A Sunday kind of morning

The lovely weekend was a rush around Seoul for most of Saturday night complete with kebabs, Long Islands and salsa.

I met Jennifer and her crew in Itaewon for a lovely sushi dinner at Rollin’ Japanese. We had a lovely time talkin’ shop and discussing all the changes hagwons are constantly experiencing. I ordered a rainbow roll and California roll, more excited about seeing my two favorites on the sushi menu then really focusing on whether or not they were the kind of rolls I wanted.

In that wonderful way of being in Korea, the sushi rolls came out completely different than I expected both were stuffed with crab meat, carrots and cucumbers then topped with the ingredients that determined the rolls name. Each roll was delicious though I think they would benefit from less crab meat and mayonnaise in the future. The entire experience has me wondering what sushi is like in Japan.

After dinner we checked out Baskin Robbins for some ice cream. I ordered the caramel cheesecake on a regular cone. For my inaugural Basin Robbins visit, it was a poor choice. The caramel was much too sweet and overpowered the cheesecake ice cream. The whole thing left me wishing for real cheesecake more than appeasing my appetite for ice cream.

Next we settled on Caliente. As far as I know, the only salsa club in all of South Korea. We hung out for a round of drinks. I ordered a Long Island that came out far too strong and far too watery. It was shocking to see Korean men and women out on the dance floor showing off their best Latin-inspired moves. I was sufficiently intimidated after the first song and remained firmly in my seat until moving on to Hongdae where I met up with the Chungju EPIK gang.

I first met up with John, Hannah, Sarah and Ken in BEF–Best Friend. The bar is trendy, cool and modern. Yet another Hongdae haunt going for the industrial warehouse re-imagined vibe. The bar was nice and quiet, a great place for a second dinner of chicken and coleslaw. We played a couple of drinking games as I introduced Hannah to cojingmek which is apparently called cosomek as well.

Around 2 a.m. we made our way to a nearby club joining up with the complete EPIK posse. Even Karlie came, despite having moved to Seoul just a few days before. I helped myself to a free beer and jumped on the dance floor.

Just as I was gettin’ my groove on with Sonia I was asked, “Hangukin?” As in “Korean?” Only it wasn’t me the older Korean man was interested in. It was Sonia. I replied letting him know that we are both American, “Migukin.” He nodded, turned around and left. I had no idea it was so easy to turn men away.

Not too much later, we found ourselves catching up and winding down at another club. I have no idea what the bar was called, but it looked like the kind of place you could smoke a joint. If you could get weed in Korea.

We sat around drinking beer discussing teaching, Korea, relationships and all the usual  conversation before heading back to Chungju at 6 a.m. Just the kind of night I love that makes me never want to live in a place where bars close at 1 a.m. (Ahem. Utah!)

The super sweet bartender even let my drunk self talk to him in Korean. I’ve been needing someone to encourage my efforts at hangeukmal. He answered my questions in Korean, spoke slowly and asked me questions too. It was practically a whole conversation–short and basic, but still I’m going to hang on to that accomplishment all week.

At some point after the kebabs on the slow walk to the subway, the group shrank from everyone to just Scott and me. It was nice to reconnect with my old neighbor as we took the subway and bus home through the breaking dawn.

By the time I made it to my comfy bed at 9 a.m. I was more than happy to crash out for the next eight hours.

Just another Sunday in the ROK.

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A Seoul afternoon

The National Palace Museum in Seoul is not to be missed. Typically I’m not one to suggest activities for large cities where it’s easy to get turned around, but Gyeongbukgung is one attraction that should be on any traveler’s list.

Gyeongbukgung is one of the oldest palaces in Korea. It was built during the Joseon Dynasty when the capital was first moved to Seoul. The palace has been rebuilt several times. It was completely destroyed by the Japanese and damaged severely in the Korean War–not to mention the general wear and tear of being over 500 years old.

I arrived late in the day as the palace itself was closing down so I made for the nearby National Palace Museum. I walked around the outside display  and the gardens for a bit, noting the architecture and detail of a deconstructed palace from the 1970s.

This first modern reconstruction was built entirely of cement and then joined together, like wood, as part of Park Chung-hee’s push to make Korea an exporter of industry. The deconstructed palace was doubly fascinating as I’d just been reading about Park and his economic policies in “Korea’s Place in the Sun”. (A great book for anyone interested in a an overview of Korean history.)

