Love Hotel

joylani 130pxWe took a cross-country bus today from Seoul to Sokcho. It took about 3.5 hours to reach our destination; a large portion of the drive seemed to be on bridges and tunnels as we made our way across the mountainous country. The first thing we did when we arrived was make a quick stop at the tourism desk to pick up a map, then we went off in search for a hotel. Passing by the one that looked like a castle, we followed the waving lady wearing a white bucket hat into the hotel across the street. She took us up a flight of stairs, down a hallway past a Shawshank Redemption movie poster, and into room 207. A quick look at the wallpaper and circular bed was all it took. “We’ll take it!” Matt told the lady in not so few words via the help of a translator over the lady’s phone. And so we plopped down our packs and settled into our room for the next couple nights. It is reminiscent of the Darjeeling Limited, minus color-coordinated bathrobes, guys in turbans, and then there’s our luggage, which sadly does not match. Matt asked me, “Have you ever slept on a circle bed before?” “When would I have had a circle bed to sleep on?” I asked back. Matt shrugged and responded, ”It’s like Austin Powers. This,” laying on the bed and demonstrating, “is a circle: you can sleep any direction on this bed and it wouldn’t matter.” So you can. And the hairdryer is pink too. Upon further reflection later in the day, we came to the conclusion that this is not some take-off of the Madonna Inn (San Luis Obispo) but rather most likely a “Love hotel.” Oh well. What’s not to love about this:

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Gyeongbok-Gung Palace



matt 120pxToday, we saw Seoul’s most famous attraction, the Gyeongbok-gung Palace. I don’t know too much about the palace or its history (it does have a long history though and has been destroyed and rebuilt several times), but it was an interesting place to walk around. The first unique thing about it was the guards posted all around the entrances with fire extinguishers handy in their utility belts.  Spare extinguishers were also readily available at various locations throughout the palace grounds.  Good thing though, as the palace is the largest wooden structure in Korea and the most famous landmark in Seoul (a gate whose name currently escapes me) recently burned down from arson. The complex was comprised of a huge wooden gate and surrounding wall enclosing dozens of buildings. We saw throne rooms, large halls, and living quarters, but the perhaps the coolest thing were the natural features of the palace. Several large ponds were inside, with plenty of shady foliages around and pagodas in the center. Also pretty interesting was the juxtaposition of the palaces and the surrounding environs. Looking back towards the front of the palace, Seoul’s modern skyline loomed. Looking in the opposite direction, the mountains rose even higher. We spent a couple hours there exploring the large grounds. Reading back over this, I realize that this post isn’t too exciting, but that’s because it wasn’t. I mean it was an interesting morning excursion, but it just was a bit anti-climatic given that it was one of Korea’s most famous attractions.



National Museum and Palace

korea, seoul

palace garden
joylani 130pxAs far as national Museums go, I found Korea’s to be very well curated and in a beautiful building.  The exhibits were informative and the artifacts interesting to look at.  Not knowing much about Korean culture or history, I found the one about Hangeul, the masterfully created Korean writing system which is said to be the most logical in the world, particularly intriguing.  I’m not exactly sure how it all works, but apparently it is just very systematic and makes sense–you know, in a way that ”ph” sounding like ”f” doesn’t.  It was developed under the direction of King Sejong of the Joseon dynasty in the 1440s.  He felt there was a need for Koreans to express their words in writing effectively, and the traditional Chinese characters weren’t cutting it.  Hangeul was the answer, this new script successfully expressed the sounds and true meanings of Korean words, though it was not widely used until after 1945.  Even so, October 9, or Hangeul Day, is still celebrated as a national holiday.    

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One aspect that makes the museum unique from others is the abundance of sitting lounges placed throughout the museum in various configurations and near windows, offering a peaceful view of the park below.  Many museums do not have so many windows.  The windows were like a display case, creating an exhibit of the outside.  It was almost as if to say, “We have many national treasures inside our museum; nature is a treasure as well.”  (Given the ammount of hiking Koreas partake in, I believe it is true they treasure their surroundings.)  On an even grander scale of outdoor curation is a display above walkway connecting the two sections of the museum.  It is flanked on either side by the buildings, below by a wide staircase, and above by a roofline.  These edges create a massive frame for one of the ultimate open-air artworks: the sky.

