Karaoke & Korea

Karaoke is huge in Korea. So much so that it is to the point of having places that rent out rooms by the hour with large TV screens and speakers, 2 microphones, bright flashing & lazer lights decking it all out. The cost is relative to the number of people going into the room, the more the people, the higher the cost. On Friday night we had 11 people and the cost was $28/hr. Cost per person is rather cheap and it was all good fun. Unlike North American places, you are quite allowed to bring in your own food & drink, in fact, drinking & karaoke are a social norm in Korea. Some people simply went across the street and bought some cans of beer (Case and & Hite) from the corner store. We all took turns singing (except for the 2 Indian guys…who coincidentally were the promoters of beer and buyers of Soju shots). After each song, the computer rated your ability on a scale of 1 to 100. I think the lowest score was 86. I’m am pretty sure the computer was biased and/or tone def.

2.5hrs later, and we were all thinking on moving on. There was talk of going to play ‘electronic darts’ which sounded good but I was getting pretty tired and so what Bharati. So we said our goodnight and grabbed the bus home.

Saturday was a blast. The plan was to go to Itaewon, check out the shops and price out some things we will be buying soon (running shoes in particular). We hopped on the bus at 10am and 1.5hrs later we made it. Along the were a few nice Korea oddities which just _have_ to be mentioned and a regular thing I’m sure in future blog posts…

First up: Mountains. While this pic isn’t the greatest shot, it does give you an idea of what you can see by simply walking out your front door and looking down the street in many areas of Uijeongbu (not to mention pretty much anywhere in Korea).

Besides being a geek, I am also a car guy. While in Korea, I am fascinated by the cars here. The Koreans have evolved their styling way beyond ‘cheap asian cars’ and ones that I highly anticipate owning due to the simply awesome designs. But this picture ain’t about that.

Besides finding it very interesting to see North American cars over here, this one simply has to be shown.

When I was here 3 years ago, I saw a couple of 300C’s and they were all diesels. This one was not and from the sound of the touted up exhaust, it was a 3.5 V6 at best. But the GUY driving it was all tough and with the bumper-to-bumper traffic, he waited back so that he can simply floor it and annoy everyone else around him. It was a painful part of the morning.

Now this I found to be both highly amusing and infinitely practical.

Instead of overpaying some city worker to stand there and warn traffic of the obvious, why not have a fake guy waving people a warning light? Smart idea that I think.

Itaewon is a very large tourist shopping area. With that comes all kinds of street vendors and massive numbers of stores. A friend of mine collects belt buckles and there was one vendor who specialized in them.

These are actually lighters but certainly to raise some questions with authorities when spotted.

Ye Old flask buckle.
Ye Old flask buckle.
A Knife buckle and a skull with multi-coloured flashing eyes.
A Knife buckle and a skull with multi-coloured flashing eyes.

While purveying the many fine wares, I saw this cool hat with a Dragon on it (go figure eh?). When I asked how much, he said 18,000KRW (about $18CDN). I decided it wasn’t worth that much and moved on. I saw the same hat again at another vendor and got told 12,000KRW. That was a more reasonable price so I grabbed it!

Seems to suit me quite well I think!

Of course with all the tourist stores and food, there were bars. This one had a cool Greek name, which should have been an indication of what was to come.

On the side was a more description of who their clientèle is.

After browsing a bit more, we headed on over to Insadong, another tourist showing area. I just had to get more pictures of the Toy Museum. Unfortunately the camera card got full half-way through the store (Bharati hadn’t unloaded the card in a while….). Dave, these pics are for you:

Further down Insadong there were these girls giving out free hugs.

It wasn’t much of a hug really. In Korea, unfamiliar men and women do not hug. It’s very awkward for them and so was this so-called ‘free hug’ that I got. But hey, thought it was rather amusing and decided to give it a shot any ways.

