Long Weekend Up North

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May 11th 2012
Published: May 11th 2012
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We decided to head up to Seoul and take care of some errands. Jen wanted to go to Insadong, a touristy part of Seoul loaded with antique shops, art galleries and keepsakes. She wanted to pick up some (spoiler alert) gifts for people back home and for those who will be in our wedding. And I wanted to walk around a crowded area of Seoul wearing a bulky backpack and lugging around a roller suitcase full of old books on bumpy streets dodging tourists and street vendors. Wishes granted.

There are really four ways to make it up to Seoul. The bus, which is the cheapest option. The regular train, which is te cheapest option but somehow takes longer than the bus. The KTX uber fast laser train that speeds you towards Seoul in style and flying which we only use in cases of most extreme tiredness after an international flight and moments of pounding hangovers where the last thing you want to do is sit for 4 or 5 hours with a bunch of loud strangers. So late Friday we hoped on a bus and made the 4 1/2 hour trip to Seoul.

Seoul's Express Bus Terminal is near the center of the city near Gangnam, one of the nicer and more expensive neighborhoods of Seoul but it lacks any real motels near the bus station and instead it's just a sea of apartments and a few restaurants. It is however one of the busies places in Seoul and just about the last place you want to be when you're trying to get somewhere late at night. Because the subways and buses had stopped running for the night we had to wait for a taxi, which is not a problem in most places in Seoul but in Gangnam where you have hordes of Koreans looking to get home.

We took our spot in line and tried to get a cab. An hour went by and still nothing. The crowds were not getting any smaller and we were both tired and just wanted to lay down. Jen was getting annoyed that people kept going "up stream" to steal any taxi that happened to stop and I was entering my inner asshole mode where no matter who you are, young, old, handicapped, or bleeding you're not stealing my taxi and I'll lower my shoulder and push as hard as I have to in order to get it. It's amazing that people that you would have held doors open for a couple of hours earlier or given your seat to on the subway are now your mortal enemies. Everyone is just flailing arms and beady eyes trying to get a taxi but fend off all advances from the other street people. Having about enough of it I decided to try a risky move and headed away from the taxi rank and down stream. I though I might be able to catch a cab that couldn't change lanes and get over to the taxi stop because of the traffic. Sure enough after about two minutes I spotted a taxi on the far lane and stuck a firm hand out and watched the driver cut across three lanes without touching his turn signal and slam on his brakes, coming to a stop before us. We jumped in, he asked where we were headed in his best Korean and I told him, "Jong-no Sam Ga Yuck Ka Sae Yo." We were on our way before any of the men in tight jeans and women in heals had a chance to catch up. So long suckers. Within 20 minutes we were in a hotel and our wild night ended with me lifelessly flicking through Korean T.V. as we drifted off to sleep.

We woke early the next morning and checked out with our bags for Insadong. Our plan to get there early and beat the crowds had paid off so we stopped into a little cafe and had some bagels for breakfast. When we left I asked the nice lady at information if she knew which stations had lockers where I could put our bags. It was just turning 10:00 and I could already feel the heat rising and my body responding with a pool of back sweat where my backpack was hung. She assured me there were three subways nearby and any one of them will have lockers. Great, I told her and headed off while Jen shopped. About an hour later I called her, covered in sweat and my feet beginning to hurt. "Did you find a locker?" she asked. "No." "What happened?" "Out of order." "At which station?" "2 of the 3 she told me about." "What about the third station." "None." "What?" "None." "What do you want to do." "Gonna have to carry them." "Are you angry?" "Yeeeaaaahhh.......and hot." "Sorry." "Not your fault." "Bye." "Bye."

I'm pretty sure that is the actual conversation. I waited until Jen had finished shopping and then we headed for our next stop. Because we still had the bags I opted not to follow her to Myeongdong, an area built for shopping and there was absolutely no way I was pulling around a suitcase through the swarms. I decided to head to Chungmuro, an area known for cameras and printing shops to pick up a new UV filter, my old one cracked when I dropped my camera earlier in the week, and a hood. With these paid for we met again on the subway line and headed for Itaewon.

