Sunday, June 20, 2010

Dae Han Min Guk!

How did I realize that my last post was lucky number 88!? I hope it was a good one.

Anyway, last weekend it was dragon boat festival, so I had a 5-day weekend to travel. Because of that whole war/sinking of warships/debacle in Korea, plane tickets there were suddenly wicked cheap, so we went to Seoul. As always, click to enlarge the photos.

I went to Seoul with Stephen and Jae. Stephen and I were lucky, because it turns out Jae is straight VIP in Korea. A private van picked us up at the airport around 2 am. This van was at our disposal, along with it's slick driver (perpetually in pinstripes and fedora), all week.

The first day it was raining on and off, but we still managed to see some major sights. In the morning we went to the DMZ to look at North Korea. We couldn't get too close because A. getting close is way expensive and we're poor, and B. South Korean citizens aren't allowed any closer than we got, and Jae sports a green passport. But, we did visit a museum of North Koren life and looked at people on the opposite bank of the river through binoculars. It was super creepy. This is North Korea in the rain:

That afternoon we ate bimbimbop (clearly) and then went to see Changdeokgung Palace. It's one of the five palaces of Seoul, and a favorite of the princes of the Joseon dynasty. It was built in 1405, when Korea still predominantly used the Hanja writing system. This made me feel much better about being a dumb and mute tourist, because I could read the signs and understand. By the 20th century though, much of Korean was switched over to Hangul, so I remained a dumb mute anywhere we visited that wasn't ancient.

Saturday night was Korea's first world cup game! The country takes their football seriously. Everyone was wearing red, literally everyone. I learned my first Korean phrase: "dae han min guk!" We started out in downtown watching on one of the public big screens, but once it started to rain we decided to have Tekkin (Jae's pseudo cousin and our awesome tour guide for the week) take us to a bar in his area of Seoul where his friends would be watching. So we watched the actual game from the comfort of a bar in a random suburb. This does not mean the place wasn't absolutely INSANE. Especially when we won. Also of note: Korean bars serve ball-shaped fruit loops! And Koreans like to do soju/coke bombs. That night we had a sleepover at Tekkin's.

Sunday morning we met up with Tekkin's sister and some of her friends for more sightseeing. We went up the top of N Seoul Tower first. It's 777 feet tall and smack in the middle of Seoul. The view was pretty amazing. In the observation tower they had labeled each window with what major city lay in that direction, and then the relevant distance. It was pretty exciting for us to find Shanghai, and for me to find DC (sorry Boston, you didn't make the cut sadface). Every window had a city, except for the two window blank between Vancouver and Anchorage. There really is absolutely nothing there (sorry Canada, sadface).

Around the base of the tower is a fence. There is a really adorable tradition where couples come up to the tower and lock a padlock on the fence, and then throw the key over the edge. Symbolism obvious. Athough, I'm not so sure about what these slackers who used combination locks are trying to say.

On our way down there was an impromptu martial arts show. It was pretty awesome. They cut up lots of stuff with weapons and had fights. This guy was the most fun, and this was my best action shot of him demolishing the straw dummy.

Then we went to a market area for lunch and some shopping. Jae dressed up as Nick Bottom.

In the afternoon, our new friends took us to an area of Seoul that has been preserved to look as it did in the 1800s. The houses were all gorgeous, and I would absolutely still live in a few.

Then we went to a night market, which featured this crazy building, and shopped for K-pop clothes so we could look club appropriate. Jae acquired his new eyes.

Monday we decided to take it easy and explore the area around our hostel (if you're ever in Seoul, stay at Mr. Kim's - it rocked). The hostel was in the Hongdae area, which is centered around Hongik University. (I actually think Hongdae may be the abbreviation for Hongik U, but I don't speak Korean, so I could be wrong). Though it's a comprehensive university of 20,000 students, it's famous for it's arts programs. That was definitely apparent as we walked the campus. We also stumbled upon the opening for the thesis show of the textile and fiber art grad students. I found some stuff I loved:

The Hongdae area itself was really awesome as well. There were tons of boutiques and cafes and little bars. Everything was lively and bohemian and not-China. I loved it. We found the Hello Kitty Cafe. It was pink. Next to Hello Kitty there was one of those Cat Bars that I've read about in Japan!! You go in and pay by the hour or something to play with kittens! It's supposed to be relaxing. If they had one with puppies I would be there in about 2 seconds.

That night we went out in Hongdae. The club we ended up at, N2D or something like that, was awesome. It didn't have any of the bells and whistles of the Shanghai clubs, but it had the most enthusiastic crowd I've seen out in a long time. And it was a Monday night!

We told Jae's family we wanted to see some Korea that wasn't a massive city, so on Tuesday they took us to the countryside to a Korean "village." I forget what it was called, but it was essentially the Korean equivalent of Plymouth Plantation. I was worried it would be a bit Wuzhen, but it was definitely more Plymouth than that, which was good. It was really well maintained and there were so few tourists. It turned out to actually be a really great place to visit and I'm really glad we went. They had areas showing the village architectural styles of each area in ancient Korea, as well as areas demonstrating crafts and games. There was also an awkward museum of the world's cultures.

Monday night was our last night in Korea, so the family wanted to send Jae off in style (he hadn't been back to the motherland for 8 years!). After a dinner of Korean BBQ, they took us to what they said used to be Jae's mother's favorite bar. Jae's mother's favorite bar is a CAVE. An actual cave. This place was nuts. Absolutely put Shanghai to shame (and I never thought nightlife anywhere could out-awkward Shanghai!).

Lots of weird things happened in the cave, including (but not limited to): bug eating, love shots, arm wrestling, and random drunk adults. Then (because Korea is still Asia), we went to KTV - where we continued to roll VIP style because Jae is somehow related to the owner of a massive KTV place. Then we finished off our evening of Azn-ness by going to a PC Bar where I watched the boys play some game where Tekkin kept killing them.

We got back to Tekkin's around 4 in the morning and Jae told us that it was Korean tradition to eat whatever it was his aunt had prepared for us, and to do celebratory shots of soju to ward off hangovers before bed, so clearly being the good guests we were, we had to go through with it. This was a lie, and simply an elaborate ruse to get Stephen to eat dog. Unnecessary, since Stephen had been psyched all week to do so. The soju shots at 4 am were also unnecessary. But, the hospitality was more than appreciated.

A 4-hour snugglefest later we headed for the airport. Stephen and I feasted on bagels for breakfast and savored the liberated internet while Jae was rejected from security for forgetting the 2 liters of liquid he had in his bag. When we finally made it to the gate, we discovered Li Laoshi! Nonchalantly just hanging out in Seoul. The best was when Jae finally showed up and Li Laoshi explained his presence by saying he had come all the way to Seoul to retrieve him, Macao-style.

Korea was excellent. I'm really glad I had a chance to see another part of Asia during my year here. China has infinite places to visit, and I haven't felt limited by my visa at all (it didn't allow me to leave the country until recently), but I'm grateful I had the opportunity to get to South Korea, especially at such an exciting World Cup time, and with such wonderful hospitality.

Today marks exactly a week until I'm headed back stateside! That's nuts. One week from today I will be boarding a plane. I have 6 days left of work. CRAZY CRAZY. I need to buy a suitcase, and attempt to put my life together. Yesterday, I realized that I had such a short amount of time left, and finally made it to the Expo. Look for that post soon.


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