A little later on and the Lantern Festival was underway. I was able to clear out a few pictures to make room for these. Hopefully net year we’ll be able to get more pics of them. You will note that the pictures were taking from above. We were at street level and there was a walkway beside the river. There was a huuuuuge lineup to go down the stairs to the walkway. Maybe we’ll get there early next year to get closer and more pictures.

First day on my own in Korea

Here we are, my first full day on my own in South Korea.

Bharati went to work and suggested I stay in the apartment in case I got lost.  Ya, like that was going to happen, either staying indoors or getting lost.

I had already made breakfast at about 4:30am.  The bed she has is just too hard to sleep comfortably on so I gave up and got up.  Made breakfast and did some stuff on the computer.  Bharati couldn’t sleep either so we were up for a bit then tried to get a little more sleep.  When her alarm went off we both got up. She got ready and left for work and I prepped for my day.

I made sure I at least had her address (and that of the middle school nearby).  Why would I bother with the middle school address?  Well, it seems that addressing in South Korea is handled somewhat differently.  See, her building is less than a year old and as such, no one ‘knows’ about it.  I’m still trying to grasp the whole concept but it’s more like ‘building name’ in ‘area of town’ is what people use to get around.  Street addresses are purely secondary.  It’s kinda like saying ‘Union Station’ in ‘downtown’ in ‘Toronto’.  Everyone reading this post, with the few exceptions, knows exactly where Union Station is.  If I told you to go to 65 Front St West, Toronto, ON, you’d be wondering what the heck is there.  That’s about as close as I can describe how the general mindset is about places and directions.

The taxi driver who brought us from the Uijeongbu Station bus stop brought us to the Middle School(building) that he knew was in Milak-dong(area of town).  The actual address confused him as did the name ‘Ji Yong Village’ (name of building).  He also took his sweet time getting here but that is to be expected when you are a non-native in almost any non-caucasian country.

I had planned to go to an electronics store that might carry the power cord I needed for my Netbook to plug into the local outlet.  Bharati got one 3 years ago from her co-teacher.  On laptop power supplies, there are two cords.  One goes from the wall to the ‘power brick’ and the one that includes one brick that goes to the laptop.  Bharati said she thought it might be better if I waited till next week.  Ha, fat chance.  My battery life is damn good (8hrs used lightly) but not _that_ good.  Fortunately the cord is standard and will plug into my power brick, just means she can’t use her laptop for more than 5 mins as the battery is rather shot.

Ok, I head out based on the directions she gave me, which were close to the same area we went for a walk in last night.  Straight forward enough and I found the ‘digital plaza’, which was just one store I think.  It was a kind of small Future Shop.  Think: some household appliances, TVs, computers and such in store the size of a typical fast food restaurant.  Nice enough sales people, he followed me everywhere just waiting for me to ask a question.  I asked about the cord, they didn’t have it but he gave me the phone number of a place that would.  I checked out some of the local computers and routers.  I am lucky I bought my Netbook back home.  Now, you might be thinking that it should be cheaper and you just may be right.  The MSRP for this Netbook was around $450.  I bought the last one in Ontario, clearing them out for the next wave of Netbook hitting the market.  I paid $320 for mine and I saw the same unit selling for about KRW650.  Current exchange is $1 CDN = 1181KRW (or 1000KRW = 0.894 CDN).  That puts the Netbook I bought in the $550 CDN range.  $220 MORE than what I paid.  Then again, it’s still selling here and not back in Canada.  An interesting observation I thought.

After I was done at the store, I really wanted to find a coffee place.  This proved somewhat problematic as there wasn’t any blatant English advertising for breakfast/coffee shops and I, of course, couldn’t read Korea (yet).  I did see a sign for LotteMart.  A kind of WalMart type of store.  (Sidenote: there was a Walmart in Korea but it was closed down.  Presumably on poor business practices and inability to compete).

