Archive for March, 2018

Seoul – our last day

Saturday, March 31st, 2018

Goodbye Seoul (annyeong).  Our last day here. Tomorrow we’re taking a bus to Donghae to catch an overnight ferry to Vladivostok Russia. Should be fun.

Today we visited the War Memorial of Korea. It’s definitely worth spending some time there. The exhibits are well displayed with English explanations throughout. It was really informative.  We learned a lot about the Korean War as well as earlier Korean military history, including cool displays of ancient warships.  Fascinating country.  Tons of static displays outside including Chinese and USSR equipment.  Thanks to Kathy’s father for his Korean War Air Force service.

at the Korea War Memorial, the replica of the ship sunk by NK in 2002, 6 dead SK sailors; red marks bullet holes


a new friend at the Korea War Memorial

Another stroll across the Seoullo walking path to Namdaemun market for our last deep-fried sugar-coated dough twists.  The market is such a cool place and the walkway is a great way to get there from our bnb.  This evening we’re packing and preparing for the next leg of our trip.  Goodbye Seoul.

Seoullo is a great place to stroll


contemplating the great smiley face Buddha outside Namdaemun


our apartment is on the fourth floor, right across the street from Seoul Station; great location


recharging our tmoney cards


up from the bowels of the metro at Seoul Station

Seoul Day 5

Saturday, March 31st, 2018

We had to take care of some business today so we headed to the US camp at Yongsan first thing in the morning.  We needed a few things for our upcoming ferry ride from South Korea to Russia and the 7 days we’ll be spending on the Trans Siberian Railroad.  So we stopped at the hospital for a prescription refill.  No problems there at all. We got in to see a doctor right away who was able to review the records and enter a script into the system.  The pharmacist filled it immediately.  We had been told that process could take hours, even days (to get an appointment to see a doctor) but we were very fortunate.  Huge thank you to the Army staff who walked us through the process, the Korean doctor who was understanding of our situation, and the Ethiopian pharmacist (who Kathy got to know a little and has a fascinating life story, having emigrated from Ethiopia to Germany when she was 10, and ended up marrying a US service member, and now happily living in Korea).

After that we headed to the Exchange to see what we could find to get us through 7 days on a Russian train.  Not knowing what to expect for food along the way, we’re stocking up on some staples that can travel well.  We considered a few bottles of wine but ruled them out as too difficult to carry (we’ll probably regret this decision around day 4 on the train), opting for canned and dried food items instead (we might post something later about what we ended up with).  I also picked up a new day pack (my 15 year old Rick Steves’ bag was showing its age) and a light jacket.

It was afternoon by then and we needed something to eat so we grabbed a tuna sub from Subway.  Eating Subway in Seoul might seem sacrilegious but we appreciated it because we needed to eat right then and a little American comfort food is a good thing when you’re on the road for a while.  We used that time to swap the contents of my day pack and discuss the food and money strategy for the ferry and train rides.  We know there’s a restaurant car on the train but we’ve read it’s pricey and not very good.  There’ll be some food available on the platform when the train stops (a couple of times daily for 20 minutes or so).  Hopping off the train at those stations to deal with foraging is a scary prospect right now because we don’t know what we’re doing and the last thing we want is to get left behind.  But I’m sure we’ll manage just like others have.  We just need a few things to get us through the times we aren’t successful (whether we miss a stop or don’t particularly want to eat the dried fish from Lake Baikal).

Jongsan Subway – comforting and filling

We spent the afternoon wandering around Bukchon Hanok village which has lots of buildings from around 600 years ago.  Most of the buildings are residences that have been meticulously restored so it’s a great place to just wander with lots of folks strolling around in Hanbok traditional clothing.  It was fun but started getting a bit chilly as the sun was setting so we headed out for dinner.

street corner in Bukchon Hanok

We had heard that fried chicken was a specialty of this area so we set off searching for a restaurant that served it.  We found one place that looked promising but decided to walk up a street that looked even more interesting.  That was a good call because we came across a great looking Korean BBQ restaurant (forget the fried chicken).  So we ducked in there.  The staff spoke good English and were very helpful.  This was our first BBQ experience so we only knew what we had seen online.  We had one order of the Jeju white pork belly and one of the black (each order was 170g of meat, about 6 ounces) and two bottles of Cass beer.  They loaded us up with sauces and sides and patiently explained each, then brought out the hot coals.  Next came our two chunks of pork which they put whole on the grill.  After a few minutes they cut the slabs into bite-sized pieces and further cooked, constantly checking and turning the pieces and adding the vegetables.  When done the process was to chopstick a piece of pork, dip it in sauce, then put it in a lettuce leaf and enjoy. It was truly a memorable experience and good meal, in no small part because of the staff.

