13 September 2008

Travel: Seoul, Part 5

The next day - our last in Seoul - was to start at Migo for a quick bite before we would meet our tour guide for the ride to the Korean Folk Village. But, we had to meet our guide at 8.00, and that is when Migo opened (as I found out, standing outside it at 7.30, peering inside in a desperate attempt to get Farah a sweet potato danish).

The folk village is a representation of an old Korean village with examples of thatch-roofed houses, temples, government quarters, and public buildings (even a jail, where you could see examples of the cruel punishments dealt out to miscreants; you definitely did not want to get in trouble there). You find the traditional totem poles warding off evil spirits as you enter and then are taken back to a time more than 100 years ago. It includes examples of the homes of peasants, farmers, and landed gentry, and it gives you a good feel of how life was lived before modern times. One thing that fascinated me was the Korean method for warming their homes. I had read about the ondol system, which some estimates date to 2,000 years ago. Excess heat from stoves circulated underneath the floor, keeping it warm in winter and allowing for residents to sit and sleep on the floor in comfort. This traditional method for heating apparently has seen a recent resurgence with developers and builders and has begun to replace Western-style heating systems.

We didn't have a lot of time, but the folk village was well worth the visit. A cooling rain fell in the middle of our tour, enhancing the ambience of the place. A highlight of the trip was our visit to the village calligrapher, who would write out custom requests in both Korean and Chinese. I find this type of calligraphy beautiful, and I now have a rendition of my name in Korean.

On our way back, we asked our guide where we could get good bibimbap, as we were still in search of that traditional dish, and he took us to a local restaurant where we ate dolsot bibimbap, served in a stone hotpot. This was the real thing (in our minds) and much more enjoyable than the previous day's version.

I wanted to make a quick stop to the War Memorial and Museum. My uncle, David Hallerberg, served in the Korean War. He passed away in 2006, and I wanted to visit the memorial in part as an honor to him. I didn't go inside, because I found one of the largest collections of military hardware outside. There were planes and helicopters and tanks and missiles and naval vessels from the 1940s to the present time. There was even a working model of a tank. One could view WWII-era American warplanes, Chinese-made tanks from the Korean War, planes and helicopters used in the Vietnam War, and even a North Korean fighter jet that was flown across the border by a defecting pilot.

We of course had to go back to Migo before we left, so I could have one last Migoish coffee and Farah could have her sweet potato danish (it was the last one they had!). Another hair-raising car ride to the airport (this time, our drowsy driver almost clipped another car as we entered the airport) made our stay complete.

Travel: Seoul, Part 4

Insadong is the cultural heart and soul of Seoul. Which means it is my kind of place. It essentially is one long street (Insadonggil), slowly winding downhill, filled with galleries, shops, traditional restaurants and tea houses. We started at the top of the street and made our way into the mix. We both were hungry and eager to try a traditional Korean dish. There were all kinds of street vendors, but we opted for an authentic-looking restaurant. In the end, we felt it had a little more tourist trap to it than we had hoped, but the food was pretty good. We had bibimbap, a local mixture of rice, vegetables, and meat, with an egg on top. Apparently, we had sanchae bibimbap, which is served differently than dolsot bibimbap, what Farah was familiar with (and looking for). The dish was served in a hotpot and cooked at the table. Accompanying it was a myriad of cold side dishes, including the ubiquitous kimchi, which is pickled and fermented cabbage (traditionally, it was prepared to preserve vegetables and ensure a steady diet during the cold winter months in Korea). I like it, but I can see it being an acquired taste. Think of it as Korean sauerkraut, with a different set of flavors (including some hot spices) than its German cousin.

We then set off to explore the area. We happened upon a demonstration against the Beijing Olympics (right in the middle of the street) and watched several other street performers doing their thing. I found some nice little galleries and shops where I could spend some of my won on souvenirs. It is just a pleasant place to walk around, and it felt a little bit cooler (temperature-wise) than the exposed streets of Itaewon or the grounds of the palace.

We then headed up a couple of flights of narrow stairs for the highlight of our trip to Insadong: a traditional Korean tea house. These dot the buildings lining the street, and ours was a small, quiet space, darkened by opaque paper over the windows covered with Chinese calligraphy and artwork (while the Korean alphabet distinctly differs from Chinese, you still see Chinese characters throughout the city, evidence of the influence of China in Korea's history, whether as occupier or neighbor). We sat along the wall, on an elevated section, so we essentially were sitting on the floor. We were the only patrons in the place when we arrived, and it was a nice place to sit for a rest. We had Five Flavor tea with a traditional snack of honey cakes. The surroundings were cosy, the tea and cakes were delicious, and we were able to stretch our legs (we had to, we were sitting on the floor). It was the perfect stop.

From Insadong, we kept going. We took the subway to Seoul Station, the very modern central train terminal, and then caught a taxi to the Seoul Tower cable car. Seoul Tower rises more than 770 feet above Namsan park and can be reached via bus, walking, or the cable car. Now, I was expecting a cable car ride like in Taiwan - a quick wait for individual cars and then a panoramic view of the city during the ride. But, the Namsan cable car (as it is called) is a single car, which can fit probably 30 people (crammed in pretty tight, mind you). We were lucky to just miss one of the cars going up, which means we were first in line for the next car. So, we got a window spot. The ride is only about four minutes, but it would seem much longer when you are packed in the middle of the car.

