Lunar New Year was now a month ago, but the memories are still fresh (….somewhat….). I decided to take advantage of this amazing five day weekend and head to Seoul- my first visit there since arriving at the airport Korea! After hopping on our 8:00 AM train Wednesday morning, we were Seoul bound within three and a half hours. Luckily, Mokpo is connected to the KTX (high speed train line) that goes right to Seoul! Easy-peasy.
Day 1- Wednesday February 18, 2015: Hongdae/Namsan Tower
After getting off the KTX, my two friends and I ambitiously tried to navigate the subway system to our hostel in Hongdae. Seoul’s subway system is actually pretty straightforward, however we somehow managed to take the subway in the wrong direction, our first time using it. This cause a little detour in getting to the hostel, but not by much. Upon arriving at Hongdae Guesthouse, we were greeted by the lovely owner and staff, who treated us like family for the rest of the week. The owner even made us the traditional Korean Lunar New Yeae dish- ddeokguk! I would highly recommend this guesthouse to anyone looking to travel to Seoul. Not just for the friendly staff, but also for it’s location. You are right next to the subway station, and are within walking distance of endless possibilities. Cat cafes, dog cafes, sheep cafes, korean restaurants, western style restaurants, shopping, you name it. Yes, you read that correctly- a sheep cafe, and yes, of course we went! Unfortunately they keep the sheep outside the cafe, and only bring them into the cafe when the cafe is quiet. I say unfortunately, but I guess that is best for the sheep. We spent the rest of the day exploring what the area had to offer, and at night we decided to head to Namsan tower- the highest point in Seoul. Korea comes alive at night; the colourful city lights and neon signs unlike any other place I’ve seen. For this reason, we thought it was best to go at night. After waiting almost 2 hours in never ending lines (ticket booth, cable car, elevator), in all honesty, the main attraction was a disappointment. There is no outdoor viewpoint at the top of the tower, and the glare of the lights on the glass windows makes it extremely difficult to see anything. With that being said, since the base of the tower is on a high mountain top, you can still get great views of the city without paying to go up to the tower. That would be my suggestion for anyone wanting to visit Namsan tower, although I can’t attest to the views during the day. You can also see the famous “love locks” at the base of the mountain.
Day 2- Thursday February 19, 2015: Gyeongbokgung Palace, Insadong, Itaewon
After getting our Egg McMuffin breakfast fuel, we headed for Gyeongbokgung Palace- the biggest and most famous palace in Seoul. We spent the morning roaming around the grounds of the palace and also got to see the changing of the guard ceremony. Our stomachs then decided it was time for lunch, so we headed to Insadong, a short walk from the palace. Insadong is a large market with many traditional Korean goods and crafts. Simply walking around this area was such a treat- it was unlike any area I’ve ever seen in Korea so far. Filled with unique items everywhere you look- fans, traditional paper, calligraphy pens, pottery, and more. Unfortunately however, our stomachs we’re far from satisfied after our lunch. When I say it was the worst food I’ve ever had since being in Korea, I really mean it. Everything was also way overpriced since we were in a super touristy area. I ordered bibimbap- my go-to meal. I didn’t think it was possible to mess up rice and veggies that badly, but somehow, it happened. I wasn’t the only one who didn’t enjoy their meal. My friends ordered “chicken thighs”…..or so they thought. The look on all of our faces when they actually brought out chicken feet, was priceless. We even warned the next foreigners who walked in to go somewhere else- it was that bad. Anyways, the terrible meal only meant we could eat more street food! After doing some more roaming around Insadong, we headed back to the hostel to drop off all of our goodies, and then headed to Itaewon- the foreigner district in Seoul. As soon as we exited the subway station (subway experts after two days in), you could sense the foreigner influence. Kebab houses, pub signs, international flags- this area had a lot of character. Our first stop: The Rocky Mountain Tavern- the Canadian restaurant and bar! I was beyond excited to say the least, and had to photograph document the entire thing. The first thing I see when I walk in- my two friends from my TESOL course that I completed in Ottawa. How much more Canadian could that get?! We hadn’t even planned to meet! It was great to see them and catch up over some Moosehead. The menu was pretty typical of what you would find at an average chain restaurant (think Kelsey’s). I ordered the pulled pork sandwich- very satisfying! They even had poutine- but it was pretty disappointing compared to back home. After the Canadian bar, we decided we should make that the theme of the night- bars of everyones home country! Since there were 2 Brits and 1 American, we then headed to a British Pub, followed by an American Bar. We ended the night at a Turkish Kebab house, which was delicious!
