Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Finding my Seoul.

For the last week, I've been touring about Seoul, the capitol of South Korea with my travel backpack, camera, and trustworthy friends in tow. This trip was jam-packed and still we could spend so much more time getting to know Seoul. However, from what we learned and saw, Seoul is a city to be loved and experienced.

Instead of going chronologically through the day-to-day experiences of this whirlwind week, I'll break this down into highlights and try to give those travelers out there a good idea of some places to definitely visit in Seoul as well.

Speeding through Korea at 200mph.
Coming from Ulsan, approximately 600 km away, the fastest and cheapest way to travel to Seoul is by the highspeed train. A flight rivals this mode of transport only slightly, but with all the time it takes for security checks, the 2.5 hours by train to Seoul just makes sense. The KTX bullet train travels at about 200 miles per hour, which didn't feel as crazy as I thought it would, but was fun nonetheless. We got out to the train early, as our tickets said it only stops for 2 minutes! The KTX is definitely a commuter train. As for the company I kept during the ride, it varied from a huffy old man to a woman monk to a woman I practiced some Korean with. Despite my fascination with the woman monk (all women monks have shaved heads), there wasn't much to say... so mostly the KTX was for sleeping (as with almost all Korean public transportation).
Traveler's note: if you have a considerably large or heavy bag with you, be ready to hoist it up into the overhead storage. Some friends of ours put their bags in the space between the cars but there is no official space for it to go besides above your seat.

Germ-a-phobes, bring some wipes.
The subway system in Seoul is fairly easy to get a grip on, and considering the massive size of this city, we used underground transport a lot! The subway system got us through Itaewan, the Hongik University District, Jongno, Dongdaemun-- and much more-- in a timely fashion. As a foreigner and group of young travelers, it's uncommon to get seats in the subway, as we are obligated to yield to elders (and avoid the sections reserved for people who need them, such as those with children). So grab your sea legs and hop aboard! You'll see more of Seoul by subway.
Traveler's tip: if you're traveling in Seoul for more than a day or two, especially if you're touring the city, consider getting a subway card instead of single journey tickets. It'll save you tons of time and the stress of fighting old men for the ticket kiosk!

This is how the Korean University kids get down.
The Hongdae district of Seoul is home to Hongik University, cute hole-in-the-wall boutiques, excellent DVD bangs (I recommend 'Take 5'), cafes (there's even a Hello Kitty cafe!), and bars with names like "Boobi Boobi" and "S Club". It was an incredibly lively place to be, and only blocks away from our accommodation, so we definitely felt like we were at the center of everything we wanted in terms of food and nightlife. After visiting several cities, I feel comfortable generalizing that the typical social cycle in Korea is almost homogeneous across the country: everyone eats and drinks in the evening, drinks more after that, mixes in some dancing and karaoke after that (followed by more drinks), and are still partying strong when the sun comes up. At sunrise, many consider going home (although many choose to keep drinking and singing), and by noon or so the shops begin to open. In Hongdae the social scene was even more exacerbated because of the college atmosphere, so although it was a tad annoying to only eat at Tom n Toms (a 24-hour coffee chain in Korea) for breakfast most mornings, it was hilarious to see young Korean girls stumbling home at 9am, still drunk, in their heels and night outfits. Excellent job, Korea. Excellent.

"Laura, I just touched the Korean man's feet." --Emily
This was my first experience at a hostel, and based on the less-than-desirable accommodations, I consider myself courageous to say it won't be my last. We chose our hostel based on the supreme location to the university and art district in Hongdae, and the price was practically unbeatable. However, there was definitely a trade-off we weren't aware of! When we arrived at our stay, the conditions of the hostel came as quite a shock. On several occasions, many of us (girls and guys) actually opted to use the bathroom and even brush our teeth at our morning breakfast stop as opposed to the bathroom at the hostel. There is so much more I could share about our accommodations but am choosing not to because I don't want to completely shame its owners on a public blog. Instead, a word of advice: please heed the travel tip.
Travel tip: Do NOT book at Backpacker Friends in Hongdae district in Seoul, unless you are sleeping off jet lag and do not plan on showering, brushing your teeth, or eating on site. Really. Just don't.

