One Happy Buckaroo

Seoul Travel Blog

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Seoul from above
So I've heard increasingly over the last week or two that Seoul is a big, dirty city, and while all cities are big and dirty to an extent, Seoul is supposed to be particularly horrendous.  I've also heard that while people enjoy Seoul, they're all too happy to leave it.  And since I've entered Korea, nearly every traveler I've come across has been to Seoul, as most fly into it and work their way south, rather than my route north.  As you might imagine, my reservations about Seoul were mounting by the day.  Today on the plane I consoled myself by thinking it'd only be a few days and then I'd be in China.  (And that didn't do much to lift my spirits; Seoul is going to feel like a luxury picnic once I get to China.
Seoul from above
)  I was discouraged further by the utter incompetence I was greeted with at the tourist information booth in the airport.  However, all that evaporated once I grudgingly trudged out of the subway and into the foot traffic.  One block into my walk to the guesthouse (which equipped me with excellent directions) and I'm noticing Seoul isn't nearly as dirty or horrendous as I'd been imagining.  In fact, it doesn't seem any dirtier than the rest of Korea, which in itself was quite the shock when first stepping foot in Busan.  And by the time I got to the guesthouse, having passed several restaurants and deducing it was a pretty decent area, my outlook toward Seoul had vastly improved.
Hongik University

The guesthouse is located a few blocks from Hongik University, and there are a couple other universities nearby too.  As such, the area is young, hip, active, fun, easy to navigate, delightful to wander, and flush with happy youths indulging in ice cream cones and shopping along the seemingly endless blocks of stores targeting them (and by "them" I mean ME).  Olive, one of the guesthouse owners, gave me directions to a restaurant she recommended when I requested good bibimbap, or something equally delicious that she enjoyed.  She said I should be sure to wander around (didn't have to tell me twice), and off I went. 

As luck would have it, the restaurant closes between 4 and 5pm to give the cooks and servers a much-needed break.  I walked up just a few minutes before 4pm and was turned away.
  I was famished, and was tempted to try something else.  There were quite a few restaurants offering Vietnamese pho, and I was awfully tempted as pho is one of my favorite dishes ever, and probably would have gone for it had the Korean interpretation of pho been more appetizing.  Rather, I poked around the dozens of stalls lining the neighboring park, and handed out my colorful Korean Won by the thousands.  (Sadly, that is not an exaggeration.)  I then went back to the restaurant to no avail, flagged down a passing businessman for a glance at his wristwatch, and headed back to the stalls with another thirty minutes to kill.  Oddly enough, I was approached for directions.  Not even kidding.  And she was serious, too.  First she asked me if I spoke Korean, and I said no, and she said oh, I thought you were a student (this, from someone who was clearly a Korean student herself), and then asked me if I knew where some point was, and I was like no, sorry, and she's like but don't you live here?, um no, just traveling, but maybe you know? it's pretty famous, umm, actually, just got here about two hours ago.
  But she was really sweet and pleasant and I'm sure that will be the first and last time I'm confused as someone who knows where things are in Asia, particularly coming from a native.  So anyway.  Back to the shopping.

I hadn't given any thought to the street that the stalls were on, I just walked up and down it looking at the wares the vendors had on display.  The street directly opposite the vendors was mostly fast food and cafes and ice cream, not storefronts.  Seeing as I had time on my hands I turned and walked a block up the road.  And promptly spent the rest of my colorful cash.  Thankfully I realized this meant I needed to get money or there would be no dinner (credit cards don't fly in these parts), and made my second trip to the ATM for the day.
  Second in one day!  Slow down there, girlie!

It won't surprise you to hear I was the first one to walk into that restaurant, probably at five on the dot.  I then had the BEST meal I've had in Korea.  The absolute best.  It was an adorable restaurant, very nicely fitted with big sturdy wooden tables, almost farm-like, and the decor looked like a posh cottage or similar.  The menu was entirely in Korean, and I simply asked for bibimbap, as we've established it's my favorite, and also because Olive said this place served her favorite bibimbap.  She also said the variety of side dishes they presented you with was excellent, and she wasn't kidding.  It was the best assortment I've had yet, with a few of the usual suspects but several that I've never had before (one was a fresh, crispy cabbage salad with a light dressing -- a first in a country obsessed with thousand island, one involved mushrooms and some sort of delicate sprout, one involved a small hard-boiled egg, perhaps quail?, in a sweet soy sauce; all of them absolutely scrumptious).
AMAZING bibimbap
  And ALL of them tasted exquisitely fresh, like they had been picked from the fields and prepared just that moment.  Everything was light and bright and crisp and intricately layered with flavor, as opposed to the soggy one-taste kimchi that tends to dominate the scene.  Fantastic.  It was so good I asked for a second helping of EVERYTHING.  Two steaming bowls of miso soup and two of eight or so side dishes.  I was so well fed I was practically licking myself.  A VERY happy tummy.  I will definitely be going back to that place.

Contentedly full I thought I'd walk straight home, but of course popped in "just one store, just for a moment" down a busier shopping street.  The sun had gone down and the foot traffic had quadrupled.  (I've since learned that I caught those stalls by the park just as they were opening; apparently most shops in the student area open at four and are open until at least 10pm, most till midnight if not later.)  I was lured in by a pretty wool sweater that was open down the front and your wrap it across yourself and button the ends to your shoulders, like a half wrap, half sweater thing.  So of course I bought two.  From there I spotted another sweater, which meant I had to pop into that store and try on other things, and walked out with another shopping bag.  And then a third store and a third shopping bag.  I walked deeper into the shopping street still, but talked myself out of buying another scarf (it appears I have a thing for scarves/wraps/pashminas; I bought more scarves than you can count on one hand today, and it was all I could do to tear my eyes from the others).  I finally did a 180 and marched my butt home when I caught myself salivating over ballet flats.  Scarves and sweaters are all well and good, as they can be justified: it's cold here, I'm not traveling with much, and China is about to redefine the word COLD as I know it.  Plus they're lightweight, and I have every intention of shipping most of them home.  Ballet flats have none of the above to claim as justification.  (Plus my main men Jeffery Campbell and Sam Edelman would have a fit if they knew I was cheating on them and buying ballet flats from brands other than their own.)  And with my thing for shoes dwarfing my thing for scarves, if I had opened that can of worms I'd probably still be there buying them out.

I walked home with a massive grin on my face, perfectly happy from an excellent meal and several fabulous shopping finds.  THRILLED. 

Talk about starting off on the right foot.  Palaces and other assorted tourist stops on the itinerary tomorrow, and hopefully keeping the ATM visits off it altogether.
fransglobal says:
I liked Seoul City. While not beautiful, it is a great, lively place. And I wish we had a metro like that in Dublin. We don't have any?

The first thing that struck me about Busan was the dirt. Maybe it was not bad but coming straight from Japan, it was a shock.

I never got to Jeju so I was interested to read your blog.

I was in Korea in February and it was very cold. Much colder than Ireland ever gets. China is not necessarily cold. If you go south, it will not be cold at all. My favourite part was Yunnan Province in the South West, beautiful, special place.

Are you going to the DMZ?
Posted on: Oct 22, 2009
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Seoul from above
Seoul from above
Seoul from above
Seoul from above
Hongik University
Hongik University
AMAZING bibimbap
AMAZING bibimbap
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