Monday, February 16, 2009

Seoul Trip B.A. (Before Alick or Bad A$$, depends on your point of view!)

First of all, I apologize for sucking recently. I've been hella busy as of late, mostly with trivial stuff, but busy none the less. This here will be the first part of a 2 part series about my trip to Seoul, although I have a feeling it may be long in 2 pieces as well. Anyways, Lunar New Year was celebrated this year on January
26th, so we had off the 26th and 27th which meant it was time to get out of Ulsan. Here we go.........

The trip began with a bunch of disorientation around 6:00 a.m. of Saturday 24th, as Malcolm, Louise and I scrambled around their apartment trying to get things situated so we could get to Ulsan's 역 (yeok, or station) for our 7:00 departure. Come to think of it, it was just like taking a family vacation except without the couch pictures or having a car breakdown on the highway, but I digress.

Now I would love to say that we stepped on a train and then some 5 hours later we arrived to Seoul, but there were some things that stuck out that I just can't omit. First one being, mad props to Lu (Louise) for making bacon sandwiches on a toasted baguette, definitely hit the spot on the trip. Which reminds me, the train ride was some 5 hours long, so you think they would have a small complimentary meal, a muffin/bagel type deal, piece of fruit and juice, but they don't. The tickets were cheap so I'm not going to complain too much, just saying it would've been nice. Now they may not have a meal, but they do have a snack car on the train, and what a snack car it is. To be honest the snacks were a little underwhelming but I can tell you that it was the first train I ever saw that had private rooms with little massage chairs, private noraebangs (karaoke rooms), arcade games and computers with internet access. I didn't partake in any of the forementioned activities, but it is good to know that if I feel the need to sing some Rick Astley on a train, I can do so. Oh, Korea.

Ok, so some 5 hours later or so, we got to Seoul, got a metro ticket and were on our way to the guest house that Mal and Louise booked (once again mad props to the Brits, they were travel agent stand-ins for me as they booked my train tix and the the room at the guesthouse). I must say that Mal and Lu did a good job with the accommodations as we were in a traditional korean guest house. The house and my room in particular, all looked like something straight out of the 19th century. My room more so than Mal and Lu's because it had these circular metal rings used for a door knob as opposed to a proper door knob and it also had like these paper-sliding doors. Quite cool indeed. Another thing about the house, the owner was really nice and provided us with maps, and he also had this traditional Korean dog that was very sweet and chill, so we would just sit out for a minute or two and give the dog some attention for a minute before we would head out.

After putting our stuff down, grabbing some 갈비 (galbi, or grilled rib meat), we were ready to tackle the tourist thing. So we started our Seoul journey by traveling through Insadong, which is a little touristy area in Seoul. There were a bunch of stores selling the touristy stuff you expect to find in Asia along with some trendy shops selling artsy craftsy stuff. Lu was probably a little more interested in the artsy stuff than Mal and I, but it was cool regardless. After walking around the area, we decided to warm up with some tea at a traditional Korean Tea House. The tea house we went to was quite cool and trendy, and the tea I ordered there was good.

After prying our heated bums from the ondol heated floors in the tea house, we mustered up the courage to face the frigid Seoul weather and finish our Insa-Dong trek, which was celebrated with some skewered Korean meat dipped in the spiciest sauce found in Korea. Insa-Dong complete, back to the guest house for some much needed rest.

With our batteries charged and wearing 16 layers of clothes (did I mention it's cold in Seoul?), we headed out for our evening's festivities. We made it over to this one area of Seoul where it's supposed to have all of these markets that are open in the evening/early hours of the morning. Unfortunately, a lot of the places were closed due to the Lunar New Year Holiday, well that was our reasoning, but we had fun regardless. We did find these 3 buildings that from the outside look like department stores but really are indoor clothes markets. To put it best, picture a crowded Asian Market where people sell clothes but add escalators, it was crazy. Another bonus, they would always try and get Mal and my attention by greeting us with "Hey, you a handsome boy." What a nice boost for the self esteem.... errr sales tactic.... Furthermore, these markets are open till 5:00 in the morning. Not really sure why I would need to buy some trendy clothes at 4:30 in the morning, but it's good to know I could do so if necessary.

