Getting to Korea was a strange combination of stress and utter boredom. Although I’ve flown before there was only once that I was alone and there were many moments where I wondered what I was supposed to do, and I pretty much used up all the credit on my phone texting my dad for instructions. Of course there was a lot of waiting around and queuing and more waiting around which led to the boredom. My flight was at 11.35pm, and I had made myself nicely sleep deprived so I could sleep on the plane, but this meant by the time I was sitting at the gate I was ready to pass out. Eventually I boarded and to my surprise, and luck, the three seats next to me were empty. I wasn’t sure what to make of it at first but eventually I sprawled out greedily across the row and attempted to sleep. Sadly, despite my luck I could not sleep through the whole journey- sleep came in fits and starts. I kept waking up, falling asleep, waking up.
And just like that the plane journey crept slowly to its end and I was in Korea. Being tired and feeling slightly sick from disturbed sleep and the plane journey was not a good mood to go about my first day in Korea, but I was determined not to spend the first of only three days in the hotel. I got my limousine bus ticket and got my first taste of winter when I stepped outside to the bus ranks. I had naively being expecting Korea to have clung onto autumn just for me but nope, it was bitterly cold as I sat there waiting for the bus and I was more than relieved when the bus came. I really have forgotten what cold feels like, even after barely two months in Malaysia I have become accustomed to being warm all the time.
I wished, not for the first time, that I had thought to pack more of my normal clothes. Everyone told me that it was hot in Malaysia, so I enthusiastically put together a summer wardrobe- when my skinny jeans and a t shirt would have been just fine. Not for the first time, I missed my skinny jeans. For the first time, I missed: My thick cotton jersey. My coat that goes all the way to my knees, with its hood that covers my head to the point I cannot see either side of me. My brown boots that are lined with fleece.
Instead I was wearing two camisoles and a vest top, a long sleeved top and a hoodie that may have once been thick and fluffy, but was thin and worn out from age. Jeans. Black flats with socks that did not come all the way to my knee. no scarf. no gloves. not even my fingerless gloves that my sister likes to tease me about because she thinks they are pointless.
The journey from incheon was a long one, but peaceful. The bus was pretty much empty- just me and two other woman- so it was quiet. I listened to music and watched the passing scenery through the dirty glass- of the sun rising over the beach and the sea. It was straight out of family outing, but real, and so beautiful. and so surreal. I got into Seoul mid morning and the bus dropped me conveniently right outside my hotel- the Ibis Ambassador Gangnam. I was way before the stated check in time but they didn’t even say a word, and let me check in with no problems and it was in no time at all that I was in the lift heading up to my room.
Man, I just grinned wen I saw my room. It was more than substantial for just me- a double bed, plenty of space in the main room, a small but clean bathroom with one of those fancy Japanese toilets (three words: heated. toilet. seat). Oh, to come from a crappy dorm room to that was an immensely wonderful feeling. I mean, there were some minor dislikes- the room lighting was too dim, for one, and there was a lack of basic amenities- those things you don’t expect a hotel to have but its always nice to arrive to like hand soap for the bathroom, perhaps toothpaste, cotton pads, shower caps. Those little touches. But the room was spacious, and clean, with a deliciously large bed and hard mattress (yes, I like a extra firm mattress – I hate the ones you just sink into, can’t sleep at all with them! ) and free of funny smells and bugs. so I was more than happy. I took a lengthy shower and organised my things then headed out.
I did not really know where to go to find a subway station and I had no map but somehow I stumbled upon daechi station, which took my directly to my first destination- the Gyeonbokgung Palace. The palace structure, as well as the nearby palace museum, greeted me immediately upon exiting the station. I headed for the gates and stumbled into the palace where I was soon made to realize I had arrived exactly on time for the changing of guards ceremony! I joined the crowds milling about taking videos and photos. It really was quite cool. I’ve seen this kind of stuff on Korean dramas- but never real! The costumes, the palace structure, the traditional Korean music, it was quite something to have it right there in front of me rather than on a screen. I enjoyed that and then went to get a ticket and for a walk around the palace. I was absolutely frozen to the point that many parts of me were either numb/and or painful so although I did enjoy wandering around the palace i was intensely grateful for when I found the National Folk Museum- and was able to get indoors! The museum was fairly interesting- once again, I was just in a state of amazement at being able to see this stuff real. To be able to read about Korean history and traditional culture was fascinating, and different and I did shamefully always have Korean dramas in the back of my mind- comparing everything, letting myself understand them in a new way. it was awesome. After the museum I sat for a bit to have a delicious green tea latte and Korean rice cake then headed back into the cold to see more of the palace. I didn’t have a map so I was really just wandering around, taking in the impressive palace structure and the vivid autumn colors that Malaysia will never see.
