It's been a while since I wrote something - at least more than a year now. I think I have become too lazy or may be there wasn't any kind of motivation to write ;). On the other hand, nothing exciting has been happening lately, or say life has become pretty much a routine now. So, things which used to arouse curiosity and surprise earlier, now they don't as much. One reason may be - I've been in America for too long now, and 'Americanized' a lot. It will be 5 years at the end of this summer, since I left India. 5 years... really seems like a long period of time. Long story short, after a while now, I've found a reason worth.
Recently, I got a chance to visit Seoul, South Korea (or Republic of Korea as they say it) and Hong Kong. It was more of a company business trip than a vacation, but nevertheless it was a great opportunity. Earlier this month, I was notified that I may have to visit Korea and china and I was asked to check the visa requirements and things like that. And it turned out that China had tightened the visa requirements these days due to the Olympics and perhaps Tibet protests as well. So, getting China visa seemed like a difficult thing to do in a period of a week or so. Meanwhile, things also cooled off a bit in the office and I was told I might need to go towards the end of May. So, everything was kind of quiet in mid-May. But suddenly, on Thursday, May 15th I was told that I'll be flying to Korea the following Tuesday, May 20eth. Quite naturally I got very excited, but Wow that was a real short notice. I had to get Korea visa and I had exact 2 business days to do so. So, on Friday morning I visited the Korean embassy in New York but they wouldn't return the passport same day. That simply meant I'll have to go back again on Monday to pick up the pass port. Now, this was real tight, I was flying on Tuesday and I wouldn't have my visa until 3 pm Monday. Fortunately, everything went well and I was lucky and ready with all the necessary paperwork. Meanwhile, 2 of my colleagues Charles (Chinese-American) and Chan (Korean-American) took care of the flight and hotel bookings and that was a great relief. One less thing to worry about, phew! So, after all these rush of about 4 days, Monday evening was a little bit relaxing and the only thing I had to do was packing. Finally, I was all set for Korea! ;)
On Tuesday morning, I left home at about 8.30 for the airport, considering I had to goto JFK - about 50+ miles. The flight was at 2 pm, so it was a bit early. But you never know the traffic in the area. Fortunately or unfortunately, there wasn't any kind of traffic at all, and just after 9.30 I was at the Korean Airlines check-in counter. Now, this was a little too early for a 2 pm non-stop flight to Seoul. Anyways, the check-in counters also wouldn't open till 10.
Fast forward, we've boarded and ready to take off and my excitement level is as high as it could get. First reason being, visiting a new country is bound to pump your adrenaline up and second reason, a bit silly ;), flying into an airplane always excites me in the beginning, I routinely fly at least twice a year, but it still feels great. Anyways, we are all settled in the jumbo 747 and ready to take off.
One thing worth mentioning, the flight attendants or air hostesses in Korean Airlines were great. I think all of them had picture perfect figures ;)! It's rare to find such personalities in a real airline (esp. if you fly those Continentals and Uniteds and NWAs - they suck). But Korean was a different story, I must admit I was impressed by them, the way they were dressed - they looked so fresh and clean. So far I always had seen such air hostesses in tv commercials and magazines, but never in an actual airline. And to top this all, they all were very polite and eager to help anybody.
So, that was the beginning, but then Seoul was a little too far. The flight was about 14 hours and there isn't much one can do on a plane. At least, I get very frustrated sitting in the same place for such an extended period of time. But what else can you do, except wait. Anyways, so the lunch/dinner was served and I knew it's going to be tough for me. Even though, I had requested a vegetarian meal, it still wasn't suitable for my taste buds :(, I just couldn't take those vegetables and rice ;). But, somehow I managed! Btw, initially I had thought I'll be the only Indian in the flight. But, I was wrong, there was another family, returning from a vacation in Hawaii and traveling to Bombay, via Seoul. Surprisingly, they were Gujju ;), now that was something! I thought, no matter where you are in this world, there'll always be some Gujjus there ;)!
Fast forward, it finally ended and we're at the Incheon International Airport, Seoul and it's about 5 pm on Wednesday in Seoul. I just started looking around, and everything was so different and Korean. Needless to say, I was the odd one out ;)! I just started taking pictures of the airport and vicinity. In all fairness, it was just another airport ;), but still in a different country :)! The airport seemed pretty small compared to an average American airport, but I still don't know how big it was.