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The palace was simple, but it was also very beautiful.  Rather than one monstrously huge building, there were dozens of smaller structures spread throughout the grounds.  Beautiful mountains provided a regal backdrop to the compound, to which no man-made garden could compete.  The palace itself is located on the upward part of a hill that slowly slopes up from the city.  Looking out from the buildings, I could see a view of the city from over the palace walls and I imagined the old emperors looking out over their capital.  The grounds were very neatly landscaped.  It wasn’t overdone with loads of flowers and trees; just simple and beautiful grassy areas, old trees, and a couple of peaceful ponds.  The grounds were not crowded and I enjoyed walking around the maze of buildings and walls in search of something exciting.  Like Matt mentioned, there wasn’t anything crazy or extravagant about the palace, but I didn’t come to Korea expecting Peterhoff Palace, and I am glad we had the chance to see how the Korea rulers pimped out their cribs in their own style.

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roof decor

All I know about Korea I learned from watching soaps

 joylani 130pxWhile this is not entirely true, it is a fact that much of my exposure to Korean culture has been through the Korean dramas I watch with my grandma when I visit Hawaii.  Not that that it is representative or anything.  Imagine if someone took General Hospital to be a good representation of American life.  I did, however, mention to Matt that I did recall a good deal of bowing in the shows.  Not sure if this was true to life, I brought it up so that he could be prepared to expect it, just in case.  Sure enough, before we left the airport we had received our first bow.  It was awkward as I don’t think either of us quite knew how to respond.  Now we’ve begun to sprinkle our thank you’s with slight leans forward, as we’re not really sure what entails a bow or how low of a bow when. 
 There are a couple other things I’ve quickly noticed about Koreans: three main components of style.  Grey suits, shiny, and stripes, and any combination there of.

Of Museums and Markets


matt 120pxWe kicked off our first full day in Seoul with visits to two things we often see in capital cities: national museums and stock markets. We went to the National Museum first, which moved to a new location just a couple of years ago. It’s a really huge building and very-well laid out, as far as museums go. Like many national museums, this one began with Korea’s Neolithic history and once again, we spent way to much time looking at fossilized rice and arrowheads. We did learn a lot about Korean history, which is basically a series of kingdoms, which were split, combined, and attacked by China and Japan. Obviously much space was given to the Joseon Dynasty, which ruled from the 14th century until the Japanese occupation in the 20th. It wouldn’t be very interesting to recount the details here, but it was a somewhat interesting museum, especially since I previously knew very little about Korea or its history. The most interesting galleries for me were the mapmaking/history of Korean contact with the outside world and the Hangul (Korean script which was invented in the 16th century) gallery. But after eight galleries of probably 100 meters each, we were pretty tired. We ate at the museum café, just a simple udong meal. From the museum, we took the subway a few stops to Yeouido Island, a small island in the river. It’s the financial district of Seoul, kind of the Wall Street of Korea. We quickly found the Korean Exchange, where I read there was a small museum dedicated to the securities industry and a viewing room from where visitors could look down on the trading floor. Once past security, we were led to a large cavernous room with many displays and ticker symbols and prices on large LED boards on the walls. The sign said that this room was the exchange. One of the exhibits explained that the KRX (Korean Exchange) went to all electronic trading a few years ago- guess my guidebook was out of date. Although I wasn’t able to see a real live trading floor, the place was interesting and their information displays were interesting: history of the Korean market, old stocks and bonds, synopsis of other large exchanges around the world, etc. It was unique addition to my circuit of Asia’s exchanges.

Arriving in Seoul


matt 120pxAfter all my stressing about arriving in Seoul, it actually wasn’t too bad. Immigration and customs were a breeze. The airport had an internet café, which we hopped on for a few minutes to get the names, addresses, and directions for a couple of possible guesthouses in the city. Then we took a bus from Incheon into Seoul. It was a really nice bus- big plush leather seats and even seatbelts! The drive took about an hour, but it was nice to relax for our first glimpses of Korea. Korea immediately reminded me of the US. It seems to be about the equal with the US infrastructure wise, although Joylani said that Korea looks a little nicer. But unlike other really developed Asian places (like Singapore, Hong Kong, or the huge Chinese metropolises), Korea was not crazy. It seems pretty mellow, especially given that Seoul-proper has over 10 million people (20 in the metro area). Once at our stop, we got of the bus and started looking for a place to stay. We started walking one direction and then the other…and then in the original direction again. Readers have probably long since recognized that Joylani and I aren’t the best navigators. When we finally found the road we were supposed to turn on, we walked down it and then back up it and then back down it, before coming back up it again. We just couldn’t find the next street to turn on. We asked some directions and got some bad ones, but in our wandering, a nice old man asked if we needed help. Well, he didn’t speak English, but he said something in Korea, so I walked over and showed him the hotel info we had written down. He didn’t know the place or location, but he called the number, got directions, and then proceeded to walk with us for two blocks until we found it. After thanking him, we walked into the lobby of Yim’s House (name of hotel) and asked if there were any rooms available. Luckily, there was a cancellation for that night and the proprietor said we could probably stay for two nights. Tired of walking around, we just took it and figured we’d worry about where to stay the other nights later. We spent the rest of the afternoon resting and exploring the surrounding area. Overall it was a pretty easy transition back to travel, made easier by the fact that Korea is a developed country and the help of a few kind people.

