Monday, November 5, 2012

A Taste of SoKor

Few days earlier: Last-minute Preparations

Cebu Pacific Airline once again promoted a one peso seat sale, including international flights. That was February 2012 when I booked my flights to Beijing-Shanghai with dates in August 2012 and Busan-Seoul in November 2012. Countries like the Republic of China and Republic of Korea require Filipinos an entry visa. When July came, I processed my Chinese visa which due to very stringent cash requirement, I was denied entry. I admit it has somehow discouraged me to file of Korean visa until last week of October arrived. My prepaid plane ticket Manila-Busan-Manila was dated 31 October to 4 November 2012. My professional activities were then hectic and a chance to visit the Korean Embassy in Mckinley Hill, Taguig City can hardly squeeze in. I personally appeared and applied for a tourist visa on 22 October and fortunately passed the initial screening and given claim slip dated 29 October. I was hoping to get the approved entry visa but at the same time worried I might again be denied. When my number was called, I was so ecstatic and actually trembling to check the approved visa pasted on my passport. I have a day and a half to prepare for the trip, from purchase of dollar bills (just USD500), hotel or motel (or even guesthouses) reservations, to packing of winter clothes (and I only got two jackets).
I googled on any documented or blogged budget trips to Korea, Busan and Seoul cities in particular. I stumbled on a very specific blog that mentioned about a Blue Backpackers’ Hostel in Busan and Open Guesthouse in Seoul. I emailed both sites on the night of 30 October and reserved a single room. The Busan’s accommodation responded positively while the Seoul’s declared to be fullybooked. At least I have somewhere to stay that night that I arrived in South Korea.

31 October: Where is Busan?

Leaving the office around lunchtime (Yes, I still attended officeworks that morning), I commuted via FX-taxi, MRT train, airport shuttle bus on my way to the NAIA Terminal 3. I proceeded to the Tourism desk and paid first the travel tax then changed into sweatshirt plus a t-shirt on top and then the jacket before checking in. When I approached the Immigration desk, the Officer asked me two questions, 1) Where is Busan? and 2) Is there snow in South Korea now? All I know is that Busan is located in the southernmost part of the country and that it was fall by then, so I cannot say there is snow as per my research. I was at the boarding gate two hours earlier, eating Seattle’s Best sandwich and coffee. I was reading the final chapters of the book entitled Of God and Men until 3:40pm when boarding was called.

With too much excitement, I read and re-read my printed documentation of the anticipated tour in Busan. I checked carefully the map and the instructions leading to the hostel I was booked that night. There were three ways to get there, one was to take the taxi but I found it to be expensive (as most taxis in any country are), two was to take the bus but I feared I might get lost (as I always do in the countries I visited so far), and three was to ride the train but I cannot be sure if it will still be operating by the time I arrived the city (‘cause I failed to google the operating hours of the city’s train network). Such thought occupied most of my time the whole flight time. 
The flight was estimated to last for three and a half hours. Having finished reading the book and cannot find sleep, I busied my staring outside. I witnessed the transition from the setting of the sun to the rising of the moon. Flying above the clouds, I have seen how the full moon peeked through the clouds. I tried for several times to capture the event in my camera but the lights backfired through the window and distorted the shots. I settled at marveling the sight until the moon rose at an eye level and stared at it face to face. The moon-watching was so tranquil with snores from my sleeping neighbors as the background music. I envied them really until they were woken up by the on-board “show me” game the Cebupac crew conducted.

Such flight time lasted long enough and landed at 9:38pm in Korean time, an hour time ahead of Manila time. After clearance at the Immigration at Gimhae International Airport, I changed my 300 US dollars into 314,000 won. Feeling the cold environment now, I hurried to the bus alley where there was no bus waiting. So I opted to take the light rail transit, than freeze at the waiting line, which station was a little walk across the airport building. My ignorance set in; I definitely needed help. A kind young man who speaks few English words extended a hand. He asked me where to go and pointed me the interconnected subway train networks of the city to reach Seomyeon Station, my stop. His gestures told me that I have to ride the subway train and transfer to a subway train at Sasang Station. The ticket vending machine I operated with this guy’s help vomited a round chip. I grabbed it and entered the automated gate which alarmed and locked at my approached. Gosh, I was so idiot. The watcher gestured me to tap the coin on the electronic slot. And so I did. Fortunately, he alone noticed my idiocy. And I guffawed.
While waiting for the train, two Filipinas greeted me in Tagalog. A mother-daughter tandem whose names I cannot remember, they were also first timers in Busan as well. At Sasang Station, I left them to look for smaller bills to I went to the nearest 7-11 convenience store in the subway station. A saleslady gestured a box with her hands and pointed me somewhere. This I found very difficult to comprehend and I have walked in circles to identify the instructions. To my surprise, the saleslady tailed me and guided me to the box that changes large bills (10,000 and 5,000) to 1,000 won denominations. Wow, another vending machine!

