Thursday, November 22, 2012

20/11/12 – 21/11/12 – South Korea. *Insert Seoul-based pun here*


Firstly, it’s amazing how quickly this stuff gets away from you. Every day that I’ve been on this trip so far has been packed full of adventures, and when I think back on what I’ve done, I’ve done so very much, and it seems like even a mere 24 hours ago feels like an entire week ago. But yet, every night when I get in to bed, I think to myself “I’m too tired to blog. I’ll do it tomorrow.” BAM! Three days’ worth of blogs have piled up on me. I’m aiming to get to sleep before midnight, so some parts might be regrettably a bit hazy.

Our first day in Seoul started quite late. We were exhausted from our travels from Hong Kong to Seoul the previous day, so we had a good sleep in in the morning. When we did finally awake, I threw together a rough plan of what we wanted to see and do that day. We started off by heading to Techno Mart, in the Gangbyeon district. I was interested in seeing Seoul’s technological side for which it is so famous, but our primary reason for going here was the food court – cheap eats, and traditional Korean food for our late breakfast/early lunch. While the foodcourt certainly was aimed at locals, they had plastic food examples of all of the meals served. This was fantastic for us foreigners, as we were able to merely take a photo of the meal we wanted, show the shop keep, and then they would make it for us. A brilliant, foolproof system. Emma had… actually, I’m not entirely sure what Emma had. Or rather, I’m not sure what it’s called. It was fried chicken with rice, served with like most traditional Korean food, about three or four different sides. Most were pickled vegetables of some sort, generally different forms of Kimchi. I had bimibap, which is hot rice in a bowl served with lots of different chopped vegetables and a raw egg on top. Doesn’t sound very tasty, but the heat of the rice cooks the egg, and you end up with a really delicious meal.

Anyways, after our yummy start to the day, we had a look around the Techno Mart. Given the name “Techno-Mart”, I thought that it would have some form of inherent technology. But, the level we walked through was all clothes and other apparel. I gave up pretty quickly, and we headed on to the rest of our activities for the day. Only later did I discover that all of the “techno” parts of Techno Mart were in the higher levels of the building. Oh well, I wasn’t going to buy much anyway.

Our next destination was Namdaemun market. “Market” isn’t really an apt word to describe the scale of this market. “City full of people selling shit” is more appropriate. The streets were covered in stalls, selling mainly apparel goods, but there was also a good range of street food, and other more quirky wares on sale. Then, inside the buildings around the streets are more bloody markets. The whole thing takes up a few city blocks, and when this is combined with the maze-like structure of streets, it is easy to be overwhelmed by all of the things on show. Emma did come out of there with some nice hats, whereas I came out of there with some delicious street food.

A small word on my favourite street food of South Korea – “Hoddeok”. Hoddeoks are amazing. They’re amazing cakes stuffed with amazing amazingness. In all seriousness though, they are essentially small cakes made of a doughnut-like batter, shallow fried in oil or margarine, with melted brown sugar and sunflower seeds in the middle of them. They’re occasionally dusted in cinnamon sugar as well. They. Are. Amazing. Really bad for you, but they warm you up so much inside on a cold Seoul day. If/when you go to Seoul, buy them by the truckload. At only $1AUD each, they’re a bargain. That is, until your health insurance doesn’t cover “extreme obesity due to Hoddeok obsession”.

This market really showed off just how trendy of a place Seoul is – everything looks really smart, but at the same time, the prices were quite reasonable. I don’t know why we can’t have that in Australia, instead of either really cheap, awful-looking clothes, or super expensive, nice-looking clothes.

We took a breather from the madness of the market, and had a bite to eat from one of the countless 7-Elevens nearby. I had some weird drink called “Sunny 10 Blast”. I’m always one to try random drinks that I’ve never seen before. It makes things interesting, and only about 15% of the time are they truly, indescribably disgusting (see Thailand, black jelly drink of death for more info).

After our break, we headed for the Namsangol Hanok traditional folk village. While this is still right in the middle of Seoul, they’ve managed to import an entire traditional village into a park, and preserve it for cultural posterity. We decided to rock up there to have a peek around. However, being a Tuesday, it was closed. What. Something I’ve discovered about travelling around Asia: don’t expect things to be open on Tuesdays. It’s happened to me several times, and I have no idea why it is the case, but don’t travel on Tuesdays. If you want to see any national landmarks? Monday is fine. So is Wednesday through Friday. But Tuesday? DENIED.

Anyways, everything wasn’t completely lost, as we were more of the opinion to “take it or leave it” in regards to the village. There was a nice park attached to the village though, which, amazingly enough, wasn’t closed. I’m sure if they could close it on a Tuesday, they would though.

