Korea Travelogue

In which our hero learns how to say "here is my business card" in Korean, puts that knowledge to use several dozen times, and explores the great outdoors.

Skip to Part 2: Kyungju


When my boss offered me the chance to go to Seoul for not one but two conferences, I said, "yes, sir, I'll make that sacrifice".

The broad outline is this: I flew out there, went to an itty bitty conference for two days, bummed around Seoul (pronounced "Saw-ool", as it turns out) for a day and a half. Then Laura flew out there and saw Seoul while I did stuff at the second, giant conference for three days. Then we both hopped a train 3.5 hours south to Kyungju, ancient capital of the Shilla kingdom, and saw the sights. And train, plane, home -- all told, 12 days for me.

Here are all the Flickr picture links for your easy reference:

Click any of the pictures in here to see a larger version, sometimes with some description.

Part 1: Seoul

Thursday, 10/4/2007

On the second leg of my flight (Tokyo to Seoul) I sat next to a Korean woman who was coming home after a year working at a hotel in, of all places, Knoxville, TN. As I have lots of relatives there, we had a lot to talk about. She taught me a few words of Korean -- at this point I'd been studying enough to sound out most Korean words phonetically and that's about it -- and pointed me at a few different types of food to try. She was a college graduate, and she wanted to get a job at a Marriott in Seoul, working the desk or something. Apparently they're really sought-after jobs, to the extent that she thought she'd probably need another degree to land one.

Multifunctional Seoul Toilet When I got to my sweet hotel (multi-function toilet! $8 beer!) it was 11PM Seoul time, or 7AM Seattle time. I crashed hard.

Friday, 10/5

The next day I shuffled onto a bus and went to the conference, at Korea University. I was the single first thing on the agenda. Aside from a nasty browser crash during a demo, my talk went just fine. The conference hosts -- well, let's just summarize what I had been told before about Korean hospitality. I had been told that Koreans would spare no expense to make a guest happy, that they would do everything they could to make my stay wonderful, and that I'd be eating a ton of food. Yes, yes and yes. Dr. Paek was an excellent host, and Jay-Hyun, Su-a, and Myung-Jung from her group were kind beyond words.

That first day, they fed us a lunch that, if I'm not mistaken, was called sambap -- dozens of little plates of good stuff. After the conference ended for the day, they drove us to a wonderful traditional Korean restaurant, where we feasted on course after course of little dishes, with bokbunjajoo (blackberry wine). We sat on the floor with legs crossed, traditional style, which quickly became agonizing. Metal chopsticks, which seem pretty common in Korea. The waitress had to bend down very low to place plates on the table -- it must take special skills to work at one of those places. One highlight of the meal was the tungule-cha (Solomon's Seal tea), served cold and delicious.

img_0867 Conference-goers seated around the table Colorful food

After dinner, we went back near the hotel and wandered around the streets of Myeong-Dong, a very lively, dense old district. Shops on multiple floors, with lighted signs all the way up the buildings. People (mostly young) doing what can only be described as "thronging". Street vendors selling dozens of kinds of food, mostly fried, including french fries cut fresh right there. It was all very Blade Runner.

Myung-dong at night, crowded Rice cooking Street Vendor in Myeung-dong

Chee Hong and I got a beer at a sidewalk cafe. The server wanted us to get food, too, but we didn't understand that until after the beers were opened, so we won that little impasse. There was a guy selling something out of a case on his back who walked back and forth yelling something.

Saturday, 10/6

I had just half a day at the conference, and then another excellent, elaborate Korean lunch. I hopped on the subway, which was efficient and easy to navigate (the signage is better than any other subway I've ridden). I popped out near Changdeokgong palace; you can only see it via guided tour, and I was early, so I checked out another old palace while I waited. Just to emphasize that, my preferred palace was unavailable, so I walked 5 minutes away and explored another one. Awesome. Anyway, Changdeokgong was great. The grounds were mostly very sandy, which wasn't what I was expecting. Later I came to realize that the soil everywhere in Korea is pretty darn sandy in texture.

The little guys on the rooftop edges are gargoyles. They do what gargoyles do. I love the last of this group of pictures because it shows the contrast I kept seeing all around Seoul, ancient and modern.

img_0885 Gargoyles img_0892

The "Secret Garden" area of the palace was very beautiful, but it highlighted the big disappointment of the trip: no fall colors. I'll say it just once -- try to imagine the immense bitterness in my voice: no fall colors. The scheduling of these conferences was right before all of the maple trees in Korea turn bright vivid orange and red. Probably it was cheaper then. For the rest of this travelogue, whenever you see gorgeous, amazing but green leaves in a picture, imagine me swearing a lot.

