Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Getting to Seoul Proper

I touched down in Incheon Airport around 4pm on Sunday December the 27th. Walking out of the exit ramp and into a windowed corridor the first sight of South Korea for me was a snow covered tarmac littered with planes. Hello Seoul!

There wasn't any hassle getting through passport control. Having done a bit of research online before travelling here I was under the impression I'd need printed verification of an onward journey to be let in to the country as a visitor. Since I don't have a printer at home I had made it a point to stop at the Korean Air ticketing booth in Heathrow before flying to get a printout of my itinerary. It turns out I didn't need it, but better safe than sorry, eh?

After collecting my knapsack from the luggage belt I took a seat and turned on my iPhone. Again, research online told me that the Korean networks were CDMA, but that you should be able to roam on a 3G phone depending on your carrier. And…. Yes, it connected to KOR SK Telecom without an issue.

Quick aside: I did discover later that I'm not able to access data on the 3G network. I wouldn't have enabled roaming data very often on the phone but there is one specific type of scenario I've already encountered many times in which it would have been very useful. Trying to find a specific location when already on the road. Google Maps with GPS location data and the inbuilt compass. (Double aside: There aren't really addresses here. There are regions, broken up into districts, broken up into areas, comprised of streets. I take the subway everywhere in Seoul so directions to somewhere are usually something like "Take line X to station Y, exit #Z, walk about 5 minutes until you see a Starbucks and SK Telecom, turn left, go a couple blocks and it's on the right) It would be very useful for situations where all you have is a business name, a street name and maybe a subway exit, but no-one to give you directions in English.

So a quick phone call to my friend was placed to let her know I'd touched down safely, that my iPhone works so I wouldn't be renting a mobile phone, and that after hitting a currency exchange and figuring out where to catch the bus I'd be on my way (you can rent mobile phone's from Seoul's airport. Since my phone worked I didn't end up looking into pricing.)

You've got a few transportation options to get to Seoul from Incheon Airport - trains, taxis, KAL deluxe limo busses, and city limo busses (city limo are the cheapest of bus options at about 1400 Won for the trip I needed to make, and are really quite comfortable). Having looked online I knew that city limo bus 6030 stopped in Itaewon, which is where I was meeting my friend. We would be staying at the Seoul Motel for the first while, which is above a McDonalds in Itaewon according to my research. I purchased a ticket at the indoor bus ticket office (there are also outdoor kiosks near each exit), and proceeded outside to find the stop and wait for the bus. While waiting in line a friendly worker informed me in broken English that the wait for the bus to arrive may be around an hour because of the snow (the bus normally arrives on 15 minute intervals). Well, I'd already got my ticket, had no way to research a new route, and wasn't going to pay for a taxi to Seoul.

Well it turns out that they added an extra bus to the route so I luckily only waited about half an hour in the cold :). I was struggling to keep from dozing while on the bus (I don't sleep well on planes) so as to not miss my stop. At some point we returned to surface streets and the driver would occasionally call out something in Korean. ...but no English. I had no clue where I was nor any clue where I was really going. One of the times the driver called out one of the passengers responded in Korean. At this, the driver pulled over and let the person out. Oh boy… this worries me.

The next time the driver stopped the bus I walked up to the front. I crouched down and asked if he spoke English, to which he responded something in Korean. "I need to get off in Itaewon?" I stated. He stared at me blankly for a few seconds and then said, "Itaewon. Long, long way." He then said something loudly in Korean. At this both the driver and the entire bus of Korean passengers began to laugh uproariously. It was an interesting walk back to my seat, all I could do was smile at the passengers and laugh at myself.

After this I was much more intent on watching what we were driving by through my semi-fogged window. Hoping to glimpse a sign in English for Itaewon, or something. At some point in peering out the window I saw a big sign for the Capitol Hotel. Ok, that sounds familiar… ...yeah, that's a couple stops after where I thought I had to get off. I figured I'd stay on one more stop to see if the route I had written down from online was still accurate or not. I thought to myself that I could always catch a cab the short way back from one of these hotels if necessary. On the way to the next stop I continued to inspect the city through the snow. Wait, is that a McDonald's coming up on the right? Look above it. Oh please, oh please… YES! A glowing green sign for the Seoul Motel!

