*Full South Korea gallery below*
Forget about a sample 1 day itinerary…. we only had the morning to get a taste of Seoul before heading back to the airport.
We stayed at “Toyoko Inn” in Dongdaemun (The same Japanese hotel chain we stayed at in Tokyo), which was very conveniently located. The requisite Toyoko Inn complimentary breakfast had some distinctly Korean accouterments like pickled radish and such, an interesting contrast having just come from the same chain in Japan. However, just like the location in Monzen-Nakacho, the clientele were mostly business men, and we were the only westerners staying at the large and busy hotel.
After breakfast and check out, we were picked up for a guided city tour starting at 9 a.m. We were picked up in a mid-sized tour bus, but the three of us were the only tourists booked for the morning. From briefly reading the itineraries offered by these groups, most of the “city tour” companies add in at least one stop to try and hard sell you on some product or another (i.e.: ginseng, amethyst), most likely with the tour operator receiving kick backs from the proprietor. Well, after introductions with our tour guide, we explained our situation: 23 hours total in Seoul, flight at 1600 today (arrive Incheon airport by 1400, leave hotel by 1200). That’s a pretty damn tight timeline! Our tour guide seemed to get it immediately and from that point things really kicked into gear. Lollygagging was not tolerated whatsoever.
“You need hurry. No more pictures.”
“Better pictures later. Come on.”
We started out at the Changdeokgung Royal Palace and toured the grounds of the place. It was very open and expansive. It reminded me of the “Forbidden City” in Beijing, except on a much smaller scale. Oh yeah, and it was cleaner, prettier, less crowded, and wasn’t filled with hordes of Chinese people hacking, spitting, blowing snot rockets, and having their children urinate and defecate in public. Soooo…. yeah, smaller, but better. Their weren’t very many tourists there, but the ones that were seemed to be a mix of Koreans, Korean school children, and a fair number of Japanese. This mix made for very orderly and civilized behavior. Japanese and Koreans seem very similar in this regard, and it makes being around crowds of Koreans just as pleasant as being around crowds of Japanese.
After finishing up at the royal palace we drove across town to the Seoul Tower, taking note of some monuments and markets on the way. There are several ways to get to Seoul Tower, including a cable car (slow) or even hiking (very slow). Cars are not allowed to drive to the top of the hill where the tower is located. The only vehicles allowed to the top are buses (electric ones that are there) or tour buses. Luckily, with our time constraints, we weren’t doing our usual thing of getting around sans tour guide, because our guide was able to just drive us to the top without any delay. Once inside, she cut out even further delay by getting us to skip much of the line, and then altogether skipping the “group photo” stop that everybody gets corralled through (like at the empire state building and places like that). Our guide didn’t mess around and just cut through the BS. Get to the top. Take some pictures. Oooh and Aaah at the view. Buy some jangle and magnets and postcards. Oh and don’t forget the bathroom. The “Sky Bathrooms” are pretty incredible. Rarely can one enjoy a view like this at a urinal. Before leaving we did do one other thing… At Seoul Tower there are thousands of locks locked onto the railing and piled one upon another. Most of the locks have messages written on them, professing love in many languages from visitors around the world. A symbolic gesture of love, very sweet and all. Of course Martha and I had to get a lock and make our contribution to the collection.
At that point it was almost lunch time. We headed over to Namdaemun market and walked a bit on our way to a Korean Barbecue restaurant, one that our guide said was her favorite. She had called the place maybe 10-15 minutes before we arrived, so all our side dishes were already prepared and laid out for us upon arrival. They also dispensed with us cooking the beef at our table and prepared it for us to be more efficient with time. We’ve had Korean barbecue before (in the United States, in DPRK) but this was at an entirely different level. The beef just fell apart off the bone and melted in your mouth. The sauce was incredible, savory sweet and just a little spicy. The side dishes were also on point: crisp spicy kim chi and daikon, delicious broth. It was a great meal to close out our very short time in South Korea. A little more shopping in the market and we were off to catch our shuttle back to the airport….
Our visit to South Korea was ever so short and almost precludes generalizing much of what we observed. A big part of the reason that a stopover of any duration was of interest to us was because of our recent visit to the DPRK. The trip to North Korea was sufficiently intriguing and mind boggling that it really piqued our interest in visiting the south. I wanted to know where they were similar, or different, and maybe get a sense of how their neighbors to the north are viewed collectively. In the north, they are still fighting a war that didn’t end in 1953, and to this day the dialogue revolves around the evil U.S. and Japanese governments and the puppet government in South Korea that inflicts untold abuses on the citizenry there. What does the south think of the north though? Well, from the small and very brief glimpses I got, they don’t think much. Weather reports, maps, lists don’t even mention the north. It’s a blank empty space. Like “The Others” beyond the wall (GRRM reference, sorry), they don’t even seem to be spoken of. When our guide mentioned “5 sacred mountains” in Korea, I asked (knowing the answer) if Mount Paekdu was one. Yes, two of the five are in the north, Mount Paekdu and Mount Myohyang. She mentioned this, but seemed skittish at the mention that they were in the north. No time to talk about what that meant though. I could see how the north is a subject best avoided in the south. It’s an ugly reality. The thing is, the national identity in South Korea doesn’t rely upon maintaining enemies to be feared. It’s an open and quite prosperous country in it’s own right. When we came through airport security, one of the workers took note of the DPRK flag patch on Martha’s backpack and chuckled and pointed at it. Martha said yeah, she had visited all the countries that had patches on there and he chuckled some more, and relayed that to a couple other workers, pointing at the DPRK patch. The other workers just chuckled as well, and we were on our way. Man, if you showed up in North Korea with a South Korean patch on your bag…. yikes. They’d likely do nothing, but they’d definitely not laugh either. It’s fair to say, I think, at a minimum, that the north and south view each other quite differently.
On another note, as to our underwhelmed first impressions….. I arrived with an image of Seoul being very comparable to Tokyo. While in many ways it is comparable (high-tech, crowded but with social order that values efficiency and order), Seoul is really quite different. I didn’t know what to make of it at first…. maybe I expected more glitz and lights. They’re there, just not quite at the sensory overload level you can get in Tokyo. And in between the glitzy areas, the ambience is much less hectic and even dimly lit. I think Seoul has an “old world” feel to it, more so than Tokyo at least. Not that that is a criticism of either, just a superficial observation. We really loved the town and the people, had a great time there, and definitely want to come back.