Seoul Tower itself is okay. The observation deck is poorly designed, in my humble opinion. Other decks I have visited, from Taipei 101 to the Sears Tower, provide wide walkways and maximize the window space for great views. Seoul Tower felt cramped, and it seemed the windows were not designed for observation. On top of that, it was hard to see any landmarks at night, and large parts of the park below were dark. I thought a night visit was the way to do it, but maybe it is better during daylight. The queue for the ride down in the elevator was longer than for the cable car, which reduced the enjoyment. As you can see from the pictures, the views still are pretty good, so it wasn't a total disappointment.

It was late, and we had been going since 10.00 in the morning, but we had one more place to visit: the Dongdaemun Market. This street market lines the outside of two athletic stadiums and is just across from four high rise malls. You can buy almost anything there, from clothes to electronics to food. I let Farah browse for the first two, while I went in search of food. Unfortunately, I found the food in Korea to be less appealing than in Taiwan, and I overpaid for a seafood pancake, of which I only finished a portion. Farah was a bit more lucky, finding a few things to buy.

The subway stops running at midnight, so we needed to jump on it to make it home before that witching hour. At our transfer point, however, it appeared our train had already stopped. It just wasn't coming. We waited and waited until we just decided to try our luck with a taxi. Little did we know that "try our luck" would be all too accurate.

We hailed a taxi at street-level, but as is often the case, the driver spoke little English. We told him the name of our hotel, which he repeated as another hotel. I finally found a card from the hotel with Korean instructions and handed it to the driver. As he was already driving, he had to stop, turn on the interior light, and read the card. This he did in the middle of the street! Then, when he understood where we were going, he took off. Like a bolt of lightning. I found out later that Korean taxi drivers like to drive fast to maximize the number of trips they can make and maximize their income, but I felt like I was in some video game. Here we are speeding through Seoul at midnight, windows down (Korean taxi drivers apparently do not like air conditioning, either), with reckless abandon. By the time I got my bearings, we were about 100 metres from the hotel. I think I said something just as the driver realized where we were, and we skidded into the entryway. In retrospect, it was a thrilling ride, but at the time I was just glad to be home!

We had been out and about for 14 hours. It had been an exhausting but rewarding day. Unfortunately, we had to be up early the next day for a trip to a traditional Korean folk town. No rest for the weary.

09 September 2008

Travel: Seoul, Part 3

We started out the next morning with a great find. Instead of eating at the hotel, we headed to a corner bakery we had seen the night before. Migo is a chain of French-style bakeries in Korea, and we realized quickly that we had lucked into some great food. I tried the Migoish coffee, a sweet latte-style coffee drink that was the perfect eye-opener (so much I had two!). Farah, however, was the big winner. She had a sweet potato-cranberry danish, which is now her favorite breakfast food/dessert. We could have stayed there for hours – and we thought about it during my second cup – but we had places to go and things to see.

Our first stop was just east at the COEX Mall, home to the Seoul Aquarium. First, a little shopping – Seoul is a great place to shop, and the depreciating Won now makes prices more reasonable. I even did a little window shopping, although I realized that I could go to an Adidas store in any city in the world and quickly moved on.

I am not usually a big fan of aquariums, but this had some interesting specimens, and it kept us out of the humidity for a while. Of interest was the kids area in the middle of the tour, where everyday appliances such as toilets, refrigerators, and washing machines had been turned into fish tanks.

From there, we took our first taxi ride, over the river to Itaewon. It was much more lively during the day than the previous night! You could buy almost anything you wanted, and some of it even looked authentic. We spent time in alley shops, storefronts, and street carts looking at t-shirts, shoes, hats, purses and bags…you name it. I held off buying anything, although some of the NFL merchandise brought back good memories. The day had turned pretty hot and humid, however, so we ducked into the subway for a break and a ride to the Gyeongbokgung National Palace.

This palace dates from 1395, during the reign of the Joseon Dynasty, and represents the finest architectural and building techniques of the time. It is located near the Seoul Central Government Complex, which was a target for the protestors. The walk from the subway stop to the palace gate is a long one that takes you the width of the palace grounds and around the corner, across the major roadway from the government offices. When we got to street level, we found an eerie scene – armored police buses lined every inch of available curbside parking space. Besides the traffic, there didn’t seem to be too many people around, which seemed strange. Then, when we turned the corner, we realized why – we ran into an entire platoon of riot police, preparing in a calm-before-the-storm type scene. We got inside the palace but were told we could not buy tickets. They would let us in but could not guarantee how long we could stay, as they were prepared to pull everyone out at the first sign of a protest. This was a bit unsettling, and a bit exciting at the same time.

It turned out that we didn’t see any protestors. We stayed inside the palace grounds for about an hour. The grounds are massive, with one compound leading to another, separated by gravel roads and walkways. The buildings are well-preserved, with incredible detail in the sculptures on the grounds and buildings (I include a picture of several small statues on the roof of one of the buildings that are designed to ward off evil spirits). The interiors include throne rooms and replicas of formal areas where visitors and guest of honor were received.

Towards the far perimeter is the National Folk Museum, a multi-storey building that looks like a mix between a Mayan (with its base of stairs) and traditional Korean temple (with its beautiful, multi-roofed tower rising far above the palace grounds). The museum was closed, but the external views were impressive.

The palace offers a nice contrast to the city. It is quite peaceful inside, at the same time offering views of the city’s skyline just over the walls. You could spend a fulfilling day in there wandering around. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time, in part because of the riots, in part because it had been several hours since our Migo experience, and we were hungry (well, she was; as usual, I snacked throughout the day). It was off to Insadong!