DAY 35: ANNYEONG SEOUL – WE’RE OFF TO MOSCOW!


`Some final thoughts on Seoul, and a few first impressions of Moscow…

Today was officially our longest transit day to date, but we made it – we’re in Moscow! It took 11 hours of flying, but we got all the way from Asia to Europe to day. Our flight left Seoul at 1:30pm so we had plenty of time for our usual coffee and pickle + ham + egg morning sandwich (ahhhh, breakfast pickles, how I will miss thee…NOT!). We also stopped by the Seoul Central Post Office to post our Japanese and Korean guidebooks home, along with a couple of small souvenirs we picked up. Cost us 21,000Won (about $21AUD) to post back items worth less than that, but hey I guess it’s the sentimental value right?

Seoul Central Post Office building. Goodbye guidebooks – you were great! We couldn’t have done it without you…

After a quick check-out from the luxury of our hotel we caught the bus to Incheon International Airport, 50km and 90 minutes of mind-numbing boredom later, we were at the world’s best airport (winner 8 years in a row apparently!), ready to check-in and entertain ourselves for a few hours with duty free shops and airport people watching (always entertaining). Incheon Airport is huge – so many shops, so many people shopping! They even have a “Cultural Information Centre” where you can learn about traditional Korean food, culture, the language, architecture, etc. Having just seen all that in Seoul, we passed, but did enjoy the parade of people dressed in traditional Korean costumes (sooooo daggy and touristy, but I still had to take a photo because I AM a tourist after all!).

 

Parade through Incheon Airport with men and women in traditional Korean attire. So touristy I just had to take a photo!

 

Incheon International Airport, Seoul. Are we ready for a big flight? Yes! Are we excited about spending 11 hours on a plane? Yes! Are we ready for all the wonders of Moscow? Yes!

To tell you the truth, we’re not that sad to be leaving Korea. It was OK, but just didn’t grab us – either of us. The historical sites were nice, but with so much of the old buildings and monuments destroyed by war and invasion, it was hard at times to get a true sense of what “old Korea” would have been like. We didenjoy the food, even if the pickles, chilli and garlic did get a bit much! The Korean people we met were certainly friendly, and they seem to exude an air of brash, energetic enthusiasm which was a real contrast to the restraint and politeness we experienced everywhere in Japan. So it wasn’t a bad week,not at all, just not an awe-inspiring one. I think our perspective is skewed by the fact that we only saw Seoul, and I don’t think cities are always the best way to truly experience the best of what a country has to offer. So perhaps it’s fairer to say Seoul really didn’t gel with us. The rest of Korea may be spectacular – we may just have to go back to check that out one day. For now though, we are on to Russia to start the European leg of our adventure.

The flight from Seoul to Moscow itself was dull and uneventful (as I like my flights to be) – 11 hours, 4 movies, a few games of Scrabble, some reading, a couple of meals (which were actually edible – surprise, surprise!), and we were there.  We were told our pre-arranged pick-up in Moscow would only wait for us for 90 minutes, and having heard horror stories of people spending 3 hours in queues at Sheremetyevo International Airport, we were a little anxious about getting out as quickly as possible. Turns out Friday night is not a busy time at Moscow’s airport, so we were out in an hour, with waiting for our bags being the longest bit. Getting through Customs was a change to what we’re used to in Aus – no form to fill in, no sniffer dogs, no x-ray machine…, nothing. Literally. There were 2 exits: “Stuff to Declare” and “Nothing to Declare”. You just self-select your exit and walk out. Needless to say, everyone chose “Nothing to Declare”!

The airport is new and actually quite modern and clean, though it is about 40kms out of the city. It took us 90 minutes to get to our hotel, with the driver weaving in and out of 7 lanes of traffic all going 140km/hr. Moscow drivers are nuts man! They make Italian drivers look like restrained, law-abiding citizens. Shane and I had our seat belts on the whole time, trusting our driver to get us to our hotel in one piece. On the way we passed heaps of huge apartment complexes – big blocks of units, just as you expect from the hub of the old communist world. I’m sure some of the older blocks of flats still share a kitchen per floor and all that.

 

Sheremetyevo International Airport. Surprisingly clean and efficient – a good start to our Russian adventure.

 

Shane, with seat belt firmly fastened, enjoying the craziness of Moscow traffic.

