Round The World and other travels

A frequent flyer's collection of trip diaries

This is: The Portuguese Connection (2012)

Seoul Discovery

We had breakfast at a local coffee shop that was literally a few steps away from the door of the Courtyard. Although it was after 0800, the shop still seemed to be getting geared up for the day ahead. I was surprised that it wasn't busier on such a bitterly cold morning, where the balmy climes of Hong Kong and Macau already seemed distant in both space and time. After a short stop back at the room, we were ready to take on this rather daunting metropolis, where hardly anyone appeared to speak a word of English.

We walked to the local station, Yeongdeungpo, on street level. (It later transpired that a parallel subterranean route was also available.) The fun began in the ticket hall, where we were confronted with banks of several varieties of ticket machine. Eventually giving up hope of acquiring anything resembling a day pass, we settled for single tickets to Anguk, which we were to reach by taking a Line 1 train to Jongno 3-ga (the '3' was pronounced 'sam', apparently) followed by a Line 3 train to our desired destination. We also managed to work out that it was necessary to overpay slightly as a deposit on the plastic card tickets, and that the overpayment could be refunded on completion of the journey by surrendering our used tickets at a 'Deposit Refund Device'. Simples, as they say - or perhaps not, in this case.

Safely delivered to Anguk some considerable time later, we walked the short distance to Jogyesa Buddhist Temple, which looked colourful in the bright morning sunshine. It struck me as unusual, based on my own previous experiences, to see Buddhist monks dressed for near-freezing conditions.

Bright but cold conditions at Jogyesa Temple

We then walked to the nearby Bukchon Hanok Village, one of several traditional Korean villages in the heart of Seoul. Our endeavours were greatly assisted when we ran into a couple of young, uniformed 'tourist helpers' (for want of a better description). Bruce began by asking the young woman for recommendations on what to see, but she blushed a little, giggled and pointed at the chest of her male colleague. The young man was wearing a sign round his neck like some kind of cheap pendant, bearing the single word 'English'. I guess we should have spotted that. He turned out to be very friendly and helpful, and drew a little map of a recommended walking route that would take in the main sights without delving into every alleyway. Bruce then got some wide-eyed gasps, quickly followed by broad smiles, when he thanked the two of them in Korean. Show-off!

The village was set into a steep hillside and some attractive views were available from the higher points. The area was very much a living museum; it was clear that people actually resided in the restored properties and we had to be prepared for occasional embellishments drawn from contemporary reality, such as cars backing out of garages or people taking out the garbage.

ABOVE: Bukchon Hanok Village

Having made our way back to Anguk Station, we stopped for a welcome and tasty snack at a street food stall, and this proved to be another memorable experience. Our chosen delicacy consisted of small pieces of marinated octopus surrounded by dough, rolled into balls and then deep fried. They were served with a spicy mayo and dried shrimp on top. It may sound a little weird to Western tastes, but we both agreed that it really worked!
We then rode the subway to Samgakji and walked to the nearby War Memorial of Korea. This large site had both indoor and outdoor exhibition areas for military equipment and war memorabilia, as well as some interesting statuary and other memorials.

One of the most striking memorials was the Statue of Brothers (top-left picture), which depicted two soldiers - one North Korean and one South Korean - in an embrace intended to symbolise reconciliation, love and forgiveness. The cracked shell symbolised the division of Korea itself. Despite the nobility of the sentiment, we couldn't help noticing that the South Korean soldier was larger than life, armed, strong and in a controlling position, while the other was small, weak-looking and submissive.
ABOVE: At the War Memorial of Korea

Next, we caught a train for a one-stop hop to Noksapyeong Station, which marks the start of the Itaewon district.

This area is well-known for its proximity to Western military bases and most of the shops, bars and restaurants are pitched to appeal accordingly. Our target was the trendy fine-dining restaurant OKitchen, which was probably well above the budget of the average off-duty soldier. To our considerable frustration, it also seemed to be beyond our abilities to track it down. We were on the point of giving up and seeking out an alternative when I happened to glance up a side street, do a double-take, point at a sign and say: "What is that?" Our quarry had secreted itself at least 200yds from the location shown on our map.   All sense of frustration was forgotten when the food and wine appeared on the table: we had a fabulous lunch that fully lived up to expectations.  
  ABOVE: Our highly rated lunch stop in Itaewon 
BELOW: City Hall (old and new) and surrounding area
Feeling thoroughly satisfied, we strolled through some of the back streets and along the main drag of Itaewon-ro itself, eventually arriving at Hangangjin subway station. I suggested a quick look around the City Hall area before returning to base, as I always like to 'anchor' myself in any new city by getting to know the main focal point.

The old City Hall building, twinned with the curvaceous new building dating only from August 2012, made for a spectacular sight, even in the fading daylight and with work going on in the square to construct what looked like a temporary ice rink for the festive season.

With darkness falling rapidly, matched by the prevailing temperatures, we caught a subway train back to Yeongdeungpo and had a look around the large mall adjacent to the hotel.

After a chance to freshen up and recover from the day's exertions, we had a cocktail in the Courtyard's 'MoMo' bar and then returned to the mall. We had spotted the fairly classy-looking 'Hana Sushi' restaurant earlier and luckily they had a couple of seats available at the counter with its 'revolving sushi' conveyor belt system that is very popular in South Korea. We had a most enjoyable light evening meal by picking items off the conveyor. Occasionally, one of the chefs would intervene and indicate that he would make a fresh one. The charges depended entirely on consumption, with the plate colour indicating the price. Interestingly, only one item failed to hit the spot and it was the same item for both of us; everything else was absolutely delicious. It was only the third time in my life that I'd eaten a sushi meal and I'm sure it won't be the last.  
  ABOVE: Times Square by night 

Thursday 22 Nov

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