I pull my jacket tight around me as we step out of Incheon airport and onto a waiting tour bus. The chilly air nips at my exposed skin. I wish I had chosen a jacket with a hood or checked the weather forecast before I packed my suitcase. It’s cold in Seoul in January, but that does little to stop me from seeing the city.
At Changdeokgung Palace
Our tour guide -N- holds up a sign written in black marker that reads 12.10 pm—letting us know when we need to return to the bus. The whiteboard obscures her face as she tells us not to film or photograph her. Though her tone sounds free of malice, I realize I’ve never heard a tour guide say this. I would object to being photographed without my permission too. Often, and this is when I notice the camera, it feels like a violation of privacy, or as if I am a rooted, inanimate object.
I pull my thoughts away from pictures – at least of myself – when we reach the entrance to Changdeokgung palace. Pillars the color of red earth separate the doorless entry from Seoul’s busy streets. An elaborate two-level roof sits on top; its corners curve towards the sky and remind me of open folding fans.
Inside, groups of Korean youth gather to take photographs against the palace walls. The pastel-colored skirts of their hanbok dresses sweep dry sand as they walk past me in pairs. Each dress is as whimsical and impressive as the last.
N catches me watching and asks if I would like to rent a hanbok to wear for the day–a popular and common practice. I shake my head to say no. I’m content to admire from afar, and the thought of changing out of warm clothes is not appealing.
We walk through the grounds at a relaxed pace. I listen to N recount histories of the royal families who occupied this place, but half of my attention is elsewhere. Looking around me, I see buildings with wrap-around windows surrounded by groves of trees and clear pools of water. The scene makes me consider what it would be like to live in a place that feels more outdoors than in. I’m not hesitant to think I would prefer it.
At 12:10 pm, we’re back on the heated tour bus. In my seat, I rub my palms together for warmth as N does a headcount and the driver pulls away towards our next stop.
On Insa-dong Street
Tucked into one of many crowded alleyways is a restaurant N. describes as “the best place to try Bibimbap”. Inside, sitting on cushions set next to a long low table, we enjoy the traditional Korean meal.
In a stainless steel bowl is white rice next to a tray of toppings: vegetables, a fried egg, and thin slices of beef.
I pick up each topping with clumsy chopsticks, even the ones I don’t recognize and mix them in with rice. Every bite is delicious but I’m eager to eat (and drink) more. So for the rest of the day, I stop at restaurants and street food carts, tea shops, bakeries, and cafes. The streets burst with vendors and there aren’t enough hours to try them all. Too quickly, it’s time to leave for the airport, to board a plane and leave Seoul again.
Good to Know
This is my second post from Korea, if you’d like to read about my first time in the country, you can do so by clicking here.
Getting to Korea: Non-stop flight from San Francisco (SFO) to Seoul (ICN) on Korean Air.
Transit Tours: The tours leaving from Incheon Airport are organized by Free Transit Tours. As long as you have a valid transit visa, you can stop by the kiosk in terminal 1 or terminal 2. They provide jackets and umbrellas (depending on the weather) on a first-come first serve basis.
At Changdeokgung Palace: There’s an entry fee of 3000 won (~2.5 USD) for adults who are not Korean.
Bibimbap: “Bibim” means to mix while “Bap” refers to rice. This meal consists of plain white rice served with a variety of ingredients for mixing
Hanbok: Traditional Korean outfits which were once worn regularly (dresses are often worn by women and pants by men) but are now usually reserved for special occasions such as birthdays, weddings and new years celebrations.
thank you for reading.
All photos shot by me and friendly strangers (shots of me) on iPhone XR.
Special thanks to our tour guide – N from Free Transit Tours who was friendly, knowledgeable and pleasant to be around the entire tour. And to my friend Saehee, who’s Korean-American and told me everything you’ve read about hanbok dresses.
Same footprints, Different sands
I haven’t really seen a lot of South Korean stuff in the media so this is such an eye opener! I think N’s gesture to avoid photos could be a great sign that not everyone is all about publicity… plus it makes you think about asking for permissions and all…
The architecture, street murals and fashion trends are very amusing.
P.s. how good are you with chopsticks?
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Yes! It definitely doesn’t feel good when I catch a stranger photographing me. I love the architecture! & for a while there I was decent with chopsticks but don’t think I’ve practiced enough to be fluid with them.
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This unnamed “N” has increased my curiosity! I loved this article. Welldone.
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