Day 2 (night) in South Korea: Dongdaemun

Back to the subway, and off to Seoul Station!

We decided long ago that our mode of transport to Busan would be the KTX. We found that getting the Korail Pass was cheaper than getting return tickets, so we applied for it online prior to the trip. We were instructed to proceed to Seoul station physically to exchange the e-ticket they mailed us for the physical pass. It took us a while queuing at the Korail ticketing counter only to be directed to the information counter. The person at the counter told us that we had mistakenly printed the email instead of the e-ticket and so we had to spend 2,000 won using the printer at Caffe da Dio, which wouldn’t have been necessary.

Maybe it was the dry weather, but my throat was getting really dry. We were also flat-out exhausted from carrying our luggage up and down the subway stairs. South Korean subways don’t have a lot escalators like Singaporean ones do, so it made our life much tougher. We were running out of water, so in the process of printing the e-tickets, we bought an orange ade from the Caffe da Dio (my goodness, we bought three ades that day… it’s no mystery where our money went).

With the e-ticket in hand, we returned to the information counter, and then to the ticketing counter to exchange it for the Korail Pass. We subsequently made a reservation for the 8am train on Day 4, the day we would be heading to Busan!

Our next task was to obtain the free EG SIM card that would allow us to connect to the internet without the need to constantly rely on public WiFi (despite Seoul actually having lots and lots of hotspots). We initially walked back to the subway gantries that we came from, thinking that the AREX Travel Center was located there. It was nowhere to be found. We went back to the AREX and KTX section and looked everywhere for it – no success. Resigned to our fate, we trudged to the information counter (our third time there) and asked where it was. It turned out that the AREX Travel Center was just two floors below Caffe da Dio, near the AREX tracks…where we had been a while ago! -.- We purchased 1GB of data, and it came in the form of two 500MB cards, which was good, because we found that 500MB of data was just enough for 7 days. We reserved the other 500MB card for the next time we return to South Korea.

Due to all these unexpected incidents, we reached our place of residence rather late at night, perhaps around 9.30pm? I wouldn’t say the location of K-Guesthouse Dongdaemun 1 was the best, as it was, rather misleadingly, not located near Dongdaemun Station, but Dongdaemun History and Culture Park station. From there, there was still quite a bit to walk, and because the roadside stalls tend to close early on, the area appeared quite shady to us. We even spotted some bodies lying on the street… *shudders*. Probably drunkards. The guesthouse itself was in an unassuming, rundown building with an entrance we would have missed had we not been actively looking out for the ‘K-Guesthouse’ sign.

Stepping out into the lobby of the guesthouse, our feelings of unease were somewhat dissipated by how clean and modern it seemed. The receptionist was welcoming and showed us to our room, located one floor above the reception desk. Yes, we were a little stunned by the size of our room (it’s even smaller than the one in 24guesthouse – it was difficult to flip open even one carry-on-sized luggage in the room!), and we found out later that water seeped beneath the bathroom door during showers, but its white walls were at least in contrast to the dark and dilapidated facade of the building. This would be our home for the next two nights, so rather than mull over its shortcomings, we decided to make do with them.

Our planned dinner was at Ojangdong, the street to go to for naengmyun. It was literally a stone’s throw away from K-Guesthouse, but to our dismay, the restaurants had already closed for the night. We then made the decision to head to the Dongdaemun Market and find a place to eat there.

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The Dongdaemun Market consists of roadside stalls, as well as a row of iconic shopping malls – Doota, Migliore, Hello aPM and Good Morning City – known for their apparently low prices (highly debatable) and the fact that they are open till the wee hours of the morning, making it possible to literally shop past midnight and till the next day. We also noticed that Lotte has tapped into the lucrative midnight shopping crowd with a Fitin mall that we had never read about before.

Resisting the urge to begin with the shopping, we headed to the top floor of Migliore in search of dinner. Our hearts sank a little when we saw that most of the food stalls have shut. However, an ajumma came over and pulled us over to her stall, which was still open. It seemed like they catered to the tenants working the overnight shift in the mall in addition to the shoppers, as we occasionally noticed the servers heading downstairs with trays of food. She handed us a menu, we took a quick look and decided to eat there after all. We missed out on some naengmyun, so we settled on some bibim naengmyun to make up for it.

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For 6,000 won each, we got a bowl of naengmyun and a bowl of soup each, and four side dishes to share – quite a lot of food for the money! It wasn’t till we tucked into our food when we realised how hungry we were! Halfway through, we remembered a particular scene from Descendants of the Sun, when a North Korean soldier was teaching Yoo Si Jin the proper way of eating the cold noodles – to spread the mustard directly onto the noodles – and tried doing that. The mustard gave the noodles a new dimension, though it’s not for everyone. In fact, we agreed after the meal that naengmyun wasn’t exactly our cup of tea after all. Still glad to have tried it, though!

After the food came the shopping. The shopping malls of Dongdaemun were all similar in the sense that they housed a great many nameless tenants, identified only by a unique number, that were allocated a tiny floorspace. We noticed that the floors with the pushiest salesmen were the floors dedicated to men. The other floors sold men’s clothes too, but the shopping experience was much better and we could actually browse in our own comfort. Men’s clothes here, as was the case in Hongdae and Edae, tended to be homogenous anyway. We found that the prices here (at least in Migliore, Hello aPM and Good Morning City) were a fair bit higher than those in the university quarter. I caved in to a particularly pushy salesman and bought a t-shirt for 20,000 won, which wasn’t exactly a bargain. It tops the list as one of my greatest regrets on the trip. We didn’t get anything else other than that. Our conclusion: midnight shopping in Dongdaemun is overrated. I just don’t get how everyone seems to be recommending it.

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The next time we come to Dongdaemun, we’d just have a quick glance through the malls, and then cross the road over to the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a futuristic building designed by the late Zaha Hadid. At night, patterns of light illuminate the building’s exterior. Well, up till a certain time – by the time we reached, it had become a grey concrete wall, laying silently in the darkness. We’d also take a look at the LED roses, and wander inside the plaza. As for the actual Dongdaemun (great eastern gate), we didn’t see it for ourselves, but we aren’t exactly history and culture enthusiasts so it was fine by us.

It had been a long day, and the fatigue was certainly overcoming us by then, so rather than shop till the wee hours of the morning, we decided to head back to our guesthouse and rest early, for the next day, we would be spending an entire day at Seoul Grand Park!

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