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Travel
August 09, 2019

Some Seoul Searching

Text by Tina Dastur

On a recent holiday in Seoul, Tina Dastur finds herself falling in love with South Korea’s spirited capital – its attractive cityscape, addictive nightlife and delicious local fare

I admit that I am no seasoned traveller. I took my first overseas trip only two years ago, to Maldives, and followed it up last year with a tour of Jordan, Israel and Egypt. These sojourns had me thinking about what the best way to discover a new city is. Especially as I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of getting lost – just the thought of having only yourself for company and tracing your own path in unfamiliar territory is all so romantic. But that thought remains only until you actually get lost, and realise very quickly that it isn’t quite as rosy as you had imagined it would be. And it was on a recent trip to South Korea – the home of viral music band BTS – that I discovered both the joys and horrors of getting lost in a foreign land.

I am invited, with a small group of select journalists hailing from different parts of Asia, for a short tour of Seoul, organised by Marriott International, and along with my co-travellers, I am put up at two of Marriott’s Select Service Brand properties – Courtyard by Marriott Seoul Botanic Park and Four Points by Sheraton. After touching down at Incheon airport on a pleasant Tuesday afternoon, we are driven to the Courtyard by Marriott Seoul Botanic Park, Magokjungang – our abode for the next two days. After unpacking, I stick my nose up against the floor-to-ceiling windows of my room to check out the view, which is punctuated entirely by enormous LG industrial complexes, which include R&D centres and science parks. I then scurry down to the lobby’s Garden Kitchen restaurant for our welcome dinner, where a band of young local girls serenades us with soul-stirring renditions of The Beatles classics Obladi Oblada, Hey Jude and Let It Be on traditional Korean string, wind and percussion instruments, as our personalised dinner menus are presented to us. A radish-covered fruit and vegetable roll, soft shell crab salad and roasted mero fish later comes the big daddy of Korean dishes – the bibimbap, a nutritious and flavoursome concoction of rice, meat and sautéed vegetables mixed with gochujang (a red chilli pepper paste) and often, topped with a fried egg. Dessert is omija punch and rice cake – a strange but interesting mix of flavours and textures.

Of peaceful nature walks and groovy dance routines

The next day, I wake up re-energised and slip into my workout clothes for what promises to be a fun morning. As the sun peeks out from behind the clouds, we tour the still work-in-progress botanic park. Carpets of green, decorated with flowers of varying hues in full bloom, envelop us, and gardeners silently and diligently go about pruning and planting in patches, unperturbed by our camera clicks. We are told that the park will feature four different zones – viz. forest, lake, wetland and cultural areas – that will span 47,000 square metres, as well as activity spaces like a plant museum, art centre and playground for children.

Next up on the agenda is a K-Pop-inspired workout at the Idea Garden room…because which trip to South Korea is complete without that? After some basic stretching, we groove to TT by the girl band Twice, and then to BTS’ Fake Love for the better part of an hour. At noon, we assemble in the Ballroom for the Select Service Brands Luncheon, where Mike Fulkerson, Vice President, Brand and Marketing Marriott International Asia-Pacific, gives an enlightening presentation on Marriott’s Select Service brands, viz. Courtyard by Marriott, Fairfield by Marriott, Four Points by Sheraton and Aloft Hotels. Lunch follows – an impressive spread of grilled meats, mini burgers, sandwiches and on-tap local brews, courtesy the Four Points’ signature Best Brews programme.

 

Our tummies full, we are driven to one of the upmarket shopping districts in the city – Hongdae. As our vehicle climbs the intersecting flyovers over the Han River, sheets of rain fog up the windows, but I still manage to catch fleeting glimpses of the wispy mists that hover faintly over the jagged peaks of the mountains that circle the city far off in the distance. Once at Hongdae, we are ushered into the fashion store Style Nanda and promptly taken up a narrow, winding staircase to the Instagram-worthy Pink Pool Cafe on the rooftop for croissants, pastries and coffee. The cafe seems straight out of a Wes Anderson film, bathed as it is in cheery candy-floss pink, right from its walls and floors to its sofas and countertops. A section at the far end of the cafe houses a small pool surrounded by bubble-gum pink recliners and neon signposts that spell out ‘Love Much’, ‘Hello There’ and ‘Lovely Things’…and needless to say, it quickly becomes the pit stop for all photo ops.

