Sunday, April 16, 2017

Seoul Sightseeing: Days 1 & 2

We were supposed to go to Seoul last year but put it aside and went to Kyoto, Japan instead. So this year, we resolved that we would visit Seoul no matter what. I coincided it with running the Seoul International Marathon and took a huge risk in booking the flight tickets and accomodations without having a real confirmation of the race dates.

Finally in Korea!

My wife and me always book our flights and accomodations way in advance to capitalize on the cheaper cost of airfare and accomodations. So, once our minds were made up, we got down to getting things started as early as November 2016. After some digging around, we got a pretty good deal for our flights and accomodations. Now to keep my fingers crossed that the race date would be as consistent as the previous years or else it would just be a holiday trip, which really wouldn't be so bad.

I'm not going to bore you with details of our planning which was primarily done by my wife, she's the extremely meticulous one at planning for all our holidays and mapped out a list of things to do and see when we get there, and get straight to the gist of our holiday.

The start of the War Memorial

Our flight was slated for the 15th March at 1.00am in the morning which was also my 50th birthday. That would mean I would be celebrating my birthday in two different countries which was a nice significant thing to do for my 50th :D. We didn't check in our luggage to save time (and money) and even though both our luggages were within the regulations of the AAX carry on policy, we didn't want to take chances and arrived early. We were green lighted through without any issues and discovered that AAX would only be strictly implementing the carry on policy in April so we had nothing to worry about but better to be safe than sorry.

Dream come true, standing next to a tracked artillery!

We booked ourselves into the quiet zone and planned to sleep the flight away. We were lucky this time cos the seat next to me was empty and that left us a lot of room to sleep as comfortably as one could get on an economy class flight. We were both tired and dozed off the moment the flight took off.

Giving the Koreans a helping hand in the defense of Seoul!


Day 1

After a six hour plus flight that was pretty smooth and early by 10 minutes, we finally arrived at Incheon Airport, Seoul on a cold, wintry morning around 8.20am. The moment we disembarked, I followed the wife's lead on what to do. We had to take the shuttle train to the main terminal somewhat like what you would do in Kansai. It was a short, less than 5 minute journey to get your luggage and clear customs. As we didn't have any checked in bags, things were much faster for us.

The sprawling view of the War Memorial.

Our first stop after exiting immigration which was fast and efficient, aside from some vain shots (obviously) was to purchase our T-Money, a Touch 'N' Go like prepaid card for all our travelling needs. With that taken care of we headed to find the correct train that would take us to Seoul and to our apartment. Our initial plan was to check in early with our AirBnB host but my wife had other plans which she kept as a surprise for me.

Time to get this missiles ready for action!

So I messaged the host and said we would be a little late checking in and being a nice host, he said to just give him a buzz when we were done and he'd meet us and take us to our apartment. With that we took our first subway ride in Korea. We would be stopping at Samgakji station where according to my wife, we would store our luggage and she'd take me to my surprise visit. I was intrigued and gamely went along.

Our home for a week!

We arrived at the station and found the luggage storage lockers but were a little lost as to how to operate the electronic luggage storage. As we were struggling trying to make head or tail with the instructions, a kind Korean gentleman stepped in to help us. Even he had a little trouble figuring it out but eventually with his help, we managed to stow away our luggage and off we went to our destination.

My first taste of authentic Jjajangmeong.

It was kinda surreal though, all our other holidays abroad, we always had some friends with us to help make headway of things but this time we were on our own in a foreign land. I was not worried cos I knew my wife had done her homework. I'll just tag along and look for spots for my vain shots... hahaha!

We headed out of the station and proceeded to find the surprise the wife had planned for me. We were a little disoriented not knowing where north and south were and were fiddling around with Google maps to get our bearings when this elderly Korean gentleman passed us, glanced at us trying to figure out which way to go and promptly turned back to offer us some help. We were like chickens and goats yet somehow managed to convey our destination and he understood and pointed us along the right path. Both of us were so touched by his gesture to turn around and help us out that it gave us a good impression of Koreans there and then.

The Myeongdong Cathedral.

