So after finally getting our sorry asses together, an ALT mob of 7 would ultimately make its way to the G Guest House (The ‘G’ can only stand for Gangsta right?) to welcome the new year in Korean style.
After traversing almost the entire width of Kyushu to Fukuoka airport, it didn’t take too long to spot my old Blighty pal Nick and we were ready to check in!
At least that was what we thought, until Japan taught us that they have a “you can’t check in more than 2 hours early” policy that seemed somewhat at ends with the general Western idea of getting to the airport 3 hours early for an international flight!
Running into the wall of airline policy, and realising we were on holiday, this meant it was time for a beer!
Being jolted awake upon landing in Korea was reminiscent of my arrival in Oita, and soon I knew I was in a strange new land, when once again I was faced with a scripture in which the only symbol I had learned was an ‘n’ sound.
Thanks to the rather convenient YouTube video provided by the hostel, our journey to the hostel was a piece of Korean cake, and we soon found ourselves in the urban sprawl and bright lights of Itaewon. The main strip illuminated like the best of any I’d seen. Yet within metres we found ourselves in the condensed, narrow and grimy backstreets of Itaewon, no doubt made more intimidating by the darkness of the evening. Restaurants, shops and people of all nationalities filled the narrow streets, from Turkish kebabs, to African foods, International supermarkets to pig snouts.
In a short time we had arrived at the hostel, met the owner Shrek and were getting food recommendations for the best Korean BBQ house in the area – which it truly was!
Getting our Food on!
The building itself had, what I can best describe as, grown organically. Whilst once there was a main restaurant building, it now had grown to include a large porch in which diners sat under a wooden frame, tarpaulin covered shelter to dine, onto the front of which a lean-to entrance had been thrown up.
Our eyes grew greedy as we ordered things recommended by our host, and feasted on pork belly, ribs and spicy ribs, with a massive helping of roasted vegetables and garlic, with a variety of dipping sauces. It was one of the most flavoursome meals I’d had in months, and in all the excitement I had badly burnt my mouth.
Tackling beers and a bottle of soju (Korean rice alcohol), the evening was off to a flying start that could only guarantee a fantastic night. An American bar, local bars, stumbling across “hooker hill” and “homo hill”, dancing in Queens, it had been a fine first night, ending in KFC at 5 in the morning.
Soaking up the Culture
Not ones to sit on our laurels, Nick and I made it down for breakfast and began planning our day, capitalising on the opportunity to see the sights before the rest of the group would be flying in to join us.
In a flying summary, we saw the statue of King Sejong, the inventor of the Korean scripture Hangul – literally the only language with a definitive creator, he created it as he realised the study and production of works based on the Chinese characters (Hanja) were so difficult and time consuming to master, that only elite males were able to reach fluency, and this meant high illiteracy for the common people. As such he is considered the bee’s knees in both Koreas for his bettering of the masses and one of a few leaders given the title of ‘Great’.
From there were explored the Changdeokgung Palace. A strangely peaceful place. After walking through skyscrapers, you stumble upon an avenue, in which the low, place walls stretch out indefinitely, and at the rear of the palace sit rolling mountains – all viewable from between skyscrapers, as if the city just suddenly stopped growing.
Sadly, only 30% of the original buildings survive since their destruction during Japanese occupation in the early 20th century, but still they provide a huge relief from the city, containing intricate buildings and a frozen, natural environment to explore.
Next to this sits the Folk Museum that provided background to the history of Korea from the prehistoric, up until the reflections of Confucianism in contemporary Korean society.
Desperately searching for the Bukchon village, Nick bought a hat, and unwittingly started a trend for the holiday. Ultimately we stumbled a food area – which I could not tell you where it was or the name of – but it definitely felt cultural to eat food from a street vendor, with queues of Koreans desperately seeking to purchase the delicious fried and steamed dumplings on offer.
The Three-‘man’ Wolf Pack
Returning to the hostel, the next of our party had arrived, Rachael, and our two man wolf pack had become a three. Keen to showcase our locals’ knowledge, we took Rachael and friend Emma for a night on the town –I’m sure it ended at a 5am run to Taco Bell and some quesadillas.
We learnt the hard way that Monday is a dead day in Seoul, after several attempts to visit museums were faced with closed gates. The wolf pack did manage to find a quick guided tour of Jongmyo Shrine, in which lay the mortuary tablets of generations of Kings and relatives.
A UNESCO heritage sight, it has 19 different rooms to remember 19 different Kings, running from East to West in chronological order. Though Korea no longer has monarchy, the traditional memorial services continue, with the descendants of the monarchy coming to partake in the ceremony.
Exploring the streets once more, we realised we had finally stumbled upon the true Bukchon village, and began exploring the meandering streets up and down the hillsides – even stopping in a café for mulled wine – truly it was still the festive season!
Finally our wolf pack was complete as Taylor, KJ, Becca and Savvy all arrived, and we consumed to our first night in Seoul together.