Friday, August 9, 2013

A Visitor! And a Visit to Seoul

It's been a very busy 10 weeks since I last wrote. That's one thing I love about life here. It can always be busy. If I have an empty weekend ahead of me I can catch a bus or a train and spend a day or two exploring new places. If I can't sleep at night I can go out to a coffee shop to read or write, or pretend to while I soak in the sounds of the conversations around me. There are always people out. There is always something to occupy my time. Sleep is often hard to come by, even when there is ample time for it. There's so much else to experience. I'm in Korea, and I feel much more in Korea when I'm out of my apartment, so I try to avoid it often.

All of this is to say I've been neglecting this blog, and there's so much to catch up on. I'll start with early June.
Our hosts in Seoul
It had been just over a year since the last time I'd seen Alexander when he walked through the doors at the bus terminal in Gwangju, the end of a long, long journey for him. I was thrilled to see him. I'd been in Korea over ten months at that point, so getting to see family was a special treat. It made me feel more connected to home.

At first, having Alexander here was a bit surreal. I enjoyed having the opportunity to guide him around in the mornings before I went to work and to take him to some of my favorite restaurants to eat after I got out of work at night. He had just over three weeks to be in Korea, so we planned to use each weekend to take a trip out of town. For the first weekend, Hyun-ho and his family invited us to visit them in Seoul, an offer we excitedly accepted.

On Saturday morning we caught the slow train from Songjeong station. I've taken a "slow" train before, I think the Saemaeul. That train was q bit slower than the express train, the KTX, but was still rather comfortable. Alexander and I ended up on the Mugunghwa, the even slower train. I didn't realize how much longer that ride would feel. It wasn't very comfortable, and with a travel time of over four hours we could have arrived in about the same time by taking the bus. The train ticket was actually about the same price as a bus ticket, however, if not a bit cheaper.

Another advantage to the train system here is that the KORAIL website can be viewed in English, making it easy to search and reserve tickets ahead of time without knowing Korean. After that ride to Seoul, I used the website while sitting in a coffee shop to book our tickets back to Gwangju on a KTX train. The KTX, by the way, is excellent. It is fast (reaching speeds of around 300kph at its fastest between Seoul and Gwangju) and comfortable, though a bit pricier. The KTX can get you from Seoul to Gwangju, a distance of about 300km, in just under 3 hours for less than 40,000 won.

After arriving at Yongsan Station, we took the subway to Dongdaemun, where we planned to meet Hyun-ho and his cousin Jin-hee, whom I met when I went to Seoul for Chuseok last September. Alexander and I had lunch at Nolboo, a chain restaurant I'd been curious to try. We ordered one of my favorite Korean dishes: dalkgalbi. I tried this for the first time when I was in Seoul in the fall and Hyun-ho took me to a dalkgalbi restaurant in Gangnam for lunch when I arrived at the bus station. It's marinated chicken (dalk) that's usually a bit spicy, cooked with a mixture of ddeok (rice cakes), cabbage, and other vegetables on a big pan in the center of the table. You can also add cheese and noodles or other sides of your choice. Alexander and I had a version that included octopus, which added a tantalizingly chewy texture to go along with the chicken.

After lunch Jinhee arrived at Dongdaemun and met us, followed shortly thereafter by Hyun-ho. We walked around the markets for a while before continuing on to Insadong. After looking around there for a while, we walked along Cheonggyechon to Gyeongbokgung Palace, which I seem to visit nearly every time I'm in Seoul. I don't mind, though. The palace is an impressive site and is a very large complex so there's still a lot of it I haven't seen. This was one of the sites Hyun-ho showed me when I first went to Seoul, and I enjoy going there with people who haven't seen it before. Alexander seemed to enjoy it, and we could have spent a lot more time exploring the grounds were it not nearly closing time.

As it was, though, we were getting a bit hungry and tired from our walking that day, so as the palace closed we left the grounds and started walking toward the Blue House, the residence of Korea's president (currently Park Geun-hye.) From that area Hyun-ho's father picked us up and drove us up into the mountains, where we were able to get some great views of the city, and took the picture shown above.

Finally, it was time to go to Goyang and have dinner with their family. Here's a photo of the food they had prepared. It was, of course, very delicious. Pajeon, galbi, sashimi, jjigae, kimchi, seasoned anchovies...I can't remember all the different dishes we had. The great variety in Korean meals is one of the things I most enjoy about the food here.
A delectable home-cooked meal
I may have written about this back in the fall. If so, it bears repeating; if not, that was a serious oversight. I have been very lucky to have this connection in Korea. Visiting Hyun-ho and his family feels like reconnecting with some deeply caring extended family. That's how I felt during Chuseok, so I'm glad Alexander was able to have a similar experience. I think a large part of what has made me feel so comfortable in Gwangju this year is the knowledge that they're just a few hours away. We may not be able to speak to each other very well, but I always feel welcome and cared for with them.

Hyun-ho's family kindly put us up in their home for the night, and in the morning drove Alexander and me to the City Hall area. We had scheduled a DMZ tour that departed from the Lotte Hotel. At around 8am we boarded our tour bus and departed for Paju, a city near the border. Most of the tourists were Japanese, but the two of us and another group of four Americans also had an English-speaking guide assigned to us.

The DMZ tour was probably the most touristy experience I've had in Korea, which I suppose is to be expected when you consider how strictly controlled activity near the DMZ is. Our tour included a video presentation and a tram ride into an infiltration tunnel, as well as stops at the last train station before the border and at an observation deck from which we could look out into North Korea itself. It was hazy that day so the view was somewhat obscured, but we were still able to make out the Kaesong industrial complex (sadly, still shut down as of this writing, though there's been talk that it will open soon) and the city of Kaesong, which is North Korea's second-largest.

We arrived back at the hotel in the early afternoon, and then Alexander and I went to Hongdae. My friend Miji planned to meet us for dinner. We had some time to kill before she could meet us, so we found the Hongik University campus and walked around it for about an hour before finding a coffee shop to cool off in and utilize the free wifi. Then, Miji found us and took us to a little stand serving some very tasty tacos. As sunset approached it was about time for us to catch the train, so back to Yongsan we went. We bought some snacks at the station and boarded the KTX for the swift and smooth ride home. I don't remember for sure, but it's very likely that after we arrived in Gwangju we stopped my favorite coffee shop for some bingsu before retiring for the night to prepare for another week.

Of course, there were more adventures to be had, which I will describe in future posts. Next up, Gyeongju!

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