Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Romantic Seoul Winter Sonata

A real Seoul Winter Sonata - enjoying the Aircon.

Sometimes life is full of the unexpected.  I didn't expect to travel to Bangkok so last minute, I didn't expect to travel once again to Bangkok for CNY.  And definitely the booking of the plane tickets to Seoul two weeks after our CNY Bangkok trip came as a surprise to myself.

Just for the two of us, Serene and I.

I wasn't sure what we wanted to do for this very short Seoul trip.  What I knew was, I would follow Kwee Tin's advice to just plonk ourselves in Myeongdong and base ourselves there and walk around.  There were so many things to see, and places to walk around just in Myeongdong, so we should be quite occupied.  
"Let's just keep it simple and relaxing," said Serene.  That was precisely what I intended. 
Preliminary examination concluded the following:
  • The famous Namsan Tower where drama stars locked their loves with colourful padlocks
  • The romantic Cheonggyecheon stream leading to the oldest traditional market in Korea, the Gwangjang market.
  • Namdaemun traditional market, where everything one wanted to buy can be found.
  • A traditional Korean Hanoi Village or two.
  • If possible, to throw in a palace visit.
Kat said: "Why don't you all go paragliding in Seoul?  That would be exciting!"
But with only three days of actual tour, I found it difficult to arrange for a paragliding session which required two and a half hour bus ride out of Seoul and another similarly long ride back.  I thought I'd just keep to walking around on feet.
I reckoned we would spend a great deal of time in Myeongdong shopping.  Once they heard that we were going over to Myeongdong, Serene's old classmate and Gina quickly tompang-ed her to buy cosmetics.
"Myeongdong is full of cosmetics.  And everywhere we go after a while it became repetitive," said Ah Li. "And I got bored.  I much preferred Ewha University."  She was right in some sense.  So did I.  

But heck lah.  We would just play by ear this time round.  the skeletal plan was thus.  It was always opened to variations. 

Myeongdong had a plethora of accommodations, from the cheapest of guesthouses to the most luxurious of hotels.  With Mama's words in my head reverberating, and intensive scrutiny of the accommodation reviews, I took a reasonably-priced K-Guesthouse Myeongdong 2, just a couple of minutes walk from the Myeongdong subway station.
"I booked myself into a Guesthouse when I last went to Seoul," said Joanne. "But it was so small and so cramped I laid in bed the whole night thinking and finally decided to check myself out and check into a hotel."  She was so cute.
Our previous experiences with Guesthouses and AirBnB in Seoul and Korea were fantastic.  But still, after having squeezed in a single sleeping bag in a wooden guest lodge in the Nepali Himalaya, Serene and I were game for anything.  The most important thing was - to have fun.

"You all must eat all the seafood you can find," reminded Kat.  Wow.. that conjured the image of the raw still-moving octopus sashimi I saw in a blog about the street food in Gwangjang market.  If I could I would try it.

How were we going to move around?

In my heart, one of the best ways was to travel easy and travel like locals.  So we would take Bus number 6015 from Incheon Airport right to Exit 8 of Myeongdong station, and for the rest of the trip, we would simply walk.  I studied the map and realised that we would not need to take the subway at all.  Everything was within a few kilometres of each other.
 * Video 001: SIN-DMK-Incheon *

So on Wednesday evening, 15th February 2017, we lugged just our 7.5kg hand carry luggage each and boarded the Air Asia flight, departing at 2245Hr.
Tiny packet of nasi lemak on board Air Asia flight.

Initially Kiam-kana, we did not come with any intention of ordering on board food.  But after chewing on several Alpen muesli bars and pineapple tart, I decided that I was still hungry and ordered a Nasi lemak and a Coke Zero . 

"Hey that's our name!" A surprised Serene pointed to a petite Thai Air Asia staff who was waiting for us at the Arrival hall to bring us to the CIQ.
That was unexpected.  She probably didn't understand when I asked her if we were special such that she needed to fetch us up.  But hey, we did enjoy a midnight supper of Tom Yam and omelette beef rice before our connecting flight to Incheon.
Bus ticket from Incheon Airport to Myeongdong Station.

By the time we arrived in Incheon at 9:40am, I realised that this connecting business was tiring.  Not having exactly enough sleep while on transit and landing in the morning kind of made us a little tired.
Bus 6015.  Easy to find at Exit 5B. Comfortable and hassle-free.
Incheon airport 仁川机场

All the information from the various blogs on line were most helpful.  Signing up for M1's Data Passport made it so easy for both of us as we need not purchase any local SIM cards.  We just headed straight out to Exit 5B and before we reached there, the ticketing booth for the bus to Myeongdong Subway station was there.   14000W a person (S$16.80) got us a ticket on the very comfortable bus with plenty of space for luggage. 

Our first meal in Myeongdong
The unforgettable 王妃家 traditional Korean barbecue.
It was really an one and a half hour ride and it passed through every major subway stations along Euljiro before make the turn to Myeongdong station.  Exit 8 out and a street away we saw our Guesthouse.  But we were hungry.  And the first restaurant with attractive signboard caught our eyes and our business - 王妃家.  And man, did we enjoy their beef set and pork rib set with an additional order of a plate of pork belly and pork collar!
The pork belly. [Photo: Serene]

The waiters took turn to cook them to perfect Chao-dar-ness on the charcoal grill and both Serene and I could not hide our pleasure at the taste! This was really a WOW meal!

K-Guesthouse Myeongdong 2

A guesthouse would forever be a guesthouse.  At 215000W (S$266) for three nights I must admit that it had everything one needed to enjoy Seoul- bathroom, TV, hair dryer, fridge, washing machine at the 6th level, and a kitchenette with free simple breakfast and coffee and teat any time one fancied.  The only thing that they did not have in abundance was space.  So small luggage were easier.
The receptionist Sarah and her Mother were most hospitable and Sarah could speak English so well, everything was a breeze.  Even the wifi was good.