"Excuse me," I called to the driver, "is there any stops near here?" He looked at me in the rear view mirror, but had nothing to say. "Ok," I thought to myself, "I'll just keep close track of any twists and turns, how many streets we pass, and any landmark buildings." I got lucky in that the next stop, the Hamilton Hotel, was straight ahead only a couple short blocks away.

So a five minute walk later and there I was at the Seoul Motel, greeted by my waiting friend. The online reviews of the Seoul Motel were not glowing, but hey, it worked for me. The place was clean, and cost 45,000 Won per night. So there I was, finally in Seoul. Check in, drop the bags, quick shower, then let's hit the town!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Weather in Nice is Nice

I flew into Nice on Wednesday for meetings all day Thursday.  I've actually been staying in an area called Sophia Antipolis just south-west of Nice, which is like the Silicon Valley of France from what I understand.  The weather has been wonderful, reminiscent of my University days in San Luis Obispo.  Today is Friday, and thus should be a weekend day for me since I'm on a UAE work week.  However, I do have a bit of work to do today, though hopefully it's just an hour or two.

At 2:30pm I've got a flight from Nice to Budapest, which marks the beginning of my holiday.  I'm meeting a group of about 10 friends in Budapest and will be hanging out with them through the following Wednesday.  Our journey begins in Budapest from today through Sunday, and then we take a train on Sunday from Budapest to Munich.  The remainder of the holiday will, I'm sure, be a continuous episode of drunken debauchery.  I hope I'm in control of my faculties enough to remember to take photos.  Actually... depending on how out of control I am, perhaps it's better if I don't remember to take photos...

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Oktoberfest Up and Coming

I had flights booked from London long ago.  I essentially am eating the cost of this (they weren't too expensive) as work is picking up the bill to get me to and from my destinations now that I'm in the UAE.  So I finally booked those flights through our corporate booking tool.  It felt good to see the confirmation email come through as I once again have everything including flights sorted.

Huge thanks to Dan O for taking care of booking the original flights and the hostels both in Budapest and Munich, and also to Jonno for doing the same for our train from Budapest to Munich.  Since I had the motivation to finally book the new flight I suppose I should ride the motivation coat tails and transfer the money I owe to these guys for doing the footwork!

I have to say I'm really looking forward to this holiday!!!

Edit: Done and done.  Fellas, the cash should be incoming...

Friday, September 11, 2009

Plans for my time out here, or planning my timing out of here

I've been in the United Arab Emirates for going on a month now.  All of that time has been spent in either Dubai or Abu Dhabi.  I need to get out of here to other parts of the world while I'm here...  Both to experience new things, but also to just get out of here for awhile.

I had a dream last night that I was back in Southern California hanging out.  I was sitting there with a group of friends planning a road trip from San Diego up the coast to Seattle.  I almost never dream about being back in the States.  I think this was probably brought on by the fact that because of the weather, Ramadan, and the culture here I'm feeling a bit stuck.  West Coast of the States is probably where I feel I have the most freedom to be who I am, do what I want, and go where I want because of familiarity, family, friends etc..  I think my mind was dealing with how I am currently feeling about the UAE by putting me in my comfort zone.  So it is this message to me more than anything at this point that is saying that I need to find my way out of here, even if it's just for a weekend.

And the weekend it is.  Unfortunately I haven't planned anything and to be honest I have work to do that will likely preclude me from a last minute trip anywhere.  Plus there are events planned for the weekend locally that makes it that much easier to not do the hard work to try to get out of here just for the day (essentially).

At least I do have some travel plans coming up soon.  There is a decent likelihood (probably around 60% right now) that I will be travelling to Nice, France a week from Sunday.  It will be a business trip, but a trip nonetheless.  I'm now really hoping that this does occur just so that I can get out of here sooner rather than later.  If I don't end up on the business trip to Nice, I will likely still try to go somewhere next weekend as it is Eid Al Fitr here, which means a long weekend.

The weekend following that is also a long weekend for me as it is a holiday trip I have had planned for awhile now.  I'm flying to Budapest on Friday, September 25th and meeting a group of around 10 friends there.  We'll be staying in Budapest for the weekend and then taking the train first class to Munich for Oktoberfest.  We're in Munich from Monday through Wednesday.  Since the weekend is Friday/Saturday here in the UAE, that means when I fly back on Wednesday I'll have one day of work and then the weekend again.  Not bad :).

