North Korea…(n border)

OH MY GODDDD today is the day I get to go to North Korea! Well, the border, but it’s basically the same thing.
I could barely fall asleep last night I was so excited!
I wake up at 7am in order to be ready for pick up at 7:30. I run downstairs at 7:20, and see a van pulling away from the hostel parking lot. NO! Come back!!! I run after it like a total loon. Thankfully, my running isn’t for nothing and he does actually stop. I can’t imagine what would have happened if I had come down at 7:30!! Another fortunate thing, is that there’s no one else in the van. No one who could have seen me running crazily after a vehicle. That’s a plus. The driver checks my passport and informs me that he has three more pick ups. Sweet! What a small tour.

One girl who boards the van is wearing knee high socks over fishnet stockings, and a short little skater skirt. Umm I don’t know how to break this to you honey, but you can’t just roll up to North Korea wearing whatever you want. There’s a dress code.

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I seriously think about telling her but she looks like someone who might punch me, so I don’t.
Instead, I ask if everyone is going on the JSA and DMZ tour, but everyone else says they’re just doing a half day DMZ tour. I hope I’m on the right van?

We get driven to a big fancy hotel downtown Seoul, where I am separated from everyone in my van and lead into a big conference room with lots of other people. I guess the tour wasn’t as small as I thought…
How will I ever know if the girl in fishnet stockings gets denied from the tour now?!

I meet an American guy about my age, (we can call him Hottie Marine or we can call him Cameron. I think Hottie Marine is more fun.) and an older American lady who are both coming on the same tour as me. At least now I’m sure I’m in the right place!
We get our passports registered by the tour company at the hotel, and are given a seat number for our bus. My seat number is 32. That means at least 31 other people are coming with me on this tour. It’s a little disappointing, but my own fault for hyping this up so high for myself. I’m sure it’ll still be sweet!

Our tour guide sits at the front with a microphone, giving us our itinerary details for the day and some background history on the split between North and South Korea. He repeats everything a lot, but I feel like I learn a good amount about the history. I hardly knew any before! The bus to the border takes just over an hour.

We start the day at the JSA (Joint Security Area), after driving through a village of people who actually live within these de-militarized boundaries. They are exempt from military service here, and do primarily agricultural work. The JSA is the only place along the entire 250km de-militarized zone where North and South Korean soldiers stand face to face.
We get to take a walk through Panmunjom, which is where an agreement between both North and South Korea was sign during the Korean War in 1953. It’s an area within the JSA, which I learn the United Nations and U.S. Military also occupy with soldiers. Before going to Panmunjom we are taken to a little theatre room to watch an information video on the history of the Korean War, the United Nations involvement, and some other info on the JSA. We are told not to point or make any hand gestures during our visit, and are told to only take pictures straight ahead. Any photos taken side to side will be deleted from our cameras or phones. Intense!
We line up in two single file lines, escorted by South Korean Military guards, and are lead through a United Nations building and outside to where we can literally see across the border. Sure, it’s not technically North Korea, but it’s North Korea’s side of this de-militarized zone, which is still pretty cool.
Apparently, North Korea runs very expensive tours a few times a week to the de-militarized zone too! Only very high-up government officials (and maybe a foreigner lucky enough to get into the country) can afford to take these tours. We are there at a time when a North Korean tour is happening simultaneously across the yard, so I actually get to see some civilians!

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It’s kind of weird to see people on the other side of the border taking a casual tour when I’ve only ever pictured North Korean people as poverty stricken, in labour camps, or serving their military service. I never thought about anyone hopping on a bus tour for their day off.
I wonder what the tour guides on the other side are telling their guests.

We get to step into the blue Panmunjom portable building, where 4 military soldiers are there escort us. It’s really just a room with a few tables and chairs, but some really important people have sat in these seats! Many political discussions between North and South Korea (as well as many other involved counties) have taken place in this room. The little building straddles the line between North and South, but because it’s a United Nations Building, it is safe for us to step into the North Korean side. Again, with a South Korean Military escort.

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This is me “in” North Korea.

