I finally made it out of Gunsan! I took a weekend trip! Ever since I arrived, I have either had to work Saturday or just wanted to have a mellow weekend. When friends back home ask me what Gunsan is comparable to, I say Tacoma, Washington. And in fact, Gunsan and Tacoma are sister cities, a status forged in the 1980's by none other than my own Headmaster here at GELC, who lived in Tacoma for years and went to UPS. In other words, Gunsan is "down-to-earth", contendedly unspectacular, gritty, industrial, dotted with nice parks and token cultural sites. I was pretty excited to finally make it up to Seoul and explore the big city.
I went to visit my friend Amanda who I have known since elementary school, and we also went to the same college. She has been living in Seoul teaching English to high school students for almost two years now. I was stoked to have a friend and tour guide who was enthusiastic about the city and Korean culture. I caught a bus early Saturday morning and made the 2.5 hour trip to central Seoul. Then I took the subway to her stop. Gosh I love subways! I've taken them in London, Paris, New York, Boston, Washington DC, and Mexico City, and every time I lament the lack of underground public transit in the western U.S. The subway system in Seoul is awesome- huge, easy, comprehensive, and inexpensive. Just look at all the stops on this thing!
I was immediately struck by the air quality. It seemed not only smoggy, but with a distinct brown-yellow tint. I had heard of Yellow Dust, which is a phenomenon that strikes Korea in the spring months. Severe wind storms from China and Mongolia blow fine soil particles east, and this dust often has industrial pollutants mixed in. It was definitely visible, though aparently not as bad as it was a few weeks ago. Otherwise, it was a beautiful, fairly sunny day. Amanda and I headed to Gyeong Bok Goong, a large 14th-century palace in the middle of the city.
Check out this picture below! Isn't it pretty? You wouldn't even know that you were in the middle of 20 million people!
Then we walked around Insa-dong, a cute neighborhood of shops, narrow pedestrian alleys, street performers, and plenty of other foreigners. You can also find the only Starbucks whose sign is written in Korean letters instead of Roman letters. It says something like "Sa-ta-buk-sa Ko-pi".
For dinner we headed to Sinchon, a university neighborhood. Amanda introduced me to ddukgalbi, a delicious stir-fried chicken dish. She doesn't usually wear a red polka-dotted apron around town, no- they give the customers bibs to wear so you don't splatter your beautiful clothes. We feasted on this mix of chicken, seafood, veggies, noodles, and kimchi, along with some rice wine.
Late night took us to another dong (neighborhood) to meet up with some of Amanda's friend, a Korea and a Chinese guy who both speak good English. It was a hof (cafe) named "I love school". I really really love the names of things here and the funny translations.
Speaking of which, I got my hair cut on Sunday at a place called "Variety Network Hair Castle". Hah! I sometimes try to think of what they really meant in Korean, or what a better translation would be. Maybe "Multi-service Luxury Salon" ? Well, I will never know the answer to that one, but it was a good haircut anyway. I'm embracing the Korean way and decided to get some more solid bangs. Luckily Amanda was there to explain for me. After less than two years here, her Korean is AWESOME. I am so impressed. She gave me a Korean lesson which was soooo helpful.
Seoul is a gigantic place to explore in a weekend, and I feel like I barely scratched the surface. More trips are definitely in store for the future.