Seoul: Chilly Breezes, Warm Teas, Long Races, & Laughs with Friends

The tell-tale sign of a good trip is taking days to recover from it. I’m on to day 2, and my bed invitingly eyes me from the corner. Come, stay a while, ease away the fatigue of running around.

In the short four days (3 really) I was in Seoul, I somehow managed to stuff in more things than I can remember. Every day brought unexpected adventures, and every corner presented something I had never before seen. The first day began with frustration – as soon as I landed, found my way to the subway, and managed to get to my hotel’s station, I got stuck behind the gates when my card didn’t let me swipe out. Call the attendant! I pressed the button more times than my pride felt comfortable with, yet it was a while before anyone came. A mini obstacle, but merely seconds to that of walking up and down a street trying to find my hotel. Little did I know it was actually a love hotel, located among many others in a questionable strip near a main shopping area. Whoopsies. Should’ve looked at reviews before jumping at the “last room!” bit on booking.com. Thought the first room they placed me in was less than clean, the second was cozy with its Christmas theme. How appropriate. (And uncomfortably warm with the floor heaters going on all night.)

Bags aside, I ventured over in the dark that had set towards the shopping area. Hungry, I couldn’t resist a bit of warm street food to warm and fill my grumbling belly. Somewhere along the market street of Insa-dong, I stood infront of a restaurant, exploring its menu, when all of the sudden two young men approached me. Do you have time to speak English with us? We have a class assignment to talk to foreigners to practice our English. Let’s go somewhere quiet. While I skeptically gazed from one face to the other, searching for signs of malice, and a bit worried about their idea of “somewhere quiet,” I eventually realized I wasn’t afraid. Okay, let’s get coffee.

Coffee became tea at a cute, cozy cafe up the block. I eventually grew comfortable with my companions over hot herbal tea infused with dried pears. Two hours passed before we finally parted ways in the cold. By this point, I was too hungry and cold to choose a place for dinner. I ended up at a small shop down an alley I had seen earlier.

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Meant for pairs, the menu only had three options for individual diners. Through motions and gestures, I somehow managed to convey to the confused waitress that I wanted her recommendation. Boiled chicken soup it is! And was it delicious, complete with spicy kimchee and vegetable side dishes. The chicken was stuffed with rice and boiled with some herbs in a plain broth. It definitely hit the spot, as demonstrated by the fact I left only the bones.

I called it an early night (after eleven by the time I was through with free wifi in my cozy bed) and woke up early the next day (leaving half an hour later due to oversleeping) for more adventures. With a comfortable check-out time of noon, I was able to leave my bag behind and run to Gyeongbokgung palace. First things first, I fueled up on Greek yogurt and a latte at the Starbucks famous for its lettering in Hangul. From there, I strolled up Insa-dong, got lost through cute boutique streets near the palace, and finally arrived just after 10am, just in time for the hourly guard changing ceremony. Considering the only changing of the guard procedures I’m familiar with are in London and in the Vatican, this exchange of flags in flamboyant costumes was intriguing. Following the long fanfare, in which we latecomers to the palace grounds were not permitted to enter with the ceremony underway, I made my way to the actual palace. It is huge and takes far more time than I had allotted with my getting lost and whatnot. At any rate, I managed to make my way through the majority of the grounds and race back to freshen up before checking out.

Small suitcase lugging behind me, I eventually found my way while asking for directions to Sanchon, a famous Buddhist restaurant in Insa-dong. While I’m usually weary of overly-recommended places being tourist traps, Sanchon was well worth the visit. As I walked into the quiet, nearly empty restaurant around 12:30, I couldn’t help but think it was the most beautiful restaurant I have ever seen. It was like walking into a temple filled with color, flower lanterns, and serenity. I was mesmerized.

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After an hour and a half and more dishes than I could count of the course lunch, I was once again star-struck, this time by the dizzying inability to function on so much food. I somehow moved on a nearby station to store my things in a locker and explore Changdeokgung, a beautiful palace which must be seen with a tour guide. Luckily, I arrived just a few minutes prior to an English tour and was able to enjoy the palace right away.

I’m generally not a fan of tours because I tend to get bored and want to explore things on my own. This one ate up about 50 minutes, but the guide was kind and didn’t object to my wanderings. By 3:30, I knew I only had a handful of minutes to run to the Jongmyo Shrine for the 4pm English tour. Lost, I asked for directions at the ticketing booth for Chandeokgung, only to be told that it would close at 4pm. As my friend later told me: don’t listen to well-intentioned guidance, as it is often incorrect. That wouldn’t be the last time on my trip that misinformation just.. happened. At any rate, I ended up exploring a small raised park with a view of the palace before returning to Insa-dong for tea and Korean sweets.

That night, I reunited with two good friends teaching English in Korea, and we went out for interesting Italian (spaghetti cooked like a pot pie?) and wine at a jazz bar with live music. Saturday was an early morning rise for two of us: half marathon time. It was a cold 4 degrees Celsius and breezy by the riverside location. Unfortunately, the race didn’t really start until noon, despite the website listing a 10am start time. This was annoyance with communication number two. By the time we finished (beat my 2hr 10min estimate by 15 minutes!), rested, and got ready to go out again, it was 5:30pm. Day wasted? I think not. Dinner was at an incredibly popular Mexican place (2 hour wait), which was preceded by good coffee and Korean rice nearby.

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Drinks were in a league of their own. Served in a large mason jar, the Texas Tea was an overwhelming amount to consumer. No wonder I was gone the rest of the night. Bits and pieces came back throughout Sunday – hey I did that?? – and it was an exciting night, including another bar (where a glass may or may not have been broken accidentally), dancing at a club, 1am Greek chicken pita street food and giant NY pizza slices, and a long walk back to the hotel. Exhausted.

Sunday was a bit of a mix-matched day, including shopping, dumplings, traditional clothing photo shoot, multiple coffee breaks, Cheonggyecheon stream, and an hour long bus ride to Yeoju.

And then came the last day – the biggest whirlwind of all. Up at 7ish, in a taxi to the bus station before 8; bound for Seoul by 8:30. My first sit-down meal would be later that day, on the flight back to Tokyo. Back in Seoul around 9:45, I navigated (not effortlessly) the subway to Namdaemun Market for a quick stroll and red-bean paste filled fish pastries (like taiyaki in Japan) and a delicious crisp thing with spiced apple inside. Oh, and I also bought a handful of cute character socks as gifts.

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Done with the subway system and wrestling with my luggage, I took a taxi to Jongmyo, arriving half an hour too late for the English tour. After twisting my ankle on some rocks, I decided, why not try the Japanese tour in ten minutes? And so I did. You never know when studying will come in handy for some random life experience. Had I not joined that tour, I would’ve missed the shrine entirely since it can only be done on tour on weekdays and Sundays. With twenty minutes to spare before my 2pm departure for the airport, I rushed to find another cab to Insa-dong once again for purikura (photo booth) photos in Korean traditional wear at Ssamziegil shopping mall.

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I don’t know how I made it through all the motions, then back on a taxi, into the subway station not too far away, and to the airport, well after my intended 2pm departure. I arrived at the airport 25 minutes before my boarding time, which was surprisingly enough time to deposit my bag, drink a latte, and buy souvenirs and water. Superstar. Sure, I was a sweaty mess, but I had a day’s adventure at my feet and it wasn’t even sunset. Best part? Arriving in Tokyo shortly after and going straight to dinner under falling leaves for a romantic reunion with the boyfriend. Ah, life is too short not to live it.

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