It was only slightly after 2pm.
"Come, let's take a walk to Namdaemun," I suggested. And we took a nice 10 minutes stroll and arrived at Shinsegae.  The the Hoehyun underground's shopping centre we popped out to the other side and in no time, the whole Namdaemun market was on our left.
Namdaemun, the Ajuma market.
It had been said that if you could not find something you wanted in Namdaemun , then you wouldn't find it anywhere else in Korea.  It was a well-organized shops and low-rise buildings housing shops of all trades - but plenty of clothings - ladies, men, winter wear, shoes, children wear.  Despite having the map, I still got lost. And only my google map helped me find my way out.
Even Seoul had what I perceived to be scammers pretending to be handicapped.
This Namdaemun 南大门 was one of the eight main gates of the old fortress of Seoul during the Joseon period.  During those times, it was common to refer to the gates by the directions there were facing.  The actual name of the gate was Songnyemun 嵩礼门.  It was destroyed during the Korean War, and it was again destroyed during an arson in 2008, and rebuilding was completed in 2013.  Namdaemun was declared a National Treasure of South Korea.
The majestic gate stood silently in the middle of the traffic junction these days, a mark of transition from ancient to modern times.
The cosmetic shop at Namdaemun market

Everything caught my attention, but not-surprisingly nothing much caught Serene's. She just did not have my kind of taste.  I had always wanted to buy a pair of Korean trekking pants, after we last saw a Korean mountain climber wearing a really stylish trekking tights where back in Pokhara airport. And here I found something close, though not exactly the same.  Still, at 20000W and 30000W respectively I grabbed them in preparation for the year end climb.  The old uncle manning the shop was pretty candid and he was actually watching Voice, the latest K drama on his TV.
There apparently wasn't anything else at this point in time that interested Serene... until she came across the Hotteok stall and the Yong Tau Fu stall...
"I want to eat the Yong Tau Fu!" said Serene. [Photo: Serene]
Came upon this lovely Hotteok store run by an Ajuma.
Oh what delicious Hotteok!

It was 3:30pm.  And the weather was a nice and mild 7 degrees Celsius.   The nice and piping hot Hoettoek from the stall in the middle of Namdaemun gave our stomachs the needed warmth to continue our journey.

Namsan Park and N-Seoul Tower

"Let's walk over to Namsan Park since we still have some daylight time," I suggested.
The iPhone 7 Plus was really no horse run.

Now this was something I planned for even before we set off for the trip. Namsan park was famous for many things - the N Seoul Tower and of course, oft seen in K-drama, the colourful locks of love that were hooked on the railings of the observation deck below the tower..  It was a lovers and couple's favoured spot to declare their unending love for each other with the locking of padlocks.  So on this day, with my two colourful Singapore-bought locks we slowly walked towards Namsan, only stopping for a 10 minutes cappucino break at the Ediya coffee outlet on the other side of Toegye-Ro.
The Namsan Eurumi right in front.

Namsan  南山 is a 262m hill that sat south of the city.  It offers  a vantage point for a panoramic view of the city line.  Namsan Park which surrounds the hill is a popular park for the locals for hiking up Namsan.

There are a few ways up Namsan.  Most Koreans would walk up the nice and scenic winding road.  Some would drive up or take a taxi or bus.  But for those of us new to the spot, we walked down south along Sogong-Ro until we arrived at the upslope leading to the Namsan Eurumi - the free Escalator up to the Namsan cable station, to safe us more walking. It had a nice view, and that 1 minute trip up was quite fun in its own way.
At the top of the track on the Eurumi.
The cable car station was really doing brisk business, I remembered telling myself and marveling at how many local Koreans there were.  Many a times, a national attraction would end up only attracting foreign tourists, but an attraction that kept pulling even locals definitely would continue surviving for the longest time.  At 8500W (S$7.80) a person for a return cable car ticket, we were squeezed with many young Korean couples, of course with some Taiwanese, some Indonesians, Japanese and PRCs.
Inside the cable car.

Namsan park was beautiful, especially in winter like this.  The pine trees lined the walkways and the slope of the hill was still covered with snow and ice.  The tall N Seoul Tower (I really didn't know why they changed the name from Namsan Tower to this.  I personally felt that Namsan Tower was so much more appropriate.) could be clearly seen from a distance.
"Chagiya!  Honestly, I just want to come here to put on our locks.  I don't really fancy having a meal up in the revolving restaurant at the top of the tower.  Just being here seeing it is enough for me," and I was glad Serene concurred.

* Video 002: Namsan lock!  *

So with many a young and old couples and visitors roaming around the heaps of colourful locks, Serene and I found a spot at one corner which was easily located should we return one day, and with some difficulty, we managed to lock our blue and yellow padlocks right in the midst of all the others. Quite a momentous task, considering how tightly packed the locks were.  For once we felt like some Korean stars.
[Photo: Serene]
[Photo: Serene]
It was cold up there, and Serene kept complaining.  But I reassured her that this was one of the hottest days in this winter, with the temperature on this day hitting about 10 degrees Celsius.  Disappointed was I, expecting the mercury to drop below freezing on our first day here.  But the cold had gotten into Serene.  And myself too.  The lack of sleep plus the cold wind had drummed a gradually intensifying headache and it was about time to retire, but not after a nice warm dinner.

I wanted to have Myeongdong porridge as I heard it was good.  And just by coincidence we found a Congee restaurant beside out guesthouse.  But it was such a let down - tasteless abalone porridge and pot porridge and not-so-tasty kyoza.  I left half a bowl of the porridge unfinished and we left one kyoza for the waitress for her supper.

* Video 003: Myeongdong supper*
The stall just outside Uniqlo where Serene found her beautiful overall.

