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Saturday, 28 December 2013

Kaptivating Korea - Soulful Seoul

I visited (South) Korea shortly before K-pop and K-drama became popular, so some of these may be a little dated. It was in 2008, October, and we'd followed a group tour since we knew no one there, nor did we understand the language. I did not know what my expectations there were, only that I was going to a new country with a culture I had yet to explore.

Sadly, for this trip, we lost the camera during a fight, so most of the photos were gone with the wind. I am writing this entry (re-writing, actually, since it was mentioned in a Xangan Blog that has since been shut down no thanks to the upgrade) based on my manual diary and a couple of photographs that I purchased from the tour guide's photographer (smart, eh? A photographer who followed us on the trip, took pictures for us, developed them into physical copies and sold them to us on the last day!)

OK, this is basically the only post-able photo that doesn't contain the entire tour group of 17 of us! This shot was taken at the Daegwallyeong Wind Village cheese factory at the sheep ranch, where we were divided into groups to learn to make cheese from scratch. That was our creation - our group consisted of a really nice couple, and a leading flight steward and his paralegal brother - all very friendly people.

The Trip Begins

10th October 2008 (Friday) -  Met the tour mates at the airport, and the tour leader from Singapore who would be accompanying us over there. Took the night flight to Seoul's Incheon Airport (with layover at Shanghai's Pudong Airport). So one could say that the trip began officially on 11th October 2008 (Saturday).

11th October 2008 (Saturday) - After the slumber on the flights and coach transfers, we finally stopped for lunch somewhere in Seoul. It was freezing cold, a slap in the face from the hot humidity in Singapore - but the winner was that they brought us for Korean Ginseng Chicken lunch. It had tasted ridiculously delicious at that point in time - piping hot, tender chicken meat, aromatic Korean Ginseng soup with tiny dots of glutinuous rice at the bottom. Our tour guide in Korean was "Michael" whom we nicked "Big Sweet Potato" for some reason.

Our tour group mates comprised primarily of a group of 5-6 very elderly ladies (in their 60s to 80s!), a family of four, 1 other couple, the two brothers aforementioned and their mother, and us.

After satisfying our tummies, we were brought to Sinchong (Ladies Fashion Street) to shop. I did not remember getting much stuff there, but was fascinated by the concept of the EWHA Women's University opening up to the public to shop. Korean fashion, especially wintry collection, was not really for me, I realized - even though the clothes there were relatively cheaper if purchased there (half price, thereabout). I bought a top or two, and some skincare products.

Then we embarked on a four-hour journey to Mt. Seorak, where we would spend the night. Along the journey we stopped for dinner at a food-court styled eatery, where we were served Bibimbap (Korean stone bowl rice mixed with vegetables). Bearing in mind that I was never a fan of anything Korean, this was the first time I was eating Bibimbap, and I thought it was rather interestingly tasty.

Reaching Mt. Seorak was a relief, after the long journey. It was very cold, but we were brought to our mountain resort rather efficiently. The views might have been beautiful, but it was nightfall and we turned in after a couple of drinks, so that we would be fresh for another long day tomorrow.

12th October 2008 (Sunday) - We woke to a very cold morning, but even though all I had on was a dress, leggings and denim jacket, I did not feel cold. We breakfasted, and were guided through Mt. Soerak National Park. It was gorgeous, imagine clean streets, trees with sparse red leaves, like how one saw in Korean movies. I made the climb halfway up the hill but decided to stop because of the steep steps and my heels.

Then we were coached to a temple (the name eludes me / wasnt captured) to see some magnificent Buddha-esque statue. I believe it should have been the Shinheongsa Temple, a historical monument constructed during the Shilla era.

Next, we were transported to where we boarded a romantic train ride and travelled along the scenic coast from Jeongdongjin train station to Pyeongchang. The train ride was lovely, sights of majestic waves and elegant beaches. We were told that a six-hour ferry ride across the seas (the one we were overlooking) would bring us right to the shores of Japan.

After lunch of soupy steamboat, we visited the Daegwallyeong Wind Village, where we hand fed the sheeps in the ranch, and could try to milk the goats if we dared. We entered the cheese factory next, where a female instructor, using simple English and the help of our tour guides, taught us how to make our own cheese, in groups of 6-8. The ingredients were surprisingly simple - cow's milk, vinegar, sea salt water etc. Within an hour or two, we had our own homemade cheese and we either ate it clasped between slices of corn chips, or dipped into the strawberry jam. We had red wine there as well. It was a hearty experience.

Dinner was Korean BBQ - greasy, hot and very meaty. They kept changing the grill for us as it turned black pretty fast.;

Another long coach journey brought us to Yongpyong Resort, where we were to spend the night. We were given time for a bit of self-entertainment - spa, hot springs, water theme park at Alpensia Ocean 700 or bowling etc. Despite the cold, indoors was warm. Most of us chose to amuse ourselves at the water theme parks - long water slides (lit by colored lights) etc. I loved the man-made hotsprings tremendously - they came in so many different flavors- red wine, fruits, coffee, herbs etc. In this freezing weather, the hotsprings were the perfect spots to warm ourselves and give our bodies a health boost at the same time.

