Thursday, September 30, 2010

South Korea, Part Five of Five (and a half), Goodbye My Heart, Goodbye My Seoul

I left off last post at the Burger King we stopped at on the way to the Insa-dong area of Seoul, my least favorite area, and where I took almost no pictures until we were about to leave and found the cutest little restaurant and wine place. We ate, I think, pajeon, roughly translated as a Korean savory pancake (similar to its Japanese cousin, okonomiyaki) and also had bamboo infused apple wine (served in bamboo). All of this eased my crabbieness about Insa-dong, which maybe I was just too cranky to enjoy. Or it really just wasn't my cup o' tea. Not sure.

Cute Restaurant, Nice Snack, Happy Apple Bamboo Wine
Insa-dong, Seoul
Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010
Seoul,Korea

We made our way out of the main Insa-dong area in search of the nearest subway stop and found an information map sign on the street. There were two college-aged-ish girls looking at the map when we walked up. Within about 2 seconds, one was speaking excitedly to us in English looking genuinely happy at the chance to help us find our way. The whole scene was really super cute when she saw that we totally got it when she said, haltingly yet eagerly all at the same time, to go straight and turn right. 

Her English was not perfect, but she got the lesson I spend hours trying to think of how to communicate to my own students in Japan - language is about communication. If two people are understanding each other, that's the point, and it's perfect enough. I know, I know, tell that to the asshole entrance exams for high school and college where the emphasis is more on obscure technicalities (some of which stump me, and my English skills are fairly decent) than practical use or real communication.

Meanwhile, the friend who claimed not to speak English was busy calling the awesome information number about where to go for good nightlife because we'd asked. South Korea is very English-speaker friendly, really. The friend was calling the Seoul Call Center/Dassan 120 service that has information in Korean, English and Chinese. Taxis in Korea have a similar deal where the taxi driver can call some translation service phone number. There are lots of numbers to call to get medical or other help when shit hits the fan and you need help in English or are just looking for another Burger King.

It was touching that the girls were so eager to be so helpful. Really. It left an impression on me. The girls suggested Hongdae, which, honestly, is exactly were we had been hoping to go and had tried, to no avail, to find on our maps. I'd spent about 10 solid minutes scouring the maps on at least three different occasions by this point. And suddenly, here these girls were, advising us to go to that very area. Serendipitous as my travel buddy would often say. Turns out, Hongdae is located outside of the Hongik University subway station. Um. That's also the station nearest Hong Guesthouse (yep, another mention, loved this place), which I had chosen, in part, due to its proximity to Hongdae. Except then at some point I'd blanked that fact completely out of memory.

We said many thanks in both languages, waved goodbye to the girls who would have continued to help us further if we hadn't insisted that, yep, we were all good. I'd read that about the friendliness you can find in South Korea, and it was awesome to experience it. With that, we headed to Hongdae. It did not disappoint.

Like Tulsa in Seoul, Kinda
Hongdae, Seoul
Seoul,Korea

Cherry Boy
Hongdae, Seoul
Seoul,Korea

Boobi Boobi (Boobies!)
Hongdae, Seoul
Seoul,Korea

For Huckdoll, My Favorite Lusher
Hongdae, Seoul
Seoul,Korea

Ho Bar II 
(Yes, There are Many in the Series, and They are Numbered)
Hongdae, Seoul
Seoul,Korea

Ho Bar Ten 
Hongdae, Seoul
Seoul,Korea

Because I might be a pinch-penny and a lush at the same time For my own personal reasons, I've always thought it would be helpful if I knew the alcohol content of various drink choices their prices. Chez Robert created and placed before me that which I'd never fully formulated into a complete idea. A cocktail menu coded with an "alcoholicity" key. Hell. to. the. yes. sir. I'd. like. another. Also, the place had a really nice and mellow vibe. The bathroom was out of toilet paper, though. Drip dry. Tell no one. Shhh.