 

Big blocks of communist-era flats now sit side-by-side with modern department stores and supermarkets.

Some other first impressions of Moscow:

  • So much traffic! There were 7 lanes of traffic bumper-to-bumper going the other way (out of the city) as we were going to our hotel, either virtually at a standstill or going 140km/h
  • Cheap petrol – about 30 Russian Ruples (RR) per litre (1 AUD = 30 RR).
  • So many people smoking – in their cars, on the streets, everywhere!
  • So much space! They have so much flat land in this country it’s insane. And what hasn’t been developed is still so densely forested. If this wasn’t all under snow 9 months of the year, it would be so much more populated and developed. Thank goodness for Russian winters I guess.
  • There’s an air of almost dignified decrepitude about the buildings and landscape – slightly shabby, but majestic too.
  • It’s so light so late – it’s about 10:15pm now and it’s still very bright. Apparently sunrise is about 4:00am too. Might have to sleep with a eye-mask on I think.
  • Russian people don’t smile much. So far everyone’s been friendly and polite, but I get the impressions that smiling is for simpletons.
  • That’s it for now. I’m sure more will come over the next week that we’re here…

Our hotel here is HUGE – it has 2000 guest rooms, 15 restaurants/cafes (including one that accommodates 1000 people!), a gym, a pool, a beauty salon, a bowling alley, 20 function rooms, and sits next to the Izmailovo Park (Europe’s biggest city park). We’ve got tomorrow to ourselves before the tour starts on Sunday, so we’re hoping to explore the park and a bit of the area around the hotel. Anyway, it is now almost 10:30pm Moscow time (feels like 3:30am Seoul time) and I think it’s time for bed. More exciting news from Moscow tomorrow!

 

What a view! Izmailovo Park from our hotel room at 10:15pm.

 

DAY 34: SEOUL MATES


Seoul is a haven for sappy romantics!

It seems Koreans are hopeless romantics. Go figure! We discovered this on our trip up Namsan Hill today. This 262m hill is the highest point in the city and is also one of the few green spots in this crazy metropolis; the whole thing is a park and is extremely popular with Seoulites for exercise, afternoon strolls and romantic liaisons. We went up there for a walk today so we have a change of scenery (we miss trees!), and to try and get some fresh air (Seoul is quite polluted). It was great to be in amongst some green stuff once again, and although we didn’t get to see anything to exciting along the way, it was also nice to spend some time away from traffic and hordes of people. Though we did see a few groups of older Koreans, dressed to the nines in their super-flash hiking gear, going out for their daily or weekly constitutional. Compared to our casual clothes, they looked like they were climbing Mt Everest though, not just strolling up the local hill!

Walking through Namsan Park, seeking green and serenity. You can just see some of the very well dressed Korean hikers behind Shane.
WE were not dressed for hiking – far too casual compared to the locals. Compared to the mountains we’ve hiked in Japan though, this was nothing!

We walked all the way up to the top of the hill, to the viewing platform overlooking Myeong-dong. It was incredibly hazy though so we literally couldn’t see the city, despite it being just a few hundred meters away (this is apparently quite a common phenomenon here in Seoul, with the pollution often getting trapped in the valley and creating this thick haze – eeeeeew, gross!). So no city views to report, though we did have some fun checking out the “Lovers Locks Trees” that sit at the base on N-Seoul Tower (a big communications tower which is now a premier tourist attraction owing to the 360 degree views it affords of Seoul city – you can pay 10,000Won or about $10AUD per person to go up to the observation deck for these views, but given it was hazy as heck when we were up the hill, we decided to give it a miss

Lovers benches up at Namsan Hill.

These “trees” are basically masses of padlocks locked into place by loved-up couples who then throw away the key as a symbolic gesture of their commitment. There were thousands of these silly things up there! The whole park at the top of Namsan Hill was set up as a bit of an ode to all things romantic, with love-heart shaped flower beds and benches built so that is two people sat on the, you’d automatically slide in to the middle towards each other. Cute, but sooooo silly!

 

 

N-Seoul Tower and its blanket of smog and haze.
Love heart shaped flower beds – oh how sweet! 
Thousands of padlocks, left as a symbol of love and commitment. How romantic!
Us trying not to wet our pants laughing at all this silly lovey-dovey stuff. (In case you were wondering: we did not leave a lock with our names engraved or written on it up there.) 

