The first stop on our 7-week journey was a week in Seoul to visit Shawo Choeten, our long-time friend since his days at the TCV Suju school in India. It was hard to believe that it had been four years since we last visited him in Gyeongju, South Korea, where he was studying at Dongguk University. Now he is finishing his Masters at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul.
We arrived at the modern Incheon Airport on November 4th to be greeted by Lhamo Owser, a delightful Tibetan friend of Shawo’s, who had moved to Amstelveen, Holland, from India in her teens. Shawo had an important class to attend at the same time as our arrival. Thus began a hour-and-a-half sojourn by multiple subways to the heart of Seoul. We met Shawo at one of the connecting stops. After 24 hours of traveling, it was all I could do to get settled at our hotel, Mini-Hotel Insa, in the heart of the Insadong district, and stay awake through dinner.
Cary and I tried to write a post while in Korea, but were so exhausted from our wanderings through Seoul from morning ‘til night that we decided to wait until we reached the relaxed “atmosphere” of Kathmandu. I know, that sounds like a contradiction, but the simple airport and bustling streets of our favorite city soothed us after a week in spotless, organized, peaceful and QUIET Korea. Korea was so first-world that I often felt as if I had stepped into the future, except that right next to a modern glass building could be nestled an authentic relic from the distant past. Note the Baskin Robbins ice cream store built in traditional architecture!
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Ancient palaces, archaeological digs… pristine subways with white walls and murals. Everything new. Modern shops, and parks whose walkways wound between gingko trees with their falling yellow leaves, and elaborate gardens. And colors? A festival for the eye. A funny contrast, however, is that the women dressed mainly in fashionable black and white garb, whether dresses or pants, so different from the colorful, traditional, glittering and glamorous dresses rented to the tourists for a “selfie” walk around town. While visiting one of the palaces, we met a lovely and accomplished woman from Saudi Arabia, a cost engineer working for Aramco, who was enjoying several hours wearing the Korean traditional dress, and shared with us the advances women are making in her country.
And while I’m talking about contradictions, 99% of the citizenry in the open air of the streets of this expansive city were wearing masks (except for me), only to be removed the minute they entered a crowded restaurant. I thought it was hilarious. Compare this to Nepal, where for six months nobody has been required to wear a mask!
I loved our hotel in the Insadong section. It was reasonable, the owner, Daniel, was a gem, and it even had a picnic table with a huge umbrella out front, which we used every day. Peaceful streets led from our doorstep to every part of this vast city like the spokes of a wheel. It couldn’t be better. Activity started after 10 in the morning and gathered momentum until late at night with stores, restaurants, cafes, and coffee shops going full stop. And lights! Every street seemed ready for a New Year’s celebration, full of happy, laughing pedestrians. But people’s thoughts were also not far from the tragedy that happened on Halloween when 150 young people lost their lives in a crowd crush on one of the small alleys.
Two days into our stay, Daniel moved us to a much larger room with a large table, two huge beds, a kitchen, and a heated floor. We were in heaven! I might add that for the first time in our Asian travels we had access to a washing machine. How cool is that?
I’ve decided not to try to give you a daily rundown of our activities, but to highlight our various adventures. Now, you might not think that getting a cup of coffee is an adventure, but this is a big deal in Seoul. Up until a decade ago there was hardly a coffee shop to be found and now there are several on every block, some right next door to each other. Since no restaurants were open until well after ten AM, we decided to nose around and watch the city come alive. We also found elaborate opportunities to satisfy our craving for delicious Korean coffee.
First stop, a fifth floor coffee shop in an elaborate high-rise with a spectacular view of the city (see panorama above). We tried to have our first breakfast there but the only food was specialty cakes, but the choice of coffee styles would put Starbucks to shame. And probably did! The few of the iconic Starbucks that we saw were rather plain and couldn’t hold a candle to the garden-like cafes with trees growing inside, reached by walking down several steps below the sidewalk into an open-air garden…or the high off-the-ground palatial spaces with gleaming windows and marble floors and a few tables resting on an artistic wooden outdoor veranda. Just a side note on our first breakfast, Cary rustled up a egg salad/jam/coleslaw sandwich at a western style coffee shop… nothing we’d ever seen, but tasty in an unusual way nevertheless.
Part of each day we passed the time roaming the streets and ferreting out special coffee environments, often meeting other tourists for an international cup of java. This has changed my whole attitude toward that simple cup of coffee, which can be the social glue that leads to fruitful conversation brimming with new ideas, or just a peaceful break in the hustle and bustle of life, or a meditative moment at the beginning of the day.
We are sending this blog post from an organic farm resort in the Himalayan foothills above Kathmandu, and will follow with more vignettes of our lovely time in Seoul.