2014 Our First Two Weeks in Seoul

We were trying to be good tourists. There is so much to see and do in Seoul we despaired that we would only scratch the surface during our first two-week stay. We found an excellent free service of the Seoul Metropolitan Government called Seoul Walking Tours (www.dobo.visitseoul.net). Reservations must be made at least 3 days in advance. After the reservations were made for tours of the places where we wanted to have a guide, we were contacted by e-mail with the name and cell phone number of our guide and the details of the time and place of meeting. It’s a very professional operation. All of the guides were volunteers. They do not want a tip (we took our guide to lunch after the tours).

Unfortunately for us, the Korean Thanksgiving fell on the first weekend of our stay. Things started to close on Saturday and by Monday our neighborhood was almost silent and empty. The Chuseok Thanksgiving holiday seriously interfered with our tourist activities. We checked the visitseoul website and went to tourist attractions that they suggested because they would be open. And at lunch on the Tuesday of the holiday weekend (the holiday lasted through Wednesday) we fortuitously met a Korean couple, Holly and Young, at a restaurant in our neighborhood. We liked them very much and they just happened to be staying in the city. They live in the apartment building next to ours and invited us for fruit after lunch in their garden. It was a lovely way to get to know them better.
Holly and Young 
In China we successfully used www.conversationexchange.com to meet Chinese people who wanted to practice English. We tried to do the same thing in Seoul and were very pleased. We met Youngsoo, who is a biochemist working in a company’s lab. He studies English as a hobby. We met him first at our hotel and took him to dinner nearby. Then he and his wife, a clinical pathologist, invited us to their apartment for dinner.

They live in the suburbs and we took a Metro train to the station near their house where Youngsoo picked us up and drove us to their apartment. Their two children and a niece were there but did not eat with us in his car. Mounted on the top of the front windshield of Youngsoo's car was a small black box that he called "a black box". We asked what it was and he said that it videoed the front of his car and in case of an accident (in the front), there would be a record of the incident. He also had a gps mounted on the dashboard. 

They had planned to have us sit at the formal low table in the middle of the living room. We asked if it would be possible to have dinner sitting at the regular height table in the kitchen. They rearranged everything for us and we were comfortable.
Youngsoo and Seungyeon at their kitchen table with Audre
The meal was very nice and the conversations we had were excellent. Youngsoo’s wife, Seungyeon, understood English and could speak a little. She was busy setting everything up and also looking after the children occupied her. They have all kinds of appliances in their kitchen that US kitchens don't have--like a cup sterilizer. They don't have an oven or a dishwasher, however. After dinner, Youngsoo insisted on driving us all the way back to our apartment, even though it was a 30 minute drive each way. Wow. We had a wonderful evening.

It was nice to be in Asia again—the land of small people. It makes Audre feel comfortable. Both Seungyeon and our neighbor, Holly, are stick thin and taller than Audre. Both are quite attractive, as we’ve discovered many Korean women to be. The Korean men are more average-looking. The obese people we see are Westerners (speaking English).

We got a very good impression of Seoul. The streets are clean and there were free toilets conveniently located—even in the subway. The toilets generally had both squat toilets and Western ones too. Each stall seems to have an emergency call button (one even had a line of instructions in English; it said “push button to speak to the station master.”)

We did lots of walking in our tourist attractions and to get there from subway stops too. Many subways did’t have elevators conveniently located or escalators so we were climbing the stairs. Even though we were eating well, we were not gaining weight.

The Metro was very, very impressive. It went everywhere and there was no wait of more than 5 minutes. The trains were clean, air conditioned and had “old people” seating. We could generally get a seat. Every time we used the Metro Dimitri invariably said: “This Metro system puts, Paris, London and New York to shame.” The maps and instructions are in English and it was trivially simple to find our way around. Not so with the buses. Unfortunately there is no bus map in English. While we have been successful taking buses, it was not so easy. They were fast, though, having their own lane and we never saw private cars or taxis use those lanes. The rest of the traffic was bumper-to-bumper, jammed, and the buses moved. Awesome.

When we arrived at the beginning of September, Seoul was hot during the day and toasty at night. By the middle of September when we left to tour the country, the evenings were getting cooler, as were the mornings. It remained hot in the sun but comfortable in the shade. There was generally a bit of a breeze to give some relief during the day. We only needed an umbrella once in Seoul, otherwise it was pretty sunny.  We got the impression the Seoul-ians are avid hikers. Seoul has 4 inner mountains surrounding it and 4 outer mountains around it. The Metro goes to trailheads and there were people in complete, up-to-date, hiking togs with sticks and so on traveling on the Metro. Audre likes the Korean hiking pants and is on a search to find some that fit her.

Speaking of pants, one of the affordable things in Seoul (which is otherwise a very expensive city) is having bespoke clothes made. Audre has had great luck having slacks custom made in Hong Kong and was looking forward to doing the same in Seoul. She hates the current style of readymade pants, with the waist under her bellybutton. She brought a sample of the style and size she wanted copied, as well as the colors of the wool fabric she wanted to find. We went to Itaewon because the concierges at both the Ritz Carlton Seoul and the Inter-Continental Seoul recommended tailors there. On our first outing to Itaewon, within minutes, Audre found a tailor who spoke excellent English, had fabric that she liked, and who gave us a price of US$140 for each pair. Audre was thrilled with the result from JJ Custom Tailors, 64-53 Itaewon-Dong, Yongsan-Ku, Seoul, Korea, tel: 02-797-5298 or 01-792-6833, e-mail: hanjong58@hanmail.net. The tailor recommended by the concierges would have charged double, BTW.

