Yesterday I had some time to kill between attending a press conference for JFNK and meeting my friend for dinner.
Since the press conference (which was raising awareness about underground religion in North Korea) was held at the Korea Press Center, right in downtown Seoul, it was easy to wander around pass the time.
I decided to head down to the popular Cheonggyecheon (청계천) stream, which is 8km long. Running through the heart of Seoul, Cheonggyecheon is a great spot to sit, relax, read, take photos or enjoy a cold ice cream (which is what I did ^_^).
Most of all, it’s a great place for people-watching. You can see locals, tourists, couples, families, and the elderly all enjoying this urban oasis.
Walking near Jonggak Station
Cheonggyecheon during 1910-1945 (photo: Seoul Metropolitan History Committee)
As you can see from the photo above, Cheonggyecheon wasn’t always a nice place. In the first half of the 20th century, it was actually a slum. Then, as Seoul began to develop, it was paved over to make room for a new highway.
In 2003, the Mayor of Seoul Lee Myung-Bak (who would go onto become the President of Korea) proposed an expensive beautification plan for Cheonggyecheon. Even today, those who visit Seoul often note that there is a lack of parks and green space – perhaps the price paid by rapid modernization. Lee’s $900 million development project was met with a lot of controversy when it was first proposed.
However, it’s since become a favourite among Seoulites both young and old.
It’s also representative of Seoul’s rapid development. When I was here in 2011, there were no plants along the river. Now, of course, that’s not the case.
That’s possibly my favourite thing about living in Korea – everything is changing (and has changed) so fast.
Staring down Cheonggyecheon stream near the KTO HQ
After wandering a bit more, I accidentally found myself in front of the Korea Tourism Organization building:
The KTO headquarters
The KTO headquarters
Emotional times… I leave for Bali in less than 12 hours, and after that, only two more weeks left in Korea. Where did one year go?
Last night, I had the pleasure of going out with a friend of mine to Bonny’s Pub in Haebongchon.
We chose Bonny’s because a mutual friend of ours had won a voucher for a free pizza + two beers at a charity event I helped organize back in May. Bonny’s was kind enough to donate a voucher for the raffle, but sadly, my friend couldn’t use it before she left the country.
So, she left it in the kind hands of your’s truly and our mutual friend Wang Min (whom we’d met at a Makgeolli Mamas and Papas meet-up).
Seeing as my days in this country are numbered, Wang Min and I decided to head into the hip/up-and-coming Haebongchon neighbourhood for some free pizza and beer.
The interior of the pub
Bonny’s is a self-serve beer pub/sports bar. Two large TV screens show “football” (what we North Americans call “soccer”) while several booths, barstool tables and chairs line the inside.
Since the place is so small, you just go up to the til to order and pay on the spot. Your server will bring you your food and draft beer, otherwise, you’re free to help yourself to the bottles in the fridges (paying first, of course!).
Wang Min and I decided to keep it classic, and ordered Bonny’s pepperoni pizza with thick crust. Bonny’s does have the option of ordering thin curst pizzas, but I’d read on some food blogs that thick was the way to go – a true “American-style” pizza.
Regular pepperoni with thick crust – 12,000w
Needless to say, it was delicious. It had a nice thick, greasy crust that reminded me of Pizza Hut-style pizza from back home. And yes, we finished the whole thing! But not without washing it down with a couple free draft beers that came with the voucher.
Bonny’s has Max beer on tap for 2,500w/glass, which is not bad at all. Wang Min treated me to a Tsingtao, which tasted deliciously refreshing on that hot summer night.
I read that Bonny’s two popular pizzas are the Beast and the Kimchi Cult…
“The Beast” – beef pizza (Photo: Bonny’s Pub, facebook)
I am a bit skeptical about the notion of putting kimchi on pizza… Though based on the photo Bonny’s has on their facebook page, it looks like a fairly doable concept. If I was here longer, I’d definitely give it a try.
Over 70 brands of international beers to choose from (Photo: Bonny’s Pub, facebook)
If you’re looking for a thick, greasy and cheesy American-style pizza, then Bonny’s is your place.
One thing I wish I would’ve known a few months ago: Bonny’s does 4,000w unlimited Americanos on Sundays (they call it their “Hangover Special”). Pair that with a greasy 3,000w slice of pizza, and you’re good to go. Or, if you’re like some friends of mine who swear by beer as the best hangover cure, you can’t beat a 640mL bottle of Tsingtao for 5,000w.
Pizzas range in price from 8,000w (small) to 18,000w (large), with prices fluctuating depending on the toppings.
