Christmas in Seoul Part 3

On Sunday, we decided to go back to Ssamziegil. On the way, we stopped at a very cute little cafe for coffee and a bagel for Steve (it’s hard to find bagels here, which is unfortunate). We did some browsing and I knew I wanted to find a shop to get a 도장 (dojang). A dojang is a traditional stone or wood stamp engraved with your name.

I saw a little shop with many samples outside, so we went in. After looking at all of them, I decided on a small stone stamp with a purple ladder and a moon at the top. I gave it to the shopkeeper and she had me write my name on a sheet and I had the option of choosing a design – I picked a whale because it is the animal of Ulsan (the city I’m living in). I paid 33,000 won (about $28).

The shopkeeper told me to come back in 30 minutes, so Steve and I walked around until then.

I was so happy with the finished product! It even came with a soft case and two cards with my design stamped onto them. I love it so much.

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After picking up my dojang, Steve and I went back to Ssamziegil. I made him take pictures in a photo booth with me. Photo booths here are so cool! They are much bigger than at home, and you stand up inside instead of sitting down. They take six photos, and then you exit the booth where you can decorate all your shots on a big computer screen. It was so much fun!

Then, we found the basement, which is actually set up as working artists’ studios. People could also make crafts with the artists like spinning or painting pottery. There were also lots of food stands and we got delicious deep fried mandu and little cakes filled with Nutella.

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After Ssamziegil, we headed over to the National Museum of Korea. Steve was exhausted, so he sat while I did a walk-through. Admission was free and the permanent collection was very impressive. There were prehistoric galleries, Medieval galleries, painting and calligraphy galleries, and sculpture galleries. The top floor was dedicated to arts of Asia including works from China, Japan, Tibet, and India, among others. Everything was really beautiful!

After the museum, we were starving, so we set out to find food. We had really wanted Korean, but the first place we saw was a Quiznos and we said “screw it” and got sandwiches. They were actually really satisfying.

After lunch, we went across the street to the KTX and took the train home. We were so incredibly exhausted! Overall, though, it was an amazing Christmas vacation in Seoul. I can’t wait to go back!

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Christmas in Seoul Part 2

On Saturday, I woke up at about 7:30. Naturally. I floundered in bed a while before heading downstairs for my free breakfast. I wasn’t expecting much, but was actually really happy with what the hostel provided. There were scrambled eggs, ham, toast with strawberry jam, OJ, and coffee. Then, I waited for Steve to wake up.

He got up earlier than I thought he would, around 10. I met him at his hostel and we set off for the Dragon Hill Spa. We got to the door only to find out that it’s currently closed for construction. So upset! Quickly, I took out my phone to find another jjimjilbang (spa) in the area. We found one called Siloam Sauna and made our way there.

It cost 10,000 won per person to use the sauna and the baths. We were given “uniforms” and directed to the men’s and women’s changing rooms, respectively. There were naked people everywhere. I changed and headed upstairs to the “fomentation” area (saunas). First, I went into the charcoal room and laid down on the floor. It was calming. As I was leaving, I saw Steve. We decided to explore together.

There was a salt room, a jade room, an ice room, a dugout room, and a Loess ball room, among others. The Loess ball room was my absolute favorite. When you walked in, there were two giant pits of little ceramic balls. They were hot and you laid in them. It was like dipping your entire body into a sack of grain, a sensation I thoroughly enjoy.

When it was too hot to take, we left and got some bingsu, a shaved ice dessert topped with red bean and fruit. The jjimjilbang was amazing. There was a food court, a norebang (karaoke room), a PC room, a hair salon, a nail salon, you name it.

When we were finished we the saunas, we went back to the segregated rooms to use the baths. You had to take your clothes off, but I sucked it up and did it anyway. Most of the baths were way too hot for me, but I found that I liked the jade bath. I was going to do a body scrub, but I chickened out.

Overall, it was an awesome experience and I would do it again. We left feeling so rejuvenated.

After, Steve and I made our way to Namdaemun Market to have a look around. It was so crowded! We stopped for what was probably the best mandu (dumplings) we’ve had yet and later, kebabs. Street food is so cheap and delicious.

At night, we went to Lotte World, which is the biggest indoor amusement park in the world. There was some confusion with the ticket types, and we might have spent too much money, but it was worth it for a really cool evening. The wait times for the rides were ridiculously long, so I only went on two, one of which was the monorail. I love monorails. It was seriously fun just walking around and seeing how extravagant everything was.

