After arriving in Ulan Bator, successfully completing my Mongol Rally, one of the first things which I had to do was to figure out when and how was I going to get the heck out Mongolia!
Initially, the ‘best’ flight selected for me had a 6 hour stop over in Seoul. At first, I thought it was a great idea as 6 hours would give me enough time to head into the city for lunch for example, then head back. However, upon checking the times, I saw that I was arriving in Seoul at around 3:55am and departing to London at 10:00am; not really the best time of day…
Researching a few more flights, I noticed that Turkish Airlines flew from Seoul to London at 11:50pm. Even though I split my flights between two different airlines, the cost penalty was only 45 Pounds over booking the Korean Air-only option. By doing this, I could effectively have a whole day to spend exploring Seoul.
To be honest, going to Seoul, or even Korean wasn’t on my radar of countries to visit in the near future. Sure, I’ve had in the back of my mind that I wanted to visit the DMZ some day (just for the hell of it), my research into Korean tourism was basically a Visit Korea advertisement on CNN back in 2001 when Incheon Airport first opened (such an old ad that I can’t find it). Anyway, it featured this Caucasian kid smiling with his dad pointing as this floating ball of flowers rose up in the airport terminal and everyone turning around looking astonished, followed up by a cute Korean girl saying “Korea!”… Not exactly the most compelling ad…
However, when an opportunity presents itself to visit a country, I’ll take it. The last time I tried anything like this was my one day stop over in Hong Kong from 5am to 11pm which I absolutely loved, so I booked my flights and decided to make the most of my trip back to the UK. The day for my adventure in Seoul would be Monday 8th September (this will be important to note later…)
2030hrs (GMT+8) Taxi to Chinggis Khan Airport
With my Korean Air flight departing Ulan Bator at 2355hrs, I caught my taxi from The Office Hotel, Ulan Bator, arriving at Chinggis Khan International Airport at 2055hrs on the dot. There I checked in my bags to Incheon, passed through security then tried my best to get some sleep at the departure gate. Afterall, with Seoul in the GMT+9 timezone, it was already 2230hrs by the time I passed through security.
2355 (GMT+8) Chinggis Khan Airport
My 3hr Korean Air flight departs on time (yay!). I manage to sleep before taking off, only waking half an hour before landing as the air hostesses hand out the arrival landing cards.
0355 (GMT+9) Incheon Airport
Speaking of landing cards, after landing on time, I noticed that this card asked the No. of countries visited on this trip prior to entry to Korea. I wrote down 22 (okay, I miscounted… it was actually 21), to see if the immigration officer would notice.
In the end, I think it must’ve been my charming smile because she didn’t even bat an eyelid (come to think of it… if she didn’t bat an eyelid it mustn’t have been that charming :P)… Or maybe she was still half asleep. Either way, I was stamped in without question!
The first thing I noticed when arriving in Seoul was the humidity. Now, having lived in Cairns for a good deal of time, I’m no stranger to humidity, but after weeks on end in the high and dry mountains of Central Asia and Mongolia, it really came as quite a shock, especially as the airport did not seem to have air conditioning!
0449 (GMT+9) Still at the airport
By this time, I managed to pick up my checked luggage and put it into storage. The first luggage storage office I went to on the Departures level was full, so I had to walk all the way down the other end… Luckily there was room!
After that, I proceeded downstairs to the information counter to figure out the best way to get to the city.
The best website I found to help explain the ticketing system is from the Visit Korea website. Basically, there are 3 options:
- T Money card: basically used by locals, credit is loaded on from convenience stores.
- M Pass: 20 rides a day on the subway or buses, for however many days you purchase it for
- Seoul City Pass: Same function as a T Money card but you get tourist discounts at various places.
The counter selling the M-Pass at the airport only opened at 0730, so my only option was really the Seoul City Pass. Therefore, across from the tourist information desk was a convenience store which sold the cards and allowed me to charge it up. Note, any credit purchased for the transport card must be paid for in cash. Luckily there were several Foreign Exchange Bureaus in the terminal, all of which were open.
Supposedly, the subway is the easiest subway of any capital city in the world to navigate through, especially after the 2002 Football World Cup where a conscious effort was put in to make it easier for English speaking people to use it.
