Going to (South) Korea was a bit of a leap of faith for me. I read a lot of horror stories about how almost no one speaks English, and how there are almost no street signs, and those that do exist are only in Korean. Coupling that with the less than cordial, welcoming environment when I visited Shanghai, China earlier in the year, and I was really afraid that I was going to be lost, confused & frustrated much of the time. In reality, I had a truly amazing time. Nearly all the truly important road, street & map signs are sufficiently translated into English, and the Koreans on the whole were incredibly friendly & generous.
The sun was setting as the plane landed at Incheon Airport, and it was quite pretty, although the clouds were moving in. I had this ridiculously long walk to the airport
subway. As i was walking, i was looking for some place to purchase a ‘T-money’ card which is this rechargeable card that works on all the subways, and gives me a 10% discount for every ride. From what i read in advance, there was supposed to be somewhere to buy one right before the actual station entrance. I must have looked like a clueless tourist, cause out of no where this Korean guy who spoke really good English asked me if i needed help. I was a bit suspicious, cause i
didn’t think it was all that common for the locals to approach foreigners, but i asked him if he knew where to buy the t-money card, but he wasn’t sure. He proceeded to ask these security guard looking guys, who pointed to this ‘GS25’ convenience store just *after* the subway station gate. I’m not sure which genius came up with this idea that you basically have to buy a subway ticket before you can buy a T-money card to avoid buying a subway ticket. But this guy went through the gate for me and bought and *paid* for a card for me. He said it was a ‘welcome to korea’ gift. I thanked him
profusely. I then proceeded to charge it up, and found that he actually put 7000W on it when he bought it, but i still added another 20000W since i didn’t remember off hand how much it cost to ride all the way to the hotel.
At that point i got on the airport subway, and rode 30 minutes to the xfer station where i again must have looked super confused, cause yet another random Korean guy asked me in decent english if i needed help. The signs were a bit confusing, so i figured i’d ask him if he knew which way i needed to go. At first he didn’t fully understand what I wanted, and was giving me these crazy directions that i knew were
wrong. Eventually we wandered over to a huge subway map, and i pointed to the station that i wanted to get to near the hotel, and then he proceeded to launch into this long talk about how amazing the palaces in the center of the city are, and this & that, and i politely thanked him for his help, and got moving to the train. I rode this
train for 22 stations, over an hour. Thankfully it wasn’t too crowded after 8PM, and it was mostly just a boring long ride. I finally got to Jongo3-ga station, and then had to walk what felt like half way across the city to the station exit (15) that i needed. Because jongo3 is the intersection of 3 different lines it has 16 different exits, and
apparently i needed the one that was farthest from where i got off the train. I walked past countless stores & shops and newspaper stands (plus this station was kinda crowded), and eventually made my way to the exit and the street.
The hotel was definitely in the center of the city. Really tall buildings everywhere, lots of traffic, tons of huge flashing multi-colored signs. it looks pretty cool. I could actually see the top of the hotel from the station exit, but i still had to walk about 6 blocks to get there. Technically, there’s supposed to be this alley that goes straight there, and i think i found it, but since it was night, i wasn’t in the mood to get myself really lost, so i took the longer way, and found the hotel ok. As i was walking, i
went down this street that had about a half dozen food stands. I didn’t stop to look closely, but i’ll definitely check them out at some point. I got to the hotel, and the checkin took about 30 seconds, and i was off to my room on the top (9th) floor.
The hotel is really nice. the room is really tiny. Its fine though, the bed is a decent size, its got a full size bathtub, a tv, internet access, and even a tiny cube fridge. The
bathroom also has a huge assortment of toiletries. So that was day 1(and a half).
