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  • Candace Ahlfinger

Fall in Love with Seoul, South Korea

Imperial Palace Complex

The drive from the airport to our hotel was lively, but hazy. The many small islands cropping out of the sea had a beautiful bluish tinge that made the scenery ethereal. Wind turbines on the outskirts of town along with both traditional and modern architecture set the stage for Seoul—a city of both old and new. Multiple beautiful and architecturally diverse bridges welcomed us to the city. (The Han River that flows through the city has more than 30 bridges crossing it.)

Maple Tree House Korean Barbeque

We walked to the Maple Tree House for our first meal in Korea--Korean BBQ. The walk was a little longer than it normally would have taken as we tried to avoid the hundreds of protestors standing on street corners and in front of the government buildings. The protest was government approved, but the police were out in force just in case. (We saw more than 30 police buses around the city.) Everyone was very peaceful and friendly and walking proved to be very safe.

Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)

Our excellent tour guide, Mia (Huiji Shin), met us early the next morning to escort us to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North Korea and South Korea. Early is an important word concerning a trip to the DMZ. (Though some people are not aware of the fact, the war between North and South Korea has not ended. They are simply under an armistice.) Visitors need to arrive early at the Visitor Center to get in line for shuttle bus tickets. In that line you get a number. When the ticket line opens, you get your tickets based on the number. Tickets are first come, first serve.

The area around the DMZ highlights the Reunification Bridge. It is also called Cow Bridge since the founder of Hyundai, Chung Ju-yung, borrowed money from his father in North Korea and escaped to South Korea. He used the money to start his now famous company. He later gave 1,001 cows to North Korea—1,000 to help North Koreans and 1 to repay his dad. Three cultural villages lie within the DMZ surrounded by many unmarked land mines.

View of the DMZ and North Korea from South Korea

We went down a steep tunnel wearing hard hats provided at the entrance. (No photographs are permitted here.) The tunnel, and other tunnels, were built by the North Koreans, to allow military access for troops into South Korea. Thankfully, the tunnels were discovered by South Korea before they were utilized. The four tunnels are each large enough for 30,000 soldiers per hour to pass through. We finished our visit to the Reunification Village by trying the requisite white soybean ice cream and buying white ginseng tea.

Korean War Memorial

Our day continued to educate us about the Korean War, this time at the Korean War Memorial. The memorial remembers and honors Koreans and all who fought to help South Korea in the Korean War. The massive pillars surrounding the soberly quiet plaza are engraved with names of thousands of soldiers who died protecting the democracy in their country. The names reflect losses from all participating countries. The silence was only broken occasionally by the laughter of a child—a great reminder of why the war and freedom are so important.

The museum contained videos, vignettes, and military equipment that explained the reasons the war occurred and how much the aid from other countries was needed and appreciated. (South Korea was caught off guard by North Korea’s attack.) The war officially continues today; only a ceasefire keeps the tenuous peace.

Cheonggyecheon Stream

For dinner we walked across the street to a fried chicken shop. What a fabulous dinner! (We over ordered so we had enough for the next night.) Afterwards we walked along the Cheonggyecheon Stream, a popular river walk for couples and families. People were wading, taking pictures, and just enjoying a stroll in the cool of the evening.

This day was dedicated to visits of the Imperial Palace, the Korean National Folk Museum, markets, and the Bukchon Hanok Village.

Changing of the Guard at the Imperial Palace

The Imperial Palace, the Gyeongbokgung Palace, is located in the heart of Seoul. We were fortunate to see the colorfully uniformed military during the daily changing of the guards. The unfurled flags, the music, the pomp and circumstance, all made the event very special.

Imperial Gyeongbokgung Palace

The complex has been destroyed multiple times—during each Japanese occupation—but the buildings are being carefully reconstructed to the original using drawings and plans from the original. From the temple, to the palace, to the dining hall—every building was amazing in its details and colors. The palace, where the king worked, displays the three signs of a king—the throne, the picture of the mountains with the sun and Moon, and a dragon with each having deeper symbolic meaning. The Banquet Hall, originally only used by the royal family, sits in the middle of a small lake. The king’s living area consists of 8 frugally furnished rooms. The number of rooms and lack of furniture was purposefully done to minimize assassination attempts. Food tasters were also used to prevent unnatural death from occurring, but even then the average life span of kings was only 47 years—talk about a high stress job! Each day the king rose at 5:00 am, visited his mother, and then worked until midnight. The Queen’s quarters were similar as was her day. She waked at 5:00 am, visited the king’s mother, ran the household, and was able to retire at midnight.

Doljabi Exhibit in the National Folk Museum

After the Imperial Palace, we walked next door to the National Folk Museum which, through videos and dioramas, explains the traditional lifestyle of South Koreans. One display showed one-year-old children choosing a piece of fruit or noodle. Their choice would determine their fate. This tradition, Doljabi, has now been updated with new symbols such as a stethoscope and test tube. A skein of thread now represents a long life instead of the noodles that were once used.

An interesting note: Shortly before we arrived in South Korea, the country adopted the international way of telling age. Before, a child was born at 1 year old and everyone celebrated a birthday on January 1. For example, our wonderful guide, Mia, was born in December as a one-year-old and turned two on January 1—all within one month! When South Korea adopted the more common international age, she went from being 30 to 28!