Unfortunately that’s about all we got up to today as I finally gave in to the cold that’s been trying to take hold the last few days. According to Shane I spent much of last night doing an impression of Darth Vader sucking air through a bucket of glue, so we went in search of a chemist today and through the power of sign language I managed to communicate my need for an expectorant to the bemused, white-coated pharmacist. He gave me a bottle of liquid cough medicine whose ingredients we have been able to look up on the internet (all legitimate, though likely to induce drowsiness). I dosed myself up after lunch to try it out and it seemed to help. At least this way Shane can get some sleep tonight (I slept fine last night!).

Shane’s convinced I’ve got some hideous Korean Pigeon Flu, thanks to all the people hawking up their snot balls in the streets (it’s a Chinese/Korean thing – I’ve seen enough tourists do it in Aus to have expected it over here, but it’s still gross). Apparently they cough up all that phlegm rather than swallow it coz it’s healthier…, yeah, sure, maybe for YOU, but what about all the innocent people around you that are being exposed to your mucus? I’m all for cultural uniqueness (vive la difference and all that), but spitting in the street is not OK – EVER. I think Shane is wrong though – I’m pretty sure this is just your run-of-the-mill flu and in a couple of days I’ll be fighting fit, ready to scale small mountains once again. Maybe the vodka in Russia will help? Will let you know tomorrow night after our flight to Moscow!

DAY 33: WANDERING SEOUL


A sunny summer’s day in Seoul – perfect for touristing.

We awoke to a bright sunny morning, which was nice after yesterday’s rain. What was more interesting was waking up to a whole lot of big blue police buses and a troop of riot police in bright yellow hi-vis gear (complete with full riot  gear of batons and shields), outside our hotel.  Seems there was a protest organised for today in Myeong-dong, and the police were there to ensure things remained under control (apparently these sorts of demonstrations are relatively common in Seoul). We stayed well out of their way, as advised, until the loudspeakers had quietened down and the crowd had dispersed. Not sure what exactly they were protesting about, but it all ended quite quickly and peacefully, and we were free to be on our way.

Our first stop today was Changedeokgung Palace – the main palace of the Joseon Dynasty (rulers of what is now South Korea from 1392 to 1910.) Originally the kings of South Korea used Geokbokgung Palace as their seat of power, but that was burnt down during the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592. When Japan was finally defeated and forced to withdraw from the Korean Peninsula in 1598 (with help from soldiers of the Chinese empire), the Korean royals built Changedeokgung Palace. This remained their residence and seat of power until 1910 when Japan officially annexed the Korea peninsula, ending Joseon rulership and effectively making Korea a Japanese colony. Descendants of the last Joseon king of South Korea (King Gojong – who was reputedly poisoned in 1919 by the Japanese), are still alive today, but retain no power (political, ceremonial or otherwise). With a history like that, you can see why even today the relationship between Korea and Japan is somewhat strained. (and yet, having just been to Japan, we can see how much these cultures have in common and how much they have, perhaps, cross-influenced each other over the centuries). Understanding something of its history helped us appreciate Changedeokgung Palace a bit more.

Main entry gate into Changdeokgung Palace.

 

The main throne hall (NOT the “throne room” Shane! Bathrooms are to the left!).

 

Most definitely the throne HALL of Cheongdeokgung Palace.

 

The colour and detailing of Changdeokgung Palace.

 

Leaving Chandeokgung Palace via the rear entry.

Part of the palace complex includes the much smaller Changgyeonggung Palace, which was built in the early 17th century for the dowager queens of South Korea. It was essentially a smaller version of the bigger palaces we’ve seen, just with nicer gardens.

Changgyeonggung Palace – the dowager queen’s residence.

 

Obviously dowager queens love gardens ’cause Changyeonggung Palace had an awesome one.

Our final bit of palace-related sightseeing for the day was the Changdeokgung Palace Secret Garden, a 78-acre forest retreat built for the exclusive use of the royal family. The garden incorporates a lotus pond, numerous pavilions, landscaped lawns, trees and a wide variety of flowers. Given it was such a beautiful day, the gardens gave us the chance to wander through the green forest, enjoying the shade and the peace and quiet – nice break from the noise and chaos of urban Seoul.

