Seoul, S.K: Population of 25,600,000 (Seoul Metro area)
With over 640 metro stations to choose from, simply guessing the correct one wasn’t the wisest decision and thus my first outing to Seoul, with the intention of going to the famed Gyeongbokgung Palace, was an utter failure. Regardless, my introduction to Seoul became a full on success, due to great company (Dan) and our eager enthusiasm for literally anything and everything we stumbled across.
Dan, having been to Seoul numerous times, was responsible for narrowing down the choices of which metro station to stop at; we ended up at Seoul Station which is not a bad place to end up but it’s definitely not the right metro if you’re looking for Gyeongbokgung Palace. No matter, I had a whole year to get there and it was a beautiful September day. Dan and I set out on foot and spent the next several hours just walking and taking photos. We went up and down so may hills, Dan guessing at which might be the correct direction to something he might recognize or remember. Finding trucks selling everything from 10,000 Won (10cdn$)shoes to dried fish, fresh carrots, and roasted chickens; we happily meandered through these random streets of Seoul. Eventually we stumbled upon Myeongdong area which is a shopping nightmare (crowded little streets with cars trying to push their way through throngs of people). We were pretty tired and sweaty by this point so we hopped back on the metro and went to Itaewon, the foreigner capital of South Korea; adjacent to a large American military base complete with seedy nightlife and questionable hotels. We stayed in one of these questionable hotels that night and henceforth referred to it as our little crack-shack; (small mostly windowless rooms, big enough for a bed and a TV). We could rent one for 50,000 Won (50 cdn$) a night and usually sleep 3 to a bed. The allure was the fact that we could stumble home independently without having to wait for others to be ready to take a cab home for 50,000 Won.
Dan took me to The Rocky Mountain Pub, the Canadian bar, where they serve a few Canadian delicacies such as Bloody Caesars and Poutine. Don’t be fooled, while the Caesars were perfection, the poutine is NOT poutine so save yourself the calories and wait till you go to Quebec. Otherwise the ambience is reminiscent of a ski lodge decorated with license plates from Canada and other Canadian memorabilia. At the time they were one of the only places to catch an NHL hockey game in the area. This was the beginning of my realization that much of the world is a soccer cult (football), and that I really couldn’t care less about the sport.
That night we ate dinner at one of the many little roadside stalls that line the back streets of Itaewon. On this night I was nearly decapitated by a delivery scooter when I leaned back to let out a hearty laugh. I have no idea what I ate but 90% of the food in Korea was delicious, about 5% was questionable and the other 5% should never cross the threshold of anyone’s lips (pig anus and hermaphrodite squid among the few).
Among my favourite Korean foods:
- · Dolsot Bibimbap (obviously)
- · Haemul Paejeon (seafood pancake)
- · Soondubu jjigae (soft tofu stew)
- · Nyeangmyeon (cold noodle soup)
- · Duoenjeong jjigae (bean paste stew)
- · Japchae (glass noodles and yummy vegetables, with a sesame type dressing)
- · Jjangmyeon (brown sauce on rice or noodles)
- · Samgyeopsal, Galbi (BBQ meat)
- · Kalguksu. (seafood noodle soup)
- · Dokboki. (rice cake and hot spicy sauce)
- · Bokkeumbap. (korean style fried rice)
- · Bulgogi. (thinly shaved fragrant beef stew)
- · Shabu Shabu! Fondu like hot pot full of thinly sliced meat- hard to describe it’s a whole process)
There is so much to see and do in Seoul it’s hard to know what to focus on. You can head to Namdaemun market to buy pretty much anything at a discounted (haggled) price. Namdaemun is the best for gifts, touristic curiosity, getting lost, buying things you don’t really want to buy but HAVE TO HAVE to, and inducing claustrophobic anxiety attacks. I remember leaving there one day with my anxiety levels so high that when Jason accidentally chased a pigeon towards me instead of away from me, I actually squealed and jumped off the sidewalk into oncoming traffic. Normally I try to keep my phobias under wraps when I’m in public, like I usually, very casually cross the road to avoid a flock of pigeons without diverting attention to myself.
