Seoul seeking

How can people fly in the dark when there’s a whole world outside to see? Every window but mine is closed. I keep it half open because I need to see.

Smooth flight? It is now. But not before. Before there was only the white of high cloud hiding the storms that shake us up and down. But I cannot look away, staring in hope of our emergence.

And so this long journey continues.

We are staying close to the airport because it’s an early flight. Given that, we turned in early, but the traffic noise kept waking us. Eventually, at a quarter to six we give up and get up.

We’ve opted to catch the train to the airport even though it’s more expensive than a taxi and only a dollar more than the infrequent shuttle.

This is our first time departing from Sydney’s International Terminal in over four years. I’ve already checked in online, so it’s just a matter of printing bag tags and using the automated bag drop-off. We go straight through immigration and security, both which seem quieter now the first three days of school holidays have passed.

Most of the stores airside are luxury and not of interest, though the site of a wall of Sony headphones brings back memories of the Sony store which once resided here.

My Qantas Club membership has been rather useless since the start of the pandemic, so we try to derive some value with breakfast and seats while we watch the “heavies” land and low cloud scoot in from the nearby coast.

None of us feels like a rich breakfast, leaving the sausages, bacon and scrambled eggs alone in preference to fresh fruit and pastries. They’re nice except for the honeydew melon which tastes off. The seats are comfortable and it’s good to sit down and relax.

I shouldn’t feel anxious but I feel anxious. I use the bathroom and cannot help expelling most of what I’ve just eaten.

We leave the lounge before our flight is called. Walking past the central food area we spot a PappaRich under construction, Malaysian food in Sydney Airport!

Unfortunately, just like my last departure from Sydney, we’ve got the bus gate again. It’s a full flight and the basement waiting area is crowded. It’s already late by the time boarding is called and we pack into the tarmac bus for a short ride to our Qantas Airbus A330-300. Again, just like my last flight.

The aircraft is parked near the freight terminal, where what I’m guessing is a Rolls Royce coupe sits waiting on a pallet.

At ground level you get a real sense of the size of the aircraft, especially the adjacent A380.

There are steep sheltered stairs awaiting us on arrival. We head up and nobody complains when Intake a few photos.

The cabin looks newer than on my other Qantas A330 flights, red cloth fabric and black trim and mesh footrests. Good sized Panasonic seat back entertainment screens. I feel comfortable when I sit down, although I wonder how I’ll feel after ten hours in the air.

We wait and we wait. I play with the entertainment system. There a lots of movies to choose from, but I am disappointed to see that the music selection has gone. I know I have hours of my own music to listen to, but sometimes the screen is more convenient.

Even worse, the flight map is blank.

Of all the terrible things that Qantas has done lately, this was the worst!

Okay, nobody will agree with me on that.

Finally the doors are closed and we begin a very short taxi to the top of the runway, which is just behind us. The engines roar and we are pushed back into our seats.

Up we go, across Botany Bay, over the Kurnell Peninsula and past Cronulla. How many times have I watched other flights doing the same and dreamed?

We pass through the bottom layer of cloud as we cross back over the coast, then the next layer and the next. My hope is dashed of seeing our house below in another inversion of my routine.

We are above the white carpet of cloud and cruising in the smooth air heading north.

The crew walk through handing out generously sized packets of nuts, pretzels and soy crisps along with cold drinks. I choose a Coke.

This feels like old times in the air.

With no mapand hoping to distract myself I switch Catch Me If You Can on the entertainment system. I barely watch the movie, just listen to the dialogue and John Williams’ score, one that I associate with flying.

The captain apologises for the hour long delay over the PA, blaming it on the remote stand and the failure of a special lift for the five passengers who required it to board.

He locates us over Roma in Queensland, our path crossing the coast at the Whitsundays and heading east of Cairns before flying over Papua New Guinea and west of Guam, over southern Japan and entering Korea over Busan.

Our journey should be smooth, he continues, which is very welcome news to me.

We are served lunch, a choice of vegetarian char kway teoh noodles that Alex says were awful, Korean chilli and garlic chicken with rice and kimchi that B enjoys and braised wagyu beef with vegetables and polenta that I find very tasty. There’s warm focaccia to accompany the meal and later pine-lime Splice ice blocks are served.

Although I can’t see the map, I’ve flown to Japan enough times that I have a reasonable idea of where we are based on the weather and the turbulence map I consulted prior to flight. I know when we reach Papua New Guinea by the high cloud and embedded storms.

The seat belt lights are switched on three times during cruise. It is isn’t always accompanied by big bumps, but at one stage it does get a bit rough. And there’s little to see but white outside as we cruise through high cloud.

I still need to look outside, lowering the window halfway at the request of those who would rather a darkened cabin.

It is like this for hours until somewhere I’m guessing is north of Guam, none of the usual breaks.

When the first movie ends I switch to Avatar, again just listening to James Horner’s score. After that, American Beauty. All movies I’ve seen before, all which I don’t need to focus on.

I’m tired and this flight feels long. It’s a relief to see the ocean again and more scattered cloud, the rainbow haze beneath the clouds, the golden sun shimmer of late day light across the surface of the sea.

We are given boxes of cheese and rice crackers. I ask for a hot chocolate on a drinks run, but I think they forget to add the hot water. It’s a cool chocolate.

The day wanes and the hours count down, faster now in smoother skies. With less than two hours to go we are fed a dinner of either vegetarian risoni, roast chicken with lemon jus and potatoes or sesame garlic beef and rice. I have the beef and enjoy it, though it’s too rich to finish, B has chicken again and likes that too. The “raspberry blondie” is a piece of dense, too dry, cake.

As darkness falls I see the lights of a Japanese city below, then the scattered grid pattern of the squid fishing fleet.

Then we cross over South Korea. There are clouds below and the captain updates us that the showers haven’t yet disappeared from our destination, but that we’ve made up some time.

Finally, with less than half an hour to go, we begin our descent with the change in pitch, the crew coming through the cabin, the flaps and the landing lights penetrating the light low cloud.

Incheon Airport appears, shining wet from the rain, which seems to have stopped as we touch down on the runway.

We’ve made it! It was long, it was a bit bumpy, but I survived.

Fortunately we are quick to escape through the gates, as we have all had enough on board. It’s 19 years since we were last here and nothing is familiar. We fill out an immigration form but it doesn’t take long to pass through the gates, our luggage is on the belt when we arrive and everything seems efficient.

T-money cards are obtained from a convenience store, won from an ATM and then we make our way down to the AREX airport express train.

The train takes a little over 40 minutes to reach Seoul Station. I’m feeling bad that I can’t understand what is being said, unlike the English and Japanese announcements. I like to be able to speak at least basic phrases in the countries I visit.

The screen in the AREX cabin is harping on about how the Dokdo islands belong to Korea, not Japan.

When we reach Seoul Station there is some confusion as we discover our T-money cards have no money on them, then we board the wrong direction in the Line 4 subway.

It’s all sorted out two stations later and we emerge from the Dongdaemun History and Culture Park station exit right in front of the hotel.

The room is perfect (so far), but both Alex and B are still hungry after the flight so we head out again. Dongdaemun is where we stayed that one night in Korea nineteen years ago and, though it has changed, the wholesale clothing plaza nearby seems familiar. There’s a convenience store where Alex buys a sandwich and a couple of outdoor food stalls, where B gets a bowl of Shin Ramen noodles with fried items. I try a pluto pup, which is as good as expected. It’s a nice little way to get a taste of Korea right from the start, but Alex is tired and we quickly return after our meal.

So there we are, we’ve found our Seoul and tomorrow we start looking more deeply into it.

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