Sleeping at the Airport

beijing airport (3)

joylani 130pxThankfully we made it through immigration at Beijing with no problems.  You see, we weren’t exactly sure how everything would go since we don’t have a valid China visa anymore, but there is a 24 hour stay allowed if you have a connecting flight.  But still, just in case, Matt and I checked our bags as carry-ons and crossed our fingers and prayed there wouldn’t be any complications…you just never know.  Being too tired and too lazy to brave the muggy heat and smog for a quick trip into the city, Matt and I spent our entire layover (over 17 hours) at the Beijing airport.  Most of this time was spent sleeping.

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Surprisingly, we weren’t the only ones sleeping in the terminal.  By midnight I think every single row of benches had a person sprawled across, fast asleep.  Those not lucky enough to score a bench had to resort to other places, such as these guys who slept in and on the x-ray conveyor belt.

beijing airport

Despite being woken up a couple times when the cleaning crew had to move our section of benches to wax the floor, we had an ok night’s rest.  While we weren’t busy sleeping, Matt and I passed the time spotting Olympic participants.  Many wore team jackets, and all had id passes hung around their necks, almost as a badge of honor (those affiliated with the Olympics do receive special treatment at the airport).  They weren’t all athletes, but it was interesting nonetheless.  We even spotted many of them eating at Burger King and Starbucks, the food of champions.  I guess we’re kind of like champions too then.

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Stress Revisited


matt 120pxLast night, my dad asked me if I was ready to get back on the road again. I told him that I was starting to stress. I explained that its always a bit stressful going to a new place, but especially so when you fly in. Unlike train stations and long-distance bus stations, airports are often dozens of miles outside of their namesake city. So not only do you land in a totally new place, but you must immediately find transportation to take you a relatively great distance to a specified place, often at a significant cost. Think about how you would get from the closest airport to your home if you were a foreign backpacker? So we must know exactly where we’re staying ahead of time and how to get there.  Additionally, flying days are often long days due to check-in, waiting, and connecting, not to mention flight time. Such will be the case when we arrive in Seoul, two days after departing San Francisco. We’re going to be tired and grumpy. In short, I told my dad that my stress would continue until we are in a hotel in Seoul. Later, at dinner, someone asked Joylani if she’s stressed out about leaving. She said, “Yea, and I will be until we find a hotel in Seoul.” We were both beginning to get those familiar feelings and naturally began to anticipate the things we’ve been conditioned to over the past year. And so the resumption of our journey begins. Presently midair somewhere between our connecting cities of Vancouver and Beijing, we are back practicing our old travel discipline: research. Reading our guidebook and studying the web pages I downloaded, in hopes of figuring out where to stay in Seoul and how to get there from the airport. Here we go, again :)

Leaving Again: Some Sentiments

another cake

joylani 130pxPacking this time around was a lot quicker than before.  Not only do I know what to expect, but I’m not dealing with leftover odds and ends from packing up a whole apartment.  Leaving isn’t so sad either.  I know we’ll be back early next year, and I have had such a great time these last six weeks being able to hang out with so many friends and family.  A really great time.  These six weeks have been exactly what I had hoped they would be.  Now I’m ready to hit the road again, but I’m glad to come back to a place like Cheers, where everybody knows my name.

balboa park, hannah's wedding

my old roommate Hannah’s wedding in San Diego


old roomies

gma and me

Grandma :)

old friends

my first friends ever

And the cereal!

I will never take a box of cereal and [soy] milk in the fridge for granted again.