I got to the store around 9:58ish.  The store wasn’t quite open yet and I was politely directed to wait in the lobby area.  That was fine by me.  I did get to observe a strange morning staff ritual.  There were all kinds of female staff standing about 5ft apart along one of the long aisles.  The store speaker system was saying something in Korea and they repeated it.  There were also some actions to go with it, mostly involving a thumbs up and a kind of movement to ‘pointing to the back with thumbs seemingly symbolizing something in history or in the past’.  I don’t know about you but that kind of thing works fine in the Military (and works in cults but usually not in the best interest of the individual) but to be use in retail?  Seems to go rather far to garner loyalty and higher sales for any corporation.  Then again, at this point in my life, I want to be inspired because I am really contributing to the world and not simply making a daily living so that some CEO gets his pool cleaned every week or the business expense listed as ‘theraputic massage’ while in another country.

Once the odd little ritual was done, we were allowed into the store.  I wandered the first floor, mostly clothes.  Prices seemed fine for most things with a couple of expensive items (think Sears where you have your average reasonable prices and then the odd $500 items on display).  I found a Lotteria on the second floor serving breakfast.  Think of Lotteria as a complete and utter rip-off of Burger King.  I’m talking the colours, the layout, the menu even.  3 years ago when I was in I absolutely swore it was a BK until we went back the following day.  In any case, I got a coffee (Americano they call it) but only sugar, no cream or milk.  Well, it was not the most pleasant to drink but it was at least coffee.

I went and checked out the electronics.  A reasonable selection, pricing in line with the ‘digital plaza’ store I was at.  Nothing overly special to write about but they had more accessories.  Oh, they did have more routers and some fairly cheap ones (around the low $20 range).  I was tempted to get one but thought to hold off as we are going to Itaewon tomorrow.  I’ll fill you in then on that.

After I was done with LotteMart, I simply continued on my way, kind of making a large square in my walking pattern.  There’s a new subway line being built above ground.  And when I say above ground, I mean 40ft in the air.  So having a reference point wasn’t that hard.

Saw a couple of neat stores, and I should mention the French influence here.  It’s rather bizarre, even when you find out that the French occupied Korea at some point in the past.  I’m not talking minor stuff, although there are a growing number of French type of bakeries (Paris Baguette and Tou Les Jours) are quite plentiful.  I mean one of Hyundai’s flagship cars is called the Grandeur.  That’s right, a Korean company has a French-named car.  In North America it’s called the Azera.

I made it back to my area and decided to hit the local Paris Baguette for a snack.  I settled for the same odd one I grabbed yesterday.  This bread-pastry that had slices of sausage, ketchup, mayo and corn.  Very odd but it tasted good and was only KRW1200(just over a buck).

I came back to the apartment, tried to get some comp work done until I got hungry for lunch.  I decided to hit my new favourite restaurant that is a whopping 60ft from my front door :)  I don’t know it’s name yet but they have breaded pork cutlets (Yental Dongas, pronounced ‘yen-al don-gus’).  It’s really good and a whopping $4.  Comes with rice, some little salad and veggies.  They’ll even deliver it at no extra cost.

Now, I got the oddest of stories for this place and it happened last night.  Bharati took me to this restaurant last night and I really liked it.  While we were there the place got a call and the owner(?) called Bharati over.  It sounded like someone (another foreigner) was asking something and the owner was hoping Bharati could help her understand.

Now, let me back up a little.  Bharati had met this South African girl and became good friends a few months ago.  This girl told Bharati about some great Dongas place.  Bharati asked her if she could get her friend to grab a copy of the menu so she could keep it on had.  Ok, back to the story.

Bharati goes over to the phone, hears that the person is asking about a menu.  Well, as you should have guessed, it was her friend!  Her friend was calling at the time we were there to get a menu for the person who was helping the owner understand what was being asked!  Freaking bizarre.  Suffice to say, a menu was no longer necessary.

So, back to my day.  I finished the Dongas and the rice, brought the rest back for Bharati and wrote up this post :)

Bharati should be here in about 30mins, we’re heading out to a noreabong (Karaoke) tonight with a bunch of friends.  Should be a fun night!

10,000 miles later and finally at my new home!

