Twenty Four Hours in Seoul

So it’s been a shitty week, but finally here’s my Seoul journey.

I left Thursday at 2:30, taking the train to Dongzhimen and then the airport express. As I was stepping off the express, I happened to run into a girl I knew from a conference in Taiwan, also headed to Seoul and on both my flights. Small world. We navigated the ridiculously laid out Terminal 2 (honestly, it just makes no sense! Poorly marked, confusing, stairs hidden this way and that) with plenty of time to catch our 6:00 flight, especially since it was an hour late.

I flew China Eastern Airlines. it was unremarkable, they fed us, the food was bland but I was hungry so I ate pretty much everything. We arrived in Seoul around 10, and with no checked baggage, breezed right through to the Airport Railway. It cost something like 4,200 won (or approximately 4 dollars). The hostel I chose, Seoulwise Guesthouse, was a quick five minute walk from the metro station with detailed directions even I couldn’t mess up. I stayed in a four person dorm room, but there were only two others, and we had a private bathroom. It was smaller than the hostel I stayed at in Beijing, but altogether a much better experience (if only because I stayed 2 nights, not a week). It was incredibly clean, Young, the guy running it, very helpful with recommendations and lending me a train card, and heated floors. The one thing was that they don’t take credit cards, and for some reason I don’t think that I saw any mention of that on the website. I stayed up pretty late trying to plan out my tourist packed Friday.

I woke up at 8, later than I had wanted to, and after breakfast decided to go to Bugaksan Mountain, to the north of the city. It promised great views, and is the location of Seoul Fortress, which has some historical and geographical significance, as a failed attempt on the president or something. They’re really touchy, and on days when you can go see it, requires a passport and registration. I took subway line 2 to line 3, and got off at Anguk Station. From there, took a little green bus #2 heading north. Apart from the subway system, I found that there is very little English in Seoul, making touring the city a wee bit challenging for the Korean-disabled such as myself. However, I managed to do a decent job, and guessed that I was at the right spot when the bus pulled into a parking lot for a university. A seven minute walk continuing uphill delivered me to the mouth of one of many trails.

It was beautiful. It was clear and warm and sunny, but a recent snow fall left a good inch or two covering the forest. It was wonderful to be outdoors, breathing fresh air. Seoul is so quiet compared to Beijing, and peaceful. And friendly, polite, orderly…I may have fallen in love with the city in my brief visit. I was so invigorated I ended up mostly running up the mountain. I got to the registration point, and was told that Seoul Fortress was closed. Disappointing, but I continued running up to the Bugak Skywalk, offering even more impressive views of the city below. After a brief respite, I started to run (carefully, due to the snow and the steep stairs) right back don, passing a woman I had seen at the beginning of the trail, causing her to erupt in Korean what must have been something along the lines of “how fast you are running up and down the mountain you crazy white girl whose face is bright bright red.” I passed two groups of hikers all decked out in hiking gear, proper shoes, some even equipped with ski poles, and there I was in a J-crew pea-coat, fingerless gloves, and pirate boots, flushed, sweating, and breathing heavily. A little old man saw me and beamed “Hi! Good morning! Nice to see you! Good day!” and the second group saw me jogging down and waved me on “Number one! From America yes? Have a good trip!” The people were so friendly, coming from Beijing it felt like I had landed on a different planet.

Climbing a mountain is 50% glamour

Robot finds a friend in mayhem on Bugaksan

So many stairs on Bugaksan

Beautiful view of Seoul

I opted to walk down to Anguk instead of waiting for the bus, which took me about half an hour as I wandered through a few blocks of Bukchan. It was early morning still, so a lot of the stores had yet to open. I got back to the hostel at noon, mapped out my afternoon and got recommendations from Young for lunch. I walked around the Hongik University area to a little restaurant called BaB for bibimbap (after being presented with an entirely Korean menu). It was delicious, and I shoveled it into my face, along with all of the little side dishes accompanying it.

Bibimbap from BaB

Delicious sidedishes

I had originally planned a very packed day of speed tourism, since I don’t really linger at tourist spots anyways, but decided that I’d rather enjoy a few places and have a more leisurely afternoon (after all, I ran up and down a mountain in the morning!) After lunch I hopped back on the metro, got on line 3, and went to see Gyeongbokgung, one of the palaces. I skipped the National Palace and Folk Art Museums, and wandered the grounds for a while. I’ve seena whole bunch of palaces in China and these were incredibly similar (even down to the, you know, Chinese writing on the doors) but I feel like they were more aesthetically pleasing in Korea-many were built of wood, and they look better restored (or at least more convincingly authentic) than some of the sites in China.

