Seoul Good


I’ve just returned, travelling at 270 km/h, from a 4-day weekend in Seoul – Korea’s capital city and home to half its population. 25 million people live in Seoul Capital Area, making it feel worlds away from the port city of Busan I, and only 3 million others, call home. Busan is very big, of course, but differences were apparent immediately, from the moment I set foot out Seoul Station. Seoul, like many huge cities, gives off a ‘cool’ vibe.

Getting to my cute little guest house was the first challenge I faced – all 25 million people seemed to be taking taxis at the very time I wanted to ride in one. The queue at the taxi rank on both sides of the station was at least 60 people long, and wasn’t moving very fast. Frustrated, I decided it actually wasn’t a long walk to where I was staying, so I’d give it a shot. Even more frustrated, and with a heavy bag, I admitted defeat and stood on a street corner, along with those in the same boat, praying for a taxi to come past. They did indeed come past, but two turned me down before I managed to get one. One was a co-taxi, which I assume means I should have shared with others, and the other simply wouldn’t pick me up on that side of the street. Charming.

Happily, I was finally picked up, and at my guest house I was pleased to find myself in a traditional Hanok-style house, complete with under-floor heating and futon-style mattress – as people used to sleep on in days gone by. Very comfy it was too. In the morning, I ventured out to meet friends. Surrounding me were houses from a typical travel guide…exactly what you picture when you think of this area in Asia. Situated right next to the palace, the Hanok houses can feel a little like stepping back in time, and at 9am in the morning, there was virtually no-one to spoil the tiny streets by whipping out a selfie stick. The very few people I saw were dressed in Hanbok – Korean traditional costume, allowing them to get into the palace and certain areas for free, while looking beautiful doing so.

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Cute little Hanok houses – the area I stayed in in Seoul.

Our first stop was Namsan tower, which (clue is in the name) towers over Seoul, slap bang in the middle of it on one of the many mountains in the city. The highest point in Seoul, it is a slice of nature in a huge metropolis. We climbed to the top to find beautiful views of different parts of the city, and the famous love locks placed around the tower itself. Lovers have left padlocks on fences and metal bars surrounding the structure for years, a symbol of longevity for the relationship. We were left wondering how many of those loved-up couples were still together now.

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All you need is love.

Thursday was a national holiday (Children’s Day), and the government had granted us all an extra day off on Friday, so many families were making the most of it. We made our way around the famous palace buildings, and headed down to Itaewon for a spot of dinner. Itaewon is the foreigners’ district, and while it has a trendy vibe, it is, as you might imagine from the name, full of foreigners like me. Yuck. Itaewon boasts cuisine from all around the world – Spain to Singapore, Ethiopia to my little old England. Variety is not lacking there, but tables certainly were. With no space for us, we settled on a standard pub, and paid through the nose for fairly standard fodder. Itaewon would most certainly be the district I would try to avoid as much as possible if I were living in Seoul – perhaps the nightlife is its upside.

The next day, met with drizzle, I headed to Myeongdong, which I’d heard was the beauty district. Not a day goes by where I don’t read about a new cream or lotion that I now am in need of, because it will fix a problem I didn’t even know I had – so I had to go check it out. K-beauty is big business. People have beautiful skin here, and it’s easy to see why when you see the amount of lotions and potions they have available to slap on their wrinkle-free faces. Before I came to Korea, I simply cleansed and moisturised. Now, I:

  1. Cleanse (oil based cleanser).
  2. Rinse.
  3. Cleanse again (foam cleanser).
  4. Tone.
  5. Apply serum/emulsion targeting specific needs skin may have. Mine is for redness, so I slap on a liquorice-based serum that is supposed to do wonders.
  6. Use mask (twice a week).
  7. Apply eye cream/spot treatment cream.
  8. Apply sleeping mask (night-time)/apply sun cream (day-time).
  9. Use facial mist to top up moisture in face throughout the day.

I’m not even completing the ten-step skincare routine that many swear by, but I’m almost there, and I’ve got to say that my skin feels amazing. Beauty shopping is addictive, and worth it. I feel like every won I chuck in the direction of these shops is well-spent, but I’m struggling to find my limit. Strolling around Myeongdong, I could see that I wasn’t alone. The obsession must be strong enough with others too, as what other reason would there be for 7 Nature Republic stores on the same block? Nearly every shop I went in to thrusted free samples onto me. I walked away with snail treatment face masks galore. My debit card suffered, but my happiness certainly didn’t, and that’s all that matters (honest).

The rain meant we didn’t explore too much further in the day, but rather hit up Gangnam for a night on the tiles. It can be strange to go drinking in Korea – many places won’t let you order just drinks, and insist you eat there too. If you’ve already been out for dinner, this can be quite frustrating, and leads to endless walking until a suitable PLEASE LET US ONLY DRINK HERE venue can be found. It’s either that or street soju. Gangnam is pricey, as we found through going to a 30,000 won (€25) entry-fee club, where drinks were 15,000 a pop. Luckily, we were on the guest list, meaning we could enjoy the music, dancing, and irritating handsy Russian lads for free.

The final day arrived – and it was a day packed with sightseeing after the lazy rainy day we’d had the day before. First stop was Changdeokgung Palace, which boasted a secret garden tour. We strolled in the beautiful gardens, selfie-stick free for the most part, and saw stunning buildings galore, which the king once made his home. He even had a special pagoda for drinking games, so he sounded like a pretty cool guy to us. We later indulged in more culture at the Yeong Deung Hoe lotus lantern festival, where lights danced in the night sky, honouring Buddha’s birth. Parades were held through the city, with many carrying beautifully-designed lanterns in shapes such as lighthouses, lotuses, fish, and even the Korean alphabet. Lantern dragons roared through the streets, elephants trumpeted, and birds soared. Women in traditional headdresses stunned us with their beauty. The vibe was carefree, happy, and welcoming. It was certainly a great way to end our weekend in the capital.

