By day whatever it was, my intrepid companion and I were fast approaching the technically accurate stage of ‘broken’ – days without proper sleep, a sensory overload of a foreign and alien location and the pressures of trying to retain a positive and enthusiastically professional facade to global colleagues.
We started the next leg of our journey with a 5am car from the hotel to the the airport, back through the sprawl of Shanghai’s residential blocks, in a darkness and silence that couldn’t have possibly even hinted at the weight of populace sleeping as we sped on wet roads.
We checked in for our 90 minute flight to Seoul, conspicuous by our height, inability to speak to anybody – including each other – with anything other than the caveman grunting of the underslept. It was breakfast time, so we headed to the quietest food court in global travel – the sound of steaming dim sum or the gurgling strains of cappuccino machines the only noises present. Our needs were simple: croissants, or toast, or something recognisably Western to start the day. As much as I like dumplings, I simply do not think that breakfast is an appropriate time for such delicacies. Our options were not particularly generous, but our choice was made…..
There are few decisions that fast food companies have made over the years that have disappointed me more than Burger King’s retiring of the Mushroom Double Swiss. This was my favourite, and that sales disappointed the flame-grilled fuckers in Burger-power added to my fondness – knowing that few of my fellow diners were approving of the combination added to the enjoyment; added more dirt to an already filthy ritual, if you will. You can always make that even more disgraceful by chewing one of these down at 6.32am, knowing full well that in an hour you will be up in the air, whilst polluting that of those around you. Tough.
I can’t remember which airline it was that was carrying us, but it could well have been Shittiest Old Planes in Asian Airspace. It squeaked at every possible opportunity, and that was just putting the bags in the overhead cases. Having settled, we watched as the other passengers took their places. Sitting across the aisle from us were three giggling girls of late teenage, talking rapidly and loudly, adjusting their glasses. They all had the same glasses, which I thought was at first a little odd. What made it more odd was that none of them had lenses. Not plain glass, that had the appearance of glasses, but not a lens between them. Upon further inspection, this seemed to be the norm rather than the exception. We wanted to try and poke them, to see if we were just going mad, or if they would cry. Either way, the journey was taking a surreal turn.
We landed at Seoul Incheon airport, and began the most laborious rigmarole of immigration I have suffered at an airport. Form after form, desk after desk we slowly progressed, managing to select the slowest line. At one particular desk, our progress was halted by the physical incarnation of the word ugly. The Kazakhstan Men’s Wrestling Team were there for God knows whatever reason, and other than wearing a mask made of an exploded sack of potatoes, could not have looked any prettier. One was the younger representation of Jaws from the James Bond films. Such was our hallucinatory state at this stage I asked him if he had been in the movies, half expecting him to return my question with a metallic smile, or trying to chew my ear off and stick it through my eyelid.
The sun was shining, the bright blue sky a welcome relief to the murky, misty grey drizzle of Shanghai. This was, however a screen to mask the sheer cold that Seoul suffers at this time of year. It was -5C, adding another 10 below that when the wind blew. It was as cold as I have known it for a very long time. But the city was alive, clean, and instantly had a different vibe to our previous location. The hotel was in the financial/business district, and went about adding to the ridiculousness of the day by having the lobby on the top floor. But the view was amazing, and set us in the heart of city, overlooking the Han river.
We were in Seoul for very little time, too little, as our business meetings were punctuated by traditional meals that lasted for course after course – each meat dish brought to the table met with a sideways glance between ourselves, ready to ask the dreaded question, as casually as possible, without wanting to look like the ignorant tourists we so clearly were: “So, er, what kind of, er, meat is this…?” It wasn’t. Well, we were assured it wasn’t. But the beef was a little chewy.
Seoul, and it’s population of 10 million, spreads across a wide metropolitan area, that is divided by the Han, and 5-lane highways that at times look like they are a steel lattice across the water. Pockets of districts had individual feels, similar to London’s Camden, Kensington and Oxford Street – style, money or sheer commercial volume. The service was never anything less than excellent everywhere we went, and there was real sense of pride in what the locals produced and delivered as an experience and location.
The food, the style, the sheer professionalism of all we came into contact with made Seoul a special place that I am very much looking forward to going back to. Sitting in a hotel bar, nursing a deep glass of Merlot, whilst the standard issue pianist plink-plonked his way through Come As You Are – I am sure the barrell-sucking, knitwear botherer of Seattle saw that coming when he wrote it – the last night of this surreal and amazing week came to an end. As did my insomnia. It was time for bed, and dreaming of being in my own bed again.