Thursday, November 18, 2010

Happy Birthday To Me!

For my birthday last week Anna organised a mystery weekend away. I spent the week doing my best not to find out where we were going, even averting my gaze from the sign on the bus as we boarded after school on Friday. It's been getting dark early here and this only helped the mystery - I barely know where I am in Korea in the daytime. It was so unfamiliar that for a while I was pretty sure we were going to Daegu, since we havn't been there yet. My hopes of remaining ignorant were dashed however, when the bus rolled past a huge billboard that said 'Hi Seoul'. This is a promotional campaign I've seen before, the purpose of which seems to be to market Seoul to people who are already there. Oh well, I was going to find out sooner or later. And I was excited to be back in Seoul - we've been before but there's so much to do that we missed out on a lot of it.

We stayed in Anguk, near the middle of town. We looked around a few love motels until we found this one

Anna had seen it online and would've booked it if the site hadn't all been in Korean. We've learnt to inspect the rooms at love motels before deciding to stay (this is common practice here) and we were glad we did. The room was clean and nice enough but it was only slightly bigger than the (regular size) bed that was inside it. For sixty thousand won? No thank you. Would've been a bargain back home (about $75) but not here. We've stayed in better rooms than that for 35,000. We looked at a few more places that were either too small, too expensive, or full, and eventually found the Ritz Motel: good price, good room, and a computer. The computer turned out to be broken but you can't have everything. We dumped our stuff and went exploring.

As CK had told us, shops in Seoul are organised by districts, which specialise in a particular type of shop (his example was the motorbike and pet shops district). In one direction was obviously the musical instruments district, with guitar shops and music academies everywhere. We decided to check that out the next day and headed in the other direction, towards an entertainment district full of bars, restaurants, and Koreans out having a good time. The footpath was packed with food stalls selling all sorts of bizzare Korean street food. Many of them even had stools and counters for people to sit at while they ate. There was also an alleyway where the fortune tellers had set up their tents. Anna mentioned to me that she wanted to try a proper hotteok (a Korean pancake stuffed with walnuts and sugar) and we realised that the stall we were standing next to was selling them. This hotteok was better than one we'd tried at the Gimje Horizons Festival, but still not as amazing as it could be. We'll just have to keep looking for the perfect one.

We kept walking, and the bar and restaurant district seemed to go on forever: block after block of Korean restaurants, cafe's and the inescapable "chicken and hoff" dives, which sell beer, soju and fried chicken to the Koreans we saw stumbling around when we returned to our motel a couple of hours later. We even found a Kim Crawford sauvignon blanc in one of the bars, but at 50,000 won (about $60) a bottle we decided against it. We both miss having deccent wine, but we don't miss it that much. After walking for a while things started looking familiar and we realised we were near Cheonggyecheon.

Cheonggyecheon was for many years the site of an elevated motorway above a neglected, dirty stream. In July 2003, then-Seoul mayor and current President of Korea Lee Myung-bak initiated a project to remove the elevated highway and restore the stream. The result is a beautiful stream with park-like walkways on each side in the centre of Seoul, where once there was an ugly motorway. There are several waterfalls and fountains as well. When we got to the stream we discovered that there was a lantern festival happening. A big section of the stream was filled with beautiful lanterns depicting animals, people, buildings, and traditonal Korean activities.

After marvelling at these works of art for a while we went and found dinner at a Japanese restaurant and headed back to our motel.

The next day we set off on another mystery activity. This involved ninety minutes on a train, standing up because it was so full there were no seats available. We made friends with a very friendly Korean couple who spoke quite good English. They also said "wow" way too much, but I think that was less genuine amazement at everything we said and more from having a limited vocabulary. They were off to his parents house to make kimchi.

We got off the train and found a small Korean town that looked like Buan. This didn't seem like a great birthday surprise, but it turned out to be just a transfer point for the bus to our real destination. The bus was just as full as the train and I think it was the driver's first time in a manual. We bounced our way out of town and up into the mountains. As the scenery got nicer and nicer I began to think we were going somewhere to look at the autumn leaves. After a while we saw more and more signs for the Garden of Morning Calm, which was of course our destination. I hadn't heard of this place but apparently it's one of the most famous gardens in Korea. Along with thousands of Koreans we wandered around it's many beautiful gardens. Rather than attempt to describe them I'll show you some photos.

