A spontaneous trip to South Korea

Our trip to Seoul, South Korea was pretty spur of the moment. It had been somewhere we had wanted to visit but it wasn’t really the best time of year to go in relation to where we were in the world (e.g. the far east of Asia). It would be their winter and so VERY cold. Our plans can change quickly and, normally, it’s for the best so it was exciting to have ended up booking flights to spend five days here from 2nd December 2017.

We had only ended up booking these flights to Seoul after we accidentally booked flights in and out of the Philippines that exceeded the 30 days we were given on our visa. This led us to take a strange route for the next month by going from the Philippines to South Korea, back to the Philippines and then onto Japan. Doubling back on ourselves was definitely worth it though as Seoul has been one of our favourite major cities in Asia so far!

From the airport I immediately immersed myself into the local lifestyle by falling asleep on the train! In my defence, we had done a lot of travelling on little sleep but we found out it was a common thing in Korea. People would fall asleep on the train and then, somehow, wake up when they needed to get off the train… I don’t know how they did it!

We stayed in Chingu Guesthouse which was located right next to the bustling, student area of Hangdae. We loved Hangdae as it was full of bright lights, cafes, restaurants, shops and street food. Seoul is also super fashionable which I loved and I was able to spot the different style trends from popular hair cuts to this seasons ‘must have’ coat. With it being right next to our hostel we ended up spending most of our evenings here and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Seoul has a very big American influence which shown through the food they have. Cheese is a prominent food in the city which I fully got behind having deep fried mozzarella way too many times during our five days here! They even put cheese on top of their ramen (noodle soup) which may sound strange but it actually tastes good!

Our order of the cheesy ramen and the noodle soup I got was taken by a vending machine style ‘waiter’. This machine had pictures of the food we could order. Once you clicked on the meal you wanted and paid, you were given a ticket which showed you what you had ordered and you then either collected your food or had it brought to your table. When we went to Japan these machines became incredibly common and is a very efficient way to take orders as well as making a difference in language less of a issue.

A famous dish that is a must try when you’re in Seoul and mainly found in the Hangdae area is fried chicken and beer. We were so surprised to hear that this was such a popular food in Seoul and saw many restaurants that advertised huge plates full of fried chicken. This is known as Chimaek (translated as chicken and beer) and is a great social food as the portions are definitely not for one person by any stretch of the imagination! Niall was lucky enough to try it when we met up with our South Korean friends from the Philippines and really enjoyed it. The chicken came in three flavours and it lasted them a second helping later that evening (even after the great effort they put in first time round). I also got to try a 30cm long ice cream which I had read about in a few different blogs before we got to Seoul and, as an ice cream lover, had to try for myself! It was very frozen with it being as cold on the outside as the inside but still good!

Everywhere we went, in every district, we saw bright lights from neon signs advertising shops, brands and restaurants. So many streets glowed at night from the lights and it helped to fuel the all night culture that Seoul has. Often called the Far East city that never sleeps its standard to end your nights out at around 5am here! We would have loved to have given this a go but definitely didn’t have that kind of night out within our budget!

As we had expected, it was cold. What we weren’t prepared for was that the cold meant temperatures in the minus’s. At its coldest we dealt with -5 degree temperatures with -10 degree winds and it was often very windy. What it’s worth bearing in mind as well is that we had packed for a hot trip. Our warm clothes consisted of hoodies and leggings (for me) or Canterbury tracksuit pants (for Niall) and hoodies. We ended up wearing the majority of our clothes and I bought a scarf and gloves for around £5 at a market! Our Korean friend Han ended up, very generously, giving Niall his scarf after he saw we didn’t even have coats. At one point I was wearing two pairs of tights under my jeans, four pairs of socks, a vest top, long sleeved top, shirt, two jumpers and a hoody just to keep warm. It was a bit of a nightmare and we often warmed up by going into Starbucks or other coffee shops to get hot chocolates.

One of the main things to see in Seoul are the grand palaces they have dotted around the city – I’m going to talk about these in a separate post. But that’s not all there was for us to see whilst we were there.

Seoul has a number of traditional villages dotted around the city which gives a small glimpse into the way the South Koreans used to live before the big apartment blocks and more modern houses were built. They’re often only a couple of streets but Hanok Village was a bit bigger with some shops and lots of narrow streets. It was nice to walk around and whilst we were here we tried a nice deep fried sweet treat called hotteok which is a sweet rice and sugar filled Korean pancake – just what we needed to warm us up as we explored.