I was very pleased when looking around the park, as I was worried when booking the trip that we would arrive too late to see any of the autumn leaves. Thankfully, this was not the case. While it wasn’t a bouquet of reds, oranges and yellows in every direction you looked, there were still many, many trees showing their autumn leaves. And they were damn pretty. So much so, I think I have a good few hundred photos of leaves on my camera. Don’t worry, they won’t all end up on Facebook. Only the top 50 or so.

By now, it was about 4pm, and with the sun slowly going down, the temperature dropped right off. Emma and I, feeling the fatigue that the cold brings, decided to head back to the hotel for an afternoon nap.

When we awoke, we were spending the evening meeting up with one of Emma’s friends from her days at TAFE. Yunna, a South Korean woman, was kind enough to meet up with us and had agreed to show us around her favourite parts of this amazing city. Upon meeting her at Anguk station, I was witness to a truly happy reunion. Emma and Yunna hadn’t seen each other in about five years, but in the space of about five seconds, they were chatting away like no time had passed at all.

Yunna took us to a local restaurant, that specialised in bean curd-based dishes. Much like our brunch earlier in the day, when we ordered the food, there were too many dishes to actually list them all. I know that there was some tofu served with kimchi, and a delicious beef broth-stew that was both sweet and savoury at the same time. Korean food strikes a delicate balance between these elements quite frequently – with a good kick of hot chilli added for good effect, too.

Yunna, Emma and I chatted away about our current lives. I discovered that Yunna used to be a flight attendant for KLM, and now she works for a software company that designs the booking engines for loads of airlines. Naturally, being the plane geek that I am, we had a fair bit to discuss. I really enjoyed the meal, and especially the company.

The other fantastic thing about eating with a local is that you go to local restaurants and try local food. You also don’t pay the “tourist tax”, as they don’t usually cater to the tourist market and as such don’t charge the (rightfully) higher fees. In total, our meal cost us less than $40AUD, and this was enough food for three adults. Staggeringly cheap, and so full of flavour.

After dinner, we went for a stroll through the local alleyways. According to Yunna, this area used to be a home to local artists and artisans. But, it was recently discovered by the “trendy” crowd of Seoul, and as such has been rapidly gentrified. Now only the really prominent artists live here, and it is more known for its boutique coffee shops and trendy clothing labels.

She led us up a winding road, which ended in a hill that while not a massive hill – especially compared to the rocky mountains in the distance – had a very pretty view over this area of Seoul. On top of it, was a traditional-looking tea house, where we sat down (on the floor) to drink some local teas. Mine was made with mulberry leaves, whereas Yunna’s, while I’m not sure what it was made of, tasted very close to gingerbread. A very impressive blend indeed..

We then strolled around downtown Seoul, and ended up near Gwanghamun station and city hall. We parted ways with Yunna, and took the long subway ride home.

When we got in, we had a quick skim over Seoul’s TV channels. Sadly, I couldn’t find a channel devoted only to StarCraft battles. Maybe it’s only on cable? They do however, have a channel which appears to be purely ads of 15/30 seconds in duration. It took me a good 10 minutes to actually realise that there was no program coming up. Which, to be quite honest, didn’t really bother me, as I find the ads in Asian companies more entertaining than the shows themselves.


Another late start today. Exhaustion is starting to take effect a bit. I hate to say it, but I need a holiday on this holiday! But that is what Japan is for – there are several places there where we have lots of days for “breathing room”. It’s all hurry hurry hurry at the start of the holiday, but things will slow down soon. I hope…

Much like yesterday, we started today by heading to another local food court. These really are a great way to eat. Cheap and authentic food, with no pretentious atmosphere. What more could you want? Today, it was Emma’s turn to get the bibimbap, whereas I had some form of beef dish cooked on a stone hotplate. Very tasty food. The ordering method was interesting though, with a centralised cashier for all of the individual stalls, and you just take a ticket to the individual shop to pick up your order. This is interesting when the entire menu is in Korean, but the “take a photo and show it to a staff member” method worked a charm again. Emma also got her first lot of compliments for the day, with the lovely lady who made our food loudly proclaiming that Emma was “Beautiful! Beautiful!”. This always makes me feel chuffed.

Actually, we’ve both been getting  a lot of stares on our travels so far. Especially in Korea, where the Caucasian population is probably outnumbered about ten thousand to one. I probably only saw one other Caucasian person each day in Korea, except for at the airport. They’re generally nice stares though, so we don’t mind.

After our delicious breakfast/lunch/meal, we headed for Gamsuro-gil street, a street in the Gangnam area of town. Yes, “Gangnam” as in “Gangnam Style”. Much like in the music video, the area was a mishmash of bizarre clothing stores, designer labels, and indie coffee shops. It was definitely one of the more affluent areas of Seoul, albeit aimed at a younger generation. Emma found some nice sunglasses in one of the side streets, which made her very, very happy.