Day 3- Friday February 20: Namdaemun Market, War Memorial/Museum, Gangnam
After our “busy” night the night before, we took our time getting out of bed. Craving a traditional Western style breakfast propelled our bodies into motion, and lucky for us there was one just around the corner from us! I enjoyed a French toast breakfast served with scrambled eggs, bacon, homefries, salad, and of course some caffeine on the side. How satisfying!! We then headed for Namdaemun market- the largest market in Korea! Since it was Korea’s biggest holiday, it was a little quieter than expected, and some of the shops were closed, however this was a trend throughout the whole trip that we didn’t seem to mind. It was pretty cool being in the big busy city and having it not be so “busy”. Many people go back to their hometown’s outside of Seoul for Lunar New Year to be with their family. After the market, we took a taxi to the National Museum of Korea and War Memorial. This was a pretty special experience. Upon walking in, we were approached by an older Korean man who spoke excellent English, and started telling us about the statue we were looking at. The man was a hero from the Korean War, whom he actually knew. We talked for several minutes, until he then proceeded to guide us to the 3rd floor of the museum, where he gave us a private tour. He shared many interesting stories about the time during the war, and kept expressing the gratitude he felt towards our countries for helping Korea during this time. This was one of those rare times when a stranger truly touches your heart. We exchanged names, said our goodbyes and he gave us his business card, insisting to contact him if we ever needed anything. We continued to explore the other parts of the museum, but when it was time to leave for good, I heard my name being called. It was him, Mr. Moon calling me over to give me a memorial book on the Korean War. It was such a nice gesture! Although it’s all in Korean, it’s filled with many pictures and will be something I will treasure forever. After a moving experience at the museum, we hopped on the subway and headed for Gangnam- yes, the same one from Psy’s famous “Gangnam Style!” It looks like the area was quite influenced by the song, since one of the first things we saw was a big bright sign saying “Gangnam Style”. We explored the streets for a while and ended up deciding on Vietnamese food for dinner- yum!
Day 4- Saturday February 21: DMZ tour
Bright n’ early Saturday morning (ok, 8AM) we boarded our tour bus and headed to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)- the most heavily militarized border in the world. It was a rainy and foggy day, and that seemed to match the ambience of the journey. Our first stop was the Freedom Bridge- where soldiers would return to the South from the North during the war. We noticed many flags and ribbons with writings on them, which our guide later informed us were prayers and messages from South Korean people who have family trapped in North Korea. This really struck a chord with me. We then went down to the Third Infiltration Tunnel, one of the many tunnels North Korea constructed during the war in attempt to attack Seoul, the capital. They actually disguised the tunnel as a coal mine, so there are still traces of coal on the walls. Our next stop was Unification Hill Lookout, where on sunny days, you can actually see buildings and statues of the Kim family, and sometimes even North Korean people walking around. The last stop was Dorasan Station- “Not the last station from the South, but the first station toward the North”. This train station used to connect North and South Korea when the country was unified. It has since been restored, mostly for symbolic purposes. It was quite an informative and somewhat emotional day, and I’m glad I got the opportunity to learn and experience more of the history of North and South Korea during my time here.
And there you have it- how I spent my five day Lunar New Year weekend. Again, I feel so lucky to be here and to get the opportunities to do and see so many amazing things. These blog posts really help me pause and reflect on not taking any of this for granted. Thank you to those who read them, and maybe even enjoy them (a little bit!)
Also, fun fact about Korean Lunar New Year: everyone turns 1 year older. On your actual birthday, you don’t turn a year older. Not until Lunar New Year! So, back home I would be 22 for the first half of the year, then come my birthday, I would be 23 for the rest of the year. Whereas in Korea, you are one age the whole year. Another fun fact: I am already 24 in Korea, and when people ask how old I am, that is my answer! This is due to Lunar New Year and the fact that when you are born in Korea, your age is 1, not 0, like back home. This took me a while to wrap my head around, and let’s just say I will be one confused individual at the end of all this.