After breakfast, i got myself packed up for the day, and headed out to do some exploring. the first thing that i did was wander the maze of alleys between the subway station & the hotel. as i suspected, there’s a much shorter route, but i also saw a rather eclectic bunch of stores in the alleys. once i was done with that, i went back into the subway to figure out how much money i had left on my t-money card, and also to see if i could use a credit card to add more (I can’t). after that, i wandered the maze of tunnels in the station until i got to the exit closest to my first stop of the day, Jongmyo Shrine.
unfortunately, i got there at 8AM, and they didn’t open until 9AM, so I had some time to kill, and wandered around this park outside the shrine gate for a while, and watched bunch of old korean guys playing Go/Reversi. One of them tried talking to me (apparently the only english words that he knew were ‘drink’ and ‘hello’). he had this impressive spread of banchan in front of him, and he kept babbling about drink (and pointed to this metal cup that he had), and kept saying hello repeatedly, as if that one word would make everything else that he was saying completely clear. eventually, i just told him that i didn’t speak korean, all his buddies laughed, and i wandered off. i found a public bathroom that amazingly had toilet paper and western style toilets. finally the ticket window opened, and i bought the 5-for-1 deal (10000W for tickets to all 4 palaces + the shrine that i planned to see today, it would have cost 18000W if i bought tickets for each separately). supposedly, the only access to the
shrine today was via a guided tour, but since it was a holiday, they weren’t doing English tours at all, so they just let me in to wander around on my own. See the wikipedia article ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jongmyo_shrine ). it was pretty nice, and the place was empty. I saw only 5 other people while i was there. apparently this was mostly because it was a holiday, as by the time afternoon rolled around, i was shoulder to shoulder with all kinds of crazy tourists, but more on that later.
After I finished the shrine, i had to walk about a half mile down this narrow alley road that ran parallel to the shrine wall to get to the castle complex that had Changgyeonggung and Changdekgung Palaces (again, see wikipedia for the details). This walk was really nice, i walked through this neighborhood that was full of tiny shops and apartments. i passed this noodle place where the cooks apparently
slept in the backroom ( i saw them sitting in their beds watching TV). i saw some cool signs (took tons of pictures), passed a bizarre looking gas station, and also passed this buddhist temple that was really cool looking. i finally got to the palace entrance, and because i had the ticket book, i didn’t have to wait in line to buy a
ticket, i just handed the book to the gate guy and walked right in. the grounds are HUGE. like many city blocks of parkland. the palaces were really impressive looking. it was really nice, and since it was still morning, they weren’t too crowded yet.
By the time i finished the first two palaces it was nearly noon, so i started hunting for somewhere to get lunch as I walked the 1.5 miles to the next palace (Gyeongbokgung). Less than a block from the castle, i came across this little old lady with this food truck parked on the curb, selling what i can only describe as muffin shaped pancakes with this reddish brown mystery sauce. she was doing a fairly brisk
business, so i figured they had to be decent. they were 6 for 1000W. i bought 6, and she made them fresh in front of me. they were pretty good. the filling was kind of like a mixture of hoisson sauce and gojuchang sauce. that wasn’t much of a lunch though, so i kept looking for something else. i eventually came upon this tiny
convenience store (it had 3 aisles about the length of a kitchen), but they didn’t really have anything that looked good for lunch. less than a block away, i found another GS25 convenience store, and went in, and found some kimbap ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gimbap ) in their refrigerated case, and bought two. apparently they were having some kind of special where i got a free flavored milk, so i got chocolate milk too, and paid a whopping 1600W for all of it. at least that’s my take, as the woman behind the counter freaked out when i handed her my credit card and kept pointing at the flavored milk. there was a bench at a bus stop not far away, and i ate there. since the labels were only in korean, i was buying blind. one of the kinmbap had tuna salad inside (it was ok), the other had spicy pork, which was decent. the pint of chocolate milk tasted like chocolate milk.
i finally got to the palace, and just outside the entrance gate, there was this long line of food stands, and i was kicking myself. this one guy was making huge mounds of fresh cut french fries. another guy was making these crazy looking pancakes. and then there was the woman with the chicken on a stick, which i couldn’t resist. it was 2000W for 1, but it was so worth it. it had this super spicy BBQ sauce on it.
this palace is also when i finally figured out where all the tourists in korea are. the place was a mad house. thankfully i already had my ticket, cause the ticket line must have easily had a few hundred people waiting. once inside, there were hundreds of people everywhere. it was just crazy. also, apparently on chuseok (which is today), its traditional for all the kids to play dress up and wander around in hanboks, so all the girls & boys were wandering about in their garb. the palace was still rather
impressive, but would have been so much better if it didn’t have 10 thousand koreans plus a few hundred foreigners milling about.
