05 January 2014

FLASH TRAVEL: SEOUL


How could I not love this face?! This guy is hilarious!








Every country has their version of meat on a stick, and this one happens to be several different kinds on a stick











Floor to ceiling and aisles and aisles of gift wrap!!!




On my way back to the states, I scheduled the longest layover I could find online with the cheapest tickets available.  I didn’t really care where I would be landing, I just wanted to explore another country for free (essentially).  So I found a flight that had a 16 hour layover in Seoul.   The unfortunate thing was that it would land at 11pm so that wasn’t exactly ideal, though I’ve done it before in Kuala Lumpur and wandered around all night for a 7am flight.  This time I decided to sleep in the airport until 7am and then head into the city for the day. 

Upon arrival in Seoul, all of the bigger lounge chairs had been taken as well as the benches and such.  So I found a nice little spot in a restaurant with bench seating that was dark and hidden enough away that it would be difficult to spot me.  After making sure it would be difficult to take my bag with all of my most important items without waking me, I fell asleep just fine.  In the morning, the employees of the restaurant were setting up around me and woke me around 7am when it was time for them to open.  I groggily woke up and got myself to immigration where I was given a day visa, got my maps at the information booth, and set out for the hour-long train to take me into the city.  The trouble with flying through different time zones and sleeping in uncomfortable and sometimes loud public areas is that you don’t really get quality sleep so unfortunately I fell asleep on the train on the way in, and fortunately, a local had woken me up at the last stop and luckily the correct stop for me. 

I arrived at their central train station where all modes of transportation converged on several levels and of course, in a new language to adapt to while I am still half asleep.  As frustrating as trying to figure out where I’m going and how to get there can be, I’m in my element when I have no idea what I’m doing or where I’m really going.  It’s a great opportunity to interact with locals and ask around for directions of which they were happy to direct me to the subway station and were curious as to where I’m from. 

Often times, entering into a new country and city where the first place you’re going into is the busiest part of the city (a transportation hub) in cramped areas, freezing weather, loud, screeching trains, foreign languages around you, and the weird smells can really be an assault on the senses especially when you’re tired.  But somehow, I have found absolute pleasure in it.  As peeved as I can initially be, I love it.  I absolutely love the shock to my system while I try and adapt to this new foreign environment. 

Unfortunately, when I finally got outside, the shock I didn’t expect was the blast of FREEZING COLD air.  I had just come out of SE Asia where it was 95 degrees and humid.  Even with all of my winter gear on, it didn’t prepare me for Seoul.  Thing is, I forgot how cold ‘cold’ really was!!  It was like going straight into a walk-in freezer and then closing the door and never letting me out for the entire day.  It was painful, literally painfully cold.   

Since I was only in Seoul for a day, I’m not going to pretend I know where to go or make any real recommendations.  I went to a large outdoor market where I was fascinated with the hustle and bustle of daily life - where the streets were coated in inches of ice, dozens of tiny Korean barbeque restaurants were nestled side by side in small walkways and the hot food beckoned for me to not only sit down and enjoy a dish or five but also to stay close to the fire so I could be warm.  I loved meeting this one vendor who made a sort of candy out of flour and honey where the process was almost like making taffy, but instead this confectionary delight came out looking like delicious, delicate webs – yet he was the highlight of it all.  He obviously had a flair for entertaining and for being a people person, so between him and his really unique product, he had been on television several times and was able to entertain me with his wonderful personality and smile while showing off his product. 

After the market, I headed to the Royal Palace to catch the changing of the guards which I’m really glad that I did.  I loved their dazzling, colorful costumes using every jewel-toned color along with accents in feathers and shells.  Afterwards, it was wonderful to just wander through the grounds that were covered in snow and appreciate the season that I’ve never lived with being from Los Angeles and now living in Thailand.  I have to admit; there is something quite solemn and comforting of being in the snow.  It’s almost like it drives me to want to feel the warmth and connectivity of others around me… but of course, I was doing Seoul alone, so it left me wanting to snuggle up and be close to others.  Funny thing how weather can do that to people.  I’m so use to living in really warm weather that I do almost anything to avoid touching anything that might make me sweat more, and there I was wanting the opposite. 

I wish I had more time in Seoul to get to know it a little better, but I’m glad that I did get to spend at least a day there.  I’m also glad that I didn’t make a blind move to teach there.  I know many people say it’s a great place to live and teach and I’m sure it is, but I can say even with the short period of time I was there, that it’s not for me as it felt cold and industrial.  I want to live in beautiful places in the world where I smile when I step into the aesthetically and/or naturally beautiful world outside – which to me is gorgeous architecture, urban design, and landscape – a place where my soul can escape, be inspired, and wander.  Unfortunately, my soul didn’t connect with their Seoul and that’s ok.  Perhaps I'll give it another try somewhere down the road…    

Some advice from my friend of places to go in Seoul when you have only 10 hours to explore: 

10 hours would let you jump onto the metro and head into downtown. Takes about 30 mins or you can take the express bus. I would get off at Namdaemun - so you can visit the market there. It's one of the biggest and craziest in Asia, you'll love it. Then you need to head on over to the Royal Palace - it's close by. It's gorgeous and set against a mountain in the north of Seoul, and there are always guards out in traditional costume, so try and catch the changing of the guard, it's really something. Explore the palace grounds, and make sure not to miss the secret garden. It's stunning. Then you're going to want to hop in a cab and ask the driver to take you to a restaurant that serves Galbi and/or Samgyeoupsal - traditional Korean barbecue. If there's still time, take a taxi or the metro to N Seoul Tower - also called Namsan Tower - wicked views of the city and the tower itself is neat. Take a lock and leave it there for good luck, haha. No real recommendation for Korean food on the specific restaurant front - make sure you try street food at the market, and any of the 1 billion traditional Korean barbeque restaurants will be as good as any other!

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