Seoul

By findingmomo

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By the time our train pulled into central Seoul from Incheon Airport dusk was settling over the city. We alighted at Hongik University station where everything looked, sounded and felt familiar. I stay there whenever I'm in Seoul because it's one of the stations along the Airport Express line. It's a pain in the ass dragging your luggage through a station with high human traffic, but the apartment I always rent is connected to one of the exits so at least it's sheltered all the way.

Our landlady happened to be out for dinner when we reached but she got her son to show us to our apartment. We were on the tenth storey of a building overlooking the main intersection of busy Hongdae. I stood in the darkened apartment, taking in the flashing lights across the road, and listening to the faintly pulsating music muted by the glass windows. I pushed open one of the windows as far as it would go, inhaling the chilly night air which rushed into the room. It sure felt good to be back.

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Invigorated (or maybe just feeling less like zombies) by a 30-minute long nap, we headed across the road for dinner. I brought Charlotte to where I'd brought the rest to eat on our previous trips - Mukshidonna (먹쉬돈나). It's a rice cake stew and you get to choose what goes inside. We got the seafood and cheese options and I added the chewy noodles you see in the picture below.

Spicy rice cakes or ddeokbokki are a street snack found commonly on the streets of Korea. Unlike most other street snacks they're available throughout all seasons. I'm usually not a fan of ddeokbokki because it's tasteless and rubbery... except at Mukshidonna. Here the rice cakes are soft and pillowy, and drenched in a slightly sweet and spicy sauce. Amazing.

Charlotte seemed to like the dish as much as the others did, which made me secretly happy. Yeah no idea why. It's not like I cooked it. Also we paid only about SGD7 each. Apart from having to watch a couple at the next table struggle to eat with one hand each while having their free arms intertwined around each other's waists, I would say it was an immensely satisfying meal.

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After two people consume enough food for three it's always a good idea to walk around for a bit. The winding streets of Hongdae leading uphill from the intersection to the university form a delightful maze. The weather was perfect for wandering around and doing a bit of shopping. Being an area known for its nightlife there are also restaurants and drinking places everywhere.

As you can see I entertained myself by taking a mirror selfie while waiting for Charlotte to be done with her shopping. This was one of two outfits I brought with me to Korea for 9 days. Girls, there's no point in packing a set of clothes for every day you're here because you'll have no luggage space for when you return. Two years ago I outdid myself by not bringing my luggage along - I boarded the plane with the clothes I was wearing and checked in a small bag with only my toiletries in it.

Subsequent entries will be less frivolous.

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Made a beeline (haha) for Softree, a store famous for the IT food of the moment, soft serve ice-cream topped with chunks of honeycomb (see why i haha-ed earlier. K sorry). They put up a sign saying they were out of honeycomb till 31 May!!! UGH

So I settled for a funky flavor called "It's Magic Lamp", which was a cone with caramel-nut ice-cream and a caramel core. To top it all off the ice-cream was coated with crushed nuts. It was delicious but a bit much. Well... can't say that that's anyone's fault but mine.

On Friday and Saturday nights in Hongdae you'll see street buskers everywhere. We stopped and listened for a while to this Caucasian lady strumming her guitar and singing an English song to a crowd of rather dispassionate onlookers, until she started making my ice-cream and I feel inferior with her beautiful voice.

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Decided that if we wanted to do stuff to our hair it had to be today, before Lee arrived to join us the next day. We took the subway to Ewha Women's University station ("Edae" for short), which was just two stations away. That's where all females in Seoul go to get their hair done (almost true).

We went to my usual hair salon without an appointment, and were told to return in half an hour. Walked around looking for a place to grab a quick bite and settled on Isaac Toast. They have outlets all over Korea but I've only eaten there once before. The MVP Bulgogi Toast I got tasted better than I remember their food to be.

I'd decided to do something radical with my hair and was feeling rather antsy. My hair does not have a history of coping well with change.

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My new hair didn't turn out half as bad as I'd expected it to be, and that put me in a great mood. So great, in fact, that in my state of happiness and vanity I left my earrings at the salon, only realising it when we were already halfway through a bowl of shaved ice (bingsu). Good thing the salon was just one street away from the cafe we were at.

Got the persimmon-flavoured bingsu. I love me some persimmon but these folks need to go easy on the sugar syrup. The jujube chips were an awesome touch though.

Can't get over how cute the cafes in this country are.

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At the top of my list of places to visit in Seoul were two parks - Haneul Park and Olympic Park. Since most of the day was over we decided to head for Haneul Park, which was the nearer of the two to Edae and located at World Cup Stadium station.

I realised from the map at the entrance of the World Cup Stadium that Haneul Park was one of five parks forming World Cup Stadium Park. Tricky. We checked with a traffic warden at Home Plus supermarket to make sure we were headed in the right direction. Getting to Haneul Park took more than a half-hour walk from the station but the pleasant weather made getting there a breeze (hey be thankful I didn't say "walk in the park" okay).

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The sun was still coming down strong when we got to the top.

We learnt that Haneul Park is a place that consists mostly of grass.

Apparently it's at its prettiest in late summer when the sunflowers are in bloom, and in late October when the fields are filled with long-stemmed and reedy eulalias. Since we were neither there in late summer nor autumn, you'll have to settle for pictures of the Han River and yes, lots of grass.

And one of my new hair!

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We decided to head downhill before it got dark. Forced Charlotte to take some fake-candid pictures of me at a stream, then got drinks and sat by the lake in the adjacent Peace Park. Taking small sips from a can of fizzy Milkis, I soaked in the cool evening air and watched little kids flying kites and riding bikes. The weather felt so lovely I tried committing it to memory.