The day had been long.  And I was quite drained.  In fact, laughingly I even struggled to brush my teeth and take my shower.  The warm guesthouse room was really a much-welcomed comfort for both of us. Soon, we fell asleep.
Tasteless congee


The alarm went off at 7:30am and once again at 8am.
"Don't wake up so early lah, can or not?" pleaded Serene.  Ok lor.  
When I next opened my eyes, the time was 9:40am. Now that was quite something.  Holidays must be like that one mah, right?
"Ok you relax first.  I shower and then I go downstairs to the kitchenette to make breakfast for you," and I excitedly walked down the freezing cold stairway.

The kitchenette was empty at almost 10am.  Still there were toasts and cereals and milk and orange juice in addition to the pot of hot coffee.  It kind of reminded me of Yeha guesthouse in Jeju. The only  difference was Yeha had eggs.
But it was alright.  A light breakfast would do just fine, considering the amount of food we were expected to eat on this day.
I texted Serene: "Come lah, join me for breakfast."
Almost chao-dar toast. Serene kao beh kao bu: "I don't like Chao-dar toasts!" Ok OK...

Namsangol Hanok Village
Early morning at Namsangol Hanok village.
This Namsangol Hanok is one of those rare gems that is so peaceful and serene.  And it is free. I loved it.

 It was a really leisurely breakfast, and soon we were on our way to Namsangol Hanok Village, about a 15 minutes walk from Myeongdong station.  What I really liked was everything was within walking distance.  And there were many interesting sights on the way to Namsangol.
Serene: "I always liked outdoor wet kitchens."
Me: "Ok lor. Here you are. If you were a Korean woman, this would be your outdoor kitchen,"

The weather was a nice freezing point on this morning but the sun's warmth was our saving grace. Entry into Namsangol village is free, but despite that it has a collection of five most beautifully restored antique Korean houses, with houses ranging from peasant abode to aristocrat residence of the Joseon Dynasty.  I enjoyed the humble abode with classic Korean style architecture adorned with traditional Hanja scripts on the walls.  We were both pleasantly surprised to have a wishing well to throw some Korean coins.  We hardly ever miss any wishing wells, be it in Rome or anywhere else in the world.  The bright sunny weather with the crisp cold air and blue sky made this visit so much more enjoyable as Serene and I explored the houses one by one.
The wishing well in Namsangol Hanok.
It was really like a scene from the Period Korean dramas.
We have always loved visiting old buildings.

It had been a long time since we had such a relaxing walk among some old buildings.  I particularly appreciated the study room, a simple stilted house with thatched doors, and I could imagine Papa and Mama enjoying writing their calligraphy in the cold winter while drinking tea.
Papa, Mama's study room.

We strolled to Namsan Park behind Namsangol Hanok village and we were delighted to see so many of the local Koreans, both young and old, taking the same stroll with us, enjoying the cold air, and enjoying the lovely scene in the park.  I was sure some of these young people would be walking all the way up to Namsan to visit the observation deck at Namsan's N Seoul Tower.  Such was life in an aircon country.
Namsan Park
"Wow the Korean men are so handsome!" Exclaimed Serene as we walked to part of Namsan park behind the Hanok.  The ancient Korean aristocrat really knew how to enjoy their lives, living in the valley of Namsan with backdoor access to the top of the hill.  
Right in the corner of Namsangol Hanok was a temple, one which I took great delights in entering and making a short prayer to 本师释迦摩尼佛.
Photo: Serene

Onwards to Gwangjang market... through Euljiro
Fascinated with all the many rare Pokemons in Euljiro, en route to Gwangjang market.
One of the many 五金店 along Euljiro.

"Hey Dar, since we are already here at Namsangol, we might as well walk straight north to Chongmuro and towards Gwangjang market and visit that.  We can have lunch there, then after that we will slowly walk along Cheonggyecheon back towards Myeongdong," what a brilliant idea!

Indeed, no point walking back to Myeongdong.  Our walk up north brought us through Euljiro, the oldish part of Seoul with rows of small shops selling lightings, tools, industrial equipments, printers and such.  This was what I read about in one of the blogs, this traveler who simply wandered around Euljiro and enjoyed the local atmosphere.  Somehow by taking this route, I accomplished my initial plan of walking around Euljiro too.
"This place is like Geylang back home," said Serene. "They sell all these lightings and things.  It's also very similar to HCMC. The lights shops the printers are all arranged street by street."
Well that's why the blogger recommended just walking around the older neighbourhood of Euljiro.
Street scene along Euljiro.

How was the cost of living in Seoul?

Well I couldn't tell more apart from food. I read on another blog that food is never absolutely cheap in Seoul. Which I tend to agree.  Compared with prices back home in Singapore, I still feel that things here, even the street food, are just a little pricier than back home.
One of the many local workers in Euljiro.

We had a cappucino at Ediya Coffee for 4000W (S$4.80).  That was cheaper.  Our first day's Korean barbecue meal at 王妃家 came up to S$40 per person. Generally a samgaetang would cost about 15000W (S$18) for that bowl plus side dishes. Even on the street, the Hoetteok would cost about 1000-1500W (S$1.20-1.80). The Bindaetteok in Gwangjang is also 4000W (S$4.80), same price for that stick of dried squid in Myeongdong. In general, any of the street food would be in the range of about $2-$5. While in restaurants it would be at least S$18-20+ per person for a normal meal.
Even on the last night at Myeongdong as Serene and I went gallivanting and eating all the street food, a stick of Yong Tau Foo would cost 3000W (S$3.60), and a stick of seaweed wrapped sausage 4000W (S$4.80), a bacon-wrapped sausage 4000W, a pack of sotong 6000W.... we just became blind to the price and simply whacked the food.  But I could imagine, if one were to eat out in Seoul every meal could easily be 18000 (S$21.60) to 20000W (S$24) at least.
A subway trip from Myeongdong to Ewha University, a trip of 9 stops would cost 1350W (S$1.66). That was pretty similar to Singapore price.
Hardworking workers in Euljiro. [Photo: Serene]

All in all, I could imagine how things could be expensive in Seoul - clothings, essentials, appliances and such, as food prices were already higher.  But interestingly, certain things were still cheaper than back home, for example cosmetics and winter wears.
And there... the (almost) elusive Gwangjang.

