Flashing lights lit up the night sky at different heights as the city of Seoul came alive. Hannah and I, on the other hand, were not awake enough to enjoy the experience on our first day. We took an overnight flight from Tashkent, Uzbekistan and arrived in Seoul, South Korea 6.5 hours later with no sleep and foggy heads.
On that sleepy first day, we discovered what became one of our frequent haunts. Namdaemmun Market. Thankfully, it was the sort of place you could waste hours. Clanging of metal ladles echoed from within the giant tubular pots of different Korean soups. Steam wafted left and right with the blowing wind as locals conversed in the melodic sing-song of Korean between the tapping of wooden chopsticks on ceramic bowls. We followed their example and found a second floor restaurant and tucked into dumplings and spicy chicken stir fry. By that point, we checked into the hotel and an accidental nap ensued.
The food in Korea was incredible. Every evening the Myeong-dong area came alive with specialty good carts and locals calling out their wares. Swarms of people jostled one another as they grabbed their favorite street meal each night. Hannah and I tried several different selections. As chocolate loving Americans, we held some healthy skepticism about “red bean” items. It turns out, they were delicious. The red beans are mashed almost like refried beans, but they tasted sweet.
I truly enjoyed every meal. Different hot and cold noodle dishes with various spices, kimchis, red chili pastes, and meats were the norm. I usually shy away from such things due to the danger of poor hygienic conditions, but I dove in with a zeal. It never got old and was one of the best I had through my entire life.
For dinner one evening, we stumbled into a restaurant with small ovens in the middle of the tables. We picked our dish, a chicken golbi, which was essentially a spicy stir fry with bean sprouts, red spice paste, and udon noodles. I leaned over to the table of young adults adjacent to us to ask advice several times throughout the meal and found myself kindly being offered a “top up?” for my beer from a flask. While I declined, they were very helpful and friendly, even asking how our stay in Korea had been thus far. For such a large metropolitan city with bustling crowds of strangers, our interactions with Koreans always left me smiling.
After the first day of food, I had a revelation and subsequent regret. Hannah and I lived in walking distance to an area in Houston, Texas that boasted great Korean fare, but never once made it there. It was usually due to me being too stubborn and desiring to eat at the usual same 4-5 places. At times throughout the trip, Hannah and I both agreed we would have given a lot to eat at one of our usual haunts either due to legitimate unavailability of food or the taste of familiarity. There were a handful of meal memories, or nightmares, on our trip of a cold bread loaf or stale chips that would not be forgotten any time soon. Thankfully, in Korea, every meal burst with flavor, texture, heat, and fullness. It is renowned as one of the best street food capitals in the world. Locals and visitors flocked to the open seating under small awnings and tents to grab a bite of famous dishes. We could not get enough.
Seoul also contains several palaces and shrines. We braved the cold over several days to take in the full majesty of the architectural wonders. The sloping angled roofs of the palaces were laid out in perfect symmetry. Each building’s overlapping half-coned green or blue roof tiles reminded me of a dragon’s scales. Most of these “dragons” had been renovated and refurbished, but I was still in awe of their power and magnificence. Clumps of visitors dressed in Hanbok excitedly wound their way through the different clusters of buildings. Hanbok is the traditional Korean attire. Hanbok wearers receive free entry to the palaces and shrines. While wandering, I checked the prices and they showed it could be about equal or less cost than the combination visit ticket that we purchased. Hannah and I agreed that we were fine with what we chose, the Hanbok outfits looked far too thin and cold.
One of the major things to do in South Korea is visit the DMZ. Unfortunately, during our visit, the DMZ was closed indefinitely due to swine flu in North Korea. It served as an obvious reminder of how close we were to the repressive regime. It was a major disappointment that we would not be able to visit such a historic place., but health is a top priority.
South Korea is a technologically advanced city. Its cars were relatively quiet with many sporting hybrid or fully electric systems. In Seoul Incheon Airport, a robot glided around dispensing directions, advice, and friendly greetings. Several times, we walked quickly in front of it to see how well its AI functioned and it stopped on a dime so as not to hit us. It was pretty neat.
One afternoon brought biting cold winds. After some debate, we ducked into a Buddhist Temple complex to see the architecture and for a quick restroom stop, wary that we might become a captive audience. A pleasant surprise met us on the other side of the door. Visitors were offered a crafting session to color their own Buddhist themed drink coaster, assemble a lantern, or have tea with a monk. We elected the crafting option and enjoyed the quiet, calm ambiance.
It was a very stark contrast from earlier in the trip. In Edinburgh, Scotland, we entered a church and, despite disclosing that we are Catholic, spent the next 30 minutes being evangelized to and respectfully being told the granular intricacies of our two faiths. It was not our ideal way to spend 30 minutes, but considered it our “price for admission” for the day. This very different foray into a foreign religion was more satisfying, welcoming, and considerably less pushy. I would 100% recommend others visit. It proved an apt metaphor for out visit to South Korea as a whole. I cannot wait to go back for the culture, the people, the history, and most of all the food!