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Welcome to the Matrix

What I am about to write might read awfully big-headed or snobbish but there aren't many places I that travel to nowadays that I haven't already been to before. That doesn't mean that I have now officially been everywhere. It also doesn't mean that I have seen everything there is to see of the places that I have visited already. In fact, I would probably argue I have not seen enough of the places I have already visited. I am notoriously lazy so even in the most spectacular of places, you might find me in a cafe, a Starbucks or - well - asleep in bed. If, of course, I am not working (just in case the boss is reading this). I am also the type of person who prefers a restaurant over a museum or a regular street over a street market that looks to be hyped up by some hotel map. Next to the ad for a gentlemen's club. I guess I don't often see the sights because I often don't even know what the sights are. Or I don't believe that the sights are, in fact, the sights. I don't believe the hype, the ads, the bloggers or the Instagram posts. But I haven't seen enough random streets either, so I know I haven't seen everything and that's what keeps the travelling interesting. There are always new sights and there are always entirely new places altogether.


Uzbekistan

Take autumn last year for instance. I was lucky enough to visit Tashkent in Uzbekistan, which was completely new to me. So new that I had to look it up. Central Asia is one of the few places that if you were to give me a blind map, I still get confused and mix up lots of Stan countries. The Baltics are another. Call me ignorant but I just don't seem to get my head around it properly. It's also one of those areas you don't really get to appreciate in terms of its size. Because of its location, bordering some absolutely giant countries, it just doesn't look all that big. But it really, really is. Kazakhstan is a good example. Until I visited for the first time, about a decade ago now, I never knew it was the ninth largest country in the world. It's seriously huge. The border between Kazakhstan and Russia alone is almost 8,000km. That's the second largest border in the world. It's New York to LA and then back again. It also shares a good 1,700km with China, just for good measure.


How do we not know more about these places? I live in a country where the longest distance between two large-ish cities is 350km. The Netherlands across is 264km. That's it. You put your mind to it and it's walkable. Kazakhstan across is 2,930km. It means my country fits into Kazakhstan more than ten times. Even Uzbekistan, which I visited, is 1,425km across and I bet if I get a random one hundred people in a room to point out where Uzbekistan is, I get at least 20 different pins on the map. I am not saying that everyone knows where the Netherlands is but provided we don't ask one hundred Americans - the one country where geography seems to be a subject they've purposely taken off the curriculum - I don't think we get 20 different answers. I was embarrassed to know so little about such interesting countries.


How come that before I travelled to Uzbekistan, I knew absolutely nothing about it? Other than that Guy Rithchie seems to favour Uzbeks over any other nationality when he's casting for villains. Other than that like the Kazakhs, the Uzbeks have a passionate and deep-rooted appetite for horse meat. Which, I have come to learn during my visit, they prefer to cook in pots that are big enough to boil every horse in the Grand National. Except, unlike the Grand National, in Uzbekistan they like to wait for a horse to reach the grand old age of 4,000 years old before they eat it. At least, that's what it tasted like when I had my portion of plov, which, by the way, sounds every bit as uninspiring as it tastes. It's not so much the national dish of Uzebekistan as much as it is the national culinary religion of Uzbekistan. When cooked in a pot the size of a luxury bathroom, it actually looks fairly unappetising but then they put a teeny tiny egg on top of it, which makes it all look a whole lot better.


Tokyo

Fast forward to Tokyo last week and Seoul this earlier this week. Tokyo I have seen, though I am acutely aware that saying I've seen Tokyo makes me sound really stupid and ignorant. If the Kazakh border sounded long, the Tokyo numbers will blow your mind. At any given point, about 2,500 people could be walking the Shibuya crossing when the lights turn green. That's 2 million people a day. In the Greater Tokyo area, the train system transports a massive 13 billion people each year. That's the population of the planet twice every year. 45 of the 50 busiest train stations in the world are - guess! - in Tokyo with Shinjuku Station the glorious winner, transporting 3.6 million people per day. Compare that to, say, London King's Cross with its pathetic and pitiful 64,000 passengers daily. Such amateurs. I could have a dig and conclude that London's King's Cross looks busier because there's always people on the platform and never ever any trains to take them anywhere. Japan's rail service, Japan Rail, is notoriously punctual. The average daily delay is under one minute per train while in the UK, fewer than 60% of all trains run on time. In 2018, Japan Rail (JR West) issued a formal apology when one of its high-speed Shinkansen trains left 25 seconds early. Back to the numbers, the current Metro area of Tokyo is just under 38 million people and thereby the most populous metro area in the world. Anyway, you get the picture. To say I've seen Tokyo is like saying I've seen all of the ocean because I flew over it a couple of times.


