I don’t quite remember how this holiday came together, and we participated very little in the planning of it – Ashley and I were invited to join a group of friends that had been planning it for some time already, and we said yes! Seoul, as a city, is a bit of an enigma to me, and I don’t have a good grasp of its layout and its neighbourhoods. Subsequently, I had very little idea of where we were going on this trip, and that was perfectly fine by me. I’d previously traveled with most of the group before – Sam, Derek, and Sharon were all in Shanghai in December, 2011, and I’d trekked with Derek in Nepal in 2010 and with Sharon in Yunnan earlier in the year. With Paul, I’d visited an orphanage in northern China twice in 2010, and then we went to Taiwan together in September, 2011. The only first time travel partner was Byeong, a Korean-Canadian I’d met in Hong Kong, only to find out his family lived five minutes away from my childhood home in suburban Toronto.
Ashley and I booked a flight to Seoul that had an overnight layover in Beijing. Sharon had moved to Beijing the previous year, and we stayed overnight at her apartment before leaving together for the airport the next morning. Certain cities in China, including Beijing, allow travelers without China visas to stay for a brief period of time, visa-free. At the time, I believe the amount of time was 24 hours, although I think it has since been increased to 72 hours. There are certain conditions for this special transit visa, however, including the requirement that the traveler must fly in from one country and fly out to another country – meaning that I couldn’t just do a quick round trip from Hong Kong. As I would be flying out to Seoul the next morning, I was able to enter China without a visa.
Paul and Byeong were our resident Koreans, and we entrusted our holiday in their capable hands. We met up with them and the rest of the group at Gracevill, a cozy guesthouse located in the Dongjak District. A news crew from KBS was also waiting for us, as word had gotten out that a group of foreigners was in the vicinity, and they were doing a story on the impact of Gangnam Style on tourism in the country. They followed us around for the afternoon, interviewing us as we walked the streets of Gangnam – the guesthouse website has screencaps of the footage on their front page!
We also met up with Ashley’s best friend, Sunny, who was in Korea to spend time with family. They had met while both were young professionals in Boston, and they had lived together on and off for a number of years before Ashley moved to Hong Kong. After this trip, Sunny ended up staying in Seoul for a few months more, before relocating to New York the following year, where Ashley and I met up with her again on our longest trip to North America. Ashley’s high school friend, Mike, also had recently moved to Seoul, and, incredibly, he also knew Paul from studying at Carnegie Mellon together. That night, we went out for Korean barbecue together, though I guess it’s just called barbecue there. The entire street was lined with barbecue restaurants, and the aroma was spellbinding.
After attending Sunny’s church the next morning, we had lunch at a restaurant that prepared and served food the way Korean royalty would have experienced it. We followed that up with a visit to the Gyeongbokgung Palace, built in 1395 as the main royal palace of the ruling Joseon dynasty. The original buildings were destroyed during the Japanese invasions of Korea during the late 16th Century, and the ruins were left untouched until the Regent Heungseon Daewongun completely rebuilt the palace in 1867. In 1911, under the occupation of Japan, the buildings were leveled once again to make room for their colonial headquarters, which remained until the 1990s. The current palace structures are largely a reconstruction dating from the last two to three decades.
I believe we went to Insa-dong next, though I’m not quite certain – I see a Myung Gallery in one of my pictures and Google tells me there’s one in Insa-dong, so I’ll go with that. The neighbourhood is popular with tourists and locals alike, with older traditional architecture side by side with modern buildings. The streets and alleys are lined with art galleries, antique shops, book stores, restaurants, and little boutique cafes. In the evening, I’m fairly certain that we went to Myeong-dong, a higher-end shopping neighbourhood with some of the most expensive brands in the world. Shopping is probably my least favourite activity to do while on holiday, and this portion of the trip seemed to drag on interminably. Every other store seemed to sell cosmetics, an obsession in South Korea, and they were all one of three or four brands – imagine ten stores on one street, eight of them are coffee shops, and half are Starbucks and the other half are Dunkin Donuts. Now imagine that that each Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts sold slightly different drinks in each store, and that each store also had slightly different freebies to give away – this is cosmetics shopping in Myeong-dong.
