Also known as “Part: Christmas”. Also known as “Part: Unplanned”. Also known as “Part: Shopping”. Laura-Eve and I were really lucky to have scheduled her visit during this time of the year, as Christmas provided me with the greatest gift ever: a day off. As I’ve said before, days off were hard to come by at my job, and to have one with my sister was just wonderful.
We began the day as slow as ever. Up at 9am, I went down the street in my pajamas to Paris Croissant to bring back some pastries for breakfast. The ones I wanted (with sweet red bean, of course) weren’t ready yet, so I waited. 45 minutes later and still no red bean pastries, I had to settle for what was there (note the sarcasm). We split a bacon wrapped egg roll, a cream cheese danish, a chocolate twirly bread thing, and, of course, french-pressed Kenya coffee. Delightful.
After breakfast, we lazed around a bit more, and then headed out the door. My plans for the day were as such: quick lunch at Shinsegae, check out my old neighborhood in Suwon, a walk around Anyang Dead Town and Noryangjin Fish Market, then takkalbi for dinner. The opposite of a Korean Christmas. By the end of the day, only two of those things had happened, minus the quick part. And it was great.
Christmas in Korea is not like Christmas in America. Instead of a day spent with family, as it is in the US, Christmas in Korea is a couples day and a shopping day. At least, this is what I was told. So, after explaining this difference to Laura-Eve, she was excited when I suggested we visit a huge department store for lunch. I was excited to show her the food court.
We hopped on the subway for Jukjeon station and the Shinsegae department store. Shinsegae is a high end mall chain, and makes for a really fun window shopping trip, as buying things is ridiculously expensive. We’re talking $200 shirts from France and Italy. Everything is imported. The trip is especially fun, though, when the place is packed and food is involved.
The food court in Shinsegae was one of the first places that I knew I would bring my family if they visited. So many different foods, teas, treats, and more. So many people. So much energy. It’s a feast for all the senses. Naturally, that’s where we went first. We walked around, surveying the stalls and the menus. I showed Laura-Eve the fancy grocery section in the back where I bought my imported organic peanut butter for $19 a jar and my $13 imported organic cream cheese. Being sick was expensive.
We decided to order from the cafeteria. Laura-Eve did a very Korean thing, ordering naengmyeon (cold noodle soup) in the winter, while I had baicon kimchi bokkumbap (bacon and kimchi fried rice), something I had always wanted to try. Food court food is so much better in Korea.
After food, we walked around the department store, window shopping. Then, we went through a tunnel under the street which connected Shinsegae to my main grocery store: E-mart. I gave Laura-Eve a quick tour of the Wal-Mart-esque (but better quality and nicer to their employees) store before we got back on the train.
It was getting late in the day, about 4pm, so we decided not to visit my old residence in Suwon, though we still needed to change trains in Suwon station. By the time we got to Suwon Station, it was already getting dark out, which would have made Anyang Dead Town mostly pointless (as it’s all outside) and a bit scary. So instead, we got off the train at Suwon station and did a bit of exploring.
Back when I lived in Suwon, I frequented this place. While not in the geographical center of the city, Suwon station is, for all intents and purposes, the real center of the city, where about two million people live. It’s the main transportation hub for both city and intercity buses, the subway, and the train. Even the KTX runs through here. The station is also home to the biggest department store in Suwon: AK Plaza. As you might imagine, this place was absolutely packed on Christmas. AK Plaza is similar to Shinsegae in that is a huge chain mall, but while the goods are fancy, they are not quite on the level of Shinsegae. We walked in, as it happens, in the food court. Every food court is different, so we were excited to see what this one had to offer. I spotted an interesting bakery and went in for a closer look. What I found would change the course of my life and make my entire Korea experience worthwhile.
Holy crap, oreo muffins. I bought two. I should have bought them all. Utterly ecstatic, we left the store and decided to shun the subway and take the real train into Seoul. It was $6 for two tickets, and while waiting for our train, we walked around the train station and the platforms.
By the time we got on the train, night was falling, and the sky was that perfect deep blue that comes before black. The lights of Korea were on. We found window seats and coasted into Seoul in the best way possible. Thirty minutes and half a muffin later, we both wished the ride would have lasted longer.
We arrived at Yongsan station, home to another huge mall. Well, several, actually. Laura-Eve chose for us to explore the I’Park Mall, which I had yet to visit. Within a few minutes I found something I wanted to buy: socks. Korean socks are the best socks, and I had wanted to buy some before leaving sock country. I saw a table set up with socks on sale, and began sifting through the selection. At first I was disappointed to find only foreign brands, but then a clerk came up to me and when I told her I was looking for Korean socks, she replied that they were all made in Korea, even showing me the “Made in Korea” tags. Sold. I bought three pairs of long, warm, argyle socks for $10. Awesome.
We shopped at mall-number-three for about an hour, and then it was time to meet up with Seunghyun. He mentioned the other day that he wanted to show us a place called Bugak Skyway. Bugak Skyway, according to Seunghyun, was a small road through to the top of the mountains behind Seoul where there would be a great view of the city. It was only accessible by car, and he had one, so we were thrilled at the chance. Korea for ex-pats is kind of like high school in 1960’s America: everyone wants to be friends with someone who has a car (I didn’t know Seunghyun had a car, so I’m not shallow… I just like the analogy). Therefore, only Seoulites go to Bugak Skyway. Awesome.
Seunghyun brought his friend along, and together, the four of us drove through Seoul at night, headed for the mountains. Seunghyun took us through Seongbuk-gu, a part of the city I hadn’t seen, but wanted to. Seongbuk-gu is a neighborhood in northeast Seoul, home to the old wealth of the city. There are houses here. Big houses, home to the first generation of Korea’s wealthy. Their children, we learned, moved to Gangnam, home to Korea’s current middle aged wealthy class. The children of the Gangnam wealthy are currently moving to Bundang, where I lived. A generational migration, always searching for a nice place to live just outside the city. Fascinating.
Anyway, The homes were beautiful, and the roads, steep, as we drove into the mountains. There were more people and cars up there than expected, but some clever driving by Seunghyun found us a great parking spot on the road, and we made for the lookouts. We saw the backside of the ridge first: a neighborhood on the other side of the mountains from Seoul. It was extremely dark. Few lights, no high-rises. This was a poorer area, disconnected from the city. Just on the other side of the ridge was downtown Seoul, bright lights ablaze, showing off the literal abundance of power the city holds. We snapped some pictures and spoke of movies. We pointed out the parts of the city we recognized in the distance: Namsan, Jongro Tower, Gwanghwamun, the Seoul city walls. Amazing.
Earlier in the day we had arranged to meet Laura-Eve’s friend Dane and his travel companion for dinner. Lovely people. We met them in Gangnam for my favorite Korean meal: takkalbi (spicy chicken and vegetables stir fried at your table). We donned our aprons, drank our soju and baekseju, and watched the beautiful meal cook in front of us. It was delicious, as always.
After the meal, Seunghyun drove us home. Night rides through the city are spectacular. I said goodbye to my good friend. I will see him again.
Christmas verdict: unexpected, Korean, and fantastic. Best. Christmas. Ever.