slabs on the grill to start the cooking

3 different waiters worked on our meat and vegetables, cutting and turning things constantly

Korean BBQ restaurant in Seoul

After dinner we headed back to the apartment.  I took a stroll over the Seoullo walkway to check out the night lights again and stopped at the Lotte Mart on the way back for a few more supplies.  Lotte Mart is a gigantic, hectic supermarket that also sells goods so it’s a good place for food items for breakfast and snacks.  And it’s right across the street from our bnb so very convenient.

wasabi crab snack and soju at Lotte Mart

Cat Cafe cat hitting on Korean girl


Seoul Day 4 March 29

Friday, March 30th, 2018

Today I visited the DMZ. It was impressive. Though I signed up too late to get on a tour to the Joint Security Area (JSA) at Panmunjom where the table divides North and South Korea and the opposing forces are face to face, the half day tour I was on was super informative and interesting. A bus picked us up at Yongsan army post and our Korean guide discussed history and current events the whole time. Driving to the DMZ we passed by miles of barbed wire to keep out NK spies. In the DMZ there was a definite military presence with bunkers, bases, and soldiers.

our guide was entertaining and informative

We stopped at Imjingak, a Korean War memorial park. I didn’t get much sense of the war there but more a desire for unification which turned out to be the common theme throughout.  There wasn’t much on display about battles, battlefields or military equipment.

Next was a visit to the 3rd infiltration tunnel – 72 meters underground, 1635 meters in length. The ramp down to it is about 350 meters long and not bad considering it’s the equivalent of 23 stories deep. However the actual tunnel was a bit harder to navigate since I had to somewhat squat the 170 meters or so to the farthest point then do the same on the way back. It was hard on the old knees and back but worth it. Good thing for the helmets they provided because I must have hit my head at least two dozen times.  NK claimed they were digging for coal after initially saying it was just a tourist attraction dug by SK. Good try but a hard sell when all the dynamite holes were dug from the north and the coal dust plastered along the walls was from NK.

at the DMZ

Next stop was the Dora observatory on a hill overlooking NK. It was somewhat hazy but I still got a good look into NK – propaganda village, the Gaeseong industrial complex, farmland, and the exceedingly high flagpole (which they had to heighten a few years ago when SK built a taller one). Pretty mountainous just beyond the DMZ.

a model of the terrain at Dora with North Korea through the looking glass

Our final stop was at Doramon station – the northernmost train station in SK, built with the expectation for unification and the possibility of rail travel all the way to Europe. It’s still passengerless for now.

take the last train to Pyongyang and I’ll meet you at the (Doramon) station

It’s an interesting political dynamic in SK right now with the older generation seeking unification but the younger generation recognizing the significant differences between the two nations and looking for permanent separation. We’ll see how it turns out. Korea was a unified nation for centuries before the Japanese so they have a long history to draw on.  Interesting how people in different lands are trying to preserve their identities as the world is shrinking around them, including Koreans, native Hawaiians, and Taiwanese.

Back in Seoul Kathy and I rode to the Dongdaemon shopping center and market to check it out. The center was packed with individual shops speciaiizing in textiles, fabric, and knickknacks, not the finished goods we were looking for. And the market was between lunch and nighttime (when it’s really hopping) so a lot of the stands were shut down or quiet. We were both hungry and opted for a restaurant meal instead of street market food so we headed back to our bnb.

Right around the corner is a cafe, Seven Eleven, and two good looking restaurants – one noodles, the other bibimbak and bulgogi. We chose the second one and had two beef bulgogi plates – one with rice, the other noodles. They were a great choice after a relatively foodless day. They came with soup, salad, a hard-boiled egg, and kimchi and cost about $12 for both of us.  The food was fantastic.  Unfortunately nothing was in English so I don’t even know the name.

the bulgogi restaurant next door

what a wonderful cook and hostess, very patient with us and made us feel at home

dinner was not fancy but really good (getting better with chopsticks)

Seoul Day 3

Thursday, March 29th, 2018

I feel like we’re finally starting to settle into long-term travel mode, not loading up too much on our plate each day. But instead sort of playing it by ear and taking the days as they come. The way we traveled almost 40 years ago. We may pick out one or two main things and fill in the rest as we go. Eating is a challenge so we try to include it in the day’s plan, sometimes we do better than other times.  Trip Advisor and Yelp help.  Unfortunately Google Maps is handicapped in Korea so we can’t rely on that as much as we had in Japan and Taiwan (paper map time).  On a related note, we’re finding travel in Korea more challenging in general than either Japan or Taiwan.  Korean website English can be confusing and the info hard to understand.  That’s okay, the metro and our feet get us where we need to go (though sometimes with a few wrong turns first).

