Monday, 2 January 2017

Street food, palaces and boxes

Date: Wednesday 28th December 2016
Weather: Cold but with beautiful blue skies.
MP3 track of the day: Gangnam Style – PSY

I woke up at around 8 am having had a wonderful nights sleep. When I booked this hotel, quite a few reviews suggested that the breakfast served wasn't worth the cost therefore, I headed out into the city walking west towards the centre of Seoul and, coincidently, towards Seoul's historical area where I'd planned to spend most, if not all, of my day. Having had spicy Korean food last night, my stomach yearned for something a little more forgiving this morning; the first restaurant which appealed to me was Burger King however, once inside, the payment system seemed to be completely electronic and only allowed for payments by card. I therefore left Burger King and found a Subway. I ordered a lovely chicken sandwich which, though expensive, was exactly what I felt like eating. Speaking of money; yesterday I'd paid for my hotel and my entire trips transport costs. I knew that this would happen however, it was still a shock when I looked into my wallet. Therefore, after breakfast, I headed to a bank to change a little Japanese money I'd brought with me in case I needed it. Once fed and resupplied with cash, I proceeded on foot to my first attraction for the day; Gyeongbokgung. I didn't go there directly; instead, I meandered my way through the side-streets slightly perplexed by how the main streets could look so modern, and how the side-streets would have been more at home in Cambodia. Seoul really is a city where two economic worlds have collided.

Once at Gyeongbokgung palace, It's main gate - Gwanghwamun – had three archways protected by five guards in historical clothing and armed with historical weaponry. I proceeded through the right-hand archway and looked up at the beautiful wooden ceiling with two painted dragons circling one another. I was enjoying photographing the ceiling so much that I failed to keep track of the time. Why is this important you may ask? Well, at 11am there is a 'changing of the guard' and, as I looked away from the ceiling and back the way I'd come, the five guards were marching towards me with a stern look on their faces which I read to mean that they weren't getting out of the way for anyone. Surprised to find that they hadn't marched down the centre archway, it took a second for me to leap into action and I bolted to the end of the gate. In front of me I had two options; I could keep running straight into the open courtyard area which leads to the inner gate – a large area for me to run away from them however, I felt as though the guards would be heading this way as I thought that they must be heading into the palace – or I could turn right and hug the outer wall. I turned right … only to find that the guards also turned right. I was then forced against the wall as the guards marched past me. Once gone I took a second or so to compose myself and to look around to see how many people had witnessed my misfortune. I then proceeded to the ticket counter to find that today was Korea's 'Day of Culture' and therefore, this site was free to enter. I then went through Heungnyemun; the palaces' inner gate.

Gyeongbokgung palace is the city's most popular tourist sight and is a focal point for the country as a whole (which was evident due to the recent demonstration against South Korea's president being just across the main road from the palace). This palace – named the “Palace of Shinning Happiness” - was commissioned by King Taejo in 1394 to house the royal family of the Joseon dynasty shortly after they transferred their capital here in 1392. It was completed in 1399 and held the regal throne for over two hundred years. At the peak of its importance, the palace housed over 400 buildings. Within its history, the palace has witnessed countless fires, military destruction and even a royal assassination therefore, all of the buildings have been rebuilt in a massive 'forty-year' campaign (which started in 1989 and is still on-going) to get this palace back to its former glory. Having had twenty-seven years of construction time, a lot of it had been rebuilt and it was a joy to move through the inner courtyard and to see architecture which had a very Chinese feel to it. I then proceeded out the back of the temple and into the gardens where I saw the 'Hyangwonjeong'; a pagoda in the middle of a frozen pond. It was within this area that I was approached by seven Korean girls all wearing 'chima jeogori' ('Google it'; it's a beautiful Korean dress). They asked if I could take their photo to which I said yes. What was really weird was that they were all smiling and, actually, seemed very happy indeed. This was bizarre because all of the Koreans I'd met so far were miserable and sounded as though they were continually having an argument. All became clear when I asked where in Korean they were from … Thailand.

Once out of the palace grounds I proceeded back east towards another large palace called 'Changdeokgung' (I hope that you are having fun pronouncing all of the names). On the way, I stopped at a 'Dunkin' Donuts' for a lovely hot chocolate and a doughnut. I could have had lunch however, 'attraction opening times' was short and I wanted to see this other palace. Once I'd finished my snack, I left the doughnut shop and proceed to the entrance of the palace. Yet again the palace was free to enter however, I paid 5,000 Wong (£3.40) for an English guided tour of 'The Secret Garden' (you weren't allowed to see the garden without going on a tour).

Whereas Gyeongbokgung Palace was destroyed long ago, Changdeokgung Palace was home to royalty until very recently – 1910 – making it the best-preserved palace in the city. Its construction was finished in 1412 and was commissioned by King Taejong. It has more of an international feel as some of its buildings are a direct image of Chinese ones. The palace was lovely and now being late in the day, I seemed to be the only one around allowing for excellent photographing opportunities. My favourite complex of buildings was so packed that it was pretty easy to lose your way and get lost.

Once I'd seen each area of buildings – bar one – I proceeded to the meeting point for the English tour and got their five minutes before the start. For me, this garden was a little bit of a disappointment however, this was no fault of the garden itself. My guidebook talks of beautiful flowers and lotus ponds however, being winter, all of that colour was in hiding, preparing for the next summer. I was left with the 'bare-bones' of the place … which was okay but didn't give the impression of a garden which, in the 1400's, only the royal family of Korea could visit (everyone else was banned). The guide also wasn't that great as I could only understand about two out of ten English words she was saying. I therefore gave up listening to her – along with a lot of the group – and just proceeded to take the best photos possible. Once the tour had finished, I proceeded back to the area of buildings I'd missed before exiting the site. The time was around 5 pm and my feet were knackered. I headed back to the 'Dunkin Donuts' shop I'd visited earlier for another hot chocolate and spent a little bit of time resting my feet and creating a plan.

Eventually, I decided to stay within the area I found myself in due to my guidebook stating that this was an excellent place to buy souvenirs. I proceeded to a street full of souvenir stalls and had a look inside most of the shops including a souvenir complex with four floors of stalls. In the end, I opted to return to a shop I'd entered earlier to buy my souvenir. I chose this shop due to the fact that, in a lot of other shops, I was continually hounded by the staff to buy something … in this shop I was left alone. I walked away with a nice Korean wooden box for £26 before heading into an area of small side-streets with hundreds of 'tent-like' restaurants all serving 'Yakiniku' (small slivers of meat which you barbeque). I chose one restaurant and, after pointing at many different photos, I had a table full of food plus a coke. The food was very nice; unknowingly, I had managed to order a nice mix of spicy and non-spicy dishes which complemented themselves well. Whilst eating I peered out of the window and watched the chaos unfold outside. Driving in Korea is almost suicidal as cars consistently change lanes and cut each other up; this results in the horn being used a lot and with most drivers having blacked-out windows. Tents were billowing with steam and shouting could be heard from all over. Seoul is an intense city of both poor and rich; I currently found myself in what seemed like a chaotic Malaysian food district … and I was loving it.

I finished eating at around 9 pm. I decided to walk back to my hotel as it was only a thirty-minute walk away. Like Japan, Korea is a pretty safe country with low crime levels however, unlike Japan, it didn't feel like it therefore, the walk back felt a little scary. Once back in my hotel, I took a long shower before proceeding into bed with my guidebook. I went to sleep wondering where I would be heading to tomorrow.

Toodle Pip!

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