With all the snow coating Seoul, we were glad that LotteWorld was available for a day of indoor fun. LotteWorld holds the Guinness World Record for largest indoor amusement park, so we knew we'd still be in for a treat even though we weren't outside. LotteWorld is definitely an experience unlike any other I've had in my thrill-seeking days. Although we didn't go on many rides, it was interesting to see how one would build an amusement park inside. There were water flume rides, a monorail, hot air balloon rides (monorail hung from the ceiling), rollercoasters, and an indoor parade complete with dancers, floats, and fire. After lunch, we were lucky enough to catch the parade and watched from above as dancing bears (who look incredibly like Micky and Minnie Mouse... hmm...) waved to us from a moving barge. One interesting thing we noticed during the parade were the dancing genies. These ladies were more exposed than is commonly acceptable in traditional Korean culture, and eventually we realized that all these dancers were not Korean at all, in fact, but were foreigners. Now, I had two thoughts pop into my head the moment I realized this:

1) It's frustrating how the image or foreign women in Korea is over-sexualized. As a woman in Korea, I sometimes feel like Korean men think that I'm 'easy' because I'm from the United States. Only allowing foreign women to dance in those costumes is perpetuating this image. If Korean culture wants to add this element of culture to their society, they should be willing to represent it with their Korean women just as well as with women from other countries.

2) I wonder if I could take a year to dance as a genie in LotteWorld.....

Two completely conflicting thoughts, I know.

A country divided.
It's difficult for people to not think about conflict when they think about Korea. It is a country divided in two parts, with little hope of amends being made. From the news and my previous blog post about the recent tensions between North and South Korea, my friends and I were concerned that our trip to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) would be shortened, or even canceled. However, we lucked out and were able to have a full tour with the USO to one of the most militarized zones in the entire world (a little counter-intuitive then, to name it the DMZ, but maybe after this post you'll understand). Some notable points of the tour:

- Visiting the Joint Security Area (JSA), which is the actual border between North and South Korea. At the JSA there are many buildings used by the UN for conferences on international relations. These buildings sit directly on the borderline, so upon entering the latter half of the building, I technically crossed over into North Korea, albeit on UN territory.

-Signing the waiver, which stated that we would not make any gestures at the JSA toward any military personnel; we understand that our image could be used for propaganda against South Korea; and that we understood that we were entering a highly dangerous area where we could easily experience fatal injuries. The hardest part was making sure we didn't point at things.

- Entering the 3rd tunnel dug by North Korean soldiers, which was intended for invasion into South Korea. This was probably the weirdest part of the tour for me, because we went so deep into the earth. It was also made weirder when I thought about how there are likely other tunnels being made by North Korea into the South. There's nothing like experiencing history by climbing into a tunnel dug by communist soldiers.

By the end of the trip, we decided on a word for the DMZ: optimism. So many signs-- infrastructure that's beautiful but never been used, for example-- point to the hope that someday North and South Korea will once again be reunited. But when? And at what cost? I'm still learning a lot about Korea but sadly, I'm pretty sure this is one dream that is not going to be attained in the peaceful manner South Korea is painting in their version of propaganda for peace.
Travel tip: if you want to visit the DMZ, go with the USO. It's the only way to ensure you see everything you'd want while remaining safe and informed by the military. And those guys were hunks, so if for no other reason go for that.

"You haven't tried street food yet?!"
Seoul is known for its underground markets, especially near the Han River (take the Yongsan station exit on the subway and you'll be in the right area). I'm a firm believer that night markets are the best place to get to know Asian culture, and absolutely love taking in the sights and smells (even the nauseating ones) as I walk through the musty, damp market streets. As we passed fish, produce, and various ajumma textiles, we came across some street food stalls. I've been waiting patiently for the courage inside me to finally shout out, "try that street food!" and it only took a narrow-mouthed lady cooking potato pancakes to summon the nerve. We sat down, ate, and in the morning I wasn't sorry. Goodbye, stigma against street food. It's going to be a whole new journey through Asia now.

