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Trip Report Solo in Seoul

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Before I begin, I want to express a big "thank you" to kja and the others on this forum who provided tremendously helpful advise and encouragement. Your help had a huge impact on my trip and I'm very grateful.

My 17-day trip to Seoul (beginning March 17th) was primarily for business. If you guessed from my screen name that I’m a songwriter, you were right.:-) I was invited to Seoul to write for some K-Pop recording artists. I was able to fly from Nashville using American FF miles. It turned out that by arriving a day early and staying three days later I could snag first class seats for a small amount of additional miles than if I had flown in steerage. That was perfect because it would give me some time to sightsee.

I’ve traveled extensively, but this was my first trip to Asia. My trepidations were primarily about the language barrier and the food, as I don’t like spicy food or seafood. Also, I had very short notice about the trip—no time to obsess or plan.

The flight was heaven compared to coach or even business class. The 14-1/2 hours non-stop from Dallas “flew” by. I slept ten hours on the flat bed! It will be very hard to settle for coach on my next long haul.

My hotel was provided by the record label that hosted me (and twelve other writers from the U.S. and the Netherlands). It was the Aloft in Gangnam—ultra modern and quite nice. The hotel staff was terrific; their English was good and they were excellent at giving me directions and suggestions.

Breakfast at the hotel was an event! In addition to the “Western” breakfast items (i.e., an omelet bar, hash browns, bacon, sausages, fresh fruit, waffles, pancakes, toast, etc.) the buffet included deliciously addictive dumplings, fish and seaweed soups that were way too far out of my comfort zone, vegetable porridge (creamed rice with the consistency of oatmeal and bits of vegetables), salad, lots of fermented/pickled side dishes, awesome muesli, cereals, and raisin pecan baguettes that were my diet downfall. The coffee was surprisingly good (thank heavens) and was served with warm, frothy milk. Espresso-based drinks were available at no additional charge.

As I had been forewarned, the Gangnam location was not ideal for sightseeing. The only places I was able to walk to (beside my office) were the Bonguensa Temple and the high fashion designer boutique area. Seoul is shoppers’ paradise—and apparently there are plenty of people with the money to shop at Gucci, Prada, Rolex, Armani, Louis Vuitton, Maserati, Lamherghini, and the likes. The Coex mall and aquarium were also walking distance from my hotel, but I didn’t go. The Cheongdam subway station was less than two blocks away and there were lots of restaurants and convenience stores nearby.

My first impression was that the city was overwhelmingly massive, densely populated, and that the air quality was horrid. It turned out that I’d arrived during a particularly bad time for the “yellow dust”—industrial pollution that comes from China. The smog and/or pollution were always noticeable and the skies were almost always hazy, which was bad news for my photography. Otherwise, the weather was on the chilly side for spring (highs in the 50s; nighttime lows in the low-30’s), but the only rain was brief, light sprinkles on two occasions. The last few days of the trip the daytime temps hit 70.

I arrived during Friday rush hour. It took more than two hours to navigate customs and immigration. The crush of travelers waiting to get the train to customs and immigration--and then get through those lines--was more oppressive than anything I’ve ever encountered at any other airport, and I'm well traveled. But apparently, it’s not typically that bad. My colleagues got through in thirty minutes to an hour. I had been told to take the Airport Limousine Bus (15,000 won each way – approx. $13.25) for the “70-minute” ride to the hotel. Rush hour traffic extended the drive to more than two hours.

So, from touchdown till arrival at my hotel took more than four-and-a-half tedious hours. I was tired and the hotel’s restaurant was closing and unable to prepare any Korean food, so I settled for that traditional Korean delicacy—a club sandwich ;-). I had expected to arrive late afternoon and explore, but my flight had been an hour late, and the 4-1/2 hours of waiting in lines and traffic gave me only enough time to unpack and collapse.

On my first day (after arrival) I decided to hit the palaces. The 40-minute taxi ride cost 14,000 won. That translated to approximately $12.50 U.S. – very cheap compared to taxis anywhere else I’ve been. But … the taxi driver could not read the English characters on my map and apparently, my pronunciation of “Changdeokgung” didn’t give him a clue. I learned to have the hotel staff write out in Korean the name of wherever I was headed. FYI, there are as many taxis in Seoul as in NYC--and probably twice as many places to buy coffee.

I was blown away by Changdeokgung Palace. It was remarkably beautiful. The admission fees there (and everywhere else) were very low. I bought a combination ticket that gave me access to four palaces and a Buddhist shrine for about $8.50 U.S. (total). I enjoyed a free English-language tour of the palace that provided some interesting info about the history of the Joseon dynasty. A separate tour of the Secret Garden was pleasant, but less exciting than its name implied. I suspect it would have been more impressive a few weeks later when the leaves and flowers returned. My tour guide’s English was barely decipherable.

