Wandering Seoul and Toeing the DMZ

This trip was full of adventures for many reasons besides the fact that Seoul is the second largest metropolis in the world (to Tokyo--w00t!). First, I've become a bit of a country bumpkin in the small town of Taira, Iwaki in Fukushima, Japan--everything from the palaces to the coffee shops, stylish boutiques, street food, diversity of street swellers, tourists, and businessmen amused and amazed me. Second, it was my first time in an full-fledged, honest-to-goodness backpackers hostel, complete with the multilingual young travelers from all over the world, communal bathrooms and living spaces, and co-ed bunk bed dorm rooms.

The trip in a nutshell:

Wednesday: Arrive in Gimpo Airport at 11:00. Get a bit lost coming out of Hongik University Station (the area for backpackers, club/bar nightlife, and cafes side by side for blocks on end)--open map for a brief second and immediately become flocked by helpful local passerby as we look for our hostel. At least 5 people surrounded us offering tips and and directions (our reaction: Whooooa, English-speakers!). 

Arrive at Birdsnest Hostel, settle in, be amazed at how spacious, colorful, and clean the living spaces are.

Set off for lunch, settled on a local-looking eatery with grills in the middle of each table. No English on the menu--no problem. The waiter tells us what we want. We make one small adjustment (two servings of baby octopus and two servings of meat, please). Food arrives, raw. Tiny dishes arrive--garlic, onion, green leaves, carrots, a couple of peppers, red stuff, green stuff, soup stuff... what do we do with all this? "Wait 10 minutes," the waiter instructs. We wait. After 10 minutes, we realize we weren't given instructions as to what exactly to do after 10 minutes. Stuff looks pretty cooked, though. Now what? There's no one else eating in the restaurant, probably because it's 3pm--too late for lunch, too early for dinner. We embarrassedly gesture our confusion to the lady who seems to be running the restaurant. She gestures to put the meats in things into the green leaves. OK, but what to do with the mac salad? Carrots? Peppers? Whatever, dig in!

Food was delicious. The lady came in a little while later, pointed at our mistakes and laughed, though neither of us could communicate what we did wrong or what we should have done. No matter, it all ends up in the same place, right? The pinnacle of the spicy meal was when the lady mixed rice into the pot of spicy sauce so that we could truly finish of the delectable red peppers and God-knows-what. YUM.

Meander about the coffee shops and scenes. Shop a bit. Have coffee. Have street food. And more street food. And more street food. Sit down in a quick little 'toppogi' joint. Eat. Catch a show called Nanta, a comedy show which showcases the acrobatic, singing, dancing, acting, and imrpov skills of 5 incredibly talented individuals. 

Thursday: Wake up for a quick coffee run to the cutest cafe in town, make breakfast for ourselves in our hostel's communal kitchen, and set off for downtown Seoul area. Have second breakfast in a huge, shiny, Parisian cafe and bakery--crispy tiramisu pastry, blueberry muffin, monkey bread, and Kilimanjaro coffee. Board a city tour bus, see the entire city, and experience the worst car sickness of my life from the chaotic traffic, frequent stop-and-go, windy streets, bumps, and ascent and descent to and from Seoul Tower. 

Take studio pictures in traditional Korean garb. Have dinner at an all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ hole-in-the-wall restaurant. Browse gigantic 24-hour shopping malls. Get gelato. Board city bus, head downtown--settle after another bout of motion sickness--head home. Back at the hostel--relax in the spacious living room, make friends with a Japanese couple. Hostel owner chats with us for a bit, offers us beer, and brings up a case of beer for all of us to share. After a toast, compare notes with the Japanese couple of our experiences in Korea, our experiences in Japan, and learn about our differences in culture and language as Canadians/Americans/Japanese people. Go to bed exhausted.

Friday: Early excursion in search for cafe waffles. Post-waffles, sit at yet another cafe for black tea and green tea lattes. Set off to explore what we thought would be four palaces, but ended up being one palace. Street food. 

Palace. Thoroughly palaced-out and hungry; time to search for bibimbap. Much searching--success! Cheap but amazing eats. 

Lotte World. Afternoon discount + couple's discounts = 5 hours of roller coasters and amusement park fun. Tired. Go home. Go to bed.


Catch a tour to the border of North and South Korea. Make friends with an older American on our tour, visiting from Lake Tahoe, maybe 60+ years old or so? Visit an eerie and somewhat morbid amusement park near the border--what is supposed to be an exciting and warm welcome for North Korean brethren after long waiting for North and South Korea to reunite. Get on a larger tour bus. No pictures please. Please present your passport to the soldier. 

Visit an brand new, empty, shiny, train terminal--the terminal which will welcome North Koreans when the time comes. Board bus. 

Stop at lookout area--no pictures, please. Many soldiers. Deposit 50 cents to peer into binoculars aimed at North Korea. Clear day, clear view. Rows of empty houses. No people, no signs of life. One tall, white statue. Guard posts. What's going on on the other side? Will another North Korean soldier shoot his commanders and come running to South Korea today? Will another innocent middle-aged woman be shot on our tour today, thereby shutting down this section of the sightseeing spot also? Will someone inadvertently trigger and detonate a land mine today? Will North Korea choose today, of all days, to attack its souther brother and keep its promise to take thousands of American citizens hostage?

Board bus. Visit Korean War museum. Watch Korean War documentary. Walk through one discovered tunnel--made by North Koreans after the pact of non-aggression, discovered only 30 years ago. Board bus, visit a village town located in the demilitarized zone--a village which existed before border lines were drawn, a village which now finds itself situated in the middle of the two brothers, in the fertile untouched grounds of the demilitarized zones. Board bus, head back to Seoul with plenty to think about.

Back in downtown, head to bustling, crowded, outdoor market. Street food, street food. Souvenir food. Lunch. My favorite meal of the trip, hands down--spicy, Korean ramen. Shop for cheap souvenirs. Street food, street food. Head back to the hostel to freshen up. 

A night in the town with old friends and new. Korean BBQ and shoju bombs. One friend from my childhood in Japan. One friend from Berkeley. One friend from Hawaii. One friend from Noel's high school in the Bay Area of California. His girlfriend. My friend's friends. Oh, my friend's friend and my friends know each other already--coincidence, but of course. Karaoke, more drinks. Roam the streets, take pictures, laugh, choose from the rows and rows of pubs and bars, dodge a couple of puddles of vomit, settle on one basement pub. Try snail for the first time, after much hesitation. Wash it down with 'makgeolli', Korean rice wine, from bowls. Pick at Korean-style tempura, or Korean-style fish and chips bar food (basically, various fried things), struggle a bit yet again with Korean-style flat, metal chopsticks. Happily use extra-long Korean-style spoons to reach across the table to try all the unnamed (to me) dishes. Spend what must be hours laughing, joking, and talking loudly above each other with new friends.

Catch a taxi home. Paid $10 for what would have been a $40 taxi ride in Japan. Stumble into bed. Pass out.

Sunday: Noey wakes up in an hour and a half to catch her flight. The rest of us wake up at a reasonable hour, shove our dirty clothes and spoils of our travels into overflowing suitcases, and head home.