May 26, 2017

Travel Korea - Jeju Island, day 1

On an early, brutal Monday morning, Yangkyu and I woke up at 4 am to head to a subway stop near Yangkyu's brother's place where the express train took us to Gimpo Airport. It was brutal because we only got 4 hours of sleep and we were already tired from jet lag and lack of sleep from days before (and frankly, we're too old to be doing this kind of hard core traveling). But I tell ya, arriving at Gimpo Airport woke me up right away as it was chaotic (and I mean this in the nicest way possible). I thought I stepped into one of Korea's most famous night markets with so many people bustling and going about carrying all sort of luggages that came in the form of traditional travel bags and boxes and such, wrapped in nice silk fabric (presents, I presume?). 

When I was little, Gimpo Airport was Korea's main international airport. My family flew out of Gimpo, making a stop in Anchorage, Alaska, before arriving at JFK Airport. This was August of 1986, the year we immigrated to the US. 

After the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Korea saw a rise in international air traffic. By the 1990s, it was realized that Gimpo Airport could no longer handle the amount of flights and it was decided a new airport would be built. Construction of the new airport began in 1992 and took 8 years to finish and in-between testing and quality control and having the overall completion delayed due to Korea's economic troubles in 1997, Incheon Airport was finally opened to the public in March 2001. Since 2005, it has been ranked one of the best and cleanest airports. Gimpo Airport now serves mostly domestic flights and shuttle flights to nearby cities in the East Asia region. 

We almost bought our Jeju tickets through Expedia but Yangkyu at the last minute decided to ask  his brother to check flight prices in Korea. It was $150 cheaper to buy it there. I think it was because Expedia only showed flights from Korea Air and not other domestic airlines that operate from Seoul to Jeju. Yangkyu ended up asking his brother to book our flights and our car rental, which all came out to be a bit cheaper. 

We flew Jeju Air (and for all you Song Joong Ki fans out there, he is apparently the face of Jeju Air as we saw his advertisement plastered everywhere). And while it wasn't the most pleasant experience (it wasn't a scary ride but the inside of the plane looked old), it got us to where we needed to go. It's about an hour flight from Seoul to Jeju and Yangkyu and I slept the entire way there, which ended up being a bit more difficult to get up because our bodies were just telling us, "Sleep more, human! Sleep more!" 

One thing about flying domestic was, we kept asking security if it was ok to bring liquids past security and if we needed to take off our shoes. You can bring liquids and there is no need to take off your shoes, but there are certain things you can't bring on board, like rechargeable batteries. Those things you have to check in with your luggage otherwise they will confiscate it. We also didn't have a phone number and so they asked us to hang out about 15 minutes while our checked luggage went through security. Usually, if you have a phone, they will contact you if there are restricted items, but since we didn't have a phone, we were just told to wait or come back to the check-in kiosk. We didn't end up having any issues. 

Once at Jeju Airport, a shuttle took us to our car rental place. We used BillyCar, which is operated by AJ Rent A Car. I don't think you get to choose beforehand what kind of car make you want (they just kind of give you what is available on the spot, even though on our rental confirmation receipt it said that we would get the Hyundai Advante), but you do have to choose the size of the car (pricing reasons). We chose the sedan and was given the Samsung SM3. 

 // Yongdu-am, or Dragon Head Rock. This is the main attraction here, but you can also enjoy other views and also an area where you can enjoy freshly caught seafood, prepared on the spot. See below. // 

 // That tented area is where freshly caught seafood is sold and prepared for you to eat. The seating isn't what you would normally find at restaurants, obviously by the look of the picture (I feel like I have to manage expectations for people who aren't familiar with these types of places), but it is enjoyed by many tourists. //  
 // We had the squid all the way on the left -- it was dusted with curry powder but you couldn't taste the curry at all. // 

We had a list of places we wanted to visit on the first day that was mainly along the western part of the island. Our lodging, Pause in Jeju (we found it on AirBnB but booked through Expedia because their response to a question we had took over a week and we didn't want our reservation to have the same fate and fall through - although, we would find out, going to Jeju in April wasn't at all busy and I'm sure it wouldn't have been a problem for us to find a room on the spot), was located on the southern part of the island called Seogwipo. Jeju Airport is in Jeju City, which is located on the northern part of the island. Our sightseeing course for that day, since we arrived early morning (I mean our flight was at 7 am, and it took an hour to arrive in Jeju, after getting our car it was 9 am), was to start in Jeju City and make our way over, riding along the coastline along the western part of the island, and arrive in Seogwipo City by the evening. It sort of was the perfect plan... but we didn't account for how tired we would be. It was most unfortunate..! And it rained for most of the day, which added to the doom and gloom, but Jeju is pretty so it sort of made up for it. 

