trip report: music, barbecue, soju, repeat

Posted: June 8, 2010 in travel
Tags: , , , , ,

holy shit! this night happened a month ago! although, to be fair, I just spent ten days in the Gobi desert, and they don’t exactly have a lot of internet there… so here comes Operation Transmission Overload. ready.. GO!

visa run number one: follow the music, baby

A bittersweet feature of my Chinese visa is that it only allows 30-day entries, which is a sick joke given the size of China and the cost of the damn visa. I marked “60-day entries” on the form back in BKK, but when I complained after getting my passport back, the woman behind the glass made a rather “that’s what you get” gesture of dismissiveness that was clearly not negotiable. I blame… the Expo.

Anyway, I had originally planned on only doing a chunk of southern China, but I’ve got a real crush on the place… so visa runs are in order, or buying another visa, maybe through an agent with more guanxi than I, who can make something happen… but the thought of giving another $130 to the PRC to circumvent the need for visa runs makes me clench my jaws in agonized frustration. Well, if the Chinese government and the damn Expo are going to force a pedantic trip upon me every month, so be it — let’s get out of here, lets find a cheap ticket, lets see some new ground.

I picked South Korea for my first, partly for its ease of access but mostly because I’ve got friends there I’d like to see — Mo is there, as well my friend Mandie. The former is a fitting reason to show up unannounced; as I met him on his visa run, so he shall meet me on mine. I emailed the latter to let her know I’d be wandering through her country, which prompted the news that I was inadvertently flying into Seoul the day before the Seoul World DJ Festival — I just keep falling in to these things, I swear. I went the World Electronic Music Festival up in Ontario for a few years, so I’m somewhat acclimated to the use of the word ‘World’ in electronic music fest lingo: generally it pertains not to the size of the event but rather the invitation of worldwide DJs, which is somewhat of a misnomer if you ask me.

I flew in on a Friday to yet find more culture-contrast-shock. In my first seconds off the bus from the airport to Hongde, I went to cross the street and yielded to a black sedan turning right in front of me, a sedan which in China would have been halfway though my torso if I had kept walking. I was sort of spacing out and glancing around for a few seconds when I heard a short honk to my left. I was absolutely shocked: the bastard was actually yielding to me. He must have wondered what I was laughing at… I guess it was minor in retrospect, but that would simply never happen in urban China, and I was happily shocked by the courtesy.

The contrast continued of course: the place is clean, very clean for a city of 10 million+ people. The rivers run clear. The streets are not covered with garbage, and when someone pulls the last cigarette from their pack, they don’t just simply drop the empty pack on the ground, which is the standard operandi in China. People stand in lines instead of barging through them. The streetlights exist not just to add a bit of color to the streets, but to actually act as mediators of motor and pedestrian traffic. Actually, on that note, it’s safe to a degree even we would laugh at in over-regulated America. The buses have seatbelts. The subway system is constantly awash with videos of cuddly, anthropomorphic teddy bears, in hats and uniforms, explaining the dangers of improper subway etiquette. In fact, everything seems to be explained by uniformed anthropomorphic teddy bears and cats and raccoons here, like the speed limit signs, and the lane merging signs, and especially the “No tobacco to Minors” signs (aren’t these supposed to be designed for the adults?) . When you walk in to a building, there is generally a device at the front door to place your umbrella into a bag so as not to let it drip about on the floor inside. Icy stares are replaced by bowing. Barging is replaced by yielding. Spitting seems to be replaced by doughnuts (they love doughnuts here). If you seem to be having trouble, using a subway ticketing machine, or talking with a taxi driver, or staring at a map, there is a 96% chance that a native will walk up and try to aid you… which is roughly a 95.8% higher chance than in Beijing.