As we went from place to place around Seoul, we were struck with the number of businesses that had names in French. We think that there were just as many signs in French as in English! There is some attraction to French that is amusing. Our favorite bakery for Dimitri’s baguette, for instance, was Tous Les Jours. There were zillions of them around town, along with Paris Baguette and so on.

Another thing Audre wanted in Seoul was to have new glasses and frames made for her. That was on the list of the top 5 things that are less expensive in Seoul than in the USA. Indeed they were. In the USA, at Walmart, Audre had new lenses put in an old pair of frames for US $180. We went to Nandaemun Market and found a shop where one of the opticians spoke English and Audre found eyeglass frames she liked. The whole thing: exam, multifocal lenses for astigmatism and the frames cost US$120. (Hanado Optics at the top of Exit 5 Hoehyeon subway line 4, tel. 02-773-6100. The name of the optician who spoke English was Park Yong Geun, cell: 011-337-3588.)

We had to squeeze in our touristing with all of the other things Audre wanted to do. One of our tourist highlights was renting bikes and using the dedicated bike paths along the north and south sides of the Han River. Amazing bike paths. We biked on a Sunday and while the paths were heavily used, people were careful passing and it was not at all scary. Our bikes were clunkers—most people’s were sleek road bikes. Our clunker bikes cost US$25 for the 3 hours we rented them.

Of course, we visited the UNESCO World Heritage Site: Changdeokgung Place (99 Yulgok-ro, Jongro-gu, Seoul, South Korea, tel. 02-762-8261, web: http://eng.cdg.go.kr/main/main.htm). The entry was free for over people over 65. Unfortunately we could not buy a ticket for the Secret Garden; it was sold out. That day we also went to Changgyeonggung Palace  (185 Changgyeonggung-no Jungno-gu, Seoul, South Korea, tel. 02-762-4868, web: cgg.cha.go.kr). It was also free for people over 65.
The design and look of the architecture is very similar to the Chinese, just more colorful we thought. Dimitri was disappointed because it was so similar and because it didn’t look well maintained.

A really fun thing we did was go to Noryangjin Fisheries Market, Line 1 or 9 to Noryangjin, Exit 1, www.susansijang.co.kr.  We spent KRW 20,000/US$20 for 1 sea urchin, 2 shrimp, 1 penis-looking thing called of all things a penis fish, 1 slug, 1 funny looking thing called a sea pineapple or sea squirt and one baby octopus (sannakij).
Can you guess which one is called the penis fish and which one is the sea pineapple?
Then we went to the restaurant of the fish seller where they cleaned and prepared everything. We also had a fish soup there.
All of our sea creatures cleaned and sliced and presented to us
The day and the lunch were really fun. The market is enormous and colorful, with all of the shellfish. We didn’t go to the area for fish.

On the Chuseok holiday, we went to a traditional hanok village where they were having  special activities and performances. It seemed as if everyone who was left in Seoul was at Namsangol Hanok Village (28, Toegye-ro 34-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul, +82-2-2264-4412, http://asiaenglish.visitkorea.or.kr/ena/SI/SI_EN_3_1_1_1.jsp?cid=312749). The festival was called Five Nobleman's Harvest Feast. We had a one hour free guided tour and it was great. We learned all about the architecture of a hanok house and the under floor heating system called ondol. We had a great time and it prepared us for our next destination in Korea, Jeonju.

We went on a traditional market tour with a volunteer guide from Seoul Walking Tours who was quite charming. His English was good. After the tour, we said we wanted to take him to lunch and have fish soup. He, with some difficulty, found a puffer fish soup restaurant that was not too expensive. So we had the famous, and deadly, puffer fish. After the initial excitement of finally trying it (and not dying), we said to each other. “You know, it was not that tasty and was a too tough.”

We saw the Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park designed by Zaha Hadid. It was our first building designed by her that we have seen anywhere in the world. It was indeed evocative of a vagina.
So what does Zaha Hadid's design remind you of?
Another of the Seoul Walking Tours that we took was a guided tour of Cheonggyecheon Stream (http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SI/SI_EN_3_1_1_1.jsp?cid=897540). The idea was similar to the High Line project in NYC and it turned out beautifully in Seoul.

We spent a delightful couple of hours in the main office of the Korean Tourist Information Office (B1, Cheonggyecheon-ro 40, Jung-gu, Seoul 100-180, Korea, (www.visitkorea.or.kr)). We would never have believed that it would have been so helpful, informative and fun. First of all, there was an information person who spoke good English. Second they had great maps of each of our destinations in the country and helpful information. Third, there were exhibits (The Korean culture overtaking some parts of the world called The Wave or K Culture), there was a calligrapher demonstrating, an origami expert teaching people that, hanbok costumes so that visitors (including the two of us) could try on and be photographed in hanbok and so on. It was great fun plus they gave us free tourist souvenirs.
Audre and Dimitri in hanbok traditional dress
The other main thing we did was socialize with our new friends in Seoul. That aspect made the trip really memorable. We could have done a lot more touristing but we have another week in Seoul at the end of our trip to continue discovering this city. Oh yes, and we explored Korean food. Click here to read our Seoul restaurant reviews.