[Edit: I originally had more photos in this post, but blogger, in its infinite retardation, took me clicking "spellcheck" to mean "replace all my photos with strings of random characters". I got most of them back but I'm now posting this from school and don't have the garden photos on my USB drive. We won't be home again till Sunday, but I'll post some more then.]

We climbed up a hill that has an amazing panorama of the garden. There are also signs which claim that the garden, when viewed from this angle, is shaped like the Korean peninsula. This is basically a lie, but it does look beautiful.

[For now you will just have to take my word for it.]

We caught the bus back with every other person in Korea. On the train back we ran into the Korean couple we had been talking to on the way there. They'd finished making their Kimchi and were heading home. We had another nice chat to them and told them all about the garden. As they were leaving the train they gave me a magazine that tried to convince me to become a Jehovah's Witness.

After Skyping in to the birthday party my mates were having for me in Wellington we had dinner at Namaste, our favourite Indian restaurant in Korea, and got some takeaways to take back to Buan. While we were waiting for our meals a young Korean woman came over to our table and gave us some scratch cards. She was promoting a naan and curry mix that is apparently available in supermarkets. Anna's card won her a free sample of the mix, but we haven't had a chance to try it yet.

On Sunday we had a long list of stuff to do and not much time to do it in. We had a mystery activity at 4:30 sharp that was the last part of my birthday present, but before that we wanted to go to a bunch of other places. First stop was to check out the music shops around the corner. Sadly the really cool looking two story guitar shop was closed. I did manage to get a guitar stand though, in a funny little shop tucked into the side of a building that spanned the street. Next stop was Itaewon to visit the amazing Passion5 bakery (I will have to write more about this at some point) and the international food store for spices, salsa, and salt and vinegar chips. After this I was determined to visit the National War Museum, since we have been to Seoul twice and have visited only one palace and no museums or galleries. We made it to the museum, but not inside as we were distracted by all the planes, tanks, boats, missiles, and guns on display outside (Anna was less distracted than me).

I'm not a big military history buff or a tanks and guns type but it's still cool to see this stuff for real. The entrance to the museum itself is a huge war memorial for all the people who died fighting for the South in the Korean war, and several statues symbolising Koreans' desire for reunification. Two huge walkways with dozens of plaques on each wall, and hundreds of names on each plaque.

After this we tracked down a great Mexican place called Dos Tacos that we'd read about on someone else's blog. Their post has instructions on how to get there should you ever be in Seoul, and a good rundown of the food. They don't mention the quesadillas though, which means they can't have tried them because they were too amazing to skip! We'd had some okay Mexican food in Busan a couple of weeks before, but Dos Tacos put it to shame. Suitably satisfied we grabbed a cab and rushed to Costco.

Why Costco? Cheese. And bagels. I never understood how much I liked cheese before I came to Buan and had to eat the squares of flavourless yellow plastic that pass for cheese here. But at Costco you can get actual American cheese. Granted it's not quite as good as proper cheese from New Zealand, but they do their best. You can also get the same cheese at some international stores in the big cities, but it's a lot more expensive. As for bagels, I've been having them for breakfast because I can eat them while I rush off to school in the morning. This also gives me an opportunity to be stared at by hundreds of Korean school children wondering why the scary white giant is eating outside. It's considered impolite to eat in the street here, but I figure I'm going to be stared at anyway so I might as well not be hungry. You can get bagels at Paris Baguette (a local chain of sub-par French bakeries), but Costco's are better and cheaper. It seemed that everyone else felt as strongly as I do about cheese and bagels, because Costco was packed. After pushing my way through to get our precious Western food we had only about half an hour to get accross Seoul for 4:30.

We jumped in a cab with all our luggage (and all our bagels) and headed for the subway station. There was a bit of traffic but it wasn't too bad. Fortunately the train arrived just as we got to the platform and we didn't have to wait too long when we transferred either (although we did go to the wrong side of the tracks and have to go back). By this time I had an inkling of what this last surprise was, and I was excited. But time was running out and it looked pretty unlikely we would make it in time. Sure enough 4:30 came and went and we were still a couple of subway stops from Seoul Station. When we got there Anna told me what the surprise was: we were catching the KTX (the Korean bullet train) back home. Or, more accurately, we were missing the KTX back home. I was really disappointed as I'm really keen to go on the KTX and it would've been an awesome present. There'll be another chance to catch it, but for now it was back onto the subway and a long ride to the bus terminal.

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