Sunday, June 29, 2014

Visit to a Buddhist nunnery Saturday, and the DMZ Sunday

Laura had off from work Saturday and Sunday, so Saturday we decided to explore the area a bit and head right out of the hotel.  As with my walkabout before, this was not the best direction to go for sightseeing, as after a few block, we realized it was a light industrial area, with all the shops either selling hardware, machining parts, machine repair, and so on.  I still hadn't quite figured out the map, so I was sure a major intersection was coming up, so we pressed on.

Before long we realized we were headed in an unintended, so we turned a corner in hopes of finding something else on the map.  What we found instead was a bike and pedestrian path along a road headed to the local lake, with a gardened margin between us and the apartment buildings nearby.  This filled me with a bit of nostalgia, as despite the humidity and somewhat less zealous mowing, the landscaping reminded me a lot of my childhood in California, particularly some of the interesting Asian plants you see as ornamental species in California that you never see back East.  We also came across some outdoor exercise equipment, which was something a lot of parks had when I was a kid, albeit much simpler than the ones the Koreans have now.

Laura had forgotten her sunscreen and was worried about sunburn, so we decided to turn back, but I saw some interesting rooves up a side street and prevailed upon her to briefly investigate.  What we discovered in fact was a Buddhist abbey, which near as we can figure using Google Translate is called the Hundred Fuzzy Rocks.  There were in fact quite a collection of rocks, artfully arranged to look careless, and pavement that consisted of flat rocks embedded in grass, perhaps the meaning of the "fuzzy rocks" name of the place.  The buildings had traditional tile rooves, glazed black, with many sculptural details featuring dragons.  The under-beams had a lot of the same sea-green paint we saw on the pavilions here at the hotel, with additional painted floral details.  The walls had sliding doors, ornamental grids over semi-opaque windows, and other surfaces featured vivid painted iconography in the Zen and Mahayana styles.  The only clue as to the life inside the buildings was several clogs left on the stoop outside the doors.

At one point, we were surrounded by a flight of dragonflies.  Uncharacteristically for her, Laura didn't squeak or flinch.  They zipped around quite fast, but not aggressively.  It seemed like we'd stumbled across the dragonflies coming to do a happy homage to the monastery.

We made our way around to the back of the monastery, where we discovered a sacred well, presided over by a statue of some famous bonze.  There were ladles for collecting water, and a pile of won coins as offerings for the privilege.  I had no need for sacred Buddhist water, but I left some coins anyhow.  It was then that an elderly nun, in a grey work habit with shaved head, came out from one of the building to greet us, saying Anyeong haseo (the Korean greeting, roughly "Peace be with you"), repeatedly bowing with clasped hands.  We returned the greeting, with bows, complementing her in English on her lovely abbey and thanking her for the visit.  We figured this was a good time to gracefully exit, so we started back down the hill.  I left a business card in their mailbox, again with complements and thanks written on the back.

We returned by a slightly different route, following the recreational trail along the elevated railway, which afforded Laura some shade from the sun.  We passed an elderly lady sitting on a park bench, whom I greeted with an Anyeong, but she turned her head in a gesture of mild contempt.  Whether she dislikes Westerners or we were simply disturbing her wa, it was in clear contrast to the happy reception the Buddhist nun had given us at the abbey.

We stopped at a CVS, got some food and metal chopsticks set for use in our room, and headed back to the hotel to rest up.  We later reemerged at dark and walked in a third direction, this time finding much more in the way of consumer goods and services.  We even discovered a little alley mall, in which some of the shops were beginning to close, but remained quite busy.  In Korea, business hours can stretch well into the wee hours of the night.  No restaurants appealed to Laura, and we were both still shy about wandering to places without English signage or picture menus, but it was still a vibrant place to visit and a nice find.  We got more noodles at the Sun-mart and headed back to the room for a late dinner.