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It started getting cold as we scurried across the park. We were having kamjatang (a pork and potato stew) at the nearest restaurant which served it. It was a considerable distance away, and we had to walk the length of a wholesale market and cross two huge roads to get there. Very unwise of me to be wearing what I was wearing.

The warmth of the restaurant was a welcome relief from the night chill. While waiting for our kamjatang to arrive we observed a family of four at the next table tackling a giant red pile of seafood and beansprouts. I deliberated stealing their food.

The thick, spicy broth of the kamjatang was flavorful and warmed my belly. The ajumma serving us was also very nice and kept coming back to help us with the cooking when she realised we were foreigners.

We were in high spirits and Charlotte suggested that we order a bottle of soju. I'd never tried it before but felt up to it so I agreed. Besides, the ajusshis at the next table were on their fifth bottle and looked fine except for being slightly red in the face. We filled our shot glasses and clinked them.

I then took a sip from the shot glass and gagged. Spent the rest of the meal trying to conceal the remaining soju in other bowls, eventually dumping most of the contents of the bottle into the leftover broth.

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Shopping at Dongdaemun is a quintessential tourist experience if you're in Seoul. You'll be spoilt for choice - In Migliore alone there are 4 stories of shops selling women's apparel. It's open till 4 a.m. too.

Unfortunately the shopkeepers' attitudes towards tourists are less than ideal. Most of them are very rude, especially if you try something on and change your mind about getting it. The way the shops are arranged makes each floor feel like a labyrinth and it can get dizzying after some time. I manage to pick up some good buys, but it's hardly an enjoyable experience. Might be a better idea to stick with shopping at the university areas instead.

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If you happen to be in Seoul, be sure to pay a visit to the weekend flea market in Hongdae set up by the playground. It's called the Free Market on Saturdays and the Hope Market on Sundays. I've been to both markets and they're not very different. They consist of stalls run by artists who sell their crafted goods, ranging from jewelry to pouches to bookmarks.

On my first visit here in 2010 I got to know one of the stall owners, Lucia sonsaengneem (that's teacher in Korean). She's a calligrapher and when she's not conducting classes or involved in fancy dance performances incorporating calligraphy she'll be at the Hope Market writing personalized messages in traditional Hangul script. Her writing style is so distinctive I even recognized one of her banners hanging in a Korean restaurant in Singapore. She's one of the coolest and friendliest people I know.

Anyway, I digress. But only because we ran into her here haha. I love the energy here and I'm sure you will as well, whoever you are.

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Remember I said they were out of honeycomb chips at Softree? I also said this was the IT food of the moment, so it made sense that there were 1000 other joints that had sprouted throughout Seoul offering honeycomb soft serve.

Managed to get my grubby paws on some honeycomb here at Milky Bee. We were pleasantly surprised that the ice-cream here was on par with Softree's. I'd heard rumors that these honeycomb chips contained paraffin, but all caution flew out the window the moment I bit into one. Mmmm these were so, so good, though the excess of honey did get a little cloying towards the end.

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We went back to our apartment to welcome Lee, and celebrated her arrival by taking a group nap.

When we awoke it was time for dinner. I dragged them to Bukchon for some handmade mandus (dumplings), only to find out that the restaurant closed early on Sunday evenings. The ajumma who greeted us offered us 15 minutes to wolf down a pot of dumpling soup. I declined politely.

We then headed to Insadong in search of dinner, settling eventually on jjimdak (stewed chicken in soy sauce) at Yeolbong Jjimdak. No pictures of that because oops.

Insadong is not my favorite area in Seoul because of how contrived it seems. I feel like Korea, much like Hong Kong, is a society where culture is so deep-rooted that the old exists alongside the new, so I don't see why there's a need for a man-made cultural enclave. Meh. Anyways, this place features plenty of traditional street performances and souvenirs.

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Lotte Mart at Seoul Station sells everything. I'm talking hedgehogs and beetles. It's also the nearest hypermart to Hongdae via train (two stations away on the AREX line) so I've spent a lot of time here. On one of the two occasions I didn't stay in Hongdae when I was in Seoul, I stayed across the road from this Lotte Mart. I think this may be one of my favorite places on the planet.

C&L also took this chance to buy every single brand of makgeolli (Korean rice wine) they could find for a "tasting session".

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Fried chicken places are everywhere in Korea. We were craving some on our way home. So we headed for a drinking establishment formerly known as "Reggae Chicken", only to be told by the waitress that they didn't serve chicken. This would all be fine except that the waitress was the same one whom I had ordered chicken from on my previous five or six visits to the same place. Confusing.

We went next to a random eatery down the road nearer to our apartment. The restaurant was small, dimly lit and had a wooden interior. Save for a rowdy group of middle-aged folks sitting at a table we had the place all to ourselves. The ajumma frying the chicken started doing this odd clapping routine over the chicken while the chicken was cooking. It was all a little bizarre, but we'd ordered it to go so all we had to do was to wait it out for a while.

The chicken turned out to be amazing. Whatever the ajumma was doing, it made the bird crisp, moist and overall one of the best tasting fried chicken I've had. With our mouths full of fried chicken we critiqued contestants on a plastic surgery reality programme that was playing on cable. Good times.

Oh the random picture of the cafe with a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf is of Cafe Comma which we passed on the way home. I've been meaning to visit the cafe for the last few years. Hasn't happened yet and I'm not sure if it ever will, but it's a pretty place isn't it?

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Today I made my friends walk a couple of miles to see a tree.

Olympic Park can be accessed via two subway stations: Olympic Park (Line 5) and Mongchontoseong (Line 8).

Never been there, so I thought the logical choice would be Olympic Park station - after all, it's named after the place.

We asked a park warden for directions to the Tree of Solitude and he said something about veering right after passing a white building. We found out he was referring to the swimming complex.

