Seoul, Day . . . Five?: Back in the Big City three weeks later

I've been away. From this blog. For a long time. Pathetic, I know.

The truth is there hasn't been a lot happening until this past weekend, and I'd rather not bore anyone with stories of walking to the corner store or cooking and cleaning, because that about summarizes the last three weeks.

My parents made the trip to SK last week. We met them in Seoul on Friday and spent a day and half in the capital. Cate was ecstatic to see her Nana and Papa and of course the feeling was mutual. We basically just hung around downtown and the Insadong area and shopped. It's always nice to experience Korea from a fresh perspective, and we've been reminded of just how different things are as we watch my parents take everything in. We're in the middle of the most important holiday of the year in Korea - Chuseok. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are national holidays and it's the time of year when everything shuts down and everyone spends time with family. It made weekend travel almost impossible. We found out on Tuesday that the KTX was nearly sold out for the entire weekend. I was able to snag enough tickets, but it meant we had to leave Seoul at 6:30 on Sunday morning.

On Friday, Carmen and I had tickets for the 5:40 train to Seoul. Carmen didn't get off work until 4:30 so we knew we'd have to hurry. We left as soon as she got home and jumped in a taxi. Traffic was crazy because of Chuseok so we realized we were cutting it close, but we got to the station with 13 minutes to spare. Not bad considering there's no check-in process - just scan your ticket and get on the train. Well, it's easy if you get on the right train. We didn't. We boarded the train at 5:37 and realized there was no one on it. Strange, seeing as this ride was sold out. So I ran outside and checked with a janitor; he looked at my ticket and pointed to the train across the tracks. This meant we had to go back up two flights of stairs, through a corridor, down two flights of stairs - carrying two backpacks, a playpen, a stroller and a baby - in three minutes. We were like the Mcallisters trying to catch their plane to Paris after a storm knocked out their power, only we didn't forget our kid in the attic. Anyway, we made it, with seconds to spare.

I'll be a tour guide for the next couple of weeks, pretending to know what I'm talking about and acting like I understand the language, just so I can impress my mom and dad, and they can return to Canada with stories about their extremely cultured and well-traveled son.


Seoul, Day Four: Creeps of the Night and the Dancing Hologram

I love Seoul. I want to live there.

While we really enjoy Daegu and have met some amazing friends, I do regret, just a little bit, that we didn't choose to live in Seoul. Four days just didn't seem long enough to really explore and experience the city. But we were definitely satisfied with everything we'd done. The pace of life is even more intense than we've become used to in Daegu and there's always something to be entertained by. I found out recently that the square mileage of Seoul is actually less than Daegu, with nearly ten times as many people.

Our last day was mostly spent in the neighborhood around the hotel. We went back to Insadong and spent too much money on Korean art and traditional things. You could literally spend days searching every shop and stand, looking at antiques, jewelry, carvings, paintings, masks and anything else that might be considered Korean or Asian.

With Cate it wasn't possible for us to go out and really experience the Seoul nightlife, but Carmen and I each made solo late-night excursions, although mine would probably be considered early morning. This was possibly my favorite part of Seoul. It's as busy at midnight as it is at noon.

Clubs are open every night of the week, and Korean businessmen love to drink every night of the week, so it works out well for both parties. However, this is where I saw one of the ugly sides of Seoul. As I was walking through the narrow pedestrian streets where most of the clubs and bars are located, I noticed men with ear pieces and two-way radios, just sort of lingering around. Most of them were standing in intersections and some were walking back and forth along the streets. After seeing several of them I began to wonder what they were up to, so I started to watch a little closer. Apparently, their job was to entice random young women to come to the club they were working for. They'd approach the women, sometimes in a friendly way but usually very aggressively, and give them a quick spiel. It was obvious that most of the women knew exactly what the men were up to and were very uncomfortable by it. Most of them would walk past quickly, holding their arms in so the men couldn't grab them, but it wouldn't always work. One instance I witnessed was particularly disturbing. I was with Carmen and Cate and we were on a busy street getting ready to cross and head back to our hotel. As we were waiting at the intersection I was watching three men who were 'working' the corner. One little dude asked a girl to come to his club, and when she wouldn't, he grabbed her by the arm and dragged her. The woman was clearly scared and did not want to go, and her friend was pulling her in the other direction. The idiot wouldn't let go and after a few seconds was joined by a couple of his co-workers who also started pulling her. There were hundreds of people standing on the corner and no one was doing anything about it. There was a man in a lawn chair sitting on the steps of corner store who was, apparently, in charge of the whole operation. He looked on like nothing was happening. Finally the woman slipped loose and the light changed so she was able to cross the street with her friend. I went for a walk again later and 'accidentally' bumped into another jerk who was doing the same thing to another woman. He looked at me as if he wanted to stab me in the heart, but I just put my hands up with an 'I'm just a stupid foreigner' look on my face. I was shocked that A. this was a legitimate method of business and B. no one did anything about it, including the police whose station was a block away.

