Sunday 27 April 2014

Topokki in the Heart of Seoul

On my first night in Seoul, South Korea's capital, I didn't want to hang around my hotel.

So after glancing at a promotional booklet about the city's cuisine, I headed to a famous food alley in the Sindang-dong neighbourhood, known as Topokki Town.

It's a street devoted to topokki, a popular Korean snack involving soft rice cakes, fish cakes and red chilli sauce. In Topokki Town, however, the dish has been elevated to the status of a main meal, which people sit indoors to eat.

I had a T-money card with credit on it for the local public transport, so there was nothing stopping me. The first thing I encountered, though, was this:

In the Jongno-3 Metro station, the closest to my hotel, Tourism Australia was running a promotion for travel to Australia.

Past the kangaroo, however, I zipped down to Cheonggu station, three stops along the purple line. From here it was an easy walk to the entrance of Topokki Town:

It was surprisingly quiet - one has this mental image of Asian food streets always buzzing - but it was 7pm on a Wednesday. Maybe it was too early, either in the evening or in the week.

In any case, the street was lined by topokki eateries of various sizes:

I was unsure how to choose a place to eat. I instinctively decided against patronising the restaurants that tried to tempt me in by using English (force of habit), but I didn't fancy anywhere that was empty.

Finally I saw this place - not huge, and with a number of locals dining in. I picked my way over the gas pipes running along the floor to a table.

You'd think this teapot would contain tea, but nope, in Korea it's nearly always full of cold water:

Now to order. This was tricky. I had no Korean, didn't really know much about the dish and how it was prepared, and I could see it would be cooked at the table.

The owner came over and indicated that the minimum order was for two people. As that would only cost 11,000 won ($11), I said that was fine. As a result, this vast pan of food was placed on the stove at my table:

The white tubular things were tteok, a kind of soft rolled rice cake. The flat triangular segments were fish cakes. There were also two types of noodles, loads of veggies, two boiled eggs and a decent amount of thick chilli sauce.

Now to cook it, and again I was clueless. The waitress who delivered the pan turned the flame to high, then left me to it. As it started to bubble I stirred it vaguely with the ladle I'd been given, mostly to feel like I was doing something, then lost my nerve and turned the flame low.

In due course the owner came by and turned it back to high. He pointed to a couple of things I could eat now - the tubes of tteok included - but apparently the rest needed more cooking.

In due course the whole pan rendered down nicely, the ingredients merging together into a tasty, spicy dish with plenty of liquid. I ate as much as I could, but that was only a bit over half. It was a great introduction to a classic Korean street food.

Leaving Topokki Town, I had a quick look along the extension of the street past the gate:

As you can see, there were a number of prominent signs for places selling coffee. That's a relatively new development in South Korea, but it's a potent one - in this traditionally tea-drinking city you'll now find cafes on nearly every street.

It seemed apt that one of Seoul's oldest foods should be accompanied by its new favourite beverage.

Disclosure time... On this trip I travelled courtesy of the Korea Tourism Organisation.

Friday 25 April 2014

Connected Korea

South Korea is famous for its high-speed Internet access, but even so I've been impressed by the breadth of connectivity since I arrived here last week.

Online access is fast to very fast, yes. But here are a few other things I've noticed, which add up to this being one of the most seamlessly connected nations on Earth:

Underground access. Most notably, in the Seoul Metro. My phone, with its temporary South Korean SIM card, works perfectly when navigating the labyrinthine depths of the city's excellent underground railway. It doesn't skip a beat, whether below or above ground.

There are a couple of negatives associated with this, however.

Firstly, because phones work underground, everyone is almost always staring at a screen, even when walking through stations. This raises the chances of a collision, though Seoulites do seem very good at sensing such dangers while walking and texting.

Secondly, it raises the risk of missing your station. While you're busy being amused by witticisms on Twitter, it's easy to miss the announcement of your train's arrival at Jongno-3 Station.

I've also noticed that the phone's signal often holds up well below ground in shopping malls, presumably because repeaters have been installed.

Experimenting, I even had an excellent signal one day while sitting two floors below ground level within the ice-cold "igloo room" of a jjimjilbang, a traditional local bathhouse (though I was taken to task by a colleague on Twitter for mixing spas and phones).

Wifi backup. At various strategic locations, my SIM card's telco supplements its 3G access by providing wifi connectivity. The phone automatically connects itself, without me even noticing it's happened. It's a great backup which must keep the network from overloading in busy locations. Australia's telcos should have a look at this too.

Tunnels. As with underground locations, South Korean telcos have solved the problem of maintaining online access when passing through road tunnels. I've been through several over the past few days, some very long, with no break in service.

Wifi in cafes. It's extremely common for cafes to provide wifi access here, handy when you're sitting back to relax and a spot of social media seems a good match with caffeine.

Wifi in trains. Finally, the country's impressive high-speed rail network is equipped with reliable wifi on its trains. In fact, that's how I uploaded this post, while zipping through the countryside from Gyeongju to Seoul. Expression by express!

Disclosure time... On this trip, I travelled courtesy of the Korea Tourism Organisation.

Saturday 19 April 2014

Seoul's Rediscovered Stream: Cheonggyecheon

When I arrived in Seoul, South Korea early on Wednesday, it was a densely foggy day. As the airport express train headed toward Seoul Station, big buildings loomed out of the haze, and the impression I received was of a vast modern city with the smog to prove it.