One day we eventually did make it to Gyeongbokgung Palace, a few times in fact. The metro station you need is Gyeongbokgung Station (I know right!?). Gyeongbokgung Palace is the smaller, Korean, but no less impressive version of Beijing’s Forbidden City. Its costs 3,000 won to get in but I have a feeling in 2010 it was 2500 won (2.50-3$). The first time we visited, it was early Fall and the weather could not have been more perfect! The second time, we went in the Winter; though it was cold, going out for a steamy, hot, and fragrant Korean meal at one of the traditional restaurants in nearby Insadong made the journey well worth it. Insadong is the tourist hotspot for Seoul because this is where you will find traditional Korean style restaurants (with tourist prices), the Palace, and souvenirs; you can also find some high quality pottery and other interesting crafts.
Seoul is a chaotic, crowded city with cars honking, bright lights EVERYWHERE, and scooters buzzing by, but somehow Jogyesa Temple (Insadong area) finds a way to be a tranquil zone in the middle of the chaos. You may not enter the temple during service but you can sit outside on the grounds and eat Bapbingsu (crushed ice and red bean dessert). If you’re lucky enough to be there around the Lotus Lantern Festival (May sometime), then the whole area will be covered with paper lanterns and at night the streets are lit up with lanterns as a large parade marches through the streets. It’s really incredibly awesome to see and also to catch a glimpse of Buddhist monks watching the parade from coffee shop balconies like parade royalty.
I love Korea, I feel like everything they do, they do it well or not at all. I’ve been to festivals in many other places and more often than not, you show up and go…Ok…now what? The Global Friendship Festival in Seoul had stage performances from various countries all day long, it was free and you could just go lay down in the grass and watch the show. Each participating country (and there were well over a hundred), had booths set up with displays, information and sometimes things to sell. The Afghanistan booth had a beautiful display of jewelry that I thought was for sale and I was trying to inquire how much a particular necklace was, they were trying to explain that it wasn’t for sale but the language barrier was proving difficult. My friend Richard, who was dressed in a Captain America t-shirt with his Captain American military muscles popping out and a Vietnamese hat was jovially trying to overcome the language barrier, it was an interesting site to see given the relations between the two countries. We finally figured out that actually this was just a display and nothing was for sale so we tried to say thank you and walk away but they gave me a necklace anyway; we surmised it was because literally every other booth was full of people but nobody was much interested in the Afghan display. Afghanistan being a very misunderstood country at that time and still today. I still have this necklace and overtime I wear it I get compliments which reminds me that one day I will visit Afghanistan.
After perusing booths and watching performances, we hit up the global food market set up along a few streets. Now this is how you set up a food festival…you have booths serving appetizer size portions for 1-2$, that way you don’t get horribly full and you don’t spend a fortune, making it accessible to many. Every time I go to a food festival anywhere else, I get savagely angry at how stupidly it’s set up and I reference the Global Friendship Festival. For example, the Abu Dhabi Food Festival charges an admission which gives you access to the festival grounds and few food and drink vouchers that are accepted at only a handful of places while the other stalls charge almost full price for a portion of their restaurant food and an absolutely cringeworthy band. (Bjorn Again- ABBA cover band) performs at a fully atrocious volume. While in Seoul, you stepped outside the metro, were privy to free cultural displays and shows on a lawn that if I so chose, could have brought my own chair, food, and drinks and spent the entire damn day and night there.
After 2 years in Korea,one spent living in Siheung, and the other spent in Uijeongbu (working in Gwacheon), I spent many a weekend in Seoul; exploring aimlessly or on a mission, made several trips to Namdaemun Market for gifts to myself and others, visited Namsan Tower on an magical second date, and Namsan Folk Village just to to do something cultural. Shopped for my voluptuous self in Myeongdong district-never have I before or since owned so many Forever 21 and H&M clothes, pairs of Tom’s, flip flops, and man running shoes-thanks Korea for your tiny sizes…this applies to men as well. I’ve sat on the hour and a half train ride from Siheung just to hang out, decide on a metro stop and go on a walk about, and randomly one day to get a tattoo that I designed on the metro ride to Seoul. While Siheung and Uijeongbu were beautiful places in their own right, a day trip to Seoul would leave you feeling exhilarated, and complete. Once the worry about language barriers and trying to figure out how to get from point A to point B faded away, Seoul was an easy place to visit, extremely safe and full of adventure. To this day, after all of my world travels, the relative ease of communication in the UAE, I still long for those Seoul days negotiating language barriers and the price of metal chopsticks. A feeling that is hard to pin down, describe to anyone that hasn’t lived there, Korea as a while will take up residence in your heart and you’ll find yourself saying things like “home away from home ” or “my second home” or something equally as nostalgically cliche.