Sunday, November 30, 2014

Farewell To The Beast

It looks like the end of the day but Grant and I were on our way out to lunch when I took this picture. It captures the last sunshine of the day. Soon it will be like night even though it's late afternoon.

I love how the sunlight is hazy, golden and casts shadows through the trees. 

Remember I got a bike two years ago? I had high hopes but it never made it outside Hampstead. It's heavy, clunky and too big. Hence the nickname, The Beast. Grant refuses to let me store it in our tiny flat. 

It's neglected in the bike shelter. Two summers have passed and I've not taken it out. The last time I saw it, it was rusty and covered in leaves.

I realised its no use to me anymore. There are plenty of people wanting bikes on Freecycle so I decided to put my bike up for adoption. Many people answered, even with "address please" only in the message but when I warned them that they might not ride away with it because of the tires, their interest died. Except for one lady who I'm so glad to have given the bike to her. 

She was friendly and appreciative. It seemed like a match made in heaven because she had also done bike repair course. I even gave her the lock and chain. 

It was a good to start my Sunday. The sun was out and I finally gave away my bike to a person who needed it. 

It's Thanksgiving 2014-Turkey In A Primark Bag

If there ever was the right way to celebrate Thanksgiving in London, I think it happened this year. Thanks to my American friends, the celebration was done the way they do at home in the US. 

To help bring the tradition home, my friends projected live football on a screen that nearly fit entire wall of their living room. 

My girlfriend cooked up a sumptuous feast for 6 with plenty of leftovers. She had been cooking since the afternoon and by 8.30pm, the turkey was ready. 

The turkey was coated in butter and seasonings, put into a Primark shopping bag and roasted for 5 hours. There was heavenly garlic mashed potato, (or should I say a stick of butter mashed with potato!), cajun corn and oven roasted beans.

And last but not least-the stuffing! In Australia, roast chickens from the supermarket are stuffed and so delicious I could eat just the stuffing alone. Roasting a stuffed turkey takes forever so to save time you can use boxed stuffing. It looks like seasoned croutons but mixed with hot water and melted butter, it is unbelievably tasty. 
I was so full, my stomach ached until the next morning. I was still too full to have breakfast!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Winter Is Here

I've been to six countries in the past three months, almost counting Tasmania!

With three weeks of not going away, I'm staying put in London. The sun won't be showing its face here anytime soon. Going out tonight? Forget it. The idea of staying warm at home thrills me. How much has changed from years ago!

I have my trusty laptop, green tea and central heating to while away winter. There are so many travelling adventures I need catch up on here so stay tuned.

How To Feel Like An Idiot For 12 Hours

It was a rushed morning when I flew out of Korea. I only had a hour to shop and it was a sensory overload. So many dazzlingly cute shops and not enough time to visit them all.

I got into a cab and my driver spoke a little English. He said his daughter was studying university in Sydney. When we got to the station, he claimed he had no change for my 10k WON note and he would get it from road side stall. I instantly seized up. The fare was 4.5k, how unreasonable was it to not have change? 

Things happened so fast. He got out and took my note and bought 2 red bean snacks. They handed him a bunch of notes. He counted 4.5k WON and gave it to me and for some reason, judging by the stack of remaining notes in his hand, I thought he had 8k which he was going to pocket. 

He could keep the snack but I said "hang on" and snatched the money out of his hands. Counted out HIS 4.5k and gave it to him. He was stunned. I walked off adamant that he tried ripping me off. How dare he!

I got my train and it took ages to get through security at the airport. I got there an hour before my flight and my heart sank as I saw massive queues to get through security. Even though I already had my boarding pass I was cutting it fine. 

Half an hour before flight departure, I only got to the end of passport control queue. The priority counter checked me through after being grumbled at for not getting to the airport earlier.

I raced to my boarding gate with vital minutes to spare. I triumphantly posted about my "taxi rip off" experience on Facebook, went to the bathroom and boarded the plane. It wasn't until I was in my seat, the penny dropped. 

The snack probably cost 1k so handing me back 4.5k was reasonable. And there was I being stupidly righteous, accusing a man who was only making an honest living. (Although he did get a bonus snack.)

It was too late to retract my Facebook post. The flight attendants wouldn't let back into the terminal to "send an important message". And I asked them very very nicely.

I watched the plane slowly pull away feeling like a monumental idiot. I imagined friends reading my post and inevitably question my ability to do simple maths. Quite rightly so.

The flight time to London is 12 hours. So lesson learned. Don't post anything on Facebook which you could later regret especially if you don't have the chance to delete it for a long time!

Street Dining in Seoul

After I checked into my hotel in Namdaemun, I walked around for supper. There was a street nearby full of bars (the karaoke type) and Korean BBQ restaurants. 

There were also a few tarpaulin enclosed marquees on the street. When I peeked in, they were food stalls with seating and the owners cook fresh seafood and meats. As I walked past an empty stall, I received an exuberant greeting from a female owner.

I kept walking but remembered my previous experience buying food from a street vendor. It was nearly impossible to get someone's attention. Even after standing patiently with cash in hand, I felt like they were too embarrassed by the language barrier. That's why I decided to give this lady a chance and take on a new experience eating on the street.

When I returned the lady who greeted me had a new customer and his date. I asked if he spoke English, he said yes and translated for me. After perusing the ingredients on display (some not recognisable) I picked a large clam and sat back to watch the lady cook.

She gave me bowl of complimentary soup and cucumber and onions with chili paste. She prised open my clam and cut it up in small pieces. On a sheet of foil, she grilled it with sauces and spices. I guess there was no access to running water. 