Of striking structures and riverside picnics

Post shopping, we visit the impressive Fairfield by Marriott – the first in Korea and the largest in the world – in the Yeongdeungpo-gu district for a quick tour. The drive into the city reminds me why Seoul is a lesson in modern design. With its imposing buildings in all sorts of logic-defying shapes – including one in the shape of a ‘K’ and another that looks like it is seemingly split in two – panelled entirely with sheets of glass that glint as the sun bounces off them, the city is evidently an architectural dream. I never thought architecture could be so fascinating and am constantly on the lookout for oddly-shaped structures on the drive to our next stop, Hangang Park, on the banks of the Han, where a farm-to-table-inspired picnic awaits. We sit on throws laid out on the dewy grass and eat fresh local produce under strings of twinkling fairy lights, as we marvel at the sun dipping behind the horizon, blanketing the city in a deep navy hue. The night still young for a few of us, we stop off for a homely meal of crispy Korean fried chicken at a hole-in-the-wall eatery across the road from the hotel before calling it a day. Here, I take a walk on the wild side and sample a bug soup, too. The bug is essentially the larvae stage of a butterfly’s life cycle, and the less said about the taste, the better. Thankfully, there is enough heady soju at hand to quell the bitter aftertaste.

Post a quick breakfast we are driven to the Four Points by Sheraton, our home for the remainder of the trip, which is located in the most action-packed part of the city – Gangnam-gu. After settling in, we make our way to the property’s Penthouse Party Room for a luncheon, where I nibble on jumeokbap (rice balls made using fermented kimchi cabbage, tuna and seaweed), pockets of fried japchae (Korean stir-fried noodles) and barbequed meat, and guzzle craft beer from The Booth Brewing Co. Later, on a tour of the property, we learn that they have a sauna facility available for both men and women as saunas are a huge deal in Korean culture. In fact, it’s hardly surprising for a bunch of friends to catch up at a jjimjilbang (public bathhouse) at the end of a tiring week to blow off some steam.

Of retail therapy and cultural competitions

Later that evening, we set out to explore Gangnam. As we amble down to the Garosu-gil street in Sinsa-dong, I notice the sidewalks speckled with cosmetic surgery clinics. It’s no secret that the Koreans take great pride in their looks, and if you walk down the streets of Apgujeong in Gangnam, it’s not uncommon to find women with nose guards and tiny bandages on their faces where they’ve got work done. Once at Garosu-gil, we are free to spend an hour as we wish. Lined on both sides of the street is everything from high-end fashion and beauty boutiques and quirky stationery shops to fancy galleries and quiet cafes. As I walk leisurely down, peeping into spaces that pique my interest, I’m met with a serpentine queue outside the local skincare boutique, Innisfree. I quickly understand why. Yes, it’s that magical four-letter word every shopaholic lives for – sale.

Not one for beauty products, I scuttle through the crowd and make my way back to the hotel to get ready for the evening’s big highlight that is to be held at Hotel Aloft in the city’s Myeongdong district – Project: Aloft Star Asia Pacific, a music competition aimed at recognising the best talent from the Asia Pacific region, spearheaded by Marriott International’s Aloft Hotels, in partnership with Universal Music Group & Brands. The finalists for the 2018 edition come from South Korea, China, Bangkok, Australia and India, and each one belts out foot-tapping original compositions. At the end of the thrilling night, it’s Indian contestant Hanita Bhambri from Mumbai, who sings the heart-rending Let Me Go – a song about her having had enough of living others’ dreams – who is crowned the winner.