We’re a bit nervous about our upcoming ferry ride from Donghae to Vladivostok, specifically getting to Donghae from Seoul.  We found conflicting info on the web so we took a pre-emptive trip to the Seoul Express Bus Terminal to figure it out and get an idea of how long it’ll take us on Sunday morning when we actually have to leave with our luggage.  The agent at the station didn’t speak much English but we picked up two tickets for the 8:00 am bus on Sunday and scoped out the morning food scene – Dunkin Donuts, Burger King, coffee shops.  Shouldn’t be a problem.  We’re looking at 30-40 minutes to get there so we’ll have to plan accordingly, probably leaving the apartment around 6:30 or so.

Next we headed over to Gyeongbokgung Imperial Palace for the changing of the guard ceremony.  We had conflicting info about the time so we made sure to catch the one time that seemed to be consistent 13:00.  We watched that ceremony however the more extensive one is at 14:00 so we decided to stick around.  Good call since the 14:00 ceremony is really cool.  I think we’ve been to 4 or 5 other guard changings and this one is by far the coolest, with ornate silk red and blue traditional uniforms, drums (including the big one), horns, guys barking orders, flags a-flying, and running commentary in English.  Definitely worth hanging around for.  The palace grounds are also interesting to just wander around especially since about half the visitors are wearing traditional Hanbok clothing.  Fun time.

It was then around 2:30 and we were pretty hungry but restaurants in the area were closing so we headed back to our place for a lunch of the instant noodles and chips that our airbnb hosts had brought us.  Not bad but a prime example of not planning for lunch ahead of time.  One redeeming note was that we had picked up two bottles of soju at the Lotte Mart so we tried those with our lunch.  The first one was grape which wasn’t bad.  We actually quite liked it with our ramen (which we discovered later was one of the recommended pairings, hmmm).  The second was citrus, not as good.

That evening we walked across the Seoullo walkway to the Myeungdong market, another of the highly recommended night markets.  We ended up eating an egg bun, tornado potato, grilled pork belly and scallion on a stick, fried dumplings, and a 32 cm soft serve ice cream cone.  It was all good street food definitely worth seeking out but we’re getting close to enough of it.  The markets themselves are fun because they’re loud, lively, and still novel.  We strolled back across Seoullo soaking in the pleasant evening and lights.

Myeungdong Market entrance

pork belly & scallions grilled and blow torched

Seoullo walkway with our apartment building in the background (we’re on the 4th floor)

lighted globes and animated building display on Seoullo

Day 2 in Seoul

Wednesday, March 28th, 2018

Checked out of the Dragon Hill and made our way to May’s Airbnb in Yongsan – right across the street from Seoul Station. Since check in wasn’t until 3:00 and May’s mother was still cleaning, we dropped our bags and headed to Gwangjang market for sightseeing, shopping, and eating.  We got off the metro at Euljiro 4 station which may not have been the closest stop to the market but we found it anyway.  Gwangjang is adjacent to a sunken walkway along a canal (looks like it might be an old rail line) that would be a nice place for a stroll.  From what we could tell the market seems to be textile-oriented, until you get to the food section which is really cool.  Countless small stands with bench seating in front, serving a wide variety of things – lots of large black blood sausages (a Korean specialty), live sea creatures (octopus, sea cucumbers, shrimp, oysters, miscellaneous unidentified aquatic life), Korean pancakes (more like omelets with vegetables), fried savory dough cake-like things (they grind some yellow grain right there to make the dough), and on and on.  We’re kind of here for the food so the markets are one of the highlights of our visit to Seoul.  They can be hectic and crowded but the food choices are wonderful.  They’re almost overwhelming but we’ve narrowed down our food list by watching tons of travel videos and blogs.  The markets also have tourist info folks and tourist police to help out if needed.  They’re easy to navigate but it’s fun to get lost and wander.

A walk across the Seoullo walkway that evening for a quick visit to Namdaemun market to cap off the day.  The Seoullo path is beautiful – it’s an elevated walkway over the train tracks and streets around Seoul Station.  It’s uniquely lighted, planted, and signed, a great place to stroll and watch the night activity including electronic displays on  the building faces.  Just watch out for the park ‘guards’ with light sabers who are there to keep an eye on things, including making sure people (me) don’t get too close to the railing.

