Sunday, 17 April 2016

Jean's Korea Stopover: Touring Seoul Like A Local!

Three years ago, when my my kumare Maria had a stopover at Incheon International Airport for a few hours before her flight to London, I was able to tour her around Seoul in record time! 
      (Seoul Station is the premiere train 
                   station in Korea)

This time, Jean, another friend who lives in California, was flying back to the US and had a few hours of stopover at Incheon International Airport. So, it's another day to tour Seoul again! In record time!

Over the years, people have asked me if they would be able to sneak out of the Incheon International Airport and roam Seoul during their layover. My suggestion has always been to join the free transit tours offered at the Airport because these transit tours have a bus and a strict timetable to stick to, allowing passengers to make it back to the airport for their connecting flight.

But the disadvantage of these tours is that they only visit a few tourist spots and stay close to one area. 

I, however, always have other ideas for my tourist friends passing through Incheon Airport. And that is to run around Seoul on a marathon tour, while riding the local transport system like a local! Those transit tours can't beat that!

And so, when Jean flew in at Incheon Airport and had a few hours to spare, he simply took the Airport Railroad Express (AREX) train from the airport to Seoul Station! And from there, we ran around Seoul during that cool, spring April day just in time when the cherry blossoms were proudly blooming. 

I took notes of our tour route and timetable so I could share it here for everyone to try out in case they also have a few hours' layover at Incheon International Airport.

Here it is:

STOP 1 @ 9AM: Seoul Station - arrival, quick coffee and breakfast

Taking the Airport Railroad Express (AREX) train to Seoul, Jean arrived at Seoul Station for a quick breakfast! There are cafes and donuts shops inside the Seoul Station, and we just grabbed a quick breakfast.

Transport: Leave the main Seoul Station building and head down to Subway Line 1 to go to City Hall Station, the next stop. 
Or you can take either of these Blue Bus Numbers: 506, 150, 501 at the Seoul Station Bus Transfer Hub going to the Seoul Plaza. Make sure when you take the bus, the direction is towards the left if you're facing out of the Seoul Station.
             (By the Cheonggye Stream)

STOPS 2,3: 9:40am @ Seoul Plaza and Cheonggye Stream

From Exit 5 of City Hall Station, we roamed around Seoul Plaza and headed down to the Cheonggye Stream for more photos.

              (Greeting Admiral Yi)

STOPS 4,5: 10:10am @ Gwanghwamun Square and Gyeongbuk Palace

Seoul Plaza, the Cheonggye Stream, Gwanghwamun Square and Gyeongbuk Palace are a few hundred meters to each other. For this stop, we were able to see these tourist spots within walking distance.

At Gwanghwamun Square, the statues of   Admiral Yi Sun-Sin and and King Sejong are the most popular photo stops.
         (Courtesy call to King Sejong)

And by walking the entire length of Gwanghwamun Square, we ended up at the front entrance of Gyeongbuk Palace. We just crossed the street after!

We didn't buy any entrance tickets as we didn't need to enter the main palace. Jean just posed in front of the palace! And that was it! He already stepped into South Korea's premiere royal palace within an hour of his first breakfast in Korea! Ha-ha-ha! 
      (A royal visitor at the royal palace)

And from Gyeongbuk Palace, we walked towards the bus stop in front of the Sejong Arts Center and waited for the Blue Bus 402 which would take us to Nam-san (Mt. Nam) for the cherry blossom road!

STOP 6: 11:10am @ Namsan's cherry blossom road near Namsan Park

The cherry blossom lane was just across the bus stop, and we didn't need to trek up Nam-san towards the Seoul Tower; we could see it from where we were. We just roamed around the park and joined other international and local tourists admiring the blossoms that cool spring morning!
                (Cherry blossom lane)

From the Yongsan Library Bus Stop, we simply took Blue Bus 402 (or 405) going down to our next stop, Namdaemun Market. 

STOP 7: 12noon @ Namdaemun Market 

                     (Market day!)

Since it was lunch time, we stopped by the small binddaeteok restaurant near Gate 2 of Namdaemun Market and went for some hotteok dessert at the most popular sweet hotteok stall in the market!
                    (Korean snacks!)

