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A crash course in Korean culture

Taking a stroll along the stream in early spring.

My time in Seoul 서울시 has been far more hospitable thanks to the assistance of a family friend, Ellen, who teaches English here. I am extremely grateful that we met in this distant land. It is one thing to have a local guide to show you around and another thing entirely to have someone from your own culture who really understands your motivations for travel. It isn’t simply that we communicate well, though we do—she also gets my travelling style in a way that most people wouldn’t, not without a great deal of explanation.

On day two we met near Euljiro station close to my hostel. Ellen provided me with a heavy jacket and other warm weather gear and took me on a brief tour of the local sights starting with Cheonggyecheon Stream, a beautiful park slicing through the heart of Jongno-gu 종로구 in downtown Seoul 서울시. Beneath the pristine sky the air was crisp. Plants lining the stream were beginning to bud, promising the return of summer. The climate of Seoul is almost identical to that of Toronto (Köppen Dwa and Dfa for the geeks out there) so this is early springtime. If climate cuts across cultural boundaries I would expect the citizens of Seoul to be in good spirits. And indeed, those I saw strolling the manicured pathways of Cheonggyecheon were smiling and seemed quite cheerful.

Kimbap restaurant; you can tell by the orange sign!

Ellen gave me what amounted to a crash course in basic survival skills in Seoul. We visited the nearest 24 hour convenience store where she pointed out a number of interesting food and drink options. Anytime we passed one of the many street food vendors I was given a rundown of the options—of which there were many, some unappetizing (various grilled seafoods), others downright addictive (bindaetteok or nokdujeon; mung bean pancakes). Ellen also introduced me to the ubiquitous kimbap restaurants, easily identified by their orange signs and standard, inexpensive menu. These places offer fast food, Korean style, but it isn’t total garbage like fast food in North America. Not knowing hangul, the Korean alphabet, was not a barrier to ordering—all I had to do was memorize the names of a few tasty dishes and I’d make out alright. I knew I would not go hungry in Seoul!

The heart of Insadong.
Nokdujeon or bindaetteok; insanely addictive mung bean pancakes.

We spent much of the remainder of our day exploring Insadong, a hip neighbourhood located not far from my hostel in the direction of the palace grounds of Gyeongbokgung. I was wary of visiting one of Seoul’s top tourist destinations after many disappointments in Thailand but Insadong is fantastic! The main thoroughfare is car-free by day; pedestrians rule the broad, sweeping streets and the labyrinth of alleyways that extend in either direction. Walking through Insadong immediately made me feel as if I was flowing downriver through human traffic—and indeed, the main thoroughfare traces an ancient streambed. Everywhere you look you will see antique shops, art galleries, tea houses, kimbap counters, mandu (dumpling) houses, souvenir hawkers, and street food vendors. The crown jewel of all this vibrant commercial activity is a multi-level complex by the name of Ssamziegil, a charming place that somehow combines farmer’s market and community workshop space with high-end clothing boutiques and specialty stores.

The outside of Ssamziegil.
Inside the Ssamziegil complex in Insadong.
A lover’s art project in Ssamziegil.

Ellen and I wandered into the maze of alleyways in search of sustenance after strolling Insadong from end to end. We ordered stir-fried kimchi and tofu—simple fare, but tasty nevertheless. Since Ellen is vegan I chose to join her—not an entirely selfless gesture given the enormity of the portions. Over a late lunch we enjoyed many excellent conversations about travel, culture shock, and the trajectories of our respective lives. It was very moving to engage in any kind of intellectual discourse after a long, arduous month isolated in Thailand.

Beautiful ornaments in Jogyesa.

At one point we branched out of Insadong and took a side trip to Jogyesa, an important Buddhist temple. It was very pretty, I will agree, but it felt somewhat sterile compared to the vibrant insanity of Thailand’s Buddhist shrines. We tiptoed around the temple, marvelled at the elegance of the artwork, snapped a few obligatory tourist photos, and soon made our way back to Insadong.

The tranquil tea house grounds nestled in the alleyways of Insadong.
Matcha, some kind of tea I kind recall, and edible styrofoam.

As night fell Ellen introduced me to traditional Korean tea. The grounds of the tea house were simply gorgeous, with everything made out of wood and paper, looking very much like something out of a Hayao Miyazaki film. (I know, I am mixing cultures here, but the effect to my barbarian eyes is about the same.) Ellen did not care for the quality of her tea but I enjoyed a great cup of warm matcha, a particularly exquisite form of powdered green tea that is easily ruined by improper preparation. I regret that I was not more adventurous in my choice of teas that evening (read about omijacha; now that sounds interesting), but I expect there will be time to remedy this.

My favourite mandu (dumpling) house in Insadong.
Random street art in an Insadong alleyway.

Dinner afterwards was a bit of a rush. We spent too long inspecting menus and talking about the many different kinds of food available. Eventually we found a place, downed everything in half an hour, and were unceremoniously ejected just as the restaurant was closing. Again, it was tasty, cheap, filling, and healthy. This pattern has yet to be broken!

Here we drank tea and dongdongju and schemed.

All day long Ellen had been helping me plan an itinerary in fits and starts. She brought guide books and pamphlets and we had many conversations about the various things I might get up to during my short stay in Seoul. She was very committed to ensuring that I would get the most out of my experience in South Korea, almost as a point of pride. And so, having been unable to completely hammer out a schedule before we had finished dinner, we wandered over to another drinking establishment, ostensibly so that Ellen might have a cup of Korean tea that met her quality standards. I ordered some kind of milky white fermented rice wine known as dongdongju. Of course, this is Korea, so for the price of a pint of beer back home I did not receive just a glass but an entire pot of this peculiar (to me) concoction.

A whole lot of dongdongju.
Ellen and I, unshaven and looking rather weary after having just arrived from Bangkok.

Ellen and I soon parted ways and I returned to my hostel with a more concrete plan—and growing concern about the weather forecast, which called for days of rain. The schedule we had laid out seemed awfully ambitious. Days later I can attest to the prescience of these feelings. 24 hours of pouring rain followed by bitter, windy cold has made it tough to get to much of anything. I am not hugely concerned about ticking things off a list anyhow. Just being here feels great.

I will end this entry with two words in basic Korean that I have been attempting to learn: annyeonghaseyo (hello) and kamsahamnida (thank you).

South Korea 2012

A complete travelogue from one unplanned week in Seoul 서울시, South Korea. These stories are evenly divided between lengthy travelogues and brief photo galleries and are arranged in rough chronological order. View All 
  1. First impressions of Seoul
  2. Still images of a modern Seoul
  3. A crash course in Korean culture
  4. Learning to love kimchi
  5. Seodaemun Prison 서대문형무소
  6. Insadong and Cheonggyecheon
  7. Gyeongbokgung 경복궁
  8. The dark side of Seoul
  9. War Memorial of Korea 전쟁기념관
  10. Seoul inspired
  11. Bongeunsa Temple 봉은사
  12. Hanok style and traditional Korea
  13. Seoul after dark
  14. Final thoughts about my first trip to Seoul

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