Virginia and I recently took our second trip to Asia. As before, our driving motivation was visiting her father, who lives in Seoul. But no trip has only one goal and this one was no different.
The first difference from the last trip to Asia is that we didn’t fly together. Virginia travels for work, and she was working the two days before our departure. So she flew directly from her client location to Seoul while I took our originally scheduled flight from Chicago solo.
That schedule, incidentally, called for an 11:55pm departure on Wednesday. I was able to work a normal day, go home, and spend time with our kittens before leaving for the airport. I had thought I could take a Lyft car and avoid the rush hour traffic, given the late hour. WRONG. I’m glad I gave myself a few hours to get to O’Hare, because I ended up with less time than I expected.
After a snack and a nightcap, boarding was straightforward. One benefit of the flight schedule was that I was on a non-full flight for the first time in a long while. Even better, the seat next to me was empty, so I had plenty of space in which to stretch out. I fell asleep before we took off, and stayed asleep (as much as one can sleep in an economy seat) for about nine hours. Easy flight.
I found it’s easier to navigate an unfamiliar airport when it’s empty. Like when you arrive at 4:00am, as I did. I’ve been to Incheon once before, but that doesn’t count as “being familiar.” O’Hare, DFW, Heathrow, Charles de Gaulle (despite my antipathy for it) — these are familiar after many trips through. And it’s always harder when it’s crowded and frantic. Not so at 4:00am. I sailed through passport control on arrival.
And then came customs. I was bringing several bottles of wine from our trip to Burgundy for my father-in-law, and Korea is surprisingly protectionist about alcohol imports. More surprisingly, Korean customs accepts only cash for payment, so I had to leave the area under escort, get cash, have someone escort me back to customs, and make my payment. By then, it was 4:40am and it looked like Virginia’s flight was about to land. So I decided to wait at arrivals for her. Unfortunately, while passport control was smooth at 4:00am, it was decidedly not smooth at 5:15am. It was just after 6am when Virginia finally exited and we could leave.
Virginia had reserved a room at the Nest Hotel so we could freshen up before meeting her father. It worked out perfectly — we had an early breakfast, took a nap, and showered in a three-hour span, making us human again. Virginia’s father met us at 11:00am and we went back to the airport to catch the train into Seoul.
We had lunch at Yeohyang, the Chinese restaurant in the Grand Hilton where we had stayed last time. After lunch, we went back to Virginia’s father’s apartment to rest (the hotel hadn’t been quite enough time). We returned to the Grand Hilton for dinner at Mitsumomo, their Japanese restaurant. We ate at the sushi bar, and dinner was centered on sashimi followed by an amazing sea urchin maki. Virginia’s father ordered hot sake infused with a charred fish fin for us … let’s call that an acquired taste. I think I finished one cup. But the food was great and we fell into bed exhausted.
We’d made it to Korea, but Seoul wasn’t our main destination. Time for more travel!
We ate a simple breakfast of eggs, toast, and coffee before taking a taxi to Seoul Station. Virginia’s father had booked us on the KTX high-speed train to Gyeongju, where we would stay for the next four days. The train ride was incredibly smooth and fast (up to 265kph according to the monitor). Neither of those things could be said about the taxi from the train station to our hotel, though. It was the peak of cherry blossom season, and a beautiful day, and the weekend. Traffic was one big snarl.
We finally reached our hotel — the Hilton Gyeongju — and checked in. Our first night would be in a single room with three beds, due to how busy the region was. But we dropped our bags and ventured out for food. The traffic-caused delays meant that lunch service was over at the nearby restaurants. Virginia made an executive decision and called room service for three bibimbaps. We quickly made for our hotel room so we could be there before food arrived. I veered off for a bottle of wine and got to our room just as the food did.
We walked around our hotel after lunch, enjoying the warm weather and cherry blossoms. We decided to have dinner at the hotel’s Italian restaurant, where I had an unexpectedly awesome carbonara — all bacon and eggy unctiousness. After dinner, we were more than ready to sleep, each of us in our own beds.