May is usually my favourite month in Korea. Clear skied and sunny, it is mostly spared the yellow dust of early spring while exuding a cheerful warmth that sees the return of t-shirts, al fresco beers and early evening barbecues. This year, sadly, it’s been a bit of a washout. This past Sunday continued in this unseasonal vain, and though it didn’t actually rain too much, clouds hung heavy all day. What better time, then, to head to a small, heavily concealed gallery near the Blue House and check out an exhibition of an English designer whose artwork became synonymous with some of the most overblown albums of the 1970s?

Anyone who, as I did, used to love rummaging through second-hand record shops will have come across the work of Roger Dean. Though his designs adorn the album covers of such hard and soft rock titans as Uriah Heep, Budgie and Asia, it is undoubtedly his work with Yes that remains his best known. With Yes being one of the willfully difficult bands I liked in my mid-teens, it was with bemused pleasure that I found this retrospective of his work — complete with impeccably proggy title “Dragon’s Dream” — taking place at the Daelim Contemporary Art Museum, a pleasant little gallery tucked into the back of a small lane in Hyoja-dong.

Dean’s work, as should be pretty clear from the above pics, was always of a fantastical, new-agey bent, with lots of floating islands, rustic backdrops and a dragon or two. And if you noticed more than a slight resemblance between Dean’s paintings and the scenery in turgid 3D megahit Avatar, you’re not alone. When quizzed about whether planet Pandora might have been inspired by a Yes album cover, Cameron himself apparently said: “It might have been, back in my pot-smoking days.”

To all but a very small number of the very few people reading this, Yes will be an unknown quantity. Part of the strangely British phenomenon of progressive rock — which enjoyed several years of huge success in the ’70s before being utterly demolished by punk — Yes were (at least in their “classic” early 1970s line-up) middle-class, classically trained musicians who employed finicky time signatures and hokey, pseudo-spiritual lyrics on songs that often lasted at least one side of an album. In their brand of serious, vaguely optimistic but ultimately message-free rock, they were, I think, the ideal match for Dean’s artwork.

Anyways, with that done, we took a bit of a look around Hyoja-dong, an area I’d never been to before.

Apropos of apparently nothing, just down the leafy street there was a small courtyard with what looked like a giant yellow pumpkin with black polka dots. The artsy theme continued with a couple more galleries, before we found a charming, apparently nameless, little coffee shop of the type that Seoul seems to do so well these days.

I had never even heard of Hyoja-dong before coming here, and it’s not, due to its small size, a place that would bear frequent visiting. But being able to find an entirely new area with cosy coffee shops and restaurants, second-hand stores apparently named after Russian cosmonauts (below), and, of course, retrospectives of Roger Dean is definitely one of the ongoing pleasures of living in Seoul.

The Return of the Mak(geolli)

As I mentioned a couple of weeks back, I recently visited a funky little makgeolli bar called Moon Jar that sits just round the corner from Dosan Park in Apgujeong. With us finally being blessed with spring weather worthy of the name, I headed out there again this weekend hoping to enjoy some of this Korean tipple on the bar’s terrace.

Unfortunately, with this being an early Saturday evening, the place was far busier and all the outdoor seats were taken by young, beautiful and, in at least one case, famous patrons (that’s him on the right with the white t-shirt). The upstairs was completely full too, so one of the svelte, check-shirted waiting staff ushered my girlfriend and I to a table on the ground floor. After mulling over the menu, we plumped for something called baedarissal makggeoli, one of the “President Makgeollis,” and mugeunjidon jeon, a spicy version of pajeon. Usually referred to as Korean pancakes, pajeon are made mainly of eggs, flour, green onions and, in this case, some pork and a healthy dollop of chilli peppers (called gochu in Korea).

Unlike several other types of traditional Korean grog, makgeolli has never appealed to me much. It’s not so much its milky texture that put me off (though that certainly didn’t help) as its taste: slightly sweet, zingy, but with a strangely antiseptic finish. I know that coming from an avowed soju fan, these criticisms of taste may ring a bit hollow; but as a part of the ritual scoffing of BBQ pork or beef ribs (still my favourite Korean meal), soju has always occupied a place in my affections that makgeolli never did. That, and makgeolli’s meagre 5 to 6 percent strength (as opposed to soju’s mighty 20%+) has left me with several “mornings after” without much of a “night before.”

