To Seoul & Back Again

It had been a full week of lectures and on-campus activities and we 300 TaLK scholars were ready for a break. After a medical checkup that we were all required to undergo, I and a group of friends took a cab to Jochiwon station, where we then took a 90-minute train ride to Seoul. We had learned some of Seoul’s amazing history in our classes, like the fact that practically the entire city was built in 50 years, but it was time to experience it for ourselves. We decided to spend the day in the Hongdae area, known for its urban arts and indie music culture, and its clubs and entertainment. Hongdae gets its name from the nearby Hongik University, and is very much a region for college students, young adults, and foreigners.

Before and after the construction of Cheonggyecheon stream as part of the Seoul urban renewal project in the mid 2000s.

The Hongdae district.

It wasn’t hard to learn how to get around on the Seoul subway. While it is as huge and complex as any large city subway, it is extremely easy to use.

Here that catchy jingle? Well, someone made this great song out of it:

Although, sometimes the subway looks like this.

Our first stop in Hongdae was dinner. We went into the first Korean barbecue place we found and sat down, not one of us speaking much Korean. But a menu makes ordering easy. We ended up getting some great barbecued pork. At Korean barbecue restaurants, you are brought the raw meat and you cook it yourself over a grill in the middle of the table. Around the grill is an assortment of sauces, spices, and vegetables, including the always-present kimchi. The typical way to eat your barbecued meat is to put some rice, meat, and whatever sauce or other veggies you want into a big piece of lettuce, roll it up, and eat it.

At the Korean barbecue restaurant. The metal tubes coming down are for sucking up the smoke from the grills in the middle of each table.

Everything is ready to grill….

After dinner, we hit the streets of Hongdae. There is a park in the center of the area where several bands were playing and lots of people were gathered around listening. We ran into several other groups of TaLK scholars at the park and some of us decided to try out a club. I’m not usually one for clubs but going in a group and dancing a bit is fun. The area definitely seemed to be the heart of Seoul nightlife, with shops and food stalls open into the early morning hours.

We had decided to spend the night in a jjimjilbang (a Korean bath house) for the experience and because it is by far the cheapest way to sleep in Seoul. We had some trouble finding one, however, and ended up asking someone every block to point us in the right direction. Eventually, we found one in a quieter, smaller neighborhood. We got the sense that few foreigners ever come to this particular jjimjilbang. By the time we found the place, it was early in the morning and we were exhausted. The bath house is designed so that there is a separate section for men and women, but in the middle is a common room where everyone sleeps on mats on the floor.

A typical jjimjilbang sleeping room.

Cute jjimjilbang photo I found on Google.

So we immediately tried to get some sleep, which was hard because there were lights on and there was a lot of noise from people moving around and opening and closing doors. I would estimate there were around 100 people sleeping on the common room floor. I did not sleep very well that night but it was only $7, including the cost of using the actual bath house, which I did the next morning. It was a neat environment, with lots of Korean families all around us. We felt like we were getting a very authentic Korean experience.

In the morning, I decided to try out the bath house, which is usually a bit daunting for westerners. You must walk around without any clothes to use the baths. The first five minutes were very strange, but after that I got used to it. And the baths were worth it. There were six pools ranging in temperature from boiling hot to ice cold. There was also a sauna and steam room. It felt so good to switch between the hot and cold pools and swim around a bit. What a great way to wake up in the morning! I felt very clean and refreshed. Overall, it was a great experience, although I had some communication difficulties since no one else there, including the staff, spoke English, and we didn’t know the procedure.

After breakfast at Paris Baguette restaurant (I wanted a break from Korean breakfasts since they are usually salty with rice), our group split up. Some of us headed to the Gangnam district of Seoul, where we toured COEX Mall, the largest underground mall in Asia. It was the most overwhelming shopping complex I’ve ever been in. While there I stopped in one of Korea’s largest bookstores, viewed the really cool entrance to the COEX aquarium, saw the mall’s gigantic movie theater, and even went through a kimchi museum where I discovered all kinds of things about the history of Korea’s favorite side dish.

The awesome entrance to the COEX aquarium. I didn’t go in though…it was too expensive.

At the kimchi museum…so many types of kimchi!

Traditional kimchi preparation vessels.

A disaster of east-meets-west culinary experimentation. Yuck!

Bandi & Lunis Bookstore…larger than any Barnes & Noble I’ve been in before.

The textbook section, including the entire Korean public school curriculum.

Stopped for lunch at a tasty AND stylish restaurant!

After our tour of the mall, we were all completely exhausted so we headed back to campus in Jochiwon. But we definitely had started to fall in love with the city. What an amazing place! Back in Jochiwon, we were able to catch the end of the peach festival. Many towns in Korea have a specific food, vegetable, or other edible item that they are known for and once a year they throw a festival. These festivals not only celebrate a particular comestible, but the entire town as well. Every year, Jochiwon throws a peach festival. And it’s a big deal! People from all around Korea came to the town and the streets were lined with dozens of street food vendors, peach sellers, and various attractions. There was a big stage set up on a field where musical performances were held each night. On Sunday night the grand finale was a fireworks show. Koreans really know how to throw their festivals!

On Monday, it was back to lectures. Highlights of the week were a class where we learned magic tricks that we could do for our students, an education technology class, storytelling class, and songs and chants class. Many of these classes brought back memories from when I was in elementary school.

Here are a few pictures from around Korea University, Sejong Campus, where orientation was held….

The view from my dorm elevator, overlooking part of the campus, with Jochiwon city in the background.

The lecture hall.

The fountain by the courtyard in between the dorms.

My dorm. I was on the sixth floor.

The gym, which I didn’t use very much, sadly.

My dorm room (a bit messy when I took the picture).

The entrance to my dorm room, where I take off my shoes in the Korean way.

Later in the week, I decided to attend a Korean cooking class, where we made the traditional Korean dish bibimbap, meaning “mixed rice.” We cooked in teams and my team’s dish was judged by the head chef as the best!

All the ingredients chopped and laid out, ready to make bibimbap.

Some fellow scholars beginning to cook.

My team member Josh carefully arranging the final dish.

All the dishes lined up.

My team’s first place bibimbap!

Overall, it was a long but very informative week of lectures. Coming soon…my second weekend in Seoul and the last week of orientation in Jochiwon!

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