Gwangjang market

"Neh! That's Kwangjang market across the road lah!" pointed out Serene, spelling out the actual word 'KWANGJANG market' on the wall of the building, as I was still peering into my Google Map trying to figure out our direction.
Some of the shops selling ling-ling-long-long things.
The Halmeoni tending to her vegetable stall,

Fresh dried dead fish hung by the necks - at the Gwangjang.

The female crabs with the dome-shapd belly were supposed to be the choicier ones. [Photo: Serene]

Certainly there it was. The complex known as Gwangjang market, the oldest traditional market in Seoul. 관잔시찬 (广长市场) stood silently cloaked in a deceptively toned down facade.  Inside awaited decades of history, old shops with equally old shop owners who had most probably been there for years doing the same business. Old Ajumas and old Uncles plied their trades, many smilingly and encouragingly especially toward newbie tourists like us.
This place reminded me of the Dongmun market in Jeju.

 * Video 004: Namsangol Hanok & Gwangjang market *

Gwangjang market 广长市场 was the result of a string of events that started from the abolishment of commercial monopolies during the Joseon Dynasty. This abolishment allowed any commoner to participate in commerce. Gwangjang market was originally named Dongdaemun market. It started off during the Japanese occupation when in 1905 the Japanese took control over the businesses in Namdaemun, and a group of wealthy Korean businessmen bought over the piece of land at its current location and built a single stores market for the locals to operate in without Japanese influences. The old Dongdaemun market used to be selling agricultural products and seafood. From 1957-1959, it was extended into a much bigger complex and its named was changed to Gwangjang market, with the name derived from a Wide (Gwang) bridge and a Long (Jang) bridge as it was constructed between these two bridges. The ensuing name Gwangjang replaced Dongdaemun market. Eventually the stalls in Gwangjang market expanded to selling textiles, clothes, traditional Korean handicrafts, souvenirs, traditional medicine, and of course traditional Korean food.
There were so many sections that once again Serene and I got lost in the maze of the complex.  But what we didn't miss was the central section, a whole big section of food stalls emitting smokes from pots and stoves churning out plates and dishes of Bindaetteok, Sundae, Tteopokki, Rice cake and everything.
The Seoul Shitang [Seoul Canteen] that sells the famous Seoul Mae EunTang.
 Live squid, anyone?

Our first few steps into Gwangjang brought us face to face with a restaurant Seoul Canteen that sold Live Squid and Spicy kimchi soup 明太鱼 fish- 샌태매온탄 (Sentae Me Eun tang).  
"Would you eat the live squid when you are there?" Ah Li asked me before the trip and my answer was an affirmative.
The fish roe and what appeared to be fish brain but actually wasn't.
So on this noon, I pointed to the picture and told Serene let's go.  It turned out to be really quite an experience! The nice lady at the stall who could speak beautiful Mandarin introduced us the dishes. For 22000W (S$24.40) we would get a huge pot of steaming kimchi fresh (not frozen) Mentai fish. And for 15000W (S$18) we get a dish of live moving squid. Ushered into the small little stall, we found ourselves seated among local Koreans all laughing and enjoying their food.  I reassured myself if the locals came to eat here then it must be really good.

The local Koreans certainly knew the value of their meals. And they wouldn't flinch an eye lid ordering all they wanted.  It was a vote of confidence once again for us to see that they were having exactly what we ordered.  A group of young Taiwanese girls walked in, sat down, took a look at the menu and after silently discussing among themselves, politely thanked the stall owner and decided not to eat.
Fish brain or fish intestine?
An eye for an eye. [Photo: Serene]

These two dishes were surprisingly delicious, the Mentai fish was fresh and sweet, and the love squid was a totally new experience for me.  Serene wasn't one who appreciated sotong, but she had one just for the experience.
Moving squid Sanakji.

 The still squiggly tentacles and the fasciculating head of the squid were laid on the dish and allowed to wriggle as much as they could.  The owner grabbed the still-moving head of and gently lowered it into the pot of boiling kimchi soup and allowed it to slowly cook before he cut it into pieces for us.
Freshness was an understatement. The sesame sauce for the squid was heavenly and the soju greatly accentuated the flavour of  both the fish and the squid. As I struggled to pick up the tentacles with the wooden chopstick (the silver one would have been too slippery), I found that the suction cups of the tentacles were still strongly attached to the plate.  Only by wrangling it off was I able to successfully bring it into my mouth, only to have the wriggling tentacle in turn sucked onto my buccal membrane, a very strange kind of new sensation.  Now I knew why people got addicted to eating live squid!

Both Serene and I must have been quite a sight as the boss and his wife and the old ajuma kept looking at us and smiling at us. The boss himself came by and asked if it was nice, in Korean.  I could only gave him back an answer Moetjoyo (Great!).
The Mandarin-speaking Ajuma who runs the Seoul Canteen.
Both of us slightly on the high after gulping down the Soju, and finishing every single bit of the seafood lunch, we continued to wander with little directional sense  in the huge maze, but realizing we seemed to be going round in circle.  There were supposed to be certain sections of winter wear and such that I was supposed to look for, but we kept ending up either in the textile and bedding section, or in the gigantic food section.

Food, food and more food in Gwangjang Market
The Karetteok Halmeoni.