We passed the complex, kept to the path veering right, and walked. And walked. And walked.

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Despite having lived in a climate of perpetual summer all my life, I find the rays of the Korean sun shockingly brutal. I go from cream to brown within a few days of setting foot in the country. Even if it's winter.

The sun beat down upon us as we climbed a slope with zero tree cover. I was ready to give up on locating the dumb tree when Charlotte pointed out that the tree in front (on the left in the first picture below) looked plenty like it.

We turned to head downhill towards the viewing point, and stopped along the way to help repopulate some dandelions.

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A sunburn and two million mosquito bites later, I think I have accomplished what I came here to do. I smiled proudly at my picture of the Tree of Solitude, which looks exactly like any other picture of the tree you'll see if you Google it.

We sat on a bench under one of the less lonely trees, gazing out at the Tree of Solitude. Come to think of it, it's a pretty cruel concept to plant a tree by itself surrounded in the distance by other trees in clusters. Guess a tree doesn't need friends.

Because the midday sun was searing we had the whole place to ourselves, save for a bunch of archaeologists at a worksite nearby excavating stuff.

Got a little too comfortable so for a long time we were reluctant to move from where we were seated.

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By a stroke of luck I recalled reading about Sandulhae somewhere and it happened to be in the vicinity, so we decided to have our lunch there.

Sandulhae specializes in well-being hanjungshik sets, which basically just means a huge spread of mostly healthy Korean dishes with rice. I love variety. Plus all the side dishes are refillable. I suppose if you want to get your money's worth you can eat fish after fish after fish, but don't be gross.

Even the serving process is fascinating. The individual plates are arranged on a huge block of wood shaped like an inverted "U", following which your waiter slides the ENTIRE slab of wood onto your table.

We were seated next to three friendly Korean guys who helpfully taught us to make the nurungji-tang - scoop out the rice from the stone bowl, pour hot water in and put the lid on the bowl. Nurungji-tang is burnt rice soup and tastes exactly like it sounds. Very acquired.

The rest of the dishes were delicious though. I especially liked the soy marinated crabs (though they got nothin' on Jin Mi Shik Dang :( ), and the braised eggplants. Very good deal for the W14,000 we paid per person.

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After lunch we went to the satellite town of Pangyo, located on the outskirts of Seoul. It's a new neighborhood accessible via the new Bundang line, which is an offshoot subway line originating at Gangnam station. A 20 minute train ride from Gangnam is all it takes to get here.

The demographic of Pangyo consists mostly of couples with young children, and it's adorable that most of the facilities have been designed with that in mind. Miniature traffic lights!

Each time I'm in Pangyo it's to visit I'm Home cafe, which I first came to know about when I watched I Need Romance 2012. They probably have my favorite interior AND exterior of all the cafes I've been to. Also helps that they serve a mean french toast. That's a tiramisu in the picture below because I've taken too many pictures of the french toast.

Our afternoon here was spent watching two skinny girls eat a huge bingsu and swiping people on Tinder for fun.

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All traces of the sun having been scorching earlier on in the day disappeared when we stepped out of the cafe. I really should've learnt my lesson by now about not bringing a sweater out.

It was a 20 minute stroll back to the station but we took it slowly, pausing for photographs at certain places. Pangyo cafe alley has a European-influenced style, and can really be quite charming. We also saw Superman taking his car out for a spin.

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On Charlotte's colleague's recommendation we decided to have galbijjim (stewed beef ribs) at Gangnam Myeon Ok for dinner. They have outlets all over central Seoul. We went to the one at Apgujeong.

The thing about being at Apgujeong is that you'll see plenty of good lookers, probably because it's (i) a mecca for plastic surgery; and (ii) where most of the entertainment companies are located. Lee spied a B-list actor leaving the restaurant just as we were arriving.

On to the food - it was my first time having beef galbijjim and I was super excited. It's certainly not going to be my last. The ribs here were excellent, as was the sauce it was served in, which I drizzled all over my rice. As it was a cold night I was thankful for the complimentary beef broth.

I was very pleased that today had been a day of amazing food. It didn't end here. After dinner Lee went off on her own and Charlotte and I went back to Hongdae, where I bought instant ramyun with the intent of saving it for tomorrow. I cooked it four hours later at 3 a.m., which technically speaking is in line with my original plan.

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Annual pilgrimage to Vatos. Back in 2012 they were at a third of their current seating capacity and operating in a stacked shophouse style diner across the road from where they are now. We waited 1.5 hours for a table then.

Since they've opened a second outlet in Apgujeong the crowd at Itaewon is now manageable. The food here is as good as I remember it to be. Prices are steep - KRW9,000 for three tiny tacos, but it's hard to find quality Mexican food in Korea.

I return always for the kimchi carnitas fries. Every mouthful of cooked kimchi, tender pulled pork and crispy fries is pure heaven.

I didn't eat as much as I should have because I was feeling a little under the weather (that'll teach me to eat instant noodles at 3 a.m. and go to bed at 5 a.m.).

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I've been a reader of a baking-centered blog called Alien's Day Out for a while now. When I learnt a few months ago that its author, Mipa, had set up a little cafe called Plant in Itaewon, I made a mental note to visit the cafe the next time I was in Korea.

After we were done with lunch at Vatos we made our way across the road and through some winding alleys toward Plant. It turned out to be closed! The sign didn't say why, but we could guess from the mess in the shop that it was probably for renovations. Meh.

The quiet neighborhood made for some nice pictures nevertheless.

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Itaewon is not my favorite place in Seoul to hang out. It has a sizeable expatriate population due to its proximity to the U.S. army base, and it's for this reason perhaps that this area has a garish and somewhat seedy vibe. It is however flanked by two awesome stations, Noksapyeong and Hangangjin. So many great cafes and restaurants.

