Stepping out of the Incheon airport was like time traveling into the future. This weekend I had 4 days in South Korean to visit my old friend and adventure partner. Since four days is a short amount of time I was only able to experience Seoul and Chencheon, but both places felt more futuristic than Asian. Every other Asian country I have traveled to so far, has had some kind of distinctly “Asian” feel to it, but South Korea, felt like a completely different world rather than another country, like 200 years in the future, just with a lot of Koreans.
I arrived in Seoul on Friday night, late Friday night. We were staying at a hostel in Insadong, a cute shopping and food street in the Jongno district. I left directly from work Friday afternoon in Taichung so that didn’t put me in Seoul until after midnight. The flight from Taipei to Incehon is only two hours, but all the in-between travel is what made the trip so long. Insadong was dead quiet when we left the hostel around 12:30, it was a holiday weekend so we figured the only people partying would be in the foreigner district of Iteawan, we were correct. You would not have been able to tell it was a holiday weekend from the sight of Itaewan at 1 AM. Everyone was out, foreigners and Korean alike. I’ve had my wild nights in Taipei, but the whole of Taipei has nothing on Itaewan. An entire city district of just bars, pubs and clubs, and of course drunk food. The part that I loved the most was the people watching of course, I haven’t seen that much diversity since being in the JFK airport (not quite as much as JFK but way more than I was used to). Itaewon has a large population of Turks, so there were a lot of middle eastern people, and falafel stands that were hard to resist. There were black people, white people, Indians, Southeast Asians, Koreans, it was kind of a relief to my eyes to get a break from the homogeneity of people I am used to seeing everyday. We ended up being out until five, and though it had calmed down quite a bit, people were still going. I learned very quickly that South Korea goes hard.
A few hours later, we spent the day exploring Seoul. The Chuseok holiday meant we got to see a lot of traditional Hanbok on men and women, and many small children. Chuseok, translates to “great middle autumn”, it is the Korean fall harvest festival, similar to Moon Festival in Taiwan that happened to fall on the same weekend, (the whole reason I was able to visit), and thanksgiving later in the fall in Canada and United States.
Some traditional hanbok and instruments at the airport in Incheon, Happy Chuseok.
Insadong is the traditional cultural district, brimming with tea shops, and small stores with traditional crafts and sweets. We sat and had a coffee (in the traditional tea district, yes, yes, I know) and attempted to plan out our day.
From Insadong, we walked to Bukchon Hanok Village. This is a section of streets in between Gyeonbok Palace and Changdeok Palace with traditional Korean architecture. This section of the city was where the upper class and high ranking officials lived during the Joseon Dynasty (Korea’s “Age of Enlightenment” era).
Stone streets lined with ginko trees, this was the only place I went in Seoul that felt “Asian”. That is not fair of me to say, and I don’t mean to say that it felt “western”, I am struggling to find a way to describe Korea since it seems so different from the other parts of Asia that I have seen, it was familiar in a comfortable way, but I still wouldn’t describe it as western.
Some street art in Bukchon Hanok
From there we walked to the National Folk Art Museum and Gyeongbokgung Palace, of the five royal palaces of the Josen Dynsaty, this was the main one, housing the king and the government officials. We made it in time to see the changing of the guard at the front gate.
That night, we headed back to Chuncheon in Gangwon Province north east of Seoul. Where we promptly went out and what we thought was going to be a quiet night ended up in a norebong at 2 am.
We planned on spending the entire next day biking around the lakes in Chuncheon. It is situated around Lake Soyang, and Lake Uiam, with some small islands in the middle of the lake. One of the islands “Nami” islands is a popular tourist destination because of its appearance on the Korean TV Drama Winter Sonata. The ferry to the island was shut for the holiday so we didn’t get to go.
Along the lakes there is a well maintained bike path that goes around the lakes and the river and connects to other cities, even all the way to Seoul.
We stopped and rented canoes for an hour. We were told we’d have 10 minutes of instruction then an hour to canoe, ok, fine. After the rapid instructions thrown at us in Korean, good thing we already knew how to canoe, we were ushered into a boat. After some struggle explaining that I wanted to sit in the back so I could steer, (immediately assuming that the man was going to do all of the steering), we were on our way. However, we did not realize until we were in the water that they expected us to follow him on his motorized raft around the lake! We laughed and took our time lagging behind the group, partially on purpose, and partially because I was doing all the steering and paddling (someone was busy eating lunch and taking selfies).
It was a beautiful clear day, perfect for a leisurely canoe ride. We continued along the bike path and stopped at the sky walk.
and a waterfall and Samakasan mountain.
Near Samakasan Mountain we headed back toward Chuncheon, making it downtown around 6pm. Chuncheon is famous for it’s Dakgalbi, a spicy sauteed chicken dish. There is even a “Dakgalbi Street” full of only dakgalbi restaurants. Since I am a vegetarian, Micheal got twice the serving of chicken. Dakgalbi is made on a hot burner in the middle of the table. In addition to chicken it has sweet potato, cabbage and tteok (rice cakes), all mixed together and cooked in a spicy thick red pepper sauce. After it is cooked you wrap it in perilla leaves, dip it in more spicy sauce if you so desire, and enjoy.
It was amazing and we ate a ton of it, adding noodles to ours which turned out to be way too much food. We brought some home with us. It has a very pungent smell, between sitting in the restaurant and taking leftovers home, my t-shirt smelled like dakgalbi until I had a chance to wash it in Taiwan. If that wasn’t enough, we got bing-su after walking off our dakgalbi bellies. Bingsu is similar to Taiwanese baobing, actually, it’s pretty much the same thing. Shaved ice, condensed milk, topped with all sorts of sweet things. In Korea from what I saw the flavors were somewhat normal (similar to ice cream) caramel, chocolate, nut, green tea, red bean, in Taiwan they tend to be a little stranger, more beans and cereal for toppings. We got chocolate.
The next morning we planned a short hike before I had to leave for the airport. Chuncheon is surrounded by small mountains, the tallest one only being a little over 700 meters (Samakasan), which unfortunately, was closed for the holiday. So we went on a smaller walk, much closer by.
At only 300 meters we had a view of the DMZ.
It was time to say goodbye to South Korea and get back to Taiwan for work on Tuesday. Little did I know, until I arrived at the airport, that all flights to Taipei had been canceled due to a severe typhoon. Most businesses were closed Tuesday because of the typhoon including my school. So we headed back to Seoul from the airport for a somek filled night of exploration, one last hurrah to South Korea before finally returning to Taipei.
Overall, I was immensely impressed. Every ESL teacher abroad has heard horror stories about Hogwans and life in South Korea. From what I saw, those seem to be few and far between. South Korea is a paradise for a lost “adult-like” generation of ex-pats, it feels familiar, facilities are efficient, there are rules, the scenery is great and easily accessible, people aren’t overly friendly but aren’t cold either, they are used to foreigners, and like most East Asian countries they have the work hard mentality, but unlike the rest of East Asia, they play hard too. I understand why it reigns as a top ESL destination. For me? I’m not sure, I was quite jealous of the sidewalks when riding to work Wednesday morning, but a part of me did miss the exotic chaotic mess I currently call home. If anything, this weekend I learned that my heart is still restless. So many places to discover, where am I ever supposed to find my own?