Saturday, June 26, 2010

Seoul City Tour

Yesterday (June 26th) we spent our first full day in Seoul. Other than our city tour, we didn't have anything else planned for the day. Always trying to be as prepared as possible, I plugged in our camera battery into the outlet to make sure we had a full charge for day and went through the camera bag to make sure we had everything we needed. I didn't want to miss capturing any of the day's moments.

After having breakfast and finishing our preparations, we went down to the lobby of the hotel to meet our tour guide. As we stood there waiting, we noticed a family and their child waiting in the same area. They kept glancing at us, then came over to talk. They asked us if we were from Norway. We said "no", and they walked away. After a few more minutes, we decided to go talk to them to find out why they asked us if we were from Norway. It turns out that they were also doing the city tour and for some reason thought that the other couple doing the tour (that's us) were from Norway. The couple was from Luxembourg. They adopted their 1st son from Korea when he was 4 months old (he is now 5) and were adopting their 2nd son on Monday. Because there were two families, we had two tour guides.

Instead of taking the subway to our first destination, we decided to take a taxi to make it easier. We originally planned to take two taxis, but were fortunate when we found a taxi van that was just big enough for all eight of us. As we drove through the city, we saw two statues with a beautiful backdrop of the mountains in the distance. I pulled out my camera to take a few pictures. I turned on the camera, but nothing happened. As I flipped the on/off switch trying to figure out what was wrong, it dawned on me that I left the camera battery back at the hotel room. I had a sinking feeling that I wasn't going to be able to capture any photos of our tour. Lesson number 1...always double check that you have everything you need before leaving the hotel. Then I remembered that our video camera can also take snapshots just like a digital camera. I pulled out the video camera and started playing around with it trying to figure out how to take pictures with it. Lesson number 2...understand your equipment before going on vacation. Thankfully the video camera is very easy to use, so I was able to capture a couple of pictures very quickly.

Our first destination was Gyeongbokgong Palace and the National Folk Museum of Korea, located in the same area. As we walked onto the palace grounds, we were in awe at the beauty of the setting. The buildings and grounds were framed with a backdrop of rocky mountains covered in lush vegetation. It was everything we had hoped it would be and more. First we toured a couple of the exhibits at the National Folk Museum. We split apart from the other family and went inside with Miae, our personal tour guide for the day. We walked through the "Korean Way of Life" and "Life Cycle of Koreans". Both exhibits had excellent information and displays. We were able to gain a small piece of understanding of the Korean history and way of life. Miae did a great job adding additional information while we also began to get to know each other.

After visiting the museum, we exited onto the palace grounds. We spent the next hour walking through the grounds, enjoying the beautiful surroundings. We learned that the palace buildings are not the originals. After the reign of the last Queen, many of the buildings were destroyed or moved during the Japanese occupation. The location of the palace, it's buildings, and gates all have a significance to the Koreans. The original layout was aligned in a north/south orientation and built in it's location based on the convergence of air and water. There is a Korean word for this convergence, but I can't remember the term. When the Japanese occupation ended, Korea moved or rebuilt the palace buildings in their original (current) location.

After the tour of the palace grounds, we walked to Insadong. This neighborhood is known for it's shops and restaurants. It is what many consider a traditional Korean market.

As we slowly walked along the main street, we tried to soak in all the sights, smells, and sounds of our surroundings. It was wonderful and like nothing we had ever experienced. The crowds were small as we walked through shops and viewed the items sold by the street vendors. Miae took us down a side street with several restaurants so that we could figure out a good place to have lunch. Since we had already had Korean food many times in the United States, we wanted to get the full experience in Korea to see how it compares. She took us to a restaurant that is enjoyed by the locals. The inside was decorated almost exclusively in wood. It seemed very old and rustic...the perfect place to have lunch. Miae recommended a specific meal that consisted of at least 2 dozen different small dishes that are brought to the table and shared by everybody. I can't accurately describe everything we had, so here are a few pictures that show what we had.

The food was delicious. Miae seemed amazed that we tried everything and enjoyed it so much. Having a basic familiarity with Korean food made the meal very special. I know we'll always compare all Korean food to this one experience.

After lunch, we headed back to the main street in Insadong to do a little shopping. We had found a small shop that made name chops. A name chop is basically a rectangular block of material that is decorated and has a stamp on one end with somebody's name etched in it. We found one that had a basic scene of Korean hills on the side and had them etch Zachary's Korean name as the stamp. While walking around the shopping area, Laura noticed a woman that she thought looked familiar to her. We have a running joke that whenever we travel, Laura always sees somebody she knows. From a small town on the coast of Maine to a large city, it seems like once a trip she will see somebody she recognizes. Sure enough, it happened again. The woman she saw was an adoptive mother that she met online who was travelling to Korea to adopt her second child. In a city of millions, Laura happened to see somebody she knew. It was a little bizarre, but not totally unexpected.

We continued to walk through Insadong, picking up a few small souveniers including a silk painting of a Korean countryside and a Pororo DVD for Zachary. Pororo is a very popular cartoon in Korea. Pororo is a penguin and lives in a village with his animal friends including a polar bear, beaver, and dinosaur. We found an English version that he'll be able to enjoy as he grows.

We left Insadong and made our way to Cheonggyecheon Stream. It's a man made stream in the heart of the city that gives you the feeling that your not in the city even though you're surrounding by large buildings. It's a wonderful mix of rural and urban in a small area. It's a very popular destinations for Koreans to relax and enjoy the peaceful sounds of the water.

After relaxing beside the stream, we walked back towards the two statues on the main street at the beginning of the tour. The area is called Gwanghwamun Square. The statues are of Admiral Yi Sun Shin and King Sejong the Great (King of the Choseon dynasty). We said our good-byes to Miae, exchanged information so that we can keep in contact with her, and grabbed a taxi back to the hotel. When we arrived back in the room, we realized that we forgot to give her the gift that we brought from Maryland. Laura contacted her through facebook and we're planning on seeing her again so that we can give her the gift. Maybe we'll even be able to introduce her and Zachary.

It has only been one day, but I can say that we both love Seoul. It's an amazing city with a juxtoposition of the old and the new. We feel at home here. We can't wait to see what the next day will bring.


Paula Sloan said...

Oh, I so want to be there RIGHT NOW! Glad you worked it out to take a few pictures from your video camera. Sounds like your tour went great; now it is time to get that boy! I want to see Mama holding Zachary! Enjoy the rest of your trip!

Christine said...

I feel like I'm right there with you. So beautiful and lush! I've seen something similar to the stream in some travel documentary, but not in S. Korea. The mommy in me says to remind you to get plenty of rest, too, because your first days with Zachary may not provide for that. TTFN

Mel said...

Your stories and pictures made me cry. I miss Korea so much and only spent that one week there picking up Ty. We toured Seoul with two other couples from Norway too. Can't wait to hear about your meeting with Zachary.