We are ushered back out to our tour bus, where we take a quick spin around the JSA grounds. Sometimes, when permitted, we take some photos through the windows of the bus. I feel like such a silly little tourist when we all jump to one side of the bus to take a picture, but alas, if I hadn’t come on a tour I wouldn’t be here at all.

We visit the last train station in South Korea, which has been built in a way that could connect it to the North, should the reunification ever occur. It’s never been used, but the people who built it are confident that it will be of use someday soon.

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Lunch is at a Korean restaurant that serves us traditional bulgogi, which is different from the bulgogi I ate for lunch yesterday. I think yesterday I had some kind of bulgogi soup, but this is legit bulgogi now.
Some of the people on my tour bus are a little cray cray, so Hottie Marine and I avoid sitting with them over lunch. One tiny (but very loud) woman from New York just can’t stop talking, is always the last one back to the bus, and is really pissing off this vegan hippie couple from New Zealand. They confront her about it. Why are people so intense? It’s pretty entertaining…but they all need to take a Xanax.

After lunch we are driven up a winding, land mine covered, mountain road to the “observatory” which is, again, not what I expected.

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(I don’t think I was allowed to take a picture, and it failed miserably, but that little red triangle smear there has a skull and cross bones to symbolize a land mine.)

It’s a relatively clear day here at the DMZ, but the observatory has so many rules that I can’t get any good photos of North Korea. From the edge of the observatory deck, I get a clear view of North Korea’s obscenely large flag pole in the Propaganda village, but it doesn’t work in pictures. We are only allowed to take photos from behind a big yellow line, which is a good 10 feet or more away from the edge. So all I get is this.

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A bunch of people’s heads and a KINDA visible view of the flagpole. I pay W500 ($.50) to use the binoculars and go in search of North Korean people in the village, but I see no one. Apparently, until 2004, this propaganda village used to have a loud speaker that blasted messages like “Welcome to Paradise!” and other garbage to encourage South Koreans to defect to the North. Obviously that didn’t work, so in 2004 they gave up, but name “Propaganda Village” stuck. The central flag pole is pretty funny; standing at 160m high, it used to be shorter than that of South Korea’s, which is 100m, but the North felt it was necessary to build a bigger and better one. So it’s been visible from pretty much everywhere we visit on our tour.

The most exciting draw of this tour for me, was the promise of a North Korean defector to accompany us. This does happen, but she sits at the front of the bus, 31 seats ahead of me, and we don’t get a very long question and answer period. All I know about her is that she escaped North Korea by taking her two children an sneaking off, leaving her husband behind because he worked for the government. Her uncle lived in China and paid to bribe some border guards for her escape. Our tour guide keeps saying that he knows all of her stories and we can ask him later. I don’t want to ask him later. I want to ask her now. We are given a short opportunity, but I, regretfully, shy away from my questions which were things like, “Do you ever miss home?” At the time, I felt that this was too personal a question to ask in front of 40 other people. Now, I wish I just knew the answer. She only comes with us on our tour for half of the day. I think it’s so incredible that she isn’t afraid to be this close to the border on a regular basis. If I escaped from North Korea, I feel like I would stay as far away as possible. South Korean passport or not. You can tell just by looking at her that she is a strong, smart and very brave woman. I’m disappointed that I don’t get more time to learn about her story, but I still feel pretty honoured to have even briefly met someone so brave.

The last stop is a place known as the “third tunnel”. No photos allowed. Over the past 60 years, South Korea has discovered four passage ways along the DMZ line that North Korea has built in secret, to set them up for a surprise attack on the South. When South Korea discovered the passages and confronted the North, they responded by painting the walls of the long granite tunnel black, and claiming that they were coal mining. Black paint. Fool proof, really.

Since it’s been discovered, three thick stone wall barriers have been put up and each shielded by a layer of barbed wire for extra security. It is now a pretty safe bet that the North Korean Army won’t be coming through this tunnel anytime soon. So now that it’s secure, we get to go down and see it! We also get to wear sweet yellow construction helmets to protect our heads from the rocky cave ceiling, which is only about a meter and a half tall through some sections. I have to duck for most of the walk to the end, where we get to see one stone wall barrier before turning around.
Climbing back out of the tunnel is not what I’d call fun. It was built 75 meters below ground, and the long, steep incline is hard on the calf muscles. At least the South Koreans can take pleasure in knowing that if the North ever DOES attack via one of these tunnels, they’ll be exhausted by the time they arrive.

