It is a truth universally acknowledged that a family sufficiently large to require two taxis to move about a foreign city will, eventually, be delivered to entirely separate destinations and find themselves with no way to re-establish contact amongst its constituent parts, thanks to a lack of cell-phone service. Damn you, ruinous AT&T roaming charges!
That was our experience with Gyeongbokgung Palace, which we probably should have just walked to in the first place. One taxi — containing Katrina, me, Abby, and our volunteer guide — deposited us at the correct entrance; the other deposited my in-laws and other two children at the Folk Museum. Hilarity did not ensue. I tried to remain philosophical during the wait, but Katrina maintained that losing two out of three children was a completely unacceptable percentage.
The family eventually reunified after a comedy of errors, we enjoyed our tour of the palace. The girls took an immediate shine to our volunteer guide — a charming young woman getting a fine arts degree at a local university — and abandoned the rest of the family to compete for her attention. The rest of us enjoyed the changing of the guard:
The palace is vast, but vast in an Asian-sensibilities sort of way, with lots of pleasing wide-open spaces, but modest internal rooms. Here's the banquet hall, in the middle of a small man-made lake:
. . . and the kids with our guide:
Most of the rooms themselves were off limits — you could only peer through open screens — but the king's bedroom and queen's bedroom were open to visitors willing to remove their shoes and tread where many sweaty feet had walked. The ceiling painting was breathtaking — I can only assume it's been touched up quite a bit.
The separate nature of the king's and queen's bedrooms led Peggy, my mother-in-law, to test our guide's English, not to mention the bounds of decency and civil discourse, with a profoundly inappropriate discussion of under what circumstances the monarchs might occasionally wind up in the same bed, which clearly they must. Are there not dynasties? Our guide, flustered, retreated into the comforting safety of syntactic obscurity. Peggy had a good sense of humor about it. She had less of one when I described the dowager empress' rooms, hundreds of yards from the main palace, as the "mother-in-law apartment."
From there we walked to the Folk Museum. The kids blazed through the parts we found most interesting — paleolithic and neolithic artifacts — to the kid's wing, which allowed them to interact with exhibits displaying typical pre-20th-century Korean life, which apparently involved hitting or crushing many different things with large sticks. The kids would have done quite well. There was also an extended section of the kid's wing in which one could participate in multi-colored allegorical activities related to the life of folk tale hero Shimcheong, most of which required jumping and/or yelling. As far as I could gather through the questionable translations, Shimcheong prevails against the various natural and supernatural forces against her, despite a lack of qualification or preparation, through moxie, persuasiveness, and intransigence. She is not interested in running for office, thank you.
Our guide led us on a long trek back to Insadong for lunch at a small restaurant in a back alley. A Korean barbecue lunch — with grilled pork at its heart — was delicious, filling, and ridiculously cheap — about $40 to stuff eight people. I had the first heavy glass bottle of coke that I've seen in decades; I think Coke had to stop manufacturing them because they make such good molotov cocktails. 21st-century Korea is to stable to worry about such things.
We returned for naps. Most succumbed to them. But Abby arose quickly, and Katrina sent us out with our guide to spend some time. We took a taxi to Namdaemun, an extraordinary maze of open-air markets. The alleys are narrow, made narrower by the great heaps of goods encroaching on the center. Clothes, food, junk, toys, bags, consumer goods of every description are stacked so high that they begin to overhang the alley like a Tudor street. Immense piles of textiles in every belligerent-Pokemon color imaginable intrude into the passageways to press the shoppers together.
The crowds part, like rushing river-water around a rock, for the occasional brave delivery boy on a scooter. They also part for the apparently legless men (their pelvis concealed by a drape of rubber, like a wet suit) who pull themselves by hand in a suspiciously belabored manner on rude carts through the puddles and cobbles. We also encountered an apocalyptic preacher, whose megaphoned denunciations were incomprehensible but whose sign was helpfully marked with multiple "666" marks of the Beast:
He followed us for some time, like an unfortunate soundtrack, possibly because we were going his way and possibly because he recognized, as many have before him, that I am in particular need of a good denouncing.
Our guide introduced us to her grandmother, an 80-year-old woman selling stockings in the center of one of the streets, who had been working there for 30 years. She looked ageless, hardy, likely to remain there for another few decades.
Abby was uncharacteristically silent, gripping our guide's hand, taking it all in with huge eyes. She looked incredulously at three women in bright-blue short-shorts and cheerleader tops dancing to a boombox. She shied away at the vendors shouting at us for our trade. Suit-makers bade me buy sports coats in hospital-wall colors. An herb seller shouted at me to buy some sort of root — by the gestures me made at me, and then our young female guide, I gather it was supposed to be some sort of male potency medicine. Awkward! And then there were the T-shirt sellers. T-shirt sellers are the reason that Asians can't make too much fun of Westerners for having badly-translated Asian tattoos; whoever does their translating has literacy issues or a poor sense of humor. A man thrust a short bearing the glowering image of Osama bin Laden and the words "Wanted: Deck Or Alive", clearly seeing me as a resolute American who would not rest until our foes are deck.
Since the last time we visited, they've moved the fishmongers underground. They are in a sort of underground grotto, a dank dank hole that smells exactly like you are thinking it would. Abby was thoroughly freaked out by bins of wriggling eels:
The fishmonger scooped up a half-pound of them in a colander and dumped them into a clear plastic bag, which commenced to thrash in a customer's hand. Abby went an unbecoming color and demanded that we leave. We did, our guide taking us to another passage to another underground shopping area. It was, if possible, even more crammed with goods and people than the streets above, a noisy Hell for those of us who don't like to shop:
I was hyperventilating, but Abby was entranced. Every few dozen meters, crammed matter-of-factly between stacks of crass commerce, were small benches and tiny tables at which old women were ladling out metal bowls of fragrant, steaming soup to workers. The workers, oblivious to the din, slowly slurped the soup as if they were in a zen garden.
We emerged back into the light and found a snack for Abby: a blob of dough, with a bit of sugar and cinnamon, quickly fried in an old-fashioned iron stove into a thin, light, tasty pancake. She was delighted. We returned to the hotel.
Let me draw the merciful curtain, dear readers, on the traveler's complaint that led me to send the family to the buffet dinner and Korean cultural performance without me. The highlights, as I heard them: Seoul's notoriously awful driving practices were punctuated by a taxi hitting Abby and our guide as they got out of another cab (no injuries at all, thanks), a lavish buffet that everyone was too stuffed to eat, and a cultural performance punctuated by my dignified father-in-law Mike being pulled onto stage for a drum contest:
Next: Day three, including an indoor amusement park. I'm behind on these — this stuff is tiring.
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