I’m back! we’re currently waiting (im)patiently for our flight information so we can start planning our return to Korea and in the meantime we’re slowly packing up our entire lives, or so it seems (<<< I started writing this post so long ago. We actually have our flight info now!). Why is it that you never realise just how much stuff you have until you move? Anyway, it’s time to take a break from filling boxes and carry on with our holiday recap before I forget everything!
On our first full day in Seoul I woke up at about 6am (stupid jetlag, a recurring theme on this trip…) and pottered about watching Netflix and playing around with Instagram Stories. I drank the most amazing Ghiradelli iced mocha for breakfast that we had picked up at the convenience store the day before and had a super long hot shower before Jod woke up around 10.30. Unfortunately he had a bit of a gunky eye so our first order of business was walking through Hongdae to find a chemist. FYI, trying to explain “conjunctivitus” in our severely limited Korean was hilarious, but with some charades-style actions and the help of google images we managed to pick up some eye drops.
As we walked we saw a few interesting things including the very organised recycling centre in our apartment building, some seasonal winter drinks advertised at a coffee shop that seemed to have ice lollies stuck in them (?!) and a place called “Block Burger” that serves burgers on coloured, lego brick shaped buns…
We walked over to Edae and although we were still a bit early for any street food we managed to locate our favourite little croquette shop and have the most amazingly crispy curry-filled one for just 1500KRW/£1.00.
There are so many cute clothing stores in Edae as it’s a university area and it was great to look around knowing I could actually fit in the clothes! Sadly I didn’t buy anything because it seemed pointless to buy stuff when we’re moving soon anyway, but it was fun to see what the trends were (FYI – puffer coats).
While we waited for the streets to get a little busier we headed to Angel-in-Us coffee for our caffeiene fix. The cafe was super comforting and warm which was much appreciated on such a frosty day! Jod had a caramel latte and I opted for a chocolate nut mocha. This was seriously amazing and tasted like a melted Kinder Bueno with whipped cream on top, perfect for sipping while we chatted in the window and watched the world go by.
The street food venders were starting to come out by the time we left the cafe and we just had to try the super long spiral hot dog with sweet mustard. Definitely not the most elegant thing to eat on the street but it sure was tasty!
We did a little more window shopping and then got the subway to Insadong where we walked around for a while just taking in the sights and sounds. By this point Jod was flagging a bit because of his sore eye so we went back to the apartment to chill out for a couple of hours and bought our KTX tickets online for the next day. The tickets said they needed printing but obviously we didn’t have a printer so we headed to Yongsan station to ask at the information point. It turns out it’s fine to just have the tickets saved on your phone (useful tip for anyone else planning to take the KTX!) but it was great to figure out our route to the station as it took longer than we thought and we really didn’t want to feel stressed out in the morning.
For dinner we had our hearts set on more street food so we took the subway over to Myeongdong and were absolutely ravenous by the time we arrived. Jod clocked a stand serving marinated steak (his favourite!) with sesame beansprouts (my favourite!) straight away and the ten minute wait was totally worth it. I think it cost 7,000KRW/£4.70.
Myeongdong was pretty busy and the atmosphere was great, stores were decorated for Christmas with twinkling lights everywhere and music playing all around.
We tred a few more tasty treats including soft sell crab with a sweet teriyaki-style sauce, meat-filled dumplings with soy sauce, and spring onion, brown sugar filled rice pancakes and the most amazing warm banana-filled croissant taiyaki that was buttery, flaky and unbelievably moreish. Can you tell I had already taken a bite before we remembered to snap a photo?
After stuffing ourselves silly we had a few drinks and then headed back to the apartment by way of Homeplus. It turns out that you can buy ready-made chocolate/caramel/pecan cheesecake in Korea… if only our apartment had come with a freezer…
Another interesting thing we noticed on our way home was that our apartment building indicated the 4th floor using the letter ‘F’ in the lift. We looked it up and it turns out this is because the number 4 sounds similar to a word which means death in Chinese characters, so is often not displayed.
All in all I would say this was a pretty successful day, and we walked nearly 30,000 steps!
The next day we woke up at around 5am feeling simultaneously excited and terrified to visit our future school. There was certainly plenty of nervous laughter as we got ready and made our way back to Yongsan station to board our train to Gwangju! Interestingly our tickets weren’t checked when we boarded, disembarked or at any point during the journey – possibly because they only check for tickets when someone is sitting in a non-reserved seat? Either way it was a nice change from Northern
Fail Rail to just be left to relax for the entire journey. It took under two hours to travel roughly 225 miles on the KTX train. It’s Korea’s version of the “bullet train” and although we got up to speeds of 175mph it felt super smooth and comfortable.
We passed the time by drinking coffee, eating delicious kimbap, watching The Office and staring out of the window. I think the Seoul to Gwangju journey would be lovely in spring and summer when the trees are green and hillsides are in bloom. It turns out mid-December isn’t terribly scenic in the Korean countryside when there isn’t any snow!