I reunited with the ladies after at the track. I finally got company up until we parted in Seomyeon Station where I disembarked ahead of them. I was alone again in reading and following directions, printed on a piece of scratch paper. I thought I followed correctly the specified tunnel and the right and left turns, but I ended up at the middle of a residential area. It turned out I entered the wrong tunnel; there were number of tunnels in the area. I asked anybody I encountered there; the ladies declined, hinting that they cannot speak English. I found this old gentleman who smelled of liquors who‘s God-given and provided me the right direction in little but good English, after careful analysis of the map I showed him.
I finally spotted the Blue Backpacker’s Hostel small but illuminated signage. I entered the reception area and greeted by the attendant I called “Yang”. After checking in at almost 11pm, I went out to look for a meal. There’s nothing western food in the Seomyeon area, so I occupied a seat in one Korean eatery and ordered a rice meal. They did not understand my English so I pointed on one food picture which I did not know what was it called, obviously. The lady cook faced me with an inquiring look then gestured fanning her two hands at her face. I understood it to mean that it was hot and spicy, and whether I like it hot. I said no, “a little please” responding a gesture with my right hand, the thumb and point finger forming a pinch. Despite the anonymity of the recipe and the accompanying condiments, I devoured whole meal. Then I stopped by the nearby grocery store and bought an Oreo cookies and two bottled water. I hurried back to the hostel to rid of the cold outside.

As I prepared for bed unpacking my personal stuffs, I noticed that I missed to bring sleeping garbs. When my laptop computer hibernated after leaving it on when I find meal, I realized that they have this unique adaptor with round teeth and round socket. I need to rent one but the counter has closed already that midnight. So I need rather retire for the night, anyway I already in Busan. I can now point to the Filipino Immigration Officer where Busan is.

1 November: K-race-zy Day

Woken by my full bladder, I rose from the bed at little past 6am, went to the toilet trying hard to open my spicy eyes. I returned to bed hoping to go back to sleep, but I can no longer find peace to settle down. Lots of thoughts occupied my mind and kept me awake since. So I went to the common room which was empty yet and used one of the three computers to update my web status, my facebook account particularly. I cleansed myself that very early, both bowel and shower. It was a crazy cold morning, I experienced brainfreeze and body trembling, and so I need to grab a breakfast to survive the cold.
I realized that Koreans really deserved a yellow complexion and pinkish cheeks due to their climate. Korean beauty especially of men is so attractive: the fair skin, the prominent and good-chiseled jaw lines, the unkempt almost-cosplay hair, the average height of 5’7. I have proven the authenticity of those seen by Filipinos in Koreanovelas, printads such as Bench’s Korean models, and MTVs of K-pop groups.

Ready for the breakfast, I climbed the third floor to dine. I initially thought a plated set meal but to my astonishment there is none. I noticed all the men there (there was no women guest, I believe) busy preparing toasts, wiping marmalades, boiling water, preparing coffee, pouring juice. So I said, okay… this is how to do breakfast here. I joined the group even in the discussions. I particularly enjoyed an early morning talk with the middle-aged German and American; some are Indians but they left early. This is the beauty of traveling in foreign countries, you got to meet and talk with fellow travelers and converse like friends, even if you don’t know each other’s first names. The American was from Seattle who arrived through a cargo vessel. He told me that most ship’s crew even the cook are Filipinos. The German came from Fukuoka, Japan and have been to Busan several times but declared he has not yet ventured all about Busan. In his place, he said, has this Filipino restaurant named Adobo. Both foreigners wondered on the fondness of Filipinos for karaoke singing.
I noticed we talked for quite a while, so I excused myself and went down ahead of them. I still need to check out because I planned to travel by sleeper bus tonight to Seoul. I talked to Yang regarding depositing my luggage while I went on tour and promised to pick it up at 5pm. I already have final tour plan of the day so I used to subway to reach Busan Station where all city tour buses queued. Their subway system however is expensive; it cost 4,000 won, equivalent to 4 USD, per ride even the shortest distance. When I got to the parked buses, I asked the waiting operator about the night view tour, he told me it requires prior reservation bringing his right hand to his right ear forming a phone. Apparently I don’t have time for that and I was already there to take the day tours, so he directed me to a building towering over us; to room 401 and book my seat, he said.

