Yoo-Mi and I spent 48 hours in Seoul last week. This was more of a post-India culture-shock than return to the states ever could have been. Seoul is as antiseptically spotless as India is a cross between a garbage dump and a malfunctioning sewage-treatment plant. And if the name Seoul strikes an English speaker, who cannot help but hear the homophone, as somewhat ironic, India is a land that seethes with soulfulness.
Thanks to some rewards program points she earned on a World Bank gig nearly five years ago, we booked a very sweet, very slick room at the Park Hyatt. Even in a city that seems to give birth to one-piece-after-another of sleek, deliciously austere architecture, our room was really quite magnificent. It reminded me of my first stay at Phillippe Starck’s Royalton Hotel in Manhattan, back in the eighties, when the concept of cooler-than-cool modern hotels was brand new. I was on fairly fancy expense accounts in those days. These modest-living days, I don’t even grace the sidewalks in front of expensive hotels. The thought of paying more than a few hundred rupees for a room – to sleep, for crying-out-loud! – makes me uncomfortable, even if I could afford more.
For all its other eye pleasing comforts, the big draw of our gifted room was the bed: feather pillows, I-lost-count-of-the-threadcount linens, an I-need-GPS-to-find-my-way-out-of-here duvet, and a mattress so body-loving it would probably be illegal in Kansas. To say that it was the most life-restoring bed on which we had slept in the last six months doesn’t do this magnificent sleeping machine justice; in truth, we hadn’t slept on much of anything that even approximated the comforts of a western mattress since spending one very comfortable night at the Leela in Mumbai on our way to Darfur in November.
As with most things in life, Seoul was really an exercise in time management. How many hours-upon-hours could we stay in bed, soaking up every last available moment of its soporific generosity, while at the same time eating the fifteen-or-so meals we began dreaming about as soon as our Korean Air flight departed Mumbai.
Since neither Yoo-Mi nor I knew Seoul, we consulted our friend Youngae for restaurant advice. In her inimitably thorough way, she emailed us an impressive list of eateries, complete with elaborate directions. Precise addresses for many of these joints, as she noted, were not easy to come by. It wasn’t until we hit the streets that we realized that we’d put her to trouble for nothing. Seoul is all about food. She was too polite to tell us that our inquiry was foolish; and so supplied us with the list we’d requested. It turns out that asking for a restaurant recommendation in Seoul is like asking where in the Sahara one might find some good sand.
From the street vendors, we devoured grilled octopus, yakitori, fried and steamed mandoo (dumplings), fish cakes, intestine stew, dried cuttlefish, roasted chestnuts, marinated radishes, red bean cakes, and tea. From the small shops we bought mochi and jelly-roll cakes to eat for breakfast. From among the zillions of non-descript restaurants (not that there weren’t impressive-looking spots, we just ate a bit more down-market) we feasted on jajangmyeun (Chinese noodles in plum sauce), chigaes (the classic Korean stews), and soon tubu (soft tofu) wrapped in well-aged kimchi.
Eat, sleep, repeat.