Day 8… the busy busy day after the trip to Seoul on Day 7. In order to keep things light, I had decided to remove I Park Mall from our itinerary, despite the allure of the Gundam store and all things crafty. So we woke up on Day 8, ready to take the Seoul City Tour Bus straight to Itaewon. But then, our love of all things waiting to be built decided that I Park Mall deserved a place back in the itinerary. ^^ The ticket booth is just next to Koreana Hotel, so we decided to get tickets after breakfast at Holly’s Coffee. Breakfast was a safe sweet honey bun and coffee. My brother was feeling a little unwell after last night’s spicy dinner so we waited for him to settle down before taking off to get the tickets. I chatted with the lady at the ticket counter making sure we got down the times for the buses at each stop and after she explained everything she was so surprised that I had understood it all. ^^ Yayyyy! The bus was, surprisingly, filled with mostly local tourists and the odd foreigner, like ourselves. The bus has headphones at every seat so you can listen to the description of each stop as you go. The first stop was Deoksu Palace, but being right behind our hotel, we had decided to put this off for the next day. We went straight to Yongsan, and the stop was right in front of the mall.
The mall, though, was closed! The good news was, there were people waiting for it to open, so we knew it couldn’t be long before the shutters opened. After about 5 minutes, all the doors were open and we headed straight up to the hobby floor. My brother headed straight to the Gundam store, while I explored the wooden craft kits outside. Going there had been a great decision, since I managed to find myself paper nano, a wooden craft kit and a Gundam model for my friend. ^^ There was even a Studio Ghibli store on the same floor! It was like walking into Japan in the middle of Korea which meant I was in danger of going bankrupt again. =O Too many models, too little money :P
As we were leaving, we realized that the mall was tax-free and we should learn how the whole tax-free thing is done, having decided to skip over it in Japan. We came all the way downstairs, only to find no information booth so went back to the fourth floor where the lady at the counter told us that we had to head to another information booth… on the ground floor, to get to which we had to go through H&M and countless other stores. There was plenty of time, so my brother went on ahead while we roamed around H&M and Charles and Keith. Receipts in hand, we then headed back out to the bus stop. There’s a list of timings at the bus stop which tells you when the buses are scheduled to come and the bus wasn’t too far off the timing given. As we waited, we were given a little flavour of how election season works in Korea. There was a truck parked around the corner, blaring slogans in support of the candidate 박태광 who was running for Yongsan, and at one point there was a speech broadcast by the candidate’s son who assured everyone that his dad was an upstanding citizen. This was followed by a lot of enthusiastic cheering by supporters in front of the mall and a lot of dancing to the candidate’s… campaign song? I must admit it was a rather catchy beat which my brother kept randomly bringing up throughout the rest of the trip. ㅋㅋㅋ
We eventually climbed on board a packed bus and realized that we had to stand till our next destination unless the seats freed up, which luckily enough they did- at the next stop. We got off at Itaewon, in front of Hamilton Hotel and it was as if we had entered Halal food heaven. Every second shop was advertising halal food and I wished I had more than one stomach so I could refuel for the rest of the trip. ^^ We were spoilt for choice and eventually a lady handing out flyers made our choice for us, by inviting us up to Ankara Palace. It was the best decision we never made. There was elevator up so mum was happy… and the food… the food was so0o0o0o0o good! Real Turkish food in the middle of Itaewon. I felt like I was back in Dubai.
We were so full and consequently so happy that I wished they’d have a bumper day filled with loads of customers. My wish came true pretty much instantaneously when a large Muslim tour group arrived and took up pretty much ALL the tables! We decided it was time to head out and give them another empty table to fill up. Our next stop was Seoul Central Mosque in Itaewon. We asked the Turkish ice-cream maker, who was busy teasing his customers, for directions.
It was already past Zuhr, but we went ahead through narrow roads lined with shops, halal restaurants, clubs, laundries, bakeries, business associations, bookshops until we finally came to the mosque… which is on a rather steep climb.
We managed to get my mum to make the short climb and my brother went on to offer prayers at the mosque. There were lots of Malaysian tourists who had also come to visit and as we roamed around the area, we got to meet people who work at the mosque and make brochures introducing Islam to non-Muslims. I was happy to find that there were brochures available right outside the mosque and even the Friday sermon was available to everyone.