We headed down Itaewon road in the direction of Hannam-dong, which is served by Hangangjin station. It's about a 20 minute long stroll and the weather was starting to get uncomfortably warm, but there were many interesting sights along the way.

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As you can see, this cafe has an adorable interior. We tried sitting on the roof which has giant umbrellas and artificial carpet grass, but it got too hot so we moved to the second storey.

I also like that they have seasonal drinks on offer. Last year there was an iced strawberry latte that was awesome, and this year they have iced fruit teas.

It's not all perfect though. The cakes here are pretty but on the dry and crumbly side. To be honest they're quite unremarkable, and I wouldn't return for the cakes alone. Their wifi connection is patchy enough to be memorable as well.

In the late spring afternoons the windows on the second storey are left open and a lovely, cool breeze fills the room. I find myself drifting off to sleep.

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There's a glass building near Hangangjin station that houses an acclaimed bakery/cafe called Passion 5. They have a strict no-photo policy, which was the main reason why I ended up at Glamorous Penguin instead when I first visited them last year.

Charlotte got excited at the mention of famous bread, so we decided to buy some for our excursion out of Seoul the next day. The selection in there is mind-boggling, but to help you out the top 10 breads (by popularity) have signs next to them indicating their rank.

Took us a long time to find their number 1 item, which was the Green Olive Boomerang. It's hard not to giggle childishly when you're looking at what closely resembles a tray of little weenies.

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Because it was the number one ranked item and because we are Singaporeans, we had all bought a Green Olive Boomerang each in addition to an assortment of baked goodies.

Outside of Passion 5, we bit into the bread expectantly.

Uh. It literally was just very salty bread. At first we exchanged uncertain and incredulous looks, and once it was clear that we all hated it we started laughing uncontrollably. My stomach was hurting by the time we were done.

On the bright side we were across the road from Hangangjin Park, which was very pretty.

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Had rice cakes at Mukshidonna again, only this time we were at the original outlet in Samcheongdong. I swear I'll never tire of this.

Bonus took the form of a fine gyopo at the next table. The combination of a (hot) guy in a business shirt with rolled up sleeves cooking a rice cake stew is so... hot. Sorry, not sharing the pictures we took of him in secret. #creepers

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Walked slowly to the main drag of Samcheongdong. This area used to be the number one dating spot in Korea before tourists found out about it (oopz) and it's not hard to see why. Quaint little brick shophouses and tea cafes line the streets. If you're looking to buy trinkets there are a few shops selling really pretty ones, though for clothes you'd do far better at the university areas.

When we got tired - didn't take long - we sat down at a spanking new three-storey O'Sulloc outlet to have tea. We got a table overlooking the street so we could people watch.

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Later that evening we made our way back to Anguk station. By the high stone walls near the entrance to Samcheongdong there was a man who was playing the guitar and singing Coldplay songs in a gentle, haunting voice. His face was partially obscured by the darkness and the whole scene had a mesmerizing quality to it. We sat on a bench nearby and listened to him in silence.

It's when you find yourself in situations like these that repressed emotions tend to surface. Sad how you have to struggle for so long to bottle your feelings up yet all it takes is a trigger, something entirely outside your control, for everything to escape. I couldn't help but feel a twinge of longing for things to be different.

Video here: instagram.com/p/oObDWJoVR_/?modal=true

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That we managed to leave the guesthouse at 6.30 a.m. Pat on the back for all of us.

Today we were planning to take the O and V Trains out to the central inland region of Korea. More information about the trains can be found in the comments section to this entry.

Bought some snacks (in addition to those we'd already brought... pigs) and boarded the O-train! Chairs can be rotated for a 2x2 seat formation so you're facing your friends. The train is perhaps a bit too colorful.

As far as I could tell we were the only non-Koreans on the train, which was maybe 70% occupied. The passenger demographic was simply retirees who were dressed for an easy hike, and us. Hahaha.

Equipped with kimbaps, string cheese, mediocre bread courtesy of Passion 5 and uh some heavy duty reading material, we settled into our seats as the train pulled out of Seoul station at 7.45 a.m. sharp.

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As we leave Seoul for the neighboring Gangwon-do province, the urban sprawl characterizing the metropolis changes into an occasional cluster of buildings amidst farmland. You know you're nearing a train station when more buildings start appearing, though these satellite towns never quite reach the density that Seoul possesses.

At Yeongwol station I notice a seriously cute disused train on the tracks.

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Unless I'm dog-tired, I have difficulty sleeping if I'm not lying down. I've spent 14 hour flights completely awake before, and those flights felt like they would never end.

I guess waking up at 6 a.m. had made me dog-tired, because before I knew it I had awoken with a start to find the train at Jecheon station. Most of the other passengers were alighting here. Must be a good spot for hiking.

I had woken up because a well-meaning ajusshi (uncle) had prodded me on the arm.

"Agasshi, an naeryoyo?", asks Ajusshi. ("Miss, aren't you alighting?")

"Ah, ajikiyo," I mumble. ("Ah, not yet.") "Kamsahamnida," I add as an afterthought. ("Thank you.")

Unable to return to sleep, I force Lee to take pretend candid pictures of me :)

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Our train finally pulls into Cheoram station, where we have to switch to the V-Train. The air is already noticeably cooler here than it was in Seoul.

The O-Train was gaudy but the V-Train is adorable. It's a train pretending to be a zebra.

I then find out that there're no toilets on the V-Train. I didn't have to go immediately, but knowing that I won't be able to use the bathroom till we reach Buncheon station 1.5 hours later makes me paranoid. Once I get paranoid I have to go immediately.

