Sunday, March 18, 2018

Korea 2018: Train to Busan! (Day 8)

On Thursday we left Suwon for a weekend excursion to Busan! Again, no concrete plan in mind, just another place to explore.

February 22nd (Thursday)

In the months leading up to this trip, we'd passively mentioned visiting Busan since it's right on the ocean and is South Korea's second-largest city after Seoul. But it wasn't until a month or two before I left that I said to the girls, "Okay, I think we could actually do this. Do y'all want to or not?". We were all open to it, so Ande bought the KTX (high-speed train) tickets and booked an Airbnb that we all liked and just had us reimburse her later. Cut to Thursday morning, we each threw a few belongings in our backpack and took the bus to Suwon Station.

We'd opted for the KTX as opposed to flying or taking a slower train because ideally we could see the Korean countryside while still making it to Busan in about three hours. But the seats are made in such a way that you naturally lay back slightly, and the ride is so smooth that I was lulled to sleep despite myself. So I saw a little bit of the countryside at the beginning and in between naps, but didn't actually see that much in the end. Same goes for the ride back to Suwon a couple days later.

We arrived at the train part of Busan Station and then had to leave that building and walk a couple minutes to the subway part of the station in order to take the metro eastward to Haeundae, where our Airbnb was. Haundae is one of the more popular areas in Busan due to Haeundae Beach, which is the most well-known of the city's multiple beaches. We had some time to kill before we could check into our Airbnb, so we stopped at a Japanese restaurant where we each got a set that gave us a little bit of everything: curry rice, tonkatsu, zaru soba, miso soup, plus kimchi and radish, because we were still in Korea after all. We'd originally though to go to a Hong Kong-style Chinese restaurant, but they were closed until dinner time and this Japanese restaurant was just a few doors down from it so there we went.

From there we followed Ande as she located our Airbnb, which was in an apartment building across the street from a hospital and surrounded by a bunch of hotels. We didn't have a view of the ocean (just a lot of tall buildings and a glimpse of the mountains in the distance), but we were still really close to Haeundae Beach! Our Airbnb was modest but clean, just the right amount of space for three people, had floor-to-ceiling windows and a loft with two beds (Ande's and Sharon's), a really nice bathroom, and an open sitting area with a couch/futon (my bed).

The only downside was that there was no silverware. We didn't plan on cooking, but I'd gotten used to drinking ginger tea every morning by this point, so not having spoons was slightly annoying but no big deal. Considering we'd only be using the place for sleeping and showering, and neither I nor Sharon had used an Airbnb before, the place was perfect as far as I was concerned. Shoutout to Sangmee.

After inspecting the place and resting for a bit, we went to Haeundae Beach with just enough time to explore as the sun was setting. All we really did was walk on the sand (with our shoes on), take pictures of the beach and each other, stare out at the water, and do some people-watching, but I had such a great time! Seeing the ocean reminded me of how much I love being in and near bodies of water, even though I don't give myself opportunities to swim very often. Water gives me a great feeling of contentment and peace, so the cold and the sand in my shoes hardly bothered me at all.

We stayed at the beach until after the sun went down, and then we took the metro to the BEXCO/Centum City area where we ate shabu-shabu. Then we took the metro back to our neighborhood, stopped at CU for snacks, and then returned to the Airbnb and called it a night.

Friday would be our first and only full day in Busan and by the end of it I'd meet the king of Wakanda! More on that tomorrow!

Korea 2018 photos 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Korea 2018: Myeongdong + Insadong + Reunion (Day 7)

Our first day in Seoul as a trio, and our first (only) day having to find our way through Seoul and back to Suwon without Ande acting as navigator!

February 21st (Wednesday)

Other than food, Sharon's main priority for her time in Korea was buying skincare products, so our first destination in Seoul was the popular shopping district of Myeongdong. We stopped to have samgyetang (chicken stew with ginseng) which was the only disappointment that I ate while in Korea. I'm not sure if it's supposed to be bland, or if it was the restaurant, or if it was the variation that I ordered, but it was just okay. I left full but not satisfied.

From there we walked to Myeongdong shopping street, a pedestrians-only street that's full of high-end brands, especially beauty and skincare stores. I stood outside people-watching while Ande and Sharon explored a beauty store called Missha. Then we spent some time in a cafe eating honey bread (brick toast) and bingsoo (shaved ice) topped with mango. From the late afternoon through the night, you can also find food stands on the shopping street as well. Unfortunately we ended up leaving too early to indulge; older men and women were just beginning to park, uncover, and set up their stands when we were on our way out.

