In the thick of Seoul’s business district, with concrete riverbanks and sparse vegetation, Cheonggyecheon isn’t exactly unspoilt nature. All the same, it’s an escape: it breaks up the urban monotony of its sleek city surroundings and brings you down below the level of the streets to the restored river. Continue reading
Being late on a metro is a particularly frustrating feeling. In a car, you can speed, you can pass people, you can rush towards yellow lights manically, to at least feel like you’re making a difference– even if it only shaves off a couple minutes. When you’re late on the subway, there’s little for you to do but sit there.
Some friends of ours had given us the contact information of Younjie, a young woman they knew who lived in Seoul, and she had generously offered to meet us for dinner. We responded to this nice gesture by arriving thirty minutes late. Continue reading
We woke at 5 am to prepare for our tour of the Demilitarized Zone. Continue reading
We began our day at 9am, walking through the temporarily deserted streets of Myeong-dong, one of the shopping districts of Seoul, in search of the nearest metro station. Arriving late the previous night, we had only seen the city in the dark while riding the bus from Incheon. Perhaps because we had recently visited both Japan and China, we looked for their reflection in Seoul. At first, the city seemed like a compromise between Beijing and Tokyo. The wideness of the streets, the vendors with their stalls, and some of the low, bulky buildings, all reminded us of China. Yet the total lack of pungent smells, the human scale of the architecture, and the demeanor of the people, resembled cities in Japan.
“What will be interesting,” Dan said, “will be to see what’s really unique about Seoul.”
After a nine-hour flight cramped in coach with a screaming baby for company, after being exorbitantly charged in London for my baggage, and after an uncomfortable three-hour bus ride from Dublin, I arrived late in the evening at my apartment in Galway, situated in a student housing complex called Gort na Coiribe. I noted with dismay the peeling faux wood, the cracked paint in the bathroom, the half-broken shower doors, and– most of all– a bright red stain on the depressingly drab carpet of my cramped single room. The homesickness hit an all-time high. I blearily went across the street to buy pillows and some yogurt.
July 3rd: Woke up early, enjoyed our last breakfast buffet in China, and headed to the airport. A lengthy customs process ensued. An official waved us through the first gate. We passed through a second gate under the sign that read, “No Goods To Declare,” then arrived at a long line to have our passports checked and stamped. Several women clad head to toe in flowing black silk garments, their expressive eyes the only thing left uncovered by their dark veils, stood close in front of us, chatting nonchalantly with designer bags hanging casually over their shoulders. Every now and then I caught a glimpse of their sneakers and jeans peeping out from beneath long, black silk skirts that swept the ground. Though verging on indecency with my not-so-covert looks, I couldn’t make out the country on their passports. Many Chinese people holding maroon passports, and Koreans touting green ones, waited beside us. As we neared the checking desk, we saw a sign that read, “Please remove all glasses and caps.” We wondered whether they would require the women in front of us to remove their face coverings, but they predictably, and kindly, did not. When my turn arrived, I walked up to the desk and watched the screen display the photograph from my passport. The camera then snapped a photo of me, and the young Chinese official stamped my passport, waving me through.
July 2nd: We woke up at 6:30am, both of us feeling an overpowering temptation to just fall immediately asleep again– but we had a flight to catch. At about 7:40, ten minutes behind schedule, we went downstairs and checked out of the room.
The night before, I had spoken to the woman at the hotel desk about arranging a taxi to take us to the airport. “What time do you want to be at the airport?” she had asked. I replied 8:30. “What time is your flight?” she inquired. “10:30,” I said, “but we want to make sure to be there very early.” I asked her how long it took to get to the airport. “Oh, I think… about an hour,” she replied. “The roads are… very difficult.” I had no idea what she meant by that cryptic description, but I asked for a driver to pick us up at 7:30, and she confirmed that she would make the call.
July 1st: Woke up early to check whether the weather would be clear enough for us to visit Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. When I spoke with the woman at our hotel, she didn’t recommend it, as it was rainy and cloudy. I was disappointed, but on the bright side, we got to sleep in late. Continue reading
June 30th: Daniel awoke to find himself plagued with an upset stomach. Accordingly, we ate a thoroughly uninspiring lunch, opting for a cafe that required minimal walking. While waiting for our food, we stared mutely at a magazine rack. One publication in particular caught our attention. The cover depicted an overwhelmingly happy young woman, who stood on the steps of an imposing government building, taking a piece of paper from a similarly overjoyed government official. The headline read: “Grassroots Democracy Sprouts and Thrives.” We struggled not to snicker too conspicuously.
Immediately before eating, we discovered my not-so-trusty Rick Steves daypack, which had traveled all over Europe and Japan with us, had given up the ghost. (The main zipper, which had been persnickety from its first use, finally refused to do its job. Not a recommended purchase.) I’d have to buy a new bag. While Daniel rested, laid low with China-food-sickness, I struck out onto the streets on my own. Continue reading
June 29th: That morning, I spent a few last moments sitting in front of the Dragonfly, looking at the rice fields, spotting the man with his six goats and four cows walking by again. When the taxi dropped us at the bus station, we learned that the next bus did not depart for another two and a half hours. We settled down to wait in the bus station’s dirty little room, draping ourselves protectively over our luggage. To my deep chagrin, it dawned on me that I had to use the bathroom– never a welcome realization in China’s public places. Continue reading