Wednesday, March 22, 2017

서울 again.

Can one EVER get tired of Seoul?  No.

Don't say we are crazy. Because I've a feeling we are. Merely three weeks after our last Seoul trip, a pair of irresistibly-priced bargain tickets by Singapore Airlines at $570 a pop propelled us towards this lovely city... again.

In mid March, the weather in Seoul has begun to mellow off, registering a high of about 15-16 degrees and a low of about -1 to -2 degrees, off the harshness of winter just three or four weeks ago.  

"Is it still going to be cold?" asked Serene.
"Nah.. it's going to be quite warm. So forget about bringing too many thick winter clothes."
First time finally got chance to use the Changi Airport foot massage machine.
 Several of my friends asked me why did I keep going back to one place again and again, to such a degree that is just short of being manically obsessed.  To me it's very simple.  I like to get familiar with things. And the more we frequent a destination, the more comfortable we get, be it a modern city or a rural outdoor village.  Of course, Serene's constant perstering about eating the Tteobokki and Yong Tau Fu of Seoul did me in too.

So, what are we going to do this time round in Seoul?

The plan was simple.  We only had perhaps two and three quarter days in Seoul this one round.  And we would just take it easy:

  • We will see if we can make some progressive lenses for our Korean glasses.  I've heard that 50% of all the optician outlets in South Korea are in Myeongdong and Namdaemun and they do plenty of wholesale so prices are very low compared to elsewhere.  And it took only two days for a pair of progressive lenses to be fixed.
  • We will do a day trip to Nami Island and Petite France, since these have been so publicized.  And our Guesthouse manager Sarah could so easily book that trip for us.  Thus this was planned for Friday.
  • We will explore the GOTO Mall and Yeongdeungpo underground malls, since so much have been said about these two huge malls, in particular GOTO Mall at Gangnam Terminal Express, where prices are cheaper than Namdaemun and there are no bargaining needed.
  • We need to buy winter gloves for ourselves and for the children, for our end of the year trekking trip.  If possible, also to keep a look out for winter clothes for my parents, who will be making their first trip to Seoul in February next year during Chinese New Year.
  • And of course, to eat.  Again.  Serene's favourite activity.  Just that this time we will be more selective and we will go for the kill.

DAY ONE: Time for some free and easy fun!

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The 8:05am SQ flight was definitely more sane in terms of timing and in terms of following our circadian rhythm.  Man, I haven't taken an SQ flight for the longest time, the cheapo that I am, and I have forgotten how spacious the seating arrangements are onboard the SQ A330 plane.  The entertaininment system was nice, and the SQ service was top notch, even for coach class.
The tent just outside Myeongdong station along the small lane of Toegye-Ro. One stick of Eulmuk for 1000W.
Serene very ngiao one. Said this one doesn't taste as nice as the Ajuma's tteokbokki.

Our first Tteobokki and Eulmuk
5:40pm.  I doubt if touching down and arriving at one's accomodation had ever been smoother.  Myeongdong station exit 8 was the drop off point.  A cool 8 degrees welcomed us.  And what more, a tent selling Tteokbokki and Eulmuk (the yong tau fu on sticks) greeted Serene.
"Hey, we are hungry, aren't we?" I asked.  And Serene was never one to say no to food.  Especially when it came to her favourite Tteobokki and Eulmuk.

K-Guesthouse Myeongdong 2

Literally two minutes walk from Myeongdong station was this most wonderful guesthouse.
Sarah 사르 and her Mother were happy to see us again, and they talked and talked to us like we were old friends. And this time round we were lucky cos we got the room just at the kitchenette level. I delighted in being able to run in and out to the kitchenette.  The rooms were bigger than the last round one- so there was indeed a difference between these bigger ones and those smaller rooms in the guesthouse.

GANA optical shop

Quickly we popped across the lane to the optical shop opposite. A good-looking, English-speaking young man by the name of Kim Man Jong 김만정 remembered the email correspondence between ourselves. In my personally opinion he and his senior did such a detailed and professional job on Serene and I, way better than the Optical shop in Siam square Bangkok, that I willingly brought out my two pairs of Korean frames and Serene's two frames, and I chose one more from his GANA collection, a vintage style one but with a modern twist.
Serene having her eyes tested.
The progressive lenses cost 80,000W (S$96) each. And transition progressive lenses cost 150,000W (S$185), and all these prices were better than in Bangkok, and way more worth it than back home.  I found out that 50% of all the optical shops in South Korea are located in Myeongdong and Namdaemun. There is a whole huge network of distributors and wholesale optical businesses in these two areas and competition has brought prices very low. And the optometrists in Korea need to be licensed in order to prescribe.  No wonder so many people come to Korea to make their glasses.  In fact glasses are a fashion statement in Korea and many of the younger generation would wear them for fashion sake.
Just did it.  Didn't know how many times.

I was glad we were introduced to GANA via Sarah of our Guesthouse.  And sincerely I think she has done me a great favour to link me up with Kim Man Jong.  Their constant checking and re-checking to ensure good fit and proper alignments of our lines of vision made these pairs of progressive lenses of better quality than those of mine made in Bangkok.  Even more, Kim Man Jong was careful enough to warn me that one of my frames may not give me as sharp a vision as it should because of the large size, something that I expected and was willing to accept.  But it actually turned out to be quite alright.
Even Serene made two pairs of progressives.
Thus just two days (it would have been only one day had I not wanted to make one pair with transition lenses) and on the evening 6pm of Saturday night, we walked out of GANA very satisfied.  We were saved the trouble of running all over Myeongdong and Namdaemun looking for optical shops and comparing prices.
Walking to the subway station

How to go about taking the Subway in Seoul?