Of nocturnal nibbles and karaoke sessions

Those of us who still want to explore the town after the competition ends walk down to Myeongdong’s celebrated street-food alley for some local snacks. But, I don’t think any of us could predict just how busy the area would be at that late hour. Tented food carts and stalls (locally called pojangmachas) selling everything from scarves and socks to random knick-knacks line both sides of the street, and towering above them are even swankier luxury department stores and international fashion boutiques. Unmissable is the hulking Lotte Department Store, lit up in all its glory, on the opposite side of the road.

The thing that strikes me the most about Seoul is that it is a city that loves colour – loud and bold ones at that – and so, it’s quite the spectacle come dusk. Myeongdong is no different – all stores, big and small, tall and short, are illuminated with larger-than-life signboards that spell out their names in dizzying hues. Being an unadventurous eater, I settle for deep-fried prawns and soft-shell crabs, washing down the oily aftermath with freshly-squeezed kiwi juice. After being told by our tour guide that Myeongdong is comparatively reasonable for shopping as compared to Hongdae and Gangnam, I decide to pick up some souvenirs. A few of the more nocturnal animals in our group then head to Cube Music Town in Gangnam for a lively and electrifying karaoke session. As I scarf down a variety of finger foods and chug pint after pint of Asahi and Cass beers, my confidence grows steadily and I find the courage to sing along to Beyonce’s Single Ladies, Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn and R.E.M.’s Losing My Religion.

Of steaming coffee and shopping shenanigans

On the last day, the morning starts with a visit to Ikseon-dong, one of Seoul’s oldest and most historic neighbourhoods, that is studded with neatly-lined rows of traditional hanok houses that have been transformed into fancy concept stores and eateries, albeit with the original structure intact. It is yet another rainy day, and so we hurriedly wind our way through the slim lanes of cobbled stones into Seoul Coffee, a quaint cafe that inhabits an old hanok house. As we huddle inside, we are handed some intriguing beverages, which include rice punch, pumpkin latte and Vienna coffee, and even a cumquat ice-cream. We then stroll down the alleyways and I notice one hanok house nearby that has been transformed into a mini bookstore that retails The Simpsons comics and merchandise, while another has a large glass window on its exterior through which I notice a baker kneading bread in his open kitchen. We are then left to our own devices to figure how we want to spend the rest of our day before the farewell dinner, which is slated to be a traditional Korean barbeque at a popular restaurant called Tuppul Deungshim in Yongsan-gu – it’s the meal I’ve been looking forward to most. I am keen on visiting Zaha Hadid’s iconic Dongdaemun Design Plaza, but since it is some way off, I decide against it and choose instead to accompany a few friends back to Myeongdong for some more retail therapy.

Myeongdong looks altogether different in the daytime than it does at night. With none of the loud lit-up signs and crazy crowds to distract me, I realise how labyrinthine the neighbourhood actually is. Navigating our way through lanes and by-lanes, we are overwhelmed by the sheer number of stores, boutiques and stalls that fences us in. Since it is lunchtime, we park ourselves at a tiny eating joint tucked into an inconspicuous building for a quick meal of bibimbap. The version we sample here is much tastier – it comprises soft chunks of beef, colourful veggies and obligatory sticky rice mixed with gochujang and sprinkled with a generous dose of sesame seeds, presented neatly in a heated stone bowl. We while away the next few hours darting in and out of shops, picking up everything from local shrimp-flavoured chips to snail gel face masks, and then some. Time slips through our fingers, and before we know it, we are racing to get back to the hotel.

And so it begins….

