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September 10th 2016
Published: September 11th 2016
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South Korea:

On my last trip I didn’t use any of the airline points I had acquired traveling as a consultant. This time I redeemed points for a 1 way to Seoul in business class on Korean Air. I had never flown business class on an intercontinental flight. After the flight I realized why everyone raves about it. I was able to lie down completely vertical and got a good 7 hours of sleep. I also picked up a pair of noise cancelling headphones (not sure if I was allowed to but no one stopped me as I walked off the plane with them in clear sight). I flew on an Airbus A380. This was the same aircraft I took to Asia on my last trip. The entire upstairs was business class. I watched Nixon & Elvis, Eddie the Eagle, and part of The Godfather. I have to say that the Korean Air stewardesses are probably the politest people on the face of the Earth.

Landing at Incheon International Airport was great. The airport is constantly ranked as one of the best airports in the world. However, I was pretty impressed with the inside of LAX’s Tom Bradly terminal. We’re finally catching up with the likes of Singapore, Seoul, and Delhis' international terminals.

Getting to my hotel was probably less complicated than I made it. I knew the bus number I needed to take. However, pulling the ticket from the automated dispenser took some time for me. I wasn’t sure if I had to look up the destination, bus number, or hotel name. Finally, I figured that it was the hotel name that corresponded to the stop. The great thing about Korea was that I didn’t need to have cash on me, as I used my credit card for everything. All the cabs took credit cards and every restaurant did as well. Also, there is no tipping in Korea. The only time I used cash was for the subway, and I think I could have used credit card there too.

The bus ride in was just at sunrise. As it turned out, the guy sitting next to me, John, was going to the same hotel, the Aloft. It turned out he was from New York and had family in South Korea he was visiting, while also on business. Since we weren’t able to check into the hotel until 10 or so, we decided to go to a coffee shop and research a DMZ Tours. Luckily John spoke fluent Korean and it made it easier to get around. He called a few of the DMZ tour agents to see if we could get a tour for that day, but everything was booked for the Panmunjom tour (the one where you can walk across the line). As it turned out, I would have had to have booked that tour a week in advance. I opted to take another DMZ tour which takes you to a lookout point and tunnel. John decided to wait off until he could actually book the Panmunjom tour another time.

Later we were able to check into our rooms and then headed to the Seoul Tower to get a good few of the city. The view was amazing. Seoul has no shortage of white apartment buildings that stretch for miles. We got a deal with the tickets, which included popcorn and 2 beers. It was only a little more than the tickets themselves so we jumped on them. After checking out the tower we headed to the Changdoekgung Palace. This is one of the bigger temples in Seoul. It reminded me a little of the Forbidden City in Beijing, but without any decorations inside the buildings. After walking around for an hour or so we headed to a part of the city that had great Korean BBQ. I forget the section of town, but it was full of coffee shops and seemed pretty vibrant. John had eaten here previously, but wanted me to still have the experience. While we were waiting for the restaurant to open we went to a coffee shop. As we were talking I noticed that right across the street was a Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy. I had just spent a month at the Gracie Academy in Beverly Hills doing jiu-jitsu on a Groupon I had bought. We went over to check it out. It was a great facility. I would definitely roll there if I lived in Seoul.

By now it was time for dinner. We walked to the Korean BBQ restaurant and were clearly the first ones there, given it was about 4:30. This was fine, as my internal clock was way off. Apparently by 7:00 there is a huge line out the back. I let John order everything. It was amazing. The meat was unbelievable and I basically ate the whole filet.

The next day I was off to the DMZ tour that took me to the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel and the Dora Observatory. I read a book a few years ago called “The Two Koreas” that chronicles the history of the peninsula. Also, having worked at Sony Pictures during ‘the hack’ intrigued me on this nation that is often referred to as The Hermit Kingdom.

The first stop was the tunnel. When you get in they give you yellow hard hats. This turned out to be much appreciated as I hit my head a few times on the scaffolding in certain sections of the tunnel. The tunnel the South Koreans dug is an incline that takes you down to the tunnel the North Koreans had been digging before they got caught. It then extends until the section that was concreted off. The South Koreans have found 4 tunnels, though there could be more that have not been detected.

The next stop was the Dora observatory. This give you a direct view across the DMZ. You can see North Korean towns just past the border including Kaesong. The North also has a huge flag that is unmistakable. Our tour guide told us that some of the towns in the North are fake, to give the impression more is going on apparently. He said they just erect concrete buildings an paint the doors on them. Whatever is going on there it sure isn’t vibrant. I couldn’t see one moving object – no buses, no cars, it just seemed dead.

The tour bus was nice enough to pick me up at my hotel. But, was not extending that kindness on the way back. This ended up being my immersion back into the traveling world. John, who spoke fluent Korean, was out traveling. I had not taken the metro at this point. I basically had no idea where in the middle of Seoul I was. Luckily I have T-Mobile and was able to pull up my hotel on my phone. But, it didn’t have the Korean address. I was able to give the taxi driver the hotel’s phone number and he was able to get the address from them.

Later that day I switched hotels to the Sheraton. One of my goals this trip is to get Platinum status on stays. If I get it then I’ll be Platinum for life – quite an accomplishment for those who know. Somehow I was able to convince the staff that I was entitled to the concierge lounge and fitness center, even though I'm only Gold right now. I spent the rest of the night enjoying the freebies and going to the gym/sauna.

The next day it was off to the Olympic Park. The Seoul Olympics of 1988 were the first Olympics I remember watching with interest. That was the Olympics that Ben Johnson got caught for using steroids. This was also my first chance to use the metro in Seoul, which turned out to be somewhat easy to use, once you got the hang of it.

When I got to the Olympic Village I walked first to the gymnastics area. Apparently there was a huge political rally going on similar to our DNC/RNC (minus the clowns). Anyone could just walk in. I watched for a bit and then continued along the walkway until I got to the aquatics center. This was another facility that anyone could walk into. The South Koreans have turned this into a whole fitness/aquatics venue. There were multiple workout centers, along with the pool being open to the public. There were so many people using it to take swimming classes. At the diving section people were learning to scuba dive.

After viewing a few more areas I headed to the war museum. Again, I was really looking forward to this, as the Korean War, and ongoing armistice, is fascinating to me. Unfortunately, I only had about an hour to view the museum. I wanted to go to church that night before flying to Japan the next day. The museum was huge. It had a B-52 outside, along with other US and Soviet era tanks and planes. I felt like I ran through the museum. It probably didn’t matter much as I knew most of the history. Also, the items in the museum weren’t always tagged with English versions of the narrative.

Next it was off to the Cathedral. I got there just as mass was starting, thanks to having to rush through the Myeog-dong shopping area. It was a packed church. Also, the priest had everyone in and out in 50 minutes flat. One thing I noticed that instead of bells they used a gong. And instead of shaking hands at the sign of peace, everyone bowed to each other.

I had about an hour to make it back to my hotel before the concierge lounge closed. I just made it. Well, maybe a minute late. The girl at the door tried to tell me it was closed, but declined to attempt to physically prevent me from entering to have what food was left. I was starving at that point and had really hustled from the metro exit to make it in time.

As with most traveling plans they just start out as plans. My original thought was to take the train to Busan and then to take the ferry to Fukuoka. Based on my experience with the DMZ I decided to check to see if there was availability on the ferries to Fukuoka. As I suspected, they were full for a few days. I ended up booking a 1-way flight to Japan, which cost about $40 more than taking the ferry would have cost.

Next stop – Japan!!!

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