Sunday, October 9, 2011

Chuseok Part Deux - Seoul, Soju and Makgeolli

It's official... I win the award for procrastination!  I've never been one to prepare things in advance, preferring to wait until the last minute to get it done (I guess I work better under pressure), but this is getting absurd.  I love to blog, but for some reason, I always find something else to do and put it on the back burner.  Well, enough of that.  We need to catch up, so here goes part two of our Chuseok holiday trip...
Monday-Tuesday, September 12 & 13, 2011

The worst part about this procrastination is that I am forgetting details that I thought would be great to blog about.  So instead, I will just do the chronology and insert some thoughts as I see fit.  Our trip to Seoul begins with the train ride back into Korea's capital from Namisum.  

For our first fling in the country's largest city, we had opted to do the "historic" tour and to that effect, had decided to stay in Insadong.  The first order of business had been to find a place to stay.  A quick search revealed that there were a few hotels in the area with a variety of price ranges.  We decided to go with Cats Hotel (see below).  For approximately $130, we had a two-nights stay in a comfortable, nice looking and clean hotel.  The biggest problem we had was finding the place when we got out of Jongno-3 station.  The hotel is nestled in a back alley and you pretty much need to know where to look in order to find it.

Insadong Market
 After checking in, we decided to walk around and see what the neighborhood had to offer.  A couple of blocks later, we arrived at Insadong market.  Even though it was a holiday weekend, and Seoul was supposed to be relatively empty, we discovered that the market was still flowing with activity.  As we were walking down the market, checking out the various vendors and looking for a place to eat, we could but wonder what this place looked like on a busy day.  It was quite surreal.  And it was the first time we were seeing a lot of foreigners.  It was exciting.  When hunger finally took over our thoughts, we decided to try something out of the box...

 A traditional Korean restaurant.  After much deliberation, we went into a place that was relatively busy (if it's busy, it must be good, right?).  We were greeted at the door by a Korean hostess who signaled for us to go upstairs.  As we began to climb up, a lady yelled at us. Huh? What's going on?  "No shoes!! NO shoes!!"  Oops.  In Korean culture, not taking off your shoes when entering someone's home is a huge sign of disrespect, on par with spitting in someone's face.  Unfortunately, at the time, we were still unaware of this.  The general rule is that any time a floor is elevated, you must take off you shoes.  In this case, we were going upstairs, so we were supposed to take off our shoes.  So we quickly climbed down, took off our shoes and apologized.  No big deal... Overall, Koreans are pretty tolerant and understand that foreigners sometimes "forget" the Korean etiquette.  Anyway, when we got back upstairs, we sat down (literally on the floor) at our table and our waiter, who could speak English came to help us choose our meal.  We went with the special... WOW.  It was a lot of food... even though we didn't really know what everything was.  They kept bringing more and more out and setting it on our tiny table.  Jen had maybe a few bites before submitting and calling it a meal.  I, on the other, tried a bit of everything, including the deep-fried fish in batter... with the skin still on.. And overall, it was pretty good.  I'll be the first to admit that Korean cuisine takes some getting used to, but I am getting there.  This traditional Korean meal was definitely an eye opener. 
So when Jen spotted the McDonald's later on in the afternoon, it wasn't hard to imagine where we would be going for our next meal.  After a tiring afternoon of wandering in a crowded marketplace, a bit of shopping, and a whole lot of walking, we decided to go back to our hotel to rest up a bit before our evening plans.   By the time we set foot outside again, the sun was setting and the city was being overtaken by the neon glow of the excessive ads that illuminate the streets.  We were heading to McDonald's for a "happy" meal and a nostalgic North American moment.  Once we had our fix, we walked to the nearest subway station, en route to a theater next to the Canadian embassy for the NANTA perfomance.
NANTA Performance set

Before actually coming to see the show, we came across Nanta performance on a few occasions.  First, we read about it in a book about GEPIK (our program) that was given to me by Jay.  Then, when I was planning our trip, it popped up on Tripadvisor as the number 1 "activity" in Seoul.  So I booked it.  We weren't disappointed in the least.  The show is set around 4 cooks who are given 1 hour 30 minutes to complete an huge order for a wedding ceremony.  Add an oppressive manager, a weird nephew and a percussion-led musical and you  have an extremely funny and entertaining show.  We absolutely loved the NANTA performance and it put a great cap on a fun-filled day!
Changdeokgung Palac

