Day 6 (afternoon) in South Korea: Jongno-gu

To experience the traditional Korean lifestyle, we booked a room in a hanok, a Korean traditional house, through Airbnb. However, it was to be a long walk from Anguk station, and we were out of breath by the time we reached.

Doo Guesthouse was located just off the main road surrounded by a cluster of modern-looking apartments.

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We stopped to take a photo at the front entrance and stepped right in. Donny, the host of the guesthouse with whom we had been communicating with for months, was seated with two other people in the kitchen. Donny’s friend passed us the keys to our diminutive room. Since it was not a modern guesthouse, it was understandable. Still, it was smaller than what I expected.

A futon was rolled up on the floor, a traditional-looking painting hung on the wall and a TV sat on a table beside it in great juxtaposition. The method of locking the door was by slotting a silver spoon through circular rings, a hark back to the olden days. There was air-conditioning (thankfully) and the shared toilet was surprisingly modern. We settled down and started unpacking our items, and decided to utilise our luggage-tripod once more.

That was when my camera fell off and took a few tumbles on the floor. Initially, I thought nothing was wrong. I set it up for another shot, it clicked, the shot came back terribly overexposed, and then the screen went blank. I tried pressing the power button. The screen did not come back to life. I tried re-inserting the battery, removing the lens and a timed combination of both, but nothing seemed to work. Eventually, after consulting the internet, we concluded that the shutter must have become stuck. There were a lot of things on our itinerary still, and precious time was slipping away. Hence, we set off, leaving the camera behind in hopes that it would right itself before we returned. It was time for the iPhone to prove itself.

Our first stop was to head for Gyeongbokgung, where the royal changing of guards was about to take place at 2pm. Pushing our tired legs on, we made it just as the guards made their way into the square.

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The entire ceremony lasted about 20 minutes, after which visitors could take photos with a number of guards lined up in front of the Gwanghwamun, the main gate to the palace. We did!

Holding on to the selfie stick, I had the daring idea to mimic the pose of one of the guards for a funny photo! When it came to Clara’s turn, the guard had the audacity to turn his back on her, but she responded with a funny photo as well!

In the end, we decided not to enter the grounds of Gyeongbokgung because we were short on time and budget. We crossed over to Gwanghwamun Square instead, to stand before the colossal statues of King Sejong and Admiral Yi Sun-Shin, two of the most important heroes in the history of Korea. King Sejong invented many things, but his greatest contribution was the unique written alphabet widely in use in Korea today, Hangeul. Admiral Yi was a brilliant naval strategist whose exploits successfully repelled the superior invading Japanese navy. The rows of water fountains in front of his statue allude to his tactical prowess on water and formidable turtle boats.

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At the very front of Gwanghwamun Square (which was, in fact, a rectangle), there was a campaign on getting the South Korean government to admit responsibility and continue investigations into the recent Sewol ferry disaster, where the neglect of the crew led to the deaths of more than 300 students and the still-unknown fate of 9 victims. It was very sobering to look at the faces and names of those who perished, and the mood noticeably turned sombre.

An smiling elderly man came up to us and asked for our signatures for the petition, which we readily gave. He passed us yellow ribbons and well-wishes and came across as being quite passionate towards the cause. We couldn’t help but ponder the reason for it; if his child or grandchild could have been one of those faces we saw. We sat down at the side to rest our legs, people-watch and consume some snacks before continuing on our way.

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Our next stop was Samcheongdong, a charming neighbourhood north of Gyeongbokgung filled with hipster cafes. It was also home to the Prime Minister of South Korea, and nearby was the Blue House as well, and we encountered police officers along the way. It seemed like either something important was happening, or was about to happen.

Anyway, we darted into Cafe Bingbingbing, intent on having some bingsu at least once during our time here. We chose something called a Milk Cake Bingsu, which sounded slightly puzzling at first but made more sense to us later.

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Bingsu directly translates to snow ice, or shaved ice, but the Milk Cake Bingsu comprised of a huge mountain of shaved frozen milk instead. Digging into it, we eventually unearthed cake and realised that an entire cake was buried within! It was unlike anything we had eaten before, and it filled us up to the brim. In fact, it became a bit too much after a while!

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Finishing the entire thing with some difficulty, we resumed our walk through Samcheongdong, before turning into a narrow flight of stairs that led us to the Bukchon Hanok Village and its eight views. The views were generally said to give the best angles and compositions for picturesque photos. We only managed to truly locate a few, but the experience of walking through the rows of immaculately-preserved hanoks in itself was priceless.

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Of course, people still do reside in these houses, so it was really eye-opening to see the resident children playing animatedly outside, without a care in the world. One could only endlessly wonder what it must be like to grow up in one of these hanoks.

And do these residents ever feel annoyed at the hordes of tourists descending on their doorsteps, exclaiming away? We were there on a weekday, but were far from the only ones. There were lots of people congregating, especially around the 5th, 6th and 7th views. People of visibly different nationalities, all gathered at one place to relive the charms of the history of a single nation, all amazed by it.

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We thought of many an ingenious way of taking photos of ourselves (something we had gotten quite good at), but this one was actually taken by, of all people, a fellow Singaporean.

Satisfied, we walked off towards the setting sun.

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