Seoul, Day Two: Gyeongbokgung and the Well-Dressed Men with Spears

On Monday we visited the largest palace in Korea; Gyeongbokgung. Like every other major site in Seoul, it was a short taxi ride from our hotel. The story goes, it was built in the 1300s but was destroyed during the Japanese Invasions in the 1500s, and was then rebuilt in 1860. There were fires and assassinations along the way, but that's the gist of it.

Despite being in the middle of one of the biggest and busiest cities in the world, it's quite a quiet and serene place. With Bukhansan in one direction and the skyscrapers of downtown in the other, the scenery is as diverse as it is beautiful.

We were, unknowingly, just in time for the Changing of the Guard. A very cool ceremony that involved dozens of soldiers and some good music.

And let's be honest - what is a scenic family vacation if not a photo op. So just to show you were actually there, there we are. Our gorgeous little doll had a wonderful time.

Seoul, Day One: Insadong and the Charming Love Motel

After six months, we finally made it out of Daegu for more than an afternoon.

We decided to wait until Sunday afternoon to leave for Seoul because Cate was still a bit unsettled and tired from her doctor appointment on Friday. We caught the KTX in the morning and arrived in Seoul just after lunch. For some reason we thought it'd be better to take the subway from Seoul Station to our hotel, but I realized as I was hurling our suitcase and Cate's playpen over the turnstiles, a taxi would have been a more sensible option.

Nonetheless, we made it to the neighborhood we'd planned to stay in, and now we just had to find the hotel. Within a minute of coming up to ground we saw four foreigners, none of whom offered us any help, even though we were clearly lost and were overwhelmed with carrying our luggage through the city. At the risk of losing my cred on the Korean Blogosphere and/or straying from the story, I won't gripe (at the moment) about how I think many foreigners in Korea are arrogant, selfish tossers. So, after realizing the directions we had weren't doing the trick, we stood in a daze until finally a very nice Korean man asked us where we needed to go. We told him and he phoned the hotel and then said, "Just come with me." We walked half a block before being met by the hotel manager who'd walked two blocks to come meet us and take us to our destination.

The Sky Motel was located in what seemed like a fairly shady alley. To get to the front door of the hotel we had to walk under a big curtain. Most love motels have these, as their meant to protect the identities of the paying customers by blocking their vehicles from view. Classy, isn't it? Our room was decent. Small, but decent. The bathroom was twice the size of ours at home and it was surprisingly clean. Besides the smell of smoke, we found it acceptable. It was only 35,000 won per night so we weren't about to complain.

Our first order of business was to hit up the historic Insadong, a large arts and culture market. It was a short walk from our hotel, which meant we ended spending most of our week there. According to Lonely Planet, it's the third most popular area in Seoul. It's made up of street vendors and small shops selling cultural art, crafts and clothing. We spent a couple of hours looking around and taking pictures before finding a restaurant tucked back in an alley where we sat outside for dinner. Here are a few of the sites.

I'll talk about each day we spent in Seoul in separate posts, as there's far too much to say and too many photographs to stuff them all into one and expect anyone to read it all in one shot.


This Is Korea (TIK)

Daegu hasn't exactly been a hotbed of action lately. I think we're just trying to lay low until summer ends and we can actually step outside without being slapped in the face by the humid hand of mother nature.

As a result, there hasn't been much to write about - at least nothing I find interesting enough. Next weekend we'll be heading to Seoul for four days. We're extremely excited. The last time we were there we were having panic attacks, Cate was puking every 10 minutes and I was trying to find the fastest flight home. Obviously things have changed a little since then. We didn't see too much of the city in March. We stayed with our friends, Janessa and Evan, and because we were so tired we basically just crashed at their apartment for two days. We'll be staying near downtown in a 'love motel'. Sounds classy, I know. Love motels are called love motels because they're often rented by the hour. Meaning they're meant for people who really love each other - for at least 60 minutes (or much shorter in some cases, I'm sure). Actually, these motels have received a serious upgrade in the last number of years. When Korea hosted the World Cup in 2002, many of these establishments received a touch of class and were, for a short while, called world motels. Our friends recommended one to us, so we're hoping it's appropriate for the kind of love shared between two parents and a baby. I'm guessing we're not typical clientele. These motels/hotels are less than half the price of normal hotels, which is why we're choosing this somewhat seedy option.

As I've mentioned before, we're pretty much used to the daily wackiness that is South Korea. Things that were weird before are just daily routine now, but once in a while you get a little reminder of why you should have a camera in hand at all times. Things like a synchronized stationary bike dance team performing in the food court of the local superstore is a perfect example. The following video is one of those typical situations where you just shake your head and keep walking - or stand, watch and laugh. I'll let Andy do the explaining:

You can read Carmen's latest blog post to find out more about what's going on in our personal lives.


Think about it

I was quite surprised to see this commercial on CNN.com. Partly because it's a prime advertising space and is most likely ├╝ber expensive, and partly because I really don't view Korea as a top destination for tourists.

It's got me to thinking. What would convince people to visit Korea strictly as tourists - that is not to visit friends or relatives and not as a stopover on the way to Singapore? The commercial does quite well to present the country as a unique cultural experience which, I have to say, it has been for us as short-term residents. But if a year ago I could have chosen five countries to visit in Asia, Korea wouldn't have been on my list. From the outside, it doesn't have the futuristic clutter of Tokyo, as experienced by Bob and Charlotte. It doesn't seem to have the ancient beauty of China or Mongolia. Or the tropical paradise of Thailand. But as sure as every old lady in Korea has gold teeth, this country does have all those things.

From ancient temples to tropical islands to super-modern urban jungles, Korea is worth the ten hour flight from Vancouver (or your nearest international airport). Right here in Daegu we have one of the most beautiful Buddhist temples in Asia - Dongwhassa. Jeju Island is apparently the Hawaii of Korea and is only an hour-long flight away from us. And of course there's Seoul, the third largest city in the world and home to a few of the biggest electronic companies in the world. We've talked to a few people back home who thought Korea was almost a third-world country. While Yongsan seems that way sometimes, the idea couldn't be further from reality.

In one week, you could chill on a tropical beach, visit the tombs of ancient kings, hang out with monks in a Buddhist temple, shop for whatever you think are cool clothes, eat dried squid at a professional baseball game and visit one of the most politically significant states in the world - North Korea. And along the way you can see things like synchronized stationary bike dancers in a grocery store. We've had the pleasure of doing almost all of these things.

We've made the decision not to travel outside of Korea during our stay here, as we want to travel outside of Asia when Carmen's contract finishes in March. As a result we're seeing a lot of Korea. In two weeks we'll spend four days in Seoul. We plan to visit the Demilitarized Zone between the North and South. And I'm very curious to see what a city of 22 million people has to offer a young family of three.

But basically, what I'm saying is, Korea is a very cool place and I think it's worth every penny of that spot on CNN.