A Word of Warning about the Seoul Subway

Compared to New York’s subway system, Seoul’s is modern, clean, and convenient.  The train tracks are walled off, with doors that coincide with the subway car doors to prevent people from falling onto the tracks.  Each of the doors are numbered by car number and door number (door 4-3 is the third door of the fourth car) allowing people to arrange meet-ups in the station itself (cell coverage and wifi are available underground).  Station announcements tell you when the next train is coming.  Train announcements tell you the next station in Korean, English, and Chinese.  Major stations have bathrooms.  More surprisingly, the bathrooms are clean.  As a consequence, the elevators are not only quick, they don’t smell of pee.  In short the Seoul subway system is everything you’d expect in a modern subway, so what’s the warning?

Ajumma* #1:  Why do you have a stoller?  Six** is too old for a stroller.

Cookie: I’m three.

Ajumma #2: She’s very tall for three!

Ajummas #3 and #4 nodding in agreement:  Nnnnn!***

Mommy: It’s for the jet lag.

Ajumma # 1:  That makes sense.

Ajummas #2, 3, 4, 5, 6 nodding in agreement:  Nnnnnn!***

Cookie:  Yeah, we flew from America.  It was a loooooooong flight.

Ajumma #7: So she speaks English as well as Korean?

Cookie:   Nnnn.

By now, half of the subway car was involved in the conversation, and we were suddenly under the scrutiny of, and the topic of conversation for, twenty to thirty people.  There’s no rule in the Seoul subways to mind your own business.  In New York, you don’t make eye contact.  In Seoul, it’s quite the opposite, and we became the topic of conversation for half the subway car every single time we rode the subway except for the one trip where the entire subway car started discussing us.  As I don’t understand Korean, I had to ask Mommy to translate.  By the end of the trip, her response was just, “same as last time.”

Oddly enough, the scrutiny and your language skills met the approvals of the Ajumma Inquisitors****, and soon, each Ajumma started rummaging through their purse for something to give you.  Every subway ride, Cookie, you ended up with assorted candy, cookies, pocket lint, and in one case, a muffin.  I was emphatic about not accepting any of this, as, well, you’re literally taking candy from strangers, but Mommy explained that it’s customary for people to give things to cute kids and very impolite to refuse (after refusing the first time a gift is offered), especially since we just passed inspection.

Of course, we didn’t let you actually eat any of the sweets you received, but yeah, I hope the lectures on how you weren’t supposed to accept candy from strangers stuck (after we allowed you to take candy just one more time).

Prepare for inspection.  You’ve been warned.

__________

*  Korean word literally meaning “aunt,” but used to describe an older woman in her 50s with a reputation for pushiness, no verbal filter, and a nose for everyone else’s business

**  In traditional Korean numbering for age, newborns are counted as 1 year old the day they’re born.  You’re not that tall, Cookie.

***  “nnnn” is a Korean sound for “Yes,” though I think Ajumma #3 may have been constipated as well.

**** I think this explains the cleanliness of the subway system and Seoul in general.  If the Ajumma Inquisitors are going to pass judgement on every toddler and stroller they see, they’re certainly going to do something about litterbugs and trash.

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Bukchon Hanok Village

Seoul is a city of contrasts, with historic buildings next to modern ones, all surrounded by buildings that building techniques that are just ancient.   Halmoni’s plan was to take us to Bukchon Hanok Village, a section of Seoul not far from Changdeokgung Palace where the houses (hanoks) were preserved to reflect the feel of the Joseon Dynasty.  Stepping into that little alley feels like steeping back into history.

It’s spectacular, except, as we made our trek from the palace, we passed countless hanoks preserved and being used as homes and restaurants.  The first stop was a mandoo restaurant (serving only mandoo and mandoo guk, of course) a stones throw from the palace walls.  While the dumplings were excellent, I think I spent the entire lunch staring at the plaster and log ceiling and other construction bits of the building.

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Many other houses, restaurants, and shops along the way held the same charm.

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The street famously photographed in Bukchon Hanok Village is located along the side of a hill, allowing a stark contrast between modernity and tradition, with the ancient hanoks backed by the glass and steel skyscrapers.