Cheoram station was under renovation when we were there so there were only two cubicles in the makeshift bathroom. As a result the line for the ladies maybe stretched all the way back to Seoul. Bahaha obviously an exaggeration, but only slightly.

To reward myself for surviving the queue I buy drinks and a cup of sweet potato sticks from the convenience store, which turn out to be awesome.

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I love the interior of the V-Train. The top half of the train walls have been converted into glass windows and there are outward-facing benches (like the one we're sitting on) to enable passengers to get a better view of the natural landscape of rural Korea on the train ride.

To say that I'm excited to be on the V-Train doesn't even cover it. I've been looking forward to this for months! Ever since I saw it on... never mind.

:)

I saw it on You're the Best, Lee Soon Shin.

:(

#teenybopper

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The V-train makes a short stop at Seungbu station which according to the KTO's website has "particularly beautiful scenery" so passengers can pose for photos with the surrounding landscape.

I didn't find the scenery particularly beautiful in comparison with the breathtaking views the train ride had afforded of the Baekdudaegan mountain range so far, but it sure looked like Lee was happy to be here.

Sad thing was that we were a few weeks too late to catch the azaleas. I can't imagine how gorgeous the valley would have looked studded in purple blooms.

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At Yangwon station (Fun fact: Smallest station in Korea) everyone ran down the train toward the tents set up on the platform. I'm not actually exaggerating when I say they ran.

Yangwon is a tiny town famous for producing the best makgeolli (fermented rice wine) in Korea. The V-Train stops here for exactly 10 minutes for passengers to gulp down as much makgeolli as they can within that time frame. The sense of urgency is real - if you miss the train the next one is a 3 or 4 hour wait. Gotta love Korea.

Seeing the hesitation written on our faces, the middle-aged couple sitting next to us ushered us down the train hurriedly and made us join them for makgeolli. We had to down a sizeable bowl of it at one go ("one-shot") and hold the bowl upside down over our heads when we were done. We went through two rounds of this. Ajusshi bought us spicy pig skin as well and I ate it to be polite hahaha. Lee enjoyed it - she likes these things.

We scrambled back onto the train giggling and happily drunk just before it left.

This was hands down the most memorable part of the entire trip, and one that still brings a smile to my face when I recall it 6 months later.

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Ajusshi and his wife have insisted that we join them for lunch. We follow them to the row of tiny eateries near the station, where they order up a storm.

A huge pot of dongdongju (a variation of makgeolli) arrived first, followed by haemool jeon (seafood pancake). Both were really good. Then the vegetable bibimbap arrived. I didn't expect much from it because it was meatless. Haha.

The bibimbap was mind-blowing.

Whatever they had added in it to make it taste that good, it was magic. The vegetables and herbs tasted so fresh they must have left the ground that very morning. My favorite component was the shredded bracken.

Ajusshi made sure to speak in a Seoul accent initially, as most Koreans are wont to do when speaking in Korean to foreigners. He then got increasingly excited as he drank more dongdongju, and insisted on speaking in his version of English (consisting mostly of invented words) to us. When it was clear we couldn't understand him he would provide an explanation to me in Korean in a thick Gyeongsang-do dialect, expecting me to translate it for my friends. I just kept nodding and pretending that I understood what he was saying. Hahaha.

Found out from Ajusshi's wife that they'd met in elementary school, and grew up together. She giggled a little as she said that they had driven here from Ulsan to go on a "date" in the Korean countryside. Sooo cute :)

We fought (like, physically tussled) to pay the bill, but Ajusshi and wife won out in the end. Felt so bad about it but they claimed it was payment for our company. Ahhhh <3 I'm in awe that there're such good and kind people out there, and thankful to have the good fortune to meet them on our travels.

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Clearly drunk, Ajusshi and his wife have insisted on driving us to Ulsan so we can visit their place, before they drive us back up to Seoul tomorrow. We would have loved to go with them but I have a feeling that once they sober up they would regret promising us a 4.5 hour drive to Seoul, not to mention the return drive to Ulsan after that.

"Whyyyyyy", wheedled Ajusshi in English. Hahaha. His wife then gave us a farewell speech in Korean about how cool it was that fate had brought us together, before we hugged them goodbye. I love them both. I hope you both lead long and happy lives!

Wanted to grab a rental bike and ride around the village after that, but the rental booth was unattended. I was also feeling too tipsy from the alcohol to try and learn how to ride a bike (I KNOW), so I took a nap in the train station, using Charlotte as a pillow.

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As the weather becomes chilly and I am, as always, without a jacket, we take our nap into the waiting room. The interior of the room is fashioned like a hanok, or a traditional Korean hut. Straw walls, a boiler for winter, and a low wooden platform for people to sit on. I lie down on on the platform like one of those countryside grandmas you so often see in daily dramas.

Before long one of the station staff approaches us for a chat, asking with interest about where we've come from and what we're doing in such a remote and rural area. He invites us for coffee in the office but we decline politely because we're too lazy to move from where we are.

After he leaves, a group of 4 grandpas travelling together enter the waiting room. It doesn't take long for them to notice us and strike up a conversation as well. We got a lot of attention because I hadn't seen anyone all afternoon who was under the age of 60. Well apart from Ajusshi and his wife, who looked to be in their early 40s. I guess these folks are probably wondering why we look young but behave like we're their age, with the napping and all.

One of the grandpas (who happened to be immaculately dressed) speaks seriously impressive English. He tells us that he visited Singapore in the 70s' and stayed at the Shangri-La. His friends listen solemnly to his anecdotes, nodding gravely at the pauses, though it's clear that they don't understand most of what he's saying hahahaha how very supportive of them. Another grandpa who's making instant coffee from satchets with hot water from the dispenser offers us some, which we accept gratefully. Sorry station guy.

