Days 5-9 of a Hastily-Planned Trip to Seoul!

7 Mar

Day 5 – Olympic Day

The Olympics were held in Pyeongchang (and yes, I think everyone did a bit of a double-take at the name) about 1.5 hours from Seoul by high speed train.

We had originally wanted to watch the snowboard halfpipe but it wrapped up before we arrived in Korea so we watched the ski halfpipe women’s finals and men’s qualifiers instead, which was still really fun.
IMG_20180220_095725The morning started with a hiccup because we missed our booked train and pretty much every other train was sold out (seat reservations and standing room) . Luckily the guy working there managed to find us a train leaving an hour later from a different station, and I’d built so many contingencies into our itinerary that we still managed to get to Pyeongchang, take the shuttle, buy souvenirs, and get seated 30 minutes before the event.

Our view of the halfpipe:
IMG_20180220_110858The view in the standing area was slightly better because you got a better perspective of how high the competitors were jumping, but it was maybe a 10% increase in view with a 150% decrease in comfort. And honestly, the best vantage point is always going to be from your couch – the main reason to go to the Olympics is the atmosphere.

We really enjoyed seeing people dressed up supporting their countries. Everyone was so friendly and we were all having a great time.

Aussie Aussie Aussie!
IMG_20180220_112534(Disclaimer: no Aussies were in this event – possibly something we should have researched in advance).

There was one Korean competing, which was really fun because there would be this huge roar from the crowd every time he came up. James and I agreed that having experienced that, we would have liked to see an event with more Koreans in it – perhaps an indoor one! It was a sunny day but incredibly cold when the wind picked up. We were both wearing thermals, gloves, hat, scarves, multiple coats/jackets and it was still chilly at times.IMG_20180220_152538To the right you can see the slopestyle course – in between events we saw groups of people practising on it.

The most heavily-represented fans were South Korea, the US and Canada, but there were a lot of European and Scandinavian countries there too. And an adorable tour group that wore a bunch of random flags as tiny shawls (why didn’t they just wear their own flags??). Here James is with some of them at the pedestrian crossing:
IMG_20180220_173827His Boxing Kangaroo flag was very much admired – I saw some people from the tour group eyeing it enviously and some of the Olympic volunteers asked him about it as well.

So majestic.
IMG_20180220_173506It took a long time to get into the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium so we didn’t have a ton of time to look around – and we definitely didn’t want to miss our train again! There was a massive souvenir store and a center that had a bunch of cool stuff, like VR snowboard and bobsled and this robot fish.Burst_Cover_GIF_Action_20180220171004They also had a cool sculpture outside – I like how the Olympic rings at the bottom blend into it.
IMG_20180220_172819Also notice how cold that poor guy behind us is. He did not have the warming properties of Flag.

It took awhile to find the shuttle stop to get to the Jinbu KTX station but, having learned from our previous experience, we’d left plenty of time. Which meant we could take more photos at the station! A Jehovah’s Witness gave us some pamphlets then took this photo for us:
IMG_20180220_182327The Olympic mascots are Soohorang (white tiger) and Bandabi (black bear). James really liked the tiger and wanted to buy one for the cats as a souvenir. But the tiger was insanely popular – I think because they gave him to the winners, so he was more prominent – and the little version of him was basically sold out. They had a ton of little black bears but none of the white tiger. James eventually found the tiger at the airport – but you had to buy him bundled with the bear haha.

James has re-named them Pyeongchang and Shitbear. Now that we’re home he keeps taking photos of the cats with Pyeongchang and staging photos of them ignoring Shitbear.

Anyway, when we got back to Seoul we had some toppoki and ramen at a Marvel-themed bar.
IMG_20180220_210621 The toppoki in its uncooked state: IMG_20180220_210735Also cheese fried rice! It tasted a bit like a parma.
IMG_20180220_211120We were both surprised at how many cheese dishes there were in Korea. When we’re in Asian countries James is used to not having to worry about his lactose intolerance.

Unimpressed.
IMG_20180219_141646
Day 6 – DMZ Day

The only “must-do” on my list was visiting the Dermilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.
IMG_20180221_135548The most interesting part is the JSA (Joint Security Area), and only a few companies do that, including the one we went with, Koridoor Tours. We were quite lucky to get in since we were doing everything on quite short notice.

