I’m somewhat ashamed to confess that despite having lived in Korea for almost two years prior to my current tour of duty, I’d never really spent a great deal of time in Seoul. In fact, with the exception of a trip up to see South Korea play Turkmenistan in a 2010 World Cup qualifier – the majority of my trips to Korea’s largest city were either to fly out of the country or to indulge in some kind of weekend boozing.
Most foreigners come to regard Seoul as something of the promised land during their initial weeks or month in Korea. In Itaewon, you have more Western food than you’ll find anywhere else in Korea. While it’s true that McDonalds and Burger King abound in Korea, chains such as Quizno’s and Taco Bell are a little more difficult to locate. Want good Mexican food or some authentic Moroccan cuisine? You’re going to find it in Seoul. Add the presence of the very good foreigner grocer and What the Book?, and you’ve got plenty of reasons to fall in love with Seoul early in your stint in Korea. Lord knows, I’ve spent huge piles of money on cans of Root Beer, real cheese, and English novels over my time here.
My fonder memories of Seoul are of the booze filled variety. In early 2009 myself, Jamie, and Paul headed up to Seoul for a spur of the moment bit of binge drinking. Living on the same straight in Gwangju, the three of us dubbed ourselves the Three Amigos and were virtually inseparable during the early part of my second year in Korea. On this particular evening we grabbed the 9pm KTX, drank vast quantities of poju (Powerade + soju) on the three hour train, and then met up with an old college buddy of Jamie’s for the kind of random wandering that happens when foreigners get drunk in South Korea. There was a grabby homosexual Korean guy who wouldn’t take Jamie’s firm no for an answer; my slow but inevitable slide down an icy ramp; and Paul’s horror as a pretty Korean girl in an abandoned Russian owned night club asked him: “How much would you pay me suck your dick?”
Paul and I didn’t even see out the night – catching home the 6am KTX and pretending the night didn’t happen. It was, sadly, the last time the three of us would hang out as a trio. I met Fallon later the following night and not long after that Paul found a girl of his own. Jamie eventually joined us in the ranks of coupledom as well, but the night stands out as one of the best bachelor evenings I can recall.
It wasn’t the only one either. I’ve fond memories of wolfing down Irish stew at the very good Wolfhound; of telling surly American GIs to go to hell at the always sleazy Geckos; and of drunken making out with a certain Californian cheerleader who things never quite got off the ground with.
But back on topic…
On this occasion no alcohol would pass my lips in Seoul, as my business there was of the sight-seeing and ‘seeing the parents’ variety. My folks have become experts on South Korea during their three visits to the peninsula, and after having missed them in Busan a week earlier – I wasn’t going to let their visit pass without at least a hello. Besides, Mum had gone to the trouble of bringing me a small horde of goodies from home and I wasn’t going to let them go to waste…
I woke at the crack of dawn after a night of soju drinking with my good friend Anne, and the 7am KTX didn’t allow me much sleep as rowdy kids raced up and down the aisles. I met a similarly bleary eyed Kimberly at the station and we had a typical tourist breakfast of take-out. I had the underwhelming Lotteria Red & White burger and she had the more traditional McDonalds McMuffin sans greasy bacon. Then it was off to our hostel – the surprisingly good Hong Guesthouse. The English speaking staff were friendly and the hostel itself was close enough to the subway station that it wasn’t a huge effort to find our way there. My only gripe from the experience would be that our private room was right by the common room – and Saturday night drinks meant that the place didn’t quiet down until around 2am.
After dropping off our stuff and checking in, we headed to Changdeokgung Palace where my parents had been patiently waiting for over an hour due to misreading my text messages. They had the company of a famous local artist though, so they didn’t seem too upset when we finally arrived. From there it was into the palace for a little exploring and photography, and right away it became evident that Kimberly’s well laid plans weren’t going to pan out. Our plan had been to explore the famous ‘secret garden’, but a quick look told us that we would have to accompany a two hour tour. My father might get a bit of a thrill out of two hours of looking at plants – but none of us were particularly interested, and so our visit to the palace was cut short. To be honest, and I mean no disrespect to Korean culture, their palaces are a lot like their temples – largely the same and not particularly beautiful once you’ve seen one.
