Thursday, December 17, 2015

KOREA ~ A Family Winter Sonata!

The Land of Arirang
17th Dec 2015 - 26th Dec 2015

Gyeongbok Gong, Seoul

It was all Choi Kang Hee and Shin Se Kyung's fault.  Really.   I wouldn't have even thought of going to Korea had it not been for these two beautiful Korean actresses who enchanted this simple little Singaporean man.  And the family ended up one unearthly morning waiting for our Korean Air flight to the Land of Arirang.

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Here is the video with one of my favourite OST by Bobby Kim "Thank you!"
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Truth to be told, it was hectic leading up to the Korea trip.  Fann was so busy with her report, and Questal and Kairen were rushing back from Ho Chi Minh.  I was just working up till the very afternoon before the flight.  The only ones who were most probably most relaxed were Ah Sing and Ah Li.
"3pm! Finally I am retired for the next 11 days!" at 3pm on the 16th December, I announced on text to all the children.

The only highlight of the airport trip, at least to Ah Sing Ah Li, was that they actually saw Xiaxue and gotten her autograph after raising their courage to go ahead and ask for it.  

Poor girl, having worked very very hard all the way until just before the trip, and having suffered Hand Foot Mouth Disease merely days before departure, Fann was totally exhausted.
"Papa, he ah... he would NEVER have gone to Korea if he had not watched all those Korean dramas.  You girls better start letting him watch Japanese dramas," joked Serene.
[Photo: Ah Li iPhone]

The Story of our Korean Trip
Click on each of the following to go to that day.  Or just read on..
KOREA Day 1: Singapore - Seoul - Jeju.  A brand new experience!
KOREA Day 2: Jeju ~ Western Loop
KOREA Day 3: Jeju ~ Eastern Loop
KOREA Day 4: Jeju ~ Southern Bumps
KOREA Day 5: Back to Seoul!
KOREA Day 6: Jisan Forest Resort
KOREA Day 7: It's just so Seoul ~ a tour of the Old Palace & Myeongdong
KOREA Day 8: A Christmas Eve of History and Academia...
KOREA Day 9: Where is Hangang?


Day 1 Korea: Singapore to Seoul, Seoul to Jeju
 汉城到济州岛

This trip was yet another free and easy trip.  What was even more easy, the planning and navigation were mostly done by the very capable Kairen, Fann and Questal.  I merely came up with some suggestions.  I truly enjoyed travelling with this bunch of highly independent young people.  And as I said throughout the trip and even now, it was not possible for me to have done it without them.
Of course these young people were full of faecal material.  But hey, they did a great job!

Of SIM cards, Mobile wifi egg and Stored-value cards...
The five and a half hour flight to Incheon Airport gave us a three and a half hour transit time to travel from Incheon to Gimpo Domestic Airport to grab another Korean Air flight to Jeju island.  We were a little worried about not having enough time, for the non-stop Airport Express (AIREX) train would take 40 minutes from Incheon to Gimpo, and we had to grab some SIM cards for our internet access and some T cards (or some kind of value cards) for commuting purpose.
KT Mobile counter at the same level as the Arrival Hall at Incheon Airport made it so easy for us:
  • a SIM card with unlimited data use for Kairen's Android phone - at 33,000 won (S$39) allows 30 days of usage.  This SIM card would need to be returned to the KT counter before departure.
  • Another Moble wifi egg rental with unlimited data usage for 8800 won a day for 10 days, able to connect up to 4 handphones, but if paid by Mastercard, only cost 7920 won a day, a total of S94 for the whole 10 days.
We bought our stored value cards from the 7-Eleven store at Basement one of Incheon airport, and had them topped up to 20,000 won each (S$23, which turned out to be about just nice for our whole trip in Seoul).

DID IT! [Photo: Fann iPhone]
Click on the picture to see the ticket dispensing machine at Incheon Aiport Basement 1, a photo by Serene.

"Uncle, we need to take the All-Stop Airex train to Gimpo, instead of the Express non-stop one.  This will ensure that we are able to get off at Gimpo station," said Fann and Kairen.
It was another walk, but we finally managed to plonk our butts on the seat of the 40 minutes train, and Questal heaved a sigh of relief, she being the one who was keeping time earnestly every moment since we touched down.
Wow! Right in the midst of Korean-speaking people was Ah Li!
It was a strange feeling.  Being finally, after so many months of watching Korean dramas after Korean dramas, to be immersed in a totally Korean-speaking environment.  Everyone around us was speaking in that clucky, exotic and somewhat sexy Korean tongue.  In between sentences, we could catch several phrases of what we learned from the shows.  Ah Li and I were totally amused by the experience.

Escalators are a luxury in Korea.  Staircases are more the norm.  Here going to Gimpo Airport.