Personally I found the App Seoul Subway by Mapway on my iPhone really helpful.  It allowed me to exactly pin point which station I was at at any moment and helped me plan my route, and showed me the connection and the transfer stations between the different Lines.  There are 9 Lines of different colours in the Seoul Subway network, but the system is well organised.

GOTO Mall (Express Bus Terminal station)

We have done several underground shopping malls.  But there was one famous one somewhere in Gangnam called GOTO Mall that was a truly special underground mall for ladies.  So on this evening, right after making our glassess, we head straight for GOTO Mall.   It was a 1350W (S$1.60) subway ride from Myeongdong on the light blue Line  4 to Dongjak station and then change to the light brown Line 9 another three stations away to Express Bus Terminal.  Learning from my previous mistake, this time round I remembered to walk right to the Ticket Refund machine AFTER each ride to get my 500W refund for each ticket.  The Seoul municipal government was clever.  But instituting this, it ensured that it would retrieve the vast majority of its subway tickets.

"Look for Exit 8-2, Dar," I instructed Serene.

And Exit 8-2 brought us right to the middle of the long underground shopping mall.  And wow... was it a buzzling mall!  We opened the door and got sucked into this eye-blinding collection of ladies' shops.

GOTO underground mall is 800m long and has 600 shops there and it is a lady's haven.  Most of the shoppers are the locals and what is more interesting is, prices there are really rock bottom, with many dresses, shoes, and items going at 10,000W and 5000W (S$12 and S$6 respectively).  There is no bargaining needed there.  All one hopes for is to just have her size, because Korean women are well known to be slim and sexy, even though many are tall.  This was a fact that Serene found to her dismay because she literally struggled to find Large and XL sizes for those dresses and jeans that she set eyes upon.

"Chogiyo (Excuse me)! You have Large size? I... FAT!" She would go up to the store lady and laughingly show her bulging tummy to the salesgirl.

Many of the shops are run by young female owners and cheerful female employees, and with such youth and vibrancy pervading, one just needed to  be here to keep abreast of the latest in fashion wear.  Most were polite and helpful.  Some reviewers wrote about how impolite the shop owners were.  But I believed these must be a small minority, and perhaps also referring to a small handful of Ajumas who were not too interested in doing tourists' businesses perhaps for want of the ability to communicate.

Apparently GOTO Mall is opened every day except for Seollal, the Korean Lunar New Year.  One site wrote that it closes on the third Thursday of every month.  But it was not so, because this evening when we visited, it was indeed the third Thursday of the month.  However, one thing about GOTO Mall was, the shops do close at 10pm.  Thus, it would be good to plan for a visit earlier.

"I am hungry!" Complained the ever-hungry woman.

We found a delightful little Siktang (canteen, or small restaurant) at the end of the underground mall, run by a couple of Ajumas and ordered spicy Tofu soup for Serene and Beef noodle soup for myself and added a pork rib Gyoza as extra side.

The pork rib Gyoza was really one of the most aromatic and tastiest I had never had.  And the price wasn't expensive, by Seoul standards - 6000W and 7000W for our pots of food, and 5000W for the Gyoza.  The meal came up to 18000W (S$22).  The Ajuma spoke perfect Mandarin, after realizing that my Korean was really CMI.

It was almost 10pm.  By the time we finished our dinner, GOTO Mall was about to fall asleep, and so were we.  We have accomplished the missions we set out to achieve on this day, and it was time to retire.

11pm.  The temperature registered 4 degrees.   We walked the streets of Myeongdong looking for fresh strawberries and found a street stall where a young man was selling them at 5000W (S$6) a box and we grabbed two.   We have discovered the sweet and juicy strawberries of Korea on our last trip and they have served me well as a source of hydration, and Serene as a form of bowel regulator.  But most of all, we enjoyed just popping them while watching TV in the Guesthouse (with the most funny note on the bed).

DAY TWO: The home of Petite Prince and the island of General Nami

It would be totally monotonous if we were to just revolve around shopping malls.  Seoul really has many things to do and many places to go to, if only one has the time.  On this trip, I got Sarah to book a day trip to Petite France, the French village and a trip to Nami Island, the island made famous by the cast of the 2002 runaway success Korean Drama Winter Sonata shooting their famous scene along its line of trees.
This day trip is run by KTourStory, and the participants on this day were from Hong Kong, Singapore (yes, another Singapore family to, Thailand, The Phillipines and also Indonesia.
Jasmine coordinating our day tour.

8:10am.  A pretty young lady was organizing the visitors just outside Exit 2 of Myeongdong Station.  She was conversing in Korean to the drivers and the marshalls, and then when she started speaking English I was surprised to hear her accent.

"Are you from Singapore?" I asked.  And she smiled.
Jasmine was her name, and she was married to a Korean and had been living and working in Seoul for 4 years.  Her command of the languages made her a good choice for a job as a tour coordinator.  Jasmine joked that she missed Singapore food a lot and often flew back home to visit her family and enjoy her native food.
Our guide Hessy, at Petite France.

At that moment, another fair young lady came up to Jasmine and started conversing in Korean.  This Hessy was our guide for the day.  And as it turned out, she was a student from Hong Kong who was here in Korea studying business and communications for the past year, and was working part time as a tour guide.  Her command of Mandarin, Cantonese, English and fluent Korea made her an ideal selection to take a group like us comprising Southeast Asians and those from the Far East.  
"Wah, if you never say, I also can't tell.  She looks like a Korean girl," remarked Serene.  I totally agree with her. "The way she speaks Korean it sounds like a real Korean like that."
One and a half hour bus ride to Petite France.

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Petite France 法国村
It's like in a dreamland... a little child's dream.