The Secret Garden of Changyeonggung Palace – green, quiet and peaceful.

 

Fancy a dip? The central pond within the gardens did not look very inviting, despite the heat.

 

Having spent the morning wandering around some of Seoul’s best historic sites, we headed indoors for some lunch. A quick sandwich (containing the mandatory pickles, of course), a refreshing coffee and we were ready for more! We headed off to the Korean National Folk Museum for our afternoon adventure. The museum had a good collection of displays on everyday life in Korea from prehistoric times to the end of the Joseon Dynasty in 1910, as well as a great display on the Korean language and how it was developed.

 

Shane looks a little concerned about the volume of pickle in his sandwich.

 

The Korean National Folk Museum, Seoul.

The Korean written alphabet, called hangul,  is unique.  It was literally invented in the early 15th century as part of a widespread campaign by King Taejo to increase the literacy rates of his people. Prior to the creation of hangul, the Korean language was written with adapted Chinese characters and only the nation’s elite could read and write. Hangul was developed to capture the sounds of Korean in a simple, effective way; it consists of 14 consonants and 10 vowels. However, instead of being written sequentially like the letters of the Latin alphabet, hangul letters are grouped into blocks of 3, with each block of 3 symbols constituting a syllable. It is the only existing language for which the inventor and origins are known and part of historical records.

Hangul consonants
Hangul vowels
Hangul, the Korean alphabet, is an invented language consisting of 10 vowels and 14 consonants that can combined in groups of threes to create syllables that are then combined into words and sentences. Nerdy, I know, but interesting!

We’ve been trying our best to get our heads around hangul and spoken Korean, but aside from a few very basic phrases, we’re quite illiterate and are highly reliant on the ability of Koreans to speak English. Fortunately many people here in Seoul DO speak impeccable English and are not shy about using their language skills (very different to Japan!). Korea is just generally far more “Westernised” that Japan – there is far more “Western” food here; everyone dresses far more like what we’d see at home; and restaurants and cafes play American pop songs alongside K-pop (which, by the way, is SOOOOOO cheesy it makes Eurovision seem cutting-edge and progressive by comparison!).

Even without English as a common language though, it’s amazing how much you can communicate with a few gestures, some pointing and vigorous nodding/shaking of the head. Though we weren’t quite sure if our pointing and gesturing had done us a favour when we ordered some dakgalbi (translation = spicy marinated chicken and vegetables cooked over a hot plate at your table). Again, this country’s obsession with chilli and garlic is insane; Shane was very interested in the bright red mix of food at first, but as it started sizzling and the air filled with a thick cloud of pure chilli vapour, he became afraid…, very afraid. The chicken and vegetables turned out to be sooo tasty, but sooo spicy. We’ll just have to see what pain it causes us tomorrow!

 

“Hey what’s that?” At first Shane was curious about what the sizzling mixture contained…

 

…and then he was afraid. Very afraid. “Errrrrr…that’s a lot of chilli. I don’t think I can eat that without consequences.”

 

DAY 32: GOTTA HAVE SEOUL!


Malls, halls, palaces and markets.

Welcome to Tuesday 2nd July 2013 blog fans! We awoke this morning to dark clouds, thunder and rain; not just little sprinkles of rain either – a torrential downpour of big fat drops. “Great excuse to sleep in!” we thought. So sleep in we did. I love being on holiday! *GRINS LIKE A CHESHIRE CAT*

There are only so many hours you can spend lounging around in bed though, so we eventually got up and went foraging for food. Breakfast consisted of a weak, milky coffee and a “breakfast BLT sando” which was more garlic and pickle than B, L or T. Seriously, who eats garlic and pickles for breakfast?! Well, apparently we do now. Just as well too because the stench of garlic from last night’s dinner was just starting to wear off us, so we needed a top up. 

Having topped up our stores of garlic we avoided the rain by mall trawling around our hotel in Myeong-dong. The malls and departments stores here are 10+ storey buildings packed with shops, and basements that all connect up and form part of the Myeong-dong Underground Shopping Mall. We deduced from all our mall trawling that Korean people must buy LOTS of clothes and cosmetics. Prices were cheaper than Aus but not exactly cheap. We were told that if we wanted really cheap clothes, shoes, handbags and whatever else our hearts might desire, we should go to the Namdaemun Markets. Since the rain had eased off, we did just that. 