at this point my feet were really starting to hurt a ton, mostly from blisters. but i made the 1.5 mile walk to the last palace, Deoksugung. the walk there was actually kinda interesting. i passed the US embassy which had a ridiculous number guards outside (US Army, Seoul Police, and Korean military). i also was walking down this street which had 6 lanes of traffic in each direction, plus this huge median which had these 25ft tall statues of famous koreans in history. i finally got to the palace which was overall, a bit of a disappointment. it wasn’t all that different than the proceeding 4
palaces that i visited, but it was still packed with people. also, oddly, they housed the Korean museum of fine art on the palace grounds, which was having an exhibit on loan from the Singapore National Museum on Western influences on Asian art in the 19th & 20th centuries. the exhibit was actually kinda nice, but it was so packed
full of people that it was difficult to see anything without people wandering in front of me every 2 seconds.
Day 3 was good, but really long. I started off by going to the Daemundum market. i really should have paid a lot more attention to all the comments that I read about this
market being “really good if you like shopping for clothing”, because the entire market was nothing but clothing, and the supplies to make clothing. 7 floors of a mall devoted to nothing but reams upon reams of cloth, tiny stores selling nothing but buttons, shops selling thread of every imaginable size, shape, color & thickness, skanes upon skanes of yarn for knitting just about anything on earth, and on & on & on. i wandered around for nearly an hour thinking that eventually i’d find the part of the market that wasn’t all about clothing, but instead i found this map of the area naming it the “fashion district of Seoul” *sigh*
i gave up on that market, and took the subway down to the area where i needed to go for the DMZ tour. i got there 2 hours early, and wandered around a bit, first to find the USO office, and then in an attempt to find some place to go for lunch. for some reason, i’ve been craving fried chicken ever since i discovered that koreans have a
thing for it. there are fried chicken restaurants like on every other block, and that’s not counting KFC, which i’ve actually yet to see anywhere. Actually, i take that back, i did see a KFC today, but it was “Korean Fried Chicken”, not the chain. anyway, in my quest to find fried chicken for lunch, i found 4 different places within 2 blocks, and all of them weren’t open for lunch. what i ended up getting instead was 3 sushi rolls for 5000W, and they were really good. they had white & black rice, carrot, fried egg, pickled daikon and i think peppers. i took pictures.
Next i went to the USO for the DMZ tour, and they actually ended up with 85 people
signed up the tour, completely filling up two large tour buses. the bus ride up there took an hour. it was actually kinda interesting to get out of the city, and see the countryside. i saw tons of rice fields, and some ginger farms too. our first stop was the 3rd secret tunnel that the north had dug 250ft under ground, beneath the DMZ in
an attempt to infiltrate the south (it was discovered back in 1978). we sat through an absolutely horrible orientation film, and then got to walk a half mile down into the tunnel. that doesn’t sound like much, but tunnel was really steep (like 11 degrees). so going down wasn’t too bad, but hiking that half mile back up was about as bad as
the Pt. Reyes lighthouse staircase. for reasons that no one ever explained, we were not allowed to take any pictures inside the tunnel.
After that, we drove a few miles further, and went to the first obvervation hill, where we got our first view into north korea (although we were still nearly 3 miles away). it was kinda retarded, because, they wouldn’t let us take pictures from the front of the
overlook, but instead we had to stand behind this painted yellow line which was a good 10ft back. so everyone was literally holding their cameras above their heads, in an attempt to see over the crowd that is standing in front of them.
Then we got back on the bus, and drove a few more miles to this absolutely pointless train station, which, if north korea ever decides to stop being viscous lunatics, would allow the south to send passenger trains straight up into north korea, and in theory, all the way into the rest of Asia. But since north korea still is run by a
nutcase, the train station serves absolutely no purpose at all, because there are no trains that can run north.