In true fact, Petite France was nothing more than a re-enaction of the setting in the book The Little Prince by the French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.  I read this book as a very young child when I first borrowed it from the Marine Parade National Library and I read it in the Chinese version.  Since then, the story and the illustrations stuck in my mind, even until today.  Only when we read about, and visited Petite France, that the memories of all these started flooding back.
When in Petite France, dress like the French.
This scene was from the book!

The houses and buildings were distinctly French-like and the surrounding was up on the side of a mountain over-looking a river.  There were guesthouses in Petite France for those who wished to spend a night or two there and to experience the leisurely life of sitting down in the middle of the day with nothing to do but just sipping a cuppa.
The French Ajuma going for a stroll.
One of the most handsome French Commandos minam (handsome man) having a break.
My Americano, and Serene's Cappucino.

To be frank, the layout of Petite France reminded me of the medieval village in Italy San Giminagno, but of course this was a made believe village.
One hour and a half was just nice there.
Finally able to take a non-photo-bombed shot of the front wall all by ourselves

Nami Island 南怡岛
"Let's take a shot at the ticket booth here at Gapyeong Wharf before going over to Nami Island"
The ferry cometh

What was there to see in Nami island?  The simple answer is, really nothing much.  Like what Serene said when we visited Nami island - it was like our Sentosa Island back home; you would probably visit it once and that was enough.
The French lady making her pilgrimage to pay her respect to the Korean General Nami.

Our friend Alex Ortega commented that we could stay in the guesthouses in Nami island so that we could enjoy the peaceful surrounding without the crowds.  That was quite true too.  As Nami island did have a serenity that deserved gentle experiencing.  But never when it was inundated with visitors from late morning onwards.
Right at the landing wharf, when there was still not too many visitors.
Gapyeong wharf was where we took the five minute ferry ride to Nami island.  We set foot on Nami island at 12:25pm, together with the crowd of visitors who have started to flock towards the entrance.
Classic of everything Korean, there were many Kyopta little scultures.
The Nami-ans weren't shy of anything maternal... especially in the buff.
... and they display it will poise, with a dash of humour thrown in.
There were many sculptures big and small on the island, many of which brought wicked smiles to our faces.  There was also a tomb of General Nami, after which this crescent-shaped island was named, right near the wharf where the ferry docked.
The famous Maple tree lane that traverses from the wharf along the length of the island.

My own wish was to see that Metasequoiae lane of trees where they shot Winter Sonata.  Other than that everything else was secondary.  Sadly, the line of trees that hello-ed us was a balding line of trunks and branches.   Along the Maple tree lane, the leaves were there, but they were all merely green leaves.  We were smacked right between a white winter and a lovely autumn, so we had neither the flurry scenery nor the blossom of colours.  Wrong season.  But still, a tick it was. Hmmm.. maybe it was meant to be.. a trick to make us go back again during snowy winter, and perhaps during colourful autumn.
The Metasequoiae Lane where they shot the Winter Sonata.  But alamak! All the trees were BOTAK!
They very clever.  Recycled flattened soju bottles to make walls!
This Serene ah... She just loved to grab Kyopta little Korean children and carry them.
LUNCH at Nammun Korean restaurant.
The tofu was nice! Serene loved it.

The weather was nice.  It was a warm 14 degrees Celsius.  Warm enough for us to have most of our layers off.  But still cool enough for us to find the real fireplaces burning in the park at designated spots, a delight in warming up our hands.  They really did set up wooden logs burning at the fireplaces.  And not only ourselves, the local Koreans were also enjoying the fire.  That was quite a new experience for both of us.
It was 14 degrees. But the air was chilly enough for us to still need the outdoor fireplace to warm our hands.

We could cycle around Nami island. We could take the UNESCO train around.  However, walking around was much nicer.  There were as many local Koreans as there were foreign tourists.  We were pleasantly surprised.  As I had always maintained, an attraction that attracted the local visitors as much as the foreigners would be here to stay.  So we saw young Korean families with babies in strollers and families with young children running around, not to forget many young Korean couples in couple outfits on the prowl for romantic backdrops for their wefies.
Nami island, very much like Jeju island, had plenty of landscaping, and gardens and parks designed for picnics.  The Koreans really love the outdoor.

Strolling along. I saw landscapes with many trees and I could imagine the sight come autumn when the multi-coloured leaves were in full display. Perhaps that may be an impetus for an autumn visit.
 Serene would say: "Wait, wait.. next week I tiok TOTO we will be here again in three weeks' time.".  This girl... she was forever in dreamland.

My take?
So what would I recommend? Petitie France? Yes, if the family hadn't been to this colourful little village and would be thrilled by having tons of photos taken at every quaint little corner, then certainly take a trip there but spend no more than two hours.  And while at it, do take a seat at any of the cafeteria and enjoy an Americano or a Cappucino. But once, or perhaps twice, will suffice.
General Nami's poem

Nami island?  Well, a certain yes.  But go during winter when there is snow, and go during autumn when there are colours.  And sincerely, if you should like to smell the fresh cool air and stay in the wooden guesthouses while it snowed outside, plan a night or two of stay during winter, and have a swell time in front of the fireplace.  That may just be another trip for ourselves in due course.
The pretty Sarah, our guesthouse manager.

5pm.  We were dropped off at Exit 8 Myeongdong station.  There was something magical about Exit 8 of Myeongdong subway station.  It was as if it were the centre of the Universe.  And wherever we went, we would invariably start here and end up here.  It further strengthened our conviction that the fengshui for this small plot of land here must be really very wang.  And we would just keep staying around this area again and again... and again and again.

