And the smile never left my face. That was the only question and answer I wanted to hear when the travel agency called to tell me that my passport was already ready for pick-up. After being denied of a Japan visa and even after acquiring one for Taiwan, the fact that you can never really can never can really can tell ever (okay, that was a long one) if you will be granted a visa seems to have traumatized even my hardest bone. In an ambitious plan to give Japan another shot the soonest time possible, I thought of collecting other visas first. And with that, winter in Korea became inevitable.
For someone who’s into beaches (yes, I got the spelling right there), moving from hardly packing anything to packing everything that can combat the cold that never bothered Elsa in Disney’s Frozen was quite a challenge. Since I got no suitcase, I had to leave some pieces of clothing with a heavy heart behind. (Let’s face it, we all want to look different everyday in our photos.) Aside from that, I didn’t really have that much winter clothes so I just stuck with the essentials. After all, winter hasn’t arrived in the Philippines yet and a fancy trench coat never guarantees your survival; it still boils down to layering. (Next time though, I won’t deny that I’ll try bringing thick coats and a bigger luggage.)
Day 1 – Hongdae
I had no definite itinerary even by the time that I got through the Korean immigration officer. What I only had were a list of things that I should do and places I could go to as advised and suggested by a former colleague (who’s already seen all the seasons of Korea) and this TripZilla article.
My very first purchase using wons was a T-money card (and its prepaid load, malamang) primarily for transportation purposes. I guess most travelers don’t do it, but after doing it in Taiwan, I also bought a SIM card. I wasn’t joining any tour so it was just right for me to have a means of Googling things and contacting people if I’m already freezing to death. That way someone can come to my aid and rub me.
The memo didn’t reach me that there’s gonna be a black parade at the airport. Most people were in dark coats that if they had masks and wands I would’ve probably thought they were Death Eaters.
Being someone whose sweat glands become too emotional most of the time, there came a point that I was already sweating. But I knew better and didn’t take off any layer of clothing because the moment I stepped outside I was already inside a humongous freezer. I made my way to the All-stop Train and after around an hour was already at my hostel.
Lian Guesthouse is located in Hongdae, an area known for its bars and clubs. I chose the place not because of the nightlife (defensive mode: on) but because of the good reviews and ratings and its location (there you go). There was only one guest—a French guy—when I arrived and when I asked him for a good place to eat, he suggested a ramen restaurant. Perfecto. I don’t know, but even after being told by the hostel owner that I should wear a jacket, I still went out with just a sweater and scarf on top of thermal and dress shirts. Believe me, it turned out very awkward walking around with everyone else in coats. The great lanky outlier! They probably thought that I wanted to end all of my suffering that very instant.
Google Maps wasn’t cooperative but after strutting around I eventually found Nagomi Ramen, though I’m not sure if it was what was suggested to me. The prices were surprisingly inexpensive, just around half of the prices of those considered fancy ramen places in the Philippines. It was also quite good.
I scouted most of the area and saw that it’s living up to its reputation. Restaurants, shops, places to drink and party, and teenagers (looking so K-pop) performing in the streets were everywhere. Due to the jet lag caused by the one-hour time difference, I didn’t stay out long and simply capped the day off with a bottle of Kloud.
Day 2 – Dongdaemun Design Plaza & N Seoul Tower
Breakfast at the hostel was free and you can always ask for more if you want more. For my first day in waging war against the hostile coldness, I secured a heat pack/hand warmer above anything else. Believe me, it can save your dear life.
That, and the awesome Subway Korea app. It’s simply a must-have given their complex railway system. It works offline; you just have to update the information. It gives you the shortest path, duration, and cost from one station to another. If you’re wondering about the 100 won difference, well, that’s a wonder of the T-money.
Half-expecting the presence of an ice-skating rink, my first stop was Seoul Plaza (City Hall). There wasn’t any. There was, however, a sort of commotion which I later found out to be related to the president’s impeachment that very day. Well, well. Didn’t I just take part in South Korea’s history? Hashtag: blessed.