I briefly popped into the palace museum before going to the station, but although it was interesting I was eager to get going to my next destination and I was soon on the train. Have i mentioned that the seoul subway is ridiculously tourist friendly? Compared to how confusing the Japanese train system is, Seoul’s is easy- mostly because it was all in English. I had also been able to buy a t money card at a convenience store at the airport- again, really easy even though I can’t speak korean- which meant I didn’t have to mess around buying tickets. It was so easy getting around seoul- by train, that was. Walking would be another matter, as I would find out.
Anyway, my next destination was the national museum of Korea and I admit, I don’t think I should have gone here. It was very large and spaced out to the point where it was a little overwhelming. Not the sort of place suited for ‘just popping in’. I had a meander around seeing as I was there but I was only there around an hour. there were some interesting displays there, and I did enjoy the section on calligraphy but it was just a bit of confusing place really! And of course it was also closing time so I couldn’t stay longer!
I was dead tired by this point, and hungry but still determined to make the most of my day so I headed out to Dongdaemun with the intention of checking out doota shopping mall and picking up something warm, so I didn’t freeze half to death in the following days. Of course all the clothes were gorgeous, and hideously expensive. I longed to buy them all but in the end they were winter clothes, and how could i justify buying a load of winter clothes when I was going back to a tropical country? With some regret I ended up walking away with just the one hoodie, a thick fluffy thing that I had hope would keep me warm and had not cost too much. By this point it was raining, so I was wet and cold. a part of me wanted to retreat back to the hotel but most of me was determined to continue shopping. so I got on to my next destination- Myeongdong- for some serious shopping!
I had loaded my credit card with most of my savings and I was determined to spend them! I justified splurging on cosmetics by the fact that they would be so much cheaper than if I were to buy them online- I mean its just ridiculous how much online shops bump up their prices. And Skinfood and Laneige here in Malaysia are also crazily marked up. I wish their was an adambeauty for k cosmetics but there isn’t, so I had made a mental list of things I wanted and I was determined to buy them- and maybe one or two extra things! I surprised myself by just how good I was with sticking with the list actually, and not being too impulsive. I think I was actually just enjoying the process of shopping for the Korean cosmetics i love so much in the actual stores. I loved seeing the familiar brands, and actually recognizing the faces in the advertisements and the music playing over the speakers. it was raining heavily by the point though and I had to be the only person in Korea without an umbrella, and I was getting soaked.
But I persevered, ducking in and out of shops and hoping no one would mind my bedraggled appearance. I wonder what the sales people thought of me actually- they must have wondered what the hell I was doing shopping for cosmetics. As well as thoroughly wet, I wasn’t exactly prettily dressed, and my skin was freaking out from the plane journey and the change in climate already, and I was tired as hell and I’m sure it showed. Korea is just like Japan in the sense that everyone is very well put together there- seriously, all the women and men are so fashionable and gorgeous. Outfits, just so. Makeup, just so. What I love about Korean fashion though is how the girls also make boyish outfits – boots, loose hoodies, even sports clothes- look cute and feminine- how do they do that?! I really do wonder. anyway, I definitely felt very much the ugly tourist. but I was too damn happy to care. I was tired and hungry but in just one day I had grown to love Seoul, for most of the same reasons I love Tokyo, or Nagoya. There is a energy to these cities, a vibrancy. Late as it was myeongdong was bustling, and the city was lit up and you could hear snippets of music from the stores, sales girls calling out for people to come and buy things, the hum of many conversations going on. It had just the same energy as somewhere like shibuya- and I love that energy. The crowds are a bit scary, but there is something amazing about losing yourself in them, in the midst of the skyscrapers and the bright city lights. These places are so modern, so convenient, and yet they retain their own character – a spark of their traditional cultures, the influence of them, something makes them unique and beautiful. I also love how those pockets of tradition – like the palace- exist right in the mist of the skyscrapers of these extremely modern cities too. Like, one moment I’m in a palace, the next I’m on a train surrounded by fashionable men and women attached to their smartphones and tablets, the next I’m browsing stores for vibrating bb creams (not as dirty as it sounds) and bb cushions (not as literal as it sounds) listening to music that is so American but yet not. That’s the thing- its western, but not quite. (In Japans case- somehow they manage not at all. But Seoul seems to have a heavier American influence and I know nothing so I won’t start ruminating on why) Its wonderful. I had gotten what i wanted out of Seoul – an escape. Being somewhere so different, shedding away the routine of every day life, spending money without thinking of consequences, not having to worry about embarrassing myself around people because I know I’ll never see them again, and I’m a tourist which gives me some leeway. It was fun.
My first day in Korea had some hiccups but for the most part it was wonderful. I crawled into bed (ok, so I totally intentionally flopped down and sprawled out in satisfaction on my wonderfully hard, wonderfully large, wonderfully clean bed) that night very excited for the next day.