An unforgettable sojourn in Korea

Accommodation on idyllic surroundings.
Accommodation on idyllic surroundings.

Most people when they retire from service go home. I went to Korea — because my wife who is a professor of Korean studies and language at JNU in Delhi had been invited to spend 90 days — not a day more, not a day less — by the Academy of Korean Studies which is about 60 kilometres from Seoul, the capital of Korea. She had arranged it such that I could more-or-less go straight from the last day at office to the airport.

Korea is way up north and there is a quality to the Korean sunrise that explains why the country calls itself the Land 800_Js-phone-pics-918of Morning Calm. The only other place where I have seen such a pristine sunrise was in Aberdeen about 30 years ago.

I always wake up before dawn and as the light grew I was desperately hungry but my wife who is as at home in Korea as in Kanpur, said Koreans ate early and “in any case you will only get rice and fish soup.”

She then pulled out her large handbag from which emerged, quite magically, a few tea bags, coffee, milk and sugar sachets, and a large plastic zipbag filled with egg sandwiches. Jeeves couldn’t have done a better job. I pulled out the whiskey I had bought in the duty free and poured it into the water which I had fetched from the water heater in the corridor. The water was boiling but the corridor was sub-zero.

It was, verily, an unforgettable breakfast — a silent sunrise, cold but buttery eggs inside soggy Indian bread, indifferent coffee and sublime whiskey. Just this once, my wife warned.

Eventually we stepped out around 2 pm to buy some supplies. It was cold, very, very cold. There was still some ice on the ground and a smart wind was blowing. This wind blows most of the time in Korea, at about 15-30 knots. It makes your eyes water, your hands freeze, and your feet clumsy. The ice and the inclines — Korea is all hills, by the way, hardly any plains — can make it dicey for the uninitiated. My wife held my elbow throughout that first day as if I were an octogenarian and asked me to use the umbrella for additional support.

Hi-tech country

But I soon got used to it; what I could not get used to was the degree to which technology has penetrated day-to-day Korean life. And it has all been achieved in about 30 years. Not just Korea, even the Koreans have been transformed into what the West calls post-modern Man.

That, as it happens, includes a low savings rate and a high level of personal debts. But what the hell! Even Koreans live only once.

The use of IT in the transport network, to give just example, has transformed the services which are under a ‘quasi-public operation system.’ The government manages the service operated by privately owned buses. It is all real-time and super efficient, not to mention spotlessly clean and punctual. The bus from the Academy to the heart of Seoul covered the 50 km in just 45 minutes — for $2. And, there are heating systems even at bus stops!

Connectivity is so high that to a foreigner it looks as if Koreans don’t talk to each other face to face any more. They use their smartphones. Every Korean has an earphone inserted into his/her ear, and eyes on the screen, sometimes even while walking — the roads and pavements are that good.

Small wonder then that Korea was ranked No. 1 among 152 countries in the ICT Development Index of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). For Indians, the entire IT experience is truly revelatory. The speeds alone are such that you can watch live TV on the move. The images are super HD and there is no buffering at all.

Eats, learns, eats

Korea decided long ago that the way to glory lay through brains, not brawn. It has invested heavily in knowledge and now has about 400 national and private universities. Some of these have state of the art research facilities in several emerging scientific fields. There are around 1,000 Indian students there now.

One of them was a Tamil girl working for her doctorate in marine biology. We met her in Jeju Island, which is an hour’s flight away from Seoul and has a huge, extinct volcano in the middle. It would have led ­Firdaus to break out in rhapsodical raptures that if there is a heaven on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.

Earlier on we had visited a Korean lady who runs an ashram and teaches yoga. This too was tucked into a hill with a river running alongside the ashram. It is fully vegetarian and not even onions are allowed. It is probably the only place where you don’t smell garlic.

The Tamil student fed us sambar, rasam and rice. The only problem was that the rice was the Korean kind, sticky and glutinous. But she made up for that with walnut-sized, seedless oranges crushed in salt, ginger and mirchi powder. That was the only Indian meal we had apart from some chole and chicken curry prepared by a Pakistani student at the Academy. She owned a small dog which she guarded with her life!

Most Korean food is non-vegetarian and super food it is, too. It is virtually oil-less, clean and soupy. One can increasingly find vegetarian food as well. But Indians need to be careful because the soup can smell and taste fishy. A simple Korean meal in a small restaurant costs no more than $5.

The trick, as always in a foreign country, is to avoid the fancy places and look for the traditional places. These are super clean and its owners passionate about the taste of Korean food and culture. Garlic tends to be pervasive but you get excellent mouth fresheners now.

In any case if all else fails, you can sip soju, the Korean rice wine which they sell in general stores. It was, for me at least, like milk.

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