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Published: January 24th 2019
Today, we were heading to Korea. That would be South Korea because the guy in charge in North Korea is a bit of a plonker and doesn't make visitors very welcome. And we'd heard it was just the opposite in South Korea where everyone was going to be friendly, welcoming, happy, family-orientated and enjoy inter-acting with visitors. I was already imagining a flag-waving, singing, dancing reception along the lines of the Olympic event in that country. Bring it on!
I managed to keep my lighter through all the departure airport faff this time so things were already looking up. We had a Cathay Pacific 777 plane which was spacious, had wide seats and a British pilot, which I always find reassuring for some reason! It was only a three hour flight but the smiling cabin crew managed to squeeze in a bag of peanuts and a drink before serving a delicious chicken and rice meal. We were 20 minutes late leaving Hong Kong, at 2.20 pm, and it was dark when we landed in Korea, which is an hour ahead of HK.
Incheon Airport was just lovely. It had vertical gardens on the walls, a huge water feature in
the baggage reclaim area (yes, really, chill out while you wait), what I thought might be a modesty tinkly-music button in the toilet cubicle but was too afraid to press because I couldn't understand the writing and decided it might just be a panic button instead, and a really efficient Immigration process. What a lovely experience, especially when compared to all the fuss and palaver at Kathmandu and Tibet! It was easy to locate the office to buy our tickets (32,000 won, about £11 each) for the Limousine bus our research had told us to catch into the city. It was punctual, a porter was on hand to help with luggage, the seats were leather and reclinable and the two at the front of the almost empty bus were free so we had a lovely view all the way into Seoul. Some time into our journey, when we thought we were well on the way to the city and were admiring all the bright lights that lit the many stunning bridges, the bus pulled in to Terminal 2 of the airport - yes, it is so big the time it takes to get from one terminal to the other is
almost a sightseeing trip in itself!
We checked in to Room 511 at the New Kukje Hotel in Seoul city centre after a bus journey of about an hour. The guy who checked us in was efficient and polite but not at all smiley and he kept stressing that the room accoutrements did not include a razor; I thought he might be hinting that Steve could really do with a shave. A 24 hour 'supermarket', a CS25, was attached to the hotel so we bought something to eat and drink there, using a lift near our room that we never saw anyone else in, before retiring to bed just before midnight. The room was lovely and the heating had been left on in anticipation of our arrival which was good, because Korea was much colder than Nepal at about 6 degrees. Back in the jeans and winter woolies then. The best bit about the room was the Japanese style toilet with all the izzy-whizzy heaters, sprays, seat-warmers and the like but all the instructions were in Korean (fair do's, it's their language in their country) and I could make no sense of any of it.
The next day
we spent part of the morning deciding which trips to do while in Seoul and decided on a HOHO trip one day and a visit to the Demilitarized Zone on another. A later journey in Korea needed us to book train tickets so we asked the young lady in Reception to translate our dates/times/preferred trains into Korean so we could be reasonably sure what we wanted would be understood. We printed out our tickets for the HOHO and DMZ trips on the guest computer in reception. I mention this only because I never cease to be amazed at how many people don't log out of e-mail/Facebook/etc after using a public facility! I didn't peek at Jayne Anderson or John Jackson's recent activity before closing them down, but it was tempting!
We went for a walk around Seoul to get our bearings and a feel for the city. The hotel was very centrally located and I was amazed at the width of the roads - 5 lanes in both directions in some cases! It was like having a motorway running through the city but the central reservation was equally wide and featured statues and grassy areas for pedestrians, with a
stunning view of the mountains at the top. The American consulate was located on this street and a demonstration of some description was taking place. We were offered pamphlets on numerous occasions but the language was beyond us and they were wasted on us, though we managed to figure out it was an anti-Trump demonstration of some sort and the police presence around the consulate was obvious.
We visited the Gyoongbokgung (sp?) Palace at the end of the street. This had been initially built in 1395 by the Joseon Dynasty but was destroyed on several occasions by Japanese invasions and occupations before being rebuilt and eventually restored. We saw people of both sexes and of all ages dressed up in the very pretty and stylish local traditional costume and a young lady I chatted to explained I could hire a costume from a shop just down the road if I wanted to join them! We also visited the National Palace Museum of Korea which had lots of interesting artefacts and was impressive for its size and the machine they had at the entry to remove dust from the shoes of visitors. We got more local currency from the ATM
but there were too many zeros for me to ever get to grips with it - 15000 won was about one pound!
Our trip on the HOHO bus was excellent for showing us another dimension to the city, as it travelled into the outskirts for part of the tour. We saw the Palace (again!), Namdaemun market, Seoul train station, the Korean war memorial, Namsangol village, the Sejong Centre for Performing Arts, the Folk Museum of Korea and various other places (take all these spellings with a health warning!). The outskirts of the city were very popular with tourists with lots of restaurants. It was a city like any other in terms of traffic though and we noticed a marked predilection for sleek black cars, which were all super clean and shiny. The only other colours available were white, silver or shades in between and we found this reflected Korea in general where bright colours were not used for either cars or clothing. Fancy a red/green/blue car and you've had it. The most colourful item of clothing I saw was in a subdued shade of dusky pink. Most odd.
After the HOHO trip we called in to Seoul train
station and managed to buy our train tickets with no problem. Our counter-clerk understood English perfectly well and we were confident our later travels would be trouble free with the tickets she gave us. We had a lovely meal of cheesy pork cutlets and rice in the food hall at the station. They came with a brown, watery liquid in a separate bowl and we couldn't decide if this was gravy, tea or something to wash your fingers in. We eventually saw someone drink it down but, on trying that ourselves, decided it would be better used as a finger dip!
I spent some time in the hotel rooftop garden admiring the view from on high. The old and new buildings were juxtaposed and it looked beautiful, all lit up against the night sky. We had an early night that evening as we had to be up early the following morning. I chatted with a visitor from Vietnam in the smoking room (yes, every floor had its own smoking room!) but the language barrier severely restricted our communication. We managed better than I did with our chambermaid though. She kept chattering and smiling at me throughout our stay and
I never understood a word of it so I just chattered and smiled back at her! Goodness knows what she made of our 'conversations' but a smile needs no translation!
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