Enough of the tales of fear and injustice. I also witnessed the coolest and most entertaining form of useless technology I've ever seen. This guy:

I thought the following image was interesting. We don't get to see or read much of the news in Korea. We don't have access to either of the English newspapers and there's no local English news programs on TV. So most of the information we've got regarding the ongoing story of the Korean hostages in Afghanistan has been through sources outside of Korea, which means we haven't been able to gauge how big the story is here. This banner on City Hall gave us an idea:

Sorry about the quality. It was taken from a distance in a moving taxi with a compact camera.

Here is a look at the alley in which our hotel was located. It looks quite shady, and it is actually. Not in a dangerous way, just in a dirty, seedy kind of way. These guys, and guys that look just like them, were there 24/7.

Eventually we had to call it a day and return to the South. We took the KTX once again and enjoyed an incredible view of the Korean countryside on a beautiful, misty, rainy day.

We'll miss Seoul, but fortunately we're going back there for a short stay in two and half weeks when we meet my parents at the airport and bring them back to Daegu for a visit.


Seoul, Day Three: Dongdaemun and the Missing Key

The foreigners' market. Sounds great doesn't it? Rumor has it we could find anything we might be missing from home in Itaewon, the foreigners' district of Seoul. We'd been looking forward to this for months. We'd heard mixed reviews, but mostly people said it was an amazing place, with Western food, toiletries and regular-sized threads. We were giddy.

But heavens to Betsy, what an utter letdown it turned out to be. A series of dumpy knockoff stores and dozens of custom suit tailors (sorry, I don't want something that looks like it's 40 years old and has a 28 inch crotch). The clothes were basically the same stuff we'd find in cheaper areas of Daegu, with a few second-rate gangsta brands thrown in for good measure. We walked around for 45 minutes, ate at Subway and jumped in a taxi to head back to Insadong.

On the plus side, this gave us enough time to spend part of the afternoon at Dongdaemun, a massive shopping district in central Seoul. Dongdaemun means 'Great East Gate' and refers to the large ancient gate the market is built around - it was built during the Joseon Dynasty. You'd think I would've got a photog of something so historic and significant, but after wasting our time in Itaewon, we didn't have a lot of time before Cate would need a nap - and it was raining buckets. So we did some shopping.

One thing I learned about Seoul is no matter where you are, you'll see every part of Korean culture in some way. Although Dongdaemun is a major fashion district and attracts mostly young hipsters, there are seniors selling street meat, jewelry and carrying cardboard around on bikes. This is often the case in Korea but I found it especially interesting in this major part of such a large, modern city.

When we returned to our hotel from Dongdaemun we were hot, tired and ready for a nap. We got to our door, and I realized the room key was not in my pocket. This was a problem for a few reasons. First of all, the key had a magnetic tag with it that's used to turn everything on in the room. You insert the magnet into a slot on the wall and the lights, TV and A/C power on. I knew this would be expensive to replace and that this hotel most likely would not have extra tags. Secondly, the magnetic tag had the hotel name and room number on it, meaning whoever found it would have a free room in Insadong (and they'd definitely want to visit there after reading my blog). The third reason this situation was a problem was the fact that as I was searching my pockets, our bags and the stroller for the key, the geezer next door was watching porn. How do I know he was watching porn? Because he had his television turned up to, what I'm assuming was, the maximum volume level for his listening pleasure. What a perfect soundtrack for a panicked situation, and perfect for our 17 month old daughter to be hearing in a smoky hallway of a seedy hotel. We went to the front desk and explained what happened and the manager was clearly worried. She said it would cost 30,000 won to replace which, to be honest, was far less than I was expecting. So we paid the replacement fee and had to use the 'master key', which had to be returned to the front desk every time we left the hotel. A little awkward.

One more day to go.