Sorry to have been holding out for so long. By now, I can’t even remember when I went to Seoul. A peek at my ridiculous financial records (600 entries since my arrival, each including date, place, amount, method, direction, currency and category of expenditure) reveals that I bought a train ticket on July 12th, had a few meals, and then didn’t make any entries until July 18. So I’m pretty sure that I left on Saturday the 14th.
I have posted some much more convenient and much less messy visual aids at http://picasaweb.google.com/mikemikemikemike. You should follow along there.
I didn’t exactly know how to get to the train station, but a kindly lady from my gym offered to drive me, so I of course accepted. The train station was rather beautiful, or at least clean – even more so than those in Switzerland – and was pretty easy to figure out. The big electronic signs switched back and forth between using English and Korean letters, so even those lame foreigners who can’t read Korean can get around there.
The train was nice but I didn’t take any picture of the inside. Nothing too special. However, I did try to read a Korean comic book, and I understood that the title was something like “Happy Train” (I’m working off of notes here, and I didn’t actually write that down, so it’s just a conjecture). Nevertheless, it was really tough, because my vocabulary is small and I’m still mostly used to using really formal, non-nuanced sentences. That means that exclamations, sentence fragments, and anything with any irregular implications or connotations, are mostly lost on me.
I gave up on the comic book – I hate reading in vehicles anyway – and watched a little TV. There was a show about some markets in Thailand that are actually located on top of the train tracks; when a train approaches, the vendors scramble to pull their carts and boxed out of the way. Some of the fruit and such actually stays on the tracks, but is low enough for the train to pass over it. Delicious! The reason I’m relating this to you is because I had a major linguistic success while watching it; I understood the Thai woman say, via Korean subtitles, that “A mother’s love is bigger than the train.” And that was 1.5 months ago.
The ride took about 2 hours and I spent a lot of the time just looking out the window. I hadn’t still hadn’t seen much of the countryside, so it was nice to see some farms and hills and stuff. It’s a really beautiful place, especially in July. After passing through all that rural area, stuff got a little grungy around the tracks, and then we crossed some river and were apparently in Seoul. The train station there looked pretty much just like the East Daegu one, but bigger and with more people.
After getting off the train, I met Robert, a dude who lives close to me here in Ch’ilgok who had gone to Seoul earlier in the morning to meet some dude. We could have gone together, but I wasn’t too inclined to start off my 4-day vacation with an ungodly 7 AM wakeup. He had been to Seoul before and showed me a few places. First we just wandered around and checked out the skyscrapers; the really affluent areas near the train station were clean, new, and overall pretty gorgeous. (You’ll hear about the lurid parts later, no fear…).
First we went to a Coldstone Creamery – apparently the only one in Korea – and had overpriced ice cream. It was sort of a sham establishment though. They had a big, nice –looking menu, written in Korean and with English translations, but they didn’t have all the ingredients and didn’t know how to make most of the stuff. Robert griped about not being able to get some cookie batter shake; I just griped about spending 5 bucks for 250 ml of sugar.
Next we went to something called, approximately, “cheong-gye-jeong,” which is a stream that the governor decided to build along the main street. It was quite astounding to see such a pristine little river surrounded by immaculate walkways and little step-stone bridges sandwiched between roads lined with skyscrapers. People were walking around, chatting, there were some traditional Korean drummers doing a little show, and under one of the overpasses they had some elementary school artwork out. The place gave off a nice feeling, quite different from what I had expected. Also, as evidenced in my web photo album, Korean people love to do something called “photoshot,” which just means take cell phone pictures together all the time. I caught a few of them on camera. Kind of cute, kind of ridiculous.
We went to some big bookstores after that, and I helped him find Tolkien’s Silmarillion or however you spell it, while I failed to help myself find Feyerabend’s Against Method. Back at that time I had been listening to some philosophy of science lectures while I ate breakfast, so I was intrigued. But, I didn’t find the book (out of stock), and my enthusiasm has since waned.
We then started our hike to Seoul Tower. It’s up on a hill and we had heard the view was nice, so we headed up. As waiting for the cable car would have taken about 2 hours, according to Robert’s guesstimates, I decided we ought to walk. He was a bit of a sissy and complained about it, but I just told him to be a baller and not worry about it. My degrading/motivational speeches eventually earned his assent. Unfortunately, his complaining didn’t stop for long and I had to continuously berate him until we reached the top. On the way, we stopped at an idyllic little photo spot and snapped a few.
We reached the tower after maybe 30-60 minutes of stair-climbing, bought our tickets, and then spent about 2 hours waiting for our “15 minute wait” to end. By the time we got up, dusk had arrived, so all the pictures from up top are plagued by reflections and stuff. At night, though, you can see the city all lit up, and it’s pretty spectacular. The tower has a little 360 degree viewing platform, so you can see all around. The city is just huge.
We opted to walk back down and got completely lost on the way. We opted to just wander towards the brightest place we could find, assuming that lots of neon signs probably meant a subway stop would be nearby. We eventually found it, and headed back to the main station. Robert managed to catch the last train back to Daegu, while I headed to my hostel (I forgot to mention that the first thing we did upon arriving was go there, pay, and drop off my bags. There’s a video of some breakdancers we saw). There was nobody there, so I think I made a brief blog post about having arrived safely in Seoul, then, still high on the adrenaline that comes with being somewhere so new, I headed out again. This was at about 10pm. I had only had some bread in the morning and some little triangular seaweed-rice sandwiches during the day (too busy traveling and sightseeing to get a real meal), so I found a bakery preparing to close and bought some discount muffins. Then I took the subway to Itaewon, which I had heard was a really popular place for foreigners. I didn’t really care about meeting any, but I thought I’d check it out, for lack of a better idea.
Itaewon was a really scuzzy place, perhaps because I went alone, perhaps because I went late on Saturday night. It’s sort of the party district, and I guess there isn’t quite as much big business as downtown, so it’s nowhere near as clean or organized. It’s where all the Indians, Africans, and immigrants from other Asian countries congregate. Had I not been so creeped out, I would have tried some Indian or Turkish food. Maybe I’ll take a day trip there someday. Anyway, among the factors creeping me out were: darkness, street vendors with watches and jewelry, transvestites, prostitutes, drunk people walking around saying odd things, large groups of foreign (mostly Indian and Middle Eastern) men eyeing and heckling the girls who walked by. Despite my immense discomfort, I must have wandered around for about an hour and a half, mostly just trying to see things without being noticed. I really didn’t want to have to explain that, no thanks, I’m sure you’ve got a fine establishment and all, but I’d rather not go visit the basement club guarded by 4 transvestites with sequined dresses.
I made it out unscathed, but upon trying to return home via subway, I was stopped by an official. He asked where I was going, and I said I wanted to go to some market or other, since it was supposedly really nice at night. He said I couldn’t. Then I said I’d go back to the train station. He said no to that to. Then I said I’d just go back to my hostel. (This is in Korean, by the way). He said no go. Only then did he tell me that the subways were closed for the night. I left, grabbed a taxi, and prayed that my pronunciation was good enough to tell him the subway stop closest to my hostel. The fact that the stop had a rather difficult to pronounce name. It’s transcribed Hyehwa, but Koreans often pronouns the ye as just e and the wa as just a. Eventually we got there and he let me out and I was pretty sure I recognized the place, so I took a minute to get my bearings, then went back to the hostel for some rest.