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How in the world did I forget this last story of my Seoul adventure? The night before I left Seoul (Sunday the 12th), I was packing my stuff up and watching MythBusters, which may be one of the most interesting TV shows ever. I had a shuttle ticket purchased and ready for the next morning, which would get me from my hotel to the City Air Terminal near COEX Mall, and from there to Incheon Airport. I found out the night before that this Air Terminal has check-in services available for several airlines, including Asiana, which I was using. This was just like Hong Kong’s, I figured, which was an amazing service last time. I assumed I could check in, send my luggage on it’s way, reserve a nice window seat, and be on my way.

I didn’t realize until stepping up to the Asiana Air Terminal counter, however, that they require you to check-in 3 hours before your flight here. I was 2 hours before. The lady at the counter told me I needed to check in at the airport itself, and to “please hurry up.” I was boned. The bus ride from the Air Terminal to the airport takes about an hour, which means I wouldn’t get to check in until an hour before my international flight. Things weren’t looking good. After arriving, I booked it to the Asiana counter about 45 minutes before planned departure time. “The flight is full…” My mind started to race with schemes and ideas of how I would con my way out of this mess. Luckily, I didn’t need to worry, since her next words were “…so I’ve upgraded you to Business Class.” Wait, what!? I don’t know what good deed I did in the past to deserve this, but I wasn’t going to complain. I didn’t have time anyway, since I had to book it to the gate. But yeah, I was late of my own fault but was instead rewarded for my tardiness.

Business Class was pretty nice. This was the first time I’ve flown anything but Economy (when did we stop calling it Coach?). But yeah, the seat was fully mechanical, adjustable, and reclineable. I had my own personal screen and remote, which Asiana doesn’t offer in Economy, tons of arm room, wide selection of English magazines and newspapers, but best of all was the improved food service. I was given a glass of champagne as soon as I sat down. The meal was a small steak that, while not restaurant food, was leaps and bounds better than usual airplane food. Bread baskets and wine bottles came around routinely during the meal to give you refills. Overall, Business Class was very enjoyable and I wish that I had more than just a short 2-hour flight to experience it. I likely won’t pay for this upgraded service anytime soon, but I am trying my hardest to think of schemes to get this upgrade for free. There’s gotta be a way. Having this for 12 hours back to the US would be really nice, even though I usually sleep the whole time.

Seoul Train

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(I started writing this on the 16th but actually didn’t get around to finishing it until the 25th since I’ve been pretty busy lately.)

After writing the last post, checking my e-mail, and talking to a few people online from the PC Bang, I headed out back into the streets of Seoul. Across the street there was a Dunkin’ Donuts, a chain I haven’t seen since my trip to Chicago in May of 2006. They’re all over the place in Seoul. I checked out what they had, and since it was so late the selection was pretty poor. No donut for me. I then head to the nearest train station, Dongmyo. I had apparently walked far enough from Dongdaemun station to reach a different one. Anyway, I head downstairs and notice that the crowd is pretty much nonexistent. But there were still a few businessmen-looking guys waiting for the train, so I figured everything was still running. I was golden. I then noticed that there was a station attendant talking to one of these few waiting guys, and there was also some kind of announcement. Of course this was all in Korean so I had no idea what was going on. I now realize that they were probably saying something like “This is the last train. If you don’t get on this train, you’re on your own. Especially you, American tourist.” And that summarizes the rest of Saturday night.

I get on the purple line train and ride it 1 stop to Dongdaemun, where I figure I can transfer to the light-blue line and begin my journey back home to the hotel, which is near Cheongdam station. If this were not at a quarter to midnight, I would have been right. But, being so late, the trains were now done, so I had no choice but to exit the station along with the rest of the suckers who were trying in vain to get on the light-blue line. I was now back on the street near Dongdaemun, which seemed less amazing the second time now that I was realizing I had no trains back to my hotel, which wasn’t that close to my station. Please look at this map to see where I was, and where I needed to be (follow the arrow down):

Seoul Subway Map

To be honest, I didn’t know, and really still don’t know, how big Seoul is compared to Tokyo. But I was, just for mental calculation’s sake, imagining them to be similar in size, meaning I would have to take a taxi pretty far. And, still being in Japan mode, a far cab ride meant tons of money to me, maybe over 100 bucks USD. Please also note at this point in time I was carrying only a 10,000 won bill (about 10 USD) and some change. I thus walked around for a bit looking for some kind of ATM with a Cirrus or Plus logo, which of course I didn’t find. I then went into some convenience store, and miraculously I was able to withdraw 100 USD from my US account. I don’t think I can even do this in Japan. But, I now had money. Walked around a bunch trying to figure out where to get a cab. Found a somewhat busy intersection and stopped a cab after it dropped off some people. At this point I realized the cabs that say “Free Interpretation” don’t mean the driver speaks English, but rather they have some internal phone line you can call that will provide you with an interpreter. Or something. I didn’t bother.