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After Lotte World, we figured we’d go hang out in Gangnam because well, it’s Gangnam. Total disappointment. We couldn’t find any bars or anything else to do, for that matter. I’m not sure if we weren’t in the right place or what.

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At that point, we were just so exhausted and went back to go to sleep.

Christmas in Seoul Part 1

On Christmas morning, Steve and I took the KTX from Ulsan to Seoul at 9:22 with less than a minute to spare. After we purchased our tickets, we had to run as fast as we could to the platform, up a massive flight of stairs, where the train was boarding. When we got there, another foreign man let us board first because “we were panting.”

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The journey took about two hours and we arrived in Seoul a little before noon. Steve and I took the subway to Insadong, where my hostel was. (Steve hadn’t booked anything because he decided to come with me last minute.) I was able to check in early, and Steve found a place to stay literally right across the street.

Then, we went to Changdeokgung Palace, which was within a five minute walk from the hostels. What an incredible sight. The palace was constructed in 1405 as part of the Joseon Dynasty. The grounds were sprawling and there were so many beautiful, colorful buildings and halls.

It was cold out, but sunny. After walking around the palace, we found Bukchon Hanok Village, a traditional craft village. It was very busy since it was Christmas, but we walked around for a while before making our way towards the heart of Insadong.

I was so excited! In Insadong, the streets overflow with traditional crafts: pottery, jewelry, masks, abalone boxes, stamps. I wanted to look at everything. While we were exploring some side streets, I mentioned how nice it would be to have a cup of tea. Then, magically, we walked by a place called Teastory, a tea museum and cafe. We decided to stop. There was a small but lovely exhibit on the history of tea in Korea, a gift shop, and a cafe. We shared a pot of mistletoe tea (so festive!), and a sweet potato rice cake. At one point, the only other people who were there sent over a piece of chocolate cake for us. I think they were celebrating a birthday. Regardless, it was very sweet.

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Eventually, Steve and I reached Ssamziegil: a shopping center and art complex comprised of over 70 stores, all connected through a spiral ramp system. It was decorated for Christmas, which was absolutely lovely.

We had to fight the masses, but we reached the top floor and went to visit the Wall of Love. Here, couples can purchase a small plastic tag, write a message on it, and hang it among all the other tags. It’s a really fun date idea!

After Ssamziegil, we went back to our hostels to relax and charge our phones for about an hour. Then, we headed to Hongdae, another neighborhood in Seoul known for its restaurants, bars, and underground culture.

We decided we wanted western food for Christmas dinner and set out for Beale Street, an American-style BBQ restaurant that I had heard really good things about. Too bad when we got there, it was closed. Instead, we went to a place called Burger B right downstairs. Steve and I were so impressed. Definitely the closest we’ve gotten to a real western meal since we’ve been here. We both got the burger specials, soup of the day, and cocktails. The burgers were actually medium rare (burgers here are ALWAYS well done) and they had caramelized onions and gruyere on them.

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After dinner, we were going to meet Hannah and her boyfriend for coffee at the You Are Here Cafe. However, Steve pointed out the Hello Kitty Cafe, which was right across the street from where we ate dinner. Excited, I called her up to see if we could change plans. She said yes. So, Steve and I grabbed a beer while we waited for them to get there.

The cafe was amazingly adorable! Hannah and I both got hot chocolate, Steve got an Americano, and Hannah’s boyfriend got a sweet potato latte. Our drinks came with a little package of Hello Kitty cookies, too!

Following coffee, we said goodnight and Steve and I explored Hongdae some more. It was so alive. Lights everywhere, music playing, crowds moving through the streets. South Korea doesn’t have much in the way of alternative subcultures, but Hongdae was the closest I’ve seen to some. It was a lot of fun.

After a while, we decided we were tired and figured we’d call it a night. We took a subway back to where we were staying. On the walk home, it started snowing! It was actually a really nice way to end an excellent Christmas day.

Sitting in Seoul

Right now, I am sitting at the airport waiting for my KTX train to Ulsan. It is 4:35 PM here, but it really feels like 3:35 AM. I am tired, sweaty, and I can’t feel my butt.

