79,408 Steps, or How We Conquered Seoul

After only a few short (but actually the longest weeks of my life), us English teachers were gifted with the holiday known as Chuseok. Chuseok is the Korean Thanksgiving. Chuseok fell on September 15th this year, so all public schools had Wednesday, September 14th to Sunday, September 18th off of school. During orientation, my buds and I had decided we wanted to do something together for the long weekend. Seoul was the best option since we all wanted to go there.

The planning for the trip was some of the most stressful hours I’ve ever spent. We had a group of 11 and because I am who I am, I ended up taking it all on myself to find a hostel and book the rooms. Let me tell you: Never again!! Josh ended up helping me find the hostel we ended up booking. He sent me the link to the place and it seemed PERFECT. By the time I’d seen the link he sent me, I had been looking for a place for about 3 and a half hours, so at that point, I was desperate and just booked it. I booked it and didn’t realize the owner required a cash deposit. Without a Korean bank account (at this point, I hadn’t set up a bank account yet because I was still waiting on my Alien Registration Card), cash deposits are extremely difficult (if not impossible – well, I couldn’t figure it out) to do. Everything turned out okay in the end because my Korean friend transferred the money for us and we paid him back. Have I mentioned making Korean friends as soon as possible is the only way to survive?? Well, that’s dramatic, but has some truth to it.

Anyway, SEOUL. Wednesday morning, I got up and packed. Our ticket for the KTX (Korea Train Express) left at 1, so I made my way to the station and met up with Kezia, Josh, Jackie, and Sara. The KTX ride was smooooooooth. I loved it. It took 2 hours and 20 minutes and I read for the first time since I’ve been in Korea. My seat was next to a middle schooler, believe it or not. So even on vacation, I’m surrounded by middle schoolers.

We got in to Seoul at about 3:30, said good-bye to Sara since her hostel was in Itaewon and ours was in Mapogu, and made our way to the hostel on the subway. A new, exciting experience for us! There is no subway system in Ulsan which I’ve since discovered is a real pain in the bum. After a 30 or so minute trek, we found our hostel.

We were the first to get there and we waited at the hostel for our friends to turn up. Once everyone arrived, we got Korean BBQ and drank maekju and soju. It was so nice to be with my friends from orientation again and that night we just walked around the neighborhood and ended up getting drinks at a convenience store. The best and easiest way to drink to Korea; also the most obvious way to say “I’M A FOREIGNER” besides the color of your skin.

After drinking, we went back to the hostel and played cards for a few hours. I found it incredibly difficult to play the game we were playing, but whatever, I love cards!!

The next day was 추석 (Chuseok). Chuseok is essentially Korean Thanksgiving. Koreans go home and spend time with their families, so Seoul was for all intents and purposes, deserted. I use that term VERY lightly. We decided to go to Lotte World because we thought, hey, who in their right minds would go to an amusement park on Thanksgiving? Well, lots and lots and lots of people, it turns out. We spent almost all day at Lotte World and by the end of it, we were all exhausted. I do not like amusement parks and it was not my favorite way to spend a day. Waiting in lines for HOURS is not how I like to spend my time. But, at least the minute and a half long roller coaster was fun, even after spending an hour and 15 minutes waiting. Also, I will say, people watching in Korea is pretty astonishing and, as you can imagine, NOTHING like it would be in America.

That night, we went to Itaewon. Itaewon is a notorious area of Seoul that is full of foreigner bars and restaurants. There, we ate Mexican food. It was exactly what we needed after spending hours at the miserable park. I had a chimichanga and it was amazing. Well, as amazing as Korean-made Mexican food can be. We hit up an international grocery store and there was so much international food. I didn’t end up buying anything because it was very expensive and there wasn’t anything that really was worth it to me. Looking back, I should have stocked up on Cholula or Sriracha, both hot sauces that you can’t buy at regular Korean stores.

After the market, we went to a Canadian bar because Sharon, Kezia, Evelyn, and Sierah are all Canadian. We had a (Canadian) beer (and cider) and called it a night.

The next day, we did something I had been looking forward to the whole week. On the recommendation from one of my Korean friends, we went to 경복궁 (Gyeongbukgoong Palace). Gyeongbokgoong was built in 1395 during the Joseon period and has been rebuilt several times since then. It is the largest of the 5 palaces in Seoul. I found this super awesome interactive site that has a map of the different areas of the palace. When we got there, we only gave ourselves one hour to look around and that wasn’t nearly enough time. We all thought the palace was smaller and that we could do a quick walk-through. This was definitely not the case because the palace grounds just kept going on and on. If you are planning on visiting, give yourself at least 2 hours to really get a good look at everything and take your time. Like Lotte World, this place was full of tourists, so it was exciting to come into an area that didn’t have a single person in it.

