Monday, 8 October 2007

Pilgrimage to the Vegan Bakery

Last year on the Chinese national day holiday (everyone gets 7 days off from Oct 1st -- apparently a hundred million people goes through the railway stations of Beijing during the week, so it tends to be a good time to escape from the country) I was in Washington DC and over there visited Sticky Fingers, a vegan bakery. So great their goodies were that I thought I might make it an annual thing. DC is far away, but they have another branch in Seoul, South Korea. Besides, I've never been to Korea so it made an interesting trip. And it got me to see how totally I've forgotten my Korean -- I studied it for a year and a half back in the university but apart from the writing system and a few phrases, everything seems to have escaped my mind. :-(

"Welcome to Korea, we've been waiting for you for 5 thousand years" say the wonderful placates as you arrive in the country. It seems 5,000 years isn't enough time to learn my language, but then, with over 100,000,000 forms for every verb in Finnish that can't be too surprising. They didn't speak much English either over there though, nor Chinese. Actually it was quite sad that for sudden snacks I'd have to revert to Pringles despite products called SoyBars and so on as they only had the ingredient listing in Korean and there would be tons of things I don't understand then. Anyway, Seoul is a bustling metropolis and possibly the third biggest urban concentration of people in the world after Ciudad de Mexico and Tokyo, which makes it a bit odd destination to escape the Chinese crowds, but at least the public transport was not only frequent, extensive and modern, but also not overly crowded.

I arrived late in the day and decided on a dinner in a restaurant that seemed to be in the same part of town as one of the branches of the bakery, namely Country Life Health Restaurant near the Shinsa station. They had a rather tasty vegetarian buffet with the spicy Korean kimchi and other dishes, at very reasonable prices. Then I took off to look for the bakery randomly in the area, and tried asking people, none of whom spoke any English. One was kind enough to call the number of the bakery and explain in a way that even I could understand that it's really far away. Fine, I just spent the evening walking the streets of Seoul then, quite a nice city it is. I stayed in a fine budget hotel near the city centre called Yim's House, warmly recommended, definitely worth the budget price and the owner who works really long hours speaks excellent English and is extremely friendly and nice.

Yim's House is right next to the Changdeokgung palace, so I decided to visit that in the morning, but as you have to go on a guided tour and the English one only started at 11:30, I decided to go to the bakery for breakfast first. For in the evening I had found a web page that seemed to have very precise information on how to find them. (Wireless internet hotspots were all over the place in Seoul, including free ones.) I decided on trying the Shinchon branch, followed the instructions on the page and walked up and down the street finding nothing. Deciding they might mean some other intersection I tried all that seemed plausible but still found no trace of Sticky Fingers. Then it was time for the tour of the palace, so I went back. They only show certain sections of the palace grounds but nonetheless the tour was certainly worth it and it was very interesting to hear how the heating system worked for example. The Korean palaces have a certain resemblance to the Chinese ones, but they're not exactly the same, the colour scheme is a bit different and the architecture, ornaments and even basic design have certain differences.

After the tour I decided I really want to find the bakery and the branch in Shinsegae department store seemed easiest. The department store was easy to find, but had no store map, and it has 14 stories, if I remember correctly. However, the Sticky Fingers stand is at the level where you enter from the metro tunnel, even though I didn't notice it at my first round as I didn't cover the whole floor. So, finally, the vegan goodies! I bought some samples although I was rather disappointed to see pretty much only sweet things, I would rather have seen something savoury, especially as I hadn't eaten all day. But the confectionery was definitely mouth-watering and totally palatable.

Cheered up after finding what I had been looking for I set out to touring more of the palaces of Seoul, and beautiful they were. There are five main palaces in the city, all quite distinct. I also figured a celebratory dinner was in order and headed off to a famous restaurant that's been voted as one of the best in Asia, the Sanchon Mountain Village. The restaurant was opened by a former monk who liked the mountain food the monks ate so much that he wanted to bring it to a wider audience. They have a set course which contains more than 20 dishes, so there's certainly enough to eat, and they keep you entertained by having a nightly performance of music and dance. The setting is traditional Korean, you sit on a pillow on the floor, and all food is brought in little bowls. Much of it is really tasty, some a bit too spicy for my taste. It's a little expensive though, 35,200 won.

