Monday, 2 April 2012

Mum and Dad Visit Korea - Part 1

It’s hard to imagine now (having lived here for over seven months) what it is like to experience Korea for the first time. My early recollections of my time here are shrouded in a fog caused by the fact that I’ve become so used to everything here in Korea. Nothing is really very surprising anymore and I’ve settled into a state of complacency about the whole thing. This isn’t meant to sound as negative as it does, I suppose, what I mean to say is that I feel like I’ve lived here for longer than I have and therefore I do not notice the cultural differences so much anymore. So, it was fun (to say the least) to experience Seoul this weekend, with my parents.

We met my parents at the bus stop outside of the Koreana Hotel. The Koreana is an old hotel built in the eighties. It manages to maintain the charm of an old eighties hotel whilst remaining in the present and despite the dirty carpets and VHS player you really wouldn’t know that the hotel has been on the main strip in central Seoul’s Jongo district for nearly 30 years. It’s quite a luxurious hotel and the rooms were fantastic. I greeted Mum and Dad with a hug and can’t describe how good it was to see them after seven months. It was a real treat, and after we settled into our rooms we went out for a late night coffee at one of the hundreds of coffee houses around the hotel. We all had a coffee (I think Natalie actually had a tea) and a slice of cake (I think Natalie actually had a sandwich because she’s a pig) and we caught up. There was a lot to talk about including my parents recent trip to Hong Kong. We settled down at about 11pm and got some rest ready to be tourists the next day.

It was quite refreshing to be a tourist in Seoul after months of being an expat. We headed out at 8am and had breakfast at Paris Croissant a small bakery / coffee house underneath Anguk subway station. We then proceeded to check out Changdeokgung palace and gardens. This is one of the older palaces in Seoul and I’ve been there several times. We walked around snapping photos of the ancient Korean buildings and gardens and started our day of walking which would take bits toll on all of our legs by the end of the day. As far as I can tell my parents were both impressed with the palace and the views of the city from a top the garden. Mum was probably a little more impressed by the black squirrels that lived there. Walking around the palace didn’t take nearly as long as I thought it would so I decided we would walk up an ancient wall leading to a viewpoint on top of the city. The walk was quite a distance and by the time we had trudged our way to the top (getting disheartened by a Korean fifty something who was running up the hill) we took a well needed rest and looked out at the view for a while. From the top you can see several of the mountains surrounding the city and you can look right across to Seoul tower on the opposite side of the city.

It was getting on a bit and despite the sun being out it was getting a little cold so we walked back down through Hyehwa district (a student art district of Seoul) and went for lunch at my favourite Seafood buffet restaurant ‘Morisco’. Natalie and I ate plenty and Mum and Dad weren’t too shy about trying new things, I think I even got Dad to try some sushi. Although, they avoided the squid noodles and spicy tteok a good meal was had by all. It’s a pleasant atmosphere in this particular restaurant and despite serving an array of Korean and Japanese foods the place has a Western feel about it which was a good way to break my parents into the dining culture of Korea.

After lunch we headed out to the next temple. We got off a stop before to attempt a walk through Insa-dong but ended up getting a little lost, we eventually found our way back through the Buddhist centre of Seoul and stumbled across the palace we were looking for. Gyeongbuk palace is the grandest palace in Seoul and we arrived just in time to see the changing of the guards. As a matter of fact, Natalie, Mum and I ended up in the middle of it nearly getting trammelled down by the guards. They walked right into us and we had to dodge them a few times. I guess they’re told to just walk through blind tourists. Mother was more than amused by this and we continued into the temple and had a look around. The day was gradually coming to a close and after spending some time at the palace and temple we walked back down the main strip past the statues of kings of old and back to our hotel.

A well deserved bath was had and taken full advantage of as it’s rare that I get the opportunity to have a bath these days and we headed out at around 5:30pm. We jumped in a taxi to rest our legs and we made our way to N Seoul Tower. The queue for the cable car was considerably shorter than it was the last time I went up the tower and Mum wasn’t as panicky about the experience as I expected her to be. We made it to the top and had some wine and Italian food looking out over the whole city. It’s quite some view from up the top. Night fell and we purchased our tickets into the fastest elevator in the world and shot to the top of the tower. We spent quite some time on the observation deck looking out at the light sprawling out across the city beyond the Han River. It looks stunning from up the top and all around you can see lights and life bustling around. Whilst at Seoul Tower, Natalie and I also partook in the age old tradition of securing a padlock on top of the fence at the top of the tower. There are literally thousands of padlocks up there all symbolising the love and romance of the viewpoint. I suppose.

Wow! Feeling tired we all went back down and jumped in a taxi back to the hotel. I think we even had a coffee before bed at Holly’s Coffee House. The next morning we were up a little later and we left our bags at the hotel. We had waffles for breakfast at Caffe Benne (a favourite of Natalies) and then headed to Seodaemun Prison for a little history. I’ve talked about this place before when I went with my school (see my blog: ‘You Will Hate Japan, You Will, You Will’). It’s rather a depressing sight to be honest but one worth seeing to understand a little more of what went on in the country. After walking around here in the cold cells we headed out to the War Memorial for a little more culture. The War Memorial of Korea is a really great museum and you can learn a lot about the Korean war there. We didn’t spend a great deal of time here but we did walk around the main exhibits and outside you can see some of the military equipment from the Korean war. We were getting hungry (with the expectation of Mum) and headed to Namdaemun market for some market style lunch. Hot dog sticks and pancakes. The market was busy and sells mainly clothes and isn’t nearly as touristy as I expected it to be. There were many wondrous foods on display however but nothing we really fancied after our hot dogs on a stick. We caught a taxi back to the hotel, picked up our bags and headed for the bus station. We caught a taxi to the bus station and Mum and Dad managed to catch a glimpse of the Olympic Stadium and Bridge on the way back to the bus terminal.

We arrived back in Sachang-ri at about 4:30pm and proceeded to the nicest looking hotel in town. It was rather a hilarious trial trying to check in and it took us about half an hour of hand gestures with the owners who spoke no English. It was hard to get across that although there were 4 of us only 2 of us were staying in the hotel. The owner who was very humble showed us loads of rooms, even a Korean style room (no bed just a floor) despite the fact that we asked for a room with a bed. After many more waves and mimes we managed to get the point across and my parents checked into their room which for a town like this was a pretty decent room. They had a bed. You’ll be happy to know. My parents seemed impressed at my ability to keep my cool whilst trying to explain what we wanted in a language neither me nor the owner spoke. Rather hilarious. I think it all worked out okay in the end though. They have somewhere to sleep. That's what important, right? So my parents have arrived and there’s a lot more to talk about but I’ll save that for next time.

It’s going to be a fun week.

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