Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 21 – A brief layover in Seoul

From now on my favorite airport is Incheon International, even though it is heckafar from Seoul. But I need to backtrack a little for you to understand why this is so.

I arrived at Incheon at 5:30 am, in a sub-freezing temperature, with the happy prospect of an 11 hour layover before catching my San Francisco flight. That is a long time to just stay in the airport, so the day before I had searched in the internet ways to get from the airport to the city (I had homed in on the one day pass to use the metro and buses). Just before the immigration check, however, I saw a sign offering free tours for in transit passengers. Hmm, promising.

Lo and behold, as I left Customs I inquired in the Service Desk and was directed to the proper counter, where a nice lady booked me for the free 5-hour trip starting at 8 am. The tour itself is free, but I had to pay a measly US$ 13 for the entrance ticket to the Gyeongbok Palace and for lunch. I had about one and a half hours to kill, so I went to McDonald’s to buy a cup of coffee for an outrageous US$ 3 (I suspect that I got the foreigner surcharge, because as close as I could tell the sign said 1,800 won for a large cup, which would have been equivalent to US$ 1.80).

The tour bus took nearly an hour and a half to bring us to Gyeongbok Palace, in downtown Seoul. This was the palace of the emperors of the third dynasty, the Joseon Dynasty, which in my humble opinion were very Chinese in their aspirations and built Gyeongbok as a small replica of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Pretty, yes, but without the thousands of courtiers it has the feeling of an empty series of warehouses.

From there we went a very short distance to visit the Jogyesa Temple, which is the main Buddhist temple in the city. The Koreans are pretty hard core Buddhists, and there were quite a number of folks inside kneeling and praying with true fervor. The temple is dominated by three very large golden images of the sitting Buda. From what I understood from our guide the three represented different facets of Buda, with one being Buda The Healer, and the central one Buda in meditation (I forget what the third image represented).

Our last stop was Insadong Street, for lunch and shopping. Insadong has many branching allies coming into it, in which one can find art galleries, antique shops, craft shops, and restaurants. Lunch was some thinly sliced beef in a hearty broth, steamed rice, and assorted veggies to mix with the rice and beef. Pretty good, but I am afraid I wolfed it down to go out into the street and window shop.

The tour guide was a nice middle age woman, who looked over us as a gallina looks over her pollitos. She was terribly afraid that one of us would get lost or left behind, and was really pushing us because some people had a 3 pm flight to catch (curse them, for I suspect we were shortchanged on a drive along the Cheonggyechon stream that runs across the city, and along Hongdae district where all the students hang out at night.

On the way back I asked our guide who paid for this free tour for passengers on transit, and she told me “the government since July 2013”. Before that the tour would have cost US$ 50 to US$70. I suspect it is the Ministry of Tourism, who uses this way to lure passersby to get a taste of the city, knowing that a taste may result on a longer trip at a later time. Clever of them to do that. I wish other cities were as enlightened.

Admittedly this has been too short a glimpse to form an opinion of Korea. They seem to be as meticulously clean and orderly as the Japanese, but I detect a dash of Singapore in the way everything is forbidden (in Singapore, of course, they have draconian fines for things like chewing gum or jay walking). A bit to rigid for my taste. Yet, there is no doubt that they are a prosperous country. Things are expensive here (gasoline is something like US$ 7 per gallon), but you see nice looking Kia’s and Hyundai’s everywhere (but, alas, no scooters), and everyone has a Samsung cell phone.

On the way back in the bus they had a promo film showing the jolly ol’ time two girlfriends had shopping in Seoul, and a great time had by two boys doing a bicycle trek. I think the possibility of visiting Korea on a bicycle is worth considering. According to the film you can carry your bicycle in trains, and I bet they have something like the one month pass for the train. But it cannot be done in winter, because it gets really cold, or summer because it is too warm. Maybe late spring early summer would be the best time. Or perhaps fall.

The real reason Incheon is now my favorite airport is not only because of the free tour. It is because of the free showers! Once you have cleared security and immigration you come into an enormous duty-free area, with anything your heart may desire in terms of brand names. If you take the elevator one floor up, however, you come to an oasis of peace where there comfortable recliners, a free internet center, little tables where you can plug your electronics (only one cluster, however, and inconsiderate people use those chairs to doze rather than letting the connections free for people like me, who would like to plug a computer), a massage and nail parlor, and a place where you can take a shower for free. I had been walking the day before in Hanoi, had spent 5 hours in the hotel, and had done 5 hours of tourism in Seoul. I was pretty ripe, and itchy, and uncomfortable, so the prospect of a shower was most welcome. I walked into a small lobby, where a gracious hostess handed me towels, soap, shampoo, and toothpaste, and then came into a very nicely appointed bathroom where I basked in luxury. I had a clean change of clothes handy, so now I feel like starting the trip all over again!

All good things must come to an end, however, and I need to get back to California. It will not be long before the next adventure, but for now


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