Our next port of call was to visit some traditional houses, but our plan to go to the Namsangol Hanok Folk Village didn’t pan out either. We instead roamed the streets for an inordinate amount of time looking for another set of traditional buildings that turned out to be little more than slums topped with traditional tile roofing. We snapped a few good shots there, for sure, but it didn’t really prove worth the hour or so of ducking down alleys and dodging crowds it took to find it.
Not to be deterred by our lack of luck so far, we ventured on to Cheonggyecheon Stream – a gorgeous, man made stream that winds for 6km through the heart of Seoul. You wouldn’t expect to find a bubbling stream lined with grass and beautiful plant life in the midst of Seoul’s urban sprawl, but the stream is a remarkably relaxing little piece of contrast. Juxtaposed against the towering sky-scrapers and erratically driven taxis, it really is a startlingly beautiful discovery.
We walked along the stream for 2k or so and snapped some really good pictures, and then it was time to satisfy our rumbling bellies. The plan had been to visit the famous Human & Tree (사람과 나무) for some traditional Korean fare, but my father’s love of Korea does not extend to its food – and so we had to settle for the considerably less local taste of Bennigan’s.
With bellies full and heads weary, we headed toward our second to last tourist sight of the day – Namsan Tower. Renowned for its stunning views of Seoul, it’s a real mark of shame that I hadn’t ever made it up there. Nearly every friend I have here has photos of themselves in front of the windows that list the distances to various national capitals. The wait for the cable car was horrifyingly long – and with my parents having been up the tower twice already, they opted to return to their room at the Hill House Hotel and let us young whipper snappers venture on alone. I’m actually glad the line was so long – because the scenery on the 1.5km walk up the mountain was well worth any shaky legs or tiredness. The mountain was awash with cherry blossoms and other flowers, and with the spring weather in such fine form – the mountainside fairly churned with families making their way up and down.
Of course, our day hadn’t gone to plan thus far, and it certainly wasn’t about to change. Upon arriving at the top of the mountain we found that we’d be waiting at least forty minutes to get into the tower proper – and with one last stop to hit before we could call it a day, we decided we’d have to make do with a few shots in front of the tower and the pride we could take from having walked the mountain.
A hurried retreat got us back to my parents’ hotel where I was bestowed with gifts of Caramello Koalas, Uncle Toby’s instant porridge, and Starburst Babies – and then Kimberly and I were off to make our Seoul City Night Tour. Leaving from the mouth of the Cheonggyecheon Stream, we had high hopes for the tour that promised to show us Seoul’s secret night life. What it showed us were eleven generic bridges, a bunch of nondescript alleys, and the folly of believing what you read on the Korean Tourism website. We paid 10,000 won to be bored senseless for over an hour, and poor Kimberly didn’t even get the ‘pleasure’ of having her boredom accompanied by the inane commentary. Her headset wouldn’t work. If you do consider taking a night tour – DO NOT take the double decker option. I hear the single decker follows the stream and actually sees some pretty things – but its bigger cousin did nothing of the sort.
Tired and ready to call it a day, we retired to our hostel and endured a good three or four hours of drunken backpackers loudly proclaiming they’d had anal, threesomes, or swallowed in a seemingly endless game of ‘I Never’. I wasn’t particularly bugged by it. You get that when you stay in a hostel. But the two Canadians who loudly discussed Darkwing Duck in the common room at 3am were a different story. I contemplated different ways of using the coat-rack in our room to re-arrange their internal organs. Thankfully the urge to sleep overtook me before the urge to kill.
All told it was a fun day. Nothing went as planned and we didn’t do most of what we’d hoped to – but we saw some sights, snapped some photos, and I got a chance to catch up with my folks. And we still had another day to go. But that will have to wait for tomorrow’s entry…