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An Asian Sidetrip: Korea

2008 June 29
by rob

June 10, 2008

We didn’t do much during the day today. Mostly, we got our stuff together and packed for our trip to Korea! We had temporarily lost our airplane tickets and hotel voucher (my theory is that the maid threw out the envelope), but Fun managed to get another copy faxed to us before we left. Whew!

We boarded our Korean Airlines flight shortly after midnight (technically on June 11). I was used to flying on budget airlines. Korean Airlines was no budget airline. The plane was a 747 and, even though we had booked economy class seats, we were seated upstairs. Even though we weren’t seated in an exit row, we had a LOT of legroom. I was able to stretch my legs all the way out! We were even served Korean food on the plane: bibimap (complete with a tube of chili paste!). I drank a couple of free beers and fell asleep for the rest of the three hour flight.

June 11, 2008

We landed in Incheon International Airport shortly before 5 AM, cleared immigration, grabbed our bags and took a bus into the city. Will fell asleep on the bus. I think I did, too, since I remember the ride back from the airport (three days later) taking a lot longer than the ride into the city. I woke up after a while though and watched the city pass by in the windows. Seoul looked a LOT like Tokyo, except in Korean. Seoul is one of the largest cities in the world (population 10 million, and that doesn’t include the neighbouring suburb cities like Incheon). We got dropped off at the hotel around 7 AM. We tried to check into our hotel at that time, but our room wasn’t ready yet. I wasn’t surprised by that, but it was worth a try anyway.

We hit the streets. Even though we had very little sleep, we intended to make the most of our limited time in Seoul. I know that I was a very lackadaisical in Hong Kong (in many places, actually), but that was not to be the case in Seoul. We were sightseeing to the MAX!

Our first, and most important, objective: find coffee.

We found coffee pretty quickly, but decided it was too expensive. Our hotel was in the city centre and we were spoiled for choice. However, we were cheap bastards and were picky, too boot. We wanted good coffee at a low price. Was that too much to ask?

After a while of aimless wandering, I finally peer pressured Will into buying coffee from a vending machine for 300 won (CA$0.30). He didn’t really want to get it from the machine, but I feel that he had waited long enough and he needed it badly enough, so I had to turn the peer pressure gears a little tighter.

It took Will a few tries to figure out how to use the machine:

What kind of coffee would you expect to get for 30 cents? Well, the general rule is, you get what you pay for:

Will didn’t finish that coffee. He poured it into a sewer grate.

Anyways, despite the fact that we were not sufficiently caffeinated we wandered around the central district of Seoul. We found ourselves in an area filled with office buildings, banks, shopping malls, department stores, to name a few. Many streets were wide and busy. Many of these streets had pedestrian underpasses underneath them so people could walk around without waiting for traffic lights. All of these underpasses had steps though. After walking for four days straight in the city, up and down stairs, we grew very weary of them. I’m sure that going up and down the steps uses up more energy that going straight across the road, so I wasn’t a fan of these underpasses.

Some of these underpasses had cool things in them, though. One of them near the city hall had a big advertisement for tourism in Ontario, of all places. I had talked with a lot of people from a lot of countries, but traveling to Canada was relatively low priority for many people. But, here we were, in Seoul, looking at an advertisement luring people to my home!

I can even see my former home in that picture! Can you see it right beside the Skydome (er Rogers Centre)? I’m amused that the tourism features of Ontario are “Niagara Falls,” “Shopping,” and “City.”

One thing that was quickly hilarious was how often Will was misidentified as a local Korean person. Over our four day stay in Korea, he was probably mistaken as a local at least ten times a day. People would stop and ask him for directions. Restaurants and sales people in shops would immediately talk to him in Korean (and usually ignore me). Will was mistaken for a local in Japan, too, but it happened much less often. I guess this means that Will looks more like a K-Dude than a J-Dude.

Now the real sightseeing would begin as we arrived at our first real tourist attraction: the Deoksugung Palace. This palace was the home of the Korean Emperor at the beginning of the 20th century. We roamed around the buildings and gardens for a while and captured many excellent photographs.

After a while, we heard music and marching from the front gate. It was a parade! But not just any parade… it was a changing of the guard ceremony! Since there is no emperor in Korea anymore, any such ceremony is obviously just there for the tourists. It’s a good thing that we were tourists! We rushed to the gate to view the spectacle. It was pretty awesome. The uniforms were very flamboyant. The marching band played sweet tunes.