Window shopping around Myeongdong

This was a chilly Friday night.  As the mercury went slightly southwards to 8 degrees.  
"Dar, tonight I am going to bring you to a special traditional Korean barbecue restaurant called Ouga," I said. "We have had Wanbijib twice on our last visit.  But this time round, let me bring you to this joint run by a team of Korean Ajumas.  I read the reviews on Trip Advisor and they were good."

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Dinner at Ouga
The signboard was so special - cannot be missed one.

And it turned out that Ouga was two doors away from our Guesthouse.  No wonder the photos of the entrance looked so familiar.  
The whole set up was traditional, with wooden beams and pillars lining the interior and was designed with an earthly-toned decor.  This was one of the few Korean restaurants that served seaweed as part of their Banchan.  And the Ajumas were famed to be motherly and friendly.  Well, they were indeed.  And one of the Ajumas even started speaking Mandarin to us when I struggled with what little Korean I learned from Sarah and her mother in the afternoon.  She even demonstrated to us how to eat our barbecue meat. [decor]
Their Banchan (side dishes) got seaweed one leh!

What I found exciting was, beside the seaweed banchan, the leaves they served as part of the wraps for the meat were of several types, and of different hues.   I found that visually stimulating.  And the different tastes of the leaves brought out the taste of the barbecued meat.  The meal was cheaper than a similar one in Wangbijib (Main store).  No wonder reviewers found it more affordable (here is the menu list).
The locals and naturalised locals here for their dinner.

What the reviewers didn't mention was, much unlike Wangbijib that was frequented by many tourists,  many of Ouga's customers were locals.  While we were there there was a big extended Korean family having dinner, and the man of the family was married to a Thai lady and they had a young little girl, who spoke both Korean and Thai.  

"I'm always very happy when I see people of different races coming together in a family and enjoy the closeness of being together," said Serene.  "That little girl is really obviously the parents, the grandparents and the uncles and aunties' bao-bei.  See the way they all play with her?"

53,000W was our dinner.  A good deal for so much food we ordered.  For a taste of the traditional Korean and a whiff of the local flavour, yes I would bring the family to Ouga for a meal.

In search of THE Tteobokki...
This cosmetics salesgirl was quite cute. But she didn't allow me to take a shot of her. Sigh...
Poor Serene had been eagerly looking forward to finding the Ajuma's stall in Myeongdong where she had a most delicious bowl of Tteobokki and a spicy tasty stick of Eulmuk.  It was somewhere in the middle of Myeong, but we just couldn't find it this time.  What we found was instead, plenty of lipsticks, serum, face cream, this lah that lah... all tasked by the respective departments in our lives. But gladly we complied because the prices in Myeongdong was definitely cheaper.  What took us some time was some packets of Korean Macadamian snacks that somehow got seriously out of stock not only in Singapore, but even in Seoul here. Luckily the stars were on our side, and in one T-junction, we found a cart with a most handsome Korean boy selling it.  The price was stiff (7000W a packet) but when compared with Singapore, this was still cheaper.
With so many Indonesians and Malaysians and Singaporean Muslims visiting Seoul, this man is wise to take on the label.
There are many cats and dogs and cartoons figures in Myeongdong. Cos it isn't that hot there.  Singapore? Surely cannot one.
"This boy acts in Goblin one!" said Serene.
"Dar, there there! Here the strawberries are selling at 4000W a box leh!" Serene was happily pointing to an Ajuma's cart.  Indeed.  We grabbed two boxes, ready for the Korean TV tonight.  But later back in the guesthouse we found that the cheaper ones tasted much less sweet than the bigger ones.  In fact, one of the Thai guests in our Guesthouse shared with us that the 5000W ones were better and sweeter, and much more worth it.
The Korean drama star who ended up selling Macadamian snacks in Myeongdong. Handsome like don't know what!
"Dar, I haven't eaten my Hoettoek yet leh," I said.  This Hoetteok thing was the ham-cheem-bang equivalent in Korea.  A very popular snack in cold winter, it was a pancake with sweet bean and caramel paste inside and served steaming hot in a paper cup.  Our memories served us well, and at one corner of Myeongdong the boy who was selling Hoetteok was still there, and we savoured our hot Korean ham-cheem-bang.
We ate in this restaurant at the periphery of Myeongdong last visit - I loved the Samgaetang here.

"Dar, let's go and eat the Bingsul at Ediya coffee," urged Serene.  She had been eyeing the Ediya coffee's bingsul from the night before and as a last stop for the night, she just wanted to cool down her throat before she called it a day.
Ediya bingsul

Ediya coffee was a few doors away from our guesthouse and for 9800W, we had a big bowl of Red bean milk bingsul.  
"Hmmm... that Sulbing one tastes better," concluded Serene.
Well, I guessed that was true too.  Ediya was a coffee joint mah, while Sulbing was a pure Korean dessert joint.  "Ok, we will have Sulbing bingsul tomorrow," I promised her.

DAY THREE: Of Korean Palace, Korean political gathering and Korean hospitality
Serene and her famous Myeongdong omelette.

True to my promise, we woke up later on this morning, with totally nothing planned for the day.  There were eggs for breakfast, and Serene whipped up a four-egg omelette for me while I did her usual toast with butter and her coffee.  The cereals at K-Guesthouse Myeongdong tasted nicer than any cereals I had.  Really strange.  Must have been the air and the water.
Ok! Time to go gai gai already!
One great thing about staying in a Guesthouse instead of a full-fledge hotel was, one could easily mingle with the guests in the kitchenette and share experiences and stories.  Together with us was a very friendly Thai family and the Thai lady and her sister, who works in Thailand as a Korean-Thai translator gave us a Korean melon that they bought and also about their travels.  There was another lady from Penang who stayed upstairs on the fifth floor, who told me all I wanted to know about Nami island and was so kind to offer to cook an egg for me the day before.
This day was going to be a generally sunny day.  And not that cold.