Chez Robert
Hongdae, Seoul
Seoul,Korea

The next morning we started our last day in Seoul, our last day in South Korea and the last day of our awesome vacation. It was sweet that the first day we'd arrived before noon and that the last day we'd leave at 6 in the evening. We squeezed fun out of every remaining hour.

First to the subway where I saw possibly my favorite ad.

Goodbye Milky Boy
Some subway station in Seoul
Thursday, September 23rd, 2010
Seoul,Korea

Contemplating Dinner
Some subway station in Seoul
Seoul,Korea

Seoul Station
Seoul,Korea

After some lunch at the station, the plan was to head up to N Seoul Tower. The N is for Namsam. Not North. This breaks my brain. We were about to head to the subway to head over to the nearby station and then a long-ish walk to the tower when a taxi driver started talking to us. I was a bit skeptical about unsolicited taxi pressure, but he described believably enough the hour or more wait for the cable car and how because we were foreigners, he would be able to drive us almost all the way to the top of the hill upon which the tower sits. We could then take a bus down, he explained. All this for about the equivalent of US$10 each. Didn't sound like a bad deal, and I just hoped it was legit.

If I thought the bus ride from hell was scary, I'd never met the bus driver's more jovial but crazier and more dangerous cousin, the taxi driver. There are no pictures. I was literally white knuckle, unable to move, paralyzed by fear for most of the drive. We did all of the crazy tailgating, honking, passing cars stuff that the bus had done, but this time it was literally within centimeters of hitting cars, bicyclists and even a toddler whose mother (I assume) yanked him away by the arm just in time. Crazy.

That said, we did get to the tower with both us and everyone we'd almost killed all alive, and the crowds were huge enough that there definitely would have been a long wait for a cable car. Cool.

The View from N Seoul Tower
Seoul,Korea

Lovey Tiles
N Seoul Tower
Seoul,Korea

We poked around Seoul a little bit more and found a very not touristy (nothing in English, at all) restaurant where I could read just enough Hangul/Korean (I'd been studying a little, not much) to know that they served bulgogi. We communicated in gestures, were served by friendly people with bare feet, sat next to the cutest little three-ish year old ever, and it was truly one of the best meals of my life, the kind you remember forever. Not that I'll forget, but to share it with you all, here is the awesome bulgogi and some of her delicious sides. It's also one of those dishes that you get to cook yourself at your table to make things more fun.

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All of the garlic involved in the bulgogi feast stayed with me all the way back to Japan, through a ridiculously over-thorough to the point of stupid questioning by the customs agent at Okayama Airport (who also went through every corner of my small suitcase, though I kinda embarrassed him when he got to the separate plastic bag containing dirty underwear) and a bus and a train and a walk back to my tiny little town, where I fell asleep dreaming of all the deliciousness that was South Korea.

Thank you for joining me while I did the 2010 equivalent of showing you home movies of my vacation.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

South Korea, Part Four of Five (or so), Seoul, Again

Up those stairs from the last post, luggage in tow and before making our way to the guesthouse, we stopped for some serious Korean barbecue. Words cannot describe the deliciousness. The restaurant has a grill in the middle of the table and a hanging exhaust fan pipe just above it. The coals are lit, and then a gazillion side dishes arrive with the main feature. Meat. All sauced up in an amazing sauce and ready to be be grilled.

Meat
Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010
Seoul, South Korea
Korea,Seoul

After dropping our bags, our next stop was the impressive Gyeongbukdong (or Gyeongbuk Palace) right in Seoul. I took a ridiculous amount of pictures because behind every beautiful and huge gate, there was another and another. The place just goes on and on and on. If you are curious, check out the link above to see much more. Because it was the Chuseok holiday, and because our timing was just lucky, we arrived just as all kinds of traditional stuff was going on. There was some kind of a parade ceremony by folks in traditional costume and tons of families. It was cute to see kids playing games with family and people generally hanging out having a good time.