The open-air atmosphere was cool, but on such a hot and humid night, some AC would’ve felt even better!
A Korean blogger noted thatthere is NO hangeul menu, and that one can only order in English ^_^ Too bad for the non-English speaking Korean pizza-lovers out there, although I’m sure they’d get by okay just by pointing and grunting at the pictures (hey, that’s what I do here!).
Overall, Bonny’s seems like a pretty popular neighbourhood place. I approve.
Hours: 2:00pm to late (Monday to Friday) and 11:30am to late (Saturday, Sunday)
Directions: Noksapyeong Station, exit 2. Walk straight up the hill, passing the kimchi pots on your left. Keep walking for about five minutes, and Bonny’s will be on your left, right after Phillie’s Pub and across the street from Indigo. If you see the Pinoy Mart on your right, you’ve gone too far.
Needless to say, the fresh air, nature, and calm atmosphere was a welcome change from the usual hustle-and-bustle of Seoul.
The restaurant sign reads “sangroksu”
Taking the dirt path to 상록수
A rice field on the way to the restaurant
Chickens outside the restaurant/house!
Typical Korean-style table setting: tons of small side-dishes surround the main dish, which hadn’t arrived at this point.
Marinated crab side dish
My favourite! Tteok (sweet, chewy rice cake)
Yummy tteok (pronounced “dock”)
A poster in the restaurant
Looks like 상록수 (Sanroksu) had been featured on TV a few times
After wrapping up lunch, we were back on the bus and on our way to Yongjusa.
Yongjusa was built after a previous temple standing in its place burnt down in the late 800s. Its name, “temple of the dragon with a magic ball”, was chosen after the King who built it had a dream before the construction began. In it, a dragon descended from the heavens holding a magic ball in its mouth.
The King Jeongju of Korea’s Joseon dynasty built the temple as a memorial and tomb to his late father.
Now, it’s a major cultural and historic site located in the city of Hwaseong, just south of Seoul…
Entering the temple grounds..
Statues near the entrance
Our tour guide
A lion statue
Another tour group – maybe Templestay participants?
A pond on the temple grounds
So many Buddhas!
Interesting tidbit – the artwork here was inspired by the painter’s visits to Europe, where he saw Orthodox Christian paintings of saints. Can you see the similarities? (mainly the halos)
A map to Yongjusa
You can get to Yongjusa through taking subway line #1 to Byeongjeom Station; about an hour and ten minute’s ride from Seoul.
Also, those interested in doing a Templestay at Yongjusa can find out more on their website here.
Just before school ended a few weeks ago, some friends and I made the jaunt to Noryangjin Wholesale Fisheries Market, located right below the centre of the Han River.
Despite the fact that the market was located a mere 10 or 15-minute bus ride from our dorms, for a few of us (myself included), this was our first time going. Noryangjin Market is a pretty major tourist site in Seoul, and a definite “must-see” while visiting the city.
One of our more passionate fellow exchange students would lead impromptu mini-tours to the market during the wholesale auction time. The thing is, these tours were a tad bit early. While I certainly would’ve loved to see the lively atmosphere and get a good deal on the fish at the same time, I just couldn’t seem to drag myself out of bed in time for these 4:00am adventures! In hindsight, and with only a few weeks left in this city, I wish I would’ve gone.
In any case, we still made it to the market!
However, it was a bit last-minute and I didn’t exactly research enough travel tips before going.
We all think we were ripped off a bit, but the food was so good and the experience was so essential that we didn’t care 🙂
Entering the market from the subway
Would you like tentacles in your meal today?
Stalls upon stalls
Where to next?
A fishmonger stands with his wares
This salmon looked pretty good, so we picked up a couple filets and some lobster-ish looking things (hey, they were really good!). After meeting up with a couple other friends who’d already bought their fish, we made our way to one of the nearby restaurants to get everything all cooked up.
Et voila, the results! Juicy, tender salmon. I didn’t take as many photos as I would’ve liked, but you get the picture!
Possibly some of the best salmon I’ve ever tasted – and I’m from the Pacific Northwest!
Of course, all of that seafood needed to be washed down with a few bottles of Korea’s finest ale, Cass. Hey, when you don’t have a nice Chardonnay for the fish, what’re you gonna do? I should mention that the conversation at this meal was conducted in French, which was super for me. Good practice, and a good ego adjustment to realize that my French isn’t as good as I sometimes like to believe it is!
The prawn/lobster-ish things are in the centre.. Couldn’t figure out what they were, but they were good!
