I recently started revisiting my trip to Korea in a series of in-depth blogs. This post shares part of my first full day there.
We got up surprisingly early after a solid night of sleep in our comfy bed. We opened the curtains and spent some time just looking at Seoul out the windows. We put on the tv, and it was some sort of morning show, featuring K-Pop artists, and not much else. We didn't understand a word of it, but there was a lot of giggling between the hosts.
We pulled out our guidebooks to make a rough plan for the day, and agreed to go visit Gyeongbokgung Palace, and then a market for lunch and shopping, and to visit the N Seoul Tower. The three "to-do" items were in the same part of the city, which would make getting around a little easier, but we didn't have a real time-line or schedule so it allowed us flexibility to do other things as we came across them.
We both took turns riding the bidet. As Americans, we knew what they were, but quickly realized they were a necessity in such a large city. Flushing toilet-paper would destroy a sewer used by 22 million people. There were signs instructing us to use the bidet, and then to throw out any toilet paper in the small bin next to the toilet. While initially it seemed bizarre, by the end of our week there we were convinced it is the Americans who have it all backwards (and have since bought a bidet toilet seat for our own home!). My first few experiences were definitely accompanied by shrieks - I can't lie.
We rounded up the things we'd want for the day - sunblock, a camera, our phones, wallets, loaded most things into a small backpack, and set off on foot to first find breakfast.
We wandered the neighborhood near the hotel. The streets were spotless, with no signs of the thousands of people wandering and shopping the night before. We agreed to just walk into the first place that appeared to be open, and down an alleyway we found a small restaurant that was open and full of locals.
There was just a few tables, plastic chairs, many plastic storage bins of kimchi, a small kitchen we could see, and simple laminated menus. We laughed at the comically small napkins, and worried about my food allergies. (I'm allergic to all seafood and shellfish, and capsaicin - all of which is common in Korean fare.) We finally convinced a waiter that all I wanted was a bowl of hot rice and an egg. My husband got a giant platter of noodles and rice cakes and eggs all floating in a spicy red broth. He made a few trips to the kimchi tubs to load up. He was over the moon, and I had survived our first meal in Seoul, which at 6000 won, or just under 6USD was a steal.
We walked back to our hotel, and as we passed a Dunkin' Donuts we went in to grab coffees. It was already incredibly hot out, so I got mine iced. They were prepared for English speakers with a picture menu - and I pointed to what I wanted. Jason, being more of a traditionalist, wanted a hot coffee, with nothing in it. This caused great confusion and much discussion among the employees, all of whom repeatedly double checked he wanted it hot. We learned in our week there that hot, black coffee is not a "thing" like it is in the states. Everywhere we went, the coffee was iced, and ordering it otherwise caused a minor kerfuffle.
From our hotel we were easily able to flag down a cab - cabs with English speaking drivers are clearly labeled FOREIGNERS ONLY. We made our way not too far past where we had walked the night before, and ahead of us were the walls of Gyeongbokgung Palace. Our cabbie was enthusiastic to practice his English with us, and told us the story of the mountains around the city. One is a sleeping tiger, waiting to protect Seoul as needed. Our cab ride was only 3200 won - which was less than 3 USD. When we tried giving him more, he promptly returned the change, and sent us on our way. Tipping is not expected in Korea, and we learned when we tried to tip that it wasn't accepted. It felt a bit dirty, but it's just not a thing there.
Built in 1395, Gyeongbokgung is considered the finest of the palaces from the Joseon Dynasty. We excitedly entered, paying the "couples" rate at a discount, which was around 10 USD. We encountered something we'd never see back home: there was a group of school kids arriving for a tour, getting off the bus in an orderly fashion. One by one they lined their backpacks up on the sidewalk, and left them there. Just...lined up. It wouldn't occur to anyone to steal them, or rifle the contents. It was shocking for us to see, just so different from home.