Cherry blossom in Shinjuku's Gyoen National Garden (some might argue I was a week or so too late)


And let's be honest, I still get horribly lost in Tokyo. I am still now trying to understand the train and underground system, which, to me, feels like making my way out of an escape room. If that escape room has a sound system blasting out high pitched K-Pop, mile-high neon advertising and about 100 people waiting behind me as I try to buy a ticket. Sure, they're all waiting patiently because we are, after all, in Japan. Taking this long to buy a ticket in London is unacceptable. After a mere two minutes of trying, I would have already heard the London rallying cry ('Excuse me!'). I am guessing that In New York, I would have probably been thrown on the train tracks. But in Japan they are either really patient or they know that they have the world's most bizarre ticket selling system. It's basically like the numbers board of Countdown just after Carol has hit the magic red button - with lots of Japanese writing and lots of colourful lines. It took me two years alone to understand that the railway also travels underground but is not the underground. As it turns out, I still bought the wrong ticket on no fewer than three ocassions. Luckily, there are top-up machines for dozy tourists like myself. If you haven't paid enough and you can't get through the barrier, you just go to a top-up machine, which is a slightly different type of walk of shame.


I thoroughly enjoyed going back to Japan though. It had been too long. I enjoyed how the shop names and brands haven't really changed all that much. Still quirky, still bringing a smile to my face. Pocari Sweat is still readily available from most vending machines. Cream Colon Chocolate remains a thing though I still haven't tried it. Similarly, I haven't brought myself to visit the clothes shop named Titty & Co and I haven't purchased the toothpaste that's called To Be White. Sadly, Cafe Poo has closed though I believe Willy's Take Out still delivers pizzas. Even more sadly, one of my favourite shop names is not a Japanese brand. As you exit Shinjuku via, I believe, the southeast exit, you are greeted by a Starbucks on your left and the slightly bizarrely named Eggslut right in front of you. But Eggslut is American and apparently refers to a craze earlier this decade where foodies put eggs on top of everything they cooked. I hasten to add that for most meals I prepare, I may have missed that craze. I guess I am not an egg slut. Apparently, Eggslut was denied entry into Australia. Perhaps they should think about calling it Eggc**t, so it passes muster down under.


Flying to Seoul

From Narita I made my way to Seoul and I must say that the airport experience at both Narita and Incheon has left me with just one burning question that I'd like to ask all directors of airports in Europe and North America. Why can't you do what they do? Check-in in less than five minutes, security in less than five minutes, passport control through automatic gates in 20 seconds flat and I was sipping a cold lager (no queue for the bar either) in under fifteen minutes from arriving at the airport. Why can't you do this? Why can't we do this? London Heathrow, instead of having dozens of people managing and bossing around queues at security, why can't we get these people to operate security? Is it a Catch-22 situation? Where are we going wrong? Are we too late?!


I am not ignoring the fact that Narita is probably closer to Alaska than it is to Tokyo. You need to plan a day trip just to get from the airport to the city and vice versa. Incheon Seoul is just as bad. Incheon is to Seoul what Barcelona Girona Airport is to Barcelona. What the ISS Space Station is to the moon. Ryanair would agree. The first time I visited Barcelona via Barcelona Girona Airport, I also vowed it would be my last, as you basically get dropped off in a vast wasteland with no access to public transport. A sole bus service provided by the Spanish version of Dewey, Fuckem and Howe takes you to Barcelona and ensures that whatever you saved by not flying a proper airline is spent on the bus fare of first trip alone. There's nothing Barcelona about Girona Airport and I'd probably be inclined to say the same for both Incheon and Narita. But then they have the Narita Express and the Incheon Airport to Seoul train. Both high-speed, both punctual, both affordable. Everything every bus service you take after an Easyjet service isn't.


Oh, and how come Air Korea has in-flight entertaintment and a full meal on even a short haul? British Airways? Iberia? Lufthansa? KLM? How come they don't charge for baggage or a seat? How come they can board a plane in less than half an hour, as opposed to less than half an afternoon? And will there ever come a time where European carriers become so hollowed out and so depleted, they will not actually transport any more passengers? You just buy a ticket and watch your plane leave, so you can imagine that holiday you worked so hard for.


