I arrived in Seoul last night to a dark sky and downpour. I’ve been waiting to visit Seoul for a while now, so I wasn’t about to let crappy weather spoil my plans (or lack thereof).
Because I’ve come such a long way in my travel planning, I’ve done the opposite and not planned much about my trip to Seoul at all, transportation from the airport included. I had read enough to know that both trains and buses are available and considered the most cost and time effective, but it wasn’t until I stood in front of the airport bus desk that I decided a limousine express bus to Gangnam was just what I would need. Fifteen won (less than AUD$20) later and I was the proud holder of a bus ticket to the city. I would work out how to get from Gangnam Station to my hotel later.
I aso knew I needed to get a T-Money card (equivalent to our Smartrider in Perth, the Myki in Melbourne, the Octopus in Hong Kong or the Oyster card in London) for my transport once I got to the city so I decided to get one of those too. T-Money cards are sold at most convenience stores in SEoul, and there is such a store (G25) at the airport, where for 2,500 won (about AUD$3), you can pick one up (you need to keep in mind this is the cost of the card only and you will need to load money on it before using it to travel on).
Anyway, later turned out to be as soon as I stepped outside and located the stop my bus was to leave from. With a bit of luck, I had managed to pick the bus that also stopped at the nearest subway to my hotel. The bus was nice and comfy and we set off on our trip to Gangnam – yes the very same Gangnam that Psy became famous for singing about. Shall we get it out the way now?…
Okay, now on with the story.
At first the sky was awash in beautiful mauve and chiffon blue (the colour of my sister’s ball gown) edged with the pale god of the afternoon autumn sun. But before long the sun started to drop in the sky and the dark quickly rolled in, along with the rain. There’s nothing as painful as peak hour traffic on a dark, wet night to delay the start of your holiday but I was in Seoul – home of BigBang (I’m a closet fan for those that didn’t know) and I wasn’t going to let anything dampen my spirits.
Finally, I arrived outside Yeoksam station and luck was definitely on my side because my hotel was literally around the corner meaning I only got a little bit wet on the way. Check in at the Mercure Ambassador Gangnam Sodowe was the quickest, smoothest check in I’ve ever experienced and my room was nice and large with the comfiest looking bed I’d seen in ages. I was tired from travelling but wandered around the streets close to the hotel for a while to soak up the vibe. My first impressions were that it was a lot like Japan – an impression that I’m sure most Seoulites would not welcome. Despite my efforts to locate something for dinner, the rain put a stop to my exploration and I ended up back at the hotel ordering a room service of Japanese beef curry before jumping into my comfy bed.
I couldn’t wait to get up this morning and check out the city though. Since I had only one thing planned for tonight and that was on the other side of the Han River to Gangnam, I decided it was best to focus my sightseeing in that location. First though, I needed to buy my Aesop travel kit, which I hadn’t had time to do in Perth before I left. There was a shop about 30 minutes away in Garosu-gil so I loaded up my T-Money card at the Yeoksam subway station and jumped on board a bus. The bus stop was only around the corner from my hotel and the stop electronically lists the busses that stop there, along with the expected time you need to wait for your bus to arrive. Very handy.
Once off the bus, and with only a momentary thought of ‘oh gee where am I’, I managed to find my way to the store. Garosu-gil is a lovely leafy little street in Gangnam which is host to all the old favourites including Zara, Accessorize, H&M and Lush.
I strolled along for a while enjoying the area and then made my way to the subway to head for Bukchon. The subway system is easy to use and not unlike those in other countries (think Singapore or even London). So I settled in for the ride.
The Bukchon Hanok Village is home to hundreds of traditional Korean houses called ‘hanok’. Today, many of these hanok operate as guesthouses and traditional art centres which means you can learn about the traditional Korean way of life. However, Bukchon is still a residential area and there are many signs posted around that remind visitors to please respect the residents and keep the noise down. It’s lovely to walk around the hilly streets and hidden corners of the village soaking up the feel of the place.
The smell of food cooking reminds me that I haven’t yet eaten. Across the road is a small stall with people lined up outside it – you know the old adage if there’s a line outside it’s gotta be good right? So I decide to give it a go. It’s not until I have been standing in line a while at this stall that I realise it serves octopus, and only octopus. I’ve never even eaten octopus. Must be the thrill of being in a new city that makes me so brave as to try this street food. The skewered octopus is lightly cooked over coals and then layered with two types of sauce – perhaps mayonnaise and a type of BBQ sauce – then layered with flakes of something that is almost like the finest shaved bacon. It’s a little tough to be honest but I’m glad I tried it.
I’m nowhere near full though so when I spy a ginseng chicken soup restaurant, in I go.
