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Entries in korea (5)


Korea: In Search Of Adventure

My sense of time while I was in Seoul was distinctly screwed up, due to both the time zone difference and to working the night shift. By the time I left the customer facility on Tuesday morning, I had come to terms with the idiosyncrasies of my schedule. Working nights meant that I would be able to do touristy stuff until the early afternoon, provided I was willing to push myself a little. Encouraged by my initial foray the previous day, I decided to give the subway a try.

I'd heard and read that Seoul's subway system was very friendly to English speakers, but I hadn't anticipated how friendly. All of the signs were in both hangeul and Roman characters, and the pre-recorded announcements on the trains were in both Korean and English. The stations were incredibly well-signed, and there were maps everywhere. I can't say for certain that it was the easiest public transportation system I've every used, but I can't come up with a better one right now.

I did manage to have two misadventures getting onto the subway. I first had a little trouble buying a T-money card, caused by my inability to speak Korean and the price being listed incorrectly in my guidebook. The cashier kept trying to get me to do something I didn't understand, but I eventually realized that the problem could be solved by handing over more cash. (T-money, by the way, is totally from the future.) Then, as I was rushing to catch the subway train that was just about to depart the station, I didn't quite look at the sign and ended up on a train going the opposite direction from where I had intended.  I had been planning on taking a short jaunt over to the COEX Mall as an exploratory mission, but I was now headed the wrong way. Undaunted, I looked up at the system map, pulled out my guidebook, and decided to take the leap and head further afield.

Korea: Food and Sleep

On the morning of my first full day in South Korea, I met up with one of my company's other employees for breakfast. Dick had been working with the customer on this particular project for about eighteen months, alternating between the US and Korea in roughly two-week blocks.  Part of the reason I'd headed over on such short notice was to overlap with him, as he was supposed to be headed back home soon, but we'd never actually met in person before. He knew the area, and after breakfast we took caught a cab to the customer site. I'm glad Dick was with me, because I would have had no idea how to tell the cabbie where to go if I had been on my own.

I spent part of the morning at the customer site getting set up, but I couldn't actually get access to the machine (which I needed to do to diagnose the problem they were having) until the night shift. We'd expected that this was going to happen, so after lunch (which was pretty terrible cafeteria food) I headed back to the hotel to get a few hours of sleep before coming in that night.

That's not quite what happened. I figured that since I had some time available to me, I might as well go out and explore a little bit. I was staying in the area where most of the 1988 Olympic Games were centered, and you could tell. My hotel on Olympic-ro, which connected the stadium/sports complex with Olympic Park. On the median were sculptures of all sorts of athletes. Wondered around the area for several hours, mostly to get a sense of scale on my guidebook's map. Just as I was thinking about heading to bed, I started to get hungry, so I ended up in a restaurant in the massive food court under the shopping center next to my hotel. I chose that particular establishment because of the menu.

Pictures and numbers were my salvation, as I still had no idea how to read hangeul. When my waiter came, I pointed to the #29. It turned out to be rather good, and after finishing, I headed up to my room and slept.

Korea: Where Am I Now?

When I woke up in Seoul, I was a little confused about where I was. In addition to the unfamiliarity hotel room, South Korea has a seventeen-hour time difference from Santa Barbara, and it's on the other side of the International Dateline. This means that despite leaving home on Saturday morning, when I woke up it was Monday. And of course, because my body was confused about what time it, I woke up around 5 AM. Once it got light, though, I was able to see this out of my hotel room window:

Where was I staying? That requires a brief explanation of South Korean addresses. There's a good overview here, but the short version is that Seoul is divided into twenty-five gu, or districts. These districts are further divided into dong, or neighborhoods. My hotel was in Jamsil-dong, Songpa-gu. So far pretty straightforward, right? The tricky part about this is that while some streets have names (like Olympic-ro, the one in front of my hotel), most addresses are simply given as a number within a dong. (This number apparently comes from the land lot records, but my sources are little confusing on the matter.) So my hotel's full address was 40-1 Jamsil-dong, Songpa-gu, Seoul, Korea. Kind of makes it hard to find, no?

