Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Exploring Seoul

This is one of several posts that I wrote over the past few weeks while we were still on the road.  We are in Virginia right now, not in Seoul, but I wanted to share the post as it was originally written (which was back on December 21st) – so here it is.         

We are currently in Seoul, South Korea and it is FREEZING (below freezing to be exact).  The temperature has been hovering around 18 degrees during the day, which has made sightseeing a little difficult and a little unpleasant due to our lack of appropriate clothing.  Luckily this city has a fantastic metro system, which has helped us see the sights while minimizing our time walking around above ground in the elements.  Today it snowed, which actually meant slightly warmer temperatures (around 23 degrees) and pretty white powder covering the trees, sidewalks, and buildings.

Our first day in Seoul we spent the first part of the day recuperating after our four hour flight that left Hanoi at 11:30 p.m. and landed in Seoul at 5:00 a.m.  We didn’t sleep at all, so when we arrived at our hotel at 7:00 a.m. - WE HAD TO SLEEP.  We went exploring in the late afternoon and checked out the Namdaemun Market and Shinsegae Mall, where we had dinner at the food court.  The food courts in Asia are amazing and this one was no exception.  The food is gourmet and everything is prepared fresh as though you had ordered it in a restaurant.  We ate in a similar mall food court in Bangkok, but this one was more upscale and was great for people watching.  

Arrival in Seoul after the red-eye flight

Namdaemun Market - Christmas decorations!

Shinsegae Mall Food Court
Tuesday was our second day in Seoul and we spent the day at the National Museum of Korea, which was an incredible collection of artifacts spanning the history of the Korean Peninsula.  I made the mistake at lunch of not letting the kitchen know that I am allergic to shrimp.  I ordered noodles with black bean sauce and the menu said nothing of seafood, but we discovered when it was brought to our table that it did indeed come with a wide assortment of seafood including shrimp.  Luckily after some pointing and signing and attempting to convey my allergy to the staff we cleared it up and they made me a new dish without shrimp.  Everything in Seoul seems to have seafood in it, including the traditional breakfast which is abalone porridge, which we have yet to try.  After lunch we took the metro over to the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, which holds the cities contemporary art.  We enjoyed the collection and the building that houses it.  We especially loved the mirrored sculptures outside, and despite the freezing temperatures we spent about 10-15 minutes walking around and through the mirrored sculptures.  The Itaewon neighborhood around the museum was really cool, lots of shops and restaurants so we spent the evening walking and shopping.  We had dinner at a Japanese fusion restaurant before taking the subway back to our hotel.  All in all it was a great second day of being tourists in Seoul.

National Museum - Seoul

Cool mirrored installation at the Leeum Samsung in Seoul

Leeum Seoul

Wednesday we wanted to check out the art scene.  I had read on Tripadvisor about the Hongdae neighborhood so we went to check it out.  It was supposed to have lots of cool galleries, shops, and restaurants, but proved to be mainly shops and bars surrounding the art college nearby.  We did enjoy visiting KT&G Sangsang Madang, which is an art complex that has a really cool design store where you can buy items designed by the artists who study there.  They had some really cool stuff and we got some awesome Christmas presents.  On our way back to the subway we walked down this cool alley known for being a place where local artists graffiti and despite the frigid temperatures we enjoyed looking at the different murals.  After so much time outside we were ready for an inside destination so we took the subway to the electronics markets – huge 7 and 8 story buildings filled with any and every electronic good you can think of.  We almost bought a really cool electronic toilet seat, almost….

