So when you think of South Korea, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?…..alright, you can’t answer nothing but you might answer Seoul since its one of the only things most people outside this country know about when talkin about SK. That’s right, home of the 88 Olympics and breaking into the top 10 largest cities in the world with a girthy population of 10.5 mil edging out large Asian metros like Beijing and Tokyo, not to mention NYC.
So we have traveled our share of the peninsula in 4 months but had yet to make it to the capital until last weekend. We booked our tickets on the KTX and got us a sweet deal (or so we thought) on a nice nice hotel in advance online and were ready to go.
We arrived for our first departure from the Gwangju Train Station at around 9:45am on Saturday and were delighted to find the Gwangju Police band was there performing! Since it was the Cheosuk holiday (thanksgiving in SK), the station was crowded with those awaiting family arrivals from the northern parts of the country. The band was actually pretty good too. The lead singer is exactly what you might think a smaller Asian version of James Brown would look like…..if you ever thought of that.
So we boarded the KTX which is the high speed rail that travels at about 185mph at its peak to Seoul which would get us there in less than 3 hours as opposed to a bus which can easily over 4. Not to mention the fact that its newer, more spacious and has a food cart dude that cruises down the aisle about every 30 minutes or so. A student of Nicole’s had the misfortune of taking the same train as us and being seated directly next to Nicole and I but he was a pretty cool kid and apparently not on Nicole blacklist of students.
We arrived in Seoul shortly after 1pm and immediately felt the awkwardness of seeing more foreigners in the station than we had seen in 4 months down south. I guess the odd part about it is 2 things. First, you kinda get used to that rock star oogling thing that Koreans do when you’re a rare breed in some places, and second, the fact that they don’t look Korean, does not mean they speak english. Many of the people we heard speaking eastern European dialects which I later determined was a cause for some of the “harder” looks being shot our way from them.
So we caught a cab and managed to find the hotel Ibis in Seoul which was nice, but at a cost of $150 a night we were not as impressed as we had been with some uber cheap places. The room was fairly small, no tub and no free toiletries! I mean, what’s the point of stayin at a hotel at all if not for the free swag. But they did have a bath house which was nice and breakfast was included and we all know how i feel about breakfast.
The hotel was situated near an area of the city called the Myeongdong shopping district which was very nice and had a good blend of street vendors and shops selling pretty much anything you could possible think of, well, except for children….if you thought they sold children your sick, and wrong. Moving on, the first thing we did after walking around a bit was to try and find a Subway (the food chain) to try and grab some tuna subs that we cannot get in the south but there were none nearby so we settled on California Pizza Kitchen since we were hell bent on eating western since we had the option. That night we chilled at the hotel after cruising the Seoul streets and rested up for Saturday.
Saturday we hopped aboard the Seoul City Bus Tour which for less than $10 US Dollars takes you to 27 locations throughout the downtown area and allows you to get off and catch the following bus that arrives at each location every 25 minutes for the whole day! We figured it was the fastest and most cost effective plan. Our first stop was the Korean War Memorial which was really interesting. The statues and military vehicles situated all over the memorial grounds really gave you an idea of what a tremendous moment in history the Korean War really was. Just looking at the US tanks facing those of the USSR ones was enough to make me thankful that I have never had to experience such a horrific scene but thankful for those who have risked everything for me and everyone else.
Next stop, Itaewon which was the foreigner hotspot in Seoul. Stores and food venues geared toward those not from Korea was the theme and as a result, not our favorite spot. Since we’ve been here neither of us has felt the need for an escape to a familiar setting since we’ve been so openly welcomed into the unfamiliar ones. I did however grab a pair of sunglasses and a Korean National team baseball hat while I was there so i’m not completely innocent. After we had seen enough foreigners, we made it over to a traditional Korean village in the heart of the city that was celebrating the holiday with traditional kids games, crafts and booth where you could dress up in the traditional Korean garb for only 2,000 won (less than $2)! So obviously, based on the picture below, we took the bait.
I somehow got the kings costume while Nicole got the maid which may have been an inside joke on their part but we thought we looked pretty fab and after a few photos with the kiddies we moved on yet again!
Onto Insadong which was another shopping district with some less expensive shops. Nicole got some schweet new shoes, a shirt and a snazzy scarf to help her cope with the chilly weather up north. From there we hopped the bus to the N. Seoul Tower which is smack dab in the center of the city on a mountain top. Before heading to the tower we grabbed some pretty fantastic black bean noodles and sweet and sour pork to power up. We got ourselves some tickets to check out the observatory there that gives you a pretty awesome panoramic view of the sprawling city below and even shows you on the windows what other major cities you are pointing in the direction of. Kinda cool 😉
We then headed back to the hotel where we readied chilled for a bit and readied ourselves for dinner. For dinner we went to a place called VIP’s which is a really cool salad bar and steak joint in South Korea. Cheap…no, but the food is awesome and after spending 2 hours there (and after Nicole inhaled 3 glasses of wine) we definitely felt that it was won well spent. We headed our happy little bums back to the hotel and got naked…….at the bath house….(yes, separately)..ha! they don’t allow it to be co-ed so I made quick friends with 5 other naked homies while Nicole buddied up to some ajuma’s in her bath. The fact that these baths were not nearly as big as the ones we’re used to in Gwangju made it slightly awkward and less relaxing so the experience was short-lived.
Much to momma’s dismay, that night before we went to bed we booked ourselves on the morning tour of the DMZ (Korean Demilitarized Zone) between North andSouth Korea. We figured it was something we really needed to see since we had the opportunity and to be quite honest, the relaxed attitude the SK people towards the crazies up north has rubbed off so we weren’t to nervous about it. The tour took us first to see the unification bridge that was used as a portal to release hostages during the war.
the freedom bellunification bridge
Then the tour took us to the 3rd Tunnel which gave me an opportunity (not Nicole since she woulda had a meltdown in that tunnel) to check out a tunnel that the North Koreans were digging 24 stories beneath the earth in a failed attempt to invade the South many moons ago. The trek down was really amazing since you could actually see where the North Koreans had stuck the dynamite as they blasted away deeper and closer to the South Korean border.
The next stop was the observatory which gave us an opportunity to see up close with binoculars the Northern neighbors and even the propaganda city that was built along with the world tallest flagpole. You can read more about it and see some more detailed pics here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Propaganda_Village
a view of the North
Unfortunately our pictures are only as good as they would allow as we had to stand about 20 feet behind the wall in a yellow box when photographing or our cameras would be confiscated. Not sure the true reason for this but we were told it was a security measure as any closer, we might be able to photograph top secret locations…..riiiight.
Ok so the last stop on the tour was by far my favorite. We visited the Dorasan train station which is situated just inside South Korea that was completed in 2002 and was planned to be used as a connecting railway from South through the North and on up to the railways that connect to Europe. The railway unfortunately amid the mess with the North has only been used for freight briefly in 2007 and not at all since then. The station was very cool though and what is nice is the fact that the station was built on the hopes that one day the relationship with the north will strengthen to the point that the station will become a hub for travelers. Another interesting fact is that over 32,000 people from all over the world donated over $1 million dollars to ensure completion of the project.
Well that pretty much wraps up our trip. We had a pretty awesome time as always and although we spent a bit more in the big city, it was another facet of this crazy cool country that we were happy to experience and share. Till next time, since you know there will be….annyeong!!!