An unexpected adventure via South Korea: Part One

Wednesday 24th June

Today I was meant to be on a looong journey back to the land of Maple Syrup and Cowboys. Alas, that is to come next week. Instead I boarded a flight heading to the capital of South Korea; Seoul. I only decided this the weekend before when I was with Luis and knew he was going to come to Seoul for a week. It it the most spontaneous thing I have ever done and I am still slightly surprised at myself for doing it. I had been wishing and wanting to go since I started planning my travels in May however I was aware of money and of the fact that I wanted to prioritise China. Yet after a lot of deliberation, and bravery, I changed my plans. The flight lasted just over three hours. It was torture. At first I was excited at the idea of being able to watch movies again. I tried both the new Cinderella and The Second Exotic Marigold Hotel but I just couldn’t focus after half an hour in. I also tried reading a book which I couldn’t get into. I tried to have a nap but once I managed to drift off I was awoken by a member of the cabin crew to put my seat up for lunch time. Sleep avoided me after that. The meal was actually one of the best I’ve had! It was Korean bibimbap. The vegetables, meat and rice were all so fresh and delicious. Then I just passed the time listening to music. The flight was only half full which I think shows that there are definitely less people venturing over here due to the MERS outbreak. The last ten minutes of the descent to the ground my brain just stopped working. How am I on my way to South Korea? Did I really make such a spontaneous decision? Should I be regretting this right now? Putting my expectations lower than the height of a mouse? I have no idea what the answers are to my questions but I can definitely say that although I’m not exactly believing I’m here, I’m definitely completely buzzing about it. When we broke through the clouds I was blown away by the view of an idea off the mainland that was surrounded by the glittering sea reflecting the sun rays. Even after we landed my jaw was still on the floor. My facial expression is just in complete disbelief. I don’t understand why! 

I went through immigration and baggage reclaim quickly and soon enough I was down at the ‘Airport Railroad’ to catch a train to Seoul. The airport – as always it seems – is forty five minutes outside of the city on the fast train. I battled to get wifi when I could when I arrived so I could contact Jisoo as he was going to meet me as he lives really close to the Pine Tree Gueshouse (hostel). Eventually I surfaced at Samgakji metro station dragging myself with all the baggage I had with me. Luckily there was free wifi outside the station so I was able to get in contact with him and he came to rescue me. We found the hostel and I moved my stuff in. I am the only one staying there! Can you believe it!? I can’t. It’s because of the MERS scare. All tourists – who are mostly from China and other nearby Asian countries – have cancelled coming. I haven’t noticed It at all though. There are few people wearing face masks and life seems to be going on as normal. The hostel is a little bungalow and its all mine mwahaha. I hope it continues to be like this. Well, Luis is arriving tomorrow but to have the place to ourselves would be so cool! Once I ditched my things Jisoo and I went on a hunt for food as it was already serve o’clock. He took me to the international area where we ended up having kebabs! It was different because I never have a kebab. Not even after a night out in Nottingham as McDonald’s is always my first choice! We then walked back towards the area of the hostel and carried on further to find a place that serves Korean beer. It was a cute little place on the second floor that looked out onto the street. We had a beer each and shared a chips. It was soooo lovely. And the beer was actually enjoyable! I have definitely been converted during my travels! By this point it was half past nine so we headed back. Jisoo chilled at the hostel with me for a while then headed home himself. It took me a while to go to sleep but eventually I managed. 

Jisoo and I having a Korean Beer - 24th June
Jisoo and I having a Korean Beer – 24th June

Thursday 25th June

Today I slept in, got ready and met Jisoo at eleven to go further into the centre of Seoul. As I was planning to go to the National Contemporary Museum, we went to that area to have lunch. We soon found ourselves in a Japanese style restaurant which was pretty good. I can’t wait to try Korean food though. Although Jisoo has told me I should try octopus tentacles. The difference with these and the deep fried kind we eat back home is: it is not cooked, freshly cut so the tentacles move and you could die by not chewing it enough when you eat it. Do I really want to put myself through that!? We’ll see…

We split ways after lunch as he went to study  and I went to educate myself on recent Korean history. The museum was pretty good. It was very hi-tech with many videos, informative short films and, moving images. Although most of the smaller bodies of text and information weren’t in English I understood the surface history of this land so I’m happier! Following that I spent an hour in the museum cafΓ© reading my book to pass the time before going to Hyehwa to see Naksan Public Art Street. Jisoo mentioned he wanted to join me so I wanted to give him as much time possible to study because I don’t want to be a burden!