The first place we had on our list was Yongdu-am Rock, or Dragon Head Rock, which is very close to the airport. We asked the rental car person about it and he basically shrugged it off and said, "well, there isn't much to it. It's just a rock." I laughed and he said, "Perhaps if you go at night because you can see the pretty lights, too." Well, we didn't go at night (and to be honest, I think it would've scared me to go at night), and ended up making the easy drive over. 

It was a quick view, and while for us there wasn't much to view, I thought it was a great introduction to the island of Jeju. You are greeted with a beautiful seashore with a breathtaking view. The rock itself didn't look like a dragon to me - more like a rabbit, or even the peninsula of Korea, but distorted a little (you know, when you resize a photo by dragging the corner and the picture kind of look distorted?). Well, Yangkyu thought worse - he thought it looked like a camel. I have no idea where he got that one from. 

Right near Yongdu-am was a little makeshift area where freshly caught seafood was sold, I presume by haenyo, or Korean female divers. We didn't make a stop here to eat, mainly because we didn't think we would be able to eat any of the raw seafood there, but we thought to save it for another time. 

We did however, stop by another small eatery called Haewon Chogajip where they sold squid and other seafood on a stick. We had the squid dusted with curry powder (you can't taste the curry powder though). You don't get to eat it off of a stick (probably a bit hard to, if I may add) -- they cut it up for you and put it in a little paper cup with a tooth pick. 

We found throughout our travels to Korea that carrying around disposable anything ended up being a chore because it was incredibly difficult to find public trash bins. And Korea is strict with its recycling program so you can't just throw things out. Most of the time, we carried around our trash, neatly folded or crushed and thrown out altogether once we found a trash bin or back at our lodging or at our families' homes. Other times, when we would eat at a restaurant, we would kindly ask if they can throw out our trash for us (not big ones, like soda cans or water bottles, but more like wet paper tissues and such) and most folks gladly and kindly allowed us to. Other stores like Dunkin Donuts in Jeju did not allow that (they didn't even have trash bins inside the store). 

We had many places we wanted to stop by while riding along the western coast of Jeju Island, but because we were tired (and driving made both of us really tired) and sometimes because we couldn't find the exact location or a certain place even though we had a GPS (and we were too tired to try harder and look it up on the Internet) we didn't end up sightseeing as much as we wanted to. 

We stopped by two more places after Yongdu-am, including the Manjanggul Lava Tube

Normally you would have a purchase a ticket to enter the cave, but throughout the month of April, most of the tourist attractions had free entrance fees. It was to encourage tourism in April, the start of the spring season. 

Manjanggul Lava Tube is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, designated in 1962. Yangkyu and I found it to be incredible, but it was cold and wet and very dark. We didn't end up going all the way, instead turning back mid-way. I read later that the cave is home to many living creatures, including the cave spider (wha?!) and even bats. 

Afterward touring the lava tube, Yangkyu and I were legit hungry. There is a restaurant right at the lava tube and we ended up grabbing lunch there. I don't think the place is considered a "mat jip," which is what delicious restaurants are called (and there is a whole list of mat jips around Jeju, and all over Korea for that matter, that people specifically travel there for. We always want to try these delicious restaurants but end up putting sightseeing first and when we get tired and hungry we end up choosing the nearest restaurant to our current location). 

Because Yangkyu and I eat like birds (little bits throughout the day), and we had so many things we wanted to eat in Korea, we went to Korea with a game plan. We would order just one meal and share, along with any appetizers we wanted to eat. That way we can get as many meals and food throughout the day into our tummies as possible. 

 // Seongsan Ilchulbong, or Sunrise Peak, from afar. This is in Seogwipo and is on the our way to Seogwipo City but we decided to come back to it when we were less tired, because we were interested in climbing it all the way to the top. Unfortunately we did not get the chance to ever come back here. We have it saved on our wish list for the next time we are ever in Jeju Island. // 

Before checking into Pause in Jeju, we made one last sightseeing stop at Jeju Folk Village. I love these types of places and have been to a similar place called Korean Folk Village in the city of Yongjin in the past. Because it was raining, and perhaps because it was April, not quite tourist season, the Jeju Folk Village for the most part was empty. I liked that - it was nice to walk around not having to worry about it being overcrowded. 

