One person's origin is another's aspiration.
  • Day10

    Day 9: The Final Full Day

    November 16, 2019 in South Korea ⋅ ⛅ 11 °C

    Saturday was our final full day in Seoul. We met up with Alice’s oldest cousin and his wife at another great Japanese restaurant for lunch. (This was the day that their 12 year old was unable to join us due to all-day math tests…Saturday math tests…Again, she is 12. Korean education is no. joke.)

    Korean food originates from regional differences during the Three Kingdoms period (57 BCE - 668 CE,) from the Mongol invasion during the Goryeo period (13th century), from the agricultural innovations and trade with the West and Japan and China during the Joseon Period (15th-19th centuries), and from the subsequent Japanese colonization period (1910-1945.) During our 10 day stay, we ate foods that represented all of the above: Noodles from China, Bread from Europe, Banchan (side dishes) made from the various greens that grow wild in the mountains, and Sushi from Japan. The Japanese occupation of Korea was exploitative and brutal and only ended when Japan was defeated in WWII. During our trip, the news was focused on Japan because the Japanese government refused to apologize for the abuse of the Korean “Comfort Women.” The Japanese are not held to high esteem because of this history. Their cuisine is a lasting influence.

    After another lunch that I had no part in ordering or paying for, but enjoyed tremendously, we reconnected with Aeyoung to visit our last UNESCO World Heritage site of the trip: Jongmyo Shrine.

Jongmyo is the oldest and best preserved Confucian shrine. Originally built in the 14th century, it was destroyed by a Japanese invasion in the 16th century and rebuilt in the 17th century. It’s authenticity and its continual use as a place of ancestral worship earned it the UNESCO World Heritage status in 1995.

    The spirit tablets, stone tablets which stand in effigy for the deceased, of all but two Joseon Kings are stored at Jongmyo. There are 19 memorial tablets of kings and 30 of their queens stored in 19 rooms. Jongmyo Jerye, an elaborate ritual that includes music and dancing, was held for each royal at Jongmyo. During the Joseon period, Jongmyo Jerye was held 5 times a year. In modern times, the ritual has been revived and is celebrated the first Sunday each May.

    We headed from Jongmyo to Gwangjang Market for some food. This is where it gets ironic. Our (and by “our”…I mean Alice’s…I was just a follower) intention at Gwangjang was to find the made-famous-by-street-food-Netflix-shows Mungbean pancake stand. We wove through the crowded market looking for the stand. When we found the line that wound AROUND the entire middle of the market, we knew we were there. You could either wait in the shorter “To Go” line, or in the longer “For Here” line. The place was tiny. A decision was made to take it to go and find another stand to buy more food and a place to sit. It was chaotic. We ate semi-sketchy food cooked by seemingly very angry women (though, at the end, the lady flashed me a very warm smile…she was either happy to see me go or not as angry as I had presumed.) We left the market in search of a Makgeolli bar. Makgeolli is an unfiltered rice liquor. We failed in our endeavor. Our last night was slightly unsuccessful. We couldn’t get into the Makgeolli bar, and the hypochondriacs, Alice and I, worried all night that we might get a stomach bug from the wet market. A STOMACH BUG. I laugh at the irony of this. Just as a worldwide pandemic was brewing a few thousand miles away, I was worried about a stomach bug. I love me.

    So that was it. The last night of a trip I am possibly the most happy to have taken. It ended a little imperfectly. I need to go back to find good Makgeolli. However, I didn’t get a stomach bug, I fell in love with Seoul in particular and Korea in general, and now, I am converted to Korean! In fact, I was planning my return visit even before I caught my flight home.

    I think Korea is under-appreciated in the eyes of American tourists. I find this lack of American tourism ironic since Korea is such a beautiful country with so many influences from the wider Asian continent…and because Americans are addicted to certain specific Korean gifts to the world: such as electronics (read: Samsung) and K-Pop music.

    This is also a good place to point out the anti-Asian racism that exists because of Covid-19 and how unacceptable that racism is. A "wet market" is simply a market that sells fresh meat. Pike's Place Market in Seattle is a "wet market." To blame this pandemic in any way on Asia is racist. Spanish flu originated in pigs in Kansas. The United States is not "better than" or a victim of Asia because of this pandemic.