I somehow came upon a second palace, Changgyeonggung. I was jaded from the remarkable beauty of Changdeokgung and I wasn’t as impressed by the second palace as much as the first, but I enjoyed my walk around the grounds. I gave my camera quite a workout.

Quite a few teenaged girls were dressed in beautiful traditional costumes. Apparently, a fun thing for them to do on a weekend is to dress up and stroll around taking selfies and posing for tourists’ photos. It was so lovely to see. I especially enjoyed the juxtaposition of seeing them in traditional costumes, texting on their cell phones.

Next stop was the main palace, Gyeongbokgung. Walking toward the palace I passed a street that looked interesting. I wandered down, not knowing I was in Bukchon Village, an area known for its old houses. I enjoyed browsing in the shops and restaurants and had lunch at a little stand. The dumplings were delicious; but the ramen noodles were blow-torch hot. I don't do "spicy," so I left them in their bowl and later stopped at a stand for a made-to-order greenish pancake that had a sweetish paste inside. I now had a new addiction! The most memorable shopping stop was a shop called “Bathhouse”—a converted … bathhouse. It was four stories of nothing but expensive sunglasses. I have no interest in sunglasses, but the displays and the shop itself were nothing short of art. Loved it! My next stop was for a much-needed caffeine fix—then I continued on to palace #2.

Gyeongbokgung Palace was more mobbed than Disneyland on the 4th of July. The crowds were oppressive and I the palace didn’t impress me as much as it would have had it been the first one I’d seen. It was larger than Changdeokgung, but I didn’t find it as beautiful. By late afternoon, the crowds began to thin and I was better able to appreciate the very pretty setting and the impressive structures. I had now officially fulfilled my quota of palaces.

Afterward, I strolled through the jewelry district en route to the Jongmyo Confucian Shrine. OMG, I’ve never seen so much bling in one place. I can’t imagine how all of those stores stay in business. I eventually found my way to the shrine, a UNESCO Heritage site, where the memorial tablets for the kings and queens of the Joseon Dynasty are kept. Very pretty grounds and blissfully uncrowded, but the architecture was similar to the palaces, and I was on pagoda overload. I took a taxi back to the hotel and collapsed.

The next day’s highlight was something I’ll never forget. To be continued …

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    Following along and enjoying your report. I must say that I am a bit surprised at the crowds you're encountering. I did not make it to Seoul when I visited Korea in 2012, but I did not recall the crowds to be particularly significant anywhere we went.

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    Thanks for coming back to rep[ort! glad you had a good trip - now you've had a taste of Asia there's so much more to explore.

    I didn't encounter crowds in Korea in 2010, and I did visit Seoul. Was there a particular festival or exhibition on?

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    In terms of the crowds ...
    Not everyplace was crowded. I think a snafu, with delayed flights arriving at the same time, caused the mess at the airport. But rush hour traffic was consistently HORRIBLE--as bad as the L.A. freeways.

    In one instance I took the subway at the peak of rush hour and people were cramming themselves in before the doors shut. I could hardly believe how people were pressed so hard against each other. I'd heard different estimates--that the population was between 10 - 12 million. I think they were all on the subway that day! I'm guessing that was normal for rush hour--but during off-peak times, I could usually get a seat on the subway.

    I think the reason for the crowds at Gyeongbokgung Palace was because it was a sunny weekend--probably the first one of the season.

    The crowds at the street markets were unbelievable -- but that was all part of the vibrant atmosphere and I didn't mind. Other places were not particularly crowded.

    to be continued ...

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    You are most welcome, Songdoc, and thank YOU for “paying back” by posting your experiences! :-)

    Seoul is massive – among the largest and most densely populated cities in the world, so you were certainly right on those counts! FWIW, the “yellow dust” was, perhaps, a combination of industrial polution and actual yellow dust from the loess planes to the north and west of Beijing.

    I believe the girls (and some boys) dress up in part because their admission fees are reduced if they do so.

    BTW: Congrats on your professional success in being invited to participate in this opportunity. I hope it was a rewarding experience for you.

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    Thanks again, kja. Yes, the fees are waived if you dress in traditional costume at the palaces, but I don't think that's the real motivation, because it only cost 3,000 won ($2.65 US) to get in. They just think it's fun to play dress up--and I saw many costumed couples (but mostly girls) in the street markets and other places where was no admission fee. I loved it!

    And ... thank you for the kind congratulations. I won't learn for at least a few weeks whether any the ten songs I wrote will be chosen. The competition is FIERCE! But regardless, both the writing and the sightseeing were awesome experiences!

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    Thanks, tripplanner. I've been doing this a long time and I'm used to being squashed like a cockroach! :-) No matter what happens, it was an experience I wouldn't trade.