View of Myeong-dong’s shopping mall strip from our hotel.
People watching from the comfort of our coffee shop. The big Lotte department store across the road is where we started our mall trawling adventures.

The Namdaemun Markets are just a short walk from Myeong-dong, and are the oldest and largest market in Korea. They have been operational since the early 1400’s and are HUGE, taking up a number of city blocks. We passed hundreds of stalls selling ladies clothes, mens clothes, hats, umbrellas, handbags, shoes, sunglasses, carpets, suitcases, soap, pig bits, fish bits, cow bits, chicken bits, spices (especially chilli!), kimchi, fruit and vegetables. It was the usual riot of colour, noise and smell that markets are famous for. It was a fun way to spend a couple of hours.

Namdaemun Markets – busy, noisy, colourful and smelly.
One of the stalls selling “pig bits”.
There were heaps of stalls selling a huge variety of kimchi, made from a wide variety of vegetables.
Need some chilli? You can buy it by the kilo here!
These are all ginseng roots, pickled in various liquid for various lengths of time.  All very medicinal, I’m sure, but way out of our budget!

We thought we’d have some street food (aka: meat-on-a-stick) for lunch, but the lack of breeze, 99% humidity and 30C heat  was making the food sweat. The thought of eating hot, sweaty meat-on-a-stick was not really that appealing, so we opted for  some noodles instead (spicy and garlicky, of course).

Hot, sweaty meat-on-a-stick. Mmmmm. yummy. NOT!

After lunch we made our way past Seoul City Hall (a huge glass creation), to the second of Seoul’s palaces: Deoksugung Palace. Originally, Deoksugung Palace was built as the residence of King Taejo’s brother, and as such was not designed to be a palace at all (for this reason it is actually quite small compared to the other palaces). However, when Gyeongbokgung Palace (the one we saw yesterday), was destroyed during the Japanese invasion of 1592, the Korean court moved to Deoksugung, cementing it as a palace. Like Gyeongbokgung Palace, Deoksugung was very colourful and quite ornately finished.

The entry gate into Deoksugung Palace.
The rain kept most people away so we had the palace grounds almost to ourselves. 
Colourful,ornate interior of Deoksugung Palace.
Surrounded by modern sky-scrapers, Deoksugung Palace is a piece of ancient Korea in the middle of a modern metropolis.
Many of the doorways and entrances were quite low, as Shane found out the hard way! 

Overall a pretty successful second day in Seoul. We’re having a great time in Korea and are wishing we had more time to see more of this fascinating country. From what little we’ve seen already though it’s pretty apparent that we are definitely not in Japan any more! As is to be expected, Korean architecture and culture seems quite heavily influenced by that of China, and the people are very different, on the whole, to the Japanese. Not that I claim to know anything about Korean culture, really, as we’ve barely been here 48 hours, but there are a few things we have noticed that seem to be quintessentially Korean; for example:

  • The food. Seriously spicy, garlicky and tasty.  Lots of red meat too (mainly beef), which I didn’t really expect. A bit heavy on the pickles perhaps, but a pleasant surprise to someone whose only exposure previously was the occasional Korean BBQ restaurant back in Aus.
  • The traffic. These guys are crazy drivers – seriously aggressive! The air is full of honking and we’ve seen lots of motorbikes on pavements and people running red lights. Unlike Japan, we’ve had to be careful not to get run over at crossings; the rule seems to be “keep with the herd” – don’t be first or last across the road or you might get picked out! Everyone drives big cars here too – there are SUVs and sedans everywhere (not micro-cars like Japan).
  • The people. The aggressive behaviour continues when they get out of their cars too. Not that people here are rude, they are just far more assertive. They will look you straight in the eye and push past you in a crowd, without a word of apology. They talk on their mobiles in public spaces and laugh loudly; no need here for that typical Japanese restraint when in public. Physically too Koreans seem to be much taller and broader than many other Asian peoples.

