Last night K told me it was going to rain today and that I had to take precautions if I was going to venture out alone. I had planned to visit Myeong-dong (playing Cyndi Lauper’s “Oh Girls just want to have fu-uhn… Whoaaa Girls they wanna have fun.” over and over in my mind). Myeong-dong is an area in Seoul that sells clothes,accessories and all sorts of swanky Korean beauty products. Oh and their cute $1 socks.
I was worried in the back of my mind on traveling alone to Myeong-dong. If it was an English speaking country, these worries would never cross my mind. But to travel alone in a place where boards/signs are in another language, the people speak only their mother tongue and the public transportation system has a smartphone app that is all in Korean can be quite the challenge. All of this makes it essential to carefully plan and execute. And when K told me it was going to rain, I started to have second thoughts and decided to stay in half-heartedly.
We crossed the road to Starbucks this morning after finding out last night that they open everyday at 6:30 AM. I could not have been more thrilled about going to Starbucks for our morning breakfast. I had a bagel with cream cheese and K had a blueberry bagel with cream cheese. Both of us had tall lattes along with our bagels. As I was sipping into my coffee, the thought of not going was bothering me. And the game of “Should I should I not?” began. I think it was the coffee that gave me that push that I needed to say “rain or shine I’m going shopping!”.
We got back to our room. I packed essentials like my charger, passport, took some currency to buy bus tickets. I waved to K who was leaving as well and started my walk to the bus stop. I was waiting in line (Koreans wait in a single line at bus stops) for the M4108 bus to take me to Seoul (if you’re going to be staying in Dongtan, this would be the fastest option to get to Seoul besides a taxi). After a 10 min wait, a bus came along and before all of us could board the bus, the driver shut the door and took off. I saw the number 0 sign off in the front window and realized it was a count as to how many seats were vacant on that bus. After another 20 mins, another m4108 came along and so my day to Seoul began.
I boarded the bus and took my seat next to a young Korean guy about K’s age. The guy at the front desk had given me some really confusing directions on where to get off and since I wasn’t in the frame of mind to wait for some angel to come save me after I get off the bus, I decided to strike up a conversation with the decent young man next to me. And the conversation went as follows:
Me: “Hi there. So…um…” (I look at his puzzled face and pointed at my map to show that I’m going to Myeong-dong) “Kookmin Bank ye?”
Man (in a distinguishable American Asian accent): So where exactly do you want to go?
Me: Oh (dumbstruck and happy as hell) you speak English? (yay in my mind)
Man: smiles and responds “yes. I used to live in Phoenix Arizona. What about you? Where are you from?”
Me: I’m originally from India (like my face doesn’t say it all!) and I live in California… more specifically San Francisco.
Man: So is this your first time in Korea?
Me: Yes. You know… it’s hard to move around without knowing Korean here. I try to get as many directions as I can and still the unfamiliarity with the location gets me everytime.
Man: Ah.. yes. I remember the first time I went to NYC. Back then, I could barely speak English and I was lost in NY of all the places in the world!
Me: Oh that is so strange. Think of all the bulgogi places they have (bulgogi is a korean bbq dish) and it can still be difficult huh… So… I’m trying to go to Myeong-dong for some shopping. But I need to get to the tourist information office first before I proceed.
Man: May I have a look at your map, please?
Me: Sure (and waits for a helpful gesture)
Man: You need to get down a few stops before that one. I am getting down 2 stops before you need to get down. And when I get down, I can give you directions to go.
Me: Oh thank you so much (a little relieved and yet worried if I can follow the directions perfectly without getting lost)
I start to panic for no apparent reason and shot all sorts of questions at this man. “When would be the right time to press the stop button?” “So is this a fork I see here on the map?” “Which way should I go from here?” “Are you sure there are no other stops in between?” By this time, man lets out a sigh.
Man: You know what… I will walk you to the tourist information office.
I was stunned at this man’s offer to not just give me directions but to walk as far as my tourist office which was a few stops after his just to make sure I reached there without getting lost. I was obviously not going to inconvenience someone headed to work to go out of the way to help me.
M: Oh that’s alright. I am sure I can manage if you just told me how to go.
Man: Oh it’s no problem. My classes aren’t starting until after lunch. So I can take you to the tourist office.
