On our last day in Korea, we checked out of the hotel at 9.00am. We didn’t need to check in for our flights until 3.00pm. Six hours were left then, to explore Korea. We handed over our bags at the left luggage store at Incheon International Airport. We said that we’d be back round two o’clock (later, looking at the receipt, it seemed that had been understood as we’d be away for two hours – luckily everything was still there when we got back).
While Incheon may have seemed the logical city for a short visit from Incheon International Airport, it still took three train changes and over an hour and a half to get there. That said, the Korean public transport system, especially the new A’Rex commuter train to the airport, has to be one of the best that I’ve experienced. Those A’Rex trains are wide, there are seats reserved for the elderly or disabled that no one else sits on, the stations are clean, new, and suprisingly empty. And, if you speak English to the ticket agents or use the English version of the ticket machines, you hear ‘thank you’ as you go through the gates rather than the Korean ‘
Incheon is at the end of Subway Line 1. However, when all the Koreans got off the train at the stop beforehand, I got the feeling that Incheon itself is largely a tourist destination. Indeed, rather than being a particularly Korean destination, the small bit of Incheon that we saw seemed to pay homage to two other countries: China and America.
We were worried that we wouldn’t be able to find anything. We didn’t have the Lonely Planet chapter on Incheon, and were only going on what I remembered reading on the internet the night before. Luckily, the gate to Chinatown was just across the road from the station – and so we walked up the hill through Chinese restaurants and Chinese characters and shops selling lanterns, swords and slippers.
At the top of the hill was Jayu Park, where we could look out over the city and its port. One of Incheon’s claims to fame is being the place where General MacArthur and his American troops landed during the Korean War. He’s commorated with a statue in the park, along with another rather large and spiky monument celebrating 100 years of friendship between America and Korea.
On the way back down the hill, we were invited into a Chinese restaurant. It ended up being our most expensive meal in Korea (though, on conversion, it was probably only about 23 pounds, 47,000 won sounds so much more). However, it was probably the best Chinese I’d ever had. Loved the spicy chicken that Matt ordered. Also loved the Korean plum wine.
After that, it was back to the airport and goodbye to Korea. After living there for several weeks all those years ago, it was quite surreal to return as a tourist. I got the feeling that, despite the palaces and the city tour buses, it was a city designed for locals rather than visitors (which I guess makes sense). Apart from on the English language tour at Changdeokgung Palace and on the tour bus, it was rare to see anyone else with a camera and a map. That said, I enjoyed it. The language barrier and the noise, the confusion over where and what to eat, the cultural difference and the friendliness of the people – of such stuff, novels are made.
It’s 4am here in Unseo-dong, and I am a girl full of awake. It probably doesn’t help that I fell asleep as soon as we got back to the hotel last night. Oh well, we’re moving on to New Zealand tomorrow night, and that’ll be a different time zone, so it’s probably not worth getting too used to this one.
Yesterday was Monday here. Obviously. And yet, there were those hours on Sunday which disappeared from my life during the time change on the flight, and I can’t helped wondering what happened in them. It’s still Monday in the London.
In Seoul, things are closed on a Monday. This fact was in the Lonely Planet. However, somehow, we neglected to read the ‘except Mondays’ and the ‘Tuesdays-Sundays’ in the descriptive text. So we turned up at Gwangwamam station in the Downtown district (after over an hour of airport-shuttling, busing and subwaying) to find a sign which said ‘Monday: day off’. Fine, we thought, we don’t need a tour bus. We’ve got legs. So we walked on those legs up to Changdeokgung Palace. The guidebook said that you could only explore the palace on a guided tour. There was an English language one at 11.30am. We got there just in time. And of course, it was closed.
However, in a competition between culture and consumerism, the latter would appear to win hands down in this city – so, we decided to give up on the palaces and spent most of the rest of the day browsing the shops (or rather the markets and department stores). Namdaemun Market needed a map of it’s own, as there was such a variety of vendors, selling everything from kimchi flavoured chocolates to padded coats, street food to pickled ginseng root. But what I got most excited about was ‘stationery alley’: shop after shop of all the stickers and notepads, poorly phrased English captions and cartoon characters, that my geeky little heart could wish for.
And across the road from the Market: Shinsegae Department store, the Korean equivalent of Harrods, or at least Elys of Wimbleon. A far calmer shopping experience, but with price-tags which were beyond our reach (even with the fairly decent pound to won conversion). Later in the day, we also visited Lotte World, south of the river: another huge department store, with it’s own bowling alley, icerink, and indoor theme park. Amongst all of this, our purchases were some photo stickers from the arcade and a bulgogi burger from Lotteria.
The other attraction we found that was open on a Monday was N’Seoul Tower. It’s not a hugely tall tower in itself, but it is on top of a rather large hill. We braved a rather shaky (and crowded) cable car just to get to the base. From the top, we took pictures through slightly grimy windows of offices and apartment blocks, a palace or two and some historic houses, and evidence of humanity as far as the eye could see.
It’s 5am now and Tuesday. Breakfast is being delivered at 7am, and then it’s back into Seoul. Back to Gwangwamam station and the tour buses, to see what this huge city can offer us today.