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HOME - an amazingly beautiful wake up wall to what our planet is facing

HOME - an amazingly beautiful wake up wall to what our planet is facing

Friday, July 1, 2011

speedy Seoul solo

ADVENTURE 2011!!! I really love to change my geographical locale now and again, adds that little bit of spice into life.

Flying out of Taiwan, some (Korean?) rockstar had a bunch of fans lining both sides of the entrance to customs... why do people get so obsessed with celebrities?
Aaah well, onto a bumpy flight that descended into gorgeous islands-and-green-hills surroundings of Incheon airport. A bit tight on time this visit, so I stuck to the capital, but there's sure a lot more nature to see in Korea than I had realized, and apparently it's all quite gorgeous!
One of the things I really dug about Seoul is a certain Old World flavor that often reminded me of Europe, with its twisty cobblestone lanes, sloping streets, brick facades and angled roofs, interspersed with very modern constructions, some with a funky or stylish touch.

Didn't have a good enough shot myself, so this is borrowed

I spent my first two nights at the highly-praised Open Guesthouse, which was a great decision - the entire family is incredibly nice and the host spent a good half hour with just little old me, drawing out routes on maps to make sure I found all the things I wanted to see. I was also mad-lucky because apparently they filled up all the dorm beds like the one I'd reserved, so I got a sweet private double room all to myself and for the same price. Great start all around! After a late night dinner and walk around the neighborhood, I was in bed before midnight, something I hadn't done in... gosh... well, that's what vacations are for! ; )

The next day was a rainy one, so I headed for Insadong, a touristy street whose main drag and side alleys are chock full of stores peddling paper crafts, souvenirs, calligraphy supplies and garments as well as tea shops and cafes, art galleries and studios, restaurants and more.
Nearby is Bukchon Village, a whimsical neighborhood known for its gorgeous old architecture. Besides the pretty buildings, I triple-dare any place to challenge it for the sheer number of coffee shops per square inch... The entire area and especially Samcheong Dong (dong = street) was all cafes piled on top of each other, most of them boasting "World's Best Coffee!" - with the occasional hat shop or Italian restaurant to interrupt the flow of java.

Next major stop: Namdaemun Market, located near one of the old city gates (makes sense a lot of trading would have happened at the hub of comings and goings from the old city). This is a market of clothes, shoes, beauty products, housewares, and more... stuff. For where the young crowds are, head to Myeongdong market for cosmetics, eateries and to see and be seen.

From romp through Seoul

Namdaemun Market
At this point, I'd done a lot of hoofing it around and dinner was well deserved. I got totally full for less than $5 Cdn at Kong's Riceball, a bright little spot serving up giant -yep, balls of rice! - with fillings of your choice.

I meandered for awhile along the Cheonggyecheon stream with the locals out for a stroll or on their way home, then caught a subway train back for a good night's sleep.

The one day during my visit with a clear sky and I planned to take full advantage of it!
From romp through Seoul

Turning right out of my guesthouse, a 20 minute walk brought me to an entrance onto the Old Fortress Wall - a bit of hiking up the mountainside for views, greenery and exercise ; )

Things I saw along the way: forests, hazy-hazy Seoul neighborhoods down below, a temple, military exercises with a double-barreled tank up on a hill, birds, bees and butterflies, rural living and other hikers, most of them locals judging by the flawless "Anyong hasayo" said in greeting. The other word I learned was "gamsahabneeda" which means thank you. On top of that, it seemed to me that the proper way to speak was the opposite of clear enunciation, say if my mouth was full and I was still trying to get words out... ; )
After about 3 hours of up and down on Mt Bugaksan, I got myself to on a bus and down to Gyeongbokgung, the main and largest of the five palaces clustered in the downtown core.

Actually, it was just a scenic walk on the way to lunch and my main cultural attraction for the day, Changdeokgung or Palace of Illustrious/Prospering Virtue (depending on your preferred translation) which is a UNESCO heritage site. A huge part of the grounds are taken up by the Secret Garden - a wooded area of paths and pavilions only accessible on a group tour, so I made sure I was there for the second of two daily English tours.

As this was my last night in Korea with a 7am departure for the airport looming ahead, I figured it was high time to check into a jimjilbang - a traditional Korean sauna and bathhouse created for the sole purpose of getting squeaky clean and relaxed to the max. There are loads to choose from as this is a popular past time, but after a bit of online research I came across Silloam Fire Pot Sauna and was quickly sold on the review describing it as a local joint offering a great night's sleep, not to mention fancy sweat-out-those-toxins facilities or its highly descriptive name! The place is actually 6 floors for bathing, resting (men and women separated and naked in the baths/showers), entertainment (TV, films, karaoke, fitness) and the glorious selection of Fomentation rooms (I'm pretty sure they're using this word incorrectly according to but hey, it's still awesome).

What are fomentation rooms you ask? In Silloam, rooms decked out with an elemental mineral such as crystal salt, blue jade, ochre earth etc. and heated up so you sweat out all those nasty things you picked up from livin' while inhaling the mineral goodness into your system. Bliss. Hot bliss.

Oh yeah, and you leave all your stuff including the clothes you came in a locker and run around the place in standard-issue uniforms given out to the guests. It was really fun and the entire experience, complete with napping in the hundred-strong dorm bed weighed in at a cool $12 Cdn. For another foreigner's explanation of what these jimjilbangs are all about, click here.

I was up at 5am to get in another round of sweating and bathing before heading to the airport. The place looked like a big slumber party, apparently a lot of the men choose to just sleep in the hallways rather than the sleeping and resting rooms. Don't ask me why, I don't know. If you do, please do tell.

I'd head the rain pouring down during the night and apparently it had settled in for the long haul, so it was quite the wet and grey morning, from what I could see of through the sheets of water on the way to the airport.

To be honest, I wasn't sure we should've been going up in an airplane, especially after the worst turbulence I've experienced yet, lasting a good 20 minutes or more after liftoff. Luckily, this little guy eventually poked his head around the seat in front, nothing like a monkey for encouragement.

11 hours later: Toronto! Whoop whoop!

(To view the entire album of Seoul romping, click on the image below)
romp through Seoul