South Korea, 2013

In 2013 I was working for Sumsung Electronics. There were some serious issues with the software of the the Smart TVs for the upcoming models. The company decided to send a few engineers to the headquarters in Suwon, South Korea. I was to go first, with my colleague Steve following a few days later, and Andy shortly after to work on a different part of the project. The plan was for two weeks in Korea but the plan was changed a few times.

Before going I learned how to read Korean characters and to say a few common expressions.


Wednesday 6 November
I boarded a Korean Air B777-300 to Seoul feeling more than a bit anxious at the incredible amount of work awaiting me at Samsung's Digital City.  But I was looking forward to my first visit to Korea. It all started with an 11 hour flight...


Thursday 7 November
I found my way to my hotel in Suwon. The YeongTong area was very busy, with shops and restaurants everywhere. The streets were quite pleasant.

My first meal in Korea was a bit of an adventure. In the first place I went in, they patiently explained they couldn't do their dishes for just one person. In the next place the waiter pointed at the only picture on the wall and I said yes in Korean. I got a huge plate a something stir-fried, a custard-like thing, some humongous mint leaves and some side dishes. The stir-fry turned out to be vegetables and offal. I happen to love that sort of things. I also managed to order a bottle of soju.

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Saturday 9 November
The previous day was all about work. The Samsung campus is called Digital City for a reason: it is huge. There are shops, restaurants, banks, etc... Absolutely no photography allowed. Mobile phones are checked at the gates and stickers are placed on the cameras.

My working day started at 5pm to match the UK working hours. So I had time to explore the city. I went to the Hwaseong Haenggung palace. Then I walked along the 6km of fortifications of the Hwaeseong fortress. I really enjoyed it and took a lot of pictures.

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I eventually had a late lunch in the Paldalmun market area.

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It felt odd to start work on a Saturday evening but I had a good time visiting Suwon so I didn't mind too much.


Sunday 10 November
Visiting Seoul.

As I finished work at 2am, I started the day a bit slowly. I took the subway to Seoul, which took ages.

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My first impression of the city was that it was deserted and everything was closed. Sunday not a good day to visit? I made my way to the nearby Jongmyo shrine but it was a guided tour only and the next one in English was in a couple of hours. So I kept walking in empty market areas. The famous Insadong area was busier. I feasted on various street food and listened to folk bands.

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My next destination was the Gyeongbokgung Palace. At first it seemed too much like Suwon Hwanseong Haenggung but every time I thought I had seen it all I would discover something more grandiose and more beautiful.

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The pagoda in the middle of the pond with the autumnal colours around was particularly attractive.

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That day, Seoul was full of police. Waiting at road crossings or running around, always in large groups. I am talking about a police presence in the thousands. Something was definitely on. I then stumbled upon a rally/demo/protest in a large square. I later found out it was a a very rare workers rights protest.

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I had planned to visit Namdaemun but I found myself there by complete chance. It is an area full of shops, various stalls, mobile workshops. It's not that different from a souk or a bazar. It is quite a contrast to the ultra modern Korea on display about 200 meters away. And Seoul was not empty anymore.

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I took the subway back to Suwon in Dongdaemun after running into protesters and police again. I ended the day in a local restaurant, with super spicy chicken gizzards (it took me a while to figure out what I was eating) and a couple of beers.


Saturday 16 November
A lazy Saturday in Suwon.

I was too tired to do much, the week had been exhausting and stressful. Steve had never been to the section of fortifications on the hill above the Palace and Andy had not seen the Paldalmun market area. So that's what we did. We had a very nice lunch in a restaurant with a lot of character.
In the evening we went for a Japanese meal. We ordered a set menu and that turned out to be easily a meal and a half. Fantastic food though.

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Sunday 17 November
Another Sunday in Seoul.

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I had already seen Insadong but we went there for lunch. The entire area is a tourist trap but the food is very nice.

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By chance, we discovered Bukcheon Village on a hill. There are lovely views and traditional houses.

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Then we made our way to Namsan Park and N Seoul Tower. It was a nice walk to the top of the hill but with too many stairs for my taste. From the observation deck, the view is just incredible. We stayed long enough to see the lights come on with darkness.

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Before going back to Suwon we went to Namdaemun market but it was too late already and almost all stalls were closed or closing.


Saturday 23 November

Working until 3:30am on Friday night is not my idea of how to start a good weekend. Going back to work on Saturday is not an improvement. The food has been the one thing to cheer me up. My colleague, Steve, and I (Andy had already gone back) found a really great little restaurant in YeongTong for lunch. I finally managed to try one of those Korean pancakes. Seafood and spring onions. De-li-cious. And for a very late dinner, a Korean barbecue in the same street.