I will never take a box of cereal and [soy] milk in the fridge for granted again.

I will never take a box of cereal and [soy] milk in the fridge for granted again.

I will never take a box of cereal and [soy] milk in the fridge for granted again.

I will never take a box of cereal and [soy] milk in the fridge for granted again.

I will never take a box of cereal and [soy] milk in the fridge for granted again.

Special thanks…

To our parents for taking such good care of us: feeding us cookies and cereal, giving us a place to stay, letting us borrow the car, supplying cigars, listening to us and looking at all those pictures. :)

Six Weeks at Home


matt 120pxIts been six weeks since I last wrote, much less posted anything. Although I enjoy producing our blog, the past six weeks in the US have been a nice break from both travel and our blog. I had wanted to write during our time at home, but didn’t and now regret it. The past weeks have flown by and I didn’t even have time to see all the people I wanted to, much less find time to write. For our small, but faithful following of readers, I’ll try to summarize the past six weeks in words and pictures:

Our flight arrived in San Francisco and we spent a day in Fremont (with my family) before heading up to Arcata (with Joylani’s family). After a few days in Arcata, we rejoined my family for their family vacation at Sea Ranch. Those first two weeks were great, as we did nothing other than hang out with our families.


My sister, Jackie, meeting us at the airport


Our first night in Fremont, with my family


We were happy that Katie and her boyfriend Greg made a surprise visit to Arcata


Joylani and her sisters, Katie and Julie


Enjoying a good stogie with Joylani’s dad, Eric


Hanging out with my Grandparents at Sea Ranch


Sea Ranch coast

Then Joylani flew down to San Diego to be in her friend Hannah’s wedding, while I flew out to Maine to be in my buddy Jordan’s wedding. My week there was great. I got to hang out with my old college roommates, the Sevillians (we lived on a street called Seville). My friend Matt lives all the way out in Hawaii and just had a kid, so it was awesome to see him. Jimmy and his fiancé were gracious enough to let me stay with them in Boston, where we had great time exploring the city.  And of course, I got to be there for the highlight, Jordan’s wedding.


The original Sevillians welcomg our newest member

From our week at opposite corners of the US, Joylani and I reunited in the Bay Area and headed back up to Arcata. We spent a week just hanging out with her family. One day, her mom, Arlene, took us to a nearby fair. This definitely was an experience and completed my circuit of small-town America, following Sea Ranch and then Maine. Our week, like the fair, was fun.


The Humboldt County Fair


goat competition


Joylani’s family and I trying to win carnival games


even saw a guy get shot out of a cannon

Returning to the Bay Area, I got to hang out with a few friends, but not nearly as many as I would’ve liked. My parents had a family party at their house and a friend’s party at a friend’s house, so at least I got to see family and stuff. Then Joylani and I spent our last weekend in Fairfield to celebrate our friends’, Maya and Krishna’s (who we stayed with in Chennai) engagement. It was awesome to see all my old study-abroad friends and celebrate with Maya and Krishna all weekend.


My study-abroad friends: Payal, Alvir, Rushi, and of course, me

As far as culture shock, and anything related to re-entry, goes, I went through a progression of thoughts and emotions, although none to strong. After Beijing, the Bay Area seemed to be so rural: so much open space and so few people about. I couldn’t understand people for the first few days as they spoke too fast. Other than my appreciation for English and comfort, I didn’t really experience any shock for the first couple of weeks as we didn’t do anything really but socialize with our families. My trip to New England got me thinking about the huge differences between the US and Asia though. Nothing too specific, but rather broad comparisons between things like cultures, work ethic, senses of entitlement, politics, economics, etc. Generally speaking, it seems that Asia is looking towards a bright future, while America is concerned with preserving its past glory. Being home for both the Olympics and the US presidential race facilitated a lot of this thought and conversation with others. I did a lot of thinking moving from Asia to the US, but didn’t experience too much “culture shock.” I attribute this mostly to the fact that we’ve crossed dozens of borders in the past year and have gotten used to adjusting to wildly different places. And tomorrow, we’ll have to do it again as we head to Korea.

A couple things we’ve seen on the road that I was surprised to see at home:


awesome sunset in Fremont


crazy rainbow right behind my parents’ house


gas getting pumped out of oil drums


enough said…


this Catholic festival reminded me of Ganapati


old stuff in the middle of a modern city, Boston


huge rice fields in California