I boarded the Haeundae tour bus and paid 10,000 won, and that amount gave me opportunity to take the Taejongdae route once I completed the Haeundae route. This is a hop-on-hop-off tour package that you can avail any time of the day in any stop or pick up point until 7pm. I chose only interesting stops such as Nurimaru, the venue of the 2005 APEC Summit with several attractions around including the crying mermaid, the BEXCO where signature apparels are sold at Shinsegate Department Store, local films are shown at the Busan Film Center, and my favorite among UN Memorial Cemetery. I felt genuinely proud to see acknowledgement of Philippine contribution to Korean War. I have seen Filipino soldiers from among those honored. I even photographed myself with the Philippine flag.

The Taejongdae leg followed immediately after I completed the Haeundae Tour, so I skipped lunch. I served myself with the Oreo cookies. I forewent all points except for one at Taejongdae where lighthouse, observatory, viewdecks for the Busan busy port. I climbed my way 2km up to these touristy points and rode the tram on my way down. I kept my hands in my pocket to keep warm.  I experienced exposure to colder breeze that afternoon when I took the roofless bus. I dropped off at Jagalchi Station and caught the subway train to go back to the hostel to pick my luggage. I promised Yang to come back at 5pm and it was half hour past 5pm. And I raced back to Busan Station tugging along my wheeled luggage to get ready for the night view tour. I planned to reach the station early in order to grab a little dinner before the tour and thankfully when I entered the train station I noticed a coin locker which means pay locker. I simply followed the English-translated instructions and secured my luggage in one if the 1500 won-worth locker, settled in one corner and ate a Lotteria burger sandwich, with potato fries and a soda.

The night view tour cost me a separate 10,000 won. It was worth the roam around the city at night. There were 2 designated stops, each for 10 minutes to take pictures of the view, one was in Gwangali Beach where beautifully lit Gwangan Bridge is the backdrop, and the other was at the Mt. Geumyeonsan overlooking the whole colorful city. All of us who took that night’s tour were ushered to an observatory at the mount; we peeked at the hi-powered scientific telescope the full moon. After my turn, I ran back to the bus to defreeze. It was such a crazy cold night! I slept on the bus from time to time signaling that my body was tired of the whole day tours.

After unlocking the coin locker and claiming back my luggage, I bought a train ticket to Seoul and booked one seat of the last train leaving Busan every day at 11:10pm with an estimated time of arrival in Seoul at around 5am. I was hoping against hope that I can get sound sleep on train but I always was startled at every stop, the announcements, the warming, the whistle. And that I don’t usually sleep while traveling; that’s my weakness. Maybe I am just on guard every time. Maybe I am curious to know where I am, what this new place look for me, what is unique in here. Maybe I am taking the experience of train ride worthwhile and to nap will deprived me of that.

2 November: Roaming Seoul
 Arrived at Seoul City at 4:34am exactly, I took big breakfast at the nearby McDo. I initially planned to find my way to the city proper to find a room, noting that I did not reserve any for the night, but I attracted by the signage for the airport train. I remembered being impressed by the megastructures’ episode (I cannot exactly point National Geographic or Discovery channel) about the bridge-flyover-railway all-in-one connecting Seoul to the Incheon Island where the airport is located. I made quick rounds of the airport and rode back to the city proper.

 I stopped at an interchange so confused; either to go on tour right away or find a place first around there. If I will go on tour, I will be tugging along with me my trolley bag. Should I find a place to stay around the area, I have no idea where, I may end up wasting time walking around. So I brought out the brochure I pocketed from the Blue Backpackers Hostel in Busan. It was called Inside Backpackers and the accompanying map points to Hyewa Subway Station which no matter how I searched from the map, I really can’t find. Fortunately a man entered the previously unoccupied information booth and despite his inability to utter English words, he gave me a map, unfolded it in front of me and encircled the Hyewa station. I said “got it” and thanked him. I was fortunate enough to spot the inn quickly despite the busy streets packed with vibrant and smorgasbord stalls from left to right since I surfaced from the subway station, much so that it was located near a university.

