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Welcome to South Korea

As I walked down the long halls of Incheon Airport, I immediately knew I wasn’t in the familiar Western world anymore. I couldn’t recognize a single letter almost anywhere anymore. English and the Roman alphabet were an afterthought here.

When I got in line for customs, there were no more than two other foreigners in there out of the approx. 500 people. They call us “waigukin” here (외국인). I got some stares here and there, but most people didn’t care, as they were completely occupied with their smartphones. A lot of them were running network speed tests to see how fast their internet was, which amused me. The customs process went down as usual, and I got another stamp in my passport to add to the growing collection.

I went out and managed to get a bus ticket to Sanbon from an old, grumpy lady in the ticket booth after several minutes of pointing and gesturing. The old ladies in Korea are called “Ajumma”. They fall into a special category of the population that lets them get away with pretty much everything, and they do. They cut in line, rudely push people out of the way as they please, and frankly, act like assholes most of the time. There’s a whole history behind why.

It took me a while to find the right bus sign to wait for, as there were over twenty to choose from. It was very cold, and the air was hazy and smoggy. After a fifteen-minute wait or so, the “Limousine bus” arrived. This is an interesting concept. It’s a bus with business-class seats that fold all the way down. According to my ticket, the ride would take about 70 minutes. Not bad for $13.

The bus started rolling down the highway, and the first thing I noticed was that about 95% of all cars and trucks were either made by Hyundai, Kia or Daewoo (I’m a car guy, so this is what catches my eye first). There were many models I’d never seen before. The big/luxury ones were shamelessly similar in styling to Mercedes, BMW and Cadillac, but low-rent versions of models from five years ago. The nicest looking Korean cars are made by Kia, and they tend to look like generic European cars.

Hyunday Equus
Here’s a Hyundai that tries to look like a Mercedes. It ironically kinda looks like a BMW from the back.

The scenery became more open as the ride went on. When the bus drove down the Incheondaegyo Expressway, I saw heavy industry in the distance across the water blowing thick clouds of smoke into the air. I could smell it, too. The scent varied as the bus drove past different factories, but it mostly smelled like fireworks or gunpowder. Every factory had at least a dozen identical 20-30 floor apartment buildings right next to it for the people who work there. The whole scene had a surreal look to it. Definitely an environment I’d never seen before. It went on and on, too. This place is vast.

As the bus got closer to the city, the industry became less dense, and office buildings started to pop up. The identical apartment buildings only grew in numbers. They were in clusters of ten to thirty or so, and within these clusters, they literally were all exactly the same. The only thing that could tell them apart were the numbers written on the sides of them. Many had company logos on the side, as well. Lots of LG and Samsung everywhere.

Sanbon

Identical apartment buildings everywhere, endlessly.

These were the outskirts of Seoul, and it was very much in development and very much a mess. Apartment blocks, office buildings, industry and shopping centers seemed randomly distributed all over the place. It’s kinda funny to see a landfill or a stinking factory randomly wedged between an apartment block and an office tower. Evidently they just don’t give a shit.

Most of what I saw was brand new, a lot of it was in the process of being built, some of it was old, and some of it was half collapsed. I’m sure everything would look completely different if I came back in a year. This place is booming and expanding relentlessly.

I was sitting behind a couple in their fifties in the bus. The woman was Korean, and the guy was a Westerner, so I decided to strike up a conversation in the hope that I could. Most people I had encountered so far, couldn’t speak English at all.

It turned out both of them spoke perfect English. I asked the man if he also spoke Korean, but he told me with a smile “he was just an ‘ol country boy from North Carolina, and his wife did all the talkin’ here.” They were super friendly and they had kind eyes. They told me they just came back from Nepal to help the people out there. They did volunteer work teaching kids and adults, as over half the population there is illiterate. Besides the place getting ruined by earth quakes, China and especially India are giving them a hard time, too.

We’ve all seen on the news how bad things are down there, but hearing it firsthand made it all sound a lot worse. The picture their stories painted was very bleak, and it almost seemed in vain to even try to improve things there. But, they made it their life’s mission to do so. They told me they had a beautiful house in the US and they had all they ever needed. I guess that’s a nice thing you can devote your life to once you’re “done” in terms of money and family. I found their personalities heartwarming.

Eventually, the bus arrived in Sanbon, a suburb of Seoul.

Sanbon
Sanbon

The bus stop was right next to a really nice sports park. It had a running track with a park in the middle, basketball and tennis courts, and even weight machines. It was a full-scale outdoors gym. Right now it was minus 17 Celcius (1.4F), which meant the place was completely empty.

It turned out this was also the stop for the kind couple. Even though I wasn’t Nepalese, they went out of their way to help me find my place before moving on.

I walked into the apartment building and took the elevator to the 7th floor. The front doors of the apartments worked with a numeric code instead of a key. I punched in the number on the door of my lady friend’s place who’s teaching English here, and went in.

Well, damn. I’ve officially arrived in Korea.

January 20, 2016

About Diederik

Diederik is a guy from Rotterdam, The Netherlands. He quit his job when he was 29 years old and traveled the world for over 18 months as a digital nomad and bartender. On this website, he posts his travel photos and experiences, records podcasts with interesting people, and shares his general thoughts.

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