The first thing that I noticed about Seoul was that it was cold even in May. I got out of the gates of the airport and made my way to the train station, which was on the other side of the road. I was wearing a half sleeved t shirt and was carrying a rucksack that was filled with other similar t-shirts. I realised that I had made a mistake by packing only summer clothes, as I pushed in the cold metal doors of the station and went in. It was early in the morning and it seemed that we were the going to be the first passengers of the day.
“I should have checked the weather reports.” I thought as I punched in my destination in the ticket vending machine, surrounded by others wearing jackets, sweaters and the mufflers. As I waited for the train, I tried counting the number of people wearing half sleeves. Including me, three and they all looked out of place like me.
We passed graveyards, factories and forests as we slowly made our way into Seoul. Looking around, I realised that most of the locals did not seem too interested in anything else, apart from the screens that they were holding in their hands and the plugs that were hooked into their ears. The train seemed like a library, with no one talking or making any noise. Everyone seemed to be in a state of trance.
I had written down the directions of my hostel on a piece of paper at the Delhi Airport, so after reaching the Itaewon station I fished out the crumbled up piece of paper and followed it down to my hostel for the next few days, SP Guesthouse. I walked past the designated KFC restaurant, passed the sweepers who were cleaning up the sidewalks and went up a small hill to reach my hostel. The receptionist at the hostel was a nice Belgian guy with a very thick accent. He gave me a map and told me about the things that I could do during my stay in the city. After checking out my dorm room, which surprisingly had no lockers, and storing away my luggage I decided to take a long overdue shower and a change of clothes.
I sat in a cemented chair outside the gates of Changdeok-gung waiting for it to open, passing time by watching Seoul slowly waking up and cars of all brands, shapes and sizes flooding its roads. Shivering in the cold morning air, I realised that if I wanted to get out of South Korea alive, I would have to buy a jacket eventually. Minutes passed, as the sun slowly warmed up the city and the gates of the palace finally opened.
I walked through the beautiful gardens, flowers blooming and birds chirping, and slowly explored the gorgeous palace. Despite its history of getting burnt down and built back up a couple of times over, it is surprising that it still looked so pretty and traditional, with its sloping roofs and bright colours. Long back, before you and I were even born, this palace was home to Kings and Queens. Not only did they live here but also hosted foreign guests, and conducted their day to day activities. They also built a beautiful secret garden for relaxation, but that costed extra so I decided not to go.
Don’t blame me..I had to buy a jacket!
So, where do you go after visiting such a beautiful palace?
An even bigger palace. The Gyeongbok-gung
Changdeok-gung was great but every time I think of Seoul, the picture of Gyeongbok-gung comes to mind. And for good reason too. The vast pathway leading to the grand main entrance, the changing of the guards, the lakes and the beautiful hills in the background paint a wonderful picture.
I walked around the palace and its garden and tried to learn the history of the palace by reading a small pamphlet that was handed to me at the ticket counter. Like Changdeok-gung, this palace had also been burned down and built back up several times over yet it looked absolutely flawless. Gyeongbok-gung too had several palace buildings like the residential quarters of the king, the throne hall, the banquet halls etc. After exploring, I decided to sit near the gates of the palace and watch the changing of the guards ceremony.
Close to the Changdeok-gung is the Bukchon village which is famous for its hanok houses. The high ranking officials and the relatives of the royal family used to live in this village and hence, staying here was considered to be very prestigious. It probably still is, but I am not sure.
I walked around the narrow roads of the village which had still preserved its hanok houses. There were small shops, cafes and restaurants dotted around the village which had pictures of Ox Blood Soup and octopuses put up outside. By the time I got out of the village, I had started wishing, for the time in my life, to be a royalty just so that I could find a place to stay at such a picturesque village.
Going from the past to the present, I decided to board a train to Gangnam. Yes, the same Gangnam that PSY sings and dances about. I had researched about Gangnam and apparently this was the best place for celebrity K-Pop sightings. It was all about commercial complexes, glass and steel buildings, serious looking people in business suits, and pretty girls.
I found a nice cafe and ordered a fish burger meal for lunch. One of the things that I noticed apart from the shiny buildings and business suits was the abundance of clinics specializing in enhancing certain female body parts.
Anyways, after a relaxing lunch and a long walk (Fine… I got lost.. All the glass buildings look the same!) around Gangnam, I decided to visit Lotte World, one of the largest indoor amusement parks in the world. I have not been to many theme parks but Lotte World was definitely one of the best.
When I entered Lotte World, it almost seemed like I just teleported myself to a different planet, full of wonderful colours, joy rides, snack bars and restaurants, music, parades, colourful characters and hundreds of screaming kids running around. On the ground floor there is a skating rink which had people of all ages showing off their skills. High up, near the inside roof, there were trains and balloons doing rounds carrying children, who were screaming out of an overdose of happiness.
I loved it !
It was dark and the city was glowing under the blissful influence of its famous night lights by the time I decided to leave Lotte World. I headed to the artsy market of Insadong to have my dinner and my first soju experience. The Insadong market is famous for its art boutiques, handicrafts and decoratives. The market is also dotted with a lot of street food stands and small trolleys that sold drinks. It did not come as a surprise that this market was packed with people of all ages, and nationalities.
Near a busy road almost at the other end of the market, there was a small tent which was packed with people, eating, laughing, drinking, talking and smoking. Loving the chilled out atmosphere, I decided to have my dinner there and since I was extremely hungry by this time and really needed a hearty meal, I decided not to try anything too weird. I took a seat after ordering a plate of dumplings and a bottle of soju.
The table in front of me was occupied by a group of people in their business suit, who ordered a big bowl of noodles and were mixing their soju with beer before drinking it. This seemed to be the local way of drinking soju, mixing it with beer.
Now the funny thing is, soju creeps up on your senses slowly. So, if you are an idiot like me and drink a lot of it thinking it is not working or that your senses are way too strong for soju, you will be in for a surprise.
I stumbled out of the tent under its influence and after walking a few steps I realised that I needed to sit down and wait for the “soju effect” to fade away, at least a little bit before I can even contemplate walking again. Thankfully, just a few feet away on the corner of a sidewalk, there was a group of teenagers performing some Korean ballads. I sat down with few of the other drunkards on the pavement and listened to them. Even though I did not understand a word, they sounded really good and soothing.
I do not know exactly how long I sat there, listening to them, nor do I remember how I found my way back to my hostel, but I remember waking up the next day with a sprained knee, and a busted up elbow.
But I was still glad to be in the wonderful city of Seoul !