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.

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