    On my second full day in Seoul, two of my colleagues arrived and we shared a taxi to Insa-dong, a big street market, specializing in antiques, but mostly selling souvenirs and clothing. There were lots of food vendors preparing exotic dishes, including mini-octopi on skewers, dumplings, and fried, stuffed buns. We noticed a traditionally costumed troupe of drummers preparing to perform. The troupe included lots of cymbals and two reed instruments that looked like recorders but sounded like shrill bagpipes. The performance was awesome. The drumming and dancing was primal and thoroughly infectious. They danced while they played, whirling long ribbons that were attached to their hats. It hurt my neck just to watch! As the music reached its peak, several of the performers noticed my friends and me--the only non-Asians in the audience--and grabbed our hands and pulled us into the center of their circle. Next thing I knew I was dancing with utter joy and wild abandon, knowing I will never see these people again in my life. It was so exhilarating!

    That night there was a business dinner (with food that I didn't like) and the next morning began 10 days of intense, ridiculously long hours of work. We were basically sequestered and food was brought to the studio. On two occasions I had the best sushi I’ve ever tasted. Other nights were Korean rice and meat dishes that I would order “NOT SPICY,” which would be too spicy for me. Pizza and burgers were surprisingly good, though, and fried chicken was popular. So, let’s flash forward to when work was through … But first I'll mention that fans were always waiting outside all the record label offices (including the one where I was working) hoping for a glimpse of the K-Pop stars. Instead they got me and my colleagues, so I had my picture taken many times!

    Our after-work celebration was at a swanky, trendy restaurant/night club called SMT. The food was excellent—Korean fusion tapas. I don’t drink alcohol, but my friends were raving about the house drink. The music and the vibe were great. There were even holograms. It was one of my favorite meals of the trip.

    Here’s the quick version of the long horror story of my first experience with the subway: I wanted to go for a walk someplace close by the hotel. Hangang Park, along the Han River seemed close—just across the bridge. The desk clerk told me I could not walk across the bridge (which I later found was not true) and I was too intimidated to try the subway, so I took a taxi. Big mistake. It was approaching rush hour and the very short drive took forever in bumper-to-bumper traffic. The taxi pulled off the interstate and dropped me off in the parking lot. (You’ll soon see why this was important.) The park was a pleasant place to walk, but wasn’t anything I’d particularly recommend. It offered great views of high-rise buildings that seemed like a computer-generated images from a futuristic sci-fi movie. Couples and families picnicked and rented cute little paddle boats shaped like ducks and chickens.

    When it was time to leave I realized there was no way to hail a taxi. They would have had to have already pulled off the interstate into the parking area—and there weren’t any taxis there. But … there was a subway station in view. I couldn’t figure out how to buy a ticket or where I was supposed to go. I was completely overwhelmed and stressed. I somehow made it to the train platform without having bought a ticket! Luckily, a very sweet teenager, who spoke just enough English, came to my rescue and walked me to the machine where I could buy a ticket. She was going in the same direction as me and made sure I got off at the correct stop. A few days later I had mastered the system and was very impressed with its efficiency—and ease of use! I couldn’t believe I had found it so difficult and intimidating. From that moment on all my transportation was via subway, bus, or train.

    The most important thing was to know (for each train) the FINAL stop in the direction I was headed. As long as I knew that—and the line number I was transferring to—I did fine. The public transportation system was SO cheap. A trip with multiple transfers (including subways, buses, and trains—if needed) cost under the equivalent of $1.85.

    Two hot tips:

    When taking a taxi or a bus have someone write out the name of your stop in Korean. (The taxi drivers did not understand English and could not read the English words.) Writing out: “Changgyeonggung” (for example) was of no use. They couldn’t read English characters any better than I could read the Korean ones, and in many cases my pronunciation must have been too far off for them to decipher.

    Buy a transportation card in the convenience store. I can’t begin to describe how difficult it was for them to convey to me that it was a 2-step process: first you buy the card for 2500 won; then you add the amount of money you want. Doesn’t seem difficult, but I could not figure out what the clerk at the information booth was trying to express.

    While I’m on the topic of language barriers …

    Most of my sightseeing days involved some degree of frustration and feeling stressed because I was lost and unable to get accurate directions. Everyone I stopped was exceptionally kind and helpful—but most of the time when I was given directions, they did not get me where I was trying to go. In defense of the very nice people who tried to help me, I admit that I do not have a good sense of direction and am not great at using maps. But I did find myself lost quite often. It wasn’t that big a deal because I knew I could always hail a taxi (except that one time at Hangang Park) and show them the Korean language version of where I wanted to go—if I had planned that stop in advance and had someone at the hotel write it out for me.

    Somehow, I am no longer wandering the streets of Seoul, and I eventually found everyplace I looked for. So, it was do-able ;-).

    Just to be clarify before I continue… I had a FABULOUS time and found Seoul and surrounds to be vibrant, exciting, stimulating, and fascinating. The next day included one of the highlights among highlights!

    To be continued …

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    Did you have a smart phone with you? I have found that it is more difficult to get lost these days with a maps app on a smart phone. Mine even understands buses and subways and knows when the next train/bus will arrive - and where to find the right bus stop!

