THE KOREA KRONICLES, PART X: Seoul Patrol

At the PalaceWell, it’s happened you guys. I’ve been absolutely smitten by a city. Sorry, Daegu. A light load of kids this past week at the village meant all of the teachers got a day off work. Alyssa and I, we lucked out and got last Friday off. Hashtag three-day weekend, hashtag mini-vacation, hashtag awesome. You may not have read my post from a couple of weeks ago about the Week from Hell, but just know that I needed a break. Last week was a great opportunity to recharge and be reminded of the reasons why I like my job.

Most significantly, I only taught a grand total of seventeen classes—and bear in mind that my classes are only forty-five minutes long apiece. It was like, “WHAT DO I DO WITH MYSELF?!? LOL, JK.” Trust me, I can handle free time very well. On Thursday after we’d finished teaching, Alyssa and I hopped a cab from the village to Waegwan and, from there, took the Mugungwha-ho (slow train) to Dongdaegu Station, Daegu’s version of DFW for the national rail network.

Since this analogy will play a semi-important part in this post, let me just go ahead and get it out there for you to ruminate on: Daegu is to Seoul as Dallas is to New York City. I’ll explain that more as I go but, suffice it to say, it becomes a more apparently true analogy the longer I’m here. At any rate, from Dongdaegu Station, we caught the high-speed KTX—dare I call it the SEOUL TRAIN?!?—that whisked us at 305 km/h (190 mph) to Korea’s cosmopolitan nexus. The great thing about South Korea is that it’s only slightly larger than South Carolina, which means that nothing you’d want to see is ever more than a half-day’s journey away. Even better is that Seoul is only two hours away.

Alyssa and I got in to the city at around 9:30 and were immediately engrossed in the task of navigating its labyrinthine subway system. To get an idea of the challenge, here’s a map for your viewing pleasure:

Seoul Subway Map

Yeah…

So, our first hurdle was to find our way from Seoul Station’s KTX platform to Line 1 (the Dark Blue Line) and make our way to Hongik University in Seoul’s Hongdae district–of “Eatyourkimchi” fame–by way of a junction with the Green Line. I’m happy to say that we never lost our cool and that, with a few bumps and a few interactions in broken English with Seoul-ites (what is the proper demonym, by the way? Seoulians? Seoulish? Seouldiers?), we did make it to our hostel, called the Pencil Guesthouse. It was from the window of this double-bunked room that I got my first look at this massive city the next morning. And it really is gargantuan: the Seoul Capital Area is home to almost 26 million people, half of South Korea’s entire population. Daegu is barely a splash in the pond compared to that.

Hongdae

That morning we found ourselves back on the Subway headed for Myeongdong, one of the shopping districts in downtown Seoul. At many of the subway platforms, the approach of a train would be signaled by a recording of a horn ensemble playing what sounded like a combination of the Rocky theme-song and the tune of “The Farmer in the Dell.” I know you’re going to spend at least half a minute trying to imagine what that would sound like, so I’ll borrow a cue from the Psalmist…

Selah.

Anyway, our next two days in Seoul consisted of a lot of things, like shopping at H&M.

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And at American Apparel.

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Right after modeling that winning (but laughably overpriced) pair of undergarments, we ran into this soldier for the Lord just outside the door. Apparently, Korea is passing some sort of law that has some people crying about the Mark of the Beast.

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After we’d gotten sick of shopping and made ourselves sick on pizza, we trekked downtown to check out the U.S. Embassy and see what was to be seen on what must be Korea’s version of the National Mall. As we were getting off the subway at Gyongbukgung, we were at a loss as to how to actually find the embassy and, after asking the nearest Korean person for advice, found her to be delightfully helpful. This girl, who couldn’t have been much older than me, not only gave us chocolate and walked us to the right subway exit, but she actually chased us down and waited for us at the exit door to make sure we made it. That, more than anything else, made me fall in love with Seoul. It’s the difference between a capital mindset and a provincial mindset. Daegu, like Dallas, is very much a provincial city and, as an outgrowth of that, has a distinctly insular and inwardly-focused culture. Seoul, by contrast, is used to dealing with foreigners and I was amazed at the number of people there who were willing to go out of their way to help us. We didn’t expect it from them, but it was wonderfully nice for them to give us their time.

In any case, we dropped by Gyongbukgung Palace to sneak a peak at how the other half used to live.

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I was a little disappointed to find the U.S. Embassy such a drab and dated building. But, I guess functionality trumps aesthetics.

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Saturday morning, we ventured into Itaewon (three of us by now, as David had joined us Friday night), the foreigner district in Seoul. Following the advice of a friend, we made our way to a restaurant called “The Flying Pan.” Although the napkins were imprinted with a picture of a cooking pan mid-flight with a pair of wings, I’m still not convinced that the name of this restaurant didn’t originate from the East Asian propensity to conflate ‘l’ and ‘r’. It was pricey, but delicious, and I savored every bite.

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That evening, as we made our way back to Seoul Station to catch the train home, I’d already decided that I loved Seoul. I still can’t quite put my finger on why, but it just feels great to be there.

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So, lots of pictures this post, but I figured they could do my little mini-vacay far more justice than any of my circumlocution could. Keep it real, you guys. Annyeongi gyeseyo!

Peace, yo!

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