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As a New Yorker, I felt sympathy for the residents, with flocks of tourists outside, until we were invited inside of one of the hanoks (for a fee) by a tour guide for tea –the residents were spending winter in Peru.  Inside, the traditional building techniques were supplemented by modern fixtures for a unique blend of tradition without sacrificing the comforts of the 21st century (not pictured, the marble and stainless steel kitchen and the tiled bathroom).

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Aside from the tourists, walking around Bukchon is like walking back in time.  A little imagination to remove the utility meters and the power lines, and the quiet streets and ancient architecture suddenly come alive.

Walk a few blocks away, of course, and you reach Insadong, with places like the Ssamzie Mall (one continuous row of shops spiraling around an open air courtyard), full of the bustling energy of youth, selling the latest (and cutesy) trinkets and technology.

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We’ll have to do this part of the trip again, Cookie, since you slept through everything except the hanok tour after lunch.

A Word of Warning about Korean Food in Seoul

Korean food in a word?  AWESOME!

In a second word? dangerous.

First, the awesome.

To state the obvious, Korean food in Korea is everything you’d expect, only better.  Miyeokguk, seolleontang, toboki, doenjangjjiegae, bibimbap, and all the different banchan you can imagine, only not loaded with salt or polluted with corn syrup and other processed foods. There are thousands of little restaurants specializing in one or two dishes (it’s not uncommon to see seating for ten to fifteen, a miniature kitchenette smaller than some camp sites or food trucks, and a menu with less then four items), run by mom and pop (and now grandma and grandpa) proprietors for decades.  Even Korean barbeque (you’d think in Korea, it would just be called “barbeque,” but the sign on every restaurant we went to, even the non-tourist ones, said otherwise), had meat marinated in crushed Korean pears (you’d think it would just be “pears”) instead of corn syrup and roasted over actual charcoal where you can still see the wood grains of the sapling.  This isn’t the gas burners or even the flavorless brickettes common in Korean barbeques in America.  Here, you can smell and taste the wood smoke, with the meat melting like butter underneath the slightest crisp of that hint of char.

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Cookie, you finished an entire 16 oz platter of Galbi by yourself.  As a dad, I couldn’t be prouder.

Second, the danger.

In many American recipes, there’s a phrase to add black pepper to taste to adjust the proper level of spiciness.  If you’re one of those people, you may starve in Korea amidst the bountiful culinary awesomeness of Korean cuisine.  The non-spicy dishes are often filled with black pepper. While not all places are spicy, the spicy dishes…

The below dinner is a great example of the perils of Korean cooking.* 20150212_194407

At the top of the picture is a bowl of ramen that was turned by this particular restaurant into a bowl of fire. At the bottom of the picture is a bowl of toboki served by this establishment as a bowl of hell.  You’d think that the bowl of hell is hotter from that deep red color, but from a pure Scoville perspective, the bowl of fire is actually hotter: it will melt your stomach, torch every square inch of your intestines, and set the toilet on fire afterwards.  It’s not a coincidence that Koreans adopted bidets with a national gusto.  With that in mind, you’d be tempted to think that the bowl of fire is worse than the bowl of hell.  That’s a fatal mistake.

The bowl of hell, while not as blindingly hot as the bowl of hell, doesn’t wash off.  Yeah, that bears repeating.  Once the inferno starts in your mouth and tongue, that red, sticky, pasty stuff torturing every fiber of your being DOES. NOT. COME. OFF.    Do not be fooled into thinking the canned and bland gochujang you had in the states bears any resemblance to the napalm concocted in some of these kitchens by the deceptively kind, old grandmothers in the kitchen.

Which brings me to the second part of the warning:  Koreans are not big on drinking water with meals.**  Most places will have a water cooler or a water dispenser in the corner.  Larger places will have little, emphasis on little, 4 ounce steel cups in a little sterilizer cabinet.  Many places will have smaller paper cups, or worse, a paper envelope that will hold maybe 2 ounces of water if you’re lucky.  Secure ample water ahead of time (bring your own bottle) before sampling local dishes, as you never know when you might stumble upon that one restaurant summoned from the sixth level of damnation serving hellfire with a side of torture.  Trying to put out the five alarm fire from the bowl of hell in slow, 2-ounces increments with water slowly dribbling out of an empty and obviously neglected water cooler into a flimsy envelope that wont stay open is quite painful.

