We had a break from school for Labor Day in China, so I decided to use the opportunity to travel to Seoul, South Korea for about a week to visit family, explore my roots, and see the city for the first time! I flew with Korean Air from Beijing into Gimpo airport, and met my great-uncle near his pharmacy in Dongdaemun, before going to their house in Hannam-dong, where I stayed for my time in Seoul.
Day 1: Chill Evening, Big News
The first evening, I chilled with my great-uncle & aunt at their pharmacy until it closed, catching up a little and watching the North & South Korean presidents meet at the DMZ on TV. It was big news, and a big historical moment, and very interesting to watch it happen from Seoul on Korean news and get some commentary and perspective from friends and family throughout my stay. After we arrived home, we had a nice dinner of bulgogi, japchae, vegetables, rice, and soup, and later in the evening we went on a walk along the Han River, passing by lots of little parks, many bikers and runners, and even seeing the fountain show on the Banpo Bridge. When we got home from our stroll, we watched more news on TV while sitting on the floor drinking beers and eating asian pears, and flipped through our family lineage book. A very nice first evening in Seoul; I felt so happy to be there with family I hadn’t seen in a while, and so excited to learn more about my family’s cultural heritage.
Day 2: Folk Village, Cityscapes, Latenight BBQ
The next full day, my uncle and his family came over to the house, and we had a yummy breakfast before driving a little south of Seoul to a Korean folk village. The first thing we did was eat lunch — nangmyeon & pajeon on a lovely outdoor patio by a river. For the rest of the afternoon we explored the village, watching music parades, horseback acrobatics, and even a traditional wedding ceremony. We also saw a lot of old-style buildings and activities like pottery and weaving, and ate a ton of delicious snacks like yeot, sausage & rice cakes, and jujubee tea. The weather was lovely, and we also stopped by a folk museum, which introduced a lot of the traditional Korean lifestyle and festivals, many of which I was familiar with and had experienced myself. After we finished wandering the village, we raced back to Seoul just in time to catch our boat for the evening Han River cruise with my great-uncle & aunt. The boat set out around sunset, with views of old Seoul & new Seoul while we drank some beers with sausages, passing by many different bridges. Eventually, we watched the Banpo Bridge fountain show & some fireworks near Youeido. We also listened to a jazz performance & took lots of photos. Since we didn’t have time for dinner before, we went for a late-night “meat” dinner at an open-air bbq restaurant, with lots of grilled galbi, galbi-tang, and soju.
Day 3: Family & Food
The next day, we all planned to visit our family mound, where generations of our ancestors are buried and will be buried in the future. To get there, we drove an hour or so east of Seoul along vistas of the Han River & neighboring mountains. It meant a lot to me to visit this place. Although my own grandparents are buried in the U.S., I really felt connected to my family, and reading their names on the lineages inscribed on the back of the stones was quite surreal. After doing a kind of traditional jesa ceremony with dried fish, pears, and rice wine, we had some snacks in the pavilion near the mound, and headed to lunch. Lunch was a delicious spread of sam — kind of like lettuce wraps. I honestly ate so much because it was just so good. From there, we went back to Seoul, but got stuck in really bad traffic. We parked near my uncle’s house, walked around a little in the Yaksu market area, then took the metro to Insadong to meet more relatives for dinner. Dinner was also very traditional Korean-style, with things like pork sam, fried fish, and many bowls of makgeolli rice wine. After dinner, we walked down Insadong street for a little bit looking at various shops, then went home, munching on chestnuts on the way.
