The hotel room was quiet, except for the unobtrusive, low-volume Korean voices drifting from the flat-screen television. I peeked out the window and down towards the lit empty streets with resignation — it was 4:00 a.m. on Friday here in Korea after all.
Earlier in the evening on Thursday, I arrived in Incheon Airport, excited that I could take advantage of a 24-hour layover to explore the highlights of Seoul. I’d made big plans and plotted out what I wanted to see. After unloading my bags at the hotel, I would ask the front desk for directions to the famous Dongdaemun, set out on an evening walk to the city’s vibrant shopping district and stay there till the wee hours of the night to leisurely browse all the goods. The next morning could be spent taking in the city’s popular sights before heading back to the airport.
But I must have been a lot more tired than I felt. The room, with its calming, natural wood theme, ultra-fast wifi and soft inviting bed, was too irresistible after my 17-hour flight from San Francisco. iPhone in hand and tv still on, I passed out shortly after checking in. Now I’d have to rearrange my plans to fit shopping and sightseeing all in one morning.
I hit roadblocks right away. I didn’t have a map. No phone service either, or cellular data to use Google Maps. Above all — and how silly of me not to think of this before — not knowing how to speak or read Korean in Seoul rendered my relatively decent navigation skills pretty useless.
Then I remembered the cabbie who drove me from the airport to the hotel. He’d given me his card with an email contact and said to let him know if I needed a taxi for hire.
“I just waked up for drinking water,” came Mr. Kim’s email reply to my 5:00 a.m. email inquiry on whether he’d be available. “See you at 10:30 a.m.” Five and a half hours later, Mr. Kim pulled up at the entrance of my hotel in his yellow International Taxi company cab.
Mr. Kim was very at ease when he making conversation. The square-jawed, mid-aged cabbie, with jet-black hair and a slight tan was chatty, and happily pointed out Seoul landmarks as we drove past. “Today I will show you the highlights of Seoul in three hours tour, (when) it normally takes three days!” he said enthusiastically. Considering I only had that much time, that sounded alright with me.
Highlights of Seoul: Korean architecture
Our first stop was at Changdeokgung, one of the five, 15th century royal palaces of the Joseon Dynasty. While Gyeongbokgung is the primary palace, Changdeokgung lays claim to being the most well-kept of the royal residences and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
“The Secret Garden is most beautiful in autumn, like in Korean drama episode,” said Mr. Kim. He was referring to Changdeokgung’s no-longer-so-secret rear garden, which plays an integral role in creating harmony between the palace’s man-made structures and its natural surroundings.
We approached the partially-barricaded entrance, a 400 year old gate with walls and pillars painted red. Jade green trim and floral patterns along the roof are not unlike Chinese imperial palaces. Although the entrance fee for a self tour was pretty minimal, we decided against going in to see the place as it would have taken at least an hour to view. After taking a couple of snapshots at the front of the Palace gates, we were off to the next stop: Bukchon Hanok Village.
To be honest, I expected the village to be gimmicky; a made-up place built in the middle of Seoul just for tourists to experience some arbitrary Korean culture. I’m unsure how or from where I derived this assumption, because I turned out to be utterly wrong. Bukchon Hanok is popular with tourists, but for good reason — it’s a picturesque, traditional Korean village with roots dating back 600 years when the ruling Joseon classes lived here.
A walk through the neighbourhood’s narrow alleys was like stepping back into 1400s Seoul for a little preview of the Korean upper-class suburban atmosphere. The hanoks, each protected by walls of brick and stone, featured gorgeous wood exteriors, solid brass or metal fixtures, mini courtyards and clay tile roofing — trappings of affluence back in those days.
Large signs around the neighbourhood reminded visitors to be respectful of current residents’ privacy, but despite a fair number of visitors strolling about, it was quite peaceful in the alleyways. According to Mr. Kim, these are ancestral homes passed down from generation to generation. “How much would a hanok be worth if someone wanted to sell?” I wondered. Mr. Kim paused, and finally said, “A lot.” From the higher points of the village, one could peer over rows of hanok roofs for a glimpse of Seoul’s modern skyline — the same kind of modernity that continues to creep onto Bukchon’s doorstep.
Many of the hanoks are empty, snapped up by property developers who are waiting for the right time to turn them into commercial entities that would cater to growing numbers of Bukchon Hanok visiting tourists. At the foot of Bukchon is a small and upcoming neighbourhood known as Samcheongdong, where hip new cafes and art shopping is making a name for the area — definitely something else for me to explore on a return visit.
Today, intent on showing me more of Seoul, Mr. Kim was gently hurrying me along and on to our next stop: Insadong District, an artisan market known for its quaint souvenirs, handmade jewellery, ceramics, antiques and traditional crafts. If you were looking to bring a small piece of Korea home with you, Insadong is the place to find it.
Souvenir shopping at Insadong
On that Friday morning, the main street of Insadong, usually bustling with shoppers, looked a little sparse. We’d arrived there about a half hour before noon and some business owners were just beginning set up shop. This suited me just fine, as I prefer to steer clear of packed-like-sardines crowds. We walked leisurely along the street, examining the goods for sale. Every ten feet or so, we’d run into a lady standing next to a poster board, displaying studio photos of people in hanbok (traditional Korean dress) and the prices to try on those outfits. (At least 15,000 won per outfit.) “I ask her how much,” said Mr. Kim, implying that he’d try to get a lower price. But the woman he approached didn’t budge. We moved on. (I later found out from poking around the web that you can do a hanbok experience for free at the Seoul Global Culture & Tourism Center in Myeongdong.)