We get back on the bus and head towards Seoul. The huge bus pulls over on the side of the road, and about 10 of us are sent to get in a small van instead. I think it has something to do with different tour companies? Hottie Marine, the loud lady from New York, the New Zealand couple, and a few others and I are all sent to this van. The drive back to Seoul is only about an hour from here and the van will be dropping us off in Itaewon.
I don’t think that’s super close to where I’m staying, but I figure the lovely Seoul subway line can take me anywhere I need to go.

First, we stop at an Amethyst shop with “special prices” but I stay in the van because I know how easily persuaded I am, and I like sparkly things. Best not to tempt myself…even with the “special prices”. I also feel pretty annoyed by the fact that they bring us here. This is just another reason why I don’t usually do tours. The couple from New Zealand are apparently really mad about having been brought here, and apparently throw a bit of a fit inside the shop. I’m only sad that I missed it.

Hottie Marine asks me if I’ve tried Galbi yet, which I have not, so he asks our tour guide if she can recommend a Galbi place near to where we’ll be dropped off. She offers to show us one of her favourite spots. Perfect!! Everyone else is dropped at one location in Itaewon besides me, Marine, and the loud New York lady, who basically refuses to get out of the van. She has somehow managed to buy something at every tacky tourist gift shop along the way, and is carrying at least 4 bags of stuff. Apparently she can’t carry this all on her own and wants to be dropped off somewhere she can buy a bag. Our tour guide stops at multiple luggage stores but none suit the needs of this crazy lady from New York. After fighting with our tour guide and whining for at least 15 minutes, she finally gets out and just carries her stuff like a normal person.
Hottie Marine says he’s embarrassed to be from The States when people like her give it such a bad reputation. He’s totally right.

Our tour guide is a little angel and not only drops us off at this Galbi restaurant, but takes us inside, recommends her favourite dish, and orders it for us. She really goes above and beyond what I would expect of my tour guide once the tour has ended!
She orders us two kinds of Galbi, which is like raw rib meat from (I think) beef, which we cook on a hot coal fire at our table. Our waitress cooks it for us, but I notice she doesn’t do this for the Korean people in the restaurant. Not sure if this is pity or preferential treatment. We also order a bottle of Soju, neither of us having tried it before. I expect it to be like a beer, but instead we get a bottle of 18.5% rice wine. Thank god we only order one.

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She motions for us to wrap our meat in a piece of lettuce and throw some rice and kimchi in there with it. I do this on a plate, which is apparently NOT what you’re supposed to do because she rolls her eyes and comes over to me, slaps a piece of lettuce in my hand (and slaps my hand a few extra times for emphasis) picks up a piece of meat, throws some sauce, rice and kimchi in lettuce hand, rolls it up, and stuffs it in my mouth. All the restaurant staff watch her stuff food in my mouth, and all smile at me for encouragement. Hottie Marine tries to follow suit with what I’ve just been taught, but apparently he messes it up too, because he gets a lettuce hand slapping lesson next.
“These poor, useless white kids” they must be thinking. It’s all we can do to keep from coughing up our food we’re laughing so hard. From then on we try to be sneaky and eat when no one is looking, for fear of getting more lettuce slaps.

The meal is fun AND delicious. I’m so happy I got to try Korean barbecue before I leave! Today’s tour was not at all what I expected it to be and in some ways it was a bit of a let down, however, I have no regrets about doing it and am still excited to know that I’ve been about as close to North Korea as one can get. I also learned a WHOLE lot about the history, and the South Korean view of the situation. For another point of view, you can read
a Lonely Planet author’s review of the your here.