Gyeongbok Palace

I walked around more of Bukchon, and then Insadong, a trendy touristy souvenir street. I bought a dumpling with a sweetish bread crust, filled with bulgogi beef, cooked by being stuck on the side of a hot barrel. After three hours of walking around after lunch, my feet were beginning to get a little sore, and I scrapped tentative plans to see more markets and the Namsan Tower in favor of going to a traditional jijimbang, of spa. Dragon Hill Spa, to be exact. I took like 3 to line 4 and got off at Sinyongsan Station exit 4 and proceeded to walk south, almost convinced that I was lost, until I saw a seedy looking building with a queue loudly proclaiming “welcome to dragon hell spa 24/7” and almost lost my nerve, but the desire to sauna overcame my trepidation.

Bun from a vendor in Insadong

Filled with bulgogi

Entering what looked like a sketchy mall parking lot, I soon found a more typical, relaxing spa entrance complete with typical bamboo pathway, that put me at ease. This place apparently caters to a lot of foreigners, and had English and Chinese speaking staff, although the English level was pretty poor, Mr. Li managed to convince me to buy the Deluxe Women’s package. For about $10, you get 12 hour access to the spa-public areas on the first floor, and women’s area on the second and third floor, to the hot tubs and steam rooms. For about $100, I could purchase a discounted 90 minute full body acupressure, Thai massage, foot massage, facial acupressure, head massage, facial pack and aroma oil massage, which included the admission price. Since I rarely pamper myself, I thought I’d treat myself this once. It was completely worth it. I was led through the complex after placing my shoes in a locker, given an electronic key, that, should I purchase additional services or food or whatever else I wanted, would keep track of my expenses, and directed to the women’s floor to change into a set of pajamas they provided. I met two women from Singapore who spoke Chinese to me and were excited for me for my first time in a jijimbang. Apparently, they go all the time. I went down to the Royal Orchid Spa for my massage, and literally, within five minutes, was close to drooling.

He started with the acupressure. I’m usually quite squeamish about being massaged, especially by non-professionals, as I’m extremely ticklish, but I reminded myself that I paid for this and I was going to damn well enjoy it. The man found knots I didn’t know existed, pressed on painful little parts of my back and shoulders and neck, but it felt so good! I had a Thai massage in Thailand, and while this guy wasn’t as relentless as the little old Thai lady who twisted me this way and that and pounded away at my muscles, it was super relaxing and I fell asleep for a little bit. I woke up when I was told to turn over so he could acupressure my face and head, put the facial mask on, and go to town on my feet. Again, I’m super sensitive; read, I’m ticklish and usually react by flailing wildly with all my limbs and paralyzing laughter. I breathed deep and twitched my fingers in a supreme effort to control myself, and bit my lips to keep from laughing, and he had to ask me twice if I was in pain, calling over an English speaker to make sure I wasn’t hurting. I lightly napped, completely losing track of time, and reluctantly got up when he finished and peeled the mask off my face, feeling like a completely new robot.

Sauna time. I went back to the women’s floor. It took a moment to get used to all the naked ladies just roaming around, but I managed. The second floor is where lady spa is. I started in the 41C hot tub, then moved to the 45C tub, then took a brisk and chilling dip in a 17C pool. Spent a relaxing twenty minutes in the steam room, dipped back into the hot and cold tubs, and sat in the sauna breathing in cedar scented air and letting everything relax. Then I went to the outdoor pools. It was a little disconcerting at first to be completely naked outside, but the walls were high and the sky clear and full of stars, relaxing and private. I took a few slow laps in the shallow, heated seawater pool, sat in the Japanese hinoki bath, and took an herbal ginseng soak, followed by another lap in the saltwater, before returning inside for a final dip in the hot tub. Lastly, I visited the public first floor. It was kind of kitschy, people spread out all over the heated floor and in massage chairs, others eating food or playing in the arcade, two rooms shaped like pyramids for meditating, an ice room, a wood kiln room (closed), a stone kiln sweat room that I managed to sit in for fifteen minutes while I literally melted. It was almost 8, so I decided to wrap up and check out Namdaemun market and see about dinner (deciding not to eat the the spa, figuring it would be expensive and not that good). I cleaned up, got dressed, found my boots in the maze of lockers, and walked out feeling completely relaxed and shiny, as if all the toxins from Beijing had been steamed out of me (probably not true).

