First impression: more dongs than you can shake a stick at.
We landed at Incheon Airport after a rather miserable flight. Having been cooped up in flying fartboxes for the past 18 hours, we were ready to get to our hotel and get some proper rest. But first, we had to pass through Incheon itself.
The airport is relatively new (built in 2001) and very futuristic in aesthetics. Its large, sweeping arches, random curves and overall sleek design makes it look less like an airport and more a spaceport.
If, one day, Korea does decide to adopt Incheon as its interplanetary spaceport, it needs to do something about the lines to get anywhere. After getting off the plane, we had to wait in a very cramped, very packed room just to get onto the automated people mover that takes you to immigration and customs. Unfortunately I do not think there was any other way to get to where we needed to be, so we had to wait for several six-minute intervals before packing into the train.
Then we got to immigration and customs. The queue area was more of the same, packed and very hot, with no circulating air. The lines themselves were also very slow to progress. It was amusing to hear the people-moving carts for the handicapped buzzing through and blasting electronic renditions of Fur Elise to clear the way.
Korea, as a nation, institutes mandatory military service for all males once they come of age. North Korea requires a 10-year commitment, whereas the South only requires 4. It was very odd to see baby-faced soldiers patrolling the airport, openly wielding AR-15s. That’s not even something you see all that often in America.
It had probably been over an hour after stepping foot off the plane by the time we were free to leave the airport.
Incheon may be rated #1 airport in the world but it’s a meaningless metric when you’re exhausted, been in flight for the better part of a day and facing being crammed into hot, crowded rooms with stagnant air and waiting around for trains
There are two (perhaps more) trains that depart Incheon for Seoul proper; you can take the regular subway or you can take the A’REX express. Conventional travel guides say that the express is expensive (USD $15 per person versus $4) and only shaves 15 minutes off your trip, but we were exhausted and subways are for plebs so we sprang for the express.
The A’REX is extremely comfortable, a smooth ride, spacious, speedy, and you get reserved seats. If I recall correctly, they even roll a snack cart through that you can buy refreshments from. What’s not to love? Take the regular train and you might find yourself standing for the entire hour it takes to get into the city.
We took the subways on subsequent days. They have safety gates up to keep people from accidentally falling onto the tracks. Since the platform is fully sealed it has the added side benefit of not blowing debris into everyone’s faces when the trains pass through.
One thing the subways had that I have never seen anywhere else is hazmat equipment readily available. First the military personnel in the airport, then the hazmat equipment in the subways; there were also more than a few signs indicating directions to fallout shelters from the streets…grim reminders that Korea is very much a country that lives under a constant threat.
The funny thing about this is that the abstract threat of terrorism has been used to cow Americans into increased defense spending, militarization of municipal police, expanded surveillance programs and a general feeling of unease. South Koreans have a nasty neighbor to the north with a demonstrated capability of flinging military-grade SCUDs within range of Seoul, yet aside from increased vigilance and emergency preparedness life carries on as normal. Korean police (and there are 4 of them on every street corner) are still armed with little more than standard-issue batons; they’re not driving around in MRAPs and dual-wielding grenade launchers for traffic duty.
The subways were very clean and had an abundance of vending machines stocking Xylitol gum. We convinced ourselves that it was nicotene gum, for no discernable reason. I didn’t try any because I didn’t want to develop a nicotene habit or find out opiates are sold in subway vending machines. For the record, I have since confirmed Xylitol is some kind of plant extract and has nothing to do with nicotene or opium.
Funny thing about the subways– we’d heard all manner of horror stories about how crowded the subways in Tokyo were going to be, the stories of the white-gloved subway monitors manually shoving people into overpacked cars like cattle, yet despite our travels throughout Japan at all times of day, peak seasons or no, we never found it to be that bad. Seoul, on the other hand, lived up to every warning we’d heard about Japan’s subway crowding. Seoul Metro is standing-room-only almost all times of day.
Stepping out of Seoul station, the culture shock immediately hit us.
Japan has a thing about it being impolite to blow one’s nose in public. Korea has no such qualms; people were spitting and blowing their noses directly onto the sidewalks. Full-frontal, knuckle-deep nasal penetration was on display everywhere. It was more than a little off-putting.