The only ‘glitch’ today was that we couldn’t figure out how to get hot water at May’s so she and her husband drove about an hour to show us what to do.  They brought their dog Lotto and snacks for us (a bag of shrimp chips, another of honey and butter chips, and two kinds of instant noodles).  They’re great hosts and the apartment location is equally good.  Definitely recommended – check it out if you need a place in Seoul.  Today’s weather was perfect, around 64 degrees F, and sunny.  Another good travel day.

spicy kimchi noodles and dumplings in Gwangjang market (one of our best meals)

deep fried twisted dough coated in sugar (as good as the ones at Namdaemun market)

fish cakes for dessert (fish-shaped waffles filled with red bean paste)


First day in Seoul South Korea

Tuesday, March 27th, 2018

Yesterday was a travel day from Taipei to Seoul. Some drama on the flight when my water bottle leaked in the overhead baggage compartment and freaked out the passengers in the row behind us. Many apologies later all was good. I’m not having much luck with liquids on planes lately so no more.  Actually that was our last scheduled flight so we’ll see how it goes on trains, ferries, and buses…

When we arrived yesterday Seoul was cold (around 40 degrees) with super dense fog so we prepared for nasty weather. We rode the shuttle from the airport to the Dragon Hill Lodge (our fourth and final armed forces lodging on this trip) located on an Army installation in Yongsan district. The lodge is pretty cool and our room is great so we’re happy spending a couple of days here. Our strategy of easing into a new country by staying at an American facility seems to be working pretty well for us.

Today we woke up to blue skies and a much nicer day (high temp of 62). We wandered around Namdaemun market in the morning and had lunch at a small ‘restaurant’ on food alley – kimchi fried rice with egg and kimchi bibimbap for about $12. It was good with rather subtle flavors though the kimchi side dishes were powerful.

lunch in Namdaemun market (notice Kathy’s new Korean hair cut)

We walked around the market a bit more afterwards and stopped for a couple of ‘snacks’ along the way.  First was a fried dough bun that looked good and had a pretty good sized waiting line.  We got in line with about 20 people ahead of us.  The stand had one guy stuffing the buns, one frying them, and a woman taking money and serving.  When you got to the head of the line, the money lady made you wait about 3 steps away until she motioned you to approach. just like the Seinfeld soup nazi.  You quickly and humbly walked up to her with your 1000 Won offering.  She asked ‘vegetable?”.  I wasn’t about to risk going to the end of the line so I said ‘yes’, not bothering to ask what the other options might be.  She popped one into a slit paper cup, wrapped a paper napkin around it, ladled on some sauce and we were done.  Success.  I’m not sure what was inside but it had a few shreds of carrot and some black stuff along with mostly what looked like glassy worms but could have been rice noodles.  It was steaming hot and the first couple of bites were really good with a crunchy crust and moist interior.  But after 3 or 4 bites the initial taste novelty wore off and the fryer oil dominated.  So what did we do?  We headed to another snack stand where we picked up some deep fried dough twists dusted with sugar.  Yep, more fried goodness.  The twists were also crunchy fried on the outside and soft and moist inside – good stuff.

department store in Namdaemun

After that we checked out a department store there that was a collection of individual tiny specialized shops inside a very crowded building.  The food market in the basement was especially busy with folks jostling for position like the start of an auto race.  We got claustrophobic and headed up and out for air.  We had a nice walk on the Seoullo walkway over to Seoul Station so we could take a look at our next neighborhood.  It looks great with a Lotte supermarket right there.  We’ll be picking up supplies there for our Airbnb stay and upcoming ferry and trans Siberian trips since we don’t know what to expect on either.

cars underfoot on the Seoullo walkway to Seoul Station

Taipei last day

Monday, March 26th, 2018

Our last full day in Taipei was a bit of a bust. We visited the Lin Family Mansion in the morning but it’s kind of run down and has some strange architectural things going on, like a mix of Chinese and western. We headed back to Ximending for lunch at Ay-Chung Flour Rice Noodles (again) since it was so good the first time around and we couldn’t find the other place we were looking for. The broth is made from a bonito flake base, the thin noodles are rice flour, and the bits of chewy animal things are smoked pig intestines, which weren’t bad. Visited the Longshan temple again afterwards.  Came across a pro communist rally near the market – loud, very old fashioned tinny nationalist-sounding music blaring, competing with barking from the megaphones.  They were struggling with the sound system and not getting much attention from folks passing by so I think Taiwan is safe for now.  Note that Beijing is very adamant that Taiwan is part of China (aka, One China, which is also the US official policy) but the Taiwanese not so much, even demoting Chang Kai-shek as an unwanted Chinese ruler.  On a side note, we also saw some vehicles driving around with what appeared to be pro-USA signs and announcements, flying US and Taiwanese flags.

