Thursday, 22 March 2007

Welcome to America town.

Itaewon is a dumping ground for homesick expats. It’s Koreas very own America town.

My first impression of Itaewon when I stepped off the subway was that I had inadvertently gotten on the wrong train and transported myself to a dirty, decaying corner of a western city.

There is a red light district and apparently there are drugs, which people have blamed on the presence of American soldiers. They’re probably right. Although drugs and prostitution aren’t limited to Itaewon, the proliferation of cash laden soldiers would be enough to encourage them to remain.

The amount of westerners, mostly Americans and Canadians is unbelievable and the place feels less like Korea and more like Las Vegas, but without the high rolling casinos and expensive hotels. Itaewon is a single strip of neon encrusted real estate and attracts westerners like moths to a flame.

Itaewon is a few subway stops from the heart of the city centre and you emerge from Itaewon subway station into a melting pot of western “culture”, although there is distinct lack of culture and no hint of kimchi, just walking, talking, western stereotypes.

Accommodation was my first concern. The lonely planet guide says the Seoul motel is the best in Itaewon. Sat on top of a McDonalds at one of the street it couldn’t be better placed to explore Itaewon from and therein lies its only plus point. It really is a horrible little place. It may be the best Itaewon has to offer but it falls short of my very modest standards. It’s cheap, both literally and metaphorically and it’s certainly nasty. Half of the lights in the room didn’t work, along with the TV and the shower and the bedroom floor could be likened to the standing room on a rush hour tube, my partner and I had to take turns standing up! But for 40,000 (28 pounds approx) won a night, what do you expect.

I would recommend hotels in other parts of the city and suggest you look around on the net and find something that suits you. As Seoul has a underground network it isn’t worth settling for anything less than satisfactory, the co-op uljio residence near dongdaemun stadium is much better and still reasonably cheap, it has a kitchenette, TV and internet access in the room (just bring your own computer).

Don’t be under the misconception that I don’t like Itaewon, it is what it is and it does what it does well and I like it for it. The people who live in Korea and come here, do so for one thing, to escape Korea.
I come here to eat western food and drink western beer, speak to western people and buy cheap tacky souvenirs that are aimed at western people, watch western sport and generally be western.

Korea and Seoul have a lot to offer the tourist, centuries of history along with some spectacular architecture and some of the most amazing food I’ve ever eaten but Itaewon isn’t designed for the tourists as such, it’s designed for foreign residents. This is a subtle but important difference.
Itaewon is the eye of the storm so to speak, but this storm has the calm, serene Korea around it and the fast food soaked streets of Itaewon at its heart.

This "ugly, lovely town" was used by Dylan Thomas to describe Swansea but could equally be applied to Seoul’s city within a city. The place could be called a blot on the landscape but it is a haven for expats who need their regular fix of the west.
Itaewon isn’t Korea, not in a real sense. It is of course literally in Korea but that’s where the similarities end, instead Itaewon is a Mecca of all things vulgar, it lacks charm and it’s the home to all that is seedy and disgusting and foreign in Korea. But we like it.

My quest continued, after securing the “best” budget hotel in Itaewon to food. I went to Ali Baba’s, an Egyptian restaurant on the main strip. It’s a small place with seating for no more than about 30 and the food is excellent, I’m not sure how authentic it is but its tastes delicious. The price is also magnificent in its magnitude, extortionate would not be an over statement and here in lies another problem with Itaewon, along with the western comforts come the western prices. Ali Baba’s wouldn't be on my list of places to go again and that’s mainly because of the price.

To wash down my delicious but wallet busting meal we went to a new bar called the Wolfhound, run by 2 Irish guys and 2 Korean guys the place is just as Irish bars in Britain are. It has the obligatory Irish football shirts on the wall as well as a darts board and as much Guinness as you can stomach. The place fills up at the weekends and they show live football and rugby from the UK.

Then there is Gekos, an Itaewon institution that sells the same pub grub as most Wetherspoon style chain pubs in the UK. They do it well here and the fish and chips were a very welcome sight on the menu and tasted as good as I’d hoped they would.

There are numerous stalls and shops selling all sorts of cultural artifacts with the Korean flags on and if you want a fake pair of Ray-Bans or a fake Rolex then this is the place for you.

Itaewon is definitely not the place for authentic Korean culture seekers but it is a welcome respite from Korean culture, if you feel you need one.

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