    Next up: I leave. Alice finds the highlight of the trip without me. Never “save” money on a flight.
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  • Day9

    Day 8: The Bank Trio

    November 15, 2019 in South Korea ⋅ 🌧 6 °C

    Friday we got to meet the last member of the Seoul branch of the 1960s Bank friend group. The three women worked together, maybe are kind of related, and spent time years ago, and continuing until the present, meeting and catching up each time they found themselves in the same city. There is a 4th work friend who currently resides in Canada, so lunch was only with Alice, me, and the downtown bank three.

    We went to a nice a Japanese restaurant, and, as per usual, I have no idea what was ordered. It was seriously the best trip ever. I sit there like a dummy, let other people do all the work, eat, and rarely pay. If I could set up this system more often, life would be grand.

    The food was served semi-family style. Alice, her mom, and one friend were a trio of food. Aeyoung and I were the other pair. First came the fish soup. Second came the egg/fish cake, spring roll bite, and a sashimi stacked salad bite. Then the main course came. In front of Aeyoung and I was placed a large bowl full of fish and greens and then a plate full of more sashimi and rolls. It wasn’t a massive amount of food, but it was a pretty hefty serving of sashimi. I ate my half, and told Aeyoung, “Those are yours.” She replied with, “I can’t eat that much.” I said, “Oh, you need to eat more. I’ve had plenty. I’m not the one who needs it.” She replied with, “There is more food coming.” Me: “What???” In fact, that was the THIRD course…of Five. FIVE! Next came the fried fish. We ended with noodles. It took me at least 7 of the 10 day trip to finally learn…you always end with noodles. I mean, why not? I muscled through because I am, after all, not a quitter. Amazing lunch. I still couldn’t order it again if my life depended on it. Ignorance truly is bliss when it comes to me ordering food in Korea.

    The bank trio stayed in the neighborhood and spent the afternoon chatting at a coffee shop, Alice and I hopped the bus and headed to the COEX Mall to see the library. Yes, you read that right…the library. Seoul (and the rest of Asia apparently) are home to massive, underground malls in various areas of the city. We were staying on top of one that sprawled under the Shinsegae department store and the attached Express Bus Terminal in Gagnam. Just to the east of where we were staying, and still in Gagnam, sits the COEX Mall, the largest underground mall in all of Asia.

    With the increase in internet commerce, malls are becoming a bit of a thing of the past, so what did the Shinsegae conglomerate decide to do? Take some of that empty mall space and make a massive library. Massive. Most of the books are in Korean, I’m not sure many of the books are even physically accessible, and, as of our visit, you could not check out the books; but you could sit for hours in the climate controlled space, grab some coffee, and read whatever you brought or you could grab from the shelves. Plus, there are power outlets everywhere. Genius, I say. Those Koreans are genius.

    We received a text from the bank trio that they were back in Alice’s hotel room and the bad influence (read: fun one) had brought beer. Alice and I took the bus back to the hotel and we continued our lunch visit some 6 or so hours later.

    We were staying at the JW Marriott Hotel Seoul and as I mentioned earlier it was above the Shinsegae (Korean for: "New World) department store, a gorgeous, 7 floor department store. The biggest delight of Shinsegae is the food court and grocery store on the basement level. This is typical in all of Europe (and I guess Asia) to have food in department stores. We have this to some extent in the US, but nothing like a department store abroad. Asia brings this to an entirely new level. Imagine dumplings steamed right before your eyes and discounted at the end of the day. Stalls and stalls of gourmet food to go. We grabbed some dumplings and some fruit for our hotel room party with the bank trio. Asia also raises the level in the grocery section. Our first night in Seoul, Alice bought some tangerines. I was doing jet-lagged conversion and thought they weren’t that expensive. Alice kept talking about the price, but I just thought, “We bought them in a department store. They weren’t that expensive.” They were TEN times the price I thought they were. Alice bought 40 dollar tangerines! A few days later, a little less jet-lagged, we saw the huge sign above our heads. The sign read, “VIP produce.” If you turned around, walked 20 feet into the store, there you find tangerines for 3 bucks a pound. Sadly, those VIP tangerines were unbelievably juicy and tasty, and I complain any time I’m reduced to normal produce now. I am no longer just a normal snob. I'm a VIP fruit snob.