However, a few hours later I was walking alongside a remarkable natural feature in the commercial centre of the city: the Cheonggyecheon stream.

Flowing through the downtown area, for centuries this stream was a central - if sometimes squalid - feature of central Seoul.

Then, from the 1950s to the 1970s, it was covered by concrete in order to make space for an elevated highway. A sign of modernity, maybe, but hardly an improvement to the aesthetics of the area.

That banishment of the Cheonggyecheon has now been reversed. In 2005 it was reopened as a beautiful sunken nature reserve running through the city. Surrounded by office buildings, it's a huge adornment to the centre of town.

Here are a few shots from the section I entered:

There was artwork by the water too. Further along, I found a lengthy set of tiles depicting a royal procession by King Jeongjo and his retinue in 1795, accompanied by music playing from hidden speakers:

And you can see a video clip I shot of the scene here:

Further on, the stream passed under several bridges, the last one here a 15th century stone bridge, restored to the light of day:

Finally, the stream ended at a pool which contained a wishing well. People throw coins into its mouth, which are then collected to assist charities for the underprivileged.

It somehow seems a fitting thing to do, when walking along a once-buried stream that proves there's always hope of a brighter future.

Disclosure time... On this trip I travelled courtesy of the Korea Tourism Organisation.

Friday 11 April 2014

The Great Coffee Hunt

I read a comment recently that the first thing Australians look for overseas is - and I quote - "a decent coffee".

There's some truth to this. Decades after its emergence from the Italian migrant community into the wider population, Australia's espresso-based coffee culture has achieved a high degree of quality and consistency.

You can even get a good coffee in Australian country towns nowadays, which were long looked upon as a kind of caffeine terra incognita.

Partly because our coffee culture is so heavily based on the espresso machine, we tend to look askance at filtered coffee in any form when overseas, and positively recoil from instant coffee.

So there is a tendency, I have noticed, for a cafe search to be one of the first tasks I undertake when arriving in a new country or city.

And what that search highlights is the great range of technological tools we have at our disposal now.

Take Canada, for example. When travelling across that vast country last September with Narrelle, I used a variety of IT-related means to locate good cafes.

Having arrived early in the day in Vancouver, and being desperate for a coffee, I DMed via Twitter my travel writer colleague Nikki Bayley, who's a Vancouver resident.

As it turned out, she was in Seattle - but that didn't stop her guiding us to a great cafe and chocolate-maker, East Van Roasters, in Gastown.

In Victoria, on Vancouver Island, I started our first day by Googling "hipster cafe Victoria Canada" on my iPhone.

I often find this type of search useful - it usually turns up quite a few people who've typed "bloody hipster cafe" or worse, but leads me closer to the target.

Between that and a look through the Urbanspoon app, we found a great local place, Tre Fantastico, in a street away from the tourist hub.

Later that day, some more Google searches and a glance at the Yelp app found us a handy laundromat in the James Bay Area - and by chance, the excellent Discovery Coffee next door (see photo above).

On our first full day in Montreal, we were led to a lively modern breakfast place, Olive + Gourmando, not far from our hotel in the Old Town - this time by consulting the Lonely Planet Montreal app.

Later, we were walking through the downtown when I decided to have a look at the Beanhunter app. Though it tends to be a bit light-on when it comes to Canadian listings, it successfully led us to the excellent Pikolo.

Twitter, apps, Google searches - it's amazing the power we now have to undertake such specific research while on the move.

Mind you, nothing beats a personal recommendation. On my previous visit to Montreal, I'd been standing in the queue to order at Olimpico, a popular hipster hangout in Mile End.

I got talking with the woman in front of me about the difference between a Caffe Americano and a Café Allongé, the latter which I'd only noticed on offer in Quebec (and was the closest thing I'd found to an Australian long black).

When she heard of my interest in researching cafes, she pointed me to a new nearby cafe which she said was good, and served spectacular doughnuts alongside the coffee.

It was Cafe Sardine, and she was right. A great find, and discovered without the aid of technology at all.

Friday 4 April 2014

Poland: Signs and Portents 5

An occasional series in which I display interesting signs encountered in Poland. This collection is from my Lonely Planet research trip in 2007, when I was accompanied by Narrelle Harris...

1. We saw this excellent hotel sign in the northern city of Słupsk (pronounced swoopsk), in Pomerania. Poland in those days was full of retro neon signage of this sort. Sadly it's now slowly disappearing. I used this pic as my desktop wallpaper for a long time, I liked it so much:

2. We found this stone memorial in a park behind some big communist-era housing blocks in the town of Malbork, famous for its huge Teutonic Knights' castle. It was a monument to the artificial language Esperanto and its creator Ludwig Zamenhof, a multilingual resident of northeast Poland back when it was part of the Russian Empire:

3. This sign in the western city of Poznań translated as "second breakfast", a hobbit meal created by JRR Tolkien in his novel The Hobbit. It also happens to be Poland's version of the mid-morning snack:

4. We encountered this station sign on the Żnin District Railway, a narrow-gauge tourist railway northeast of Poznań. The place is pronounced venetsya, which made me wonder if it had been named after the city of Venice, Italy. Of the scary wicker animals waiting for the train, we shall say nothing:

5. Another hobbit reference! This was a bookshop in Toruń:

6. This delightful Toruń sign is a bit difficult to make out, but says "Mechanical Workshop, H Wakarecy" beneath the cyclist:

7. Finally, here's a hotel sign on Toruń's beautiful Gothic market square. It says "Hotel". But you worked that out, right?