Gwangjang Market

Our next stop was the Gwangjang Market for lunch. Each booth has seating areas for diners, so you don’t have to stand. Tempting smells wafted from each stall and gave us the opportunity to try some Korean favorites. Our first stop was to try mung bean pancakes and seafood pancakes. These pieces of fried lusciousness are accompanied by pickled onions in a vinegary sauce that was a delightful dip for the pancakesAt our next stop, we ate tteokbokki, red rice cakes, and fresh, really fresh, octopus. Our chef told us to get our cameras out to video the live octopus and the still moving tentacles that we were given to eat. The ticklish food—the suckers stuck to the inside of your mouth—were served in sesame oil making it one of my favorites. Everything we tried throughout Korea was very good. There were more foods calling our names when we left this booth, but there was no more room inside us to eat anything else. We followed Mia through the food areas to the textile area and then the fish market before ending our circuitous route back among the food booths. (Note: The market is packed in the evenings when area workers get off work.)

Jogyesa Buddhist temple

The Jogyesa Buddhist temple in the middle of town is the only one located in the city; most of them are in the mountains surrounding the area. The beautiful temple encircled by container-grown lotus plants offers a respite from the busy world scurrying by outside the gates.

Our next stop was Insadong Street which could make any shopper happy. One of the most interesting places for us was Starbucks which is the only one in the world with all the signage in Korean. Stores sold everything from souvenirs to clothing.

Bukchon Hanok Village

The Bukchon Hanok Village was our last stop for the day. These traditional homes were reconstructed to preserve a part of the South Korean heritage. The area provides many photo ops—especially for those who have rented the traditional dress of the time period. (Visitors can also get in free to the Imperial Palace if they wear traditional dress.) Although some of the homes, hanoks, have been converted to boutiques, the majority are still occupied so visitors should be respectful.

We were so impressed with the cleanliness and safety of Seoul. Our hotel was perfectly located to walk to many of the sites, but there were also vignettes on many street corners such statues or pagodas--that called out to us to stop and look.

Surprise on a Seoul Street Corner

We ate a luscious dinner of Korean Fried Chicken across the street from our hotel. (Don't miss the chicken!) After dinner we enjoyed coffee at Ediya Coffee, a Korean coffee shop, followed by a walk down many small streets to explore areas near the Imperial Palace.

(We spent the next few days in Busan but returned to Seoul for another 1 ½ fun-filled days. So…more about Seoul.)

This time our hotel was in the Mapo district, which is much less touristy than our previous hotel which was located conveniently near Gwanghwamun Plaza. We had dinner close to Mapu Station. Korean BBQ was our choice for the night and the restaurant didn’t disappoint. (A couple of notes: Chopsticks, spoons, and napkins are generally located in a drawer at the end of the table. Most meals are served with many small dishes. These come with your meal. Several are usually kimchi, or other fermented vegetables. Some may be spicy, so choose carefully if you don’t like spicy items. One of the first days I popped a whole bean into my mouth only to discover that it was a hot pepper!) After dinner, we enjoyed walking around the area and peering into all the many restaurants both on the Main Street and down the crooked alleys. Saturday night in South Korea, like in many places, gives everyone the opportunity to get out of the house and celebrate with family and friends.

Street Art near Hongeae University

Our last full day in South Korea was filled with a fun look into an area primarily filled with students and local residents. We took the subway to the Hongeae University area to walk around. The street art near the university reflects their strength in the arts. As the day progressed, the streets became busier as young people recovered from their Saturday night revelry. The area is full of both large and small stores selling everything from clothing to souvenirs. We stopped at one place to get our fortunes, which was both interesting and fun. You buy a token and insert it into your sign’s opening. Turning the handle gets you a ball that you crack open with a wooden mallet and, voila, you have your fortune in Korean! (Thank goodness for our great guide, Mia, who translated for us!) We continued to wander with a brief stop at a photography place to take fun Photo Booth pics. (You get a traditional photo strip, but you also get links to your pics and the video showing you and your group getting ready for the pics.)

Fortune Telling Booth

We next visited the Horoki Subway Liquor Trip which was so interesting and fun. Upon entering you can pick the subway line you want. The lines don’t take you to a location; instead, they lead you to the type of alcoholic beverage you would like. Everyone receives one free drink with the hope that you will stay, buy more drinks, visit, and perhaps take a bottle home with you. It is a fun marketing ploy. The theme of the store changes frequently so who knows what the next theme will be.

Horoki Subway Liquor Trip

We decided not to go to a dog or cat café, but instead opted for another wonderful meal, this time of Ginseng Chicken Soup. This excellent meal, which contains an entire small chicken, is eaten during the summer for good health.

Chicken Ginseng Soup

Our last stop before heading back to our hotel to get luggage and then driving to the airport, was on the 17th floor of one of the Hongeae University buildings. In spite of the rain, we enjoyed the view of the Hongeae area and a recap of our stay in this wonderfully beautiful country of South Korea.

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More on South Korea will be posted soon.


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