I don’t mean to compare everything to Japan to imply any kind of superiority of one culture over the other, it’s just that Japanese norms and behaviours are so fresh in our minds that the comparisons arise unbidden. I would say that in Japan there seemed to be an emphasis on maintaining appearances and restraint; in Korea it’s all about energy and expression. For all their differences though, we can also see the similarities that tie Japan and Korea together (and even Singapore, which we’ve seen before). I’m sure if we were going from Korea to China, or on to any of the South-east Asian countries, further cultural differences and similarities would become apparent. For now we’re happy to keep absorbing more of the Korean vibe, and dutifully eating our pickles, garlic and chilli.

DAY 31: AHHHHHH…. SEOUL!


Our first full day in Seoul had us broiling in our own juices!

Ahhhh the joys of travelling in Korea during a summer heat wave… It was 37C today and what felt like 1000% humidity (probably wasn’t though) – hot enough to leave these two tourists wrung out like a couple of wet rags. Not just because of the heat and humidity though, also because we decided to scorn the air conditioned comfort of Seoul’s subway system and instead walked from one end of town to the other. Luckily the historical centre of Seoul is not that big so we didn’t walk ourselves completely to death.

The greater metropolitan area of Seoul is huge though (over 600 square kilometres); it’s one of the world’s largest city areas and is home to 25 million people. Not quite as big as Tokyo, but definitely big enough to impress us! We saw a bit of the city today and most of it was super-modern, with lots of impressive high-rise buildings and fancy shops. The city is divided across the North and South banks of the Han River, but since most of the historical sights and touristy bits are on the North side, that’s where we’re focussing our attentions (see the map below).

Side note: South of the Han River, directly opposite where we’re staying, is the suburb of Gangnam – made famous by Psy’s hit 2012 pop song. Gangnam is the new, flashy, big-money part of Seoul we ‘re told. Not really our style, so we’re sticking to this side of the river, where our rumpled backpacker clothes and unkempt appearance won’t get us kicked out of any shops.

The city of Seoul is dissected by the Han River. The big red A is our hotel.

Knowing it was going to be a warm one we headed off for our day of sightseeing early. We began our trawl through the streets of Seoul this morning in Insadong, the city’s financial hub. Lots of big shiny buildings, big shiny cars and big shiny people. Not too exciting, so we snapped a couple of photos and continued on.

Shane and the big shiny buildings of Insadong.

 

The Cheong-gye stream cuts through Insadong, a little slice of nature in this urban jungle.

As we continued north through Insadong we reached Gyeongbokgung – the site of the original royal palace of Korea. One of 4 palaces in Seoul, Gyeongbokgung Palace was built in 1394 by King Taejo, the first king of what we now think of as South Korea. The palace was burnt down during the Japanese invasion of Korea (1592-1598), but was rebuilt and restored in the 19th and 20th centuries. Though not used as a royal residence, even after its restoration, the palace remains a symbol of national pride for Koreans as it represents their ability to persevere and maintain their cultural identity through times of invasion and colonisation (the Korean peninsula has an interesting history in this regard;it has been  invaded at various times by both China and Japan, and was a vassal state of the Chinese empire for centuries).  

The palace is enormous – the grounds contain over 300 separate buildings, each designed to serve its own unique purpose (not all are open to the public). We saw just a fraction of these, focussing on the gardens, Throne Hall and the King’s Residence. All the buildings were huge and beautifully decorated, with ornate end-caps for the ceramic roof tiles and brightly coloured wood throughout the buildings. It’s a very different aesthetic to the highly restrained, minimalist architecture we’ve been seeing in Japan, and definitely shows the Chinese influence here in Korea.

“Hey look, it’s that guy!” Shane points out the statue of King Taejo at the entrance of Gyeongbokgung Palace. 

 

Entering the palace gates. Aside from a few Chinese tour groups, we had the place almost to ourselves.

 

The Throne Hall at Gyeongbokgung Palace.

 

Inside the throne room. You can really see the extravagant use of colour.

 

The building interiors were all very colourful and beautifully carved and painted.

 

The ceilings were particularly ornate and colourful.

 

Going out into the palace gardens.

 

The Hyangwonjeong Pavilion within the palace gardens. A great spot to enjoy a bit of shade and some peace and quiet.

 

Cheesy photo of us enjoying the shade of the palace gardens.

