– Seoul, South Korea –
Today was a big day! We had a lot of fun, and saw a lot of things. We were exhausted by the end, but it was well worth it. It actually reminded me a lot of seeing castles in Scotland, though the weather was much nicer there. Here it is a little hot and humid for viewing castles, but we made do. Thankfully, it isn’t too bad in the shade, so we only melted when we were confronted with direct sunlight.
Anyway, we began our morning as we have every morning here with a run on the treadmills over in the gym and some breakfast in our hotel room. It’s too bad none of the hotels have provided a free breakfast. I think it might’ve been fun to see what they served, though considering both are western hotel chains, they might have only had western-style breakfasts, anyway. Both offered a very expensive breakfast buffet, and I can definitely see western breakfast food in the ads for the meals at the Sheraton, so who knows. It might’ve been boring anyway. I’m perfectly happy with my passion fruit yogurts and bananas anyway.
After breakfast, Mark went off to do his thing for a while. When he got back, we hopped on the train and headed into town. Our major goal for today was Gyeongbokgung Palace, which is the most popular palace to visit here in Seoul. It housed the royal families of the Joseon Dynasty, and was originally built in 1394. It has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times. The kings, their families, and the government were housed in this palace from the 1390s to the 1590s, when the palace was first destroyed by a fire. It lay dormant for some 200 years after its first destruction.
As I said, Mark and I took the train to get there. It takes about 20-25 minutes to ride from that area to our hotel, but luckily the stop for our hotel and the stop for the palace area are both on the orange line, which means it is at least a really straightforward trip. Subway rides are only about 1,250krw per trip, which isn’t bad at all. The only problem we have run into with the subway is the crowding. We haven’t ever found a seat (and even if we did, there are too many elderly people on the subway for us to be comfortable taking it), so we mostly stand for the entirety of every journey. That’s all fine and good in the morning when you are fresh and haven’t walked all day, but by evening the standing can get pretty tiring.
Once we arrived, we were surprised by how busy the palace was, and not just with foreign tourists. In fact, most of the visitors were Koreans. We were also surprised by the number of people in traditional costumes. We have actually seen shops for renting or buying traditional costumes while we have been out walking around here in Seoul, but we weren’t sure what they were used for. Weddings? Formal occasions? Those are still possibilities, but they are also incredibly popular for people visiting the palace. When we arrived, we were immediately surrounded by people (mostly young women) in costume. We did see a few men, but inevitably they were there with a young woman, so it seems very popular with that particular group. We actually even saw a handful of what were obviously foreign tourists in costume, and we joked about how short the outfits would be on Mark and me.
When you arrive at the palace, you walk through the main gate, and off to the right is a ticketing counter, where you can pick up tickets to enter the palace and audio guides for your palace tour. Our tickets were free today, and I can’t tell if that is because today was the last Wednesday of the month (they had something that read like that might be the case on one of the signs) or if this particular palace is simply free to enter now. The internet said entry was going to be about 3,000krw per person, so it’s would’ve been very reasonable anyway, even if we’d had to pay. That’s less that $3 per person in US currency.
The palace grounds have a ton of buildings, and while you cannot enter most of them, you can get very close and look inside. It’s actually kind of nice, because with the crowds, it can be difficult to get a good picture out in the grounds. However, when you get up to the edge of the fencing preventing entry into the buildings, no one else can cross either, and your view (and photos!) are unobstructed by other tourists. I think they’re probably done it to protect the buildings, but it does have some nice side effects, too.
As I mentioned earlier, the palace has been rebuilt a number of times, so it isn’t clear to me exactly how much of what remains is original, or even a good replica of the original. I might know more if I could read more of the signs, though I have to say they do have quite a number of the signs translated into English. Signs with English include Korean, English, and two other languages written in a script similar to Korean. I assume they are Chinese and Japanese, but I am not sure. The palace provided maps in both of those languages, at least.
The most recent restoration of the Gyeongbokgung Palace began in 1989. It was largely destroyed during the most recent Japanese occupation, so it is my understanding that some of the buildings were restored and some were recreated from historical texts, drawings, and even photographs. I had wondered, seeing the detailed painting on the buildings, exactly how old the paint could be. The answer is likely less than 30 years, given the restoration’s timeline. If you’ll recall, I wondered that about the temples in our first few days here in South Korea, as well.
We took a ton of photographs today as we walked around the palace. The grounds are huge and include a man-made lake, a small forest/garden, and many buildings. We spent a ton of time winding our way through buildings and ducking through short doorways to check out every little nook and cranny we could find. We were never alone, though, despite our explorations.