Fortunately I was staying at a local landmark: the Lotte World Hotel. The Lotte Group is one of the largest of South Korea's chaebol. Chaebol are large, family-run, government-assisted business conglomarates, similar to the old Japanese zaibatsu. To the outsider, they're companies that do everything. So Lotte, in addition to running a theme park, makes fast food (I saw a fair number of Lotterias on my trip), issues credit cards, owns two baseball teams, and operates a chain of department stores. And when you looked a little further out my window, it was easy to see where I was.

With that mystery solved, I headed off to meet one of my coworkers for breakfast.

Korea: Getting There

On December 6th, Gwen and I moved into our new house. On the 8th, my boss's boss came into my office and asked me if I had any personal commitments in the next few weeks. It turned out that one of our customers in South Korea was having a problem with our software, and they were asking for someone to come and fix it. I wasn't his first choice to deal with it, but for a variety of reasons I was the best available choice. The timing was less than ideal for me, but I knew it was a great opportunity.

The only problem was that my passport was due to expire in a week. Gwen and I had originally gotten our passports to go to London as a part of a college class, and that turned out to be exactly ten years prior to the start of my trip. (Amusingly enough, every time I looked at my passport photo my first thought was not of how ridiculous my hair was but to memory that Gwen and I had had a huge fight right before we went to the Kinko's in the Rice Village to get our pictures taken. The mind is strange.) Fortunately, it is possible to get a same-day passport renewal if you go to one of the nine or so passport agencies around the country. There's one in Los Angeles, which is why I found myself driving over the Sepulveda Pass at 6:45 AM the next morning. Gwen and I had gone to down to Newbury Park to have dinner with our friends who live there, so I just stayed overnight there, cutting about an hour off of my early morning drive. Once I got to the agency, everything went smoothly, and I walked away from the Will-Call window a few hours later with my new passport in hand.

Over the next few days, the details got ironed out, and I left Santa Barbara on Saturday heading for Seoul, with a connection through LAX on Asiana Airlines. Sadly, my in-flight entertainment console was broken, so I didn't get to watch the various Korean films that were available. On the plus side, I did get this:

The menu (yes, they gave me a real menu on this flight) had two choices for lunch: Western style or Korean style. I got the Korean style lunch, consisting of bibimbap, fish soup, steamed sweet pumpkin, fruit, and, of course, kimchi. I'm a big believer in eating as locally as possible when I travel, and this was a great start. I was pleased to discover that the gochujang, the red chili paste that is very common in Korean food and is normally mixed with bibimbap, came in a tube, allowing me to add as much or as little as I wanted. I'd not had a lot Korean food before, so I wasn't sure how spicy it could get. As it turned out, I was able to add to the whole tube without dying, thanks in part to the various Korean beers on the plane (including the three major brands: Cass, OB, and Hite).

What did nearly kill me, however, was the flying time. From LAX to Seoul Incheon took fourteen hours. The longest flight I'd been on before was ten. At the ten hour mark, I was actually feeling pretty good, but the last three were pretty rough. I didn't want to sleep because it was going to about 6 PM when I landed, so I was determined to stay awake. Thanks to my supply of books, audiocourses, and podcasts, I was able to make it.

One more note about the flight: because of the prevailing winds, we flew much farther north than even the Great Circle route would have taken us. We basically followed the US coastline all the way to Alaska, cross the Bering Sea, and down the Kamchatka Peninsula. That was unexpected and certainly contributed to the length of the journey.

Once we landed in Seoul, I got through Customs and Immigration with no difficulty, and I headed immediately for an ATM. I'm always nervous about trying to use my credit cards in foreign countries, as it sometimes seems to require black magic to make them work, so I always like to have cash on hand. The first ATM I walked up to had a whole bunch of instructions written in hangul (the Korean alphabet) and one big button labeled "English." A minute later, I walked away with 100,000 won, which sounds like a lot but is only about seventy dollars. (Making this problem worse is the lack of any note over 10,000 won. No wonder they do so many electronic transactions.) I headed to the bus terminal, where my destination was thankfully marked in both hangul and Romanized script, bought my ticket, and climbed aboard. About thirty minutes later, the bus dropped me off at my hotel, where I checked into my room and subsequently passed out.

Korea In Pictures

I've uploaded most of my photos from my trip to Seoul to my Flickr account. I haven't yet added descriptions for all of them, so for now you'll have to guess what some of them are. Now that I've got these online, I'll start writing about my trip here.