Winters in South Korea are magical, and, if it’s your maiden voyage to the bite-sized nation, expect plenty of surprises – a dancing Pikachu on the streets of Seoul, sub-zero temperatures on Gangmun Beach and other experiences of the unusual kind
WORDS: AMRITA LALL
IT’S 3.30pm and I’m shivering. Under my oversized parka and four other layers of woollens, I’m still shivering. For somebody who has lived all her life in cities where winter temperatures don’t dip below 17°C, Seoul at a chilly -3 seems highly capable of freezing people alive. A bemused passerby notices as I furiously rub my mitten-covered hands together and place them against my face, offers a warm smile, and (after rightly assuming that I’m a person in slight distress) asks if I need help. I’ve been warned that English isn’t widely-spoken in South Korea, so I respond with the best smile my partly-frozen face can muster and ask “Myeongdong – which way?” Turns out, he speaks the language fluently and tells me how to get there. A 15-minute walk later, I’ve arrived. Myeondong, widely believed to be South Korea’s premier shopping district, at first sight, lives up to all that I’ve read, heard and imagined. Loudspeakers busting upbeat K-pop tunes, hawkers carting in their food stalls and prepping for the evening, and hundreds of stores selling the latest trends in fashion, beauty products of every kind imaginable, and the promise of successful cosmetic surgeries at bizarrely low prices – I’m delighted that the market more than just lives up to all the clichés. I decide to loiter around till sundown. From what I’ve heard, night is when the market truly comes alive.
Since I have some time to kill before night falls, I head to a little pub I’d noticed earlier in the day. Like diners at every other table, I call for chimaek (“chi” for chicken and “maek” for maekju, Korean for beer), the combo that took Korea by storm five years ago and has shown no signs of dying ever since. As I wait for my order, I notice how well-dressed everybody around me is. Both men and women are dressed to the nines with flawless skin, impeccably-styled hair and with solid proof of top-notch make-up skills. Kitted out in almost my entire winter wardrobe, my face just peeking out under my parka, I feel like quite the alien; an alien waiting to dig into some crunchy, juicy chicken. When I finally do try the chicken with the dark beer, I’m surprised at how well they go together. A few swigs later, I’m out the door – all warmed up (thanks to the beer) and ready to take on the wonders the night has to offer.
Myeongdong has transformed itself in the time I was in the pub. There are bright, neon lights everywhere, salesmen coaxing customers off the lanes and into their stores, the sound of people laughing and making merry, and the inviting smell of deep-fried food. By now, the chilly temperature is a problem of the past and I’m headed straight for the tteokbokki stall. By the time I’m handed a bowl with the cylinder-shaped rice cakes cooked in gochujang (a sweet, spicy red pepper sauce) and topped with a fried egg, I’m convinced that I must stay back in Seoul for a few more days because there’s so much street food on offer – it’ll take me many, many days to try it all. As I scarf down the excellent tteokbokki, I notice the adjacent stall serving what looks like a little pancake. It’s called hotteok, a Korean pancake filled with brown sugar syrup. Of course, I’m tempted, but I resist because I’ve just caught sight of the perfect end to my snappy Seoul street-food sojourn. Bungeoppang, made from waffle batter, is the cutest little thing I’ve ever wanted to eat. The fish-shaped bread is stuffed with Korea’s favourite dessert filling – generous amounts of delicious red bean paste. I’m now thoroughly convinced that indulging in lots of piping-hot street food is a great way to deal with the South Korean cold. Since the night’s still young, I decide to take my fish waffle along for a stroll through the market. From being tempted to gorge on many other delicacies, including foot-long ice-cream cones and eomuk kkochi (fish cakes) to being almost convinced into investing in a moisturiser packaged in a box shaped like Pikachu, Myeongdong has a wide choice of temptations to indulge in. I give in to several, including buying a ticket to watch stuffed Pokemon dance to K-pop on a tiny, make-shift stage. Apparently, filming the performance is prohibited – my night in Myeongdong ends with a man telling me off in Korean. I have no regrets though – where else could I have had the chance to watch Pokemon grooving to K-pop?