Looking into North Korea:IMG_20180221_094234 (1)Do you see the concrete dividers between the blue houses? Everything beyond that is North Korea.

Our military guide said that there used to be North Korean guards visible but not anymore – he thought maybe because they realised they were being used in the tour. But back then both Koreas would post their tallest, buffest guards to intimidate the other side. You had to be at least 6′ in South Korea, but he said the tallest North Korean guards were 5’7″ or 5’8″.

Here is James half in North Korea and half in South Korea. The microphone line on the conference table is the dividing line between the two countries. IMG_20180221_095315Our military guide said he wasn’t allowed to cross, so he stayed on the South Korea side.

One of the South Korean guards – they were all completely still and expressionless the whole time (apparently if you got too close they would elbow you away – we did not test that out):
IMG_20180221_095343It was a surprisingly tense experience. Going from the Olympics, which is a symbol of peace and friendship between countries and had the United Korea team, to the DMZ/JSA, where you can tell that relations are not friendly, was definitely an eye-opener.

When I checked the Koridoor tour page today, it said “Access to the ‘Bridge of no return and Point of Ax Murder’ has been restricted due to the current development between South and North Korea.” Yikes.

Afterwards we went to see a train station that was originally supposed to link the two Koreas. IMG_20180221_111415If the JSA was tense then this was pretty surreal. Here is James in the sitting area, waiting for a train that will never arrive.IMG_20180221_105446For $1 we bought a ticket to go see the train platform area. One ticket to Pyeongyang please! IMG_20180221_105920After seeing how busy most stations were, it was kind of eerie seeing a completely empty, unused one. IMG_20180221_110452Apparently they keep closing and re-opening the station and the last time it was open was 2013. I guess the hope is that one day relations between South and North Korea will improve and it will be fully operational.IMG_20180221_110407A hard choice – Pyeongyang or Seoul? IMG_20180221_110331In that direction is North Korea. IMG_20180221_110541When Dorasan station first opened, the German government gave them a piece of the Berlin Wall as a symbol of reunification. IMG_20180221_110651The station also had a cool little souvenir shop where James got a t-shirt and a bottle of North Korean wine.

We had lunch and took a picture at what I think is a checkpoint for road travel to North Korea? I think our guide said this was how the North Korean Olympians travelled in. IMG_20180221_120929Afterwards we went to an observatory where we could actually see into North Korea proper. It was a reasonably clear day (our guide said we were quite lucky and it’s only like that 20% of the time).

In this picture on the left is a North Korean village and on the right is a South Korean one. The South Korean government put up their country’s flag on a giant flagpole and in response the North Korean government made an even taller flagpole to hoist their flag. IMG_20180221_123018The North Korean village is called the Propoganda village because it’s completely fake. The buildings are empty facades, don’t have glass in the windows, and some of them don’t even have interior rooms.

They also play propoganda and music at each other. I read that there was a period of about 10 years where they mutually agreed to stop, but resumed because of recent escalating tensions. The South Korean speaker is bottom right (it was playing k-pop and western music) and you can see the forest separating the two Koreas.IMG_20180221_122658Here is James struggling to use the binoculars. He is too tall for South Korea. IMG_20180221_122827Then we headed to the 3rd infiltration tunnel. It was one of at least four that North Korea made to infiltrate South Korea under the pretense of mining for coal. We weren’t allowed to take photos, but it was pretty much just a damp, crude tunnel with very low ceilings.

So yeah, that was our tour of the DMZ and JSA. Pretty interesting! We took the subway back to our hotel to get ready for dinner. We went to Jinmi Sikdang, which is famous for its ganjang gejang – raw crab marinated in soy sauce.

When the taxi driver took us there he couldn’t find any signage so he asked for directions from some construction workers. While we were paying we saw a well-dressed Korean woman go inside and James said that after we went in the driver also came in to look around – I guess he was curious what sort of restaurant would appeal to construction workers, tourists and fancy Korean ladies.

There isn’t even a menu – crab is the only thing they sell. You just tell them how many are in your party and they prepare the appropriate number of crabs.