These grandpas have also been friends for a long time, and were on the way to Jecheon (where the O-Train experienced a mass exodus that morning) to spend the night. I hope I get to do fun things when I'm old too.

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When I leave a place such as this I know it's unlikely I'll ever return, because there's just too many places in the world I want to see and too little time to see them all. Farewells are always a little bittersweet, but I'm happy I had the chance to be here. Buncheon gave us the opportunity to experience the graciousness and hospitality of Koreans first-hand, and I'll always remember it for that :)

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On the way back to Seoul the O-Train makes an extended stop at Chujeon station, which at an elevation of 855 metres above sea level is the highest train station in Korea.

We pose quickly for pictures, then head to the convenience store where I buy my third bottle of 17 Tea for the day - that's pretty much all I drink when I'm in Korea. Started that habit because Jeon Ji Hyun models for 17 Tea, and the ad made it seem like all I had to do to look like her was to drink that stuff a lot. LIARS.

Anyway. It feels like I've been here before. I don't mean in a past life, but possibly on my first trip to Korea when I was 15. Or maybe I saw this place in a drama and imagined myself here hahaha. It happens.

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It's a painful 6-hour train ride back to Seoul from Buncheon. We're all passing time in different ways.

Lee is alternating between sleeping and reading her book on God.

Charlotte is watching an episode of Hannibal on her iPad. She also watched it in the waiting room at Buncheon station without plugging in her earphones and the rest of us were subjected to screams and horrible squelchy noises that sounded an awful lot like people getting carved up.

I'm struggling to concentrate on Cheryl Strayed's "Wild". Eventually I put the iPad back to sleep and stare out the window. Dusk is gradually enveloping the countryside, casting its shadow over rolling fields of farmland.

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The O-Train finally reaches Seoul station at 9.45 p.m. I have newfound admiration for the lady working on the O-Train, who happened to be serving us on the same train out of Seoul that morning as well. I felt tired and I was seated the entire time.

We head back to the apartment to freshen up, and I grab a jacket before we cross the road for dinner at Sinseon Seolleongtang. The milky seolleongtang (ox-bone soup) served here is perfect for warming you up on a cold night. Ordered mine with mandu (dumplings) because why not?

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The chocolate croissants from Paul & Paulina in Hongdae are a must-eat. I cannot stress this enough. They bake a fresh batch every couple of hours and sell out quickly, so be prepared to wait around for a bit if you've missed the previous one.

Each pain au chocolat is a flakey, buttery, chocolatey dream. We had them with cold milk bought from the Mini-Stop nearby.

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Tosokchon is every tourist's go-to place for samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup). Much better, in my opinion, than its closest competitor, Koryeo Samgyetang at City Hall. What sets Tosokchon apart from other touristy restaurants is that it's frequented by locals as well.

Expect a line if you're there during lunch hour, especially if you're there on Chobok, Jungbok or Malbok - three sweltering days in summer specially designated on the lunar calendar for samgyetang consumption. Thankfully the premises are big so patron turnover is quick.

It goes without saying that the samgyetang served here is superb. The bird is stuffed with glutinous rice, jujubes, pine nuts and chestnuts, and its meat just peels right off the bones. I tend to go for the 오골계 삼계탕 or the black chicken samgyetang, which supposedly is more beneficial for health than your regular chicken and hence costs KRW 7,000 more. I don't care about all that really, I just think black chicken tastes better in soup.

Omg should not have googled for what a black chicken looks like. How will I ever be able to eat it again now that I know how cute it is? :( (Answer: I will anyway.)

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I have dragged my friends to Banana Tree for this: A candy floss latte and a blueberry dirt cake. The cafe is tiny and seats about 10 people in total. Two Taiwanese girls are the only other customers there, and are gushing excitedly over the candy floss latte.

Very cute, but tastes exactly as you would imagine: Weird. I never seem to learn my lesson when it comes to these things. Oh well... the pictures were worth it. Sorry friends.

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Apart from the street of Garosu-gil I haven't explored much of Sinsa-dong before, so we took a stroll through the neighborhood. This neighborhood is located in the affluent Gangnam district, where rental is significantly more expensive than the area north of the Han river. Along with neighboring Apgujeong-dong, Sinsa-dong houses many plastic surgery clinics so it's quite a common sight to see people walking around with bandaged faces. I'll never stop being entertained by that.

The afternoon was bearably sunny and the air was cool and fresh, which made our walk very pleasant.

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Would've passed Coffee LEC by without giving it a second glance but Lee mentioned she'd heard that it was award-winning.

She was right - there were numerous awards framed and hung up on the wall of the cafe, and they all said something about champion barista. And then I saw the baristas and decided that if I were judging these competitions I would give them awards based on their faces alone. #perv

I can't drink too much coffee without paying dearly for it later on (oh TMI) so I gave this one a pass seeing as how I had consumed 90% of the candy floss latte earlier. Drank a sip of Lee's brew and I thought it was pretty good. Unfortunately my palate isn't refined enough to discern between good coffee and reeeaaally good coffee. I would return for the baristas ;)

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Brought the girls to Bloom & Goute, which is halfway between a florist and a restaurant. I like how it's tucked away in a discreet corner. The brick facade is also very charming. I cheated on this entry - the first picture was taken during my previous visit in February 2013.

When I came here last February one of the waiters was Caucasian and I was mildly relieved to be able to order in English at last. Guess I was too quick to stereotype, because no matter how much I spoke to him in English he would only reply in Korean. I was confused because based on the content of his replies he clearly understood what I was saying. Maybe he was on a self-imposed English ban.

Didn't see him this time round but the service was still good. I ordered an iced chocolate, which always brings to mind the chocolate river in Willy Wonka's factory. I wonder if I could build one in my house. I'm always going off topic.

