Lisa and I haven't spent much time in Seoul since arriving in Korea 7 months ago (numbers like that- 7! -have become surprisingly unimportant to me anymore), though I never really had an itch to go. Seoul seems so far away, crowded and polluted, that its charms and attractions never held much appeal for me. I think now I considered Seoul with disdain mostly because I didn't know what I was missing.
Bella, a friend of ours from Peace Corps in Kenya, flew into Seoul last week from San Francisco. We couldn't wait for her to come all the way out to Pohang to see her, so we flew into Seoul over the weekend instead. Tried to fly, that is. Flights from Pohang to Seoul are surprisingly cheap (around $100, not much more expensive than a round-trip bus or train ticket) and incredibly fast (1 hour, just enough time for the flight attendants to serve you a cup of coffee and throw it away) so it has become our preferred mode of travel to the city. Unfortunately, there is only one evening flight out of Pohang each day, and on Friday that flight happened to be canceled when the plane allegedly began smoking. It was difficult to get the full story, since everything was coming over the intercom in Korean. Luckily a Good Korean-Samaritan bystander filled us in, and made sure we got on one of Asian Air's (free!) Seoul-bound buses. Six hours later, at 2am, we collapsed into bar chairs in Insadong with Bella, Blake, Rob, and Jeane a sheet and a half to the wind already, having been forced to drink for us in our absence. We quickly caught up and stumbled into our hotel at 6am - 1 hour before Bella's scheduled DMZ tour.
The next day (while Bella was off on a still-drunk-and-then-very-hungover DMZ tour) we made for Itaewon, probably Seoul's most popular expat (and military...uhhh) hangout. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that foreigners outnumber Koreans in this neighborhood. WE were there for some of the same reasons as the other non-Asians: good international food (enchiladas, anyone??) and Whatthebook, Korea's most well-known (and only, for all I know) English bookstore. We made it back to Insadong in the early evening, several hours, and several paperback pounds, later.
After a glorious nap we set off on our pilgrimage to find a particular jazz bar that Jeane had discovered on the torn-off page of a free tourist guide book. We knew nothing about the bar except that it had "jazz" and "live" in the same sentence in the description, so we did not question the suggestion. The jaunt took us through Hongdae, the artsy neighborhood home to Honggik University, street vendors peddling everything from used sunglasses to homemade woven-yarn cell phone charms, a store called Condomania (yeah, it's exactly what it sounds like), and random cool art in random cool places.
The next morning we finally made it to the puer tea house that Rob & Jeane have been raving about (literally, they're quite mad about it), and Lisa and I (and Blake and Bella, too, I imagine) were instantly hooked. Looking at the pictures it's not hard to see why.
Legitimate puer tea is notoriously difficult to find - according to Kim Eun Joo, the woman who runs the place, only 5% of the puer tea market is real. That is, fermented naturally and not through a chemical process that speeds up the aging of the puer tea leaf. Authentic puer tea will be dried and fermented naturally over a period of 16-60 years. There are some purported health benefits to drinking the tea, but from what I can tell the main benefits are metaphysical. After several cups of well-brewed tea you begin to feel an overwhelming sensation of relaxation, and your body begins to tingle. Some old puer tea can get really expensive, and we asked Ms. Kim what the 8 million won (8,000USD) tea brick was like. "It's better than fantastic," she said. "You can forget all of your worries and troubles. You begin to feel extremely generous with everyone around you." Generous enough to give away 8 million won worth of tea, I asked? She laughed. "Not that generous."
Later in the day we attended one of Seoul's last shows of Rent the musical, featuring 3 of the original Broadway cast members. It was expensive (70,000 won - 40k seats were sold out) but utterly worth it. I've never seen a live show I enjoyed as much.
Luckily the trip back was much easier, thanks to an on-time flight to Pohang. Now we've got another free trip to Seoul in our pocket which, judging from the time we had this weekend, will be sooner than later.