Incheon, South Korea.
It’s early and late – that perfectly discombobulating, dream-like state of still being stuck between two polar opposite time zones.
Caitlin and I make our way to the lobby of the Grand Hyatt and she asks how well I know this guy were about to meet.
I tell her I don’t know him at all, but Seoul has a really low crime rate so our chances of getting murdered are slim, and we’re too old to be sold into sex slavery.
Well, at least I am.
We meet with Kris from ‘This is Korea’; a private tour company started a few years ago by a former government certified guide. Kris tells us his boss tired of the South Korean tour group protocol, as it was mandatory for the guides to drag the bus loads of tourists through tchotchke stores after each stop. You might say it was, Seoul sucking.
Kris also worked for this brand of company for about 4 weeks. He also hated it, found ‘This is Korea’, and has been with them ever since. We get along with him right off; he’s young, funny, super nice and tells us a little about Seoul while blaming Beijing for the early morning “smoke” surrounding the city, which Caitlin and I both naïvely mistook for fog.
In small talk, I dimly ask who the most popular singer/band is, and of course, he says Psy. Duh. More on Psy later.
Bukchon Hanok Village
We’re the first to arrive at a parking lot near Bukchon Hanok Village. Bukchon is a cluster of traditional house (hanoks) from the early 1300’s, built for high-ranking government officials and still, remain as high-end private residences (though newer amenities have obviously been added, like steel, flat screens, and robo-maids).
As Kris explains it, the village’s placement on a southern foot of a mountain appeases (perfectly) the theory of Feng Shui— with mountains in the background, nature, a river, then cityscape. It’s a harmonious blend; a seamless juxtaposition.
There are also signs everywhere to enjoy the surroundings quietly, because people actually live in these homes. We of course oblige this request, but unfortunately, after 15 minutes of blissful meandering, a gaggle of Chinese tourist spill around the corner like an all gong band, shattering the serenity.
We bolt from the aural smog.
What separates Gyeongbokgung from other palaces I’ve toured in say, Japan or Vietnam, is how massive the place is; stretching on forever, in the middle of a giant city. Not as big as Central Park, but still, really impressive.
Kris gives us a general overview of the grounds. He also tells us (possible fable alert) of how the original King’s servants had to be castrated, and his Queen’s servants had to be virgins. They could tell the women were virgins by cutting off a parrot’s head, letting the blood drip on the girl’s wrist, and if it rolled off the east, she was a virgin. If it rolled to the west = she a ho, no work here no mo’.
This was the main thing I really remembered from the palace. There’s an amazing tale of how beloved King Sejong simplified the entire Korean language (hangul) so everyone could easily read and write (it’s truly easier to comprehend than kanji), but the parrot blood thing is way cooler, right?
Another interesting palace fact is it took us about 10 minutes, with a jogging clip, to get from the back of the palace near the Blue House (comparable to America’s White House) to the front gate. So, if the doorbell rang, or someone forgot to lock the gate to impending enemy forces, and no eunuchs were available to answer/lock up, it’s one hell of a haul.
We watch the changing of the guards, which, in my experience, is usually quite boring. This one is pretty awesome though, with the startling blast of of a conch shell to begin the ceremonies, followed by massive drums, and a primitive marching band instrumentation with colorful flags and uniforms. Worth the admission. Notice the fake beard above.
Kris promises us street food, so we head over to Namdaemun Market, a giant street market with little nooks and crannies everywhere.
We tell him we want to do some shopping, but really we just want hotteok. Hottoek is a crispy deep-fried pancake/donut thing with molten brown sugar/sesame seeds in the center I had heard about from Keith over at Seoulistic. Kris warns we’re going to spoil our lunch but we tell him to shut up and donut.
After dessert we meander around the open market for a bit, perusing things we’re surely not going to buy like swords, giant haechi statues, and poop bread.
[Footnote: Haechi is this weird unicorn lion/dog borrowed from Chinese mythology. Kris tells us it’s sort of the like Santa Clause: if you’re good, it’s cool. If you’re bad, it bites away pieces of your soul, which seems a bit overboard in punishment. Anyways, haechis are everywhere and are purportedly protect the city from natural disasters. It’s even the symbol of Seoul]
You’re curious about poop bread, aren’t you. It’s just bread that looks like the poop emoji.
We finally get down to real business with a traditional Korean lunch. The restaurant is unassuming, tucked far beneath the outdoor shopping mall, but we sit down to a huge spread of kimchi, white cabbage, fresh greens, mountain sprout soup, and a heaping, lava-hot stone pot of bibimbap. Oh, and everything is washed down with hot tea, and some addictive milky rice wine (makgeolli).
Our tour is coming to an end, but we have one last stop that was THE only thing on Caitlin’s list: Thanks Nature Sheep Cafe, a coffee shop with live sheep roaming about. There are a lot of themed dog/cat cafes in Asia and in Seoul. But sheep?
Hidden in the lower half of a strip mall in the university district is a cozy little coffee shop run by an artist who has two pet sheep. The sheep live just outside the café in the little community nook behind a set of stairs. They have a pretty sweet set up — they get fed by patrons of the restaurant all day, they sleep in their little sheep houses, and every night, they walk home with the proprietor of Thanks Nature.
Certainly a new experience for everyone, including Kris, who was skeptical at first, but has more fun than us at the sheep café.
I like Seoul, a lot.
Sure, we were only in South Korea for a total of 22 hours, 10 of which are spent at the airport or trying to sleep, but it was a nice travel dip; a great introduction to a culture I didn’t really know much about aside from the horrors of its crazy northern brother and Psy, who, is actually deeper than the colorful, addictive melodies you’ve heard.
‘Gangnum style’? It’s a tongue in cheek song/video about the ridiculousness of the nouveau riche of Seoul’s south side.
‘Hangover‘? An ode to South Korean’s hard-partying way of life (for real, they party every night, worse than the Russians).
South Koreans just seem to get it. They have that get-the-job done/underdog mentality that I gravitate towards, with a splash of artful rebellion, self deprecation, fueled by amazing food all while looking future-fashionable. Layers, man. Layers.
From the Japanese Occupation, to, of course, the Korean War, they’ve prevailed as a people and have quickly become one of the fastest growing/most influential economies in the world.
Imagine if the full course of the US or UK industrial/economic evolution happened within 40 years. Now imagine Canada was a crazy person that flexed its nuclear capabilities on the regular.
No wonder the Koreans party so much; they deserve it.
Special thanks to Kris and the fine folks at This is Korea.