Me: Umm. Thanks. Are you sure? I hope it’s not getting in the way of your schedule.
After that moment of panic settled down and when my stop came, the two of us disembarked the vehicle and started the walk to the tourist office. I came to know that he was a psychology professor at a university in Korea on our way to the tourist office. I thanked the professor for being a blessing in disguise when he walked me to my destination. He wished me a good rest of the trip and headed back to his stop.
From there, I went into the tourist office, chatted quickly with the woman behind the counter, got my maps and headed out the door. I crossed the road and saw a sign at a telecom shop that said that they provided 5G LTE connections. I was shocked beyond words to see the first sign of 5G and paused to click a picture there. Right beside the shop was a small alley. And a colorful board called out to me. A coffee shop. I decided to fuel up before continuing along the day trip.
I walked inside the quaint little cafe upstairs with a view of the streets below. I placed my order for a cappucino and headed to the restroom. Lo and behold, what I saw was a high tech toilet in a public restroom. I repeat, PUBLIC. Although I was mildly disappointed that it was all in Korean, I was happy on seeing a high tech toilet in a public restroom.
After my cuppa, I started to walk the streets of Myeong-dong. So what you will see is a lot of American name brands and popular Korean brand stores lining up narrow streets to make up a cluster of shopping streets in the area of Myeong-dong. I found an extremely interesting Korean beauty tool – the Korean earpick. It’s a decorative little metal object that looks a lot like the spoon except the scoop is tiny enough to comfortably scrape out wax from your ears. I also shopped a few other things – socks, souvenirs, artwork after taking a good stroll around the shops.
By this time, I came to a 4-way intersection of narrow roads and decided to take a right turn as there were no more shops and I figured this might be the end of the shopping district. As I walked down the road, I saw many policemen standing in front of a building. And soon enough I was informed that it was a police academy that I was standing in front of after asking one of the policemen. I was unable to find this police academy on the map. I called out to the same policeman to help me find the way. He said “left. straight”. I said “thanks” and started my walk. I did the left turn and then went straight on when I came to a popular intersection where I made a right turn. Once I did, I was able to confirm that this street came up in one of the pictures I had seen online when I was reading up about Myeong-dong.
After spending a few mins strolling the last and final street of Myeong-dong, I pondered on what to do for lunch. So another quick stop back at the tourist office told me that Insadong was close. I started my walk and a few minutes into it, I came to a road that had medians. I looked behind me and found an entrance to the subway. I decided to go down and get out the other way. What I was expecting to find was a dingy subway with drunken men and a few talented unheard of musicians making their living. Instead I saw a whole shopping world underground. The subway was filled with tons of little shops with goodies like cellphone accesories, cosmetics, handbags, coffee shops and what not.
And just like that, I got out the other way much like the way wizards apparate and made my way straight down the road like the woman at the counter had instructed me to. The walk was very interesting. I saw farmers markets, a tv reporter reporting something, the Cheonggyecheon stream and Gwanghwamun square (statues of Admiral Yi Sin Sin and King Sejong). The walk seemed to take forever. And I was starting to see buildings that weren’t even on the map. I came across an art museum, the national museum of history and then the police museum. It was at that point that I felt like something was wrong. I then looked closely at the map only to realise that while I was so entranced by the subway, I had ended up at the totally wrong exit and came out at another place past Jeong-dong – a place that was never meant to be in today’s agenda.
I began to trudge my way back down the same road and reached my destination after a solid 30 mins. I quickly picked up a tourist map from the information center and went to a restaurant. And like always, I was served some spectacular soupy stew. And this time they threw in some vegetable pancake on the house. I thanked them after the heart-warming lunch they gave me and made my way back to the information center as it had started to rain and plus it was already past 4. I had no umbrella on me and I wasn’t going to make myself miserable by getting drenched in the rain. The information center told me to take the subway to Seoul station and then take the bus from there like always. I thanked them and made my way to the subway. On the way I noticed a street vendor selling umbrellas. I picked one up hurriedly and made a dash for my train. A lovely young lady on the train informed me that she will inform me when my stop has arrived when she saw me buried into the tourist map.
Once back at the hotel, I relaxed for a while before heading out to dubu house for dinner. I asked for the same cheese soondubu. It was mucho delicious. And now for some seoulful sleep to get me ready for another adventurous day in Korea!