I was able to reconnect with a Korean friend of mine from college who was living and working in Seoul, and she wanted to meet for dinner that evening. We didn't have a strong plan for what to do until then, so we randomly decided to see what Insadong was about. Another shopping area (though not completely free of car traffic), Insadong is known for its amply supply of souvenirs, antiques, and art galleries. But Ande had to head back to Suwon early due to some other commitments, so she parted ways with us in Myeongdong. Which meant that Sharon and I were responsible for navigating the Seoul metro system, Insadong, the metro system again, and then eventually the bus trip back to Suwon all on our own. The metro system I wasn't too concerned about thanks to the Subway Korea app, but it'd be dark by the time we caught the bus to Suwon, and those particular buses didn't (as most in Korea don't, I assume) announce the stops in English. So we were in for a little adventure. No worries, right?

We made our way to Insadong with no problems at all. I can't remember if Ande told us this or if I read it online, but Insadong is basically where you go to buy souvenirs if you want to avoid large crowds. There are tons of stalls and brick-and-mortar shops selling similar Korea or Seoul-related wares. And it has enough people passing through to make the area lively, but not so many as to make it congested.

Sharon and I were initially just exploring the area, but we both happened upon items that we liked. She bought a deep yellow skirt from a boutique, and I ended up buying souvenirs earlier than I'd anticipated. Souvenir shopping is one of the last things I do before the end of an international trip. But I managed to find a lapel pin for myself, and shot glasses for the three people back home who explicitly asked me to get them something, and since neither of those items were as easy to find at other shops as I thought they would be, I sprang for them. Then Sharon spotted a cat cafe called 2Cats that she wanted to check out, so we spent about 15 minutes there. She petted the few cats that wanted to be bothered while I drank ginger tea and watched; I didn't remember until after we'd entered that I'm mildly allergic to cats (whoops!), so I didn't get to love on the kitties like she could. It was a really cute cafe, though! 

In Insadong there's also a shopping center called Ssamziegil where you can get poop bread (taiyaki-style pastry that's shaped like poop, no actual feces included of course), eat dishes out of toilet-shaped bowls, buy any number of trinkets/art/home goods, and get a comprehensive view of the surrounding area. I'd originally wanted to try the poop bread there, but I didn't have an appetite so instead we went to the top of the mall just for kicks. As you go up, the floors become slanted so that you don't have to take the stairs or exert a lot of energy as you go. We puttered around at the top of the mall for a bit before heading back down and returning to the metro. 

Our next and last stop for the night was Yeouido, which is where my college friend Eunbong wanted to meet us. Yeouido is a little island in the Han River, and Eunbong told us that it's basically Seoul's version of Wall Street, where most of the investment banking and finance entities are. After waiting in the cold at the wrong exit of the station (my fault), Eunbong found us and led us to Skyfarm, a fancy restaurant at the top of an office building (50th floor!). She hadn't been able to get us a reservation beforehand, but lucky for us there was an open table right in front of the floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall windows. It was dark by the time we got there, so we got a magnificent view of the National Assembly building, Yeouido Park, the Han River, and other parts of Yeouido all lit up.

And the food was excellent! The restaurant served western food, so I had croque madame while Eunbong had pasta and Sharon had a hanwoo beef sandwich. I had such a great time catching up with Eunbong and listening to her talk about her plans, the Korean education system, and Korean work culture, but I got the feeling that it got boring for Sharon pretty quickly. Or maybe she was just tired. I brought her along so that we could stay together the whole day and wouldn't each have to find our way back to Ande's place alone, but then again I did drag her with me to have dinner with a stranger, so. Eh well.

Eunbong was kind enough to walk us back to the station, and we took the metro back to Sadang station, where we caught the usual bus. Sharon kept an eye out to make sure that we got off at the right stop in Suwon (it was pretty much at the end of the line and was right next to a field, so fortunately it wasn't too hard to discern) and then it was a short walk to Ande's apartment, where Ande was already waiting for us. 

On Thursday we would head south toward a completely different city. More on that tomorrow! 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Korea 2018: Itaewon + Incheon Airport + More KBBQ (Day 6)

Tuesday might not have been very eventful, but I still got to experience new places and eat delicious food. So all's well that ends well!

February 20th (Tuesday)

On Monday morning Ande and I both were randomly craving eggs benedict, and after some quick research we found a brunch cafe that we were both interested in. But that cafe is closed on Mondays, so on Tuesday afternoon our first stop of the day was Summer Lane Cafe in Itaewon.

Itaewon is where the US military base and other government-owned facilities are, so there are lots of foreigners of innumerable nationalities who live in and/or frequent this area. As such, you can find all types of foreign food, including brunch fare. Even before we picked a cafe to go to, Ande predicted correctly that Itaewon would be the place to go to find eggs benedict. From our usual bus to Seoul, we took the metro to Nolsapyeong station whose exit opens onto a street that gave us an even more excellent view of Namsan Tower than the night before.

