I’m back from my 3 week vacation so now it’s time to catch you up! It’s going to take several tellings, which I’ll try to spread out a bit, for myself as much as for you. Enjoy!
We begin three weeks ago on September 6th, after I’d hopped on a 4 hour bus ride to Incheon Airport to meet my parents and family friend, Dorothy.
I’m at the airport much earlier than I need to be to pick up my parents and Dorothy. They won’t get in until 4:20. With several hours to kill, I walk around the airport, explore the train station area, and buy a book to read. The hours creep by, but they do pass.
I put down my book and start craning my head to see the gate where they’ll exit despite knowing that, with luggage and paperwork, it’ll take time.
I’m standing now…too impatient to keep peering around the people who keep blocking my view. The moment I spot them an involuntary whoop of excitement bursts from my lips and I wave my arms wildly. I shock myself by starting to cry, as well. It’s been 8 months since I last saw them (Skype doesn’t count). More importantly, this is the first time I get to share this part of my life with people who are more familiar with its previous chapters.
The train ride to Seoul goes smoothly: quiet, save for the shutter sounds on Dad’s cellphone camera as he eagerly snaps shots of the passing landscape. Outside the train station, a taxi driver with a large car expertly maneuvers us into his ride, drives us to the hotel 5 minutes away, and skillfully gets us to pay more than twice the cost of a regular taxi ride. Of course, this is because we took a ride in his luxury car and he probably doesn’t get as many customers as the regular taxis. I feel rather dumb for letting myself fall for it when. Given his special car, it’s understandable, but had we taken a normal taxi the price would have been less than half what he charged us. Oh well.
For those looking to stay in a reasonably priced hotel in Seoul, near Seoul tower and shopping areas like Myeongdong, then I highly recommend Hill House. It’s a little walk from any subway stops but they aren’t unreasonably far. Some of the staff speak excellent English and are able to answer any questions about getting around. Boring breakfast of toast, eggs, cereal but at least it was something. If had been traveling alone, I would have stayed somewhere cheaper – like a hostel – but for the 4 of us, it worked well.
That first night, we venture to the nearby Myeongdong shopping area for dinner, before collapsing on our hard hotel beds. After a night of rest, everyone feels eager to explore so we decide to make it a palace day.
We start the day with the main palace: Gyeongbokgung Palace, where we witness the changing of the guards and wander around its expansive grounds.
Then we head over to Changgyeonggung Palace, and walk through the “secret garden” (a guided tour):
Next door is another palace: Changdeokgung Palace.
By this time, we’d walked quite a bit, from one place to another so Mom, Dad, and Dorothy give their legs a rest – sitting on a bench by the large pond – while I explore further. I find a glass greenhouse in the back as well as a few white-barked trees that contrast nicely with the surroundings.
Jongmyo Shrine is last on our list of things to see that day. By this time, I’m too tired to take pictures of buildings that, ultimately, look the same to me. Plus, Dad is better at landscape style pictures than I, who prefers focusing on the small details.
The next day is the actual day of Chuseok, Korea’s version of Thanksgiving. Due to the holiday, we are able to enter the one palace we didn’t have time for the day before (for free). Unlike the other palaces, it shows some signs of western influence, side-by-side with the more traditional styled buildings.
Across the street, in front of city hall, rows upon rows of chairs are set up for an event later in the day: prayers for peace and the unification of the Koreas. Sharing the same space is a tribute to the Sewol ferry disaster, that is still a very fresh in the minds and hearts of many here. When I see yellow ribbons pinned to people’s shirts or tied next to others in a public place, I know them to be in memory of that tragedy.
We visit the Namdaemun gate and eat lunch at a street stall before heading to Shiloam (a jimjjilbang = public bathhouse and sauna) to wash and relax. I slept there last time I went to Seoul and though I didn’t find my sleep there very relaxing, it remains one of my favorite jimjjilbangs so far. Everyone enjoys the experience even though no one shares quite my level of enthusiasm for the various sauna rooms. My parents really like the oxygen room and Mom admits that the salt room is pretty nice. But they draw the line at anything hotter and I’m left on my own as I jump into the hottest room for a few minutes.
In the end, I think our greatest shared enjoyment comes from the massage chairs. For 1,000 won ($1.00) you can sit in one of the chairs for fifteen minutes of butt squishing, back thumping, and body jiggling. Mom and I watch as Dad and Dorothy receive this treatment, eliciting yelps of discomfort – interspersed with sighs of relief when the chair switches to something more comfortable – from them, and barely contained peals of laughter from us. Dorothy’s chair adds a level of amusement. It clearly needs some oiling or maintenance work because it buzzes quite loudly every time it hits a certain phase in the cycle.
Mom goes next but picks a slightly different chair. It has arm rests instead of foot massagers. It must have been built to squish the forearms of someone with the proportions of an orangutan because when the seat leans back, the only thing that can comfortably reach to the arms squisher are her hands and wrists. Still, she clearly made the better (though less hilarious) choice as she settles into the chair comfortably for her 15 minutes.
We eat a dinner at a small restaurant near the hotel, sitting outside on plastic chairs as the owner cooks and cuts our meat all while trying to strike up a conversation with me in Korean, only half of which I understand (at best). I manage to answer enough to satisfy his curiosity. When we leave, he hands us a pack of four yogurt drinks to take with us.
We attempt to visit Seoul tower. Even though the cable car is just a short walk away, the line simply to ride to the base of the tower is ridiculously long. We decide to go back to the hotel instead of waiting the 2.5 hours to get to the front of the line.
The next morning we hop on a bus to Gwangju.