It’s nice not to be stared at here. Well, I do get looked at a little bit but it is not as bad as China! Koreans don’t feel very fussed at all. They have quite different customs to the Chinese. For one they are a lot calmer, polite and docile. Yet they do have an air of importance around them. An important custom is to bow your head a little when you walk into a public area such as the museum or shops etc because it shows respect. The awkward thing for a foreigner is ‘when the hell do I bow? Do I need to get the timing of it perfect?’. It’s hard to determine whether to be the one to bow first, bow at the same time and hope they notice you do or bow after they have. I may have to quiz the guys about this… I came out of the metro and I was instantly in student central. I believe there are two universities in this part of time so it is teeming of young people. There are lots of cafes and small shops too. I came here in search of the art street and I did eventually find it! Firstly I went up a (rather steep) hill to Naksan Park and had some awesome views looking back over the city. Honestly, I think I’m falling a little bit in love with this place. I climbed all the way up and took a few pictures of the view before going around and back down. I told myself I’m not going home until I’ve found this art street and luckily my perseverance paid off.

I had googled directions to the Art Street and copied them to notes on my phone. So I followed them and eventually came across it! It wasn’t as impressive as the Graffiti Street in Chongqing but it was cute! The most impressive art was on the staircases. It only took around fifteen minutes to go around the whole place and soon enough I was back down by the metro station. I waited for Jisoo to appear as he said he was done studying for the day. It had been enjoyable to sit and watch the life of Seoul go by. There were two young people rapping and singing (busking) nearby which was nice to listen to. Once Jisoo joined me we decided to go to hoehyeon market

then went back to our respective residences. Jisoo had already done so much for me and was a wonderful tour guide! So he was to have a day off before we met Luis and Sooguen the next evening… I can tell you now I was unbelievably nervous about surprising Sooguen. Even though you know it won’t go badly, we still did not have a plan as such, and I just couldn’t help but worry! I can safely say it took me a while to get to sleep that night.

Friday 26th June

I slept in and had the laziest of days. I only left the hostel to go to the local shop to buy lunch which consisted of two packets of pocky (chinese snack with chocolate hehe). I then spent the day watching one of my favourite TV shows that I have not been able to catch up on for the past five months: Once Upon a Time. It was perfect to pass the time and distract me from being nervous as each episode was about fifty minutes long and there were five or six to get through! Eventually it was time to start the day (at quarter past five in the afternoon) and soon enough Luis landed in Seoul after being delayed by two hours. There was a lot of disorganisation and not knowing how to go about this surprise because, as Sooguen had no idea I was here, he was free and was happy to meet Luis sooner rather than later. Thus we all ended up meeting in Seoul station. Luis told us he was to meet Sooguen in McDonald’s. Jisoo went to meet them and I hung around back near the metro. I had to make sure I had wifi otherwise I would easily lose them and it would all go utterly wrong! I was expecting to receive a message saying: “come to McDonald’s” but instead Jisoo said: “wait at the front of the gate” (meaning for the underground) and all my nerves went crazy. I looked about for them but couldn’t see them. At this time I was using wechat which sometimes is slow and doesn’t receive messages so I was also worrying that I was going to miss them. I got to the top of the escalator and as I was about to go down I spotted three guys with a large suitcase heading my way. Jisoo and Luis saw me easily however it was amusing watch Sooguen get as close as two meters away and not clock me at all. In hindsight, maybe I should’ve got on the escalator ahead of them and waited for them at the bottom but instead I jumped through a group of people. Jisoo and Luis would say that they thought he’d be more surprised but I say that he so was! His face was priceless. It was such a great feeling for us all to be reunited even though only a month had passed since we had been back in Ningbo together.

We headed back to the hostel to let Luis sort himself out and leave his big suitcase so we could go for something to eat. It was so nice to have the whole hostel to just Luis and I! Once he had showered and sorted himself out we headed off! Jisoo was particularly hungry so he was keen to get food quickly. Sooguen and him, as they were our “tour guides” for the week, decided to take us for ‘chicken and beer’ in the Myeong-Dong area of the city. This area would normally be teeming with Chinese tourists however due to the MERS outbreak once again, it wasn’t very busy at all. The dinner was delicious. It was basically fried chicken, one served with cheese and a little chopped vegetables and the other just simple drumsticks, which we accompanied with Korean beer. I loved it. We also had some soju – a Korean alcoholic liqueur that is now premixed with flavours and soda so it’s more like a mixer – and learnt their custom of accepting a drink from someone. You have to hold the small shot sized glass with both hands up to the person pouring the soju then you have to turn slightly away from then and drink with one hand over your heart/chest. The drink is so tasty!