Seoul

Before I left for Seoul, a bunch of girls in the boarding house expressed their jealousy. This happens from time to time though it usually depends on the destination. Some elicit no jealousy whatsoever while others get me a tiny bit of response. A shrug of the shoulders or an acknowledgement of sorts. Korea was different though. Ears were pricked and genuine utterings of, 'Oh sir, that's not fair' were heard. Apparently, among the teens and young adults of today, Korea is Kool and Seoul is the place to be. Pre-flight, and perhaps rather ignorantly, I thought K-pop must be at the heart of all this popularity. I am using the term K-pop like I am fully in the know and I know perfectly what I am talking about here but I have to admit that I haven't got a Scooby Doo about Korean pop music. I know of one group, BTS, and that's by name only. I don't if they are girls or boys (does anyone nowadays), a mixture of boys and girls, how many of them are in the band or whether they can be called a band. I know nothing. In my ignorance and conceited I-know-what-music-is-and-that-ain't-it attitude to music, all of K-pop does kind of sound the same to me. It has passed me by. I am a combination of too old, too set in my ways, not open-minded enough and - well - just not willing to allow my ears to any of that type of suffering. Trust me, being driven around by Seoul taxi drivers has given me all the K-pop I need. I would like to think that heroine would have the same effect on me now. A kind of, 'No thanks, I am good' after the first time of sticking a needle in my arm.


Whereas K-pop has a lot to answer for with regards to Korea's popularity, I do wonder whether it's just my mixing up cause and effect. What is clear when you visit Seoul, and in particular places like Gangnam, is that Seoul is rich. It's proper rich. I walked past one random coffee shop, thought about ordering a latte and watching the world go by and then realised that the three supercars parked next door had all been valet parked for the three couples in there. Sporting an old bag and a Hawaii shirt from Target, I feared the owner might be so offended by my audicity of just walking in, he might subject me to more K-pop. So I kept on walking. This is a city where BMWs and Audis look average and Volvos look distinctly impoverished. I wonder whether people would hand me money if I got out of my Honda here. I never saw any of them. As I ambled along on one of the main strips, I saw, for the first time in my life, a Koenigsegg dealership. If you're curious, it's opposite the Rolls Royce dealership.



Welcome to the Matrix

Was it K-pop that led to opulence or was it opulence that led to K-pop? I think it is probably the latter. I also think it's opulence that led to the cool factor. The Uber Cool Factor. It just depends on what you consider is cool. I don't think I am the best judge of cool. My daughter and pretty much all the girls in the boarding house would probably agree. I am cool like a knitted jumper is cool and I think that my definition of cool is painfully uncool. I also fear that my analysis and consideration of today's cool may be misread as an indictment of cool. Or even a critique of all of modern society. It is not. I am not criticising modern society but with a title such as Welcome to the Matrix, I suppose it is difficult to argue that. After all, isn't The Matrix trilogy just that? A cricitism of modern society? The great big machine we're all plugged into, allowing us or forcing us to live completely different lives? Never ever waking up the lives we are actually leading? Only a few enlighted souls happy to be red-pilled about what is considered and argued to be the truth? Well, now, my visit to Seoul felt like stepping into a matrix not too dissimilar from The Matrix.


Minus the fighting.


The culture of K-pop has followed the unbelievable (upper) middle-class wealth that is evident all round. Nowhere is this wealth more prominent and more true than the many superfluous commercial pastimes that are available to the happy few. Nowhere can you drink more coffee, more different types of coffee, in more different types of ways and in more different types of establishments than here. I haven't yet seen the type of coffee place where guests sit at long German-style beerstuebe tables and sing coffee-drinking songs while on the hour, every hour, the barista throws a gallon of liquid caffeine over their intoxicated heads. I haven't seen it but something tells me it's not long in the making. For those who aren't keen at looking stylishly disinterested in coffee bars, but keen on looking disinterested, there are the many nail and hair salons to consider. Full of punters everywhere, of course, but again no shortage of types and places. You can go for the type of salon where the stylist is capable of looking even more spiritless and lethargic than the customers or the one where you can get served by not one, not two but three stylists all at once. One to do your hair while the other two are holding various strands of hair in such an admiring way, one might wonder whether they will ever shred them or eventually start making love to them.