We tried hailing a taxi but were beaten to the punch a few times by people literally stepping into traffic and all but yanking the existing passenger out of the cab before jumping in themselves. This was too competitive for us (especially with all our luggage) so we wandered down the street a little and tried to hail a cab before it neared the station.
It worked! But our driver was not familiar with Hotel Sunbee, and our attempts to convey “[the nearest landmark to our destination is] Jonggak station” were met with confusion. Korean is not a language of obvious enunciation; everything is a lot more guttural than we were used to, and on more than one occasion we accidentally let something slip in Japanese. Korea and Japan have a less-than-friendly history so it was always cringeworthy when this happened. Making things more complicated was that all the street names are nothing but a sea of things ending in “-dong” so it made it a little hard to remember where we were supposed to be going.
Our driver was infinitely helpful though, and went to the trouble of calling the Korean equivalent of 511 to contact the hotel for directions. He chatted with us in English about the nature of our visit and recommended some cool things to see around the area before turning down a dark alley and coming to a stop.
Stories like this never end well in other parts of Asia, but he inched the cab down the dark alley, further and further into the darkness, then made one final turn, and there the hotel was. Hotel Sunbee is not in a very obvious location.
His service was impeccable and no tip was expected.
The people in general were wonderful; very polite and very patient.
Hotel Sunbee was very impressive despite its lack of street visibility. Friendly staff, clean facilities; we checked in and went to sleep.
Koreans drive on the right side of the road. Fun fact: at least in Georgia, anybody with a valid Korean driver’s license can just exchange it for an American license since the traffic laws in the States are so similar.
Almost everywhere we went, there was a mountainous view in the distance. It was very refreshing, and beat the claustrophobia of being surrounded by trees everywhere at home.
Just like New York, Seoul’s streets have the unfortunate attribute of smelling like sewage, especially near subway steam vents. But unlike New York, there were no homeless people sleeping on them– they preferred to sleep on the terraced stairwell underneath Jonggak station. Their situation was absolutely dismal; it was freezing at the time, they were using plastic tarps for blankets and some of them had no shoes.
On one of the trains, a beggar made rounds asking for money. After being rebuked by some of the native Koreans, he approached us. We did not oblige him, and in fact his solicitation of us in particular drew the ire of another passenger, who yelled at the beggar in Korean while motioning at us. We’re not sure what that exchange was about.
We weren’t as adventurous as we probably should have been, but our experience was thus:
- Convenience store pastries. Generally dry, tasted almost stale. Choco Pies in particular looked tasty, but they had weird crunchy bits in them. This became a recurring theme. I fell in love with the little loaves of milk bread.
- Bakery pastries. Paris Baguette stores are ubiquitous, but even in what appears to be a proper bakery things tasted stale and some items had chunky bits. Pastries should not be chunky. The steamed cheesecake and steamed potato cake were both delicious. Orange juice was served hot, which was unexpected but not unheard of.
Tous Les Jours, while being expensive, was consistently good. They distinguish themselves by adding honey to everything and it makes a difference. I think we enjoyed every random item we ate there.
- Bulgogi. Maybe we didn’t get proper bulgogi, but what we were served was fatty, chewy, and tasteless. As we became more iron deficient we ended up eating at McDonald’s a lot more.
- Meatballs. Somewhere in Myeongdong she bought some meat off a street vendor, some meatballs on a stick served with tzatziki. She loved it.
- Kimchi. For me, it was too spicy to have any taste. For her, it was disappointing in that it was served cold.
- Hite MAX beer. Too weak to be beer, too strong to be champagne. Beats Miller High Life, the other champagne of beers.
Beats us. We didn’t travel to the other side of the planet to mall crawl.
We did spend an inordinate amount of time trying to find me a plain, simple backpack. Our efforts were unsuccessful. I blame PSY for making everybody think Gangnam was actually a worthwhile place to go shopping.
One thing I did notice though was that despite there being a ton of boutiques in places like Myeongdong, they all seemed to be franchises. At first glance there looks to be a lot of variety but in the end it’s the same few stores over and over. It’s globalization at its ultimate worst– competing franchises with the same name on every streetcorner.