A few weeks ago, Zak and I traveled to Seoul during some days off. It is about an hour and a half on the subway to get there. We went in one afternoon and visited Changdeokgung palace, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was beautiful, and crowded with tourists (like most everywhere in Korea) We took an English tour of the palace and it was great. I’m pretty sure my desire to take tours and learn about the history of the place I’m visiting makes me an adult. After the tour of the palace, we took another tour of the Secret Garden, an enormous forest and garden behind the palace that had beautiful pagodas, koi ponds, flowers and trees. I’ve gotten pretty good at identifying trees and flowers in Korea, although, with full disclosure, we have most of them in the States (thanks Mom, for teaching me them!). There was one Gingko tree, about 300 years old hovering over a gorgeous pond. I would die to see it in the fall when all the beautiful yellow leaves are covering the pond.
After the palace tour, we took a short Subway ride over to the Gwangjang Market, which I had read about in a Lonely Planet blurb. The market was so crowded, packed with people and food stalls of all kinds. There were seafood stalls, with fish, squid, octopus and eel, meat stalls serving pig snouts and trotters. Other stalls were serving up Korean pancakes, made from a batter of bean paste and filled with onions, leeks, kimchi and meat if you want. Aromas of all kinds filled the air. It was wonderful. We wandered around for a little while, pushing our way through the crowds to get a good look at the food stalls. After a long time, we finally settled on a stall serving up dumplings and noodle soups made with glass noodles (a clear noodle made with rice). We ordered a serving of kimchi dumplings, one noodle soup and a bottle of makali, a Korean rice wine that is sort of fizzy and is mostly drunk by Koreans when it is raining (it was actually raining at that moment). We were given the traditional Korean side dishes, kimchi, some pickled radishes and pickled cucumbers. Enjoying the respite in the market from the rain, it is to date the most delicious meal I’ve eaten in Korea.
We then rode the subway to our destination for the night: the jjimjilbang. Jjimjilbangs are all over Korea and they are the Korean spas. The one we went to was enormous. They give you a set of pajama type shirt and shorts to wear and you head up to the gender separated locker rooms to change. Zak and I met back down in the common areas, which consist of a snack bar, huge room with massage chairs, various rooms of varying temperatures (ice room, charcoal room, warm herb room, salt room, you name it). We enjoyed the massage chairs and a warm charcoal room. Although jjimjilbangs are technically spas, they don’t always have the same relaxing, zen like atmosphere of American spas. There were tons of people there when we were there, young and old alike.
Each locker room has its own sauna area. I can only speak for the women’s locker room, but there are many different pools of varying temperatures and a plethora of cleaning stations. It is hot and steamy, and no one is wearing a stitch of clothing. The cleaning stations consist of a little stool in front of a shelf and a mirror with a shower hose. The Koreans sit there and clean themselves super thoroughly. They scrub their body, wash their hair, scrub their body, wash their face, scrub, brush their teeth, you get the idea. Most of them have a friend too, and they scrub each other. Its pretty crazy. I was afraid one of the old women was going to come over and start scrubbing me because I was there by myself, but thankfully they didn’t. After a thorough shower and a soak in some of the hot pools, I was tired. I headed up to the women’s sleeping room, which is just a big open room with some burlap mats on the floor. You get a pillow, that resembles a yoga block, only slightly cushier and find a place on the floor to spend the night. There weren’t that many people when I went to sleep, but when I woke up the next morning there were Korean women covering almost every inch of the floor. It was quite a challenge tiptoeing around them!
We took the opportunity of a clear day and hiked up one of Seoul’s 4 ‘Guardian Mountains’. It was paved all the way up, so it wasn’t super challenging. Although the top was super crowded (you can also take a cable car up), the panoramic views of the city on such a clear day were unbeatable. There is also a lovers’ lock deck up top, where thousands of couples have locked a lock to the fences and tossed the key into a box to seal their love. Locks were available for purchase but we didn’t think that 12,000 won (about $12) was a good use of our money. We hiked back down and headed back to Songdo on the long subway ride.
*Sorry there are no photos! I don’t have a way to upload them from my camera here. I promise you’ll get photo full posts upon my return*