Viewing: South Korea

Ella ella ella ey

it’s cloudy and drizzling today, so i’m going to get to use the new umbrella i got in myeong-dong last week. i initially balked at the $15 price tag from a street vendor, but it opens with some nice push-button action… and it’s got kitties!

plus, so far it looks to be the sturdiest umbrella i’ve ever owned. i actually had to use muscle power just to get it closed. perhaps the days of umbrellas embarrassingly blown inside out are finally over. 
it got the marlon seal of approval for being black and white — it’s not too girly and he admitted he wouldn’t be ashamed be caught with it if he had to grab an umbrella and run off to work.

Springtime palace

haha, doesn’t that sound just like a koreanovela title? well, it is springtime and i did go to a palace for my first sightseeing jaunt. 

ironically, though i used to work for a television network that imported all the best korean soaps, i know nothing about them except for a handful of titles. never even watched a single episode! the ones i remember are my name is kim sam soon, emperor of the sea, jumong, coffee prince, spring waltz, winter sonata and of course, the biggest rater of them all, jewel in the palace.

it was jewel that came to mind when i visited gyeongbok-gung, reportedly the grandest palace in seoul and a shooting location for historical soaps (i don’t know which ones). the morning gray had cleared considerably, and i really got how spring can be so lovely. it was nearly closing time when i arrived, and i was with what seemed to be an entire school of the most chic (without being TH) 12 to 14 year-old students i’ve ever seen.  

spotted: two ladies in hanboks (korean national dress) hurrying out of the palace grounds. i fought the urge to shout “jang geum! jang geum!” after them. check out the teenager with the visor — just goes to show you can never start your skincare regimen too early.

this is my pathetic attempt to have at least one photo of myself in the palace.

i found the palace to be a mix of chinese epic-scale grandiosity and japanese serenity. it really was quite tranquil. the mountains behind the palace make you feel like you’ve gone back in time, until you turn to face the entrance and see all the skyscrapers just outside the main gate.

kick-ass pagoda-type building is the national folk museum, which was closed by the time i got there. fortunately there was lots to see (and snap) on the museum grounds. like the cutest stick-your-head-in-for-a-photo standee ever! and i mean ever!

squee! isn’t it adorable? i was dying to have my photo taken, but there was nobody around to do it for me. bah.

one of the signs on the mini exhibits outside the museum. i thought it looked totally out of this century with the misty mountains and trees in the backdrop. this sign could say “toilet” or “atm” for all i know.

a small section of the grounds in front of the museum held a collection of these old stone totems used to ward off evil. they look to me almost like modern cartoons, or very graphic depictions of grumpy neighbors and evil aunties.

upon exiting the palace grounds, i promptly got lost. i spent an hour walking the palace’s perimeter walls in search of the metro station i had come from, which is equivalent to the amount of time i spent inside the palace. bummerrrr.

interesting walk, though. the most bizarre thing about it was the troops and troops of police in full riot gear at every street corner. and i mean every street corner. i was too whacked out by the sight of all those policemen to even take a picture. a lot of them seemed really young, which puzzled me till i found out korean men are required to do army service in their youth. upon comparing notes with marlon, the mystery of the myriad policemen was solved: a military exercise was scheduled in the city for 2-230pm the next day, during which hotel guests were advised to stay indoors. scary.

there were other, less paranoia-inducing sights, however. the area around the palace has interesting little artsy cafes and galleries. i actually found i didn’t mind getting lost, because i never would have caught the sneaky surprises tucked into quiet alleyways like this.

the walls held a small collection of gorgeous stenciled graffiti, like this protest-themed piece of art…

…and, tadaaaah! a classic miss universe coronation moment! i truly fell in love. the person who can identify which beauty queen is being crowned gets a prize from me! i wonder what underlying theme led to this graffiti. let me guess: “world peace!”

you know you’re in an artsy neighborhood when you peek around a corner and see a giant spotted pear. or is it a pumpkin?

a man with an earpiece and wearing a dark suit stopped me in front of a building where there seemed to be an abnormally high concentration of policemen. i turned his suspicion to my advantage and asked for directions to the nearest metro station; he obliged and gently shooed me away (what was in that building, i wonder?). just as well, i thought — miss universe graffiti and giant pears are fun, but my feet were really starting to hurt.

Metro mishaps

my first engagement with seoul was learning how to take the metro. i stepped out of the hotel monday afternoon after finishing some writing work armed with nothing but a copy of an expat magazine with a map of the seoul metro… and this icon filed away in my short-term memory from the morning we arrived.

the hotel i’m staying at, the renaissance seoul, is located in gangnam, the business district south of the river. all the streets look like ayala avenue, but extremely wide and festooned with coffee shops. the first thing i learned about my street is that the nearest metro station, yeoksam, was a convenient five-minute walk from the hotel. what i learned when i started walking was that it was majorly uphill.

okay, it doesn’t look all that challenging from this photo, but by the time i got to the metro station i felt as if i had been sufficiently punished for the box of guylian bonbons (and maybe the ice cream and famous amos cookies i had last saturday).

i got on line 3 and crossed the han-gang river to go downtown, into the city center where all the shopping areas and a few major sights are.

considering that the korean signs were a little disorienting at first, figuring out how to get where i wanted to go was quite easy. english words seemed to leap out at me from the jumble of korean characters, ensuring that i had enough information to propel me forward. the disembodied voice on the train not only provides an english translation, but even tells you which side of the train to exit from at a particular stop. nice.