After walking through some slightly hilly neighborhood streets, we arrived at Summer Lane. It's supposedly an Australian-style cafe (I guess the owner spent some time in Australia and that was her inspiration?), and the owner is a Korean woman who speaks English beautifully. It was small but bright, the color scheme was white and navy blue, there were plenty of windows, the lighting was warm, and the food was exactly what we wanted.

Ande ordered the eggs benedict with bacon and I ordered the one with salmon, and both of our dishes included layered waffles (instead of English muffins) and a flower on top for decoration. The entire experience was perfect! Plus there were two other black girls in there, and I was able to exchange a smile-nod with one of them, so I was over the moon!

We walked back the way we came to take the metro from Nolsapyeong station, eventually transferring to line 1 which goes all the way to Incheon International Airport. Sharon's arrival from Detroit was scheduled for that evening, so we were there to pick her up. We stood waiting with a sizable crowd of other people for a little over an hour (or was it two hours)?, straining to look over and between bodies to get a first glimpse of Sharon walking through. And then she finally appeared!

Now a trio, we took the same bus back to Suwon that Ande and I took when I first arrived. And just like I did, Sharon got to choose what we ate for dinner since it was her first night in Korea. She wanted Korean BBQ (samgyeopsal), so after dropping off her stuff at Ande's apartment we took the bus to the Suwon Station area to scope out a restaurant. Directly across the street from Suwon Station is a wide, brightly-lit street that's full of food and shopping and is notably frequented by young people, and this street was packed that night. We picked a certain restaurant having no expectations, but we thoroughly enjoyed the food (way better quality and more flavor than Ungteori, though Ungteori certainly wasn't bad)!

Then we trailed Sharon as she browsed through an Innisfree beauty store on that same street before taking the bus back to Ande's place. Wednesday would be our first time going to Seoul as a trio, and for the second half of the day Sharon and I had to navigate Seoul on our own! More on that tomorrow!

Korea 2018 photos   

Friday, March 9, 2018

Korea 2018: Dongdaemun + Ihwa Mural Village (Day 5)

Our only real goal for the day was going to Ihwa Mural Village, where a neighborhood on a hill is full of street art that's painted or installed on walls, staircases, and roofs. You can also get some pretty stunning views of Seoul from up there, though as one shopowner told us, the view's probably  more impressive at night.

February 19th (Monday)

After alighting from our usual bus into Seoul we took the metro to Dongdaemun, one of numerous major shopping areas, where we ate gimbap (similar to a maki roll), tempura udon, and bokkeumbap. From there we walked down a major street for a long stretch before turning down a neighborhood street that took us up a steeeeeep hill that led us to Ihwa Mural Village.

There's art all along the way, but you have to climb a multitude of stairs and reach the top in order to see everything. As soon as we got up there a rack of colorful bookmarks sitting in front of a shop with blue walls caught my eye, and the owner came out to talk to us and invited us in. The shop was full of little cutesy handmade trinkets, most of which the owner had made herself.

Cutesy isn't really my thing, so I wasn't going to buy anything at first. But I appreciated so much how she wasn't too scared to invite two foreigners into her shop, show us her items, tell us about her travels, and not be pushy in any way (she even gave us slight discounts!), that I bought an amigurumi-style giraffe keychain. She told us to take an alternate route through the neighborhood to see as much of the view as possible, and then off we went exploring.

I must mention that even if you do get to the top, you still might miss some things, as the art in this neighborhood periodically changes. While there are many cafes and restaurants that welcome the increased foot traffic, other residents are not so happy to have multitudes of potentially loud and messy tourists taking up space in their neighborhood everyday. Before we went to Ihwa, I read that some residents have even destroyed or obscured some murals in protest.

For example, there once was a large staircase with koi fish painted on a blue background, and it was one of the most popular sights in the neighborhood. As Ande and I were going down a set of stairs to leave Ihwa, a guy who was coming up from the opposite way asked us where to find said koi staircase. We hadn't seen it, so we told him were most of the other art pieces where and wished him good luck.

It wasn't until we got to the foot of the stairs and turned around for one last look at the neighborhood, that we realized that the brusquely-painted grey stairs had faded blues and oranges peeking out from under the grey. We'd been on the koi staircase the whole time, but it had been painted over by a disgruntled resident! So that guy was looking for something that didn't exist anymore. And I can't blame whoever painted over the stairs, it is what it is. I'm just saying, if you put together a list of art pieces that you want to see from searching Instagram and Google Images, don't be surprised if they look different are aren't even there by the time you actually visit Ihwa.

After moving further downhill and through other parts of that district, we stopped for rest and tea/coffee at a toast cafe owned by a woman whose son is a student in the University of Texas system. I only mention that because I remember reading a sticker saying as much on her refrigerator, and she was a woman who spoke kindly to us and appeared to run the entire place by herself (except for a young man who was cutting and prepping ingredients with her in the kitchen).