Secret Garden Guardian lion img_0939

That night, our hosts took us out for a walk along the Cheongge, a little stream that was underground (under a road, actually) for decades until the government daylighted it a couple years ago. Then another excellent Korean cross-legged dinner, followed by a "comic martial arts" performance called Jump. It was very silly and fun; it was clear that most of the humor consisted of riffs on Korean theatre tropes and it was mostly going over my head. Jay-hyun told me that every Korean theater has some words above the stage that translate pretty much to "don't be different, be like everyone else"; i.e., conform to Korean norms. He agreed that this would be pretty ironic for certain kinds of plays.

Gyeong-ge Stream Jongno at night

Sunday, 10/7

This was my only free day in Seoul. I met Josh and Henry, fellow conference-goers from ISB, in the hotel restaurant for breakfast, and we made our way through Insadong (an upscale touristy shopping district) to the subway. We got out near Inwangsan, a hill that our guidebooks described as a place chock full of shamanist rituals and Buddhist temples. Since the guidebooks had been printed, a huge row of apartment buildings had been started right at the bottom of Inwangsan, so we went around those... I'd guess those apartments will hold about 20,000-30,000 people, all told. I can't help but think they'll change the place irrevocably.

We got a bit lost, but all of a sudden Henry said "This is the way to Inwang Temple". We thought he'd had a sudden flash of insight, but it turned out there was a sign that said exactly that. We started exploring around the temple buildings on Inwangsan.

Construction at Ingwansan This is the way to Inwang Temple Ingwansan Temple, cropped

Inwangsan was steep and covered with slippery sandy soil. Periodically there were basins with ladles for some water-pouring ritual that I don't understand. There were a lot of really striking rock formations. We walked out on one rock and encountered three guys meditating. They motioned for us to join us, so we did, basking in the sun and breathing deep (legs folded, palms up), for quite a while. It was really something -- the day was beautiful, and there was someone chanting in the distance and knocking rhythmically on something wooden: chock CHOCK chock chock, chock CHOCK chock chock....

Nests on Ingwansan img_0966 img_0970

After a while, the guys started moving again and offered us some mochi-like (but not sweet) soft rice stuff. They didn't speak much English, but they communicated that they were up there doing energy (chi) stuff of some kind, and that one of them was a taekwondo instructor. They each gave one of us a little pin -- a great souvenir. We continued on, but we blundered around and the guys caught up to us and showed us the way up to the peak.

Damon on Ingwansan img_0974 Awesome guys who shared their lunch

The guys sat us down at a table at the peak and shared their lunch with us! Rice and a few little dishes and some chilis (some mild, some with a hell of a kick). After that, we had to split because it was time to head across town to our hotels near the other conference, the Human Proteome Organization's (HUPO's) 2007 World Congress. We caught the subway back to our first hotel, then took a cab over to COEX, the most horrifically huge convention center / shopping mall in the world.

I checked into my guilt-inducingly opulent room at the InterContinental: separate shower & tub, 3 bottles of water every day, fresh fruit, a view over a big park, and tons of room. Korean hotels all seem to have a place near the door to put shoes, because Koreans never wear shoes at home.

I headed out to get dinner on my own. I found a restaurant with grills and hoods on the tables and asked if they served samkyopsal, which the girl on the plane had told me about. They did. I was treated to a massive meal prepared right at my table. First the guy grilled up some very fatty pieces of pork while I worked on some side dishes. Then he put out some lettuce and other leaves, and thick-sliced raw garlic, and some other dishes, and I hove to. I've never had so much garlic at one stretch -- it gets downright spicy if you eat enough at once.

Oozing... caramel? Samkyopsal 1

I did some conference stuff, and then Laura arrived, jet-lagged like crazy, and we turned in.

Monday-Wednesday, 10/8-10/10

These were the conference days. On these days, I went and did conferency stuff all day (I'll spare you the details) and Laura went around and had a great time. Some highlights:

Bong Eunsa, from COEX Bong Eunsa buddha Seoul old and new

Dongdaemun gate and subway Seoul at night, from Top Cloud Laura at Tea in Insadong

Continue to Part 2: Kyungju