Anyways, Chan, who spoke Korean, led us to a ticket counter to buy tickets for a shuttle bus which would take us to our hotel. Incheon is an island and about an hour away from the Seoul city area. Like most Asian cities it too is new and at a distance from city. We were at the ticket counter and ticket price was 14,000 wons. Wow there came the first shock! 14,000 is a big number in any currency I guess, unless you are in Zimbabwe! But, it turns out that 1 USD = 1000 Korean Wons approximately. So, every thing is 1000 times bigger as far as numbers are concerned. Anyways, we bought the ticket and waiting for the bus to arrive, meanwhile I kept staring at the surrounding and getting amazed and surprised, hearing people talking and not understanding a word :). Luckily we had someone who spoke Korean, so he would translate everything for us!
Soon the bus arrived. I think the buses were run by private travel agencies or something, but very convenient mode of transportation between the hotels and the airport - end to end connectivity. The first thing in the bus that struck me was the satellite TV, now that was something I hadn't expected. Btw, Korea too has left hand driving, but they have the Metric unit system, just like India - everything is in kilo meters and celsius ;)!
The airport being on an island, there were many mountains in the road leading to the city, and it's quite scenic in the beginning. As we pass along the road, lots of similar buildings of 15-20 stories pass by, but they all are identical, not an inch different. An inquiry with Chan revealed that those were residential buildings, more like the housing board apartments/flats in India. In a way they were unique but at the same time monotonous, nevertheless they defined the panorama of the road leading to Seoul downtown.
So, we are cruising along, and I was looking at types of vehicles on the road, most of them are cars, with occasional mopeds and scooters and many buses. But it's still mostly cars.
But one thing stood apart - they all are just Hyundai! That's all, no matter what type of vehicle (4 wheelers and up) you look at, it's all Hyundai and Hyundai, cars, buses, trucks, and equivalents of 'tempo' in India. It seemed like Korea runs only on Hyundai!
Anyways, as we approach the city, the traffic keeps on getting denser and denser, it's still evening rush-hour in Seoul, so lots of office-goers going home! Due to this our bus had to make frequent stops but that was fun since I got to see how people drive and the cars and so on. Driving style in Korea is a mixture of both American and Indian style - but I guess still more Indian. People making sudden turns and stopping and cutting one another, but in the end it all works just fine. If you are not used to this kind of driving, you may be in trouble. We were almost at the hotel, and we spotted the Seoul Olympics 1988 stadium. Being in the bus, I didn't have much time to take a careful look at it, but it didn't seem impressive. May be 20 years have been too long for it and time has taken its toll.
Okay, so we reached at our destination, which was in the basement of the building next to our hotel. We still had to walk to the check-in counter of our hotel, some 3-4 minutes walk away, and there was a big mall and shopping complex in between. It was wonderful, still being in the evening hours, lots of people out and shopping. The more I looked at those sign-boards, most in Korean, the more it amazed me. I was feeling luckier and luckier to have such an opportunity to see this.
Anyways, we entered in the Grand Intercontinental hotel lobby, and the staff was ready to greet us;), I think they were just doing their job, but it still feels great when somebody bows politefully in front of you. It seems in Korean culture, they lean forward when they greet somebody. We checked in and were on our way to our respective rooms.
So, I went to my room, took a peek outside the window, and noticed Seoul was still buzzing. Lots of tall buildings and traffic on the road. I took a quick shower and went downstairs but was a bit little late ;), both C & C were waiting for me :P. Anyways, we went to the same mall food-court, where we came from. Now, being a vegetarian I was a special case, so, we had to find some place where we all can find something. We were walking and you see these lots of young Korean people, carrying shopping bags full of stuff.
It was a hip, urban, trendy crowd - and everybody spoke Korean only, I don't think they care about English as much ;), but one thing stood apart was the electronic gadgets that everybody had. Those devices made the iPods look ancient. I was truly impressed by their media players and those cool, sexy, flashy phones. Here in US, the best you can find is iPod, I think there iPod was the last one ;).
Anyways, we are walking around and trying to decide what to get. And it turned out that there weren't many vegetarian choices, but luckily in one store I saw something in a picture of a dish which looked vegetarian. I asked Chan to inquire about it and he gave green :)! So, he ordered it for me and walked away to the next shop. While I was waiting to get my order and the girl in the store kept looking at me! She was asking me for something in Korean and I had no idea what she was saying. This went on for a while and she started attending to other customers while I was waiting to get my food. So I walked upto Chan and asked what's the deal! He said, didn't you pay her? Wow, what a bummer ;)! Hehe... she was asking for money and I had no clue, anyways, so the food cost around 7000 wons, I guess, once again I got a shock, 7000 for food, it's very psychological and it takes a while to get used to such big figures :)!
