Saturday, September 18, 2010

Five nights in Seoul

Having visited Seoul and South Korea for a week or so in 2005 when Eric & Amy Johnston were living here (Pyongtaek/Camp Humphreys), this leg of the trip was really per Greg’s request. I had only visited one of the palaces in Seoul on my first trip, so it was fun to see most of the others this time around. I had also visited the DMZ on a USO tour with Amy, so it was interesting to observe the higher level of security due to recent events between North & South Korea. Unfortunately the weather was not kind to us and we endured almost constant rain and high temps & humidity during all but the last afternoon & morning we were in South Korea.

This was also the first time in our RTW trip to visit a non-English speaking country. It definitely adds another level of stress & difficulty to the day-to-day routine of finding our way around either on foot or via public transportation. Ordering food from a non-tourist oriented restaurant is particularly challenging and you just have to hope that you’ll be able to eat what you end up with. I have been eating traditional Asian foods for years, both on my travels and at the many wonderful restaurants in New York City. Greg & I will try just about anything (and we love spicy food), but it’s tedious to pick apart a whole fish (head, tail, fins & all) with chopsticks!

This is also the first time we put our purifying systems into our Katadyn water bottles. Although most hotels & restaurants do have filtered water dispensers and you can buy bottled water everywhere, we still like the efficiency (not to mention environmental friendliness) of carrying our own reusable bottles with us. We just take the filters out if we don’t need them.

I will also briefly mention the “facilities.” Seoul gets high marks for having free public toilets in most subway stations and other heavily-trafficked areas. What is not guaranteed is whether they are western-style (bowl with seat) or Asian-style (laid-down urinal-looking device at floor-level which requires squatting). Toilet paper is also not a given, although it was present in all but a few places. Nor is soap or something to dry your hands with. I personally always carry in my day bag a travel pack of facial tissues, packets of hand wipes and anti-bacterial hand sanitizer. A bandanna or handkerchief also comes in handy.

In terms of our budget, Seoul was pretty kind to us. Subway tickets are only 1000KRW or under US$1.00, the average meal is 5000-10000KRW or US$4.50-9.00 unless you get into the higher end cook-your-own barbecues or a traditional multi-course dinner, and Korean beer or the national drink soju is a bargain; our budget accommodation (private room with bath) in an interesting & convenient part of town was $45/night, admission fees to most sights are minimal (in the $3-5 range).

Here are a few notes I took at the end of each day:
9/8 Took airport bus to Jongno-gu district; had to use screenshots of Korean maps to Seoul Hostel on my netbook to show locals (total of 4 I think) to find the place in the dark -- it’s not on a main street but in an alleyway; very humid
9/9 toured Changdeokgung Palace and Secret Garden. Unfortunately it rained all day. Downpour while we were walking through Insadong and to a travel agency in YMCA building to check on prices for flights to Tokyo (minimum 296000won) so now back at the hotel drinking Korean beer. Ate lunch (something like chicken schnitzel with rice, scrambled egg, kimchi) at small café with English menu near the palace. Traditional cook-your-own bbq for dinner
9/10 got up at 5:30am for trip to DMZ; were locked in the hostel building - had to wake up owner to let us out; negotiated subway system for first time - names of stops are in Korean & English but it is not always intuitive which train & direction to take; got to USO @ Camp Kim by 7am, checked in then walked down street to pick up breakfast to eat on bus (broccoli & crab and bulgogi omelet sandwiches, sweet crunchy snacks, cold tea); buses left promptly @ 7:30; toured DMZ: Camp Bonifas, JSA/Panmunjom, 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, Dora Observatory, lunch (bulgogi), Dorasan Station, back at USO around 3:15; bought tickets to Hiroshima from USO travel agency; back to hotel to relax & drink beer; dinner at nearby restaurant - ordered by pointing & mimicking fish swimming & soup bowl - not sure exactly what we had but we each got a whole barbecued fish with all the typical side dishes plus a miso clam soup; rained all day and very foggy so not good visibility into North Korea

