Sunday, March 5, 2017

South Korea: Snow Season Stroll in Seoul


After putting on my nth layer of clothing, I checked the temperature and braved the sub-zero weather from my guesthouse on the way to one of the great royal palaces in Seoul. A ray of sunlight softly kissed my cheeks, a relief from the frosty air, as I was crushing some shoved snow with my boots. I gently closed my eyes, smiled, and suddenly contemplated upon this opportunity of mine to travel and see the world. A simple tropical girl who never actually dreamed of experiencing snow is now on her first ever winter trip abroad, all by herself.

I am not the type of person who meticulously plans a trip by organizing a hardcore itinerary. I just do a quick skimming on what-to-do and where-to-go stuff online then jot it down on my old school travel notebook. On this particular trip, I initially secured a Korean Travel Visa from the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in the Republic of the Philippines before I searched for different guides on exploring Seoul during winter. I made my own Seoul Travel Guide for solo/winter trip which, I hope, would help you travel to kimchi land with ease, oh by the way, I never liked kimchi, sad.  


Just a little backgrounder; I am not into shopping or KPop songs and haven’t seen any Koreanovela series on TV, I haven’t even tried any Korean food in the Philippines so almost everything was a first for me, and I haven’t gone out of the Philippines alone. With no expectations or whatsoever, I carried on with the booking of my Manila to Seoul flight just because…

And oh, by the way, just so you know, my trip coincided with South Korea’s Seollal Festival which explained why the city was deserted. This most celebrated holiday in the country is a four-day celebration of the lunar calendar’s first few days. Having said that, more than half of the commercial establishments are closed during that time and locals usually go back to their hometowns to celebrate it with their families. Even the neighborhood of my guesthouse, Guesthouse Korea, was eerily quiet during those times. I haven’t foreseen that but nonetheless, the trip was a success and I wanna share with you what happened during the course of my four-day Seoul solo winter trip. No #SeoulSearching happened though. Haha.

*I will dedicate a separate post on my great Korean food trip*

N Seoul Tower
N Seoul Tower
I appreciate mountains and towers more from afar. 

Myeong-dong
(Line 4 | Myeong-dong Station)

Shopping, make-up, beauty products and more. I didn’t know why I chose Myeong-dong to be my first stop as I’m not fond of any of what I mentioned. Oh, now I remembered it. I was asked (more of coerced) by a friend to buy a certain liquid foundation (BB cushion) on a particular store in this area, like five of the same thing because she said that it’s so good and cheap in Seoul. As a devoted friend, I heeded her request and went there on my very first night in the city.

Myeong-dong Seoul
A haven for make-up addicts
I emerged from the subway station and struggled with the nippy late afternoon weather. It was -7 deg. C. and I was in full battle gear. As one of the main shopping districts in Seoul, I passed through an alley of cosmetic shops with cute and pushy sales girls who were giving me face masks just to enter their shops. I could’ve accepted their offers but I was too keen on achieving my goal, to find that certain beauty product that I have no clue what’s for. Haha.

Myeong-dong Seoul
Myeong-dong turns into a street market at night
Gladly, I fulfilled my goal in one go. I was given face masks as freebies which I immediately used when I got back home. And truly, the mask was pretty good and moisturized my skin well. Moving on, Myeong-dong is the go-to place for shopping and make-ups. As for the street food scene, it was quite expensive compared to different areas so I didn’t get the chance to try it out.

Myeong-dong Seoul
Shop. Shop. Shop.

Dongdaemun Night Market
(Line 2 | Dongdaemun History and Culture Park)

After the cosmetic enculturation in Myeong-dong, I took the subway train (Seoul Metro) and went to Dongdaemun Night Market for my first taste of Korean food. It was supposedly a busy place for shopping, again, but because of Seollal, only a few stalls for the night market were open. I searched for a nice dinner place and ended up on a roadside food stall in huge plastic tent with heater inside.

Dongdaemun Seoul
Dongdaemun night market
Dongdaemun is considered to be a major shopping district in Seoul where you can find bargain retail goods both in shopping centers and traditional markets. I went around and was in no luck to find anything that fancies me.

Dongdaemun Seoul
Dongdaemun Design Plaza

Changdeokgung Palace Complex
(Line 3 | Anguk Station)
Open Hours: Tuesdays to Sundays | 9:00 am to 6:00 pm (up to 5:30 pm during November to January)
Foreigners’ Fee: KRW3,000 (US$2.62) – adults | KRW1,500 (US$1.31) – 18 years old and below
Integrated Admission: KRW10,000 (US$8.73) for four royal palaces and one shrine.