Robot does not want to leave Dragon Hill Spa

I had read online that Namdaemun was open late at night, but by the time I got there (8:30) most of the shops were closed, everything else was in the process of locking up except for a line of food stalls. I bought a fried dough round filled with glass noodles as well as one filled with cinnamon-sugary-peanutty goodness, these were amazing and I should have eaten more. I also tried some steamed pork buns, but they were pretty bland and not worth it. Still hungry, I passed by what looked like a good Korean barbecue, with English signs. I love Korean barbecue, so clearly having it in Korea is the right choice. I perused the menu, pointed at a plate of beef. The waitress made a surprised sound, like, really, are you sure? And I thought, because earlier that day Young had told me a lot of times if you order bulgogi, for instance, it comes as a two-person serving, that maybe she thought I couldn’t eat that much and was surprised that a single girl was out by herself in a restaurant.

Street Vendor at Namdaemun Market

Glass noodle dumpling. Very tasty.

Here’s a tip. If you are in a country where you do not speak or read the language, are relying on pictures and poorly translated English, even if the menu is for Korean barbecue and everything listed is pictured raw, if the waitress acts surprised, maybe rethink your order. Otherwise, you think you are going to get to grill delicious meat sizzle over red hot coals before you gobble it up, and what you are served will in fact be a mound of raw beef strips mixed in with julienned Asian pear, with a raw egg yolk on top, that the waitress mixes into the beef in front of you. I tried to hide my initial shock and gamely tried some. After all, I love sushi, and I have had steak tartare, if only in small appetizer amounts and never a giant platter of the stuff…

Raw seasoned beef with pear and raw egg

Much tastier once cooked

It wasn’t bad. It was heavily seasoned, and cut into small enough strips that it wasn’t like biting into a hunk of uncooked meat. Maybe if I had a whole bunch of dishes, and was sharing this plate with several other people, it would have been alright. But a whole meal of just raw beef and pear and egg yolk? I was a little afraid of getting sick. I poked at it halfheartedly for a little while longer, then turned my attention to the side dishes, notably steamed pumpkin (or some kind of squash) marinating in honey. The waitresses and cooks had at all surreptitiously placed themselves to observe the foreign girl crazy enough to order raw meat for dinner, and soon realized that I probably had no idea what I was doing, as one waitress came over with a portable grill and just started to cook the meat for me. I thanked her profusely, ate as much more as I could, then headed back to the hostel to meet up with another girl from the same Taiwan conference who is from Seoul and happened to be home on break. I managed to get back to the hostel just to see her opening the door.

We walked around the trendy Hongik University area, which has a lot of bar streets and cute shops. I stopped to purchase a bag that caught my eye, took some pictures of ridiculous English signs, and then we stopped at a bar called Jase for a cocktail. After reminiscing and catching up, we finished our drinks and went back out to where the streets were still full of people and some stores were still open (I like late night places, I miss Taipei’s night markets). We stopped for a very traditional Korean street food, cylindrical rice cakes cooked in a red soup that sort of tastes like spaghetti-o sauce only really spicy and delicious, after that we parted ways, so she could catch the last train home.

Typical Korean street food, rice cakes ina spicy red soup

I stayed up pretty late reading and talking to some people at home, then realized I had to be awake at 5:30, a mere four hours, to get to the airport on time. I reluctantly woke up to shut my alarm, pack, and leave my keys and train card in the office before running to the airport rail. At the train station I got a cup of coffee from a vending machine for just about 40 cents, and at the airport, gave into temptation in the form of a Dunkin’ Donuts right at my gate. I enjoyed a small coffee, black two sugars and a glazed donut, and was very briefly transported back home.

So overall I’m in love with Seoul and I want to go back. There’s so much more stuff I want to check out, like the DMZ, and shopping and the quaint, artsy neighborhoods, and more food. The buildings were shorter and more manageable and prettier than Beijing-their were neighborhoods that felt like they had soul and character and charm, it was quiet, clean, and lacked that distinct terrible odor of China, modern without losing heritage entirely. Based on my one day of running around, I think that Seoul really got how to do a modern Asian city right. There were little things that caught my attention-like a lack of English most places, and the safety videos on the train instructing people how to deal with gas attacks, Molotov cocktails, and the many gas mask shelves located in each station, but overall, a really positive experience.

I stepped back into Beijing and was greeted by a grim gray sky, people shoving and pushing and getting too close in the metro, and terrible smells everywhere. In short, I was home, and very happy to be here, but glad for my mini vacation.


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