I believe that my friend Sam will be back in the country by then.  He has mentioned to me that we should rent a car and drive down to Muscat in Oman, which is purported to be amazing.  If we could fit that into the first weekend of October, and if I make it to Nice, then that would be three weekends in a row (two of which would be long weekends) that I'd be out seeing new parts of the world.  I think that sounds like just what my body is telling me I need right about now.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Happy Birthday Nik!

This weekend was a celebration weekend for my friend Nik's 28th birthday.  After work on Thursday I jumped in the car with Alex, Nik and Carl and headed up to Dubai.  Thursday night we went to the Buddha Bar at the Grosvernor House Hotel for the first birthday celebratory meal of the weekend.  Incredibly cool interior design and incredibly good food and drink.  Started with a selection of sushi and sashimi and then made our way through various hot and cold appetizers.  It was a bit like an Izakaya experience.

On the drink side of things japanese beer and much sake was had, followed by an unfortunate number of shots.  My head was not well the following morning...  The sake we had was wonderful - light, flowery and mildly tropically fruity.  Though it had better be good at around £185 per 50cl bottle...  Multiple of which were shared.  The shots that followed wouldn't have been too bad, except for the fact that we ordered shots for everyone, and Nik doesn't drink.   Somehow I decided it would be a good idea to drink his shots for him on top of my own...  Tequila and Jager (as illustrated  in the photo)...

Friday was a bit of a struggle for me in the morning.  Luckily there wasn't a whole lot planned until early evening.  I went to the Mall of the Emirates and wandered around doing a bit of shopping.  Picked up a couple pairs of shorts, which is a win for me because I didn't bring any with me!  While I was there, one of the stores I checked out was a department store called Harvey Nichols.  It was some sort of high £ department store.  ...and let me illustrate what I mean when I say high £.  There was a jewel encrusted foosball table for sale, the price tag for which was somewhere on the order of £30,000.  Uh huh, you read that right thirty thousand pounds for a foosball table.  Needless to say, I didn't pick anything up there...

Alex and Nik picked me up at the mall some time around 5:30pm and we headed out to Autodrome for some Go Karting.  We went Go Karting there last week as well, on the outdoor track.  This round was done on the indoor track.  Alex once again showed himself to be the top dog on top time.  They also have laser tag at the Autodrome, which I'll have to go back for at some point :)

Following Karting was a meal at a restaurant called The Meat Company, which is located right on the water at the Souk Madinat.  It's unfortunate, but for the most part the food sounded much better on the menu than it actually tasted.  Nik ordered some calimari, I tried a piece and it was probably the best dish I had there.  I ordered an appetizer of Boerewors for myself.  This is a traditional South African sausage served with a fine grained polenta and a semi-spicy stewed tomato sauce/relish called chakalaka.  Sounds good, right?  Well it sounds better than it tastes.  For main I had a Wagyu ribeye with steamed vegetables and sauted mushrooms, peri peri sauce on the side.  While the ribeye was incredibly tender and had tremendously flavourful fats (expected of Wagyu), it was also the skinniest ribeye I had ever seen in my life.  Dissapointing...  I ordered the cheese plate for dessert, which came out with seriously over a pound of cheese.  And it was more quantity than quality.  eh, well, you win some and you lose some.  I at least got to enjoy the company of 12 other Infusionites and significant others.

After the meal we headed to Bar Zar for a few pints.  Then it was back to Alex and Jo's place to crash.  Getting ready now and unfortunately have to hit the office for an hour or so before grabbing a taxi for my 1.5 hour ride back to Abu Dhabi.  fun... :(

Friday, August 28, 2009

Night on the town in Dubai

All the Infusion folks based in Dubai were getting together on Thursday night for drinks at a place called Barasti Bar. I'll add photos of the night when I have time. I had deep fried pork ribs to put something in my belly before getting through too many beers. Boy was that strange...

