I haven’t written in this blog in a long time. It just shows how much fun I’m having as I write this on day 2 of my 10 day trip in Korea. You’re probably wondering why I am blogging instead of being out there and doing stuff. It’s because I had to work for a bit in the morning and I am so bad at remembering names that I decided instead of spending an hour captioning all my photos, I would write a blog as a way to jotting down names of places I visited.
I am not going to get into all the details of the whole flight from SF to Seoul. In a nutshell, it was pretty good. Airline food was awful as always. The best thing about the flight was the hospitality of the airline staff. It is actually nice to see such fantastic hospitality especially in Economy class which I haven’t seen in recent times (both domestic and international).
We landed on March 14. Immigration and baggage claim was a breeze. We took a taxi and I would just like to say not all drivers/taxi drivers are rash in South Korea. It was just the one we took to our hotel in Dongtan.
Dongtan is a relatively newer city in S. Korea. Dongtan has cleaner, broader roads with expensive skyrise apartments and is close to many workplaces specifically Samsung, LG and the like. Though it is not flooded with clothing stores and shopping malls like in Seoul, the cleanliness, utilities, facilities like a shopping mall, restaurants (including American fast foods like MacD’s, DD’s and even Popeyes) and just the newer feel makes up for the lack of hustle and bustle of Seoul if you’re into that kind of thing.
We reached our hotel at around 6:30 and decided to take a stroll near our hotel which was conveniently located near many shops, restaurants, cafes etc. After a while, we decided to get some food and head back to the hotel for a good night’s rest. Luckily K’s colleague and the guy at the hotel’s front desk wrote down “I am vegetarian. I do not eat meat, fish and eggs”. Rumor goes that many Koreans think of fish as vegetarian. Not sure if that is true, but we decided to get that written down anyway.
We had made up our minds to have a traditional korean meal like the Soondubu Jigae – Korea’s ultimate comfort food on our first night here. Unfortunately, it was becoming apparent that most restaurants (including American joints, italian) did not have the faintest clue of what was vegetarian. Our hunger levels were rising and both of us were bordering on cranky. We had to get something soon to alleviate all that frustration from not finding anything. We ended up at a small bbq place with dozens of feet meat of some sort on display. And took a chance anyway by showing the restaurant owner the piece of paper to explain our dietary needs. She let out a big sigh, spoke something in Korean (don’t know what she said but she definitely looked friendly), gestured us to follow her out of the restaurant when we desperately told her “We would like some soondubu”. She pointed us to go down the road and said we would find Soondubu in actions.
As horrible stories go, we certainly did not find any soondubu place. We made our way brooding over our disappointment when I struck upon a sign that said “healthy food”. And told K “Healthy in any part of the world has to include veggies. I’m going in”. So we went in, showed the paper just like we did at the other restaurant expecting another gesture out the door. The friendliest looking woman gestured us toward the table, brought out a menu and it could not have gotten better than this. It was a restaurant that specialized in dubus or the korean hot soup. We explained to her that we were vegetarians and the owners were kind enough to get us a potato pancake and some steaming hot soondubu with veggies to the table. Man were we in heaven! The woman who helped throughout our dinner even went to the extent of showing us how to eat soondubu the right way! We could not have been happier. We left a tip even though it is considered unnecessary in Korea, thanked them profusely and made our way back to our hotel with smiles on our faces. As I write this blog post, I cannot help but think about going back for some hot dubu for lunch.
The next morning, we got an early start to Seoul. After taking directions on what bus to catch to Seoul, we walked to our stop, took a 40 min bus ride to Seoul. It can’t get more adventurous when everything works against your plan. The bus driver for some reason on entering Seoul decided to stop the bus and eject us all out after encountering heavy traffic into the city. He said all of this in Korean and we obviously knew something was happening as everyone had a panicky look plastered to their faces. K immediately asked a woman near us who replied in broken english “bus no go”. We got down and decided to ask the bus driver himself on what was the best option to get to Seoul station from wherever we were (Now I know it was near Namsan Park which is not too far). Suddenly the woman we spoke to called out to us like “Oi” and gestured in hand signals to come with her. Her elderly mother was saying something in Korean and I think she was trying to explain that we were looking for directions to Seoul. We crossed a very busy main intersection and when we came onto the sidewalk, the conversation went as follows:
Lady: “where you go”
We: “Gyeongbokgung Palace” in the most precise Korean accent we could muster.
Lady: “ok take bus”
Me: “Taxi ok?”
Lady: “Yes. Wait” Called out an empty taxi passing by after like a couple of minutes. Explained to the cab driver that we had to go to Gyeongbokgung Palace.