    Next up: Another amazing meal appears in front of me, one more UNESCO World Heritage site, and this is where it gets ironic.
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  • Day8

    Day 7: The silence of Seoul

    November 14, 2019 in South Korea ⋅ ☀️ 1 °C

    I was wrong…the library and the food is tomorrow…I forgot Thursday.

    Thursday was a quiet day. Quiet because we were lazy, and quiet in Seoul because of the exam. Remember THE exam I talked about on day 5? It was administered country-wide on Thursday. We knew it was happening…the evening news had feature stories dedicated to the exam. We heard about parents and grandparents praying and giving gifts to students. We even had to schedule our lunch with Alice’s Mom and her work friends for the next day because one was busy supporting her grandchild on test day. Even though we anticipated it…the silence in Seoul was startling.

    We started Thursday out in Insadong, the neighborhood from our first day, full of fun shops and cute tea houses. I don’t know who said it, but someone said, “We could eat there?” and that is what we did. That’s why I love to travel with people who know a place. They know where to find the good food. Jogeum (DoriKing) specializes in kamameshi (Japanese rice cooked in an iron pot,) "sotbap" in Korean. Everyone orders the seafood sotbap. Trust me. If you try to order the mushroom (I’m looking at you, Alice,) the waiter will look at you like you have completely lost your mind, will shake his head in disappointment, and will point to the seafood sotbap. It was seafood all around. Thank you, kind Sir, for saving Alice from herself and for saving me from having to guilt-share. The seafood was delicious.

    After lunch we visited the Dongdaemun Design Plaza. Dongdaemun has become a main landmark in Seoul and of the Korean design industry. Designed by Zaha Hadid, the center is comprised of 5 buildings and is a venue of conventions, design shows, and fashion shows. We were there on a cold, Autumn day, and the day of a massive country-wide exam, so the main attractions were a) the building itself, b) some warm, Italian coffee, and c) a hanbok-hat purse I will always regret not purchasing. Granted, now, after 6 months in quarantine, I have nowhere to carry a hanbok-hat purse, but also, I have no reason to have saved that money. Travel regrets. I am full of all of them right now.

    Next time, we know to do ALL the things on the Thursday of the national college-entrance exam and to absolutely buy any hanbok-hat purses we might find.

    Next up: “There is more food coming???”, a massive library in a massive mall, and VIP fruit
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  • Day7

    Days 6: Changdeokgung and Huwon

    November 13, 2019 in South Korea ⋅ ☁️ 12 °C

    Wednesday we went to Changdeokgung, the East Palace. We had originally tried to visit on our first full day in Korea but were foiled by hundreds of hanbok-clad tourists. The Huwon ‘Secret Garden’ is the biggest reason to visit this palace, and all tickets to the Secret garden were sold out that day. It’s the worst kept secret ever.

    After failing to get tickets Saturday, we reserved tickets for Wednesday online. We were set to return first thing in the morning.

    Changdeokgung was built in 1405 just after Gyeongbokgung (See Day 2.). The then king killed his brother-in-law inside Gyeongbokgung which, clearly, made staying there a bit awkward, so he moved a bit east to the new palace. Changdeokgung was burnt to the ground during the Japanese invasion in 1592. It was rebuilt in 1609, only to be burnt down again in another revolt against the 15th king of the Joseon Dynasty. Rebuilt again. Possibly burnt partially again. Rebuilt. Served as the seat of the Joseon Dynasty until 1868 when Gyeongbokgung was rebuilt (also burnt down during the 1592 Japanese invasion.)

    That was exhausting. In summary, Changdeokgung has been faithfully rebuilt in its original style each time, so it is true to the style of 1405. Because of this and the gardens it is built within, Changdeokgung is an excellent example of Far Eastern palace architecture and garden design.

    The real reason to visit Changdeokgung is Huwon. You must take a tour of this garden, and tickets sell out quickly. The garden was the private residence of the royal family living at the palace. The garden is 78 acres in size and comprises about 26,000 specimens of 100 different types of trees. The tour took a little over an hour, and we were walking for most of that time. The garden is massive and beautiful, especially with the Autumn colors.

    Next up: There is MORE food coming??? And a library in the mall
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  • Day6

    Day 5: We do need some education

    November 12, 2019 in South Korea ⋅ ⛅ 14 °C

    Tuesday was higher education day. Alice’s mom was a student at Yonsei University in the 1960s. Her best friend was a student at Ewha Womans University just over the hill. Alice’s mom told us about music playing throughout the university back in the day, groups of students hanging out on the hill, and friends walking between the two campuses to meet each other for lunch. Yonsei and Ewha were small, compact schools back then. Both have grown, Yonsei in particular has a massive hospital connected to it now.