With little trouble, Justin & I made it to Bharati’s apartment.  Getting on the bus to Uijeongbu was pretty easy and traffic was good so in an hour we were here.  Now, the first taxi I asked to take us to the address (written in Korean) said no because I’m guessing he didn’t want to potentially scratch his new car with our 4 bags of luggage.  The next taxi was quite willing and got us really close to the place.

Seems that I overestimated the name of the apartment to be bigger than it actually was.  I figured with a name like ‘Ji Young Village’ it was a kind of complex that would be obvious to anyone who knew the area.  Actually, it’s a short little building on a kind of backstreet.  You’d never see it unless you specifically went down this small street.

Bharati had mentioned a Baskin Robins and a middle school, both of which we were by.  So, time to start asking around to get the address.  Side note, I only realized during the taxi ride that address number was different from what Bharati had emailed me to what her friend translated(text only, just the number was different).  I decided I’d stick with Bharati’s info as it was most likely to be correct.

So, we got some ice cream at the Baskin Robins and asked where the address might be.  They pointed us in a direction.  I was able to find an unsecured wifi and double-checked the email Bharati sent describing the ‘walk down this alley’ (which did have me mildly concerned about the wording…) but turned out that it was simply a connecting walk way between two streets.  In a few mins we found the place.

At this point I’m sure someone is wondering, how did I get in without a key?  Well, this is a very modern building and they use a keypad.  One code to open front door and another to the apartment.  Simple and felt odd not having any keys on me.

Typical Korea door lock in apartments, with cover closed
Keypad exposed

I started unpacking as two of the suitcases were lent to me by Justin and were going back with him.  Actually, I sent back one of the ones I bought because it didn’t hold up so well, will be getting mom to have Canadian Tire honour the ‘lifetime warranty’ I was told it had.

Unpacking done, now to find out how to get Justin back to the airport so he can fly home.  Found all kinds of information on how to get the bus HERE but not so much the opposite.  We figured that it should be at least the main station where we were dropped off at.  I got in touch with Bharati and found the Airport Limousine bus stop was nice and close.  Justin managed to get on the 1:10pm bus to the airport.  Hopefully his direct flight to Toronto will be just that for him.

One a side note, signs for the G20 summit was every at the airport.  Oddly, their security, I felt, was not as great as it should have been.  They were x-raying people’s luggage on the way out but not everyone.  Seemed odd that it was only some people and not all.  Guess it was a kind of ‘half-step’ added to normal x-raying before you get before you board the plane.

So, now to finish my unpacking and organizing my grand worldly possessions in a room smaller than the master bedroom in the house we sold.

As for the 10,000 miles….I included the extra trip to Vancouver and back.

Morning after arriving in Korea

It’s 5:30am and I can’t sleep. So yeah, my internal clock isn’t quite adjusted to local time quite just yet.

We got on the flight to Korea with no issues, lots of room and 2hrs later we landed. Tokyo looks stunning at nighttime from the sky. I could barely keep my eyes off the city as we flew higher and away.

We were on a United Airlines Boeing 777. Now, up until this point, we’ve been flying on Air Canada’s 777s (including our side trip to Vancouver). There is a fair bit of passenger experience. The seats aren’t as wide, so every time I adjusted to sit upright in the seat, my leg would hit the button that let the back of the seat go down. Truly annoying. That and trying to get the left part of the seat belt was quite the challenge when there was little room to get your hand down beside you. The video screen was significantly smaller (about 5 inches compared to 7 inches, may not sound like much but it’s really noticeable). Also it wasn’t touch screen as the controls are on the arm of the chair and were very simple. Speaking of which, at one point my screen went all white, I thought the LCD just up and died. After some annoyance I realize that my elbow had been resting on the brightness control and turned it all the way up. That was annoying.