After a short sleep, we were up at five in the morning to catch a cab to the train station.  Along with Laura's coworker Miki, we were headed on the KTX to Seoul Station in Seoul (we had breakfast here--Laura accidentally ordered me a ground shrimp burger, mistaking it for a breaded chicken patty) to meet our tour group for a tour of the DMZ at Paju, the site of the infamous Third Infiltration Tunnel ("The Third Tunnel of Aggression", as the Koreans call it), which is also near Panmunjeom.  We were picked up along with a Vietnamese family and delivered to the tour bus.  Our guide, Grace, was probably a Christian and really happy to have a priest along for the trip, though for the first part of the tour she thought Laura and I were siblings, not married.

We drove up the Han River, the shores of which are stretched across with barbed wire and studded with guard towers, this despite the fact that South Korea controls both sides of the Han.  This was done in response to a 1968 assassination plot by North Korean commandos, who swam up the Han, climbed ashore, donned ROK uniforms, and then attempted to kill President Park in the presidential mansion.  As we drove further north and left the Han River for the Imjin River, the barbed wire and guard towers remained, but now the far shore was in fact North Korea, mostly obscured by a humid haze, but whose hills have been garishly clearcut for fuel.

Our first stop was Imjingak, the site of the "Freedom Bridge" and an exchange of POWs in 1953.  Of interest there was also an armored locomotive destroyed in the war, the bulletholes and ripped metal of which testify to the violence of the conflict.  Nearby is a peace bell, the tolling of which, to the Korean mind, will help speed unification.  For 10,000W, one can toll the bell seven times.  Despite the area being crowded with tourists, no one thought it was a good use of their won.  Being right on the DMZ (a four-kilometre no-man's-land where military presence is forbidden), there is a tall barbed wire fence, one section of which hung with hundreds and thousands of lengths of ribbon, on which were written prayers for the deceased, peace, and unification.

There was also a gift shop selling, among other things, North Korean soju, for around 20,000W.  These bottles looked a bit rough, with their labels a bit peeled and faded, suggesting their route to South Korean gift shops was a long and interesting one.  Unlike soju in South Korea, which is about 20 percent ABV, this stuff is 40 percent (80 proof), the same as most liquors in the U.S.  We decided to pass for the moment, for though it would be a unique souvenir--very few of anything make it out of North Korea--we weren't sure it would make it past U.S. customs when we returned home.  A good call, in fact, as there is a U.S. embargo on any North Korean goods and it would have been confiscated on reentry.

Next we went to the Third Tunnel, dug by the KPA ostensibly to invade the South, or at least to rattle South Koreans' nerves.  Four tunnels have been discovered so far (as many as 21 may exist), this one in 1978.  Almost a kilometre on the Southern side, it extends more than 1.5km on the Northern side.  Before we could go into the tunnel, we were made to watch a short film detailing the violence of the war and the continual provocations of the north.  The tone then abruptly changes to speak about progress towards unification (an increasingly tiresome word) and hope for the future, shows wildlife enjoying the DMZ in the absence of people, and then ends on a note about the eternal vigilance of the DMZ.  The indignation and stridency, though understandable, was nevertheless obnoxious.

In the tunnel itself, it's forbidden to take photos, so on Facebook I used a photo I found on Google that is pretty representative of the original, Northern excavation.  To go down into it, one first dons a hard hat and shuffles down the 500-meter gallery the ROK dug to meet the Northern tunnel, at a roughly 11 degree slope.  Here it's humid, but relatively cool.  At the bottom of the Southern tunnel, there is a spring, again with ladles, which Koreans are very keen to drink from, though what magical powers the water conveys is not clear to me.  The Southern tunnel is fairly spacious, but when it terminates with the Northern tunnel, things get considerably more cramped.  Rarely taller than 165cm, with scarcely enough room for people to pass side by side.  At this point, the tunnel is dripping wet, the air much more stale, and warmer.  Finally, at roughly ten stories below the surface of the earth, you come to a concrete barricade, which has a hole allowing you to see the second of three concrete barricades the South erected to neutralize the North's use of the tunnel.  At this point one is well under the DMZ and a mere hundred metres or so from official DPRK territory.

