Solo in Seoul

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Apr 9th, 2016, 08:03 AM
  #21
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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.



Me, too -- on both accounts!!!
My twenty-something co-workers apparently have no need for sleep!!!
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Apr 11th, 2016, 09:57 AM
  #22
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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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Apr 11th, 2016, 04:55 PM
  #23
kja
 
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I'm glad you continued to enjoy your time!
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Apr 11th, 2016, 10:04 PM
  #24
 
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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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Apr 16th, 2016, 05:53 PM
  #25
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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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Apr 16th, 2016, 06:12 PM
  #26
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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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Apr 16th, 2016, 08:11 PM
  #27
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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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Apr 16th, 2016, 08:33 PM
  #28
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I can't seem to access your photos....
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Apr 16th, 2016, 09:40 PM
  #29
 
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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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Apr 17th, 2016, 10:29 AM
  #30
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Sorry about the photos .

I set up a "share" site. Hopefully, this link will work.

https://songdocpix.shutterfly.com/pictures/8
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Apr 17th, 2016, 01:57 PM
  #31
 
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Thanks for sharing, Songdoc. I really enjoyed following along.
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Apr 17th, 2016, 04:06 PM
  #32
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Nice pictures, songdoc! They brought back some great memories and brought to life some of the experiences you had that I did not.
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Apr 17th, 2016, 04:11 PM
  #33
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Thanks for the nice comments--and all the help.
I'm glad the link is working.
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Apr 17th, 2016, 04:25 PM
  #34
 
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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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Apr 17th, 2016, 04:26 PM
  #35
 
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Also, the air didn't look bad at all. It must have cleared up nicely.
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Apr 17th, 2016, 04:37 PM
  #36
 
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Lovely photos thanks. Lot of dogs in that cafe and it looks like the sleeping fellow with 3 dogs must spend a bit of time there.
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Apr 18th, 2016, 12:37 AM
  #37
 
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Lovely photos and report Songdoc. Korea might have to go on the list now
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Apr 18th, 2016, 04:07 PM
  #38
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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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