Exploring Seoul

We returned to Seoul on a Tuesday afternoon after another interesting 24 hours of travel. (An uncomfortable eight-hour bus ride because the guy in front of me reclined his seat all the way and left me with no leg room; a shared cab ride with a German traveler named Franka that we had met at the pier on our way out of Koh Tao; a dozen rounds of cards on the airport floor.) We celebrated our return the best way we knew how—with hot showers, green face masks, “New York” pizza, and an episode of Survivor.

The next day, while Gina was off at work, Alexa and I ventured into the city on our own. With signs and maps in Korean, English, and Chinese; announcements in Korean and English; and numbered exits at every stop—the Seoul subway was surprisingly easy to tackle. On our search for the history museum though, we got a bit lost and stumbled upon Gyeongbokgung Palace. Gyeongbokgung was built in 1395 as the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty, with the beautiful Mount Bugak as its background. It is the largest of the Joseon dynasty’s Five Grand Palaces and once served as the home of Kings of the Joseon dynasty, the Kings’ households, and the government of Joseon.

After wandering around Gyeongbokgung, we moved on to find the museum we had originally planned to visit. We soon found the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History just down the road and spent a few hours exploring the exhibits, many of which focused on the Korean War.

A couple of hours later, we met Gina back at her apartment and went out for dinner. She wanted to take Alexa for Korean fried chicken, but most restaurants in Korea only serve one type of food—so a Korean fried chicken restaurant would only have Korean fried chicken. I wasn’t up to wander off alone in search of vegetarian food, so I tagged along and ate the small bowls of crackers, cabbage, and pickled radish that adorned the table. Gina introduced us to soju, a Korean alcohol she described as “watered down vodka.” It was an accurate description and the grapefruit flavor we tried was delicious!

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We got an early start on Thursday so we could squeeze as much into our short stay in the city. Alexa and I planned to meet up with Matthew, a Canadian traveler we had also met at the pier when we were leaving Koh Tao, as he had a long layover in Seoul that day. We waited at one of the subway exits, but eventually had to leave when we saw no sign of him. We walked toward our second palace in as many days: Changdeokgung, another of the Five Grand Palaces from the Joseon dynasty, is considered the most favored palace of many Joseon princes. We began a tour of the palace and were surprised when, not long after, Matthew caught up with the group. We also took a tour of Changdeokgung’s secret garden, a 78-acre garden that was originally constructed to be used by the royal family and palace women. With its lotus pond, pavilions, and landscaped grounds, there were beautiful things throughout every inch of the garden.

My favorite part of the secret garden, or Huwon, was the area the king would go to relax, where a small duct was carved in a rock. The king and his dignitaries would sit around the semi-circle and play a game where each person would write one line of poetry and pass it down; the next person would write down another line and pass it along, until they had crafted a poem—their own version of an “Exquisite Corpse.” Except, if someone didn’t write down their line in the allotted time, they had to take a drink of alcohol. As our tour guide told us this story, I laughed to myself, because that is such a writerly thing to do.

For lunch, we ended up in a basement Korean restaurant where no one spoke English. The waiter showed us an English menu on his phone that listed the names of the dishes and nothing more. I ordered the only vegetarian thing I could see on the list, some vegetable noodle roll, and hoped for the best. My hope was short-lived though. They brought out a pan full of something and stuck it on the burner in the center of our table, and we spent the entire meal trying to determine exactly what was in the dish Alexa and Matthew were eating. They could only conclude that it had beef, noodles, and the vegetable rolls I had ordered for myself. I enjoyed a delicious pomegranate and chia Clif bar, with its completely identifiable ingredients, once we left the restaurant and soon we parted ways with Matthew so he could catch his flight out of South Korea.

Alexa and I continued our day at the War Memorial of Korea, a large museum dedicated to Korea’s history of war, with thousands of pieces of memorabilia and military equipment. We were simply in awe—of the people who fought, the countries who helped, and the stories of love and family that lasted long after the war. It was an incredibly humbling afternoon.

We met Gina that evening in Itaewon, a popular tourist area of Seoul that is also home to the largest expat community in the country. I was lucky enough to catch up with one of my old roommates while we were there; we had studied abroad in Ireland together and had not seen each other in the nearly three years since. As we exited the subway, I spotted Hyoni and her bright smile at the top of the stairs. She walked around Itaewon and ate dinner with us, and then we had to say goodbye again. Our visit was short, but so lovely. I was so thankful that, 6,800 miles from my home and 5,600 miles from where we first met, we could reunite—even just for a couple of hours.

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With Hyoni in Itaewon

Our last day in Seoul was just as adventure-filled as the others. We tagged along with Gina in the morning to see her school and the classroom where she teaches English, and got to see a few of her students wandering around the halls as a bonus. We walked around more parts of the city, visited the Seoul Tower, found Korean food I could actually indulge in, did some shopping, and spent a couple of hours at a dog café. (So. Many. Puppies!)

A few of Gina’s friends met up with us for dinner that night. We out for a Korean barbecue and one of her friends and his cousin, who are from Korea, were able to order a vegetarian dish on my behalf. I enjoyed a warm bowl of bibimbap (white rice topped with sautéed vegetables, kimchi, soy sauce, and a fried egg) and everyone else ate their barbecue. At another restaurant, we split three flavors of bingsu—shaved ice flavored with condensed milk, fruit, and other sweet toppings—for dessert and my stomach was never happier.

It was incredibly difficult to leave Seoul the next morning. Alexa and I packed up our things again and we all took one last train ride back to the airport. Neither of us had seen Gina in six months and we knew it would be another six months (or more) before we’d get to see her again. We had already said bittersweet goodbyes to Cambodia and Thailand, but saying goodbye to South Korea seemed impossible. The three of us waited together in the airport lounge and prolonged our departure as long as possible. When we couldn’t wait any longer, we dragged our feet to the security area. There were lots of hugs and too many tears, but eventually we waved to Gina one more time and got in line to leave South Korea.

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