Seoul, Korea – The Best Laid Plans

I’ll admit I was nervous about traveling in Asia. When even the alphabet is unfamiliar, it adds a new layer of complexity to simple things like finding a post office, traveling on the subway, or buying vitamin C. We’ve traveled a lot over the years though, and I’ve quickly gained confidence here. I may not be able to find the post office easily (in fact, I’ve yet to see one here), but I do feel comfortable on any of the trains and subways. I never thought transportation would be an issue for us anywhere. Today we were all shocked by what happened. I’ve learned a really hard lesson a few times over lately: sometimes a set of circumstances beyond your control can throw a monkey wrench into your life. Those well-executed plans? They fly right out the window, but more on that later.

Today started like any other typical port day we’ve had. We had breakfast, went through the immigration process, and quickly disembarked the ship. We took the shuttle bus into an area of Incheon that was near the subway. We didn’t even go inside the shopping area that they brought us to. We just asked one of the guys working on the bus for directions to the subway and headed straight there, stopping by a bank for some local currency on the way.

We bought passes and got on the metro system at the East Incheon subway stop. In Seoul, the subway system is quite massive and although it would take us about an hour to get into the city, it was an easy route. We took line 1 to Jongno station & then transferred for one stop on line 5 to Gwanghwamun station. This is where the hop on hop off City Tour bus route begins. Our idea was to use the City Tour bus for our transportation during the day, since we’d get to stay above ground and see the sights between tourist stops; plus, just about all of the things we wanted to do were on the City Tour route.

These arrows were on the ground to guide tourists once we left the metro station.

We left Gwanghwamun station through exit 6. In a lot of the larger cities in Asia, it’s really important to know which exit to take, since the stations are really large and you can end up really far from your desired location if you just randomly choose one. You won’t just have to cross a street like in NYC; you might just end up two or three busy streets away from where you want to go & not recognize the area at all. It’s really crazy how massive these underground metro stations are. Many of them actually have large shopping malls located within their confines.

The Seoul City Bus was easy to find, since we took the right exit out of the metro.

Anyway, once we got above ground, it was really easy to find the city tour bus. There were actually signs on the ground pointing in the direction we needed to walk. The ticket booth was clearly marked, too. The service representative spoke English, so we had no issues getting our tickets and finding the first bus stop (which is adjacent to the ticket booth). We didn’t have to wait at all. The bus came right away and we got off at the next stop: Deoksugung Palace.

The entrance to Deoksugung Palace is at a busy intersection in downtown Seoul.
Kayla and Kyle stop for a photo on the palace grounds.  Fred is in there, too.  Can you spot him?

It was a gorgeous day, still fairly early, and not terribly hot, so we enjoyed strolling around the palace grounds. There were quite a few interesting structures here. We did take time to read the history on a few of the signs near the buildings, but we were more interested in the outdoor spaces, the architecture, the way the buildings fit into the landscape, and the various plants on site. There was also a tea room, which had a lot of really nice souvenirs, but we didn’t want to carry them around all day. If we were going to buy anything, we figured we’d do it at one of the markets we planned to visit.

this sign talks about the historical significance of Deoksugung Palace .
the main throne room
a closeup of one of the creatures on the stairway to the main throne room
a detail of the colorful, elaborate construction of the eaves
one pathway in the extensive gardens
another building on the palace grounds

Speaking of markets, we got back on the City Tour bus and got off at the next stop: Namdaemun Market. It’s a large huge market with just about everything. We ran into a couple from the ship that told us they’d found a great knock-off handbag. I wasn’t really interested in any of the goods, but we enjoyed strolling though and checking out the variety of items for sale. We also did our share of people watching. Some of the merchants had Halloween masks and decorations and Fred, being the oversized kid that he is, really enjoyed those 🙂

We had to walk to find the market, but we knew we were in the right place when we saw this clock.
a street lined with shops in Namdaemun Market
Kayla pointed out these interesting jars on one of the main market streets.

It was well past 1pm by this time, so we skipped about 5 bus route stops to our next point of interest: Itaewon. I’d read a lot about the area and knew that there were a bunch of international restaurants on the surrounding streets. We were looking for Indian food, since Fred is a huge fan of it, but after about 1.5 hours of searching, we didn’t see any restaurants that were reasonably priced. We saw lots of American clothing stores, shoe stores, etc. It did seem like the prices were inflated for tourists, though. We found a small falafel place right by the bus stop and ate there. It was decent, but nothing worth noting except to say that it didn’t break the bank.

The kids, tired from walking around looking for a restaurant, are just happy to finally be eating.

After Itaewon, it was nearly 4:30pm and we knew we had to choose only one more thing to do, so we planned to go to one of the last stops on the route: Insa-dong. It took about an hour on the City Tour bus to get there from Itaewon, but we thoroughly enjoyed the trip. There was a great area with a park near the Namsan Seoul Tower that we would’ve loved to have hiked if given the time. The bus stopped there and it had some spectacular city views.

Namsan Seoul Tower, a communications and observation tower,  as seen from our City Tour bus

It was nearing dark when we reached Itaewon, which was easily my favorite area of the day. It’s a cool, artsy area with a great vibe. If you want a place to get souvenirs that aren’t so touristy, this is the place to find some quality stuff to bring home to family and friends. We had a blast walking around this area. One guy showed us how he made kkul-tarae, a type of stringy candy made with honey. We really enjoyed the atmosphere here. There were a lot of arts and crafts stores and lots of colorful lights and wonderful artwork. It’s definitely worth a couple of hours if you’re ever in Seoul.

