First impressions of Seoul

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The first rays of dawn in a new land far from home.

is a fantastic change of scenery after the many challenges of . My experience here in South Korea has been fantastic from the very moment I stepped off the plane. The airport is extremely well-organized and connected to downtown Seoul by rail. I spent all of $3 to get downtown and transferred to the appropriate subway line to reach my hostel without mishap.

On my way to the rapid rail link from Incheon International.

The transit system in Seoul is, as I have learned, extremely awesome. Every station is plastered with 3D diagrams showing exactly where the exits are and where they lead. The stations themselves are large, sprawling out to intersect with nearby stations. In fact, the nearest station to my hostel is connected with many others through a pedestrian mall, making it effortless to walk the same route the train takes. This has been great in the rain—or when I only have one stop to go. There are something like 16 subway lines in all, snaking through every part of the city you’d care to visit. The entire setup puts Toronto—and every other Canadian city—to shame. According to Wikipedia the Seoul subway network is not only the largest in the world, but also one of the very best. Well, I’m convinced!

In the Seoul underground.
Bright, clean, and filled with wired people.

I am staying in the Jongno district in the heart of Seoul not far from the Cheonggyecheon stream. My hostel bears a curious name: Girls Generation. Technically it is an all-girls hostel—but since it is brand new and underbooked I was transferred here after my original booking fell through. Both hostels are owned by the same company, or so I am told. It really makes no difference to me—this place is great! The location is amazing. There is so much to see within walking distance. The staff are pleasant; they even did my laundry after I asked for help. All of this for about CAD$23 a night after tax—about $6 more than the illustrious Train Inn in Thailand. Incredible, isn’t it?

The only somewhat disconcerting thing about this hostel is the layout; Girls Generation is on the third floor of a back alley office building of some kind. Printing houses on the main floor discharge workers and forklifts regularly zip across the entrance during daylight hours. This part of Jongno is riddled with tool shops, cheap offices, and inoffensive industrial operations. At night the area shuts down completely; only a handful of 24-hour convenience stores light up the nearby streets. All part of the charm, I suppose.

My room at the hostel, shot while standing on the bed.

Let me describe my room from the perspective of the pod-like entrance. To my left is a narrow bed that I snugly fit on, my feet scraping the far wall when I sleep. To my right is a small desk with a set of shelves and cupboards for personal belongs and a miniature fridge to keep food and drinks cold. Internet faster than my dreams is accessible from the ethernet cable fortuitously protruding from the wall. Two paces from the door is a glass-doored nook fitted with a sink, toilet, and shower head. Showering is accomplished with care given the close proximity of the sink and toilet. The entire nook is more or less waterproof—water washes into a tiny grate in the middle of the tiled floor. These aforementioned facilities are basic but entirely sufficient—and the price and location are perfect!

My first day in Seoul was a cut short by an overwhelming need to sleep. I dozed now and then, occasionally rousing myself to adventure outside. During the daytime I wandered south to a major street to look for food. The first place I tried was fantastic; I had bulgogi (marinated beef) and rice with a variety of side dishes for about $7. Delicious! I will admit that my knowledge of Korean cuisine is rudimentary at best—but I like it so far.

On the way back to the hostel I walked by a block of pet cafes. I knew they had such businesses in Japan but wasn’t expecting to see them in Korea. The windows of these pet shops are filled with the most adorable little puppies and kittens. I suppose that anyone can walk in, pick an animal, and rent time with a cute pet. This seems vaguely wrong to me somehow but I am trying to not let my cultural preconceptions prejudice my experience here. Still, I wonder what happens to the animals when they aren’t so cute anymore. (And no, I am not suggesting that anyone eats them!)

One of the many pet cafes.

After another nap I stumbled out into the cold, dark alleyway in front of my hostel and set out in the direction of Insadong, a trendy neighbourhood (literally “dong” in Korean) nearby. I never made it to the main stretch—that would have to wait. Instead, with the chill settling into my bones, I wandered aimlessly along a street filled with pubs and late night cafes.

Much like Bangkok, Seoul’s main pedestrian thoroughfares extend outward along numbered side streets, though with a much greater sense of order. Many of these side streets in whatever neighbourhood I had ended up in were filled with “love motels”, temporary lodging for wayward lovers living with their parents. Neon lights blared into the darkness, lighting every twist and turn of the street.

Love hotels on a side street somewhere close to Insadong.

By now I was shivering. I hadn’t brought any cold weather gear with me to —what good would it have done me there? And, of course, I never expected to find myself in . All I had with me were two pairs of long pants and a light long-sleeve pullover that I had kept for air conditioned train rides. It was time for a warm meal and a stiff drink.

I made my way to what appeared to be a popular pub and seated myself. Instantly I committed a faux pas: hailing a server, somewhat impatiently, as I had been waiting around for a menu for some time already. Clueless foreigner! There are electronic devices this purpose in most Korean restaurants; press the button for service! This would not be the last time I felt like an uncultured barbarian in this distant land.

Let’s eat!

Not recognizing anything on the menu I played it safe ordered bulgogi again, this time in a stew of some kind. (That’s not quite right; I recognized a few other items on the menu but the cost suggested that these were to be shared by a group.) A portable stove was brought to my place, lit, and soon enough I had an enormous pan full of marinated beef, scallion, dangmyeon noodles (sweet potato vermicelli; the same stuff used in japchae), enoki mushrooms (yech), and broth bubbling and boiling at my table. It was difficult to finish, likely because it was also a dish to be shared, but delicious.

Eating is a very social activity in Korea. As such, most dishes are served in portions for two or more people. This is one reason why Korean food tends to be about $15 per item in Canada. Well, that and the fact that absolutely every meal comes with banchan, the famed side dishes of Korean cuisine, which usually features the ubiquitous kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage or other vegetables, almost always homemade here in Korea and store-bought in Canada) and some combination of cold bean sprouts, steamed spinach, pickled eggs, seaweed, processed fish cakes, acorn jelly, marinated potatoes, etc. The end result is incredible value for the money—but as a single traveller you have to plan your meals carefully to avoid wasting food. Luckily, while travelling I tend to put off eating and mow through big meals so it has not been much of an issue.

An unusually large spread of banchan.

Alcohol is served in similar portion sizes to food. Soju is the drink of choice around here; it is cheaper than beer and four to five times as alcoholic. It tastes a lot like sake, which I also like. I ordered a bottle and downed glass after glass. 360 mL at 20% is enough to make me rather tipsy, particularly after not drinking much in Thailand, and it’s a great way to ward off the late winter chill.

Speaking of the chill, Korea’s climate is very similar to that of Canada. No wonder they love spicy, earthy, heartwarming food. Every meal I have had has prepared me for the cold outside. It’s been fantastic! We could learn a thing or two from our Asian brethren—just as we could do with picking up sauna culture from the Nordics. And the value! Most of my meals have been about $5. You can eat good, healthy, filling food for about $2.50 on the street. After struggling to find good food in Thailand it is an amazing change! I think I am falling in love.

That’s all for this update; I’ll have much more to share soon!

This post is an edited version of material from a series of letters I sent home to friends and family while visiting South Korea in April, 2012.

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