Sunday, March 06, 2011

Rainy Days and Mondays

Our time in Seoul was met with certain obstacles, starting with a very rainy Saturday. It was our only full-day in the city and we knew the weather forecast would dampen any outdoor activities, so we planned accordingly: City tour bus!A one-day pass only costs 10,000 Won--which is actually less than $9--leaves every 30 minutes and allows you to get on and off at the thirty-some stops, as you please. It also includes free entrance into a number of museums, and is--unsurprisingly, for Korea--fairly high-tech. Each seat is equipped with headphones that tell you about each stop, in any of three Asian and two Western languages. Well...I was impressed.One of J's friends, Soi, met us around 10 o'clock to go on the tour with us. It was great to meet her and have a Seoul native along for the ride. We decided to go to the National Museum of Korea since the rain was still coming down pretty hard outside. On the bus, I was hoping to get a glance at the city as we rumbled down the streets, but the windows fogged up so quickly that it was easier to just sit back and listen to the audio tour.The museum is a rather new complex, opened in 2007, and is an impressive structure. Peter met us there as well, and we all had lunch at the museum's Korean restaurant, Hancharin. I had a dish called Tteokbokki, which is rice cake sliced into a penne-shape and stir-fried. It is supposed to be a spicy snack food, but the dish I was served was neither spicy nor a small portion, and was garnished with shredded egg, mushrooms and beef slices. Soi, Peter and J all had bibimbap (see pic), a bowl of rice topped with veggies, chili pepper paste, meat and a raw egg, usually served in a piping hot stone pot.
After a quick tour of the first floor exhibits, Peter and Soi headed to their respective homes (Peter to go to church, and Soi having a family gathering that night) so we bid them farewell. We checked out the rest of the museum and then, since the rain was subsiding, jumped back on the city tour bus to see what else we could find.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Welcome to Seoul

After a bit of a delay at the airport in Shanghai over the viability of J's visa, we were finally able to check-in. Luckily we'd arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare, so we grabbed some lunch and then hopped on flight, arriving in Seoul around 7pm.
J had contacted her friend Peter, a classmate of hers in Chicago, and he met us at the airport. I hadn't seen him since the summer of 2009 myself, so it was great to catch up. Our first impression of Seoul was how clean and modern everything is, complete with Samsung and Hyundai products seen at every turn.
Although it was near 8pm, Peter said he'd be happy to take us to the N Seoul Tower where there is an observatory. We took the A'REX airport train to Seoul Station, then jumped in a (Kia) taxi to the top of Namsan, the southern mountain where the tower is located. The "N" in N Seoul Tower  stands for Namsan, apparently.
Peter told us that usually we would have to show our passports at the gate to the entrance road up to the tower, since only foreign visitors are allowed to take cars and taxis up. Koreans all take the bus or walk. It looked like a pretty steep climb to me, but Peter insisted that it was easy. Indeed, at the top of Namsan, there were gaggles of young people whom mostly looked to be on dates, dressed fashionably and enjoying the excellent evening weather.
Up on the observatory deck it soon became apparent as to why there were so many couples. The entire railing surrounding the deck is covered in pad-locks. Not just a few, but probably thousands. This is due to the tradition of couples putting a lock on the railing to symbolize the strength of their love, and some of the locks were indeed heart-shaped, or even had little love notes written on them. We hadn't come prepared with a lock, but Peter was nice enough to take our picture to commemorate the occasion. Then we went to a cafe inside the tower and all had some hot chocolate!
Around midnight, we hopped on the last cable car heading back down to level land. It put us near the center of town, and from there we grabbed a taxi to our guesthouse.
The guesthouse is a simple affair for budget travelers who still want a bit of comfort. It has clean sheets, fast internet, a massive, flat-screen LG television, and other amenities in the room, with access to a communal kitchen on the first floor where we could get coffee and toast with jam for breakfast the next day.
It all sounded great and the bed looked extremely comfy at that point, so we said goodbye to Peter and drifted into dreams.

Shanghai Expo

We had the morning free in Shanghai before we had to head to the airport, so we took the subway over to the 2010 World Expo site where the Chinese Pavilion is still open to the public. According to Xinhua (the Chinese news agency), there were so many visitors to the Chinese Pavilion during the actual expo (which ended in October last year) that they announced it would be reopened for six months in 2011. This likely gave more foreigners a chance to view the pavilion, whereas locals could wait until later to check it out.
We did our best to arrive early, and made it there about quarter to 9, just before it opened. There were already people heading toward the site in droves, but no massive lines. We did a speed-walk, bought tickets and joined the crowd inside. Although it was crowded, the staff did a great job in directing people where to go. And probably more than anything, the way the pavilion was designed and set up made it bearable for large crowds, and still be able to see everything. In fact, I believe Xinhua had noted the pavilion had a capacity of 4,000 people per hour, which is pretty amazing by any measure, but after going through the pavilion, I believe it.
I wouldn't say the actual exhibition was anything "museum worthy", but it was a show of what China is all about, from architecture, to history (there was a National Treasure on display, although it took 10 minutes of waiting in line and about 4 seconds to shuffle past it in a darkened room), to art, to the environment and the future. The architecture "tour" was done on a mini roller-coaster. People were diverted into multiple lines and the cars left every minute or so, meaning there was hardly a wait at all. The cars rolled past scenes in colored lights, showing ancient and modern bridges, old matrix-based joints for wooden structures such as temples, and newer architecture in the cities.
After about an hour, the pavilion tour was over. The exhibit was impressive in many ways, and it did make me wish I'd seen the pavilions of other nations as well had I visited last year. However, it was a good experience and will prepare me for what is to come should I have a chance to check out the next World Expo in, say, 2012 in Yeosu, South Korea, or in 2015 in Milan, Italy.