Back to Southeast Asia, an imminent stopover in the north pending.
A few months ago, this was barely an idea, a distant thought to be tweaked and tugged at, sewn and watered in the far future, many years after I’d returned from my first go-round in this exotic land that I’ve integrated into my psyche as a second home, one where my spirit is immensely free.
Teresa and I were supposed to go to Africa this year. Our plans didn’t work out the way we’d have liked them to, so we reassessed our options, taking into account all factors necessary to execute an enjoyable backpacking trip, both economically and temporally feasible. Thinking back, we probably could have done a single country in Africa; we had about a month to spare. But our original plans in this massive continent encompassed two to three different countries in the southern region, and we knew it just wouldn’t work out the way we’d have liked it to.
Now that was an appealing idea. We’d missed out on it the first time around in 2013. When we’d returned home, so many of our Filipino friends asked us why we never made it out to their homeland. We didn’t really have a good excuse other than it just didn’t fit into our agenda and, geographically, it seemed too out of the way. We weren’t very experienced when we first set out back then and didn’t consider how easy and cheap it was to hop from country to country without denting the bank account too badly. This was our chance at redemption, part 1 of a what-we-missed-out on trip (Bornean Malaysia, Myanmar, and Indonesia east of Bali are still high on the list).
As soon as the idea to travel to the Philippines came up, it took about 5 minutes for us to decide it was a sure thing. We were going.
Luckily for us, we saw an opportunity while booking our roundtrip flights to add a bit of a different experience to the journey as well: two overnight layovers in Seoul, South Korea, one on the way there, one on the way back.
After a couple of months of planning and saving, we were off on a Korean Air flight to Seoul, about 13 hours directly from Toronto. But shit, I almost forgot about jetlag.
When we arrived, it was about 3:30 PM in Seoul, but our bodies were telling us otherwise after having departed at 12:00 PM in Toronto. I devised a plan to battle this inevitability a few days before leaving. I pretty much stayed up as late as I possibly could the night before leaving, in order to make sleep easier on a flight that took us up to the Arctic Circle, and back down across Russia, the Pacific, and finally to South Korea. The plan didn’t work that well, though, and sleeping on this lengthy flight was mostly futile.
When we arrived, we were amped for the adventure, and dead tired from what it took to get there. That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy ourselves, but the original picture had us envisioning a stay-out-all-night kind of party. It didn’t work out that way, though.
Seoul’s transit system is impeccable and extremely easy to use. A direct train from Incheon International Airport took us right to the heart of the city, to Seoul Station, after enjoying some interesting and thought-provoking landscapes.
From there, we had unlimited options to branch out all over this massive city containing millions upon millions of people. We departed right from the centre just to walk around and orient ourselves, finding a small restaurant right away and enjoying some interesting local dishes, all of which were amped up in spice. We’ve enjoyed plenty of Korean food at home in Canada, and there were definite similarities, but these dishes seemed a little “out there” as well, in terms of flavour and texture. Also, we were willing to just order whatever, without a particular preference, so that partly explains the unusualness of these dishes we wound up with, like the saucy octopus and the crab soup. The free cold sides are a huge bonus as well.
We finished up and took a walk around town for about an hour, just taking in the sights and sounds and revelling in the fact that we were back in Asia, a very surreal feeling. It was great and it seemed every other shop offered a wide variety of food, or spa services, or electronics products.
I’d read about the Gangnam district, apparently famed for its bright neon lights, delicious food, and youthful vibrancy. After jumping on and off various subways, we finally made it to Gangnam. I noticed a trend with some of the stations in Korea; they are so intricate and large, that it would take us a good 5-10 minutes between the time we stepped off the train and the time we actually made it to street level. Each station flaunts scores of stalls, shops, and stores offering a wide variety of goods and services. It’s like an additional city underneath the original, and just adds to the vast nature of this bustling metropolis.
The jetlag was really starting to hit me by this time; it was probably about 8PM, and my body was feeling like I’d been up for two days, which I essentially had been. Teresa was starting to feel it to, but didn’t seem as far gone as me, which is sucky because I really didn’t want to be the grandpa of the situation, forcing us to turn in before 10PM. I hacked it out a bit longer, enjoying the bright vibrancy of Gangnam (although when we’d return to the city a month later, I’d have to say it was a little overrated compared to the Yongin University/City Hall area, which was 100X brighter and more active, and on a Monday night at that).
One of our favourite Korean dishes is pork bone soup, something we enjoyed in Canada at least 3 times a month at a place we love called The Famous Owl of Minerva on Yonge St. close to Finch, a 24/7 authentic Korean restaurant. In Seoul, they called in pork rib soup, and despite the hundreds of restaurants we came across, we only found it in one place that took about an hour to finally come across.
It was great, but by this time, I was nearly face first in the heated bowl. It was time to head back to Incheon International. Already, I couldn’t wait to return, well rested and ready to party, in a month.
The airport in South Korea is beautiful, pretty much transitioning into a luxury mall. We had no problem heading through security late at night and our bags had already been checked through to Manila since leaving Toronto. The place was empty and quiet, and after shooting a short video logging the last couple of days and posting it to Facebook, I lay across 4 seats and passed right out, hugging my day bag to my chest.
Our flight to Manila was 8AM the next morning; the trip was truly about to begin.