The climb back out, needless to say, was physically rather challenging, leaving Laura and I both red and drenched in sweat.  Our recent workout regimen is probably the only thing that saved us.  Back outside, beyond the low walls and landscaping, one sees dozens of upside-down red triangles, each marking the location of a land mine.  UNCOM, the U.S., and the ROK planted about 30,000 of these mines as they withdrew from the DMZ, though they have since removed about a third of these.  Designed to be "humane," these "ankle mines" are relatively low-power and will only blow off a foot, maiming instead of killing a hapless soldier.  At one point, I saw a park bench located maybe 10 feet from a mine marker.

The next stop on the tour was the observation post up the hill, where one could hire a pair of binoculars for 500W for two minutes to peer into the North.  It was a very humid, hazy day, and apart from some road traffic and unremarkable buildings, not much could be seen.  We did see the DPRK flagpole, the 160m-tall response to a similar 100m flagpole the ROK erected, though the air was entirely still so the flag just hung limply.  (So far, we have experienced almost nothing in the way of wind or breezes since we got here last week.)  An interesting feature of the observation tower is a yellow line painted on the pavement.  Visitors may take photos behind the line, but past it, any clicks will result in one or several ROK soldiers seizing your camera and phone and minimally erasing all the data on it, something our tour guide Grace observed happening to a Chinese woman the week before, which sadly robbed her of all her vacation photos and was met with disconsolate sobbing.  The exact reason for this rule wasn't explained, but I imagine a spy could report back to the North what activities can be observed from the tower if allowed to use focusing optics.  The South Koreans are very worried about spies.

Next was Dorsan Station, the last station on the Gyeongui Line headed to North Korea.  Built in 2006-07 during the 1998-2008 Kim-Roh thaw with the North, it was meant to carry raw materials to the North to be manufactured at ROK-owned factories there, which would then be sent South again for sale, as well as carry managers and experts to the factories.  After only a few trips back and forth, the North then closed off the line in response to the election of Lee Myung-bak, whose hawkish, conservative posture the DPRK found antagonizing.  While Lee has left office (to be replaced by another conservative, but less strident, president, Park Geun-hye, daughter of former strongman president Park Chung-hee), and the North has agreed the line should be reopened, for the moment it sits more or less empty, only delivering sightseers from Seoul and immediately returning them.  Not only is Dorsan Station an expression of Southern hopes for reunification and rail links to Russia and Europe, we were also told it had the cleanest restrooms in Korea.  Were this proved to be true, this would only be from disuse, and though fairly clean, the reputation turned out to be a bit of an exaggeration.

Finally, after trundling back down the Imjin and Han Rivers to Seoul, one last stop was the Ginseng Centre.  Traveling up the elevator to the fourth floor, we saw the Korean equivalent of the Western missing 13th floor: since the word for four is similar to the word for death, the fourth floor is instead labeled the "F" floor.  Huh.  Now, exactly why all these tours pass through the Ginseng Centre is never stated, but it is a mildly pressured "educational" opportunity to by Korean ginseng, superior to all other forms of ginseng, miraculous in its applications, and would obviate the General Resurrection if everyone would just use it.  Few if any of the tourists, up from before dawn, tired, and hungry, took the bait.  Our only guess is the tour companies are all paid by the Ginseng Centre to make them their tours' final stops.  After what must have been a disappointing visit for the ginseng peddlers, we were dropped off at Seoul's city hall, where we caught the metro and then the KTX back to Cheonan and Asan.  And not too soon: I had developed some awful blisters on my left foot, and one on my right, and was visibly hobbling.  I have perhaps been pushing myself a bit hard every day since we got here, in new, unbroken-in shoes.

