Hatch@Macleay’s Emma Kosowski and Teaghan Wilson share the highlights of their trip to South Korea to watch the Winter Olympics.
South Korea has exceeded all our expectations.
For a country of more than 50 million people, it was surprisingly clean and calm. The food was beyond delicious and the people were kind, with a killer sense of humour and great pride in their country. Beyond the cliches of K-pop, fried chicken and BBQ, lies a nation proud of its heritage and wanting to make a mark on the world. To sum up South Korea in one word; genuine – the people, the food and the culture. You don’t often hear much from South Koreans about their country – the narrative is often dominated by their neighbours to the north and the US.
But boy is it incredible!
Day 5: Friday, February 16
PyeongChang 7:30 a.m. (9:30 a.m. Sydney) – Belle Brockhoff
Going into our trip we knew we had to pack as much as possible into five days. With only five hours sleep, two pairs of socks, double layered thermals, beanies and gloves – we finally wore the right amount of clothing (about time)! We were on our way to Phoenix Snow Park to watch the Women’s Snowboard Cross and cheer on Australian Olympian Belle Brockhoff (the only Aussie we got to see compete).
What is snowboard cross, you ask? We shall tell you. It’s when four sets of six competitors face down a winding, undulating course that includes jumps at high speed. The key things:
Don’t fall down
Your time (it’s how you qualify to progress to the semis and subsequent rounds)
Beat the other competitors (duh!)
The atmosphere is completely different from speed skating. There’s music blasting, every member of the crowd has a flag wrapped around their neck and it’s socially acceptable to drink beer at 10 a.m. The event has a tough reputation – only days prior Russian Olympian Nikolay Olyunin broke his leg on the course – so with heat packs stuck to every socially acceptable surface on our bodies we were ready for the experience. What you should also know about Belle Brockhoff is that two months ago she had surgery on her right knee. Instead of undergoing a complete reconstruction she opted for minor surgery so she could still compete – albeit without her cruciate ligament. She qualified for the quarter-finals with a time of 1:20.34 minutes. In the quarter-finals she placed third out of six competitors, but unfortunately a crash in the semi meant she progressed to the ‘small final’ and finished 11th out of 26 competitors. It was seriously impressive and impossible not to get caught up in the excitement.
PyeongChang 5 p.m. (6 p.m. Sydney) – Break time
After an exhilarating morning, and a long trip back to our accommodation, we had our first break and got to chill out for a couple of hours. We then had to make our way to the Olympic Park for our third and final event.
Ice hockey. It was the first time either of us had experienced ice hockey in the flesh and boy was it intense. We watched as Sweden and Germany competed, slamming each other – and the referees – into the walls, skating at high speed and seemingly trying to inflict as much pain on their competitors as possible, without conceding a penalty in 3 x 20 minute periods. While we had little understanding of the game and the rules – nothing a quick google couldn’t fix, we were experts within five minutes – we soon found ourselves cheering and critiquing the players below. We were shouting at players we didn’t know, instructing them to try harder, hit the bloody puck, hold the damn stick and aim for the goal – not past it. We were convinced, given the opportunity, we would make great ice-hockey players. With hindsight our future as Olympians is highly unlikely. Despite many shots and attempts to score, the Swedish goalkeeper was too good – definition of dynamic movement – and didn’t allow a single German puck to enter the net. Sweden came out on top – winning 1 nil.
Our take away, ice hockey should be a form of therapy for anger management. Exercise + release of pent up anger/frustration = great idea.
Day 4: Thursday, February 15
Seoul, 8 a.m. (Sydney, 10 a.m) – We’ll never complain about Sydney traffic.
Goodbye Seoul! We were now on our way to where the action and probability of frostbite was high – PyeongChang Olympic Park. The four hour drive, including a 30 minute rest stop, was made more enjoyable with a bag full of Korean snacks (suggestions from a friendly Korean man). Something worth mentioning – yet again – the traffic! Unlike Sydney’s predictable traffic restricted to certain peak times of day, South Korea’s traffic is erratic and unpredictable – not dissimilar to Trump’s twitter musings.
We arrived at our new digs, the Seamarq, on the Korean coastline – a hotel that would not be out of place in Port Douglas or somewhere tropical.
PyeongChang, 5 p.m (Sydney, 7 p.m.) – Cheer for Canada
You would think by this stage we would have learnt from Seoul about the weather. No, no we did not. The little voices in our heads said: “it doesn’t feel as cold as Seoul, we don’t need beanies”. Note future travellers: become accustomed to that little voice in your head and then gag it with a sock and wrap duct tape around its mouth to stop it from talking.
