Not much gives me stress when I travel. There is always the chance of getting lost but I see that as an adventure. There is always the chance of not being able to communicate but I've always been able to connect. There is always the risk of getting sick, but … it hasn't happened yet (knock on wood).
The food in South Korea is absolutely phenomenal and diverse. Probably the best cuisine I've had outside of France. Menus are primarily in hangul, which makes it difficult to know exactly what you are getting, but this didn't pose a problem; the perfect blend of spice and sauce in every dish made me forget – or perhaps ignore – whatever the specific ingredients were.
My favourite place to eat was a hole-in-the-wall near the Lotte Hotel. I'd visit every other day as it was delicious and, more importantly, affordable. Cost of sustenance was the only thing I was unprepared for during my holiday. Seoul is not a cheap place to dine out. Even street food, located in trendy shopping districts and full of impulse buys, was costly. The first few days I was concerned with how my lack of planning (and restraint) would affect my travel budget but then I decided to just screw it. You only live once and when in Seoul, you must eat the mystery meat. And the milky-textured soda. And the "poop" bread.
Sounds gross, but everything was seriously delicious.
Every day I would walk roughly 30km around Seoul. The same distance a soldier would have to hike during training while carrying 30kg of weight on their back. I would often find myself carrying a haul of beauty products found only in Korea. This is another industry that the nation is keen to become a world influencer in.
Plastic surgery is very commonplace (the New Yorker even cites South Korea as "the world capital of plastic surgery") but it isn't the overtly-obvious type found in North America. In comparison, it is characterized by very subtle refinements and enhancements done by some of the most skilled surgeons on the planet, most of which have offices in Seoul's most affluent district, Gangham. I wasn't here for this purpose though. My nose, eyes and breasts are exactly the same since I was a teenager and shall remain as such, for better or worse, until I die. As someone who spends entirely too much money in Sephora though, I was interested in their beauty products. This is where I was introduced to the power of … snail secretion.
Asia has a lot of strange beauty rituals. I can't personally vouch for all of them (just wait for my upcoming Japan posts), however, I will state that the women are beautiful and their skin is FLAWLESS. This is what I desire. A lifetime of acne-scarring, crater-sized pores, and living in an unpredictable, harsh climate has made me seriously self-conscious about my largest body organ. While in Seoul, I bought everything – and I do mean everything – in an attempt to fix this or at least fool myself into thinking so for a few hours. Cleansers made from colloidal glacial clay, BB creams, "essences" of things I can't pronounce. There were also masks of all types containing everything from lemon to mugwort to pearl, and for every body part from the face to lips to feet to certain unmentionables. The one that curiously produced results for me was a facial mask described as including "snail slime extract to calm the skin and help improve skin damage". It's bananas. My skin glows. I don't know what I'll do when I run out, but it may be cheaper for me to book another ticket to Seoul than to waste further funds in my local mall.
I didn't just leisurely walk this pedestrian-friendly city, I also hiked above it. Within Seoul's massive perimeter lies the world's most visited national park: Bukhansan. A few transfers on the subway from the main business district brings one to an ecological paradise that rests in stark contrast to the hustle-and-bustle of the city that surrounds it. At first I was a bit lost when trying to find the entrance but then realized that, yes, I did have to walk through an active freeway construction site in order to get to it. Of course. Development can't be – won't be – stopped.
Amidst lush flora, trickling waterfalls and spectacular rock formations, I hiked over 123 stories (according to the health app on my iPhone) until finally reaching a Buddhist temple perched on one of the park's peaks. There was a lot of activity. A corporate retreat was underway; as well, a lot of Seoulites make this pilgrimage daily. They appeared to do it with relative ease. Whereas I regularly needed time to catch my breath amidst the wheezing, they motored through with purpose and dignity, wearing appropriate clothing and using trekking poles to wisely balance weight. I didn't even have a bottle of water and was woefully unprepared for just how "intermediate" this intermediate trail was. But I made it. The view at the top and feeling of achievement was well worth it.
I lost my grip and stumbled on a particularly steep portion of the trail on the way down. A woman in front of me came to ask if I was okay; or at least, that's what I assumed. She didn't speak English and I didn't properly learn Korean. Sincerity is a trait that cannot be faked though. She offered me some bread and we continued the descent attempting to communicate via other means. She pointed out interesting rock carvings that I previously missed and showed me where natural, drinkable water sources were located.
At the base, we went our own ways but when I later hopped on the crowded subway to return to my hotel, I felt a tap on my shoulder. The same woman I had shared my afternoon with was also riding at that moment. I was happy to see her again. In lieu of a common language, I used images to express my love of her hometown, showing her some of the pictures I had been taking during my time in Seoul. She seemed pleased by this. As her stop approached, she smiled warmly and gave me an embrace. I knew in this city of 25 million – and this world of 7 billion – that I would probably never see her again, but she gave me a memory that I would carry forever.
That is the purpose of travel.
This was one of the most memorable moments of my trip. I happened to be walking by Bosingak (a historic bell that signalled the opening and closing of the ancient city gates) just before noon and noticed a number of people congregating for the bell ringing ceremony. I entered and watched as a number of children got to participate. After the penultimate chime struck out, we were all asked to surround it and place our hands overtop of its massive surface. As it was hit one final time, the reverberations echoed through my entire body. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before.