The main street in Itaewon, an artsy shopping area in Seoul
a closeup of the lanterns on the main street in Itaewon
Kayla and Kyle check out a huge lighted pumpkin in a shopping center in Itaewon.

It was about 7:30pm when we decided to head back to the ship. We knew it would take us an hour to get back via the metro, so we hopped the next bus & got on the first train back. The subway was busy, but three of us managed to find seats within the first few stops. Kyle ended up standing for a good part of the ride. There seemed to be a lot of college students on the metro – most of which were staring down at their phones. One twenty-something had a small Pizza Hut pizza in a take out box. Since she was standing right in front of me, I couldn’t help but notice the photo on the top of the box. Although I would have recognized it as pizza without difficulty, it did not look like any pizza I’d ever seen before. The crust looked more like flower petals than a continuous crust. The toppings were definitely not any I’ve seen before, either.

Once we got back to the East Incheon metro stop, we walked outside to the cab line. We knew that the shuttles had stopped running at 6:30pm. Since the ship wasn’t scheduled to depart until 10:30, we’d opted to stay out past the time that the shuttles ran. We’d made our plan that morning to just hail a cab for the ride back. On port days, the daily newsletter onboard always gives the location of the ship in the local language, so we weren’t concerned at all. We got into the cab and Fred handed the small slip of paper with the ship’s location to the cab driver.

He was a very sweet guy. He didn’t speak a word of English, but he chatted along in Korean & showed us pictures of his family. It was clear he wanted to talk to us. All of us wished we had been able to communicate more effectively with him. We expected the cab ride to take about 30-35 minutes, since that’s what we’d experienced that morning with the shuttle bus. About 35 minutes later, we arrived at our supposed final destination. It was not the cruise ship. The cab driver had taken us to the port’s container terminal.

At this point, we started to get somewhat concerned, but it was only just after 8:30pm, so we still had a good while before the ship would depart. The cab driver pulled into the container terminal and ran inside to find help. A port worker was going home for the night and passed by the taxi. He spoke some English and spent a good 30 minutes trying to help us. During that time, we came to understand that the address written on the newsletter was incorrect. I’m not sure what exactly passed between the cab driver and this new hero of ours, but after much discussion, he confidently typed a new address into the driver’s GPS system.

We were on our way again. It appeared we had another 30 minutes to wait before we reached our destination. The Incheon port is really large and there was a lot of construction, which did not help matters. In fact, many areas were completely dark and some streets looked like construction zones. Fortunately due to the unusual circumstances, our kind cab driver had already turned off the meter. Between dark zones, we passed by one area with hotels and a Costco on our way to the new address. As we ticked off the last mile, my stomach dropped, knowing that we were once again in the wrong place. This time, there was simply nothing around at all – no street lights, no buildings, just darkness.

We were all getting really frazzled. Realizing that we’re quickly running out of time, Fred told the cab driver to take us to the police. The kids were looking really worried, so I spent my time giving them reassuring looks while internally creating a plan B. On the way to the police station, we passed by the hotels again. A large Holiday Inn caught our attention. We both realized that they might have an English-speaking front desk clerk, so we got the cab driver to take us there instead. As the cab driver pulled into the hotel, Fred quickly jumped out of the car and made a dash for reception.

I didn’t witness the conversation, but I do know that we were on our way with yet another address within a few minutes. Fred and I agreed that this was our last chance to make it back, since there was only about 25 minutes until the ship was scheduled to depart. Our hearts began to sink as we head toward the new address that was given by the front desk clerk. It was taking us to the same dark area that we were in before. The only difference was a single turn on the last street, which was dark as well. We can see the water at this point and Kyle says excitedly, “I can see the ship! It’s right there!”

It was right there, like a bright beacon in the darkness, but “there” happened to be approximately 2 miles away over what appeared to be nothing but ocean. The cab driver took the only viable turn that we saw, which was a bumpy dirt road. We drove along the edge of the water, our hearts and hope sinking with every second that passed.

A few eternity-long minutes later, we reached the end of the dirt road and had to turn around in defeat. We drove silently up the dirt road, hitting pothole after pothole, staring at the brightly-lit ship on the near horizon. Fred and I were both figuring out logistics; we’d stay at one of the local hotels, hit Costco in the morning for prescription drugs, buy plane tickets, meet the ship in Manila, etc.

As we got to the paved road, we could see another taxi coming out of what appeared to be a completely dark, gated construction area. We rolled down our windows and flagged him down. He told us the ship was behind that very gate and on that dark road, so we let out exclamations of joy and thanked our lucky stars. Safely at the docked ship, we hugged our hero cabbie, gave him every cent we had in Korean won (even our subway passes) and ran to the ship.  We had about 8 minutes to spare when we got onboard.

I stopped to snap our final dash back to the ship.

We were not the only ones who had “adventures” getting back. The incorrect printed instructions given to us by the ship, combined with the new construction & lack of street lights in the area, caused undue amounts of frustration to those of us that decided to take taxis back to the ship. Many drove around in taxis for as long as three hours trying to find the ship. We know of at least 5 other groups who had these issues. Some cab drivers were not as kind as ours, threatening to leave some tourists on the roadside. Fortunately, all of us left plenty extra time for finding our way back, so there was no one left behind. Lessons learned: always leave plenty of time to get back to the ship & drop a GPS locator pin on your phone so that you’re not dependent on anyone else’s instructions to find your way back!

The Koreans that we encountered during this experience really touched us deeply. The outpouring of help, the unselfish kindness, and the patience we encountered will stay with me forever.