Sunday, April 14, 2013

Our Day In Seoul (A Palace, Insadong, and the Han River)

Oh how a day can be planned out and still not end up the way you planned it--but still end up pretty great. I'll describe the day's events and then put a video of everything at the end (with some pictures included in the video). So the original plan was for me, Tim, and Naomi to leave here at 8 AM and catch a train to Seoul. We would stop by a Temple Stay information center so Naomi could get info for her visiting mom in a few months, then walk on over to Gyeongbokgung Palace (one of five palaces in Seoul, and the most grand). We wanted to see it for a couple hours until we could catch a Changing of the Guards ceremony at noon and then head off. From there, we'd catch a train to the City Hall Station, get to Exit 10, and meet Kira for lunch. Then we'd go to Oido for a Cherry Blossoms festival happening this weekend and into the week. And then, finally, come back home.

But that's not exactly how it went.

We had a slightly late start leaving just a bit after 8 and hopped on a train to start our hour-ish trip into Seoul. (We also discovered that the Cherry Blossom festival wasn't in Oido, but rather in Yeouido Island, which sounds very similar.) But about halfway there, I started feeling really sick to my stomach, so we hopped off the train in Guro to find a bathroom. I had to walk in this massive circle just to find it (and had to scan my card to get out of the terminal area to get to it). And as it turned out, had I just turned left instead of right from the train, it would have taken me to a staircase right to the bathrooms. Oh well.

So we met back up and hopped on the next train which thankfully showed up pretty fast. Now, in these trains, there are special seats reserved for weak, elderly, or those pregnant or with babies. But at different points, nobody was sitting in them, so we did (every other seat was taken). But it was really awkward, and we'd occasionally have to get up to let some old people sit down, and then we just became wary of sitting down to start with due to the awkwardness of it all.

So we finally get to the area of Seoul where we're starting (remember--Seoul is massive. We could go every weekend for the rest of this year and visit different districts and still probably not experience everything). We walk a ways to the Temple Stay place (Temple Stays are things were you visit a Buddhist Temple for a full day/night and live like the monks. Apparently a very spiritual experience) and got some information on that. Then we headed on over to the palace (a decent-length walk, but nothing too bad).

Let's just say looks can be deceiving. The outside made it just look like this tiny compound. Oh how wrong we were. The place was enormous with like 30+ buildings (there used to be over 100, but there was a fire a long time ago that burned many of them down). As we got there, they were in the process of doing a Changing of the Guards ceremony, so we caught a good chunk of the end of it. Then we bought some tickets and headed into the main area to have a look around. There was a free guided tour in about an hour. We wandered around for that hour looking at everything... and as it turned out, we had maybe only seen half by the time an hour was up and we had to head back for the tour.

The tour was really interesting and gave us lots of information (a lot on statues and what different ones meant and how they were protective of evil spirits and whatnot. And then of how the royal family lived and who was allowed where and stuff like that. I have a whole booklet on it, as well). Unfortunately, it's not quite full spring time yet, so a lot of the trees and flowers weren't entirely in bloom. The place could easily be much prettier in even a month from now. We also found out that the only time they don't do a Changing of the Guards is at noon, when we had planned on seeing the full thing. But luckily we had seen a good portion of it when we first arrived. So after the hour guided tour, we walked around for another 30 minutes to see things we hadn't seen yet even then. And then we had to leave to go meet Kira. So we spent a good 2 and a half hours at the palace.

Keep in mind for the next part of this story that at this point, we hadn't sat down and had been either standing or walking for at least the last 4 and a half hours.

So we walk to a nearby subway to head over to City Hall Station. We had agreed to meet Kira at Exit 10, which was right near where she'd be that morning. Of course, as it turns out, Exit 10 is on the clear opposite side of this insanely huge subway station (it probably took us a good 10-15 minutes just to cross it, including some pretty ruthless sets of stairs). And we finally meet up with Kira, who has brought along a Korean friend, Hyein, who speaks pretty fluent English. She was really nice.