Most importantly I found, was that we could strike a good relationship with the staff of the guesthouse, namely Sarah and her mother, and the weekend manager Anna.  They were so kind to not only help me book our day tour, Sarah also helped introduced us to GANA.  And most surprisingly, when I was in Nami island and I needed to ask the waitress if they had soya sauce, I emailed Sarah, and she very promptly corrected my flaw sentence and gave me the correct expression in Korean, all via email! Such service!  I would not imagine ourselves being as close to the ground had we not have the honour of being acquainted with these good people.
En route to Deoksugong on foot.

"Dar," I announced to Serene during breakfast. "This day I have totally totally no plans.  Later when I am in the toilet let me see what my brain comes up with, and we will just go, ok?" I really loved free and easy. It was never always easy. But one was free to do whatever what one wanted.

And boy... did my brain churn up things!

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It was about 10:20am by the time we dressed up and left the guesthouse.  Talk about taking it easy.  Being a Saturday morning, the whole Myeongdong was already crowded.  Our first stop - Deoksugong, the palace opposite the famous Seoul Plaza.

It was a nice 10 degrees morning to walk to Deoksugong through Myeongdong and Namdaemun.  We saw signboards advertising Korean buffets at certain locations, and we made a mental note on them for our future trips.  We also found more down-to-earth Siktang on the underground pass, with very cheap meals.  We were strolling leisurely with no haste and our eyes were enjoying the scene all around us with nicely-dressed Korean ladies and men walking briskly.  The Koreans were really one heck of a fast walkers, no less fast than Hong Kongers in their pace.  And in winter, ladies and men in coats made the views so much more striking.
As we neared Deoksugong, we saw many police.

It had become such that even for travellers like ourselves, we could easily tell tourists and locals apart simply by how they dressed.  The tourists, especially first time tourists, would be in their colourful parkas or pastel coloured outer layers of blue, green, red, pink, lime or whatever.  The Koreans would be in their elegant winter wear - coats or suits for men, and for women,  faux fur or faux leather coats, and velvet outers with leggings and high cut boots.  Of course, some discerning tourists would never be caught dead in anything less than what the Koreans wore.  But somehow we could always tell where a person was from, almost, by their look as they walked on the streets.  Koreans would forever have a Korean look - the fair complexions, the eye brows, the eyes, the sharp noses and the patriotic air about them (more about that later).

"Why does it sounds so good when the Koreans speak Korean ah?" asked Serene of me as we walked.
I explained it was the way the tonality of the language went - it being a melodic swing from a high pitch to a low pitch with strings of wavering in between.  I used the way Taiwanese spoke Mandarin as an analogy to how Singaporeans spoke Mandarin.  The Taiwan girls spoke with more flavour, and their tone and pronunciations made their language sound so much more 'tiah' than us.
"Well, if I leave you here in Korea for one year, by the end of it, you will be fee-lee-feh-leh speaking nice sounding Korean like any of them liao lor," I told Serene.
Deoksugong's Daehanmun.

Deoksugong 德寿宫
Inside the front courtyard.

10:53am.  We were surprised (or maybe we were not) to see the whole area being patrolled by a mustering of police officers in their lime-green vests.  And a distance away, a loud hauler was being tested.  Several Ajumas were setting up stalls selling the Korean flag and badges.

"What's happening?  Is there going to be another protest like the last time?" asked Serene.  It WAS Saturday and weekends were famous for the political activists to hold their gatherings and activities all across Seoul, with Seoul Plaza and areas around Myeongdong being popular venues.
The Emperor's throne

1000W entrance fee allowed us into Deoksugong.   Deoksugong was definitely smaller than Geongbokgong, the main palace with its famous Gwanghwamun gate.  In its own way, Deoksugong was charming.  An old municipal-looking building and two midsized traditional Korea palace surrounded a central open ground.  In many ways it reminded me of 
Namsangol Hanok, but in a grander version.
Outside the hall with the Emperor's throne.

"Wow, this is the Emperor's throne leh," I pointed out to Serene as we entered the hall. "Would you love to sit in the throne and spend your whole life watching the ceremonies past you?" Serene looked around the dark musty hall and shook her head.   Yeah I guessed as much.  She'd much rather be out there eating her Tteokbokki.

"Here hor, in this palace, there are no rare Pokemons, not like when we were in Namsangol Hanok village that time," the complains started.  "There were so many rare Pokémons there I caught until I siao. Here nothing one.  So boring one."   Also good lah, for once can just use her handphone to take photos mah.
A group of children and their teacher.

But for me, what attracted me was still the architecture, the beams, the pillars, the way the chambers and halls were linked and connected with each other. And the colour scheme of the palace.  We would never see anything like this outside of Korea.  It was the Koreans' way of preserving their culture, their dignity and a reminder to their future generations where they had come from, and the arduous journey their ancestors took to arrive at where they were today.

A political gathering!
The presence of all the South Korean flag heralds a political gathering of a significant size.
made more tense by the presence of police.

I surprised myself when I looked back and realised we only spent one hour in Deoksugong.  An hour well-spent is way better than ten idly passed.  And this morning, at 11:50am as we walked out of  the palace, we came face to face with a sea of people waving Korean flags from just outside Deoksugong all the way to the open ground in Seoul Plaza.  Right outside Deoksugong was an old man all dressed in white, shooting slogans at the top of his voice, oblivious to everyone and every police around him.
Not far from where we were, a stage was set and on stage were a couple of reverends and a group of people seated, in dark solemn robes.  The reverend started by a speech, followed by the singing of the Korean national anthem and then the screen flashed names of people.  Beside us, many Ajushis and Ajumas sang the anthem with fervour and many actuallly shed tears.  We couldn't understand a single word, but the passion with which the people sang and waved and the intensity of their expressions brought tears into our eyes too, as we realised that they were remembering the war deads, most probably their comrades who fell during the Korean War.