While browsing a through crafts and souvenir shops, I spotted a group of young male students crowding around a booth on the street. Two men in long-sleeved white outfits were making dragon beard candy behind clear plastic panels. One was running a stream of commentary in Japanese as they both rolled long strips of white cotton candy around small clumps of crushed sweet peanut filling. “You gonna get one?” called out the man with dyed orange hair. I smiled, shook my head and waved.
Seems like they weren’t the only ones selling the candy. Insadong is full of small booths and shops selling dragon beard candy and sweet treats. Another really popular one was an ice cream treat with a cone in the shape of a long, twisted cane. Perhaps it had an unusual flavor? Fun as it looked, I didn’t try to find out. Unless it’s from Penn State, ice-cream isn’t really my thing on a cold, wintry day. Plus, we’d seen enough. It was time to head to the next stop: Myeongdong, another premier shopping area well-known for its many cosmetics and beauty stores.
Beauty products galore in Myeongdong
Skinfood. The Face Shop. Missha. Etude House. Nature Republic. These are just a sampling of the brands of Korean skincare and cosmetics one can finding Myeongdong and probably one of the biggest highlights of Seoul. If you aren’t prepared to spend at least half a day here figuring out where everything is, prepare to be overwhelmed, as this place is huge. After snapping a photo of two mechanical, rotating female mannequins dressed in hanbok, I looked around, trying to decide which direction I was headed.
For once, Mr. Kim seemed a bit lost as well. We walked past shop after shop, taking in the sights. I was looking for a specific brand of products, but as every shop appeared to be brand exclusive, I was beginning to think I wouldn’t get what I wanted, when we ran into a shop selling multiple brands.
Almost immediately, I was addressed by the salesperson in Mandarin (now how did she know I’d be able to understand?) While they didn’t carry the exact brand I wanted, she found something similar. Myeongdong is known for competitive prices on beauty products, and I found this to be very true. I left the shop with three items that were worth about 60,000 won, but only had to pay half that total. What a steal!
We left Myeongdong after that, once again passing those moving, hanbok clad mannequins on our way out.
The streets were even more crowded than when we first arrived, prompting Mr. Kim to point to the crowd behind us and say, “Here, if you call “Mr. Kim,’ maybe…almost everyone is gonna answer.”
Well. Better not get lost then. We had one last hour for one last stop at Dongdaemun which, according to Mr. Kim is a “Heaven for woman, but very boring for man.” Dongdaemun used to be an open air bazaar with the charming vibe of a street market, but vendors have now been moved indoors into shopping malls. Mr. Kim dropped me off at a well-known upscale mall known as Doota.
Dongdaemun and more street snacks
Before going in, I just had to go survey the many street vendors outside Doota. The sounds of business chatter rose up around me as I strolled through. Along a row of shop lots, a seller set up a mini bazaar on the sidewalk, selling household items. On a street corner stood a stall, selling souvenir tourist t-shirts. Delicious aromas of food wafted into my nostrils, conveniently reminding me of lunchtime.
One lady shooed me away as I snapped a shot of her food cart — her corn snack looked pretty unappetizing anyway. The stall next to her served up three different types of snacks, one a delicious spicy squid, and the stall owner didn’t even look up as I paparazzi-ed her food. It may have helped that I was a paying customer at this stall.
At night, according to Mr. Kim, the plethora of vendors grows even larger, attracting the crowds. This vibrant night scene is what keeps the shops and malls at Dongdaemun, like Doota, open till 4 a.m. daily.
Having seen enough of the street scene, I went into the mall.
Every shop at Doota, all seven floors, is filled with Korean brands. There are clothing styles for practically every kind of fashionista out there, as well as jewellery, accessories, handbags and shoes. Upwards and around the floors I went, checking out the styles; but when you’re on a time crunch, browsing this much stuff can be a bit of a headache. It was a bit of a relief to reach the roof garden on the top floor and ease my eyes with a landscape view of Dongdaemun. The sound of chatter in American English by two brunettes in the corner of the roof garden brought me back to ground. It was already an hour since Mr. Kim dropped me off! He was standing by when I emerged from Doota, perhaps surprised that my arms weren’t full with shopping bags, considering I’d spent an hour in there.
Highlights of Seoul: Kimchi jigae & Korean hospitality
“What did you eat for breakfast?” asked Mr. Kim when I climbed back into the taxi. He shook his head in disapproval when I said I had a bulgogi sandwich.
We were heading towards the airport, but had time for a brief lunch stop. All that food spotting around Seoul made me ravenous, and having a meal with Mr. Kim was the perfect way to cap off my three-hour exploration of Seoul. On reaching Incheon, Mr. Kim brought us to a strip mall with a restaurant that cabbies like himself often lunched at. If locals like Mr. Kim, his fellow cabbies and office workers in the area thought the food here was good, then I knew I was in the right place.
We sat on the floor at a low table as the server placed little plates of appetizers, rice and a large steaming wok of kimchi jigae, traditional spicy Korean stew of meat, tofu, cabbage, scallions and kimchi. The bubbling hot broth was robustly spicy and the pork flavour shone through. Mr. Kim added noodles to the broth, which made it even better. One of the tastier stews I’d had in awhile, and very fairly priced. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be able to find this place again on my own.
Over a bit of lunch chatter, I learned that Mr. Kim had been quite a traveller himself, having travelled all over the globe in his younger days. When asked what his favourite country was, his reply was Myanmar, because the people there “showed him a way of living that wasn’t so focused on material wealth.”
Now here he was, welcoming visitors like me to his home country in that bright yellow taxi of his, showing them as much as he could of Seoul’s most popular sights and offerings. “Come back next time and I will show you to other places,” he said, as we shook hands in parting outside the departure terminal at Incheon.
Thank you for your wonderful service and a lovely time seeing the highlights of Seoul in three hours, Mr. Kim. I’ll definitely be back.