Taiwan Chinese communists marching for unification with Beijing

That afternoon we headed out to the Beitou hot spring area to check it out and maybe soak a bit.  However when we got out there it was late and hot, we were tired and hot, and the springs were a bit of a hike from the metro stop so we headed back – no soak.  Dinner that night was right next door to our hotel (once again at the staff’s recommendation).  We had the desk clerk write down some typical Taiwanese dishes.  We used that to order beef noodle soup, fried rice with fried pork cutlet, scallion pancakes, and steamed cabbage, and maybe 3 Taiwan beers.  It was great.  The flavors were wonderful and the cow stomach bits in the soup were interestingly chewy.  It was a nice ending to a relatively modest sightseeing day.

great Taiwanese meal at 5-7-9 restaurant in Taipei


Taipei Day Three

Saturday, March 24th, 2018

We had a pretty good day in Taipei.  Started off with a ride up the Maokong gondola, 4 kilometers and about 20 minutes, sailing pretty high over the landscape below.  Apparently the thing to do at the top is hike around the mountains but we didn’t feel like it so we walked up and down the street.  We had a peanut ice cream wrap then found a restaurant with a terrace overlooking Taipei for a beer and some quiet conversation.  Afterwards we headed to the Taipei 101 tower for lunch in the basement food court.  Lots of choices but I wanted to try one of the local specialities – baby oyster omelet (I don’t know why since I’m not a big fan of oysters or eggs).  It was kind of weird with a mucus-y goo.  Not my favorite food so far this trip.  We walked around a bit in the afternoon and made our way to Shilin night market.  Taipei is famous for it’s numerous night markets but Shilin is one of the largest and most famous.  Lots of great sights, sounds, and smells.  We had chopped pork stuffed buns and cow tongues (pastry with peanut spread shaped like cow’s tongues).  Both were recommended in various blogs and definitely worth seeking out.  Only one more day in Taipei before heading off to South Korea.

Maokong glass-bottom gondola high over tea plants


spent the afternoon enjoying the weather, the view of Taipei, the trip, and each other


Taipei 101 food court lunch – oyster omelet was a bust


Shilin night market for dinner



Taipei Day Two

Friday, March 23rd, 2018

Changing hotels today so we had breakfast at Hotel Ambience, dropped our bags, and headed out. Picked up 3-day metro and bus passes at the metro station ($15). First stop was Lungshan temple – an amazing introduction to Chinese temples. It was decorated with hundreds of paper lanterns, animal, human, and god figures. Beautiful Chinese music playing. Folks worshipping in prayer/meditation, throwing down red wooden blocks, lighting candles and incense. It was a wonderful multi-sensory experience at an amazing temple compound.  Also visited another temple, had lunch in Ximending, relocated to the International Tokyo Hotel, and had dinner two doors down from the hotel at a dumpling restaurant that was founded by a former Din Tai Fung chef (a great recommendation from the hotel staff).  After one day we’re really liking Taipei and enjoying the weather.

Lungshan temple


Noodle lunch at Ay-Chung Flour-Rice Noodle


Communing with Koi at Bangha Qingshui temple


No respect for Chiang Kai Shek


Noodles, dumplings, and beer at Jin Din Rou

Taipei Taiwan Thursday March 22

Thursday, March 22nd, 2018

Flew from Tokyo to Taipei yesterday on Tiger Air. Not a bad flight for a discount airline except we got busted for bringing two beers on board (we had mistakenly thought we could bring food and drink along). All well after an apology but two good Kirins down the drain 🙁

Transport from the airport to our hotel district on the metro rail was easy and inexpensive. However when we got to our hotel there was some confusion about our reservation and they didn’t have a room for us for the 4 nights we’d be in Taipei. So we’d spend one night here and 3 at a different hotel. The front desk recommended we head to the Mitsukoshi department store for dinner since there are restaurants and food courts there.

About a 10 minute walk. The first place we came across in the basement (B2) level was Din Tai Fung so we got a ticket and waited about 40 minutes for a table. It was worth it as the famous dumplings there were high on our list for Taipei. We had the house special salad (tofu and vegetable shreds), two kinds of xiaolongbao dumplings (pork, shrimp), and two large Taiwan beers. The food was great and the staff were extremely helpful. It was a fun experience. We thoroughly enjoyed it, especially at the end of a somewhat stressful travel day.

Arriving in Taipei after leaving 37 degree and raining Tokyo

18 fold dumplings at Din Tai Fung in Taipei

Xiaolongbao dumplings and beer (excuse the photo orientation)