We moseyed out of bed on our second day in Seoul and had a leisurely walk in the neighborhood around our hostel. It was near the Ewha Women's College, so there were plenty of cafes and shops to check out in the many small streets. We even got some delicious strawberry smoothies from a street vendor. Just pure strawberries, ice, and milk. Delish!
Next we headed over to the Korean War Memorial, which is across the city from where we were staying. However, it was only about a 15 minute ride on the train! Many people had recommended this museum to us, so we decided to check it out. When we first got onto street level, thought, we couldn't find it, even though we had exited at the designated spot. But once we were pointed in the right direction, thanks to a friendly barista, we found that the whole complex was huge, just inconspicuous! Not only was there a large outdoor Korean War memorial, it was also the location of South Korea's intelligence compound, an outdoor exhibition of global fighter jets and boats, and a very impressive museum.
the entrance to the memorial grounds
One of the first monuments that greets visitors as they enter the memorial grounds is a large dome structure that looks as if it has a large crack across the entire middle. The bottom is carved out so that you can walk inside the dome, and above the entrance is stained glass. On top of the dome stand two soldiers, embracing one another. It was very moving in person, so sorry for the terrible description...
the soldiers embrace
inside the dome you can see the sun come through the stained glass
Even before entering the museum, we spent nearly an hour outside, looking at the monuments and checking out all the retired planes. They had even opened some of them up to the public so you could climb into them and see the controls, look out the windows, and experience the claustrophobia and stuffiness these soldiers dealt with.
another memorial I believe honoring fallen soldiers during the Korean War
close-up of the statues at the base of the monument
huge warship and jet outside the museum
we got this close!
finally... the entrance
We easily spent three or four hours in the museum, learning about everything from ancient wars between the dynasties up to the most recent war in Korea, and learning so much history that I have been entirely ignorant of my entire life. Korea through its history has seen so much war and hardship, but now it's flourishing in its own right. This hardship has translated to steadfast spirits and a "waste not" attitude that you have to admire in the people here. What an amazing site in Korea, and definitely one everyone should see to truly understand the context in which Korea exists and grows.
After we left the museum we were hungry and museum-ed out, so we decided to head over to Itaewon. Itaewon is generally considered the foreigner district and is an oddity that's difficult to describe. It borders the largest U.S. military base in the country, Yongsan Garrison, so there are many, many U.S. soldiers and their families relaxing and drinking in the many 'foreigner bars'. There also is a very 'international' feel as you wander down the streets. There seem to be separate streets for Middle Easterners, Africans, etc., and their cuisines are well represented in these areas. Itaewon is also well known for problems with prostitution and brothels, one of the most well known areas being 'hooker hill'. The irony is that it's located right next door to the only mosque in Korea. While this area was interesting and full of odd juxtapositions, it wasn't my favorite site in Seoul. It felt too tourist-y and hokey for my tastes, and Rich agreed.
We were jonesing for some Mexican food though, so we wandered into a place called Poncho's, if I remember correctly. The food was decent and expensive, but their margaritas were quite good. As we waddled out of the restaurant, filled to the brim with guacamole and enchiladas, the sun was going down. We decided to head over to another shopping district in the city that we'd heard is very active at night, called Dongdaemun. This area has 26 malls, 30,000 specialty stores, and 50,000 manufacturers, all packed within ten blocks of space (thanks again Wiki). To say it was overwhelming would be an understatement. One would think that Seoul-itans never stop shopping, based on how many malls and markets there are in this city. And, at 9:30 pm, every store was still packed to the brim!
the entrance to Dongdaemun
After wandering for a few hours in and out of shops, we headed back to Ewha to our hostel. It was a long day on our feet, and we were exhausted. The next day we wandered for a few hours and then hopped a bus back to Pohang and out of the Seoul insanity. Yet, for how active, ahem, hyperactive, this city is, it felt very manageable and easy to get around. Nearly everyone we met in shops and restaurants spoke English and almost every sign was in English as well as Korean. Prices also weren't as high as we'd expected for a major city, and everyone was generally, well, nice. Seoul is definitely a city we'll be visiting again and one of the most unique and mind-blowing placed I've ever seen.