A week in Seoul

A couple of weeks ago I travelled to Seoul. The last time I was in Seoul was the day I arrived in South Korea and barring seeing the interior of airport lounges, a subway car and the glittering Seoul streetlights from the window of the plane I couldn’t really consider Seoul as being ticked off on the list of things to do. Kate planned to visit me and with my academy gratiously granting my holiday request we planned an extensive trip trip to the Paris of Asia.

Monday, April 18th.

Kate arrived in Korea the preceding weekend to our trip. We caught up and did some of our favourite things around Changwon and Busan before heading north to Seoul. On Monday morning we packed up and set off for the train station to catch the KTX upto Seoul. A mere journey of three hours on Korea’s express train. Having previously travelled to Daegu on a a particularly quiet KTX I considered unnecessary to reserve seats. After attempting to purchase tickets at the station and informing a now angry girlfriend we would have to travel on the inferior commuter train for five and a half hours as the KTX was sold out we boarded the mugunghwa (Korean for slow, rubbish train). After appeasing Kate with my English charms we passed the journey reading sleeping and playing battleships. Arriving at Seoul station we transferred to the subway and headed to Jamsil, an area south of the Han river where we had some activities planned for the first few days. We then spent one and a half hours inspecting Jamsil’s motels. Forgetting I was travelling with a Russian princess. Kate eagerly inspected virtually every motel in the area whilst I struggled to contain my frustration and manage some equally frustrating lady luggage. Having selected the finest, cleanest establishment in town we booked in.

As darkness fell we went on a  mission to find the Han river ferry terminal for a river cruise. After walking for a while and failing to get any conclusive information from the local inhabitants we jumped in a taxi. The driver took us to the required location but dropped us off a considerable walking distance from the terminal. As we had driven down we spied the lit up ferry arriving at the terminal and as we ran down the pathway we in turn saw the ferry depart the terminal. Presuming we would now wait for the final ferry we approached the ticket office. Unfortunately the lady informed us that despite being twenty minutes before the stated time we had just missed the last ferry! Monday was obviously a day when we should have attempted nothing as we surely would have suceeded a lot more. We took a pleasurable, if not slightly cold and windy, walk back along the river and back into Jamsil to eat some delicious Korean BBQ. Having filled our relieved stomaches we went back to the motel and anticipated a far more successful Tuesday….

Tuesday, April 19th.

Waking upto a fresh, spring morning in Seoul with a steaming cold and headache was not what I had hoped for. With the power of resolve and unsure confidence in the subway pharmacist and his multi-coloured pills Kate and I headed for the happiest place in Seoul: Lotteworld. Lotteworld is home to the world’s largest indoor theme park, Lotty and Lorry the affable chipmunks, excitable students on school trips and numerous courting couples dressed like identical twins. With the drugs gratefully kicking in my mood lightened and we enjoyed an adventurous day of thrill-seeking and amusement. The highs: The interior organ re-arranging Gyro Drop and Gyro Swing (which I was incidentally too tall to ride but did anyway), French Revolution an unnerving indoor rollercoaster and the indoor Flume Ride where I was pleasingly kept dry by Kate (mwahahaha). The lows: Pedalling a pink flamingo around a lake to the amusement of both girlfriend and all onlooking observers, Aeronaut’s Balloon Ride an interesting looking, yet ultimately slow and boring ride, suspended from the roof and the impossible hunt for a Mr. Pizza restaurant on the way home.

Wednesday, April 20th.

We were woken from our deep sleeps by alarms on Wednesday. Wednesday was considered to be one of the key days of our trip. Well, for Kate certainly! Wednesday was shopping day. Where I was to be thrilled by Seoul’s shopping mecca’s. We packed our bags and headed into central Seoul, re-crossing the Han river and beginning the quest for motel number two. After being significantly underwhelmed by a residence in Jugyo-dong we walked the kilometre to Jongno-gu and found a bunch of motels by jongro 3 ga subway station. To our general amusement a few days later we discovered that we had stayed the remainder of our week in Seoul’s gay village. Naively oblivious to the connotations of bars called Grindr and Men’s Club. Opposite the entrance to these bars was the avenue leading Hotel Pop where I was pleasantly pleased surprised by Kate as I was allowed to check in despite only inspecting the third residence of the day. Incidentally, Hotel Pop was possibly the busiest love motel in Seoul. Impeccably furnished and kitted out, our rooms had jacuzzi’s, two computers and incredibly comfortable beds. The big disadvantage of Hotel Pop was you could not check-in until 8pm weekdays, 9pm Fridays and potentially as late as midnight on Saturdays due to the market for by-the-hour room rental for frustrated young lovers, randy businessman and their girls of the night (afternoon?) and adulterous couples. Although this was convenient enough for our plans most of the time (day trip followed by check-in, shower then night adventure), we did change motel for the Saturday night. Thankfully, we could leave my reasonable luggage and Kate’s luggage entourage in  reception each day.

Having dropped of our belongings we headed to Myeong-dong to sample Seoul’s shopping offerings. Myeong-dong is home to Korean department stores, western clothing shops, market stalls selling knock-off merchandise and lot’s of excitable women and bag-laden boyfriends. After eating Mr Pizza for lunch (we had vowed to eat there the next time we spied an outlet after our frustrating Tuesday night failings) we hit the shops. Despite Kate’s obsession with shopping she generously allowed me to venture off on my own rather than agreeably following in her wake and being forced to express opinion on each garment. We arranged to meet every so often whilst we both amused ourselves. I picked up a few summer clothes and ventured around the back streets to find something of interest but mainly failed. As the day drew on we explored Namdaemun, the traditional Korean backstreet market nearby, but the majority of it was closing up and we retired back to the motel where I was treated to a mini fashion show…..