    Ewha Womans University started as a Methodist mission school under Emperor Gojung in 1886. It was founded by an American woman, Mary F. Scranton, and it is currently the largest female education institution in the world. And it’s Womans…not Women’s. There are many stories as to why, but the most succinct is that “womans” used to be correct. Ewha means “pear blossom”, and that name was bestowed by the emperor.

    In 2008, the main promenade of Ewha University was completely reconstructed creating a stunning visual centerpiece for the campus. A wide walkway slowly descends into an urban valley creating a sculptural, central gathering spot. It’s an amphitheater, and a sport field, or a parade route for festivals and celebrations. The “valley walls” are the above ground/underground buildings that serve as the student centers and the classrooms. It is a stunning campus. Sadly, I have no daughters, and I am way too old for university, so we continued onto Yonsei.

    On the other side of the hill is Yonsei University, also started as a mission school, and also founded by Americans. It sounds like I’m proud of this. However I am always suspect of American missionaries founding schools abroad. In this case, of course, the Koreans made both of these schools great. Yonsei started from merging the first western medical program in Korea with a Christian college. The name Yonsei is a combination of Yonhi College (originally Chosun Christian College) and Severence Union Medical College.

    Yonsei was, when Alice’s mom attended, and still is, one of the three most prestigious universities in Korea. The three most prestigious schools are known as the “SKY Universities.” This is mostly important because I am, and forever will be, an academic snob. Alice too. I always knew that Mrs. Ha came from great academic pedigree as an English literature student.

    Today the Yonsei campus is almost unrecognizable to someone who was there in the 60s. Unrecognizable until you walk about a quarter mile through campus and arrive at the beautiful square comprised of the original four or six buildings. The building in which Mrs. Ha spent most of her time is now mostly filled with administration offices. It’s a lovely, ivy-covered, stone building. Since we were there in November, all of the trees were shades of orange and yellow.

    We happened to be in Korea during the week of Suneung, the College Scholastic Ability Test, and let me tell you…it is crazy-pants. I mean, these universities might have been founded by Americans, but I can’t imagine an American being able to navigate this system now. It makes us look like the laziest, dumbest people ever (no comment…2020 is making this look even more obvious.)

    From Kindergarten, essentially, on…Korean students are preparing for this test. Korean kids go to school, like the rest of the world, but then AFTER school, they go to study centers, or as Alice and I started joking…After-school school. In fact, Alice’s cousin’s kid could not join us for lunch one weekend because she had math tests. She is 12. I Skyped Max that day and told him that I might send him to boarding school in Korea if he ever complained again about math homework.

    The Suneung is held on a certain Thursday in mid-November. Every Korean Senior in high school takes the Suneung. The night before the test, the student finds out WHERE they will take the test. It could be an hour train ride away from their normal school. The test is so competitive and they are so worried about cheating, that they don’t tell the kids where to go until the night before!

    Seoul is a ghost town the day of the exam. Had we realized this earlier, we would have done ALL the things. All of them. Parents stay home to support the students before and after the exam. Grandparents fill houses of worship to pray for their grandkids. Malls, restaurants, subways are seemingly empty. We learned that they stop ALL air traffic over Seoul during the English listening part of the test. Every news program of the week mentioned the exams and the preparation surrounding it.

    The test is graded by December, options are presented to each student, students decide which university to apply to, and students start school by the following March/April. It is a crazy fast process. I now know that Mrs. Ha is amazing…I could never have the academic pedigree if it had been decided by ONE test.

    Next Up: The not so Secret Garden
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  • Day5

    Day 4: Part 2, Noodles and Lanterns

    November 11, 2019 in South Korea ⋅ 🌙 -5 °C

    Alice’s mom was excited about our day; not because we were going up Namsan, but because we were heading Downton to very near the place of her first employment at the main bank in central Seoul. We were walking through the crowds when Mrs. Ha grabbed my arm and excitedly said, “There! There is where we went to the movies!” This is why I had tagged along on this trip. I could see the palaces of the Joseon Dynasty all on my own. I could find all of the main museums and see them too. I might even find a few restaurants that were typical of Seoul. But I never would have known that in the 1960s that beautiful building was where friends gathered to watch movies. I never would have known that the famous noodle place we were about to go to, the noodle place in the Michelin guide and in all the tourist blogs, was a little hole in the wall noodle shop opened in the same years that those same friends started working in downtown Seoul.