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    Very interesting... Some of the transportation issues and the language barriers you initially encountered reminds me of my own experience during the first days of my visit to Tokyo, although my understanding of Chinese characters helped a bit.

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    I did indeed have a smart phone with me, but being a total techno-moron I couldn't figure out how to get English-language maps. But I did use Google translate which helped several times.

    I forgot to mention that it was critical to know which subway exit to take. The station closest to my hotel had 14 different exits!

    As the report continues, you'll see that as time went by, I became much more comfortable with the transportation system. By the time I left it seemed easy!

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    Aren't those dancers with the long ribbons on their hats amazing?!? I saw them a few times and was impressed each time.

    I'm so glad you found the wherewithal to master the subway and bus systems -- they really are efficient and -- once one learns how -- extremely easy to use. Good job, songdoc!

    BTW, I suspect that for some South Korean teens, 3,000 won is a chunk of change Free admission, with the bonus of having fun getting dress up, might actually be quite an incentive. :-)

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    The next morning, I knew exactly what I wanted my reward to be for all that hard work. So, I paid a Korean man wearing a Speedo to rub my skin raw and slap my naked butt—repeatedly. And I loved it! Um, I guess I should explain.

    I conjured up all my courage and took two subways and a train to the Dragon Hill Spa (Seoul’s top-rated traditional bathhouse). I signed up for “the Gold Deluxe Package”—110,000 won. (On my credit card statement that was billed as $96 USD.)

    There are separate floors for men and women, and on those floors, you stay naked. I read that it’s so they know you’re not trying to hide that you have a disease!

    No one spoke any English after I left the initial check-in area, but they managed to convey that I was supposed to leave all my clothes in a locker and take a shower. Then someone pointed me to a room where the slender little Speedo’d man (mentioned above) had me lie face down on a table. I had my eyes closed and got quite a surprise when I was splashed with a bucket of hot water. Mr. Speedo proceeded to do his very best to scrape my skin off my body with a torture device that was rougher than sandpaper. I seriously thought I must be bleeding. But after I got used to it (and saw that there wasn’t any blood) I really liked it. In fact, I loved it! My skin was tingling as if an electric current were running through it, and it felt great. I was rolled over and (almost) every inch of my body got scrubbed raw.

    After another shocking bucket or two of hot water he dried me and the massage began. OMG. There are no words. At times it was acupressure—and very painful; other times it was utter bliss. I went to heaven and back—several times. The man on the table next to me was moaning in ways I hadn’t heard since I lived in West Hollywood.

    By the time the face massage and shampoo was over, 80 minutes had passed, and I had been deposited onto another planet. He finished by massaging me with thick lathery soap. I couldn’t imagine how my legs would carry me to the shower--but they did. They also managed to deliver me to a series of saunas and tubs of temperatures ranging from “Help, I’m boiling!” to “Ahhh this is perfect,” to “OMG it’s an ice plunge!” There was a place where you sat on a very low stool and used a high-pressure hand-held shower massager thing that was incredible.

    The spa was enormous – 6 stories – and it included two pyramids intended for meditation. I think some people were unclear on the concept because at least half of them sitting in the meditation area were busy texting on their phones and taking selfies!

    I ate lunch at the restaurant in the spa, It was the first place I saw with traditional, low-to-the-ground seating. I ordered the pork cutlet, which seemed to be the only item that wouldn’t be spicy. It was served with soup and several pickled side dishes. It was lousy. But not nearly as disgusting as the silkworm larvae that I tried from a street vendor a few days later. Blech!

    I floated out and was very proud to have negotiated the two subways and a train to get back to my hotel. I don’t know when I have ever felt this blissed out. This was definitely a highlight among highlights!

    To be continued …

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    Great description! You'll also encounter that sandpaper effect in a proper Turkish bath - I'm always amazed at how much dirt comes off apparently clean skin.

    Very sorry to hear they allow cell phones aka cameras in!

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    I am really enjoying your report. Those dancers and drums are great aren't they.

    I imagine you worked quite hard while there so its great you found some time to look around. How was your interaction with local workers? I found they would say to just do the hours you feel like but if you stick to their quite long working hours with them they really value your commitment. People I worked with have become family.

    I'm off back to SK in a couple of weeks and can't wait. Unlike you I have been remiss in doing trip reports but will try a bit harder this time. Every one has a few extras to add to help the next visitor to get the most from their trip and there aren't many reports for South Korea. Fortunately the ones that there are have been really good (especially kja's most helpful one)

    I admire your bravery at the spa but dont think I'm really for such as yet. Apart from modesty I don't think I could handle being skinned and boiled.

    I look forward to reading more.

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    kja: you've got that right!

    MaryW: Most of my work was with colleagues who came from the U.S. and the Netherlands. 12 – 14 hour workdays were expected and there would be no days off. That was made clear before I accepted the invitation. Knowing that, I intentionally built in days off before and after the work.

