Seoul, Korea, one day layover on my way to Malaysia
The flight from Atlanta to Seoul is about 14 hours. It’s mostly uneventful. Thankfully.
I take the airport limo bus into the center of the city. Impressions: Mountains, terraced farms and a terraced cemetery. It is record cold in Seoul and never gets above 25F with a substantial wind chill. There is snow from a couple days before, but roads and sidewalks are mostly clear. Inchon airport is on an island off the coast of Korea. The ocean looks frozen and it takes an hour and a half to get to the center of the city, where my hotel is. We pass wind turbines just as we reach the coast. Trees in parks are pruned and staked, similar to Japan but not quite as rigid. I have 23 hours in this city. I’m here for two reasons: 1. I had to have a layover somewhere and I’ve never been to Korea and 2. This is an easy city to teach English in, something I may want to do in the future. I want to check out the culture and see if I think this is somewhere I want to land for a year.
You can’t help but compare what you are seeing now with what you’ve seen before. The mind understands categorizing. The city of Seoul reminds me of Shanghai. It is new and large with little of the old peeking through. The shops have roll up garage doors for security at night. Most of their doors are sliding glass. The traffic is heavy, though not as bad as Shanghai. They drive on the right and follow traffic signals (unlike Cairo). The few old style buildings so far look like those in the Forbidden City in Beijing. They are wooden structures, clay tile roofs with statues on the roof line corners to protect them.
The city also reminds me of Tokyo. The bushes are sculpted, the trees staked. Nature must be pruned and prodded. It is clean with no trash or graffiti and people obey the crossing lights even when traffic is light (though the occasional motorcycle will drive around standing cars which would not happen in Tokyo). On the street are elaborately packaged fruits for gifts. They are tied in large pieces of gold cloth when sold. The cloth serves as both a wrapping and convenient carrying case. Shoppers are preparing for Chinese New Year (here known as Spring Festival).
I find my hotel with little difficulty. It’s an hour and a half limousine bus ride from the airport. Cost 14,000 Korean won (roughly 14 USD). The bus driver pointed me toward the hotel and I only over shot it by a block. A young couple helped me when I realized I was lost. Looked up a map on their smart phones and directed me, excited to use their English. Did not see a taxi or might have gotten one.
My hotel room is clean and spare. It is almost large enough for an efficiency apartment with extensive closet space and a kitchenette (washer/dryer, fridge, cabinets, microwave, hot pot, but no stove). With the addition of a hot plate and a toaster oven, it would be as complete as mine at home. It has an electric kettle, almost exactly like the one I bought for my mother at Buford Highway Farmers Market. My room is stocked with Maxim brand coffee sachets available in the same market.
By the time I got checked into the hotel it was 8:30p and I’m tired. I explored for less than an hour but fell into bed, partly from travel exhaustion and partly just to warm up. I woke up about every hour but went back to sleep until 4:30a when the caffeine headache made worse by jet lag kicks in and won’t let me rest.
Before breakfast I walk to the Namdaemun Street Market across the street, mostly dried fish, seaweed, nuts, fruit and other food. It is well below zero with packed snow and the wind whipping right thru you. They are setting up their stalls. I am the only tourist, but get few stares. They are busy and ignore me.
Breakfast is the usual odd conglomeration I’ve seen in Asia. While you’ll find eggs, coffee, cereal, fruit and toast but also 4 kinds of soup, several salads and even French fries. Of course rice and seaweed. I try the water chestnut salad with dried bananas. And the Kim chi. I am the only non Asian. The room is decorated as in European style. Van Gough’s Sunflowers. Picasso. The Kiss by Klimt. Many guests make a sandwich on white Wonder Bread. People eat a very big breakfast, three plates and more even the young, tiny waist, well dressed women. This is not fair.
I have gloves, hat and winter coat but it is not enough to keep warm. I put on 3 shirts and wrap another around my neck like a scarf. Where is my scarf? I wear shorts under my one pair of long pants to help cut the wind. The high temps of the day are still below freezing and the wind is the real killer. But these improvised precautions help. And at least it is a sunny day. There is ice and snow, but it must have come a few days ago because most areas have narrow paths. I’m grateful the day turns out to be sunny, but this is unseasonably cold for Seoul and I had not quite prepared well enough.
