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Merry Christmas from Seoul!

12/31/12 - Seoul, South Korea

Trudging through the cold and snow on an adventurous first trip to Asia

On the day before New Year’s Eve we returned home from a very cold but equally rewarding week spent in South Korea.  Just about the first thing that everyone asks us about this trip is “how/why did you decide to go to Korea?!”  It was a bit of an odd choice, I suppose, and so I guess I’ll start there.  When we began researching this trip, we knew we wanted to go to Asia, as it was one of the remaining continents we had yet to visit (we hope to do South America next time).  We really were thinking of going someplace a bit warmer, such as Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia, which have all been popular destinations for Westerners in recent years, but flight times are much longer and more expensive and we only had a week to travel due to Scott's work schedule.  While researching flights to Southeast Asia, Scott started noticing that many of them stopped over in Seoul, South Korea, which only takes as long to travel to as many parts of Europe.  (We could have just as easily gone to Japan but decided to wait until we had more time, both to plan as well as to visit.)  And so Korea it was (being the practical-minded folks that that we are. And besides, we do seem to gravitate to the road less traveled if given half a chance…)!  

Our research told us it would be cold during our late-December trip and we were reasonably well-prepared, clothing-wise, for the temps we encountered – highs in the teens and 20s, lows in the single digits – but there’s no denying that the weather dictated a different sort of trip than if it had been more temperate.  We made the most of it, bundled up and even spent more time out of doors than we anticipated (with strategic warm-up sessions scheduled in).  Caroline tried very hard (and succeeded much of the time) not to grumble about her frozen fingers and toes and only slipped and fell twice on the icy pavements (they're not big on salt there).  To make up for the inclement weather, the temples and parks were lovely and peaceful in the freshly fallen snow and the piped in traditional Korean  music only added to the atmosphere of serenity.  Another bonus of traveling to Korea at this time of year was the opportunity to see the many Christmas decorations.  There was no shortage of Christmas trees and bright holiday lights decorating businesses and  public spaces and the festive outdoor skating rink we passed by one evening was crowded and bursting with energy, despite the cold.  Additionally, Koreans appear to adore fur when it comes to winter fashion and it was fun to see the women and even some men wearing beautiful and stylish fur-trimmed coats and ear muffs.

In addition to the cold weather, this trip was also a challenge for us due to the language barrier.  Scott gave it his best effort to try to learn a few key phrases before we left (in the two weeks we had between planning and departure), but we had no knowledge of the Korean alphabet which is written in Asian characters, not roman letters, of course.  However, Korea seems quite Westernized in many respects, perhaps more so than other Asian destinations, making it a little easier to navigate than it might seem at first glance (that said, on our first night we had to call the hotel front desk to help us flush our toilet!).  The subway train system in Seoul and the regional KTX trains are extensive and have signage and announcements in English, making it an easy and pleasant way to navigate the city and the country as a whole.  In terms of general communication, it’s surprisingly easy to get by, if you’re willing to do a lot of pointing and smiling, and can accept that you’re probably not going to be speaking to anyone, for even the Koreans who knew some English, tended to know very little.  However, nearly everyone we encountered was warm and friendly and did their best to help us out and it made all the difference in our enjoyment of the trip.  Our biggest frustration was with finding food.  Even though we had guide books filled with tantalizing suggestions, the addresses to locate said establishments were all written in Korean on the actual buildings which made them basically impossible to identify.  Also, because we don’t read any Korean, we had to rely on restaurants with pictures on the menus, or in some cases with scanty and /or strange descriptions written in English.  We really enjoyed sampling the street food sold at carts, where pointing and saying either "one" or "two" met with great success.  (What, you don't think it's exciting putting things in your mouth that you can't identify?)  Our biggest food success, however, occurred on the final night of our trip: we were able to locate a popular short-rib (galbi) restaurant that Scott had found mentioned on a food blog, by searching the general area for a restaurant that looked like the picture of it on the blog (made quite difficult by the fact that the façade had been remodeled since the posted photo was taken)!  It was warm and cozy inside (not always the case in Korea, we discovered) and the dumplings, short-ribs and soju were so good that it was well worth wandering in the sleet for upwards of 30 minutes in our attempts to locate the place!