The next day I decided to head to Seoraksan national park, and as the main branch of Sticky Fingers was supposed to be at a station rather near the express bus station, I thought I'd go there to pick some snacks for the road. Again I followed the instructions in the page mentioned above to the letter and then twisting the letter, walking over an hour through the streets and still finding nothing. I was tired of this and as I had the address even in Korean from the Sticky Fingers website, I stopped a taxi and asked the driver to take me there. He looked at the address for a while and said sorry but he had no idea where it is (or something of the sort, my Korean is very limited). Disappointed I walked on but decided to try another taxi driver still. He also didn't know the address but he had a GPS device to which he could type the address and get instructions how to get there. To his utter surprise the place was just two blocks away. He didn't even turn the meter on for such a short trip, just charged me 1,000 won for taking me there, and indeed there was the Sticky Fingers logo... but a much bigger "RENT" sign over the whole thing. It was closed. For good. As I walked back to the metro station I still couldn't fathom how could one possibly end up there with the instructions from the website, but as it was closed it hardly matters.

Next I boarded a bus to Sokcho, a small city near the Seoraksan national park. The Korean express buses are really comfortable with huge seats and not too many people and they do drive on schedule. I went to the motel recommended at Yim's House, and the place was quite good again and the staff friendly. They even had coffee that tasted good! I don't know how they do that, generally I don't like coffee but that stuff was great. The Vegetarian Korea page knows a vegetarian restaurant in Sokcho so I headed off there... first I tried to find it but eventually reverted to a taxi. I was presented with a menu in Korean only and no pictures, and I just said "vegetarian" in Korean to the waitress and she asked me if one item on the list would be ok. It was a pibimbab, costing 6,000 won, so I said yes and expected a simple meal, for as far as I knew pibimbab is rice with some veggies and possibly egg but not in this place then. I was in total awe then when I saw what they brought before me: more than a dozen bowls of totally amazing foods, coupled with rice and Korean pancakes. This place is famous for herbs, they collect local herbs and sell them over there, and you could taste that in the food. I can honestly say I've never tasted anything like it before, it was totally delightful. And the service was top notch, the son of the owner speaks decent English and he came to explain to me how to eat the foods and best of all, even drove me to town after the dinner as the place is quite far away. At no extra charge, just the measly 6,000 won. I can't praise this place enough, if you ever end up around Sokcho, do look it up!

The next day I went off to Seoraksan national park. It was a rainy day, and hence the idea of hiking for possibly even 11 hours to the top of the mountain to see nothing but cloud didn't really excite me, so I decided on the option of hiking to the 873 m high rock that's been compared to the Ayers Rock in Australia. I can't really say how fair a comparison it is since it was misty and I couldn't see far and hence couldn't get a proper look at the rock but nonetheless. At Seoraksan there's also a huge Buddha statue, the biggest I've ever seen, right near the entrance. Made of bronze. The actual hike was fun regardless of the wet weather, and got gradually harder as the path became steeper. In the end it was climbing seemingly endless stairs along the rock. I'm in a pretty good shape but I still had to pause for breath a couple of times, the thing that amazes me is that some people actually managed and saw it worthwhile to build these stairs over there, all my respect to their hard labour!

The hike was shorter than I thought though, so I also decided to take the short path to the waterfalls. I almost turned back disappointed before reaching the end of the path as it seemed there were some waterfalls but nothing really fancy. However the waterfall in the end was pretty nice, not huge but quite pretty, and the pond below was so inviting I had to fight the urge of taking my clothes off and jumping in for a swim!

I took the bus back to the motel where I had left my bag and then changed off my wet shirt before heading off to the bus station and the next destination, but in my silliness I didn't even ask about buses to Busan from Sokcho but just figured I'd go to Seoul, pick up some snacks and head on to Busan from there in a night bus so I'd arrive in the morning. Well, I made it to Seoul but the department store and hence Sticky Fingers was closed already, and I spent much of the evening waiting for a train in Seoul station as I decided I didn't want to leave too early as I'd arrive near midnight then and would have to find a place to sleep in Busan. I was quite decided that I'd sleep on the train, even though the last train of the evening, leaving Seoul at 23:00, arrived in Busan already at 4:19 AM. And I seemed to get a seat, don't know if they had sleepers. They didn't even dim the lights, the train kept stopping several times, always with loud announcements, and overall I got no sleep at all.

