Seoul searching in South Korea

honestly, I have mixed feelings about our time in Seoul. when we visited, the city was a complete opposite of what we had been told to expect. thanks to our arrival on the eve of lunar new year, the bright and bustling city of 10 million was not much more than a ghost town. and the whole experience was negatively colored by jet lag and the fact that I ate nothing but a handful of granola bars our entire time in South Korea.

how did we even end up in Seoul? we had a 20-hour layover on our way back from New Zealand. South Korea was not really on the way to Taiwan, but the airfare was cheap. it was bitter cold and we were all exhausted from three weeks of travel, and many shops and restaurants were closed for the holiday. and after all the planning that went into New Zealand, we had utterly neglected to research anything about what to eat, see or do while in Seoul.

the morning after our arrival we woke to empty streets. I went in search of coffee to fortify myself. the only place open at 8am was Starbucks, but wonder of wonders, in Korea [unlike Taiwan] they believe in the power of soy peppermint mochas. I'm ashamed to say that might have been my most enjoyable moment in Korea.

I look at the photos and I see a beautiful and unique city. but I just feel... bleh. so bear with me as I do my best to tell you what we saw, mostly by accident. [I only know the names and facts because I took pictures of all the signs - which helpfully had english translations.]

bosingak belfry

we had less than four hours to explore the city. so we wrapped ourselves in every layer of clothing we had and walked towards this large bell pavilion we had spotted on our drive in the night before. apparently you can book tickets here to see a traditional bell-ringing ceremony... but of course not on the lunar new year. I'm not sure if the little cartoon bell we saw on streetlamp everywhere was related, but he sure was cute.

jogye-sa temple

we left the belfry and went in the opposite direction, serendipitously discovering this temple which happens to be the headquarters of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. [kindof a big deal.] the grounds were a bit of a mess, as they were clearly setting up or taking down for a new year's celebration. but the buildings were still lovely.

one of my favorite things about traveling in Asia is finding the differences between each culture's temples. so how does a Korean Buddhist temple compare? definitely more colorful than Japan, but similar in materials and structure. I loved all the greens, teal, and turquoise in the painted decorations and the silver guardians were an interesting touch.

sadly, whatever peace and enjoyment our visit to the temple brought me was squashed in a few short minutes during a trip to the restroom. many temples offer public facilities - usually not western style or the cleanest, but when you need them they are often there. as a white foreign female I occasionally have trouble in Taiwan being ignored and cut in front of while waiting in line. my experience in Korea was far worse. I felt like a filthy stray animal who had wandered where they did not belong, just begging to be spat on or kicked at. I was literally shoved out of the way, given dirty looks, and ultimately left the restroom nearing tears and ready to leave the entire country behind.

gyeongbokgung palace

by the time we reached the palace I think all of us were about done. the masses had begun to emerge, and we quickly tired of the crowds. [especially me, after my restroom experience.] we opted not to go inside as we didn't know how long it would take, and the ticket lines were insanely long. instead we wandered the surrounding neighborhood where the streets were more quiet.

insa-dong neighborhood

after a few dead ends, we stumbled into what could only be Insa-Dong. we had heard such good things about this maze of shops and alleys. I think a visit on a non-holiday, a weekend afternoon or evening this place would have been hopping. as it was, we couldn't even find an open place that the four of us could agree on to eat. [part of this being we know nothing of Korean cuisine. #travelreasearchfail.] our fingers and toes and noses were numb, we were starving, and we still had to find our way back to our hotel to get a cab to the airport. so we just left.

I don't mean to sound like such a downer about our whole experience - this city clearly has potential. we just weren't there in the right moment, or in the right frame of mind to see it. I think with more planning, and at a different time of year Seoul could have a lot to offer. our visit was mostly cold and confusing - and hungry. we were all coming down off the New Zealand high and I think not yet ready to be re-immersed into Asian culture.

this feels like one of the strangest posts I've ever written, but I can't bring myself to give you a shiny and cheerful account of Seoul when that was not my experience. we saw some beautiful things, had a few enjoyable moments, but our short time in South Korea left me feeling bewildered. I don't want to say I didn't like it, but I definitely didn't love it.

but hey- at least this was a place I didn't have to feel awkward about using my selfie stick.

have you ever been to a place that was completely unlike your expectations? do you have any recommendations that might help me enjoy Seoul if I ever go back?

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