South Korea is the country number 50 that I visit, and after almost a year of pedaling mainly through remote regions of Asia, arriving in Korea was like an abrupt jump into the future. That leap forward took away the adventurous routes loaded with adrenaline that constantly fed us for so many months. All that temporarily came to an end. Adventure would be reduced to zero, zilch, nada and the extreme roads and rigorous weather would all be left behind. How to survive on a small budget in these technology congested jungles, extremely reduced space and exorbitant prices would become the new challenge. The enjoyment would not be the beautiful tingling of the adrenaline running through the veins but the bedazzlement facing a world so technologically advanced that it is sometimes incomprehensible.
Departing from Beijing北京, we completed in two days the hellish 300 km to the port city of Qinhuangdao秦皇岛, crossing once again, another section of the poisoned province of 河北 Hebei. Trucks, industry and poisonous air again accompanied us until the very last minute. Obviously, I am not saying goodbye to China, because China is my home away from home, it is simply a 'see you later'. We left on board of a Korean cargo vessel with space assigned for passengers. 24 hours later, we were crossing the Incheon Bridge, with its 18.4 km long, standing high up in the air in a triumph arch fashion, it gave us the first glimpse of Korean development.
Arriving in Korea intrigued me. My relationship with Koreans started when I was a child. Back in the 60's, Buenos Aires received a wave of Korean immigrants (of whom Koreans in Korea do not have a single clue about) thus, I had Korean schoolmates, the children of those immigrants, from elementary school, some of which became very good friends of mine. However, I do also remember that our friendship was always very limited. His parents wouldn't allow their kids to bring local kids home and they would speak to them strictly in Korean and mainly avoided a cultural mix.
Disembarking at Incheon and the first 50 km we cycled to Seoul were enough to feel that we were in a world ahead of our time. The order, the tidiness, the glittering lights of the buildings and the luxurious shopping malls, consumption ,the quality of the vehicles. We could not stop looking all around us trying to have a look at everything. Koreans (as it happens in many other Asian nations today) rose from the ashes working hard with the determination and the synchronization of an ant colony. Only a handful of decades ago Korea was just a poor country affected by war and without much prosperity in sight. Today, as though denying its geographic size, it has transformed itself into a giant who is on track to rival the technological reign of its almighty neighbor Japan. Seoul is a huge, tightly compressed city, located on an uneven and hilly terrain. On its skyscrapers and wide avenues the future shines and in its bustling backstreets some remains of the past still survive, although even these, like street markets, have been thouroghly modernized. Nowadays, they are clean, orderly and the prices are certainly not representative of the typical Asian market.
Consistent with the country's path, Korea made of Internet access a Human Right. As a result, this small country has the world's largest fiber optic network that provides not only access to its inhabitants but also allegedly guarantees the highest Internet speed worldwide. While personal services are private, all towns and cities have free Wi-Fi access points. It was enough to stop at any corner in any town to find free and quick Internet access, something that coming from Mongolia, felt almost like surreal. As you know , Korea is the home of Samsung, a company that promotes, among other things, the Samsung Life, a way of life where all daily duties happen using Samsung services and devices, from smartphones to home appliances, some advertisements show how an average Korean may spend all his daily life connected to them.
There is virtually no one in Korea who does not have a Smartphone from the richest to the "poorest" they all seem to have one. They use it for EVERYTHING, for so many things actually, that it seems the very act of using it as a phone is relegated to its less important feature. It reaches levels that I personally find sickening. I am not suggesting that before the boom of all these technologies people were out and about simply talking to strangers on the subway, but here it has reached a level were it has almost gone from introversion to autism. Like the iZombies of Hong Kong, to which I dedicated an entry in the past (only in Spanish sorry), Korean iZombies seem unable to look at anything else other than the screen of their Smartphones, unless I guess, a North Korean grenade falls from the sky onto their feet.
The subways and trains are sometimes as silent as an operating room, each commuter with its own Smartphone "living the Samsung life" in some Samsung Galaxy. Sometimes there is are rebels who do not use them, but I suspect it is because they ran out of battery. When that occurs, they seem to naturally gather together; the connected vs. the unconnected.
Nonetheless, a society of people addicted to Smartphones can be of great benefit to a traveler. Anytime we had to ask for directions, asking any passerby was a pleasure because there was no doubt that any passerby couldn't clear using his/her Smartphone. Because it must be said too, Koreans are really kind and friendly people and most of them, excluding the elder, have a decent level of English. On the other hand, the excessive use of smartphones and online games, are the major reason for a huge portion of Korean adolescents to be officially diagnosed with Internet addiction.
It's incredible but true, cosmetic surgery fever is remarkable and apparent everywhere. From seeing a fair amount of people with obvious cosmetic surgery to see ads of cosmetic surgery clinics everywhere around town, in Korea, everyone, especially women, seems to want or have already been through one or several cosmetic surgeries. The most wanted one is the eyes enlargement. For some reason, that still I cannot fully comprehend why and might exceed my own imagination, in Korea (and also in China and Japan)it is becoming more and more popular the desire of transforming their Asian eyes into western eyes. The results are terrifying, but I guess for some people they might be more attractive?..... go figure...
According to some recent articles, Korean women have a distressing need to change their appearance and becoming someone else. To serve this society's need, in Seoul, the plastic surgery clinics seem to sprout like mushrooms after rain and there is even a suburb that only has clinics.
Vanity seems to have no limits. In a subway station in Seoul, we would stand between laughter and horror while seeing a young woman that was waiting for the next train checking herself in the mirror station as if she were in the bathroom of her own home, doing the kind of gestures and poses that are only imaginable in private, but here surrounded by thousands of passersby.
Three days in Seoul, were not only great to get the first glimpse of the country but also to receive two long-awaited packages. VAUDE , the German brand of the tent that I have been using for the last 3 years, sent me a brand new 320 euros tent at no cost to compensate me for the unusual tearing of the fly and breaking of two poles of my last one. PRIMUS, the Swedish stove company, also sent me free of charge a new burner to make my stove work again, in order to make up for the huge inconvenience that it was to travel in Mongolia without the ability to cook. Finally, ORTLIEB also from Germany, sent me the necessary spare parts to repair my bike panniers, at no cost as well. A company is not only good for its products but also for the support it gives to its customers. Not having to fear when a disaster might happen and to know that you have immediate support from a reputable company, ready to respond at once and quickly, it is something priceless in a trip of this nature. With a new tent, stove and repaired bike panniers, we started our journey to the port of Busan, in the southeast of the country.