25 September 2008

Seoul: COEX Mall and Sports Complex

If this were an average overseas trip for me, I would've gone home already. But this isn't an average trip; I've already spent a week and a half in Seoul, and I don't even have a confirmed reservation for a flight back to the US yet. All I know is that my airfare is good until late October, and that I will most likely go home then. Until then, I will treat Seoul as my second home; after all, Seoul *was* once my home for a while.

Here are some photos from today, 42 total.

I am crossing the Han River, using Seoul Subway Line 4. The gold skyscraper in the middle is the Daehan Life Insurance Building, better known as the "63 Building" because of its 63 floors. It was built in 1985, and was at the time the tallest building in Asia, though now there are even taller buildings right within Seoul. I remember visiting that building's observation deck in 1994, and enjoying a smog-shrouded view of Seoul while listening to Mariah Carey's Music Box album over the loudspeakers. Players of SimCity 3000 Unlimited and SimCity 4 can put that building right in their own cities.

Below it, the Han River bridge is visible in the distance. Until the 1960s, it was the only non-rail bridge crossing the Han River. At the start of the Korean War, the South Korean Army destroyed the bridge in hopes of containing the North Korean invaders north of the river, trapping the residents of downtown Seoul and preventing them from fleeing south. It didn't help for long, however, and North Korea soon overran almost all of South Korea, except for a small perimeter around Busan.

At a transfer station, I saw this advertisement from a nearby Christian university. It describes the school as the "mother of 120 years of Christian history in South Korea," and its introduction states: "In this age of challenges posed by cults and humanism, we have striven hard to guard the pure belief on this land, by teaching that God is the only Creator, the Bible is the only Truth, and Jesus is the only way to Salvation."

A graffiti on the right edge of this ad (not readily visible in this photo) is even more telling of the current South Korean tension between Christians and non-Christians. It reads: "God is dead. Shut up, morons."

I have arrived at Samseong station, which serves COEX Mall, my destination for today. Inside the station, a free clinic/health consultation service for citizens is taking place.

An ad on the hallway to the mall. It advertises for an English conversation academy, located in neighboring Jamsil district. Learning English is an unhealthy national obsession in South Korea, made even worse by the school curriculum which emphasizes rote memorization of rigid grammatical rules at the expense of actual conversation (partly because public school English teachers are almost never native speakers). As a result, the only way to learn semi-decent English is to attend academies like this and learn from the native speakers - or better yet, shell out big money to go abroad. In the past, the US was the preferred destination for South Koreans seeking to learn English; now, Canada and Australia are preferred.

Also in the same hallway: a local belly dancing academy, staffed by native dancers from Turkey and Egypt. I am not into belly dancing, but I took this photo anyway, in honor of my writing mentor Gayle Brandeis, who is also a belly dancer (a Jewish belly dancer at that!). I sincerely hope Gayle will have a chance to come to Seoul in the near future, as her first novel dealt with Korean issues, and she says she's never come here.

The entrance plaza to COEX Mall, the largest mall in South Korea. It is also connected to Seoul's World Trade Center, as well as the Intercontinental Hotel.

This pay phone found inside the mall is a new, rare species. On this phone, it is possible to use the T-Money mass transit fare debit card to pay for the phone calls. Since T-Money is a smart chip card, not a magnetic card, it needs to be placed in the red tray at the top.

The mall directory. All stores are on one level, and various pathways have different names.

I decided to visit a record store. Right now, I am sampling Duffy's debut album, Rockferry. Duffy is a new artist from Wales, with a 1960's-inspired style, and I loved listening to her on Sirius back in the US; Duffy seems to be doing well here in South Korea as well. Afterwards, I went on to another listening station, to sample Mariah Carey's "Touch My Body" - after all, listening to Mariah is almost an obligation for me here in Seoul.

Some Sarah McLachlan CDs for sale. Sarah will have a new CD out next month, and I will probably pick it up here in Seoul before returning to the US.

The store is also busy promoting the original soundtrack for Mamma Mia! - The Movie as well. Also featured in the store were various ABBA albums.

Of course, this being Seoul, there also were plenty of K-Pop (and even J-Pop) CDs, but I don't even know where to get started on those, so I skipped them all.

A Prospecs store. Prospecs is a local brand label of sporting apparel, competing with the likes of Nike and Reebok.

A Nintendo store. Until 1998, Nintendo couldn't even sell its products in South Korea, due to laws limiting goods related to Japanese pop culture. But now, most children - and even some adults - are carrying Nintendo DS's in the subway.

A souvenir store selling blue celadons and other traditional Korean objects. This photo shows a Kwan Yin and two Buddhas.

A familiar sight for me: American Apparel. A possible (though pricey) option if I want to buy all the legwear items that are must-haves for the Seoul fashionista.

Advertisements from the Turkish embassy in Seoul, inviting South Koreans to visit Turkey. From Incheon Airport, Turkish Airlines, a member of Star Alliance, flies nonstop to Istanbul, and Asiana Airlines codeshares on that flight. The ad says: "I've met Turkey, I've met half of the world."