Of solo excursions and moonlit strolls

I wouldn’t call it a series of unfortunate events, but rather one badly timed decision that leads to me finding myself at a crossroads in the city, all alone and without WiFi. A few days prior to my trip, a friend of mine from back home sent me a picture on Instagram of a gorgeous library in Seoul, which is situated inside Starfield COEX Mall – the largest underground shopping centre in Asia. Eager to see it on that fateful Friday, I decide to make a dash for it against my better judgment and that of my companions as well. A longer-than-anticipated cab ride later, I arrive at the mall, feeling all too triumphant. When I get to the library and finally set my eyes upon the vast expanse of books that looms over me, I know I’ve made the right call. The space is drenched in silence, and it is comforting to see people engrossed in books and magazines. It will be disrespectful to leave without buying at least one book, I tell myself, and so I spend some time scouring the undulating shelves for a couple to add to my collection. I pick up quite a few that pique my interest but realise soon enough that even though the covers flaunt English titles, the pages inside are printed entirely in Korean. Disappointed, I eventually compensate by clicking copious pictures of the library from all angles conceivable. Like Alec Baldwin’s character Parker from Friends, I even take a mental picture of the space for memory – ‘click!’

And then it happens. I can’t find a single empty taxi. I am at a literal crossroads, with zero knowledge of Korean (except annyeonghaseyo – ‘hello’ In Korean – thanks to the fridge magnet I had picked up earlier that afternoon) and no mobile network. I am disoriented and on the verge of tears as I try desperately to find the vaguest hint of a phone signal near one of the corporate complexes in the area, when, by coincidence, I spot two Indian men crossing the road. The universe sure does work in mysterious ways. At their insistence, I trash the idea of a taxi and instead, walk briskly to the subway station at the turn of the footpath. It is the Samseong station on the green line. As I stare blankly – and evidently, helplessly – at the crowds of commuters streaming past me, a young girl stops to help me out. I didn’t ask her name, but I’ll never forget her. She whips out her phone, opens Google Maps and patiently tracks the nearest station to the hotel, which turns out to be Apgujeong, and not Gangnam as I had predicted it would be. After switching trains and transferring to the orange line, and with a little guidance from a fellow commuter, who, coincidentally, is also heading to Apgujeong, I am at my destination in under 15 minutes. I feel victorious walking out of the subway, only to land up somewhere…but I’m not quite sure where. I walk straight ahead to see where the road takes me. The surroundings look altogether unfamiliar, and even more so because it is dark by then. I see the silhouette of a building that looks like the Four Points by Sheraton, but at that point, I’m so harrowed that I really can’t be sure of anything. A ten-minute walk later, much to my relief, I arrive at the hotel, but this time, from its rear entrance. No wonder the surroundings puzzled me…. The kind receptionists book me a cab and I finally make it to Tuppul Deungshim for the big barbeque – much later than expected, but there nonetheless.

Stuffed after scarfing down carpaccio and bulgogi and sufficiently buzzed after downing a few flutes of white wine, a few of us decide to accompany our tour guide to the Banpo Romantic Moonlight Market at the Banpo Hangang Park, which is situated on the southern side of the Han. As we make our way down the double-deck bridge, we stop to take pictures against the backdrop of the famed Some Sevit – a cultural complex comprising three man-made floating islands, titled Some Gavit, Some Chavit and Some Solvit – which is beautifully lit up in a variety of contrasting hues. The market itself is lined with tented stalls and food carts selling merchandise and snacks by local chefs and artists and there are any number of youngsters and couples indulging themselves. After browsing the space twice over, I walk to the edge of the stretch and fix my eyes on the sparkling cityscape which is reflected clearly in the dark, still waters of the Han. A surprisingly calm and peaceful end to what has been a chaotic and distressful day….

The next day, I’m in the aircraft, fastening my seatbelt for the flight back home and wondering where the days went. When the stewardess comes up to me to ask if I’d like bibimbap for lunch, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed at not having had more time to experience Seoul’s magnetic culture. Back at my desk in Mumbai, as I’m writing this piece, I rifle through brochures and pamphlets, when I come across a detailed map of Seoul’s subway system, with its many intersecting lines and unpronounceable station names. My eyes stray towards Samseong and Apgujeong, and I can’t help but smile….

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