We were very fortunate to be able to witness the Changing of the Guard ceremony at Gyeongbokgung Palace too. This highly ritualised spectacle is repeated twice daily, as it has been since the 15th century. The entire ceremony took about 20 minutes and involved much colour, fanfare and drum-beating. It was great to see, though I must admit that the subtleties were lost on me. I got the general gist though: the soldiers changed shifts.

The Changing of the Guards ceremony at Gyeongbokgung Palace.

 

The guys in red were part of the Royal Military Band.

 

The guys in blue were the actual soldiers.

From Gyeongbokgung Palace we went directly east in search of lunch and Bukchon Hanok Village. This suburb contains over 900 preserved examples of traditional Korean hanok. Many of these wooden houses, with their tiled roofs and private inner gardens, have today been converted into guesthouses, souvenir shops, restaurants and cafes, but a significant number are still home to Korean families. It was great to be able to walk through the narrow streets and enjoy the atmosphere in Bukchon. The whole area is a bit touristy, but still worth the visit  to admire the traditional architecture of the hanok. We had lunch at a little cafe in Bukchon and then made our way back to our hotel for a shower and well earned nap. 

Some of frontages on the hanoks in Bukchon.

 

I just love that characteristic East Asian roof line. 

 

View back over all the tiled roofs of the hanoks in Bukchon.

 

Hanging out in Bukchon. 

Once it cooled down a wee bit, we headed out for dinner, specifically seeking a Korean BBQ place. You know, the ones with the BBQ plate, heated by hot coals, right there in the centre of your table. We’ve been to a couple of such places in Aus and loved it, so we thought we’d do the authentic version. It was awesome – smokey, sizzling, beefy goodness (real beef – no guts or gizzards) with more side dishes than we could finish.  The dozen or so side dishes included:

  • A plain, undressed salad.
  • A salad dressed in a sweet sesame dressing.
  • A salad dressed in a spicy chilli dressing.
  • A sweet pumpkin salad, with sultanasa mixed through
  • A bowl of plain pickled cucumber, sliced.
  • A bowl of plain pickled cabbage, sliced.
  • A bowl of raw onion, also sliced up.
  • A bowl of raw garlic, sliced up.
  • 3 different types of kimchi.

The idea is to eat a little bit of everything, mixing flavours to create a gastronomical delight. Most of it worked together really well, but the garlic and onion were so full-on! Even once cooked on the BBQ hot plate, they were INTENSE. Not sure what evil species of onion and garlic these Koreans grow around here, but man are we going to keep the vampires away tonight! One of the kimchi dishes was great, not too spicy and adding a nice tartness to the meal; the others were just WAY too chilli-hot though. Man Koreans like their food spicy and garlicky! I don’t know if my stomach can handle it after a month of rather plain, simple Japanese food. Shane tucked in to everything like a legend however and washed it all down with a local brew (Cass beer); we’ll just see what ill effects all that chilli, onion and garlic has on his poor digestive system….

“Oh yeah – bring it on!” says Shane, very excited about the meal to come.

 

Meat and veggies sizzling away on the BBQ hotplate, side dishes piled around us. Shane surveys the banquet of food and asks, “Look at all this food!” 

Special note: The many wonders of kimchi

Kimchi dishes are essentially pickled, chillied vegetables. Originally developed as a way of preserving vegetables for the harsh Korean winters, kimchi is now a staple of the Korean diet and appears at every meal here – including breakfast. To prepare kimchi the vegetables are sliced and diced, salted, then mixed with lashings of chilli, garlic, onion, ginger and fish sauce (or dried fish/oysters). The whole mixture is then locked in large earthenware jars to ferment for up to 2 years. Various vegetables can be prepared in this way, with Chinese cabbage (wom bok) being the most commonly used. Tastes better than it sounds, but here’s a question for you: who was the crazy person who first mixed oysters, cabbage, chilli, garlic and onion together, buried it for 2 years, then dug it up and ATE IT?? Crazy Koreans!

Not only is good kimchi tasty, it’s also really good for you! Modern science has discovered that this fermented vegetable mixture is high in fibre, high in B vitamins and vitamin C, and is one of the highest sources of probiotics in the world – there’s more lactobacilli in one teaspoonful of kimchi than yoghurt apparently! Animal studies have found kimchi supports digestive health, is immune-enhancing and even helps lower cholesterol. Who would have thought spicy, pickled cabbage could do all that?! Still don’t think I could do it for breakfast though!