So in the morning in Busan station, sleepy and my legs aching from the hike of the previous day I decided to go to the beach to see the sunrise, given that I was up early enough. I went to the metro station and waited for the first train of the morning, leaving at 5:33 AM, and got to the beach an hour later to see that the sun was pretty much up already. I took some pictures anyway and decided I needed some relaxation and hot springs sounded just the thing. I went off to this thing they claim to be the biggest spa in Asia, I don't know if it is but it wasn't huge and the Chinese ones I've been to certainly don't seem much smaller at all. Anyhow, there were hot springs, in much the same style as in China, meaning that they flavour the waters to have some health effects. I couldn't understand the Korean signs to know what effect they were supposed to have but there were cherry, citron, and grapefruit flavoured pools at least. No, that doesn't mean you drink the water, you just soak in it. But it had the colour and smell of those fruits. They had a small swimming pool also, and saunas. The sauna was in Finnish sauna temperatures, 84°C, but they only had a bench to sit on at ground level, so it didn't feel like a hot and proper Finnish sauna. I also went down on the sun chairs that were by the pools to relax for a moment and ended up falling asleep for a bit.

The sad part about Busan, a city of over 4 million people, is that there's only one vegetarian restaurant, the Wellbeing vegetable buffet. It's a pretty good one, but definitely not enough for such a big city, and it wasn't even big or crowded. Maybe a dozen people or so dining on Friday night, a few more at lunchtime. It's a family business, and seemed to be quite a nice vegetarian family, even if the language skills were limited. There was also a nice temple in Busan, but I took off back to Seoul the next morning nonetheless.

Back in Seoul I decided I will definitely find the missing Sticky Fingers bakery, whatever the cost. I went off to a tourist information centre and asked the staff to call the bakery number and ask where is it. They did that very nicely and I got instructions how to get there, despite being told that they wouldn't have much more selection than the department store stand and the place was quite far away. Never mind, I went all the way to Korea for the bakery, I wouldn't mind sitting another hour in the metro to reach it. Despite the instructions I did end up taking the wrong way from the metro station and ended up in a wrong place that still somehow seemed to match the description, so I used my superb Korean skills to chat with an old man there and after five minutes managed to understand that I was supposed to go to the other direction from the station. Well, I walked back and searched for a bit and there it was! The vegan bakery. It was true their selection wasn't much wider than that of the department store though. I bought a bunch of things and happily headed back to the city centre.

There was still time for dinner and I had read of a restaurant offering a nice vegetarian fare, including tofu ice cream, so I took off to find it in the artsy district. Surprise surprise, after walking back and forth where it was supposed to be for an hour or two I didn't find a trace of it. But I did see a restaurant that had its name written in Chinese characters and the name started with 素, which means vegetarian or plain. So I checked their menu, it wasn't a vegetarian restaurant but they did have a vegetarian special also, so I went in and tested my Korean in explaining the whole "no fish, no egg, no dairy" thing to them while pointing to the vegetarian special in the menu. Another waitress came back a moment later to verify the no egg part, so I guess it had an effect. The food was good and at least seemed completely vegan.

The last day I checked out the main palace, Gyeongbokgung, and the Korean folk museum that's adjacent to it. A beautiful palace and an interesting museum. After which I headed off to the Sticky Fingers at the department store and bought the stand empty to bring back tons of stuff to offer to everyone, thinking I'd host a vegan confectionery party in the weekend. Later I realised there's a tango workshop during the weekend so the party might not take place. Don't know. Anyway, Korea overall seemed a very nice country largely worthy of its name ("korea" in Finnish means pretty, sometimes suggesting overly decorated). Well worth a visit, with or without a vegan bakery, but especially with one. The rest of the pictures are in flickr.

Sticky Fingers bakery branches in Seoul:
- Shinsegae department store branch: Take metro line 4 to Hoehyeon (회현) station, go to Shinsegae department store by exit 7 and search the level to which you arrive, probably B1, it's in the sweet foods court.
- Garak market branch: Take metro line 8 to Garak market (가락시장) station, take exit 3 or 4 (one was closed as I was there) towards Olympic Family Apartments (올림픽훼밀리아파트), note a big GS25 Mart and make sure it's on your right hand side as you walk on. If you don't see it, turn around. Turn right immediately after the fence of the GS25 on a small walkway and walk across over to the place straight ahead with several small shops. Sticky Fingers is a bit towards the left, on the side where you'll arrive from.

6 comments:

urban vegan said...

thanks for the tour--I enjoy hearing about your travels!

hey--have you been to thailand? We're thinking about going...

dreamy said...

You are making my jealous of your awesome life and uncanny ability to find vegan food.

pls do blog about Thailand if you visit there too.. with ur supernatural vegan powers I am sure you will be able to find some vegan food :D !

Travegan said...

Thanks for the comments! I've only visited Bangkok briefly on my way to India some months ago, so can't say much on Thailand. There's much of the same thing as in Korea, they make everything in fish sauce and consider that vegetarian. So watch out for that, but otherwise it's a beautiful country. Happy travels! :-)

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