Lost in Translation III: Seoul 서울

Lost in Translation – Korea/Japan 23-27 Dec 2011

Part I: Prologue
Part II: OZ 752
Part III: Seoul 서울
Part IV: NH 1166
Part V: Tokyo 東京
Part VI: SQ 637
Part VII: Epilogue

I last visited Seoul in 1998, more than a decade ago before all the hype about Kpop or Kdrama.

It was really cheap to visit South Korea then after the 1997 Asian economic crisis and I remembered a nice family holiday with skiing in the mountains.

Fast forward to 2011 and I was eager to return and see if I could recognize anything familiar.

Originally I was thinking of getting on the tour to the Joint Security Area (JSA) but the timings weren’t compatible.

USO’s 7.30am tour was way too early for me; the one ran by Tourdmz left at a more manageable time of 11.30am but they couldn’t guarantee that I could make it in time for my flight (due to expected heavy traffic on Christmas Eve).

In the end I decided to give the tour a miss and JSA would probably need to wait till my 3rd visit to Korea.

A few days before my trip I asked a friend who happened to be in Seoul for some tips on where to go for a day. He gave me pretty great advice and even included a link to Google Maps with placemarkers for his recommended places.

Although I was out of the plane pretty fast, somehow I picked the slowest line at the immigration control. A Thai Airways flight (TG656 or TG658?) landed at around the same time and ahead of me was a Thai lady who took way too long to be cleared. Fortunately I was motioned to the empty lanes for Korean nationals and the officer didn’t even mind the empty address column on my arrival card.

Arriving in Concourse D

After a quick visit to the moneychanger (854 KRW to 1 SGD), I stepped out of the terminal to determine the amount of clothing that I should wear. Negative four degrees Celsius was no joke and I went to the washroom to pad up my gear.

I decided to test whether what I was wearing were sufficient and trekked through the snow to the Airport Railway Station.

Snowy

Incheon International Airport Station

Down to the gantry

The ultra-modern station was rather deserted until trains from Seoul Station arrived. I borrowed from my brother a T-money, Korea’s equivalent to Hong Kong’s Octupus or London’s Oyster Card and loaded up with 5,000 KRW for the trip on KORAIL Airport Railroad to Gimpo Airport.

I used the commuter train which was slower but much cheaper (3,300 KRW) between ICN and GMP. I was pretty lucky as the train departed shortly after I boarded.

Inside the train

Wow cushioned seats

The tracks were elevated after ICN but the windows didn’t make good pictures. It was pretty obvious that it had snowed the day before and much of the landscape was still white.

Winter

Thirty minutes after leaving Incheon station, I alighted at Gimpo Airport station.

Since I would be departing from GMP in the evening, I decided to leave my luggage in one of the lockers (which would cause me some problems later).

Locker

From there, I would change to Subway Line 5 for Gwanghwamun station.

Line 5

It was quite a long ride and I took the time to observe Seoul’s commuters. Like their Singaporean counterparts, many of the commuters in Seoul are fixed to their smartphones during their trips. Not surprisingly Samsung seems to be the predominant brand but there are quite a few iPhones seen too.

The area around Gwanghwamun station would be where I spent most of my time in Seoul. There were several exits and I spent some time figuring out where to go.

Ad for Jobs

Needed the loo and went to the one inside Kyobo Book Centre.

Shopping for books

Like everywhere else in the world, Murakami‘s 1Q84 is among the bestsellers in the English books section.

Finally gathered the courage to brave the bitter cold outside. It was -4 degrees Celcius when I landed in the morning and I doubted it rose above zero at all.

White Christmas Eve

I exited out to the statue of King Sejong, the creator of Hangul.

Nobody helped to clear the snow on his shoulders and lap

Getting a tan

Also in the plaza is the statue of Admiral Yi Sun-sin, a famous 16th century naval commander.

Admiral Yi Sun-sin

The area was kinda surreal with modern skyscrapers serving as backdrops for traditional buildings.

Juxtaposition

The US embassy was also in the area and there were heavy police presence around it. I wasn’t sure whether it was business as usual or due to Kim Jong-il’s recent death but I knew better than aiming my camera at the compound.

Beyond King Sejong’s statue lies Gwanghwamun, first built in 1395 and this latest incarnation was reopened on 15 August 2010.

Gwanghwamun

What used to located behind the gate was the Japanese General Government Building, built during the Japanese colonial period. It was demolished in the mid 1990s as it was regarded as a symbol of Japanese imperialism.

Do two wrongs make a right? I wasn’t so sure. It was true that much of Gyeongbokgung’s original buildings made way for the Japanese General Government Building in the 1920s but that wouldn’t justify destroying a building which had a significant place in Korean history. I thought it would make a good place to learn about the Japanese colonial period and sadly it was gone forever.

To be fair, Gwanghwamun was quite nicely restored. While I was there, the Royal Guard Changing Ceremony was taking place.

Changing of Royal Guards

Beating the drum

There were commentary in several languages (English, Korean and I think Japanese and/or Mandarin) although nothing registered with me. I was pretty content looking at the guards dressing in splendid traditional Korean garb.

After the ceremony ended I went to buy the 3,000 KRW (~S$4) entrance ticket for Gyeongbokgung, the main and biggest royal palace of the Five Grand Palaces in Seoul.

Heungnyemun

Geunjeongjeon

Inside Geunjeongjeon

Sajeongjeon

Chimney?

Finally managed to get a shot without any tourists

I couldn’t last long in the blustery winds and needed somewhere warm to hide. The perfect place to do so was the National Folk Museum.