Don't know precisely how many beers I drank, but I can say it was a lot. Whenever I get to the state that I'm buying rounds of shots for everyone I know that it has been a good night. Unfortunately I missed last call when I went to get a round, so we actually missed out on the shots. Probably a good thing. Though they wouldn't give me shots, they were still willing to give me beer, so I bought one of their cylinder beer dispensers. I love these devices! If you've never had them before I'll give a quick description. It's a double cylinder, one inside the other. They fill the inside cylinder with ice and the outer cylinder with beer. So your beer stays cold for quite some time, even in the muggy Dubai heat. There's a nozzle at the bottom of the cylinder that you use to dispense your icy cold beer. I suppose it's a bit like a micro-keg or something. The first time I had them was when I was in Bangkok, Thailand a few years ago (pictured at right, 3 litres of icy cold goodness). There was this outside bar next to the mall that was serving Singha in these style dispensers. Then Wing Dome in Seattle started carrying them. This is the third place I've been to that has these dispensers. They're grrrrrrreat! The rest of the fellas had shisha, but I've already had shisha a few times over the last week so I held back on that.

I'm sure I'll definitely be returning to this bar when the weather starts to cool down. It's right on the water and is very open planned (e.g. there is not really a wall between the inside and outside) and comfortable. There are even chairs/couches and tables down in the sand by the water. The bar has multiple levels and each level has it's own bar, so you don't have far to walk to get another drink. Heck, they've got servers so technically you don't have to walk anywhere.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

New country, new experiences

Hello, anyone still out there? I figured it was time for another revival of this blog. This time the impetus is that I've moved to Abu Dhabi for a couple months for the project I'm now working on. The client I'm working for is Etihad Airlines. I figured that folks back home might appreciate my posting about the experience.

And an experience it has been thus far. Not all good either. Some of you will have heard this story, so apologies for the repeat. After a long tiring flight to Dubai (I can never sleep on planes), making it past passport check and gathering my luggage I'm on the way out of the airport. Someone from staff stops me and starts questioning me. Has me follow him into a 6X6 room, the door to which he locks as we enter. I was strip searched, pants off and all (and I mean in the Brit sense of the word). Every single item was taken out of my luggage and inspected. Uncomfortable as I was after that it wasn't enjoyable walking out of the airport into the outdoors and it feeling like I had just walked into a sauna. Not the most enjoyable welcome my first time in a new country.

Perhaps it didn't help that a had a huge ring through my septum. And to be fair, there was a driver waiting for me once I got outside, and I started out at a pretty nice hotel in Dubai.

Since then it's been looong days of work plus 1 hour commute each way from Dubai to the office. Barely had time to catch up with the world outside of the time spent on work. I was supposed to move to a new hotel in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday evening. However, somehow the client forgot to book my room (even though according to the Project Manager it was all taken care of). So having had to pack up all my luggage and haul it with me on-site Wednesday morning, I then had to bring it back and check back into my initial hotel for an aditional night. Which ended up being paid for on my credit card, and I really hate submitting expense reports...

Luckily the following day my new hotel room was actually sorted. So Thursday evening I took a taxi from Etihad offices to Le Meridien hotel in Abu Dhabi. Le Meridien is in the Corniche area of Abu Dhabi, and the hotel is right on the beach. The weekends in the United Arab Emirates are Friday/Saturday. However, I didn't get to do any exploration on Friday because I had to spend alot of time on work :(. I don't know that I'll do much exploration away from the hotel today either, we'll see. There're quite a few restaurant/bars and couple clubs connected to the hotel itself.

This brings up an interesting point that many of you may not know. You can only buy alcoholic beverages from hotels or businesses associated to hotels. You can buy alcohol for home consumption from liquor stores, but only if you have a liquour permit (which I don't have, not sure how difficult it is to get one). My understanding is that the permit still limits the amount you are allowed to spend per month, so you gotta ration the beers :P. Beyond this, I've heard rumours of little liquour oases in the middle of the dessert where you can purchase to your hearts delight, but then just hope you don't get pulled over heading from there back home...

So today is the first official day of Ramadan (the new moon was observed last night). This means that from sunrise to sunset there is no eating, drinking or smoking in public (actually pretty much nothing goes in the mouth, e.g. no chewing gum). This is a time of fast for the Muslims during Ramadan. This doesn't mean it's not possible for me to eat/drink during the day, note I said in public. Many restaurants, for instance the ones here at my hotel, will draw opaque drapes over all the windows and entrances and still be open for business during the day. Most businesses in general operate reduced business hours during Ramadan. I believe this is partly due to the fact that people don't have the energy to work full days when they are not eating or drinking.

I was delightfully surprised that there is a TimeOut Abu Dhabi, so I've started to pick through there to find things to do. Thorntree UAE unfortunately seems to mostly be focused on Dubai, and all the people I know out here are based in Dubai. Well, let's see how this adventure goes!