Free hugs in Seoul

SEOUL IS STRANGE. I LIKE IT.

Many things about Seoul are challenging for a humble visitor from Sheffield. Although everyone is pleasant, you have the feeling that you are completely out of your depth. Thankfully constant tech alerts and pings are accompanied by a lone, echoey female voice instructing you how to use everything from lifts to escalators and toilets. I had no idea what was going on most of the time, so I coped in the time-honoured fashion of the foreign traveller: smile a lot and try not to think about how much it’s all costing.

Seoul is a city with a fearsome reputation for digital excellence. The country regularly tops broadband speed leader boards and boasts more mobiles than people. While the rest of the world struggles to roll out 4G mobile connectivity, Korea has developed and tested a 5G network 1,000 times faster than 4G.

Dig deeper and you find everyday, online activity like banking or shopping, far less user friendly than in the UK. The guys from eatyourkimchi are less than impressed with online life in Seoul.

My suspicion is that all this connectivity has led to an over-reliance on tech. It’s ironically frustrating when technology should make life better by making things work more efficiently. It takes a Seoul taxi driver as long to tap the address into the 3D sat nav as it does to drive the journey. God bless a London black cabbie’s local street knowledge.

Seoulites are crazy about cosmetic surgery. It’s estimated that one in five women have had a procedure. And, as in many Asian countries, it’s perfectly normal to wear face masks in public. Some people told us it was to protect against inhaling smog pollution, while others claim it’s to show everyone else you’ve just had facial surgery.

Finally, there’s the food. There were some epic culinary adventures. I think it’s enough to say that any meal that arrives with its own pair of industrial scissors should be treated with caution.

Seoul is definitely strange. And, for that reason alone, I like it.

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