Saturday, October 19, 2013

Seoul - part I

The ferry from Ulleungo to the Korean mainland was much larger than the one that had brought us out. We were very glad that there were windows this time, although, again, there was no possibility of going outside. Before we arrived in Asia, we had been very excited for the numerous ferries that we had been planning to take. The last couple of ferry rides, though, had been a bit rough and we arrived on the mainland very glad to be on firm ground and very nervous about the 18 hour ferry ride that we were planning to take to China in a few days. Daunted, we did some research later that night about flying instead, and we were surprised to find out that the price was the same. We decided to book the flight immediately, and since that would give us a few days of extra time, we made an exciting plan to add Hong Kong to our itinerary.

Once we arrived in Seoul, we took the metro to our hostel. Televisions on the metro featured very graphic videos about what to do in case of a disaster, and each metro station had a cabinet full of gas masks in case war flares up with North Korea.

Our hostel was in the middle of the busy Dongdaemun district, renowned for its enormous shopping malls and all-night street market. After settling into our room, we ventured out to find some dinner and explore the neighbourhood. There were so many people on the sidewalks that we had to push and squeeze just to stay together.

Each night the sidewalks were packed with hundreds of tents offering food and an enormous variety of merchandise, and even more packed with the hoards of people trying somehow to look at that merchandise while being shoveded along by the crowd pressed against them on every side, sardine-style. These tents get set up at 9 pm and pack up at 3 am.

We managed to find a lane of food stalls. James went for ramen while Antonia decided to be adventurous with a kind of potato pasta, but taking a risk doesn't always pay off, and Emilie had to pick out the fish for her. We spent the rest of the evening wandering around the market in awe, trying not to get separated.

The next day was the only opportunity for James, Yann, and Emilie to take in the sights of Seoul before they would be cooped up in a math conference all week. (Did we fail to mention that the main purpose of this trip was a math conference? We swear that this was really a work trip the whole time!) So we decided to take in some mandatory tourist sights and walked along a lovely man-made stream in the centre of the city to get to Changgyeong Palace and then Changdeok Palace, both remnants of the grand Joseon dynasty and built in the 15th century.

At Changdeok, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its exemplary palace architecture and landscaping, we took a guided tour from a very animated tour guide.

The grounds included the living quarters of the royal family and their court, set amongst a large park featuring many pavilions overlooking several ponds. We were told that this had been the perfect setting for kingly contemplation and courtly love.

The gardens were lovely, but it was such a hot day that we were tempted to jump into the ponds.

We stopped for an ice cream to refresh ourselves before the long walk back along the urban stream. We appreciated this lovely little piece of nature inside such a hot and crowded city; it is a popular gathering spot for people to cool their feet or to watch a public performance.

For dinner, Yann and Emilie sought out some Korean barbeque and we found a restaurant serving shabu, which is Japanese-style hot pot - strangely, we had not had any when we were actually in Japan. The kind staff helped us to cook our veggies and then our noodles.

The food was served in that order and there was absolutely no mixing allowed! The fresh noodles were delicious.

After dinner, we wandered around the market and this time ventured inside the malls, which looked like North American malls from the outside but inside were as crammed and confusing as the streets outside, and these ones were open till 5 am. After a short time, Antonia was very ready to leave the craziness behind and head back to the hostel, but once we got back, James decided that he wanted to buy some glasses and headed out into the fray by himself. James is much better built for crowds and all night shopping than Antonia, and he was totally in his element in Dongdaemun.

The next morning, the three mathematicians woke up early to head to their conference at the gigantic Coex mall.The week-long conference featured daily keynote speakers and workshops on mathematics pedagogy.

There was also a hall with games and activities aimed at getting kids interested in math.

Meanwhile, Antonia took great pleasure in going back to sleep and having a leisurely morning to herself, and then spent the morning doing research about tours of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and planning our last minute trip to Hong Kong, and enjoyed walking around the market in the afternoon, when  most of the tents aren't yet set up and things are a little more laid back. Once the conference-goers returned, we all headed back to the market for dinner. James stuck with his very spicy ramen and Antonia went with her tried and true favourite, chive pancakes, and everyone toasted the evening with a beer. It was all delicious.

Since James was already feeling bored by our enormous market open only till 3 am, we decided to hop on a metro and search for Namdaemun market, which was supposed to be open 24 hours. We had difficulty finding the market, which was strange considering the size of the market and the crowds that it should attract, and then we realized that we were simply too early. You see, it was only a little after 10 pm, and it was hardly worth it for the stalls to be open yet. We hung around for awhile and finally saw some shops beginning to open, but it was obvious that the real action would be starting much too late for us. And, oh yeah, it was a Monday. So we headed back to our market, and while Yann and Emilie headed to bed, James hadn't yet had his shopping fix, and we braved the crowds once again.

