The Coldest and the Snowiest

A very snowy east coast
A satellite image of Korea’s east coast covered in snow, from here. (I’m somewhere under the white in the southeast.)

When I first arrived in Korea, everyone kept telling me how it “never snowed in Ulsan” and how jealous they were that I was from Michigan where it got so much snow. ha! This winter has been one of the snowiest and coldest in Korea’s history, at least since they started keeping records.

On one of these coldest of days, I decided it would be a good idea to take some visiting friends to the ocean. We knew it was cold, but we didn’t know quite how cold it was. Afterwords I learned it was -17 Celsius, which I had to convert on my computer to see that means it was 1 degree Fahrenheit – pretty cold! So being on the windy oceanfront was definitely the best idea.

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I actually kind of like beaches in winter, but this was a bit too cold.

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Please note how bundled up we are. It didn’t do any good.

The first day back to school brought with it a crazy snowstorm, the third in a string of crazy snowstorms. From the article linked to above:

“The BBC reported that hundreds of stranded motorists awaited rescue, and hundreds of homes had collapsed under the weight of heavy snow.”

Luckily down in Ulsan the snow wasn’t that bad, but just meant I got out of school a couple hours early. I was struck by the strongest urge to make a snowman, especially since my friend Shannon from Georgia had never been around enough snow to make a ‘real’ snowman before.
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Snowmen in Korea are usually only made with two snowballs, one for a body and one for a head. So we were certain to make an American-style snowman, which I realized I hadn’t done for probably 10 or 15 years or something like that. Ultimately I think our proportions were a bit off, and it was rather unfortunate that we couldn’t find anything for the eyes or nose, but it just felt so satisfying to make a snowman I didn’t really care.

By nightfall, it still hadn’t stopped snowing. Ultimately, it snowed for something like 12-14 hours. I’d guess somewhere between 7 and 10 inches accumulated.
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For a city that never gets snow, that’s quite a bit…

The next morning I awake to find it had finally stopped snowing, but now the roads were of course sheer ice. Which made my walk to school rather treacherous.
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(This is my giant hill.)

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Pretty, but icy.

I’m sure it was colder and snowier in Michigan this winter, but this certainly wasn’t the warmer, milder climate I thought I’d be getting when I came to Ulsan! Although I may have brought it on myself. All December, I was lamenting how I wanted to see some snow. Be careful what you wish for…

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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.

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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.

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:
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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)