Because it was somewhat challenging to make our way around and figure out what was going on due largely to the language barrier but also to the cold weather, slippery sidewalks and view-impairing hats, our progress was slow and our trip consisted mostly of visiting popular tourist attractions – and even a couple of museums, which we rarely take the time to see – rather than our usual habit of straying (far) off the beaten path.  But we enjoyed the adventure of simply finding the places on our own at all!  Some notable attractions we visited included Gyeongbok Palace and Folk Museum (where a group of middle-aged Asians amusingly insisted on having various photos taken of themselves with us), Namsongol Hanok Village, and Korea House Restaurant all located in Seoul.  Mid-week, we traveled by high speed train from Seoul to the smaller, historic city of Gyeongju, where we visited Bulguksa Temple, the Gyeongju National Museum, and Tumuli Park before returning for a final night in Seoul.  Much as we enjoyed Seoul, we were glad of the opportunity to see a smaller, less global city and really enjoyed our stop in Gyeongju, if you exclude the severe bout of food poisoning that occurred there.

All in all, our first trip to Asia was an exciting and enjoyable success!  We would definitely return during warmer weather (and after learning to read a little Korean!) and would recommend a visit to anyone with an interest in the area.

Next up: a pleasure barge trip on the Canal du Midi in the south of France this coming July - stay tuned!

Palace interior grounds


Scott poses with the street vendor who sold him his new fur hat


Christmas in Seoul


Caroline poses with a holiday-themed ice sculpture at Namsongol Hanok Village in Seoul


At Namsongol Hanok Village


Display at Namsongol Hanok Village - there were no descriptions in English but we got the gist of it...


Namsongol Hanok Village


Scott's typical look on this trip


Another street food snack in Seoul - this time, delicious dumplings!


Enjoying a traditional multi-course Korean meal at Korea House Restaurant


Riding the comfortable high-speed KTX train to Gyeongju


The (entertaining) entrance to a love hotel near our hotel (note the gay wrestlers smooching in the background)


Traditional clothing for sale at the night market in Gyeongju


Bulguksa Temple


Bulguksa Temple


Bulguksa Temple


Bulguksa Temple


Trudging through the snow to lunch with the French couple we met at the bus stop at Bulguksa Temple when the buses were cancelled due to the weather


You can see the steam coming off the food because the restaurant was basically unheated.  Poor Scott unwittingly ordered a cold dish! (But at least they served us tiny cups of plain hot water - gee, thanks!)


Tumuli Park was quite picturesque and serene in the snow


Waiting for our train back to Seoul at the KTX station in Gyeongju




...galbi (short-ribs) and soju made for a satisfying final meal in Korea


Visiting Gyeongbok Palace on a bitter-cold Christmas Eve day


Gyeongbok Palace


Caroline poses with a pair of palace visitors dressed in traditional Korean wear (hanbok)


Gyeongbok Palace


The palace was busy with tourists on Christmas Eve


Wandering the palace grounds


The palace guards, always ready to pose for a photo


Typical street in the Myeongdong shopping and entertainment district in Seoul


Dried fish for sale at a street market in Seoul


Market vendor preparing soybean pancakes


Hey, who's that silly photo bomber at Namsongol Hanok Village?!


At Namsongol Hanok Village


Namsongol Hanok Village


The ice sculpture area was by far the most popular attraction at Namsongol


We stopped for a snack of gizzards-on-a-stick and bean curd-stuffed pancakes at a stand outside the gates to Namsongol


Wandering the picturesque streets of Bukchon, a historic residential district in Seoul


The abalone course at Korea House in Seoul - yum!


Our less-than-comfortable hotel room at the J Motel in Gyeongju, one of the many popular love hotels in town (that attract tourists like us for their great value!)


In Gyeongju, McDonald's delivers!


Outside Gyeongju, we visited the lovely Bulguksa Temple in a snowstorm


Bulguksa Temple


Monk at Bulguksa Temple walking the grounds


The bell at Bulguksa Temple


Lunch in Gyeongju with a Korean-speaking French gal and her funny French boyfriend


Tumuli Park in Gyeongju, named for its ancient burial mounds, similar in concept to the Egyptian pyramids


Entrance to the tumuli that was open for touring


Tumuli in the snow


Scott relaxes in our hotel in the upscale Gangnam District on our last night in Seoul


Posing (one last time) in the ubiquitous and ill-fitting hotel slippers at the Hotel Tria in Seoul


We enjoyed a delicious sushi snack at Osaka International on our way home (and we can't wait to spend more than a few hours in Japan!