Profiting 2,000 won from a snowman.
The first night in Seoul, snow began to fall. When we woke to inches of white the next morning, I wasn't sure whether to be overjoyed or mortified. The weather in Seoul is unbearable at best, but at least snow meant a little break from the dry air, even if the ice and slush felt like being locked in a freezer. Many people decided to make little snowmen, which we found in several areas of the city for days to come. However, the most magical of all the snowmen was a huge ol' buddy sitting right outside the buildings next to our hostel. He stood taller than all us girls and even had a hat and mustache (quite the charmer, obviously). So happily, he wasn't going to melt anytime soon. Later that night, some passerbies had gotten to him and stuck chopsticks in his eyes. Horrified, I walked over to extract the utensils from our friend when lo and behold-- 1,000 won bills were stuck to each eye! I shamelessly took the profits as payment for relieving Mr. Snowman of his pain. 

The Secret Garden of Korea.
One of the more excitable friends in our traveling group suggested we get our butts out of bed one day and visit the Chandeok Palace in the Jongno district. Although there are many palaces and temples in Seoul, this one is special because it has a secret garden in it that can only be accessed through a tour. This palace was built during the 15th century and was full of beauty, history, and snow the day we visited. I always like to look at how Confucianism shaped the history and culture of Korea; this was apparent in the servants' quarters, where the two separate entrances for men and women are of differing heights. Care to guess whose entrance was higher? With all the lightning-fast economic and educational advances in Korea over the last 50-100 years, maybe the next few decades can bring some stronger sense of gender equality.

In any case, the garden was beautiful, and well worth the trek through snow and frigid air.

City of blinding lights.
After freezing ourselves to the bone in the secret garden, we decided that Seoul Tower, 777 feet (236.7 m) in the air, would be the next logical stop. This structure reminded me slightly of the Space Needle in Seattle, with its shape holding people at the top in 360 degree observatory fashion. From up above, it was rewarding to see Seoul from the bird's eye view, as opposed to the underground perspective I'd been used to for the last several days! As we looked at the layout of the city, my friend pointed out that there are not very many high-rise buildings in Seoul, which makes for a really pleasant atmosphere. It's true; for as big as the capitol is, there is a pretty flat skyline.
Traveler's/ photographer's tip: if you want to get some amazing shots of Seoul from the tower, make sure you bring something to wipe the observatory windows with. There is no outdoor platform, so you'll have to work with what you're given; decent shots are still totally possible though, so no worries.

New Year's Eve.
I spent the last night of 2010 celebrating my sisterfriend's 23rd birthday in the company of good friends, drinking sangria at a bar in Hongdae called Marsh Mellow, and workin' it on the dance floor of a popular club chain in Korea called Cocoon. It was a good night filled with laughter, smiles, and all the proper New Year's Eve magic I would've had in the States. This truly seems to be the one holiday everyone around the world celebrates, in some way or another. Experiencing Korea's version... well, it was definitely a memory for the books.

Good eats.
Seoul was hit-and-miss with food, and we only tried a Korean meal now and again (with little success), so if you're looking for fantastic food, look a little harder than we did, or ask some locals for their suggestions. However, we did find some success with these places:

405 Kitchen
This was, by far, my favorite place to dine in Seoul. A truly charming restaurant located in Hongdae around the corner from Joe's Sandwich, serving a breakfast to dinner menu daily, plus wine. It's not the cheapest meal you'll find, but it's not insanely expensive either. Vegetarian and bread-lover friendly. 405 Kitchen opens everyday at 11am.

Mr. Kebab
Cheap and delicious kebabs at a small red stand in the middle of Hongdae madness (it's near a bar called Best Friend). Mr. Kebab's hours are a bit of a mystery to us, even after a week, so if you find this stand open for business, you are a lucky duck and should swing in for a bite.

Located in Itaewan, Gecko's is an amazing little piece of the States just waiting for you. Sandwiches, salads, fish and chips all await. If you're the type to prefer mulled wine, it's here. Or how about a Washington Apple shot? You'll find it at Gecko's.

Finding my own little piece of Seoul was no easy task, but the fun was all in the adventure.

Until next time,
Laura in Korea

PS: Due to the irrational size of this post, not all the photos I would like to show are on this page. Follow this link to see the rest of my pictures from Seoul, or visit the 'Snaps' page to see more photo albums from Korean adventuring.
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