We then headed to Changdeokgung, an area of Seoul in which the royal families used to live. We arrived there at about 3pm, and thought we’d just have a quick gander around the place. Yunna had mentioned the previous day about a “Secret Garden” that you could see, which was meant to be very nice. When I went to buy our tickets for admission to the Secret Garden, I discovered that apparently it is a guided tour, and that you had to partake in the tour, as general admittance was not allowed. I was initially a bit worried by this, thinking that I had screwed up another activity again. However, we managed to rock up just before the last English tour of the day started. That was totally intentional, I swear.

The tour itself was well worth the meagre price of admission. Inside the garden was a winding trail through an autumn-leaved forest, full of several old Korean castle-buildings designed to house both the royal family and their servants. Apparently it is especially beautiful during the autumn season, and I couldn’t have agreed more with that sentiment. Really amazing stuff. I’ll let the photos do the explaining on this one, whenever I get the chance to upload them.

After a lovely afternoon walk through this forest, I wanted to have one last try of seeing the techno-side to Seoul. We headed for the Yongsan electronics superstore. It didn’t disappoint. After getting out at the station, we were confronted by a seemingly endless hall of super shiny cameras and their equipment. I actually walked into here with my Nikon Camera hanging around my neck. Bad idea. About ten different people started yelling at me “Where you from? We sell Nikon Camera! Nikon!” I couldn’t really blame them for trying, but I wasn’t interested in buying anything – number one because I don’t know the first thing about camera lenses and equipment and number two because it was all so expensive.

A few levels further up into this superstore, and Emma and I Found this adorable pet shop with a super cute rabbit in it. We need to move to Asia so we can have a rabbit as a pet!

The next level up was a bookstore and computer accessories store. I actually quite liked this level. Emma went off and looked at her stationery, whereas I headed to a computer parts store, and I bought a few handy cables and accessories I’ve needed for a while, all for a fraction of the cost that it would cost on either ebay, or from a bricks and mortar store in Australia.

Without realising the time, we were now running late for our second meetup with Yunna. We dashed out of the store, and ran back to Yongsan station. This is the first time that Seoul’s subway system became confusing. Yongsan station is a big station, serving most of the lines of Seoul. Most of the other subway stations we had been to served only one or two different lines. This one served about seven. All of the other stations had platforms designated by line number, as there are lines one through nine in the Seoul metro system. This station was divided up by platform number. Thankfully I resisted the urge to just jump on a train and hope for the best, as some of them were express trains, and Seoul’s metro network is very daunting for the unfamiliar traveller.

A few quick observations on Seoul’s metro system while I remember. They like their music. They have musical motifs when the trains are approaching the stations. One sounds like a jovial and upbeat version of the theme from “Rocky”, trumpets and all. Another sounds like a jewellery box mixed with a door chime. When you’re on board the trains, they also play a musical motif before arriving at a station where you can transfer to another line. It’s a handy reminder, but it took me ages to figure out why on earth they were playing this weird traditional-sounding music at seemingly random intervals throughout the journey. It’s all very interesting. Finally, I have to take my hat off to Seoul’s metro on their accessibility for people who don’t speak Korean. Every announcement onboard is spoken in Korean, English, Japanese and Cantonese. They’re really trying their hardest to make it as accessible as possible.

We then caught up with Yunna for the second night. We met up with her at Gwanghamun station, where we jumped into a cab and headed for another area of the city. I’d be lying if I said I knew where it was, but it sure was nice. We went to a traditional restaurant where we sat on the floor to have dinner. Emma and Yunna had rice with nuts wrapped in lotus leaves, whereas I had a spicy pork soup, and the usual side dishes of kimchi, squid, fish, spinach and other assorted things. Once again another very tasty meal at a local restaurant.

We then went for a look through myeong-dong, where I had my third or fourth hotteok for the trip. Delicious. Hazardous to my health, but delicious. We had a look inside a fantastically quirky store, filled with loads of odds and ends that made you go “oh wow, that’s awesome” at everything. I bought a few cool things for the office back in Brisbane, and some small cat-shaped post it notes. Emma, among other things, got a mirror for her wallet that looks like a credit card from the back. Very handy.

We then strolled down a main street, and we took photos in front of Lotte department store. It was lit up with its unseasonal Christmas lights. I don’t know, but it just feels weird to see all of these decorations in Asia. I mean, they have every right to celebrate Christmas, but it just feels unusual when compared to the explosion of festive-ness that is somewhere such as New York at Christmas time.

The night was getting late, so we then went for some nice ice cream and coffee, at the red mango bar. After chatting with Yunna for a while, it was nearing midnight, so we had to leave to take the long subway ride home. Saying goodbye to Yunna was tough – she was such a sweetheart, and the most amazing guide to this amazing city. I can’t wait to come back to Seoul and catch up with her again, or even better, it’d be great for her to come back to Australia soon to see us!

Tomorrow/Whenever I next have internet access: Tokyo! Snow Monkeys! Railway rides through canyons and stuff!

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