China doesn’t actually celebrate Christmas (圣诞节 shengdanjie “Jesus’ Birthday”). Lights are hung up, Christmas songs are played, fake Christmas trees are erected… but on the 25th of December everyone still goes to work.
The nice Christmas display that they put up in Microsoft.
Even my apartment put up a sad little tree.
After my single’s day post, I learned that there is also a double twelve holiday. Aghast at the boldness of pulling the exact same trick two months in a row, I asked around among my Chinese friends to see if this holiday also had a backstory. They all said no. This time it really is just bald-faced consumerism…
Christmas similarly seems to be used as yet another grab at consumer’s wallets. Malls and shops dress themselves up and run deals in order to try and entice people to spend just a little more, but as gift giving is not a practiced tradition here they probably have less success than in the West. Most of the locals I talked to just planned to go out for a nice dinner with their friends, after work of course.
The very idea of working on Christmas made my Western blood curdle. So within my first two weeks at Microsoft I asked my mentor if I could have that whole Christmas week off. He was very nice, and probably saw the panic in my eyes, and so amicably agreed. “We’ll just say you’ll come in on some weekends to make those days up.” Oh… great… 😅😅😅
A whole work week off plus the two adjacent weekends makes plenty of time to travel. My friend and I wanted to go skiing in Japan - but the plane tickets were $500 round trip. Korea on the other hand was $250. Who even wants to go to Japan anyways?
So we booked our tickets, booked our lodging, found the ski resort and made sure there was a bus that got us from Seoul to Yongpyeong (the ski town). We were set!
Saturday, December 22nd
The first day of the trip. My flight was around 8PM and landed in Korea close to 10. Korea is actually an hour ahead of China, despite being so close.
Korea is obsessed with Line Friends. This giant stuffed bear is one of the several Line Friends' characters, and is one of the first things you see in the airport after stepping off the plane.
The line for immigration was huge - took me nearly a half hour to get through.
I remember standing in line for declarations and thinking "this is not a line; look at all that space! I oughta just walk up and join the head of the line" and then realizing how much China has changed me already... 😂😂
Sunday, December 23rd
At the airport we bought a public transport card in order to take an express metro to a station in the heart of Seoul. It, of course, had Line Friends plastered all over it.
Even the donuts at the Dunkin Donuts are Line Friends...
Our first proper meal in Korea was lunch at a random place in the train station. The waiter, seeing we were two people, brought out bowls of rice. When we proceeded to only order one dish to split (we weren't too hungry) she took one of the bowls of rice away 😂😂😂
I had expected Korea to be on par or cheaper than China - to my surprise prices were just about even with America. The exchange rate is far easier to keep a handle on: it’s 1 USD to 1,119 Korean Won. When looking at prices you can just treat the comma like a decimal point, easy! This one bowl of soup was almost 10,000 Won, so about $10.
Military service is mandatory in South Korea, so we saw a lot of young men walking around in military uniforms (especially in train or bus stations).
The convenience store next to our Airbnb had a mountain of ramen in front of it, which I just found hilarious.
Tallboys are $3-4, just about even with America.
The exception is Soju, which is far cheaper than America at $1-2 (and more potent than the tallboys!)
The view from our Airbnb.
After checking into the Airbnb, we went to what was apparently the largest wholesale market in South Korea (and probably North).
Lots of vendors all peddle delicious looking foods.
There were *so many* things absolutely plastered with "SUPREME" all over the market.
Nearby we found a cool looking historical site. It turns out this was the south gate of Seoul for many centuries (since the 1300's!) It was walking under this arch that I was really struck by the weight of the history in this part of the world for the first time since coming to Asia. In America, (non-Native) history is necessarily no older than 400 years. And most of Beijing (especially the area I frequent) is relatively new. But Korean people had been using this gate for nearly a millennia. A millennia! Hard to wrap one's mind around.
Seoul has some beautiful public structures. This was the pedestrian bridge we took to get to and from the market.
While walking on the bridge we discovered that at night there are projectors that give directions, which I thought was really neat!
...I proceeded to be obnoxious and stand between the projector and the ground 😂
Monday, December 24th
부대찌개 (budae-jjigae "army base stew"). According to my friend, this dish was originally only eaten by soldiers in the military, and was popularized by some Korean dramas. Wikipedia disagrees with her, saying "although the dish was born in the period of post-war impoverishment, it continued to be popular during the period of rapid growth, and is still popular today". She specifically wanted us to come to this place, but I'm not sure why because the dish was chock full of meat and she's a vegetarian... She managed to negotiate some free tofu 😂
The gate to Korea's equivalent of the Forbidden City. Our intial impression was that it was much smaller, but as we kept walking it seemed to never end. Eventually we got tired and called it quits and just turned around...
