Date: 1/7/11

Location: 서울 [Seoul]

It figures that I’d slack off on blogging until the night before I leave for the next destination. But I guess that’s how things roll, I’m making some soup in the kitchen of this hostel at 3:30 AM and posting pictures so people know I haven’t been detained by the North Korean military or something [more on that later].

As much fun as Busan turned out to be, Seoul was calling our names, and the cry could not be fainter. Busan and Seoul, Korea’s two largest cities are located on opposite corners of the Korean peninsula, so traveling there, if you were taking a train like we were, at least, required zig-zagging northwest across the entire nation for a whopping… two and a half hours. Korea is not a very large country.

Busan was cold enough as it was. Seoul slapped me in the face with a -4 degree Celsius arctic blast. ;_; Granted, my threshold for cold tolerance is pretty low and people living in like Colorado or Maine probably think I’m a sissy, but cold is cold no matter where you are and being cold tends to be miserable. The snow-covered scenery, albeit interesting [while not necessarily photogenic], did nothing to keep my face from freezing off, unforunately.

Our first night in the capital city was spent curled up in fetal positions on our heated hostel floors in an attempt to ward off frostbite in the area of Hongik University where Seoul’s trendy youth are said to prowl in search of people to appreciate their fake-glasses-wearing artsy hipster vibe. We settled on a decidedly more mainstream 삼겹살 [samgyeopsal – Korean barbecue] restaurant and almost died from the dericious. It was all do-it-yourself and was basically 焼き鳥 except we couldn’t read anything on the menu and it came with a butt-load of side dishes, as is trademark of Korean cuisine, it seems.

In keeping with the hasty generalizations we make about Korean food, Troy had come up with two conclusions:

– Korea is not vegetarian friendly.

Troy: “I don’t eat meat. I’m a vegetarian.”

Ji-cheol: “Ah, so what about pork?”

Troy: “Pork is meat.”

Ji-cheol: ” [?] Fish?”

Troy: “Fish is also meat.”

Ji-cheol: ” [?!?!] Er. I see.”

– The Korean food stereotype

Troy: “If I slather any sort of meat or vegetable with hot pepper paste and sesame and then have a side of kimchi, I can call it Korean food.”

Steretoypes always have some basis in truth.

~ ~

Being in a different country, you’d think we’d want to do things that we couldn’t do in Japan. Well, what could be more different than a centuries old palace turned tourist attraction? The architecture at Gyeongbokgung Palace was different than the Japanese style, but still retained its regal Confucian air, seated with its back to the mountains that surround the city of Seoul. It was cool to see all the ponds frozen over, though, while I wasn’t focused on how much my teeth where chattering. I’ve heard the grounds in winter have their own “desolate beauty.” I’d have to agree.

There was a great pair of museums attached to the palace grounds and in viewing them, caused me to have to reach far far back in my memory to 10th grade AP World History to recall what the hell the Choseon and Silla-Paekche-Koguryeo periods actually were and how the objects I saw related. After about 12 minutes, I gave up trying and enjoyed the thrill of seeing things both aesthetically pleasing and just plain gross. Placenta jar, anyone?

~ ~

At some point we met with our friend Sunkyu who studied at UF last year. It’s always really crazy to see people you know on the other side of the world. It’s like out of almost 7 billion other people and the countless other places that they could be, you get the chance to meet up. Planning these things might take a little bit of the wow away from the moment, but just seeing someone from home in a place so far from it is a really cool feeling.

Sunkyu offered to take us around Myeongdong and the Cheonggyecheon Stream area even though he doesn’t technically live in Seoul. Consequently he was a little lost himself, but it added to the adventure as we walked through the throngs of Koreans babbling away in a language I haven’t unlocked yet. I don’t blame him at all, really. He did his best and I mean, if someone asked me to give them a tour of Miami, which I live about 30 minutes outside of, I would drop them off at South Beach and tell them to find a nearby Cuban restaurant because I really don’t know anything about the place. Good job, Sunkyu.

The Cheonggyecheon Stream is a stream that the government decided to dig up and turn into a [very narrow] park. It’s located in the middle of two highways but you really can’t tell because you’re actually like 5 or 10 meters below the level of the cars. All you can hear is the stream, which was partially frozen.

Frozen things that don’t come out of an appliance are still a novelty for me, if you couldn’t tell, so I took a lot of pictures of the solidified water and amused myself trying to cross the stream without falling in.

Afterwards, Sunkyu suggested that we go out to an 居酒屋 type of place to sit and drink and we did. He treated all four of us and refused even a little help when we all offered to pitch in. People can be so nice sometimes. When I start earning my own money [that doesn’t go towards paying for school] I hope to be as generous. We tried more of the Korean national alcohol, Soju [aka watered down vodka which nobody really liked still] and a massive pitcher of beer followed by another one. All of this was accompanied by some sort of appetizer platter and it was awesome.

We talked about a whole bunch of things including the difference in the way Koreans count age [Korean age is Western Age + 1 because they count the 9 months of growth inside the mother as 1 year] and the military draft in Korea [Every able-bodied man has to serve for two years before they turn 30]. I don’t know how I feel about that system, but the nation is technically still at war with the North, I think. Speaking of which here are two amusing threads of conversation from that night.

1) Troy speculates on North Korean rules and regulations.

Me: So I hear you can visit North Korea, but only with approved North Korean guards at your side the whole time.

Sunkyu: Yeah, but also some lady on a tour got shot and killed while she was there because she went to a restricted area and they’ve closed down the tours for a bit, I think.

Troy: Are you sure she didn’t just pull on a door marked ‘push’ or something?

2) Julia speculates on the selection of Korean men.

Julia: All of the guys I see on the street are either too young or just right, and I’ve figured out why. My theory is that all of the guys in the awkward middling ages are in the army and so things are perfect! :D

~ ~

But yeah, especially when you’re in a place where you don’t know the language or the lay of the land, the most fun you can have is by knowing a local. I’m so glad that we could have people guide us around Busan and Seoul. It was a real treat and one that I don’t have the pleasure of having when we head to Hong Kong for the next leg of our journey. ;_; We’ll make do, I suppose. The internet does wonders for travel research.

Stay tuned, though. I’ve got an entry or two more coming about our time in Seoul before I head off to Hong Kong!


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