When you come to a country where the weather is in the minus range, always wear thermals, a scarf and gloves. Make sure no part of your body is exposed to the cold weather – otherwise prepare for frostbite, good luck!
After a quick feed at the Korean Maccas tent, it was time for the Men’s final in the 10,000m speed skating.
You may remember a very famous Australian speed skater, Steven Bradbury, who won gold in the 2002 Winter Olympics… that’s [the event] we were about to watch. The difference between this race and Bradbury’s was; 1) there was no Australian and, 2) there are 25 laps of a 400m track between the start and finish line.
What makes this race even more intense is only two athletes compete at the one time. So the athletes are racing against one competitor on the track, and ten competitors off the field, for their timed rankings.
We were lucky enough to be seated just behind the family of gold medallist Ted-Jan Bloemen – something we only noticed [near] the end.
Their enthusiasm was contagious, as they convinced other spectators to wear Canadian paraphernalia and cheer for Ted-Jan. One particular Korean man sandwiched between the Canadians and some Dutch supporters, quickly abandoned his Korean flag and adopted the Canadian chant.
Day 3: Wednesday, February 14
Seoul, 6 a.m. (Sydney, 8 a.m) – A voice from the dark.
Waking up at 6am was not a choice but our body clocks saying ‘you are in a foreign country wake up and take advantage’. An early rise also lends itself to a prank – in the case I (Emma) waited silently until Teaghan had walked back to bed in complete darkness before suddenly speaking at her. Let’s just say there was some dynamic movement and expletives screamed at a socially unacceptable hour of the morning.
Seoul, 11 a.m. (Sydney, 1 p.m.) – The six minute feed.
After a full breakfast, we (Emma) decided we needed a snack. Now we don’t know if Korea is famous or even known for its waffles, but there is a reason we ate this next dish in 6 minutes.
Don’t judge us, please just admire our ability to swallow waffles and ice-cream whole. We’d headed to Ima Cafe in the city centre (when you look at the building, you would never guess a bustling cafe was inside) and ordered the Green Tea Waffle. After a coating of maple syrup was applied we inhaled it. The empty plate is explanation enough – so good!
In lieu of lunch we head to the Myengong district for some shopping.
Another note for travellers: if you want international brands like Chanel, Gucci or Nike etc., head to any of the big department stores – Korea has them everywhere, with massive letters spelling out Duty Free on the side. But why bother? You can buy that anywhere. We were after something more synonymous with Korea; skincare.
If you want the good stuff, stick to the streets. You’re surrounded by stores offering everything from face masks, ‘essence’, brightening creams and neck tightening kits. Store assistants inundate you with free samples and the offer of a discount, but don’t get swept up in the excitement, look around and enjoy the unique offerings. Korean people are lovely (and have a cracking sense of humour) and are happy to help you. A good tip – and a polite gesture – is to learn how to say the basics in Korean.
(Note: We asked about ‘please’ but were kindly advised not to bother and to forget the pleasantries.)
Be prepared… your pronunciation will be cause for entertainment and the locals may or may not laugh (albeit kindly) in your face. Living up to the millennial cliche, we found the ‘insta-famous’ lip collagen mask, and lip balm/scrub in the shape of an avocado – and bought in bulk.
AVOCADO + MILLENNIAL = NO QUESTION
Seoul, 3 p.m. (Sydney, 5 p.m.) – “A little to the left”
We ventured off to Gyeongbokgung Palace, one of five in South Korea, for a lesson in history and culture. Make sure you go with a tour guide – ours, Ines, was fantastic – otherwise you will be taking pointless pictures with no contextual understanding. Our favourite building? The King’s quarters of course. A large bare rectangular room for lounging around, with entry to the personal quarters on the side. Doesn’t sound that interesting? Well here’s the kicker… back in the dynasty days when the moon was in position and the weather was perfect for the making of an heir, the King and Queen would not be the only ones present in the private quarters. They were accompanied by an ever so awkward sex coach, directing their every move like an ancient Spielberg.
Seoul, 5 p.m. (Sydney, 7 p.m.) – An unexpected protest
On our return from the palace we encountered a taste of the divide in South Korea. A peaceful protest by conservative groups demonstrating against South Korea’s democratic President, Moon Jae-in. Carrying both South Korean and American flags and chanting over loud speakers for the release of previous President Park Geun-hye, you couldn’t miss them. The former President is facing trial for allegations of corruption, bribery and colluding with long-term friend Choi-Soon-sil – who was recently sentenced to 20-years in prison on charges of corruption and abuse of power.