I go back to my hostel quickly to shower and take a nap, before heading to the Gangnam district to meet Hottie Marine again for drinks. I meet him at an Expat bar called Whiskey Weasel, where we sit at the bar and chat with the owner. The owner, Leo, has lived in South Korea his whole life and served 7 years in the army before opening the bar. He closes down a bit early and offers to take us out for some Korean food and drinks. Obviously we accept!
He orders some Mak Ju Li, some spicy pork, mussels, and some kind of pizza thing. It’s WAY too much food, but I eat some anyway. I can’t say no to delicious local cuisine. The pork is literally the spiciest thing ive ever eaten in my life. My mouth is on FIRE. I don’t even really like spicy food so I’m holding back tears as I eat; trying to play it cool. Even Hottie Marine and Leo are struggling with the spice. It’s that intense.

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I order a glass of milk. I only eat a few pieces before I give up and just stick to the mussels and pizza. Leo teaches us to say, “Kom-bΓ©!”, which is Korean for “cheers”.
Bars in Korea don’t really have an official time for last call, so we are out far later than I should be with a flight to Vietnam tomorrow. Luckily it’s not until the early evening!

Hiking By Day, Drinking Mak Gul Li by Night

Okay forget the running idea, I’m going hiking today! I’ve realized that Seoul is basically surrounded by mountains, so why would I run on a university track? I take the subway (I’m a pro now) to Giruem Station, where I must then catch a bus. I don’t even take the bus in Toronto, so I’m a wee bit concerned that I have no idea what I’m doing. Again, Seoul’s transit system is a gem and my required bus is sitting just outside of the subway station exit. Amazeballs!

I haven’t eaten yet, so I let that perfectly timed bus go so that I can get some food. There are a couple street stalls selling fruit, but everything is so expensive! I want to buy just one apple, but they say I can only buy them in bundles of 5 for W5,000. I love apples, but not that much. I decide to get food at the base of the mountain. There are bound to be more stalls and probably some restaurants too! I think today I shall try bulgogi.

The bus takes me to the base of the mountain where I see a tourist information centre. I don’t know what trails to follow or how long anything takes so I try popping in to ask some questions. Too bad the doors are locked. It’s a Monday afternoon! Even the sign outside shows their hours and confirms that they should be “open” at this time. The lights are off inside, though, so they’re pretty obviously closed. Oh well. I try to read the trail map outside of the centre instead. Everything is in Korean but there are some pictures! I still don’t really understand.

While standing at the map a little Korean lady comes over and I’m 90% sure, compliments me on my butt. She keeps tapping her own butt, pointing at mine, smiling and saying stuff in Korean, then gives me a thumbs up. If that’s not a compliment, I don’t know what is. Thank you kindly, old lady.

I give up on trying to read the map and just pick a trail. For once, I think I have picked the BEST day to do something touristy, because there are no tourists! Apparently this place gets pretty busy on weekends, but on this splendid Monday afternoon I only see a handful of other hikers. The trails are great, totally unpaved and pretty challenging in some areas. I have to do a mini rock climb to get to the top. I make the choice to crawl out to a look out point on a cliff, but I’m extra careful because I’m going to North Korea tomorrow and can’t die before that happens.
The view is pretty sweet! Seoul surrounded by fabulous mountains. I love it! There’s nothing like the peak of a mountain to make you NOT hate hiking.

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On my way down I even see some wildlife… A squirrel and a wild dog. Exotic!

Taking the bus back is a nightmare. I’m sure there’s an easier way, but I think I have to ride the whole loop to get back to the subway station. I don’t really mind, because after hiking I’m a bit tired anyway.

Something magical happens.
I’m chillin on the bus thinking about how long it’ll take me to get to the right stop, then onto the subway, where I have to transfer etc., when I look out the window and see a super familiar Starbucks. Them a familiar GS25. A familiar grocery store. Dear god, is that the road to my hostel? Why yes, it is. How lovely! I’ve accidentally arrived at my destination without even knowing it. I have no concept of this is even possible, but I care not!!

I’m starving, so I stop at a restaurant that coincidentally has bulgogi. Things are going my way today!

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bulgogi is the best thing I’ve eaten so far. But I say that every time

I stop in at the hostel to shower and get ready before going out to buy a pair of pants (I’ve got a good feeling about it today!) and then meeting up with one of my old high school friends who lives in Seoul!

