All Moved In!

I am all moved in at the dorms at Chung-Ang!

The taxi drive went smooth. For about a 20 minute ride, the cost was only around $11.50.

After a bit of confusion upon arriving at the dorms, one of the Korean “Welcome Ambassadors” showed me to my room. Sadly, the whole residence building is undergoing major plumbing renos and we’re actually not allowed to use the washroom facilities (tap water, toilet, shower, etc) until sometime tomorrow… Yes, no showers, brushing teeth, etc until tomorrow afternoon (at least that’s what I understood from my guide!!). Yuck.

Anyways, I moved in okay.

Oh, and about the “typhoon” yesterday, I was totally fine. Apparently it took a turn and actually didn’t hit South Korea too bad (I heard the North wasn’t so lucky) but I stayed at Bong House all day anyways. The “typhoon” was more like some strong winds and rain. Oh well.

Now I’m off to go see some other exchange students and buy my bedding, towels, etc.

Here are some photos of my dorm:

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Peaceful day at Gilsangsa Temple, Typhoon Coming Tonight

Today I didn’t really do much.

Went on a mission to go find some protein for breakfast, as I’ve been sick of eating pastries and over-priced coffee. Normally I have eggs each morning in Canada, and I was really missing that. I decided to go to McDonald’s for an Egg McMuffin. After the 10-minute walk there, and some charades/pointing to the egg mcmufffin photo on the menu saying “Eego juseyo!” (“I would like that, please”) repeatedly, I reached into my purse and realized… I’d forgotten my wallet 😦 I think the cashier understood the sad look on my face as I reached into my purse and pulled nothing out, so I looked at her really apologetically and tried to mime coming back to pay for my meal.

15 minutes later, I was dripping in sweat from the heat and from fast-walking, but was determined to get my McMuffin! I triumphantly pulled out the cash from my wallet, and was happy to see that the cashier had even put aside my meal for me so that it was waiting for when I got back.

As I took the first bite into that greasy deep-fried hashbrown and that wonderfully familiar McMuffin, there was no doubt in my mind that it was worth it. After washing it down with some tangy “oranjee joos-uh”, I was on my way back to the hostel to shower. Not that it mattered. This humidity rendered showering somewhat futile, as I was sweaty all over again just after walking for 5-10 minutes outside.

But shower I did, and I was soon back to my breezy, air-conidtioned refuge of Coffine Gurunauauanaua or however they spell it.

I tried finding some museums to visit, but it appeared that all were closed on Mondays. I realized that it would’ve been a waste of a day to spend any more time on my computer in that coffee shop, so I decided that I would go to a Buddhist temple. Maybe a stretch from my initial hopes of somewhere with AC, but in the hustle and bustle of Hyehwa I felt I needed to “re-charge” somewhere away from all the traffic, neon lights, and stinky garbage.

I decided I’d go to Hwagyesa Temple, and began to walk back to the hostel to deposit my laptop and grab my camera. However, Mr. Bong was there and suggested that I go to a temple called Gilsangsa instead. “It’s not very famous” he said, “But very beautiful. Used to be a… salon… kind of a restaurant with drinking”. I smiled and nodded, and he offered to hail a taxi for me. But I was a hungry girl, and wanted some kimbap (Korean sushi) as fuel beforehand. I thanked him and told him I’d figure it out, but he had this worried look on his face and insisted again that he help me. I politely declined again, and went on my way to have some kimbap.

The kimbap was really good, and the taxi was no problem at all (I’d written down the name of the temple in Korean after Googling it, but the driver even understood me without reading it). After driving 10 minutes up this large hill, winding in and out of side streets and some suburbs, I arrived scratch-free at Gilsangsa, and for only a $4 cab charge to boot!

I walked in through the gate and was stunned. This is why I’d come to Seoul… it was an urban oasis; the only sounds to be heard were the trickling of a stream flowing through the grounds, the cool hush of the wind gently blowing through the trees, and the soft chanting of prayers from the monk inside the temple. I felt utterly relaxed. I sat on one of the benches facing the main prayer hall and felt thankful that Mr. Bong had recommended this place to me. There was no “AC” but the shade from the trees and the cool wind blowing acted as an all-natural substitute. Here I was completely “un-plugged” – no WiFi, no laptop. It felt good.

