01 February 2014

More Seoul Searching

Much to the surprise of many friends, I planned a trip back to Seoul for January.  I knew it was going to be cold, but it was the best airfare I could find, and there was certainly a lot more for me to see.  I decided that since I had spent the fall visit doing a lot of outside sightseeing, a winter visit would be a great opportunity spend time inside in museums.

The flight departure and arrival times were the same, but our route went up towards Alaska and then down through Japan.  And despite a slightly delayed departure, we arrived a little early.  This time, with my expedited entry all set up, I could go straight from the plane, through the automated immigration gates, and directly to the information counter to purchase my 3-day transit pass.  However, this time, I had to use it on my arrival day, as taking the Airport Express train would not put me right at my hotel.  For this trip, I chose to stay at the Conrad Seoul, a relatively new property.  Part of the reason was I got tired of going down and up the hill to the Millennium Hilton every day.  But also, I could get from the subway station to the hotel without having to go outside.  So, at the airport, I boarded the airport rail commuter train.  Because it was late in the day, the train did fill up quite a bit along the way.  My station was the next to last station (Gongdeok) and transferred to the #5 subway line for two stops (Yeouido).  From there, I headed into the passageway towards the IFC Mall and to the Conrad lobby (about a 10-minute walk).

My upgrade to a suite was ready at check-in, so it wasn't long before I was in my very nice room.

The suite came with two large TVs that were connected to Apple Mac computers, so that I could use the TVs to access the Internet via the standard Mac OS interface.  I could also easily connect my phone and iPad to play audio and video through the TV system.  This was especially helpful, as the one item I ended up forgetting to pack was my laptop charger.

After settling in for a little bit, I headed to the very nice Executive Lounge.  The lounge was not very crowded and the food and beverage offerings were more than adequate for a light dinner.

There was this table of snacks, a counter with hot food selections, and refrigerators with desserts and juices.  Additionally, it was a great place to watch the sunset.
Breakfasts were just as good.  The egg dishes were made to order.  And even in the middle of winter, there was a selection of fresh fruit to have, as well as Korean porridge, breads, and cereals (with soy milk as a choice).

Since my body was operating as if it was six hours ahead of local time, I was ready for bed, which i did after planning my strategy for my first full day.  I knew I would wake up early, so I wanted to leverage that with fitting in as much museum time as possible before my planned lunch at a place called Si Wha Dam.

The first museum I visited was the Korean National Museum.  It was located just across the river and has free admission.

I learned a lot about the history of the people of the Korean Peninsula.  Most of the exhibits and historical background narrative had an English translation.  Getting there early meant I messed the big crowds, which came later and continued to come in just as I was leaving.

My next destination was lunch at a Korean fine dining restaurant.  I had applied for a reservation there several weeks ago in the website.  I had never received a reply, so I wasn't really sure if I had a table or not.  I headed over via the subway and a long walk up a hill past a few embassies to an area near the Hyatt.  The website said the restaurant opened at 11 am for lunch and my reservation was supposedly for 11:30.  I arrived early and the building looked nice, just as described on the website.  However, it appeared to be closed.  I walked around in the cold until 11:30 and returned and it was still closed.  I decided I would hang out at the Hyatt and then come back one more time at noon.  Still closed, so I gave up.  I decided to head back to the hotel and see whether I could still get in for dinner.  On the way, I went online with my phone and went through the process again of booking a table, but this time for dinner.  It looked like dinner would work, but again, no email confirmation.

When I got back to the hotel, I spoke with one of the Executive Lounge Concierge staff.  I explained what I had tried to do and where I would like to go for dinner (Si Wha Dam at the Itaewon location).  After several minutes, she got back to me and said that the Itaewon location was closed because of lack of reservations, but the Insadong location was open and would take me, although they usually only do the full-length tasting menu for two people at a minimum.  I said that would be fine. The Insadong location would be a little easier to get to than the one in Itaewon, and I was already familiar with that shopping street where the restaurant was located.

It was an interesting experience.  I became much more acquainted with Korean cuisine.  Some of the presentations were very nicely done.

To read the full write-up of the meal, click here.

The next day, I had a full slate of places to visit.  First off, I headed to the Samsung Leeum Museum of Art.  This is a private museum, so it was not free.  But it was definitely worth the visit.  The museum is dived into three sections -- two permanent collection sections and a special exhibition section.

They don't allow pictures to be taken inside the main part of the museum.  But you can take pictures outside.

And you can take pictures of the stairwell that takes you down.

They have one of the nicest antique Celedon ceramic exhibitions that I've seen (all Korean).  That alone was worth the price of admission to me.