Finally after all of this stuff, we actually drove up to the JSA (Joing Security Area), which is the part of the tour that’s actually in the DMZ, and run by the US & Korean military. after waiting forever for the army to let us in, we sat through a security briefing,
where we were forced to sign a waiver acknowledging that we were entering a war zone, where people have been killed in the past. After that, we got on a different tour bus, driven by a US Army soldier, to go out to the final stop, the actual border area. at this point it had been nearly 4 hours since we started the tour, but the JSA was
absolutely awesome and worth the wait (although I would have been just as happy to have skipped all the stuff before the JSA). i got to go in the little blue conference
building, and walked across the line into north korea. i saw the scary angry korean guards with the clenched fists. i saw a north korean guard glaring at us from up on a hill. it was really amazing, and kinda scary. this portion of the tour was led by a US army soldier who’s been stationed at out there for the past year. he told us all kinds of scary stories about the crazy stuff the north koreans do all the time, just to provoke a response. apparently, on the random few occasions that the North Koreans conduct tours, the tour guide will take off his shoes, and stand on the conference tables leaving foot prints, and scuff marks, which they then complain about the next time there’s an official meeting. also, they’ve got this three story “recreation building”
just over their side of the border, which they really use to watch the south. apparently their soldiers will go up there, and make obscene gestures at the south korean guards in the south, and even mooned them once. also the way the blue rooms work, is that if either side wants to use the room for a tour, they need to first lock the door from the inside, so that the other side can’t get in (since having both sides giving a tour in there at the same time would be kinda bad). apparently a few
years ago, just after a tour ended, one of those taekwondo korean military guys unlocked the door, but he didn’t know that some north korean guards were waiting just outside. as soon as he unlocked it, they swung open the door, and attempted to drag him out, across the border into the north. he managed to break free, but now whenever they are preparing to unlock the door, its now a two man job, where
one guard will physically hold the other guard as he unlocks the door, so that he can’t be pulled out. also, sometimes when there’s a tour in progress, a north korean guard, will wander down to the border with a bullhorn, just outside the conference buildings and start screaming communist propaganda, or scream death threats at the tourists (sometimes in English). also, they used to have full size korean & american flags in the conference room, but apparently whenever the north koreans gave tours, they’d use the flags to blow their nose, or clean the bottoms of their shoes, so
now they’ve got these tiny flags inside of a picture frame instead. so yea, the JSA portion of the tour was really interesting and exciting.
once that was over we went to have dinner, which was, as expected, pretty horrible. they took us to a cafeteria on the 2nd floor of a train station. and to seal the deal, the name of the cafeteria was “Good Restaurant”. this was easily the worst korean food i’ve ever had in Korea or the US. we had the choice of having bibimbap or beef bulkogi. i went with the bulkogi, and it was really awful. first, it was mostly tendons and gristle. but to make it worse, it was completely unseasoned. just chopped up chunks of beef cooked with some onions. there was also kimchee, which was ok, but hardly stellar, and white rice. finally once dinner was finished, we got back on the bus, and headed back to seoul, and then i came back to the hotel for the night.
The first place that i went on day 4 was the War Memorial Museum, which was really nice. the grounds for the museum were absolutely huge with a mixture of park land, and military vehicle exhibits. the most amazing part was that the exhibits (and the grounds) were basically open to the public all the time. they had tanks, military airplanes of every size (including a US B52 that was using in the Korean war), howitzer guns, personnel carriers, 3 boats (in a small artificial lake), and cargo trucks. since i got there a bit after 8AM, and the museum itself didn’t open until 9AM, i spent the time exploring the grounds. the inside of the museum was really nicely done, with 3 floors of exhibits across two wings. also it was free (apparently they used to charge admission at one time, because the pamphlet had a sticker over the fees). the exhibits covered Korea’s military history going all the way back to around 600AD, but most of the museum did focus on the Korean War (1950-53). one thing that i forgot when i planned the museums for a Saturday was that kids have school here on Saturdays, and apparently they have field trips. the museums were full of elementary school aged kids with their teachers, taking tours, getting lectures, and being rowdy. so even though all of the audio/video exhibits actually had a button to get English audio, there were so many kids everywhere, that they were always hogging every exhibit, and listening to it in Korean. i was tempted to ask them why weren’t practicing their English, but figured that wouldn’t go over well.