At 8a I take a taxi to the palace, Deoksugung. I have a guide book that I show to the driver and he understands the characters. He makes a point of having me repeat the word to help me, not him. He is friendly and smiles. The 10 min trip costs 3600 won and I hand him 5000 ($5) as he smiles brightly. Americans tip. I think it’s partly because tipping is such an important part of our service industry in the US, but it’s also because it is tough to think of foreign currency as anything but Monopoly money. It does not seem real.
If it were warm I might have walked. If I had more than a just few hours to spend in the city, I would try to figure the subway. But taxis are inexpensive. Truly frugal travel takes time, often time to get lost. The palace is not open yet, so I walk about. They don’t open for 2 hours, so my guidebook is wrong. There is a permanent Rodin exhibit and a special Tim Burton at the nearby art museum. After only half an hour I am too cold and find a coffee shop.
There is another non-Asian, but her nose is in her phone and she does not notice me. I realize my caffeine headache is finally gone–5 cups of coffee later. Or maybe it was the ibuprofen kicking in. I started with my first cup before 5am. The young man running the coffee shop understands my coffee order in English. Fortunately the word “coffee” is understandable in most languages. Such an important beverage, so it’s no coincidence. You can say “tea” or “chai” and be understood in most languages too. The power of caffeine! Like Europe there are separate prices for sitting down or to-go–about 20% less to take the cup out. The china cup is colorful, lovely but I’m paying for heat. The bill arrives face down, taped to a piece of wood. It’s 4,000, more than my taxi tide. And a small price to pay to warm up.
Entrance to palace is 1000. It takes less than an hour to tour, very clean. Buildings very like the Forbidden City, Beijing, China– lattice work windows and open floor plans. Would be impossible to heat. The grounds are about the size of 2 city blocks. Little English signage, but I’ve been given a guidebook I can read. Frankly it’s too cold to do so now, so this will have to wait until I get home.
Then a walk to Daedaemun Gate–one of the original entrance gates to the city when it was walled. The wall is long gone. I’m headed to the shopping district behind it. Wholesale clothing and accessories, fair quality, good prices. I got what I thought was a cashmere scarf for 10,000. Later it turned out to be “Casmera,” 100% acrylic. Ah well, the cold makes it hard to concentrate on details. It was warm, which was all I really cared about. I replaced a lens cap for my camera that I lost and got a clear filter to cover the lens to keep from scratching it. Total 20,000 won. No sales tax.
And that’s all I have time for. I catch the airport limo bus back. It runs every 30 minutes and was exactly on time. I was the only person on the bus, just like last night, but riders joined the closer we got to the airport. I wish I had more time but got a surprising amount done for 23 hours plus jet lag. The ride to the airport takes about 2 hours.
Have decided the people’s attitude and reaction toward me is somewhere between Chinese and Japanese. They are not as surprised or aggressive as in China. They mostly ignore me, though not nearly as much as in Japan. If I smile, a man will acknowledge me with a slight head bow. The older women usually act as though I did not look at them. The young children are surprisingly rowdy and loud, though it seems to all be in good fun, not rudeness. A very homogeneous population. I only see Asians, and assume them all to be Korean, of course, but their skin tone, height, build and hair are almost exactly alike.
Thoughts as I ride the bus to the airport: Surprised by all the coffee houses. May see 2-4 on each block, mostly independent. Museum wedding hall? Few poor translations on signs. There is little English but enough. The elevators in the hotel talk to you and only spoke English. Lots of statues but all are modern art.
I have bulgogi for dinner before boarding plane for 6 hour flight. It’s like Korean BBQ, thinly sliced and spicy beef.
This is the first part of an extensive SE Asia trip. From here I fly to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia then I fly to Bangkok, which is broken into three posts: One Week in Thailand (2013) Part 1 Part 2 Part 3
Some assorted photos: