Pre-tour Option in South Korea Part 1

 

Monday September 3, 2012 – South Korea (Pre-tour option)

It is hard to summarize Seoul. Clearly, as this picture attempts to show (it is a Starbucks in the background), ‘east meets west’ and the city is a mish-mash of traditional and modern, of eastern and western.

 

Neither old nor new, and perhaps also neither consistently rich nor poor, Seoul straddles elements of both.

 

Just over half the group decided to do the South Korean pre-tour optional extension as well as the main North Korean tour.

We felt it would be interesting to be able to compare and contrast the two Koreas, and we also wanted to have a ‘bookend’ experience – standing first on one side of the DMZ at Panmunjom and then, less than a week later, standing on the other side, only a few feet from where we’d been the previous week, while still a world away in terms of the different country we would then be in.

While in theory the pre-tour option started today with people flying in to Seoul from various parts of the US, many people arrived earlier, and by some sort of serendipitous process had already met up and spent time together on Monday.

As an aside, the nature of this tour (ie to North Korea) clearly acted as a ‘quality control’ filter, making the people who participated one of the best and most cohesive groups of people I’ve ever had the pleasure to travel with, and not only did I find myself strongly enjoying my time with my fellow tour members, so too did the other people enjoy socializing and sharing with each other.  The positive elements of the group experience were almost as enjoyable as the places we toured to and shared with each other.

As for me, my flight arrived late on Monday evening (about 10.30pm) meaning that most forms of lower cost transportation from the airport to the hotel had ceased operation for the night, and so I ‘bit the bullet’ and took a taxi in from the airport.  I avoided various taxi touts who tried to grab me while I walked through the airport terminal and went to the official taxi ranks outside.

As I was walking to the front of the line of parked taxis, all the drivers further back in the line called out to me – apparently it is not necessary to go to the front of the line and take taxis in a fair sequence, and so I allowed myself to agree to be taken into the city by one of the nearby taxis near the end of the line.

Seoul Taxis

A deluxe style Seoul taxi – a costly way to travel in from outlying Incheon Airport.

There are two types of taxi in South Korea, apparently – deluxe and ordinary.  Mine was clearly a deluxe taxi, but, and the same as everywhere else in the world, you don’t get something for nothing – the downside of the deluxe taxi is the higher fare they charge.

On the plus side, it was a very deluxe sort of mini-van, with a mirrored ceiling surrounded by a chain of LED lights, and even had in-vehicle free Wi-fi.  The driver also had an amazing GPS system that put anything I’ve seen in the US to shame – a large multi-color multi-screen display which also warned him of upcoming speed cameras – a feature he put to good use on what was a fast ride in from the airport, with the driver overtaking almost all other traffic on the road and generally driving at 120 – 130 kph (ie 75 – 80 mph) with happily very little traffic to slow him down.

The ride in from the airport ended up costing just over $100 (it is a long way from Incheon Airport in to the city), and I was left with the feeling that the cost would have been lower if I’d been a bit more assertive about the route the driver was taking.

My phone’s GPS suggested the driver was taking a roundabout route, and although some of it could be explained by choosing to take major arterial roads that would be faster even if less direct, some of it was almost certainly gratuitously simply adding miles and dollars to the charge.  Eventually when it became obvious that we were deviating far from the most direct route, I complained, only to get the anticipated response about ‘avoiding traffic’ – not that there was much traffic at now about 11.30pm.However, suitably chastened, the driver took the next exit off the expressway and we then made a bee-line in to the hotel.

Not for the first time, I was reminded of the value of simply paying for a pre-arranged transfer from the airport.  The flat fee, the quality control and the ability to have it paid prior to departure sometimes compensate for the extra cost involved (it was $125 for a pre-arranged transfer from the airport to the hotel, little more than what I ended up paying the taxi driver).

The Ramada’s lovely executive lounge was a favorite spot for our group to socialize in.

The hotel (Ramada Seoul) seems nice, although I’ve no idea if it is in the center  of the city or not, because I’ve really no sense for where in the sprawling city is the central zone.

Central or not, at almost midnight, nothing was ‘happening’ there.  I went to the Executive Lounge to see if any of the group were having a late night drink but it was empty.

I bought a beer in the lounge and upon returning to my room noticed an interesting thing.  The beer I bought in the lounge cost almost twice what the same bottle of beer would have cost if I’d simply taken it from the in-room mini-bar.

Good news – the hotel had satisfyingly fast internet.  Never mind the price of the beer; I’m happy.

Tuesday September 4, 2012 – Seoul City Touring

One of the gates at the Changdeokgung Palace.

 

Although Insadong has fewer people and not as much neon, it still is vaguely reminiscent of Hong Kong.

The Cheonggyecheon Stream in central Seoul

 

Seoul Tower – normally a brilliant vantage point to see the entire sprawling city – struggled to be visible through the rain and mist.

The National Museum of Korea houses an extensive collection of items in a stunning building.