0517 (GMT+9) On the Airport Railway Express Train
The two main train services to the airport are the Airport Railway Express Train (AREX) or the All Stop Train (basically the subway, from what can see). The AREX gets you to Seoul Station in 43 minutes, whilst the All Stop Train takes 10 minutes longer. In the end, I just took the AREX train for the experience. Note: You can pay for the All Stop Train using your T-Money/Seoul City Pass, but the AREX required a separate ticket.
The AREX services run every 25-40minutes, starting at 0520hrs. I managed to get the first service that day.
0615 (GMT+9) Arrival at Seoul Station
After arriving at Seoul Station, I walked out to the subway station (entrance is via the escalators after exiting the main train station) to take the No.1 Subway line to Daebang Station to walk to the Yeouido business district for breakfast. According to a travel article written on Seoul by CNN, it’s a really cool place to get breakfast. Following from this, I was planning on checking out the Fish Markets which are nearby, as well as the Gangnam District.
0640 (GMT+9) Hitting the streets at Yeouido Business District
One thing that struck me whilst travelling on the subway and walking through the city was how quiet it was. I mean, when travelling on public transport in Melbourne, Sydney, London, New York, San Francisco at around 0630 and it was noticeably busy. I mean, not the busiest by all means, but there were a lot of people around. Whilst travelling around the subway and walking the streets so far, there was hardly a soul (I’m going to try and refrain from using this word from now on… ) in Seoul, let alone anyone who looked like they were going to work.
Now, when doing a little of research, I noticed a few things don’t run on Monday, for example, the public train that runs to the nearest train station to the DMZ and some museums/fortresses. Great I was thinking, Monday must be some Korean equivalent to a weekend, so nothing in the Business district would be open!
After walking all the way down to the park at Yeouinaru Station, I notice a few signs, with the words Chuseok, a lot of Korean, and then pictures of the moon. Then I remembered the previous night, how big the moon was in Mongolia. No way… You have got to be absolutely kidding me! So, for those of you with some familiarity with cultures that use the lunar calendar, September is a pretty significant month, as the Harvest Moon Festival, aka Moon Cake Festival aka Mid-Autumn Festival, aka Chuseok (in Korea) typically falls in September. This day, in such countries is usually a public holiday and this year, the date for this festival was September 8, a Monday: the very Monday I was visiting!
0840 (GMT+9) Gwanghwamun Square
After this massive realisation that I’m in Seoul on a public holiday and the Yeouido and Gangnam Business Districts would pretty much shut (and wrongly assuming that the fish markets wouldn’t be operating either – I realised this after leaving Seoul.. ah well, next time as they say), I decided to hit the centre of the city and check out the many Palaces, which are known to be open on public holidays.
Arriving at Gwanghwamun Station, I walked up to the street level to check out the two main statues, that of King Sejong the Great, the fourth and most respected king of the Joseon Dynasty and creator of Hangeul, Korea’s alphabet; and a statue of Admiral Yi Sunshin, a naval commander noted for his victories against the Japanese navy during the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592-1598) (Visit Seoul)
Now, some of you may recall the Sewol Ferry Incident in Korea on April 16 2014 where the MV Sewol capsized with the loss of 306 lives. The incident drew widespread criticism of the Korean Government and their response in dealing with the incident and the aftermath. One ongoing method of protest is a hunger strike in the square, as seen in the photos below.
Also in view is Gyeongbokgung Palace, the main palace of the Joseon Dynasty and the largest of the 5 Palaces in Seoul. One of the benefits of being in Seoul during Chuseok is that the Palaces and museums are open free! Naturally, this Palace was the next stop on my day trip.
0900 (GMT+9) Gyeongbokgung Palace
The Gyeongbokgung Palace was built as the primary palace of the Chosun Kingdom by its founder, King Taejo in 1395 (Life in Korea). It is also the largest of the 5 palaces in Seoul and the top of my list to visit. Luckily, as mentioned before, the Palace is one of the few things open during Korean public holidays and during Chuseok, entry was free.
The Palace is huge. Walking through the side gate, I waited until 0900 when they started admitting people. Walking through, you’re greeted by another massive building, which was basically the King’s ceremonial throne, where he would observe public gatherings. You can also walk amongst the preparation rooms, the offices of the King and his staff, the Queen’s quarters, the many gardens, pavilions and ponds.
