The Polar Express

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February 3, 2013 by travelinggrits

That’s right, gumshoes, episode one of the Traveling Grits’ month-long voyage was right here in South Korea.

Even though I was pardoned from my duties at school for the final week in December, I stuck around to do some snooping. I first hit the rails to Seoul to collect my partner-in-crime, Boy Raised in Carolina (BRIC). His only experience abroad was in Costa Rica, so Korea was a bold venture. I told him he was likely one of the few Americans excited to come here for Christmas.

His first meal: samgyeupsal (pork belly, grilled right at the table). Throughout the week, I tried to expose him to as many Korean dishes as possible: donkasu (pork cutlet), kalbi (grilled marinated meat), japchae (stir fried rice noodles) and various stews. Perhaps it was just the jetlag making him deliriously hungry, but his first meal stuck with him as one of his favorites throughout the week.

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Korea was bitterly cold the entire week, perhaps just to lash out at me with its most biting ammunition before I escaped for warmer climates. We often found ourselves stepping into convenience stores to allow our fingers and toes to grab a whiff of warmth before trekking onward. Almost every day was topped off with dessert and hot drinks.

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Our first day began with a tour of Gyeongbukgung, the largest of Seoul’s palaces. Some of the architecture was similar to Changdeokgung, which I saw in August, but the new locale and season gave me new perspective. We stopped in the National Folk Museum, then headed to Seodeomun, a prison site that was used during Japanese occupation. Certainly not a typical tourist spot, but it provided valuable insight into the Korean experience during Japanese control. We didn’t stop for lunch, but we chowed down on “a king’s feast” (the traditional ddeokkalbi eaten by royalty) and tea with one of my teachers from my Korean class over the summer that evening.


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On Christmas Eve, we breezed through the markets of Namdaemun and Dongdaemun, checked out the traditional hanok village area at the northern end of the city and then headed to Namsan Tower. I had been there at night before, but this time we watched the sun recede over the horizon and the lights begin to burn across the city. On the ground floor, the teddy bear museum featured dioramas of bears dressed in hanboks and other costumes posing in scenes from Korean history; it was surprisingly entertaining despite my initial skepticism. Later that evening, we attended an English church service at the only Lutheran church in Korea, which soothed my spirit with the sense of community, the music and the celebration that I missed from home.

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Although it is a day off, Christmas is a far less significant holiday in Korea. Christians will spend the entire day in religious observation, but for others, it is simply a couple’s holiday, not one spent with family exchanging gifts and gorging on Grandma’s signature recipes.

As luck would have it, we got free bus tickets to Jeonju, well-known for its traditional hanok village and its bibimbap (a dish of mixed vegetables and rice), from the Korean Tourism Organization, so on Christmas morning, we exchanged small stockings and hit the road. Swathed in a fresh blanket of snow, the tiled roof and cabin-like exterior of the traditional houses looked like a Christmas postcard. Here we could escape the crush of activity in Seoul, and we strolled the streets, exploring museums and craft shops for hanji, calligraphy and woodwork. It was a perfect way to spend the holiday.

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The next day we headed east to my stomping grounds in Gumi.

The host family welcomed him with open arms. They love Krispy Kreme, so when they heard he hailed from the doughnut chain’s home base, he was automatically a winner.

My host grandmother welcomed him with a backslap, a heaping handful of candy and a stream of rapidfire Korean that he didn’t understand.

She’s buying dinner, I told him.

Not only that, but she toasted him with rounds of soju until, red-faced, he had to politely decline. I think it was one of the highlights of his week and a claim-to-fame he’ll remember forever – trading shots with a 78-year-old Korean woman.

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We stopped in Daegu for a night, then headed down south to Busan, which tops Seoul as my favorite city. We gawked at the Jagalchi fish market and marveled at the sea views from Taejangdae Park. The weather was much more pleasant, almost balmy enough to unbutton our jackets while walking.

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Well, at least near the coast. Our last day in the city, we took a long subway ride to the outskirts of the city to see Beomosa Temple and Geumjeongsanseong Fortress. When we stepped on the fortress wall, we noticed that every other hiker on the wall was dressed fit to tackle Mt. Everest. Faced with a path coated in ice and thick snow, our jeans and jackets weren’t going to cut it. But we didn’t back down – we completed the walk and took a photo to prove it.

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Korean tradition is to watch the first sunrise of the New Year from a mountaintop or a beach on the east coast. Since my companion’s flight schedule made it impossible to do so, we saw the last sunrise of the previous year instead, from the sands of Gwangalli Beach in Busan. The next morning, the sky was a whiteout from snow, so the sunrise wasn’t even visible then anyway. I think the sight was no less gorgeous.

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We rang in the New Year – literally – at Boshingak, Korea’s equivalent of Times Square, in Seoul. After the clock strikes midnight, respected businessmen and officials ring a large bell 33 times. The event was certainly not as big as that of the ball drop, but it was so packed that I was able to remove my gloves while surrounded by the mass of bodies. It was strange that some of the crowd walked away directly after midnight before the bell-ringing even began. But it was no less exciting for me. It was the first time I ever completed a countdown in another language, cheering it with a mass of happy, hopeful voices.

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After ten days of traveling, we parted ways at the airport on New Year’s Day. We had traveled to many sites representative of South Korea, yet they were locales I hadn’t seen before or now saw in a new light. It was also great to share the culture I’ve grown to know and love with someone from back home.

And as it turns out, I did see the first sunrise of the New Year – because for my next destination, I went back in time. When I arrived, the sun was just rising over the clouds. It felt like the movie “Groundhog Day.” ALOHA adventure! I was headed toward home, but I only made it halfway. Don’t worry, I had about “5-0” reasons to be excited for the next leg of my journey.

Where did I go?

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