We were given a snack and I was a little surprised at it. I figured maybe some crackers or peanuts but nope, it was a half sandwich. Two slices of white bread with a middle layer of brown bread, ham and cheese with a layer of egg too. Very strange but more than edible. Don’t ya hate it when you bite a sandwich and it sticks to the inside of your lower teeth that makes you look like a cow chewing cud when trying to get it unstuck?

Oh yeah, this 777 didn’t have 120AC in the back of the seat, nor a powered USB port either. So I was spoiled on earlier flights, sue me :P Luckily it was a short trip and my awesome Samsung Netbook will run for 6-8hrs without needing a charge ;) After finding that the video selection was rather severely limited and the screen just a weee small, I left it on the ‘map’ setting to keep tabs on our progress than spent the time organize/editing some details of songs in my iTunes library.

That reminds me, the one pleasant surprise was that the flight included a decent set of headphones to use. I had purchased the $3 ear buds from Air Canada. Not a bad price for them really and they sounded fine. I was truly grateful for listening and editing music as there was the dreaded ‘crying baby’ 10ft away from us. I was able to drown out 90% of the noise at least :)

Oh great, now Justin is snoring.

We landed around 9pm. A slight shame as the last bus to Bharati’s town left at 8:50pm. Ah well. Bharati had arranged a hotel for us. Well, it’s not quite a regular hotel. It’s called Guest House and it’s only 10mins from the airport. The room is the same size as a typical 2 bed hotel but it is a fairly simple setup. You had to make the bed yourself, there is no Internet but otherwise it’s not bad. And for about $50, can’t really complain at all. That also included a pickup and drop off at the airport as well.

After getting settled in the room, I was hungry and needed to let people know I was here safe and sound. There was an Internet cafe downstairs. That one annoying thing about Korea that Canada finally beat, smoking is still a common thing here.  So the cafe was rather ugly smelling but bearable enough for me to get online, send an email to mom and let Bharati know I was here just fine. It cost me a whopping KRW 1000(Korean Wan). That’s about $1 Canadian :)

Then I saw a restaurant and ordered some garlic chicken wings and a coke. I thought $16 was a little much but I was hungry and didn’t really care. When I got the food, $16 was a decent price for the amount of wings you got, the little bit of coleslaw, some dips and some sort of pickled ‘somethingother’. Shared the wings with Justin and then went to bed.

Yeah, Justin stopped snoring!

It’s about 6am, I think I may take a shower. I still got just over 5hrs of battery life left (58%) and I probably won’t be able to fall back asleep.

Damn….the snoring is back….

Almost there!

The one thing to keep in mind when flying standby, above all else, flexibility! You need NOT to have a set schedule. Things can delay you and by days.

Here’s how normal people travel:

1/ book/pay for ticket.
2/ fly and arrive at destination.

Here’s how a standby flight could possibly go, and did in my situation so far:

1/ find a friend who works for an airline company.
2/ arrange for date to fly out
3/ meet, and register for flight
4/ go to boarding area and wait to see if no one shows
5/ fly out to Vancouver and do the same for the connecting flight to Seoul.
6/ get ‘dumped’ because everyone showed up
7/ scramble to find another potential route to Seoul
8/ realize that your best route is back out of Toronto the next day
9/ fly BACK to Toronto and stay at friend’s place over night
10/ get back to Pearson and get on flight direct to Narita(Tokyo)
11/ Miss connecting flight to Seoul because 3hrs between flights and severe mis-communications from the baggage agents concerning employee standby flights…..literally missed by 5 mins.
12/ arrange for hotel stay in Tokyo
13/ pay outrageous prices for dinner/breakfast
14/ head back to Narita airport and try to get on flight to Seoul

So, that’s where I’m at now. In our room typing this up before heading out to the airport. The plan gets further delayed even after we do get to leave. The flight out of Tokyo isn’t till 6pm. We get into Seoul somewhere around 8pm and as far as I can tell, we won’t make the bus to Uijeongbu tonight. Means another overnight stay in Incheon(Seoul).

So, that means from trying to leave on Sunday in Canada on Sunday, I won’t get to my destination till Wednesday night(Canada), Thursday Morning locally.