A typical first night in any new country: make some friends. Make some food. Make some drinks. Maybe go out for a while, try to find some trouble. The owner of the hostel that Mandie recommended, Min, is without a doubt the nicest hostel owner I have ever met… it felt more like couchsurfing than hosteling. We were chilling outside for a bit just after I got in, he was nursing a hangover, I was introducing him to the wonders of Coldcut, using their BBC Essential Mix from ’08, kind of warming up to the idea of the festival, when he slaps his hands on his legs and says, “Okay. Tonight, lets barbecue up on the roof. Okay?” He has this great way of proposing, asking, and confirming every idea with that word. It is pretty special. “Sure, man. What should I make?” “I’ll make… meat. You make salad? Okay?”

“Okay.”

Here, I was introduced to another contrast: the cost of food, and therefore living. In China, there is no produce (except for perhaps Avocados, and certain citrus fruits) that cost over $1.30/kilo — in most cases, four or so kilos of vegetables will set you back about $3.50, making it certainly the cheapest place to cook I’ve yet to find on earth, which is great, as I love to cook four kilos of vegetables at a time. In Seoul, though, there was nothing I could find that was under $3/kilo, and many things, like citrus, ran up to $5/kilo… there was certainly some sticker-shock involved in this. Getting enough to make a decent salad was about 25,000 won — around $22 ($22 is a roasted duck feast with sides and drinks for three people in Beijing). So I figured I’d stretch it a bit, in true summertime barbecue fashion: pasta salad. Always an excellent source of filler, and a good way to add a pound of food and a bunch of carbs to that salad for a buck. It took me a few shops to find some fusilli, and the tag indicated it was 4,500 won/500 grams, about $4.30. This was turning in to the most expensive pasta salad ever made, and I hadn’t even gotten the ingredients for the garlic lemon vinaigrette reduction yet. Yes, after China, everything will give you sticker shock, and sure, the Western elements of a pasta salad are certain to come at a price in Asia, but damn…

The barbecue was a smashing success, so to speak. Soju, Korea’s version of rice wine, is a dangerous thing — it is as mild or milder to the taste buds as sake, but at 20% alcohol or so, it sneaks up on you fast. I woke up feeling pretty good, though, and after meeting up with Mandie, we went for brunch. After buying a subway ticket for 1,500 won, I subconsciously muttered to myself “hmm… a dollar-forty… well, that’s only nine times as expensive as in China..” Shut up, brain. My pockets were still empty from the previous night’s happenings when we walked in to the brunch joint, and I see the prices: 16,000 won or so for the average plate. I hate thinking about money, let alone talking about it. It sucks to be stingy, and you gotta splurge sometimes, but when you’re traveling, watching your savings account trickle down and tick away, like minutes on the clock before you have to wake up and rejoin reality again, the whole game is to pinch pennies, stretch the money, to figure out how nickels add up and exploit every possible means of being a cheap bastard. I sort of whisper to John, “Dude, I’m from the Midwest — I can’t pay $14 for a plate of bacon and eggs. Well, I guess I can, but there better be a world-class pint of Bloody with a Guinness chaser sitting next to it… ” He smiles at this. “Yeah. I know. It’s gonna be an expensive weekend.”

The food was delicious, truly, wonderfully delicious, with avocado in the eggs, and bacon in the pancakes, and olives in the Camembert… and the price turned out to be a non-issue, as I had no money to pay for it anyway. Mandie treated me, and I tried my damnedest to feed her a sufficient amount of bourbon and other sundries later that night to reimburse her. This is the last I will speak on the costs of Korea, as anything past these two introductory anecdotes would be beating a (very expensive, pure-bread, bejeweled, prize-winning, amazingly well groomed) dead horse: Korea is not China.

the festvus

After a day of venturing out, eating, finding Mo, shopping (the girls), failed shopping turned pint-swigging (the boys), stocking up on supplies, other miscellany, and a few more pints, we finally made it to the festival. We managed to recruit a pretty great crew, too: three people turned in to five, which turned in to nine. I managed to smuggle in a good deal of bourbon by stuffing somewhat crushed water-bottles full of it in to my pants (whiskey out of my pants: inherently better than regular whiskey) and as the only other cocktails available were five-packs of Jäger Bombs, this was a wise smuggle indeed.

