News & Insights 1 June 2006

North Korea… South-east Asia’s premier tourist trap

Thursday 1 June, 11am (Buddhist temple, Insadong, Seoul):
We stepped out of Somerset Palace this morning into the warm sun with the objective of getting to grips with our new surroundings. Our first port-of-call was the local temple, which is located immediately adjacent to our Korean crib. And, well, let’s just say, Church Of England it ain’t. The temple is painted in spectacular colours and the whole place is incredibly upbeat and festive. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Naturally, we take a moment to remark upon the fact that Seoul suffers a little when held up in comparison to Reading – it lacks a healthy smattering of TK Maxx outlets, a Reading Bedding, and of course pet wholesale warehouse Paws & Claws – but nevertheless we can’t help but be impressed.

Thursday 1 June, 3pm (Somerset Palace, Seoul):
Our jet-lag is steadily wearing off and being replaced by blind hunger. Ever the pragmatist, and keen to uphold the reputation of Brits abroad, Tony left breakfast this morning with a couple of boiled egg sandwiches stowed in his shorts. The rest of us missed that particular trick, however, so we drop in to the local 7/11 and pick up a few cartons of dried Korean noodles – they cost about 30p, they’re absolutely delicious, and unlike British Pot Noodles they don’t leave you feeling like you’ve french-kissed a turd. Afterwards we head back to the hotel to freshen up for a rooftop barbeque that our ex-pat hosts are holding in our honour. It’s a tough life.

Friday 2 June, 4pm (Dongdaemun Baseball Stadium, Seoul):
Today has been a very good day. Last night we stayed up until 3am playing blackjack and drinking soju, an Asian vodka that is extremely popular with the locals and also ludicrously cheap. Remarkably, considering 60p buys you enough of the stuff to macerate your liver into silly putty, none of us feel particularly hungover and so we’ve been raring to go all day.

George, John & I started at Seoul Tower this morning, where we spent our time gawping at the astonishing panoramic views of the city and dodging large groups of excitable school kids. Whilst up there we located the Grand Hyatt Hotel, which is where we’re playing our gig tomorrow night. And it turns out that the place is pant-wettingly enormous. Imagine, if you will, that your kitchen table represents the city of Seoul. Scatter pieces of penne pasta around at random and you’ll have an approximate portrayal of the city’s architectural structures, living areas and transport networks. Now, in place of the Hyatt, whack a honking great anvil down in the middle of it. That’s how big it is.

Next stop for us is the Dongdaemun Flea Market, which sells all kinds of wonderful, useless crap and is for that reason highly entertaining. Beside one stall, staffed by a dozy-looking Korean chap who seems almost oblivious to the fact that he’s peddling a mountain of hardcore lesbian pornography, we find a small cardboard box occupied by two very fluffy, very sleepy, puppies. They are clearly for sale, but sadly for us the sign is written in Korean. My guess would be “Fido and Woof, Buy One Get One Free”.

Once we’ve tired of staring at the big jars full of pickled snakes and giant millipedes in the flea market, we make our way across the road and buy tickets for the all-day baseball tournament that’s being held at the Dongdaemun Sports Stadium. Whilst kicking back with a round of ice-cold beers and taking in the gorgeous weather and the good-natured baseball game being played out in front of us, we reflect on how our current situation is likely to differ from Tony’s. Tony got out of bed this morning at some unholy hour, put on a suit (don’t forget it’s 30 degrees here), handed over 40 quid to a bus driver and ventured forth with a worrying lack of trepidation into North Korea. Now, for those of you unversed in world politics, North Korea is presently at war with South Korea. The two countries are currently locked in a strange kind of stalemate – much like a huge game of human chess in which no one has moved the pieces in a long time – and so it is currently “safe” for tourists to visit the border and take pictures of the enemy soldiers, who stare at each other across the North/South divide, as if waiting for someone to squeak “Alright, I give up, I have to pop to the loo”. Oh, and when I say “safe”, I mean you have to go along accompanied by a man with a huge gun. Why we opted for the baseball, I really couldn’t say…

Friday 2 June, 11pm (Norebang house, Jongno-gu, Seoul):
Having advised us that Friday night is big business in Seoul, after dinner this evening Amy and Neil take us out to a Norebang house in the city centre. “Norebang” is Korean karaoke, and it’s a very different affair to what we have in the UK. Whilst the British obsession with karaoke is chiefly rooted in the compulsion to make a muppet of yourself in front of strangers, the Korean equivalent takes a very different form. Over here you hire a private room and sing to a small group of people you have personally invited. It actually feels kind of seedy, although I should note that’s probably not unrelated to the fact that directly above the room we’ve hired tonight is a dubious-looking club called “Bikini Girls”. In actual fact, we end up having a brilliant time, although I suspect I haven’t downed enough soju this evening to truly connect with the spirit of Norebang. Obviously, as we’re playing a big show tomorrow, we have to be careful not to wreck our voices by getting wasted and belting out big rock numbers. This is why I opt for “Killing In The Name Of” by Rage Against The Machine and a Guns ‘N’ Roses power ballad.

On the way home, Amy drops into conversation that the British Ambassador to South Korea will be amongst the 500-strong attendance at the Queen’s Birthday Ball tomorrow night at the Hyatt. And we’ve got to kick off the evening by playing the National Anthem to him. Gulp.

Find out what happens to The Lightyears at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in the third and final part of our Korean Tour Blog. Coming soon…

Chris Lightyear

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