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A holiday in Korea would never be complete without a BBQ experience. If, like me, you're not a fan of the fatty samgyeopsal (pork belly) that's commonly found at most Korean eateries specializing in barbecued meat, then you might want to consider visiting the Mapo-gu district and its many galmaegi-sal (pork skirt meat) restaurants.

Of the many restaurants in the area, Mapo Jeongdaepo (마포 정대포) is the only one I've tried because it's a success every time. As Mapo Jeongdaepo relies on charcoal briquettes for cooking, the galmaegi-sal here is juicy, tender and infused with an intensely smoky flavour. The galmaegi-sal is also pre-cut into convenient bite-sized pieces so you don’t have to fumble with a pair of scissors while watching the meat burn.

I've uploaded a screencap showing the location of the restaurant (marked by a star) relative to Gongdeok station (Seoul subway lines 5, 6 and AREX). Take exit 8 and head straight, turning left when you see "Mad for Garlic" and right at the next crossing. The signboard "마포 정대포" and its picture of barbecued meat on an egg moat should be apparent to you.

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I have let Lee and Charlotte talk me into clubbing at NB2, where I find myself constantly tearing from the cigarette smoke that the place is filled with. Everyone looks so young here. The night turns out to be more fun than expected because the music is hip-hop - can't think of a cooler way to say that - "DJ dropped some sick beats"? K let's not try. Oh and we ran into a douchey white guy who wasn't even hot. Unacceptable.

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We stumble out of NB2 at 3 a.m. and an old-school K-pop themed club across the street catches my eye. I get irrationally excited at the thought of shouting along to Fin.K.L and Shinhwa songs (They're blasting H.O.T's "Candy"!!! My age is showing!!!) but the other two aren't keen so we give it a miss :( I WILL RETURN SOMEDAY.

The streets of Hongdae are quiet but not entirely so. We climb up the stairs to the playground, where there are a couple of buskers singing sweetly to a small audience.

I am exhausted but manage to wolf down a bowl of instant udon and have a text conversation before crashing. My dreams that night are filled with unasked and unanswered questions.

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After entering and leaving a tiny cafe which was cute enough but didn't serve anything other than sandwiches we spotted Seoga & Cook. It's a recently-opened franchise which has gotten pretty good reviews.

The Korean take on Italian food is a queer one. Dishes are sweetened, creamed and served with pickles. The servings here were huge as they're meant for sharing, so please take a cue from fellow diners and do not order a dish for yourself. Overall the food was okay, but hardly memorable enough to warrant a repeat visit.

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Technically there are cafes everywhere in Hongdae now, but my Korean friend refers to this particular lane in Hongdae (where you have to walk through to get to Style Nanda) as cafe alley.

We spent the afternoon in the vicinity of cafe alley, entering every boutique in the neighborhood. Korean salespeople are way chattier than Singaporean ones, who pretty much leave you to it. The downside of this aggressive sales attitude is that I find it pretty much find it impossible to say no to whatever they're selling me. I end up with a ton of clothes I don't need but with no remorse whatsoever.

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The useful thing about exploring familiar territory is that you'll learn over time where all the restrooms accessible to the public are. If you're at cafe alley in Hongdae and want to use the bathroom without having to spend money on a drink, there's one on the second storey of the same building where a cafe called Be Sweet On is located.

That said, Be Sweet On is in itself worth a visit. This was my third time there over a span of two years and I can safely say that they serve consistently great dessert. Be sure to try the tarte tatin, a towering confection of caramelized apples, flaky puff pastry and vanilla bean ice cream. If I were you I would avoid the flowery iced teas. I ordered one last year and kept thinking of hand soap as I drank it.

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On one end of the Korean BBQ spectrum you have affordable cuts of meat like samgyeopsal (pork belly), and on the other end there's the luxurious hanwoo, the Korean equivalent of wagyu beef.

I rarely eat hanwoo because hello $$$, but we decided to go for it that night. Found a place near the apartment which served it, so props for convenience.

We were a little wary when we arrived, because the restaurant was maybe only 20% full. The family who ran the place appeared to be sitting down to dinner as well, but the ajumma who served us was attentive and friendly. Well when the food you're serving is as expensive as this...

It turned out to be so good we ordered a double portion. The marbling, the smokiness, the juices. Such an intense experience. "Wow," was all we kept saying throughout dinner.

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More shopping near the Hongdae playground but I reined my spending in since I'd bought enough clothes in the afternoon "to clothe a small village", as my father always says. This is the same man who asks if I'm a caterpillar each time he sees my growing shoe collection.

Paid a visit to the candy floss direwolf. Always nice to see an old friend, though it's impossible to tell if he remembers me.

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We'd been wanting to try the chicken at 노랑통닭 since we saw it packed with diners on our first night in Korea.

While we waited for our take-out Lee struck up a conversation with the Korean lady next to her who asked her what the multiple black lines on her hand were. They were actually from 30 different eyeliners Lee had tested on her hand as we did our shopping in Hongdae. I let Lee answer on her own because I didn't want to seem crazy by association.

Shortly after we noticed a diner with a very good looking side profile. Let's just leave it at that and pretend that we didn't try to take stealth shots of him.

Tucked into the chicken at our apartment but it was kinda underwhelming. I think the chicken we had on Sunday night fried by clapping ajumma was way better.

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Burger B/ Beale Street (why two different names for the same restaurant why) apparently serves the best Southern style barbecue in Seoul. Sadly the other two weren't in the mood to have so much meat for their first meal of the day so we went with two burgers and a plate of wedges for sharing instead.

The wedges were terrible, the burgers were okay and the pulled pork was outstanding. Will definitely be back to try the spare ribs.

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Decided to take things easy - as we do 99% of the time - on our last full day in Korea by hanging out at nearby Seonyudo Park.