Sangsang Madang building

Graffiti Alley in Hongdae Neighborhood

E-Mart Seoul

Inside the electronics market

Thursday morning we went to the Seoul Museum of Art to see the visiting Tim Burton exhibit.  It was one of the most interesting exhibits I have been to in a while.  The exhibit featured a collection of his sketches, ideas, poetry, movie models, and many more pieces spanning his career.  I am glad we fit it in, it was well worth the quick visit.  That afternoon we had plans to spend the day with Charles’ friend Woojung, they attended grad school together at SCAD.  She met us at our hotel and we set off in a cab for lunch. We were finding the communication to be somewhat difficult in Seoul and so it was a wonderful bonus to have a Korean speaker with us to order lunch.  Woojung took over the ordering and we ended up with a delicious feast!  After lunch we set out to explore the true artsy neighborhood in Seoul (since Woojung is a local she knew where the worthwhile art galleries were).  We spent the afternoon stopping into galleries, shops, museums, and even visiting the Gyeongbokgung Palace.  We happened to arrive at Gyeongbokgung right as the changing of the guard was taking place, which was awesome and distracted me from the fact that my fingers and toes were completely frozen.  Next on our sight seeing tour was a visit to the Bukchon neighborhood, which is an old traditional Korean village that is in the center of Seoul.  It is full of narrow alley ways and small wooden houses with tile rooves.  I loved it!  Our last stop was the Myeong-dong shopping area where we picked up our last Christmas present and decided that we were sight-see-ed out.  We decided it was time for an evening cocktail with a view.  We went to the Lotte Hotel, which has a bar on the 37th floor and a great view of Seoul.  Woojung said she was really thirsty and ordered a double whiskey and a pint of Guiness, it was then that I realized that she was preparing for a night on the town.  After our drink at the Lotte we went to a Korean BBQ restaurant where again Woojung took care of us and knew exactly what to order.  We parted ways when Woojung headed to meet her friends for karaoke, we were really tempted to go with her, but it was already midnight and we had big plans for Friday.  

Statues outside the Seoul Museum of Art

Entrance to the museum to see the Tim Burton exhibit

Our amazing lunch with Woojung
Gyeongbokgong Palace Changing of the Guard

Gyeongbokgong Palace

Woojung and Charles on our way to the Folklore Museum

Bukchon Neighborood

Woojung - she was really thirsty

Woojung, me, and Charles at the Lotte Hotel Bar

Korean BBQ (the floors were heated - so nice)
This morning we had a big excursion planned - we went to the DMZ.  It was something Charles really wanted to do and I thought would be pretty cool and definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity.  We had to get approval from the UN 48 hours before and they made sure we were aware that the tour could be canceled at any point during the trip.  We took a bus from Seoul to the DMZ, which takes about an hour.  Once we arrived we went through several checkpoints before we were given a briefing at the Joint Security Area (JSA) Briefing Room.  Where we were told about the history of the DMZ and were given strict instructions about walking two-by-two in a single file line, wearing badges clearly visible, and not pointing or waving at the North Korean soldiers.  We then took a military bus further into the DMZ to visit the JSA buildings where the meetings between North and South Korea take place.  We were allowed to take a few pictures inside the buildings and then outside on the steps of the South Korean offices looking toward the North Korean buildings.  That is when our little oops-y happened.  I had the camera with the zoom lens and Charles told me to take a picture of the North Korean soldier.  For some reason I didn't see him standing on the steps of the building.  As I was searching for him Charles accidentally raised his hand and pointed.  In all the excitement and nervous energy of being in that spot we briefly forgot about the rules.  The woman leading our tour immediately snapped at him, "no pointing!"  We both immediately stood straight forward with our hands at our sides and nervously apologized for our mistake.  It ended up not being a problem and we were able to get a few pictures.  It was snowing this morning when we arrived at the DMZ and we were very lucky to be able to visit the zone.  We stopped in Imjingak on our way back to Seoul, which is a park set up on the border of the DMZ where people who have family in North Korea can gather to have memorial ceremonies.  While we were in Imjingak we learned that the afternoon group was not able to go to the DMZ and had to turn around without visiting due to the heavy snow fall.  The DMZ visit was well worth the time and money and I would highly recommend it if you visit Seoul.  Here are a few pics:

The boundary line in the DMZ - the North Korean side is covered in snow

Me standing in North Korea with a South Korean guard

Charles at the DMZ with North Korea behind him

North Korean soldier

Bridge of No Return in the DMZ

Imjingak - looking towards North Korea
Tonight we are going to the Gangnam neighborhood to have dinner, we figured we couldn't be in Korea and not visit the neighborhood made famous by the song!  Tomorrow we leave for the U.S. - I can't believe the time has come to go home...