The rain picked up a bit while we were here and Yangkyu and I both walked around in silly raincoats we purchased at the gift shop. Yangkyu says it's the best $10 he spent while in Korea because the raincoats aren't filmsy, but durable (he cracks me up). I wanted to leave it in Korea but we ended up bringing them back home. They are still in their little plastic packaging although for the life of me I can't remember where I put it. I think Yangkyu forgot about them. 

Oh well. 

Jeju Folk Village is a sprawling landscape that showcases the lifestyle and traditional culture of the island from the 19th century. It has a mountain village, fishing village, a botanical garden, market place, areas where you can learn to make things from craftsmen (which were all closed when we were there), an old government building (where punishments were also carried out in public - mostly flagging) and an authentic shamanistic area (this was most fascinating and probably my favorite part -- there is literally a shrine in the shape of a penis where women went to pray at because they wanted bear a son - sons were precious, and this thought still exists today among some families). 

 // This was a maze inside the Jeju Folk Village. We couldn't find the exit and so we ended up coming out of the entrance instead. // 

 // An old game that children used to play. Yangkyu wasn't very good at this. He just made a lot of noise and the round thing fell over a lot even though it was attached to the stick he is holding on to. // 

 // Old government building // 

After Jeju Folk Village, we went to Pause in Jeju for a quick and easy check-in but ended up having the hardest time finding the light switch. We realized a good 5 minutes later that we needed to place our key card in a slot right next to the door that activated the lighting in our room. 

Our plan was to rest for 20 minutes, wash up, change our clothes and head out to dinner - raw fish, even though we were slightly tired of it as we had it at Garak Market and also for lunch with Yangkyu's side of the family, but we were in Jeju and we couldn't miss up on the chance. 

Yangkyu and I both plopped down on the bed and said to each other, "20 minute power nap," and proceeded to pass out and sleep uninterrupted for the next 10 hours, waking up at 5 am the next day. It was a much needed sleep and we both felt so good afterwards, but looking back when we were leaving the island, it was most regretful as we lost an evening to eat good food and go night time sight seeing. 

 // These are called Hallabong, which are famous in Jeju Island. It is a type of sweet and juicy tangerine. I believe they are even sold now in the U.S. -- in Los Angeles. // 

I hope you'll continue to join us for day 2 of our adventures on Jeju Island. On this day, we even bought a selfie stick.

Thanks for reading.

 // Travel Korea : DMZ Tours
 // Travel Korea : Childhood Memories
 // Travel Korea : Seoul

May 20, 2017

Travel Korea - Seoul

On a beautiful Sunday, Yangkyu and I woke up late, trying to catch on some sleep (although we weren't quite successful) and starting the day a little late. We had a lunch gathering with his late mother's side of the family and so we decided to rest until then and headed over on what was a relatively traffic-free ride (usually traffic is horrendous in Korea).

It was a sweet meeting for Yangkyu and just from hearing his childhood stories, I could see how much his aunts loved him and his brother and their late sister dearly. His oldest aunt said that she had asked for baby Yangkyu as a present when she got married. They are all so very close knit, which I loved seeing so much. I can see now where Yangkyu and his siblings get their closeness from. Yangkyu's oldest aunt and grandmother live about four hours away from Seoul, but they made the trip up to see Yangkyu as well.

After a delicious lunch and lots of laughs over stories from the past and also informative talk about the current political state and upcoming elections, Yangkyu and I headed over to where Seoul City Hall and Seoul Metropolitan Library are located. His aunts suggested we start our sightseeing from there and then walk a short distance over to Cheongyecheon Stream, where we had intended to start our tour.

Thinking back, I actually wished we had gone into the library but my short sighted reasoning back then was that I wouldn't be able to understand any of the books so why go in? Doh? Not quite the mindset of a book reader, eh? 

Cheongyecheon ("gyecheon" means open stream in Korean) is a modern public recreation space in downtown Seoul. It was a massive urban renewal project, which I hear garnered public criticism but after its opening in 2005, had become very popular among people and tourists alike. The opposition to the renewal project had to do with the fear of gentrification of the nearby areas that are home to many shops and small businesses in the machine trade -- blue collar workers and laborers. 