When the band finished playing, we marched off on our own stamping the same beat. The band used trumpets made from sea shells. Trumpets are usually my favourite instruments in an orchestra and the sea shell trumpets sounded especially sweet.

The weather in Seoul was perfect. Not too hot. Not too cold. Blue skies. Not windy. Not humid. No rain. After the oppresive humidity and constant rain in Hong Kong, Seoul was a blessing. The weather was good for our full four days in Korea.

After the palace, we started to wander our way back to our hotel. We walked through Namdaemun Market on the way back. This market was like you would expect a street market in Asia to be: crowds of shoppers, street vendors, lots of wares set out to peruse, and enthusiastic hawkers promoting their goods. The smell of chili wafted through the air as we meandered through the street vendors. It was obvious how much the Koreans love their spicy food!

We soon found ourselves back at the hotel where we completed checking in. After a nap and showers, we were ready to hit the streets again. This time we wandered through the shopping areas and malls near our hotel. We ended up at the massive Lotte department store with its hefty duty free shop. I tried to find some fun liquor to buy, but didn’t succeed. Will did, however, find tiny kimchi crabs to buy for Fun. Yes, they had tiny bite-sized kimchi flavoured crabs! You would pop the whole thing in your mouth and chew it. The shell was very thin and it wasn’t hard to eat at all. It was rather nice!

That night he decided to wander around the streets behind our hotel to find some Korean BBQ to eat. I’ve had KBBQ in Japan. I’ve had KBBQ in Canada. Now it was time to fulfill my destiny and eat it in Korea. We decided to go to this tiny divey-looking place that had lots of locals in it. As we entered the door, the aroma of grilled meat and smoke assailed us. This was gonna be good!

The staff quickly figured out that we were tourists and basically cooked most of our food for us. We know that we should be cooking our own food at a KBBQ restaurant (that’s half the fun!), but we just we went with the flow and let things happen.

Most of the meat we had was grilled pork. We also grilled some slices of potato (oddly, rice was not served), liver (which we also ate raw), and some odd tripe-or-scaley-kind-of-meat. We garnished our food with big whole cloves of garlic and lettuce leaves. All of it was washed down with shoju and lots of kimchi!

Kimchi is fermented cabbage leaves flavoured with chili spice and garlic. I think it might be one of my new favourite foods. Koreas eat it with nearly every meal, and so did I. It’s really very fantastic, and healthy, stuff.

Shoju is a rice liquor. It is stronger than sake, but weaker than lao lao. Whereas I can’t stand the taste of lao lao, shoju usually has a sweeter flavour (or very little flavour at all), and I enjoy it much more.

After filling ourselves up with our delicious dinner, we walked down the street towards the hotel. Even though we really did have very little sleep the night before, we weren’t tired enough for sleep yet. We were determined to give Korea the true Canadian “give’r!” attitude. We found a bar close to our hotel called Flair Bar. Woo!! The bar and its staff suited its name. The (cute!) bar staff wore lots of buttons and pins on their uniforms. After a few drinks and some flirting, we got them to take their pictures with us!

Eventually, though, we ran out of steam and went back to the hotel to sleep. The room only had one bed, so Will and I got to sleep under the same covers.

June 12, 2008

We slept in pretty late in the morning and it took us a while before we were ready to head out. Eventually, though, we got out and made our way to our second palace, Geongbukgeong. Seoul actually has five royal palaces, so there were plenty to choose from. This palace was much larger than the first one we went to. When we got there, we found out that we were able to try on some of the traditional military uniforms used by the Korean guards. They were the same uniforms that we had seen in the changing-of-the-guard ceremony the day before. We had to try them on!

We got to see another changing-of-the-guard ceremony there before entering the temple. After the ceremony, we took a guided tour of the magnificent palace. Wow! It was bigger, in every dimension, then the palace we had seen the day before.

This is a picture of the courtyard where the Emperor would meet all of his military and civil administrators. The stones on the ground are marked with numbers indicating rank. The various administrators would stand by the current rank stone. All the military administrators stood on the Emperor’s right side and the civil on the left side, with the most elite ranks closest to the front. Even though the military administrators could approach the Emperor with the same relative distances as the civil administrators, the civil administrators were treated with higher regard due to society’s distate for war. Apparently the Chinese had the same ceremony as the Koreans since both cultured adopted the strict hierarchical Confucian system.