Today. is. my. DAY! I find pants that fit. Hollaaaaa. I don’t do anything crazy adventurous to find them, I just go back to Myeong-dong before it gets busy like it was last night. I’m boring and shop at ULIQLO. Sue me.

My life is at an awkward point where I’m relatively low on Korean cash, but also so close to leaving that I don’t want to pull more. I don’t want to pay to pull more money, and then pay again to have it exchanged in Vietnam. Hella no. I’m going to try to live the next two days on W21,000 ($20). I think I can do it. I love peasant life.

I meet Sung at 8pm at Starbucks. I don’t know why I pick it as our meeting spot. I can’t afford this fancy shit. It’s just such a good landmark! Damn you, Starbucks.
He doesn’t live in this area but knows where the cool part is anyway, so we walk just a couple blocks over from my hostel to a fun, young, very lit up part of town. Lots of cool bars and restaurants, along with more boutique shops! I wish I was in more of a position to shop it Seoul, because they know what’s up when it comes to clothing.

We stop at a little Korean restaurant where we order Mak Gul Li to drink; a very old and traditional Korean drink. It’s hard to describe besides being delicious, but it’s made with rice and is slightly carbonated like beer, but quite sweet tasting. It’s served to us in a huge bowl. I am a little obsessed.

Sang also orders us another Korean food called Pa Jeun, that he says if often eaten with the Mak Gul Li. The two are complimentary, the same way wine would go with a steak in Canada. It’s like a seafood pizza, but with eggs and green onions instead of actual dough. Another delish choice.
I love Korean food now. I knew there was some good stuff around, I just had trouble finding it!

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It’s so fun having some friends who live all over the place. It’s always nice to catch up! We can talk about everything, from old high school memories to the best sights in Seoul. I now feel like I have a solid list of things to fill my few remaining days here! I even get a list of more foods to try. Yummm!

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Bibimbap, Bukchon, and Myeongdong

After staying up to hang out in the common area, I have another late start to my morning.
Today my goal is to visit Bukchon Hanok Village, an old historic district of the city where traditional houses have been restored and turned into shops and restaurants. A secondary goal is to find something delicious and Korean to eat.

I take the subway, which by the way, I have now decided is the most comprehensive and fabulous in the world.
Two elderly ladies come and sit next to me on the train, poke me, and hand me a pamphlet. One of them says “church!” with a big smile on her face. It is indeed, a pamphlet for a church. Everything is in Korean, and I’m the opposite of religious (…aka. not religious) but I open it, look at every page and turn back to say thank you, with a little head bow.
I don’t know if they gave it to me because they think I need Jesus (I’m wearing a t-shirt and yoga pants, which I’m 99% sure is okay) or if they gave it to me because I’m a westerner, or if they’re just like a smaller scale Jehovah’s witness and maybe this is their job. Handing our church pamphlets on the subway to innocent backpackers. I’ll never know.

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I arrive at Anguk Station and stop for lunch as soon as I can. I’m starving. I find a little Thai place which is VERY tempting but I grow up and choose the Korean food next door.
I’ve been told that bibimbap is a great Korean dish, so I find that on the menu, being thankful that it has some English or I wouldn’t know what to look for. I have a weird experience when trying to communicate what I want to the server. I point to the picture of bibimbap on the menu and she points at a totally different page, to another dish and looks at me like “this one?” Ummmm no… THIS one please. The one I’m pointing to. I try again. She points to another dish. This one? I’m kinda ready to give up and just accept whatever she brings me but on my third try she nods and takes the menu away. We shall see what happens…

I believe what I’m brought is indeed, bibimbap. It comes in a hot bowl of rice topped with a whole lot of different vegetables. It’s pretty yummy! As in most restaurants I’ve visited now, it comes with a side of kimchi as well. Success! No mystery organs in this dish. Score.
I pay W5,500 ($5.50) and continue on.