When I got to the special exhibition, which was in a connected but separate wing, I saw people taking pictures, I pulled out my camera. As I was framing a picture, a security person came over and told me I could not use the camera.  But I could take pictures with my phone.  I complied, but I wasn't really sure what the difference was.

After I finished at the Leeum, I hopped back onto the subway and headed to the Seoul History Museum.  It was located on the other side of central Seoul, about a 10 -minute walk from the closest subway station.  It has free admission for everyone.  Through displays of artifacts and explanations in multiple languages, I learned about how the city of Seoul (only named as such when it ceased to be a colonial possession of Japan after the second World War) has a long history of being a population center and capital for the Korean people.

One of the best exhibits in the museum is a scale model of the entire Seoul Metropolitan area.  Not only could you walk around it, but you could walk over and above some of it on clear floor tiles.

After my visit to the Seoul History Museum, I had one more stop before heading back to the hotel for food and beverages.  I headed to the Yongsan Electronics Market.  It's not really a single market building, but a section of the city of around 20 buildings or so within which are electronics and video vendors of all types.  Some stalls were set up outside (even in winter), while inside the buildings, the maze of vendors seemed almost endless.  It was like Akihabara in Tokyo, except not quite so linear and involving many more people selling things from light bulbs, to cables, to laptops, to gaming systems, to computer components.

After a quick recharge at my hotel, I headed out one more time to take a look at an area called Dongdaemun.  This is Seoul's garment district.  One twist though is that it is open all night.  It opens at around 10:30 am and closes at 4:30am.  During that time, it's all lit up and designer vendors set up in several large buildings entice you to look at their latest creations and to buy something.  Buildings that look like huge department stores are actually floors with several small vendors on each floor selling clothes and accessories.  It was full of people even for a Sunday night.

The next day was my departure day, but not until late in the afternoon.  Despite the late departure, I decided to stay in the hotel since my 3-day transit pass would not be valid on my final day in Seoul (although I easily added money to it so I could get back to the airport the same way I came out).  It turned out to be a propitious decision.  It started snowing overnight and continued with snow showers throughout the day. I really did not want to go out in the snow.

Also, even though it was Monday in Seoul, the NFC playoff game with the 49ers would be played around 11 am Seoul time.  I just had to figure out how to get it (the local Fox Sports channel was not broadcasting the game).  For some reason, while I could not receive the broadcast on my personal devices connected to the Internet, when I used one of the Mac PCs connected to my TV in the room, I could browse to Fox Sports Go and pick up the game.  So it all worked out (except the 49ers lost).

For foreign airport departures, especially those far from the city center, I give myself a lot of time to travel to the airport, even when rail transport is involved.  On my last visit to Seoul, it was very easy to take the Airport Rail commuter train (non-Express).  This time wasn't so smooth.  I left my hotel at 2 pm (for a 6 pm flight).  I caught the subway almost immediately to the transfer station for the Airport train.  The Airport trains run about 15-20 minutes apart during the day.  I ended up waiting almost a half hour before one came.  There were some announcements (only in Korean) over the PA system, so I began guessing there were some system issues.  Also, the signs were not showing any trains headed towards my station anytime soon.  But despite the announcements, most people stuck around, so I decided to wait.  Eventually, the signs indicated a train was headed to the station (the station is one away from the end of the line).  The train seemed to take longer to arrive than the time indicated by the signs.  The train came and was pretty full, so it was clear some sort of problem had delayed service.  Once aboard, I thought it would all be good.  Not quite. . .  . For the next few stations, the train moved at a very slow speed.  It wasn't until we were over halfway to the airport that the train moved close to normal speed.  What would normally be around a 1-hour trip was almost 80 minutes (not including my extended wait time.

I guess this is why I have a large buffer time built into getting to the airport.  Once at the airport, I had to walk to the main terminal from the station and turn in my transit pass for my deposit to be refunded.  I then headed upstairs to check in for my flight.  They rate the time of getting to the gate area at around a half hour.  Fortunately, security was not bad, and I used the electronic gate for immigration.  Then, it's a little walk to the shuttle train to the gates.  I had about a half hour in the Asiana lounge to grab a snack and drink before it was time to head to the gate.

It was still cold and snowy outside, so our departure was delayed a little because we had to de-ice the wings after leaving the gate.  But, even with the late take-off, we were able to take advantage of tailwinds and arrive just about on time into SFO after a nice flight.  We landed at the same time as the Singapore Air A-380 and did not beat them into immigration.  but with Global Entry and no checked luggage, I was still through pretty quickly.  I headed to the United Arrivals Lounge for a quick shower and snack before they closed before heading home on an unusually sunny and warm day in San Francisco.

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