Thursday, May 24, 2007
The bus stop at Incheon International Airport.
The bus to Seoul was pretty uneventful; there were a bunch of Korea-crazed Hong Kongers on the bus that I practiced my few words of Korean with. I was mainly worried about not knowing which stop Seoul Station was, but it turned out the bus had Korean and English announcements for each stop, and everyone was getting off at Seoul Station anyway. My first impressions of Seoul were that it actually looked quite similar to a big Chinese city, although a bit cleaner and smaller. I've heard countless stories about the crazy drivers in Korea, but I didn't see anything crazier than what you would see in the US - in general, the traffic seemed a lot less crazy than in China. People even stood around waiting for the walk sign at empty roads, as opposed to China, where you just start walking across whenever you have an opening.
First glimpses of Seoul from the bus. Looks just like Wudaokou!
There seemed to be many flower bowls around the city, a nice touch.
A Seoul neighborhood. Seoul seems like quite a mountainous city; many of the side streets sloped up at pretty extreme angles.
The bus didn't actually stop at Seoul Station, so I was a bit lost. I walked up the road a bit and noticed Seoul Station, but was still confused - which one was the big road that I was supposed to walk up? Which way was north? The streets of Seoul were nothing at all like the simple grid I was used to in Beijing. I ended up wandering around a bit before I tried asking directions for the first time. A kind-looking elderly man sitting around a skyscraper pointed me the way to Nandaemun, the Great South Gate.
Nandaemun market entrance.
Nandaemun market vendors.
Along the way there, I noticed the Nandaemun market I'd heard so much about. I figured I would walk around a bit and see what I could buy. It was still pretty early, so there weren't many people around, other than some mainland Chinese tourists and myself. I picked up a high-tech self-unfurling umbrella for 5,000 won(about 5 dollars) and snapped a few shots of the market.
Ddeokbokki (rice cakes).
The place I ate breakfast.
Leaving the market, I noticed an inviting looking restaurant. I was pretty hungry, so I went in. There was a bit of a communication barrier, but I blurted out that I did not speak Korean very well, and the nice lady who ran the store brought me a menu with pictures. I don't know if Koreans eat anything in particular for breakfast, but in many Asian countries breakfast food is not very much different from other meals. I ordered ddeokbokki, which I'd heard were good. They were! Ddeokbokki are pounded rice cakes - they're very springy and chewy. As I paid the bill(of around $3), the lady asked if I was Japanese - for some reason, everyone in Korea thinks I'm Japanese!
Nandaemun(南大门 for you Chinese speakers) or the "Great South Gate" is one of the old gates of Seoul, built over 600 years ago.
Following the directions of the lady in the restaurant, I ended up at Nandaemun, which was indeed impressive. It's one of the old city gates of Seoul, built a few centuries ago to protect the city from Korean tigers, which are long gone. After helping some tourists take a picture and snapping some shots myself, I headed onwards through a shiny business area before I hit the Samsung building and city hall. At this point, I realized the distances in real life were much longer than they seemed on the map, so I headed underground to ride the subway.
City hall and Seoul square (which was being renovated).
Street food vendor. The foil-wrapped rolls are kimbap.
Kimbap(like sushi, but don't ever call it that!)
On the subway. Looks just like in "My Sassy Girl"!
There was a big underground mall in the subway(which was closed since it was still pretty early) where I sat down to eat the kimbap I had bought from a street vendor earlier.
A neighborhood I stumbled into while looking for Gyeongbokgung.
Getting off at the Gyeongbokgung station, I wandered around a bit more before I actually found the palace. I had expected to be in and out of the palace pretty quickly, but the place was much more impressive than I thought it would be. I spent a good two hours just walking around, enjoying the place, and taking lots of pictures. When I was done, I realized I didn't have enough time to see Jongmyo or even the Jogyesa temple, so I headed back on the subway and rode to Insadong, which I had heard so much about.
Gyeongbokgung was filled with Korean middle school students, who I imagine must visit at least once as part of their education.
More views of the palace.
Palace guards. I've always wanted to take portrait-style photos of people during my travels, and now I finally found a willing subject! Well, maybe not so willing – some guy working at the palace got all mad and made me stop taking pictures of them.