While many would absolutely flip because of this, I am enjoying it to some degree. I get to see a little bit more of the world but it kind of kills my friend’s schedule who is lucky enough to work at Air Canada and can get people to cover his shifts.

As a point of interest, we got corporate rate for the room. It cost us about $110 CDN for both of us. Standard rate is about $370 CDN for the room we got.

We shall see how the rest of the day goes!

The Joys of flying Standby

I must say, it is an awesome perk to have a friend who can fly you anywhere in the world for $150. I am so grateful for such an opportunity.

We are currently in Vancouver and the only flight to Seoul was full. That’s right, all 208 seats were on time and not a single person missed their flight.

A little more detail. There was a party of 4 flying standby who had one step ahead of us in priority but there was only 3 seats available. So for a little while it was looking pretty damn good for us.

Now, before I go any further, I should explain the standby setup. Typically most people know that if you fly standby, you only get on if there is a seat available. This is obvious. What isn’t obvious is that in order for Airline employees to get their great discounts, they have to fly standby. In general, airline employees tend to get a little higher priority that regular standby but not quite the assumed ‘caste’ system of choosing who gets to go and who does not.

What happened in our case is that the party of 4 also on standby included an employee who was a stewardess. She asked if she could have the ‘jump seat’ and as it was the captains call, he allowed it. For those who aren’t familiar with ‘the jump seat’, it’s just a little seat really only meant for temporary usage under certain circumstances(“an auxiliary seat for individuals – other than normal passengers – who are not operating the aircraft”) The employee opted to take this seat for her 16hr flight. Not the most pleasant way to fly but if you have to get somewhere, then you do what you have to. Unless she wanted to wait till next Tuesday before there was another flight out of Vancouver to Seoul. Which was now our problem.

Currently, my friend of working furiously with another co-worker to get us to Korea. We may actually have to fly BACK to Toronto…..which would suck.

Stay tuned…

The Korean Adventure Begins!

So, finally unloaded the vast bulk of my Canadian material life and headed out for good.

Got up bright and early this morning, 4:30am, and hit the road by 5:15. My parents got me to Toronto Int’l easily and mom didn’t have a complete break down….she’s strong, she’ll do fine with me in another country. Of course, I got many admonishments of “email me every day, even just to say ‘hi, I’, doing fine’ “.

I met up with my buddy who is flying with me to Korea (it’s awesome having the chance to only pay $150 and a friend who works for Air Canada). After a bit of a mad scramble to get one suitcase under the 25Kg limit (can’t even pay for overweight on Employee Standby) we got on the plane just fine.

So, we got an outside row and my friend got the aisle seat, I got the middle, and a big angry guy was sitting by the window. How do I know he was angry? Oh that was easy. 30 seconds after I sat down he pounded the arm of the chair, where his headphones were plugged in, three times. After that I guess he had sound for his videos. Never said anything and I even caught him chuckling during his Dinner for Schmucks movie. maybe he was identifying with the plot and/or characters….

The flight to Vancouver was on a Boeing 777. Nice plane, pretty high-tech. Each seat had their own screens and a rather large choice of movies/TV shows/music/radio to choose from. The music was actually albums and you could even make a play list from any of the albums to listen to. There wasn’t a lot of music I was overly impressed with so I just settled for “Feels Good” by Tony, Toni, Toné replayed a few times. Then I moved onto a movie. Decided to check out The Karate Kid, it was pretty good but those of us who saw the original kinda knew the ending. There was a rather interesting but kinda lame reference to wax on/wax off but it was subtle if you didn’t catch it.

The flight was rather unremarkable otherwise. I did get a bad headache, taken care of by a couple of Advil, and one trip to the bathroom. It was good to get up a stretch during the just over 4hr flight, even if to use the ‘vacuum powered’ toilets.

So I’m now in Vancouver Airport, finished some A&W food and killing some time before the next leg of the journey. Will update again once I am on foreign ground!