This kimbap was so good! Full of different veggies like pepper, carrots, radish and greens as well as ham, egg, gooey American cheese and plenty of sesame flavour. We had a couple of chilled coffee drinks too and together they made a great breakfast after our early start.
The train pulled into the station just after 10am and we hopped into a taxi. My Korean was obviously pretty horrendous as he had no idea what was saying but between lots of smiling and the fact that we had the address of the school written down (thanks, Rachel!), we set off about 70% confident we would get where we needed to be.
After a short journey we were greeted at the entrance to the school by our amazing hosts Rachel and James. They’re the current English teachers at Songwon Elementary and are nearing the end of their second year of teaching and preparing to move back home to America. They also interviewed us, so it’s thanks to them that we have jobs waiting for us in Korea!
We started out by dropping our stuff off in what will soon be our office (!) and had a whistle stop tour of the English department before meeting the Principal. She was pretty intimidating and spoke no English but came across as very warm and caring towards Rachel and James, and really seemed to appreciate our gift of Hotel Chocolat goodies, so I have hope! I was definitely glad that we heeded Rachel’s advice to dress professionally as she commented that we had given a good first impression – always a plus.
We each participated in a lesson with some 4th grade students were we told them about ourselves and played games before heading over to the cafeteria for lunch. The teachers eat with the students and the whole atmosphere was really lively and fun. We definitely felt like celebrities as little kids would run up to us and wave and then run away shyly or ask us ten questions at once, it was surreal and amazingly cool.
Lunch was delicious – fried rice, chicken drum stick, pickles, a couple of different types of kimchi, apple wedges and a kind of bean soup with chewy rice cakes in. We could definitely tell that school lunches in Korea are much more nutritionally balanced than those back in the UK, and everyone just eats the same thing with no complaining, it was pretty impressive!
After lunch we headed back to the office for some citron tea -my new favourite thing ever and apparently good for warding off colds in the winter. We then headed to the auditorium to help out with a couple of rounds of an annual competition called the “Golden Bell”. It’s basically an English language quiz where the kids write their answers on white boards and hold them up. If they get it right they stay sat down and answer the next question, if they get it wrong they run and sit at the back of the hall until the contest is over. There are chances for eliminated players to win their way back into the game, which helps keep it interesting, and the overall winner gets to wear a little crown and come up on stage to ring the golden bell. It was seriously one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen and it was also hilarious to read questions out with an American accent. Seriously, next time you see Jod ask him to say “tomato” like an American, I nearly cried.
After an afternoon of lessons and Golden Bell we walked with Rachel and James from the school to their apartment through what will soon be our neighborhood. It’s a super cute little area and we were really pleased to see that the apartment has two bedrooms so there’s more space than we had anticipated. We chatted, drank delicious red wine and fresh coffee (much needed after a 5am start and then the aforementioned red wine…) and then got a taxi to downtown Gwangju. We checked into our Hostel which was lovely, very clean and had an amazing view although we did feel a bit stupid in twin beds!
Our hosts took us to a restaurant called The First Alleyway which is famous in the cities expat community for being a place where you can meet up for a taste of home. The food is western with plenty of burgers, pizzas and a great cocktail menu but we both went for poutine since the owner is Canadian. Jod had the original (fries with gravy and cheese curds) and I went for one topped with pickles, mustard and plenty of pastrami. They were both awesome and we’ll definitely be back to try more of their whisky selection in the coming months!
We were lucky enough to meet a whole host of other expats during the meal who all made us feel really welcome and we were super disappointed to have to crash out early and head back to the hostel at around 11, we were just so tired!
The next day we both woke up with pretty killer hangovers but managed to navigate the subway back to the train station… not really difficult as Gwangju just has one line! We snoozed on the journey back and walked back to our apartment through Hongdae, stopping to get some steak and chips for lunch. I know there’s some kind of weird culinary trend right now to coat food in Cheeto dust and I’m pretty sure that’s what they’d done to these fries. They were so weirdly moreish…
We spent the afternoon being lazy, hungover lumps chilling on the sofa watching TV and chatting endlessly about our favourite parts from the day before, eventually rising like vampires at some point after sundown to get provisions.
We went back to Homeplus and were delighted to find coffee and English breakfast tea. Now we can sleep easy until our return knowing that we’ll be adequately caffeinated when we arrive. For reference the jar of coffee below is £5 but the box of 25 tea bags is £4.50!
We were delighted to find an entire section of spam-themed meal options – after all, what’s a healthy lifestyle without a good helping of spam every now and then? We also saw another fun example of service (free stuff) – buy a lint roller and get a free battery operated hand fan – batteries included!
We picked up one of the aforementioned spam meal kits as well as a pan and some disposable bowls because the stuff provided in our apartment wasn’t that clean, and I honestly didn’t fancy scrubbing someone else’s crusty dishes on my holiday! The stew was so yummy with noodles, spam, rice cakes and veggies in a spicy broth. we served it alongside some kimchi, corn salad and mixed leaves with a selection of boozy treats. This was an amazing end to the day and definitely cured any lasting headaches from the night before!