Despite all the hype, I didn't think Insadong was particularly special. It's just a typical touristy street with a lot of souvenir shops and restaurants. I browsed around shops a bit and ate in a nearby restaurant, where I had fish soup. The food was good, but it was already nearing 12PM, and my flight left at 3PM; considering it had taken an hour to get here when the roads were empty in the early morning, how long would it take to get to the airport now?
Lunch – fish soup with delicious side dishes.
I'd originally planned on riding the subway all the way to Gimpo airport, then taking the AREX train from Gimpo to Incheon in order to avoid traffic, but considering that I was so slow in using the subway around here and had no idea where the AREX train was, it seemed like a less viable option. Despite my extremely broken Korean, the lady who ran the restaurant was pretty sympathetic and concerned that I get to the airport on time, and showed me where to get on the airport bus - which ended up taking exactly the same time as it did in the morning (one hour), despite the traffic.
Sitting at the terminal with an hour and a half to spare before my flight left, I was quite pleased with myself, especially when I noticed some people from the flight from LA who might have been waiting around for 10 hours!
Although I didn't quite get to see everything I planned for, I'm still quite happy with my trip to Korea considering my limited time, poor language skills, and inexperience with the country. There's still so much I haven't seen - the Jongmyo shrine, the DMZ border area, and the kimchi museum for starters. I don't think I was in the country for long enough to get a good feeling of it, but in general, Koreans seemed quite friendly, polite, and helpful with pointing out directions. As for prices, I didn't do a whole lot of shopping, but my meals were decently cheap($3 for breakfast, $6 for lunch), and the things I bought were reasonably priced without any need for bargaining.
If there's anything I learned from this trip to Korea, it was mainly what I already believed - you should definitely learn the language of any country you're going to be visiting, even if only for a short while. I had a hard enough time getting around with the bit of Korean I know, but I can't imagine how I would have managed without it.
Anyhow, the next time you're stuck on a long layover in Incheon International Airport, give Korea a try!
I'm writing this about a week after the fact, and have a bunch of other stuff to blog about, but I'm about to leave on a trip to Gansu province - but I'll have new updates in a few days!TRAVEL TIPS - SEOUL LAYOVER
Time you need: variable, but at least eight hours, preferably in daytime
Cost: around 50,000 won(about $50 USD). Allow $20 for transportation costs(bus and subway) and $30 for spending (food and souvenirs). To be safe, you may want to bring another 50,000 won to pay for a taxi back to the airport if you really get lost.
Getting there and back: From Incheon International Airport, head out to the bus area and buy tickets from the little kiosk(around 7,000 won). Which bus to take depends on where you want to start your trip; try taking the 601 to Seoul Station. Check the airport website at http://www.airport.or.kr/eng/airport/ for more bus information. If you want to return to the airport, there are plenty of signs clearly marked "AIRPORT BUS" around the downtown area - ask someone if you can't find one nearby. The trip should take about an hour each way - allow an extra half hour for traffic.
How to get around: Get a city map at the information desk in the airport. The Seoul subway system is modern and straightforward - just tell the ticket seller where you want to go or use one of the automated ticket machines. Subway tickets usually cost only 1,000 won. Koreans are helpful with directions and many speak some English. For an interactive map of the subway system, see the official website at http://www.seoulsubway.co.kr/
What to see: Gyeongbokgung is a must-see. Pass up Insadong unless you like tourist areas. Nandaemun and the nearby market are worth a visit. Jongmyo also looks like a good place to visit if you have time. If you really have a lot of time, you could make a trip to the Kimchi museum at the COEX mall, but bear in mind the subway trip there from Gyeongbokgung could take around 45 minutes. For more places to see, try http://www.lifeinkorea.com/travel2/Seoul
What to eat: Most Korean restaurants are pretty good, and many have pictures in the menu. If you can read hangeul, some things to try are bulgogi, ddeokbbeokgi (rice cakes), kimchi soup, and, of course, kimchi (which will come with your meal along with other side dishes). Most meals are pretty cheap and should cost you around 3,000 to 10,000 won.