Random Play by Graham Reid


Smart Korea Move

Because I always travel cheap I usually forget that not everyone does. Sure I've stayed in some of the world's most luxurious and most private hotels -- but that's what happens unfortunately when you win travel writing awards sponsored by the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group.

But mostly I end up in places where a mosquito coil seems like an extravagence and "mini-bar" means that bottle-shop two doors down below the brothel.

But my trip to Seoul -- I write this from the business centre of the Hyatt Grand where my 12th floor room has a sweeping view of the Han River -- has been a very different experience right from the start.

I have only twice been in that comfy part of the plane behind the pilot -- once because I arrived just as they were closing the door and said "sit anywhere" so I turned left and enjoyed a lazyboy settee for five hours across America. (Good tip folks.)

So as usual at Mangere yesterday I glanced at my ticket (seat 9D) and just waited to be among the last called. When I got on I realised I was actually among the first beckoned: those who need assistance, have children or a rilly rilly rich and ride in comfort.

I was among the latter, just me and some Korean men and their wives who read the business sections of whatever all those papers were.

The menu came, the meal deserved to be photographed and although I knew I would be missing Stars in Their Eyes this week at home I decided to make the best of it.

I scanned the channels and clicked on to a Steve Carrell movie -- Dan in Real Life, not much cop -- and the first words I heard were a woman saying, "my perfect day would start with me going to country where people speak a language I don't know . . . ." Or words to that effect.

That is what I love about travel: those strange and sometimes welcome disjunctions, odd coincidences and the unexpected.

Later I flicked around and saw something alarming about North Korea and nuclear issues, and a major story about mad cow disease fears in ROK (Republic of Korea, the south where I was headed) and how infected beef may have been imported from the US.

Then I saw Will Smith as the sole survivor of some holocaust (mad cow disease? nuclear war?) and living alone in New York.

Another strange disjunction.

Seoul of course was far from deserted when I arrived from Incheon in the rain and darkness. People were scurrying into restaurants (why do restaurants in homogeneous Korea advertise themselves as" Korean restaurant"?) and there seemed to be an astonishing number of families with young kids in the hotel when I arrived. Some special offer I was told as happy but well-behaved children ran politely amock in the lobby.

I love Seoul, have done since I first came here a decade ago and on this, my fourth visit, I have a very full agenda.

This is a high-wired city (I believe over 90% of homes have internet and having your own webpage is a big deal here) and broadband is everywhere.

But it is also going somewhere architecturally and has been named the World Design City 2010. I have interviews about that and am asking how Seoul will be challanging Shanghai and Beijing in the region with its innovative urban planning and new architecture.

Seoul is an impressive city (population 10 million and rising) and visitors cannot help but be struck by dozen after dozen, into the hundreds, of 10, 20 and 30 storey apartment blocks that ring and penetrate the city.

They might be unglamorous -- they are, but impressive by number -- but they do provide housing in this country which, just over 50 years ago, was largely in ashes.

Once I came here with some returning New Zealand soldiers wo had fought in that forgotten war (the one after World War II and before Vietnam) and many had tears in their eyes when they saw the arcs of motorways and the highrise development. They remembered the country as shell-blasted and with nothing over a single storey standing. Barely a stick standing around here half a century ago.

South Korea's achievements (and yes, they have come at some social costs) are impressive. I'm glad to be here asking questions and listening.

I am ready for the task, I pushed one zero too many at the ATM at the airport and now have 100,000 won in my possession (about $NZ1300 I think) but I don't intend to spend it all in the same shop.

And I do have to shop. A priority today before I go to various museums, the art gallery down the hill and to see some archircture, is to buy a couple of snappy shirts.

In my haste to pack notebooks, camera, itinerary and such I left my neatly pressed dress shirts (thank you darling) hanging on the bedroom door.

So I am off to get something to impress the mayor.

Real news will follow regularly. Meantime here I am, loaded with the folding and ready to step out into a warm clear spring day in Seoul, capital of the "Land of Morning Calm".

Graham Reid is in Seoul as a guest of the Seoul Metropolitan Government.

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