Once i finished up at the museum, it was a bit after 11, so i proceeded to find some where to get lunch. there was this deli about a mile away, that was supposed to have Korean themed food. however, i never found the place. oddly, what i did find in the same neighborhood was a pizza place, a Spanish restaurant, a Mexican taco place (which even had ‘El Pastor’ on the menu in the window), and a “original Seattle terriyaki” place (I have no clue wtf they were thinking when they came up with the concept, as all the food on the window menu was fairly generic Japanese items). anyway, as i was wandering around trying to figure out where to eat, since the place i wanted to find wasn’t there, i stumbled past this Galbi (grilled meat) restaurant, and was looking in side to see if they had a menu posted that was in english. As i was standing there, this woman comes out and starts smiling at me and talking in korean, and motions for me to come inside. Sure enough, they’ve got a menu posted on the wall in English, even though she clearly couldn’t speak or understand it. I figured, why not, so i sat down and stared at the menu, which had a decent selection of beef & pork products in different preparations. At the time, there was only this 1 older guy eating his lunch, so i was a bit nervous that the place was a dump (it looked ok, although a bit cluttered). i decided to order the marinated pork ribs (by pointing to them on the menu), and the woman starts flashing 1 and 2 fingers at me, and carrying on in korean again. i had no clue what she was saying, and out of no where, the old dude speaks up in fairly decent English to inform me that i have to order at least 2 ribs, and the woman was asking how many i wanted. so i ordered two by holding
up 2 fingers, the woman smiled, and off she went to the kitchen. i thanked the guy, but he was already slurping up what looked like tofu stew (it was in a dolsot), and he ignored me. as i’m sitting waiting for my food, a few other people start to trickle in, and by the time i was finished eating, the place was nearly full. anyway, the food was
excellent, and they served me so much food. first they brought out the banchan, where i got the obligatory kimchi, these paper thin slices of purple pickled daikon, what i think was some sort of kelp, what i think was soft tofu cubes marinated in soy sauce with sesame seeds sprinkled on top, about a dozen tiny cloves of raw garlic, a
tiny bowl of gojuchang, and shredded white & purple cabbage with thousand island dressing on top. as i started working on that, she took the cover off the grill pit in the middle of the table, and returns with this huge kettle of fiery coals, and dumps them into the pit, and puts a mesh grill over the top. she then shows up with a plate with these two enormous pork ribs that were marinating in what tasted like a combo of gojucheng and soy sauce. she threw one of the ribs on the mesh grill, and off it went cooking. while that was going, she came back a minute later with this dolsot that had this bubbling hot scrambled egg in it (with green onions mixed in). the thing was super nuclear hot, so i continued to pick at the banchan. the lady also tried to give me a fork, which i declined. I thought i was doing ok with the metal chopsticks, but i’m not sure how often they see non-koreans in this place as everyone that i saw was a local, so she might have just assumed that i didn’t know how to use chopsticks. oh, also she brought me this metal cup of water to drink, and all the tables had a box of tissues to use for napkins. so finally the meat is close to done, and she comes back with these huge scisors and a bowl of what looks like frozen noodles (there were
literally chunks of ice), and proceeded to cut the meat into tiny pieces. she then motioned for me to throw the scalding hot chunks of pork onto the icy mixture, which of course melted it fast. turns out they weren’t icy noodles, they were icy onions, and the sauce that the meat marinated in mixed with the melted ice, to make this broth. it
was kinda bizarre, but actually tasted really good. all of the food was really really good. and there was so much food.
Next, i went to the National Museum, which was a few subway stops away. this museum is HUGE. apparently its the largest museum in all of Asia. i ended up spending nearly 5 hours there, going through all the exhibits showing korean art from around 500BC all the way up to the present. i enjoyed it a lot, although they were kinda lazy with their English translations for each of the exhibits. there was always
this huge paragraph, several sentences long in Korean, and then there’d be this sentence fragment in english below it, and then what looked like a few sentences in chinese below that. it wasn’t a big deal, but there were a few times that i wanted to know more about something, and all i saw was “Jade statue”.