It was so good. IMG_20180221_171804The crab was incredibly creamy and the salty soy sauce brine and roe made it perfect with a spoonful of rice or egg.IMG_20180221_175858Everything tasted like a richer, creamier version of normal crab. So the innards were super rich – you could really only eat a little bit at a time, as James found out when he ate a giant gob of it.

This was my favourite part of the crab – I don’t know what it was because I don’t think I’ve ever had it before. But it was a perfect little mouthful of crab with a ton of flavour and juices captured in what I thought of as the artichoke leaf-like part.

IMG_20180221_180615James isn’t a massive fan of crab in general but I loved it. He had some but mainly kept himself occupied with the side dishes while I demolished 1.5 portions of crab.

Day 7 – Shopping Day

This was the day of James’ meeting so I took the opportunity to explore some of Seoul’s famous shopping districts.

I started in Myeongdong where our hotel was, but was pretty put off by the pushy cosmetics salespeople. I did like A-land, which was a cool department store where I bought a ton of CosRX skincare:
IMG_20180307_114715I  also liked this men’s jumper that I ended up getting in grey. Though now I’m like … was that a mistake? I have a lot of grey hoodies and no black ones!
IMG_20180222_105952Afterwards I went to the Ewha shopping district and also the Dongdaemun shopping malls. To be honest, I was a little underwhelmed since a lot of the stores have the same stock. There was one really good sock store on the fashion street in Ewha – it had the largest selection of socks out of any store that I saw in the markets, so if you want to stock up on souvenirs that was a pretty good place for it. (Later when we were walking all around Myeongdong looking for the perfect combination of socks, I thought longingly of that place)

For dinner I met up with James and his coworker for Korean BBQ. It was pretty cool – the extractor vents were so powerful and quiet – even though everyone was having BBQ you couldn’t see or smell any smoke and you couldn’t hear the vents working.

Look how hot and glowy it was!
IMG_20180222_200434 They cooked the meat for us to a perfect medium rare. The meat was seasoned really well and so tender, smoky and delicious. IMG_20180222_200544I remember being reasonably full after the meal (I wanted to leave some room for street food) but now remembering how good it was I’m like “why didn’t I gorge myself??”

Afterwards James and I did some shopping in Myeongdong.
IMG_20180222_191348We bought some socks. I’d packed a selection of thin and thick socks but my feet had swollen so much from all the walking that I couldn’t wear the thick socks and needed to buy more thin ones. I dragged James around to a bunch of different shops because I wanted only the kitchiest, more hilarious socks.
IMG_20180223_084632(I got the one on the right because the little egg guy looks like he needs to pee)

When I looked up souvenirs from Korea, socks would always show up on the lists and I was like “huh?” But now I get it. They’re super cheap and fun – under $1 each. James enjoyed using the sock conversion rate for other stuff we bought in Seoul – so a $5 meal = 5 socks.

I also bought a twister potato (I can’t remember how much it was – I think around 3 socks). It had a kind of cheese powder on it and was way tastier than I was expecting. Photo evidence indicates that I found it delightful:
IMG_20180222_215708 And here I am, wielding it like a sword with a hat stall in the background: IMG_20180222_215731Also you can kind of see how I had to lace my boots to avoid hot spots and the painful/swollen parts of my feet. By that time I was basically using 4 eyelets to hold the whole thing together.

Day 8 – Oppan Gangnam Style!

On this day we explored the fancy part of Gangnam. We started at K-Star road which was a road decorated with a ton of K-pop band bears. The biggest, most prominent one was Psy:
IMG_20180223_104243As you can probably tell by now, Korea had a lot of these cute photo opportunities everywhere. I made James do this at the train station (but I think he kind of got into it):
IMG_20180223_103906We stopped at a place in Gangnam for lunch where I had oxtail soup:
IMG_20180223_123426 And James had something called “bomb ribs”: IMG_20180223_125618They were really good and not too expensive even though it was clearly a really nice restaurant in a really nice part of Seoul.

