In true wanderlust fashion, visiting Seoul was decided on a whim, with flights booked via AirAsia X less than two weeks before. What’s mentionable was that not only were the prices extremely competitive and affordable (so last minute too!) but the leg room was surprisingly generous! So generous, in fact, that I actually had to take a picture:
And before you guys think I’ve got short legs – I don’t have short legs.
How dare you even think that.
Landing in a misty expanse of the unknown, with little more than the knowledge that a majority of Koreans don’t speak English properly, if at all, I ventured onto a bus heading to the Grand Hyatt. As with any first bus journey, I paid attention to my novelty surroundings for the first 20 minutes, took a couple standard through-the-bus-window photos and then nodded off.
My Seoulmate, Naqib, had to work for the first couple of days (interviewing Hugh Jackman during The Wolverine’s premier and what not…yeah, I’m jealous too.) but we explored a little in his free time and did a mix of “local” vs “touristy” stuff like – drank somek (soju and beer mixed together) in a tiny underground bar, visited the infamous “cat cafe”, ate food we randomly pointed at on an all-Korean menu in Chungmuro (turned out to be some sort of deliciously mouthwatering Kimchi set) and explored a Hanok Village (Korean traditional village). In the first few days, I knew that though we were staying for a little over a week, it still wouldn’t be enough time.
It is very easy to get around with public transport (we mostly took the subway and sometimes cabs) as it’s very efficient and affordable! As with any country, I avoid buying anything marketed for tourists because they claim to save you money. No. It does not save you money. I usually go for what the locals use (this time it was a normal subway card that can be topped up – we must’ve spent around USD22 using their subway cards) as opposed to the weekly tourist passes (which cost around USD54).
Although the persistent rain dampened our possessions, it did not dampen our curiosity nor our awe of this unusual and interesting culture. Here’s an interesting one – we learned that the Korean people have a superstition that if an electric fan is left running overnight in a room with the windows closed, you will die. And so, throughout Korea, you can only get electric fans with timers!
After Naqib finished work, we moved out of the Grand Hyatt and into Backpacker’s Space – an affordable hostel located in Hongdae (a bustling university area with a great vibe), nearby a great little supermarket and a 7 minute walk from Hongik University subway station. Moon, the owner, speaks English and is very helpful (and fun!). He helped us arrange our DMZ/JSA tour as well as sitting up with us until 2AM drinking makgeolli (Korean rice wine)!
The organized DMZ/JSA tour felt like such a unique once-in-a-lifetime experience. A small strip of land runs across Korea, splitting the South from the North – the remnants of a cold war. Ironically enough, the demilitarized zone is the most heavily militarized border in the world. Our guide told us we had to abide by a couple rules, one of which went along the lines of “Basically, it’s real simple. Don’t do anything that would start the next Korean War.”
The gray building pictured above is on the North Korean side, and if you look close enough, you can spot a North Korean soldier standing guard (he was spying us with binoculars for a good 10 minutes).
This is the building where delegates of North Korea and the UN hold military talks. The demarcation line halves this building, so technically, half of it is in North Korea. This is me sneaking up on a South Korean rock soldier on the North Korean side of the building.
Another must-do whilst in Korea is attend a baseball game. We went to see the Doosan Bears vs NC Dinos play at Jamsil stadium (Doosan Bear’s home stadium). I was so caught up in the atmosphere and excitement, I even bought the official Doosan Bears jersey (at only USD43). Loads of locals were in fancy dress, singing chants, doing little dances, cheering and drinking cheap beer (USD2.60 per cup) in the stadium. Our neighboring baseball fans were kind enough to buy us beer refills and offer us pizza. There were even (sexy) cheerleaders…and yes our dream came true – they danced to Psy’s “Gentleman”.
Of course we did a bit of the touristy route as well, by visiting Gyeongbokgung Palace, one of five main Palaces built by the Joseon dynasty, and the largest of all. Built in 1395, then burned and abandoned, it lay patiently for three centuries before it was reconstructed in 1867. What’s amazing about visiting this vast palace is that surrounding it is a stark modern contrast of high-rise buildings. The palace also has a serene garden where I felt immediately at peace, with a backdrop of mist shrouded mountains and the trees dripping with a fresh coat of rainwater.
On top of all these exciting daily adventures, we met some amazing people along the way, including a whole group of young ESL teachers. They took us to a “Vogue” themed party (absolutely fabulous) as well as to Hongdae park to drink soju (rice liquor) and mekju (beer)! When they found out it was my birthday, they ran off and bought me ice cream, stuck candles in it and came back singing Happy Birthday in full force. It felt like the whole park was singing for me! It was such a welcoming experience, and if I could, I would do it all again 🙂
Discovering Seoul in just a little more than a week is just not enough, so we shall someday meet again, new friend(s). “Somewhere ages and ages hence.”