It was dark by the time we left that cafe, and I followed Ande's lead as we walked toward Cheonggyecheon stream, which we'd orginally passed by when we walked briefly through Dongdaemun earlier in the day. We walked along the stream until we got to an area with a lot of tall buildings and a direct view of Namsan Tower. I believe this was the night that jet lag finally hit me, and even though it was only about 8pm, I was so tired that I felt like I couldn't go on, haha!* So we made our way back to Suwon.

Ande had some personal business to take care of in the morning, plus she wanted to spend time with her boo and his parents, so we stopped to get carry-out (wings from KyoChon Chicken) and she dropped me off at her place before going to spend the night at her boo's parent's place. I spent the night solo in her apartment, and this was the only night where I slept on Ande's bed just to see how it felt. Still preferred the heated floors, though!

On Tuesday, we made a brief excursion into an area known for its abundance of foreign people and cuisine before going to the airport to pick up Sharon. More on that tomorrow!

*(Correction: The jet lag thing actually happened on Sunday, after being in Hongdae. For Monday night, I think we decided to head back after seeing Namsan tower because it was cold and my feet and thighs ached. A funny thing, memory is.)

Korea 2018 photos  

Monday, March 5, 2018

Korea 2018: Gyeongbokgung Palace + Hongdae (Day 4)

As I mentioned, we didn't have much planned for our first of numerous sojourns into Seoul. There was one place from our lengthy Google doc "list" that I wanted to visit, but everything else we just decided on as we went.

February 18th (Sunday)

Our first and only goal for the day was to visit Gyeongbokung, an ancient palace in northern Seoul that is a must-do for any visitor to the city. From Ande's neighborhood we took the bus from Suwon to Seoul, which usually takes anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour. Then we took the metro to Gyeongbokung, exiting the station right outside the National Palace Museum of Korea (though Gyeongbokgung is the main attraction, the National Palace Museum of Korea and the National Folk Museum of Korea are in the same compound as the palace).

I was a tad hungry by the time we got there, so  we took a stroll down Sejong-ro, which is the major street that leads south straight from Gyeongbokgung. Ande told me that a lot of protests are held on this street, and true enough a few demonstrators had booths pitched along the sidewalk. But Sejong-ro was full of other activity this day, including a traditional Korean drum ensemble and various Olympics-related activities adding to the usual flow of auto and foot traffic. 

Sejong-ro is also where you can find statues of Sejong the Great (Korean king who's credited with the creation of hangul, the Korean alphabet) and Admiral Yi Sun-shin (navy commander who's renowned for winning battles against the Japanese navy in the late 1500s). Along Sejong-ro you can also find the US embassy and Sejong Center for the Performing Arts. We spent some time munching, chatting, and taking in the view from the second floor of an Angel-in-us Coffee before heading back to the palace.

Imagine you're royalty, and centuries after your death, millions of common people get to traipse around your sprawling home every year, for decades to come. That's Gyeongbokgung. I wasn't as impressed by it as I was by the overall experience at Hwaseong fortress, and Ande even admitted that it's probably better to go in the summer when fewer areas of the palace are closed and more events/performances are going on. Nonetheless, it is quite beautiful, and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing young men and women walking around the buildings and living quarters dressed in hanbok (Korean traditional clothing). The flowy, high-waisted skirts and vibrant colors invite both awe and respect.

From Gyeongbokgung we took the metro to Hongdae to find somewhere to eat. No particular reason for coming here as opposed to elsewhere, other than that I heard that it's a university area where college students and other young'uns often gather to hang out and crowd around buskers. I guess I was just curious to see what the busking musicians were up to. 

When we were there it was mostly dancers who were attracting attention, and not so many singers were out yet. The main popular street we went down was packed even before sundown, so you had to squeeze through to get anywhere. And being around so many youthful, stylish and energetic people reminded me of how young I no longer am. But for me it was satisfying enough just to have seen a bit of Hongdae for myself. After being turned away at one restaurant (perks of being foreigners), we at samgyeopsal (Korean BBQ with pork belly) at Ungteori before heading back to Suwon. 

Most often we would take the metro back to Sadang station and then catch the bus from there. This night at Sadang happened to be my lucky night, since as we were headed toward the exit where the buses stops were, I spotted a rack of earmuffs out of the corner of my eye. I finally found a new pair of earmuffs that I liked enough to replace the ones I lost in Seattle! And I'll have you know, they're sitting on the table next to me as I write this, so my habit of losing things hasn't reared its ugly head just yet.

So that's Sunday for you. Monday would turn out to be full of street art, city views, and even more walking and climbing than before. More on that tomorrow!