Actually, the funniest part of the whole visit was trying to dodge all of the girls taking one another’s photos in their costumes. They were everywhere, and the poses they made were hilarious. We couldn’t walk fifteen feet without encountering another gaggle of girls, phones and tripods in hand, gathered around a window or doorway or corner nook trying to get their photos just so. I wonder what they do with the photos once they have them. I mean, obviously tourists take photos, but this was clearly more than that. All I know is that the outfits looked pretty warm. You could clearly see that they were mostly wearing them over their own clothes, so many had on jeans and sneakers underneath their rented dress. I’m glad I didn’t have to be that hot.
My favorite part of the palace visit was Gyeonghoeru, which was the entertainment pavilion, or the royal banquet hall. The king would have held fancy dinners for special guests or events in the pavilion. It is surrounded by a small, man-made lake, which the signs said was actually used. People would take boats out onto the lake for entertainment. I wonder if that means small row boats for little pleasure paddles, or bigger barges for dinner and conversation on the lake. I can picture either one.
Near the entertainment pavilion, the park was having a demonstration. A couple of dozen performers were dressed as guards and court ladies, and another pair was dressed as the King and Queen. The park employees were inviting people up to take photographs with the royal couple, and other people were taking photos with the soldiers and other costumed performers. It was especially popular for the tourists wearing their own costumes. It looked like everyone was having a pretty good time.
I’ve always found it interesting that the King and Queen seemed to have separate quarters in many of the cultures in history. I mentioned the Scottish castles earlier, and as I recall, many of those castles had a separate suite of rooms for the king and queen. The same is true here, with the queen having a residence that seems to be in a separate building entirely from the king’s. I wonder why that was such a popular thing to do in history. Did everyone prefer to have their own space? Was it related to the fact that royal marriages were rarely marriages for love? It’s interesting either way.
When the procession of costumed performers pranced off from whence they came, Mark and I headed on. Our palace tour was coming to a close, and we were starting to get pretty hot and thirsty. It may only be around 84 or 85 here during the day right now, but it is definitely hot enough to make standing directly in the sun an awful proposition. Much of the park around the palaces is unshaded, so we were reduced to ducking into the shadow of walls to keep out of the sun. I wonder how people were able to stand the weather here when these palace buildings were actually in use. I guess you can get used to anything.
By now, the park was getting even fuller than it had been when we entered, and photographs without a ton of strangers in them were becoming more and more difficult to achieve. We had a few museums we were considering visiting in the area, but we knew that we would have to eat first, or risk being cranky while we tried to enjoy the rest of our afternoon.
We’ve had a lot of trouble finding food here, as I’m sure you know by now, and unfortunately we left the hotel without a concrete plan, and we had no internet at that point to make one. I meant for us to have a lunch plan, but sometimes we forget to do the things we should. Luckily, we were in the area where we’d walked out to get our vegan temple food at Sanchon, and we had spotted a couple of Indian restaurants out that way, so we knew we could find something. Indian food never fails to have vegetarian options.
It took us a little walking around, and we didn’t actually find the Indian restaurant we remembered seeing, but we did find another on the second floor of a nearby shop, and we made our way up there for a nice late lunch. I don’t mind telling you how much I have missed having beans while we have been away from home. I was so glad to see the kidney beans and lentils out for our lunch. The restaurant had a lunch buffet, and Mark and I each filled a nice plate with various wonderful curries made of vegetables and beans. I was so happy. Funnily enough, the place was technically “Indian and Asian fusion,” so they also had lo mein for some reason. Mark had some, but I didn’t want to contaminate my delicious Indian food with other cuisines. I’m a purist.
After lunch, we went back towards the palace area to visit one of our many museum choices. Originally, we were going to visit the Korean Folk Museum, but Mark thought it might be a children’s museum, so we nixed that idea. Our next option was the Korean National Museum, which was a little further away. We decided against that one as well. My favorite type of museum to visit is natural history museums, but reviews had told us that the one here in Seoul didn’t have a lot of English captions, so that one was out. Finally, we settled on the National Palace Museum of Korea, which houses artifacts and documents related to the palaces and members of the royal family.
Conveniently, the Palace Museum is right on the grounds of Gyeongbokgung Palace, so it did not take us long to get there. Also, while our lunch was delicious, the restaurant was not air-conditioned, so we were very excited to visit the air-conditioned museum. Finally, the place was free, and it had free WiFi. It’s hard to go wrong with all of that, right?
I was not sure what to expect from a palace museum, but it turned out to be pretty cool. We saw portraits of the former kings near the front of the museum, which we learned were typically kept very carefully, and were replaced with an identical artwork when the original began to fade. This way, the former kings of the nation could be remembered and honored, even when those who remembered them in life were gone as well. We also saw a ton of documents, furniture, art, and clothing that once belonged to members of the royal family. I think the clothing was my favorite part. The colors were so vibrant, and the costumes were incredibly elaborate. I also enjoyed seeing all of the hair pins that women would wear. It is hard to imagine how they kept such complicated works of art in their hair.