It appeared that the temple was a common place for families to come; there were a few there with their young children running and playing. Many people appeared alone as well, walking around and quietly reflecting or sitting on a bench or rock and reading. It was sort of like a park here.

After some time exploring and taking pictures, I caught a taxi back to the hostel and crashed. Now I’m writing this blog from the common room at Bong House, and will soon head down to the the Bong Bar to have my free beer 🙂

Several hours later….

Aaaaand what a night! I just got back from drinking with some new friends I met at the hostel. We grabbed dinner and drinks at the Comfort Zone, an awesome restaurant near Bong House, then grabbed some beers and played pool at Bong Bar, then went to the noraebang (karaoke room) with a bunch of other people from our place.

Typhoon???

The typhoon is supposed to hit by 3:00pm Korean time tomorrow. I will be staying indoors – reading, blogging, and eating!! Don’t worry, I will be safe.

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Lunch with the girls, plus some shopping success!

Yesterday I had lunch with a few of my Korean girlfriends*. They were nice enough to meet me right by the closest subway stop to my hostel.

We walked around the Hyewha area for a bit and quickly decided on a Japanese restaurant that served mostly donburi (rice bowls with some sort of protein on top. Ex: raw tuna, tempura prawn, chicken cutlet, etc). I had the ebi (prawn) bowl, naturally, and we ordered some croquettes (fried potato balls) with cheese in them. One of the waiters even brought around some free Coke and Chilsung Cider, the Korean equivalent of Sprite or 7-Up, mentioning cheerfully that it was a “foreigner discount!”.

After that, we headed off to grab some coffee at a café called CofFine Gurunaru. With three stories of hangout space, and 50¢ Iced Americano refills, I was happy the girls had chosen this place. We sat and chatted for a few hours about this and that, then decided to part ways. They asked me if there was anywhere I really wanted to see in Seoul, and I mentioned that there was a sheep café in the Hongdae district that I’d read about (click here for some pictures of it). Jeesoo said she’d been there and that it was nice; Hana and Jen said they’d never been but that they’d like to go with me. So, with the promise of meeting again soon – perhaps even at the sheep café – we went on our ways.

Later that night…

At this point it was nearing dinner time and I didn’t really feel like eating out again, so I decided to drop by a corner store for something quick to grab. Now, I’d read that a lot of corner stores had fresh pre-made meals that you could just take home and microwave, so I decided to give that a try. For $2.50, I feasted upon salmon linguine and even got a free Pepsi with it.

Not willing to admit shopping defeat after only a short while in Seoul, I told myself that this time, I would make some good buys!

After eating, I took a quick nap, then freshened up and made my way to the subway. I went to Myeongdong again, which was not a great idea. I bought some nice jean shorts, a blouse, and an everyday-wear dress for about $40 CAD. However, I wasn’t satisfied. I reminded myself that I hadn’t even been to Dongdaemun yet, which is probably the cheapest shopping district of Seoul. Since it was on my way home, I thought I might as well give it a try.

Dongdaemun

 

I got off at the stop, and was immediately disappointed – where were all the people?? This was supposed to be primo shopping time; 10:30pm on a Saturday night. It was dead on the streets outside. I saw a few groups of men sitting together on the sidewalks, shovelling rice into their mouths and laughing boisterously. Aside from that, things were looking pretty un-happening. I assumed these were workers having their feed after a long day of work, but I was soon to be proved wrong…

I walked across the street from the Dongdaemun stop, past the famed Dongdaemun gate, and in the direction of some of the malls. There were a few small crowds of people heading that way, so I thought I would just go with the flow. The more I walked, the more things seemed to come alive. Those men weren’t eating their supper, they were eating their breakfast! The work day had only just begun…

I excitedly looked through the endless rows of stalls selling designer knockoffs, ankle socks, and of course, Korean street food. I had come to the right place. This was more my style. Myeongdong, while indeed offering some good bargains and a flashing lights-filled atmosphere perhaps only comparable to Times Square, featured mostly the usual suspects: H&M, Zara, Lacoste, Ralph Lauren, Adidas, Forever21, and dozens of branches of the familiar Korean cosmetics chains (Holika Holika, Etude House, Missha, It°s Skin, etc). Dongdaemun, however, was a delightful maze of dirt-cheap accessory stalls, street food tents, foot spas, restaurants, and clothing merchants.