The Palace is incredibly beautiful. We had done our homework and learned that over the centuries as Korea has been invaded by Japan and China, many of the palaces and temples were burned, one was turned into a zoo, it was a display of power meant to discourage the Koreans and insult them. We are incredibly lucky that Gyeonbokgung still stands. When you're behind the walls of the palace it's otherworldly. It's easy to forget that just over the wall millions of people are going about their daily lives. In one direction, we could see granite hilltops, but if you turned another way, you could see skyscrapers. A true juxtaposition of old and new.
We spent an hour or so exploring, taking photos, taking it all in. It was getting even hotter, and we decided to make our way to one of the famous markets in the city for snacks and drinks, before visiting the Seoul Tower. On our way out of the palace, the tiny backpacks were all still neatly in a row.
We easily hailed another cab, and asked to go to Dongdaemun Market, near one of the city gates. The driver told us his favorite places to eat, and dropped us near the market. We spent the next hour browsing, shopping, snacking, we poked our way down tiny alleys and found shops the size of closets selling only sodas, or packs of gum. Every available space had a seller, and every spot was clean. We made our way up a small staircase and found ourselves in a garment shop - brocade fabrics and makers of traditional Korean wedding wear as far as you could see.
We were stared at every corner we turned, but were always greeted warmly. I found a stall selling traditional Korean wedding shoes. I had photographed a wedding a year before and the groom was from Korea, his wife had worn a pair and I thought they were incredibly beautiful. I found the biggest size they had, in a color scheme I loved, and bought them to bring home with me as a special-occasion shoe.
After browsing the fabric market, we hit a nearby 7-11 for cold cans of Cass beer, at just 1000 won a piece. We stood in the shade on the street and drank them down, watching the city go past us. We knew just around the bend was the Dongdaemun Gate, and made our way towards it. We arrived at the gate, and stared in confusion. It was not the gate we were expecting.
A quick reference of our guidebook revealed we had arrived at Namdaemun (Sungnyemun) Gate, and had in fact been shopping at Namdaemun Market. Lesson learned: our pronunciation was dreadful. The good news is that we had wanted to shop at a market that was near a city gate and near the tower, and we still had that, even if it was a surprise we were at the "wrong" market. After admiring the Gate, learning that until an arsonist had attacked it a few years earlier it was the oldest wooden structure in the country. We had arrived just after its reopening, and it was another stunning contrast between old and new.
A short walk led us to the tram that would bring us to the N Seoul Tower. At the geographic center of Seoul on top of a granite butte is a tower, with an observation deck, gift shop, etc, like the Space Needle back home. We loaded into the tram and made our way up the hillside, soaring over homes and streets. From the tram we could even see our hotel in the distance, the Palace beyond that.
At the top of the hill there were street performers, food vendors, and a beautiful park space. We couldn't help but notice that in the park there was some heavy-duty work out equipment, all made of metal, and clearly a permanent part of the park. We would come across this several more times in Seoul and realized that people genuinely used the equipment. A sort of free outdoor gym.
The "couples admission" to the Tower included two large soft drinks and a giant tub of popcorn. We gladly paid, and picked out a few flavors of popcorn to put in our giant bucket. We got cold sodas, and boarded the elevator. At the observation deck when you get off the lift, there's a blue-screen backdrop, and a photographer waiting to take your souvenir photo. It wasn't much of an expense - maybe $7US, to get your photo on an item. We gladly smiled for our photo, and ordered the mug with our photo on it.
We spent a lot of time gazing at the city, just sitting at the windows, taking it all in, snacking on popcorn. We could only speak with each other, we couldn't understand anyone around us. It was like being on another planet, we were so...useless. We had read that the bathrooms were a thing to behold, and took our turns visiting. Sure enough, from the urinals you can look out the windows on the city all around you. The women's bathroom also had a commanding view.
After our time on the deck, we went back down to the park, souvenir mug tucked safely in my backpack. In the park was a gate covered in locks - like the bridge in Paris. There were many, many things covered in locks, most shaped like Christmas trees. We bought some hot dogs that had been stuck on sticks, wrapped in a thin spiral cut of potato, lightly battered, and deep fried, for 1000W. We also got more cold cans of Cass. For less than $4 we had quite the snack, all while sitting in the shade, people watching and admiring the city.
And we had only scratched the surface.