Finally we gave up and started eating again, though our stomachs were still brimming with the recent meal.  We came upon an old halmeoni 할머니 in the middle of the walkway selling 가래떡 (Karetteok), the bar rice cake.  Serene die die also wanted to eat this because she had been eyeing it since we landed in Seoul. And it was a hard piece of rice cake but chewy and very steaming hot.
Oh, the karetteok!
"Oh it's so nice to hold it in your hand in cold winter like this," said the happy Serene.
We dared not attempt the 炒蝉蛹 (silk worm pupae) and decided to let that pass.
And as we ventured deeper we came upon another stall with two Ajuma 아줌마 (Aunties) selling 빈대떡 (Bindaetteok, Mung bean cake) for 4000W each. This was another die-die-must-try. Of course we couldn't let that chance pass.  Soon we each had in our hands a cup of piping hot pancake.  It tasted... bland. I was expecting more taste to it but I was a little disappointed.
The Sun Hwi Nye stall of Bindatteok

 * Video 004.5: The famous Bindaetteok *
[Video: Serene]

Deeper and deeper we went and out of a sudden the whole central of the market opened into a sprawling colosseum of rows of stalls all selling almost exactly the same food.  One just had to find an empty slot on the bench and plonk his bum there and start ordering. The Halmeoni and Ajuma who tended the stall we patronized gladly whipped up our order of Sundae (blood sausage), Tteokbokki, Mayak Gimbap and Ddukguk (steamed fish cake). Although we told her laughingly 'small small' servings of each, it came up quite un-small-small-like.  With a friendly smile she urged us to just eat.
The local's favourite.
The Sundae and Kimbap
We just sat down and joined the locals and ate.. despite full stomachs!
The Ajuma who ran the stall.

So with a groups of old Hal-abeoji (grandfather) on our left and another group of pretty well-dressed young ladies on our right, we dug in. What a unlikely combination of clientele!  But that was what Gwangjang market was all about. It was where the locals came to shop, to do their grocery purchase and to eat. Being here was precisely living the life like a local Korean.
Serene just loved the Tteokbokki.

Another deserving of special mention was the strawberries in Korea. These were plump and juicy freshly plucked strawberries and each and everyone of them sweet. Serene and I bought two boxes at 9000W (S$10.80). We gobbled ourselves crazy with these delicious berries in the hotel.  
"They don't have mango here one hor?" noticed Serene. "They have only strawberries."
She was quite correct.  The fruit stalls we saw in Gwangjang market and in Namdaemun were selling plenty of strawberries and some bananas. Understandably the cold climate produces different fruits and tropical fruits were a rarity.
Walking along Cheonggyecheon against the sunlight really made everything appear in the silhouette.

Somehow we couldn't find what we wanted to. And at around 4pm we decided it was time to take a nice stroll along the Cheonggyecheon (清溪川, 정기전), which was redeveloped from a covered underground garbage-filled waterway  to an open canal for the people to walk leisurely along, a project that took a few years. The sun was in our eyes as we headed towards the direction of Myeongdong.  And we decided that there was not much to see along the stream.  So we took a detour and a short cut back to our guesthouse.
Job done.
Walked through the small little streets along Euljiro back to Myeongdong. Very interesting.

Samgaetang in Myeongdong!
The night was still young and the fact that we could walk back and take a shower in our guesthouse before we ventured out again was a luxury.  Our stomachs were so full of food that we simply skipped dinner and walked straight to Namdaemun again.
I must one day come back to explore the supposed 24-hour section of Namdaemun.
The young lady who sold the berets at Namdaemun.

I thought Namdaemun was a 24 hour shopping market. But it was only about 7pm and most of the shops were already closing. Well, I guess in winter the shop keepers tended to close early. Sorely disappointed, we walked back via the Hoehyeon underground shopping centre and back up to Myeongdong.
Outside Shinsegae
My favourite Samgaetang.
"I haven't had a samgaetang since coming to Seoul," I remarked to Serene. "I would rally love to have a samgaetang."
Of course, come to Seoul, besides drinking Soju must also enjoy Makgeoli!

And presto! Right in front of our eyes appeared a samgaetang restaurant - served by a PRC female waitress who spoke beautiful Korean, we enjoyed the samgaetang and a spicy beef noodle for Serene.

 * Video 005: Namdaemun & Myeongdong's Samgaetang *

PRC Chinese in Seoul

After our first visit to Seoul in December 2015 we realised that there were many PRC Chinese working in Seoul, many as customer service and restaurant service staff.  They spoke Korean like the natives but once they started conversing in Mandarin you could tell that they were from the Mainland.
On this trip we encountered so many PRC Chinese waiters and waitresses.  In many ways they lubricated our interactions because of the ease of communications.  I had just started learning how to read the Korean alphabets and only knew a small handful of words.  During this trip I had come across Taiwanese tourists who spoke very good Korean. But most of the tourists still would have communication difficulties.  Thus, considering the fact that there were so many PRC Chinese visitors annually to Korea, it made absolute sense to have PRC Chinese service staff in Seoul, who were able to serve both the local Korean community as well as the Mandarin-speaking Chinese.  Personally I could imagine that the proximity to China and most likely a higher pay made it attractive for Mainland Chinese to want to work here in Korea.

The Korean CDs!
Found it!

What a pleasant discovery! We found a CD shop called Buruttrak just a few shops beside the restaurant, where we found the exact three CDs that Wei Wei and Hsin Yi were asking about. Bingo!
The 'Kairen'!

This was a cold night and the mercury was at a minus 7.  The Magkeoli we had in the samgaetang restaurant warmed our bodies and limbs and the walk back to our Guesthouse was so much more bearable after the meal.  It was 9pm, but on a Friday evening, the streets of Myeongdong was still full of people.  The daily fluid population of Myeongdong was estimated to be about 2 million, and that explains why this city is forever crowded.

My favourite Uniqlo

I seemed to have developed an affinity for anything Uniqlo in any city I went.  I particularly remembered this Myeongdong Uniqlo not only as a landmark, but also where I bought mine and Serene's lovely winter coats.  A trip to Myeongdong would never be complete without popping in to smell the airs of Uniqlo.  This time round I managed to grab four brand new season style Uniqlo briefs in Korean fashion, and cheaply so too.
Sotong sticks!