while on the train, i played paparazzi and shot proof of my first impressions. this is what i’m talking about with the suits and sun visors.

i had no trouble getting on the train, but getting off it was a major production. for some reason, the turnstile kept spitting out my single-use ticket (just like those in paris) and wouldn’t allow me to go through. i tried each and every one of the eight turnstiles to no avail. finally, a passerby pointed to a large red button that said “help”, on a wider turnstile for the handicapped. so i pushed, and wondered what kind of deus ex machina would come to release me from the bowels of the metro.
the trumpet of the gods was tinny and electronic, and it played that annoying tune that garbage trucks in manila blast. i’m sorry, i know it’s originally a classical piano piece, but i really don’t know what else to call it. it goes tininininininininiiii…. tininitinini… (repeat). i apologize for the jologs reference!
so, how helpful, right? i tried it again. and again, the tinny garbage truck ditty. i paused, waiting for something more instructive. then, a voice from a speaker below the help button crackled to life. “push it! push it!” it barked impatiently.
i actually bent down to the speaker to talk back back, a response undoubtedly caused by years of ordering from mcdonald’s drive-through. “push what?” i shouted.
silence. so i pushed the only thing in front of me, which was the handicapped turnstile. it gave way — and i was through! sigh of relief. i actually had a split-second nightmarish vision of me being stuck in the metro station for hours. 
the man at the ticket counter, a cheery middle-aged korean man, looked almost as relieved as i felt. he took my ticket, grinning, and gave me a hearty wave goodbye as i skipped up the steps.

First impressions

koreans are blessed — high cheekbones, glowing skin, good strong physiques. kainez. ang daming guwapo at maganda. i actually literally stepped back in surprise when i saw the skin of the guy who delivered my room service lunch; he must have migrated to seoul from lothlorien.

the density of coffee shops per square mile is astounding.
i saw more goyard bags go by in fifteen minutes in myeong-dong than i ever have in my lifetime. maganda pala sila sa personal. gusto ko na sila.
old ladies are majorly turned out, just like old ladies in paris. their favorite accessory: visors. this completely puzzled me until marlon returned from his skincare field work and provided the missing piece. the visors are for skincare purposes — that’s how they keep that phenomenal skin glowing well into old age. that’s what i call dedication.
people are extremely helpful.
men wear actual suits to work. really well-cut suits to boot. again, just like paris.
kukur seems to be the metropolitan fashion statement — as in kukurtinahin. the shops are hung full of lacy, sheer, shapeless dresses and very large shirts in muted colors. i think i’ll stick to shoes and bags on this trip.
the city is great for walking.
traffic is bad, and rush hour is worst at about 10:30 p.m. that means people go home from work at roughly 9 p.m. 
there are very few tourists, which is nice.
that’s it for now. good night, i’m exhausted.

Terminal tales

quite a few firsts last night. first time in the shiny new changi terminal three. and i mean shiny. 

the outside reminds me of frankfurt, the entrance to the toilet reminds me of paris-cdg, and the eating area reminds me of dubai, where pia fell off her chair randomly at mcdonald’s.
terminal three had those odd wormhole-ish airconditioning vents that must have been leftovers from the giant noses/penises that hold up the roof over clarke quay. yes, i said giant noses/penises. you must see to believe.

it was my first time to present travel documents other than my passport — in this case, my singapore identification card, or IC.

terminal three is quite the mammoth. marlon and i were all set to caper happily around the airport like a bunch of tourists, and maybe catch a free movie, until we saw a sign that told us we would need at least 14 minutes to get to our gate. i wonder if they tested the walk with people of varying slowness.

the terminal also had a surfeit of really cute chairs, like these swan chair-esque thingies.

these remind me of my melissa sapatilha flats.

they had a ferrari store… yeah i know, me taking a picture of a ferrari store is totally out of character. i blame it on the late hour.
but most importantly, they had a guylian belgian chocolate cafe!

i bought a box to eat on the plane. 

these two lovely seashells came free of charge, courtesy of the pinay counter girls at the cafe. go pinoy! 

it brought back great memories of all the pinoy employees at the duty free shops in the dubai international airport, who practically thrust free chocolates at some of us in the glee club. 
ah, touring memories. there were a lot of them at the airport last night — seeing a gaggle of teenagers dressed alike in sports shirts and jeans. travel attire, anyone? and while changing singapore dollars to korean won, i remembered gerard, who being a math teacher would come up with quick and easy conversion formulas for every country we stopped in on tour. it would always be something totally brainless, like multiply by five and drop three zeroes or something. in the pre-euro days, he did it for everything from slovenian tolar to belgian francs to italian lire! fun fun fun. 
and now after six hours, four belgian chocolates, two meals, a one-hour cab ride and 155,200 korean won, i’m in my hotel room in seoul.

Seoul sensation

since i can no longer take the sleepless nights (try sleeping at 5am for three straight days) and i’ve never been to the land of jewel in the palace, kimchi and 10 million skincare fanatics, i am tagging along on marlon’s business trip to seoul, south korea!

and, i’m going for absolutely free! i booked the ticket using marlon’s krisflyer miles. yay.

so far all i know about seoul is all i’m looking forward to: the palaces where they shoot koreanovelas, giganto-mall coex, and beautiful store, a little vintage shop read about on lonely planet where the prices are (if my calculations are correct) almost at pinoy ukay-ukay levels — truly, thinspiration for the month of may. i hope i also get there in time to catch at least a few cherry blossoms.

any suggestions?

photo from lonely planet