From Namdaemun Market, we just strolled towards Myeongdong shopping area since it was just about 400 meters away.

STOP 8: 12:40pm @ Myeongdong shopping area and Myeongdong Cathedral
             (Myeongdong Cathedral)

We walked around the busy Myeongdong shopping center and ended up at the other end where the Myeongdong Cathedral is located. 

From there, we walked towards the highway nearest the Cathedral (turning right if you're descending from the Cathedral steps), and waited for Blue Bus 470 (or 471). The direction of the buses should be towards Namsan tunnel. 

The blue bus ran through the tunnel, passed through Yongsan's Hannam-dong (my neighborhood, actually!), crossed the Han River via Hannam Bridge, and brought us to Gangnam Station! We were right in the middle of the priciest commercial real estates in Seoul! 

Yes, Jean crossed the Han River on a Seoul bus through one of the busiest bridges connecting northern and the southern Seoul!

STOP 9: 1:20pm @ Gangnam Station and Psy's Gangnam Style

We headed to Exit 11 of Gangnam Station where, next to it, was Psy's silhouette declaring it's the Gangnam Style spot. There's actually a big button behind this small stage, which plays the pop song when pushed.
             (Psy also welcomed Jean!)

From there, we took the train from Gangnam Station (Green Line 2) towards Sadang Station. At Sadang Station, we transferred to the Line 4 (Blue Line) for a train that would take us back to Seoul Station.

STOP 10: 2:10pm @ Seoul Station

Jean made it back to Seoul Station past 2PM in time for the next express train trip back to Incheon Airport. The express train took less than 45 minutes to reach Incheon Airport, where Jean would wait for his boarding time around 4PM.

By the way, at the Airport Express train terminal, there is a shop where you can leave your handcarry bag for a fee. 

                     *  *  *  *  *

So, there! With free hours during his stopover at Incheon International Airport, Jean was able to run around Seoul, rode the efficient transport system of buses and subways, tried Korean dishes and visited the most popular tourist spots like a local! And even got a Gangnam Style welcome!

And in case you also want to do this transit tour, here are some important reminders:

1. For the Immigration officer to allow you to leave the Incheon Airport, you will need to present the boarding pass for your connecting flight as well as your travel documents like your passport.

2. Get a Seoul map from the tour desk at Incheon Airport and familiarize yourself with the places you want to visit.

3. Take note of your connecting flight's boarding time and the AREX train schedule going back to Incheon Airport.

4. Decide on what time you should be heading back to Seoul Station's AREX terminal and rush back immediately if you think you'll be pressed for time, even if you're not finished with your DIY tour. Always remember, you have a plane to catch!

5. Buy a T-Money transport card and make sure you have enough load for the bus, subway or taxi rides.

6. You will need cash in Korean won when you're buying from small stalls and shops.

7. Have fun on your adventure! We did!

                    *  *  *  *  *

IMPORTANT: Make sure you incorporate in your travel time going back to the airport the following:  train schedule, train ride, x-ray security check at Incheon, Immigration check and walking time towards your boarding gate.

I HIGHLY suggest you should be on the airport express train on the way back to Incheon Airport at least TWO (2) HOURS before your BOARDING TIME to allow an hour for the train ride, and another to get through the long queue at the airport security and Immigration. 

MAKE SURE your watch, or smartphone clock, is synchronized with Korea Time!

Saturday, 9 April 2016

April 9: Remembering Bataan Day

On April 9, 1942, more than 80,000 prisoners of war made up of Filipino and American soldiers of the United States Army Forces in the Far East, or USAFFE, surrendered to the Japanese forces in the province of Bataan, Philippines.

Of that number, there were about 70,000 Filipino and about 12,000 Americans. Two of those Filipino soldiers were the brothers of my aunt, Nanay Juling. She once told me that when she was young, after World War II was over, her father sent her to the USAFFE offices to claim benefits entitled to their family. Since she was the one who could speak English in the family, her father sent her. 

