“Do you have coat?”
The airline official looked concerned. It was, after all, minus 8⁰C outside. His observation was correct: I had no coat. Twelve hours previously I had been in a different hemisphere and an opposite season. Now I had neither coat nor notion as to what I was about to experience. What I knew was that I was in Korea, Incheon to be precise. Our airline, by necessity, was to provide us with a hotel. We knew not which hotel or where that hotel would be, we knew only to wait here, by this door, by the man so concerned by my lack of coat, until the bus was ready.
And so began a curious 12 hour visit to Seoul, in which we were given but fleeting glimpses of a curious city while being shepherded from pillar to post. As punishment for being pesky tourists who knew how to get a free hotel, we were at the mercy of a rigid, prearranged system — this bus, this hotel, this limited dinner menu. But this is not the moment to grumble: far from it. It was an exhilarating ride.
First, there was the bus journey. Blasted by an overly efficient climate control system, we sweated our way for an hour along — as it was evening — brightly lit motorway. Neon green and red signs directed drivers to unknown locations in indistinguishable Hangul script. Warning lights for road works not only flashed but swung on robotic arms, desperate to garner attention. Having had the fortune to travel a great deal, but mostly to English-speaking countries or, at the very least, countries using Roman script, this was a rare glimpse at the quite considerable rest-of-world. I knew my observations were simple, but I was mesmerized.
We approached Seoul. Everywhere were residential skyscrapers. Bridge after bridge spanned the straight Han River. On and on went the cityscape. The river itself was surprisingly wide, separating two halves of a city by so much that I could imagine two distinct cultures. (I later learned that the per capita income south of the river is double that of the northern bank: two cultures are indeed separated by the Han.) Every freeway was buzzing with traffic and both sides of the river were lit by thousands of windows reaching into the sky. And yet nothing was frenetic. Seoul was noticeably more built up than Incheon, but everything kept moving calmly. There seemed not to be overwhelming hubbub on either side of the Han — although it was hard to tell, given the river was so wide.
We turned inland, and that’s when we saw the colour. Everything was illuminated. True, indeed, that Christmas decorations, many flashing, many halogen, were still lit, yet even without them it would have been wall-to-wall vibrancy. Through these streets we weaved, straight to the Royal Hotel, in the centre of the shopping heart of the city — Myeongdong.
Given that we were at the mercy of the airline, it is at this point I should be saying that the Royal Hotel was rudimentary, that it did the job and that I can’t complain given that it was free. But I do not need to, for it was luxury. All staff were extremely friendly. Rooms were deluxe. There was even one of those fancy toilets with dozens of electronic buttons in a language I cannot read*.
A brief dinner later — free, if limited in options (we were clearly on the airline's menu, rather than the restaurant’s) — and we were ready to explore. To Myeongdong, without a coat!
Ten seconds later, we were inside again. As it happens, minus 8⁰C is not entirely comfortable when unprepared. But worry not, it was 10 pm and everything was still open. Myeongdong is wall-to-wall shops, some familiar, most not. We dipped in and out of them, each full of brightly colourful wares. Cosmetic shops lined the road of our hotel, full of products based on cute characters and unusual combinations. Outside, street vendors, swamped by overcoats, tended their stalls. Meats were being grilled. Pomegranates were being juiced. Everyone was friendly, if bemused by our inappropriate attire. Everywhere movement, sound or smells. Above us, hoarding after hoarding, illuminated, in unknown lettering and in every primary colour. All of our senses were stimulated.
We could last only 15 minutes, as the cold had cut through to our cores almost immediately. We returned to the hotel.
Breakfast was mushrooms, kimchee, bok choi and fish; cereals (Fruit Loops), fry ups and fruit. All, as we were coming to expect, were picture perfect. Not only was everything the colour it ought to be, but it was the perfect, most vibrant shade, and the archetypal shape too. The Royal Hotel was one for precision.
And then we were back in the bus bound for Incheon, a second chance to see what we had missed on the journey that previous evening — churches and cathedrals nestled among the skyscrapers, the mountains that frame the city and the islands that pepper the gulf between the mainland and the airport. The sky was perfectly blue and vast, untarnished by cloud. It was cold, but the sun smiled, just like the toddler in the seat in front of us as we played the hide-behind-the-seat-pop-your-head-up-and-act-all-surprised game.
It had been a whirlwind 12 hours, put where we were told and efficiently provided for in the gap between our flights. For most of it, we had been asleep. Yet our snapshot of Seoul had been tantalising — we had seen barely anything, but knew that it was a bright and exciting place. It was clean and extremely friendly. We were agreed, one day we will come to have a proper look.
*Yes, I did.