Gyeongbuk-dong (Palace), Seoul
Korea,Seoul

Loud Drum, Quiet Guard
Gyeongbuk-dong (Palace), Seoul
Korea,Seoul

All of South Korea and Her Brothers on Holiday
Gyeongbuk-dong (Palace), Seoul
Korea,Seoul

Dressed Up
Gyeongbuk-dong (Palace), Seoul
Korea,Seoul

Roof Ornaments
Gyeongbuk-dong (Palace), Seoul
Korea,Seoul

Doorway to More Awesomeness
Gyeongbuk-dong (Palace), Seoul
Korea,Seoul

At some point I looked on our tourist map and realized that we were near the US embassy. It struck me as funny that I'd never actually seen one of our embassies in person. I took this as a challenge. It was a little hard to spot in the sense that the building was very non-nondescript and nothing special. I figured we were pretty close when we came to a corner where there were two security guards just around the corner from each other playing on their walkie talkies, once in awhile peering around the side and kind of giggling. Then I saw a truck with this on the the grill...

Security Police, US Embassy, Korea
Seoul
Korea,Seoul

We wandered a little further and made it to the front of the building where there were a couple more security guards, these looking a bit more serious. We had been joking on the way over that me taking all of these pictures could lead to a world of misunderstanding and knocks at the door of the hostel and me being sent to Guantanamo. It's scary to even joke about it, but you know, things as they are, never say never, right? Innywho. I took a blurry picture at the front of the embassy to prove to myself that I'd been there, and then my camera battery died. So, I stood there fishing the spare out of the case and replacing it while the security guards watched us, which made me feel almost nervous/guilty after all of our joking around. My next shots were even more blurry. So, the above is all I have to offer. It's prettier than the building, anyway.

Next, we were headed to the touristy area of Insa-dong. It was my least favorite part of anywhere we went in South Korea. I can't explain it. It was markety, which I like, but it just seemed sort of over-touristy and contrived. We went to many touristy places, but none of them felt quite like Insa-dong. I did buy a cute necklace, but I didn't take many pictures. Well, OK, one, at a little restaurant kind of off the main path when we were headed out of the area. 

These next pictures, though, are what happened on the way to Insa-dong.

A Street Corner that I Loved for No Good Reason
Seoul
Korea,Seoul

And then, once again, there was this...

South Korea Loves Burger King, and I Will Marry Them Both
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I think I misspoke last post. At that first BK, I just had fries (not as good as at home) while my friend tried a Whopper Jr for the first time. It was this visit I had the Bulgogi Burger. Not bad. Not good. Not bulgogi. Still, there are some other unique menu entries.

Menu Items America Needs to Adopt
Burger King, Seoul
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Me, Being Ridiculous at Burger King in Seoul
Korea,Seoul

Next up, next post, the rest of our time in Seoul before heading back to Japania where I've never seen salsa fries.

Monday, September 27, 2010

South Korea, Part Three of Five (or so), Gyeongju to Busan to Seoul (whew!)

So when I left you last post, we were on top of a small mountain/big hill in Gyeongju, South Korea. Our day was a little rushed since the later we got back into town, the later we would leave for Busan where we would have just the remainder of the day to spend (long story with a moral about not waiting until the last minute to call Korea via Skype the night before leaving Japan for Korea to buy train tickets for a holiday because otherwise you may have to leave butt early instead of mid-afternoon as hoped).

I think our bus driver coming down the mountain was very angry. Or on crack. Or answering a dare. Or trying to screw with folks for sport. Getting back down the hill quickly was not the issue. Whether we could do it without killing anyone became a concern. The driver kept flooring it, but the bus took awhile to catch up and just made an unhappy sound until it got going, and any old people who'd just gotten on had to hold on for dear life. The driver tailgated anyone in front of him, honked angrily, passed cars in no passing zones going up hills without the benefit of seeing if anything was headed toward us and generally drove it like he stole it. A bus. We were on a bus. Craziness. Still, we got back in one piece, so all's well that end's well. Oh, and Korea drives on the right, like America but unlike Japan, and my mind is all mushy and unclear about what feels right anymore as a result.

