Dongdaemun gate and hotel

The East Gate to the Seoul

Six countries in Europe

Aug. 31, 2004

Flying Asiana to Seoul. The night markets of Dongdaemun.

We were up, oh so early. It was still dark outside as B's brother drove us to airport. But despite the early hour the traffic was slow along the M4 and I hoped that we were not going to be late. I wanted a window seat!

Needless worries in the end. We checked in, got our seat and had time for breakfast. As we sipped on a milkshake we could see our Asiana Airlines Boeing 777-200 parked outside, beige and white with a rainbow tail. Prior to this trip I had no knowledge of Asiana, but according to the comments on the Skytrax website they were excellent.

The flight was full. I was disappointed to note the lack of an individual overhead airvent and indeed the cabin felt rather warm and stuffy. We were soon up in the air, the beige attired cabin crew serving drinks as we ascended over Sydney. I asked for lemonade, but it wasn't until I said "Sprite" that the lady understood.

I was disappointed when we were soon asked to close our window shades, as I do so enjoy looking out of the window. I also realised that the route north over the Queensland coast was one that I was fairly familiar with, at least until Rockhampton, having done so many domestic flights there. Fortunately, the aircraft was equipped with seatback entertainment, on a loop. I watched the movie Hellboy and another Korean produced travel show about Chinese dumplings. It was terribly cute, the young sounding female host saying "ta-da!" before each dumpling presentation. Something I liked about flying with Asiana was that it felt like an exotic experience and not totally westernised.

A case in point was the meal service. There was a choice of a western dish and bibimbap, a traditional Korean meal where the meat and vegetables are only mixed together just before eating. Not liking mushrooms, I had selected the western option while B had the Korean meal, but even I was given a side of chilli sauce and kimchee. As the flight wore on the smell of sesame oil and noodles permeated the cabin.

I struggled on this flight, developing a strong headche, was perspiring and feeling sick. The cabin crew gave me an aspirin and I tried to throw up in the bathrooms. It was the Malaysia Airlines flights all over again. I wondered if there was enough oxygen in the cabin. 

The only way I could cope was to close my eyes and sit rigid against the seat, leaving the moving map on to see how much of the journey we had left. The photo below is of us just south of Japan.

I finally started feeling better when we began our descent in Seoul's fairly new Incheon airport. The light of the setting Sun was golden against the brown waters and dark islands that dotted the coast. The scene looked truly exotic and I began to feel renewed excitement.

I had few preconceived notions about Seoul. It wasn't a country I expected to visit and not one I knew much about. I had read a Lonely Planet book about the city, seen some brochures from their Korean National Tourist Organisation, but I had no feeling for the look of the country or its language. In many ways this just made it all the more exciting.

After landing and collecting our baggage it was time to go to Seoul proper, Incheon actually being quite distant from the city. Unfortunately, the train lines to the airport were still under construction, so we were forced to catch a bus. Had we been continuing on with Asiana we would have had an overnight stopover as part of the ticket, but our onwards flight was with KLM so we had to organise our own hotel.

During my reading about Seoul I had discovered that they had markets that stayed open all night. With limited time to see anything of Seoul I thought that a night market might be just the thing for us. The Dongdaemun markets seemed the most suitable, so I booked us a room at the Best Western hotel, which also had the advantage of overlooking the historic East Gate, one of two (now one since the West Gate burned down) that remained of the city wall.

We sat in the coach as it first passed the flashing red and blue lights that simulated police cars along the motorway, then past colourfully lit up bridge across the Han river. The well lit shops were just starting to close and the streets were still busy with life as looked out the windows, nervously wondering where we were.

Though the bus driver announced stops and there was some sort of LED display at the front, the problem was that I had no real knowledge of the stop names or their pronunciations. It was difficult to learn a language that would used for a day at most! I almost missed our stop, just managing to work out our probable location in time. Fortunately, orienting ourselves was easy, with the big East Gate in the centre of a roundabout and the hotel visible on the other side.

I was still feeling the aftereffects of the flight. We thought of grabbing some dinner from the hotel restaurant, but I pleaded to have a shower and a nap. A couple of hours later and I was right enough to explore.

Despite it being 9pm the streets outside were alive with young Koreans shopping for jewellry and mobile phone accessories, or grabbing food from roadside stalls, or watching singing and dancing performances on the stairs of the department stalls. We went into one. It was quiet and unprepossessing, but B was able to find some interesting and cheap clothes to purchase.

We sat down to eat a dinner of kimchee pancake, soup and dumplings from a stall with a range of Korean snacks on display. The owner smiled cheerfully at us, even though our communication was limited, point and order.

Armed with a photocopied Lonely Planet map of Dongdaemun we wandered around the different market areas. Further down, near the Olympic baseball stadium, was a flea market. Then up through a quiet covered market selling scarves and hats under fans moving an air that surprisingly warm and humid for that time of night. Another mutlistorey wholesale clothes market was much busier, with huge blue bags of clothes carried out by shop buyers. They also sold direct and B was able to pick up some more clothes for herself.

At 2am we called it a night we returned to hotel, feeling satisfied that we'd had a real Seoulful experience.

Next: Railway tracks in the sky

Previous: Troubled preparations

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Neuschwanstein Castle

Six countries in Europe

Sept. 1, 2004 - Sept. 20, 2004

A race around Western Europe as we do six countries and Seoul on a stopover.

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