    I did one 17-hour day and some of my (much younger!) co-writers worked much longer. Our Korean music biz hosts worked at least 12-hours a day. They said they work 6 days a week and get very few holidays. It’s very difficult for them to have relationships or friends.

    Now, back to our regularly scheduled trip report ;-).

    It was about a 20-minute walk from my hotel to the Bonguensa temple. It was very crowded with worshippers and the chanting of the monks could be heard throughout the grounds. I loved it there.

    Namsan Park was a bit of a disappointment. I rode the cable car to the top, hoping for hiking trails. Instead, I found incredible numbers of tourists who were eating, buying souvenirs and love locks, and of course … taking selfies. The city views were impressive, but once again were filtered by heavy pollution, which was making me cough and blow my nose every three minutes. I skipped going to the top of the tower for an additional fee. I was ready to get away from the crowds. Although I had purchased a RT ticket on the cable car, I walked back down. It was a long walk. I was expecting peaceful gardens, but there was a lot of construction, and it wasn’t very pretty, except for a couple for sculptures.

    I found the maps very difficult to use. Things appeared much closer than they were—and the orientation wasn’t what I expected. After asking directions at least five times I found the Namdaemun market. It was mindboggling. Total sensory overload (in a good way!). It is Korea’s largest market and seemed to go on and on forever. It was quite the feast for the senses—especially the taste buds. Lots of vendors were preparing food on the streets. I pointed to something and a woman grabbed a slab of dough, stuffed it with cheese and bean sprouts then fried it while I waited. It was FABULOUS! I thought some fresh fruit would be nice so I pointed to a cup filled with banana slices, kiwi, and strawberries. 3,000 won. I figured they’d give me a toothpick to eat it with. But before I could say, “Stop!” my fruit was tossed into a blender with ice and water and I walked away with a delicious smoothie!

    I stuffed myself with outrageously good handmade buns and dumplings (filled with minced pork and onions) before waddling back to the subway. What an amazing experience. I’ll mention that even walking back from the office at midnight or later I felt perfectly safe. There were always people on the streets.

    The Myeong-dong area offered much more upscale shopping being enjoyed by huge crowds. That’s where I found the cat and dog cafés—places where you drink coffee (or other nonalcoholic beverages) while petting cats or dogs (depending on the café). Being an animal lover I couldn’t resist. There was an 8,000 won admission fee that covered your first beverage. Refills cost 2,000 won. There was a wide variety of approximately 30 purebred exotic breeds in each café. Most of them wanted to curl up on a lap and sleep. It was a fun, unique experience.

    Outside one of the cafés I spotted a sign for “Doctor Fish.” For 28,000 won you could put your feet in a tank filled with little fishies that nibble away your callouses and dead skin. No, thank you! But I heard from several people that they (or someone they knew) had tried it and loved it.

    To be continued …

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    I'm glad you enjoyed Bonguensa -- I found it delightful! And aren't those markets amazing?

    The first I heard about fish "treatments" for feet was in Turkey, and I must admit that I'm intrigued! But it seems to me that some of those callouses protect me when I'm relying on my feet a lot, as I do when traveling, so I've never indulged. I wonder which of us will give it a try first....

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    There is a sheep cafe in Seoul too. At least I believe its still there. Started in the year of the sheep so maybe now its some other animal! They had just 2 perfectly washed and groomed sheep. Not quite as good as a cat for curling up in a customers lap though.

    The working hours are pretty steep aren't they. I work for myself so often put in the hours by choice but the general workers in SK have it hard. Then they go out a few nights a week drinking till all hours. I'm probably just getting old but keeping up was a challenge. I was glad to get home for a rest.

    Looking forward to more of your report.

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    I heard there is a "farm animal" cafe that has chickens and pigs. I hadn't heard about the sheep. But I heard there's a raccoon cafe, too! I'd have loved to visit them all, but my sightseeing time was so limited.

    Yes, the SK work ethic is so strong.

    Yes, those markets were beyond belief. I loved them--and I'm not a shopper. I just loved browsing and tasting and people watching.

    <I'm probably just getting old but keeping up was a challenge. I was glad to get home for a rest.>

    Me, too -- on both accounts!!!
    My twenty-something co-workers apparently have no need for sleep!!!

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    I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to see other areas of Seoul. But it worked out well because I spent my additional days there doing activities that I loved.

    The Korean Folk Village was terrific—but getting there wasn’t. It seemed straightforward enough: two subways, then transfer to the #30 bus. When I boarded the bus I asked the driver, “Korean Folk Village?” He nodded. Within a few stops I saw signs that said “Korean Folk Village: 1.4 km.” Again, I asked, "Folk Village?" but the driver made no indication that this was my stop. I assumed the next stop would bring me closer, but there were no more signs.