We all had gotten our base layers and middle (and/or outer layers) prepared in our hand carry luggage, just waiting to pile them on once we arrived in Seoul.  We were pleasantly suprised to find the air-heating system of Incheon airport so good that we hardly needed to add any clothings.  So we were status quo all the way until we reached Gimpo Airport.  It was -3 degrees Celsius outside.
"Hey guys, why don't we step out of Gimpo Airport and have a feel of how the cold is out there?" suggested Kairen.  Now that was clever.  I really liked this young man.  Plenty of initiative and plenty of ideas.  And he surprised me time and time again with his words and actions.

Outside Gimpo Airport. My goodness.. the girls almost died.
And it was so funny, when I saw the expressions on the girls' faces out there in the Gimpo air!  They were literally suffering from the cold, the cold from the wind, and they couldn't stand still for even a second for me to take a shot with my iPhone.  That was how bad we Tropical dwellers took to weather around the freezing point!

This year, the winter was forecast to be a milder one due to El Nino effect.  Usually by now, most of Seoul would have been oft sub-freezing.  And snowing plentiful.  But apparently not so this year.  As I scrutinised Accuweather and Weather Underground almost daily, I found some days to be hovering around freezing, while other days 5-6 degrees above zero.  Occasionally it would dip below.  Precipitation was not common, as when their was humidity, the temperature wasn't cold enough.

The boys and girls were all hoping for a white snowy Christmas holiday in Korea. Well, we could only hope for the best.
Fortunately I had the foresight to put on my blue down middle layer before stepping out.  And I found that mediated the cold so much more.  So I was able to smile while the above shot was taken.


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  Here is the video of our Incheon-Gimpo-Jeju section...
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Arriving in Jeju..
Slightly less than one hour.  That was how fast it took for the domestic flight to Jeju Airport.

By the time we boarded the Gimpo flight, most of us had donned out base layers with at least an outer shell in hand.  Some garang ones like Questal was still base-layer-less bottom-wise, because the restroom in Gimpo Airport was too crowded to change.


Kairen was all readied.



By the looks of it, Fann was still in dreamland, weather-wise.  I took a look at my handphone and it indicated rain and snow somewhere out there in Jeju.  Jeju, snow? How could that be? Jeju hadn't been snowing for a long period already.  Its temperature had constantly been higher than that of Seoul over the past few weeks on my daily monitor.



But Accuweather could not be wrong.  We'd better be prepared.


"Ok, guys. There is a bus number 100 just outside Jeju Airport. It is 1200 won per person to the Terminus bus stop very near Yeha Guesthouse," I told the troupe after asking the counter lady.  The Korean tourist service staff are really good with their English, I must really say.


Snowing outside Jeju Airport...!!!???!!!???
Yeah.  That was quite a nice welcome for this group of Singaporeans.  We walked out, looked up and literally found flakes falling from the sky. 


Even if some of us had seen snow before, it was still a pleasant sight.  It was a small mix of rain and snow.  Nothing spectacular.  But enough fun for the start of the trip.

The bus trip was a short 15 minutes one, over about 5-6 bus stops.  And the Korean bus driver indicated to us that we had arrived.  But somehow it wasn't exactly clear where Yeha Guesthouse was.  Fann tried reading the Google map but couldn't made it out.  Fortunately Kairen gotten some directions from a tourist booth.  It was about 100m down from the booth, pass a pharmacy on the right and somewhere there.  Well, we just gotta trust our instincts here.


People had always said, it was the wind that made it cold.  And it rang true here as we were standing on the pavement with cold winds in our faces and hands.  For myself I was more thrilled by the excitement of searching for the elusive guesthouse at this moment that I probably didn't register the cold.  Yet.


... and we still had to make our way another couple of hundred metres through a garbage dump, due to my navigation error, to the destination.  But it was memorable. 



YEHA Guesthouse, Jeju

Finally, up a gentle slope, we found Yeha Guesthouse.  We had heard that there were going to be plenty of walking in Korea when we went free and easy.  And we were enjoying all these walking first-hand right on day one.  Lovely.


... the slope up to Yeha Guesthouse...


AND WE WERE THERE!  The front desk young lady called Sally was really helpful and she spoke beautiful English.  Everything was clockwork.  We all had towels for every single one of us.  And the cleaning lady would come in every morning to clean up our rooms.  Each room with its attached bathroom and nicely heated interior made it so comfortable on a cold winter night.


Every morning, breakfast was free flow of scrambled eggs, omelette, sunny-side-ups, toasts, butter, coffee.  Really free flow.  Just that you had to cook all yourselves.  I took the first day rotation, while Ah Li and Ah Sing did the subsequent days.
Even better, they had Happy Hours every evening from 7:30pm to 9:30pm when every single guest was entitled to one drink from the fridge..  it could be beer, soda, whatever.  This guesthouse was fantastic!