I was happy to head inside as the afternoon cooled to a chilling -7 degrees. (That’s Celsius, people.) The National Palace Museum was beautiful. I’m no museum expert, but this museum was awesome. Unfortunately they do not allow photos of the exhibits, so I’ll do my best to walk you through with words.

My first stop was the science room which completely made me fall in love with the whole place. Right in the center of the room was a giant black stone, the front and back smoothed and polished with small gray dots carved out.

“Huh, that looks like a map of the constellations,” I thought walking and closer. It was! I almost had a nerd-gasm on the spot. I was staring at the second oldest astronomical map of the stars! The awesomeness overwhelmed me. A few seconds later, I was sad to notice that the constellations happen to be one of the few displays with no English. Sadly I was not able to learn much about early Korean astronomy. (But I’m totally looking it up now.)

The museum continued to awe me with incredible displays of furniture, clothing and music. There was even one alcove completely dedicated to name stamps of the Joseon Dynasty.

Once I was completely overwhelmed by Korean history, I made my way to the display on Vietnam.  The Vietnam display was very cool. It was incredible to see the contrast between the two cultures side by side. It certainly inspired me to one day visit the country.

After two hours, I finally made my way to the subway to begin the journey home. I’ll definitely be heading back to check out the palace and the National Folk Museum too.

Directions: Take the Orange Line (Line 3) to Gyeongbukgung Station. Follow the signs to Exit 5. If it looks like you are in a museum while you are still in the subway station, you’re in the right place. Oh, and expect to be overwhelmed by tourists from everywhere. Admission is free.

A Seoul night out

Papa Gorilla was a riot. We walked into a dance club out of a movie, my friends. The lights were up, the smoke machine blowing and the dancers on the table. It was so Coyote Ugly, I started jumping up and down.

We made for the bar and grabbed another round before climbing up on the table. Seriously, love that I did that. I don’t care if I sound like a 14 year-old who doesn’t know better. I danced on a table full of drunk people around a stripper pole and it was AWESOME!

Lil would be so proud.

At some point we got off the table and were shaking it on the dance floor, which was really just a small space between the table and the bar. A T.O.P. look-alike approached me to tell me I was “fierce” and should have a good time before moving onto the VIP section. It was definitely an odd interaction seeing as I couldn’t stop staring at him.

Look at this man and tell me he's not gorgeous. via AsianPopcorn

I love KMen!

But who proves my last rant about men wrong?

A good ol’ Southern boy from Georgia.

Some guy asked me where the second stamp on my hand was from as I was ordering a drink at the bar. I blew him off with a flippant, “Don’t bother.” And took my vodka cranberry from the bartender before heading back to the table for another round of dancing and drinking.

Same guy comes up to me again and asks, “Do you mind if I dance with you ladies?”

I nod and say sure. He’s pretty cute and the music’s moving through me. Also he asked before just grinding on us which is refreshing. (By the way, I’ve never experienced a man just grinding on me in a club here like I did in America.)

Around 3 a.m. or so I headed out to Ting Tings with Georgia. The bar had great music and we had a lovely time just talking. Mostly about home and family and the things we missed. Then we grabbed some kebabs in the freezing cold. They were so spicy! Ah! After all this kimchi you’d think I could take on a kebab, but I can’t. The delicious meat wrapped in a flour tortilla with coleslaw was just too spicy for me about halfway through.

So we headed for chicken at 3:30 a.m. (I love this night owl country!) I managed to order and confirm we were okay with the wait in mangled Konglish with the waiter. Being with Georgia is about the first time I’ve been in a restaurant with anyone who speaks less Korean than me. Although his accent is totally better.

The chicken also ended up being spicy. But I did much better and I even managed to eat most of it with the tongs we were given in place of chopsticks.

The next bar was a groovy rock and roll joint clearly catering to foreigners and a bit white for what I’m used to. It was nice to relax for a few minutes though in a non-dancing bar before heading home for the night.

A much less fun Cocoon

After some serious shopping, Linda and I headed out to Hongdae for a night of cheap drinks, pop music and dancing.

Our first stop was Papa Gorilla. The bar was clearly set up for a party with poles running through the table in the center of the floor. And drinks were a lovely 3,000 won for a vodka cranberry! The cocktail was potent and so nice after so many nights of mikju and soju.

We sipped our way through the first drink in the VIP area and nearly froze to death since Papa refused to turn on the heater. The bartender was wearing his coat so he didn’t mind the cold, but I was freezing!