W are sitting and eating, and turns out that, the food which I ordered, sucked big time :(, I had ordered buck wheat noodles with some soup I guess, but it wasn't for me. I realized, no more food for me tonight, I'll have to manage with something else. I kept on trying hard to eat it, but it wasn't working out ;), and determined Korean food isn't for me, even vegetarian :)!
And suddenly, I ate something, and that's it, it started burning up and down my nose, sinus and brain. I was scratching my skull and jumping center, right and left, for a moment I couldn't see anything and tears started coming both from my eyes and nose ;). Wow, whatever that was, it totally hillaofy my dimaag. Meanwhile, both C & C are looking at me and laughing crazily, because they knew exactly what happened. It turns out I ate 'Wasabi
', which is infamous for causing irritation in the nasal passages - if you chew it down carelessly, you just can't do this, you've to show some respect to Wasabi ;). That was first direct encounter with wasabi and it took me 2-3 minutes to settle down :(! Anyways, that was the master card moment - priceless! ;)
Anyways, so we are still eating and suddenly all the shops started closing, it was about 9 pm, and the area was closing, everybody just disappeared within a moment and the entire food court was shut in a flash. Now, that was a little too quick and unexpected, now we 3 were the only ones left in the entire court. Since, we were still working on our food, we were instructed to leave the trays in a small box which led into the store kitchen. The store staff left and all lights were off!
That was surprising, the shop was fully accessible and you can still get inside it if you wanted to! And it turns out that, that's how it works in Seoul, most such shops are kind of unlocked/accessible at night. No fear of somebody stealing things. I don't know how true is that, but it certainly looked like that. I mean there were no homeless people, beggars etc. Apparently, Koreans are very honest, and nobody steals! Once again, I just have been there for 3-4 days, but this is the impression that I carry. It's difficult to imagine such a situation anywhere else, for example in New York City, everything may be gone by the morning! We finished in a bit and headed for the hotel. Everybody was very tired after the long flight and we decided to meet up in the morning at around 8.30 to take care of the business part of our trip.
Next morning, at 8.30 I went to the hotel kitchen - Grand Kitchen - for breakfast. I tried to find C & C but couldn't locate, anyways I ate by myself , and it was a pretty hearty breakfast ;). Anyways, somehow I managed to find them after I finished, and it turned out that our morning appointment was cancelled. So, we decided to meet someone else, since we had till about 1.30 pm before the next meeting.
We got a taxi from outside the hotel - needless to say Hyundai only ;)! Btw, it turns out that Seoul has 2 colors/types of taxis, black and white, Charles pointed - the black ones are costly ones and the white ones are cheaper, they look same though! Anyways, we decided to take the white one with GPS in it, since the company that we were visiting was in the area some 45 minutes away!
As soon as we got into the car, I spotted the GPS, man, that was big GPS display, at least 6-7 inches, I haven't seen anything like that here in US. They seemed to be advanced ;)!
So, now we are on the streets of Seoul once again, and I got to see the real deal. While the hotel where we stayed is in a relatively very new, modern kind of area - but where we were heading was kind of 'old Seoul'. And to my surprise, it reminded me of India, the mom and pop shops side by side and that too hundreds of them, just like any typical road in India!
Now, Korea was becoming India and that was nostalgic ;)! May be because, Korea too has history that dates backs to several centuries. Anyways, naturally due to all these, no big chain like stores were present, no big parking lots! I saw vehicles parked on pavements and footpaths and places you wouldn't expect normally for parking :)! In most gas stations you can't see the price from distance, in US they've big tall structures indicating current prices, I didn't spot anything like that in area. But everything had its charm and it was nice!
If you are in Seoul, you can't miss Hyundai, Samsung and LG. I think if put together these 3 symbolify Korea :P. While Hyundai makes vehicles in all kinds of shapes and sizes, Samsung and LG have their part too. There were so many buildings which were marked as Samsung and LG, I don't know what were those, but there were plenty. Needless to say, it was difficult to spot any non-Korean brand vehicles..very rare Hondas and Toyotas or any German cars....