    We ate lunch at Myeongdong Kyoja, the noodle place that Mrs. Ha and her friends ate all those years ago. It opened in 1966 and offers hand cut noodle soup and dumplings. That’s it, and that’s what we ate. It’s cheap, the flavors are amazing, and the kimchi is the best. Like really the best. I dream of that kimchi. I now eat kimchi and think, “ugh, I miss Myeongdong Kyoja’s kimchi.” It’s the kimchi that now inspires me to not bother trying to buy good kimchi…I just make my own. You know it’s a good restaurant in Seoul if it has: 1) trash cans by the table (to discard the tiny napkins common in restaurants), 2) metal chopsticks (I joke that Koreans are German-Asians…they take sanitation seriously…bless them!), and 3) a lady with a bucket of kimchi to refill your kimchi bowl as needed. Myeongdong Kyoja had them all. Alice’s mom wanted to eat every meal here. She was not misguided.

    After lunch, we went to Namsan (see Day 4, pt 1), and then we headed down to Namdaemun Market, the south gate market. The south gate (Sungnyemun Gate) was constructed from 1395 to 1398 and reconstructed many times throughout the centuries, including in 2009 when it was burned down. The south gate is one of three original gates leading into Seoul, only two of which survive. According to the Seoul guide, Sungnyemun Gate was used “to greet important foreign visitors, allow people into and out of the city, and to keep out invaders and dangerous animals such as Siberian Tigers.” Tigers? Yipes. Well, those clearly were kept out by the growing population into the 20th century, and in 1907 the wall around Seoul was taken down and only the gates remained. South gate was damaged during the Korean War and restored afterwards earning it the designation of the first National Treasure of Korea in 1962.

    Namdaemun Market dates from 1961, though people have been selling goods in this area since 1414. It is the largest traditional Korean market, and so I thought…THIS is where I find chopsticks to take home. In theory that was great. In reality, we all know I’m a big snob, so I ended up buying a set at Shinsegae, the fancy department store next to our hotel. I mean, it’s not just me. Alice had to go through dozens of sets to approve the size of spoon that accompanied the chopstick. In classic, Korea 2019 style…I only bought a set of 8 and live in constant regret of my under-purchase…especially as I have been using them often since my return home. Oh, yeah, and we eat every single dingle meal at home thanks to Covid-19 and the resulting stay at home orders. I could use some extra utensils.

    After leaving the market, we finally made it to the lantern festival! That was the lantern festival of which apparently no actual Korean had heard. We learned about from an American tourist. Every Korean we asked would look at us and say something similar to, “Lantern festival? Isn’t that in the summer?” No. Apparently there is a light festival south of Seoul in the summer, and there is a famous lantern festival in Jeju on the southern coast of Korea in October, but this is the Seoul Lantern festival. It takes place every year for the first two weeks of November in Cheonggyecheon…we planned this perfectly. The Seoul Lantern festival dates from 2012 when it was supposed to be a one time festival to celebrate “Visit Korea year 2010 to 2012” (I bet they are very happy that they didn’t choose 2020…oy.) The city decided to make it an every year event and boy oh boy was Jeju mad…apparently…though again, nobody in Seoul knew anything about this festival anyway, but I digress…

    The Seoul Lantern Festival takes place in Cheonggyecheon, the Stream, in central Seoul. The stream was a drainage system through central Seoul to take water to the Han River and out to sea. In the early days of the Joseon dynasty it was used for laundry and a water source. Under Japanese rule of Korea it was neglected, though they never were able to cover it over as they had planned. After the war, the stream became covered with temporary dwellings from people streaming into Seoul to find work and some economic stability. The structures were shabby, there was trash everywhere, and the stream became essentially an open sewer. Slowly, from 1958 until 1976, the stream was covered with concrete and an elevated highway was built on top.

    In 2005 the stream was uncovered, the elevated highway torn down, and now the stream is a vibrant and attractive landscape in the heart of Seoul. We strolled along the stream, and enjoyed the 2019 Seoul Lantern Festival. The theme this year was “Folktales.” There were representations from Korean, Chinese, and western folktales. Disney even made an appearance at this year’s festival.

