We flew from the Cooks to Seoul by way of Auckland and Sydney – an 8,300 mile journey in total. We had a 16-hour overnight connection in Sydney where we had hoped to make a quick trip down to the harbour. Unfortunately, the weather was absolutely terrible with gale force winds and heavy rain. In the end we didn’t venture far from the hostel which made the stop mostly a waste of time. It was also an expensive one due to Sydney’s horrifically expensive airport transportation – the train from the airport to town (a 15-minute ride) costs close to US$20 each way!
The flight up to Seoul was our first with Asiana Airlines, Korea’s contribution to the Star Alliance. Both the food and the service were exceptional and the passenger load in business class was only about 30%. After passing along Australia’s coast we crossed Papua New Guinea and then a good portion of the western Pacific ocean. For the second meal I went with the Korean menu and got to try bibimbap for the first time – some assembly required. Fortunately for me, Asiana includes a brief set of instruction in English in the back of the menu. The basic idea is to add rice to all of the provided fillings (meat, pickled veggies, mushrooms, sprouts and some small dried fish in this case), top with sesame oil and then mix until combined. Quite easy and the result was absolutely delicious.
In contrast to Sydney, Korea’s airport transportaton is affordable. A little less than $4 got us train tickets from Incheon International to Hongik University in central Seoul – a 44 minute ride. From there we had a 10 minute walk to our hostel that was made much easier by the map they provided. Like many places in Asia, postal addressing is seriously wacky in Korea and most business cards include a map otherwise.
Seoul felt a world away from the quiet island we left behind. Lots of people, lots of noise, and lots of neon. We spent a better part of the first day wandering some of Seoul’s over-the-top shopping malls. I made the stupid mistake of leaving my portable hard drive in Rarotonga (it’s being shipped home now) so I was in the market for a new one. Fortunately, Korea has plenty of hard drives so that problem was easy to solve. I also got to work on satisfying my craving of strange and exciting packaged food products which is one aspect of the far east that I love so dearly.
The landscape around Seoul is strikingly industrialized. From the roof of one of the malls, I snapped this photo of the Han River which splits Seoul. It looks like a black and white photo, doesn’t it? Well it’s not…that was full color. It was just a hot and hazy summer day.
Much like the Japanese, it would seem that the Koreans love their shopping and the country certainly has a good assortment of over-the-top department stores. Usually they are 8 to 10 story affairs with a built-in grocery store and food court (basement), many levels of shopping (middle), and then a floor or two of fine dining (top).
On our second day we took the subway downtown to check out some of the sights. I bought some seaweed rolls with pickled veggies to have for breakfast and we grabbed a bench just outside one of the major department stores. As I was chomping down on my food we watched the growing mass of people eagerly awaiting the 10AM opening. Eventually, two white-gloved employees from the store wheeled out a cart with fresh OJ, cookies and coffee to give away to the waiting horde. What it a promotion? I suspect not, probably just business as usually in a country that highly values customer service. Free OJ to go with my seaweed!
A little later we stumbled upon the changing-of-the-guard ceremony at Deoksungung Palace so we popped in for a quick look around. There were a number of traditional Korean buildings as well as a couple western-inspired structures that were built around the turn of the century. There is also supposed to be a very nice art museum on the palace grounds, however, we had a lunch reservation we had to make.
Amy had read about a small obscure restaurant in Seoul that specializes in “Buddhist temple cuisine.” Thanks to another blogger’s thorough description we had no problems finding Gamrodang which is very impressively hidden down a series of winding alleyways. We selected their cheapest meal option, an 11-course meal which cost about $25 per person. Each course was rather small but we were decidedly stuffed by the time we left almost two hours later! The food was excellent and there were all sorts of strange ingredients I had never tried before. Bamboo salt is one of the stranger things I have tasted! Below is a listing of the courses.
- White lotus leaf tea
- Cabbage kimchi with cactus
- Germinated brown rice porridge with pine mushroom
- Salad with herb sauce
- Grilled pine mushroom, grilled lotus root, grilled yam with pine needles + bamboo salt
- Fried tofu with hot pepper paste
- Vegetables wrapped in rice pancake
- Assorted pancakes with vegetables + glasswort sauce
- Spicy wild lanceolate root and pear with mustard sauce
- Rice and cereals, Bean-paste stew with dried cabbage, wild greens and korean pickles
- Dessert-rice nectar, Acacia with honey wrapped in millet pancake, Ginger cookie
On our third day in Seoul we visited Changdeokgung, a 15th century palace which is famous for it’s huge Secret Garden. The garden can only be visited by guided tour and we followed advice in the guidebooks and reserved tickets in advance. So far on this trip we have been very lucky with weather but that can’t be said for our morning in the Secret Garden. Because of the rain we finally caved and bought umbrellas from a vendor in front of the palace. No doubt he went home that day with a huge load of won!
The garden was quite nice although it was much different from what I was expecting. Unlike a Japanese garden it was less landscaped and felt more like a natural growth of the forest. The most notable structure inside of the garden is the Royal Library which looks out over a pond. Pity about the rain because I am sure the garden is all the most impressive when the weather is good. Either way, the garden is a nice change from the big city just over the wall.
After the garden we took the subway back to the hostel to grab our bags. We decided to grab one more round of cold drinks at a convenience store before we headed off to the airport. As always I scoured the shelf looking for the strangest thing I could find. Eventually, I came across a bottle whose only English read “oriental raisin water.” I thought that sounded promising so I threw down some won and made off with it. It tasted nothing of raisins, grapes, or fruit for that matter. The liquid was clear and light brown similar to tea. After asking Amy for her opinion we concluded that it tasted like water that had been infused with the flavor of Rice Krispies. I love how weird Asia can be!
Later that evening we flew with Asiana from Seoul Incheon to Kota Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo. It’s about a five hour flight to get down there and we flew on an A321. Dinner was served shortly after takeoff and I plowed through some fried monkfish and a very nice German reisling. Out the window there were bright lights dotting the ocean as far as I could see – squid fishing boats out in full force. We encountered some pretty ominous t-storms over Manila but the crew skillfully threaded through them and we hardly had a bump the whole way down. Arrival into Kota Kinabalu (KK for short) was right on time and it wasn’t long before we had our packs and Malaysian visas!