31 August 2008

Travel: Seoul, Part 2

Seoul is a city of many different activities, from history to arts & culture to entertainment to shopping. And for each activity, there is a signature neighborhood: Gwanghwamun for the historical National Palace (called Gyeongbokgung), Insadong for arts, and Itaewon and Dongdaemun for shopping. It being a Saturday night, we thought we'd head out for one or all of these activities. And we were going to brave the Seoul Metropolitan Subway, with its twelve (12!) lines.

As we walked towards our stop in Gangnam (called Gangnam), we happened upon a bustling scene of retail shops, restaurants, and street vendors. Little did we know that it was as lively as we were going to get that night. We decided to pass the stalls selling all kinds of yummy-smelling food, although I was curious at the tent which had a picture of an adorable puppy on the outside and several young people eating inside. I know dog is on the menu at some places, but surely not so blatantly as to have a puppy's picture pasted outside?! I did not stop to find out.

We jumped on the subway (the station itself was a retail haven humming with activity). It was too late to go to the National Palace or to Seoul Tower, so we decided on Itaewon, with its outdoor street market (although we were already on our way towards Seoul Tower). Our little detour took us four stops on Line 2 (Gagnam Station) to the Jungangseon Line (Sadang Station), then another five stops to Line 6 (Samgakji Station) and then two stops to our destination (Itaewon Station). Looking back, I should just be glad Farah was still with me. Not only there, but for good. How easy a taxi would have been! (For a good view of the subway route map, go to http://www.seoulsubway.co.kr/, click on English and then on Route Map).

Well, we were here - Itaewon, famous for its outdoor shopping and great deals. Only, Itaewon is a DAY market. So, when we got to street level, we found a few vendors boarding up their carts, all the shops closed, and hardly anyone around. Didn't I mention something about not being able to get a feel for Seoul? This was a good indication.

Back to the subway! Surely, Insadong, the artsy area of Seoul, would still be hopping on a Saturday night. So, back on Line 6 at Itaewon for three stops to Line 3 (Yaksu) and five stops to our destination (Angkuk). When we finally got to the street level, we didn't see anything resembling night life. What we did see was a large group of protestors holding a candlelight vigil at a government building just across from the entrance to Insadong. Our timing could not have been better - just the week before, the government had unilaterally lifted a ban on US beef imports. This caused a major uprising in Seoul. The main point of contention was that the government's action was done without consultation with the people and in the face of clear opposition. While this was a protest against the government, that US beef policy was the catalyst made me reluctant to wade into the crowd and start asking what all the fuss was about. Especially since I was the only American-looking person in the area.

So, back to the subway. I won't detail our trip back (it was 13 stops), but I will say I was relieved to find ourselves near our hotel. The street activity that had whet our appetites was still going strong, and although we were beat, I did have to stop for chicken on a stick, a grilled fillet of chicken with a wonderful mayonnaise sauce. I won't say it was worth all we went through that night, but it was a good way to end the night. And it was my first taste of Korean food.

25 August 2008

Travel: Seoul

It has been nearly a month since my last post, and nearly three since the trip I write about occurred. Which makes me wonder where the time goes. Since my trip to Korea in early June, I have traveled to the US twice, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, and Hong Kong. It is about time that I put everything I have seen into words, hopefully without overwhelming you. Or me.

My girlfriend Farah and I had been planning a trip to Seoul, South Korea's capital, for about a month, and the day of the trip finally arrived. Me being - well, me - I had scheduled a trip that would minimize my time out of the office while maximizing our daylight hours in Seoul. The flight to Korea is more than six hours, and I booked the overnight on Friday. We would arrive in Seoul on Saturday morning and have two and a half days, arriving back in Singapore on Monday night for only one day away from the office. Such efficiency!

Well, that works when it is just me traveling. And - to Farah's credit - she was willing to make a go of it. Except that nature intervened. She was pretty sick (although, because of my focus on getting there, she did not want to tell me) when she got to the airport. She thought she could make it, but she just felt worse and worse. We had already checked in and cleared Immigration, but it became clear that she was not going to Korea that night. So, after a trip to the doctor's office at the airport, we were offloaded from the plane (a first for me - they took our luggage off and we went home), hopeful that we would get the Saturday morning flight.

That didn't happen. She felt worse the next morning, so I called and re-scheduled to the next week. We would go up on Saturday morning instead of Sunday night, cutting 8 precious hours off our time in the city! But, that would be okay.

In my study of the cities around here through the various resources I use before traveling (guide books, internet, references from friends and colleagues), I can usually get a feel for the location, and I will have an idea where I want to stay, what I will want to see, and how I will get around. I had no such feel for Seoul. It is massive, a sprawling city of more than 10 million inhabitants, and its MRT map looks like a bunch of spaghetti. Moreover, Incheon Airport is more than 30 miles west of the city. I didn't know in which districts I should search for hotels, and the little advice I got wasn't all that heartening. So, I just picked a US brand and asked them to organize transfer from the airport. It was a good choice.

After an uneventful flight, we arrived to a cool Saturday afternoon, overcast and in the 60s. It was perfect. We were met by a large car, an Equus, for the drive to the city. We were soon to find out that Korean drivers do not like to go slow. The car was big enough and the road a multi-lane expressway, so we had no worries. But, we should have taken note, as it was a precursor to several hair-raising taxi rides during our stay there.

The city is divided by the Han River (or Hangang, "gang" meaning river), which runs from east to west. We arrived at our hotel in the Gangnam District, just south of the river, as dusk set in. After a dinner at the restaurant of a very non-traditional Western meal (I really don't even remember what we had), we were off exploring. And never have two people traveled more in so short a time to see so little as we did that night.