South Korea, 2017 Seoul

Catching the Seoul wave

We have spent many hours in the Seoul airport flying to/from Bangkok but have never been able to time it right to venture into town. A China Air flight special announcing a $380/person round trip San Francisco-Beijing-Seoul was just the right enticement for us to plan a 10 day trip solely to Seoul. Booked months ago when news items about Korea were practically non-existent, we suddenly found our travel coinciding with Secretary of State Tillerson's visit to the DMZ, North Korea testing their missiles and a political scandal in South Korea which sent protesters into the streets and the impeachment of the South Korean president.

Weekly demonstration in support of ousted President Park Geun-hye with strong pro-American sentiment

South Korea has the fourth largest economy in Asia and the fifth largest automobile production in the world. It is a fascinating capital city with a mix of history, culture and nightlife. Seoul is swarming with thousands of students attending numerous universities and colleges as well as head offices of the country's major enterprises - commercial, financial and governmental.

random street art

First impressions - Seoul is a cross between Thailand and Japan with a bit of New York thrown in. A restaurant every few feet, many specializing in one dish (at our favorite hole-in-the-wall there are 3 items on the menu: fried chicken, french fries and beer), open late into the night.

Tim couldn't wait to eat before the picture

Alleys at random points along each block beckon you to explore because who wants to miss another enticing shop and restaurant. Wide sidewalks, ramps and cut-outs for wheel chairs, litter is non-existent, roadside trees are perfectly shaped and crowds are polite and do not push. Seoul has an efficient metro/subway and bus system, although it takes a bit to ground yourself in the map.

Subway map with station for our hotel circled - how could we get lost?!

It is a high tech, high rise city with a population of 10.4 million, an astounding 1/4th of the country's population. Seoul has been the capital for over 600 years; risen over the years from the ashes of wartime destruction to become Asia's most international city, surpassing even Tokyo. Koreans are proud of their country and excited that we were taking time to explore it. We barely had time to pull out a tourist map before someone stopped at our side, asking if they might help, pulling up a map on their smart phone. Even people who didn't speak English at all went out of their way, acting out directions in sign language or taking us by the hand to where we needed to be.

Deoksugung Palace
The 2018 winter Olympic mascots
Seoul, bordered by 8 mountains, is the host of the 2018 Winter Olympics. But a word of caution! The name of the host city, Pyeongchang, has been intentionally styled as "PyeongChang" in promotional materials so that the city will not be confused with the similarly-named Pyongyang, capital of North Korea. In 2014 a representative from Kenya, en route to a United Nations biodiversity conference in Pyeongchang, was detained by local immigration officers after accidentally flying to Pyongyang, North Korea instead.

Seoul is all about the food, from binge worthy street food...

lobster and scallops at the night market!

to traditional markets of multi-story hives of shops connected by alleyways...

a small slice of the stalls at Tongin market mid-day Sunday

to formal palace menus...

lunch at Maru, National Museum of Korea

...the only problem is finding enough time and stomach space to try it all. Pojangmacha, as they are known in Korean, are pushcarts or pop-up restaurants which line alleyways and surround subway exits. The nighttime scene is overwhelming; the variety is infinite with lots of seafood, noodles and soups, sweets and breads, and every protein cooked in a fiery sauce. Grilled lobster tails, scallops with cheese, fried chicken, Duk mandu guk (a soup of rice cakes and beef dumplings), kimbap (rice rolled in seaweed with pickled radish and carrots), bindaetteok (mung bean pancake fired until golden brown), baby octopus, naengmyeon (chilled buckwheat noodle soup) - all washed down with makgeolli, an unfiltered rice wine that is slightly fizzy or ice cold beer.

traditional Korean BBQ restaurant, our table before and after, Chui posing with the famous owner

We were so lucky in our travel. Not only was our timing to be in Seoul interesting for political events, but it also coincided with our friends Echo and Chui stopping in Seoul on their way back to SF. We spent the weekend exploring and eating...and eating. And we were fortunate that Sunny, a San Jose State University alumni from Seoul, and her mom generously picked us up at our hotel, whisked us through the subway to the Gyeongbokgung Palace, to a local restaurant for beef soup and on to Tongin Market to look at traditional fabrics for wedding clothes, stopping at a food stall with a line 10 deep for a delicious snack of pancakes filled with green onion and mung bean.

Gyeongbokgung Palace with Sunny, her mom, Echo, Chui and tour guide Emily, a charming middle school student with the Youth Cultural Corps, International Exchange and Cultural Promotion Institute
Created By
Jane Zinner


photos by Tim Cuneo

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