Item number two on the culinary bucket list, the most famous culinary experience known to any westerner – Korean BBQ (or as they call it here, just BBQ). Thanks again to our resident local Yumi, she directed us out of the city and into a little place where tea was on had, a stove was outside and garbage bags were offered to protect our belongings from the charcoal smell. With a piece of paper with Korean writing on it and a point to the beef ribs – galbi – we ordered.
For those who haven’t been to BBQ before here’s a rundown.
You pay to cook you own food around a circular charcoal or gas stove in the middle of the table.
BBQ is known for beef short ribs called Galbi.
It will come with a variety of sides – lettuce and basil leaves, pickled radish, radish powder, pickled chilli cabbage, sauces and kimchi (depending on where you go, you will only have to pay for the meat).
Soju is a South Korean rice wine which contains between 16.8% – 53% alcohol depending on volume.
When serving any drinks, the youngest at the table is enlisted with the task – to serve and receive any drink (it has to be done with two hands).
Now back to the meat! With the assistance of the restaurant owner our meat was cooked with tiny spots of black char and moist red centre. Wrap in a lettuce leaf, add some spring onion, picked radish and get it in your mouth. We did try the polite way and take small bites but inevitably ended up using our hands to eat the whole thing in one bite.
With another success, a full stomach and a bottle of soju done, we received a complete spray down of air-freshener to take away any smell of smoke and simultaneously become a walking ad for Febreze’ new scent, Fresh Cut Pine. Not a bad way to spend Valentines Day.
Day 2: Tuesday, February 13
Seoul, 2 p.m. (Sydney, 4 p.m.)
There was no time for naps, just a quick freshen up and we were on the hunt for some famous Korean food. Following the crowd (Note for travellers: if in doubt follow the locals), we came upon Saint Augustin in the Seoul Financial Centre. Assuming our pre-determined roles (Teaghan=logistics, Emma=food), we set about indulging. We went with one safe option – spring rolls – and two risky options; Cherry Blossom dumpling (some type of fish) and the Saint Augustin Noodle. The spring rolls and dumplings were delicious and so was the noodle dish… for the initial five seconds pre-spice-onslaught! Korea’s chilli and spice are not always nice. The result; temporary paralysis of the lips. With an inaudible thank you we raced to the nearest cafe with ice-cream to restore function to our lips and tongues.
Korea – 1. Aussie tourists – 0.
Seoul, 7 p.m. (Sydney, 9 p.m.)
Our second venture into Korean’s culinary landscape was far more successful, with the help of some fried chicken. Korea is known for it’s fried chicken and just behind our hotel we found an unassuming restaurant, Kkanbu Chicken, with a kitchen no bigger than four square metres. Despite her last order fail, Emma was responsible for our food fate. We ordered Sweet Boneless Fried Chicken and Extra Crispy Fried Chicken and promptly entered a new state of being.
Sweet Fried Chicken: The perfectly cooked golden chicken would have been amazing alone, but add in the bronze glaze and it was beyond comprehension.
Extra Crispy Fried Chicken: This chicken was described as ‘half seasoning’. Well move over ’11 secret herbs and spices’, there is a new superior spice mix in town. The cinnamon/ginger/clove glaze was indescribable – we will never be able to enjoy run-of-the-mill fried chicken again.
Floating out with glaze still on our fingers and our pant buttons undone, we braved the night air of Seoul.
Seoul, 8 p.m. (Sydney, 10 p.m.) – “Should have worn my thermal tights”.
Lesson 2.0 for Korea. When everyone tells you to wear thermals under your pants, not just your top, listen – they know better than you. Within 10 minutes you will start feeling tiny pricks in your thighs and your muscles freezing over, which is your body’s way of punishing you for your poor clothing choice. Soldiering on, we took to the streets. We set off to find Myeongdong (shopping district), however our non-existent sense of direction meant we stumbled upon a laneway full of competing neon signs. Each and every building was covered in flashing lights; footpaths were reserved for groups of smokers; and restaurant fronts were lined with fish tanks.
It was a visual feast. After a long night we made a bee-line for the hotel, where we defrosted and became reacquainted with our limbs.
Starting our journey in Sydney. Four hours sleep, six airplane meals, two glasses of red and six Advil later, we arrive in Seoul. Warmly welcomed by -10 degrees weather. After a combined 16 hours in a seated position, we start the journey from Incheon to Seoul only to experience an all too familiar frustration – bumper to bumper traffic.