Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Under the skin of Seoul

Before I travelled to Seoul I knew very little about Korea, however, I did know some Koreans, and since I thought they seemed like a lovely, happy bunch of people I decided to go and visit their capital city. This is my Seoul review.

Seoul city –a sophisticated and beautiful city.

I had expected Seoul to be cold and polluted at the end of January, so imagine my happiness when I was greeted by a clear blue sky, sunshine, fresh air and a temperature around 1 degree during day time. I couldn’t have asked for more: the weather was perfect!

Me and my travel partner Anna!

Another great thing about visiting Seoul at the end of January/beginning of February, is the fact that me and my friend Anna seemed to be the only tourists in the whole city. No, but seriously! There were no other tourists!?! Awesome my may think, and yeah, it was! Out hotel (Best Vision in Wagasimmi, conveniently located 5 minutes from the metro) was cheap, the staff was friendly, we didn’t have to cue for anything and neither the metro nor the streets were crammed. Sure, it was a bit chilly (especially during night time) but I strongly recommend anyone to visit Seoul during winter time. It’s beautiful and tourist free, just the way you want it when you are there to travel and explore.

Korean Bibimbap

Seoul turned out to be much larger and diverse than I had expected it to be. The city is decided into different districts/areas and none of those areas are alike. There’s an art gallery/old city area (beautiful little lanes, shops and gorgeous restaurants), a more Western area (Itaewon –or sleazeawon as the Seoul inhabitants also call it, due to its extensive selection of western bars and apparently also some western guys), which is a great place for wining and dining, and then there is Apkujong: Seoul’s own Beverly Hills, with prices so high that they make you turn around at the entrance of night clubs.

Dongdaemun Market, every shoe lovers paradise.

There is also a beautiful and buzzling university area called Hongdae, full of cheap and expensive shops, good restaurants, DVD bangs and young, trendy, window shopping Koreans. Speaking of shopping, anyone up for cheap bargains should head to the extensive market areas such as Dongdaemun, where you can buy shoes for 10 euros and bags and clothes for even less. Seoul is not a cheap city but the market areas still make it possible to fill up your suitcase with stuff. Finally, there is the downtown of Seoul –City Hall, which is like any other downtown; busy and happening. And of course I shouldn’t forget the fact that Seoul is surrounded by magnificent hills, which draws a beautiful contrast between big city and country side.

Korean boys making and selling street food

Of course there are several other areas in Seoul too, however, seeing that we only had five days in Seoul we didn’t have time to go everywhere.

The metro

Don't have any photos of the metro but well.. here's a nice typical city sight!

Seoul has a well developed metro system with more than nine lines running from 5am-11pm. The metro is easy to use and you can buy a transport card, fill it up with 10 euros and travel for around 0,9 euros/fare. There are plenty of maps in the metro, as well as plenty of metro workers and commuters that are happy to help confused westerners to figure out their journey/ how to buy tickets/ how to fill up your metro card. During the week days and the day time the metro isn’t too busy, however, during peak hours and weekends it can get crammed. Since taxis are not cheap in Seoul I recommend the metro. After only one day we had worked out how most things worked and it is definitely the fastest way to get from one point to another. Seoul is not a walk-friendly place due to heavy trafficked roads and it can also be hard to cross big streets, so most people rely on metro and buses.

The Koreans

Stylish, polite, helpful and friendly –I only have positive things to say about the Korean population! The only thing that can be annoying is the fact that their English is quite bad, and especially amongst the younger generation. But normally restaurants or cafes have at least one person that can understand you, otherwise you’ll just have to do what I did: improvise!

Both the Korean men and women are very stylish and fashion conscious. If you’re coming to Seoul then don’t dress down. Even Koreans from the country side makes and effort with dressing up when they visit the city, as they might otherwise be looked down on by the trendy and well groomed city population.

Who said looking good comes for free?

We were amazed of how many women that walked around bare legged (brrrrr!!!) in mini skirts and shorts (!) in minus degrees. What can I say? Superwoman doesn’t let the cold stop her from looking good?

The food

Korean food is delicious. I could have eaten myself through the whole week. Bibimbap (rice and veggies with an egg that are mixed together and then you add a medium spicy red sauce on top, yum!) is my favourite but the kimchi isn’t bad either. The food was not as spicy as we had expected it to be, but if you want a burning hot experience then head to the uni area, order some spicy chicken and… well, let your mouth burn!

Mmmmm... bugs!

There are plenty of street food stands selling everything from Korean red bean baozi to Korean sushi rolls and steamed/boiled bugs. Yes my friends, steamed bugs. It smells as disgusting as it looks, and no, I didn’t try it. But I did try some of the other street food and that was yummy.

What to do?

Korean sauna is a must! Appear naked in a huge bath house (no, okay, don’t turn up naked but go to the bath house, pay the 7 euro fee, enter the male/female section, strip down and get into the cleaning buzz) and enjoy saunas, scrubbing, bubble baths, steam baths, ice cold baths and cool down rooms. These places are amazing; you can spend hours in there, and you will feel so clean and fresh once you are done.

Me and Anna at Casa del Vino in Apkujong.

Wining and dining in Seoul’s Beverly Hills: Apkujong. Yes, it’s disturbingly expensive. But you can do like we did: order the cheapest bottle of wine (42 euros, aoooch!) and the cheapest snack on the menu (a cheese platter for 25 euros) and just sit back, relax, and get a feel of the life of the rich and the beautiful. We went to some different wine bars and had a blast, however, when we tried a ‘Beverly Hill’s like’ nightclub and were asked to pay 30 euros just to get in (!) we decided it was time to return to our normal, not so lavish lives and left the building.

Shopping –like I said, the Dongdaemun market is quite good, however, if you are looking for more upscale stuff than head to Apkujong which is the address to all the big, international, luxury brands. I personally also like the university area, Hongdae.

DVD bang

DVD Bang –DVD bangs are scattered around the city. They are private room where you can watch a DVD (that you select –if you select a Korean movie you can get good English subtitles, so in that way it’s an excellent opportunity to explore the Korean movie world). This is especially popular amongst young Korean couples, and most DVD bangs are on the verge of tacky with their pink walls and satin cushions, but well, we thought it was a fun thing to try out. Like a private cinema. And you can bring your own snacks! :) It costs around 15 euros to watch one movie.

The DMZ tour. Seoul city offers you plenty of sightseeing possibilities. Since I am personally not a huge fan of sightseeing, I simply settled for the DMZ tour, a trip to the North Korean border. At this half day tour you get to do/visit the following places:

Board bus at hotel → Head towards the DMZ → The Third Tunnel → The Dora Observatory→ The Unification bridge → The Dora Mountain Train Station → Return to Itaewon.

Me at the Unification bridge.

All in all, the DMZ tour was one of the most interesting tourist tours I have ever been on. According to our guide, the tour is the most popular in Korea, and during summer time more than 3000 tourist travel to the boarder on a daily basis. (We were so happy it was winter time and didn’t have to share the tunnel that amount of people). I would like to tell you in detail about this tour, however, I fear that this blog entry then will become one of those never ending ones that no one gets through? If you’d like to know more about the DMZ tour, than please say so in the comments field and I will give you a more detailed report.

However, at this point I think I have said enough about my trip to Seoul. I hope I have inspired someone to visit this fantastic city. I know for sure that I will be coming back!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

hi jonna, i found your article helpful as i'll be going to seoul in january 2010 for about 5-6 days maybe you could tell me is it advisebale to spent the whole time in seoul or would it be good to travel around a bit in the country in the given time of 5-6 days thanks ernest