13 September 2008

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.

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