Day 3 (24th October 2012)
Today is our full day guided tour. The tour was arranged via Air Asia’s holiday packages (link). As mentioned previously, I have been using Air Asia’s holiday packages to a number of destinations and they have never disappoint me. For this trip, the ground tour is handled by Air Asia’s Korean travel partner, Wow Corea Tour (website). The tour guide, Tommy, greeted us at the hotel lobby at 8:30AM that morning.
The itinerary for today was:
- Presidential Office (Blue House)
- Gyeongbokgung Palace
- Korean Folklore Museum
- Insadong Alley
- Seoul N-Tower
- Namdaemun Market
- Ginseng Center
- Namsan Hanok Village
Our first stop was The Blue House (Korean: Cheongwadae). It is the executive office and official residence of the President of South Korea. We passed by the residence and visited Sarangchae, an information center nearby. Sarangchae is considered the center of modern Korean history. Among the items exhibited are artifacts, documents, slides related to former/present Korean presidents. Sarangchae is meant to give you a brief information on Korea so that you can start exploring the city.
The exhibition at the Blue House shows the Koreans are really proud of their government. They have a replica of the President’s office for people to sit and take photos. Apart from that, they even have the real table used for the G20 summit. They are that proud!
From there, we went to Gyeonbokgung Palace. Tommy went to collect our tickets while we went to check out the palace guards stationed at the entrance.
Gyeonbokgung Palace was constructed in 1395CE by the Joseon Dynasty, and abandoned for almost 3 centuries until reconstructed again in 1867CE. In early 20th century, the Japanese invaders destroyed a large section of the palace (which is one of the many reasons why Koreans hate the Japanese). Since then, the Koreans have been slowly restoring the palace.
After we were done exploring the palace, we went to visit the Korean Folklore Museum. The museum was located within the palace compound. I was particularly interested in the gwageo, which are the Civil Service Examinations during Goryeo (918–1392) and Joseon (1392–1897) Dynasties. They even had the actual examination papers used during the Joseon Dynasty!
Modeled from the imperial examination from Imperial China, these examinations are demanding as it measures the candidates’ knowledge of Chinese classics, and sometimes technical subjects. These were the primary route for most people to achieve upward mobility in society (to move to aristocracy).
For lunch, Tommy took us to Insadong Alley. Insadong Alley is known for, among others, for its antique collection. We walked along Insadong Alley admiring the many shops and restaurants in the area.
In the end, we just decided to have coffee and sandwich at Starbucks. I was quite intrigued with the Hangul version of Starbucks. Looks kinda cool. There was an American guy that stood beside me as I was taking the picture above. He looked at the “Hangulise” Starbucks writing, shook his head and said “terrible”. Haha!
After lunch, we went to Seoul N-Tower. It’s one of the main attractions in Seoul. It’s 236.7 m (from base), or 479.7 m (from sea level). We had a nice view of both gangbuk (north of the river) and gangnam (south of the river).
We then proceeded to Namdaemun Market. It is the oldest and largest market in Korea. The earliest market related activity in the area was traced back to 1414CE during the reign of King Taejong (father of King Sejong the Great). Back then it was a government-managed marketplace. Later in 1608CE, King Seonjo established a government office in the same district to manage the tributes of rice, cloth and money. This then attracted many traders to set up their business in the same area. Among the traded goods back then were grains, fish, fruits and other tools/misc goods.
After Namdaemun, the tour guide took us to the ginseng center. The ginseng center is one of those compulsory places that the tour takes you to promote their local products. I’ve always been curious about ginseng, so I was quite eager to go. The ginseng place Tommy took us was called Dong Hwang Korea Ginseng, and it’s the biggest ginseng center in Seoul. We were assigned an English speaking guide (who was Singaporean). The guide briefed us on the long history of ginseng and the various types.
The Koreans are very proud of their ginseng. It turns out, not all ginseng are created equal. In general, there are 2 types of ginseng: Asian ginseng and American ginseng. Within the Asian ginseng family, it is separated into Chinese, Japanese and Korean. The Korean ginseng is further separated into white and red (the colour of the extract). A ginseng is measured by the number of years it was cultivated (max 6 years), germanium content and saponin content. While the number of cultivation years may vary (it depends on the product), the Korean ginseng has the highest germanium and saponin content, hence making it the best in the world! To read more on ginseng benefits, click here.
At the end of the tour, I was convinced the Korean ginseng is a must have. I wanted something easy to consume, so I decided to buy the red ginseng extract capsules (photo above). This particular product is extracted from a 6 year ginseng, the finest from the Korean peninsula. For one set (with 4 smaller boxes inside), it was RM320 (~USD105).
The last stop of the day was Namsan Hanok Village. When we arrived at the village, it was sunset. Tommy took us for a brief visit to 3 hanoks (traditional Korean house). There were 5 hanoks in total in the village. The different types of hanoks represents lifestyles from different segments of society during Joseon Dynasty. The hanoks in the village are mainly houses from the middle class to the yangban (who were mainly high government officials, noblemen and aristocrats). I would like to spend more time and to learn more from their culture, but Tommy had to rush the tour due to time. Oh well.
Tomorrow we’ll be having a day tour to Nami Island, the famous island where the TV drama Winter Sonata (2002) was filmed. My mum was very eager to go. I’ve watched Winter Sonata back in 2004, but I can’t really remember the details. Hopefully I’ll be able to recall the important bits tomorrow!