The restaurant even gave us a “service” (Konglish for “on-the-house”) haemul pajeon. Nice!
Focus is off 😦 But the haemul pajeon (seafood pancake) was pretty good!
Overall a memorable experience.
Not sure if I’ll try to make it back to Noryangjin before I leave, as I have a sneaking suspicion that you can only get the best deals during the wholesale auction (and hey, I make no promises about being able to get up at that time!).
Also, I was able to visit Jalgachi Market in Busan during my free K-Shuttle bus tour last fall. There, I was able to stuff myself with (raw) fish for less than $10 – as opposed to this dinner in Seoul, which cost over $30.
Granted, in Busan I had a local/tour guide with me who knew the best places to go – and to be honest, we didn’t even buy anything inside the market. We went to a vendor on the street outside, which could be why we got such a good deal.
As well, we took our spoils to go and sat on a park bench instead of paying a “BYOF” (bring your own fish – lol) fee somewhere ^_^ I’m not cheap, just thrifty!! I swear it!
Anyways, if anything, a trip to Noryangjin is worth it just for the photos. It’s a lively, colourful atmosphere that you may not see back home.
(This is a late post I started to write almost two months ago, yet never finished!)
May 26th: For the past 12 weeks, I had the chance to participate in a program offered by the National Gugak Center (formerly: National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts; or in, Korean, 국립국악원 Gukrim Gugakwon).
Pro tip: In Korean, “ 국립/gukrim” means “national”, and “국악/gugak” means “traditional Korean music”.
This program was offered every Saturday morning from 10:30am to 12:30pm at one of the buildings at the Gugak Center.
The semester’s tuition was only 30,000 KRW ($27.50 CAD), and that included a beautifully-designed textbook and CD, featuring pieces performed by some of the musicians at the Gugak Center.
I chose to learn the gayageum, which is sort of like a long, flat guitar or harp.
On our first day of class, our instructor Gee asked us why we decided to learn gayageum, and what had interested us in the gayageum in the first place.
It was a kind of hard question for me to answer. A lot of students recalled a specific event or point in time when they saw a gayageum performance, which sparked their interested in the instrument.
For me, I can’t recall a specific moment. I’ve seen gayageum performances at a bunch of different cultural sites. However, I agreed with a lot of the participants in that I was really struck by how beautiful the musician’s form is when they play the gayageum. It’s a bit hard to describe, but basically, you have to stretch your arm out in order to make the vibrato sound on the left side of the gayageum. The correct way of doing this makes the body look really feminine, elegant and graceful.
Even a few of my Korean friends made the same remark: “Oh, you’re learning gayageum? It looks so beautiful when played!”.
Anyways, I decided to join the program mainly because it was so affordable, and because learning to play a Korean traditional instrument is not something I would ever get the chance to do back home.
The director of the program, Mr. Lee, was very professional and friendly. He arranged for our class to individually rent gayageums at an affordable rate. It wasn’t required, but it was an option offered to those who wanted to practice at home.
I decided to rent one for the semester, but in hindsight, I wish I would’ve played it a bit more.
While I’m definitely a night owl, my roommate preferred to sleep and wake up early, meaning that I had to find time during the day to practice (not always easy since I was either working, volunteering or in class). I know – excuses, excuses!
The course was held each Saturday from 10:30am to 12:30pm. Mr. Lee told us that many students actually end up dropping out after several classes.
This is because a lot of people began to lose interest, especially when faced with the decision of staying in bed (potentially after a long night of drinking!) vs. commuting to music lessons in the morning.
I’m happy to say that I missed only one class, and that I had a VERY good reason for it!
It took a lot of commitment, though. Sometimes the classes just seemed to drag on… and on… But I’m glad I stuck with it.
The final performance
Our classes were all leading up to one thing – our semester-end recital!
Warming up with Gee songsaenim during our dress rehersal!
A quick selfie during our dress rehersal!
The other gayageum class practicing in the same room as ours at the dress rehearsal. Their teacher seemed a bit more stern/serious.
Held at Seoul Arts Center, we were given an honor normally reserved for Korean musicians with years of experience and training in their field – our class played on the main performance stage.
Here’s a link to the video of our group performing in the recital:
We performed three different songs: Gyeonggi Arirang, Jindo Arirang and Sanjo Arirang (listed in order of how nice they sound/how good we were at playing them). Sadly, the video doesn’t show the first song, Gyeonggi Arirang. It’s almost like the “Edelweiss” of Korea; not a national anthem, yet still a nationally-recognized traditional song.
