I woke up at 4am on Thursday morning. This usually happens. I go to the bathroom, take a piss, then get back in bed and sleep until 8 or 9am. But not that day. I tried to go back to sleep, first on my back, then on my side, then my stomach, then my other side, then back again… to no avail. By 5am I decided to just get out of bed. Before turning on the lights I just stood for a while, looking out my 16th floor window at the only time of true darkness in Korea. During the week, somewhere between 4 and 5am the bright neon lights shut off and the world is dark for an hour or two until dawn. After almost a year, the darkness is a strange sight. I stood and thought about what I would do with my time before work. Nine hours. Geez. I had planned to go to the gym, but then what? TV? Reading? The usual. Go to Seoul? Shit, I’m too tired for that. Another ten minutes of darkened contemplation and I remembered that I only have three more weeks here. I threw my camera and my book in my bag and headed out the door.
If you can beat the rush hour into central Seoul, it only takes about 30 minutes by bus. And if you catch the M4102 bus, it’s an incredibly comfortable ride, for only $2. On the ride I decided to go back to Gwangjang Shijjang, one of my favorite markets in Korea, and a place I’d only visited once before. When I was there last, I remembered seeing huge cauldrons of boiling hot pat juk (sweet red bean porridge) that I’ve always wanted to try, so I thought I’d have that for breakfast. Gwangjang Market is about a 10 minute walk from where the bus dropped me off, and instead of walking the main street, I took the back alleys.
The back alleys of Seoul are part of what makes this city unlike any other. They’re extremely narrow, cramped, usually crowded, and an utter assault on all the senses. But not at 7am. The alleys, just like the people, are waking up. An occasional back door is open, letting light stream into the otherwise pitch black canyons. The odd motorbike screams past, delivering goods most likely to be eaten later. A pot sits over burning coals, covered and steaming, as a few places are open for breakfast. It’s a surreal place… you might have had a hard time convincing me I was actually alive.
When I finally made it to Gwangjang Shijjang I found a market just lifting it’s eyelids to the day. One in five shops were open, most lights were off. The food court was almost completely dark, save for a few carts that were rolling back their tarps and just starting to simmer. I found a pat juk place that was actually open, asked for some, and then realized I didn’t have enough cash. I told the lady I needed to go to the bank first. On the way back from the bank I found another cart selling toast, which I hadn’t had either. I decided to eat there instead. Sorry, pat juk lady.
Korean toast is different from all other toast. It’s also different at every stand, so I can’t go into too much detail, suffice it to say that what I saw at this place looked better than any other toast I had seen. Two pieces of white bread, heavily buttered, placed on the griddle. One egg, scrambled with tomatoes and peppers and some unidentified herbs, fried up flat like a pancake. Bread, egg pancake, layer of sprinkled sugar, bread, folded in half and put in a paper cup.
I sat on the stool, thoroughly enjoying this amazing breakfast. I got to (sort of) talking with the chef/owner and two ajjumas – customers huddled on the only two other stools around this tiny stand. They told me that our chef was the “to-su-tu-wang” (toast king). They were right. We laughed, they told me I was handsome, and one of them bought me a cup of coffee. I took their pictures. Halfway through the meal, an ajjushi came around and we had some more conversing. When I was done, I said a most grateful thanks and left.
About ten minutes later, as I walked around the area, I realized that in the food, photos, and fun, I had forgotten to pay. The Toast King had forgotten too, apparently. I headed back and paid the $1.30 that I owed (it was so cheap!). She was surprised to see me, and amazed that I came back to pay, especially since she hadn’t noticed my failure to do so the first time.
On the walk back to pay my forgotten bill, I had the idea to head to Insadong, which was only ten minutes away, to find a tea house, and read. Things I used to hate: tea and reading. Funny, life is. Anyway, I got to Insadong around 9am. First, I had to walk around and do some reconnaissance to find the amazing restaurant and tea house from my last visit to make sure I know where I’m going when I take Laura to those places. I found the restaurant easily enough, but the tea house took a while. When I found it, it was closed, which I guess was a good thing, because I got to go look for a different tea house. I think I found the only one in Insadong open before 10am, and I was definitely the first customer. The water hadn’t even been boiled yet.
I ordered wild pear tea, sat by the 2nd story window overlooking Insadong’s main drag, and read my book. I’m reading this fantastic history of Korea. For some reason this book has me thinking about reading even while I’m watching TV. My historian blood is beginning to boil again, such that the idea of being a history professor has returned. But that’s a different discussion, entirely.
When I had finished my tea, I went to the counter to ask the girl for more hot water, as I usually do (I used to get so annoyed when people did this at Greenberry’s, but that was before I started to like tea). Instead, she said she would give me some “service tea”. A few minutes later she came back with a completely new spread, this time featuring maehwakutcha (pronouced may-hwa-kt-chah) also known as plum flower tea. What a coincidence… just a few days ago I had my first taste of this tea and instantly bought five grams for $20 (shit is incredibly expensive and just plain incredible).
I read some more, finished my tea, and opened the little notebook on the table. All the tables had these notebooks, left for customers to write down their thoughts (the walls were lined with bookshelves of filled notebooks). I left a love note to Korea, along with a promise to return.
It was now 11am, just enough time to visit Gyeonghui-gung, one of the five palaces of Seoul, and the only one I hadn’t seen yet. I hopped on a bus, and when I arrived at my stop, I was greeted by a vendor selling one of my favorite street treats: hotteok. This particular variety was make with green tea-infused rice dough and maple syrup. Delicious. With my second street-food-filled-paper-cup of the day in hand, I made for the palace.
Gyeonghui-gung is the smallest of the five palaces, and at 11:30am on a Thursday, there were only a few other people around. It was quiet, peaceful, and beautiful, except for the grey skies.
No, those aren’t clouds. It’s smog. But not from Korea, if you believe Korean news outlets. Apparently this smog is from China. Due to the cold weather, the past few days has seen a spike in coal power consumption in China to heat billions of homes. That coal smoke has made its way across the Yellow Sea and blanketed northern Korea in toxic grey. I haven’t done any research on this of my own, but considering that Koreans can sometimes place blame on other countries for their own problems (particularly Japan), it wouldn’t surprise me if this was another example of that. Either way, so much for my lungs (actually it wasn’t that bad, and the skies were beautifully blue today).
As I was leaving, one of the people around asked me to take his picture, which I guess could be expected since we were pretty much the only two people there. We had a nice conversation, as he spoke very good English. He had visited Alexandria, Virginia twenty years ago and he told me of his daughter who was an English teacher, too. I wished him and his daughter well before departing the palace and hopping on the subway back to Jeongja. I arrived home with just enough time to shower before going to work. Another eight hours and I’d be back in bed, dreaming of another morning in Seoul.