One of the best parts of being a teacher is the vacation time. Which we need, because the job is crazy. And one of the best parts about being an international teacher is that I am constantly meeting cool people from around the world that make me want to go visit their home country and meet more cool people. I’d wanted to visit South Korea since before I moved here, as I had a few Korean friends growing up and my friend Laura has been there for about ten years, and every few years since college when I would get depressed about life and think about teaching abroad, I would send her a facebook message and ask her advice about living abroad (look at us now!). But being in Hong Kong, I now know even more Koreans and have learned about the glory that is Kpop and Korean skin care, so I pretty much had to go.
I love planning a trip, too. The thrill of buying the plane tickets, making a google doc with our itinerary, searching for things like “weird food to try in Seoul” and “how to spot a Kpop star” and “best cat cafe in Korea.” We had a week off of work and did something SO smart, which was decide to leave on Saturday afternoon instead of rushing directly after school Friday to the airport. This allowed me to go to Beerfest with my friends the night before, where there were so many handsome men to look at (WHERE DO ALL THESE BEARDED FLANNELED FELLOWS HIDE DURING MY NORMAL LIFE) and so many good brews to try that I hardly knew what to do with myself. So I found a piece of prime real estate to post up and soaked it all in.
Saturday morning was a lazy workout, packing, and then riding the airport express, which is the greatest thing ever and if I were a train, the airport
express would be my train boyfriend. Every city needs a train that gets you to the airport in 24 minutes and allows you to check in your luggage from the station. Genius.
Seoul tip #1 – if you arrive late at night, you won’t be able to take their airport express train! Sad! And there aren’t reliable ATMs at the Seoul airport. Stressful! But guess what? Sit down and have some ginseng chicken soup and then take a taxi, because you can pay taxis by credit card. Praise Jesus.
We slept in the next day and that hotel made me realize I need blackout curtains. Changed my whole biorhythm. Our hotel was in Myeongdong/Insadong region, which was perfect and I recommend. We could walk anywhere, and being from HK, we’re used to it and weren’t complaining. The weather was at the delicious turn between summer and fall – you could wear a cardigan and boots and even a scarf if you wanted to. The Koreans were much more covered up though. Laura explained that they dress for the season, not the weather, which reminded me of Brazil where everyone starts wearing puffy jackets and tights on the same day because the calendar says it’s “winter.” But you have to layer because either AC or heat is blasting once you’re inside anywhere.
There wasn’t much of a plan the first day except “shop.” We wandered the streets and realized things like the steering wheel is on the correct side of the car, they drive on the correct side, too (Amie nearly got hit by cars several times. Silly Kiwi.). I stared at the big intersections because we don’t have those in HK. The buildings were tall, but more spread out. And it was quiet. And no one pushed me or ran into me. Bliss.
We made it to the shopping district where they lure you into their cosmetics shop by offering free masks (60% of the time it worked every time). We were told “you have dark dark circles” and then either a woman whose age you couldn’t determine or a very beautiful young man would try to sell you things, usually laced with horse fat, placenta, snail extract, caviar, etc. We were buffed and polished. One woman slapped collagen stickers under our eyes. It was great. Mainland and Japanese tourists shopped around with suitcases to fill up with products.
I was stupidly happy to find a California Pizza Kitchen (we didn’t eat there, but it made me feel warm fuzzies!) and a Forever 21. With the different currency, it kind of didn’t feel like real money and I purchased a LOT that day. Oh well. I never shop in Hong Kong and it was all for the face, which is an important feature.
The routine we established that day worked for the rest of the week – activity all day, back to hotel, put on Kpop music channel or watch ridiculous Korean game show while in hotel robes, face masks and snacks, soju, shower and then back out on the town. Honestly, Korean TV is a TREASURE. There was one show that was like….comedy scuba diving? We had no idea what was happening, but it was funny. And there was also a channel showing American baseball! So I got to boo the Dodgers from thousands of miles away and in Korean.
As the sun went down, the food stalls popped up and we tried the first of many street food snacks. Oreo churros, egg bread, potato tornadoes, corn dogs ten different ways, unidentified meat on a stick. We also popped into some snack shops to marvel at the mystery that is Korean snack food. And were introduced to Cheesy Mayo Pringles, which I truly regret not buying and trying. We tried several other things, for example, corn soup Cheetos. And weird candy.
The next day we decided to conquer the public transport and make our way out to the national park for a hike among the old fortress walls and temple gates. It was so refreshing to see autumnal colors and tramp along ancient trails with ancient Koreans who were hopping over the rocks and scaling the cliffs like they were much younger than they were. I was heave-ho-ing my way up to the top, and the grandpas were cruising along with their walking sticks, blaring Korean radio from their backpacks, occasionally yelling to no one. We got some gorgeous views and the cronch cronch of leaves filled my soul.
That night we wandered around Insadong, finding a fun little Korean barbecue spot to eat too much in. It was super cool to have Korean food for the first time in Korea! I loved cooking my own food at the table and feeling like I had earned every bite after walking all over the city the day before and then all over God’s green earth in Bukhansan National Park.
We ran into some highly intoxicated Korean business men on the way home who tried to talk us into some karaoke (it might have been my idea) but we sneaked off to an arcade room, where we made the world record in lowest scoring dance dance revolution game, much to the delight of the teenage girl working there, and anyone passing by. We also played the Japanese drum game very seriously. Man, I miss that arcade.
Coming up next blog on South Korea: the DMZ, Gangnam style, and everyone is naked at the spa.