National Folk Museum of Korea

Sign

Entry to the museum is free and there are three permanent galleries inside: History of the Korean People, Korean Way of Life and Life Cycle of the Koreans.

Figurines

Hanbok

Dolls

Undivided Korea

Shaman

Casket

The museum is a nice place to spend a couple of hours (especially if it’s really cold outside). I learn quite a bit about Korean culture from the interesting exhibits there.

After visiting the museum I walked through Gyeongbokgung to return to Gwanghwamun metro station. The locality map inside the station revealed that one end of Cheonggyecheon was in the vicinity and I decided to take a look.

Santa Village

Cheonggyecheon

Horses for hire

It was by then meal time and I popped into a McDonald’s (Don’t slam me please).

Bulgogi Burger Meal: 4600 KRW

My friend had recommended me to take a walk in Namdaemun market and I had to change trains twice to reach Hoehyeon, the nearest station. The Christmas Eve crowd was everywhere and all of Seoul seemed to be on the trains. Transferring between lines at interchanges reminded me of Paris metro, with long walks through labyrinth of walkways.

Entrance to Namdaemun market

Although I didn’t buy anything there, I quite liked the vibe in the market.

Crowded with festive shoppers

Among the stalls were those selling food. They seemed delicious but too bad I was still full from my meal earlier.

BBQ

However in the end I succumbed to the temptation of fried fishcake.

Fishcake seller

Korean rice cake wrapped with fish cake - yummy

Before I left for the airport, I came across this cute sight.

Twins

There were several ways to get back to GMP from Hoehyeon and I chose to transfer to the KORAIL Airport Railroad at Seoul Station.

The metro station was quite a distance from the station for airport railroad (like the other interchanges) and I spotted someone familiar along the way.

Kim Tae Hee (of Stairway to Heaven's fame)

Entrance to Airport Railroad Seoul Station

I was quite tired and managed to doze off on the train. I was woken up by a quarrel between a man and a couple of mom and daughter a couple of stations away from my destination. Wasn’t sure what exactly it was about; my guess was that the daughter accidentally kicked the man’s shin and he was making a huge fuss, rolling up his trousers and such.

Too bad I didn’t know enough Korean to make sense of the situation.

Arriving at Gimpo Airport station, I went to collect my luggage stored in the locker.

Remember this locker?

I encapsulated the long story of collecting my luggage in my compliment e-mail to KORAIL Airport Railroad:

Hi I am writing in to compliment two wonderful staff who assisted me at Gimpo Airport AREX Station.

On 24th Dec 2011, I arrived into Incheon early in the morning and had a connecting flight departing from Gimpo in the evening. Thus I decided to make use of the lockers outside the AREX station at Gimpo Airport to store my luggage while I toured Seoul.

I returned to Gimpo at around 5pm and proceeded to retrieve my luggage from the locker. There was an extra fee of 2,500 won for the additional time utilized and the machine only accepts either 1,000 won notes or T-money. Since I didn’t have enough 1,000 won notes, I went to the AREX station office where the officer on duty Ms Kim helped to top up my T-money.

After topping up I went back to the lockers and tried to make payment. Unfortunately an error message was displayed on the computer screen and my locker remained locked. I repeated the process again and this time the screen displayed insufficient fund.

Feeling helpless, I decided to approach Ms Kim at the station office again. After telling her what happened, she told me that she understood my situation but the lockers were not operated by AREX. However, she offered to contact the operator for me, knowing that I couldn’t speak Korean.

She passed a piece of paper and a pen to me so that I could get the phone number pasted on the lockers. When I returned, Ms Kim was busy with another incident at the station and directed me to a second Ms Kim, the other officer-on-duty.

The second Ms Kim attempted to call the operator but no one picked up the phone. She was really concerned that I would not be able to get my luggage in time and pro-actively accompanied me to the lockers again. She advised that I could try to make payment again using cash and even tried to break my 10,000 won note into 1,000 ones at the convenience shop without success.

After failing to get the 1000 won notes, we returned back to the station office and attempted to contact the operator again. The first Ms Kim had finished with the other incident and managed to call through to the operator. She explained to the person-in-charge my circumstances and eventually the operator unlocked the locker for me without any additional cost.

Although the incident was quite stressful for me, I am really grateful that both Miss Kims had been very helpful and were genuinely concerned throughout. Although my problem was not exactly part of their jobs, both of them were willing to go the extra mile to assist me. I believe that AREX plays a big part in instilling to its staff the importance of providing excellent service for the customers. Their dedication left me with a very good impression of AREX as well as Korea as a country.

I hope that AREX can recognize the hard work that the staff at Gimpo station had put in so that they remain motivated to provide excellent service to the customers.

Please pass on this e-mail to the two excellent officers so that they are aware of my gratitude. It will be great if I can know their full names as well.

Thank you very much.

Two days after sending the e-mail, I received a reply:

Firstly thank you for using the Airport Railroad, and we appreciate your compliment in spite of your busy life.

We are very delighted to hear that you are pleased to have obtained assistance from our two staffs. We have checked that their names are Hye-Jeong Kim and Ji-mi Kim. They are known for warmhearted and faithful staffs at Gimpo Airport Station. After receiving your compliment message, we passed your sincere thanks to them as your request.

We hope you enjoyed your trip and you could soon visit Korea again.

In conclusion, we promise to do our best for our customers using the Airport Railroad.

Happy New Year.

Sincerely,
KORAIL Airport Railroad Customer Service Center

Thank you Ms Kims!

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