Soul-Shopping

The second matter of utmost importance for my trip to Seoul: shopping. Seoul has many famous markets and shopping districts selling all manner of all kinds of things at all hours. But I really just wanted to go to H&M. My work clothes situation was getting a little desperate, and being an American-proportioned female in Korea makes it very difficult to shop for clothes (as Korean women tend to be tiny tiny). To make things more difficult, most shops don’t have fitting rooms, and shopkeepers will just visually size you up and let you know if something will fit. My washing machine also tends to tear clothes apart. So I was pretty eager to do some shopping.

Myeong-dong is a gigantic shopping district, especially popular among ex-pats for its two H&Ms and Forever 21. It has tons of international chains as well as discount stalls and boutiques. Stacked on top of these multi-level shops are floors of coffee shops and restaurants, and all of this is packed into a few dense blocks. Even on a Thursday early afternoon, Myeong-dong wins for the craziest crowds I encountered in all of my time in Seoul, and the craziest, most crowded H&M and Forever 21 I’ve ever been in (which includes NYC…quite a feat).

Please note the car in the midst of the crowds in that photo. ‘Pedestrian’ streets don’t really exist over here.

To add to all this shopping madness, the streets were still icy from the other day’s blizzard, and so people and cars were sliding all over the place. Many methods were employed to get rid of the ice, including the more familiar (a snow shovel), to the more tedious (chipping away with a hammer) to the …extreme:

Taking Care of the ice in Myeongdong

Next to Myeong-dong is Namdaemun, a perhaps equally gigantic shopping district featuring a more traditional-style market. I’m pretty sure you could find most anything you could ever need at a traditional Korean market.


Namdaemun had all the crazy, crowdedness of Myeongdong, although a bit more single-level.

Three points of interest:
1. I found these guys in both Myeong-dong and Namdaemun:
Blues Brothers in Namdaemun Market

More Blues Brothers in Namdaemun Market
It’s been a while since I’ve seen the Blues Brothers anywhere, and haven’t noticed them anywhere else in Korea. Also, the red looks kind of tacky.

2. It is impossible to find cheap, cute shoes that fit my ‘gigantic’ American-sized feet in Myeong-dong, no matter how long you spend looking.

and

3. Face/body stores use men to advertise make-up to women. Why this is a selling point, or attractive, I don’t understand.

Even after a couple of days devoted solely (ha) to shopping, I still have some shopping to-do’s in Seoul: Yangsan Electronics Market, Dongdaemun’s 24-hour shopping, and Hongdae’s weekend street fair will all have to happen sometime this summer.

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Ho-ho-ho-Hongdae

It wasn’t until the third or fourth night of my week-long vacation in Seoul that I made it to Hongdae, the famous university area. Almost instantly upon exiting the subway, I wished we had made it out that way sooner.

Coming from the US, I’m used to ‘college towns.’ Despite the proximity of all the universities, Hongdae does not have a ‘college town’ kind of a vibe. Hongdae is an impressive sprawl of bars, restaurants, hofs, nightclubs, shops, coffee shops, street vendors, lights, music, and general madness going on into all hours of the night. Even after three nights of exploring, it stills feels never-ending.

Hongdae

As it was a Wednesday, I wasn’t expecting much. But even early on in the evening, the streets were quite packed with university students, slipping around on the icy streets, in and out of bars.

(This obviously isn’t Hongdae on a December night – I borrowed this picture from the internet – but look at the crowds!)

Our evening started with some Hoolala chicken:
Hoolala!

I was very happy to find some street art, which I hadn’t seen any of anywhere else in Korea:

Hongdae

Hongdae

We embarked on a quest for a recommended Club FF, which proved rather difficult to find in the never-ending maze of bars and clubs (which becoming increasingly difficult to navigate as the evening wore on). Trying to find a ‘Club FF’ is especially difficult in Korea, as asking the locals about ‘FF’ is tricky in a language without an F sound.

Although our search for Club FF proved fruitless, we did find many other worthy drinking places, auch as this German-style brewery:
Good brews in Hongdae
in which we accidentally ordered that giant cask of beer. Fortunately, it was delicious and so it didn’t go to waste!

We also found a Rock’n’Roll bar playing western indie rock that was excellent because it 1.) served pretzels and 2.) let you request your own songs. We found some French study-abroad students, and I discovered my traveling companion Mark was an avid French student. Our new friends led us to an underground bar in a gigantic cellar, which we closed down and then headed to a chain called ‘Ho Bar’ which is open until 6am every day. Which seems quite ridiculous.

Our Wednesday bar crawl was enough to convince us that Hongdae was where we should be on New Years Eve. And so, two days later we headed back with a few more English-teacher friends.

Bars in Ulsan just don’t have this kind of atmosphere:

Bar Decor

…or this kind of trendy way to serve soju cocktails:
Fancy soju cocktails

This must be why they serve their soju cocktails like that

New Years Eve also unfortunately took me away from Hongdae, to a hipster party in the ritzy neighborhood of Apgujeong on the other side of the river, where a DJ wearing a giant mouse head played electronic music at a bar only that served Absolut Vodka and Budweisers for 10,000 won/~$10 a bottle. (!!!)