South Koreans have a special affinity for the Turks, because the Turks and the Koreans (and their languages) are distant relatives, and because the Turks fought in the Korean War on behalf of South Korea. But for now, I am saying no thanks - given Turkey's rampant transphobia.

One of the numerous women's boutiques dotting the mall. The mannequin on the right is modeling a tunic dress with a must-have item, stirrup tights.

Lots of fashionable women around today. I even saw a few young ladies in Ally McLesbian miniskirt suits.

Vietnamese rice noodle (pho) has been extremely popular among Korean-Americans for over a decade. Now, their relatives here in South Korea have caught on. There are at least three Vietnamese restaurants in this mall, and here's one of them. While pho is considered a cheap dish for the masses both in Vietnam and in the US, it is a trendy, exotic, expensive dish here in Seoul.

Here is an authorized reseller of Apple products, including iPods and Mac computers.

The rather large food court at the mall. I ordered tonkatsu (Japanese pork cutlet) here - though this being Korea, I decided to add a Korean twist by ordering "kimchi cheese tonkatsu" instead of plain tonkatsu. It cost me 8,000 won (USD $8), and tasted pretty interesting - though I still prefer plain tonkatsu.

The mall hosts a kimchi museum. I didn't go in, as I had visited it in 2004. It's interesting, but kind of small.

Every South Korean boy hangs out at the video arcade sometime in his youth. And many South Korean girls too - often with their boyfriends. Here's a nice one, though most games cost 500 won (USD 50 cents). I remember games costing 100-200 won back in 1994.

I tried to move on, but the rain was coming down hard, so I came back into the mall to visit its aquarium. Admission: 15,500 won (USD $15.50).

A fire-bellied toad. Its Korean name is "mudang frog" - remember that the mudang is the practitioner of Korean shaman rites, always well decorated, and always female (though sometimes transgender women).

A traditional Korean water mill, at a resting station in this rather large aquarium.

This water well accepts donations for the restoration of the Yellow Sea coast ecosystem, damaged by a massive oil spill last year. Investigations have pointed to the captain of the Samsung-owned ship as being responsible for the spill.

A koi pond, with a model of a royal pavilion in the back.

A mailbox with Mario and a few fishes inside. The reason for the mailbox: emails, faxes, and other electronic communication methods are slowly rendering mailboxes, and postal mail, obsolete.

A telephone booth filled with water and turned into an aquarium.

Egyptian fruit bats. I didn't take this photo for the bats; I took it for the background, which is the Manhattan skyline as seen from Brooklyn, complete with the World Trade Center twin towers. It still sinks my heart to be reminded of what once was - and is no more.

Some piraruku, which live in the Amazon, and are the largest freshwater fish species in the world.


A shark pool. In the back is an underwater tunnel that I will later pass through.

A large sea turtle swimming in the shark tank, with two sharks underneath. This is dedicated to my friend and a fellow blogger, DiAnne Grieser in Seattle, who goes by numerous nicknames, one of them being "Turtle." She has loved turtles for ages, and would certainly love this photo.

The last exhibit: South Korea's largest penguin pool.

The rain stopped, so I tried to tour the Sports Complex in Jamsil, just one subway stop away from COEX Mall. The signs here are in French and English, the two official languages of the International Olympic Committee, as well as in Korean.

Jamsil Baseball Stadium is here, and is home to one of South Korea's professional baseball teams, the Doosan Bears. This is the premier baseball park in South Korea, a role formerly held by Dongdaemun Stadium in downtown Seoul, which is now demolished.

The Olympic Stadium is nearby. Twenty years ago, this place was very busy with track and field events taking place throughout the day. More recently, most soccer matches have moved to the World Cup Stadium on the other side of the city, but this stadium continued to hold other events, including concerts by megastars like Michael Jackson and Sir Elton John.

Today, it's preparing to hold an event commemorating the 60th anniversary of South Korea's armed forces. The anniversary and the events will be October 1st, which is the Armed Forces Day. With the heavy military presence here (as evidenced by the military vehicles in the foreground, as well as buses displaying army license plates), I decided it was a good idea to stay away.

Some informational signs. Again, they are in English and French. Chinese characters are also added here.

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 1988 Summer Olympics, various light poles were displaying pairs of flags: the pair consisted of a stretched South Korean flag as well as the flag of a participant nation of the 1988 Games. In this photo, Libya is profiled. Yes, the Libyan flag is plain green.

Later in October, Seoul will host the 2008 Design Olympiad. A project to be done at that time: creating the world's largest "plastic stadium." This will be done by covering the Olympic Stadium with plastic objects that the citizens of Seoul throw away anyway. Speaking of recyclables and trash, recycling is very widespread here in South Korea.

This poster on a platform barrier at a subway station is from the Seoul Housing Authority. It is promoting the city's long-term apartment rental program, with 20-year leases for certain city-owned apartments. The rent is under 80% of the going market rate. The Statue of Liberty on the left is there, to indicate that (1) this program doesn't exist in New York, and is unique to Seoul, and (2) New Yorkers want to come to Seoul to take advantage of it. Nearby, I could see a similar poster showing the Eiffel Tower, to show that no, Paris doesn't offer a similar program either.