On Tuesday, we woke up to an extremely hot and muggy day.  We had reserved the morning and early afternoon to visit a couple of historical palaces from the Joseon era.  First on our list was Changdeokgung palace, a UNESCO World Heritage site (because it was closer).  We got there just in time for the English tour to begin.  The guide took us around the palace and told us, among many things, about the uses for each section and a little bit about the history of the palace.  This particular palace was built as a "back-up" but eventually become the favoured palace for many Joseon kings.  For more about the palace, read this.   After the tour, we had planned to walk to another palace (Changyeonggung) but what we had not anticipated was that Changdeokgung had a Secret garden.  The mere thought of a "secret" aroused our curiosity and we opted to stay an extra few hours to visit it.  It turned out that to be the most interesting and beautiful part of the tour.  The garden was actually more like a full fledged forest with ponds and palace-looking buildings.  But the setting was absolutely stunning!  We were pretty lucky to get to visit the secret garden as it is not always opened to tourists.  Overall, the tour of Changdeokgung was pretty monotonous.  The guide was not very enthusiastic and her presentation sounded more like a script, which made it hard to keep my attention.  The garden on the other hand, was gorgeous and was definitely worth seeing.  But the heat that accompanied our tour was excruciating and by the end of our 3 hour visit we were ready for a change of scenery, so we decided not to go to Changgyeonggung.

Instead, we walked back to Insadong, stopped at the Paris Croissant Cafe and had ourselves a delicious bakery-style lunch.  Yummy.  Then, Jen wanted to do some more shopping so we walked the market one more time, stopping here and there to check out what the merchants were offering.  Each market in Seoul specialize in a specific sector.  Insadong is known for its souvenirs and traditional Korean artifacts.  But, since we are not looking to accumulate a lot of stuff, we didn't find much to buy.  Then we found Ssamziegil (below), which is a Korean outdoor shopping mall.  The concept is pretty cool.  You start on the first level and make your way up without ever taking stairs.  The shops sell everything from clothes to souvenirs to random stuff.  Then, as I was on the fourth and last floor, I looked over the wall and saw this (left).  It was totally out of place in an urban sprawl so I snapped a picture.  I think it was a restaurant.

Rice cooked in Bamboo!! (with a Korean BBQ)
1 oz Coke, 1 oz Soju and fill the rest with beer!! DANGEROUS
That evening, we had scheduled a food and drinking tour with O'ngo Food Communications.  (Again, I found this place on tripadvisor as the number 1 tour in Seoul)  On top of doing tours, O'ngo is also a culinary school.  We were interested in taking a class but because of the holiday, they were closed.  They were, however, offering a Night dining tour.  For 88,000 KRW, one of their guides will take you around Insadong to taste different Korean culinary traditions... and drinks.  Great we're in!!!  Their headquarter was conveniently located close to our hotel so we weren't in a daze to find the place.

When we got there (early), the owner was just about to leave so she invited us to come in while we waited for our guide. Marcus (our guide) arrived a few minutes later and was an extremely friendly Korean-guy from Denver, Colorado.  He hoped that we were ready to drink and eat the night away!  (Promising).  He also mentioned to us that we would be a fairly large group as we were waiting for more people to arrive.  A few minutes later, two young women walked in: Ainsley and Cassandra Francis.  The sisters are from Canada, live in Luxembourg and were visiting Seoul since it was cheaper to fly here rather than home.  The next people to arrive was a group of four women from Singapore enjoying their trip to South Korea.

With the owner of the 2nd restaurant: Korean BBQ
After paying the fee, we were off.  The tour involves quite a bit of walking, which is great considering we eat a lot.  The great thing about this tour is we go to restaurants that we wouldn't normally go to.  The first place definitely fit this description.  Nestled in the back alleys of Insadong, we walked into this tiny little Korean restaurant.  Marcus had already called ahead and all the logistics were taken care of.  Our first meal involved Tofu with soy sauce and Makgeolli.  Makgeolli is technically rice wine and it's delicious.  Marcus explained a few Korean table etiquette before we started indulging: 1.  Never pour for yourself; 2. Always pour for your elders first; 3. Always use two hands when pouring or serving food; 4. the Korean word for "cheers": 건배(geonbae)!!
3rd restaurant: Noodles (Jen was starting to feel happy ;)