After a nap in the room, we went to dinner with three of Laura's coworkers at the Korean barbecue place around the corner, which previously I had walked past, wistfully observing young, jolly patrons enjoying soju and roast bits of meat.  This was exciting to me, as I had yet to have a dinner out since we got here, and apart from hotel breakfasts, all my meals have been coming from convenience stores.  The fare of a Korean barbecue is galbi, slices of marinated meat cooked (bought in 150g or 300g increments) over a charcoal brazier set right into the table.  The hostess, or the guests themselves, cook the meat, which is beef, pork, or chicken, which they then pick off the grate with their chopsticks, place them in a lettuce or sesame leaf, and then pile on any number of toppings and accompaniments (banchan), roll it up into a parcel, and then consume in one or two bites.  Some of these banchan included old kimchi (a bit strong for our table's taste--we novices before the newer stuff), jeom (a kind of pancake made with egg and scallions), a cabbage and miso-dressing slaw, peppers pickled in a red bean paste, pickled onion, crumbled seaweed and sesames, garlic cloves (for roasting on the grate), a couple varieties of gochujang (an aged, sweet chili-garlic paste), and herbed sesame oil.  To wash it down, and cut the heat from some of the accompaniments, we had Cass beer, a commercial brand of lager which we might sniff at back home, but here it was welcome refreshment. 

Full up to our eyes in galbi and banchan, we headed back to the room for an early night.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Laura's Trip

On the way over, I was able to fly business class.  Mind you, it's not first class (At least not on United. No worries, I'll switch to Delta from now on since they don't make a distinction between the two)  but it is ultra fancy.  How fancy?  Well.






And that's just the airline club for business class ticket holders.  Seriously though, it was a nice lounge with a selection of fresh foods and beverages, an assortment of international magazines and a nice place to sit and wait.  I tried some vermouth and found it to be actually kind of nice.  

The flight was alright.  They've got these seats that are really a sort of electronic recliner.  You can get them to be a flat bed, but they're still sloped at a 10 or 15 degree angle which is a bit distracting.  I didn't sleep terribly much, but got in a few hours between movies.  

The food was done well.  I had an appetizer of mozzarella and pate, a light salad, sea bass and roasted vegetables, with a dessert of cheesecake.  The beverage list was long, but when I saw an ice wine available, I asked for a glass.  It turns out ice wine is best enjoyed in a very very small glass, which is not what they served.  Fruity and sweet, I was unable to finish the entire glass, and felt bad about wasting it.  Mid flight they offered ramen, fruit and paninis.  Near the end of the flight they offered roasted chicken with potatoes and a custard tart with candied fruit on top.

After the flight, Miki (my coworker) rented a local phone for our project work, and I found an ATM to get some cash.  The airport was pretty large, and midway down the arrivals area, there was a group of 4 male vocalists giving a concert on a stage.  The concert was well attended, and they seemed fairly good at what they were doing.  I can't speak for the Korean songs, but the ones they sang in English were good.

Miki and I explored the airport, walking around the restaurants and shops.  I found out where Ian was going to come in, and went to meet him with a sign.  An hour later, he came out from a different arrival point.  Apparently the officials directed him out through an alternate gate.  I guess when you get off the plane makes a difference in the length of the lines at customs and immigration.   After that, we took a train to a train to a cab to the hotel.  Despite flying in more cramped conditions, Ian was the only one to stay awake on the bullet train to Asan, but he made sure were all ready to get off in time for our stop.

It was a long trip, but we made it.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Yesterday's inaugural walkabout

Breakfast was the hotel buffet, for the not-unreasonable price of 14,400W (about 1,100W to the dollar).  I had scrambled eggs, sausage links, bacon, rice, some sort of spinach banchan, kimchi, a cold wheat noodle in gochujang salad, sliced Chinese peachs, a lychee, and a cup each of caffe latte and orange juice.   The tendency in Korea is to eat small amounts of lots of different stuff.

Having sent Laura to work, I went back upstairs to the room to catch up with my e-mail and write the previous blog post.  I also carefully wrote in English and Korean (with the help of Google Translate) to the housekeeper to leave extra pillows and a spare sheet.  Once I figured I couldn't load Hulu overseas (licensing restrictions), I figured there was no more procrastinating so I headed outside for a walk.

I had a hard time loading the pictures here and getting them to behave with the text, so they're on Facebook.

The first think I checked out was the koi pond outside the hotel lobby window.  The pond is L-shaped, and full of water lilies and water cress.  The koi are very friendly and love to race in schools from one end of the pond to the other, stopping along the way to nibble at the water cress.  I saw an ajumma ("auntie," an older lady) feeding them, but I keep forgetting to bring them bread from breakfast.