The tour lasted for an hour and ended up near the Korean National Folk Museum at the other end of the palace. The museum admission was free, so we explored it and its gardens for a while. The museum told the story of the Korean people. We learned about the Korean’s ancient animistic beliefs, saw their history, learned how kimchi is made, and learned about their ancient birth rituals (placenta buried in ground as offerings!). In return, we attacked their model villages with savage elbow drops.

What did that poor model village ever do to us? Nothing. It was just there…. and I was bored. The truth finally comes out, and it hurts.

We continued to make asses of ourselves around the museum for a while. When we ran low on energy, we stopped at the vending machines to buy soft drinks. I bought a can of “Confidence Vitamin Supply.” The can claimed to that “Confidence is a drink supplying vitamins. As drinking a confidence feel good from the sweety fruits flavor and the refreshing coolness contained in it.” That’s a fine example of engrish! After drinking our soft drinks we tried to balance the cans on our heads. The other people in the area thought we were very odd (they were probably right).

After the museum we started to walk back to the metro station and took a long ride across the city to the big COEX shopping mall. We had dinner from the food court. We enjoyed some bibimbap in stone bowls. Bibimbap is a really fun meal, especially when you get the hot stone bowls, assuming you don’t touch the bowl itself (burny, ouch!). The bowl contains steamed rice topped with various vegetables (and optionally, meat). The big stone bowl is usually served hot. As long as you don’t disturb the rice on the bottom of the bowl very much, it will caramelize and become crispy by the time you reach it. The trick is to pour in the spicy stuff and mix the toppings with the rice without disturbing the rice on the bottom very much,

After dinner we kept walking around the mall. We found a Nintendo and Character Goods Gift store that we spent a lot of time in. Will was nearing the end of his trip so he picked up a few souvenirs and gifts for people at home. I didn’t buy much there since many of the gifts were way too “cute”. I did, however, pick up a cell phone strap that was shaped like a computer keyboard key and had the following printed on it:


Can you see the winking person doing a finger ‘v’? I like it!

After walking for many hours we went back to the hotel to drink shoju. We ended up talking with Justin Lee on webcam for a long time. We were drunk and made Justin laugh so hard that he had to move into a boardroom in his office so his coworkers wouldn’t hear him laugh so much. It was awesome.

June 13, 2008

We started off the day by walking to the nearby Seoul Cartoon Museum. Both Will and I are big fans of cartoons, especially Japanese anime. A lot of anime is actually outsourced to Korea to be animated, so we felt that the Korean museum might be relevant. The museum had cool sculptures out front that afforded many excellent photographic opportunities. However, the museum itself was very boring. Not even a gift shop!

After the museum, we took the metro to Dongdaemun Market to shop for clothes. The market visit was a flop. We took a few wrong turns and didn’t find the places of the market we wanted. It sprawled out over many city blocks, so getting lost was a big deal. The market was organized by sections. We found an entire alley, several city blocks long, that sold only shoes. The place was massive. We then found an entire four level shopping mall filled entirely with women’s clothes.

After walking for a long time we needed to stop for lunch, near the women’s clothes mall was another mall that claimed to have food in the basement and men’s clothes on the fourth floor (all the intermediate floors were filled with women’s clothes only). We took the escalator down to the basement and hoped to see food. Instead, we saw many shops selling women’s clothes. Augh! We walked through the whole floor until we heard the clinking of cutlery and finally found about six shops selling food. I had bibimbap and Will had bulgogi beef.

Re-energized, we took the elevator to the fourth floor to look at the men’s clothes. When we got there, we found about eight stalls selling men’s t-shirts, but no staff to sell them. The section for men’s clothes took up very little space on the floor. The rest of the floor was “unisex” clothes or women’s clothes. Augh!

The market sucked, so we left.

We took the metro to an island in the Han river. We wanted to see the river and the National Assembly building. When we got there, we saw a bicycle rental shop. The island was a great place for biking and the weather was fantastic, so we went for it. We biked for an hour. I biked fast. Will tried to keep up.

I was amused by the number of bikers there who looked so hardcore. They had proper biking jerseys, spandex tights, flashy helmets, facemasks, goggles, little backpacks with water leads and really good bikes. There were lots of bikers dressed just like that. However, very few of them biked fast or looked serious. Almost all of them were on leisurely afternoon rides. I left most of these poseurs in my DUST!