This is the longest I’ve ever travelled in one shot. My flight left Newark this morning at 6 AM and I flew 6 hours to San Francisco. After my hour and a half layover, it was 11 hours and 15 minutes to Seoul. United served two meals and there were plenty of movies to watch. Although, I do regret not bringing more to keep myself occupied.

I deplaned and made it through customs without a problem, exchanged some money, and purchased my KTX ticket to Ulsan. I still have about two hours before it leaves. And, of course, my first meal in Korea was Burger King because it was literally the only thing open in my waiting area and I wasn’t going to go running around for something else. I’m not going to lie, though, it definitely tasted better than American Burger King. Weird.

I’m not sure what I’m running on right now. Not caffeine since I don’t drink any. And it doesn’t feel like I have any fumes left to propel me anywhere. Trying to use the restroom with two rolling suitcases, a backpack, and a purse was fun, too.

At this point, I’m just rambling.

Everything is super clean, though, and everyone I’ve encountered so far has been extremely helpful.

I’ll write more when I’m in Ulsan and settled in!

Interviewing with KorVia

I had my initial interview with the KorVia Consulting Agency last night. The only thing was that I thought it was for tonight because apparently I didn’t convert the time difference correctly.

Anyway, I had just come home from a friend’s house when I got a Skype notification: “Hello Tia. Your interview is in 30 minutes. Please let me know when you are ready.”

Panic.

Immediately, I ran to my closet and threw on a blouse, went over my list of cities, and profusely apologized for the confusion.

My recruiter, Sarah, proceeded to video call me and the interview began. After going over my resume, Sarah decided I would apply for EPIK, which is probably the most well-known of the South Korean government programs. She asked me which cities I was interested in, and I gave her my list. Sarah told me my best bet would probably be Gyeongju, in the province of Gyeongbuk (you can only choose one city/province when you apply). I’m happy with this choice, though. Gyeongju, once again, is known as “the museum without walls.” Is that perfect or what?

The rest of the interview went very well, in my opinion. Sarah was very friendly and very good about answering all my questions. She liked that I do children’s programs at my current job, especially since Gyeongju is looking for elementary school teachers!

I will have to get my TEFL/TESOL certification, though. I had been looking at an online course originally, but Sarah told me that I need to have a few in-class hours. Hm. We’ll figure this out later.

Right now, I just have to fill out the EPIK application and get two letters of recommendation. All in all, I’m feeling pretty good!

Where?

I’ve been doing tons of research on where I would like to be if I end up going abroad. While I would love to live in Japan, South Korea is seeming like the better option at this point. EPIK, for example, reimburses your entrance fee, takes care of your rent, provides you with a settlement allowance, takes care of 50% of your health insurance, and offers 18 paid vacation days. All in addition to your monthly salary. To me, that’s a pretty sweet deal.

Now, picking a city or province.

I have pretty much eliminated Seoul and Busan from my choices. I want to be somewhere urban, but I don’t think I want to be in such a metropolitan city.

Things that are important to me include that I am placed in an urban area with adequate public transportation, there are lots of cultural opportunities at my fingertips (read as museums. Lots of museums), and I am located near some sort of natural setting (beach or mountains being my preferences). I don’t think that’s too much to ask, but maybe it is.

So here is what I’ve come up with so far:

1. Jeju Island

– Considered the “Hawaii of Korea.” It’s an island, so there are lots of natural formations, like mountains and craters. Jeju is home to the Manjanggul Lava-tube, which houses the largest known lava column in the world. There’s also a teddy bear museum and a green tea museum.

2. Gyeongju (in Gyeongbuk Province)

– Known as “the museum without walls.” I like the sound of that already. This city apparently has “more tombs, temples, rock carvings, pagodas, Buddhist statuary and palace ruins than any other place in South Korea” (www.lonelyplanet.com). The Gyeongju National Museum is also considered one of the best in all of South Korea.

3. Ulsan (in Gyeongsang Province)

– Home to the world’s largest shipyard and the world’s largest automotive assembly plant (Hyundai). Ulsan has beautiful beaches as well as seven tall mountains. There’s also a traditional earthward village (Onggi) and a whale museum!

4. Changwon (in Gyeongnam Province)

– So many beaches and parks. There’s a musical fountain and Yongji Lake, “Cherry Blosson Street” (which blooms in April), Seongju Temple (which is over 1,000 years old), and the Gyeongnam Art Museum.