Next I went over to investigate the traditional pavilions on the hotel lawn.  The hotel is built atop a hot spring, and apparently some Joseon crown prince visited in the mid-1700s to practice his archery.  Later the king (not the same guy) decided to commemorate the event by putting up a pavilion with a stone monument, bragging about himself.  The logic is hard to follow, but all of it is very pretty.  There is also a Joseon statue of a buddha they found somewhere else, dragged it here, and likewise gave it its own painted, tiled-roof pavilion.

I then checked out a garden path connecting the hotel and the neighboring biergarten, which was full of interesting gnarled trees, plus some vegetables, before heading out the back exit to see the city.  I also saw some very creative use of pines in landscaping, including some species that would be unusual in America.

So while I exited from the direction the taxi driver had brought us (I wasn't yet aware there was a front exit, too), this turned out to be a mistake, in that the neighborhood was mixed older residential and light industry, and somewhat dusty.  I have learned that the dust, hwangsa, which is powdery and yellow, is in fact sand from the Gobi Desert that gets blown high into the atmosphere, floats on the humid dense air over the Western or Yellow Sea, and finally dumps onto Korea.  On the back streets it just sorta accumulates.

But away from the streets where there are shop fronts, there are quite a few single-household homes, most of these seem to be cinder-block and stucco construction, with either conventional rooves or the occasional traditional tile roof.  One interesting thing is how the neighborhoods are heavily gardened.  Even a little strip of dirt next to the curb will host cornstalks or leeks.  Lawns are extraordinarily uncommon--I have only seen them at the hotel complex, and even then they were very small.  At the top of a small hill was a church, almost certainly Protestant, topped with a red neon cross, which are ubiquitous about the country.  At night riding the KTX train at 300 KPH, you see a succession of neon red crosses everywhere.  Christianity, and particularly Protestantism, is now the largest religion in the country and still looking to expand.

So I wandered back down the hill onto slightly more busy side streets.  I should mention the Korean system of addresses and road naming.  Supposedly in 2011 the country adopted the Western style of addresses where there's a house number, alternating even and odd numbers either side of the street, and a street name.  This system hasn't been implemented in Asan yet.  Major roads (ro) have unique names, but smaller roads simply don't have names.  Busier side streets will be named "(Nearby major road name) (number) beon-gil."  The exact relationship of the beon-gil to the ro is not clear to me.  Sometimes they branch off the ro in perpendicular directions, and sometimes they're just nearby.  All this makes reading maps extraordinarily difficult, and so I've had to navigate by landmarks and essentially double-back

So having gone down three of these beon-gil, I decided to double-back before I forgot any landmarks.  I was on the hunt for a convenience store, and while I passed a Lotte (a sort of mega-mart) right before turning back, I was on the opposite side of the street without a crosswalk nearby.  Even with a crosswalk one should be trepidatious in Korea, as drivers are somewhat reckless.  Further, in the same neighborhood I also observed that sidewalks are not always a safe bet, as scooters will drive down them as well.  A bit closer to the hotel, I had a choice between a no-name convenience store and a 7-Eleven, and being on the side of the street of the no-name store, I chose that one.

The clerk was an unkempt woman in her 20s, and was the first person I talked to who spoke absolutely no English.  After a few minutes of watching me amusedly peruse her merchandise she began talking to me, in Korean, presumably asking what I was looking for.  I replied in English that I didn't speak Korean, and this seemed to confuse her momentarily, before she resumed chatting to me in Korean.  I decided to make my selection--an unfortunately named sport drink called Pocari Sweat--and continue on my way back to the hotel.

So back at the hotel, I interrupted the maid in her duties.  She had left extra pillows, so my note worked, but it seems maid don't do rooms one at a time like in the West, but a floor or wing at a time.  When she came back however she had the facilities manager with her, who not only wanted to give me my sheet, but to clean the carpet.  This odd operation consisted of him spraying the carpet with a dry-cleaning solution and then going over the carpet with what looked very much like a floor buffer.  He carefully rearranged our shoes, took the trash, and then on his way out took the note, which he carefully pocketed.  I thought perhaps it was unusual in his experience and wanted to keep it to show others.