9/11 still raining; slept in until almost 9am; dropped off our laundry at front desk for cleaning service (5000won/bag). It wasn't a constant downpour like the past few days but still very wet & humid. Noryangjin seafood market - where does all this seafood come from and where does it all get sold to??? didn‘t see a single other “white person“, all the vendors, males especially, say “hello“; ate lunch at Japanese restaurant on 2nd floor - sat on floor, English menu was not very straightforward and they didn’t speak English so still wasn’t sure what we ordered but ended up getting a large bowl of fish soup (bones, skin, etc. included), one long & thin roasted whole fish, a bowl of something similar to bibimbap but with strips of raw fish in it, and a few small side dishes (edamame, kimchi, tiny boiled eggs, a salad with creamy corn dressing); National Museum of Korea is huge - interesting artifacts especially from Korean royal tombs; Namdaemun Market - was raining again so didn‘t wander around too long but at least Greg got to see how Koreans shop; Seoul Plaza where there was some kind of Korean food exhibition - tried “berry“ wine, guava leaf tea and a few rice-based snacks; Deoksugung Palace - watched beginning of a cultural storytelling performance; walked to First Methodist Church but was closed and under repair; took a break from traditional & challenging Korean foods and ate pizza at Mr Pizza near our hotel - only odd ingredient was corn. Talked to Dad & Debbie on Google Talk for about an hour

9/12 slept in again until after 8am; it is not raining when we wake up; spend a few hours making reservations for Japan accommodations then head out to Gyeongbok Palace. Of course, it starts drizzling as we walk there. Roam around the palace grounds for an hour or so then backtrack to Insadong. Get some free popcorn from a cultural festival and practice archery. Walk along the street enjoying the sights & sounds and shop for gifts for Amy’s girls as requested. Eat lunch at KFC (soy sauce chicken & crispy chicken) per Greg’s request. Sky finally clears while we are eating and we emerge from the restaurant into the first sunshine we’ve seen since somewhere in New Zealand. Walk along Jongno until we reach the Jongmyo Royal Shrine but, as expected, we are only allowed to enter with a guided tour in English and we have already missed the last one for the day. We observe all the older Korean men playing a game like checkers in the park, wander along a few side streets, buy beer & soju at the grocery store and return to the hotel. We go up to the 7th floor roof but are told by the manager we’re not allowed onto the roof so we take a quick look around at the skyline and head back to our room to drink beer. As it is nearing sunset and still nice outside, I decide to go for a 30 minute walk to explore the alleyways near our hotel. It is very interesting to wander around this area of Jongno as there are lots of little hole-in-the-wall places that are not on any map.

9/13 We got up early enough to finish packing our bags and eat some oatmeal for breakfast before walking over to Jongmyo Shrine for the 10am tour. We had already requested a late checkout from the hostel (extended from 10am to noon). We enjoyed the guided tour of the shrine although I thought it was funny that when our guide said “deceased” it sounded like she was saying “diseased.” The tour took just under an hour and we were back at the hostel by 11:15 after grabbing a quick street snack of octopus & crab tempura. We finished gathering our things and checked out before noon. It was only a 10 minute walk to the airport bus stop, but with the heat & humidity and weight of our backpacks we were sweating within seconds. We had to wait for the bus about 10 minutes, then relaxed on the one hour ride out to Incheon Airport. We were able to check in for our flight even though we were about 5 hours early. Had to wait in line at the airport post office for at least 15 minutes to send some gifts to my best friend’s daughters. Cleared security & immigration then went directly to the Asiana Business Lounge. After a brief look around determined it was worth the extra US$27 for Greg to come in with me on my Priority Pass. We ate lunch then settled in to catch up on blogging, photo uploading, etc. We didn’t manage to make time for the free massage chairs, but did grab another quick bite to eat (and drank plenty of free beer) before boarding our plane for Hiroshima. The announcements on the plane were in Korean, Japanese & English. Despite the short 1.5 hour flight, they still served a cold dinner with hot tea & coffee.

The link to all of my Seoul photos is embedded in this post's title. You can also click here:
Picasa web album - Seoul

1 comment:

  1. What a detailed report! I found it coincidental that I stumbled across your post this morning since I returned from Seoul (and Osan) yesterday.