After two hours of fun, we headed for a walk around the resort. Despite it being a mere 4.8 degrees, the gentle mists and emptiness of the vast space made the place almost enchanting, magical. I stood in the cold for a long while, lost in space, taking in the oddly serene beauty of the entire experience. Then returned to Dragon Valley Hotel for a good night's sleep after a long, tiring day.

                                                       Photographs of Namsan Tower / N Seoul Tower - sources:                          
                                            www.theworldsbestholiday.blogspot.com and www.evanbleker.com.

13th October 2008 (Monday) - We kissed the lovely Yongpyong Resort goodbye after breakfast and were driven to Everland Theme Park. I remembered it was a huge theme park but the rides were rather limited. We asked one of the tour mates to join us (a lady in her late 20s or early 30s who was the daughter of one of the elderly ladies), and we took some rides together - roller coaster, giant "water cup" ride, rotating house etc. Lunch was free and easy, so we ate the equivalent of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) here, fast-food fried chicken.

The next destination was a large Korean house owned by a very wealthy figure. The name eludes me - all I remembered were magnificent structures around the house, ornate Korean designs and vast space. There was a very huge courtyard where we were fortunate enough to witness a very traditional Korean wedding - traditional wedding garb in lieu of the white lacey wedding dress, praying to the Sun rituals etc.

Afterwards, we travelled to the Seoul Global Culture & Tourism Center, where we viewed some Korean historical displays and tried on the traditional Korean costumes to take photos. We also leaned how to make Kimchi - fermented vegetables in spicy and sour seasonings. Got our gloves and hands dirty rubbing the reddish seasoning (garlic, vinegar, salt, pepper and other spices) onto the cabbages and radishes. It was fun, but no one wanted to try their own creation, so we were told these Kimchi would be stored and donated to charitable organizations with meals.

I managed to buy some souveinirs - just some keepsakes and tiny gifts.

Next, we headed to the COEX Mall, a very huge underground mall containing malls, convention halls and exhibition centers. Here was where I bought a fair bit of skincare products, cosmetics and some accessories.

Dinner was hot pot, which was again delightful during cold nights as such. We also stocked up on some Korean instant noodles in bowls for supper - Korean instant noodles are nice! After dinner, we visited N Seoul Tower located on Mt. Namsan, for paronormic, beautific and glorious sweeping night views of the city.

We checked into Stay Seven Hotel Seoul, which would be ours for the next two nights in this city.

14th October 2008 (Tuesday) - We had a Chinese breakfast, after which we visited the Ginseng Monopoly Show Room and Amethyst Factory. These were the spots where the hungry salespeople hassled the tourists to buy something, so I bought some snacks for family, friends and colleagues. The leading steward travelling with us (who became a friend eventually) informed us not to buy the Korean ginseng here as it was commercialized, hence the prices were jacked up. If we were keen, he could show us the spots where we could buy Ginseng at better prices.

We visited some rather touristy places - the Presidential Blue House and a Palace (I do not recall if it was the Gyeongbok or Changdeokgung Palace). All I remembered was that I marvelled at the intricate structures and beauty of the place, immersed in the culture and could almost feel the energies of the people who might have stayed here - weird feeling, but this is what culture does to me.

We stopped by a Police Museum for a short visit, before proceeding to Lucky Seven Casino. I played the Jackpot mainly - had some small winnings but greed got the better of me and I fed all my winnings back to the casino at the end of it all. It was then I realized that we would not be visiting the larger, more popular Lotte World.

The final destination for the night was MyeongDong for shopping. I loved the streets filled with rows of boutiques and shops. Even as I was being jostled and pushed by the surprisingly rude Korean people who didn't bother apologizing for knocking people around, I had a fun time picking up dresses and glamorous accessories. These were not cheap at all, but pretty. I loved the skincare shops here as well - Laneige, Skin FoodThe Face Shop etc. All the sales staff were so friendly, and kept thrusting free samples at passerbys - I collected a bagload of them, and also made quite a few purchases since the prices were very low.

If I am not wrong, dinner for that night was free and easy, since I'd recorded in my manual diary that we had turkey breast sandwiches and red wine.

15th October 2008 (Wednesday) - We packed our luggages after a Udon breakfast. Then we shopped at some store where I bought some spicy chocolates and other snacks. We were driven to the airport where we would continue the tour in Shanghai, but then that's for another blog entry about my China tours.

Overall I rather enjoyed the trip because of the cultural infusion and overall experience. I also loved how the streets were clean and lovely, the weather was cold, and the lovely tour mates we were lucky enough to have. My only complaints were the Koreans being a little brusque overall, and that we did not get to visit the gorgeous Jeju Island or Namdaemun market for more shopping.

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