Day 4: Seoul City Tour
Next: a very long “city tour” all over Seoul with my uncle. After a chill breakfast of tteok (rice cakes) and coffee (we were still so full from the day before), my great-aunt drove us to the Korean War Museum, and we started our day from there. Actually, the museum was closed since it was a Monday, but we still got to see some of the memorials for the fallen soldiers from all over the world, as well as the outdoor exhibits. While there, I was struck by how devastating the war was, and how big of an impact it’s had on Korea to this day. Next we took the metro to Gwanghwamun Square, and saw the big statue of King Sejong, who invented the Korean alphabet and script, increasing literacy for the people. We also tried on some hanboks there, and saw the U.S. Embassy across from the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After that, we went to the Gyeongbokgung Palace, where we saw lots of people wearing hanboks, incredible architecture, and the National Folk Museum, but lots of empty spaces as well, since much of the palace was destroyed by the Japanese when they occupied Korea. Our next stop was the Samcheong-dong area of old Seoul. We saw my grandfather’s old house, which is now a cafe, like many of the old buildings there, which have really unique blend of traditional architecture and modern style. We also had lunch of rice bowls, soondubu-jigae and kimchi-jigae, then did a little shopping as we walked to Insadong. Of course, we did more shopping for traditional crafts at Insadong, then walked around downtown Seoul on the way to the Myeong-dong shopping area. There, we ate some yummy street food like gun-mandu and chicken skewers, and looked in some cosmetics shops. The next place was we went was Namsam Park in the middle of the city, where we took a cable car to the top of the mountain, and went up the N Seoul Tower for views of the whole city. We waited up there enjoying the view until the sun set, so we could get night views too. After that, we went back down the mountain, and taxied to Gangnam to play a virtual reality 3D game, which was really cool and intense. It really felt like you were there! To end the night, we got chimaek — Korean fried chicken & beer! A relaxing & delicious end to a long but fun day. Super thankful to have had my uncle as such a great guide! 😉
Day 5: Dongdaemun Markets, Sinchon Student Area
One place we hadn’t visited the day before was the Dongdaemun area, so the next day we set out to explore the market area. First, we walked around in the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, which was designed by one of my favorite architects — Zaha Hadid. Inside had a lot of cool design shops, a museum, and a food area, where we ate “school food” of sundae, tteokbokki, and fish cakes. Next, we went to the Mygliore market, browsing floors of clothes, bags, etc. We also had a quick look at the Doota duty-free market, which had a much different vibe. That area also has a big night market, so it seems constantly busy. After that, I took the metro to Sinchon to meet my friends I had met last semester in Beijing who study around there. First, I met up with HK for dinner on the Sinchon pedestrian street, then we went on a little tour of his uni — Yonsei University. While waiting for our other friend Hyewon to arrive, we had some pie at a place called Pie Hole, then after she arrived we all went for a beer. Next we all went to Hyewon’s uni — Ewha Woman’s University, passing by lots of cute shops, and to finish our time together, we paid 500won (50 cents) to sing 2 karaoke songs at a KTV. All in all, it was a good time hanging with them, seeing what the young people do, checking out some of Korea’s most well-known uni’s, and reminiscing on our past semester together at Beida.
Day 6: Shopping in Itaewon & Sinsa-dong Garuso-gil
The next day, all of my family was back at work, so I had the day to myself for some last minute shopping & looking around. It was rainy all day, so I used the public bus to get to Itaewon, where I bought a lot of cosmetics from shops like Inisfree & Olive Young, ate a pizza for lunch at Pizzeria d’Buzza, and looked in lots of really cool and aesthetically pleasing shops that were much too expensive for me. Then I took the bus across the river to Sinsa-dong, and walked along Garuso-gil, another very cool street with lots of interesting shops. I found some nice clothes at a place called Indiebrand, but otherwise just browsed. Eventually, I went back home for a rest before dinner with the family at a Korean-style Chinese restaurant. There, I met one of my great-aunts, and we had lots of yummy things like gun-mandu, jajangmyeon, and noodle soups. To end the night, we hung out back home, chatting and eating more asian pears. Finally, I said goodbyes to my uncle & his family, and did some packing for my flight the next morning.
In the morning, my great-uncle & aunt sent me off via airport bus to the Incheon Airport, which was a comfy ride, with sunrise views of fog rising over small islands. I could imagine why Korea is known as the “Land of the Morning Calm”, and I felt really sad to leave after such an amazing week with family. I will forever be thankful for their hospitality, all the great food I got to try, and all the stories and memories of my grandparents they shared with me. Family is the center of Korean culture and life, and was the highlight and purpose of my trip. Over the week, I missed my own grandparents so much, and really wished they could have been there too, but I know they would have been happy that I finally got to come to Korea and learn more about my family’s history.