I woke up early the next day, checked the temperature (sunny at -7 deg. C.) and braved the chilly weather for a full day of Seoul City exploration. My guesthouse was conveniently located in the middle of the royal palaces in Jongno area so I went on foot to my first destination.

Changdeokgung Palace Seoul
Early morning palace hop
Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, Changdeokgung Palace is one of the royal palaces in Seoul that is frequented by tourists to get the feeling of old school regal times in South Korea. It was used as the main palace for many kings during the Joseon Dynasty and was established in 1395. It is considered as one of the Five Grand Palaces that was built during the same era.

Changdeokgung Palace Seoul
Getting lost inside the pavilions
And because it was the first day of lunar calendar that time (Seollal), all palaces were free-of-charge so I walked in smoothly to the front gate and found out that there were still not that much visitors at that time. I quietly walked on the stone paths and got lost on the palace complex thinking how royalties have lived before.

Changdeokgung Palace Seoul

I was in the process of acclimating on the sub-zero temperature when I reached a certain area where I was left alone, away from the other tourists. I silently went into the narrow doorways and found myself lost in a maze of great wooden carvings and architecture.

I am no history buff but I appreciate beauty. I love the intricate designs of each and every pavilion. I love how it amazed me every time I step into a new one, like unlocking a new secret to a game of some sort.

Changdeokgung Palace Seoul
Changdeokgung Palace

Changgyeonggung Palace
(Line 3 | Anguk Station)
Open Hours: Tuesdays to Sundays | 9:00 am to 6:00 pm (up to 5:30 pm during November to January)
Foreigners’ Fee: KRW1,000 (US$0.87) – adults | KRW500 (US$0.44) – 18 years old and below
Integrated Admission: KRW10,000 (US$8.73) for four royal palaces and one shrine.

Moving on, there’s a gate inside the Changdeokgung Palace Complex that goes directly to my next stop, the Changgyeonggung Palace. Again, because it was the first day of lunar calendar that time (Seollal), all palaces were free-of-charge so the gates were freely open to visitors.

Changgyeonggung Palace Seoul
Changgyeonggung Palace
I went inside the gate and followed a path leading to a descending stone steps to the main palace complex. It was relatively smaller compared to the first one. Aside from a guy photographer, I was all alone exploring it.

Changgyeonggung Palace Seoul
Old school regal feel
Changgyeonggung Palace was built in mid-15th century by the then ruler, King Sejong which served as residential quarters for queens and concubines (gasp). The stone path was filled with shoved snow and the colors of winter perfectly blended with the maroon, white and grey ensemble of the villas. I sat on a stone platform, breathed some fresh winter air and imagined how everything was dynamic before. My daydreaming ended when I felt cold in spite of the midmorning sun beaming towards me.

I traced my steps back to the gate and emerged back to Changdeokgung Palace Complex for another round of getting lost moments.

Changgyeonggung Palace Seoul


Bukchon Hanok Village
(Line 3 | Anguk Station)

I checked my pinned location on my mobile map and realized that I was near another famous Seoul landmark. Still battling with the cold weather, I treaded the quiet city to search for a traditional Korean village that quite resisted the developments of the city.

Bukchon Hanok Village Seoul
Bukchon Hanok Village
The celebration of Seollal could be blamed for the closure of some quaint shops that lined along the main road going to Bukchon Hanok Village. I, on the other hand, am not fascinated much on shopping nor cafes so it was almost the perfect way to check out the locals’ way-of-life.

Bukchon Hanok Village, as the name implies, is a Korean village with hundreds of traditional houses (called hanok) that can be traced back to Joseon Dynasty. It lies on the north of two significant landmarks in Seoul, Jongno and Cheonggyeocheon Stream thus the name Bukchon (or northern village).

Bukchon Hanok Village Seoul
Meandering uphill and downhill alleys
Bukchon Hanok Village Seoul
Traditional village in the middle of Seoul City
I silently walked on a quiet street and got lost in a maze of uphill and downhill alleys (I love getting lost, in a good way). Some houses were converted into shops and cafes while some remained to be a dwelling place. I saw some who allows travelers to immerse into local culture by offering home stays and rental of traditional Hanbok dress.

