Seoul: beginning

Posted on August 28, 2009

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It all started back in March when I applied for an exchange semester in Korea. At the time I was an Erasmus student in the Netherlands and my plan A for the next semester was to get an internship somewhere in Western Europe. However, that did not work out and going for an exchange semester in Korea was my second choice. Back then it seemed so unrealistic to go to a country so far and so unknown. I kept questioning myself if I would be able to speak English to anyone or if I could adapt to the unusual cuisine. However, my curiosity to experience something totally new happened to be superior to all the doubts.

My friends and parents were a bit sceptical about the idea, but  it was only four months that I would be gone, so it was not a big deal. My grandfather, however, was very resistant since he thought I was going to a dangerous and undeveloped third world country. He eased up a bit when I lectured him about the impressive economic power of Korea and its living standards.  Some people laughed at my choice of the country and wondered if the war between the South and the North would start before I came back. My mother, in fact, couldn’t even distinguish between the two: “is it the South or the North Korea you are going to?” she kept asking me.

To be honest, my knowledge about South Korea was very limited before I got into all this thing too. I knew that Samsung, LG and Kia were all Korean brands. But due to the lack of famous landmarks in Seoul, I had little idea about the city. I remember seeing a documentary on Discovery Channel about the restoration of Cheonggyecheon stream in downtown Seoul, but that was it. I had no idea about the language, culture or people of Korea. I studied  the Lonely Planet Korea guide hard just before I left and it provided me with a glimpse of the country I was going to live in for four months. By far the best advice in the guidebook was the one saying that the key to the enjoyable journey is to be open-minded and positive. As I was about to experience, it is essential to have the right attitude. Inevitably, some things are different and you just have to accept it.

It took us 18 hours to get to Seoul and we had to change our flights in Prague and Paris. I guess my Korean experience started on board the 11 hour flight from Paris to Seoul. Upon boarding the Korean Air B747 we were greeted by Korean flight attendants (look at the picture below). Even though this might look like a promotional photo, which it is, it’s also a good indication of how their average flight attendant looks like. They look absolutely perfect and are constantly smiling, they would never dare to say “no” to you. It’s not that you cannot get that kind of service in Europe (can you?), it’s just that it feels natural, not fake.

Korean Air flight attendants

Korean Air Boeing 747 that took us to Seoul

Korean Air Boeing 747 that took us to Seoul

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Flying over Latvia and Estonia en route to Seoul.

My plane landed in Seoul’s Incheon International Airport on 27th of August, 2009. Incheon Airport has been voted the best airport in the world in 2009 (and in many years before that too). It’s only an airport of course, but it was very easy to navigate, the luggage delivery and the customs procedures were very speedy and the overall feeling of the airport was very calm and relaxed.

Just as we got outside the airport, the biggest difference I felt was the humidity. The good thing is that most of the buildings, cars, busses and even the metro trains are being conditioned. Luckily, our university provided me with a pick-up taxi, so I didn’t have to find the way to the dormitory myself still being tired after the 18 hour journey. The taxi was manoeuvring the wide motorways filled with Korean-made cars and motorbikes for more than an hour. This is no surprise: Seoul is the 8th largest city in the world and commuting for one hour or more is a norm rather than exception.

By the time I got to the dormitory, I was really tired; my mind filled with images of the new country. I think the jet lag also took its toll on me: it was just 9AM in Lithuania and already 3PM in Seoul. Checking in to the dormitory was a bit confusing, but fast. I got a room in the fifth floor with a view to the football field, which is more of a disadvantage than advantage (I hate being woken up at 8AM by loud voices of playing children or, better yet, by a cacophonous flute chorus – seriously, I think those guys need so much more work before they can appear in front of the public and probably that’s why they practice in the football field rather than in the concert hall).

The very same day, instead of going to sleep, we decided to go downtown Seoul after meeting some of the other exchange students – Par and Jessica from Sweden and Sebastian, a Korean from Australia. Firstly though, I had to find an ATM and get some money. ATM’s happen to look so futuristic here, but few of them accept foreign bank cards. I withdrew 200.000 won, which seemed to be a huge amount of money, but it converts to only 400 litas or 111 euro. You have to get used to seeing at least three zeros on almost every price tag.

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10.000 won, the most popular bank note in Korea, which converts to 20 litas or ~6 EUR.

We had to take the subway to get downtown and that seemed to be very confusing. Seoul has one of the largest metropolitan systems in the world with 14 lines, 755 km in length.  At first glance, all of the station names (Hoegi, Wangsimni, Euljiro 4(sa)-ga, Jongno5(o)-ga to name a few) were so unusual and hard to remember. However, once you get used to it, the metro is very easy to navigate and all of the trains are very spacious, new and conditioned – something you would hardly find in Europe. However, this first time was still a bit confusing. And all of us had no idea where we were, so we just followed Sebastian as he claimed to know Seoul, which might have been a slight overestimation, because we had to get on and off the trains all the time until we got out in a place which was supposed to be central and wasn’t.  But we all were too tired to go anywhere else, so we just found a Pizza Hut nearby and got ourselves a (last) good nice western dinner.

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Posted in: Korea