Another in my series of travel blogs, this one covers the second stop of my Grand Tour of Asia. This one is a two parter, and is made up of notes I took at the time and reflections following my return to Northern Ireland. I have been reluctant to finish these travel posts – maybe part of me doesn’t want closure, and would rather have stayed in Asia. It was an amazing two and a half months.
Seoul was never top on my list of must-see world cities, but given its proximity to Japan and a recommendation from a friend, a stop off was in order. After seven weeks, I was enjoying Japan too much to leave. I was starting to learn the language and customs, but I had to move on eventually as the rest of Asia awaited. My flight was out of Kansai International Airport, Osaka, early on a Saturday morning. It was a budget flight operated by Peach airlines, and my luggage weight was restricted to 20 kg, 10 kg less than the Emirates flight to Tokyo. Seven weeks of Japan, and seven weeks of souvenirs later, I was lugging significantly more than the limit. It was the height of summer and I must have looked completely insane. I was standing in the terminal building wearing shorts, a fleece, a raincoat packed with as many items of clothing as I could fit in, and a rucksack weighing half a tonne. The check-in desk was beckoning. Beads of sweat were starting to roll down my face, and the heat was closing in. I hauled the suitcase onto the belt. The scales read 19.9 kg. By some miracle, I managed to get my case under the limit and avoid the steep excess baggage charges. One hurdle cleared, one more to go. In order to catch out as many customers as possible, Peach weighs both cabin baggage and hand baggage, and I was only allowed 10 kg. This required even more shifting of belongings about my person and into my camera bag. I was looking more and more ridiculous, but if I could get past the second weighing, I would be on the home straight. Success! I got through with a few grams and a few minutes to spare. It was time to relax, and to think about how little I knew about Seoul. I barely knew how to get from the airport to my accommodation, but I was going to figure it out.
Seoul was not how I imagined. I don’t know what I thought it would be like, but it was definitely different. It made me even more aware of how bad my research and planning had been. All I had prepared was flights and accommodation, and the rest was yet to be determined. Like many things in Seoul, the airport was state of the art, but I wasn’t hanging around. I went straight for the commuter train, and headed for Hongdae University station. Seoul lived up to its reputation – everyone around me on the train was buried in smartphones, playing games, texting, listening to music, watching TV, escaping life. Old and young. I had booked the Hongdae Guesthouse in Seoul’s university area, hoping that it would be a lively spot with plenty to see and do, and I wasn’t disappointed. The airport train station connected with the subway station, and my accommodation was right beside the exit, though it seemed as though I was walking for a lifetime underground. Cafés, market stalls, tiny shops. There seemed to be everything in the subterranean tunnels. The guesthouse was above a Dunkin Donuts, and easy to find once I knew what I was looking for. The woman at reception was super friendly, and had me explaining the entire political landscape of Northern Ireland in a few short minutes, then asked my opinion on whether she should move into a house or apartment in Seoul. Given my long experience of the property market…oh wait. No, I know absolutely nothing about the property market in Seoul, so it was a rather odd question. I left off my luggage, and asked for a recommendation for a good lunch place. She made a few calls, then gave me a note with the Korean word for a spicy stewed tofu dish. She did say they spoke no English whatsoever, and she was right.
I communicated through gestures, and the use of my note, which seemed to achieve the desired result. The food was fine, though some of it was incredibly spicy. I was used to milder Japanese cuisine, and my stomach was having difficulty managing the brutal onslaught. It was tofu stew with little plates of kimchi (a Korean speciality made from fermented cabbage and spices), broccoli, onion things, a bowl of rice, and some unidentified treats. I tried to finish eating, and thought I had indicated that I wanted the bill. Nope. They topped up my plates with even more food, and I endeavoured to finish it all, as challenging as that was with the cutlery I was provided. Metal chopsticks were provided, which are hands down the worst implements possible for eating. I spent seven weeks eating food with chopsticks, and I couldn’t manage the metal bastards. They are slippery and thin, and it’s difficult to get a decent grip on them. Almost all of the Koreans gave me a sympathetic look when they saw my attempts at using their devilish cutlery.
Eventually they stopped feeding me, and I managed to pay and leave. It was incredibly cheap, at 6000 won or around £3 for all that food. I had some time to kill before I could get into my room and relax, so I took a walk around Hongdae. The place was buzzing! Loads of people, and interesting shops, restaurants, cafés and bars. I stopped for some ice cream with honey and yuzu (a kind of citrus fruit), and to watch the world go by. Hongdae was great, and I felt as though I could happily live and study there. There was so much to see and do, but I couldn’t stay there forever. I made my way back to the guesthouse to check in and chill out. I was almost completely exhausted already, and needed to rest before I could do anything else. The room looked good. Bunk beds, but I could cope with that. High ceilings, ensuite bathroom, and…a set of steps. Oh no. Yes, I was in the loft, which was kneeling room only. I couldn’t stand, and I had to lug my suitcase up and through a hole in the floor to get to my bed. It was a bed at the very least, and not the worst place I had been in the last week.