This baedarissal stuff, however, was a very different proposition. Smooth, sweet (but not too sweet) and completely zing free, I can honestly say it was the best makgeolli I’ve ever had. In this, according to the menu, I was in very distinguished company: Strongman Park Chung-hee apparently drank baedarissal makgeolli throughout his 14-year tenure in the Blue House, while famed bon vivant Kim Jong-il so wanted to try it, he specifically asked Kim Dae-jung to prepare some for him.

The pajeon was a good accompaniment too: Perhaps not quite as crunchy as I like it, but with a nice, gochu-driven kick. After polishing off the first kettle, we moved onto some lotus makgeolli. Though apparently Moon Jar’s premium brew (still only costing 15,000 won for a 375ml bottle), it tasted much more like regular makgeolli to me, with both a tang and a hint of a fizz that had me wincing slightly with the first few sips.

As for the place itself, it’s very hip in a stripped-back, Parisian art-studio kind of way. As such, it’s symbolic of the recent image overhaul makgeolli has enjoyed, which has seen it transformed from fusty old farmers’ drink to chicly authentic Korean tipple with purported health benefits to boot. While I don’t think I’ll ever be a big fan of makgeolli, places like Moon Jar are great — so pleasant, in fact, you can genuinely forget that you are drinking that stuff still sold in vast, cheap flagons at convenience stores, and imagine yourself drinking Korea’s answer to fine wine. Now, when for the rehabilitation of soju?

How to Get There: If you’re facing Dosan Park, turn right and carry on walking to the end of the park. Turn left, go straight to the end of the park, cross the road, keep walking and Moon Jar is on your left.

Trip to Taiwan

After endless prevaricating, numerous work issues, a booked then aborted trip to Thailand, extensive research, countless e-mails to hotels and infuriating late-night tussles with Chinese websites, my girlfriend and I finally made it to Taiwan last week. It was my second and her first visit to this much ignored corner of “Greater China,” and despite dodgy weather, we both had a great time.

As a long-time resident of Korea, and a sometime student of East Asia, I’m always struck by the parallels between Taiwan and South Korea:

  • They’re both former colonies of Japan.
  • They were two of the four “Asian Tigers” that went from grinding poverty to affluent, high-tech economies in a little over 30 years.
  • They’re both thriving democracies in a region with very few.
  • They both live in the shadow of sometimes menacing neighbours.
  • Despite their success, they’re both still largely unknown in much of the West (or at least, in much of Europe), and, perhaps not unrelatedly…
  • In a KTO survey a couple of years back, Taiwan and Korea were respectively ranked the least attractive and second least attractive tourist destinations in Asia.

The second last point comes with some caveats: Korea is certainly getting better known, and it’s had a fair bit of coverage recently because of its stirring recovery from the world’s recent economic woes. But still, not too many people back home, I suspect, could tell you the name of a Korean city besides Seoul, nor what the country is best known for (apart from perhaps Samsung), nor even who the protagonists were in the Korean War. As for Taiwan, without even the big brand power of the LGs and Hyundais, it is known, if at all, as that place (a country? A city? Part of China/Japan?) that makes electronics stuff and occasionally has spats with China.

Another similarity is in Taipei and Seoul themselves. As their economies soared, both were obviously built at a blistering pace, but without too much regard for the people actually living there. As a result they are both huge, bustling places, but without the obvious charms and world-famous landmarks of a London, Beijing or Sydney (Taipei 101, above left, notwithstanding). But both are improving and, at least for me, the fact you have to search out the little nuggets in each city is a big part of what makes them both so interesting.

Though it’d be a bit of a stretch to describe many of the places we visited in Taipei as “hidden gems,” by mere dint of their being in Taiwan, they aren’t so well known among non-Taiwanese. Some of the highlights were Spot (above left), an arthouse cinema set in a beautiful former residence of the US ambassador, the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall (above middle), and Villa 32, one of Taiwan’s many hot spring resorts, which are a partial legacy of Japanese colonial rule. Though I’d been there on my last visit to Taiwan, I definitely wanted to see the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall again. With its staggering scale, historical amnesia, and fawning exhibits of Chiang cosying up either with his family or world statesmen, it is a surreally detached portrait of an often brutal, always corrupt military dictator. But in yet another parallel with Korea (in this case, with the far less violent and corrupt Park Chung-hee), there is still sufficient affection for this “bulwark against communism” that attempts to remove his enormous statue or tone down the hagiography have, as yet, come to nothing.

