While we’ve been back still digesting our impressions of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Bangkok, here’s a little post about our mini-tour of Seoul, South Korea.
One the way home from our big trip, we had an 8 hour layover in Incheon (Seoul) airport – way too long to stay in the airport and do nothing. Luckily, our awesome airline – Asiana – offered us a choice of a free city tour or a free hotel stay. So, we opted for the city tour, of course!
After spending weeks in a tropical and humid climate, Seoul greeted is with cold, Chicago-like weather. Unfortunately, I did not pack any scarves or sweaters on this trip and had to rely on my semi-warm leather jacket. On any other day, we would be eager to forget the tour and explore the city on our own (risking late arrival to the airport and missing our flight) but on a day like this we were so glad to be driven around in a warm and cozy bus!
Seoul is a huge sprawling city with a population of about 10 million. Almost half of South Korea lives in Seoul. Incheon airport is over an hour away from the center. This day was very foggy (and, did I mention cold?) – so foggy that is was hard to make out the surroundings on the bus ride to the city.
Our tour guide was a very cute, nice and bubbly girl (but who in Korea isn’t? :). She tried to teach the whole bus some simple Korean words, bot I don’t think any of us retained them for longer than just a few minutes. Korean words are LONG!
The first stop on the tour was the Blue House. “The Blue House is like your White House!”. Official name is, actually Cheong Wa Dae, s the executive office and residence of the president of republic of Korea. We couldn’t really go inside, or get close to the Blue House – at least not on this tour – so we hung out and snapped some photos in the “public area”. Take a look at the traffic guard – they look so funny in their little boxes with their pink and white outfits. And they have to keep a serious face on!
Our next stop was the Joyge-sa Temple. This part of the tour was much more interesting. Inside the temple, it was a full house praying/chanting ceremony was in full progress yet nobody opposed us quietly walking around and taking photos. The “main monk” with a microphone was chanting away and creating rhythm with some wooden stick – it sounded very meditative and beautiful.
Outside of the temple, there was a full blown kimchi production! It was the largest kimchi-making operation I have even seen. Well, so far it is also the ONLY kimchi operation I’ve ever seen… Our guide explained to us that kimchi was being prepared to feed the homeless who come to the temple during the holiday season. She said that this kimchi will not be preserved by traditional methods – for months in a barrel, it will only be fermented for a day or two and then ready for consumption.
Our next stop was a meal at a Korean Barbeque restaurant (also provided, free of charge, by our airline – thanks, Asiana!). The meal consisted of beef bulgogi, rice, and various sides, including, of course, kimchi! We paired it well with a couple of glasses of Soju – Korean sake. Yum.
The last stop on our tour was a “shopping street”. I was hoping for some unique outdoor market full of Korean crafts, but instead we were taken on a street full of pretty average mall-type retail stores. Needless to say, we didn’t do much shopping, but used the opportunity to walk around on the side streets and peak inside houses and restaurants.
So, that summed up our 4 hour tour of Seoul. Defintely wet my appetite for returning to Korea some day, I really liked Seul! It is very hilly and in this climate had a bit of a Euro / Switzerland feel. The tour itself combined good and cheezy parts, but it was way more than we expected to get for free and from an airline!
Several hours later, righ before boarding our 12-hr flight to Chicago, we bought another bottle of soju at a duty-free store to take home. However, the airport security searched our bags at a boarding gate and did not allow us to bring the bottle on a plane. How does this make any sense!?! Well, we did not want to waste our precious Soju and proceeded to open the bottle and finish its contents right there in front of laughing Korean security personell. Koreans usually drink soju very very slowly, in small sips – it is really like rice vodka – so they got their entertainment for the day, and we had a very fun flight home!