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Comment of the Fortnight
2 February 1999
Seoul Trip Report

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I got back from my vacation in Seoul, and have finally gotten enough time to assemble this day-by-day trip report.

Thursday, 14 January 1999

It's a long flight from Los Angeles to Seoul -- thirteen hours. I saw four movies: "One Perfect Thing", "Small Soldiers," "X-Files," and "Lethal weapon 4". I didn't actually watch all of them, but dozed fitfully throughout the flight, getting a total of about two hours sleep. I was absolutely wiped out when I got there, but cleared customs without any problems.

In Seoul the exchange rate was 1163 won per dollar, near the market rate. In Los Angeles, the exchange rate was 970 won per US dollar with a US$2.50 charge for cashing traveler's checks. Can you say "rip-off"? I knew you could. (I'm going to abbreviate won as W from here on, and use a conversion factor of about 1100 won per dollar.)

10,000 won note

I had to choose between bus and the subway to go to the hotel; a Korean next to me on the plane recommended the subway, as it would avoid any traffic jams. The cost is only W550, but I had to transfer at two stations, which amounts to a lot of stair climbing. [Actually, on Monday, 18 January, the price went up 50 won to 600 won.] I decided to spend W10,000 and buy a "value ticket" which gives you W11,000 value.

In the US subway stations, when you have to decide on which track to use, you look at a sign that shows the endpoints of the line. This doesn't work in Seoul, because line two is a loop. Instead, they give the names of the next major station or two in the direction that each track goes.

Subway garden display
Subway car interior

There are nice garden-type displays in the subway stations. At any rate, I was reading the signs with what seemed to me to be a lot of concentration on my face; it was taken for a "totally lost" look. One gentleman who spoke excellent English confirmed my choice of track, and we rode together to his stop. He asked if I came alone; I said no. "What about your wife and children" he asked. "I'm not married,"I replied, holding up both hands to say, "Look ma, no rings." I swear I could see the wheels turning in my traveling companion's head, and then he just shook his head slightly. A moment later he said he was sorry for asking a personal question; I told him it was not a problem.

When I got to Myeong-dong, I had no idea how to get to the Savoy Hotel. I asked a person to point it out to me, but he actually took me there. He also grabbed the small bag out of my hand and took me along with his arm linked into mine despite my protestations that I didn't want to cause any problems for him. He said, "It's a different culture," and he was right. I had read about this sort of thing in a book called Culture Shock! Korea, but was still surprised to see it translated into reality.

We got to the hotel, which is right in the heart of Myeong-dong, a very trendy district. The place is clean but not very elegant; but what do you expect for US$50 per night in the heart of a capital city? The only real problem was that across the street, right outside the window, were several shops, all blaring music full blast to attract customers. Luckily, all of them but one stopped at 10 PM; the other at 11 PM. This later became too much of an annoyance and I decided to change hotels.

Room service, by the way, is universally overpriced -- W6,500 for fresh orange juice, and W4,000 for chilled.

I did make some purchases that first night.

  • Band Doctor - I caught my hand between the keychain and door and needed bandages; this is the local brand.
  • Chocolate: "To You" (standard milk chocolate) and "Sasha" mesh chocolate (a truly delicious combination of dark and white chocolate). This country appears to be a milk chocolate haven; bittersweet chocolate is quite uncommon.

Band Doctor package
Chocolate packages

By this point it became clear that the best investment I'd made for the trip was the English-Korean electronic dictionary; certainly the best US$129 I had spent. It has everything: a calendar, clock, address book, scheduler, and calculator as well as a dictionary. Since I had studied Korean, I could read signs and use the dictionary to decipher the (many) words that I didn't know.

Friday, 15 Jan 1999

Went out in the morning (-4 degrees C) and bought some stamps and a phone card. Phone cards are wonderful! All the phones in Seoul use them; just put them in the slot and away you go. I bought a W10,000 (US$9) card to call back to the US. While on my way to the post office, I saw my first cat in Korea; an orange tabby that was obviously owned by someone.

I also went to the Kyobo bookstore to find postcards (they didn't have any good ones). I bought a map book for Seoul for W12000; it turned out to be extremely useful, even though it was entirely in Korean.

Local subway map
detail of local map

One thing I discovered about subway and street maps that show the local area -- they are not oriented with north always being up (see the enlarged section of the photo at the left). The maps are pointing in the direction that you're facing, which is the best way for people like me who normally have to turn the map in the direction they're going.

After a bit of hunting around, I found the Net Cyber Cafe, where I went every day to check on email. I bought a half-month membership for W20,000. There are lots of Internet/game parlors in Seoul, but this one has a more "coffee-shop" feel and is frequented by foreigners. The owner has excellent taste in music, by the way.

Afterwards, I went to the Lotte department store; it was incredibly crowded. I didn't want to wait in line to eat at the restaurants in the store, so I walked back to the Kyobo building area.

I had lunch at a restaurant that specializes in kimbap, which is rice and vegetables and other fillings rolled in seaweed. I had beef kimbap; it tasted OK.

Kimbap restaurant

I went to Namdaemun market in the afternoon; it's incredibly crowded, and filled with almost every sort of household article you could ever want to buy. On the way back to the hotel, I passed Namdaemun (The Great Southern Gate) itself; it is National Treasure Number 1.

I slept for a few hours when I got back to the hotel at 4 PM; then I went out again. I just basically wandered around the very trendy Myeong-dong area from 8 until 11 looking at the stores and basically being very, very lost. Myeong-dong is a maze of little streets, all seemingly alike. By the time I got hungry all the restaurants were closed, so I ended up at LG25; a 7-11 type convenience store, where I got some microwaveable boiled rice and Korean-style barbecued chicken, which they cooked and I ate. Hardly gourmet cuisine, but it was filling.

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