Anyways, we met our first customer, and then they took us to lunch and dropped us at another customer's office. The working day just passed and now it was about 6.30 pm and we went for dinner. This time we went for some American-Korean kind of restaurant. The waitress there was a little too polite. While they take your order, they never stand straight-head up, they always lean forward while talking to you. Anyways, this is more of culture and tradition than anything else I believe! One more thing, it turns out that in Korea, they never give things with just one hand. For example, when they bring the cheque at the end, they always use 2 hands to give it to you! Impressive! I can't speak for entire Korea, but this seems to be the general impression.
We finished and our host company offered their driver to drop us at the hotel! We couldn't say no, it was so nice of them! At least in US, it's totally opposite culture, you rent the car and go however you want to go ;)!
Anyways, the car driver took us through some real narrow streets, sometimes 2 lane traffic seemed impossible, but it was still working!
While we were waiting at one of the traffic lights to go straight (say North), a guy on a bike/motor cycle came from West and he had to go North, for him it was left turn signal.
Many times left turn signals require longer wait, so he simply came into our lane and stood right in front of our car, as soon as the light turned green and vroooom... straight North! How smart ;)!, and I thought only people in India do such things! ;)..I noticed similar instances so many times after this :P..anyways, we reached the hotel and dead again!
Next morning was Friday, and today due to better co-ordination, we could go together for the breakfast ;)! Instead of taking taxi to client's place we decided to take the Subway (it's actually called Subway) today ;) and experience the morning rush-hour in the underground and also taste an average commute. We bought tickets for 'several thousand' wons ;) and found our way to appropriate lines. At least in the Subway, all the sign boards are both in Korean in English and in Chinese as I well I think, so it was easy to navigate.
Due to the rush hour, the trains were fully packed. Many people getting on and off within a matter of seconds, most seemed young in their mid-20s or so!
Anyways, we reached our destination, once again, met customers, went for lunch and they dropped us at the hotel at about 6. Btw, where the customer offices were located, it was an Indian equivalent of Special Economic Zone, it came into existence just about 5-6 years ago, so everything seems relatively new. It was called 'Busan Digital Complex' if I recall it correctly. I am sure Korea has lots of such special economic zones esp. for electronics industrty.
After reaching hotel, I decide to take a walk outside the hotel and check out the vicinity. And once again, lots of young working class people with their fancy gadgets. Everybody seemed to be either talking on phone or doing something with their media players. All eyes busy and occupied.
It was difficult to find somebody walking just like that - no phones or fancy electronics ;)! Anyways, took some more pictures and then went for food once again. Btw, Seoul is probably as costly as US, so not a big place for shopping ;)! 1$ = 1000 Won doesn't help ;)!
We all had decided that when by ourselves we won't go to fancy hotels for lunch and dinners, we'll always check out the places where average people go. So, today we went to the food court in the Hyundai Departmental Store, yes, once again Hyundai ;)! Today, luckily I managed to find something better, I found some kind of fried rice, so I felt a little better after all those salads and vegetables ;). But say what, once again, while we were eating, all the shops suddenly closed, hehe, what a timing! We were the last ones left, once again left dishes in designated places and same story, semi-locked shops. No worry of stealing stuff! Finished food, went to room and dead again!
Now, Saturday morning we had for ourselves, no meeting, so this was the time to check out the 'popular spots' of downtown Seoul. Chan had some other place to go, so it was just me and Charles. Earlier we wanted to visit the most common tourist spot of Korea - the DMZ (De-Militerized Zone), which borders North Korea, it's about an hour away from Seoul, but that seemed to be taking almost the entire day and we didn't have that kind of time. So, instead we decided to check out the down town.
Fortunately, Seoul has a very nice and organized tourist shuttle services which run pretty much the entire day and take you to all the popular spots with one tourist guide on every bus who speaks both English and Korean. You can get on and off as many times as you want if you buy a daily pass (about 10USD). Our hotel was not exactly in downtown Seoul, so we took the train to the nearest area Itaewon in downtown where we can get the 'Seoul City Tour' bus.
I think Itaewon and nearby areas are like 'Little America', lots of American are still there. This is due to the fact that US had a big military base there during the Korean War. So, here for the first time we spotted American things - McDs, Quizno's, Coldstones and so on, and on the streets you can spot more Americans than Koreans...