I take it all back about the ‘World’ misnomer: this festival was, by any standard, absolutely world-class. I didn’t recognize more than three names on the bill, but holy shit, Korea has a hell of a music scene! The house stage was killer. The main stage was almost always stellar. The rogue stage was generally cool, until they played some metal that made everyone walk away shaking their heads… but the hip hop stage… wow. The hip hop stage was absolutely awesome, all night long. Turns out there’s a real hip hop scene in Korea! The MCs were solid, and the flow of some of these guys would turn a lot of heads in the States. The DJs were even better; the sunrise dance set by some Korean guy I’ve still yet to learn the moniker of was probably the best dance hip-hop set I have ever witnessed. Early in the night, a very interesting set by a band called EE included a full five-piece group, a DJ, three vocalists, and, after the third track, a nearly naked man, sporting tighty-whities and nothing else, covered in something resembling antiquing powder and lots of face paint, just simply going nuts… after about ten minutes of his rolling about and frolicking, he ran up to the front of the stage to puke on the front row. Then he grabbed one of the monitors and started humping it. The band was not the least bit surprised by this. Go figure.

Other random highlights include Vandalism, a UK DJ who just plain kicked ass and was accompanied on-stage by a very tall blond woman in leather and aviators who looked like she needed a whip, and about a dozen other DJs of surprisingly high caliber. I must say, for an 18-hour event, this was one of the best parties I’ve ever seen… it was just fantastic. The only bad set I witnessed the whole night was from a German DJ called Dirty Disco Youth (not to be confused with Dirty Disco Kidz, who rock steady) who’s set stumbled and faltered, a major disappointment after the awesomeness of Vandalism. To top it off, he looked like an anorexic, snuffly Carrot Top. I walked away from the stage after 20 minutes of awkward, half-dance-able mediocrity, shaking my head, only to have the next track be — I am not making this up — the final track that Vandalism played. Many confused looks bounced around. A lot of people walked away. Maybe he was just playing an MP3 off his Macbook or something. Kids today, I swear…

They kicked us out at about 8:30 am, after a set by Freemasons, another UK DJ who was mostly playing old-school UK drum & bass and dancy trance stuff, shifting to a lot of female-vocalist mid-tempo dance. He was swigging a bottle of Patron Anejo and looked like he was ready to keep playing all day, but I suppose all parties must end at some point… he grabbed the mic at the end and said “Tha road is closin’ in thirty minutes, so if yer not stayin’, ya need ta git tha fuck aout”, which was not heeded at all, until the PA was cut, at which point it was heeded with groans and slow shuffles towards the gate. Needless to say, we were in the same boat: not ready to leave. Too pumped to stop dancing, too wired to sit down, too famished to keep drinking but too thirsty to stop. Where’s the damn after-party?

We drowned our sorrows in the Soju we left outside the gate. After a very interesting van ride back into the heart of the city, nine wired, half-drunk party people in face-paint descended on the streets of Seoul to a lot of odd looks. Showers. A nap or two. Tacos. The nice German student in the hostel got a real earful on just how bad he screwed up on not coming with us… the anecdotes and rave reviews went around. Shortly thereafter, the crew split: almost all were English teachers, who had to teach on Monday, and Mo had his internship to attend to. Nine became three in a matter of minutes. Min, Jerah, Mo and I went picnicking near the river, and after telling ourselves all day “tonight we’re gonna chill, no partying, no drinking, seriously” we get back to the hostel, only to have the German look at us and say, “So. Wanna go out tonight?”

Well… yes. Yes, we do. Screw Monday — there’s no morning-after like the-morning-after-the-morning-after. Cue the music and the soju and the barbecue…

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