May 19-21, 2017
On our way home from the Philippines, we had to connect through Seoul, South Korea. Neither Rootie nor I had been, so we decided on a 2.5 day layover, mostly in order to go to the DMZ which we heard was a must see.
The flights from Cebu weren’t ideal. We left at midnight and landed at 6am. We grabbed a cab at the airport and with the help of the lady operating the cab system and google translate, our driver took us to Shilla Stay Gwanghwamun about one hour away. I knew nothing about this hotel chain, so I was a little nervous until we were told it was famous. I’m unsure why it would be famous except that is conveniently located next to a few emabassies, including the heavily guarded US Embassy.
The hotel let us check in early at 8am for an extra $60 that was worth every penny. We dropped our bags, freshened up, and headed for Gyeongbokgung Palace a very short walk from our accommodations. Our guide book suggested this palace was the grandest and most beautiful of the five in Seoul, so naturally we made this our first stop.
Gyeongbokgung, built in 1935, served as the main palace for the Joseon Dynasty until it was destroyed by fire during the Imjin War in the late 1500’s. In the 19th century, it was restored under King Gojong’s reign. In the early 20th century, it was again destroyed and it is currently being reconstructed to its original form.
Tickets to see the palace were extremely inexpensive. I think maybe $3 for adults and FREE for senior citizens. Tours were also offered for free, though the English-speaking tours were later than the 9am opening. We were first in line, got our tickets, and entered the palace with a handful of other mostly Asian tourists.
We walked through the grand entrance and giant court yard to the main building home to a large Buddha. From there, we exited the main square to our left and headed toward the Gyeonghoeru or the royal banquet hall. The open-air building was situated on an island in a man-made pond. We really liked this building, but otherwise found ourselves walking around the outside of a construction zone.
We ended up briefly visiting the National Folk Museum located on the premises along with a few other old buildings before we left through the East Gate. I’m not sure we were there even an hour. Aside from the carved animals on the roof and colorful green designs painted on the exterior, we didn’t find the palace to live up to our guide book’s description.
As such, we followed the main street Samcheong that led us past some art galleries, shopping, and tea houses. We were hoping for more traditional shopping, but instead we passed by a variety of American shops including the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory! We were even more dismayed to find that the shops, including many of the tea houses, didn’t even open until 11am.
Somewhat stumped about what to do, we stumbled upon to “information ladies” dressed in a red blazer and skirt walking down the street. We stopped them and asked about all the places we wanted to see based on blogs and guide books. They promptly pulled out a map, suggested some tea houses, and marked down a route to the old parts of Seoul.
Having been up most the night flying, we were dragging and needed a rest and a revival. According to the information ladies, which still baffles me that they wander the streets (imagine that in NYC), Ogada was a good tea house to visit. Oh my gosh, we got the best icy, for lack of a better word. It was called Jeju Green Tea Red Bean Ice Flakes. I know that sounds kind of gross, but it was sooo good and enormous!!! The ice cooled us down and the caffeine and sugar gave us the kick we needed to continue.
Running into the information ladies was such a blessing because we wanted to visit the Bukchon Hanok Village which is a traditional village located between Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung Palaces, and I’m not sure we would have navigated to the village very successfully without knowing we were to take the stairs just south of Ogada.
We followed the stairs up the hill that weaved between small businesses and residences for a lovely view of traditional rooftops with modern buildings in the distances. We meandered through the narrow alleyways past a variety of hanoks, shops, residences, museums, and even an arts center that was “fully open for looking inside to anybody” according to sign. Ok, their English is still better than my Korean! Apparently it is popular to dress up in traditional Korean clothes and walk around the village as several stores rented clothing, We saw several teenagers donned in traditional garb.
After visiting the traditional village which was over 600 years old, we followed Gyedong street lined with shops and restaurants south toward our hotel as it was time for another short rest. Along the way, we fell upon a bakery with bread lining the shelves in the windows located by the subway stop 328 on the orange line. An employee told Rootie the bakery became famous a few years ago, which was probably true, as the South Korean people have been nothing but remarkable! Our taxi cab driver tried to take our bags all the way to the 8th floor lobby from the street, until we told him we’d do it. And the drivers don’t expect a tip. Like that would ever happen in the USA.
We made our final turn toward our hotel and found Jogyesa Temple by accident which we could also see from the window of our hotel room. Jogyesa Temple, originally named Gakwangsa Temple, was constructed in 1395. Its current name was chosen in 1954 to denote the structure’s status as the main temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. The temple served as one of the strongest fortresses of Korean Buddhism during the Japanese colonial invasion in the early 1900’s.
In the beginning of May, Buddha’s birthday is celebrated with a three-day festival and a lotus lantern parade. Lanterns featuring lotus, other traditional figures, and objects representing peoples’ wishes are hung at the temple at the beginning of the festival and they remain until May 22nd. Lucky for us, we were there May 19th and got to see the colorful spectacle that covered the complex. The temple ended up being our most favorite stop of the day.
While we had originally planned to visit Changdeokgung Palace, we decided to put it off until Sunday as we wanted to see the “famous” markets that are the primary reason for some people to visit Seoul. There we several markets to choose from in Seoul, but we picked the Gwangjang market known for its food and the Dongdaemun market known for its cheap, Korean fashion. These markets were located next to each other and weren’t too far from the hotel which factored into our choice.