By now though, I knew we were heading to the Korean War Memorial. Now, my wife knows I'm a crazy military buff and something like this would no doubt excite me but boy how wrong I was. Once we got there, which was actually just around the corner, the place didn't just excite me, it almost made me cry! I was overjoyed. I've been on real life US Aircraft Carriers, stood up close with F-15's & F-18's, sat in an E-2C Hawkeye reconnaissance plane, watched a real commando training exercise first hand and seen Sukhoi Su-30's in aerial display but I've never been up close with real life tanks, missiles and rockets!

A walkabout around Myeongdong just before the crowds started pouring in.

When I saw all the tanks and rockets (albeit decommissioned ones), it took my breath away. Like I said, I almost cried! I was like a kid in a playground, running from one tank to another and bugging my wife to take photos of me next to practically every piece of equipment littered around. This crossed off another list in my interest of all things military! We spent quite a while here. In fact we practically had the place to ourselves and I was busily describing and explaining to my wife the various functions of each military machine.

Gyeran Ppang, super delicious yummy buns with eggs! Simply loved this!

The place was sprawling but we finally left to check in to our apartment. We were a little tired and also hungry and had practically nothing to eat yet. After picking our bags up and a short train ride we arrived at the subway near the apartment. We contacted the owner and told him we were on our way. After a very short walk that saw us losing our bearings again and a with the help of a once again friendly local who helped us back on track without us even asking for help, we finally reached the apartment and met the owner's wife who took us up to the apartment.

Oyster baked with cheese, another super yummy snack!

Our apartment was located in the commercial area of Seoul. In fact, the first few floors of our apartment block consisted of tons of lighting shops of every kind. We were right up on the 12th floor. The apartment itself was very cozy, clean, well kept and exactly as how it was pictured in the AirBnB site, and I mean exactly. It was equipped with a washing machine, TV, kitchen facilities, a heater, heated flooring, a full equipped bathroom and even wifi! I was very happy with it and after thanking the owner's wife, we dumped our bags, took a much needed bath and proceeded to head out for a very late lunch. It was close to 3.00pm by then.

The chef at work during my birthday treat!

My wife had already researched an eatery just a few minutes walk away from the apartment, one that served Jjajangmeong, something I've been craving to eat since I got here. We bundled ourselves up cos while there was sunshine, it was still winter in Seoul and the weather was pretty cold and chilly, especially with the wind. As we took a walk to the eatery, we noticed that each sector or industry were gathered together in one street, for example if you were looking for toilet accessories, all the surrounding shops would be selling toilet accessories and so on. Makes it easier to find a particular product which is all in one place than having to go from one place to another.

We're gonna hike up all the way here and don't you start whining now!

Soon enough we got to the eatery we were looking for. After a nice and hearty meal of Jjajangmeong and sweet sour pork with rice for my wife, we made plans to meet up with Choon Yuen and his wife at Myeongdong. The weather was extremely cold and exceptionally good so we decided to just walk there which really wasn't too far. The best way to enjoy a country is on foot they say.

One of my wife's bucket list crossed out - the Sanmotungi Cafe.

We arrived Myeongdong in no time and headed straight to the Cathedral just around the corner to take in the beauty of the place. The place was filled with tourists and after some quick photo taking around the cathedral, it was off to the shopping side of Myeongdong. Myeongdong is a little like a higher end Petaling Street with lots of stalls littered outside the more established shops, mostly selling cosmetics, clothings and whatnots. It's more of a touristy place and I was just there for the local food sold at the stalls.

Now I had to watch out for dinosaurs????

After checking out the shops where my wife bought some cosmetics and I got a couple of Saucony tees, we met up with Choon Yuen and his wife and scouted around for a place for some good dinner. We eventually found a nice Korean BBQ place and they treated me to a birthday dinner which was absolutely delicious. After dinner, we made our way back cos all four of us had a very long flight in and an equally long day as well. We made plans to meet for a shakedown run the next morning and said our good nights. The walk back to the apartment was close to a kilometer and the night air was freezing but we were nicely bundled up this time unlike back in Kyoto.

A little coffee and cakes atop Sanmotungi Cafe.


Day 2

As with most holidays I'm always awake early to maximize the entire day. The air was chilly even with the heater on. The temps outside were around 1°C and I took it as a perfect opportunity to do a final gear test for race day. I was staying just by the Cheonggyecheon Stream and we decided to do our shakedown there since it was also ripe for some vain shot opportunities. Surprisingly even with the 1°C we found it bearable and after a very short 3km run we headed off back to our respective apartments.