Another completely gratuitous hobby seems to be the collecting of the most ridiculous looking pets. Pets being defined here as whatever goes on four legs, doesn't speak a language and needs to be reminded not to eats its own faeces; other than that, it looks as if every type of animal is accepted, provided they look daft. The dafter the better. And provided they fit into a handbag. In Seoul I assume the handbag - designer, obviously - is primarily used to transport said animals from the home to the pet hospital. There are more of those than there are human hospitals, which can mean one of three things. Koreans are very healthy, Korean pets are very unhealthy or the average human comes after an upper middle class domesticated animal in the health pecking order. Either way, seeing 24-hour pet hospitals all over Gangnam looks like excessive lifestyles are being led by some people.


Those people can be seen everywhere. Racing from red traffic light to red traffic light in their McLarens and Ferraris, revving their engines for a mere 200 metres, sipping the Signature Cold Brew at Grandpa Factory Cafe or waiting in a two-hour queue outside the London Bagel Museum. There are more beautiful and trendy people per square metre than anywhere I have ever been before. Al dressed impeccably, all handbagged and manbagged up with gear that costs more than the entire contents of my poor-man's American Tourister when I packed it last week. All manicured perfectly. All doing nothing and all doing something. All living their best lives.


But all living their best lives in what looks to be some kind of social media matrix. A world that exists only in a made-up reality. Life such as what we would like it to look like, not such as it is. All these young adults, teens and twenty-somethings wait their turn patiently, queuing for a bagel for the best part of the early afternoon. What gets posted, and what gets lived by those looking in, in effect, is the moment that bagel is paraded in front of a device of some sort; further greasing the Social Media wheel that brought these types of people here in the first place. They don't post the queue. They don't complain about the wait, like I probably would have. They post the end result. They manufacture the end result to look like it was all there was. We didn't queue, we didn't agonise, we didn't wait and we weren't all led here by the same type of people that did exactly the same kind of thing that we're doing right now. Making up some moment of our life to highlight all of our life. We didn't do that. This what you see - this is that life. In this way, you don't get just one shot at it. You don't get one bite or one take. You get endless retakes. Endless options and endless edits. Life on Social Media is exactly what you want it to look like. Life in Seoul, once it's put on Insta, TikTok or BeReal, is exactly what you want it to be.


And if it can't be manufactured through the lens of the latest iPhone or the many editing options and apps afterwards, Seoul has got the answer for that too. Outnumbering both pet hospitals and regular hospitals are the cosmetic and plastic surgery clinics. Huge, sleek and modern buildings where noses, eyelids, jaws, calves and breasts can get augmented for anyone who would like a pre-photo edit as opposed to, or in addition to, a post-edit. I quite like the word 'augment' too. If you travel to California enough, like I believe I have, you come to realise that depending on the body part, augment can mean both smaller and larger. It's a word as fascinating as some of its outcomes.


I am not trying to sound critical though I realise I am not doing a very good job right now. I loved, loved, loved Seoul. I am sure that what I have seen isn't reprentative of an entire nation and there were plenty of pigs' heads and trotters for sale at the slightly less Social Media friendly local market that I visited. I am sure there is plenty of authenticity to find if you wish to find something real but then that does also beg the question of authenticity. What is authentic? After all, isn't the Seoul that I found - the majority of what I found anyway - authentic too? People live like this. I believe they genuinely do. Does it have to be old to be authentic? Does it require someone like me, someone who's never been before and who is discovering this for the first time, to decide what is real and what isn't?


My almost fifty-year-old brain just had some trouble processing what it has seen. I am still finding my way through my own brain because I walked past the London Bagel Museum and wondered why everyone was queuing. Why everyone was taking pictures of each other, each other's food, themselves and their own food. Why no one found it the slightest bit odd to pose with a bagel. Not just one picture either. Whole photo shoots of them. I was clueless as to what was going on there. This place not advertised in any (for me) conventional kind of way and thereby its fame and its invitation exclusive to an audience that does have a life in Social Media. As opposed to me. If I sound critical, it is because I am starting to realise that, much to my chagrin and though I try to fight it, I am getting older. I am losing touch. I am neither red-pilled nor plugged into the matrix. I am just older now but there's an upside.


The places I have visited before keep changing the older I get. Places I have seen before continue to look different and continue to exite. I am travelling to India next week. A country I have not visited for a quarter of a centure (how's that for making someone feel old). Such a long time ago, in fact, that when I was asked for my old Visa for India - so as to process my new Visa - I realised it is now two passports ago. I have been before but I know I will get lost. It is inevitable. I will find a new real and, who knows, a completely new matrix.


Aside from visiting new places, new sights in places I have been to before; old age, forgetfulness and new realities also keep the travelling interesting.




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