Had my room became available that time I checked in, lying on the bed for a nap or sleep would be an irresistible temptation. But I don’t have to waste time, I only got that full day for a city tour of Seoul. Min, the receptionist guy who’s so friendly and accommodating, drew circles, starts, checks and whatnot to indicate the best tourist spots I should pay visit. The Seoul City Tour bus was for me the best option to check on the Seoul’s tourist destinations. I headed to the Gwangwamun subway station where the tour bus route commenced. There was this 1-story or 2-story tour bus to choose from and I picked the 1-story that was worth 10,000 won. There have been several stops mentioned in the route but most of them are adjacent to each other and so I chose three drop offs. I started my tour at the Museum of Art; it was not really the museum that interests me but the adjacent Yongusan Park. My other stop was in the old Korean village where I experienced its heritage perfectly. The last stop I took was where the 6 old palaces were located next to each other. For 3,000 won I have captured all best shots of these temples and palaces and in fact ran out of battery. That signaled the close of my day tour and so I went back to the inn to recharge all batteries, my laptop computer’s and cellphone’s included.

The room I occupied was complete with amenities, from ref to cooking equipment to desktop computers with unlimited Wi-Fi access. Again I was not able to nap as I was preoccupied with updating the internet, checking emails, responding to mails and comments, most especially the photo editing for those best shots that necessitate immediate uploading through facebook. I bathed and cleaned myself and then headed back to the Gwangwamun station to catch the evening’s event, which I initially forgot what was it called and Min has mentioned. When I exited from the subway at the Channel A section, I noticed crowds of people queuing. I went with them and queued hoping that it will lead me to star-sighting, the Korean actors and actresses, maybe Rain or Psy. Later I found out that the seemingly endless queue led to the exhibits of intricately made lanterns. It was indeed Seoul’s Lantern Festival! All the larger than life, adequately illuminated lanterns were lined up in what seemed to me a draining canal in the middle of the city. That “canal” has fountain at its head section then the clean water stream though the long stretched system. I cannot tell how long it was because I did not bother to reach its other side. Differently themed as they are, the lanterns reflected Korean figures, Buddhist icons, their heritage, lifestyles, customs and traditions, even zodiac signs. There were entries from abroad, Philippines as one of them. It was a clear indication that Republics of the Philippines and Korea have good relationship. A big section was occupied by the blinking lanterns made of capiz shells from Pampanga, Philippines. A signage bearing the tag line “It’s more fun in the Philippines” can be seen at its feet. At the UN section, a lantern depicting a Filipino in traditional costume stood over an illuminated flag.

As the night peaked, the temperature also dropped low. When I reached the superhero lanterns, I felt my digitalis numbing, my legs and back aching, my hands freezing and my nose bleeding and that it was time to hide in my room. I ordered to go an unknown recipe on and from Red Cups and emptied it before climbing to bed. With that, I felt I roamed around the Seoul.

3 November: Souvenir Hunting


I woke up late today as I intended it to be in order to recover the prior night’s sleepless journey. It was 10am when I finished packing and making up, including updating of status at my facebook page.
After checking out, I headed directly to Seoul Station hoping I could find some souvenir shops around there. Min, the innkeeper, doesn’t have any idea where exactly to find souvenirs per se; all he knew are shopping centers for Korean products, maybe Dongdaemon, he added. True enough, the information ladyclerk in the train station also did not provide me exact information or address of the souvenir shops or maybe they don’t know exactly what souvenirs are. She mentioned this Hadjik area but I was short of time to go there, venture this unknown place unsure of finding really souvenir shops. So I instead made rounds of the area surrounding the station to check if there is any souvenir shop. I ended up at a museum checking its exhibits of home ideas.

I decided then to rather look for these souvenir shops in Busan city. So I climbed the food court floor to take my lunch. I approached one stall with aproned ladies who prepared food servings and ordered, but she pointed me to the counter at the center of the court. I took it to mean that I have to order and pay there and come back for the food servings. It made me look stupid, walking back and forth the whole food court floor. Then later I realized that I cannot simply take my ordered food from the stalls but wait for my order number to be called, and I have to check it from the monitor. Wow, super-advanced!