I found an alley that wasn’t getting any attention from visitors. I sat on the narrow stone pavement and watched the goings-on from there. I loved that moment of stillness amidst the midafternoon chaos. At this point, I was starting to feel blessed to have the opportunity of traveling solo and enjoying each moment as compared to my melancholic arrival the day before.

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Gyeongbokgung Palace
(Line 3 | Gyeongbokgung Station)
Open Hours: Wednesdays to Mondays | 9:00 am to 6:00 pm (up to 5:00 pm during November to February)
Foreigners’ Fee: KRW3,000 (US$2.62) – adults | KRW1,500 (US$1.31) – 18 years old and below
Integrated Admission: KRW10,000 (US$8.73) for four royal palaces and one shrine.

Coming from Bukchon Hanok Village, I followed my mobile map that led me to a gate with huge number of visitors. Again, because it was the first day of lunar calendar that time (Seollal) and all palaces were free-of-charge.

All the while I thought that I was entering the most famed palace in the whole of South Korea but the signage said that I was at the National Folk Museum instead.

National Folk Museum Seoul
National Folk Museum
Tents for different Seollal activities surrounded the museum; free fortune-telling, free postcards (including sending it abroad), local food tasting, fun activities for the kids like kite-flying, and more. Locals and tourists alike were enjoying all the offerings.

After trying some of the treats, I went to one of the gates going to Gyeongbokgung Palace.

Gyeongbokgung Palace is considered to be the largest of the Five Grand Palaces in Seoul, South Korea. Built in 1395, it was used as the main palace during Joseon Dynasty.

Gyeongbokgung Palace Seoul
Hyangwonjeong
A two-storey hexagonal pavilion on an artificial lake
I went around the palace complex not knowing where to go and what to explore, but I loved it that way. I was getting used to the shoved snow that lined the paths and used my mobile map to track its enormous layout. There are numerous sentries, courts, pavilions and some bridges that filled the area. And because it was Seollal during that time, Gyeongbokgung Palace was filled with local families wearing their traditional Hanbok dresses.

Gyeongbokgung Palace Seoul
Jibokjae
A two-storey private library used by King Gojong
On the other hand, I searched for the main hall and was pointed to Geunjeongjeon (Throne Hall) where the main public activities of the then king were held. The stone-paved courtyard was covered with snow and the paths leading to the two-tier platform where the throne hall is located was filled with visitors. I veered away from the massive crowd and found myself on the cloisters that surround it.

Gyeongbokgung Palace Seoul
Geunjeongjeon
Throne Hall
I sat on the cold flooring and observed the goings-on from that viewpoint including the carved wooden columns that filled the covered walkway I took shelter in. After a while, my body got numb from the cold and went out of the courtyard all the way to the main gate, Gwanghwamun.



Cheonggyecheon Stream
(Line 5 | Gwanghwamun Station)

I was about to go to another palace and shrine when I realized that it was approaching the closing time for the said sights. So I joined the crowd who were walking towards Gwanghwamun Square were festivities were being held (I guess to celebrate Seollal), then my feet led me to a stream in the middle of the city.

Cheonggyecheon Stream Seoul
Cheonggyeon Stream
Cheonggyecheon Stream was once a waterway hidden under a paved road. It was not until 2005 when the government decided to restore it to its present state providing a place for those who are seeking tranquility amidst the bustles of city life.

Cheonggyecheon Stream Seoul
The stream is a go-to place for those who are seeking tranquility in the bustling city of Seoul
Coming from Cheonggye Plaza, I climbed down the downhill steps leading to the stream. I started the stroll and noticed the naked trees along the path. Some areas do have stone steps across the stream that can be used to go to the other side. I would’ve boldly crossed it if not for the fear of toppling over then falling to the uber cold water. I just took pleasure on seeing young kids who were happily crossing it.

Cheonggyecheon Stream Seoul
Me did not dare because of the cold water. Haha.
The bridges that cross the stream also have their own themes, passing through underneath these crossings will transport you to different worlds every time. I was starting to enjoy the very cold leisurely walk when I saw a certain stairwell and decided to end it. I didn’t finish the whole stretch but I loved my quiet afternoon walk.

Cheonggyecheon Stream Seoul


Insa-dong
(Line 3 | Anguk Station)

I emerged somewhere I dunno from my Cheonggyecheon Stream stint. I checked my ever reliable mobile map and realized that I was near an interesting place, Insa-dong. The place is known for its artsy finds, galleries, tea houses, restaurants and shops.