I decided to go into the branch of Migliore there (there’s three in Seoul, if I’m correct). Wow. WOW. I wanted to cry. I had died and gone to shopping heaven! This is what I’d come to Korea for. Trendy clothes without the trendy price tag. However, there was one catch: haggling had to be done. This was not for the feint of heart. I’d prepared for this. I knew the things to say and how to say them. I knew that I needed to show little to no interest, and act like the merchant was burdening me (even though I’d come to them) by trying to sell me their wares. This was basic stuff.

Okay, I lied. There was another catch – many clothes were “one size fits all” (aka: “free size” in Konglish – Korean/English) and, you guessed it, NO CHANGE ROOMS! Not even trying stuff over top of clothes. I soon learned that every merchant thought that all their clothes were “stlechy, stlechy!”, and that immediately, everyone thought that I worked as a supermodel. Keep in mind that after a night spent walking around in the humidity, I was looking like a drowned, sweaty rat. Not entirely “supermodel” material! But these women were cunning; they knew how to play the game. Little did they know, this sweaty foreigner knew how to play the game too.

Well, kind of. I just knew how to fake it – or at least I thought I did. I returned back to the hostel with an empty wallet and three dresses. One of which didn’t make it past my knees (so much for “stlechy, stlechy!!”). But hey, I got one of those dresses from $60 to  $35, another from $40 to $15, and the other was a good price to start with so I didn’t bargain too much; $29 to $25. Photos to come soon!

We will see how I fare tonight…

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Last July I’d done a month-long Korean culture program at Seoul Women’s University, where about half of the 100 or so participants were Korean (and the other half international students). I shared a dorm room with five other Korean girls from SWU; three of whom actually came back to VIU the following fall semester. The reason I’m in Korea right now is because I did the Bahrom International Program (BIP) last year. It opened me up to Korean culture and how much fun living in Seoul is.

Finally in Seoul!

Well, what a ride that was…

I arrived at my hostel in Seoul two nights ago with barely any scratches. My flight with Asiana Airlines from LA was fantastic, however, I was feeling a bit sick, and upon arriving at the airport in Seoul, I was about ready to pass out!

Luckily, my bags arrived a-okay (no problems with bringing over the smoked salmon, compliments of Nik). After grabbing my luggage from the carrier, I made my way over to the airport limousine busses. I bought my ticket to the closest stop to my hostel sans-problems, however, as I was feeling a bit disoriented, I had some issues finding the corresponding bus stop. Luckily, two incredibly helpful Korean girls around my age sensed I needed some help, and were happy to take me to the stop I was trying to find. They were from an NGO called “World Peace Day” in Seoul and it seemed like helping confused foreigners like me was their specialty!

On the bus I went…. Sadly, I got off at the wrong stop (no thanks to the driver – after pointing to my ticket and asking if that was the correct stop, he nodded and insisted “Né, né” [“yes, yes”] repeatedly). Luckily for me, another helpful young Korean was around to help me hail a cab to take me to the correct stop – unfortunately my hostel wasn’t recognizable enough to just take a cab directly there, otherwise that’s exactly what I would’ve done. Also, Seoul doesn’t really have set addresses like we have in North America, due to the way the city has evolved over thousands of years. IE: lots of little alleyways, not many street numbers! Thankfully cabs in Korea are dirt cheap, as the 15-minute ride only cost me about $6 CAD (no tax or tip either).

Although it took a while, I found my way successfully on foot to the Bong House Hostel after my cab dropped me off. Mr Bong himself was there to greet me and give me a brief tour of the hostel and its facilities. Sadly, my room isn’t big enough for both my bags, but one of the reasons I decided on Bong House was because of the high safety ratings it had received on HostelWorld (sort of the hostel equivalent of TripAdvisor). As well, it appears a few other travellers were in my situation too. The common room it’s sitting in (with directly connects to my room) also doubles as Mr. Bong’s office space, so I feel very safe indeed leaving it there 🙂

I crashed immediately, and then awoke the next morning to the sound of chirping birds and chanting monks… We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto!!