    Next up: We do need some education: A visit to the first women’s university and to Mrs. Ha’s alma mater.
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  • Day5

    Day 4: Part 1, The long way down

    November 11, 2019 in South Korea ⋅ 🌙 -5 °C

    “As the pine atop Namsan Peak stands firm, unchanged through wind and frost, as if wrapped in armour, so shall our resilient spirit.” - Aegukga (South Korean National Anthem)

    On Monday, we headed to Namsan (South Mountain) to go up the Seoul Tower, a once broadcast tower and now a top tourist attraction in Seoul. While looking up facts and names, I realized that we missed something called “Hello Kitty Island” and I am currently filled with ALL of the regret. I will try to move on. Once this pandemic passes, “Hello Kitty Island” is like #1 on the bucket list.

    That’s the thing about this trip. Since we departed, there have been so many “We need to…next time” moments. I mean, #1 is “buy more fashion face masks”, but the list goes on and on. Missing Hello Kitty Island? Top travel fail.

    About those fashion masks…We are in the midst of a global pandemic. The US is now in week three of social distancing, public closures, and a changing way of life. In the last week, the governor of Colorado has asked citizens of his state to wear masks when out doing essential tasks. We’ve been asked to “go Korean” and wear fashion masks when we are in public.

    When I was in high school, my dad was cut off in traffic by a big biker dude. My dad said, “Hey jerk, nice move,” and me, being me, said, “Hey dad, be nice, that’s my boyfriend.” My dad didn’t miss a beat and said, “You wouldn’t date him…you’ve been a snob since you were 6 years old.” As I walk around town in an authentic Korean fashion mask THAT I PURCHASED AT A MUSEUM GIFT STORE, I can see my dad smiling down from heaven and saying, “Told you so.”

    But back to Namsan…

    We took a cab to the bottom of Namsan, and after wandering around a bit lost, we found the bus that takes you to the top. We were in Seoul at a beautiful time. It was late fall, and Namsan was covered in color: red, deep orange, yellow. There was a little more wandering at the top trying to find the entrance of the tourist viewing tower.

    The tower was another first for everyone in the group. I mean, me, obviously, but the other three are Korean natives. 1) You always know more interesting sites far away than you do in your hometown. I mean, home is where you work, go to school, have to clean your house, join clubs and activities. Other places are for exploring and sightseeing. I think we all fall into this trap to some degree. And 2) Korea is very different in 2019 than it was when Alice and her family emigrated. There is a new prosperity and with that comes tourism, but also a renewed sense of pride in one’s own country and its metropolis…and well, government funding for improvement increases as well. All of these sites that we were visiting existed in Alice’s youth. At that time they were the local history, maybe not kept in top condition, and possibly not even open to the public. In the last few decades, these sites have been made into Unesco World Heritage sites, or have been opened up for tours, or have been completely renovated and enhanced for sightseeing and education. You can go home, but you might not recognize it.

    The Seoul tower starts with a “Tower experience”, a kind of low-end Kpop meets sci fi movie experience, and then it’s a direct elevator to the observation tower. A beautiful view of Seoul, and directional signs that point out just how far I was from anywhere I’ve ever been: 8 or 9 thousand kilometers (over 5 thousand miles for those who refuse to go metric) to London, Paris, and Berlin. A little bit further (and the other direction) to Seattle and Denver. I was on the other side of the world.

    Seoul is a much more beautiful city than I had anticipated. I thought “massive Asian city with tall buildings and full of people.” It is that, but I had no idea how lovely the surrounding area would be. Alice said she remembered more cement as a child, so it is possible that some of the green areas are improvements from the past 20 years. Seoul is surrounded by a series of small mountains. I had seen photos, but I thought it might be the kind of photographic trickery that is often seen. I’ve seen photos of Denver that make it seem to be directly at the base of huge mountains. The mountains are close to Denver, but Denver is not nestled in them. Seoul really is built right up to and into these hills. They aren’t the Rockies, but they are prominent enough and covered by lush greenery, and in the late autumn, colorful foliage.

    We took the bus up to the top of Namsan, so that we could walk the paths back down. This was absolutely the smartest way to attack Namsan, but make no mistake…1.2 kilometers of straight down left me achy for the rest of the week. Traveling while old and out of shape keeps one humble for sure. We walked slowly down the hill heading towards one of the oldest markets in Seoul, Namdaemun Market near the South gate.