The Dongdaemun Design Plaza was my next stop. From what I’ve read, I should already be within its vicinity the moment I exit the subway. It wasn’t the case, however, as I got off at the wrong station. Medyo tanga. Dongdaemun Station is different from Dongdaemun History & Culture Park Station. Their names are not far from each other and—wait for it—so are their locations. Thanks to that blunder though, I was able to walk around the Excursion Trail of Hanyangdoseong where my candle fingers started to look like the real
shit deal. Hand warmer, come to papa!
The design plaza is lovely. It looks like a giant, sleek alien spaceship whose passengers are now coexisting among us (daming alam). In fact, I hardly spent time exploring its innards because its exterior was already enough for my eyes to feast on.
In the plaza is a LED Flower Garden which, as the name suggests, should ideally be seen at night. Of course it can also be lit up in broad daylight but then that wouldn’t make that much of a sense, would it?
I still had a long day ahead of me so instead of waiting for night to devour the day and see the LEDs in action, I headed to Bukchon Hanok Village to ogle traditional houses as I think it should always come natural to see the traditional side of any place. Girls can be seen wearing hanboks here.
It was mostly sightseeing for me as I’m not quite sure what else was there to do especially that it’s winter. Some of the houses that also appear to be establishments were open for tourists but I didn’t get inside any of them.
N Seoul Tower was the penultimate destination for that day. It can be reached via cable car. Oh yeah. And the snow-covered mountain up-close? Priceless.
Love locks will greet you just a few steps after getting off the car. There’s just too many of them that I could only imagine how much I’d earn by selling all of them to some junkyard. Not that I’m a bitter gourd.
As advised in the TripZilla arti
kolcle, I opted to walk around the area while it was still bright before checking out the tower.
Facing the tower, I headed left, past beyond everyone, the buses, and the memories… Hah! That’s me trying to be
an emotional frog there. But really, I was not prepared for what I saw: a secluded hiking trail that looked just so beautiful.
I came a long way and on my way back walked a different path. When I was pretty sure that no one’s gonna be around, I
got laid on the snow like a kiddo. HAHAHA. After such a happy moment panic immediately ran through me when I realized that my phone and hand warmer were no longer in my pocket. You might wanna guess where I left them.
I only realized when I got back that that hiking trail was the same trail that I passed by earlier that day (too many thats there) before going to the Dongdaemun Design Plaza. I was blown. I mean, my mind was.
I didn’t really have plans of going up the tower and when I heard about the poor visibility, well, whatever was trying to convince me totally went down the drain and I simply continued roaming the grounds. More love locks
to detach by force and sell for me. Also, there are actually spots that already give a good view of the city.
On my first day I saw possible Death Eaters and here I saw the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets. That’s it, Harry Potter is real and I just haven’t received my invitation letter from Hogwarts yet. Tiwala lang!
On the other side of the trail, which I believe leads to the Dongdaemun Design Plaza area, was a viewing deck. Like the ones at the foot of the tower, it also gave quite a sight.
Had I known, I would’ve only bought a one-way cable car ticket. I wouldn’t have minded walking downhill because my sweat glands weren’t gonna be able to act up with the cold weather, anyway. After aerial and underground rides, I was back at the design plaza. It now looked like it was about to take off and go back to its home planet. And lovelier.
And the LEDs? Dreamy. Just the right way to end the day. Or night.
Day 3 – Gyeongbokgung Palace & Myeongdong
You could say that I’m an adrenaline junkie
by my junk so Everland effortlessly made it to my list. It was a long train ride and I think it can be reached faster by bus. At the last station was a free shuttle to the theme park.
Unfortunately, the weather didn’t permit some rides to be operational which included T Express, the park’s wooden roller coaster. Fortunately, I didn’t buy a ticket ahead so I had time to mull whether I should go inside or not. And while doing that, I had my buddy below keep me warm.
In the end, I didn’t go in, not just because of T Express but also because of the realization that theme parks are better enjoyed with someone else, at least. Someone you can mock for being such a wussy. Haha. Nah, I just thought it’d be ridiculously hilarious screaming your lungs out on your own.
Just beshinde (term coined in Fortune Island) Everland is Caribbean Bay, an indoor/outdoor water park which is the largest in the world. Everland was still flocked in that weather so it was no surprise that Caribbean Bay was, too.
And then suddenly, drizzle turned into snowfall… Magical.