We walked to Garosugil, which is a really picturesque part of Gangnam with cool stores and trendy Koreans. James liked this bear and wished to emulate its fashion style:
IMG_20180223_135323My favourite store was a Karl Lagerfeld pop up that we randomly wandered into:
IMG_20180223_150401I tried on some t-shirts and in the changing room they had these gauze sheets to put over your face to stop makeup from getting on the clothes – pretty nifty! PANO_20180223_143640I ended up getting this one:
IMG_20180307_115308(It’s a bit wrinkly because, quite frankly, I wore it a couple of times when we got back and had to fish it out of the laundry for this photo).

We decided it would be better to kill time in Gangnam rather than heading back to the hotel only to stay 30 minutes before leaving for dinner, so James plotted a route to our dinner destination. On the way we passed a ton of plastic surgery places which we thought was pretty interesting.

And to my delight we also passed the Sulwhasoo flagship store! IMG_20180223_181226I had gone to Lotte to buy a couple of Sulwhasoo products because apparently the discounts there are quite good, but was really put off by the crowds of pushy, rude Chinese tourists. As you can see, the Sulwhasoo store was amazing in comparison and we were the only ones there.

We explored the ground floor, which had displays of ingredients and pretty containers:
IMG_20180223_173406 The store assistant brewed us some ginger (or maybe it was ginseng?) tea, and let us just explore around on our own.

I bought some Balancing Water and a large size of the First Care Activating Serum, which came with a 30ml sample. The lady who helped us was so sweet – she gave me a ton of samples – a toiletry bag, miniature candle, moisturising mist (which she said was for the plane ride home), and a balancing kit because I mentioned that I liked it. =) She also added some men’s samples for James!

The packaging was beautiful.
IMG_20180307_132350 The one on the bottom is their regular fabric wrapping and the one on top is a special Lunar New Year one for the year of the dog.

They also engraved it for me. =) (On the lid of the one in front and under the characters of the one behind) IMG_20180307_132550The more I think about it the more I marvel at the brand’s cleverness – because every time I use their skincare I’m going to be reminded of how lovely and luxurious that experience was.

Then it was time for our dinner at two Michelin starred Jungsik. We went with the tasting menu with a wine pairing split between us, and they made James dairy-free versions of the dishes he couldn’t have.

I wish I’d taken notes because I’m already forgetting the specifics of some of these dishes. =( I remember the ice cream one was a salmon pate in a cheese cone and the one to the right of it was a croquette-like dish with an incredible aioli sauce. They were all delicious.
IMG_20180223_191537I think these might have been battered fish?IMG_20180223_192004The next course was nori crackers and assorted toppings. From the top it was wasabi, kimchi, tomato, seaweed jelly, cream cheese, seaweed, roe, and yam, with tuna in the middle.
IMG_20180223_193536The tuna and roe were the best but I was super enamoured with the concept of the seaweed jelly.

Next I had a scallop in brown butter with peppercorns.
IMG_20180223_200031_1And James had mushrooms with sesame oil in a tiny little jar. IMG_20180223_200021Octopus with gochu sauce
IMG_20180223_201717 Royal bibimbap. I was a bit worried when I saw this on the list because we didn’t really want to eat more vegetarian bibimbap, but it was basically a truffle risotto (mine had cheese) and was fabulous. Here are our bowls before we mixed the rice and truffles: IMG_20180223_203615This was some sort of fish with spinach. I can’t remember what the fish was but it was very tender and very good.
IMG_20180223_205211 Galbi – it was great but I was starting to get really full at this point! IMG_20180223_211111A palate cleanser before dessert. James was given raspberry sorbet and I can’t remember what mine was, although I think the sauce was honey-based.
IMG_20180223_212441My dessert – chestnut ice cream, shaved chocolate, and I can’t remember what the honeycomb things were but I really liked them. IMG_20180223_213133James’ dessert of granola, soy milk and sorbet.
IMG_20180223_213155Which was followed by creme brulee for me and a little sorbet for James. Then some fancy tea: IMG_20180223_214853And even fancier cookies:
IMG_20180223_215241It was a lovely meal, quite well-priced, and I was so impressed that the waiter and sommelier was able to explain everything in english.

After dinner we capped off the night at a speakeasy called Alice. It was so much fun – combined with the gorgeous dinner, definitely the best night of our trip! The speakeasy was not signed but we knew we were in the right place when we saw this:
IMG_20180223_222025The vibe was good, the music was great, and they played the Alice in Wonderland cartoon on the wall. And OMG, the cocktails were so fun. Behold!

