Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Seoul-ful Travels

Re: 10/21/2013-10/24/2013

Monday, we left Kansas via the tiny, one-gate airport in Garden City, KS, to which American Airlines (via American Eagle) now flies. After a short flight to DFW at 6:05am, we hopped on the 10:05am flight of 10,999km (6834.5mi) to Incheon, South Korea. For this flight, we scored business class seats! We were separated and in the middle seats, but it was much better than being in economy. During the flight, we had several delightful meals (one of them a four-course meal) and got to watch several movies for the 14-hour flight, besides starting to learn Hangul (the Korean alphabet).

DSC06271 Shrimp Escabeché with seasonal greens. I am apparently fond of hearts of palm.

DSC06266 Lemongrass Chicken. 

3968335_700b Click on this picture to try it. Really, it isn’t hard.

Immediately upon arrival in South Korea, we discovered how foreigner-friendly the country was. All the signs in the airport had multiple languages on them, including English, Chinese, and occasionally Japanese, besides Korean.

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An old friend from high school and college, Steven, was planning on meeting us at terminal to get us settled in Seoul for our first night. I contacted him via the free wifi and followed his instructions to go to the subway. We followed signs to the subway, and between the signs, a helpful train assistant, and verifying info with Steven, we made it to the train and got on the right one. We made it to the station and finally met up with Steven, a welcome sight. We went on a quick tour of Gangnam (yes, the very same one from the viral song—it is a social commentary of the Seoul suburb), mostly to grab a meal before Steven helped us find a hostel to stay. Steven also provided us a spare smart phone with data and minutes, a socket adapter, and a translation booklet. Pretty much our savior for this trip.



Gangnam Style.


Thanks, Steven!

On Tuesday, we had bakery pastries for breakfast. One of which was a sweet red-bean-paste bun. In case you didn’t know, I am a big fan of anime. In anime, the characters always enjoy these sweet, red-bean-paste buns. I have often wondered what that would taste like, and I finally got the chance to try one. It tasted like Hawaiian bread stuffed with a slightly-sweetened paste (similar to refried beans, but a bit thicker). Surprisingly very delicious without being overwhelming.

DSC06275 Sweet Red-Bean-Paste Bun.

After purchasing tickets to tour the “secret garden,” Huwon, at the palace of Changdeokgung, we were considering relocating to a cheaper hostel before the tour at 11am. So, at 10 am, we checked out of our apartment and started walking towards the next one. We are apparently slow walkers. We thought we would have plenty of time to walk to the hostel, but as we got closer and watched the time, we decided that we didn’t have time to go all the way. Very unfortunate, as we had our heavy backpacks with us. Not having time, we decided to enter the east entrance to the palace grounds where the secret garden. Turns out the east and west halves of the palace grounds aren’t the same facilities, and you have to buy another $10 ticket. And, on this side, they didn’t speak English at all. As we somehow communicated, it turns out we needed to go the west entrance, which would have taken us 40 minutes at which to arrive. We only had 10 minutes. As we tried to communicate the dilemma to the gate person, she began to understand. She made some calls and then got us an escort to take us to the tour location on time. Very accommodating people. We arrived just as the tour group was leaving, so we tagged along to tour.

DSC06277 The king’s private fishing spot.

It wasn’t really a secret garden. The garden was just off-limits to anyone but the royalty or government officials. It was a nice, peaceful garden. At the time, the tree leaves were just starting to turn colors. For two weeks in the fall and the two weeks in the spring, they open up the secret garden for unguided tours. You are allowed to wander freely through the garden and even sit in the pagodas and read (provided you take off your shoes).

DSC06298 Too much work to take off the shoes, but I thought I would take a chance to read and pose.

DSC06292 I loved the architecture, especially the roofs and the rice-paper partitions; just beautiful.

DSC06291 And again, ancient Korea favored short people. Fortunately, most of the modern design is standardized similar to the US.