Mark really enjoyed watching a little video they had next to one of the king’s royal seals. Royal seals existed to make the king’s mark on documents and letters that he signed, and were retired once the king died. In order to keep the seal safe from those who might wish to access it for some nefarious purpose, the seal would be concealed in layers of complicated boxes and wrappings, with keys and special knots tied in a specific way to help protect the seal from being removed from its case without the king’s approval. The complicated storage served as a way to be sure that the seal had not been tampered with, as a would-be thief would not know the proper ritual for putting the seal away. Watching the video was entertaining, since it seems so ridiculous to wrap such a tiny thing up so many times in so many different storage containers. At the end of the little animated video, the case containing the seal was strapped to a very terribly-drawn horse, which made me laugh. Poor fella didn’t have any muscles in any of the right places for movement.
Eventually, we finished the Palace Museum, and we decided to venture out of our air-conditioned oasis and back into the sultry afternoon. On our walk towards our next destination, we happened upon a part of the Seoul Music Festival, which happens to be going on this week while we have been here. In fact, last night, on our walk back to the hotel, we heard a Korean rapper performing at a different stage much closer to our hotel. This stage area had multiple performers along a long line of tents, which housed various small businesses and little shops, much like the shops you’d see at a state fair back home. We don’t look like we belong here, so no one really tries to sell us any storm windows like they would at the State Fair of Texas. I can’t say I missed it.
The first musical performance we saw was conducted by a large group of men and women in long yellow robes carrying horns, and it was wild and loud and totally weird. I’m not sure what kind of music it was, exactly, but I am forced to assume that it was something traditional, as I can’t say I’ve heard anything like it. The second group was a circle of musicians and dancers leaping and spinning with abandon in the heat, which was good fun, but a little exhausting to watch. The best, which was definitely the best because of the pom-pom hats the musicians were wearing, was closer to our destination, so we only watched them for a little while. The music was average, but they more than made up for it with the outfits and the marching. Most of their instruments were drums.
Next, we had originally planned to visit Bukchon Hanok Village, which is supposed to be what a traditional urban village would have looked like 600 years ago. The streets were narrow and hilly, and it was lined with tiny shops and restaurants along the way. We got pretty hot on the walk there, and given how long we had been walking for the day, our legs were starting to give out on us.
We only made it a little way into the village area before we gave up and headed back down to the main streets again. We were just too tired to enjoy strolling the tiny streets, and since we had no intention of buying anything (how do you even take stuff like that back with you?), we decided we were actually ready to call it a day. With our brief village visit behind us, we turned back towards the train station. Once we were safely on our train, we again spent the whole ride standing up, dreaming of one day being able to sit down again. It gets much harder to stand on a moving train the longer you’ve been walking in a day. We were beat.
Still, we needed something for dinner, and since we were not hungry yet and we didn’t want to go back out, when we arrived at our train station, we walked over into the underground mall to go to the fancier grocery store near us to pick up a few things to eat in our room. It’s just so much easier than fighting with maps and local cuisine to find something we can actually eat.
Outside of the fancy grocery store is a little food market with a ton of snacks, different restaurants, and little desserts, so we wandered through there once we had finished at the grocery store. We really wanted something small for dessert, so we took our time looking through the little shops for what we wanted. They have multiple bread shops out there, where we picked up a little bit of bread to go with some cheese we bought at the grocery store for dinner, and we finally settled on little chocolate pie things for dessert. We weren’t 100% sure what they would be like, but they looked like fun, so we decided to give them a chance.
From the mall, we walked back to our hotel, where we rested for a while before having a late-ish dinner. Our bread, even the garlicky bread that we were just sure was going to be savory, turned out to be very sweet, much like everything else we have found to eat here. I’m getting awfully tired of everything tasting like candy. Why would you have something sweet with garlic on it? Is all bread here sweet?
After dinner, we had our little desserts, which turned out to be basically moon pies with a slightly unique flavor. We bought two: one red velvet and one vanilla. Neither one was particularly special. I guess maybe moon pies are special here? At least they weren’t too expensive.
Tomorrow we have another palace to see, and Mark want to go up some kind of tower. I don’t have all of the details yet, but I think we are doing another cable car. It is like he is bound and determined to cure me of my fear of heights before we leave South Korea. Oh well. I guess I’m game for another cable car. I’m not really afraid of being up high, I’m just afraid of falling, and it is awfully hard to fall out of a cable car. On to tomorrow!