    When I asked the driver where I should get off it became apparent that he spoke no English and hadn’t understood a word I’d said. There was only one other person on the bus and she did not speak English, either. I used Google translate on my phone and the other passenger was able to explain to the driver. About twenty minutes later we passed the Folk Village and I hopped off. It was worth the hassle.

    There were several excellent shows: a traditional farmer’s dance show that combined acrobatics with beautiful costumes and music; a tightrope walker; and a fantastic, trick riding equestrian show. There was also an elaborate recreation of a traditional wedding. That one went on way too long for me—especially since all of the announcements (at all of the shows) were in Korean only. But the other shows didn’t require explanation.

    Lunch was at the food court. There were too many choices—all being made to order—and all looking soooo tempting. It was so hard to decide. I ordered delicious roast pork on a skewer and a mung bean pancake. It was reasonably priced and way too much food.

    The Folk Village featured recreations of homes from various eras and in different traditional styles; lots of beautiful views and photo ops, museums, shops, and demonstrations of traditional crafts by costumed workers. It was much larger than I expected and I especially loved wandering late afternoon, when the sun was perfect for pix and the tour buses had left. It was a wonderful day and I got back with no trouble.

    Dinner that night was at a little restaurant I’d passed several times in the Gangnam area. Fantastic dumplings and ox tail soup for 11,000 won. (under $10.)

    The next day was my tour to the DMZ. Pick up at my hotel was at 7:30am. I wasn’t the first person on the bus, and it was more than an hour until we had picked up the remaining passengers and began our journey north. But I didn’t mind because there was lively conversation among those on the bus, and I got to see an area I’d missed—Itaewon. Someone mentioned that Itaewon was popular with ex-pats. I don’t know if that was reason, but there seemed to be more English signage than in other areas.

    The tour was excellent—fascinating and informative. It had not been high on my list, but it became one of the most memorable parts of the trip. Miles before reaching the DMZ we went through “the civilian zone.” From that point there was heavy barbed wire along the road and many military guard posts. We passed an area where, because of the topography of the river, the border is much closer. Mountains, just beyond the river, were part of North Korea.

    Our first stop was “the Freedom Bridge” where P.O.W.s had been exchanged. The military presence (with machine guns) was daunting and served as a powerful reminder that there is still a war going on.

    Before we left this stop I had bought the first item of the trip—a T-shirt. (I’m a terrible shopper.) And … I had eaten silkworm larvae! I simply had to try. It tasted just about as you’d expect a big, semi-crunchy, boiled (or fried?) insect to taste—disgusting!!

    We’d had to provide passports before leaving. Military boarded our bus on two occasions to check each person’s passport. I guess I didn’t look suspicious because I wasn’t detained ;-). Once we entered the DMZ, no photos were permitted – even from the bus. We were warned that it was crucial for our safety that we stay together and stick to our timetable—no lagging or wandering off to sneak a photo. As we continued on, the road became an obstacle course so any vehicle would have to go very slowly to maneuver it. The bus driver had to weave in and out of the barricades, again reminding me of the seriousness of the ongoing conflict.

    The star attraction of the tour was going into the Third Infiltration Tunnel, one of four tunnels dug by North Korea deep below the DMZ with the presumed intention of invading South Korea. The tunnel was discovered in 1978. The N. Koreans denied that it was intended for infiltrating the South, saying the tunnel was dug to mine coal—but there isn’t any coal in that part of the peninsula. They painted some of the walls black to corroborate their story, in case they were caught. There were several other “proofs” presented that the N. Koreans were being “double-sided.” (I liked that explanation.) It’s assumed that other undiscovered tunnels remain.

    We were able to walk about one-third of a mile into the tunnel—to the spot where the South built a blockade that would prevent the North from getting past that spot if they attempted an invasion through the tunnel. We wore helmets and there were gas masks located throughout! I’m guessing the tunnel was 4 feet high. The only way to get through was to crouch and hunch over. Otherwise you’d bang your head against the rocks at the top. It was REALLY uncomfortable and I whacked my head at least four times – but the helmet protected me. It was well worth the pain in my neck.

    We went to an observatory where we could see N. Korean through high-powered binoculars. Again, photos were forbidden—and considering that the soldiers were carrying machine guns, I didn’t try to sneak any. It’s estimated that 1 million land mines were dropped in that area during the Korean War. Two-thirds of them have not been found (although they keep looking and finding them), and occasionally, one spontaneously explodes. I definitely stayed on the paths!!!

    It was very foggy and hard to see much of N. Korea through the binoculars. But it was still interesting to be that close. Our guide said that there are only approximately 70 clear (non-foggy) days a year in that area.

    Our final stop was at a railway station that had been intended to link North and South. GW Bush had presented a speech there. I posed for a photo on the platform with the sign for Pyeongyang. Sadly, after a tourist was shot (I think in 1998) the project was abandoned, and hopes for unification dimmed. Our guide (Erica) shared some heart-wrenching stories about families divided. FYI, there was a more comprehensive tour of the DMZ offered, but attendance is very limited, and it was sold-out weeks in advance. That would have been my first choice, but I was very happy with the tour that I took. FYI, 50,000 won included hotel pick-up (but not drop-off) and the delicious lunch. That seemed quite inexpensive.