Another thing worth noting is that Koreans eat, not only with chopsticks, but also with a spoon.  In fact, they use a spoon to eat the staple food of Korea... rice, unlike their Chinese counterparts who scoop it up with their chopsticks and lift up their bowls to their mouths.  Anyway, a short walk later, we were at the second restaurant.  This one was a Korean BBQ.  We were so excited about this because we had heard so much about it yet had been too scared to actually try it.  This would be perfect!  All Korean food is served with many side dishes, including Kimchi, which is served with everything!  A BBQ is no different.  We were started off by rice cooked in bamboo (traditional southern-style) and then served the many Korean side-dishes, most of them still unknown to us.  For the Korean BBQ, there is a grill on the table in front of you and a ventilation system.  The waiter puts the meat on the grill and you are responsible for cooking it.  Meats include chicken, beef or pork.  You can also throw on some garlic to spice things up!  Once cooked, you put a piece of meat in a lettuce leaf, add some garlic, some sauce and a few other Korean fixings, then you wrap it up and eat it!!! YUMMMMMMMMY!  Served with this incredible meal was our first introduction to Soju.. the Korean-style vodka.  Simply put, soju smells like ethanol and I'm sure it doesn't taste that much different either. So to ease us into it, Marcus helped us with some special Korea shots. (picture above).  WARNING: Do not try this at home unless you intend on being sick!!  The best way to describe the effect of Soju would be this:  Imagine your in your car, driving on a smooth straight highway, listening to your favourite song of all time over and over again.  Your heart is warm, and life is good.  Then out of nowhere comes this huge tractor-trailer on your side of the lane but it's too late.. BANG... Your screwed... (And your husband is left to pick up the pieces... LOL) That's all I'm gonna say about that!
Our group at the 3rd resto

The 3rd restaurant we went to specialized in noodles.  We were served water noodles with chicken in a spicy red pepper/chili sauce.  A common misconception about Korean food is that it's not spicy... That is absolutely wrong.  It is extremely spicy... brings tears to a grown man's eyes spicy!!!  But delicious!  As you can tell by the pictures, we were having a blast and becoming more and more happy!  (This tour is a great way to make friends)
Just like VEGAS Baby!! Beer on the street

On the way to the fourth and last restaurant, I got to talking with Marcus about excessive drinking.  In Korea, it is common to drink excessively.  In fact, the day before, when we were on our way back from the Nanta performance, we witnessed an old drunk couple on the subway... and when I say drunk, I mean annihilated.  The woman's head had become too heavy for her neck and she was spitting (yes spitting) in the subway while her husband was slapping the crap out of her and pulling her hair to keep her awake...  LOL  funny stuff.. Anyway, back to the walk... As we walked past a convenience store, Marcus told me that Korea was just as awesome as Vegas since we could drink in the streets.  So I ran in and got us both a beer... a big beer!!  Then he added a disclaimer: You're allowed but ppl don't usually do it!! LOL
4th Restaurant: Pancakes... more like omelets

The last restaurant we went to served us Korean pancakes, which are more like omelets with green onions and seafood.  This is also the time when we got to drinking more heavily.  The Coke/soju/beer shots kept coming and the night was getting interesting.  The Singapore foursome (which were mother-daughter) were left behind in the dust.  The daughters were drinking with us but the moms preferred to judge... Hmmmm come to think about it.. It's just like home!! LOL.  Somewhere in the middle of all this fun, someone mentioned something about karaoke... and that was it... We were off to sing some K-pop in a booth.  The only problem with this whole picture is that this is when the headlights of the so-called tractor-trailer appeared.  Just after getting to the Karaoke bar, the night gets blurry... extremely blurry.  And the rest is privy those only those who were there.  Let's just say that the ride back home the next day was one of the worst 2 hours of my life.  Marcus forgot to mention that Soju leaves it's mark... But we had fun.  In fact, this was one of the best times we've had in Korea!  I can't say enough about this Food tour.  But if you are in Seoul, it's a MUST!!!
The famous pancakes

Shots!! Shots! Shots!!

Jen and Marcus doing the heart pose

Going to a Karaoke bar!!
Wednesday, after slowly making our way home on the subway, we relaxed, slept and tried to forget that our heads did not want to be on our bodies.  Tomorrow, we start teaching again.. Thank god it's only a two day week!!!

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