Seoul Day 1: Itaewon
After arriving at the Incheon Airport in Seoul, I took the limousine bus to the Dongmyo Station. The bus is nothing like a limousine, but was clean, comfortable and even had seat belts that you were asked to wear while traveling down the highway. I found this comforting based on my experience riding in buses down the highways in Shanghai in which my head was likely to hit the ceiling at least once a mile due to random potholes or abrupt stops. As we drove up the on-ramp and merged into the highway traffic, I quickly learned that Korean roads are almost nothing like Chinese roads. In Korea, cars obey general traffic laws. They stay in their own lanes, pass on the left, and don’t bunch into a chaotic uncontrolled mess. There was no honking, and the drivers seemed to be calm and at ease. There were even specialized road assistance vehicles that were stopped at any car that appeared to be in trouble making sure that everything was okay. This is when I knew that I was going to like this place.
But my opinion quickly started to fall as we exited the highway and drove into the city streets. In short, everything was unremarkable. Boxy concrete buildings, people and a few hills in the distance. I started to wonder how in the world I was going to spend five days in this town alone without being bored out of my mind. In my head, I was comparing Seoul to Cincinnatti or Pittsburg. Cities that are great if you have friends to visit or are with a group of friends, but nothing special for a lone traveler. I was also a little unsure of where I was supposed to exit the bus to find my hostel. There wasn’t an English map of the bus route visible, and I didn’t have the Korean characters. I had to rely on the verbal announcements that were also in Korean hoping that I would understand “Dongdeamun” and “Sinseol-dong”. After panicking for about eight stops, I finally heard something familiar, gathered my bags and departed.
I crossed the street, turned left, then right, then another right. No Hostel Korea. None of the storefronts had any English and my map didn’t have any Korean. I backtracked and tried again. No Hostel Korea. Finally, on my third attempt, I found what I was looking for.
This little adventure taught me a key lesson to navigating in Seoul: All directions are based on subway stops, and beyond that, you’re on your own. For the rest of the trip, I was constantly backtracking, but I didn’t mind. I saw things I never would have seen otherwise!
My room was nothing special. The bed was as hard as a rock and the bathroom didn’t have a sink, but otherwise it was perfect. Everything was very clean, the staff was helpful and the other guests were quiet and respectful. The room itself felt a little like my college dorm minus the roommates.
I dropped my bags off and headed out on my first adventure to a place called Indigo in Itaewon. As I have mentioned before, I try to have my first thing planned every time I travel, and this time it was a sitting in on a Stitch n’ Bitch knitting group with a couple expats that have lived in Seoul for a year or two. Indigo turned out to be a little western restaurant where I had a pretty good burrito while chatting with the ladies and listening to what was happening with their lives right now. It was nice to hear what life was like in the city for them and to hear a little girl-talk even though I didn’t have any clue who these people were or who they were talking about!
After lunch I wandered around the neighborhood for a while and started to get excited about the city again. Itaewon is located at the base of Namsan park which is a pretty big hill/mountain in the middle of the city. I found myself going up higher and higher trying to get the best view and loving the way that the houses were built up along the steep slope. I had flashbacks of Seattle, San Francisco and Hong Kong as I daydreamed about living in one of these little houses with a roof garden.
On my way back to the subway station at the bottom of the hill, I stumbled across a used bookstore. A used bookstore full of ENGLISH books!!! I was so excited that I didn’t buy a single one. I’m kicking myself, but the selection was too vast and the store was too claustrophobic.
It was getting dark and I wasn’t quite ready for late night wandering in the town I didn’t know very well, so I boarded the subway. By the way, I really like the signage for the Seoul Subway system. Kind of retro, kind of modern.
Once safely in room 306, I found a comfy spot on my rock hard bed to veg out, relieve my aching feet, watch bad TV and eat crackers. Day one was a good one, and by the end of it I was excited about day two.