Dream as if you'll live forever, live as if you'll die tomorrow.

James Dean

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas in Korea

Since this was going to be our first Christmas in Korea, my 2 friends Andre and Kristina, and myself decided that we should go away. We only had the weekend so we couldn't go far and after some debate we decided on Seoul. We would head up on the 24th, spend Christmas Day wandering and seeing the sights of the city and then go to a restaurant for a great Christmas dinner.

So far this winter hasn't been too bad in Korea, at least compared to what I am used to in Canada. Most days it has been fairly mild with the odd cold day mixed in. WELL ... December 24th I awoke to -12 temperatures and reports that it is only going to get colder over the next few days. At 5 pm I headed to the train station to meet my friends and just in the short distance from my house to the bus stop I was frozen. I decided it would be a good day to splurge on a taxi. At 6 pm my friends and I board the KTX and head off to our first Christmas together in Korea.

When we arrived in Seoul we all looked at the throngs of people waiting for the subway and in unison said the same word ...TAXI! We headed outside to the taxi stand and joined the long of people waiting. The wind there was so cold that in a matter of minutes my hands were numb. Being Canadian, I know how to dress for the winter. I was bundled in sweaters and parkas, scarves and hats and mitts and yet the cold just went right through it. Finally it was our turn. The 3 of us were frozen solid and with a sigh of relief we hopped into the warm car. We told the driver anguk yak (our destination) and he immediately said NO, get out. It seems that we had gotten in the taxi on the wrong side of the road and since we wanted to go in the other direction, we would have to cross the road and find a taxi over there. Cursing all the way, we climb out of the car, back into the cold night, across the road and after some confusion hailed another taxi.

We finally arrived at our guest house, only to be informed that we weren't actually staying there. We were staying at their other guest house further up the road. The young man (Kevin) who was working, piles us all into his jeep and drives us 5 minutes up the road to the other place. He told us not to worry as he sped down narrow alleyways barely missing pedestrians and other cars. Afterall he was a driver in the army.

The place that we had chosen to stay in was called Yoos Guesthouse. We had chosen it because it was a traditional Korean Hanok that had been restored. A Hanok is an old style Korean house built with an outside courtyard in the middle and then bedrooms and kitchens all off the courtyard. This particular guest house was located on the grounds of the former Unhyeon palace.

We thought it would be a very interesting and unique experience, not knowing that it was going to be -12. The room we stayed in was heated but in order to use the bathroom, kitchen etc you had to go outside, and it was chilly. The rooms were traditonal Korean style rooms, which means no beds or furniture. Just a room with a floor and then mats and covers that you lay down to sleep on. Since they use the ondol, or under floor heating, it was warm and comfortable on the floor.

We had decided to spend Christmas Eve inside and given the cold temperature outside, it was a wise decision. We all brought an assortment of foods and beverages and we had a cosy night talking and laughing at all the funny things that we had done and the people we had met the previous year.

The next morning we awoke to even colder temperatures and frozen pipes. There was actually icicles hanging off the tap in the bathroom. We bundled ourselves up and headed to our first destination, a guided tour of Seodemun Prison. The guest house where we were staying had arranged for us to have a tour guide and we thought no better place to spend Christmas Day, then in jail.
At the prison we meet our tour guide, a sweet little girl named Sarah who was all of eleven years old. Her English was excellent and she led us through the prison telling us the stories of all the horrible things that happened there. The prison had been built by the Japanese and many Koreans who fought for independance had been imprisoned, tortured and killed there. At one point we were even led through the torture chambers and shown all the various methods that they used. It was so heartwarming for Christmas day. The first half of the tour was comfortable as it was inside a heated building but the second half was either outside or in the jail cells where there was no heat and by the end we were frozen and ready to go. The tour ended with us standing outside bewildered watching Sarah running away while at the same time thanking us for coming. I htink she was cold too and anxious to get back inside.
We had planned to spend the rest of the day going ice skating and shopping but quickly decided that it was too cold. Instead we headed back to the guest house where we sat huddled under blankets until it was time to go to dinner.

We finished Christmas Day with a meal at La Cigale Montmartre, a french restaurant in an area of Seoul called Itaewan.

This place was truly french and the food was superb. I dined on mussles cooked with ham and garlic and a lime dacquiri. We lingered over the meal, enjoying the food and each others company. It was a relaxing and comfortable night.

It truly was a memorable Christmas and as Kristina pointed out, a Christmas with an international flair. You have a Canadian, and American and a South African celebrating Christmas in Korea at a french restaurant. It doesn't get any better than that.