A selection of kimchi arrived at the table as did my meal before long. It was like a baby chicken filled with rice sitting in a broth of ginseng soup sprinkled with spring onions and perilla seeds. A little bland for my liking but you can’t love everything.
On the corner of the table I spy a little button. I have read that these are found in most Korean restaurants and they are a service buzzer. One ring and your waitress or waiter will attend to you.
Just down the road from Bukchon is the National Palace of Seoul, also known as Gyeongbokgung Palace (the Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven). There are several palaces in Seoul, but this is supposed to be the most beautiful and is the largest of all of them. Construction began in 1395, three years after the Joseon Dynasty was founded. The site of the Palace was at the heart of Seoul and deemed auspicious according to the traditional practice of geomancy (the art of placing or arranging buildings or other sites auspiciously)
These days it plays host to thousands of visitors each day – both international and local. Today there are trails of school kids everywhere and groups of school girls dressed in hanbok – the brightly coloured traditional Korean costume. Inside the grounds you’ll also find a cute little replication of a Korean village from way back.
Down the road from the Palace is the neighbourhood of Insadong. It’s main street, Insadong-gil, features a multitude of shops with a number of alleys leading off it which lead to galleries and tea shops. Then there are the street food stalls – all manner of yummy fried goodness. Another good place to check out here is Ssamzie-gil – a shopping centre of sorts that houses over 70 stores selling all sorts of things from fashion to art and food. And that leads me to my next, if not questionable, snack. When I looked over and saw this sign, I knew I couldn’t resist buying one of these poop snacks because, well just because.
This is what a stroll down Insadong-gi looks like…
After stopping for a quick beer in a craft beer café in Bukchon-do, it’s time for my evening to begin. I am meeting with O’ngo Food Communications for a night time dining tour of Seoul. And, as luck would have it, I am the only one on the tour. This seems to happen to me a lot and used to really freak me out but I look forward to my personalised tours now because they are so much better. So off we go and our first restaurant is a Korean barbecue restaurant. A grill placed over hot coals is set up for us and pork meat and mushrooms laid on the grill to cook. There is a place with lettuce and perilla leaves (which my guide tells me are sesame leaves), a plate of kimchi (which I learn is like Korean tapas), a plate with three spices (salt, sesame and a chili one), another bowl with garlic and green chili and an important dipping sauce which is used for every meal. Oh, and a bowl of broth. You can eat it any way you wish really.
Then it’s time for two drinking games – Titanic and Sweet after Bitter. This is a great start to the night.
Our next stop is not far about twenty minutes away so thankfully the rain has held off. It’s a rice noodle restaurant and although they serve several different types, we are here to try the Royal Toppoki. This dish was part o the Royal Court cuisine in the Joseon dynasty. Filled with potato noodles, beef, ravioli, vegetables, rice noodles, mushrooms and fish, it is very, very good. Almost a sweet flavour to it, that leaves you wanting more. My guide pours us glasses of plum wine and explains about Korean drinking culture. Koreans aren’t friendly by nature to strangers, which of course makes doing business difficult – this is where drinking games come in. He also showed me how to drink politely which means turning your head to the side so that your drinking companions don’t see you drinking. If that makes sense.
Next on the list is a tent restaurant (pojangmacha). These sprung up around Seoul out of necessity after Korea’s liberation from Japan in 1945. They were set up to cater to the working classes and served a range of finger foods such as the mackerel we are having tonight. I ask my guide why there are rolls off toilet paper hung around the tent. He answered that to the Koreans, it is just paper so why not use it for everything. Touche!
I have to say that trying to eat a boney fish like mackerel with chopsticks, removing the bones discreetly required more dexterity than I had. It was not a delicate operation.
For our last stop of the night, we arrive at Kwangjung Market. The stalls have all closed up for the day and it has an empty sideshow alley at the end of the day feel to it until you reach the middle where the food section is alive and cooking. I have a quick glance at some of the produce before we move on, most interestingly was that because spices were only bought to Korea by other nationalities, the original kimchi was white!
We turn down a row of restaurants and ascend a couple of sets of stairs to one that sells mung bean pancakes. These crispy, thick parcels of goodness are perfect for a night of drinking. And there’s one more type of drink left to taste – rice wine. Much sweeter than it’s Japanese counterpart, it is served in little metal ‘cat bowls’. This is because it was a drink of the workers and they didn’t have time to muck around with glassware out in the fields.
Tummies full of food and drink, tastebuds more than satisfied, the end of the night is here and its time to say goodbye. I have enjoyed this food tour greatly. These local food tours are something I’ve only recently begun to do and I find it gives me confidence to go out on my own to try local food and wander into places I normally wouldn’t. Plus I get to chat to a local!
It’s been a long day today and I can’t wait to hit that comfy bed. I’ve got something special lined up for tomorrow afternoon.