Thursday, April 21st.

Thursday was my favourite day in Seoul. Having been ill since our arrival on Monday, I finally felt good on Thursday. However, this could not be supported by me vocally confirming this. The sneezing and coughing of the previous three days interestingly led me to losing my voice. I have never lost my voice before and was mildly perturbed by my distressed vocal cords. Kate decided it was hilarious and I guess she was right.

We visited Gyeongbokgung and spent several hours there. This ancient palace was the King’s primary residence and is probably the most revered cultural site in Seoul. The weather was fantastic. A beautiful, warm spring day illuminated the continuously rebuilt, war-torn palace. Dramatic, grand and traditional architecture supported by a historical changing of the guard ceremony and some beautiful gardens contributed to a fantastic day out. I couldn’t imagine a more serene and wonderful setting to spend the day with someone I really love. The visit was littered with school and university students keen on interviewing Kate and I and having photos taken with us. They were mildly amused and occassionally concerned by my croaking, broken voice as they inquired as to where we were from and questioned us on various topics. We briefly joined an English language speaking tour with a Korean woman dressed in traditional Hanbok dress. Despite her amusing tales we drifted off continuously more taken by our surroundings. I do remember that a royal palace should be locted in front of a mountain and a river should run at the front of the palace to create a positive of ‘feng shui’. Gyeongbokgung had an artificial tributary built to fulfil this criteria and the falseness of it, I believe, maybe the reason it has constantly been destroyed by invaders throughout Korea’s chequered history.

As dusk arrived we headed off to eat some kimchi and doenjang jiggae before walking to Namsan Park. In Namsan Park we took the cable car up the mountain to the Namsan Seoul Tower. The views of Seoul were spectacular although we didn’t actually go up the tower as the cost for a few extra feet of height didn’t seem necessary. We waited around for the sun to set before the cold got the better of us and we abandoned plans to hang around for the laser fire show.

In the evening we headed to Itaewon the slightly notorious foreign entertainment district. Mixed in with shops that cater to western tastes and styles are restaurants, bars and some rather more seedy attractions. We plumped for a traditional English pub (Seoul pub) serving some sorely missed bangers and mash and Shepherd’s pie for dinner before we hit the bars. First, we went to an incredibly dodgy spot called King Club offering free drinks to ladies. the clientele was mostly U.S. military guys letting their hair down with some girls/hookers/transvestites. After Kate having her fill we headed out taking in the interesting sights on the notoriuos ‘hill’ before heading to Helios a Hip-Hop bar/club. More free drinks for Kate and an annoying 10,000 won cover charge for me. The place was quite good though and we were entertained by South Korea’s best male dancer dressed as a businessman! A taxi ride home and a great day was done…

Friday, April 22nd.

On Friday we were considering going to Everland, Korea’s most famous amusement park, but that idea was vetoed due to a late wake-up and my adversion to standing around in long queues for rides on a chillier, overcast day. Instead we went to Seoul Zoo to stand around in the cold looking at miserable animals. Seoul Zoo is on the outskirts of the city limits in Seoul Grand Park. After a bizarre combination of a small roadtrain and a skilift we entered the zoo. I won’t bore you with the details of each animal but the over-riding feeling we both had was one of sadness. The grey skies and the forlorn looks mixed with the monotonous actions of the captive animals deflated us both.

After leaving we headed to Dongdaemun to kill some time before we headed out to Hongdae in the evening. We ate some tasty, heartwarming Vietnamese food and checked out some Korean markets and watched some street-sweet vendors make some incredibly crafted yet dissapointingly tasting candy. The most notable event was Kate being forced to buy some hilarious sweatpants from the market because of the cold. At the Korean market there is no try before you buy and you have to buy on sight alone. I was amused and felt karma had restored some equality following Thursday’s ‘loss of voice’ mocking.

Friday night we headed to Hongdae to hang out with the cool kids of Korea’s university district. We saw several outdoor acoustic performances one of which appeared to be by some famous music artists judging by the paparazzi and passer-by camera flashes. We strolled around the streets checking out the various bars, boutiques and clubs but spent the majority of our time in Zen Bar, an underground western style bar with good tunes and an alright crowd. Cocoon Club opposite was pumping but people seemed to be coming out as quick as they went in which seemed ominous. Kate ate some traditional Korean street food after and Kate forcibly fed me some crispy, torpedo prawns.

Saturday, 23rd April.

On Saturday we met up with one of Kate’s friends from Vladivostok who studies in Daegu and her friend from Finland. Predictably three girls in Seoul want to go shopping so that’s what we did. Kate and I went on a vain search for a suitable laptop bag for Kate and had a good laugh at the people queueing to get into the Louis Vuitton boutique in Lotte department store. We took the opportunity to spend our last full day together eating too much food, relaxing in coffee shops and musing on rooftop gardens around Myeongdong! Sunday came around all too quickly and we headed off to the bus station. Kate heading to Donghae to get the boat back to Vladivostok and me back to Changwon. I was glad to see the back of Kate’s luggage but not to say goodbye to my awesome girlfriend, again.

All in all the Seoul trip was everything I hoped it would be. I can tick Seoul off the list with a great deal of satisfaction and some wonderful memories!

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