It was the traditional breakfast of thick rice soup with dried shrimp, roasted seaweed, pickled garlic, raw onion and beef with sliced raw chilli peppers, that was the first clue that I was somewhere that most definitely was no longer Kansas. This assault on my tastebuds so early in the morning was proof that, after 11 unpleasant hours in the air, I was finally in Seoul.
It’s barely possible to scratch the surface of Seoul in 48 hours. Especially when it’s pouring down with rain for the first 24 hours and jet lag is doing peculiar things to your sense of reality. This city of over ten million people is packed with fascinating areas to explore, and I’ve wanted to visit ever since my first trip to Korea last year. I was on my way to Australia so breaking the journey, even for 48 hours, seemed like a good idea.
There was a time when tourism largely ignored Seoul, the northerly capital of the southern, democratic half of the Korean Peninsular. That’s changing rapidly as rumours of the delights of the city leak out to the wider world. Last year over 16 million foreign tourists visited. That number seems likely to keep rising as Korean culture grows in popularity and travellers relate their tales of this fun, cultured and friendly city.
I arrived at Incheon International Airport in the middle of the afternoon. It’s an efficient airport and I was quickly on a train towards Seoul Station, the main railway hub in the city. A confusing transit to another line involved a long underground walk but I eventually got a metro train to my final destination, Jongno-ju, a youthful and vibrant area that mixes culture and nightlife in equal measures.
I was staying amongst a maze of small streets that are home to lots of restaurants, bars and Love Hotels. Although it sounds a bit dubious, it’s perfectly normal to stay in Love Hotels. Mine was brilliant. Hotel The Designers has individually themed suites, taking inspiration from anything from the night sky to children’s stories. I ended up staying in the Alice in Wonderland suite and, with the jet lag, I felt like I’d slipped down the rabbit hole.
I’d have happily collapsed onto the bed and slept for a few hours but, with only two days at my disposal, I decided to hit the streets and explore my new neighbourhood. Besides, it was Saturday night, the Mad Hatter was giving me a hard stare, and Alice was nowhere to be seen. It turned out Alice was in the shower, but I only discovered that the following morning.
On the streets, night had fallen and the world seemed to be bathed in neon light. Everywhere was busy with people enjoying a Saturday night out, and everything was a disconcerting mix of the ultra-modern and traditional. As I wandered around in a bit of a daze, I bumped into two university students who wanted to practice their English. We had a drink and they gave me some good suggestions for things to do and places not to miss.
Korean’s enjoy a night out, especially one involving a lot of alcohol, and the Jongno-ju district is a hotspot of nightlife. The whole place is crammed with bars that are open late and buzz with humanity having fun. I found my way to a brewpub – a bit of a craze in Seoul – where I sampled Korean sausages washed down with craft beer. Delicious. Refreshed, I headed back out onto the streets to take the pulse of downtown Seoul.
The pace of life here is ferocious and, as I wandered aimlessly amidst the partying chaos, the night was flying past. I popped into another craft beer pub and, while sipping a Korean porter, realised it was 2am. The jet lag suddenly kicked in. I managed a small snack from a street stall near the hotel before happily slipping into unconciousness in Wonderland.