We walked to the markets via Tapgol Park and Cheonggyecheon Creek. Tapgol Park was once the site of a 15th century Buddhist temple. The park is historically important as it is the site of the origin of the March 1st Movement of 1919. As part of the Korean Independence movement, activists read the Korean Declaration of Independence. The park still serves as a place for demonstrations. No demonstrations were taking place when we visited. Just a few men sat in the shade of the pagoda.
Following the Cheonggycheon Creek was a nice way to travel in a city of ten million. During the presidency of Park Chung-hee, the creek was covered in concrete for roads and then an elevated highway was built over it in 1968! In 2003, the Seoul mayor, Lee Myung-bak initiated a project to remove the highway and restore the creek. The $900 million project which was initially criticized, became popular after it opened in 2005. I’m truly mind-boggled by all of this. I can’t imagine filling a creek with concrete; I can’t imagine restoring it; and I can’t imagine the project only taking two years. Incredible! Due to years of neglect, the creek was nearly dry and 120,000 tons of water has to be pumped in from the Han River daily. We enjoyed the calm of the creek before we climbed up the stairs to the food market.
We wandered around the Gwanjang Market looking at piles of flip flops, rolls of fabric, live octopus, miniature crab, noodle bowls as well as some things that I could not discern what they were. The mung bean pancakes or Bindaetteok looked safe enough to eat, so we found a stall that looked popular among the locals and sat down. For $4 we got the pancakes, a few small sides and a giant bottle of water! Without any conversation in English, we thought we were just getting the pancakes…what a surprise to get the rest.
By this time, having been up for most of the last 36 hours, we were pretty beat. We slowly walked around Dongdaemun market where we spotted the first two white tourists we’d seen all day! We didn’t stay long, though long enough to try for an Uber during rush hour which didn’t happen, thus we ventured into the subway which was surprisingly easy once a gentleman at the information desk showed us the machine where we could purchase tickets.
Back at the hotel, Rootie was too tired to go out for dinner and there wasn’t any room service, so I dragged myself out for some dumplings on another shopping street, Insadong, about four blocks away from our hotel. The dumplings were huge and when served, the waitress reached down to the table and opened a drawer where I could find eating utensils. What a brilliant idea! As I walked to this street, I noticed a restaurant with a line out the door and around the corner. It was literally at the end of the block. I made a mental note for us to try this place tomorrow night.
On Saturday, we took a day tour of the DMZ, and it was fantastic. So great, that it deserves a separate post. After our tour, however, we cleaned up, walked down the street to the corner of Sambong and Ujeongguk, and waited in the line out the door for our dinner. The chefs stood outside the restaurant cooking chicken, pork, beef and other items on the grill. Every now and then, they moved heated coals to another stove while servers brought beer bottles out to the recycle crates.
Inside, all Koreans ate their meat orders that sat over warm coals in the center of round table with a variety of sides including garlic, kimchee, pickled turnips, lettuce, and hot sauce. After about forty minutes, we reached the front of the line where the host handed us an English menu with pictures. I wonder how he knew we were the only ones who needed a menu?!? We picked chicken and pork with little spice.
Just a little spice was perfect. It was hot enough to need an ice-cold beer to wash it down! We let our meat simmer over the coals, but apparently too much smoke was rising, so the server moved our meat to the edges of the grill and pulled the exhaust pipe closer to the table. We seemed to be succeeding without much help until there was a piece of fatty pork that I wanted to crisp. I moved the piece over the hot coals and the fat dripped onto the fire creating more smoke. We were banished from the coals as the server took them away! OK, so I guess the white folks didn’t know what to do. Regardless, it was a fantastic meal and great atmosphere! We LOVED it.
Upon exiting, a few young guys who were slightly intoxicated grabbed Rootie’s arm and started talking to us in English. This was a rare occurrence as most people nodded “No” if we asked if they spoke English. They wanted to know how we knew about this famous restaurant.
“We didn’t, we just saw the line,” we responded.
We continued chatting with them for a while, one of whom attended college in Oklahoma!
We followed the brail sidewalk back to the hotel and on the way stopped for dessert. The cake was stale, so we only had a few bites and left…Oh well!
Our final morning in Seoul, we decided to visit Changdeokgung Palace. When we first entered the palace and turned to the right, the grand courtyard and main building looked just like Gyeonbokgung. The building was the same shape with carved animals atop the roof corners and the outside walls painted in green with colorful designs. We were somewhat dismayed. But as we kept walking, the maze of buildings was simply intriguing. They turned in all directions with different roof top lines. Walled terraces featured trees and flowers, and these were not part of the famous gardens.
We really wanted to see the gardens, but a guided tour was required, and the English-speaking tour didn’t start until 10:30 which didn’t leave us enough time to pack up and head to the airport. Giving thought to it later, we should have just joined the Japanese tour, as we really just wanted to enjoy the nature! Though I will say, once the Japanese tour started, we had the palace to ourselves. We liked this palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, much better than Gyeonbokgung.
We wished we had visited this palace the first day when we had more time, but all in all it was a great trip to Seoul. I would never have guessed North Korea launched a successful missile on the day we left. Everyone goes about their day like usual, and the people are so efficient, polite and respectful. There was no trash in the streets, the subway was clean, and our taxi driver to the airport met us in the lobby, took our bags to the car, and upon dropping us at the airport got us a cart! The service and friendliness in South Korea was just lovely…ETB
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