"Dar, your favourite sotong stick!" Serene excited pointed to a stall just outside Uniqlo.
Without a doubt, my favourite squid stall.  For 4000W a stick, we saw the stall wonder torched-fry a thick stick of squid pieces and when we placed it into our mouth, the thickness and chewiness of the sotong was something I had never tasted before.

History of Myeongdong

Looking around on this cold winter night, and standing in the middle of the street thronged with people, The vibes of Myeongdong excites me. I really love the rhythm of a city that is forever pulsating. Myeongdone had a great long history, like many other cities.
During the Joseon Dynasty Myeongdong was known as Myeongryebang 明礼坊. It was renamed to Myeongchijeong 明治町 (Japanese: Meijicho) during the Japanese Occupation. After the Independence from Japanese Occupation in 1946, the commercial influence from neighuboring Chongmuro provided Myeongdong with the boost in its evolution into a commercial centre. After the Korean War, in the 1960's it gradually developed into a modern city with new departmental stores, shopping centres, upscale boutiques, businesses and financial buildings sprouting up. Myeongdong became the go-to place for the fashionable youths during the 1970's. Myeongdong was also famous for being a popular location for many of the political protests and demonstrations staged during the period from 1980-1990's. This is still a common occurrence till today.
International surveys in 2011, 2012 and 2013 found Myeongdong to be the ninth most expensive city in the world. Understandably, Myeongdong's rental prices are one of the most expensive in the world.
Despite that, the presence of famous brands and shopping institutions like Lotte Departmental, Shinsegae, Noon Plaza, M Plaza and international boutiques officially designated it a most popular shopping area for the younger generation and tourists. The main streets and small alleys of Myeongdong are closed to vehicular traffic except for early morning and late night deliveries, thereby totally rendered this main shopping area to be a pedestrian zone.

Late night supper, anyone?
Chir Chir fried chicken and beer.
It was 12:45am, and we were still both wide awake in bed. Half way through watching the local Korean TV Serene suddenly asked: "Want to eat chicken ai-mai?"
Eat from the moment we opened our eyes until just before we close our eyes to sleep. Jiaklat!
Man! That was exactly what I was waiting for. I had been monitoring the temperature for this cold night. And at this moment the register was a freezing minus ten degrees Celsius. I couldn't wait for a chance to get out in the cold. I laughed when I saw the frightened look in Serene's eyes when I announced the temperature. We piled on additional layers and ran out of the building and made a right turn. It WAS cold. But our clothings were adequate. And thankfully the fried Korean chicken with beer restaurant was three blocks away. And they were opened until 3am! It was customary for Koreans to have their fried chicken with beer. So we ordered one Asahi for Serene. But I didn't enjoy beer. So a bottle of Soju went my way, although I did not dare finish it all by myself and shared half of it with Serene.
Asahi beer!
"Wah lau eh! We keep eating the whole day!" complained Serene jokingly. But that was the fun mah, walk and eat and eat and walk some more.
Actually I believed on this day two we must have easily walked about 20km, right from early in the morning to Namsangol and up north to Gwangjang and westward to Namdaemun and then back to Myeongdong. The whole day we were on our feet. No wonder by the end of the day Serene was complaining that her archilles tendons were aching.
"Dar, later on when we walk out hor, you just see for yourself. I guarantee that you will feel very very warm after eating warm food and drinking so much alcohol one," the truth of my reassurance was soon confirmed as we stepped out and felt no cold even though the temperature remained 10 degrees sub-freezing. The power of alcohol!
The weather was too aircon at 2am for Serene's comfort.  Outside on the streets of Myeongdong also no more people walking around liao.
 We must have slept at about 2:30am.
"Don't wake up too early tomorrow ah!" insisted Serene, and I willingly complied.

DAY THREE: A totally relaxed day
Cold morning.

9am. Serene was still sleeping when I got up and changed and went rece-ing down to see how the weather was like. The weather station reported a minus ten degrees with a RealFeel of minus eighteen degrees. Luckily I tested. The base layer plus T shirt, plus vest middle later was not enough. I really needed the outer coat.
Getting to love the breakfast.

The breakfast in the guesthouse was really DIY simple creaks and coffee with orange juice. Still, I really enjoyed it. Perhaps the cold weather made even simple little stuffs like these so nice.
A totally aircon morning.
"Dar, ok my plan for today is very simple," I told her during breakfast. "I just did a research and found a place where we can take photos with traditional Korean costumes. And after that we will take the subway to Ewha University."
"Haha! I sure know you will want to go Ewha University one!" laughed Serene. "Last night I talked about Ewha I see your expression I aga aga know already."
Hey, that's the fun of free and easy mah, right? Happy happy go some places, not happy don't go lor. Anyway the timing was just about right for the planning.

Seoul Cultural Exchange and Tourism Information Centre
10:30am the centre was still quiet.

Serene had been harping on wanting to take photos together wearing the traditional Korean costumes even since our last trip to Korea. Somehow it hadn't materialized. A quick search online found the availability of this service on the fifth floor of M Plaza, about 150m away from our guesthouse, at the Seoul Cultural Exchange and Tourism Information Centre. And it started at 10am. What was more, it was totally free of charge for tourists!
The customer service staff was very courteous and helpful in helping us with our costumes and even helped us take several shots. This was really an unforgettable experience. I was sure Serene loved it.
The old Korean Emperor probably wore no glasses and wore slightly different shoes.

"This golden gown is for the King, right?" I asked the lady, who nodded. "Hmmmm... but I have always liked to wear a red gown." So I chose the red one.
Not bad lah.

She even showed me to a long smoking pipe which the Korean Emperor used to smoke as a prop for our shoot.
"Do you have the Korean wig for the ladies?" asked Serene, hoping to replicate exactly the wig oft seen in the Korean dramas. Sadly they didn't. So she had to make do with the Korean head band.
"The Korean Emperor cannot wear spectacle one right? I must removed my spectacle right?" I asked the Korean lady.
She smiled and replied: "The last Korean Emperor he DID wear glasses."
Heng ah! So I could officially keep my glasses on and pretend to still be the Emperor.

