Our last afternoon in Dubai is spent talking business, rehearsing Christmas music and throwing together a hotel room iPhone cover of the Doctor Who theme, to put out in time for the 50th anniversary special. The Swingles and the Doctor share a birthday, and we’re both regenerating spacetime travellers, so it seems apt. Plus, Sara can sing real high like a theremin.
It feels good to bring an idea to fruition so quickly – even if it is just a bit of ephemeral fun – and to watch the likes and tweets and comments roll in. What did needy artists do before we had instant feedback to obsess over? And of course the idea that we could record and film such a thing using the telephonic devices in our pockets would have been pure sci-fi in 1963. I’m especially proud of my many-layered a cappella TARDIS sound:
With that vital work done, it’s time for our big-on-the-inside-and-the-outside Airbus A380 to whisk us off to Seoul. Four nights isn’t long enough to get the measure of somewhere as far outside my experience as South Korea, so I try to just relish the unfamiliarity. For the first time on the tour we hit a language barrier, but even in moments of high confusion (and especially if you’re not right in the midst of it) there’s something pleasingly pure about the way people communicate when they only have the broadest of brushes – waving and pointing and noises – to paint with. I am frustrated! I want that one! You delight me! After our first show, a young woman comes up behind me at the signing table and starts spontaneously massaging my shoulders while cooing “so handsome!”. It’s the closest I’ll get to the One Direction treatment, I fear, and the kind of forwardness that’s only possible when all subtler approaches are off the table.
As a regular patron of Seoul Bakery I’ve been looking forward to the food, and it doesn’t disappoint. South Korea’s a health-conscious nation with a cuisine made up of clean, balanced flavours, and it feels like a welcome detox after weeks of Chili’s, Cracker Barrel and Cheesecake Factory. Plenty of veg, fish, spicy soups, delicious strips of meat barbecued in front of you. The intense beef broth called bulgogi is a highlight. Kimchi’s an acquired taste but usually served separately, so easily left alone (I like it – I think). Our hosts seem quite surprised that our palates aren’t more affronted, and maybe they’re trying to spice up proceedings by describing the blackberry wine we’re given as “Viagra juice” (no symptoms reported, but tasty and a shoo-in for my grandfather’s Christmas present).
On our last day, Hugh and I head to Gwanghwamun Palace, where we watch the guard changing, with their weapons and silk finery and what look like glued-on beards – accompanied by a demented wail-crash-wallop of bugle and percussion. We share a taste for the bizarre, so imagine our further delight when, around the corner from the palace, we encounter this abomination:
(Explanation takes a bit of shine off something as gloriously wrong as this. But Hugh did a little research and it’s apparently a depiction of a children’s game called Malttukbakgi.)
The wind starts to bite, but we find some shelter in the narrow hilly streets of Samcheong-dong, a great neighbourhood of galleries, shops and cafés. The best bit of city tourism is surely that mid-afternoon moment when your legs are beginning to buzz and you stumble into the warmth of a tiny and perfect coffee shop. This one has artsy clutter everywhere, line drawing portraits on the walls, slightly unsettling K-Pop (thanks Shazam) on the stereo. We order hot chocolates and a sort of huge hunk of white toast with cream and jam.
Our plan is to locate the historic village of Bukchon Hanok, and thereafter to continue our pursuit of oddness at the Chicken Art Museum. Which, Google assures me, is an Actual Thing. So, cocoa drained, we find some steep stone steps to take us up to the village, which is a quiet and affluent spot with great views of the city, not unlike the posher bits of Montmartre. The only other people around are a couple of fellow Europeans and two chirpy red-coated dispensers tourist information. They break the news that the museum has up and moved to another part of town. I’m devastated, but I know in my heart that chicken art should be free range. This is the price we must pay.
So instead, we join up with the rest of the Swingles for an evening at Lotte World, which is a cheerfully crappy version of Disneyland, complete with copyright-infringing castle, bumper cars, Christmas parades, and a profoundly unscary ride called Pharaoh’s Fury (which nonetheless attracts a 45 minute queue). We may be the only visitors over the age of 16, but they have something for everyone here – even South Londoners like me:
At 10pm, the gates close and the tired little teddy bears return to the hotel, to instant noodles and beer and bed. And there I end my tale. I’m writing in the air again, five and a half hours from London. I haven’t fully delivered on the promise of my first instalment – I’ve barely touched my Graham Greene – but writing these entries has been a great constant as we’ve pinballed around the map. Thanks to those who have encouraged the scribbles. They’ll be back.