You know, the first time I had heard of Cheongyecheon was from a song back in early 2000? It was when I was involved in grassroots organizing and advocacy work and the only songs I listened to were folk songs, Korean and American alike. So the song wasn't anywhere near close to popular and was most likely only known by people in the activist circle. I will be super surprised if I meet anyone who also knew and listened to this song. If you're out there, please holler!

The song is called Cheongyecheon 8 ga ("pal" which is 8 in Korean and "ga" means street) by a group called CheonJiIn. They are a folk rock group that sang mainly songs that depicted the hardships and lives of laborers and workers in Korea. Anyway, the lyrics of Cheongyecheon 8 ga is just that -- the workers who work at Cheongyecheon 8 ga. 

We enjoyed walking along the stream and many families, friends, couples were out and about enjoying the space - taking pictures, conversing, eating and laughing. It was a stark contrast to the busy weekday of people going to work and catching their buses and subway trains to get to where they need to go. Here, on a Sunday, it felt like time just stopped. It felt like a different Seoul than we we saw from previous days.

From Cheongyecheon, we planned on walking all the way down to Dongdaemun, which is a large commercial district, retail and wholesale alike. For people who don't like to walk, we probably won't recommend doing this, but Yangkyu and I like walking and so it was enjoyable to us (although at the very very end, it did get slightly tiring, but it was also because we had rushed a bit). 

I brought up the song earlier because as we were making out way towards Dongdaemun, we passed by signs and streets that read Cheongyecheon 1 ga all the way to 8 ga and they were all filled with shops but not the kind of cute shops you would find at Itaewon or Insadong or Hongdae - these were shops where laborers and workers worked. I understood the song a bit more after passing these shops and understood a bit more about the fear of gentrification. It is my hope that the fear hasn't become too much of a reality for those who own shops there and work there.

This area of Seoul is so different from the ritzy place like let's say Gangnam. Needless to say, I enjoyed these sights more. It was unfortunate though that most of the shops were closed as it was a Sunday.

While walking along the stream, we also passed by the Seoul Bam Dokkebi Night Market (which means Seoul Night Goblin Market). It is basically little stalls where people sell handmade things such as jewlery and candles and where you can also eat at the endless line of food trucks that sell everything from tradition Korean food to fusion foods as well. Unfortunately we didn't get a chance to eat at any of the food trucks or get to check out the stalls properly because we were pressed for time. We had planned on coming back here later on at night but that unfortunately didn't happen either. A little regretful but that's ok.

Another stop we made before arriving at Dongdaemun was the Dongdaemun Food Alley (Mukja Golmok) which was fantastic. But as it was with the night market, we didn't get to try anything here and just quickly did some sightseeing instead. I know! A very disappointing (but that's also ok because we ended up having dinner at a great BBQ place in Hongdae).

While a lot of the shops along the stream were closed, this food alley was busy and bustling with lots of residents and tourists. The smells and sights were incredible and we wish we had the type of stomachs that had a lot of room to keep on eating but we don't and since we had dinner plans with people, we made sure to just take it all in with our eyes instead. 

I didn't get to take a lot of pictures of Dongdaemun and also the newly built Dongdaemun Plaza as we were busy trying to meet up with a couple of people we had only known through Instagram. They (@heeya1108 and @jungheonp - he's a back dancer for Big Bang by the way - *shy* I always feel like I have to disclose this pretty awesome info) were owners of a beautiful English Cocker Spaniel Win and she passed shortly after Piri crossed the rainbow bridge. We had remained supportive of each other and formed a friendship over our dogs and so it was a wonderful and tearful meeting. They showed us around some great places and we had dinner at a great restaurant in Hongdae (it's a place they go often and had taken their Win as well). We spent the night getting to know each other more sharing stories of our dogs. 

After dinner and coffee at Hongdae, we ended the night with them at Han River. I am so amazed at all the wonderful outdoor spaces Korea has to offer, all of which are mostly dog friendly as well. It almost made me wish that we were there with Piri and Bartles so they can enjoy it. I think they would've loved it.

If we could have we would've probably spent the entire night and morning with Win's ma and pa, but Yangkyu and I got tired shortly after midnight and we had a super early flight to catch to Jeju Island. And so they drove us back home to Yangkyu's brother house where we quickly packed for our 2 night stay in Jeju and then promptly passed out. 

Jeju Island was wonderful in every way. I can't wait to tell you all about it. Hope you'll join us for our next adventures.

 // Travel Korea : DMZ Tours
 // Travel Korea : Childhood Memories

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