So after I wrote that Mongolia Visa Run article I swore I'd never do it again. Ended up going back two or three times. It's just so damn cheap! Now that I've completed a full baker's dozen Erlian border hops, though, I'm calling it quits for good. Sorry, that one bar that always screens '80s Hollywood action movie sequels. I've bought my last overpriced Snow beer from you. It's time for something different. It's time for something better, something new for my visa-mandated within-90-days international vacation: one night in Seoul.
Let's dispense with the crucial details vis-a-vis your visa: Korea offers visa-free entry to most countries for at least 30 days at a go. The full list is here. Price-wise, you're looking at a couple of thousand RMB for your round trip flight ticket. Not too bad. I booked mine two days before my flight and grand total including a hefty international tax was 2,211rmb. Cheaper than flying direct to Hong Kong, and much faster. I suggest you carve out a nice weekend. There's a lot to see in Seoul, from what I hear. I only had 12 hours there though.
Arrive Incheon International at 6:30pm and already the omens are auspicious:
Bobby D! I have to assume the photo shoot for this was the Korean equivalent of Bill Murray's liquor ad in Lost In Translation.
I make a beeline to Hongdae, so named for Seoul's big art university. It's the center of the city's youth culture/party scene, and thus my natural first port of call. Meet up with a few rock scene pundits and head out for some Korean BBQ. We eat at Tong Tong (통통), which specializes in a specific cut of meat described to me as seagull pork:
Apparently Tong Tong was the first in Hongdae to start slinging the seagull, but now there's a massive scene of outdoor eateries doing the same thing. I'm told Tong Tong is still the best. The seagull pork bits are garnished with pickled greens, radish slivers, hot peppers, and extremely small shrimps:
Solid foundation. Rocking a few beers but now it's time to take it up a notch, so we head to one of the many makgeolli pubs in the zone:
Makgeolli is a light, fermented rice booze that can be flavored with all sorts of shit. We're treated to a sampler including honey, chesnut (um), lotus (?), and Baedari (...)-flavored makgeollis. The latter is named after a small locality to the south, and that's the one we go with. Not too strong — it's more like rice beer than a hard liquor. Smooth. Slam through two clay pots of that. Makgeolli brewing is somewhat of an upstart industry in South Korea, since the government officially eased up on unlicensed microbrew operations a few years back.
Got a steady buzz going, time to hit the road. Next stop = Itaewon. The subway is fast and convenient. Even has Chinese.
First impression: lots of 7-11s and white people. The Itaewon expat situation makes Sanlitun look like Chongqing. Historically Itaewon was the stomping / drinking / fighting / etc (see below) grounds of the American GIs based in Seoul. Still is to some extent, but it's been steadily gentrified over the last few years and now is a perfectly fine place to catch a bite of Mexican food. Or some hookers:
The gently rolling terrain in the immediate vicinity of Itaewon is lovingly referred to locally as Hooker Hill. This is non-denominational hooking, to be sure. Decent selection of transvestite bars, gay bars, and straight meat 'n' potatoes hetero options.
I pop into one of these little bars. It's strange. When I get in, the, uh, bartender locks the door, draws the curtain, charges me 60 kuai for a beer and asks what else I want. I try to explain that I just want to ask her a few questions, but "Holden Caulfield" gets lost in translation somehow. Doesn't want me to take photos either, obviously, but I'm permitted to snap this one of the psychedelic security camera feed of the street outside:
Groovy! Not much to see here besides a few cadres of US Military Police wandering around, looking for skulls to crack.
Now I'm heading to Noksapyeong, just west of Itaewon. It's described to me as an "English teacher ghetto," which is pretty much Gulou, so I figure it will feel like home. I stop in at Cakeshop, essentially the Seoul equivalent of Dada:
Total Freedom is in the mix, having just rounded the bases on his China tour. He's playing Cakeshop tomorrow. Tonight is Loefah, who I guess is some kind of big-deal London producer based on what I glean from fifteen seconds scanning his name on Resident Advisor. Neato:
Cheapest beer at Cakeshop? Miller Genuine Draft, naturally. High life baby. I see you, De Niro!
