My first Korean Palace

It was a lazy Sunday.  We had gone out the night before and I was content spending most of the day doing laundry and lazing around my apartment.  Then I got an invite to join Sara, Sejun and her visitors at the royal palace.  I rearranged my busy schedule of folding laundry and eating ramen and hopped on the subway to meet them.

We arrived at Gyeongbukgong (Gyeongbuk Palace) in the afternoon.  Sejun was running late so we opted for a free tour of the nearby museum before entering the palace grounds.  Our guide taught us all about the period of King Jeongjo; he was one of the most popular kings and befriended the Chinese Joseon Dynasty.   There was a longstanding bitter tension between Korea and Japan that he couldn’t avoid but he did manage to put Korea into a sort of Golden Age.  Although quite modest, King Jeongjo was a large proponent of academia and helped instill a hard work ethic in the Korean people; the improved education and literacy raised the standard of living for many Koreans.

IMG_20130915_151324We learned about the king’s 5 meals daily, they consisted of a multitude of dishes which his taste tester would sample to ensure they weren’t poisoned.  He sample all of them but rarely finish one; instead he was a nice guy and gave it to his servants.  Next we heard about Korean hairstyles and the elaborate decorations that held them up.  The queen’s getup often included a wooden “wig” and gold jewelry embedded with gemstones and glass.  It could weigh as much as 20 kg (45 lbs)!


There are official records of every ceremony with the food that was served, attire worn and how many guests.  Luckily they had two copies of their logbook because the French still have the copy they took in the 1800’s when they tried to colonize Korea.  Its used to make sure procedures were the same for any given service.

After the tour we headed through the elaborately decorated walls into a massive sandy courtyard.  Much of the palace has cobblestones but Japanese ninjas are much easier to hear when walking over the noisy sand.  This was a major concern since between Japanese invasions and fires the palace was destroyed a number of times.


Basking in the sun we took in the scene surrounding us.  The modern kings Samsung and Microsoft have tall skyscrapers just past the red walls.


Turning to enter the palace you can see the same pattern throughout the grounds, a gorgeous mix of reds, yellows, blues and greens with the tallest of the four peaks, Bugaksan in the background.



The palace itself is actually a number of buildings and walls lined up in perfect harmony from the King’s Confucionistic views.  The balance makes it easy to navigate and we followed the path past a few traditionally dressed Koreans before quickly finding the throne room.



A peak inside revealed even brighter coloring and some ancient furniture.  Behind the throne itself rests the famous Korean painting, Sun Moon and Five Peaks.  The sun and moon represent positive and negative similar to Yin and Yang while the peaks represent the 5 elements: water, wood, fire, earth and metal.



After the throne room we continued to explore the palace grounds.  Walking through crowds of tourists we came upon a gorgeous pool in front of a raised pavilion.  I think this was a temple of some kind; Bugaksan made  another appearance before we kept going.



We wandered further through the palace and caught a glimpse of “the Blue House,” Korea’s version of the White House, tucked away in the woods.  Unable to get close to it we navigated the maze of buildings before deciding it was time to eat.  For dinner tonight we would have Samgyetang, a ginseng chicken soup.


A short walk brought us to the restaurant which exclusively serves samgyetang.  It’s supposed to be the best place in Korea to get it and luckily their reputation of hour-long waits was inaccurate today.  We sat right down; it was my first time at a restaurant without chairs so we laid out pillows and sat cross-legged. Two kinds Kim Chi were brought to the table; one from cabbage the other radish, I prefer the radish but saved room for the chicken!



With this dish we drank makali, a refreshing rice wine that you drink out of a bowl.  Its quite light and is apparently a favorite hiking drink too.  The chicken soup arrived shortly after as well; we each had our own chicken stuffed with rice, ginseng, walnuts, seeds and other spices.  Before we were allowed to eat we had to have a shot of a ginseng liquor, to cleanse the pallet of course.


Eating this soup with chop sticks proved difficult to say the least.  It helped us eat slowly and by the end I resorted to the spoon even for my chicken.  It was quite a filling meal; the broth was delicious and the chicken incredibly tender, falling right off the bone.  The delicate flavors were delicious but unlike what I expected; it complimented the refreshing makali quite well.

On the way out we spotted a case of the ginseng liquor; it ferments in the bottles for 4 years before they serve it and for only ₩10,000 (about $10) you can have your very own bottle.  Perhaps I’ll buy one next time.IMG_20130915_172729

We ended the weekend with a sunset view of the Han River.  The park was full of locals and visitors biking, boarding and enjoying the evenings.  We even got a water show from a flying chicken!

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Bacon and bugs

Have you ever eaten bugs?  I had a couple termites in Costa Rica but never anything like last Friday night.  The evening started after work when we walked to a barbeque joint near some of my coworkers’ apartment.  It was picked because of their hanging trays out front and since they served giant slabs of bacon!


The meal began with the usual banchan (sides) coming out; we had a sprout salad, red paste, salt and a miso style soup.  The grill lay in the middle of the table with a giant bronze tube above it.  Around the rim of the grill they cracked a few eggs, roasted some garlic and onions & peppers in a red sauce.


The waiter prepped the grill with a slab of bacon fat which brought a deliciuos smell to the table as we cracked open the first few beers.  It had been a rough week at school with paychecks being delayed and worries about the school’s longevity rising every day.  All this and its only my second Friday here; it was past time for some brews when suddenly a miracle happened.  No, bacon didn’t shoot out of the bronze tube like my coworker insisted, but it did arrive on our grill giving some sizzle to the tantalizing aroma erupting from our meal.


Before long our server had flipped and cut the bacon, scrmbled the eggs and told us (in Korean of course) that we could dig in!  Using chopsticks to procure our greatest desire we made bacon, egg & veggie wraps with the lettuce.  It was fantastic and just what we needed.  Another round of beer and a few more slabs later we were ready to figure out the rest of our evening.


After a brief discussion we decided to hang out at the Han River; I was assured there was a great view of the city and we could have an inexpensive evening with beers from a nearby convenience store.  We wandered past a Korean market before embarking on my second public transit trip.  This time I got to use my own Popcard and transfer from the bus.  The public transit here is quite extensive and usually very efficient; except when your popcard doesn’t scan because its too close to a credit card.



A few stops later we were within sight of the Han.  The lights of Seoul on the far bank provided a beautiful backdrop while we set up a few blankets and got some music going on my tablet.  A few friends join us as our group grew, now including 2 Koreans.  The beers were flowing as we discussed food, music and more when someone asked if I’d ever eaten bugs.



When in Rome, right?  I told them about the termites I shared with a tour guide in Costa Rica and found myself walking back to the market with Sejun where we grabbed a few more beers and a cup of silk worm larvae.  He ordered the brown ones . They looked like poop and I quickly learned that while Koreans don’t have the same sense of humor as us and rarely get our sarcasm, they have a huge comedy culture surrounding poop.  We all laughed; I stabbed my first bug and crunched away.



Sejun and I were alone with this challenge, the rest of the foreigners thought they tasted terrible and smelled worse.  Spearing a few more, we ate them one by one.  They had a strange taste but were meatier than I expected.  The texture reminded me of a crunchy protein shake mixed with something that came out of the wrong end of a hot dog plant.  Se Jun informed me that Koreans will often “drink” them out of the cup. I took a few gulps and chewed before admitting defeat.  They were alright, if I’m ever starving in a post-apoclyptic Seoul I know where to get some solid nutrition.  But, seeing as how North Korea hasn’t invaded again, I think I’ll stick to meals without baby bugs for now.