Here’s a picture of Will trying his best to look hardcore. This is actually the second attempt. He was smiling too much the first time for me to consider him “hardcore.” I guess he was enjoying the bike ride too much. I completely understand! I love biking!

After an hour of biking, it was time for a beer break. We bought a couple cans from vendor and sat under a tree on the grass. I had a can of Cass (which I bought because it had the same name as my high school). Will had a can of Max. Yes, Korean beer names are lame.

Cass and Max weren’t that great. Cass claimed to have “Ultimate refreshment with fizzy and crisp taste.” Don’t believe everything you read on the labels of consumer products in Asia, mmkay?

The mediocrity of the beers inspired me to take the following picture. By covering up the ‘C’ in Cass, I was able to create “FRESH ASSMAX PRIME”. Hilarious!

Another Korean beer that we tried was Hite. Hite was all right. We could drink it in the day or the night.

That night was to be our most fantastic meal in Korea. To date, it’s my most expensive single meal on this trip at 60,000 won (CA$60). We went to a traditional Korean restaurant to get a meal fancier than just bibimbap! The meal consisted of at least twenty separate dishes and a bottle of Korean wine. The finest parts of the meal were the abalone, crabs, fish, clams, soup, and several kinds of kimchi (though there was much more food than just that). We got to eat the tiny bite-sized crabs again, though this time they were soy and garlic flavoured, not kimchi flavoured. We also got to eat whole crabs, too. It was my first time eat crab meat right out of the crab. It was a messy meal, but so very very tasty.

Each of those crabs in the photo is about 5 cm long.

After dinner that night we met up with my cousin’s, Aleks, friends, Katie and Sarah. They were teaching English in Seoul. They were really fun to hang out with. We hung out at a restaurant and a pub in the Itaemon district. We didn’t drink that much. After getting kicked out of the pub, we ended up standing on the street and chatting for at least an hour. Katie and Sarah were really tired and went home at 3 AM. Usually when they go out to Itaemon (the area with lots of bars and foreign restaurants), they stay out until the sun comes up. Oh well. Will and I had to fly back to Hong Kong the next day, so staying up until sunrise probably wasn’t the best idea!

June 14, 2008

Oh man, we were tired. We didn’t get to bed until 4 the night before and we didn’t have time to sleep in the morning after. We hurriedly ate our complimentary hotel breakfast and made our way to the metro station for the long ride to Olympic Park. The ride took longer than it should have since we made a few mistakes getting there. The Seoul Metro was, in general, pretty easy to navigate, but there was this one section where the line branched that tripped us up a few times. Augh! Will wasn’t feeling well (he has a tough time in any sort of vehicle while hung over, even a little), and had a rough ride. Poor Will.

We got there eventually. We had to walk through pretty quickly since time was running out for us. The park was really cool. Seoul was the host of the 1988 Summer Olympic Games, and the park contained several of the facilities used in the games. We watched people play basketball and took pictures of some of the sport facilities there. I wanted to see the cyclists in the velodrome, but it didn’t work out. The Olympic facility had been converted into a GAMBLING ESTABLISHMENT. I tried to take photos, but security guards stopped me. We entered the velodrome but couldn’t find the entrance to the inside where we could see bikers. Meanwhile, we could see security guards following us. I just wanted to see cyclists in an Olympic facility! I was really pissed off. I hate security for stupid reasons.

We walked out of the sad excuse for a velodrome and into the adjacent sculpture park. We saw lots of cool artwork in a pretty wooden setting. We kept walking past the remains of an ancient earth fortress (it looked just like a big hill), past a river and to the Olympic Peace Plaza. The plaza was really cool. There was a huge semicircle with the flags of all the nations that participated in the 1988 Summer Olympics. There were many flags from nations that no longer exist and it was fun to try and find them.

The plaza also contained the huge Olympic Peace Gate. This massive structure loomed over the whole area and was covered with colourful artwork.

After capturing a few photos of the the Olympic Peace Flame (can you detect a theme?), we took the metro back to the hotel to get our bags and catch a bus back to the airport. Our sightseeing trip to Korea was over.

We were given exit row seats on the flight back to Hong Kong. Korean Airlines is awesome. They fed us one more meal of bibimbap to remind us of our good times in Korea before we touched down.

The stuffy Hong Kong weather greeted us like an old bad friend. Bye bye sun. Hello rain and humidity.

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