Category Archives: Travel

Blood in the Footsteps of Emperors – Noryangjin [노량진] and Deoksugung [덕수궁], Seoul, South Korea

Landing at Incheon International Airport [ICN] around 6:00 AM, my wife and I were ready to begin the day in Seoul.  We had a several-hour layover to make the most of, and faith that a visit to the Noryangjin Wholesale Fisheries Market [노량진수산시장] would make the lengthy and expensive taxi ride (>1 hour, >$70) into town worthwhile.

It was a very cold February morning and the market was dotted with small stoves heating meals, tea kettles, and of course the vendors.

We walked up and down each aisle, observing the variety of sea life represented – some familiar, some unfamiliar, and some of it mounting an escape attempt.

We exited to the south and refueled with pretzels and coffee (lattes were about $4.50) at Tom N Tom’s Coffee, a chain with several locations throughout Seoul in the red hot – some say overheated– café culture, before hailing a taxi.

The warmth of the taxi and the enclosed space revealed to us that we smelled bad.  BAD.  Like seafood restaurant dumpster bad.  We had spent the earlier part of the morning tramping through blood and puddles of runoff.  In the cold, open air of the market, it didn’t seem like much, but all the while it was wicking up into our jeans, and now it was decomposing.  Our driver was polite and cracked a window without saying a word.  I made a mental note to stay outside until we dried off.

Arriving at Deoksugung [덕수궁], I couldn’t help but notice the juxtaposition of the new and the old.  The ancient palace was across  a very busy street and an open square from the very modern Seoul City Hall [서울특별시청] building.  The traditional palace guards face down a Dunkin’ Donuts.

We weren’t quite sure what we’d find inside, but the entrance fee was only ₩1,000 (about $1).

Inside, the ancient nestled among the modern, with a heavy dose of surveillance technology.

But gradually the distractions melted away into palatial grandeur.

The gift shop was stocked with tasteful merchandise, with attention to traditional Korean motifs and supporting local artisans.

Our pant legs dry, we hailed another taxi back to the airport and bid Seoul goodbye.

Follow this itinerary:

Wherever you’re going in Korea, be sure your smartphone will reproduce Korean characters or that you bring a printed version of the name of your destination in Korean characters.  The proportion of English-speakers is lower than you might expect and in some cases Romanized names (e.g. Deoksugung instead of 덕수궁) can be of no help.

Expect to pay about $70 each way for a taxi from and back to the airport.  It’s a long ride.

Buses are about a quarter of the cost, but take a little more time.  Seek help at the bus information desk.  You’ll likely find an English-speaker there to write out your destination in Korean.  The experience feels a little like when the teacher pinned a note to your shirt in grade school.

An exchange rate in the ballpark of ₩1,000 = $1 means that currency conversion is easy.  Just chop off three decimal places.  That alarming ₩15,000 bus ticket is about $15.

Incheon International Airport [ICN] to Noryangjin Wholesale Fisheries Market [노량진수산시장 – free to enter]:

Noryangjin Wholesale Fisheries Market [노량진수산시장] to Deoksugung [덕수궁 – ₩1,000 (about $1) to enter]:

And Deoksugung [덕수궁] to Incheon International Airport [ICN]:

Single-Serving Friends – Overnight in Gangnam-gu [강남], Seoul, South Korea

With a trip to Seoul, South Korea on the horizon, I find myself reflecting on the single-serving friends I made during my first visit there.  I say ‘single-serving’ because I never expected to see, or think of, or feel much about them again.  Little did I know that I would feel deeply for them over the months that followed.

It started with a 24 hour layover in Seoul.  On the heels of the incredible popularity of PSY’s Gangnam Style – the song being a jab at poseurs living large in the wealthy Gangnam-gu neighborhood – how could I resist a taste of the Korean good life?

I arrived at Incheon International Airport [ICN] in the late afternoon, cleared customs with my colorful visitor information form, and booked a bus ticket for the long ride into the city for ₩15,000 (about $15).  I had already settled in on the Ritz-Carlton in the Gangnam-gu neighborhood, after reading a review that commented: “There is nothing here that a tourist would be interested in.”  Sold!

My suite had two computerized commodes with heated seats, and a curious smoke mask that looked more like a supervillain transformation kit.

Out in the bitterly cold February night air, it was getting dark and the restaurants in the nearby alleys were already teeming with nightlife.

I found a pork barbecue restaurant by spotting its neon pig. I settled in and opted for the full portion of do-it-yourself barbecue.  My hosts stoked my in-table hibachi and brought me various cuts of pork and a wide array of mix-and-match sides and sauces, explaining popular preparations for each.

I tended my pork carefully, but apparently not to local standards, given how often the host tended to me versus other patrons.  He was my first single-serving friend.

The only thing that might throw the average Western traveler was that water was served from a used plastic bottle. I drank it anyway without consequence. Your mileage may vary.

Back on the street, it was darker out and even more bitterly cold.  I walked up and down the lanes to take it all in. I walked for an hour before seeing another Westerner.  I stood out at 200 lbs and sporting a full beard.  Some people gave me a wide berth on the street.

I checked out the Gangnam Style sign and watched groups of young Koreans bubble up from the train stations below ground.

I ventured across a major thoroughfare into a more residential neighborhood. I found stalls displaying goods late into the night.

Finally succumbing to the cold, I headed back to the Ritz for the ultimate Gangnam experience, club Eden. As I strolled up to the entrance, a Ferarri and other high-end European cars rolled in.  Cover was a bit steep at ₩30,000 (about $30), but included your first drink (Miller High Life were ₩10,000, $10).  It was among the most intense nightclubs I’d ever been in.  First and foremost, deafeningly loud.  Music, lights, fog, confetti, mirrors, lasers, and air jets all assaulting your senses.  Some patrons threw their arms around me, saying “celebrity” and gesturing at my beard and all of the Western (read: Hollywood) connotations that came along with it.  I made some more single-serving friends.

The next morning, ears still numb from Eden, I noticed that many young women were dressed in the traditional Hanbok.  They were celebrating the “Festival of the Moon,” as they called it for me in English, although I think “Lunar New Year” may be more common.  One young woman greeting guests at the Ritz posed for a photo with me.  She seemed disappointed for me that I only had the prior evening and the remainder of the morning in the city.

I headed out for a walking lunch of dried squid and bottled double espresso.

My last single-serving friend was a young woman who gave me an approving nod and smile after taking note of my lunch.

In the days that followed, tensions would escalate with North Korea enough to draw global attention.  I thought back to everyone I’d met and the lingering pain they must feel from separation, the longing to reunite, the acute stress of a hostile neighbor, and the redoubling of the pain knowing that families may be split across both sides of a violent conflict.

I think back on my single-serving friends from time to time and wish them well.

Rewards of the Road Less Traveled – Black’s Beach, La Jolla, California

The road less traveled is so for a reason.  Sometimes there’s no comfort, no companion, no certainty, no room for error and no safety net, or no way back.  But sometimes, at the end of the road, the reward is welcoming respite, a singular sensory experience, and pure magic.

That was the case for me at Black’s Beach, La Jolla, California.  It wasn’t the easiest to find, with a walking path originating at the intersection of two winding residential streets, behind a nondescript black gate.  The walk down was long – and the walk up longer, but the amazing sunset against the slight fog hanging in front of the cliffs made it all worthwhile.

(click to view larger)

If you’d like to get to Black’s Beach, UCSD maintains a convenient guide: Black’s Beach: Access and Safety ‘Beautiful but dangerous’