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Bukchon is just a five minute walk away from my lunch spot. I might have chosen the least ideal day to visit (on a Sunday) because it’s pretty crowded with tourists. It’s nice to see the old architecture being used as shops and restaurants. There are a couple art galleries and museums around too which are pretty cool. I stumble upon a gallery where an elderly man (I assume he’s the owner) offers me a can of coke and four pamphlets about the artwork just for stopping in. How kind! I continue walking around Bukchon, where there are lots of great boutique shops, but as usual, my size 10 ass can’t buy anything. For me, it’s just fun to see the contrast between old historic buildings, and the modern Seoul city buildings down the street.

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I get pretty lost wandering through the old district, but somehow manage to do one big loop back to the same subway station by randomly choosing a route. Bonus.

I decide to head back to my hostel, because I am awaiting some potentially exciting news. This girls I spoke with last night told me about a tour that takes you right up to the border between North and South Korea. I’m so intrigued about the North, and am currently reading a book about one of the only people to have ever escape from a NK labour camp. Escape From Camp 14.
I feel like I MUST go to the border. Unfortunately when I asked this morning, the tour was booked for all of my few remaining days in Seoul, but the guys at the front desk are extra helpful and called to see if the tour company could squeeze me in. Now I’m waiting for a reply. Oh gosh I hope I can go!!

If I do get on this tour, I have to follow a strict dress code. No sandals, shorts, skirts, sleeveless tops, or any shirts without a collar. I’ll need to do some shopping in this case. I know large clothing sizes exist in Seoul, I’ll just have to figure out where to find them.

When I get back to the hostel I am greeted with the most wonderful news! I shall be going to North Korea’s border this Tuesday! I’m so excited to learn more about the divide and see what the border looks like. Apparently there’s even an “observatory” point from South Korea where you can see into the North. I. Am. Pumped.
Now I must shop.

Myeong-dong is a famous shopping district of Korea where many international brands occupy a spot on the busy street. Upon a quick google search, I found out it was ranked the 9th most expensive shopping street in the world. I can’t afford that fancy stuff, but I’m bound to find an H&M, a UNIQLO or something that carries my size. I need a one time use collared shirt, and, if I’m lucky, I can find some pants that fit too!

Arriving in Myeong-dong is not at all what I expected it to be. I pictured Bloor St. Or 5th ave. kinda shopping. Instead, it’s like I’ve entered a huge market with name brand stores. Immediately as I exit the subway I’m thrown into a huge crowd of people all moving towards a busy pedestrian-only intersection filled with food stalls and people selling jewellery, knock off wallets, handbags, and more. All the surrounding shops are name brand stores, with absolutely everything, ranging from Forever 21 to Chanel.

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Okay, so I might have been overly optimistic about the pants…but I found an appropriate top! Hoorah! I guess I’ll just have to find a bit of time to shop tomorrow too…life is hard.

After finding a shirt, and giving up on the search for pants, I go in search of dinner. There’s hundreds of restaurants in the area, but I always end up struggling when it comes to finding food. I’m pretty open minded to food, but I don’t dare touch any of the street vendor food that looks anything like a sausage for fear of misjudging it, and accidentally eating what are known as penis worms.

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Hella no

Many of the restaurants have menus posted outside but without any prices listed, so I’m always in fear of going somewhere way over budget. It’s a delicate balance between avoiding sea creature penis food and not breaking the bank.
I do find a restaurant that’s slightly more expensive than I want to spend, but I’m so hungry I’m ready to sit down at Burger King if that’s what it takes. Thankfully, I find this little mom and pop kitchen instead.
I order a dumpling soup and a small beer. It’s probably my favourite dish so far. They even have wifi! What a great find. I pay W9,000 for the soup and W3,000 for the beer. As I’m leaving, I regret ordering the beer. I ain’t that fancy anymore! I must remember to stick to water.

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I take the subway back to my little Kimchee Guesthouse where I try to get an early night so I might wake up in time to go for a jog tomorrow.

Warming Up Slowly to Seoul

It’s Day One in Korea.
I don’t feel like I’m suffering culture shock, so much as not-as-confident-as-I-thought shock. I just assumed that after having traveled around Asia a bit I’d totally be able to handle Korea. Instead, I find myself feeling pretty lost. I have no idea where I am, or what areas of the city are cool, what there is to do, or how to comport myself. I’ve done 0 research. All I know is how to say hello, from what a Korean friend taught me years ago (and from Lucille Bluthe on Arrested Development). Part of me just wants to stay in bed all day…but I decide to get up and be a human.