I explained to Serene how strongly patriotic the Koreans were as an ethnic group of people, And how they have been down-trodden over the centuries by the Chinese, and then by the Japanese.  And they have become fiercely loyal and strongly protective of their culture and sovereignty as a national people.  I strongly admire the Koreans for their pride.  And the thought of that brought me to explain to Serene why the traditional song Arirang was of such importantce to the Korean people.  Because it sang of an intrinsic sadness, a historical burden that had been carried by the people of Chosun as they fought their adversaries who tried but failed to assimilate them.
And looking at Korea now, a highly successful economy in Asia, with its own pop industry that is taking over the world by storm, with admirers from across the globe flocking to visit Korea, in awe of the beautiful Korean girls and dashing Korean men portrayed on the tubes/. They had indeed come a long way.  And they should be proud of their accomplishment.  

"But Papa, the Koreans are well known to be very stressed at work and in their studies," Ah Li mentioned in one of her texts.
That was certainly true.  Much like the Japanese and many parts of Southeast Asia, the Koreans lead very stressful lifestyles.  That was an inevitable.  There would be no society that could move forward without its people being hard-working, and without the state being a welfare-oriented one like many European nations, that resulted in more deep-seated problems than what the welfare program set out to solve.

Another speech on the stage brought me out of my reverie as I caught sight of both Korean and American flags being waved in the crowd.  The recent spat between China and South Korea, as a result of South Korea's collaboration with the USA in the THAAD defence system had brought the constantly simmering relationship up one notch, and China had recently clamped down on the number of PRC visitors to South Korea.  That perhaps explained why during this visit, we found so much lesser PRC tourists, and in contrast to our previous visits, we saw more Ang Mohs, and many were Americans.  The drop in PRC tourists to Korea would definitely have an impact on their hospitality industry as for example, 85% of the tourists to Jeju were from China.  But for us, it was a great relief to have a breath of fresh air.

The other recent incident that raised political temperature a little was the assasination of Kim Jong Nam, North Korea's dictator Kim Jong Un's half brother in Kuala Lumpur.  And all the repercussions of that as each country severed ties and deported the other country's ambassador.  In many ways, this would raise tension in South Korea as they stepped up their military status, in view of North Korea's recent launching of a middle into the sea just west of Japan's waters.

Living in a politically volatile region like this would certainly make their citizens so much more aware.  It was a difficult choice: to live in a relatively peaceful country like Singapore where one could afford to be politically unaware, or be in a country where war could boil over any time.  

I pulled at Serene's elbow.  It was as much an eye opener to her as it was to me, albeit to different levels and in different aspects I was sure.  Being here in the heart of protests and activities served as stimulants to my thoughts.   It prompted me to read further on the Korean War, which I had already started reading recently, after Zheng Ang sat down and shared with me about his readings on the Cold War and the Vietnam War.   As thought provoking these were, we needed to move on.  

And where shall we go next?
I love the oldness of Noryangjin

Noriangjin Fish Market

Of course. Where else but the Traditional Noriangjin Fish Market for a taste of fresh seafood, the Korean way.  I had read so much about seafood in Seoul and every search pointed to Noriangjin Seafood Market.  I got addicted to eating Sanakji, the live squid sashimi.  And after my last attempt in Gwangjang Market, I knew I had to have another go this round.  But little did I know that I would actually come to the mecca of seafood market- Noriangjin.

Noriangjin was a mere few stations away from where we were at City Hall station, just straight down south along the blue line.  And when the train stopped we walked onto an open platform, an oldish style station that bore the prelude to the atmosphere one would be immersed in when one arrived at the market itself.

The Noriangjin station was linked by an overhead bridge straight to the seafood market.  There were two signs - one directing to the NEW Noriangjin maker on the left, and the other one to the Traditional Noriangjin market to the right.  It went without question which side we took.

And what a sight .  It was a typical wet seafood fish market with stalls after stalls after stalls virtually selling exacetlly the same thing - live big flower crabs, live quids, life scallops, live abalones, freshly dead prawns of gigantic proportions, and bamboo clamps and such.  What a dazzling sight.  We just walked past, totally lost to how to order.  At the back of my mind, I remember reading a blog about ordering from any of the stalls and bringing the seafood to any of the 食堂 Siktang lining the side of the market and paying a fee, asking them to prepare for us.
Live squid.

We finally found a stall where a Mandarin-speaking Korean Ajuma introduced us to some live squids (3 for 10,000W - S$12) and half a kilo of freshly dead prawns for 10,000W, and brought us to the Siktang at the side.  For  3000W a person we would get served Banchan (Korean side dishes, unlimited supply) and water.  For 10.000W she will do a butter deep fry of the prawns for us.  Sounded good.

And we were so happy to be brought into one of the many traditional tents with the transparent plastic flaps that protected the diners from the harsh weather outside.  Inside was a whole cacophony of Korean spoken in loud voices as happy Korean men and women of all ages sat happily enjoying their seafood.  Again, I thought to myself - if the locals come here to eat, then we are safe. And were we safe! The food turned out to be fantastic.

The sanakji were moving even more vigorously than those I had in Gwangjang market, and the butter fried spicy prawns were so delicious Serene simply lapped them up.  The banchan and sauces were one of the best.  And the soju totally brought out the tastes of the food.

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As we both sat down and enjoyed our food, an Ajushi sitting on the table beside us suddenly handed over a bottle of what turned out to be black currant juices.  He gestured us to mix it together with our soju... and the taste of the alcohol became our of the world!  The old man smiled and gently urge us to finish that bottle as he continued his meal with his other Ajushi friend.