After our tour ended, we decided to return to our original hostel and stay there again. After checking back in, we met Steven for lunch. We had Japanese Fusion food. And, I even tried the traditional Korean kimchee, which is spiced cabbage. Waaayyyy too spicy for my tastes.

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Jonathan’s pork cutlet. My udon noodles. Trying kimchee. 

After lunch, Steven had to leave us to back to work, while we went back to Gangnam to visit the world’s largest underground shopping mall, COEX Mall. On the way there, we passed through a flower exhibit. They seem to be fond of those there in Korea. It was one of my favorite things in South Korea.

DSC06307 This is a dolphin. There were also swans, cows, and a Cheshire cat.

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Sadly, most of the underground stores were closed due to reconstruction. However, the Hyundai department store was open and busy. It had a full 13 floors, with a garden on the rooftop. The bottom floor was my favorite, though, as it was the food floor, housing bakeries, cakeries, candy shops, pizzerias and more. This was where we first started realizing how expensive things are in Korea. Half a gallon of milk was just short of $6 (6000 won). A package of four, under-ripe tomatoes was just under $10 (10,000 won).

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DSC06315 Made out of chocolate.

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Rooftop garden.

DSC06318 The US does NOT know how to do cakes. Look at these beauties!

By then, we were ready to go back to the hostel and get ready for bed. 14 hours of time difference is awfully difficult to which to adjust. You wake up even when tired. You are hungry at hours that don’t make sense for either time zone. With just a few days of diligence, though, probably assisted by all the walking we did outside, we were able to completely adjust.

Thursday brought us to a visit of the Namdaemun (officially the Sungnyemun) Gate. It was just a quick stop. This gate was one of the few things that survived over the centuries, including the Japanese occupation, until an arsonist severely burned the pagoda in 2008. Reconstruction efforts only ended this April.

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After that, we made our way to the N Seoul Tower.

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DSC06337 To give you a scale of distances…

DSC06340 Koreans seemed to have an obsession with teddy bear museums. 

Apparently disposing of old locks and keys are a big problem in Korea, so they came up with a solution of locking them to a fence at the tower. Doing so would strengthen your love, securing yourselves together for all time. They also formed Christmas trees out of them. There were a lot of locks.

DSC06345  They also have an obsession with romance there. These love benches and trees are a testament to that.

After that, we made our way towards the Yoido Full Gospel Church, meeting my old college friend, Nathan M., along the way. He took us to the church. On they way, he explained that the church was located in the government offices district. As such, there were a lot of disillusioned people in the area who committed suicide by jumping off the bridge there, making it the most popular suicide spot in Seoul. They ended up putting up signs along the bridge saying that you are loved. Apparently it helped reduce the rate.

DSC06349 This church has over a million members.

Following this stop, we ate a traditional Korean meal of grilled meat, gogigui. Despite its simplicity, it was a very tasty meal. I think we ate a lot more than expected as we expended so much energy trying to eat with chopsticks. Then, as we left to go back to our room, Nathan introduced us to silkworms. I suppose they wouldn’t be too bad if they weren’t insects, but just know that, combined with their texture, I just wasn’t impressed.

DSC06351 Eating gogigui. You grill it yourself.

DSC06353 Eating silkworms.

DSC06355 Thanks for hanging out, Nathan!

After a good night’s sleep, we started to make our way out of town towards Daegu. Of course, before we left, I needed to buy a souvenir for myself. I had seen some fans and still needed to replace the one I lost in Utah.

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There were way too many to choose from, especially since they were colored.

Then we made our way through to the Express Bus Terminal. We had been debating whether to take the bus or the train to Daegu. The high-speed train was rather expensive, though it came highly recommended by everyone. I asked about the cheaper option, but it was not recommended. Supposedly, It is slow, hot, and smelly. I asked about the buses, and they was some encouragement for that. So we ended up taking the “Excellent” buses to Daegu. They were comfortable buses that sat 3 across. They were as quick as the slow train, and about the same price. I highly recommend the "Excellent" bus transportation.

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