Those who surrendered that day in Bataan were made to walk for more than 100 kilometers to San Fernando, Pampanga, in the next province, where they would be loaded to freight trains up to Capas, Tarlac, in another province, and walk further up to Camp O'Donnell, where the so-called Death March ended on April 17, 1942.

It was called the Death March because these prisoners of war walked with no food and water, sick, malnourished and starving. And in the tropical Philippines, April is a very hot month, and walking with torn shoes under the hot sun along mosquito-infested countryside would beat any able-bodied man physically. With no food and water, anyone who could no longer carry on to walk was just killed (perhaps bayoneted) along the way; others were simply left to die by the road side, including those who probably contacted malaria. 

And today, along with all of you celebrating the spirit and courage of those who served to defend the Philippines during World War II, I pay tribute to their memory and nationalism, and their gift of the ultimate sacrifice.

                                *  *  *  *  *

At the National Museum of Philippines, I chanced upon these painting by Filipino artists depicted the horrors of World War II:

            'Rape and Massacre' in Ermita by Diosdado M.           Lorenzo shows Japanese soldiers raping and                slaughtering women in a family home 

          An untitled painting by Manuel Rodriguez 
  showing a Japanese soldier about to behead a father, while the mother and child beg for his life

    'Death March' by Dominador Castaneda showing dead Filipino soldiers lying on the road, while other soldiers help each other get through the March

    'A Tragic Lesson (The Fall of Bataan)
   by Gene Cabrera

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Seoul Springs To Life!

Finally! Everyone is enjoying the outdoors! Cooler temperatures, no more freezing days, and I can now wear shorts again!

Some flower festivals in the Korean countryside will spring to life (pun intended!) this weekend, but in Seoul, the forsythias have just started to paint the hills with their Cory yellow petals.

But the most popular flower festival in Seoul will start tomorrow. The cherry blossoms along the Yeouiseo road and in the Yeouido Park are just busy getting their flower buds out in time for the festival.

The Yeouido Spring Flower Festival is the most popular flower festival in Seoul, where millions walk through the three-kilometer stretch behind the National Assembly compound. This is one of the two events during the year where Yeouido roads are closed to traffic and only open to pedestrians. The other time is during the Yeouido fireworks festival during autumn.

But over the years, instead of going to the crowded Yeouido area, I visited the Namsan cherry blossom lane and the less crowded Seoul National Cemetery

I guess, for couples, they prefer walking under the cherry blossom trees on Namsan (Mt. Nam) where it's more quiet and less crowded than Yeouido. They'd still be able to whisper sweet romantic poems on each other's ears. Ha-ha-ha!

But if you want an even quieter surroundings, where nobody is allowed to bring in picnic tables or food carts, the Seoul National Cemetery is it.

The Yeouido cherry blossom festival is the most crowded because this is well-known, not only to Seoulites, but to people from cities and provinces nearby. It's very accessible through the subway, although it's still a long walk to the festival grounds. And over the years, international tourists have joined the hordes that are a mix of families, classmates, gangs of friends, couples (including mistresses, of course! Ha-ha-ha!), neighbors, and everyone else who may just want to have a nice spring-day stroll (and selfies!) under those enchanting 1,400 cherry blossom trees this spring.

And since the five-kilometer cherry blossom stretch in Yeouido is flat, walking for the elderly is easy and bringing baby strollers is very convenient, compared to the hilly Namsan. Plus, nearby, there's a park by the river where everyone can relax after.

So, where will you go for the cherry blossoms this spring? For me, it all depends on my sleeping patterns this weekend. Ha-ha-ha! Who knows? In case I wake up late, I may just visit Yeouido at night! And stumble upon the street performance of Mr. Ham, the magician, again!

Aside from Yeouido, Namsan and the Seoul National Cemetery, you can always visit some universities in Seoul to catch some cherry blossoms. 
But for sweet couple, Marlu and Joey, above, they already enjoyed these unique and amazing flower arrangements long before any cherry blossom tree in Seoul enamored anyone with its pink and white petals. These photographs were taken at the Jogyesa Temple's flower festival.

Enjoy your spring days, everyone! 

But do watch out for the yellow dust warnings!