Towards the back of the Palace is another gate, from which the Blue House, or the Presidential Building can be seen from.
More information on the Palace (far more than I can remember) can be found here.
1126 (GMT+9) National Folk Museum
Right next door to the Gyeongbokgung Palace is the National Folk Museum. Again, because it was Chuseok, entry was free and inside the grounds were many cultural stores celebrating Korean music, artwork, sports, food and drink and even fashion. They even allowed people to get dressed in ‘traditional clothing…’ something which I couldn’t pass up on 😛
Whilst I did not actually enter the museum (it covered things like growing up in Korea through the history etc.) I did manage to stay around to listen to many groups compete in the National Folk Music competition, including a really enthusiastic drum group.
1205 (GMT+9) Bukchon Hanok Village
The Bukchon Hanok Village is an open air, live museum of old, traditional Korean houses (hanoks) still in use today. Only a couple of hundred metres east of the National Folk Museum, the self-guided (or guided if you wish) tour of the Bukchon Hanok Village starts at the Visitors Centre located here (the address is supposedly 105 Gye-dong, Jongro-gu but if you can understand the Korean street naming convention, shoot me an email.. :P). You can also pick up the maps for the self guided tour here. Basically, you can get nice photos from 8 positions nominated by the tourism committee. These are shown here.
Personally, I got more value from reading about the village and hanoks on the website of the village. Walking around was cool, but there was a heap of people crowding the lanes and many signs about asking people to respect the fact that people do live in these houses and to keep noise to a minimum. Unfortunately, not many people seem to observe this.
The main streets around the village are also filled with various cafes and restaurants in case you’re getting peckish.
1333 (GMT+9) Changdeokgung Palace
The Changdeokgung Palace, or Palace of Prospering Virtue is located a couple of hundred metres further East of the Bukchon Hanok Village.
Supposedly, entry to the Palace is only through the purchase of a guided tour. However, again, because of the public holiday, entry to the Palace grounds was free, with guided tours required only for the Hidden Gardens section. If you look up the Palace on Google Maps, the satellite view shows how big the Gardens of the Palace are – you probably wouldn’t want to wander around with a guide!
Again, just like Gyeongbokgung Palace, the grounds feature many rooms and buildings necessary for the smooth functioning of the Royal Family and Government.
1410 (GMT+9) Lunch in Insa-dong
By this stage, I was getting quite hungry, so I decided to head south to the area called Insa-Dong. If I was looking for life in Seoul on the Chuseok public holiday, I found it here. Finally, people were on the streets (okay, maybe an exaggeration…). Anyway, choosing a place to eat was the hardest part of my afternoon. Every restaurant I walked past had plenty of pictures of their dishes and it only made me hungrier.
In the end, I settled for one with the smallest line, sat myself down and ordered two lunch dishes. Now, if you haven’t had Korean before, be warned that you will be served a range of ‘sides’ with whatever you order. Therefore, with two dishes, I would get two lots of sides. Sides include things like kim-chi, beansprouts, spinach, shirmp, etc. Anyway, the waiter though I didn’t know this and was trying to explain that I should only order a single lunch dish (I had to try bibimbap here, or a sort of fried-rice equivalent in a hot stone bowl with a egg cracked on top which you stir through). I kept trying to explain to him that I know that I’ll receive a heap of side dishes, but I’m pretty damn hungry so I want two dishes dammit!
Anyway, he ended up obliging, and so I ended up getting both bibimbap as well as seafood tofu hotpot with rice, and a double serving of side dishes… Let’s just say I was more than happy to empty all the plates…
Once fully fuelled, I continued to walk around the Insa-dong area to help with digestion…
1646 (GMT+9) Mt Dobongsan
Located north of the city of Seoul is Bukhansan National Park, a very popular hiking and recreational area. Mt Dobongsan is one the many granite mountains in the park and one of the most popular hiking trails, with it not uncommon to see a stead stream of people walking up and day in the morning and afternoons.