I’d invited a couple of my friends from school along, but the Seoul Arts Centre grounds are actually pretty hard to navigate.
Turns out they ended up in a different theatre, and saw a completely different performance XD Oh well!
We all went out for lunch afterwards with Gee, our teacher.
She took us to a noodle house (simply called “Noodles” – Foursquare link here; menu/photos on Korean blog here) a short walk from Seoul Arts Center.
The Indonesian noodles I tried were divine, and I fully intend on going back there sometime!
With Gee (to my right), and two of my classmates from Germany and Trinidad & Tobago
Gugak experience program
I would 100% recommend participating in the Gugak Experience Program for Foreigners.
It will be a bit of a commitment to get up every Saturday in time for class, but it’s definitely worth it. You will have a unique experience that you won’t get back home, and will likely meet a lot of really interesting people.
Plus, you’ll even get to perform on stage in a foreign country – how cool is that?
Recently, I won a discounted fee for one of the most popular tourist destinations in Korea: the Joint-Security Area (JSA) between North and South Korea on the DMZ.
Despite being commonly referred to as “the most dangerous place on earth”, trips to the DMZ are strikingly popular among tourists visiting South Korea.
Prior to this trip, I’d already been on two tours to different sites along the 38th parallel, separating the communist North from the capitalist South.
(Why are there two Koreas? It’s a long story – check out the video below for a summarized version)
I’d never visited the JSA before, which is arguably the most interesting stop along the border.
With American and ROK (Republic of Korea) soldiers on the Southern side staring down DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) soldiers on the Northern side, the line on the ground separating these two countries seems more apparent than ever. In other words, tensions are VERY high.
That said, the rules for visiting JSA are understandably strict. For example, even though there are dozens of independent operators offering tours to other DMZ sites (such as tunnels, military museums, and observatories), only a few select government-approved tour agencies are allowed to take visitors to the JSA.
It’s not cheap, either – most JSA tours start at around $77, while other non-JSA DMZ tours can go as low as $33 (like the one I took).
That’s partly the reason I hadn’t signed up for a JSA tour since coming to Seoul (student budget!).
I did do a free DMZ tour as part of the summer Korean culture program I’d attended back in 2011. As well, I opted to go for another tour in the winter of 2012 that visited some other sites I hadn’t seen, mainly because it was offered at an affordable price ($33) through When in Korea (WiNK).
In the case of this JSA tour, offered by the Panmunjom Travel Center, I’d won a facebook draw a few days prior for a discounted fee. Normally, the cost of the tour is $77, but I only had to pay $10. The tour company occasionally uses this promo to fill up empty seats on the bus a few days before the departure.
Anyways, after receiving a facebook message confirming my spot, I sent my passport to the company. Part of visiting the JSA requires having a UN-performed background check (serious, right?). I passed, so come Friday morning I was set to go!
Shortly after arriving at the Lotte Hotel in downtown Seoul, we were on our way to the first stop along the tour, Odusan Observatory.
Once hearing that we were visiting an observatory, I got a bit disappointed. Since I’d already visited a few others on the two other tours I went on, I thought it would be a bit boring to see the same place for a second or third time.
However, I’d never been to the Odusan Observatory. In fact, I’d have to say that it’s one of the better ones I’d visited along the DMZ.
Unlike other observatories, there wasn’t any visible North Korean “stuff” in the landscape (ex: propaganda posters, military watchtowers or outposts, etc). However, the mini museum inside the observatory was very interesting.
The view from Odusan Observatory: staring out into North Korea from the South
The focus was on life in North Korea, so they had a replica of a typical North Korean class and living room.
Typical North Korean clothes
A typical/well-off North Korean home (notice the TV set, not something a lot of poor North Koreans can afford)
Our tour even included a Q&A with a North Korean refugee, who was a woman in her 40s or 50s. We sat in the replica classroom and asked her questions about her life back in the DPRK. I asked her what made her decide to leave, and she said (with the help of our tour guide translating) that it was the fact that her sister had already left.
It was a great follow up to the film that we were showed upon arrival, which briefly showed the history of division between the two Koreas and the state of human rights abuses in the Hermit Kingdom.
The observatory’s gift shop was pretty impressive as well, with a lot more DMZ and North Korean products available for purchase than at other tourist sites.
