Whew! What a busy few days it’s been.
But then that seems entirely in keeping with Seoul’s nature. A population of 10 million people, a metropolitan area that is home to almost half of Korea’s 40 million inhabitants, headquarters to some of the world’s largest and most diverse businesses. It’s not really surprising that it’s a densely packed, fast paced and exciting place.
Our flight from KL arrived at around 21:45, after a short queue we were straight through customs, collected our bags and were spilled out into the cool night of Incheon (pronounced In-chawn) about 50km from South Korea’s capital.
After about a 45 minute ride we climbed down from from the airport limousine bus (it really was a very fancy bus…) and into southern Seoul’s very modern and very busy (even at 11:00 on a Tuesday) Gangnam Gu neighbourhood (yet another one of my linguistic redundancies… Gu means district in Korean.)
Central Seoul by night from the top of Namsan park
It’s fortunate that our couchsurfing host John provided us with good directions and a map, because as we learned very quickly, navigating in Seoul is tricky. Streets aren’t particularly well signed, street numbers are virtually non-existent and some smaller streets don’t have names at all. And while there are neighbourhood maps in the subway stations and occasionally on the street, using these is difficult if you aren’t careful, as they are often oriented seemingly at random.
After a bit of an introductory chat with John, we headed off to bed (a comfy foam mattress in the living room/kitchen) and got some rest for our first day out in a new city and country.
Our first few hours in Seoul were a bit disorienting. It had been a while since we’d travelled anywhere with a non-Latin alphabet, and few English speakers. The previously mentioned difficulties of navigating Seoul streets added to this and meant that it took a while to become comfortable with our new surroundings.
Our first task was to find a tourist information office and get ourselves a decent map of the city. This seemingly simple task involved a subway ride to city hall, the discovery that the city hall office was closed, as the whole city hall was being reconstructed, a walk around the exterior of one of the royal palaces, watching the changing of the guard ceremony at said palace, becoming part of the entertainment as we were dressed up in traditional Korean outfits by the super-friendly volunteers outside the palace, wandering through the fancy shopping area of Myeong Dong, and finally stumbling across the head office of the Seoul tourist board just as we were starting to wonder if we’d gone the wrong way.
Sarah and I dressed in traditional Korean costumes near the Gyeongbokgung palace
But by the time all of this was done, we were starting to feel much more comfortable with our surroundings, enough so that we set out exploring.
That afternoon we managed to stumble across the Namdaemun outdoor market (which has supposedly been running continuously in the same location since the 15th century). While there we had our first Korean food: a big, fried dumpling filled with glass noodles and vegetables, and brushed with a sweet, hot and sour sauce. And since it came from a cart with a queue of people waiting to be served you know it was delicious
Snack cart in Namdaemun Yum!
Clothing for sale at Namdaemun. Though there was much more than clothes available there… Koreans say that if you can’t buy it at Namdaemun you don’t need it. Sarah eventually purchased a brightly coloured elephant shaped watch at the market
A shop selling Christmas decorations in Namdaemun. Christianitiy is South Korea’s largest religion, just a bit ahead of Buddhism (not that Christmas decorations of this sort necessarily have much to do with religion…)
The evening (which came much faster than we’d been used to, as we’d travelled from early summer to early winter) found us at the top of Namsan park, Seoul’s largest park and home to the N-Seoul tower (which, like all such towers, has a revolving restaurant, a tourist complex at the base, and charges an arm and a leg to ascend.)
We wandered back down through the deserted but well lit trails until we found a subway station and headed back to Gangnam.
N-Seoul Tower and the a nearby pavilion. A peaceful spot at the top of a looong stairway leading up from the hustle and bustle of town, and before the commercial hubbub at the base of the tower
That night we also had our first Korean meal, cook-them-yourself pork steaks (Daeji Galbi) complete with a wide variety of accompanying sauces and side dishes. Yummy stuff!
John cooking up our evening meal over the charcoal BBQ built into the table. The grill on the BBQ has to be changed now and then as you get it stickier and stickier while you pile more and more food on it
The next morning we set out to find the Seoul kimchi museum. Kimichi is the national food of Korea, and NO Korean meal is complete without it. The most popular version of kimchi is cabbage flavoured with a bit of dried fish, as well as hefty amounts of salt, garlic and red chili powder. But as we learned at the museum, there are endless variations on the theme, and so long as it involves some sort of preserved fermented vegetable, it’s kimchi.
For some, Kimichi is a taste that’s difficult to acquire. No such problem for Sarah and I. Salty, spicy, full of yummy lactobacillus flavours. Food made in heaven if you ask me!
The kimchi museum also taught us that New Zealand is the second largest export market for kimchi outside of Asia… 418 tons vs. 685 for the US, and only 133 for Canada. Who knew!?