"That's 100% black current juice," called out a Korean man seated diagonally across our table in English. "We mix it with soju and it enhances the taste."
Wow.. can you imagine it?  Three tables of total strangers and here they were - one offering his beverage to two lost travellers, and another one offering his advice to us.

The younger man who spoke English to us and his China friend, together with the two old men beside us, smiled warmly at us as we thanked all of them.  In appreciation we ordered a bottle of Soju for the old man but he politely declined as he returned to the Ajuma, using the words "Gomapsibnida!" to us (Thank you in the words used towards one of a younger generation).

Both Serene and I were so touched by the hospitality shown. We didn't think we would have enjoyed such warmth further closer towards the city central.  But here in an older, more traditional part of Seoul, we found ourselves once again basked in Korean kindness.

We enjoyed the meal so much that I made Serene walk out to the stalls to order another serving of the Sanakji for me.  I must have gulped down the black currant laden soju a tad too fast for the next thing I knew I woke up from a deep sleep midway through the meal.  Serene was laughing her head off in front of me, taking videos after videos of my drunk state.  Terrible!
Getting sleepy

The Ajuma who cooked our meal and the Eunni who delivered our food were very friendly and as we talked, they exp;pained in Mandarin that they were 朝鲜族 ethnic Koreans from the border between North Korea and China.  And they were now living and working in South Korea. BINGO! That explained everything and every question that I had in my mind.  And what Jasmine the Singaporean guide shared with us earlier yesterday, many of these ethnic Koreans came to work and live in South Korea, but they were still considered as Chinese Nationals with working permits in South Korea. They had the added advantage of being able to communicate with the native Koreans and yet were able to serve the Mandarin-speaking PRCs, Taiwanese, Hong Kongers, and many of the Southeast Asians from Singapore and Malaysia.

And what more, they were open all through Seollal (Korean Lunar New Year!).  So the stage was set. This was one of the most enjoyable meals Serene and I had, not only because of the food, but also because of the company, more so from the warmth of a company that was so unexpected.  Sometimes for a traveler, all it took was an unforgettable experience experience like this, to leave a deep impression of the county and its people.

I didn't know how. But I stumbled out of Noriangjin back to the subway station with Serene holding on tightly to be elbow and proceeded to take a train in the totally wrong direction. Luckily somewhere in my subconscious mind I could detect the mistake and rectified it.
Take subway from Noryangjin to Express Bus Terminal

GOTO Mall... again!
This shoes shop in GOTO Mall was full of people on this Saturday afternoon!
"Dar, bo let's go to GOTO Mall again leh, can?" asked Serene. "I want to see the clothes shops there some more."

A semi-drunk man would hardly say no. So three stops away from Noriangjin, after finding the right sixtection we exited Exit 8-2, and entered the doors of GOTO Mall.
This time round it was a terribly crowded Saturday afternoon and crowds of mainly Korean women thronged GOTO Mall, young and not so young. I fell asleep time and again leaning against the many pillars along the whole walkway while Serene shopped and shopped, only to wake up episodically to pay money.  This was the best shopping experience I ever had. And I was sure the feeling was mutual too for Serene.

"Ok I am about done," said Serene.
"Let's go get a cup of coffee, can?" I suggested. "I really need to wake up."

So towards the end of GOTO Mall where the cafeterias were we walked.  An empty table at the corner of Agreat Cafe invited us. One Mixed Berry yogurt and an Coffee yogurt plus one more cappucino was what needed to jolt me out of my semi-slumber state.  And what jolted me awake was a most cute little Sean year old Korean girl who came up to me and asked if my coffee was an americano. Her mother was sitting at one side smiling and keeping an eye on her. 
This little girl pointed to my yogurt and asked: "맛있어요? (Masisseoyo- delicious?)"

My surprised gradually melted into a feeling of tenderness.  I had hardly ever had a young child come up to me outside, as a perfect stranger, and asked me such an innocent little question.
I scooped the first scoop of the yogurt and passed it to her, while looking at her mother for approval, which was given.  The child happily took the spoonful and cheerfully nodded her head in reply often question back to her "Masisseoyo?"

When Serene came back, the little girl went on to talk to her and played with her.  And when her mother  bought her a sandwich she offered half of the sandwich  to me! I politely declined, and thanked her mother. Throughout our interaction, the little girl showed little timidness and yet remained very polite, bowing and nodding her head to my questions and kept saying thank you.
Our interaction with that little toddler the day before ok Nami island and our encounter with the little seven year old girl gave me a good idea of the younger generation of the Koreans. They are brought up still with plenty of emphasis on being respectful to their elders and seniors but yet they have taken on a brand new level of boldness in approaching the world, in the way they communicate and view things around them. Compared with the many spoilt brats back home, who who barge their way through things but with almost none of the finesse and courtesy of the Korean children, I think we are far far behind in our moral education.

Yookssam Naengmyeon 윣쌈냉면
48 hours, and our transition progressive spectacles were done and collected! That's fast!

Back to Myeongdong finally after gallivanting outside. I really enjoyed the fact that we could still pop back into our room and take a quick shower before going out again.
Yookssam Naengmyeon

We walked passed a restaurant called Yookssam Naengmyeon. The photos attracted me. I hadn't had Naengmyeon on this trip yet, and I longed for one. So we went up to the second floor and ordered: 
  • Duenjang Jigae 大酱汤 + 숯불고기 Suchbul golgi 碳烤肉 - for Serene
  • Dulsot Bibimbap 돌솥비빔밥 + 슻불고기 Suchbul golgi - for myself
  • 물냉면 Ul Naengmyeon + 숯불고기 suchbul golgi - to share.