The easiest way to get to Dobongsan is to take the subway to, you guessed it, Dobongsan Station on the No.7 line. The trains running on the day I tried to get there stopped two station before and I had to change platforms for the next train onwards, so pay attention to the stops as it is announced (the PA on the trains isn’t the loudest…)
I ended up arriving at the station at 1646, a bit later than I was hoping, so I realistically wasn’t expecting to make it to the top of Mt Dobongson. Instead, I hoped to get a taste of the hiking culture in Seoul. Now, big tip here is that when you get off the train and cross the road (following the signs to Mt Dobongson), just follow the crowd of people through the market-type food shops as you slowly walk up the hill.
I say it’s a big tip because I didn’t do that and instead, went off some maps that I downloaded… This put me on some side path which hooked up to the main path a couple of kilometres in. I did see a pretty cool but abandoned pillbox however…
If I ever do come back to Seoul (I probably will try and visit the DMZ one day), I’ll definitely put aside a day or two to walk around the National Park and up a few of the granite mountains. Just bear in mind my notes on humidity if you’re not used or accustomed to it and bring some insect repellent with you if you decide to visit the area.
After a refreshing drink at Tom and Tom’s Cafe (bit of a Starbucks rip off…) on the way back to the train station,
1907 (GMT+9) Namdaemun market
Catching the train back to the city, I decided to drop into the Namdaemun market, billed as a sprawling market open til late. Unfortunately again, the fact that it was a public holiday probably meant that half of the traders decided to not open. I must say however, than the size of the market cannot be disputed and on a full-trading day, I have no doubt that people could spend hours walking down the various alleyways and roads.
I did manage to grab a quick dinner snack here though!
1949 (GMT+9) War Memorial of Korea
My final stop in my day trip to Seoul was to the War Memorial of Korea. Almost everyone knows about the Korean War during the 1950’s and still today, the two Korea’s are technically at war.
The War Memorial of Korea has a large outdoor exhibition, containing various statues and military equipment, including a B-52 along with several other propeller and jet aircraft, tanks, missiles, and armoured vehicles used by both Western and Eastern Bloc countries,
The outdoor exhibition also features the Statue of Brothers which depicts a scene where a family’s older brother, an ROK officer, and his younger brother, a North Korean soldier, meet in a battlefield and express reconciliation, love, and forgiveness (as written on the plaque).
All in all, it was a nice quick 15 minute stop to make on the way to the airport and I have no doubt that the indoor exhibition would be top quality. However, as I had a flight to catch at 2350, I walked back to the train station to catch the All-Stop train back to Incheon, using whatever credit I had left on my Seoul City Pass.
2120 (GMT+9) Back at Incheon Airport
Arriving back at Incheon Airport, it was straight up to the departure terminal to collect my bag, repack and check in for my Turkish Airlines flight from Seoul to London Gatwick via Istanbul. Whilst Korean Air had allowed me 23kg for my check in bag, Turkish Airlines only allowed 20kg, so I had to repack my carry on bag and my carry on jacket (which probably weighed 5kg) to meet this limit.
Thankfully, my check in bag weight in at 19.9kg and they didn’t weight my carry on luggage, so I was good to go!
One annoying thing is that whilst Incheon Airport is a 24hr airport, the shops and cafes in the main terminal closed at 2200 and the terminal maps did not show any shops or cafes in the satellite terminal, even though they do exist and they run according to the flight schedule there…
Either way, by 2230, I was in the satellite terminal, waiting at my gate to board, tired, but pumped full of caffeine to start to adjust back to the GMT+0 timezone which I would be landed in 17 hours.
2350 (GMT+9) Flying out and wrapping up
With the plane departing on time at 2350, this concludes my ’24’ adventure in Seoul, Korea. As I said before, Seoul wasn’t really at the top of my list of places to go to, but as an opportunity presented itself to squeeze in a quick trip, I thought why the hell not…
In the end, it was a tiring day, with plenty of walking and plenty of sightseeing. It gave me a really nice snapshot of Korea and Korean culture, especially since I just happened to visit during Chuseok, which had both it’s pluses and minuses (I’ll take free entry any day!).
All in all, I do hope to return to Korea soon, to suss out the DMZ as well as to explore the Dobongsan National Park a bit more, perhaps to coincide with a trip to Japan as well?
Either way, if you have a chance to have a long stop over in Seoul, it’s probably an ideal city for such a day, as the transport system works and seems reliable, it’s safe, lots of people speak English and you can do a lot in a single area without wasting a lot of time on the subway.