Ok, we didn't take the fancy high-speed commuter train from Incheon to Seoul, we instead were on a bus to downtown. Our first hotel was across the street from City Hall, in a very swanky, upscale neighborhood. We didn't know this until we arrived, however. We were so excited to be on the bus and finally heading to the city, we didn't really know what to expect.
We watched the sun set over the unfamiliar countryside, we were overwhelmed by the sounds around us. Neither of us speaks or understands more than a handful of basics in Korean, and being on a bus full of native-speakers our minds struggled to make sense of the situation. It was the first time in my life I've been in a crowded space where I didn't understand a word that was being said. I couldn't read road signs, I was functionally deaf, dumb, and blind. It was overwhelming.
As the bus finally rolled into the city we were struck by the sheer size of Seoul. We watched the Han River from the windows of the bus, and were stunned by the number of bridges. We laughed that we had once thought of Portland as "Bridge City" but never again. We couldn't believe the virtual fleet of Hyundais on the road, and several high-end versions we'd never even heard of back home. Despite the number of vehicles out and about, traffic moved pretty freely.
As we approached our stop we saw night markets out the window, full of food and shopping opportunities, people out enjoying their Saturday night. As we were noticing the gorgeous, curvy, shining City Hall built of glass and metal, which was full of lights that were changing colors, we realized it was our stop. The bus driver helped us off, retrieved our bags for us, and we walked into the hotel.
The hotel was sparkling - full of beautiful flowers and highly-polished surfaces. The concierge sent us up several floors to speak with the manager, and to get checked in. The elevator had live orchids, and a beautiful enameled ceiling. The manager took our paperwork (remember, this trip was sponsored by Lotte) and got us checked in, and we were lead to our room.
Our room was small but immaculate, with a wonderful view of City Hall, the pool on the roof deck 5 stories below, and the street and sights and sounds of Seoul. The water and snacks were complimentary, the bed was divinely comfortable, and there was an etched glass wall between the bathroom and the bed - in the morning it let gorgeous natural light into the bathroom.
The bathroom was our first experience with the bidet, which we would realize was ubiquitous in the city. We both knew what it was, of course, but had never seen such a complicated toilet in our lives. The rules were simple: no toilet paper in the toilets. A city of 22 million can't handle that sort of waste; tp was for blotting only. Luckily our fancy toilet even had a heated dryer on the seat, but I will say, the first few uses were shocking, and it was very strange to dispose of toilet paper in a trash can.
We were exhausted and silly from all the traveling, and the hour long bus ride, but it was still early enough that we knew if we went to bed we'd be awake entirely too early the next day. We grabbed some basics, and our room key, and set off to explore Seoul on foot for a couple of hours.
We quickly dubbed the neighborhood behind the hotel, "Little America," with all its American fast-food chains and casual dining spots. We hoped to find another night market. So we started walking - in an unfamiliar city at night. We walked past restaurants, karaoke bars; we were repeatedly commenting on the cleanliness of the city. We couldn't believe such a large city so full of people could be so, so spotless.
We were taken aback when we saw high-end vending machines on the streets. There weren't bars on windows, there wasn't barbed wire around lots, there wasn't trash blowing through the streets. We realized the several-block stretch we were walking down appeared to all be shops that specialized in lighting. We nicknamed it The Lamp District. The next area of stores was all sinks and bathroom fixtures, we dubbed it The Plumbing District.
Nobody approached us asking for change or a light, we didn't see homeless people sleeping in doorways like back home, we just...kept walking. We were just so out of our element! It wasn't the US anymore, that was evident.
After a couple of hours of wandering we made our way back through the Plumbing and Lamp districts, and followed the neon glow of the restaurants and City Hall. We crashed hard in our room around 11pm, and I don't think either of us moved until 6 or 7 the next morning. What it meant though was when we got up, we were charged up and ready for a full day of earnest sightseeing and snacking through Seoul, and we had a few things planned.
When I write next, it will be of tiny napkins, kimchi, and a palace. What a remarkable city we had landed in!
I leave you with some more sights from around Seoul, all seen while wandering aimlessly.