Wednesday, August 13, 2014

yesterday: Dongguk, Namsan, Seoul Station, Kangnam

I had only four hours of sleep last night, so I was tired when I awoke at 7:30 to prep myself and make the long trip over to Itaewon to meet Sean and Jeff. We all met at Itaewon Station and trained over to my new place of work, Dongguk University. We went into the Hyaehwa-gwan, which houses the various foreign-language teaching and learning departments (lots and lots of foreign students, especially Chinese), took the elevator up to the fifth floor, marched into the Dharma College Foreign Language Center, and met some of the office staffers who have been helping me since my arrival in Seoul. I asked J, one of the staffers, about how to reach the Namsan hiking path from her building; she told me.

We strolled across campus and found the path, which was, for me at least, a brutal combination of switchbacks, stairs, and switchbacking stairs. Unlike in my heyday in 2006, I was unable to make the summit of Namsan (which is more hill than mountain, really) without stopping. In fact, I stopped multiple times. At the top, we enjoyed a decent breeze, and I ran over to the water fountains to slake my thirst. An ajumma turned on a fountain close to me, accidentally blasting me with water. She apologized, but I told her that the water felt cool and that she could do it again if she wanted to. So she blasted me again. Another lady, watching the proceedings, scolded her for doing so, and the first ajumma laughed, "But he told me to do it!"

We three blokes elected to take the Namsan cable car down, despite my trepidation: back in the 1990s, that car had fallen once or twice, so I wasn't impressed by its safety record. Once down at the bottom, we cabbed over to Seoul Station so I could buy my Thursday ticket to Hayang; meanwhile, the guys strolled around the station, looking for a place to do lunch (I had assigned them that mission). Once I had purchased my train ticket, we met up again and decided to eat at a Japanese-Korean restaurant that featured such fusion dishes as yukgaejang-udong, the concept of which I found fascinating. I ended up ordering dongkaseu, though; Jeff got himself a good, standard bowl of dolsot-bibimbap, and Sean ended up selecting the yukgaejang-udong. We all thoroughly enjoyed our dishes; this was a bit more explicitly Korean of an experience: the previous night, when Jeff and Sean had just arrived in Seoul, I took them out to Vatos Urban Tacos in Itaewon, where we enjoyed slightly overpriced, but very tasty, Tex-Mex/Korean fare.

Having done three major activities by lunch—Dongguk, Namsan, and Seoul Station—we elected to go our separate ways. By this point, Sean and Jeff, both of whom are experienced international travelers, had already figured out the user-friendly Seoul subway system, and since the only remaining item on the agenda was a long stroll through Kangnam, my presence was no longer required: Jeff and Sean would head back to Itaewon to shower, change clothes, rest up, and then head out to Kangnam in the evening; I, meanwhile, planned to head back to Karak-dong to catch up on sleep. I gave Sean and Jeff some advice as to what to explore in Kangnam, and we parted company.

By the time I got home, I had walked 18,000 steps; Sean and Jeff, after having strolled through Kangnam, would have racked up more than 20,000. My average number of daily steps for August is over 12,000, which is incredible, not to mention a new record. Today, Sean and Jeff are exploring the wilds of Namdaemun Market, and we're all meeting up in the evening to have dinner with a gathering of my relatives.

Tomorrow, I'm off to Hayang by myself to do one final international transfer of my last salary payment from Catholic University (and to resolve a nettlesome cell-phone billing issue); Sean and Jeff, meanwhile, are already signed up to go on a DMZ tour, which is, I suppose, de rigueur for tourists in Korea. We all might or might not meet up tomorrow night. Friday is Gwangbok-jeol, known in English as Liberation Day (and known to Catholics as the Feast of the Assumption); Pope Francis will be on the peninsula, swanning about elegantly in his robes and funny hat, so this is an auspicious time for my brother and his friend to be here. Without knowing about the pope or thinking about the August 15 national holiday, we had already scheduled Friday as "Jongno day," so our timing turned out to be perfect: on that day, thanks to the national holiday, Jongno Street will be closed to traffic and will become a huge pedestrian zone. Plenty to see and do.

Saturday, sadly, Sean and Jeff will be leaving Korea to go to China. After that, they head to Vietnam and Cambodia. I suppose I've done my part to be a tour guide and interpreter during the Korea leg of their Asia-hopping trip. Can't say I did all that much; both guys have good heads on their shoulders, and both are, as I said, experienced travelers, so there's been little for me to do except fill in some cultural and historical details, and to show off my limited ability to banter with the natives. Today feels almost like a day off for me, since Sean and Jeff are navigating Namdaemun Market by themselves. I had wanted it to be that way, though: I felt they should make their own discoveries. Later this evening, we'll meet up for what will likely be an awkward dinner among relatives. I've set a mental limit of two hours for this: there's only so much relativity that I can endure.

Oh, yes: stay tuned for a few pictures.


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