It was a relatively cheap meal, with each item priced at about 6500W to 7000W only, and each set came with banchan and a plate of pork.  We really enjoyed this meal.  By the time we finished our dinner, we were feeling really full.
The street to that Ajuma Tteokbokki
8:30pm, we turned into another small lane and Serene suddenly called out: "Hey this is where my Tteokbokki Ajuma is!"
Her excitement was palpable as we walked a little deeper.  She kept mumbling this was the lane. And she was right. We finally came to her favourite Tteokbokki and Eulmuk street stall, run by a pair of sisters, Ajuma is every respect, but merely Eunnis to Serene.  The special thing about this stall was, its sauce was specially tasty and spicy and that was perfectly up Serene's alley. Of all the Tteokbokki she ate, this was the ONLY stall that she would come back to.

I ordered a stick of Sora 소라 海螺 for 5000W and wow it was one heck of a nice tasting stick of Sora.  In my heart I was sure my father would love to try this when he comes over to Seoul.

Now happily Tteokbokki-ed and Eulmuk-ed, we walked further down Myeongdong and found one of the buffet restaurants I discovered on our last trip at a very affordable price which I wanted to identify for our future trip.  As we made our way towards UNESCO street, guess what we found on the left side of the same lane? Of course... Sulbing bingsul located on the second floor!
We simply could not resist a bowl of red bean milk Bingsul to share. 7800W we ordered one bowl and shared between us.
"Wah this Sulbing dessert cafe is full of 小妹妹 hor.." remarked Serene as we looked around and saw many young and pretty girls having Bingsul with their friends, all their faces dolled up with white foundations.
What I found intriguing about the ladies both young and old in Korea was they all take very good care of their already genetically well-endowed complexion. None would be caught dead without their Snow White foundations and lip sticks. Even they men I often suspect that they apply some skin products to lighten their skin.  It kind of made me a little self-conscious of my tan, whenever I was in a crowd of saccharine-looking men with the typical left slanting fringes hanging from their thick head of curly hairs.

DAY FOUR: Time to say bye bye again

This trip to Korea, time passed relatively slower. It wasn't that bad at all when on day two we already felt that we had done plenty of things and gone many places when we were still half way through our trip.  I think having the home bound flight departing at 4:35pm made it so much more leisurely on the last day we were in Seoul.

Early morning on day 4 the mercury read a 6 degrees, and slowly rising up to 8. Today was going to be a really warm day, a fact that we would find out later when we started sweating.
Meanwhile I walked alone along the streets of Myeongdong early the morning with a baselayer and the one day old UNIQLO Ultra light down jacket and found that it did well in the 8 degrees temperature, though a pair of gloves would make it better. Without wind it would be ok. But if one were to stay out in the cold for a little longer and not doing trekking to work up the body heat, or if it were to be a windy day, then another outer layer of coat would be important.

To winter-naive people from the Tropics, every trip to a wintry country was a chance for us to test out our gears.  I had learn on this trip that many of us who suffered from cold fingers and cold feet did so because we didn't protect our core sufficiently.  It was crucial to keep the body warm with sufficient layers so that the body would not divert blood from the extremities to maintain the core temperature, thus preserving the warmth of the fingers and feet.  A new discovery for me.

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I didn't really use my neck cover this round, nor my beanie.  These two would come in useful if the wind was strong. Another thing I discovered was, despite what some people criticized about the decathlon heat packs, these relatively cheap heat pack were really hot and when placed inside my gloved palms they helped a lot and when adhered to my iPhone the heat kept the battery from draining too fast in the cold.
Myeongdong Cathedral
Our wefie outside Myeongdong Cathedral

Claiming Tax Refund at  Incheon Airport
One big question I had always asked myself was about how to claim Tax refund in Korea.  Some shops in Myeongdong are instant Tax Free shops where the refund is applied immediately to your purchases.  Others are Tax Refund shops which will issue the receipt after inspecting our passports.  It is these receipts that we need to bring to Incheon airport to have our 5-6% (significant amount, if purchases are more) tax refunded.
The counters just diagonally across Check in Row H at the Departure have several staff assisting in scanning the receipts and the passports.  If the purchased items are less than US$100 per item, this will be the way - meaning the items need not be inspected and can be checked in first and the receipt brought to these counters for scanning.
The first stage scanning counters diagonally across Check in row H.
After that the scanned receipts should be brought in, after entering the immigration, to the final scanning station opposite Gate 28.  There will be two rows of passengers queuing up waiting for their receipts to be rescanned and then the refund amount issued in cash.
Opposite Gate 28 AFTER the immigration.

What a trip!

With every passing trip to Seoul, it just gets better and better.  Our familiarity with the place grows.  And we begin to explore various parts of Seoul, and learn to mingle with more and more of the locals.
So what are our plans for our future trips?  Not sure.  No plan is the best plan.  Hahaha.. But definitely I will love to explore Itaewon to try that famous 24 hour Korean restaurant with the best bachan called Sigol Bapsang.  And I will love to take a long walk along Hangang.  And span out to the peripheries of Seoul, and get closer to Incheon, and even further up north towards Gimpo.  One of my young 26 year old female patients who spent 6 months studying the Korean language in Seoul ever told me, the further away from Seoul, the cheaper things are.  But the less exciting the surrounding will be, as it becomes more residential.
It will not be easy, as I believe less people will be able to speak English as well as those in Seoul.. But that will definitely be more fun, more authentic, and more exciting.
My biggest pair of Korean glasses EVER.

What else are in the pipeline? Possible a Paragliding experience in Seoul, and perhaps a tandem Sky diving adventure.  But these will have to come much later.  Until our next Seoul trip!