 

 

I had negotiated a breakfast-included rate at the hotel, which proved to be an excellent idea, because the buffet breakfast was brilliant, with a very broad range of cooked and cold foods.  I met many of our group over breakfast, and the balance in the lobby while we were waiting to be collected by the coach and guide who were to take us on our tour around Seoul for the day.

Fortunately, everyone – and their bags – had made it to Seoul with no major airline-related dramas, and all were in fine spirits.Unfortunately, the weather was not very cooperative, which is a polite way of saying it started out damp and drizzly and only got worse from that point.

We drove across town and to the other side of the river, and then to our first stop, the Changdeokgung Palace.  This was primarily a wooden structure with a number of single-story buildings and courtyards sprawling over a considerable area.  Although a significant part of Korean history, the way it was not very well presented to us probably didn’t do it justice and we were left feeling that it was not all that outstandingly impressive.

Next we went to the Insadong area which is said to be a prime shopping area for things such as traditional Korean art, antiques, pottery and similar things.  I limited my shopping to simply buying a fresh orange juice from a street vendor (it was inexpensive and delicious), and strolled around, including down some side alleys that showed less-touristy stores.  Our time there was a difficult compromise between too long and too short – it was too long a time for just a quick stroll down and back, but too short for some serious shopping, but those sorts of compromises are sometimes necessary and unavoidable.

We had a Korean ‘Bibimbap’ lunch (included as part of the tour) in a crowded restaurant that reminded me of how space is at such a premium in much of the rest of the world and how fortunate we are in the US with spacious restaurants and shops in general.

We then went to walk along the restored area – this being part of Seoul’s new environmental awareness and city-beautification project.  It may indeed be a nice place on a warm sunny day, but by now the rain had closed in on us and it was wet and dismal.  Although a few of the group had grabbed loaner umbrellas as we left the hotel that morning, not everyone else had umbrellas, further adding to the weather’s impact on our touring.

A couple of our group then wandered off, causing the rest of us to wait a disappointingly long time in a square in which it was interesting to see a long line of people queued up to buy meat from the side of a truck.  We were told this was popular because the meat was half the price it would be at a supermarket – as best we could make out, the meat prices were far from bargain priced (by US standards), although who knows how much more expensive it might be at regular retail.  Apparently the meat was the Korean equivalent of Kobe beef – ultra deluxe quality, which made the prices more reasonable.

People queuing up to buy food seemed more like what we would see in North Korea, but if this was simply a reflection of people loving a bargain, that is understandable and universal to most anywhere in the world.

A brief stop next at the Namsan Hanok Village – again in the rain, which curtailed our time there.  To our disappointment, the key part of the village was also closed on Tuesdays – if we’d known that in advance, we might have chosen not to go there at all in the rain.

We looked up from the village to the impressive Seoul Tower, which was obscured in fog, and decided that if we couldn’t see the tower from the city, then the view from the tower down to the city would be pretty much non-existent, so cancelled our plans to go visit the tower.  Instead, after taking a group vote, we went to visit the National Museum of Korea – unlike a traditional group tour, we do try to be as flexible as possible and to adapt, adopt and improve as may be needed, realtime!

The National Museum of Korea is these days housed in a stunning building that opened in 2005, and was built on land formerly belong to the US Central Command in Korea but vacated in 1992 and returned to the Korean government at that time.  The museum is enormous and very grand in size (1.5 million sq ft), and with very well presented exhibits (over 220,000 items in their collection).  It is fair to say it exceeded all our expectations and was a positive note to end the tour.

Overall, my feeling of Seoul, even after adjusting for the dismal rainy day, was not all that positive.  Traffic was terrible, and the city was a confusing jumble with no clear central downtown area, and no clear areas for shopping, historic center, or anything else that we expect in European and US cities.  Some parts were very impressive, but even the most impressive buildings were only a block or so away from ramshackle neighborhoods and poverty.

No-one could dispute that it was a modern city – rather as you’d expect, having been almost completely rebuilt subsequent to the 1953 end of the Korean war, but it also seemed to be lacking in ‘soul’.  How will it compare to Pyongyang, we all silently wondered?

People in our group who had been to Seoul repeatedly in the past observed that it takes appreciably more time than a single six or so hour city tour to come to terms with the city.  It isn’t an easy city to appreciate, perhaps due to the organic (rather than structured) way it has developed and grown.

The evening, upon returning to our hotel, was spent very pleasantly.  Everyone in the group had chosen to pay the modest extra cost to upgrade to the executive floors of the hotel, with the two main benefits, apart from nominally nicer rooms, being free internet and use of their executive club lounge, notable in particular for its happy hour (actually a two hour period from 6pm – 8pm) with free food and drinks.

We all took advantage of this to enjoy enough free food to constitute a meal, and plenty to drink as well.  The food was good and comprised a selection of various different appetizer type dishes.  There’s something particularly convivial about eating and drinking for free, and it helped us all get to know each other more and to add a nice conclusion to the day.

 

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