Here, Fann was discussing with Ah Sing how to connect their electrical appliances to the socket.


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  Here was the video of our arrival in Jeju...
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Jeju by evening and night...
Jeju island was 2.5 times the size of Singapore and it had a population of 650,000 people.  So we could really imagine how quiet it was.  The spareness was more apparent when we walked the streets outside of our Guesthouse in the late afternoon.

Yeha Guesthouse (Drop-pinned).  And Seogwang-ro which was our main thoroughfare.
There were plenty of shops, restaurants, convenient shops, bakeries... but in our hearts we were constantly wondering how the small population supported the economy of this self-run island.  I was sure tourism played a major part in its economy, both from domestic tourists and foreign.


Kairen and Questal were really careful tour leaders.  They actually recce-ed the area while the rest were taking their showers.  And these two good people came back saying that they had found interesting shops, convenient stores and more across the road.  And here we were at Paris Baguette Cafe, and ended up going in for a quick pre-dinner bite.


I love the way the Koreans are obssessive about their calories. Every item in the bakery was labelled clearly with huge numbers to indicate their respective calories.  No wonder Korean men and women were all so slim and good-looking!


I would be telling a lie if I were to say that the night wasn't cold.  But to Kairen, it was not something that he bothered much with.  Once inside Paris Baguette, he almost removed all his clothing as he was feeling terribly hot inside.  This guy has huge potential!


And as we walked along Seogwang-Ro, Fann and Ah Li started looking at the Korean words and trying to piece them together.  Among us all, only Fann and Ah Li could read the Hangul.  Ah Sing had forgotten all her Korean.  And the rest of us just followed these two.

Here Fann was probably trying to make out some Korean words.


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  Here was the video of SeogwangRo...
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Must have mis-read a Korean sign here...

It WAS cold.  And we could start to blow misty breaths.


We just strolled aimlessly down the pavement eastward.  It was late afternoon and it was between meals.  We walked into a shop selling all kinds of things.  Something like those 呱呱叫店 in Singapore selling all chaplank stuff.  I tried asking the old couple manning the counter where we could go for dinner but I received blank looks of incomprehension.  Their son came to their rescue, a bespectacled young man, who in stuttering English told us to walk further down to City Hall where there are 'many many' food stalls (or perhaps he meant restaurants).


So it was with that blind leap of Korean faith that we continued our leisure stroll and just took in the sights, and cold air.


... passed some probably hair salon shop...


... and passed some establishment selling don't-know-what...

... and hot on the trails of a couple of old Jeju-ian woman most likely making their way home for a nice bowl of Kimchi-ed Bibimbap.


... to discover the wonders of an Authentic Korean convenient shop.  Way before the trip, Ah Li had been talking and talking non-stop about wanting to walk into the Korean convenient shops when we were here, to buy this and that.  Just like what the actors and actresses did in the Korean dramas.  Looked like their wishes had come true today.
But Ah Sing was suffering from the cold - her ears.  And no amount of covering by her beanie could halt the cold wind's attack on her ears.  Poor thing.  She needed a pair of ear muffs.


 Soon,  her misery from the cold was forgotten as we arrived at a shop selling pets.  And they were all excited about seeing Korean puppies for the very first time in their lives.


Even the penguin joined in, and went gah-gah over the Kyeopta little Korean kittens.

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  Here was the video of our NIght out in Jeju City Hall
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Dinner in City Hall, Jeju...


I didn't imagine it was so difficult to have dinner on our first night in Jeju.  Yes, difficult.  Because there were so many choices!  We were literally spoilt for choices, not only because of the number of different restaurants and eateries along the small little happening area, but also (in my opinion, more so) because of our inability to comprehend what the Hanggul words meant.  The pictures of the food were clear enough.  But we couldn't put the price to the food.  It literally became a tikam-tikam little game.
"Uncle, you wanted to eat inside the Korean tent, right? We can try that one there.  The other ones in front look too expensive." said Questal.
Ok, so we walked back.  And we looked high and low around that 'tent'.  But they really appeared to be not opened yet.  In the end, Serene decided to make things simple, all would give that Korean barbecue restaurant a chance.  It said 5000 won something something on the front panel.  Anything that was 5000 won (S$6) couldn't come up to a huge bill, what...

So on this nice and cold Jeju night, we sat down on a nice long tablet in a warm, cosy environment, with another table of Korean men enjoying their dinner behind ours.  And it was so humorous, the whole episode.... there we were, trying to figure out how much each dish was on the menu, and the lady boss was trying to gesture in her typical Korean way what to order.  Fann and Questal were frantically trying to decipher her actions.  And then in a sweeping move, she just reassuringly settled us with the understanding that she would just bring whatever it was for us.
"We just have to trust her lah," I said laughingly.