Insadong Seoul
Insadong, my favorite shopping neighborhood in Seoul
The whole stretch of street was closed to traffic because it was a weekend. There was a stall with cutesy trinkets displayed that caught my eye. Each piece was unique and the artistry was impeccable that I almost bought one (budget constraints that is). I bought a chopstick set for my cousin for her collection, ref magnets of cute kids wearing traditional Hanbok dresses for my mom, some artsy bookmarks for a friend and more.

Seoul Souvenirs
Artsy quirky local stuff
I love the vibe of Insa-dong. It is the anti-thesis of Myeong-dong. You could capture South Korea’s local culture through the art galleries and shops along the main road and the meandering alleys nearby. I would love to go back here next time.

Insadong Seoul
Tea houses on small alleys leading to the main road

Itaewon
(Line 6 | Itaewon Station)

Loud music and interesting restaurants welcomed me as I emerged from the subway station. Itaewon is considered as a shopping haven which is evident on the hundreds of retail stores that lined the busy road. I explored for a while and found some bars and restaurants but didn’t have the urge to try anything. I just had this feeling that this place wasn’t for me so I went back to the subway station right away and went to my next destination.

Itaewon Seoul
Itaewon, the party place in Seoul
Itaewon Seoul
I'm not a fan of shopping and night life, so I moved on to my next destination

Hongdae (Hongik University Street)
(Line 2 | Hongik University Station)

A friend of mine was crazy about Hongdae so I have to check it out for myself. Judging from the crowd at the subway station, I felt at once the youthful vibe of the next neighborhood.

Hongdae is known as a university town with quirky shops, art cafes, cultural events and a lot of androgen hormones. The place was made vibrant by the youngster crowd that filled the winding alleys. I was too famished to revel so I searched for a nice place for dinner.

Hongdae Seoul
Youthful crowd at Hongdae
I saw a particular restaurant that offers a legit Korean barbecue experience and queued to get in. When it was my turn, I was politely rejected for reasons I didn’t know. Maybe I was alone that the table for four would be such a waste. Defeated, I walked past the gaieties and looked for a restaurant or even street food that would satisfy my hunger. It took me a while to find one and then realized that I was too tired of going back to the merriment. I decided to head back home after dinner. Maybe next time it would be fun to hangout in Hongdae with a bunch of friends with me. Or maybe I couldn’t keep up with the energy level of the young ones, hello old age, that I didn’t feel that this place was for me. Or maybe I was just too hungry at that time so I didn't enjoy it as much as my friend did. Haha

Hongdae Seoul
Hongdae is too preppy for me

Jongmyo Shrine
(Line 1, Line 3, Line 5 | Jongno 3 (sam)-ga Station)
Open Hours: Wednesdays to Mondays | 9:00 am to 6:00 pm (up to 5:30 pm during November to January)
Foreigners’ Fee: KRW1,000 (US$0.87) – adults | KRW500 (US$0.44) – 18 years old and below
Integrated Admission: KRW10,000 (US$8.73) for four royal palaces and one shrine.

I specifically wanted to spend my third day on the outskirts of Seoul. I joined a tour group for this and while waiting for the 11-am call time, I explored a shrine that I missed the day before. Located just a few meters away from my guesthouse, I started very early and almost opened the gates to Jongmyo Shrine.

Jongmyo Shrine Seoul
Early morning stroll at Jongmyo Shrine
Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, Jongmyo Shrine is considered as the oldest preserved royal Confucian shrine dedicated to the continuance of memorial services for the deceased kings and queens during the Joseon Dynasty era.

Jongmyo Shrine Seoul
Gloomy weather + solo saunter
I went inside the quiet grounds and noticed that I was actually the first visitor of the day. The misty morning provided a nice setting for my early morning winter saunter. The naked trees that surrounded the shrine added to the drama.

Jongmyo Shrine Seoul
Getting lost on pavilions
I walked passed some gated structures and enjoyed my stroll reaching the far end. I went inside a gate to a hall and walked over the stone platform. And then I went to another one, and then another one.

Jongmyo Shrine Seoul

I was on my way out when I felt a slushy thing fell over my cheeks. And then something fell again. At that moment, I looked up the sky and then saw some white stuff falling over. It was snowing! I didn’t know what to do and didn’t even realize that it was my first ever snowfall. It was magical. As I carried on with my quiet stroll inside a historic shrine, I was fighting my emotions for this certain moment. I never dreamt of experiencing snow but it suddenly happened without a warning; a pleasant surprise. I stretched out my arms, closed my eyes and raised my head. It was surreal.


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