Gyeongbokgoong made me feel great. I separated myself from the others and walked through the palace grounds by myself. It was so refreshing to go at my own pace and experience the beauty and serenity (with the exception of all the hundreds of tourists) of such a historic place.

After Gyeongbokgoong, we went to Bukchon Hanok village. This village is home to hundreds of houses called hanok which is the traditional Korean style house.

Once we got our fill of the village, we made our way to Hongdae to do an Escape Room. I had never done an escape room and it was seriously so. much. fun. Our group was so big that we were split into two teams – 6 versus 6. We raced to see who could get out of the room faster. My team lost, but still beat our hour time limit, so that’s something. For those of you who don’t know what an escape room is: You are locked in a room for an hour and have to break out by solving clues left for you in the room. Ours consisted of finding clues and solving them in order to unlock about 7 locks throughout the room. I seriously recommend it.

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Angela, Sierah, Audrey, Evelyn, Matt, and I kicking some escape room ass. Photo courtesy of Sharon Chao. 🙂

That night: HONGDAE. Hongdae is the area surrounding Hongik University. There are so many awesome restaurants and bars and things to do. It’s super trendy and a lot of young people come here to go out and so of course, we had fun. Me, Sara, and Kezia had Japanese food for dinner. I had some sort of octopus something. To be honest, I don’t even remember and only recall the fact that I do not like the texture of octopus. You learn something new everyday.

The night consisted of drinking soju on the steps outside a convenience store if you can believe it. But the sights, sounds, and bustling atmosphere of Hongdae was incredible to be apart of and when I go back to Seoul, I will definitely spend more time there.

Saturday morning, Angela and I went back to Itaewon. There is an English language bookstore we wanted to go to and only half the group were awake. Saturday was a rough day for some of us. I will not name names. Once we got to the bookstore, I actually ran into a person wearing the Greenheart Travel t-shirt, so I struck up a conversation with her and we ended up speaking for a solid 45 minutes or so. After talking to our new friend, Torie,  we left and went to lunch at an Irish pub where I ate fish and chips. Next was N Seoul Tower. We met up with Jackie and took cable car up to the tower which is located in Namsan park in Seoul. I can’t really describe how utterly beautiful Seoul is from the base of the tower, so here are some pictures that can’t really do it justice.

The 3  of us met some of the group in Myeongdong for dinner. Sharon had been in contact with one of the EPIK staff members, Joshua, and he also met us for dinner. It was so good to see him again. We ate some traditional Korean food. I finally had some bibimbap which was my favorite Korean food back in the U.S. (I’ve since had my eyes opened to so much more!) After dinner, we went to a jazz bar and relaxed while listening to a jazz band play some American hits. I gotta say that after the constant go, go, go of the previous 3 days, it was immensely relaxing to just sit and listen to some music.

After relaxing for a couple of hours, we headed back to the hostel and went to bed.

The next day, everyone was leaving to go back to their respective towns. Evelyn, Kezia, Matt, and I had some time before our train rides home, so we decided to go to the Han River.

The river was amazing and Kezia figured out that the Korean monster movie, The Host, was filmed at this park, so that was fun.

After the river, we went back to the KTX station and went home.

 

Reflections on Seoul:

  • It was amazing to see my friends again, but 11 people is way too many people to travel with and keep a level head. I am a control freak and it was impossible to keep everyone together and on the same page.
  • Chuseok was too early in the year. It would have been nice to do this trip around 2 months in to having taught. We literally taught for 2 and a half weeks, then had a vacation.
  • Also since it was so early in the year, none of us had our bank accounts by the time we booked the hostel, so a lot us (including me) carried large amounts of cash on us.
  • I really don’t like amusement parks.
  • I really really don’t like waiting in lines.
  • Subways are amazing and why oh why can’t Ulsan have one?
  • I need to see Gangnam at some point. Also explore Myeongdong more.
  • I am so glad I was not placed in Seoul. Even with the city being “deserted” for Chuseok, there were still the most people I have ever seen in one place.
  • I walked about 40 miles over the 5 days and oh man, did I feel it the week after.
  • Going on a trip just after you move to a new country is really easy. It’s like, since I didn’t consider my apartment home yet, I could have just kept bopping around the country (if I wasn’t DEAD tired). There was no relief at “going home.”
  • Finding appropriate travel companions is difficult. Walking speeds are apparently very important to me.

 

So that was my Seoul trip. I hope to go back a few more times since it’s so easy to get to and travel about in. Next up, Busan and Ulsan adventures. . . .

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