After grabbing a bite and gulp at 7-Eleven, I locomoted to Gyeongbokgung Palace. The place is massive. Seriously. From the outside you would think that it’s just gonna be an empty lot but apparently it goes on forever inside. (So forever does exist, eh?)
No matter which direction you look, you would literally see the same roof. What captured my attention the most though, was the frozen lake in the middle of it all with a pavilion at its center. Seeing snowfall seemed to have instantly become a thing of the distant past when I saw it. The photos may not showcase it, but it’s grandeur in real life.
According to their schedule, the place closes at five during winter (and is closed on Tuesdays). It was drizzling again when they were about to do so. Run for your lives, ladies!
On my way to the nearest train station I came across the Story of King Sejong. As curious as I can be, I checked it out and it didn’t disappoint.
The Celestial Planisphere was a rather interesting representation. It’s a Korean map of the stars and constellations where you can toggle the four seasons and see their seasonal constellation travel. Nifty.
With the temperature that day, I was more than happy to arrive at my last stop, Myeongdong. Indeed, it’s heaven for women (see that rhyme there?). No joke. The neighborhood is crawling with beauty shops. I have no idea about prices of beauty products but I’m pretty sure that they’re discounted real good there.
Some stores even give freebies. (Nope, wasn’t hoarding them!) You could have a feeling of déjà vu from seeing one store of the same name one after another.
That being said, that doesn’t mean that you can’t go there if beauty products aren’t your thang as the place is heaven for foodies, too! The abundance of street food is on par with the beauty shops. Itadakimasu!
I just have to say that I didn’t enjoy eating (emphasis on the eating and not on the food) the scallops because they only provided chopsticks and my hands were already barely able to hold on to them, much more use them. Bloody winter. Happy tummy at the end of the day, nonetheless!
Day 4 – Nami Island & Garden of the Morning Calm
Winter in Korea (or any season for that matter) wouldn’t be complete without setting foot on Nami Island. It’s located in Gapyeong and one of the fastest ways to get there is via the high-speed train ITX
which you can take from Yongsan Station. Despite being told by the hostel owner and the signs in stations, I still ended up incorrectly hopping from one train to another. I had no idea what got me confused with the signs on my last day. Was too excited to get my arse on the island, I guess.
As far as I know, ITX tickets are purchased separately and the train can be identified by its seats which are like those of a bus, with the passengers facing the direction parallel, and not perpendicular, to the railway track. (Uh, my apologies for the geometry.) Not knowing these was the cause of my own ruckus.
Once in Gapyeong, you can conveniently go to multiple tourist spots. All you have to do is avail of the hop-on hop-off city tour bus which you can get on just right outside Gapyeong Station. You can buy tickets from the bus driver himself.
After having read this post on the city tour bus, I was intent on visiting Petite France and the Garden of Morning Calm as well. If you intend to do the same, it would be wise to arrive very early and be mindful of the time. You should start waiting for the bus around 15 minutes before its scheduled arrival else you might have to wait for the next one as it easily gets full.
The ferry to Nami Island
operates from 07:30 to 21:40 comes and goes every few minutes so basically there’s no waiting game once you arrive at the port.
From a distance, I could only wonder how the upside-down cones below were made. Turns out that they’re frozen fountains. How they’re made to freeze, I could only wonder again. If my intelligence report was a flop and they’re not actually fountains, would you spare me for being only human?
As tourists tend to settle around what they immediately see, I took the road less traveled (nagmamagaling) and went straight to the opposite side of the island. There, another frozen body of water ravished me.
I went into all corners of the island and it’s as picturesque as it can get despite the weather. What more for the other seasons, right? Some trees, in fact, didn’t turn into skeletons and remained in full leafy blossom.
When the view below came to view, I just had to ambush the Korean couple coming my way because the guy was holding a camera and a tripod which meant that he probably has skillz in snapping (yep, that has always been my cue). He didn’t fail me. Yosha!
The frozen fountains were the last on my list. Even after seeing them up-close, I still couldn’t fathom how they were frozen or made to freeze.
The island can also be reached via zipline as seen in the wires above the fountains. I didn’t see anyone do it though. That’d be like suicide for me. Unless you really have a thick hide.