I am not gonna lie to y’all, I go to Starbucks for lunch. I just need something that feels familiar and easy. I hate that I waste one of my few Korean meal opportunities on Starbucks, but I just don’t feel up to maneuvering a language barrier lunch order.

I have to pull cash before I can actually afford anything, so I wander the streets in search of an ATM. I find a bank, but can’t figure out how to actually get money out of the machine. I insert my card and choose English but it keeps saying “cash only”…which is all I want (obviously. Isn’t that all a bank can give you anyway?) but it won’t actually give me any money. I give up and keep walking.

I find another bank a little ways down with a Visa sign on the door, and easily manage to pull some dolla billz, thank god. I know you’re never supposed to pull cash from a Visa card because of the immediate interest rates, but desperate times call for desperate measures. At least I’ve got a good wifi connection back at my hostel so I can transfer some funds when I get back.

I sit down at Starbucks with a soy matcha latte and chicken sandwich, trying to figure out what to do next. I can’t access Starbucks wifi. Still without any concept of where I am, I choose to go back to the hostel to do some googling. I sit in the common area instead of my secluded 8-person room so that I might meet people. I sit there for a long time just messaging anyone from home who is still awake. I do end up chatting with a couple other backpackers, who help me by directing me to a sweet Seoul subway map app for my phone.
I decide to check out a shopping area nearby called Dongdaemun, which is supposed to have a bunch of nice and affordable boutiques. Shopping always cheers me up.

I get on the right subway with ease thanks to my fancy new app. I’m already feeling a lot better.

The shopping centre is really cool and filled with boutique style stores, no Louis Vuitton bullshit that I can get anywhere (or can’t get anywhere because I’m poor). You know what I mean.

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Seoul Gate, located just outside the Dongdaemun Shopping a Centre

It’s super fun until I remember that I’m in Asia and nothing fits me. I really need a new pair of pants. I’m totally not complaining, because mine are too BIG now (yay, me!) but I’d still need to drop another size or two before I could fit a Korean Large. I try anyway. I’m stubborn like that. When I find something I like, I just cut to the chase and ask for the biggest size. They usually tell me there’s only one size, or bring me a shirt with an M ticket. Argh.
It’s probably for the best because backpacker life does not leave room for newly purchased goods; size appropriate or not.
I still enjoy wandering around the mall for a couple hours and checking out Korean fashion. So far I’ve found people to be very well put together here. I love it.

On my way back, I try to stop for dinner somewhere but don’t know anything about Korean food, so I am easily daunted when I see a Korean restaurant with no English menu. I stop at a place just outside the hostel when I’ve almost made it back and still haven’t found anything to eat. There’s no English menu here either, but pictures are a blessing and I just point at one on the wall. I am brought a bowl of boiling hot soup with beef(?) and green onions, with kimchi and rice on the side.

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I go for it, without a clue what I’m eating but enjoying it anyway. The staff are excited that I like it.
Two people around my age (university students, I assume) laugh together and look in my direction. A moment later they’ve come to my table and say “Hello, is this your first time here? I don’t think you know how to eat this” in a really friendly way. They ask permission to show me. I, obviously, welcome it, feeling embarrassed but also not in the slightest way shocked that I’m doing this wrong. They add some spices and mini shrimp to my bowl. I ask them what these mysterious beef roll things are and they look at each other and struggle to come up with the appropriate word but in the end I get “organs”, as they point to their stomachs. Lovely.
I had been eating the kimchi on it’s own and didn’t know to add all the shrimp and spices and stuff. It tastes better, but I won’t lie it’s still not my favourite meal. I thank them a lot as they go, for helping me be less damn ignorant.
I still don’t know what I ordered. If you can identify it, ten points.

I come back to the hostel, do laundry and hang out in the common room. I’m feeling way more comfortable with being in Seoul now. I was just having a pouty day.