Well we couldn't expect it to be of the same quality as a studio shoot but for something that cost next to nothing, we were very happy. And the photo of both of us looked authentic enough.
Ten minutes later, we walked out of the Seoul Cultural Exchange and Tourism Information Centre, happy as larks with beautiful shots of ourselves in our handphones.
Wah.. take MRT wor.

 * Video 006: Traditional Hanbok, Ewha University & Protest in Myeongdong! *

Ewha University, here we come!
Such lovely weather. Bright and sunny but aircon totally at full blast.
"OK we have been walking the past two days. Today we will take the subway for once to Ewha University," I told Serene.
"Dar, nice or not?"
Addiction knows no boundary.
The source of the addiction.

Ewha Women University 梨花女子大学 was the children's favourite place on our last trip, as the Ewha University shopping streets had plenty of fashionable accessories and clothings and shoes that catered to the young females' taste and pockets. Things were generally cheaper than elsewhere yet styles still remained trendy. This shopping street was understandably evolved from the needs of the young female students studying in Ewha University.
It was particularly reminiscent for me because I bought my favourite pair of spectacle frame from a old Uncle here. Serene was correct. I longed to return to rendezvous with that stall.
Right at the corner.
Compared with Myeongdong, Ewha is small.

So how to get to Ewha?

Simple. 1350W ticket from the vending machine and hop on Line 4 (light blue line) to Dongdaemun Cultural and history station, and then walk a helluva a long distance to the transfer platform to take the Green Line 2 to Ewha University Station. The subway ride was relatively short - about half an hour.

The second time round to Ewha was so much easier. Everything was deja vu the moment we stepped out of the station. We could identify the YongTau Fu stall we bought from on our last trip, the shop where Ah Sing bough her shoes from. And finally, my favourite spectacle frame shop - the old Uncle still there tending to his stall.

This time round both Serene and I had little reservation and we did not hold back. And we were very happy with our acquisitions. This trip out to Ewha was specifically for that purpose. We attempted to shop around for some shoes and dresses but somehow the sizes and style didn't suit Serene.
Give the bear a hug before saying bye bye to Ewha.

"I want to eat the very nice barbecued Korean pork belly and the pork collar meat we had the first day," said Serene.

Tried as we did, we were not successful in finding any recommendations around Ewha. So we ended up back in Myeongdong 王妃家 again, this round ordering the Beef brisket set and three separate dishes: Pork belly, pork collar meat and pork cheek.

The PRC Chinese waiter fascinated me endlessly by patiently grilling our meat over the charcoal grill until they were once again cooked to perfect cripsinss outside while keeping the flavour full jiuciness inside. We didn't know how they did it, but we had never had anything like this back home. I guess it was like this, one had to come to the country of origin for the Soju, the kimchi, the Korean barbecue meat to taste especially tasty. It must have been something to do with the air quality, the coldness, the water, and the soil here. This was a memorable meal that I would cherish.

Right into a Myeongdong protest!
Protesting against President Park.
Rejuvenated after an afternoon nap, we took to the streets again. Up in the guesthouse I was hearing loudspeakers in the distance. As we walked down I commented to Serene that there must be some concert being held in Myeongdong as it was a Saturday afternoo . What we didn't realise was the main Toad Toegye-ro was sealed up because a massive protest was being held. Police officers were stationed all over the traffic junctions and policemen were running alongside the marching protesters, many old men and women holding the South Korean flag and shouting out loud following the loud hailers.

Serene and I were awe-struck. Never in our adult lives had we seen such massive turnout for protest. The whole street was filled with marching protestors. I turned to one police officer and asked him what happened. In halting English he told me it was a protest against the South Korean President. Oh, now I remembered. There was this recent corruption scandal by the President Park Geun Hye and the people were urging her to step down.
What an experience this was! I could remember as a teenager I used to watch the South Koreans protesting violently on the streets on news. Finally I had a chance to be right here in the heat of the action. The only different was, this was a peaceful march. But the fervour with which the protesters shouted was no less than before. We would have stayed to watch longer but we still had to search for some more items for the children.

In search for Bingsul
The famous one!
We had quite a few Bingsuls over the months but they were always in Bangkok. Yet we never had one in the land of its origin. So this time round we were determined. Sarah the manager of the Guesthouse recommended us Moderato, the coffee shop across the guesthouse. We went up to the second floor only to find a locked off area devout of furnishings. They had closed.
Following our Google map, we took another turn to somewhere a few blocks away.
"Neh! Here is the Bingsul!" said Serene, pointing to a signboard of delicious-looking Bingsul photos on the right side.
Bao gao liao, but still eat cold Bingsul.
 We took the lift up to the fifth floor to find another empty premises. It had closed down too. My goodness, this high Myeongdong rental really must have taken a toll on many businesses, like back home in Singapore.
Finally diagnonally across we found the famous Sulbing Korean Dessert Cafe on the second floor. There were so many people in this cafe and the tables were constantly full. We were taken aback. I never thought Bingsul would be so highly sought-after in a winters cold weather like this. I was utterly proven wrong.
"Wah, Dar you see the next table, the family of four sharing one bowl of Bingsul leh. Here we each have one bowl. Hahaha!" laughed Serene, pointing to our Injeolmi and Milk Red Bean Bingsuls.
Our Injeolmi. [Photo: Serene]

Here they would give you small cups of condensed milk to pour onto the Bingsul to add more sweetness to it. Delicious! Serene was right. We came all the way here in search of Bingsul we must really at least enjoy two different flavours.

Disappointing Namdaemun

Another foray into Namdaemun via the Myeongdong underground shopping centre brought us further up north to Sinchon station. We ventured further up than we expected. The whole of this Myeongdong underground shoping centre was opened but what the shops sold were art galleries stuff, antiques, some camera shops and mostly ajuma clothes, according to Serene.