After resting for a while and making notes about my adventures, I headed out to see Seoul plaza and to take a walk around the city. I had almost forgotten South Korea was celebrating the 70th anniversary of independence from Japan, and I ran into a massive parade. Huge crowds of people dressed in traditional costumes making lots of noise, and marching up to the palace. It was a sight to behold, and an old Korean guy even had me dancing to the music. After taking hundreds of photos, I made my way to Namdaemun market to explore and get some food. There were some interesting camera shops along the way, and a lot of huge, futuristic looking buildings. Namdaemun market was buzzing with activity, and though I didn’t speak the language, I could get by with gestures to buy things. I found a delicious fried “thing” (who knows what it was, probably some sort of fritter) and some nikkoman (pork buns), and took a walk around looking at all the tat. There were a lot of gifty things, kitchen supplies, and other food stalls. I brought my dinner back to Seoul plaza, found a spot on the grass to sit down facing the spectacular city hall. Everywhere I went in Seoul had free fast WiFi, and the plaza was no exception. The rest of the night was spent exploring Hongdae and Sincheon.
The Second Day
I started off with a lazy morning trying to sort out flights to Cambodia unsuccessfully. That was time well spent. Cambodia was still a week away, but I would’ve been happier if I could get it at least partially planned. Given how close it was, I ended up in Dunkin’ Donuts for breakfast, then I headed off to see the changing of the guard at Deoksugung Palace. I hadn’t got to grips with the names and pronunciations at this stage, and I never really did. Thankfully I had a guide to take me round and do the pronunciation for me. It was a free tour led by a group similar to scouts, promoting Korean culture and history. The young guy showing me around was very knowledgeable, and probably the best tour guide I had the whole time I was in Asia. After the tour, I explored the grounds on my own and took some more photos, and visited the art museum in one of the colonial Japanese buildings. There was a lot of anti-Japanese sentiment floating around in Seoul, probably exacerbated by Independence Day. It was understandable because of the atrocities committed in the past, but at the same time, the current generation cannot be held accountable for crimes they have no real connection to. I don’t want to get too wrapped up in this issue as it is a highly contentious one.
Deoksugung was interesting, but now on to the main event, Gyeongbokgung Palace. Though I was impressed with the size of Gyeongbokgung, I found the minimalist style much less interesting than some other places I had visited, and it felt rather empty. I was wandering around looking at same-ish buildings and vast pavements. Not quite my cup of tea, though I did run into a very friendly Korean who asked me where I was from, and somehow knew where Northern Ireland was and about George Best. He seemed keen to practice his English talking to tourists, but after only a minute or two he headed off to find another group. Another strange encounter. I spent the rest of my time in the compound around the palace at the National Folk Museum of Korea. It was another interesting spot, but I quickly grew weary of the exhibits, and wanted to make better use of my short time in this huge city.
I made my way out of a different entrance to the compound when I ran into Waffle Guy. I was really hungry at that point, and would’ve eaten pretty much anything. Seoul has a great street food culture, and right outside the palace area there was a truck selling waffles and other food. I indicated for one waffle, but he motioned that it would be five minutes. Hand gestures were my only means of communication. They looked good enough to wait, so I did. It was starting to spit slightly and the owners of the truck looked a bit concerned. I suppose rain could cause problems, but that wasn’t the issue. The police were walking up the road towards them, and in a matter of seconds they had packed up shop with the guy driving and the woman blending with the bystanders. A rather sneaky operation!
I made my way over to Insadong to see the markets and grab some food. The luggage limits on my flight out of Seoul were restricting my shopping, so I bring much back from this leg of my travels. I didn’t even get to buy a pair of stupid metal chopsticks. They were terrible, but it would’ve been nice to share the terribleness with everyone at home. Before long I noticed people disappearing off the streets, and acting suspiciously. Umbrellas and raincoats slowly appeared, and the rain wasn’t far off. And it didn’t just rain, it poured. I decided it was a good time to stop and get dinner, so I found a restaurant serving vaguely Korean food and had another spicy meal. And more metal chopsticks. The food was fine, but I wasn’t bowled over by the flavours, just the sheer quantity of it. It was time to head back to the guesthouse to chill out and get some more flights booked, but the rain was still ongoing. This was the last and only day I left my umbrella at my accommodation, but as soon as the rain appeared, every shop and market stall pulled out their stock of umbrellas. A few pounds later and I walked away with a very stylish transparent umbrella. Needless to say, I left it at the guesthouse when I moved on.
My travels didn’t end there! Stay tuned for Part 2, covering the last two days of my sojourn in Seoul.