After eating we went to the Cathedral nearby which looked really ghostly at night but still quite nice to take a stroll around the outside. As we were in the centre it was easy to then walk over to the man made river, Changgyecheon, that runs west to east from the centre square through downtown Seoul and out to join the Han River. As it was dug out the path is at a lower level than the road, it didn’t feel like we were in the middle of a city as we walked alongside the stream. The weather was good so we were able to sit and chat for a while before tiredness hit us and sent us back to our beds. It was such a good day!

Saturday 27th June

Luis and I started the day late by not leaving until half past eleven but we had had our complimentary jam on toast (he had peanut butter ergh) so we were feeling ready! Our plan was to see a bit of the city on foot so we headed east towards the international district Itaewon then south down to the Han River and to the south side of the city. We had a quick Indian lunch in Itaewon. Once fed we headed on. It was an easy walk down to the river and once we arrived we were seriously impressed. We were to cross the Jamsu Bridge which is below the Ganpo Bridge, forming the lower half of a double-deck bridge so that both pedestrians, cars and public transport can cross safely. The view was spectacular. Neither Luis or I had anticipated for the Han River to be as wide as it was. It was definitely double the Thames River and the water wasn’t brown either. With the sun rays beaming down we merrily crossed the bridge and veered left to walk along the bank. There is a really popular cycle path along the Han River full of a mix of families to serious cyclists! It was just a fantastic walk. We were just soaking in the Seoul vibes and falling more in love with the city. We walked for around two hours to Seongsu Bridge (feeling rather melted by the sun) before heading inland down towards the Cheongdam-dong district and COEX Mall. Sooguen sent us a message to tell us he’d meet us at the mall. This mall was like any mall except for the fact that it was all underground which makes it the biggest underground mall in the world. Despite us being broke travellers’ we wanted to have a look to see if there was something special about it. To be honest, it was just a mall. XD

Nevertheless, we had something else ticked off our Seoul To Do List! Once Sooguen met us we headed out to do something different and ended up going into a store that is dedicated to K-Pop celebrities. Particularly the band called Exo (of whom I have now downloaded half of their songs hahaha). Luis knew of this band so he recognised all the singers on the various pieces of ridiculous merchandise. I can’t believe people go there specifically to buy an overpriced pillow of a picture of their favourite singer…. I know that I am being slightly hypocritical as my fifteen year old self would have probably enjoyed finding a store dedicated to the Jonas Brothers but alas, my twenty one year old self is mourning that right now… Anyway! Once we had been thoroughly entertained by all the memorabilia we decided to go back to the river. Sooguen suggested that we could have a takeaway dinner there and wait to the see the ‘Banpo Bridge Rainbow Fountain’ that Luis had mentioned he wanted to see. We sat in a big open space by the bridge that was already rahter busy with many city dwellers who were enjoying a picnic dinner in the setting sun. Unfortunately there was a guy busking who sang rather high pitched and squeamish for our liking… Nonetheless he did add to the atmosphere so who can blame him? Haha… Sooguen ordered Chinese food – a LOT of Chinese food – to which Luis then confided that he wanted to be a bit careful of the food since the chicken the night before. So both Sooguen and I tried to eat the feast before us but it was a challenge too big. It was an amazing evening though. The water, the warm temperature, the (albeit slightly offputting) singing, the crowds gathered around the same spot… Just beautiful. Once the sun had set we walked around to the left side of the bridge to watch the fountain and see the floating buildings light up. It was really picturesque. ❀

As it was a Saturday night we couldn’t reject the opportunity of having a night out in Seoul! When we arrived back at the hostel we met a new roommate (I can’t remember her name …..) and she joined us on our night out! She was so sweet. We headed to Itaewon at about half past eleven to find it full of both internationals and Koreans drinking in the bars and the street. Similar to most places, it is cheaper to buy drinks from the convenience stores and drink in the street. We walked along the whole street to see what each of the bars were like and look for ones with good atmospheres before deciding to buy beer from the local store and drinking it in the street. It was a great atmosphere in the whole area! Once the drinks were drunk we headed into a club called Queen’s. It was fantastic. The music was good, everyone was dancing and it wasn’t too crowded either. There was a air conditioner by us too! One of the best experiences I have ever had! πŸ˜€ We called it a night at around half past two and headed back to the hostel. At first we were going to catch a taxi but seeing as it was only a twenty minute walk we opted not to. My feet were definitely shattered by the time we got back to the hostel… Bed!!! 

Itaewon, Seoul - 27th June
Itaewon, Seoul – 27th June

And this post is already so long.. I’m going to have to make another!