But we're hungry, and the three of us are exhausted from all the walking. And Kira suggests we go to Insadong, which is a neighborhood in Jongno-gu district. Which means we'd have to hop on a train. So... yeah, we turn around and literally walk back to where we had just come from and get on a train that pretty much took us right where we'd come from to begin with (maybe like a one stop difference). From there, we had to cross to the far other side of that station to exit and come out into an area where we'd have to walk another 5-10 minutes to get to Insadong. By this point, me, Naomi, and Tim are about to collapse, I think, and they (more than me) are about to pass out from hunger.

After at least 15 minutes of wandering around and looking for a place to eat, we decide on this little place in the downstairs of this building. I can't remember the name, but the guy working there was incredibly friendly. And as it turned out, it was their grand opening day, and we were some of its first customers. We were taken back to this little room where we had to sit on the floor around this table (much like the school dinner party thing I went to on my second day of work). We ordered our food and just hung out there for at least a good hour and a half, it seemed (including eating time). And the food amounts were huge. There was just so much, there was hardly room on the table for it all. And it was only going to cost the five of us (in total) around $50. And that was before we got a mini-discount upon paying for, I guess, being awesome. They even took our picture to put on a wall by the entrance. It was pretty cool.

So from there we made our way back out into Insadong and were feeling much more refreshed. We stopped as a Bamboo Festival thing passed by, which was pretty cool. And then Kira told us about a few different things. First was this traditional Korean candy made by this street vendor guy. It started out hard as a rock, but then he would do something to it and make it really stretchy and ended up turning this little ball into about 16,000 strands (no hyperbole). It came out kind of cobwebby. And then they would fill strands with things like nuts or chocolate. His little show was funny, and Naomi and Tim ended up buying some, though I didn't try any. We also were being taken to this little ice cream stand where they filled these "cones" that looked almost like saxophones with ice cream. It was pretty neat.

From there, we made a long walk to another train station so we could get to Yeouido. Long story short on this one, we eventually get there and... there's like no cherry blossoms. There's vendors and tents and stuff set up all over the sidewalks, but there's maybe like 2 trees in different spots. Everything else hadn't even bloomed yet. We end up heading over to Yeouido Park, which was a cool little place. Lots of bike riding and rollerblading and picnicking and all sorts of stuff. Music jamming, dancing, basketball, more vendors, etc. We took to a walking path to try and find the Han River, which was nearby. We came across more park areas that actually did have more cherry blossoms, but they were just a handful of trees here and there. Nothing was out in full force yet.

And we walked... and walked... and walked. And we walked so long we started to think maybe we weren't going in the right direction. But we eventually came across a little tunnel that would take us to the Han River Public Park. And it was pretty awesome. We sat on a grassy hill and talked and watched families biking and flying kites, and we listened to a university band sing some K-Pop stuff and then play (strangely enough) accordion music.

Oh, and for those of you who know some Korean movies, I saw the island where Castaway on the Moon takes place, as well as the location where a pivotal scene in the 2006 monster movie The Host takes place (when it first drops from the bridge and then attacks the people along the Han River--that's pretty much where we were at). For the movie fan that I am, that was pretty awesome.

And from there is was pretty much day over. It was almost 6 PM by that point, and it was rather overcast. So we made yet another long walk to a train station and eventually parted ways with Kira and Hyein as we had to take different trains. We were all incredibly exhausted during the train ride home, and I was a bit sunburned. We got back at 7 PM and were very glad to be home, but it was a trip that was worth every minute.

(Note: The following video is a mix of pictures and footage, but I've put many more actual pictures on my Facebook account (like the insides of some buildings), as there were too many to include here. Also... sorry for some smudgy camera lens bits, and the typo at the very beginning of the video (it's Gyeongbokgung, not Gyeongbukgung.)

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