In a completely different vein, I also wanted to make sure I paid another visit to Taroko Gorge, a magnificent canyon on Taiwan’s east coast. Before going there during my first visit to Taiwan, I’d heard it referred to as “the Grand Canyon of Asia,” but assumed that to be the kind of hyperbole often applied by overzealous tourist authorities to regions of Korea (the Santorini of Busan, anyone?). In this case, however — and while I’ve never been to the real Grand Canyon — the hype is largely justified. Comprising vast, sheer marble cliffs, much of which are covered in lush forest, Taroko Gorge is a spectacular sight. As the road to the top covers a distance of 19km, most visitors take either bus or taxi tours, which stop off at famous spots along the way, including the Eternal Springs Shrine (above middle). You can also, as we did, stay at the lovely, aborigine-run Leader hotel (above left) around halfway up the gorge.

Finally, a quick word about the food. Though Taiwan is famed for having excellent, diverse cuisine, I have to say I’ve grown progressively less fond of Chinese food since the glory days of lemon chicken and pork chow mein served up in foil containers back home. My main quibbles — the peculiar seasoning and pools of fat — were certainly in evidence in Taiwan, and nowhere more so than at a fry-up vendor at the Shilin Night Market, where the flavours of our beef, cabbage and egg roll were all drowned out by melted butter. We did have some fabulous food as well, though, including the aboriginal fare at the Leader hotel (below middle) and a bona-fide Swedish meal at a cosy little restaurant on my birthday (below left).

Bar Stories

Over the last week or so, I’ve had the considerable pleasure of checking out some of Seoul’s quirkier bars for a story I’m writing. As usual when I actually go to the trouble of searching for new (at least for me) places, I reached the following conclusions:

1) Seoul is immeasurably more diverse than it used to be, but…

2) Have some places like this always been around, but I’ve just been too stuck in my Itaewon/Samcheong-dong rut to notice? And…

3) Why are places like this not better known among expat types?

The last point, I confess, is based only on my occasional readings of English-language papers and expat-targeted events mags, so I could be way off base. (Also, blogs like SeoulGrid are making enthusiastic efforts to address this.) But some of the places I went to didn’t have a single hit on Google in English, and weren’t known to any of my foreign friends that I asked.

Unsurprisingly, Hongdae had the best known of the more off-beat bars we were after. Nabi (left) has been around for five years and is still the laid-back, faux-Indian place I recall. Oi, which had been recommended to me by a couple of friends, was OK and certainly fit the quirky bill, but was extremely loud (even very early in the evening when I was one of the few people there) and its cave-like, self-consciously zany interior didn’t really do it for me. Vinyl, too, was pretty cool, and in going there, I found myself in the presence of greatness: The owner claims to be the first person in Korea to sell cocktails in plastic ziplock bags. In later hawking them at Pentaport and other Korean rock fests, a trend that soon caught on, this fine woman was indirectly responsible for some of my sloppiest but most joyous moments over the last five years. 

Undoubtedly the best Hongdae place I popped into, however, was Gopchang Jeongol (right), a fantastic retro-styled bar at the top of a street toward the Sinchon side of the area. If you’ve spent any time at all watching Korean MTV, MNet or any of the other music channels here, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Korean pop culture is a depressingly airbrushed place, occupied solely by a cast of plastic, waif-like girls and pouting, puppy-eyed guys who make British boy bands look positively nails by comparison. However, there is a heritage of more interesting stuff here and Gopchang Jeongol (the name refers to a down-home-type Korean dish that translates as the distinctly unappetising “cattle intestine stew”) plays it constantly. Encompassing Korean 60s-style psychedelia, jaunty guitar pop and heartfelt folksy ballads, the playlist here is yet another reminder that Korea has its share of cool stuff, but it just  takes a bit of determination to find it sometimes.

Of the assorted other places I went to, the best were Moon Jar in Apgujeong, a makgeolli bar with an interior resembling that of a French cottage, Au Gout des Autres, a wine bar set in a very rare, Japanese-style 1950s house near Gwanghwamun, and La Cle, a welcoming little jazz bar in Samcheong-dong with the feel of an old ship’s cabin. The one I most enjoyed, though, was Rainbow. A subterranean hookah bar that requires patrons to remove their shoes and sit on the floor, Rainbow was perhaps the most pleasant surprise because it is  located in the backstreets near Gangnam Station, an area I have always found peculiarly insipid and soulless. Rainbow, though, is great fun. With cushions and wine-crate tables on the floor, assorted Thai crafts and Bob Marley flags on the walls, and a fug of hookah smoke hovering just above everyone’s heads, Rainbow is a welcome dose of student commune-chic in the midst of one of Seoul’s brasher areas. The music’s charmingly odd, too: On the night of my visit, the playlist included Bob Marley, the Beach Boys and — yes! — Engelbert Humperdinck.