After spending a bit of time in Hongdae, we regretted our decision to stay in Itaewon. Luckily, we would be returning to Seoul a few weeks later to correct our mistake…

DMZ

At the DMZ (sorry mom and dad!)
(Sorry Mom and Dad!)

Living in South Korea for a year, it was necessary to pay a visit to the DMZ (that’s te DeMatiliarized Zone that separates the North and South, for anyone not in the know). And so I booked a tour with the US Army, which according to rumors did the best tours.

Our day started bright and early at 7am at the army’s Itaewon outpost. We joined the groggy tourists and boarded a couple of buses o take us on the hour trip north to the DMZ.

The crowd seemed to be primarily American tourists, with many military or military families (they get to do the tour for free – for everyone else it’s 70,000ish won). I was quite surprised to see so many Americans, as I thought they may be too afraid to get so close to the scary North (like some Americans I know).

The tour started at the “Joint Security Area,” a section of the DMZ controlled by the American and South Kroean militaries.
Joint Securty Area

They started us out with a briefing, in which this very stern-faced military guy showed us a powerpoint that explained a bit about the US army’s role in ‘maintaining’ the DMZ, what we’d be seeing on our tour, and told us about a terrible attack from the North a few years ago.

DMZ Briefing

We also had to sign something like a waiver, that said we wouldn’t talk or make gestures at any of the North Korean soldiers. And wouldn’t sue the military if we were shot, etc.

The first stop on the tour was a fancy, fairly recently completed building that had been constructed as a meeting place for families separated by the North/South division. However, it’s not in use because the North won’t allow their citizens to meet with their families. 😦

Behind this building was ‘the dividing line’ that separates the North and South. The line is straddled by this row of low office buildings that you’ve probably seen pictures of before:

Face off

That bigger building in the back is on North Korean soil. There’s a soldier standing guard at the entrance, and our guide explained that he was always there when the tours came through, sometimes with binoculars.

As we stood taking pictures, our American military guide pointed out all of the hidden North Korean soldiers that were (supposedly) watching us at that very moment. He told us to be sure not to make any gestures towards these (invisible) soldiers, as they would very possibly retaliate.

We were taken into one of the meeting rooms, which was very unspectacular on the inside with just a boardroom table and chairs. A couple of South Korean military had to accompany us. One had to stand in front of the door on the other side of the room, which lead to the North. Our American military guide sternly instructed us that if anyone tried to go behind the soldier, he was under order to use whatever physical force was necessary to make sure we didn’t get through the door.

This door leads to North Korea.

Crossing over to the other side of the meeting room, I technically entered North Korea! NOur guide was sure to let us know where the dividing point was.

By this point the tour was getting a bit…well, contrived feeling. Sure, maybe there were North Korean soldiers watching us, and I’m sure the South Korean guard couldn’t let us pass through the door and into North Korea. But, it’s just the way certain aspects were emphasized that made it feel a bit stretched out of proportion. At times it almost felt like it was catering to the American fear of the North, and what people would expect from watching all the scary news. Not that I’m any authority to judge on how tense things are or are not, but I just would’ve appreciated a bit less of the ‘spectacular.’

I think it would be interesting to get the tour from the North’s perspective, which I hear you can do if you tour the North. Not that I’m going to be doing that as an American any time soon.

North Korea - 'Propaganda Village'
The next stop on the tour was an overlook with a great view of the small village on the North Korean side. There are two villages where civilians live in the DMZ – one on the North side and one on the South side. The US Army has named the one on the South side “Freedom Village” and the one on the North side “Propaganda Village”. (how “American” do those names sound?)

The giant structure awkwardly looming above the rest of the village is a ginormous North Korean flag. A bit of a battle went on between the North and South about who would have the bigger flag in these two villages, spurred by the South getting a new flag that was supposedly a bit bigger than their old one. After the North constructed this monstrosity, the South kind of let it go. That flag is 595 pounds, stands 525 feet tall, and is the second tallest flag in the world.

When I was younger, I used to watch this video all of the time of Dr. Seuss’ the Butter Battle Book. It was written about the Cold War, but I think it applies even better to the North/South situation at the DMZ. The Butter Battle Book is about a town divided into two irreconcilable camps: those who spread their bread with the butter side up and those who spread their bread with the butter side down (the way that latter method works for anyone has plagued me since I was 7). But anyways, they go to war. One side builds a weapon, and the next side tries to outdo them, and so and so on into giant Suess-icle proportions. I forget how it ends, but I do believe they come to some kind of an agreement and refrain from blowing each other up.

We left the “Joint Security Area” through the gift shop, which sold all kinds of DMZ t-shirts, postcards, and the other expected things.

DMZ tourist center

From the JSA we were taken to a sort of tourist center of the DMZ, which was done up quite cute.

