South Korea – A Week in Seoul

Monday July 2 Our flight from Jeju Island was just a quick hop (1 hr). When we arrived at Gimpo Airport, we did the usual – grab our bags and find the information desk to ask about the best way to get into the city. The nice lady at the desk provided us with a city map and directed us toward the AREX airport express line which stopped at a station 1 subway stop away from the one nearest our hotel. The half hour ride cost something like $2 Canadian for both of us. Every time that happens I feel a bit ashamed that Toronto isn’t providing the same sort of service. It would really add value to the city.

We found our hotel, nestled in an alleyway with a bunch of restaurants and street vendors, and checked in. The WS Hotel is pretty new, and the room was one of the nicer ones we’ve had so far! The staff was also super helpful, and gave us a guidebook with a fold-out subway map (Seoul has 9 subway lines, plus the railway) that helped us plan most of our week. After dropping off our stuff, we explored the neighbourhood, including the nearby Hyundae Department Store. The area is full of students because there are a bunch of universities in the area. That means lots of hofs (Korean-style pubs), and a lot of them specialize in fried chicken. We chose one where we could sit on a covered patio, ordered some spicy wings (and side dish pickled radish), and a 3 L pitcher of beer, and then watched as the rain set in!

Tuesday July 3 We woke up to a dry morning, and decided to take the advice of our friend from Jeju, Yeonwoo, and take the subway to City Hall and walk around there. It is very central to a lot of the palaces and other sight-seeing destinations. When we got out of the subway, we discovered that there was a huge protest starting outside of the government building. There were thousands of older people in the square outside City Hall, a big stage set up, and police buses were arriving. We decided to dodge the protest and start our day at Deoksugung palace.

Visiting places like Deoksugung is a lot cheaper in Korea, where entry fees are around $1.50, compared to Japan where entry fees are more like $6 or $8. We spent a lot of time on the palace grounds, which were quite beautiful, and large. We decided to go to Cheonggyecheon stream next, which our tourist book said was a popular spot to visit. In order to get there, we had to walk past City Hall. You couldn’t see too much of the (very peaceful) protest because of buses parked all the way around the square, so we crossed the street with a bunch of other people who were just going about their days, to get a closer look. We didn’t stay too long, as we noticed the police squads were suiting up with riot gear. Mike snapped a couple pictures, and promised he would steer clear of anything like that at our next destination! We found out that a large number (~2000) of auto workers had been laid off by their company (I can’t remember the name), and they were appealing to the government for help. We wanted to see the outcome on the news, but couldn’t find it later on.

After leaving the protest, we walked down the stream, which was quite nice, and decided we were going to circle back to the Nandaimon market before heading home. On the way, we saw a Lotte department store just as it began to rain. We decided to go inside in search of a Lotte Giants baseball jersey. I regret not buying one in the stadium back in Busan. I thought I would have another opportunity, and learned later that the stadium is pretty much the only place they are available. No luck on the jersey, so we decided to have lunch in the food court instead. When the rain slowed down, we walked the rest of the way to the market.

South Korean traditional markets are cool places. Stalls are packed full of everything under the sun, and there’s a lot of street food mixed in there too. It was pretty easy to get turned around in the endless maze of t-shirts, shoes and luggage. While we were there, a massive storm set in. There was torrential rain that seemed like it was never going to end, and all the awnings on the shops just funnelled it onto the street. I decided to wait it out with a snack, so I bought a spicy sausage on a stick, wrapped in a fish cake. I had my eye on those things for days! However, the weather situation rapidly deteriorated – the sausage stand’s umbrellas couldn’t stand up to the torrent, and the road had flooded above the waterproof level on my sneakers! We finally gave up, and sloshed through it all to the subway. Once again we spent the evening drying our shoes with the hotel hair-dryer, and grabbed some pizza for dinner (Hawaiian, and Bulgogi pies).

Wednesday July 4 In the morning we headed back to the City Hall area and visited Gyeongbokgung palace and the Korean Folk Museum in the morning. This palace was even larger than the one we visited yesterday, and was also very beautiful. The highlights here for me were learning about Hangul, the Korean alphabet, and seeing where it was created. We entered through the main gate at the south end of the palace, and left through the north, where we found ourselves standing in front of the President’s residence. We took a few pictures, and noticed that the building was flying both the South and North Korean flags, before walking down to the subway to head over to a neighbourhood called Itaewon.

According to our tourist information, Itaewon is the home of foreigner culture – the place to go for bars that remind you of home, big enough clothing to wear and Western food. We decided to go to a place with all-day Western-style breakfast (our first since leaving Canada), which had a country-western theme. Shania Twain crooned over the stereo while we ate eggs, bacon, hash browns, grilled cheese, and “corned-beef hash”. The grilled cheese was higher quality than I was expecting, but the hash wasn’t what I would call hash. I’m not sure what I’d call it, really. Oh well. You win some, you lose some.