    We left the DMZ behind and stopped at the obligatory shop that these tours always seem to include. This one was a ginseng factory. It was a total waste of time. After a few minutes I waited outside in the sunshine while others were hawked bottles of extracts that sold for $250. I only saw one person leave with a shopping bag.

    Our tour ended with a delightful lunch in Insa-dong. I wish I knew the name of the restaurant because it was quite good—one of my favorite meals of the trip. My tablemates (from the Philippines) ordered the fish option. An entire mackerel was brought to the table—head and tail attached. I went with the bulgogi. The meals were served with four side dishes. The spinach and bean sprouts were fine. The other dishes were way too spicy for my palate.

    Afterwards, I spent hours browsing the market. Dinner was from street vendors in the market. The street food is amazing—and so cheap. I ate way too much and wished I could have fit more because it was so interesting. Some of it (like the little squid and octopi on a skewer) was a little too interesting for me, but I was crazy for the dumplings, buns, and tempura shrimp.

    On the way back I walked along Cheonggyecheon stream, an urban walkway. It was pleasant, with piped in music, tiles depicting historical events, and lots of children splashing in the water, and couples strolling or sitting beside the stream.

    Only one day left …
    and photos coming soon!!!

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    The DMZ tour sounds like something that is very much a part of the experience with a visit to Seoul. Sadly, from your description though, it feels like the situation is quite tense even along the section where you visited, which I assume is the "most relaxed" section of the border.

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    Thanks to kja’s recommendation I decided to spend my final full day at Bukhansan National Park. kja had written that after exiting the train you follow the hordes of hikers. Well, I don’t know what I did wrong, or if it was the wrong time of day, but there were no hordes, no hikers, no signs for the park, and … no one who spoke any English. I found myself wandering down back alleys behind peoples’ houses. I knew this couldn’t be right! After about ten minutes I found myself back where I’d gotten off the train. But this time I found someone who gave me directions. I was lost again within moments, but this time I spotted the hordes!!

    I followed them through the warren of vendors. I’ve never seen so many hiking equipment stores in one place! I found the stands with food especially interesting. I followed the crowds to the park entrance where I got maps (in English and Korean) from a ranger. I decided to follow the trail kja had recommended. Within a few minutes I came upon a temple—the first landmark on the map. I thought I’d already seen temples and palaces that couldn’t be rivaled … Wrong! Because this one was set against a backdrop of those jagged, iconic granite mountains. I literally gasped at my first view. The light wasn’t ideal for photos, but I simply loved being there. I figured that at this rate, if I factored in photo stops, it would be midnight before I finished! ;-)

    As usual, I was soon lost. The map seemed so simple, but there were forks that weren’t shown on the map, and I was definitely not on the trail I’d intended to hike. But it was beautiful—so who cared? I passed temples and other places that seemed significant – but there was no signage in English and I had no idea where I was on the map.

    It really didn’t matter because I was loving it … until the trail started getting very steep, slippery, and challenging. Wow, how much higher can it go? The answer was, “A lot higher!” The city views were stunning, but it was starting to get late and I wanted to be sure I’d reach the bottom before sundown. Based on kja’s post, I’d taken more water than I typically would, as well as some nuts and protein bars. I headed back down—or so I thought—but it seemed my trail was soon, once again going up. I slipped a few times on the gravel. I didn’t get hurt, but I was starting to imagine myself spending the night on the mountain. My phone was not getting any reception, and I wasn’t seeing any other hikers. And then … I started recognizing places I had passed on the way up. Yay! I wasn’t going to wind up as a front-page story in the newspaper!

    I made it back down with time to spare before the sunset. What a beautiful hike. I’d really worked up an appetite but as I wandered through the scores of restaurants that lined the way to and from the park, I couldn’t find anything that seemed like it would work for my somewhat unadventurous palate. There were no English menus, but there were lots of live fish and other sea creatures in tanks. Photos of dishes seemed to all feature things that seemed to be covered in red hot chili paste, and I didn’t pass anyone eating anything that looked appealing.

    I was about to head back to my hotel when I saw a sign for “BBQ.” I followed it and soon head a young man’s voice telling me in broken English to follow. He took me to a lot with 8 – 10 tents. I assumed it was where the vendors, or homeless people, lived. He ushered me to a teepee and handed me a menu. I finally got it; this was a restaurant -- and each party sat in its own tent! With great difficulty I tried to figure out what was on the menu. The waiter told me the top two items were pork and the third item was sheep. When I asked what the difference was between the two pork dishes, he explained that the top pork was beef. ☺ I told him to bring #2 NOT SPICY. He seemed to understand that. A few minutes later I had seven small dishes in front of me. One seemed to be a slaw of some kind—maybe shredded cabbage with a thick, dark brown sauce or dressing. It was okay. One was paper-thin slices of something shaped like an onion. It tasted like a pickle and I liked it. There was a small wedge of cold, baked squash and a dish of onions in vinegar. Of course there was kimchi, which was wayyy too hot for my tongue, and thin slices of garlic that were light years beyond spicy. OMG. Luckily, I’d taken very little. The last dish held an reddish-orange sauce that had a unique flavor.

