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From our brief experiences (we've been there twice) in Seoul, if there is one word to best describe the city it's sprawling. The traffic problem is worsened by the Han River and tunnels which pass under mini-mountains. Unlike some major cities which have one, central core, Seoul is a city of high rise buildings as far as the eye can see.
Our flight into Seoul on this trip originated in Atlanta and the ground we covered was pretty interesting. From Atlanta our Korean Air Boeing 777-200ER (HL 7715) traveled over Louisville, just west of Indianapolis, over Chicago, Milwaukee, Duluth, International Falls and on into Canada. From there we flew north of Winnipeg, Calgary and over the Yukon. Next came Alaska. Then we flew over a slice of the Baring Sea and the Arctic Ocean before heading southwestward over Siberia. We flew nearly over the Russian city of Vladivostok before descending into Seoul. The flight lasted a grueling 14 hours and 45 minutes but the Korean Air crew made it pleasant. In fact I find a big difference between "foreign" airlines and U.S. carriers. Domestically and even internationally on some U.S. flag carriers passengers are made to feel like a nuisance. Korean Air flight attendants made you feel like a valued guest.
As you could imagine, we were totally beat after our long journey but little did we know, we still had a lot more traveling to do on the ground. We took a cab from Incheon International Airport to our hotel in downtown Seoul and the journey took more than two hours! This was on a Friday late in the afternoon and traffic was completely gridlocked in all directions with drivers acting absolutely nuts. Had I known that the traffic was going to be that bad after a nearly fifteen hour flight, I would have booked a room at the Hyatt Hotel near the airport and rested up there and then headed into the city after rush hour the following morning.
By the way, don't take a cab to or from the airport unless you've got money to burn. The one way taxi fare to our hotel was $60 U.S. A far cry from the $250 from Tokyo's Narita Airport to the downtown area but still awful. Take the Korean Air Airport "Limousine" to your hotel. It's a big old bus but it's fairly comfortable and the cost is just a few bucks per person.
We finally made it to our hotel, the Westin Chosun and it was absolutely beautiful. One of the best hotels in the world. Rooms there are the biggest in Korea and our executive level room had plenty of teak wood and extra amenities. The location was very good, too, in the heart of the city quite near City Hall.
After freshening up we decided to have dinner at the hotel's Korean restaurant and it was delightful. In fact, they offered the best Korean cuisine we found during our brief stay in Seoul.
Despite the massive time change from the U.S. we were able to hit the sack around 10pm Seoul time and quickly adapted to the new time we were on.
The next morning we had breakfast and found this hotel to be ultra modern. The executive lounge didn't feature one, single coffee pot. Instead there was a compact but massive looking machine. This gizmo ground the beans and brewed fresh coffee cup by cup. It was strong but good. The machine also spewed out everything from orange juice to soda.
Seoul is an interesting city. We headed just down the street to the biggest department store in the country -- Lotte. This web site is in Korean but there's probably an English link that I'm just missing! In addition to having the biggest department store there, a huge Lotte Hotel sits right next to it. It is the biggest hotel in Korea, too. Along the way there were numerous hawker food stalls on the street selling everything from dried eel to hot dogs to, well, stuff that we couldn't even begin to identify!
There was a pagoda adjacent to the hotel and it was interesting to explore and the history behind it was interesting. (See the photo section below on this page.)
Later we arranged with the hotel for a car and driver to show us the sights of Seoul. We often do this when we're limited to a short amount of time in a city. In this case the hourly rate was $35. To cover all the ground we wanted to cover, this was much cheaper than a taxi and the driver spoke English. Well sort of.
In Seoul a little English is spoken a lot and a lot of English is rarely spoken at all. By this I mean that people in the hospitality industry (hotels, stores, restaurants) speak just enough English to get by. And that's fine. As I've said before, when I'm away from the U.S. I don't expect people in other countries to speak English. However in this case I did expect our "English speaking" driver to speak adequate English but he did not. I had a million questions I wanted to ask him about the city but quickly realized that he knew only a very few words in English. Therefore I cannot recommend hiring a driver from the Westin Chosun based on our experience. I'd check with an independent tour agency.
One of our first stops came at a huge royal palace called Toksugung. Built in the mid-15th century it was a very interesting site to see. We, however aren't history nuts so we just snapped a few pictures (see the photo section below) and were off and running once again.
Speaking very poor English our driver took us through a neighborhood he described as "blue houses." We didn't quite understand what this place was all about until we began to see military booths along the road with armed guards inside. They toted machine guns and looked very, very serious. Our driver paused briefly and pointed to the right of the car. Down a heavily guarded narrow driveway was a big house with a blue roof. Our driver muttered: "Blue house, president house." Then we got it. The blue house is their equivalent of our White House in the U.S. where the President hangs out.
Next our driver headed up a winding road. We could easily see that we were gaining altitude. Up and up we went until we arrived at a scenic overlook. The driver parked in a small underground lot and pointed us to some stairs. We checked it out and we were really "up there" with great views. Ironically there was a warning sign saying you could only snap pictures in one direction. The taboo direction was the Seoul skyline. Why the anal snapshot-a-phobia? Who knows? Heck, we couldn't even get the driver to pronounce the name of the overlook were at! Still don't know exactly where we were!
