserved. When I waved and said hello,
they politely bowed to me on their bike, but without smiling, or apparent happiness,
rather out of duty, or so it seemed to me.


It wasn’t so easy to figure out whether a building was a small restaurant, a supermarket
or something else. Everything looks pretty much the same. No picture reveals what it is
– only the Korean fonds on the house and that’s it.


And so a rather embarrassing thing happened to me. I was in a very small village and
was hungry as a bear and thought a house with large lettering on the door must certainly
be some  kind of restaurant.


I went in and called “hello” a couple of times when a sleepy lady came out of a door.
I tried to make it clear that I’m hungry and without further discussion, she went into
the kitchen and began to cook. I asked a few times what it costs because, since
Korea is very expensive, I wanted to avoid any terrible surprises. But I always got
the same answer: “It doesn’t cost anything.”

I went as matter of course to the toilet and even though my local front was very strange,
I had no suspicion I could really make a fool of myself here.


At a Korean restaurant you usually sit on the floor; you take your shoes off in advance
and then sit at a very low table. In a private home you have to take off your shoes as
well. Here, however, the table was like tables in Europe and I could leave my shoes on.

I was treated to a huge tray full of small bowls. Meat, fish, rice and many different vegetables.
The food was delicious and again and again I got refills and at the end I had to pay nothing.


Eventually, it dawned on me and, in retrospect, I’m almost certain that it had been a private
home because restaurants in Korea look very different on the inside. The woman had
not even given me the impression that it was not ok, so I just went into the house.


With an awkward grin I drove on, I just had to laugh at myself.


In a small village, which was, as always, well hidden from the bike path, I arrived at a tiny
restaurant where I ordered some soup. A man who was only about as tall as my shoulder
and two old women, who were even shorter, were already sitting there. The man
immediately stood up and made fun of my size. He was drunk and was really getting
on everyone’s nerves; the women kept trying to make him leave the restaurant, but he
just kept raving and kept coming back to me laughing himself silly over his and my size.


In many places there were “cleaning crews” of old people who collected the garbage,
did garden work and, often, I also saw people who took care of discipline and order
in the country.


Trash cans are in short supply in Korea. I don’t know what the reason is for the lack of
trash cans, but it seems easier to allow people to collect garbage than to set out trash cans.


The public parks are kept continually in good condition, even though I camped in one place
for several days, the same group of old people came back the next morning and worked
again on the same piece of turf on which I thought was already tiptop the day before.
I couldn’t figure out what there was still to do there. On their knees, the women slipped
across the lawn. As always they were covered to the tip of their noses with clothing,
even when it was raining heavily.


In the shops, I was often stalked. When I took something from the shelf and put it back,
it was again taken out and placed correctly a second later by a Korean, even if it was
only twisted one millimeter differently than where I had placed it.


Cameras were everywhere watching every movement, security and more salespeople
as customers.


A former English teacher, who couldn’t speak a single English sentence correctly, but proudly
told me that he was a school director and that his children were studying in Seoul and are
also highly educated, invited me to his home for dinner. He sent me to stay overnight in
the town hall, about which I was very pleased. He explained adamantly a number of times
how loving and hospitable Koreans are and it was also very important for him to tell me
how good the Korean food is.


I also learned the title of each man present, their position at work and received a business
card from each one of them.


After a few days, I left the bike path out of boredom and tried to discover the beauty of the
country, but more about that in the next blog.



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