Some of the dozens of (plastic model) kimichis on display at the museum
Me in the tasting room at the kimichi museum along with some of the many school kids who we shared the museum with (manic!) Classic cabbage, white (no red pepper) cabbage, pony tail radish, radish greens, extra-fishy cabbage from the south, diced radish, mustard green and sesame-oil-fried cabbage kimchis were all available for tasting
The rest of the day was spent visiting the Changdeokgung palace, originally constructed in the 1400s, destroyed in a Japanese invasion in the late 1500s and then re-built shortly thereafter.
The palace and its grounds were much more subtle and simple than the Forbidden City in Beijing, but in their own way were just as beautiful. The fact that there weren’t thousands upon thousands of other visitors there at the same time as us probably helped with this impression as well
While there we had a lovely chat with a group of students who interviewed us for a school project, thanked us profusely for our time, and presented us with some delicious miniature walnut and sweet red bean pastries.
Fuzzy Face Friends!
The throne room in Changdeokgung
While most of Changdeokgung was colourful, if fairly simple, this one large annex was simpler still. It was built by a Joseon (the last Korean royal dynasty) king for his favourite concubine and used as a retreat for Joseon kings thereafter
Many of the trees in Seoul were well on their way to bare, some others still bore coloured leaves, but the most impressive of all were the persimmon trees, still heavy with bright orange fruit
The next day was yet another very full one. The time had come to bid our fabulous host John farewell. Early that morning we piled on our gear and headed out to meet our new host Laura before she went to work. Despite our worries about navigating the subway during rush hour we made it with time to spare, and headed out the door with Laura so that she could direct us to the National War Memorial and its accompanying museum.
The museum was an interesting place. For a wide variety of reasons.
Some of it was exactly what you’d expect from any military museum: A wide variety of detailed exhibits explaining the conflicts the country has been involved in (of course with the major focus being on the progress of the Korean war.) Displays of military hardware (big ones outside, smaller ones indoors.) A memorial hall honouring the fallen soldiers of the country.
Other parts were to be expected, but were particularly Korean: A large hall explaining and giving thanks for the contributions of all of the other nations that fought alongside the south in the Korean War (interesting fact: Luxembourg was one of the 12 nations that joined the UN forces, contributing one infantry platoon of 83 men.) Exhibits detailing the litany of provocative and outright nasty actions of North Korea since the cease fire agreement was signed (these did, of course display a strongly Southern bias, but in this instance, I’m inclined to agree pretty much fully with the bias.)
Other parts ranged from pleasantly surprising to completely inexplicable. The museum of ancient Korean military artifacts in the basement. The display telling children what to do in the event of a chemical, biological or nuclear/radiological attack (in many places I’d think this pure paranoia. Here, it just seems like a reasonable precaution.) The display of drill by dozens of members of the four branches of the armed forces and the women’s group that that we couldn’t specifically identify. The display of medieval combat techniques that followed this. And most unusual of all, the huge children’s playground of ball pits and bouncy castles that occupied one wing of the museum.
A Hwacha (15th century Korean multiple rocket launcher.) This was the Korean unique unit in Civilization III!
Sarah with the mascot of the South Korean army after the drill demonstration
The kids play area with military hardware on display above
Two of the memorial maintenance men taking a rest with their carts underneath a US Air Force B-52 bomber in the outdoor displays
Gas masks in the Seoul subway. Every subway stop has hundreds of them available in several cabinets like this throughout the station
On our way back home we had a quick wander around Itaewon, the “foreigner’s quarter” of Seoul. It was full of taco shops, pizza restaurants, sandwich shops, bars, clubs, patisseries, and on and on. And there are parts of Toronto where you’d see fewer non-Asians. I’m not quite sure why this annoyed me as much as it did. After all, I’ve no problem with each of the various ethnicities in North American cities having their own enclaves. But for some reason a single area of non-Koreans in Seoul really irritated me.
As it grew dark we returned home for dinner with Laura (more Korean BBQ!) and some yummy slightly sour, slightly grainy, cloudy Korean rice wine before bed.
As I said at the start, a very busy few days. And this was just the beginning. Our time in Seoul was barely half done, so there’ll be lots more to come about this fascinating city.
Our first “solo” Korean meal: Tofu bibimbap (rice mixed with stuff), tofu and seafood soup, and the usual plethora of side dishes that come for free with any Korean restaurant meal
One of the shops in the “lighting district” that we ran across on our walk home one evening. As with many other Asian cities, Seoul’s businesses tend to agglomerate together with others of the same kind. Right nearby there were dozens of other shops like this one selling coloured fluorescents LEDs, and various other lighting products
Tags: Llew Bardecki, Seoul, South Korea, Travel