Since i had such a huge lunch, i wasn’t hungry for dinner yet, so i decided to head out to the N Seoul Tower (the big observation tower, atop the tallest mountain in the city). apparently half of the rest of seoul decided to do the same thing. by the time i got there, the line was huge, and i had to wait nearly an hour just to get on the cable car that takes people up the mountain to the base of the tower. then i had to wait another 30 minutes before i could get on the elevator to top of the tower. in the end, it was worth it, as the views in all directions were really nice. it was ridiculously crowded though. i did manage to get up there just as the sun was setting, and
it was quite a nice sunset over the city. at this point, i was getting hungry (it was after 6PM), but i wanted to be up there once it got dark to get some photos of the city all lit up. i was originally planning to go to this restaurant near the subway station, but that
was a 30 minute walk back down the hill from the end of the cable car ride, and once i left the tower, i couldn’t get back up without buying another ticket. however, they actually had a Korean restaurant up in the tower. so i ended up eating dinner there. while it wasn’t great food, it wasn’t bad (certainly much better than the crap i ate on the
DMZ tour the previous night), and they even had a buffet with all sorts of korean food, some of which was tasty. after dinner, i went back to the observation deck, and
got some nice photos of the city all lit up in every direction, including the full moon rising over the distant mountains. also, they had tiny signs on each window telling how far major cities were in the direction you happened to be looking. San Francisco is 9000km, but oddly all the major European cities are closer to Seoul than SF. i can only guess that they’re measuring over the North pole. also
Australia & even New Zealand are slightly closer to Seoul than SF. anyway, once i finished getting my pictures, i had to wait in a long line to get on the elevator back to the bottom. then after that, i had to wait in yet another long line to get back on the cable car to get to the bottom of the mountain. then i had a 20 minute walk back
down the hill to the subway station.
the Noryangjin fish market was exactly what i expected (which was awesome). the place was HUGE. 8 rows of assorted seafood booths (running the length of this warehouse like building), selling every sea creature imaginable, plus some that i’ve never seen before. even though i didn’t get there until just before 9AM, there was still a lot of activity going on. i saw workers doing just about everything. i saw huge crates & boxes of crabs packed in sawdust (weird, i know), getting ready for shipment to (I assume) other parts of the country. i saw fish people taking live fish out of tanks, killing them, filleting them, and making sushimi (which looked so good, but it was 9AM, i wasn’t going to eat lunch). i saw little old ladies walking around with coleman coolers, picking out random stuff to take home. this one guy’s booth was nothing but huge (like 3ft across) stingrays for sale. i also saw the area where all the tiny seafood restaurants are (but of course they weren’t open yet).
after that, i got back on the subway (which is actually above ground at this point, since we’re on the southern edge of the city), and rode for an hour down to Suwon. it was kinda interesting to see more of the suburbs. after getting off the train, i had a ~1 mile walk through the city, to the fortress entrance. suwon is actually a fairly bustling city of its own, with tons of traffic (and people). By the time i got to the near the entrance of the fort, it was a bit after 11am, and i figured i should find lunch, since i had no clue if i’d be able to find anything once i was inside the fort. of course
the problem was that i had no clue what was in that area, and there weren’t many open restaurants yet, and most of those that were open either looked scary/bad/awful and/or didn’t have any english signs. eventually, i came upon this building that had a pizza place with some truly bizarre combinations (shrimp & corn pizza, or sweet potato butter pizza), and a place called “Han’s Deli” ( which i just figured
out is a chain http://www.hansdeli.com although the website is almost entirely in korean, even though the menu in the store was also in english). oddly, the koreans have a strange concept of what a deli serves, as the place really is much more like a diner, serving a random collection of western themed food items ranging from italian
pasta, to burgers, to steaks. the prices were relatively cheap (everything on the menu was less than 7000W), so i figured i’d give it a try. the guy behind the counter actually spoke passable english (and for some reason he felt the need to point out the items on the menu to me, even though they were all translated. Maybe he just wanted to show off his English?). i ended up getting a chicken cutlet over rice, with kimchi (yes, they can’t resist adding kimchi to everything). it also came with a free soda (and all the choices were normal stuff, which was somewhat disappointing), so i got a sprite. it was decent, hardly spectacular, but for the price, i can’t complain. oh, also, it came with this little bowl of sweet pickles for some weird reason. again, i don’t think the koreans fully grasp the deli concept.
after i finished lunch, i moved on to the fort. apparently about two hundred years ago, one of the kinds wanted to move the capital from seoul to suwon, which is why he built the huge fort (with a palace inside). the fort is this absolutely massive stone structure. think of it as more of a walled city, as it runs for nearly 5 miles around. i walked the entire length of it, and got quite the workout. the signage on the fort was excellent, everything was fully translated into english, and the signs explained everything that i saw. i also got a nice color map of the fort (also in english). i’d like to say that the views from the fort were awesome too, but suwon is mostly
just a ton of sprawl out to the mountains that ring the city, and a lot of that is really ugly 30 story apartment buildings. so all of that somewhat marred the view, and it was near impossible to take any pictures of the fort without getting some part of the modern city in the background.