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Tourism in Seoul is big – but still not as big as many cities in the rest of Asia. It is a shame in some ways, as it means many do not rate Korea as a place worth visiting, when it most certainly is. Seoul, and the rest of the country, has lots to offer. On the other hand, it means culture and everyday life are relatively untouched, and are not sold at a price, as they are in many other countries to visiting tourists. I will certainly be making the trip to Seoul again, to enjoy the hustle and bustle of the city, and bask in its cool-ness.

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Spring Has Sprung


Over a month in Korea, and it feels like it’s been longer than that already. I still have to really get myself into the swing of things at my school, but now I’ve started teaching solo in the afternoons, it’s become more of a challenge for me. Every day, after we’ve all stuffed our faces (or, in my case, due to my strong fish aversion, accepting I will be hungry until dinner time after only eating a select few items), I head to a homeroom classroom and teach 25 grinning faces some English. Unless the class is sixth grade, and the grinning faces turn into surly ‘What on earth could you possibly teach me?’ kind of faces.

Taking the class alone is certainly something which requires you to be on your toes. Kids in one class panicked as they realised they weren’t going to have their Korean teacher to assist them or translate (good), kids in another went mental at the prospect of Miss Lawrenson alone for forty minutes, and kids in the sixth grade glowered at me through too-cool-for-school eyes. The children at my school don’t have an incredibly high level of English either, so it can certainly be a tough forty minutes to get through. Worth it, however, when a third year tells you ‘I love you’ at the end of your lesson. Quite what the reply to that is supposed to be, I don’t know.

Teaching, however, is nothing new – the same problems have followed me around the globe, along with the same rewards teaching brings. Children here are a dream compared to wily, wall-climbing Spanish kids. While some of them are a little naughty, it’s usually one per school year, compared to at least half the class, as I was used to all those years back in Barcelona. Korean kids (and adults) are really inquisitive, too. Here are some of the questions I’ve been asked in virtually every introduction class:

“How old are you?” (No English/Spanish child would dream of asking this)

“How tall are you?”

“Are you married?”

These are the standard questions we were told to expect from pretty much everyone in Korea.

Other questions, such as “What’s your favourite Korean food?” were met with sniggers, as apparently I can’t pronounce Japchae…even though I am relatively sure one can’t really go wrong with that one. I should be the one laughing at them, considering there is both an L and an R in my name, but I’m supposed to be the adult here.

“What’s your blood type?” however, was an interesting change from the same old same old, and the child seemed rather surprised when I told them I didn’t actually know.

Teaching, however, is not something that interests most people, so I’ll move on to the juicy part of today’s post – cherry blossoms and spring springing.

Korea, as I’ve stated before, is by no means striking. It has a certain homely charm to it, however, which means everywhere you walk, you feel comfortable. It is hard to describe quite what the feeling is, but the very streets themselves emit warmth. It is somewhat beautiful in its ugliness. I would really like to find out the method behind the madness of rebuilding the entire country as one singular tower block (or so it seems), and I’m sure I’ll get closer to finding the answer by the end of the year.

Now it’s spring, the edge has been taken off the stark, sharp towers by the arrival of the cherry blossom. Trees all over the city have bloomed into pink paradise, lighting up our path as we stroll. Cherry blossom festivals are held all around Korea, and I was lucky enough that one was in my neighbourhood. Down the 온천천 (Oncheoncheon) river, stalls popped up and lanterns were hung delicately between the trees, ready for the thousands descending upon the banks to see the glorious cherry blossoms. Food stalls aplenty, we were faced with so much choice that we didn’t quite know what to buy – craving starchy food in order to do away with our rotten hangovers from too much Soju the night before. Soju is a Korean drink, and at a ridiculously low price for 18%, it is pretty much the go-to. Koreans pushed their way through the crowds to take selfies by the trees, and in among the small patches of rapeseed. The selfie game was incredibly strong. You only have one chance a year to get that cherry blossom pic, after all.

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Reflections in the 온천천

 

 

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Another spring festivity was today’s Holi Hai festival of colour, held at Haeundae Beach. Haeundae is packed with foreigners as it is, and today even more flocked to the area to chuck coloured powder at one another, dance around in the sand, and eat delicious samosas. Holi is a spring festival in India, which is becoming very popular around the world. Coloured dust is thrown into the air, sticking to everyone it comes across, and the spring festival sends out a message of frivolity, love, and togetherness. It is impossible to leave without a smile and ten different colours plastered on your face. You can almost smell the neon in the air. As it was my first Holi festival, I was unsure of how much this would just be some gimmick to get us to part with our hard-earned cash, but it was very much a day to remember – a time for us all to let loose and experience something new.

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The beautiful people

Spring makes everyone happy, and as the days get warmer and the flowers creep out of their dainty buds, our grins here get larger. Here’s to the new season, and to many a new adventure that lies ahead!

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Enjoying the colours
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Not a selfie in sight for us
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Whole potato, cut and then deep fried. Perfect hangover snack.
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Not the perfect hangover snack. Silkworm larvae – an adventurous friend bought it, and instantly regretted it.
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Crab, anyone?
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Rabokki – a mix of tteokbokki, which is a spicy rice cake dish, and ramen, with egg and fishcake.
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Making a human pyramid at the Holi festival. Gage professes his love to Soju.
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Me and Ruth all coloured up
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The face of happiness. Let’s leave it there.