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Sunday 24 November
Sunday had to be a relaxing day. So we went to the nearby Korean Folk Village. A place where traditional houses from all over the country have been relocated and preserved. It was very interesting but I would have liked more explanations and dates as I couldn't get a sense of time. It started making more sense when I realised that during the Joeson dynasty, Korea what almost frozen in time. Strict isolationism almost stopped any progress for centuries. It's simple actually: the layout of a 16th century house is pretty much the same as the layout of a 19th century house. 

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Tuesday 26 November
A few pictures of Suwon on the way to work in the morning. The hotel was quite far from Digital City but I like walking and it is more interesting to see the city on foot than from a taxi's window.

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Saturday 30 November
So, unsurprisingly, my stay in Korea was extended by another week. I was too tired to do much at work but it seemed my presence was all that was required. Maybe a cardboard cut-out in my likeness would have been enough? I negociated a couple of days off, at least.

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Going to Seoul on a Saturday gave us the full experience of Namdaemun market. It was heaving with people. Stalls were overspilling everywhere, you can buy your pig's trotters on the doorsteps of the optician or have a meal in the middle of the alley. This is a confusing and wonderful place.

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Next we walked along Cheonggyecheon stream, a rehabilitated little river in the centre of Seoul.

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And finally we took the subway to Itaewon, the favourite place of expats in Seoul. It is full of familiar sights that don't quite belong. This has to be the strangest place of all. English pubs, French restaurants, tapas bars, American shops are all mixed together but it is still distinctly Korean. It doesn't feel like a place given up to homesick foreigners and tourists though. Koreans are trying the expensive western food and drinking in the pubs.

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It was a great day. 


Sunday 1 December
Gangnam no-Style

Steve went back to the UK so I was exploring on my own again. As Gangnam is the only place in Korea known all over the world, I thought I should have a look. Gangnam is a business district and residential area for the rich. It is also the favourite place of the fashion conscious.

I started the day with the quick visit of a Buddhist temple. It wasn't inspiring but it was peaceful and relaxing.

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A short Metro trip later and I was walking through luxury apartment towers on my way to Soerae Village, also known as Little France. There are French people around (but I've seen some of those before), a "Lycée français", some shops with French names. It is a pleasant area that feels slower than the rest of Seoul. But it's nothing special either.

I found nothing of interest in the trendy shopping streets so I drifted towards Gangnam Station. This is where the rich kids go out. The main roads are lined with expensive-looking shops and the back streets with pretentious restaurants. It's not a bad place, it's just lacking style. 

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Monday 2 December
I had negotiated a couple of days off as compensation for the extra time spent on the trip, working ridiculous hours. But I badly needed a rest only in the afternoon did I find the energy to go for a walk in the centre of Suwon.

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Tuesday 3 December

It was a beautiful day and I had the day off. So the obvious thing to do was to go for a hike in the Bukhansan National Park!
After 44 Metro stations I was at the foot of the Dobongsan and started the walk up. The trail was busy, mainly with older people as it is a weekday. And they are fit and well equipped. My shoes were too lightweight for the task, especially in the snow, and my jacket much too heavy for the weather.

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The path to the top is only about 3 kilometers long but it gets very steep after a while. The actual rocky summit of Dobongsan can be reached with a very difficult short climb up. Rather scary but worth it: the feeling of being at the top of the world was amazing. The view all around was breathtaking.

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On the way up I had a lunch of gimbap, an oversized sushi roll, with side servings of kimchi and rice. But some time later a couple in their sixties called me over and I had no choice but share their lunch. We had very limited conversation but it was fun. And I finally tried makgoelli, a Korean alcohol, at the top of a mountain.

The next section was the unbelievably difficult ridgeway. You have to use ropes to pull yourself up and climb down in other places. After that, the way down in the snow and ice was easy.

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The way back ot Suwon was the full experience of the Seoul subway at rush hour.
It was a great day and I felt better.


Saturday 7 December
A last visit to Suwon.

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Sunday 8 December
And a last visit to Seoul. I went back to several of the places I had visited in the past weeks. I was too tired to look for new things and I just wanted to have a nice, relaxing day in the Korean capital city before I left the country. The beautiful autumnal colours had completely disappeared and winter had settled in.

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The end
A couple of days later I flew back home. I was completely exhausted. I had spent five weeks in South Korea. Working at Samsung's headquarters was rather unpleasant but the country and its people left me with an altogether different impression. I loved the time I spent exploring Suwon and Seoul; the Korean food is fantastic; and the chance encounters with Korean people were interesting even if they were often limited by the language barrier. The little bit of Korean I had learned proved very useful.

I would love to go back someday. But not for work!