And hey, our first authentic Korean barbecue dinner, served in a totally non-English-speaking establishment, was really stomach- and heart-warming.  The multiple bottles of Soju 烧酒 added to the joyous mood.  Even Ah Sing and Ah Li joined in the fun.  Just to be on the safe side, we ordered a couple of bottles of Makgeolli (Korean rice wine).  And every body joined in the fun.
Ah Li especially was in tune with the special way the Korean actors and actresses drank their Soju - a single gulp to empty the small glass and a whack of the glass back onto the table.

Kairen, looking down and making sure everything is in place, before he started his dinner with the Korean chopsticks.


The side dishes, especially the kimchi and radish, were really nice with the tangy Koreany after-taste.


We spent about 70,000 won (S$84) for the whole dinner.  Not a bad price at all, considering that we ordered so many glasses of Soju and Makgeolli.  And we also ordered more meat.  The interesting thing about Soju in Korea is, if you bought a bottle from the Convenient Store, it would cost 1600 won (S$1.90) a bottle.  If we ordered it in a restaurant, the same bottle would cost 3000 won ($3.60).  A similar bottle of Soju back home in Singapore would cost S$16! Thus we could finally understand why Koreans typically drank plenty of Soju during winter season to keep themselves warm.


After dinner, we were so warmed we could stroll down the street with little trouble.  It was nice observing the Korean youngsters and young couples walking down hands-in-hands, and listening out closely to their speeches.



Amusement Arcade in Jeju?! Are you boys and girls serious?

In my semi-stuporous state, I believed was Serene who suggested going for a play session in one of the games arcade along the street.  I just followed the whole troupe in.  And before I stepped in, I could vaguely make out what Kairen said:
"Uncle, look what I found! A personal card."
And I took a shot of that.  A real photographer could still take photos on reflex even when not toally sober.


By the time I walked in, Serene was leading the whole gang in her favourite arcade basketball game, shooting away.  I kept looking for 500 won coins (60 cents) to insert.  When we ran out, I just kept going back to the counter to change more.


The children really had fun.  I hadn't seen them having this kind of fun for a long time.  And even Questal threw all reservation into the winds and started throwing the basketballs.


Serene shouted to the children:
"You all cannot stop throwing the ball one ah! Must keep continuously throwing. Don't stop!"
So everyone just continued throwing..


... and then Questal and Fann decided to take their seats on the driving game.  But the games were short-lived as they both 'sucked in this game' in their own words.


Kairen was thankfully the good support, keeping an eye on everybody, making sure every one was ok.


And then suddenly the focus of attention changed to the Dance-dance revolution game.  Ah Sing and Ah Li started off the fun and we all found it so cute that we all joined in.  Tipsy states were really the best for engaging in such fun.  Serene and I were totally breathless by the time we finished our set.


Hotteok in Jeju! Yummy!
Prior to this evening I had never heard of what Hotteok was.  I only knew of Hot Dogs.  But that was Ang Moh food.  Koreans had theirs.  And they called it Hotteok, a kind of pancake with sugar syrup inside them, served hot in cups.
"Papa, Hotteok Hotteok!" cried Ah Li.
OK, whatever it was, it was definitely an experience that I wasn't going to miss, at 3 pieces for 2000 won (S$2.40).  To my utter surprise it was tasty!  And even more delicious in a cold wintry night.  It was so-said that Hotteoks were popular among the Koreans in winters.

This Jeju lady stall holder was so cheerful in serving us, preparing the hot pancake carefully and passing them one by one in cups to we few here who were totally new to such local delicacies.  I was sure she knew this was our first time.


As we walked out of City Hall, we had the chance to take a last photo with the walking Soju mascot.


Done for the night! Time to go back to our Guesthouse.
OK, job done.  Dinner completed, arcade game over, Hotteok downed.  Time to walk slowly back to our Guesthouse.  It wasn't far from City Hall, now that we knew how to walk.  It was quite fun actually, the streets of winter Jeju rather quiet and devoid of human traffic.


Ah Sing grabbing the last Hotteok as we approached our Guesthouse.


Happy Hour in Yeha Guesthouse!
It was still early when we arrived back in Yeha.  And guess what?  We were in time for Happy Hour and could get one drink each of us from the fridge.  And the boy and girls became adventurous in their choices of the local beverages, from Korean yogurt drinks to Ice coffees to Sojus to beers.


Ah Sing was last seen holding a tinted glass bottle.  Hmmmm... looked alcoholic to me.  Ah Li was drinking something yogurty-appearing, but this must had given her Kidney failure, for that night she vomitted.  Poor girl!


The heated room was so comfortable for all of us.  The hot shower was nice, the warm blankets were cosy.  And sleep just came.  Just like that.