So after getting the room back, I first figured out how to load Hulu Plus, by using a Chrome add-on to make my IP address look like an American one.  Mildly naughty, since Hulu doesn't have rights to show content in Korea, but I'm an paying American subscriber, so.  I caught up on a couple episodes of the Daily Show and then decided on a nap, since I was a little wilted from my walkabout.  Now, this is dangerous.  Four p.m. here is 3 a.m. back home.  And while I haven't felt at all jet-lagged, once you lay down to nap, you stay that way.  It is a heavy-limbed kinda sleep.  So at 7:45, with great difficulty, I roused myself to issue forth for dinner, figuring it was now or never.

Having figured out there was a front entrance to the hotel on a much busier street, I left through the front gate.  I was immediately amused to find the sidewalk had glass bricks embedded in it, with glowing LEDs in the bricks.  I went around the corner, immediately found a convenience store (Sun-mart) which I noted in my head for the return trip, and continued down the block.  The first restaurant I saw was full of young people who appeared to be having a wonderful time, mostly sitting at one long table.  The pictures of the food in the window looked delicious.  But I felt intimidated, so I kept walking.

Next I saw an Italian restaurant, which had the same Italian grapes-and-majolica kitsch you see in the Olive Garden, only weirdly also Korean.  But if I wanted indifferent Italian, I'd have gone to the Olive Garden and saved myself the airline ticket.  Next restaurant I came to had no English anywhere, no pictures, no patrons except a sad old ajussi (uncle), and the hostess seemed to scowl, so I moved on.  As I kept walking I figured I was getting closer to the neighborhood where I walked earlier, so I turned around.  The last thing I saw was a hanbok store, which occupied three storefronts, and was wall-to-wall with colorful, shiny fabrics, with two seamstresses sitting at a table gabbing away.  Best I could guess, you walk in, pick your fabrics, the ajumma take your measurements, and make your hanbok for you.  Hanbok is the traditional Korean garb, a bit like a kimono.  You sometimes see elderly ajumma wearing them, but nowadays young people only ever seem to don them for weddings.

So I walked past the restaurant with the happy young people, sighed, and went back to the Sun-mart.  The cashier was a bored younger man, reading a paper.  I made my selections--a bulgogi burger, some banana flavored sponge cakes (made by Samsung), and makgeolli, a kind of unfiltered rice wine, formerly the drink of farmers, presently the drink of hipsters here--paid the man and went back to the hotel to eat.  The relationship of the bulgogi burger to bulgogi was not apparent to me.  The bun was a bun, the burger patty was somewhat tasteless and anemic (in other words, a convenience store burger), was topped with a sort of slaw of mayo, cabbage, and pickle chips, further topped with a slice of potted ham, of which the Koreans seem fond.  The banana cakes just tasted like sponge cake, without any discernable banana flavor.  The makgeolli however was quite pleasant.  It's a bit like nigori sake, where the rice must is left in for a fuller rice flavor (Momokawa Pearl is a close analogue), only a little sweeter, and slightly fizzy.

At this point Laura came home from work and a work dinner (she can write about it in another post if she wants), we chatted, I bathed, and we went to bed.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Arrived in Korea

After a sleepless night, 24 hours of travel (including 8 or 9 hours of layovers) we landed in Incheon, Laura at 4 p.m. Korean time, me at 6.

It took about an hour to debark, go from the gate to immigration, collect our bags, and go through customs.

Apart from the queue, immigration is easy.  You present your passport and arrival form (pretty much your name, sex, DOB, passport number, where you're staying, and reason for visiting) to the officer, he flips through the passport, digitally takes a photo and fingerprints, and then waves you on.  Unlike U.S. immigration agents, and like every other country's immigration officials, he seemed unsuspicious and frankly a little bored.

Customs was even quicker.  I handed the customs officer my declaration (which said I had nothing to declare), and he waved me on after the most cursory glance.