as i was walking back to the train station, this random korean guy stopped me on the street, and started talking to me in korean. i’m really puzzled why he thought i’d understand him. i don’t look korean. anyway, i gave him this confused look, and kept saying ‘sorry, i don’t understand’, but he persisted, and finally i just said “ENGLISH” at which point, he got the message, smiled, and went on his way. the guy looked perfectly sane, it wasn’t like he was crazy or drunk. just another mystery. then when i got to the train station (which was huge, it had a 4 story shopping mall above it, plus 8 train platforms below), i was a bit confused which platform i needed to be on (for some reason the above ground stations all have really confusing, crappy signage, in terms of determining which way the train is going), so i pulled out my subway map, and was trying to figure it out. out of no where this older korean guy wanders over to me and starts rambling on in korean. i went through the whole sorry i don’t understand routine, and even started saying English repeatedly, but he would have none of that. finally i figured out that he was trying to help me get to the right platform, and all along he was saying Seoul (mixed in with some other words), and gesturing to the platform that had the trains bound for seoul. once i figured that out, i repeated
“SEOUL” and pointed to the same place he was pointing, i thanked him (in Korean!), he smiled, bowed, and went on his way. so its nice that the people are generally really friendly, patient & helpful. this place is completely the opposite of china in terms of how they treat foreigners, and its great.
I went to Gwanghwamun Jip for dinner. It was amazing. I got the Dwaeji Kimchi Jjigae (Pork & Kimchi Stew) for 5000W (yes, a full dinner for about $5). this picture is exactly what i got. This place is beyond tiny. Just 5 four seat tables (and one of them partially blocks the door), and these 4 women running the place (cooking, serving food, cleaning up). Every table has a gas burner, where they brought out my food in this frying pan. The stew had chunks of pork, chunks of tofu, kimchi, a huge scoop of gojuchang on top (that i mixed in) all in a sour broth. It was so good, and spicy. the banchan that they brought out was kimchi, soy bean sprouts with more gojuchang on them, this green somewhat leafy vegetable mixture
with gojuchang, and water kimchi. They were all decent, but the stew was definitely the highlight. from what i’ve read, they make their own kimchi & tofu, and i can believe that from the taste of both. i’m almost tempted to go back again tomorrow for dinner, but there’s another restaurant that i’ve got on my list that i really want to do.
somehow, i had 9 restaurants on my list, and thus far i’ve only gone to two of them.
i think hate Americans. There must have been a tour group from the US arrive at the hotel the previous night, as at breakfast this morning, there were 4 Americans, and before today, it was always just me, plus a bunch of middle aged Koreans. so this one guy starts throwing a fit because he hates hard boiled eggs, and starts insisting that the “girl” boil the egg for exactly 3 minutes. then this other guy shows up to breakfast in the bathrobe that they gave us in the room, plus he was wearing socks without shoes. this woman showed up fully dressed, except for the fact that she was wearing the slippers that they gave us in the room. jebus, its embarrassing to have people behave like this.