    Next up: Noodle soup, the best kimchi, Maria’s search for chopsticks
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  • Day4

    Day 3: Bad Noodles and Good Art

    November 10, 2019 in South Korea ⋅ ⛅ 6 °C

    Sunday we set out for Leeum, the Samsung Museum of Art. We had plans to have dinner with all of the cousins that evening, so we were looking for a low key day in anticipation of the reunion of family who haven't been together in decades (and all the fun and stress that might bring.)

    Leeum is established around the collection of Hong Ra-hee, the daughter-in-law of Lee Byung-chul (the founder of the Samsung corporation), and the wife of Lee Kun-hee. Two things: 1) Korean names are written with the surname first…So “Lee” is the surname of the founder of Samsung, and his son, Lee Kun-hee, who is currently one of the richest men in the world; and 2) Lee Kun-hee may or may not be alive. Yes, you google it…there are two stories. Either he has been in a coma since 2014 or he’s dead and his family has kept this a secret to avoid paying billions in estate taxes. Honestly, either way it’s an amazing story.

    Hong Ra-hee is the most powerful art collector in South Korea, and it shows. Leeum consists of three buildings that are masterpieces in themselves. The buildings are designed by Mario Botto (a terra-cotta building that houses Korean pottery), Jean Nouvel (a stainless steel and glass structure that houses contemporary Korean and international art), and Rem Koolhaas (a concrete structure that houses the Child Education and Culture Center.)

    So what is in this museum? Everything. Every perfect specimen of every time period of Korean art. One of the only two surviving crowns from the 5th century Gaya Kingdom? Yes, that is here. A 13th century celadon ewer from Goryeo potters in PERFECT condition? Yes, that is here. The large 18th century moon jar with no visible seam? Yes, that is here. The collection was amazing, and it made every other museum in the days to come pale in comparison. My advice is absolutely see this museum…and absolutely see it last.

    Leeum is situated in the international district. The neighborhood of high-fliers in Seoul: ambassadors, UN employees, and the like. If you watch the movie, Parasite, the Park family seems to fit perfectly in a neighborhood such as this.

    The only downside of Leeum was the lack of a good cafe. Let’s face it…a good cafe is paramount to a great museum. We walked down the hill to an adorable cafe nearby, but it was full for lunch, so we found a Chinese noodle place. The place looked good, was crowded, included in the Michelin guide, etc, so we went in and Alice ordered Jjajangmyeon. Jjajangmyeon is a Chinese black bean noodle dish that has been Koreanified and is pretty much THE comfort food from Alice’s youth. I loved it. We ate, we went back to the museum. It was a great day. It wasn’t until DAYS later that I found out…we had eaten subpar Jjajangmyeon. I laughed. I still laugh. But what is even funnier? After the 10 days were over, I was kind of a Korean food snob too. I mean, I wasn’t home for a week before I tasted subpar kimchi here in Denver…now I just make my own. I also make my own Jjajangmyeon. I mean, who has time for bad noodle?

    We ended the day at dinner with the cousins. Let me tell you how fun it is to observe someone else’s family…especially when you understand about 2% of the conversation and get to fill in some of the drama for yourself. Without the stress of it being MY family, I relaxed and took the opportunity to eat my body weight of more Chinese food (this time new age Chinese, and apparently, also subpar.) The best part of the meal was when the 17-year-old cousin came to sit next to us to practice her English. After I had taken what should have been my very last bite, she handed me the menu and said, “Now they want you to pick your noodle.” Excuse me??? White girl here thought that was the ENTIRE meal. Nope. You FINISH your meal with noodles. I laughed and ordered some more Jjajangmyeon. I’d like to live my next life as a 12-year-old Korean kid.
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  • Day3

    Day 2: Gyeongbokgung

    November 9, 2019 in South Korea ⋅ 🌙 10 °C

    Alice's mom took the day to lunch and chat with her friends from the bank. As 20-somethings they all worked in the same downtown Seoul bank and have been friends ever since. Alice and I took off on the metro to visit the largest of the Joseon palaces in Seoul, Gyeongbokgung.

    The Joseon Dynasty ruled from 1392 to 1897. It was the longest Confucian dynasty and the last Korean dynasty. Gyeongbokgung is the largest of the five grand palaces of Seoul and was built in 1395.