A couple of days earlier, James had discovered that his brand new Nikon lens, bought just weeks ago in Tokyo, wasn't focusing properly. So he left a little early from the conference the next day so that we could track down Seoul's Nikon Service Centre. We set out into frenetic downtown Seoul armed only with vague directions from the internet about how to get there. Unfortunately, the street numbers didn't appear to be sequential and after wandering around the same few blocks for an hour and a half, we still couldn't find it to save our lives. Our frustration was compounded by the crazy traffic and lack of pedestrian infrastructure; there was often no visible way to cross a street for quite a long distance. Each time we would ask for directions, we got conflicting advice. And it didn't help that we had made a commitment to meet Yann and Emilie at a rapidly approaching hour (if you know Antonia and her extreme discomfort with being late, you can imagine her panic at this point). About to give up, we decided to ask a taxi driver, who was just as puzzled as we were, vindicating us in our confusion, but called the phone number of the office to get directions. He then tried to relay the directions to us in Korean. We gave him blank, defeated looks and asked him just to take us there. He tried to save us the cab fare and indicated that we were really oh so close, but we had no confidence that we would actually succeed on our own. We hopped in the cab and he drove us around the corner. It was a bit humiliating, but at least we had arrived! 

More frustration ensued at the Nikon store, although the staff was very sweet and helpful. They told us at first that the repair would take 7 days (which we didn't have) and cost money (even though we had an international warranty). After some discussion (aided by charades), we explained our situation, and James worked his famous charm. Soon we left with an agreement from Nikon to fix our lens in three days for free.

But we weren't able to relax yet; while waiting at the Nikon store, we had learned that the National Folk Museum, where we had planned to meet with Yann and Emilie, was closed that day, so they were waiting for us without even anything to entertain them while they did so. Already late, we hopped in a taxi to the Gyeongbok Palace complex, which houses the National Folk Museum, and we asked an employee at the main gate where to find the museum. He answered, "Sorry, the museum is closed today." We replied, "We know, but we just need to know where the entrance is." He answered, "I'm sorry, you'll have to come back tomorrow to visit." We went back and forth like this several more times during which Antonia's panic at being late for Yann and Emilie kept rising. Finally we got the information and we ran around the palace gates and spotted Yann and Emilie.

We decided to take advantage of being downtown, and we wandered down a large boulevard that joins the palace and city hall. The boulevard is dotted with enormous statues of Korea's most renowned kings and makes for quite an interesting aesthetic surrounded by skyscrapers in the foreground and mountains in the distance.

We ate dinner at a little noodle restaurant and then came across a delightful statue installation in a nearby park.

To prove that what you see is no trick of the camera, here are Yann and Emilie next to the cleverly-proportioned statues.

We then found our way to the Changdong Theatre and bought tickets for that night's performance of Miso, a musical performed in traditional Korean style. Miso tells the story of star-crossed lovers in a dramatic, operatic style (with English subtitles, luckily) and showcases many traditional Korean performing arts, including drumming, fan dancing, beona (wherein dancers spin plates balanced on top of long poles) and our favourite, pungmul (wherein dancers spin long ribbons fastened to their hats). It was better than we had expected, and by the end of the night, we were lining up for cheesy fan pictures with the cast.

Our last excursion of the evening was a trip to the top of Namsun Seoul Tower, built at the city's highest point. Emilie wanted to take a cab up the hill, but Yann wanted to walk. It turns out that the climb up Seoul's highest peak was quite steep (who would have thought?), and as it had started to rain quite heavily, we had to take many slippery stone stairs to reach our destination, giving us deja vu about the last time we were hiking up steep slopes in the rain in Korea. 

When we eventually reached the tower, we got into the elevator that would take us to the top. The guide motioned to the ceiling of the elevator where a television screen made it appear as though we were rising through the night sky, but then breaking through the atmosphere and catapulting through space. When we got to the highest floor, we were rewarded with a lovely nighttime view of the river and the city lights, but also screens in the floor that could tell when we were stepping on them, and made it look as though the floor beneath us was crumbling away and we were free-falling to the ground. 

Even though we now realized that the proper way to make this excursion would have been to taxi up and walk down, Yann let us take the cable car back down, and we headed home, stopping on the way for ice cream from the convenience store next door. Emilie and Antonia decided to try an interesting cream soda/oreo combo flavour, which turned out to be - you guessed it! - very strange.

The next day, Antonia decided to crash the math conference and join the mathematicians for the end-of-the-day snacks. Figuring that James was by now a familiar face at the conference, Antonia pinned his I.D. badge to her shirt, with the picture facing in, and desperately hoped that no one would try to strike up a math conversation with her. 

After enjoying some sandwiches and beer, we all headed to yet another enormous mall to find an e-Sport competition. These video games are extremely popular in South Korea and are huge spectator sports. We tried to find a Starcraft competition, since it is a game that we had heard of, but settled for a League of Legends game that was being played that night. 

There are star players, hardcore fans, and a big industry built around broadcasting the matches. We found a large room packed with Koreans (we were the only tourists) - 95% male and 100% enthralled in the proceedings. Since it is a group "sport," each team was arranged on either side of the room in small glass rooms, with commentators situated under a jumbo-tron that displayed the game, as well pre- and post-game player interviews. 

The matches were being broadcast and the players were always swarmed by cameras and lit up by spotlights. We found seats and settled in to watch the lead-in to the next match; each player was introduced at length, followed by an analysis of his record and speculation about the coming match

A Korean team was about to take on a team made up of Americans, Britons, and Venezuelans. We matched the match but had no clue what was going on; it was funny to hear the whole crowd ooh and aah together at apparently critical points in the match, but which were imperceptible to us. We would just turn to each other and shrug in ignorance. 

One thing was clear: the Korean team destroyed the visiting team. 


  1. Man, I can't believe how much stuff we did! Are we crazy?

    1. And that's only part 1 baby! But I still think nothing compares to our first day in Tokyo for action-packed touring.