Max arrived in Hong Kong on the 1st of October: the 31st day of my trip, and the date of yet another Chinese holiday. This one celebrates the founding of the Peoples’ Republic, and fireworks lit up the harbour. Unfortunately, as I was collecting Max from the airport, we hardly saw any of them!
(As a side note, Hong Kong is really unhappy to be under Chinese rule, and makes sure that everyone knows it. A parade, which passed our hostel in the day, accused the Communist Party of brainwashing, as well as blaming it for the deaths of 88 million people. Brave move!)
Together, we explored the city over the next several days, visiting Victoria Peak (again), the Zoological and Botanical Gardens, various markets and going out in Lan Kwai Fong – the nightlife area of HK Island – where Max was propositioned by a hooker the wrong side of 50.
We also met up with Al Leach, an old friend who now lives in Hong Kong. As a local, he was able to tell us the best things to see and do, which included a restaurant in Soho called Ho Lee Fook (words are fun!) and the highest bar in the world, Ozone, on the 118th floor of the ICC building.
When we reached South Korea, we stayed with a family friend who teaches English called Thai, although she wasn’t there for the first few days as she was backpacking in South-East Asia. Upside: we had the apartment to ourselves. Downside: Thai had forgotten to leave the WiFi password, which made planning difficult! We had to go into Gangnam and leech off of public WiFi (this is ubiquitous in Seoul) to do anything for the first two days.
South Korea is, as I mentioned in my last post, a sort of Mecca for geeks. Not only is Seoul the most connected city in the world (multiple free WiFi access points and blazingly fast internet), but computer gaming is widely recognised as the official national sport.
Every town in Korea has at least one or two ‘PC bangs’. These spaces, generally open round the clock, operate with high-tech rigs and all of the most popular games. Access is cheap: we spent five hours in a local PC bang for the equivalent of £4.30. While gamers can, of course, play from home, the PC bangs are a social space as well where you can strategise and celebrate with your friends, face-to-face.
PC bangs were not our only taste of Korean nerd culture. We also managed to secure tickets to a live event in Seoul’s newest eSports (electronic sports) stadium. Here gamers can gather and cheer for their favourite teams and players as they battle onstage.
The stadium was fascinating to visit: not only because of the high quality and professionalism of the production (tiered seating, soundproof booths for the players and both Korean and English commentators), but because we could see the type of person that an event like this attracts. Something that surprised both Max and I was the very even gender split – although, on reflection, it shouldn’t have. Gaming here is seen as a real sport, and the players just as valued as footballers or tennis stars. Perhaps more! It was certainly the first time I’d seen a gamer with groupies.
The nerd itch wasn’t all that we satisfied, though. South Korea holds its share of sightseeing points, and we visited many of them. These included the Bonguensa Temple in Gangnam, the Olympic Park and the National Museum of Korea.
On our last full day in Seoul we visited a jimjilbang: a Korean public bath house. These, like the PC bangs, are usually open for 24 hours and are a cheap place to sleep off the effects of a night out, as Seoul’s subway stops running at midnight! The one we visited, the Dragon Hill Spa, is one of the biggest, covering six floors and holding a swimming pool, food court, four floors of baths and its own PC bang.
Why four floors of baths? Because Korean bathing houses are gender-segregated, so two floors are for men and two for women. And why are they separated by gender? Because Korean tradition decrees that everyone bathes naked. If you wear a swimming costume, it is assumed that you’re trying to hide something (like a disease). The experience was a little bit weird, but once we’d trained ourselves to keep eyes at head height, it was actually very relaxing. We stuck to the baths and saunas, but extra treatments like massages, body scrubs (Koreans take their skincare regimes very seriously) and even hair cuts are available for an extra fee.
I also have to give a shout out to Korean fried chicken. As Max said, “It’s the best chicken you’ll ever eat that uses that particular acronym.” There’s a reason that there are no KFC chains in South Korea!
On our last morning, Max and I got up at 5:15, after four hours of sleep, and said goodbye at Incheon airport. I’m writing this post from Hong Kong – again – during a 12-hour layover before flying to Melbourne. Expect my next post to be full of sun, sea and sand – I hope.
Update: it won’t be. Bloody Melbourne.