I book the 1pm trip Busan via the express train, KTX, which trip to my destination would only last for 2 and a half hours – the usual train trip almost cut in half. My assigned car was 18, assigned seat was 14B. When the call to board was flashing on the screen followed by the announcement, I was ecstatic to know that car 18 was the nearest to the pilot’s car. It was worth the price because the ambiance, the seat, the cabin as whole felt luxurious and super-comfy, with Wi-Fi access. I was elated to notice that I will be sitting beside this young and cute Korean guy, in military uniform. That was my close encounter with a Korean kind!

When I settled on my seat, I tried to unfold my seat table, only to find it stuck. I forced it to unfold but I was unlucky the first time. When I attempted to open it again, this cute Korean guy lent a hand, but we failed. I told him, “Don’t worry. Nevermind!” But I need that table because I will be writing my trip journal, so I unfolded it again with much force with this young man’s help. The seat table finally opened notwithstanding my lack of grace when I forced it. I unload my things and laid them all on the table, my camera, notebook, ballpen, map, magazine. “Are you a photographer?” he asked. And that was the start of our friendship, wow! that’s fast! Well, yes that was exactly what happened. I told him I am a travel blogger and I am documenting my first time in Korea.  I later knew his English name to be Richard, that he’s 22 years old, at his third year in the university but currently joined as soldier (this is his term) before completing his college degree. I admit I was enamored by his coolness, his friendly presence, his good looks most of all, that he is young and an army which is super hunky for me. My gayness overpowered me, as we talked more about him, me, my travel, his cute little English words, his gorgeous face, and I ended up writing down on a business card (the business card of the Inside Backpackers) writing down my full name, email address, facebook account, even my mobile phone. Huh! And I handed it to him which he accepted and pocketed on the left breast pocket of his military uniform. Left breast is where the heart is… No, I am so gay!

While having a good conversation, I asked him if I could take pictures of him, and us together, which he so friendly agreed. When we ran out of topics to discuss and he perhaps ran out of English words to start a conversation, as if I was the one waiting for him to take advances, he folded his hands together to his member and leant his head on the headboard and closed his eyes. Then I took more shots of him napping. I kept ogling at his beautiful face, imagining his gorgeous torso inside that army uniform, and fantasizing meeting him again, that time in the Philippines. I remembered telling him many Korean tourists scattered around the Philippines and he told me he had plans of visiting my country. When he disembarked at DongDaegu for his 4-day vacation, I captured his last shot. He smiled at me for the last time, maybe he realized I was falling into him already. Oh, I am very gay!

My attention turned back to souvenir hunting. The KTX train is expected to arrive at Busan Station at half past 3pm, and that would give me enough time to search for souvenir shops. I immediately approached the tourist information center and the guys representing Paradise Hotel entertained me, grabbed and unfolded a city map and encircle the BIFF Square at Jagalchi subway station. This subway station has multiple shops around selling RTW apparels and accessories, but not the souvenir type in my mind. I was expecting to find items like key chain, ref magnets, t-shirts and whatnot that has Busan or Seoul or South Korea printed and/or engraved on it. But there was none, as most salesladies or salesmen I asked! All available items are winter clothes, fluffy boots, stuffy jackets, colorful socks and scarves, flamboyant et cetera. I bought anything Korean produced without the obvious print of the places I visited. This can serve as souvenirs, I forced myself to believe.

I reached Gimhae International Airport at 6:40pm. I checked in immediately before taking my dinner of fried chicken and fries at Popeye’s. Passing the immigration, I now waited for my Cebu Pacific flight back to Manila.


Despite the lack of usual souvenir types, I can say that I really had a great time in South Korea. I highly recommend Busan city tour bus for day and night views, as they were more enjoyable and the route covers the whole of the city at a minimum price. Seoul’s city tour routes are more concentrated on the downtown, there were other routes but for a separate fee, that would make your tour very expensive. This downtown-concentrated tour can be done personally. I regret I did not go for DMZ (demilitarized zone) day tour, I believe this is more interesting. I may go back to Seoul for this purpose. Despite the inability of the people to converse using English language, but all signages, instructions, directions have English translation (no matter how awkward they seem for some translations). All city tours are so organized; all tourist destinations are accessible by all transport, which make your personal tour very manageable. Most recurring transactions that are related to peddling are made through automated vending machines, from bottled or packed products to transport tickets to changing money bills.

All in all, I have had a great taste of South Korea!

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