Entrance to Odusan Observatory
North Korean liquors for sale ($15-$50/bottle)
North Korean liquors for sale ($15-$50/bottle)
North Korean liquors on display
North Korean pins and stamps on display
The giftshop was the largest I’d seen on a DMZ tour
South Korean ginseng products
A monument outside the observatory
A statue outside the observatory
After wrapping up our visit at Odusan, we moved onto our next stop.
Now, I’m not going to say much about Imjingak, mainly since I already visited the place on my prior DMZ tour with WiNK. Granted, at that time it was covered in snow and almost devoid of any other visitors; while on this visit there was no snow to be seen and instead just droves of tourists.
I took a look at the pond, which I must’ve missed on my first visit there.
Prayers for unification at Imjingak
Train and tourists
Gift shops and restaurants
Participants on the Ministry of Environment tour
Little pond beneath the symbolic bridge between North and South Korea
Something I didn’t notice on my last tour – this monument is a symbolic ancestral tombstone for all North Korean refugees who cannot visit the remains of their deceased relatives back home – moving.
After snapping some photos, I headed back to the bus, but not without running into Patricja, a Polish friend of mine from the Friends of Invest Korea program I’m in. She was there on a group trip with the Korean Ministry of Environment.
Again, I’m not going to say much on this subject.
Since those who know me know I’m a shameless foodie, the fact that I don’t have much to say on the subject of a meal will understand that this is not a good thing.
Okay, so I can’t complain – I only paid $10 for the trip.
However, everyone else was paying $77 – and for that price, I’ve gotta say, the meal was pretty horrible.
I’ve eaten a lot of Korean BBQ since abandoning my meat-free days here, and this was pretty bad. The lettuce was limp, and there was enough grease in the table-top bulgogi pan to drown an army.
It was clear that the restaurant survives on business from DMZ tour busses, as it’s in a pretty isolated area, and all of the other diners were being herded to their tables after getting off of their own respective tour busses.
Compared to the restaurant we ate at on the DMZ tour I took with WiNK, this place was not very impressive.
After lunch, we got back on the bus and were off to get our passports checked on the Unification Bridge.
Everything was good to go, so we continued onto Camp Bonifas, which was the military base that we would transfer busses at.
Camp Bonifas is operated by both Korean and American troops.
At this point, we were now officially in the South’s side of the DMZ. We just needed to get onto a UN-approved vehicle for our trip to the JSA.
After meeting our supervisor from the US military, we were on our way to the JSA.
Panmunjom – the Joint Security Area
Finally, we’d arrived at the main attraction of the tour – the JSA.
As mentioned earlier, everything was super strict. Back at Camp Bonifas, one of the tourists had to change out of his shorts and into a pair of pants.
It appeared that I was one of the few tourists that actually took the JSA dress code seriously, but in general they were pretty flexible with it.
The dress code prohibits visitors from wearing: t-shirts, miniskirts, shorts, heels, exercise clothes, slippers, faded jeans, tights, leggings, and trousers. Previously, I thought the reason for this was partly due to safety concerns (ex: a woman wearing heels isn’t exactly in the best position to make a break for it, just in case shots get fired).
According to our tour guide, the dress code exists in case the North decides to feature any of the tourists in state propaganda.
Those who dress “sloppy” make perfect fodder for the North’s favoured depiction of American (or other Western) foreigners.
Additionally, we were instructed not to make any gestures (ex: pointing, waving, etc) towards the North Korean guards. This was for the same reason – those who are shown waiving risk being depicted as “someone wanting to defect to the North” by the DRPK’s propaganda artists.
After being given these briefings, we made our way – single file – to the JSA.
We were quickly shuffled into the Freedom House Military Armistice Commission Building, where one can put one foot “into North Korea”, and one foot into South Korea.
South Korean guards were in the building to keep watch, and much like the British bobbies in London, they’re supposed to keep still in the ready position – a perfect photo opp for tacky tourists like me!
Standing with a South Korean guard
The centre table
This building is used for signing official documents and to have UN-monitored meetings. Since it’s half in North Korea, half in South Korea, it makes for a fairly neutral meeting space.
After taking a few photos in the Armistice Commission Building, we moved outside.
I was a bit disappointed that there weren’t as many North Korean guards as I had expected (based on different YouTube videos I’ve watched), but it was still cool to see.
A North Korean guard
Before you can say “bomb threat”, we were shuffled out and back into our tour bus.
From there, were were back on our way to Seoul.
All in all, it was a good trip.
I liked that they brought a North Korean refugee along with us to answer questions; it was probably a great experience for those who only had a week or two to spend in Korea.
Additionally, I liked that we were back in Seoul by 4:30pm. Everything ran very smoothly.