I started my three week holiday tour with a 12 hour layover in Seoul, South Korea. Before coming to Kazakhstan, I had never eaten Korean food, never knew much about Korean culture, and did not have any resolute desire to see Korea. But there is a visible Korean influence in Kazakhstan that has introduced me to the culture and food, so when I booked my ticket with a long layover, I was actually super excited to check out some of Seoul.
Before arrival, I had posted on Facebook what would be a good thing to see for 12 hours in Seoul, and there were a few responses related to the Demilitarized Zone, amongst other things. I did not have much of an appetite for the DMZ, so instead I decided just to walk around the city and see what I could find. I took the AREX Airport Train into town, and started walking what I thought was north. I was wrong, but I gained a bit of elevation in a neighborhood which gave me a small perspective of the city.
Readjusting my internal compass, I then meandered the streets heading north. I was hoping to maybe climb one of the many numerous mountains (hills?) that surround the city, and also check out some of the Palaces, in particular Gyeongbokgung Palace.
The city streets were as urban and new as any city’s, but the fridged morning of December 12th necessitated a coffee break at one of the many local coffee shops ever-present in urban districts. Eventually I found the street I was looking for and headed towards the Seoul Fortress Wall Trail. I will have another post about the nature of Seoul, but while walking on the trail, the universal urban skyscrapers and apartment buildings slowly started to give way to older architecture that was aesthetically complementary to the mountains on the horizon.
After climbing Mt. Bugaksan, which I’m saving for the nature post, I discovered some beautiful buildings surrounding the Changuimun information center, which made for some really nice photos.
I meandered back down the street, now heading south towards Gyeongbokgung Palace. Along the way, I passed Cheongwadae, or the Presidential Residence. Similar to Almaty when the President is in town, there were police on every street corner, standing around completely unoccupied. You may have heard that I have not had very good luck with Kazakhstani police, so I did what I’ve trained myself to do, which is keep my head down and act normal. When I glanced up, one smiled at me (smiled!) and said with a friendly tone,
“Hey! How are you? Where are you going?”
I cautiously answered, “Ge-ong-bok-gung? The Palace?”
“Oh, great!” he said, “you want to head through that square there and continue straight ahead. You can’t miss it.” His English was near perfect, and the smile never left his face. “Is it your first time here? It costs a little bit of money to see the palace, do you have enough? I can point you towards an ATM if you would like.”
Flabbergasted at the police officer’s politeness, I hesitated, wondering if I had strolled into some alternate reality, and waited to get patted down or asked to see ID. When all he did was smile and wait for a response, I said, “Oh, thank you. It is my first time here. I have some money though. In fact, do you know where I can get a nice cheap lunch? I was told to try kimchi.”
“Oh, great, you want to head that way,” he pointed east, “walk down that street, and go to Samcheong-dong. It is a little far, but there should be more police officers just like me. In fact they probably just ate there, it’s the best. Just ask one if you get lost.”
“Sam-chung-dong?” just ask a police officer and they’ll help? This city is crazy! “OK, thank you!”
This was the only time I experienced culture shock during the entire trip.
Samcheong-dong is not a restaurant, rather, but a micro-district with many restaurants. I found one with good kimchi fried rice and it was only a couple of bucks. The district was also modern, and the small streets, shops, and buildings made it seem as though I would discover something around every corner.
After lunch, I paid the miniscule admission to Gyeongbokgung, which was not a palace, but an entire network of various palaces. It didn’t take long before I started to see building from different angles, and how the buildings seemed to compliment the ponds, trees, and mountains that surrounded them. It was definitely one of my favorite architectural experiences yet.
I left Gyeongbokgung to head back to the train station by way of Gwanghwamun Square. As the sun sinked towards the horizon, the light molded the palaces, skyscrapers, statues and mountains into a wonderful mixture.
I only got slightly lost near the train station, but once again my superior urban orienteering skills prevailed and I rode the train back to Incheon International, then onwards to Bangkok for a night at the airport, then to Jakarta, then to Surabaya, where I met up with my good friend and continued the journey.