Thursday, July 02, 2009

Korea trip – Day 6: Singin’ in the Rain

We woke up today to some rain. We caught some clear weather early and headed down to Dunkin’ Donuts again for breakfast. It’s becoming a popular spot as we ran into two other families in our group down there. We had a bit of rain on the way back, but nothing terrible.

Once we boarded the buses, we headed to the Korean National Museum. It’s essentially a Korean equivalent of the Smithsonian, housed in one gigantic, very impressive building in Seoul. We spent a couple of hours wandering around with some of the kids new friends and their families. We spent most of our time in the art displays. We saw lots of Buddha statues, paintings, pottery, jewelry and such.

One thing you get a sense of in the museum is the age of Korea. The United States has been around for about 230 years. Korea has been a nation, in one form or another, for around 5,000 years. The museum does a pretty good job of reflecting that long history.

We had lunch in the museum restaurant. It was beef bulgogi, a Korean dish we had eaten before at home. It wasn’t bad, but we would learn later in the day what real bulgogi tastes like. For now, let’s just say that Korean museum food has a lot in common with American museum food.

Our next stop was the Korean National Palace Museum. This was an actual palace occupied by the Korean kings before the monarchy disappeared in the early part of the 20th century while Korea was colonized by Japan. There was an original palace on this site that was burned in the 16th century during a previous Japanese invasion. The current one was rebuilt in the 1800s.

Unfortunately, by this point it was really pouring out and most of the palace consists of walking around the grounds. It was fun to see, but it would have been better to do on a day when the weather was nicer.

Our final stop was at one of the local marketplaces. This is where Koreans go to buy stuff. It’s nothing like the shopping district that we went to in Itaewon, where you have big name stores. This consists of stall after stall of small businesses selling whatever you are in need of: electronics, jewelry, food, textiles, etc. We were dropped off in the textile section largely, as far as I can tell, because our local tour guide likely gets a commission for each hanbok (a traditional Korean outfit) she manages to get tourists like us to buy. That’s OK; I don’t hold it against anyone to try to make an honest buck (or honest won, in this case), but if you weren’t in the market for a hanbok it was a bit of a waste of time. As it was, we were ready to go after 40 minutes and hung out with a bunch of other families until the bus came for us.

We returned to the hotel and met R.’s mentor from the Wellesley College Korean Student Association program. She’s in Seoul for the summer taking some courses. I’ll point out that she’s not a native; she was actually born and raised in Arkansas. She’s not adopted either. Her parents are Korean and have been living here for something related to her father’s business for the last year-and-a-half. She’s a very sweet girl and R. really likes her. It was great to be able to see her while we are here.

She took us to a little Korean restaurant nearby. She ordered for us, enabling us to avoid the hand gestures that usually go along with our adventures in Korean dining. The waitress brought out what must have been 30 little bowls filled with various things. Some we could identify; the majority were mysteries to us. We also had rice and another serving of beef bulgogi. This one was vastly superior to the museum’s version. It was the difference between eating at TGI Friday’s and your favorite local diner. Good stuff.

After that we had some desert at a local Mr. Donut. Donuts are apparently an all-day thing in Korea – Mr. Donut doesn’t even open until 10:00 AM, and there were plenty of people in there having snacks at around 7:30 PM. The donuts are also much lighter and less sweet than at home. A Dunkin Donut can sit like a lead weight in your stomach for a while. These were nothing like that. I would probably eat more donuts if I could get these in the U.S.

The last event of the day was for the kids: a “chat-and-connect” session facilitated by the Ties staff so the kids could talk about some of their experiences here. While the kids were up there, some of the grown-ups (including us) adjourned to the bar for some beverages. I had a Korean beer – not exactly Sam Adams, but not bad. The company was enjoyable and we chatted about this and that for about an hour.

Tomorrow we leave Seoul for a few days. We have a four hour bus ride tomorrow to Mt. Sorak (sadly, it’s not on Vulcan), and then on to Busan after that. More reports to come!


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