Bus Ride From Hell That Looks Calm Unless You Are On It
Gyeongju, South Korea
Tuesday, September 21st, 2010
Korea,Gyeongju

Back to town (30 mins or so) and an entirely different 50 minute bus ride later, we were in Busan, Korea's 2nd largest city, the big port city down south. Like Seoul, the subway system is super convenient, easy and cheap, making it a dream to hop around from place to place within the city. I do wish we'd had more time to spend here, but we made the most of the handful of hours that we had. 

A Lesson for All Nations - Wifi Everywhere
(Japan, are you listening??)
Some Subway Station, Busan, South Korea
Korea,Gyeongju

Wandering Around Busan 
(and eating massive amounts of street food, not pictured, but that happened the whole trip, really)
Seomyeon Area, Busan, South Korea
Korea,Gyeongju

Next stop, the place where my reserved train tickets for Seoul the next day should hopefully be waiting...

Busan Station
Korea,Busan

The ticket thing? Sigh of relief. It worked. Which was good because otherwise I had absolutely zero idea how we'd get the 450 km/280 miles to Seoul. And, based on the information I gathered from the unsuccessful booking of the train tickets online the night before leaving Japan, at which point I Skype called Korea to reserve them over the phone, I do think ours were the last tickets sold for any train from Busan to Seoul for that day. With reserved tickets for the next day now sorted and officially in hand where a note with just my nervously pencil scrawled bunch of numbers had been, we were ready to roll.

And then we spotted (angels sing, trumpets sound, drums roll, Maggie cries)...

...A Burger King in Busan Station
Korea,Busan

South Korea actually has tons of American chain restaurants, considerably more than Japan, including Dunkin Donuts, Outback Steakhouse, TGI Friday's, Popeye's Chicken, Krispy Kreme, to name a few. I wanted to melt and cry and be held. Still, I never gave in (technically, see below), no matter how much I missed these treasures from home.

That said, I was traveling with a friend who has never been to America and had never (gasp) even heard of the Whopper. We stopped and made that right. Although I would have given my eye teeth for a Whopper, I was determined to go Korean as much as possible while there in the Land of Most Delicious Food Ever, so I had the bulgogi burger and called it fair enough (that is fair, right?). It didn't taste like a Whopper, but it didn't really taste like bulgogi (one of the best foods on earth, anywhere, especially the real deal I would eat a couple days later), either.

Bellies full of sin, we walked out of Busan Station and into a water and lights spectacle that lasted at least 15 minutes. I was all kinds of pretty, colorful and awesome. Y'all know I do love pretty colors. Wheee!

Busan Station Light Show
Korea,Busan

Next we headed back to the Seomyeon area where there is definitely plenty to do and see and eat and drink.

Night, Neon, Nice
Seomyeon Area, Busan, South Korea
Korea,Busan

We started making our way back to the hotel, a real hotel, not a guest house/hostel, and after the effed up arrangements in Gyeongju the night before, even this business hotel (Busan Central Hotel - super convenient and close to subway, reasonable rates, clean, comfy, wifi in the lobby, plug adapters available at the front desk, English OK) seemed decadent.

On the way back to the hotel, I got a picture of something we'd seen all around Busan's subway stations that should have made me feel safer but actually made me feel uneasy as it made me consider, in ways I hadn't let myself consider much before, all the things that can go terribly wrong when you are underground. 

Cabinets Full of Backpacks Containing Gas Masks
Most/Any Subway Station, Busan, South Korea
Korea,Busan

*shudder* It's good though, right, to be prepared, yes?

After a quick sleep, we headed off to Busan Station the next morning to catch the KTX, Korea's high-speed train, to Seoul. Japan's Shinkansen is much classier, but Japan's ticket prices for the same distance are way more than double the cost of those in Korea. In my book, Korea wins. In just under three hours, we were back in Seoul.