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Envelope and cups next to a standard 8 ounce can for scale.

You’ve been warned.

___________

*  As a matter of perspective, I’m not some bland Midwesterner who can’t handle his heat.    Jalapenos?  Might as well be bell peppers.  Texas chili?  Tasty.  As you know, Cookie, Grandma grows habaneros in the front yard, and these… are far worse than habaneros.

**  Is this ability to tolerate and enjoy heat genetic?  Mommy is perfectly fine with this stuff.  Even you, at 3, aren’t too bothered.  I’ve turned into a fire breathing dragon in need of the paramedics.

Changdeokgung Palace -Secret Garden

Behind Changdeokgung Palace is its Secret Garden, also known to any out-of-shape and sleep-deprived father pushing a stroller as the aerobic exercise from hell.  Don’t get me wrong, pushing a stroller up and down the tortuous hills of the Secret Garden is infinitely better than carrying a sleeping toddler up and down the tortuous hills of the Secret Garden, but there are certain stretches of the place that are quite steep, and other stretches of the place that involve carrying the stroller and the sleeping toddler up a series of steps.

The tour starts ominously up a walled road up a sloped hill.  The tour guide warned of a strenuous walk lasting a several kilometers and kept looking worriedly at our direction.

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On the other side of the first hill, we reached a artificial pond surrounded by four pavilions, the king’s library, sitting room, and accompanying structures.  The pond was frozen over due to the -8 degree weather (I never got whether that was in Celsius or Fahrenheit, though it was sufficiently cold enough to make me question our sanity in the timing of our vacation choices). On the plus side, the tourist sites certainly were not crowded.

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The king’s library, facing the frozen lake:

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For parents with kids, this is the last bathroom opportunity (except of course, for the woods of a national treasure with a stern tourist guide and patriotic citizens standing watch) for the next hour.

Further along is a lake in the shape of Korea (not pictured are the three small austere huts constructed by one of the crown princes to devote himself to study and the greenhouse constructed by the Japanese when they converted the Secret Garden to a zoo) .

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What follows next is a tortuous climb up a mountain. The road is unpaved, though dense (it may have been frozen), so that the only difficulty in pushing the stroller was the incline (I think I saw a mountain goat slip and die out there) and the height.  When we reached yet another pavilion near the top, the tour guide saw the gasping people struggling to stand and called a break.  Those intrepid enough to continue could reach the wine pavilions.  The rest would wait for our return.  Most stayed.

Mommy and I took you to the wine pavilions, where one of the kings had carved little streams into the rock, built pavilions amongst the streams, and floated wine cups between them during poetry readings.  You, of course, were asleep, and didn’t benefit from Mommy and my back breaking climb.

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After a long way down, we reached the recreation of a nobleman’s house.  After the splendor of the palace, it seemed rather plain, though the clean lines and crisp colors made if fit perfectly into the park.

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Small note to my fellow stroller people, the exit to the Secret Garden at the end of the tour consists of 40-ish steps hewn into a rocky hillside.  To avoid climbing that stairway with a stroller, you can exit by retracing your steps (thankfully avoiding the crazy climb to the wine pavilions as the nobleman’s house is close to the scholars huts).  As the Secret Garden is only accessible by the tour, this will allow you the chance to see the garden a second time without a tour guide hurrying you along.

Changdeokgung Palace

Our first stop in Seoul, was Changdeokgung Palace (also known as things you may have missed during your nap)

Main Palace:

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Inside the throneroom (it’s interesting to see the incorporation of electric lightbulbs in a place that would otherwise fit comfortably into ancient history… well, minus the stanchions):

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Like any tourist, I spent a lot of time looking up.  The artwork on the roof is exquisite.

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The doorway to the king’s offices, modified to allow a car to park underneath the overhang.

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Random courtyard.  It was really difficult to push the stroller (and carry the stroller over the inexplicably tall door jabs while ducking the short door frames) and take decent pictures. I was really thankful for the stroller however, given the size of the Secret Garden behind Changdeokgung Palace.

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Inside the king’s bedroom, converted to a meeting hall.  According to the tour guide, there’s almost a national phobia of fire in these palaces, and the incorporation of electric lighting over torches was enthusiastic.