Pearl milk tea, a drink we both really enjoy, is everywhere in Beijing, but nowhere to be found in Korea. The only shop we could find was 贡茶 (gongcha), which we ended up visiting five or six times...
Seoul was an incredibly fun city. It felt like no matter what direction we took off in there was always something exciting to see or eat or do.
A river walk which was covered in lights for Christmas. Super pretty!
More of the river walk 😍
麻辣香锅 (malaxiangguo "Numbing Spicy Fragrant Pot"). There are actually a good number of Chinese restaurants in Seoul (I would estimate every one in ten), and all the owners were from mainland China. I hadn't realized the Chinese population in Korea was so high.
Tuesday, December 25th
Snack I bought in the subway. Sausage wrapped in fish cake. Everywhere you go in Seoul there are always street vendors peddling fish cake, and you can always get some of the soup they cook the fish cake in. It's an excellent method to keep warm.
These noodles were super spicy - and also caused us to miss our bus. Turns out when it says 1:55 on the ticket that means the bus leaves at 1:55, and they don't mess around. No hanging around waiting for people using the bathroom...
So we went to a coffeeshop and had a dessert while we waiting an hour and a half for the next bus...
The bus took us from Seoul to the ski town of Yongpyeong, located on the other side of Korea. It took about three hour, and cost $20 each (to go all the way across Korea!) Everyone on the bus fell asleep.
Yongpyeong was the site of the 2018 Winter Olympics, and so was covered in neon, despite being in the middle of nowhere.
Wednesday, December 26th
First day of skiing!
We booked a hotel about a 20 minute drive from the slopes. The view was desolate.
All geared up and ready to ski!
This trip was my first time skiing on anything other than greens. We tried all the (non-black) trails on this map, but heavily favored the very long blue one on the right.
Part way up the looooong gondola ride to the top.
The view from the top of the mountain.
Watch me go!
Watch me not go!
Thanks to my friend for her excellent camera work.
Post skiing snack. Was ice cream really the best choice after a whole day of freezing on the slopes?
After hitting the slopes, it was time for Christmas!
Christmas dinner! A veritable feast of Korean appetizers.
After dinner beers and dessert.
Thursday, December 27th
I woke up to a bruised toenail. Apparently you are supposed to clip them before skiing...
On the second day I thought it would be a good idea to take a bump at top speed. I unexpectedly left the ground, and re-encountered it chest first. I'm 90% sure I fracture my rib.
Thursday evening we took the bus back to Seoul and found our new Airbnb over in Hongdae.
Friday, December 28th
Hongdae is the college kids hangout area. That means it's full of bars and food. The restaurants seem to use "famous youtube stars have been here" as an advertisement technique (this was just on example of many).
Cake break! Less for the cake, and more in order to get inside and away from the punishing cold...
The fashion in Korea right now is to wear these really long "puffer" jackets. But everyone wears them in all black or all white, which means that the streets of Seoul resemble the glaciers of Antarctica; full of groups of penguins shuffling around 😂😂😂
This was, believe it or not, a fast food restaurant. You ordered from a machine at the front and got a ticket which you brought to your table.
As for night life, we preferred a quiet wine bar to a crowded club.
Saturday, December 29th
For lunch we again had 麻辣香锅 (malaxiangguo "Numbing Spicy Fragrant Pot").
We decided rather than freeze while walking around Hongdae for a second day in a row, it might be fun to take the metro over to Ehwas Woman’s University, famous for it’s architecture, and freeze over there.
My favorite bit of Ehwa. This was a gradual hill that they carved a trench into and turned the two sides into buildings.
For dinner I finally got to get my hands on some Korean BBQ (which is apparently called "meat roast" in Korean). It was absolutely delicious.
Walking around at night I caught site of this shop. It's a stereotype that Korean people love fried chicken, but seriously, every fifth shop was a fried chicken joint. We tried a place or two but I never found anything that blew me away.
Sunday, December 30th
Our final lunch (and final meal) in Korea was at a hotpot chain that was actually from Beijing... Not a thematic way to end the trip but it was delicious!
Monday, December 31st
My flight took off around midnight, so I got back to my apartment at about 4AM 😴😴😴
I was too exhausted to go out on New Year's Eve, so instead I stayed in and watched Xi Jinping's annual speech. 新年快乐 (xinniankuaile "Happy New Year")!!