Mercifully, shopping in Myeong-dong eventually gave way to that great Korean institution, the jjimjilbang. A jjimjilbang is a public bathhouse in Korea, often open 24 hours, where one can soak in hot tubs of varying temperatures, sweat it out in massive kiln saunas, receive massages, and, best of all, have your skin exfoliated by deceptively strong old men. Most of the facilities are divided by gender, but the saunas are unisex and there’s a common area with TVs, couches, and a snackbar with desserts. After a long day of walking around town, it was the height of relaxation to soak in the steamy environs of the local bathhouse and chow down on late night patbingsu, a Korean shaved ice dessert. To cap off our restorative evening, Paul, Derek, and I signed up to get our bodies exfoliated. We lay stark naked on tables, side by side, as gruff old men peeled away layers of grime and dirt with their abrasive towels, getting into every crack and crevice. It was a profound experience, though I’m glad that I am virtually blind without my glasses, and I saw nothing.
We were in a giddy mood that night, and, though the hour was late, we went ahead and ordered some late night Korean fried chicken. The girls had bought a bunch of facial masks in Myeong-dong, and we put them on while waiting for our food to arrive. Beauty is an interesting topic in South Korea, most notably in its enthusiasm for plastic surgery. Advertisements for various plastic surgery clinics abound throughout the city, and for some, it is a veritable rite of passage. On the less invasive side of things, Korea is also famous for its cosmetics and beauty products, and Korean brands are in high demand throughout Asia. These products are designed to not only create the appearance of beauty through makeup, but to deliver certain health benefits to the skin and face as well. There is no way to look dignified while the mask is on you, however, and we had a good laugh at our ghostly facades in the low lights of the guesthouse. When the food arrived, we tore off our visages and revealed our true, ravenous selves. The chicken was good. Oh, it was very good.
The next morning, we awoke to a homemade breakfast spread prepared by the guesthouse owner and her elderly mother. It was completely unexpected, and completely appreciated. The owner is a friendly, middle-aged Korean woman, and the guesthouse is basically her home. Her living area and kitchen are on the first floor, while we stayed in the rooms on the second floor. I don’t think she spoke much English, but we had Paul and Byeong facilitating communication between us. The language barrier might be an issue, but otherwise I’d wholly recommend staying here, if only to enjoy an authentic Korean breakfast. For lunch, we went to a restaurant that specialized in samgyetang, Korean ginseng chicken soup. Traditionally consumed on hot summer days, the heat of the soup and the ginseng was a welcome relief from the autumn weather in the city.
After lunch, we made our way over to Bukchon Hanok Village, a beautifully preserved neighbourhood that once housed high-ranking government officials and the nobility during the Joseon dynasty. Parts of the village date back almost 600 years, and the city has set aside the historical structures and narrow streets of the village to educate visitors on Korea’s history and traditions. At the bottom of the hill on which the village is perched, we ran into Bomi, another Korean from our church in Hong Kong, before grabbing a quick dinner at a North Korean restaurant.
On our last evening in Seoul, we spent some time walking along Cheonggyecheon, a massive urban walkway that cuts through the city, following the course of a stream that was once given up for dead. In the wake of the Korean War, Seoul saw a massive migration into the city, and makeshift houses and settlements sprang up along the stream. The build-up of waste and garbage, along with the derelict appearance of the settlements, lead the government to begin a twenty-year process of covering up the area. By 1976, the stream bed had been completely filled in with concrete and an elevated highway stood in its place. It wasn’t until 2003 that the municipal government had a change of heart, initiating a project that would restore the waterway and revitalize the city’s environment. The project was completed in 2005, resulting in an increased wildlife presence in the area, cooler temperatures, a reduction in the amount of vehicles in the downtown area, improved efficiency in the traffic, and noticeable effects in the city’s cultural and economic activities. We passed the evening walking along its quiet shores, faces illuminated by the city lights reflected off of living waters.
As an epilogue: Paul would fly back to New York, where he would meet the love of his life and be married by the middle of the following year. I wouldn’t travel with Sharon again until December, 2013, and, as for Sam, we would have to wait until December, 2014. I haven’t traveled with Byeong since this trip, but we’ve got one scheduled for later this year, so that streak is ending. Ashley and I would make a three week-long holiday to the United States and Canada the following summer, but before that, Derek and I had a trip with other friends planned – one that would push us to our physical limits, and beyond!