Emerging to road level, my Google map guided me back to Songryemun and then back into Namdaemun market. The road side stalls were still opened. But there were hardly any shoppers walking around. Some of the shopkeepers were already closing.

We managed to find in one corner shop, an Army styled T shirt at 18000W for the army boy and a black beret for Serene. The shop owner said he was closing at 8pm. Hmmmm... so much for 24 hours shopping. As I walked I kept wandering, was there a part of Namdaemun market that remained opened through the night?

Was it the multi-storey buildings in the Namdaemun market areas that remained opened instead? The one that Serene and I walked up to the day before but seeing all children's clothing we didn't explore more? Well, maybe it was. But we could only find out on another trip.

Into the heart of Myeongdong

Our stomachs were definitely not in the state for dinner after the Bingsul, as we strolled deeper into Myeongdong to search for T shirts and collared shirts for the children. It was winter, and the shops were all selling winter wear and clothes more for the season rather than casual wears for summer time. So we continued our search.

We wandered further inwards and arrived at the street food part of Myeongdong which was a whole street of food vendors selling Fish Takoyaki, squids in various styles, ice cream, waffles, Tteokbokki, Eumulguk, Sausages, tarts. Lining the street were a dazzling display of accessory shops and fashion boutiques, something which I was sure the young girls would go gaga over if they were here.

"Wow, I never knew Myeongdong had so much more exciting things here."

On our left and right were many trendy shops. I could really imagine the girls going wild here if they were to be here once more. Serene was right. It was never easy to buy clothings for the girls, because each of them had their own preference. We would rather they come here themselves to choose. And that strengthened my conviction to make another future trip here with the family.
In the middle of the road a stall manned by two Ajumas was selling Eumulguk and Tteokbokki and sausages.
"How? Want to eat?" asked Serene.
I never said no to food, especially when it entailed standing at the counter of the stall in the cold, drinking the hot tasty soup and chomping down rice cakes and sausages and bacons, all going at 3000W to 6000W apiece. Food made more tastier with local Koreans and Taiwanese and Ang Mohs standing beside us enjoying the same food.

In and out we explored the shops and found nothing suitable for the girls. Finally we gave up. It just had to be another trip with the children to accomplish that. And what followed was more eating: fried squids, tarts, and ice cream waffles! Yes, Serene's favourite ice cream waffles. The lady packed it nicely wrapped by paper and placed into a brown paper bag. My initial astonishment was quickly replaced by reasoning- in this sub-zero temperature the ice cream would never melt. Even if we held it in the brown paper bag and walked a long long time more the ice cream would still stay frozen! Oh, these lucky Koreans!

The power of iPhone 7 plus

"咦,那看起来好像是单反相机呀!" one young PRC lady exclaimed as I was taking a shot of Serene eating the tart.
Serene gamely showed her photos of herself shot using the portraiture mode of the iPhone 7 Plus.
Her girlfriend and her both were impressed.
"我们的也是 iphone 7 plus 呀!" said her girlfriend.
I had to show her how to activate the Beta version of the 人像 mode on her iPhone and viola! She got Depth of field already! But the first girl didn't have the 'Portraiture' mode on her camera.
A guy companion with them laughed and said: "你买的是假电话吧!"
Haha actually what he said could be quite true. In China there were plenty of fake stuffs. Either that or she was a blur sotong who bought an iPhone 7 thinking it was an iPhone 7 plus. But whatever it was I told Serene it was interesting how observant the young PRC girls were in seeing how our photos turned out to be almost like DSLR shots- the power of iphone 7 Plus.

The only problem that I realised on his trip was, even the much enhanced battery life of the 7 Plus fell victim to sub-zero temperatures. Every time we were out in the street the whole phone turned icy-cold in matter of minutes. And I had to place a heat pack on its back to keep it warm. I anticipated that for our future climbing trips we would need to have many power banks if we were to use the iPhone 7 Plus as a camera. And we would need plenty of heat packs to keep them alive. Most importantly, this trip consolidated Kai Sing's words: "Aiyah.. bring a film camera for the last part to Kalar Patah lah!". Indeed I was expecting my iPhone to die on me up there at minus fifteen degrees and that would be a time for film camera.

DAY FOUR: 回家了!

It was never easy to leave Seoul. We flew all the way here to enjoy the nice aircon weather and the vibrance of the city and soon we had to return home. What made it easier was my determination to return again, even if it meant that I will be doing the same things and going the same places once more. What I have found during this trip was, we could easily get the Guesthouse to help us book day trips to Namli island and Petite France, and go on strawberry picking trips and day trips to skiing resorts. That will easily spice up the trips. Keep to the routine, but flavour it with new activities.

Travelling made simple
Waiting outside Exit 8 of Myeongdong Station. The bus came very quickly.

What I have also learned was it was wonderful staying next to Myeongdong station because the airport bus arrives here and departs from the exact same spot every ten minutes. And there would be no need to fret getting back to the airport. In fact our bus trip from Myeongdong to Incheon airport took only one hour.

 * Video 007: Go home liao lor!*

The wonderful Korean people

What I have also found out was, differing from what many have said about the roughness and rudeness of the Korean people, almost 99% of the Korean we came into contact with: the old stall keepers of Gwangjang market, the Airport bus driver, the service staffs in most shops, the waiters and waitresses in almost all the restaurants, could hardly be called rude. They were accommodating even though we couldn't speak the language and communications were established with the wonderful Google Translate App on my iPhone.

No wonder Korea is such a popular destination for many Singaporeans, Malaysians, Thais, and Indonesians we saw in Seoul. The only interesting finding from Serene's observation was, there seems to be not many Ang Mohs in Seoul, yes the scattered few, but really not many.
We were certain we would be back. And even as I sat in the airport boarding area, I was already checking Zuji and Korean Airline for dates. Hahaha!

Till the next trip then!

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