On our agenda for the day, we wanted to visit 3 places and anything in between ;) - 1)Changgyeonggung Palace, 2)Gyeongbokgung Palace and 3)North Seoul Tower - equivalent of Empire State, WTC and Statue of Liberty ;)..!Changgyeonggung Palace
So our first stop was Changgyeonggung palace. And as soon as we got off, the first thing that came from my mouth was 'Wow', it was just different, and to better it, it was a perfect sunny day with temperatures in 25-35 deg C I believe. So far I always had seen such buildings in those Chinese movies of Jackie Chan ;), but this was with naked eye. Quite naturally, there is nothing much you can do in such public places except take a little walk and take as many photos as you can, and that's exactly what I did :P, but truly it was a wonderful palace. Unlike Indian palaces, these are quite different, they are not as complex as typical palaces in Jaipur or Udaipur, but fairly simple and mostly one story buildings and rooms. They are entirely made of wooden with some complex arrangments and carvings in wood.
Also on that day there were lots of young kids on a school visit or something. They were so cute and chubby, and in similar clothes.
One funny thing happened, while I was taking pictures of two 5-7 year old girls from quite a distance - 100+ feet, it's difficult to determine from such a distance if somebody is taking your picture or something else's, but somehow those little girls realized it, and were talking about me - that guy is taking our photo, they both were gigglig, shying away and became very conscious..:) I waved my hand at them and so did they, in the end they gave a big smile and obliged with a photo..;)..Gyeongbokgung Palace
Next was the Gyeongbokgung Palace. As soon as we entered the palace court (which adjoins National Folk Museum), my camera battery died. Oops..! I tried to replace with another quad of 'charged' batteries and they didn't seem to be working at at all, it turned out that my charger had bailed out on me the night earlier, and didn't charge the batteries at all. Now, this was a real emergency :(, I can't move on without taking pictures ;). That was something unexpected, and it came at the worst time.
Anyways, so we decided to check nearby street to see if we can find any shop where we can buy AA batteries. We were walking and walking but not a single shop in vicinity.
It turns out that the street on which we were walking was some kind of 'fashion street' or something. It was weird to me, every shop/store had 'gallery' in its sign board. I was wondering who comes to these galleries, I mean there are so many of them and how do they all survive? Needless to say, they all must be very expensive, and were meant for some rich, trendy, urban feminine crowd :P. But nevertheless, it was a trip worth, we get to see something different. Anyways, we were on a mission to find batteries, but no luck so far, after almost walking for a mile along this 'gallery street' I had lost hope, but suddenly Charles spotted a tiny 7-Eleven in the midst of all these boutiques. Eventhough I was looking for rechargeable AA batteries (I know.... that was asking for too much;)), I settled with regular alkaline ones. Somehow, they don't last long with digital cameras, anyways, I had no such choice, so bought them after some hesitation.
My camera is working now again, what a relief! Back to the original mission of the palace.
This palace is much bigger than the earlier one and I think it's one of the biggest in Korea. It really was grand with lots of ancient rooms. Also, to add to its beauty, it has a lake in it and there is a big mountain just in its background, that adds a lot to it's value..;). Once again lots of pictures behind every pole and in front of every door ;)! But it's well worth! Truly wonderful place!
I must admit, after visiting this place, there is certainly one less place to visit in my 'places to visit' list..:)!North Seoul Tower
After visiting 2 palaces, we were tired and hungry and it was about 6 pm and we didn't even have lunch. So, we found a Dunkin' Donuts nearby and had some muffin and back on our last pit stop in Seoul. The unique thing about Seoul down town is that, it has a big mountain right in the middle of it. The tower is built on top of this mountain. In a sense, it's just like the towers in Seattle or Toronto or else where. You can get a real nice view of the entire Seoul metro area from this tower.
Something special about it though -
there were lots of pairs of locks tied to the steel ropes of the viewing area. As I mentioned before, all the locks were in pair, first locked to each other and then to the steel rope. I don't know what's the deal with them, but my guess is, it's for married/dating couples ;) - probably they visit the tower and lock the lock for longevity of their marriage/relationship!
By now we had covered everything that we wanted. It was pretty dark, we took a cable car to get to the base and then a white taxi from there to the hotel, had dinner in the hotel restaurant for the first time, since every thing was closed outside and we were tired a lot.
So, that was it, Seoul trip was over now, just one more night to spend and leave for Hong Kong at 5 in the morning. I was already feeling very sad - it had ended!
But nevertheless, great memories, great experiences! Hopefully, I'll go there back again!
1) Gyeongbokgung Palace
2) On the Streets of Seoul
3) Changgyeonggung Palace
4) N Seoul Tower and Downtown
5) Around Grand Intercontinental Hotel
6) Driving from Airport to Hotel