Cute soldiers

Here we watched a video, displayed across three gigantic screens, about all of the tunnels South Korean military has caught the North trying to dig into the South. The North claims they’re just mining, but they all seem to be leading directly towards Seoul. One of them has been turned into a museum, and so got to put on some hard hats and head underground to check it out.

The last stop on the tour was Dorasan Station, built to connect the North and South by train. As of today, trains only run north to Drasan, although the tracks lead further north.

Dorasan Station

Dorasan Station
The tracks are there, but no trains…


The sign at Dorasan Station. Pyongyang side non-operational, obviously.

Not many people talk about the situation down here in Ulsan, as it’s pretty far away. But the last thing I read about reunification of the North and South said that it would cost 2.9 trillion US dollars to do, which is a bit disheartening.

Western Comforts

At the three month mark of living in Korea, there were some things I was starting to miss. Particularly certain food things. Like burritos. And hummus. And so, for my winter vacation, I decided to head to the ‘big city’ to remedy some of this homesickness. I never thought I’d be heading to Seoul to search for Mexican food and H&M.

And so I met up with my British friend Mark, who was coming up from Busan. The first thing we did was get a place to stay in Itaewon, the international/foreigner neighborhood, which I figured was the prime location for finding Mexican food. The next thing we did was find a burrito.

Los Amigos' waiter signals
Upon entering ‘Los Amigos,’ I was insantly transported home, with the attempt at Mexican authenticity that’s obviously so far from the real thing, common in all places trying to imitate that are really far away from the real thing (be it South Korea or suburban Michigan). The place even had all the familiar cheesy decor.

That picture is of Los Amigos’ waiter signalers. I was very amused. (Quick note to anyone not familiar with dining out in Korea: waiters don’t check by your table, you have to use a little call button to summon them. Usually it’s a small and nondescript electronic button…)

In Itaewon, I was also able to find hummus at a Moroccan restaurant, although it was kind of awful and didn’t tase anything like any hummus I’ve had before.

Perhaps the best feat in curing my food-homesickness came in finding one of these:

Caribou in Korea!

Yes, a Caribou Coffee! And in close proximity to Starbucks, too. I was pretty surprised to find one in Korea, as they haven’t even spanned across the US yet. And normally I’d be all ‘blargh blargh globalization blargh’ but considering the kind of espresso I normally find in Korea, this was a welcome taste of the familiar (and superior, in my opinion).

The next order of business was to find some good beer, another thing that can be rather difficult to come by. And so we embarked on an international bar crawl down a street lined with bars representing countries from all over the world (but mostly Ireland). The evening ended with a snowstorm –

Snowing!

one final reminder of home after a December full of my complaining that I missed snow (which brought me more than I could have ever asked for for the rest of the week).

While I called it a night, Mark stayed up long enough to finish off a couple bottles of soju, make some friends at the hostel and create all of this on the roof:

Snow on the roof of our hostel

Despite my search for reminders of home in Seoul, I did manage to have some more ‘authentic Korean’ experiences. The next day we braved the snow and blizzarding to hit up the touristy district, Insadong:

Insa-dong

Buddha

The neighborhood is full of traditional restaurants. We opted for the one with the best name:

Lunch at 'Sound of Korean lute without cords' restaurant

…and enjoyed some makkoli (rice wine) to fend off the cold. Makkoli is best drank out of a small bowl.

Nothing beats makgeoli on a cold, snowy afternoon
makoli

The streets in Insadong are lined with stores selling souvineers and traditional, crafty Koeran things, like this pink feather boa fan:
Shopping in Insa-dong
I’m not exactly sure who this is for…

After a while, the snow finally got to us and we ducked into an arcade. Arcades are everywhere in Korea, but I’d somehow never been into one. The first game we attempted was this Chinese drumming game:
Arcade!

I was incredibly excited to find this Rock Band-reminiscent drumming game that had “You Give Love A Bad Name”
"You Give Love A Bad Name"
Unfortunately it was a bit too difficult for my limited drumming abilities. Also, please note the tiny individual ‘recording studio’ style noraebang in the background.

The most difficult DDR game in existence
Of course there was also DDR, which happened to be the most difficult (and unalterably so) DDR game in existence.

Behind all these fancy games was an area with small machines where you could play old school games, like this one:
Bubble Bobble!
bubble bobble!

Mark was really excited to find Tekkin, which is apparently a big deal in Korea:
Tekkin!

I found it amusing that he was eventually killed by a boxing kangaroo and her baby.
Mark gets beaten by a kangaroo

One of my favorite parts of Insa-dong was this four-story shopping center selling all kinds of crafty, gifty things:
ssamziegil

One of the popular sellers was this:
Dong-Dong Bread
‘poop bread’ (dong-dong bread). I’m not sure why this was appetizing to people…

Happy New Year!

Insa-dong is popular for traditional tea houses. And its “Beautiful” Tea Museum:
'Beautiful' Tea Museum

Although the neighborhood, like seemingly every other area in the country, is being overrun by coffee shops as well:
Suh-tah-bok-suh Ko-pee
(For anyone who may not be able to read Korean, this sign says: suh-tah-bok-suh keo-pee)