By this time it was mid-afternoon and we asked our driver to take us to the Seoul Hard Rock Cafe for the compulsory souvenirs our friends back home always request. He muttered something about one hour each way and we said: "Fine, please take us there anyway." He seemed very put out to have to take us to the Hard Rock. Hey, mister, that's your job you moron!
It took our driver a long, long time to find the Hard Rock. He must of literally phoned them 15 times from the car asking for vectors to the place but we finally found it, took care of business and then headed to a local market place to shop.
Our driver dropped us off at one of the many gates to the crazy Namdaemun Market. There must have been tens of thousands of people milling around this market with venders selling everything from scarves to pottery to just about every kind of food you could think of. The pork sausage stands "advertised" their products but sticking a severed pig's head out front so everybody would instantly know what they specialized in!
I'll try to describe the market although it's going to be difficult. Imagine a small road flanked on both sides by numerous outdoor stalls. About every half block the road comes to an intersection. As far as you can see ahead of you and to the right and the left--stores and stalls. Between and behind the stalls were fixed store fronts with doors. And it was so jam packed it was like leaving a Super Bowl game in the U.S. as everybody filed out at the same time. It was wall to wall. And by the way, watch your purse and/or wallet at this place. While we had no problems, there were a lot of "iffy" looking characters running around. Seoul is one of the safer cities in the world when it comes to minor crime but whenever you get vast amounts of people together, there's liable to be one bad apple hanging around.
We had a close encounter of sorts at this massive and confusing market place. My wife was walking along ahead of me carefully clutching her purse when an elderly Korean man appeared as if he might be going for her purse. Instead he grabbed her arm and pointed into the sky. He muttered: "Buzz, buzz, buzz." We looked up and there was a huge swarm of bees hanging around an electric transformer about 20 feet above the crowd. The bees kept their altitude and we walked a few feet down the street and purchased some local masks. One store attendant saw the bees and started to close the door fearing they might lower and pose a threat. Just as my wife finished her purchase we needed to head back to hook back up with our car and driver. But just then the bees started dropping down to street level. A few brave souls were walking through them and they weren't being attacked. So after discussing our battle plan, we decided to walk briskly through the swarm and emerged on the other side without a sting. I certainly did feel them buzzing around my head, though. Weird! We would have taken an alternate route but I know we would have gotten hopelessly lost and would have never seen our driver again!
The day was pretty much shot by this time. I had told the driver at the outset of the day that we wanted to eat at a specific Korean restaurant called Youngbin Garden, known (according to a friend's recommendation) for its excellent traditional Korean cuisine. He said "fine" and we took off. The driver wound up parking and taking us upstairs to a strange looking restaurant. It looked like a tourist trap. I was disappointed figuring the Youngbin Garden would be traditional. Then I looked at the menu and learned that this was not the Youngbin Garden but a restaurant of the driver's own choice where he, no doubt, got a cut of the action if he brought patrons there to dine. This angered me so we immediately left, went back downstairs and summoned the driver and asked him to return us to the hotel. Again, I cannot recommend that you use a car and driver from this hotel based on our experience.
We spent a few minutes touring a favorite shopping area for Americans called It'aewon. Here you'll find everything from designer purses to whoopie cushions that emit a "gas passing" noise when squeezed!
There are many interesting things to see and do in Seoul including some fine museums and tours of the DMZ separating the two Koreas. They even offer a tunnel tour. One such tour group has a web site here. Back in 1978 the South Koreans discovered a tunnel bored far beneath the surface by the sneaky North Koreans. They apparently had intended to use it to invade the South!
We left the city with the impression that it was interesting and we feel lucky to have been able to get at least a brief glimpse of the country.
We had an "interesting" experience passing back through Seoul on our way home to the U.S. The worst typhoon in the history of Korea was supposed to be taking direct aim at just about the same time our flight was due to arrive in Seoul from Bangkok. Yet finding out any information on the approaching storm was impossible. Read about this frustrating experience here.
Our second visit was also a short one, unfortunately. Ah, make that extremely short! We were returning via Korean Air on a trip from Australia and New Zealand and spent the night at the Hyatt Regency Incheon Hotel just across the way from Incheon Airport. We had an early morning flight out to Atlanta the next day and didn't feel like venturing the long way into the city. I must say the Hyatt Regency Incheon is one of the nicest airport hotels in the world, in our experience. I highly recommend it. The price isn't half bad and they offer some interesting dining experiences in the lobby of the complex.
Overall the Korean people were very nice. Despite reported cases of anti-American sentiment, we saw no such displays.
YOU'LL NEED A PASSPORT FOR YOUR TRIP FROM THE U.S. TO KOREA. CURRENCY IS THE WON. DRIVING IS ON THE RIGHT. (Immigration people are pretty anal upon entry. They ask you to fill out a health form with questions like: "Do you have a rash?" "Do you have a cold?" Answer yes to any of them and they're liable to steer you to the quarantine doctor!)