I've always taken the train to Hapjeong station and cabbed or walked to the park. This time we took the train to Seonyudo station on one of the newer subway lines (Line 9) and the station was so clean and new we decided we had to use the washrooms there. We also saw a girl on the train wearing a black shirt that said "SATAN" in big white letters, which made me wonder if she'd worn it on purpose or if she didn't actually understand what it meant. This is why I don't wear things with French words printed on them.

The neighborhood surrounding Seonyudo station looks like a lovely place to hang out at. There's a store with a banner outside saying "Last provision shop before Seonyudo Park" - pretty smart way to advertise by preying on people's fears that they may die of starvation in the 10 minutes that it takes to walk to the next convenience store in Seonyudo Park.

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Stopped along the bridge linking Seonyudo (which is a standalone island) to the mainland just to take in the view. It was foggy but pleasant enough for a picnic and apparently some kite-flying action, although on a clear day you would be able to see across the river to the buildings in Yeouido. You can just about make out the National Assembly Building and its taller friends in the pictures if you squint a little.

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Been almost a year since I was last at Seonyudo Park for a fried chicken and kimbap picnic. Crazy how time flies.

We make it to the convenience store alive, and settle down at a table after grabbing ice-creams. There's a ridiculously cute little boy with a rad perm at the next table, who's sharing a kimbap roll and a bowl of ramyun with his dad. He's wearing an expression of utmost concentration as he furrows his brow, trying to scoop ramyun into the makeshift funnel he's fashioned out of the paper lid of the ramyun bowl. Dang it boy now we all want to eat ramyun.

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Seonyudo Park was once a water treatment plant, but was given a new lease of life in the early 2000s after being converted into a park. The park's existing features were built into the original structure of the plant. What you see in the pictures below, for example, is a pond that used to be a water purification basin. The park is hugely popular with kids because there're lots of structures for them to explore. So cool, right?

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There's a beautiful greenhouse in the park, which Charlotte and Lee explore while I continue skulking around like a creep taking pictures of unsuspecting couples.

We leave the park and walk toward Hapjeong station via Dangsan bridge. The cute boy from the convenience store is walking in front with his dad, and I'm tempted to kidnap him. This entry is going to be seriously incriminating if I'm ever arrested for a crime.

We also spot a film crew on the other side of the bridge, but I'm too far away to be able to tell who they are.

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At Hapjeong there's a crowd at one of the street stalls, which naturally draws my attention.

It's seed hotteok!!! I have never been more excited to see this. Hotteok is a cinammon and sugar filled pancake that's a common street snack in Seoul. Seed hotteok, however, is an upgraded version of the hotteok stuffed with pine nuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and ground peanuts. It's also a Busan specialty and rarely found in Seoul. I love it so, so much.

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Desperate to re-create the success we'd had with the hanwoo last night we decided to eat at an eatery which had hanwoo on its menu. Blah. I can't even remember what the place is called.

What you can never go wrong with is yennal dosirak (old-fashioned lunchbox). Key components are simple - kimchi, seaweed and a fried egg. Sausage slices if you're lucky. How it works is you're supposed to place the metal lid on the lunchbox, grip it tightly and shake the living daylights out of that thing. You'll open the box to a glorious mess, stained vermillion by the kimchi.

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Bingsu, or Korean shaved ice. I've had plenty, but none were good enough to stand out.

Until I tried the one here at Solbing. There was a line to get in even though it was a chilly night. We didn't have to wait long, and were ushered to the second storey where there was an area for floor seating.

So we got the patbingsu, which is red bean shaved ice. The ice here was milk flavored, and was so soft it was unreal. It melted into nothingness. So good okay. I need to have this over and over again.

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Yes, we have a fried chicken problem. At least it isn't as bad as it was last year, when I had fried chicken in Korea 5 times in the same week.

This time Charlotte and Lee were craving chicken from the clapping ajumma (the same one we went to on Sunday night). I was already half fused to my bed and unable to leave the apartment unless there was a fire or something life-threatening. They went to get the chicken while I fell asleep.

I awoke 20 minutes later to the smell of fried chicken. I am grateful for my friends :,-)

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While in the shower that morning I was suddenly consumed by a sinking feeling of dread, the same kind you get when you know you've forgotten something important. It had completely slipped my mind till then that I'd promised my boss to get him powdered ginseng from the Lotte department store in Myeongdong. Hell, I didn't even visit Myeongdong on this trip.

It was 9.50 a.m. then and check-out time was at noon, so I figured that I could make a quick run to Myeongdong and back. I left Charlotte a note (Lee had already left to catch her flight that morning to Hong Kong) and ran out of the apartment with my hair still dripping wet. Hahaha sad times.

Luckily for me, Euljiro 1-ga station was on the same line as Hongdae (Line 2) and about a 20 minute ride away. I located the food basement, grabbed what I needed and left, making it back to the apartment by 11 a.m.

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While waiting to board the plane at Incheon airport I reflect a little on the trip - it's been a much needed break, both physically and emotionally, and I'm thankful to have been able to visit one of my favorite countries in the world with two of my closest friends.

Always a treat to be able to fly SQ as well. On the flight I watch The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and find myself having to conceal a few tears. This line from the movie, in particular, left a deep impression on me:

"Everything will be all right in the end... If it's not all right, it's not the end."

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Landed in Seoul after a red-eye flight from Singapore. I was dead tired but somehow managed to wolf down a croissantwich from Burger King.

We had to re-book our train tickets departing from Seoul Station for Busan when we realised the Airport Express wasn't going to get us to Seoul Station on time. No biggie.

In line with the weather forecast for the day, the skies were majorly gloomy. What a refreshing change the temperature was from Singapore though.

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