Itaewon is an area of Korea that you go to if you don't want to feel like you're in Korea. The U.S. army base is nearby and the entire area is jammed with people from America, Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia, basically everywhere in the world. It's definitely the most diverse part of Seoul and the number one place to eat when you want something other than Korean food. It's also home of What the Book, an English bookstore that will take a bunch of used books from your suitcase and give you the smallest amount of store credit for them because, well where else are you really going to take them? There are a few other smaller bookstores around but their selection isn't as good so What the Book is really you're only option.

Finally it was time to meet our good friends Jon and Christina for some homemade and much needed sangria. They'd offered their spare room to us for the night and we took a taxi, which was much easier to come by and made the 5 minute drive to Haebongcheong and their roof top. As it was the 5th of May we toasted to Cinco de Mayo or Children's Day here in Korea. Jon kept us entertained by his retelling of how he fell down the steps one night and broke two of his ribs and then topped off our sangrias again. We all agreed that it'd be best not to re-create the moment, although I was glad to find out that if I did break my ribs the hospital cost was extremely affordable.

Soon we were joined by Aki, a German teacher at a local university and headed for a roof top party hosted by a bunch of people that we didn't know. But that's the thing that I like about HBC. It has a very communal feel to it. There is always something going on and you're always welcome. Probably reason number 1 that it's almost impossible to save any money in the neighborhood.

The sangria was long gone and we were now mixing Makoli cocktails in the corner because the it's not really a party until a group of strangers show up with a blender, booze, fruit, ice, and some chili con carne. We spent our time mingling by the food and blending drinks for the guests. What a Cinco De Mayo. Drinking Korean rice wine mixed with blueberries, on a roof in Seoul eating chili con carne made by a German. The rest of the night was spent passed away infront of a convenience store drinking Dead Guy ale and talking to Roy, the friendly Filipino shopkeep.

The next morning Jen had to head back to Yeosu but I decided to stay because my school decided to take the Monday off. Fine with me, I said when they told me. I'd use the Monday to handle some more stuff at the U.S. Embassy. With Jen long gone and Jon and Christina feeling the effects of a successful Children's Day I decided to give them a breather, since they decided to let me stay a second nigh, and headed to meet my friend Seamus from Ireland.

"How yer balls? Listen what's te craic wich yez?" was the first thing I heard when I answered his call.

"I'm in Guro station. Where are you?"

"Wait, Guro or Guro Digital Complex?"

"Guro, near where you used to live."

"Aye, ye dickhead, te fook you on about, I told ye Guro Digital Complex."

"Sheeeiiiiit. Alright, I'll hop back on the subway. Be there in ten."

After that was sorted out we made our way to a jjimjilbang (sauna) to soak in the hot tubs and clear our heads (Sea had spent the day before sampling all sorts of alcohol at a wine convention doing research for his and his Korean fiancee's wedding wine.)

Sundays are the busiest days to go to the jjimjilbang, a place I used to feel weird about but now don't even think twice about stripping down naked and sitting in hot pools, cold pools, steam rooms, or saunas with a groupe of naked men. Actually not that I type that it sounds strange but I assure you now funny business goes and I love the places, one of the more relaxing things to do after a night of drinking. We spent about an hour going from pool to pool before putting on our jjimjilbang outfit, they give these to you when you enter, to head to the communal clothed area where there are more rooms desinged like giant ovens and meat lockers where you go back and forth in order to confuse your body.

When we'd finally had enough we left and went around the corner to the gamjatang restaurant to eat the spicy pork spine and potato soup. Tastes way better than the translation sounds. It's like a spicy potato stew with other vegetables and slow cooked pulled pork added in. Sea told me that his fiancee and our old co-workers were around the corner so we met up with them after our meal and reminisced about the time we worked at Wonderland pro bono.

It was a good weekend and it took it's toll in energy and the bank account but I'm glad we went up. It's so easy to make friends in Seoul and we made some good ones back in 2008 when we first came over. Some of them are still here, some are long gone. It's a place where one of your closest friends might pack up and move back to their home country any day so you have to take advantage to spend time with them when you can and that's exactly what we did...while trying not to fall down the stairs.


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