From there we caught the metro to Seoul Station.  It works pretty much like the Paris M├ętro.  Automated ticket kiosks you can choose to operate in English, then wait for the metro car.  The cars look like the ones in Paris, only cleaner and more modern.  Various stops allow you to get off and hop on another line.  The electronic signs and announcements are in Korean, then English, then Chinese and Japanese.  The female voice always sounds delighted or otherwise pleased with herself.

At Seoul Station we went up about seven escalators and got a ticket for the KTX train.  I was pretty well exhausted and heatstroked, so I wasn't interested, but Laura and her coworker Miki got noodles while we waited.  The train was a lot like the metro, maybe not quite as clean and modern, but the seats were more comfortable.  

I should mention that both the metro and the train have TV sets that show Y(onhap) News.  The presenters all look like 16-year-old girls in business suits.  There were occasional long TV commercials from the foreign ministry denouncing Japanese territorial claims over the island of Dokdo and past aggression.  I've read we should expect to still see a lot of official indignation over Japanese colonization.

We got off at Cheonan (the train runs all the way to Busan), then caught a taxi to our hotel in Asan.  The taxi drivers do in fact drive a bit like maniacs, but seem very practiced at it.  It's strange to read the road signs, not only are they bilingual, but they follow the general color scheme of U.S. highway signs, green for directions, blue for services, etc.  Even highway number signs look like our interstate symbols, with the red and blue shield.

The parts of Seoul we saw were ultra-sleek and ultra-modern, but Cheonan/Asan has a slightly more lived-in feel to it, comparatively.  Like any city in Upstate New York, only a little denser, and where the residents don't appear to have given up on life.  The people you see around seem to be younger on the whole; the women are all pretty and the men a little awkward, and everyone is universally thin.  Younger people are fairly tall, while the older people are much shorter, probably due to changes in diet since WWII and the Korean War.

The hotel lobby and restaurant are nice, but we got stuck in one of the older rooms.  It's still nice, but between old cigarette smoke (there are no non-smoking rooms here, the bellhop told--I suspect that's true of most Korean hotels) and humidity, every surface feels somehow gross, though visual inspection suggests everything is quite clean.  The humidity is a result of the A/C being a mere halfhearted nod to Westerners, the Koreans don't seem to mind heat, either in the air or in their food.  Though the thermostat is set to 20°C, the room temperature is actually 27°C.  Sluggish, indifferent air blows down from the register with little discernible effect.

The bed is hard as a board, and all the bed linens apear designed to be slept on top of, not under.  Pillows are likewise quite stern, and there's but two of them for two people.  We mean to try to switch our room to one of the newer ones tonight, though whether this means softer beds, or better A/C, is unknown.

About language: seems like about 40 percent of the signage is bilingual, and some of the English is a little odd (KTX suggests passengers "refresh your life with a train", for instance), but no more illiterate than some of the signage you see in the U.S., written by native English-speakers, which is a testament to the earnestness of Koreans in learning English.  Nevertheless, life would be easier if we knew Hangul, the Korean script, since a lot of things aren't written in English, but one suspects Korean is peppered with a lot of Western loanwords, only written in Hangul.  The celebrated invention of the Joseon king Sejong the Great (15th c.) Hangul is both alphabetic and syllabic, in that individual sounds have their own letters, and these get combined into a glyph for each syllable.  

Most younger Koreans understand English quite well, or at least don't let on if they don't understand you.  They are less good at replying in English, however.  When I talked to the clerk at the desk, she made it known that A/C is not provided 24/7, suggested I could control the temperature with the "electrical box" (thermostat), and, when I persisted, said they would look into it, so sorry.  Though only mildly confusing as fa as I was concerned, I get the impression the exchange was embarrassing to her.  Somewhere, I imagine, a plush anime puppy is being ruthlessly stabbed, and it's her fault and she knows it.  All because she couldn't help the sweaty bearded man and his A/C.  But she knows way more English than I know Korean, so, if anyone is stabbing the plush anime puppy, it's me.

Now I'm going to go explore the neighborhood on foot and take some pictures.  If I find a cheap noodle shop and a convenience store today, I'll consider it a success.