00002XTR_00002_BURST20180223223650-ANIMATION(And yes, there are tiny Pringles in the back. Because there was a cover charge – which is a thing in some Korean bars apparently – they gave us a small basket of snacks).

Look how happy James is with his Pringles and his glowing drink!
IMG_20180223_225159 My drink, which came with some birds and chocolate covered nut “eggs”. IMG_20180223_223739The menu was really cool too – graphic novel style and, leafing through it later in the night, we realised that it actually had illustrations of the drinks!
IMG_20180223_233150James’ next drink had a cheshire cat cocktail with fairy floss stuck to the outside as a snack. IMG_20180223_230920And mine came in a bunny mug!
IMG_20180223_230737Which, along with my previous drink, was also illustrated in the menu:
IMG_20180223_233133This was the bar area behind me. IMG_20180223_230718 Hmm, looks kind of familiar …IMG_20180223_233159One of the waiters really liked James. The bathroom was occupied when James went to use it and “his” waiter said to sit down and he’d let him know when it was free. He waited at the door until the guy left, then grabbed another waiter to hold his spot while he came and got James. They weren’t doing that for anyone else (not even me!!)

Later in the evening James asked him if there were any more drinks with unique presentation and he recommended:

The Stone Pot Ginseng (which James was happy about because it was what he wanted anyway):
IMG_20180223_235340And I don’t remember what this one was, but it was a little bit rose-y, a little bit citrusy and it came with an aromatherapy diffuser thingy that sprayed a rose scent while I drank. IMG_20180223_235544OMG!

We left it at three drinks because we were pretty tired and tipsy (though again, looking back I’m like “why didn’t we order more?? I want to know what the other drinks looked like!”

We asked about buying the bunny mug and our waiter (whom I think of as “James’ guy”) checked for him because they were custom made, then came back and apologetically said “I think the cost is not reasonable” – it was $170 (170 socks!!!)

So we nixed that idea – though maybe we should have bought it! It’s only money – and it would have made us happy every time we looked at it. Ah damnit. Anyway, James’ guy called a cab for us and while we were waiting he brought out some shots for the three of us to drink together. What a fun way to end our last night in Seoul!

Day 9 – Travel Day

Our final day! =(

After buying my socks I had massive sock regret at not getting more for our friends as souvenirs. So in the morning we went to Namdaemun market and Myeongdong and bought a shit ton of socks. We got pokemon socks, cat socks, Australian flag socks, Star Wars socks, chicken socks (for Cat), and more Psy socks (for souvenirs).
IMG_20180307_143650_1At the market we had some king dumpling buns (3 with pork, 2 with pork and kimchi, and the lady threw in an extra, unsellable – but still tasty – deformed pork and kimchi bun. They really hit the spot for a morning snack – 5 for $3.50:
IMG_20180224_091500I also became obsessed with these furry keychain. I got this gorilla for $5 (and later found out they were selling them for $3.80 at Myeongdong *sigh*. But look how cute he is! I keep patting his soft leathery face: IMG_20180307_144525
James chose this colour because he thought it made him look like a yeti.

And this keychain is my favourite. It was really expensive ($15) but I figure the price was ballpark enough not to keep haggling because the seller let me walk away at $10 and had started at $30. I had to go back in defeat 15 minutes later and buy him because I couldn’t find him anywhere else.

I think of him as a boy but in my head I have named him “Lady Gaga”:
IMG_20180307_144540
Oh, and as a last picture, this fucking strawberry. I kept seeing this franchise around Myeongdong and every time I would get freaked out because that little prancing strawberry is so disturbing.IMG_20180224_123755_1
Ugh, look at it frolic. So gross.

Then it was time to go back to the hotel and pack. It was a bit of a tight squeeze getting everything in because we bought more souvenirs than expected (socks!)

So yeah, that was our hastily-planned trip to Seoul. It came together pretty well I think, and we had a great time. =) I think if James had to go back I would want to tag along again – we could go back to Alice! Eat more KBBQ and go to some of the restaurants we missed!

(Buy more socks!)

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