my hike went well, but i ended up leaving before finishing it because the trail was absolutely crazy, and it started raining. it seems like korea’s idea of a hiking trail is just the prescribed route that you take to get somewhere, not that its groomed or even suitable for people who aren’t experienced in rock climbing. The odd thing is that the trail was well marked for a while. i got to the park, and at the entrance was this huge map of the entire park, with all the trails. since the park website had almost no useful information (at least not in english), i stopped to look at this map to try & figure out where i was going. i was standing there for maybe 3 seconds when this guy approached me, introduced himself as a park ranger, and proceeded to explain all the different trails. as he was talking, in fairly decent english, i noticed that he did have a patch on his arm that identified him as a ranger. so that was pretty cool. after i talked to him, i thought that i was going to take the ‘easy’ trail up the mountain, and he
basically said to just follow everyone else, as most people don’t take the harder trails. i walked a bit further, and there was an information building with a really eager & helpful lady inside who even handed me a park map, in english. so i started following the crowds of incredibly well dressed middle-aged korean hikers. these
people looked like a walking REI catalog, it was really bizarre. they had the hiking poles, shoes, pants, vests, floppy hats, and all sorts of huge backpacks stuffed with gear, food, binoculars, and just about anything else one would need to go backpacking for a month. and this was everyone, not just some of them. so if i didn’t stand out already as the only non-korean on the trail, my lack of expensive hiking
gear definitely helped. at first, the trail was relatively easy, as it gradually went uphill, with a few steps here & there. they even had directional signs in korean & english whenever there was a fork in the trail. but after a while, there were more & more forks, and fewer & fewer signs, and the trail started to get really steep, with lots of
rocks & boulders. granted, the views of the valley below, were impressive, and there were occasional streams running down the mountain, and even Buddhist temples here and there which looked like they had been up there for centuries. however, after a while, the trail was more rock climbing than trail, and i was seriously wondering
how i’d ever get back down, since climbing up is much easier than climbing back down again. what really blew my mind is that the koreans, seemed to think nothing of this, and they’d walk straight up the side of boulders & rocks as if it was a stroll in the park. these are people that looked to be in their 40s if not 50s. at one point there was even a huge sign which seemed to be suggesting that climbing up the rocks was a bad idea (the only word on the sign in english was DANGER, with this map with an arrow that went in a semi circle around something bad in the center). yet the locals ignored the sign, and proceeded to storm straight ahead anyway. i took the trail around the boulder (which was still plenty steep). at another point, they actually had this long (100ft) rope tied to a tree, and i think we were expected to use it to pull ourselves up the rock. of course the locals, ignored the rope, and marched onward. i used it a little, but of all the places to put a rope, this one seemed kinda pointless compared to what lay ahead. throughout all of this, many many people
greeted me (in korean) throughout the hike. they were super friendly all the time. so eventually, i got to this point in the trail, where i couldn’t find a trail. there was this huge exposed wall of granite in front of me, and nothing else. so i stood there for a bit, enjoying the views below, and waiting for someone else to come along and hopefully show me how to proceed. of course, i’m an idiot, the way forward was up the rock face, basically using the tiny nooks as steps. at this point, i decided that i’d had enough of this madness, and gave up on ever reaching the top of the mountain. while i likely could have made it up this particular rock, i seriously doubt i could
have made it back down without getting myself killed.
since it was a bit after 11, i decided that this was a good place & time to eat lunch. when i had gotten off the train before the hike, there were rows upon rows of street food vendors. i purchased two huge sushi rolls from this guy for 4000W (plus he threw in this tiny bag of yellow pickled daikon). i got out the food, and it was quite
tasty. the sushi actually had quite a nice variety of ingredients. it had what i think was pork & crab, plus carrot, some kind of green vegetable, yellow pickled daikon, and of course rice. after i finished eating, i started back down the mountain. there were a few side trails, that i explored briefly. one of them led to a nice overlook, where there were a few groups of people picnicking. one of the groups were these two men, who saw me and started motioning for me to come over & join them. initially i declined (as best i could, since they spoke no english), but they wouldn’t have any of it, and insisted that i join them for a drink. here’s where it gets amazing. they were drinking rice wine, specifically, this stuff. so these people who are hiking up a super steep mountain, are getting plastered up there, and then somehow walking back down. anyway, i was really super impressed that these two absolute strangers invited me to
sit with them, and share a drink. they got out a metal cup for me, and filled it up the entire way. now at first, i thought it was soju, but this stuff was cloudy, so i was kinda confused what it was. it actually tasted pretty good. there was definitely a mild fermented flavor, but it also was a bit citrusy. i took 3 sips, and thanked them several times (in Korean). they started talking to me in korean, and i had no clue what they were saying, i gave them a thumbs up sign, and they seemed to be pleased, so i can only guess they were asking me what i thought of the drink. also, these guys weren’t just drinking, they had a huge picnic spread. like a dozen kinds of banchan, sushi, and other stuff in containers that they hadn’t even opened yet. they attempted to offer me some food, but i already ate my lunch, and i didn’t feel right taking more of their stuff. they seemed to not be insulted (they were smiling), i shook both of their hands, thanked them again, and headed off.
as i was walking back down the mountain,it started to rain again. thankfully, the trees blocked most of it, and by the time i got back to the train station, it had stopped raining. once back in the city, the sky was partly cloudy with sun here & there.
Many additional photos are posted here.