Surprise Train Trip!

But first, a little history – literally. On Friday my Korean tutors from Kyung Hee U took me and another student to see Gyeongbokgung (경복궁) palace. We made it there too late to get into the palace grounds but we still got to see the famous Gwanghwamun (광화문) gate right outside it.

Edit: So, I guess “gung/궁” already means palace and “mun/문” already means door or gate so “Gyeongbokgung palace” is sort of redundant but you get the idea.

The view from the inside


The second gate


And that’s the third gate behind us. The palace is waaaay in the background. I guess the emperor was either not fond of door-to-door salesmen or he was just a big fan of large, impressive gates.


Gwanghwamun from the outside. Sweet view of the mountains in the background.


The palace is guarded by several haechi (해치), an imaginary animal that often guards homes and gates.


Sometimes he also looks like this:


I don’t really know how to describe this animal; it’s sort of a combination of a dog and a lion and a troll doll. Wikipedia says it’s a “unicorn-lion”, but basically it is a 1700-year-old Pokemon.

If that didn’t scare you away there’s also these guys. They’re a lot like the fuzzy-hat guards in London; they won’t move no matter what you do to them.



Gwanghwamun gate faces Gwanghwamun Square, which is a ritzy part of town full of glass skyscrapers and banks and important international trade. And also this guy. Look familiar Seattlites?


Sometimes I almost forgot where I was.


(That says “Starbucks Coffee” Or 스타벅스 커피)



In Gwanghwamun square are statues honoring Emperor Sejong and Admiral Yi Sun Shin and underneath the square is a museum where you can learn about them. Emperor Sejong oversaw the invention of the Korean writing system, Hangeul. They even have the first official words written in Hangeul, which is the speech announcing the creation of Hangeul. Apparently Korean children memorize this speech in school, kind of like our Declaration of Independence but several centuries older.

Admiral Yi Sun Shin is also a pretty cool guy. He was in charge of the Korean navy during a war with the Japanese and he noticed that, “gosh, those Japanese sailors are really good at boarding our ships and killing everyone on them. What if our ships didn’t have decks? What if our ships had roofs with metal spikes coming out of them instead, Temple of Doom style? That would be so sweet!”** And thus turtle ships were born!


(Note: picture stolen from internet)

They’re like regular ships except that everything below the masts is enclosed under a spiked roof. Yi Sun Shin used these ships to fight navy battles with crazy odds – like 70 ships against 30 – but he’d kick enemy butt without losing a single ship. Unfortunately no official portraits of the admiral survive except for one, drawn by yours truly:


We spent several hours playing around in that museum and then it was time to go home. I moved in with my permanent host family the next day. Weeks ago we arranged to meet at a certain train station at a certain time and after a whole week of train riding I was like, okay, no big deal, I got this. I said goodbye to my current host family, hopped on the train and off I went. I got off at the right station to transfer to the #2 line – so far so good, considering that I was awkwardly hauling two suitcases with me the whole way. I even set off an alarm at one point because I swiped my train card but then took too long to drag my luggage through the little gate.

And…. then I goofed. Okay, I know where Yonsei University is (I’ve been planning this trip for how long?), and I know what the train map looks like (so I didn’t feel a need to check it), and I know I have to get off at Sinchon station…

…but Sinchon (신촌) looks a lot like Sincheon (신천) and both happen to be stops along the #2 line, so off I went, blissfully following the train signs. A little while later I noticed that we crossed the Han River, which runs east-west through Seoul and I thought “oh, that was weird. I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to be going this direction. Oh well.” (No seriously, total brain fart. I don’t know what was wrong with me.) A few stops later I was in Gangnam. You know how I knew? Not because I was paying attention to the train announcer or any of the posted signs (stupid me!), but because this older gentleman comes up to me and goes “Gangnam, you know?” and then does the Gangnam Style dance off the train. Finally I decided it might be a good idea to check the map. It’s very simple and it looks something like this:


Surprise! Wrong direction!

Fortunately I happened to be on one of the few train lines that go in a circle, though at this point it would have been no faster if I turned around so I treated myself to a little sightseeing. I borrowed a phone from a fellow passenger to inform my host family that I would be embarrassingly late but I couldn’t get through. They told me later that they assumed I was just lost but not dead or anything, which is a relief I guess.

I finally met up with my family – they are very nice! – and we went to lunch and then back to their apartment where I unpacked and settled in. Tomorrow I have international student orientation but until then I am chilling here and getting to know my two new little sisters. We’ve been watching the Olympics (and rooting for Korean figure skater Kim Yeona!) and they’ve been practicing their English with me but I think they are adorable so I don’t mind. They’ve also beat me at every game we’ve played so far and I don’t know how I feel about that yet.

Also, there is a Kpop group here in Seoul that is very popular. It’s a new band and I guess they made it big by only picking high-profile gigs. They say that they go wherever the money takes them, which inspired the band’s name: Won Direction. You should check them out; they’re pretty good.

Until next time, y’all.

**Actual quote from Admiral Yi Sun Shin and, coincidentally, the second thing written in Hangeul.