A man of many hats!

My wife was not in when I got back as she headed out on her own to explore the other side of town. By the time I was done with my shower she was back with some tales of her own and also tons of pictures. After she was done with her shower, a quick bite of a simple breakfast which she bought on her way back and we were out for our first sightseeing place for the day.

When Tom Holland retires as Spidey, I'm a confirmed shoo in!

Our first stop was a place called Buam-dong. My wife is a fan of Korean dramas and she wanted to visit Sanmotungi Cafe, the location of one of her favourite dramas, Coffee Prince. I'm not a Korean drama fan or anything like that, well save for the Wonder Girls... hahaha, so I had no idea what Coffee Prince was all about. It was a short bus ride away but a long uphill walk to reach this particular cafe. The weather as good so it didn't seem all that hard of a climb. Lots of people were also seen heading up so that place must be popular.

We finally reached the cafe and it was it was a nice cozy little setting. Of cos my wife was like a giddy school girl and was excitedly showing me around like she had been here before and explaining things to me. Once she settled down, we got some coffee and cakes and headed upstairs for a short break, the long uphill hike was pretty tiring. The view from the top of this place was spectacular. The floor on the basement level, yes, they had three levels, was a joy for one who loved vain shots!

Never one to pass up a vain shot!

After getting my fill of vain shots, we hiked further up cos my wife wanted to take me to the Baeksasil Valley trail since she knew I'd find it pretty interesting for vain shots. Got a little lost looking for it and ended up at an army installation with two very serious looking guards armed with automatic rifles staring us down. Good thing with my skin tone I didn't resemble a North Korean in any way ... hahaha!

The start of the Baeksasil Valley trail.

After a few short checks with the map, we found the trail path and she was right, the place was ripe for some running shots! The trail was empty save for a few other visitors so I had a time of my life snapping away! Once we were done, we headed back down the long road to the bus stop to make our way back to the apartment for some rest but not before stopping for a hearty lunch of Korean Fried Chicken and beers at Gyeyeolsa, supposedly one of the top 3 best places in Seoul for fried chicken.

The supposedly top 3 chicken shop in Seoul - Gyeyeolsa! Judging by the taste, they could be right!

We got off at Gwanghwamun Square, a few more photo ops and we decided to skip the rest and instead headed straight to Gwangjang Market, one of Korea's largest and oldest traditional markets. The market was somewhat like the Nishiki Market in Kyoto but with a difference. The Gwangjang Market had loads of stalls selling local trinkets, snacks and food where you could sit and enjoy the local delicacies with a bottle of cold beer or Soju right at the market itself. The atmosphere was warm and I was free to take pictures of everything unlike at the Nishiki Market where quite a few of them wouldn't allow photography.

Gwangjang Market

This was our meet up point to meet Choon Yuen and his wife for dinner, which consisted of pork knuckles for me and and some 'live' octopus that had me and my wife cringing! The damn things were still wiggling around as he  swallowed them down whole! After dinner we decided to walk to Dongdaemun as my wife said they had this futuristic building called the Dongdaemun Design Plaza that resembled something you would see in Star Trek, which being a Star Trek fan piqued my curiosity.

The local delicacy on display!

I wasn't disappointed cos after a short walk, this insanely futuristic building loomed in the distance and just like she said, it was something right out of a Star Trek movie! This part of town resembled Bukit Bintang, bright with lights and traffic. We took a walk around the Plaza and came to a field of 'lighted roses' fronting part of the facade. We stopped to get some shots just like the tourists we were. We didn't really get great shots cos our cameras being action cams were not really the best for night shots.

The spaceship like Dongdaemun Design Plaza!

After sometime here, we finally started making our way back. The night air was freezing and we were all pretty tired from our respective day out. We parted way since our subway entrances were on different sides but not before making plans for another morning run the next day since Choon Yuen's wife said we didn't run long enough for her in the morning!

A little like the Bukit Bintang area.

We finally reached the apartment and we were both totally exhausted from the long day. Our second night in Seoul was as surreal as the first. All those months of planning finally came to fruition and boy, was I excited. We still had 6 days to go and I for one was planning to make the most of it. My wife had a host of places for day 3 and I was looking forward to it.

The lighted roses that line the outer facade of Dongdaemun Design Plaza.

To be continued - Days 3, 4 & 5 ...

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