Ok enough of this. I'm ready to get back into the student zone. Back to Hongdae. I'm recommended a basement bar called Gopchang Jeongol, specializing in vintage '60s and '70s South Korean rock'n'roll. Bit of a hard one to find, look for this sign:
Then go downstairs and you'll begin to hear the Korean Traditional Sound:
My kind of place! Vinyl porn:
Scene at Gopchang Jeongol is a bunch of small groups pounding beers and eating food I cannot identify. Gopchang jeongol is actually the name of a special beef tripe soup. Was gonna try to doggie-bag some for Connor but figure that might get sketchy at customs. So I just grip a beer and chat up the DJ:
Heo. He DJs Gopchang every Wednesday and Thursday night, from 10pm til 3 or 4 or whenever people leave. Keep in mind that nobody's dancing, just drinking and soaking in the tunes. He also plays guitar in Seoul indie rock band 3rd Line Butterfly and does some solo electronic music on the side. Pretty good:
I tell Heo I like psychedelic music and he's on it, immediately dives into the stacks. Here are his picks:
Kim Jung Mi
Shin Joong Hyun
Four or five beers later, and I'm getting peckish. A dozen seagull pork cubes wrapped with minuscule shrimps only take one so far. So I head out in search of a bite. Options are limited, but then a peculiar sight catches my eye, as if reaching out from the buried depths of my past. Should I? Fuck it, one night in Seoul:
Yeah, Seoul has Taco Bell. Like 20 of them or something. The one in Hongdae is 24 hours, which is good because it's getting late and also I speak no Korean. I'm from Texas, where we refer to Taco Bell as "literally diarrhea," but beggars can't be choosers at this point. One Fiesta Bulgogi Taco please!
("Bulgogi" is Tex-Mex slang for "some kind of Korean beef thing," FYI.)
Yeah... this... this is what it looks like. Ugh. No me gusta. Head back out. Here's what the Hongdae scene looks like circa 3am on a Thursday night. Not pictured: SO MANY FLANGERS.
Need to wash this heinous taste out of my mouth with something. Maybe I'll eat a live octopus. Read about that somewhere. Hongdae street food scene is by now an assortment of stalls exclusively selling deep-fried objects:
I see a couple of friendly-looking American guys getting down with one, and ask them for their ordering advice, thinking maybe they speak a bit of the language and can recommend something off-menu. Of course they live in Shanghai and are in Seoul for a softball match against the American GI team. Makes sense. Anyway, there's really no translation needed for this joint. You point at which fried things you want to eat, minimum five. I settle on: fried shrimp thing, fried noodles wrapped in seaweed thing, fried pepper, fried squid, and one hard-boiled, deep-fried egg:
Comes with soy sauce. One of the American guys says SmartShanghai should make an Android app. True that, I'm on a Xiaomi myself. The other guy disappears for a while then comes back with a bottle of soju, which we drink quickly. Then he royally pisses off the Fried Stuff Shack lady with this egregious photobomb:
Now that I'm full of even more booze and a solid month's-worth of sodium, time to check out the Hongdae Playground scene. From what I understand, the playground hosts some pretty brutal after-hours breakdancing competitions. Tonight it's just a chill little open mic deal though:
At this point I am quite drunk and Seoul is starting to mock me:
Yikes. Starting to feel pretty jagged. Closing in on 4am now. Was gonna try to catch a few hours of sleep on a wooden floor mat at this bathhouse, but I can get my bus back to the airport in an hour so I'll just hunt a quick caffeine buzz to get over the hump. Good thing Hongdae is JAMMED with 24-hour coffee spots:
Coffee is a big thing here in Seoul. This place Kona Beans is full of couples. At 4am. Wish we had this kind of thing in Beijing. I wouldn't even need to drink alcohol any more. Kona specializes in some fancy Pacific java:
("Kona" is a Hawaiian word meaning "Haha it's just normal coffee probably but we can charge way more for it," by the by.)
All the tables at Kona come with an embedded Samsung tablet. So you can read the paper online, or play Tetris, or whatever. Samsung is no joke in Seoul. Practically every other person I see on the street is rocking a Samsung "mobile phone" larger than my face. So many tasks being completed at once. Serious.
Bus stop, back to Incheon. I'm just starting to randomly laugh at loud at this point, combination of sleeplessness and drunkenness and caffeine jitters and culture shock. Forgot to mention I didn't really sleep the night before, either, so my candle's really starting to burn low. Just straight up delirious.
My flight's at 8am. Plenty of time to check in and maybe even catch some pre-flight Z's in the terminal. I get to the ticket counter, and after a bit of confusion they tell me that my flight, despite being on the same airline I came in on, is flying out of Seoul's other international airport (Gimpo), which is an hour away. HAHAHA, good prank Seoul! Maybe keep an eye on which airports you're flying in and out of, if you go. That's a pro tip right there.
They sort me with a slightly later flight out of Incheon, which is rad because I am no longer thinking in any identifiable language. Get a sandwich and a copy of Wall Street Journal Asia and pass the f*** out. Later Seoul, it was real!
[Outbound]: One Night in Seoul
A perfectly executed Korean visa hop - the waster's guide to making the most of your obligatory 12-hour stint in Seoul. Basically: Taco Bell!
By Josh Feola Jun 4, 2014 2014-06-04