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My first morning in Seoul….

I decided to get a move on and shower, eager to find some kind of food as I had actually forgotten to eat dinner the night before! I grabbed a quick pain au chocolate and ice coffee at “Tous les Jours”, a popular coffee/pastry chain in Korea and was on my way. I wasn’t really sure where exactly I was headed, but I just wanted to get out of the hostel and try to acquaint myself with the surrounding Hyehwa neighbourhood.

Sure enough, I stumbled upon the subway stop, which I immediately recognized from my map. Yes, I am staying at the Bong House Hostel, and the subway stop is number – you guessed it – 420. I figured I should pop down and pick up a T-Money card (re-loadable transit cards used widely throughout Seoul) as I would be needing one eventually anyways.

I don’t really know what convinced me to do this, but I just immediately thought I should get on the subway and go to Myeongdong, Seoul’s most famous shopping district. Granted, it was still about 11:00am at this point, and Myeongdong doesn’t really even get going until about sunset, but I figured that I really had nothing else on my schedule anyways.

Shopping…

What a bust – seriously. I made it to Myeongdong fine, but I didn’t make a single buy. Nevermind, that’s not true. I did buy some medication from the pharmacy there to help with my headache and fever-like symptoms I’d been experiencing since being on the plane (And yes, I bought them all on my own. It took a few mime-gestures and pointing at phrases in my trusty Lonely Planet phrasebook, but the gentleman at the pharmacy understood me just fine). But anyways, I digress. No clothing was bought.

Off I was to Hongdae, where I heard the shopping was quite good, and tailored to the university student budget/fashion taste. Another bust. Basically all the stores only carried “one size fits only”, and without any fitting rooms, I didn’t want to take any chances.

So, back on the subway I went. I was not taking no for an answer! I deliberately under-packed and arrived early with the intentions of making my time before school starts a shopping mission! Off I was to Ewha, (pronounced “Ee-dae”), a district which I heard was  littered in boutiques and salons catering to – even better than Hongdae – the female university student crowd. This is because Ewha Women’s University, one of Seoul’s most famous women’s universities, is nearby and has thus heavily influenced the shopping and dining scene there.

Same issue. Lots of cute preppy Korean-style clothes, but no change rooms, and all one size fits only. At this point I was relapsing into zombie-mode; a likely combination of the jet lag and potpourri of drugs the nice man at the pharmacy had given me starting to sink in (or wear off, depending on how you look at it). Oh, and I hadn’t eaten in six hours. Right. So, assessing the situation and using only my best judgement, I decided to get a haircut.

Juno Salon…

I saw a sign for “Juno Salon”, a name I instantly recognized from my research on Korea. This chain of hair salons was supposed to be inexpensive, high-quality, and very accommodating to foreigners/English-speakers. So, without an appointment, I waltzed right in and almost immediately was whisked away into a chair as a trendy young Korean girl began to examine her next project.

“…Your hair is… very not good, I think” she said, with a rather concerned look on her face. I wasn’t going to argue with her, after all, I’d been walking around in the massive outdoor sauna alternatively known as Seoul in August for the past several hours; my hair was a teased, hairspray-ridden sweaty rat’s nest with a few clip-in hair extensions thrown in the mix. I nodded with an apologetic look on my face, and asked if she could give me side bangs, pointing at a picture of Carrie Underwood I’d quickly Googled on my iPhone as to avoid any possible language barriers. She smiled and told me okay, promptly giving her assistant her orders in Korean.

From there, her assistant led me to get my hair washed. “Please-uh seet down now”. She even gave me a little scalp and neck massage before she led me off to get my hair dried with the senior stylist. Both of them each had their own blowdryer and began to simultaneously dry my hair. From there, the cut began. The stylist’s moves were swift and calculated, yet all the while effortless and smooth. In less than 30 seconds, she’d finished. And damn – I looked good. Unlike a North American stylist, she hadn’t even added in any products. This woman was a magician.