Back in the mainland, while waiting for the bus, I noticed that there was a sort of bungee jumping where you’ll be tied around the waist. I would’ve considered it if they’d consider tying my ankles instead. Then again, I have long reserved such activity for another country. Gehee.
Petite France, as the name suggests, is indeed petite. If time is not a luxury during your visit, I’d say you can skip it. For me there’s not really that much to see and do there. And it’s not that I don’t like France, of course. Who wouldn’t wanna go there?
Like in N Seoul Tower, I arrived at the Garden of the Morning Calm while it was not yet dark. And like in Nami Island, I walked to every corner of it.
At the far end was a chapel which was so nice to see especially that it was my last day.
The garden undergoes an utter transformation when darkness takes over. It’s a sea of lights that’ll make you wonder how lovelier it can be when it’s not wintertime.
Waiting for the last bus back to the train station was torture. Good thing the people in front of me in the queue were Filipinos and their conversations kept me entertained. They were saying that the intense cold was making them feel like their toenails were being peeled off (HAHA) and that bus schedules are being followed on the dot.
I attempted with the ITX train again but after waiting for what felt like forever, I decided to just hop from one station to another again because I needed to go back to Myeongdong in the hopes that there’s still an open store. And so I left the two Filipino girls I was chatting with. They were also waiting for the ITX but unlike me, they really purchased tickets beforehand.
As luck would have it I made it in time and went inside the first store that was still open. Brother duties. Bought BB creams for the sisters. Mission so accomplished (I was the last customer) that I just had to take down two Klouds before hitting the sack.
Day 5 – Departure
Come the fifth day, it was closing time for me. Here is Nary, the hostel owner, and Jenny. She probably says it to everyone but it was still nice hearing her say, while in a hug, that she’ll miss me. It was a good stay.
- Layering is everything. Especially for someone who’s from a tropical country. A negative temperature is not a joke; it’s lethal. I always wore four layers on top: thermal shirt → dress shirt → cardigan/sweater → leather jacket. For down below, underwear → thermal underwear → jeans (thermals are available in Uniqlo). And I would still feel very, very cold. Layering matters because while it’s so cold outside, it’s not the case once you’re inside. That way, you can easily remove a layer or two so you won’t feel hot. Unless you really are hot.
- And I’m not even done with the clothing yet. Earmuffs and gloves are a very big help. If you have no earmuffs, a bonnet will do. The ears and hands are very sensitive to the cold, which brings me to the next one: your jackets or coats should have pockets in front of them. That provides extra warmth for your hands. As for socks, wear high ones. You could also layer them as long as you’d still be able to fit in your footwear (which has a high chance of getting wet). And oh, you could easily sport a scarf, too.
- Consider gloves that you can use on touchscreens. It’s a hassle removing and putting them back on when you need something in your phone. There are also gloves that can neatly expose the fingers.
- Enter buildings from time to time to warm yourself up. Exactly the opposite of cooling yourself in malls in the Philippines when the sun is ablaze.
- Subway stations have transfer gates so it’s not really the case that you’ll only tap your T-money twice—one for entry and one for exit—when you transfer between lines.
- Plan your destinations and routes carefully so as to minimize travel time.
- You can actually survive by just eating street food. I only posted photos of those that I ate in Myeongdong but believe me, I only ate at a restaurant for that ramen on my first night. The rest were just in the streets and convenience stores. Talk about saving time and moolah but still with a full sto(o)ma(c)h. Also, bring water with you and refill it whenever you can. That’s additional savings.
- You might experience cold (in your nose, aside from the one inflicting your skin) and feel weird when it seems to be freezing inside your nose.
- Korea visa application in the Philippines is gratis. I just applied via an agency due to work reasons.
Itinerary & Expenses
- Day 1
- Day 2
- Seoul Plaza / City Hall
- Excursion Trail of Hanyangdoseong
- Dongdaemun Design Plaza
- Bukchon Hanok Village
- N Seoul Tower
- Dongdaemun Design Plaza (at night)
- Day 3
- Everland (would’ve eaten the entire day if I went inside)
- Gyeongbokgung Palace
- The Story of King Sejong
- Day 4
- Nami Island
- Petite France
- Garden of the Morning Calm
- Expenses (down to the last cent)