We: in proficient korean replied “Kamsamnida” which means “thank you”.
Lady’s Mother: shakes hands with us saying “Kamsamnida”.
We bid goodbye to them and got on our cab to the palace of the Joseon dynasty.
Our ticket to tour the palace cost us about $3. There are free tour guides who explain what’s what in English ( you may end up with a guide who could speak excellent english or one who may explain in short phrases). We skipped the tour guide and instead got ourselves a guidebook which cost us 50 cents more. The book explains all that we would want to know about the palace. It is definitely worth a visit if you are traveling to Korea.
After spending about an hour there, we headed to the National Museum of Korea which looks a LOT like the Chihuly Museum in Seattle if you have ever been up there. The Museum is worth the visit if you’re into the history of places, culture and that sort of thing. I absolutely loved it. There are cool chinese zodiac statues in front of the building. K and I clicked pictures near our respective zodiacs – his being a dog (woof!) and mine of a tiger (chuff!).
We then headed to our next palace – Changdeokgung which is a good 20- 25 min walk from Gyeongbokgung Palace. In a nutshell, King Taejong renamed the new palace that was built as a result of fire damage at the Gyeongbokgung Palace after killing his half brothers. There is a lot of history in both these places. On our way to Changdeokgung Palace, we stopped at a tourist information booth to ask them to suggest a good restaurant in the area after our visit to Changdeokgung Palace. They marked us a spot on the map where there are supposed to be some good restaurants. It was past our lunch time. So we decided to make a quick stop at a small cafe to get some coffee and some snack. We ended up eating a nice baked good called “Honey Bread” which is a big chunky loaf of bread that has been especially soaked in the center with honey. This was served with whipped cream and roasted sliced almonds on top. Ooh la la! So delicious. We made our way to Changdeokgung Palace after this quick snack. Our visit to Changdeokgung Palace was overall just as the good as the former Gyeongbokgung Palace.
We headed to the spot which the tourist info guide had pointed us to only to find the restaurants in those streets were all closed because it was a Sunday. Walking in frustation while being extremely hungry was starting to become a pattern for the two of us. On our hunger-frustration walk, we ended up at another tourist info office only to find the same tourist info guide sitting there. We told her what happened and she asked us to check out the tourist info office in a shopping area called Insadong as we were headed there next after lunch. This was a quick 10 min walk from there. The tourist info office at Insadong pointed us to all the good vegetarian restaurants in the area. I remembered reading up about a restaurant in the area that served Buddhist temple food called “Sanchon”. This restaurant was part of the list. Glad that it was, we walked down the busy shopping street of Insadong to our restaurant. Sanchon is just the perfect place to have a calm eating experience amidst all that hustle and bustle of Seoul. The interiors are so connected with nature. it just transports you to a state of calm and quiet. We had a full course of Korean temple food. Let me just say that I haven’t had half the dishes on my platter.
After a satiating lunch at Insadong, we did some quick shopping and went back to our tourist office to get directions back to Dongtan as we had no clue where the Seoul station was. We were asked to take a cab to our stop and then take our bus from bus stop number 9, one of the many bus stops on a very busy road. When we went there, we could not find number 9. We were able to see bus stops until number 7. The rest remain a mystery to this day. We asked a young college kid how to head back to Dongtan. Again, the girl spoke no english but understood what we were trying to say. And told us that our bus would come at bus stop no.6. After thanking her, we turned to look at our bus stop when we saw our bus standing there. We made a dash to it, boarded safely and reached our destination in 30-40 mins. On our walk back to the hotel, we stopped at HomePlus a.k.a Korea’s Walmart to pick up some lotion and other things.
We were so stuffed from our afternoon meal that we decided to grab some bread and jam from a nearby supermarket for the night. As I hit the bed last night, my feet were in pain from all that walking. I could barely move. My nose was so numb from being exposed to that cold weather. But all I could think of was how perfect my day was despite the language barrier. I have felt like I’m visiting a foreign land for the very first time in my life because places like Korea and India are where your communication/survival skills are put to the test. Everything from the food to the people is so different. If you’re accustomed to the broad spaces of the West, you might not enjoy your time here in Korea. Having come from a place that is quite crowded myself, I was able to appreciate just how kind the people in Korea are even though you get pushed and shoved in busy streets – something common in over-populated countries. The warmth of Korean hospitality makes you forget the cold siberian winds. If you are able to look past the crowd, you will find yourself cozying up to a stone bowl of steaming hot soondubu jigae!