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The residence of one of the relatives of the king (sorry, jet lag and sleep deprivation enforced by several kicks to the head from a spinning toddler in the middle of the night has adversely affected my memory).  You’re going to have to find the purpose of this structure, yourself, Cookie.

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Jet Lag

Cookie, Mommy and I are seasoned travelers, very used to dealing with jet lag.  The easiest way is to book the flight to land in the evening, local time, stay up the entire trip, and sleep the night through once you get there.  You end up with a tiring 36-hour travel day, a full night’s sleep, and the ability to enjoy the rest of your vacation. Usually, the problem with this plan is that I’m not fully functional towards the end of those 36 hours*, so if I’m going somewhere interesting (i.e. somewhere people need to shout at me in an unknown language to take the ferry transfer on the second dock for the resort island, not the ferry on the first to the island of the head-shrinking cannibals where idiot tourists often go “inexplicably” missing), I tend to sleep on the plane to make sure I get to the right place alive.  Going to Seoul, however, was safe (I presume that mistakenly taking the wrong exit to North Korea would be difficult, even for the sleep deprived), especially with Halmoni waiting for us at the airport, so Mommy and I stayed awake.  You did too.

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International airlines provide so much better service than American ones.  Korean Air, famous for that executive who had a meltdown because her nuts were served in a bag, not a bowl, was exceptional –four course meals, free wine, beer, and juice, and, most importantly, a fully unlocked entertainment console.  We expected you to sleep, but after getting your hands on the console and its little remote (bonus features included access to the plane’s nose, belly, and tail cameras), you stayed up the entire fourteen hour flight.  So engrossed with you in your programs that you missed Mommy and I prematurely high-fiving each other on your adoption of our jet lag schedule.

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After a quick return to the airport to pick up your forgotten car seat*** (the Korean version of the TSA is much more understanding and courteous.****), an hour drive into Seoul, an quick dinner, we were finally ready to sleep… until we learned that circadian dysrhythmia is not so easily cured in toddlers.  You woke up every two hours and refused to go back to sleep.  This was the pain of new-born breastfeeding all over again, only with a talking toddler who, unfortunately, made sense.

Me begging:  Cookie, go back to sleep.  It’s the middle of the night and dark outside.

Cookie: No, the sun is wrong.  It should be light out.

Me:  But we’re on the other side of the world, and it’s dark here.

Cookie:  Then the sun should adjust to us.

You slept through much of our first few days in Seoul and stayed up nights.  Guess who was the poor, sleep deprived guy that had to push and carry you and your stroller through the decidedly un-stroller friendly streets?

_______

*  In fairness to me, it’s more like 84 hours, since the previous couple days are a madhouse of trying to finish work, trying to prepare our aquariums for vacation, and trying to pack (Mommy never packs).

**  14 hour flights are way too long.  After 5 movies, dinner, and second dinner, we’re still not there.  Flying over the pole also leaves no scenery to watch, as ice is just ice.  No aurora borealis either.

***  Hazards of the jet lag plan.

****  Apparently any excuse that beings with “Eggi…” in Korea is an acceptable one.

Biggest Koreatown Ever

Cookie:  This is the BIGGEST Koreatown.  Ever.

Me: Well, we’re in Seoul, Cookie.  Koreatowns are only part of the city.  Seoul is the whole city.

Cookie:  Well, Seoul is part of the world, right?  It’s the biggest Koreatown in the world.

Me:  …  huh.

After a long flight (more on that later), we landed in Incheon.  Halmoni picked us up from the airport and drove us to the hotel in Seoul.  Trying to adjust to the local time, we grabbed dinner in Insadong, and even from the perspective of a New Yorker, Seoul is… crowded.  It’s a riot of color and sounds, with a density of restaurants and shops and people unseen in the west.  In New York we have shops at street level with the occasional restaurant above street level.  Only the busiest stations have eateries below ground.  In Seoul, many walkups have every floor opened as a business, each with bright signs and brighter lights. Restaurants not only spill onto the sidewalks, they’re opened on city sidewalks as rows of tents.  The miles of subway tunnels and other underground passages are lined shopping and food.

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