    Soon the main course arrived—and I was ready! It was a large slab of marinated pork … and it was RAW! I asked him to please take it back and cook it! But he kept repeating, “You help. You help!” I had no idea what he was talking about—until he uncovered the hibachi. Ohhhh!!! Now I get it! The waiter seemed very sweet and he became terribly flustered when only one side of the gas grill worked. He kept saying, “Oh, gosh! Oh, gosh!”

    There weren’t any other tents available and I considered leaving. I wasn’t convinced my meat would ever cook – but it did. And it was DELICIOUS! I loved that it was served with chopsticks and a pair of scissors. My meal cost around $12 USD and it was both an adventure—and tasty—although I wished it had been served with rice or noodles. I’m guessing they were probably on the menu, but I couldn’t read them.

    I wandered the streets, people watching, and enjoying the way shops and restaurants looked lit up after dark, then returned to my hotel thoroughly self-satisfied for having braved the subways, finding the park, finding my way back to civilization—and having a memorable dinner.

    I forgot to mention that one of the many underground shops in the Cheongdam subway station sold the most delicious buns. Many nights ended back in my hotel room with a cup of tea and a bun stuffed with slightly sweet cream cheese and ham, and another filled with minced vegetable, garlic and cream cheese. I sure do miss those buns. But that’s exactly what I had for my late night snack after I’d finished packing so I would be ready for my 10AM hotel check out.

    The next day, my flight wasn’t until 5:30pm. So after my final breakfast dumplings, raisin pecan toast, and fresh fruit I left my bags with the front desk and headed to the Korean National Museum. I had hoped to be there when it opened at 9AM, but I struck up a conversation at breakfast, kept getting “just one more dumpling” and “maybe just another half a cup of coffee…” and it was past 10:30am by the time I got to the museum.

    It was my first rainy day. I’ experienced a couple of very brief periods of fine drizzle, but this was real rain. The grounds of the museum looked beautiful with gardens bursting with tulips and other spring flowers. But I had to rush into the museum because I was getting soaked.

    Oh, how I wished I’d had a couple more hours. The museum was marvelous. I rushed through, spending the most time at my favorite exhibit—the stunning statues of Buddhas. Fantastic! But the plane wouldn’t wait.

    So … did I love my time in Seoul? YES! It was one of the most memorable trips I have ever taken (and I’m quite well-traveled.) I loved the kindness and courtesy of the people; the beauty of the temples, shrines, and palaces; the vibrant street markets; the pet cafes; visiting the DMZ and Bukhansan National Park. Overall, not enjoying fish or spicy things, I did not love the food and found it difficult to eat healthfully, but I certainly found some things to eat that I did love.

    I’m very grateful to those who helped me. I couldn’t have done it without you. I hope my experience will help others and I hope you’ve enjoyed sharing memories of my trip with me.

    Here’s a link to some of my photos. I’ll post it separately, as well. I hope you like them!

    http://tinyurl.com/zh89v55

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    I'm glad you enjoyed Bukhansan -- but I don't believe I recommended it, nor did I mention any specific trails, as I have not been there. ;-)

    And I'm very glad that you enjoyed Seoul and accepted some of the challenges it provided you. I certainly thought it had a lot to offer!

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    Sorry, kja! Somebody on this forum suggested the park and the trail and I've obviously confused it.

    Yes, Seoul certainly had much to offer and I'm so grateful I had the opportunity to visit.

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    I can't access the photos either but will check back later.

    Thanks so much for your lovely report. Its great to share in your experiences. My best wishes for your success with the songs. I'd love to hear what happens. I shall tell my "adopted" korean nephews to watch out for imfo and listen to the results of the work.

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    Wow, you got some truly terrific photos. Good eye, good eye. I adored some of the details you captured, from the wall details at the palace to the tall, tall ice cream cone, cat mascot. and the poster of the doctor fish. Super.

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    Thanks you all SO much for the kind words.

    The air got better than during those few days when there were high levels of "yellow dust," but it still wasn't good. I was constantly blowing my nose or coughing.

    I really appreciated the comments about my photography. I'm a rank amateur, but I love it. I found Korea more challenging to photograph than anywhere else I've been. The skies tended to be hazy and at most of the attractions there were countless people in my way, taking selfies. Besides, I think my forte is landscapes. But those pictures are bringing back wonderful memories.

    Seoul was never on my list, but I had a wonderful time. If there's a next time I would love to see more of Korea.

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