I smiled and expressed my gratitude as she led me towards the register. All of this: shampoo, blow-dry, cut, my choice of drink from the espresso bar, and the fantastic service on top of it only set me back about $27 CAD. No added tax, no tip required. I was impressed.

From there, I waltzed back off into Ewha with a little added spring in my step from having my hair all did.

Coming back…

At this point, I was quite hungry, so I dropped by a nearby Italian restaurant and gobbled down some seafood pasta. Didn’t feel the least bit awkward dining alone either, as the restaurant was close to empty (being only 4:00 or so) and there was another Korean girl doing just the same.

I decided to give Myeongdong another try before heading back to my hostel, but didn’t have much more luck. I came back with one sole blouse, a pore-minimizing primer, and – GET THIS – bronzing makeup base! In Korea!! I wasn’t going to turn into a ghost here after all!

Calling it a night….

I finally arrived back at the Bong House, and felt really homesick. So I decided to head down to the very small Bong Bar to grab a free beer and try to have some human interaction before I convinced myself coming here was a mistake (it seems silly to think that, but at the time I felt quite justified in believing it!). I met a few nice people (three students from Seoul’s Yonsei University and a Korean theatre actor), but once 10:00 hit, I was feeling really tired because of the jet lag and decided to head upstairs to go to sleep.

I had lunch plans with my Korean girlfriends to look forward to the next day and I wanted to be well-rested for that!

All in all, it felt like quite a long day. More shopping definitely needs to be done, and rest assured I will be posting my goodies on here.

PS: apologies in advance for only half the photos having captions. I’ve tried four times in a row to caption and save all the photos; it’s taking too long and WordPress seems to hate me. I’ll figure it out by next time, I promise!

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Korea Bound…

Whew! My first half of the journey over to Seoul is officially over.

Because I opted for a very cheap fare, my flight schedule was a little odd – I actually needed to spend the night in LA as my flight from Vancouver arrived at LAX at 9:00pm, while my flight to Seoul wasn’t leaving until 1:40pm the next day. Even with the hotel charges, the overall cost of the trip was significantly lower than all the other options.

Everything went well upon arriving in LA, although the free shuttle was a bit late getting to the airport. By 10:00pm, I was safe and sound in my hotel room, feverishly flipping through the pages of the hotel’s restaurant guide in efforts to find a late-night delivery joint. Pizza Hut appeared to be the only option, so I sat in my room and enjoyed a few slices in front of the TV.

I woke up this morning with my heart pounding a million beats a minute as I scrambled to find my phone – had I slept in too late?? Luckily for me, I must’ve just woken up from a nightmare where I’d missed my flight, as I still had 2.5 hours before my alarm was supposed to go off.

I got up and showered, then headed down to the breakfast room for some fuel for the long journey ahead. A delightfully American selection of several sorts of beige-coloured matter awaited me, and I took my pick (no eggs, sadly). The place was mildly chaotic, so I downed my waffle and juice quickly and then proceeded to check out.

Precisely three hours before my flight was scheduled to leave, I checked in sans-problems at the Asiana Airlines desk. The agents were very friendly and helpful, but were a little surprised to learn I was only 19 when they looked at my passport (I decided not to explain to them that it’s because tanning has aged my skin too much – considering they hail from a country where skin bleach is all the rage, indoor tanning didn’t appear to be any sort of temptation to them anyways).

From there, I visited the Duty Free, and decided against better judgement not to buy the 1-litre bottle of Jack Daniel’s – but for only $99, it will probably make a nice gift for someone on the way back! However, I felt I could justify buying a little pressed powder compact from MAC, la crème de la crème of cosmetic brands. And, for 30% less than I would’ve paid in Canada, it really was a steal 😉

Now, I’m awaiting my flight to Seoul at Gate 104. Well, no. I went to Gate 103 because it was less crowded, and I intend to go back to my correct gate as 1:40 draws closer. But for now, it would appear that a flight to Charles de Gualle (France) is departing from here, and I don’t particularly mind hearing all the French being spoken around me. I wonder what the weather in Paris is like right now…

I will be in Seoul in roughly 15 hours… and it still hasn’t really sunken in!