Yesterday was my first day in Seoul and with the morning weather cloudy and on the brink of rain I decided to just hop on the metro and go downtown and walk around without a real plan. Nothing to be late or early for, just simply trying to see what the city was like and get a grasp of it's layout.
For my first month here I'm staying near the Incheon International Airport which on an Island just outside the city of Seoul. It's an area that seems to be up-and-coming. The apartment I'm in was just built and the program I'm with are it's first residents. The area surrounding it is quite clearly being rapidly built up. There are several visible cranes building complexes near by.
To start I hopped on the Airport Railway system at the local Unseo stop and took it all the way to Seoul Station, which is in the very heart of downtown Seoul. It only cost 4,100 won which is approximately $4.10. The trip into the city took about an hour with the wait for the train. The trains run regularly so you won't be waiting long.
Once at Seoul Station I took a look around and tried to take in the big buildings and the city atmosphere as much as I could. Buses going every which way in what seemed to be specific bus lanes. There was also a specific taxi lane.
Seoul Station is a very large and congested stop as you can probably imagine. Be aware of your surroundings and look out for cars and buses. Don't worry about bumping into people while you're taking a look around on the move, they're very good at avoiding oblivious tourists taking in the atmosphere.
One thing that struck me was the noticeable homelessness and poverty around Seoul Station. It's not dangerous in any sense but it's not something you think of when you think of Seoul. I imagine, just like every other city around the world, this city has it's problems too.
They're people too and they deserve respect and a chance like anyone else. It should be common sense but, don't stop and stare or take pictures.
On the way from Seoul Station to Myeon-Dong, I walked through the Sungnyemun Gate. It's a gate that marked one of the entrances to the city (then called Hanyang) during the late 1300's. It was believed to have been built between 1396-1398 under the rule of King Taejo.
Unfortunately it was burned by an arsonist on February 10th, 2008. The attack caused severe damage, most notably to the second floor. It took five years to restore it back to it's current state.
When walking through the gate you'll notice three guards that are wearing tradition Korean uniforms of the time. They don't say anything and just stand there as you walk through.
Once you walk through you must return to the entrance as the intersection behind it doesn't have a crosswalk. Entrance to walk through Sungnyemun Gate is FREE.
Next I made the trek to Myeong-Dong which is one of the most expensive shopping hubs in the entire world. It's street venders selling you everything imaginable.
Suitcases? Yup! Shirts? You better believe it! Food? Duh! Coffee? As much as your heart desires!
Walking through Myeong-Dong felt a lot like going back in time. At least the older, more traditional part of it.
One section of the area is really modern buildings with department stores and another section is small streets with tons of people going every which way and venders yelling at you to come buy what they are selling.
After Myeong-Dong I hopped on the metro again (this time on Line 2 which is marked as the green line) and made my way to the Gangnam District. The Line 2 (the green line) essentially does a big loop around the city center. Gangnam is the most traveled stop on the line.
Yes, Gangnam is the inspiration for Psy's global smash hit, "Gangnam Style." I now understand the song to be about the energetic trendiness and party lifestyle the area is known for.
Upon arriving in Gangnam, I was immediately flustered by the sheer amount of people and the size of the metro stop. The bottom floor is the trains, then you have to go through a chaotic second floor that has more vender type street shops and crowds flowing in every which direction. Keep your eyes on a swivel to avoid hitting people and pay attention to the station signs to find the exit.
Be prepared to walk...A LOT. Wear comfortable shoes and bring water (at least in the summer...it's really humid here)
Once you exit the Gangnam Line 2 metro stop, you're again hit with massive flowing crowds of people entering and exiting stores. Just go with the flow and stop as much or as little as you want along the way. Keep it moving. If you are going to stop and take in the view and atmosphere, pull off to the side to the provided benches.
Gangnam-Gu is the more official name of this trendy and very modern district. Gangnam-daero is the main strip. It is all directly off the Gangnam Line 2 stop. That should be easy enough to help you get around.
I ended up stopping the Kakao Friends store which is a really popular Korean and touristy thing to do. I'm not exactly sure how to explain it but Kakao Friends are these characters that you can buy all sorts of stuff with them on it. Phone cases, computer bags, pillows and stuffed animals. The characters themselves all represent a different thing but I honestly don't know enough about it to explain more than that. They're trendy and they're cute. That's the gist of it.
The Kakao Friends store has a cafe on the top level which provides you an air-conditioned place to grab a bite to eat and some water if you need it. It will also provide you a stellar place to watch the hordes of people going up and down Gangnam-daero while you eat and hydrate.
If you purchase anything at the cafe your receipt will have the wifi password on it. This will give you a great opportunity to catch up on your social media wanderlusting, especially if your data gets reduced because you only have limited amount of high speed data usage before you have to pay another $10.
After leaving Gangnam-Gu I returned to Line 2 to head to a station on the green line loop where I could transfer back to the Airport Rail and back to Unseo-dong.
The trains were ridiculously crowded. Expect shoving and expect for people to be pressed against most of your body parts.
My analysis: be prepared for lots of walking (wear comfortable shoes), expect lots of crowds, and take as much advantage of the really expansive metro line. Once you figure out the line routes, it will take you everywhere you need to go. You can also buy cards where you can reload money onto them as needed.
The signs and announcements on the metro system are in Korean, English, Mandarin and Japanese. Signs on the streets are in Korean. Some are both Korean and English. Some people speak English but some don't and some speak VERY limited English. Just be prepared for that.