After showing 2 cab drivers my hotel key and saying “Ri-bi-e-ra?” and receiving angry or confused waves of the hand, I finally found a guy who knew it. Off we go! I then noticed that the initial cab fare was like 1280 won, around $1.50. Compare this to the initial Japanese cab fare of 660 yen, about 6 USD. Way cheap. So my Korean taxi driver is zipping around the late night streets of Seoul, flying down highways, across the river, and finally to my hotel. The drive took around 25 or 30 minutes, and the grand total was 14400 won. 14 bucks for a 30 minute cab drive?! I was shocked, happy, and happy again because I didn’t have to drop a bill on a cab ride because I spent too much time in an internet cafe. I didn’t really even need any of the money I withdrew from the ATM!

Gyeongbok picture taken by some random GermanI awoke Sunday morning refreshed and ready to get some serious sightseeing in. First stop was Gyeongbok-gung, the former Korean imperial palace. I actually took a cab to get there, which cost only about 15000 won again and saved me the hassle of transferring on a bunch of subway lines. Cheap taxis are amazing, and make you feel like you’re rich. Anyway, what I had thought would be a fairly easy temple viewing ended up being a full-day excursion because I didn’t realize how big the grounds are for this place. It’s not just 1 main building, but rather a huge area with several temples, buildings, museums, and gardens. To make a long story short, I spend the entire afternoon at the palace and one of the museums inside. As you can see from the picture here taken by some random German tourist whom I at first thought was an American, it is very similar to Chinese or Japanese temples. But the mountain view in the background was pretty sweet. This is just the first major gate before heading towards the body of this massive complex.

After Gyeongbok, ate some awesome bibimbap for lunch and chilled in a coffee shop while it rained. Luckily I wasn’t in the rain much all day since it started while I was eating lunch, and it at least made the weather on Sunday much better than the humid head we’d been having here in Asia. I walked around downtown Seoul for a few hours, noticing how much western influence there was. Seoul seemed to have more American franchises than Japan even, but I think it’s probably about the same. Just different ones. After that, I did some more souvenir shopping near Nandaemun again, even buyiing some K-glasses that I am not stylish enough to wear. However, eyeglasses in Korea really are super cheap; I got some prescription glasses for 50000 won, made in about 10 minutes by some Korean guy who had lived in LA growing up and thus sounded like a Hispanic gangster. He said the glasses I got made me “look like an O.G.” What a sales pitch.

Unfortunately by the time I got back to the south side of Seoul, it was too late so I couldn’t check out the huge COEX Mall. I was able to eat a huge sukiyaki/yakiniku hybrid for dinner, and watched The Queen on my giant LCD TV. I then packed, with the inside of my suitcase almost exclusively containing Korean seaweed for myself and for friends as souvenirs.

Seoul Society

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I’m sitting in a PC Bang (net cafe) just down the street from Dongdaemun in Seoul. This place is a lot different from the internet cafes I’m used to in Japan; it’s all open seating, everyone’s speakers are blaring, it’s dirtier, and I’m pretty sure at least 80% of the people in here are playing Warcraft, Counterstrike, or some other online game. This must be Korea! The other 20% are girls looking up clothing. Everyone’s speakers are blaring, so it sounds like I’m in the middle of a war zone. Korea in general is a lot different than Japan. Riding the airport bus to my hotel yesterday I couldn’t help but notice how huge and wide open things were, as opposed to Japan where land is a lot more scarce so stuff is crammed together closer. The downtown and city areas that I’m explored so far are closer to Hong Kong than Tokyo; a little dirtier and “Asian” feeling.

My hotel is really nice ; it’s bigger than my apartment in Japan and has a huge bed and a huge flat panel TV (Samsung, of course). It’s nice watching American TV; they have a few shows here and the Discovery Channel. I actually wasted a lot of today sleeping and/or watching US TV, which I feel kind of stupid for doing, but hey it’s vacation and I should be relaxing, right? It is kind of bunk though, that while they provide the usual hotel bathroom stuff like soap, body wash, toilet paper, etc, they do charge you for shampoo, toothbrush, and toothpaste. How cheap can you get?

So far my vacation has been pretty cool. I checked out a bunch of markets, and so far have seen 2 of the big city gates: Namdaemon and Dongdaemon. Tomorrow I’m planning on checking out the giant COEX mall and also Gyeongbok Palace. I don’t know what else I really want to see, and honestly I don’t think I’ll have enough time to comfortably add more to my plans. I do like just walking around and shopping, especially since stuff here seems so much cheaper than Japan. I’ve bought a ton of Korean seaweed, which everyone in Japan seemed to request. I might get some new eyeglasses made, since they really are super cheap here. I also found some socks with a certain Korean drama star that I hate, which I think people will enjoy too, hahaha.

The most striking thing since being here has been the language barrier; it’s very humbling to be in a place where you are totally illiterate. Maybe not 100%, but mostly. They have some stuff in Chinese, Japanese, or English, and between those 3 I can usually at least find my way. In Japan, I can read most stuff and communicate no problem. In Hong Kong they used more English, and while I can’t speak Chinese worth a grain of rice anymore , I’m at least used to hearing it from family gatherings. Here, totally opposite. I look at Korean text and can’t understand a damn thing. I point at things like a monkey to communicate, or pray that they speak at least some English or Japanese. My motto so far has been “English? Nihongo?” More people here can actually speak a little Japanese than English, which is at least helpful. Good life lessons I suppose.

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