2014 First Impressions of Seoul

We’ve been having a good time. We solved the cell phone problem—easy peasy. We were in a market area called Itaewon which is an international zone with zillions of shops and food from all over the world. We went into a shop that said “prepaid SIM cards” in three languages: English, Arabic and Korean. In a snap, Mr. Choi tested Dimitri’s Samsung S4 mini by taking out the Verizon SIM, and slipping in his own SIM card. Bingo it worked. So Dimitri now has a working cell phone with wi-fi (KRW 40,000 for installation and 30,000 for time/data—probably enough for our 2-month stay in Korea). The place was Idea, 3F Eden B/D 62, Bogwang-ro 59-gil (Itaewon-Dong), Yongsan-Gu, Seoul, South Korea, tel. 02-797-0171, e-mail: idea-co@hanmail.net). The exchange rate was US$1 = Korean won .00098 on September 4 so we spent about US$70 for the card's installation and time/data.

While we were sitting in Mr. Choi’s shop, five young women in head scarves came in. They were from Bahrain and were studying Korean in a small town near Seoul. We asked why they were studying Korean and they said that Korean soaps were very popular in Bahrain. (Is that what we’ve heard of known as “The Wave”? Yes, it turns out that it is.) Actually we are getting the impression that Korean soaps could be taking over from the Brazilian telenovelas in popularity worldwide.

The reason having the cell phone working was important was for the Internet we could get through the cell phone service. With it, we could log in and have the mapping and directions for getting from place to place on the cell phone. That made getting around easier. Also we have texting capability now for people who speak English, which many, many people do. BTW, getting around is a snap. The subway system is amazing and easy to use with our T-money card (there are daily and a 7-day cards available as well). When we were leaving Itaewon, with (Dimitri’s bus research) and some confirmatory help from the Korean Tourist Office we took one express bus back to our neighborhood. Being above ground is great. We get to sight see as we’re traveling around.

Itaewon is the place to have bespoke clothes made. Both the concierge at the Ritz-Carlton and the Inter-Continental recommended one in Itaewon. So off we went. Audre is having 2 pairs of woolen slacks made to measure, using a pair of slacks that fit well as the model. Each pair, with the fabric that we chose, will cost US$140. The tailor is JJ Custom Tailor and Shirts, 64-53 Itaewon-Dong, Yongsan-Ku, Seoul, South Korea, tel. 02-797-5298.) (Last year in the US Audre spent US$200 for a pair of slacks and alterations and the damn pants still don’t fit correctly.)

As we were walking to the Korean Tourist Office in Itaewon, we came upon a Turkish Bakery and Dessert Café. Dimitri went wild, spending the equivalent of $18.50 for baklava, kadayif and so on. We also shared a cup of the famous Turkish ice cream called dondurma. It was excellent and much better than the rendition we made when we were staying at the Kleinman palatial mansion on Kinnickkinnick. It is generally against our rules to have foods foreign to the country we’re in when we’re traveling. Exceptions must be made. And when Dimitri tried some of the desserts with our Starbucks coffee (see below for more on that), he was very happy.

We have discovered that the people of Seoul are obsessive about their exercise and the latest fashion in hiking clothes. One guide for touring the Seoul City Wall has it demarcated in sections, with the time it will that to do the section and the calories one will expend in that time period. Wow!

The only thing that we were having difficulty with is breakfast restaurants that serve something we might want to eat. There is a wonderful rice porridge called juk that we’d really like to have for breakfast but typically restaurants that serve juk don’t start until 11 a.m. At the two breakfast restaurants we’ve eaten at so far, we had one soup and dumplings and one tofu stew served along with a great egg custard/soufflé sort of thing (called gyeranjjim, cooked in a stone pot). The problem with the restaurant serving the egg custard/soufflé thing is that they would not let us buy just that for KRW 3,000/US$3. We had to buy a meal and then we could add that on. What a pain. So we were still struggling. We decided to make eggs at home and about US$30 later we had the ingredients for one or two breakfasts. There was a Tour Les Jours bakery nearby our hotel and we bought a baguette and croissants (that were credibly good). Our breakfast with South African grapefruit, scrambled eggs, leftover dumplings from a restaurant, baguette, croissant and Starbucks coffee (one pound US$15) was a success. We bought what we thought was butter (it said it was spreadable butter on the package after all). It turned out it was margarine and Dimitri hated it. In our apartment, we had a well-enough-equipped kitchen for breakfast and a table with two chairs to eat at.

Our first weekend in Seoul was the beginning of the 5-day Chuseok (Thanksgiving) holiday. On Friday everything was open. Saturday almost everything was open. By Sunday, the city was getting quieter and on Monday very few things were open. The streets were eerily quiet on Tuesday. On the www.visitkorea.com website, they listed what tourist attractions would be open and we made our plans accordingly. On Monday, we despaired that we might not find a place open for dinner (except the chain franchises like Burger King). We went to a Turkish restaurant (breaking our rule again). It was okay but very expensive. We would suggest to prospective visitors not to come during the Chuseok holiday or the New Year's holiday. Too many things are closed.

The visitkorea.com site was very good (this is the English version: http://asiaenglish.visitkorea.or.kr/ena/AK/AK_EN_1.jsp). On the other hand, the visitseoul site was less good: http://www.visitseoul.net/en/article/article.do?_method=view&art_id=52624&lang=en&m=0003001006003&p=06. The website of the Seoul Metropolitan Government is also very good. Check it out: http://english.seoul.go.kr/life-information/visit-to-seoul/

We were getting a very good impression of Seoul. The streets were 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 seemed 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.') If you don't see toilet paper inside the stall then there is a common dispenser on the wall outside--you can take as much as you need.

Speaking of the Metro/subway, on the platforms we have noticed cabinets filled with gas masks, water and other emergency items. The problem was there it did not look as if there were nearly enough to provide everyone in the Metro with one (in the event Kim Jong Un did something stupid.)

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

Speaking of gaining weight, we don't see obese Asian people around; the only obese people we have seen are Westerns (speaking English). There are overweight and chubby Koreans, but we did not see obese ones.