    Gyeongbokgung consists of a large palace comprised of many buildings spread over a wide area and sits directly next to the National Palace Museum of Korea and the National Folk Museum of Korea. The palace was full of hanbok clad tourists. Interestingly, the face of tourists in Korea has changed. These were not locals, and most of them were not Korean. The change in tourist reflects the growing affluence that is spreading across Asia and the diversity in culture and religions represented. You could tell the Koreans apart: they weren't wearing traditional, Korean dress.

    Beyond the main gate we heard the megaphoned voice of a woman growing more and more hoarse as the hours passed. It was a protest, but we couldn't quite figure out what the protest was against. And then we were was against Trump. Trump had declared that the US was helping South Korea by occupying a military base in Seoul. The South Koreans needed to pay much more now for the pleasure of housing our troops. I think I agree with the hoarse lady. We saw some marching, but stayed pretty clear of the crowds of people. Apparently, Saturdays are for shopping and protesting in the city center.

    We made it a day by visiting both museums and every single one of the shops around the palace grounds. I have taught Alice the joy of travel souvenirs. Packing tiny trinkets in my suitcase and making it home with all of them is my gift. We are all superheroes in our own way.

    As we were trying to figure out the best way home around protests and crowded subways, an American looked up at me and said, "Are you going to the Lantern Festival?" Lantern Festival? Alice quickly texted locals who responded, "Lantern Festival? Isn't that in the summer?" Well, there IS a Lantern November...thank you random American for letting us know. It will take us a few days to wind up there though.

    Next up: Bad noodles, Do this museum LAST, and dinner with the cousins.
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  • Day2

    Day 1: Insadong and Bukchon

    November 8, 2019 in South Korea ⋅ 🌙 8 °C

    I had flown to Seattle and spent the night at Alice's house before our morning direct flight to Seoul. Note: Never casually invite me on a trip. Not only will I go. I will end up on your flight. There is a good chance I will end up at your house the night before.

    We arrived early in the afternoon, and after figuring out the ATM (why is this always such a challenge?) and the bus route, we were off to central Seoul: Gagnam specifically. Even Americans know Gagnam thanks that that bizarrely addictive pop hit. Gagnam simply means "South of the River". Our hotel was just over the Banpo Bridge on the south side of the Han River attached to the flagship Shinsegae (New World) department store. Asian malls are a thing of wonder. There was a large department store, train station, metro station, extensive food court, and vast underground shopping mall...the extent of which was only discovered by Alice on the last day after I had already boarded the airport bus.

    On Friday, we set out on our guided tour organized by Alice's mom's good friend, Aeyoung. We started in Insadong: a lovely neighborhood with a pedestrianized main street full of shops, tea houses, and Korean food. We specifically went to Insadong to dine at Sachon, temple cuisine. Sachon is the restaurant of former buddhist monk, Kimyunsik, who creates amazing many-course meals from vegetables and herbs from the mountains of Korea. Amazing is such a disservice to describe this meal. As usual, I have little idea what I ate, but the herbs, vegetables, rice, barley tea, all of it...I think I converted to Korean immediately upon finishing this meal. I'm forever addicted to banchan, the small side dishes, often fermented, mostly containing red pepper powder, served with rice that complete a Korean meal.

    After Insadong, we tried to visit the secret garden of the Changgyeonggung, one of the two main palaces of the Joseon Dynasty. We arrived to hoards of young people (and not so young people) in Hanbok, Korean national dress. The palaces and museums of Korea have this genius option: entry is free if you wear Hanbok. No need to spend valuable museum money hiring people to stand around in costume! Convince the tourists to do it. You can rent Hanbok for about 8 bucks a day. Alice didn't take up my offer to rent some for her.

    The Secret Garden tours were full for the day, so instead we ventured over to Bukchon village, home to traditional houses, hanok, that date back to the Joseon time. It was picturesque, but also teeming with Hanbok clad tourists and road construction on winding, hilly, one lane roads with no sidewalk. It's occupied by current residents, so although pretty, it would be a pretty pain in the neck to live in.

    Next up: Alice and Maria visit the largest of the Seoul palaces, accidentally become part of an anti-Trump protest, and learn from an American tourist about a delightful lantern festival which no actual resident of Seoul seemed to know anything about.
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