Our secondary purpose for visiting Itawon was to continue our search for women’s sandals that might fit me. Almost all of the stores we visited in Japan and Busan only carried the equivalent of sizes 4-7. While walking down the street, vendors pointed and yelled at me “we have big size!! come in!!”, but nobody could produce size 10 shoes. I would just buy men’s sandals, but I had hopes of something more feminine to match better with skirts and dresses. As it stands, I prefer my runners for long days walking around palaces etc. so I will continue the hunt later on. We gave up the hunt when we saw a sign with a Canadian flag and the words “Rocky Mountain Tavern”. We figured we had to go in, and promptly ordered their special – a double Canadian Club with the mixer of your choice (cola for Mike, ginger ale for me). Although the bar was full of Canadian kitsch, it was also mostly full of Koreans. However, after a while we noticed a woman who sounded like she was from Canada sitting around the corner from us. We introduced ourselves, found out she was from Thunder Bay, and talked all night with her and her fiance over pitchers of beer!

Thursday July 5 After our late night at the Rocky Mountain, we woke up late. The rains had started again, and not wanting to spend the day soaking our shoes again, we decided to spend the day catching up on writing posts, uploading photos, and writing post cards. We did, however, head out to the Yongsan Electric City to see if there were any deals to be had. We ended up buying a keyboard for our tablet, which makes it a lot easier for the both of us to be working at the same time! In the evening, we headed back out into the maze of restaurants by our hotel, and chose another Korean fried chicken place. This time, the battered chicken was tossed in black sesame seeds, and was served with peaches and cherry tomatoes served on ice. Oddly enough, we noticed part way through our meal that the sogmage inside the place claimed it was a curry chicken joint, but there was no curry to be had. Nevertheless, it was delicious! Koreans sure know their chicken.

Friday July 6 It poured all night, and had only begun to let up when we woke up. We spent the soggy morning exploring the markets that are in between the Dongdaemun and Dongdaemun History and Culture Park subway stations. Some areas specialize in fashion, with endless stalls of clothing and a whole block that was devoted to shoes (though, of course, no size 10′s). We had brunch at a street vendor that had set up a huge tent. Mike ordered a delicious sesame flavoured dish of noodles, onions and fish cake, and I finally tried ddeokbokki, a staple of street food in Korea. It is basically rice cakes cooked in a red paste with fish cakes. The paste was sweet and spicy. It was ok, but I definitely liked Mike’s choice more. The proprietor also gave us a fish cake soup that was awesome (and kept it topped up throughout the meal), and the requisite side dishes (kimchi and… pickled radish?). A pretty good way to warm up on a dreary day. It continued to rain into the afternoon, and after a few more hours walking around we finally got sick of it, and decided to spend some inside time visiting Lotte World.

Lotte World is the world’s largest indoor theme park. In addition to the indoor park, there is an outdoor section, skating rink and theatre. Bring your passport, because as a foreigner, there are deals to be had! Our ticket agent inspected our ID’s and then proclaimed that since there was a 7 in my birthdate, we could get 2 tickets for the price of 1. As with all amusement parks, you have to spend a fair bit of time in line, but over the course of about 4 hours, we went on about half the rides there. Mike also convinced me to try a roller coaster that went upside down, and it was pretty cool after all (so we did it twice). Maybe someday I’ll return to Wonderland to try all those coasters I was too chicken to try before!

When we had our fill of Lotte World, we caught a train to the Hongik University area for dinner. We surveyed the madness – crowds of 20-somethings meeting up with friends and choosing their clubs for the evening, before settling down for some more barbecue. This time, we went to a place that had a trough around the burner, into which our waiter placed kimchi and then poured some unidentifiable creamy looking water. We weren’t sure what it was, but when it was done cooking, we discovered it was a kimchi omlette, which we devoured. We walked off the meal, and then collapsed into bed.

Saturday July 7 We woke up early, to squeeze in one last full day of sightseeing in South Korea. We started by taking the subway for 1.5 hours to the city of Suwon, where we then hopped on an hourly shuttle bus to the Korean Folk Village in Yongin. We watched an equestrian show complete with spear throwing, archery and standing up on galloping horses. It was amazing! We followed that up by watching a traditional marriage ceremony. After that we wandered through a workshop where craftsmen were making all kinds of souveniers. I bought a bamboo flute from a ‘master flautist’, who showed me the fingerings for it. After a few trials I got some sound out of it, and worked out O Canada. I’m looking forward to getting better at it! We got lunch there – traditional Korean food, made from ingredients farmed by the ‘villagers’, and then caught the shuttle back to Suwon station, where we caught a city bus to check out the Hwaseong palace and fortress (the Suwon city wall). There was going to be a concert in the public square in front of the palace, and we watched a K-pop boy band do their sound checks for a while before carrying on. We walked a good portion of the wall, and then caught a bus back to Suwon station to meet up with our friend Yeonwoo for one last time. We had dinner and coffee and a good chat before she put us on a train going back to Seoul. The train was a lot like the Via, and was a LOT faster than taking the subway like we did that morning. It was really nice of her!

Sunday July 8 We used our last day in Seoul to prepare for our next 3 weeks in China. We slept in, and then located a coin laundromat so we’d have clean clothes for our arrival in Beijing. Mike got our photos backed up and organized, and I packed. We wandered around our neighbourhood one last time, and ate grilled meat and kimchi one last time. We got to bed early, as we had to make sure we were out of the hotel the next day by 9 to catch our plane! I didn’t have much knowledge of South Korea before arriving, but I really enjoyed my time here. I would definitely return, and see some of the country between Seoul and Busan!

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