It may have taken me just over four months, but I’ve finally done it, I have visited Seoul for longer than the minimum amount of time required to get from one airport to the other. I’m going to file this success away with other small triumphs, like never having worn odd socks while living here (that however is another story). Visiting Seoul has been one of those things that just kept getting put on the back-burner, sometimes it was too expensive, other times it was just inconvenient, but this time I was hell-bent on getting there and so J had no choice but to accompany or be left behind like a Busan bumpkin.
It was thus that we rose bright and early on Saturday morning and leapt onto the bus bound for the capital of the Neon Republic. I may have been ever so slightly naive about just how long 4 and a half hours on a bus could be and so I did burn off most of my excitement in the first two hours and ended up mired in enthusiastic, yet sleepy limbo for the remainder of the journey. Luckily for me though, the rest stop about an hour before our destination put the spring back in my step and I was once again ready for our trip to the big smoke.
We arrived into the aging Nambu Bus Terminal in the rather up-market district of Gangnam, popularized by Psy and his infernally catchy Gangnam Style. And yes people do dress as depicted in the video, although this could be due to the terminal being close to a rather aptly-named wedding venue ‘The White Veil’. Being faced with the heat of the city and the feeling of being utterly lost, I will admit that I felt utterly overwhelmed and any vestiges of a plan I had, shot clean out of my head the minute I stepped outside.
I had made plans to visit the Seoul Art Center and have a look at the ever-popular neighborhood of Itaewon as well as a visit to the Gyeongbokgung palace, and yet all I could think about was how we had to check into the hostel at 4pm despite having almost no idea of how to get there. However, Jamie’s pragmatism and practical thinking brought us to a tourist map so we could find the art museum. As I studied the map, a sprawling mass of crossed lines dotted with landmarks and banks, I felt the hypertension slowly ebb and allow the relief to flow though me.
I finally spotted the words “art” and “museum” and took off in the given direction, much to the consternation of J, who trailed after me with “But Emmet…” and “Are you s…”, of course I am sure Jamie, I have no other setting. Finally we rounded the corner that was to take us to the Art Center and I looked around, bewildered. Had I gotten the wrong direction? Taken a wrong turning at the KB bank? No this was the right way, but all that was there was the Indian Art Museum. To Jamie’s smug satisfaction I had to admit that I had not really thought about how odd it would be for a map to list ‘The Seoul Art Center’ as ‘The [word was ignored] Art Museum’.
So we took a very quick look around the Indian art museum before striking out in search of the art center yet again. This time we followed the giant arrow on the wall of the bus terminal and discovered that it did, in fact, lead to the art center.
As we walked toward the art center we saw this magnificent foot-bridge over the 4 lanes of traffic and decided to detour to have a look. My ever-willing model Jamie obligingly stepped in to block out the two Korean girls who were busy selfie-ing in the middle of the massive polo mint waterfall.
Once we had finished our sojourn on the bridge we headed for the art center, our stomachs full of thunder as hunger roiled inside. Naturally therefore, our first port of call was a cafe where we grabbed lunch.
Time now running rather short before we had to make it across town to check-in so we made a difficult decision to omit two of the exhibits, the Pultizer photographs and the Munch Exhibition, and opted instead for The Great Artists of the 20th Century Exhibition. Now, I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before (here at least, God knows I’ve burned enough ears in person) that I love art, going so far as to base a certain final year project in the appreciation and preference for the stuff. And so, as we looked upon Monnet, Dalí and even Hirst, Jamie was subjected to my amateur musings and unbearably pretentious remarks as to the purpose of some of the pieces. “Ugh, pop-art has no true value” and “This is just a silly print churned out for some petty cash” may have passed my lips. Sometimes, I fear, I am an insufferable prick.
After rushing our way from the 1900s to the present through a trail of oil on canvas, pastels, prints and even mixed media pieces, it was time to brave the Seoul subway, which, as you can see, looks like someone left some twine on a map for a cat to play with in order to set out the layout. This confused mess of a transport system once again set my stress levels on par with the CEO of Samsung’s smartphone division. However, once I found my destination at Hongik University it was easy to work out which train to catch and where to make a change. Thankfully, there was to be only one line change which was a miracle, given how little I knew about Seoul while booking the hostel.
Once we found the hostel and settled in, that is to say had a nap, we hit out to meet with some new friends who teach in Seoul and know the area better than we two bumpkins. For we certainly were Busan bumpkins compared to the style and attitude of the Seoul locals. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is but there is a decidedly different air to the folk in Seoul versus those in Busan.
After having one drink in a rather snooty establishment selling craft beer, or at least what people are willing to settle for being craft beer here in Korea, the four of us decided to get pajeon (a Korean specialty potato pancake designed for accompanying alcohol, usually Makgeolli) for dinner. Being the hip and alternative souls we are, we opted for the unknown and ordered a pizza pajeon. This sounds horrific but I can guarantee you it was one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten in Korea. Sadly, we ate it too quickly to grab a photo so you shall just have to imagine pizza made with a base of fried onions, peppers and other vegetables instead of dough and a delicious lathering of marinara and cheese. Surprisingly the pizza pajeon did not feature any potato which did confuse us at first but we soon got over it and the others got on with trying the many flavors of makgeolli the place had to offer. I’m told the honey flavor was the best of those tasted, but seeing as I was still on anti-biotics abstinence was my drink of choice.
Our wonderful guides, Russel and Jacob, then took us to an amazing basement rock bar featuring some of the most authentic 80’s rock decor I’ve seen anywhere in the world. A wall of bookshelves crammed full of vinyls from floor to ceiling to the immediate right of the door set the tone for the entire bar, with many other odds and ends and paraphernalia of the era bedecking the walls and ceiling. The music was a breath of fresh air compared to the pop music which blares from every store on every street (as well as the pocket radios of the elderly). Truly, I have not enjoyed my time in a bar sober anywhere, as I did that night in the rock bar, surrounded on all sides by Koreans getting their groove on and rocking out at their tables.
I won’t bore you with the rest of our evening spent frequenting the bars of Seoul’s famed Hongdae (or Hongik University as it appears on the subway map) but suffice to say it was an eventful night spent navigating the expansive night-life Seoul has to offer. There was definitely one rather sore head and queasy tummy the next morning, but thankfully it wasn’t mine for a change!