As I waited for my food, I noticed the whole dining area and cookspace was on a car trailer. And there were packets of spicy Shin Ramyun noodles available to go with your meal.

Paper napkin dispenser above your head for convenience.

I also ordered what I thought were chicken liver skewers but I think it was actually beef. It was really tasty.

When I got up to pay I asked the guy to ask her how much I owed. 

At first he said 3,000 WON and then he did a double take and said "30,000!" like he was shocked. 13,000 would have sounded right but the equivalent of 17 GBP by street food standards was expensive. (A bowl of noodle soup with meal and vegetables is 6,000 WON.)

I just gave her the money and there was a stony silence as everyone watched me take the cash out of my purse. 

Parched as I did'nt have a drink, I bought a can of Calpis for 1,000 WON from a convenience store. Either I ordered the most expensive food choices or I was ripped off because I was a tourist. My fault for not asking how much everything was from the beginning. I know it's not a lot of money but since being scammed EUR 50 in Rome once, I have been hell bent against being ripped off. 

I walked down the street and saw men just standing around for seemingly no reason. There were a few drunks so I left the street and walked around Namedaenum. It was after 10pm, freezing and I noticed an old lady pulling an empty trolley, similar one my Mum takes grocery shopping. She jaywalked across the multi laned road and a bus driver at the red light pointed at her in disbelief.

When I crossed the street, I approached her and gave her my empty can. She was going through the rubbish bins for recyclables. In this cold weather in the night and alone. She just smiled and said thank you in Korean.

And after my expensive street meal, I've never felt so humbled in this country.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

How To Spend 19 Hours In Seoul-Namdaemun

This is my second stopover in Seoul. The first time Asiana Airlines paid for the transit, meals and hotel room in Myeong-dong, aka shopping central. But this time on my dirt cheap fare to Sydney, I had 19 hours in Korea on my own devices.

I was concerned about getting around in Korea since most people do not speak English. It turned out to be fairly easy although it helps to come prepared. Read up on the public transport system and print a copy of your hotel confirmation with the name, address in Korean. 

I booked a hotel in the center of Seoul and took a train from the airport. There are two choices for trains, an Airport Express and an "all stops". The Airport Express goes straight to Seoul train station and costs nearly three times as much as the all stops train. However it departs every 20 minutes whereas the all stops is every 10 minutes and it makes 10 stops. The travelling time between the two trains is roughly 13 mins. 

It might be faster to use the all stops train and even the lady at the Airport Express counter suggested it to me. I bought a ticket from the vending machine and got on the all stops train. The train was ready to leave by the time I got to the platform. There are English, Chinese and Japanese announcements so you will be told the stops in advance. 

The train was clean, uncrowded and very cheap, 4500 WON including a 500 deposit which you get back when you return the ticket into a refund machine at the train stations. Just make sure not to leave anything on the seat next to you because the seats will fill up.

It took about 50 minutes to arrive to Seoul. The station is huge and I took the first exit I saw. As soon as I walked out I was hit by the cold. It was almost zero degrees and I didn't have warm enough clothes. I tried to find my own way to the hotel but after 10 minutes of walking, I realised it wasn't worth the effort. The streets were huge, there were not many people around and it was freezing.

I walked back to the cab rank at the train station. My cab driver spoke no English so I turned on my Ipad to show him the hotel booking confirmation. He did'nt seem to understand the Korean words I showed him (I thought it was the name of the hotel). So I just said "Namdaemun" and he started drive off with my leg hanging out of the door.  

I got in the cab fully and watched the multilane streets roll by. It would have been atleast a 25 minute walk to the hotel. Although had I got out at the right exit at the station, it would have been fine to walk.

We approached Namdaemun Gate (Sungnyemun Gate) and I knew we were close. The cab driver pointed and said: "Fraser Place". He understood my booking confirmation after all. The cab fare was only 3000 WON, which is only £1.72! 

I checked into the hotel and was glad to call this room home for the next 14 hours. This was exactly what I needed after being couped up on a plane. A king sized bed with an ensuite and electronic toilet. All the mod cons and clean. Bliss!

I went downstairs for a walk. It lacked the busyness and excitement of Myeong-dong late at night but there were some shops still open past 9am. And there was an eat street around the corner from the hotel. I had supper from a street vendor, went for a walk around the Namdaemun markets which was closed and then retreated back to my warm and spacious hotel room.

Namdaemun Gate, a minute walk from the hotel, is majestic and was only restored in early 2013 after an arson attack in 2008. The Gate was first built in 1395.

Although the room is double occupancy, it only includes breakfast for one person. That was fine by me. After breakfast I went back to my king size bed and watched TV. 

The mountain view from the room. Abseilers were cleaning windows on a Sunday morning.

I checked out just before 11am. That's when I thought the shops opened in Myeong-dong but was told they opened at 10am. A hour of shopping wasted! Let that be a lesson for the next time I'm in Seoul. It took only 10 minutes to get to the heart of Myeong-dong by foot.

And I got another dose of sensory overload when I got to the skincare shops. There are so many in Korea that they make their stores super pretty and tempting to come inside.

And this is the reason why I came from Incheon to Seoul for my stopover. The shopping! It was rushed because I only had an hour but I bought a stash of products.

When my hour was up, I walked to the hotel I stayed previously-the Royal Seoul Hotel, to look for a cab. There were fancy black ones waiting outside and I was quoted 6,000 WON to get to Seoul train station. Then a standard yellow cab came by and I took that. The fare was only 4,500 WON. So cheap-I will be taking cabs more often in Korea!