Seoul has the Han River running through it which has a path alongside it both on the waters edge and above the river which you can walk along. It’s a nice place to walk through and we followed the river through neighbourhoods selling clothes to electrical equipment to a random assortment of objects that reminded me of my dad’s garage! It was good to see these neighbourhoods as they’re just where people live and gave a bit more of a rounded view of the city.

The Seoul City Wall was our next stop and I’m really glad we ventured out of the city centre to see it. It’s 18.6km long and wasbuilt in 1396 under the orders of King Taejo, founder of the Joseon dynasty. You can walk up to and along the wall and get some nice views over the surrounding houses as well as walking though a nice park. The wall goes pretty high so you can get some good views over the city the longer you’re walking for – definitely worth it. We also had beautifully clear, blue skies that day which always makes a day even better!

We wanted to learn more about how South Korea came to be and so headed to the Museum of Contemporary History. This didn’t end up giving us the type of information we were hoping for as we had wanted to learn more about the Korean War and about the two countries as one. Saying that, we learnt about the Korean flag (a focus on ying and yang) and it’s evolution as well as a new exhibition on sport in Korea that has potentially landed me on TV! The exhibition had only just opened and a reporter for the South Korean government channel asked if he could interview us about it. Niall decided that it would just be me being interviewed and after viewing the exhibition he asked me some questions and told me that I’d be emailed the finished broadcast once it was aired. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see if I ever catch my break on Korean TV!

I was emailed the news report on 2nd January 2018 and got to see a small clip of myself (not sounding my most eloquent) in a news report about the exhibition and the Winter Olympic Games.

After the famous song by PSY we had to go and visit Gangnam. This is the cosmopolitan region as well as the financial district and the people here are known for working and playing hard. The place is full of shops and restaurants as well as the occasional homage to the song that made it world famous! We liked walking around here but, as we were on a budget, we couldn’t exploit the shops that were here! It also started raining so we had to cut our time here short, but seeing the place lit up at night was good to see, especially as it was still very busy after dark!

Probably our favourite evening whilst we were in Seoul was spent with our new Korean friends who we had met in Boracay in the Philippines. They had been our three room mates who provided us all with a lot of entertainment on our last pasta party before leaving the island; Andrew, Bob and Han. Andrew met us from our hostel and took us out for food in Hangdae. We first went to a little restaurant that served cheap, local delicacies like Tteokbokki which is a bowl of rice cakes (not the dried biscuit things we have at home) which are a similar texture to pasta or gnocchi. It’s in a bowl of tomato, spicy sauce and has some other foods in their like battered vegetables and battered meat. It was really nice and you just picked out the bits you wanted to eat. We also tried Eomuk which were fishcake on skewers that’s served in a soup to be soaked up by the fish cake and then drank. This was also really nice and we had seen this food in loads of little street stalls around Seoul so we were glad to get to try it.

We then went to a Chinaek place for chicken and beer which Niall really enjoyed. I had a plate of chips which suited me fine as the other food was enough to fill me up anyway. Along with the beer we also had a drink called Soju which is like a diluted version of vodka which South Koreans drink. They often mix this with the beer which we found nicer than drinking the soju straight! Once Bob joined us we also tried the soju and beer mixed with Pepsi which was also nice and is another common thing people in Seoul would drink.

After we had eaten Bob had to go and host a radio show he did with a few of his friends every week. He invited us along so that we could continue to chat with them all and we happily obliged. We went to a studio space in a different part of the city and was joined by Han who was our final roommate from Boracay. We were also joined by their friend who turned out to be the bass player in a very famous band in South Korea. They showed us videos of him performing at huge festivals and gigs with massive crowds – so really we had beers with a Korean celebrity! We had a great evening getting to know them better and drinking beer.

Andrew, Bob and Han were generous and kind making sure we had a great evening. Bob even gave us heat packs after finding out we didn’t have coats which lasted for over 24 hours and were so helpful when it was cold and rainy on our last evening in Seoul. We also wouldn’t have been able to try more South Korean food and drinks without them so all in all we couldn’t have been happier with our evening or more grateful for their hospitality.

Whilst only getting a glimpse into what South Korea was like, their capital has become one of our favourite cities we have visited during our trip. We met lovely people – strangers would often stop us if we looked remotely lost or confused to ask if we needed help – and saw some lovely palaces (see next post). The city has a lot going on and I think it’ll definitely be somewhere we’ll return to one day.

Until next time, Seoul…

Sending Love x

6 thoughts on “A spontaneous trip to South Korea

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