Next we headed to Cocoon, hoping to warm up a bit. (If the name sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of Daejeon.) The dance club was quiet. The staff easily outnumbered the patrons at 10 p.m. We sidled up to the bar for iced tea and a lemon drop.

The iced tea turned out to be a combination of Coke and cranberry juice, which isn’t as bad you would think it would be. But definitely does not taste like iced tea. The word from Linda is that the lemon drop was acceptable, although served in a shot glass so small.

As I was relaxing at the bar taking in some KPop and giggling at the sexy dance in front of me, a large guy approached me. He looked Korean, but was dressed way too much like a Westerner. Turns out, he’s in the military and was enjoying a night out on the town. We chatted for a few minutes.

Military started off right by bringing me news of the Jazz beating the Lakers. (Go Utah!) But then he introduced me to his friend. And I want to say this as politely and nicely as possible, but I think that requires a thing called tact which I’m completely missing.

Have you ever met someone who for whatever reason made you want to get as far away from them as possible?

That was Military’s friend.

I’ve learned to trust my instincts. It’s how I get around most days since I don’t speak and barley read the language and culture around me. So if some guy makes me go, “WTF? Something is wrong here,” I will walk away.

I might be wrong, but it’s not worth the risk.

Next Linda and I headed to the dance floor. Linda stayed busy keeping some guy at bay. He seemed nice, just completely out of his element and incredibly awkward. Not to mention completely failing to notice all the “I’m married and not interested” signals he was getting from her.

Finally we left and headed back to Papa, after Military caught up with me outside the bathroom to make a crude joke how I must be a lesbian because I wouldn’t dance with him. Dude! WTF?! Lesbians are hotter than you. And hell of a lot less creepy.

The Soul of Asia

Yeah, I totally stole Seoul’s tagline.

What?! You can’t blame me. I’m in a country of constant near-trademark infringement. Besides I would’ve made the same pun myself.

With four trips to Seoul on my backpack, I finally feel ready to talk about the megacity of some 10 million. (That’s just the metro area by the way.)

In a word, intense.

Seoul is unlike any city I’ve ever experienced. And until this last trip, I positively hated the place. I only wanted to go when I had good reason to be there. It is so huge and overwhelming. There are people EVERYWHERE!

5 a.m. subway ride to Suwon? You are sharing seats with strangers.

An afternoon shopping expedition in Dongdaemun? Count on being jostled as you walk through crowds.

Clubbing in Hongdae from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m.? Not even the slowest bar is empty.

And that’s just the number of people.

All these people are doing things like sleeping, selling, working, talking, moving and eating all around you all the time. My small town soul has a giant freak out every time I’m in the Soul of Asia. (See? You can’t NOT say it.)

But I also love it. The excitement of so much humanity hustling to get from one place to another. The ridiculous competition between shops to sell you the same thing. The city moves to it’s own rhythm. Moving through the crowds takes some practice, I’m still terrified of the surge of people running up the subway station steps at every station. But I’m finding the city addicting. (Although apparently so overwhelming I can’t ever remember to take pictures when I visit.)

This last trip was a shopping expedition to Dongdaemun with Linda. The Dongdaemun markets offer thousands of clothes. Imagine as many stores as you can in one department building, take off all the front doors then double the number of clothing stores. I was so overwhelmed with looking at the hundreds of sweaters, dresses, skirts, pants, scarfs and jackets on two floors of shopping in one department store, I could hardly think about what I wanted to buy. I ended up with a sweater, a dress, a scarf and a coat for a total of about $75. Not too bad for my wallet or my wardrobe.

After the hardcore shopping of Dongdaemun, we took a break at a lovely little coffee shop in the basement of one of the many malls. It was great to relax and just enjoy a cup of warm tea (Gasp! No coffee?) with the craziness of the shopping center above us and the happiness of the couples around us.

Next it was on to the fabulous subway. (I am so in love with public transportation in this country. Wouldn’t it be great if we could take the subway, buses and trains of South Korea and just stretch them out over America?) About 20 minutes later we arrived in Sinchon for our love motel search.We found a decent place for about $25 and happily it was open for check in at 8 p.m. After carrying around bags all day, Linda and I were ready to throw everything down and just call it a day. Which we promptly did. We were ready for the night.

We quickly got ready for clubbing in Hongdae. The IT neighborhood of Seoul. If you ever want to find a party, that’s the place to look. After a bit of misdirection and an angry cab driver, we finally found ourselves in Papa Gorilla where the party was very mellow.

The night was young however and shenanigans would ensue.

But more on that tomorrow.