As we left, my brother decided he was hungry again, so this time we stopped at Eid – a halal restaurant run by Korean Muslim reverts. The restaurant is small and cozy, an iPad for a menu with three main dishes on offer – 삼계탕, 불고기 and 찜닭 .The best part of the restaurant is that it’s authentic Korean food that’s halal ^^ My brother opted for the Bulgogi which was really good, while my mum and I settled for… the best cold tea we’ve ever had… ever! Mum’s not a big fan of iced tea so when she says she loved this, you had better believe it was good ^^
We left Eid and went back to catch our bus so we could head on to Myeongdong where mum wanted to do her cosmetic shopping. The ride was not too long, but we weren’t sure where to head from the bus stop, so we did the best… follow the general flow of people. Sure enough, we entered the bustling streets of Myeongdong, filled with enough make-up products to make over an entire nation.. twice. Most of the people in Myeongdong, though, are foreigners, primarily tourists and I later learnt that most Koreans have moved on to other shopping areas where there are fewer foreigners.
The first store we stepped into was Innisfree. The lady waiting on my mum turned out to be a Korean who had worked in Qatar, met her Pakistani husband in UK, got married in Lahore and was now in the process of finalizing the papers to bring her husband to Korea. Globalization FTW! She was awesome enough to help my mum and brother pick out things and we left our bhabi (sister-in-law) of sorts with lots of smiles ^^
It turned out that most of the employees speak multiple languages, to cater to the many tourists who come here… Korean, Chinese, Japanese, English… you name it, they speak it. It’s an awesome way to polish your language skills if you ask me. We wandered down the whole street, got ourselves pomegranate juice while my brother went into his favourite ABC Mart to pick up the new Converse 2.0. After that we picked up the compulsory 천원 양말 (dollar socks) and decided to go back to the bus-stop. By this time, the streets had become packed and crowded with vendors selling all kinds of yummy food – from the seasonal strawberries which my mum couldn’t say no to, to steaming 계란빵 (egg-bread)… We had somehow managed to lose ourselves…again.. but with the help of Naver and some landmarks we managed to navigate out of the street and onto the main road where we were supposed to catch the bus. We thought we saw the bus and made a mad dash to try and catch it but it turned out to be another bus altogether ㅋㅋㅋ and we went back to the bus stop. We looked at the sign at the bus stop to check when the bus was supposed to come and we were surprised to find two signs plastered on, both of which were different from the one we had picked up from the ticket booth back at Gwanghwamun. The bus came eventually (phew) and we settled in for the ride to Namsan Tower.
The bus wound its way up Mt. Namsan and dropped us off at the crowded bus parking. The drive up is beautiful and I can only imagine how much more beautiful it is in summer when the leaves are all back in their green glory. From the bus parking, we had…wait for it… yet another steep climb. I’m “inclined” to think this trip had the most inclines I’ve ever climbed in my life. ^^ We took it slow but by the time we reached the tower mum was pretty exhausted so we decided to skip going to the top and instead decided to roam around in Alive Museum. The museum is loads of fun, especially for kids, and you end up with pretty hilarious pictures of yourself (none of which will ever be posted online :P )
By the time we were done it was past sunset, so we got to see the tower lit up as well. The colour of the lighting depends on the condition of air pollution at the time and the brilliant blue meant it was a great day to be spending outdoors. I’d be inclined to agree. The weather was beautiful and we could see the city for miles.
What we couldn’t see though, as we made our way down, was the Seoul City Tour Bus. alarm bells. When we reached the stop, we looked up the bus timings only to find yet another poster with timings that didn’t match the timings we’d picked up from the ticket office. Uh-oh. We thought we’d wait for a while and see if the bus shows us but there was no sign of the bus anywhere and most people had cued up for the green inner-city buses. Now, there’s no option of taking a taxi from there… you have to take a bus down or walk down and it is… a looooong way down. So we decided to be adventurous, look up the routes for the different buses and pick the one with a drop-off closest to our hotel. We hadn’t bothered get a T-money card so we had to pay by cash and we were lucky enough to have exact change on us for the tickets. When we got on to the bus, we were in for another surprise- the fact that there were hardly any seats on the bus. It was mostly just standing room only. We managed to get seats, but I can’t tell if that was a good thing or not considering that that meant we’d have to negotiate our way through the packed bus when we’d have to get off. In any case, we got comfy, listened to the stops being announced over all the conversations and watched couples walking down the mountain. I feel like they have a much healthier lifestyle in countries where you can actually walk outdoors without boiling to death -____-
We finally got off at the familiar Seoul Station, the only place where we had seen drunk people on the street during our entire trip. We caught a cab easily enough and headed back to the hotel. We’d decided that we’d use an online food delivery website to have our halal dinner delivered. Now there are a couple of websites you can use such as Bird Riders or Y Not Takeout but the delivery fees is INSANELY high… in some cases even more expensive than the meal you’re ordering. It’s definitely not something to use everyday, but definitely something you’ll have to use if you’re running short on halal food options. We had a good dinner and got ready for the relatively relaxing Day 9 when I was going to meet up with some friends in Korea… including my pen-pal of many years who I’d never seen before!