We finish with the markets, well maybe not Louise, but we were done for the evening, and so we thought, "hey, it's around midnight on a Saturday night, we're young whipper-snappers, let's get some drinks." (maybe not in those exact words) So, we decided to head on down to Insa-Dong, the night was ours to be had... or so we thought. Turns out Insa-Dong is a great little district for the day but is dead in the evening, not even one decent Hof (beer house, a borrowed German word). So what does one do in such a position? Roll on over to the closest corner store, buy some beer, pringles and other 과자 (snacks) and head back to the guest house and watch some Simpsons until 2:00 in the morning. On a sidenote, Pringles are pretty much the most dependable snack you can get from a grocery store in Korea. I say this because I've had some imitation Doritos that had as much taste as cardboard.

Day 2 in Seoul had a late start, about noon, which was more or less a common theme for the weekend. After grabbing a bite we headed over for some culture, to see Gyeongbokgung Palace. The cool thing about Gyeongbokgung is that the Korean Folk Art Museum is right next to it, so they had a replica replica village outside. We sought asylum from the cold (Seoul is cold I tell you) by stepping into the Museum for a bit. I had fun wandering around and would've liked to spend more time there, but someone isn't keen on museums. Lu, I'm looking at you on this one. The highlights of the museum were the kimchi exhibit, the hall that covered korean life durimg the Joseon period (18th century or so) from birth to death, and yes, there was a placenta chamber at the beginning. I can't believe I forgot to take a picture of that. Lastly, there was special exhibit for the year of the ox and an ox shaped board on a wall where you could leave a wish for the new year.

So Lu finally got Mal and I out of there and onto the real attraction, the palace. Upon entering the palace our attention was quickly drawn to a small pond that was frozen over, where hoards of Koreans were playing. They had these little toboggans with skate blades and a rope to have someone pull you along with some dreidle like game where you whipped the dreidle and it kept spinning. Needless to say, the inner kid in us came out and we gave the Koreans something to stare at, as the 3 foreigners took turns pulling each other across the ice.

Moving along, we made our tour around the palace, which like all good cultural relics in Korea, consists of mostly renovated buildings because the Japanese burned them down. Which led me to the observation that there is one fire extinguisher per every 10 yards or so at any Korean Historic site. Why not just have a fire department on site? Furthermore, I've learned the Korean word for fire extinguisher (소화기) without it ever being in any lesson or studying note cards. The palace itself was originally constructed during the Joseon Period, which ended in the late 19th century although I'm not entirely sure when it began, maybe in the 16th century. The buildings were pretty cool, with the best ones being the dining hall that was on the edge of another pond, and then the halls where the king would meet with foreign ambassadors. Now, I wasn't a fan of the cold of Seoul but the snow did make the views seem prettier, although it was annoying to keep taking off my gloves to take pictures. To wrap up our self-guided tour, we came out the entrance of the palace to see some guards dressed in traditional garb from the Joseon Period. A nice finishing touch I must say.

Gyeongbokgung Palace complete, we grab some food and then on to the next site, N Seoul Tower. N Seoul Tower is a tower on a mountain/hill, emphasis on the hill, where you can see all of Seoul. The tower itself isn't that impressive as it was built on a hill, but the sight is rather good. We walked around the tower and took some pictures from some of the cliffs of the mountain with the brutal Seoul wind whipping our skin from reptile skin to sandpaper skin. Anyways, after mulling around the outer parts of the tower and warming up with some hot chocolate/coffee, we made our move up the tower. Some points about the tower, at the top they have a circle where you can walk around and see all of the city and in the glass they have signs of the different major cities and their distance. So you could see that from one point you were some 10,000 kilometers from Chicago, or 300 km from Pyongnang (the capital of North Korea), and Buenos Aires was the farthest at some 19,000 km from Seoul. Also, the men's bathroom was the nicest bathroom I've probably ever been in. Not only was it really clean and all modern, but you could see all of Seoul, well in one direction, while you were at the urinal. Brilliant! We also were smart to follow the guidebook's directions and get to the tower around sunset, so we could see the city go from light to dark and see all of the lights. The most random thing about the tower? There's a teddy bear museum/exhibit at the bottom, not really sure how towers and teddy bears are related but apparently they are. N Seoul Tower complete, back to the guest house and wait for Alick's arrival.

With the end of the N Seoul Tower trip we have completed the first part of the 2 part wrap-up for the Seoul Trip. Look out for part 2 sometime this decade......