Seoul Station
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Korea,Seoul

Colorful Ads
Hongik University Subway Station, Seoul
Korea,Seoul

Up those stairs awaits lunch at a serious Korean barbecue place and then back again to the same awesome place we'd stayed a few nights back, Hong Guesthouse (yes, mentioning again because I liked it), followed by seeing more stuff in Seoul. Next post.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

South Korea, Part Two of Five (or so), Gyeongju in Cooperation with Weekly Winners!

Since it's Sunday, and this post is picture heavy with shots from last week, and I miss the fun of Weekly Winners, can we consider this a Weekly Winners post? Cool. Thanks.

Continuing on from the last post (and, by the way, octopus is actually really very yummy, y'all!) with more Gyeongju, South Korea. While standing just outside the market looking at a map, a woman came up and asked us if we needed help and directed us to where we would end up enjoying most of the rest of the evening. So many times in South Korea, in really good English, people talked to us or offered to help. They are doing something right with their English education system, and it was, frankly, refreshing. That's all I'll say on that.

Our first stop was the Daereungwon Tomb Complex. What looks like just a whole bunch of pretty hills is actually a royal tomb complex from the Silla era, way back when Gyeongju was the capital.

Hilly Tombs, Peaceful Pond
Daereungwon Tomb Complex, Gyeongju, South Korea
Monday, September 20th, 2010
Korea,Gyeongju

After the tombs, we walked what seemed like forever to nearby and beautiful Anapji Pond.

Ooh, Pretty Colors
Anapji Pond, Gyeongju, South Korea

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Anapji Pond at Night
Gyeongju, South Korea
Korea,Gyeongju


We made our way back to our weird and not so nice accommodations and headed out for dinner. We were walking along a street trying to decide where to go when people appeared at the door of one restaurant to call us in. This happened sometimes in Korea where business owners and vendors are eager for your business. The owners seemed kind of excited to have foreigners in the place and fussed over us trying to explain the menu. I went with the bibimbap, which was heaven. I'd dreamed of trying the real deal in Korea, and I was not disappointed. As is common, our meal came with tons of yummy side dishes.

Eeny Meeny Miny Mo, Which Should Be the First to Go
Side Dishes, Gyeongju, South Korea
Korea,Gyeongju


After a sleep, we headed out to Bulguksa Temple and the nearby (well, by bus, uphill on windy roads, unless you like hiking. a lot.) Seoukguram Grotto. The pictures practically took themselves. Just so beautiful.


Bulguksa Temple
Gyeongju, South Korea
Tuesday, September 21st, 2010
Korea,Gyeongju


More Bulguksa Temple
Gyeongju, South Korea
Korea,Gyeongju


Long Corridor 
Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, South Korea
Korea,Gyeongju

Still More Bulguksa Temple
Gyeongju, South Korea
(side note: If you noticed it, please don't worry - the swastika here and many places does not mean the same as what may come to mind, and it is true that it is the symbol for temples that I see on Japanese maps. I'll admit, it gets my attention every time I see it, though, too.)
Korea,Gyeongju

Green Door
Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, South Korea
Korea,Gyeongju

Bits of Bulguksa Temple
Gyeongju, South Korea
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Stacked Rocks, Stacked Rocks and More Stacked Rocks
Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, South Korea
Korea,Gyeongju

Peaceful Rocks at Bulguksa Temple
Gyeongju, South Korea
Korea,Gyeongju


We took a bus from the temple to the grotto since hiking uphill for 4km just doesn't appeal to me. No pictures of the Buddha statue are allowed, and the one I snuck didn't take didn't turn out very well, but the view from up there is really gorgeous.

Above the Noise and Haste
Seoukguram Grotto, Gyeongju, South Korea
Korea,Gyeongju


Next post, back down from the hills and on to our next destination.