Monday, September 8, 2014

Seoul-searching: Day 1 of 6 (May/June 2014)

Our Korea adventure started with our flight to Busan. We flew in via Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia on-board Airasia. We left Singapore on a Thursday night at 8:45pm, transiting in KL for about 3hrs, leaving at 1:15am the following day (Friday), arriving Busan at 8:30am. We chose the night flight so the kids don't need to take a day off from school (Friday was results day, no classes). Arriving early morning also gave us enough time to travel from Busan to Seoul where we would be meeting up with in-laws coming from the Philippines (yes, that's a total of 4 adults and 4 children ages 6 to 14 on this trip).

We were looking forward to the new KLIA Airasia airport. The last time we were there for our flight to Japan last year it was chaos! Passengers were not properly informed where to queue and how to go to the transit lounge. We expected more from this trip and the new airport did not disappoint. It was more modern, has better facilities, and definitely has a better system in attending to transfer passengers. We didn't feel lost and there was enough space for passengers to move around. No more pushing and shoving among passengers to get to the right counter. There was no queue at all when we arrived at the transfer lounge. There were several shops and eating places but some were still closed so I think there is still more to see in that airport in the future. As for snacks, we settled for the usual - McDo burger and nuggets - while waiting for our connecting flight.

By 1am we were waiting for boarding, and after a seven-hour flight, we landed in Busan all excited as to what our first train ride would be like (we were going to ride the bullet train of Korea, KTX). As with our trip to Japan last year, I was a bit intimidated by the transportation system in Korea (based on their complicated, color-coded train maps) but I thought if we survived in Japan, this should be easy. Before facing the intimidating train system, we headed to the conveyor belt for our luggage. We've waited, and waited, until there were only 6 or so of us left. We had a feeling something was not right.  We approached the airport staff to report our delayed (hopefully not lost) luggage. We wanted to get out of the airport fast as we still had to take a one-hour train ride to the KTX station in Busan, and I had to make sure we got there with enough time locating which train to take and which station to transfer to, plus we still need to eat lunch.

The staff appeared experienced in this situation (I wonder how many lost or delayed luggage cases he attends to every hour?). There were 3 of us at the lost/delayed luggage counter - one had her damaged luggage with her, the other one was frantic about hers as she was attending a wedding the following day, and I was preoccupied, trying to recall what articles of clothing, toiletries and footwear I had packed into that luggage, while the airport staff asked me to fill out forms. Hubby was not at all worried about our luggage getting delayed or lost since it would be covered by the travel insurance. It's this type of holiday mishaps that travel insurance comes in handy. Nonetheless, I still wanted that luggage returned to us in the soonest possible time because I've packed according to day and the missing one had our stuff for days 1 to 4! I was comforted to know that the airport staff would try to locate the luggage and have it delivered to our hotel room (wherever we might be). Mr Lee, the airport lost/delayed luggage officer, asked for our travel details, which I had a printout of, and had it photocopied. He said if our luggage was found it would be delivered to us earliest by Monday (which was 2 days after). Then he gave us a phone number we could contact for updates. That was the best they could do for us so we had to settle for that. A delayed/lost luggage was not going to ruin our travel plans.

We walked to the Busan-Gimhae Light Rail Transit, which was just across the airport exit gate. There were no vending machines for T-money in the station (I was already prepared for this from what I've read in other blogs and travel guidebooks) so we had to buy single journey tickets, which turned out to be tokens. Like T-money (and ezlink cards in Singapore), passengers have to tap these tokens at the gantry point for entry and insert them at the token slots at exit points. There was an elderly transport volunteer who, even with little knowledge of the English language, tried to help us purchase our train tokens. 
these were our Busan-Gimhae LRT tokens

Our train ride took us from Gimhae International Airport (Busan-Gimhae LRT, blue line) to Sasang Station (3 stops). Cost of the short trip was 1,300 won ($1.54) for adults, 1,050 won ($1.24) for teens, and 700 won ($0.83) for kids. We had to exit at Sasang Station and transfer to Line 2 (Green) to Soemyeon (8 stops). We were lucky there were elderly Korean passengers who were nice enough to wait for us while we found our way to the lifts, and directed us to where the transfer area was. We still had to change to Line 1 (Orange) from Soemyeom Station going to Busan KTX station (6 stops). We bought new train tickets at Sasang Station for the rest of the trip. We paid the same rates as above and found ourselves stuck at the exit gantry at Busan KTX station. There was a train officer assisting commuters at the exit and he informed us (with some struggle in language) after checking our cards using a device that we paid short of 600 won ($0.71). I knew I selected the correct final stop in the machine but there we were, somehow the amount we paid was not enough. Since it was obvious we were tourists, or maybe because he didn't want to waste time explaining, he let us off. 

Two transfers, 3 train lines and 18 stops on our first South Korea train journey, and we made it! Not as difficult as I imagined after all, thanks to train system maps and android apps and helpful elderly Koreans. We proceeded to the Busan KTX station (via exit 8 or 10), went up the stairs (no lift service) and looked for the KTX train ticket counters. There were several queues so I just joined the shortest one. Unsure whether I was on the right queue I asked the Korean guy in front of me and showed him my confirmation email. He smiled and said that I was indeed at the right place. I'm thankful he knew how to speak English well enough for us to understand each other. That was actually one of the bigger challenges I've encountered while visiting Korea.

I got our tickets (which were just printouts together with the receipt) and confirmed which gate and track we should be going to get to our train. After noting down important details about our KTX journey, we looked for a place to have lunch. There were several eating places around the station. We went for the more convenient one - closer to the ticket counters, where we could see the train schedules on the big display screen, and where local Korean food was served.

our KTX ticket printouts and first Korean food lunch

By 3pm, we headed to the tracks and looked for our train, excited to ride on the Korean high-speed train. 
The train we took was the non-stop service from Busan to Seoul. We were seated in Standard Class coach. The First Class was in a separate coach. We didn't really find much difference between the two (based on research). We were on the same train after all. So travelling in Standard Class was good enough for us. The ride was comfortable enough, and there weren't many passengers on-board so it didn't look cramped. We were after the speed that's why we booked KTX. We didn't have the chance to try the bullet train in Japan nor the TGV in France, so this was an opportunity we didn't want to miss. It reached top speed of 300kph, according to hubby, who waited to see the max speed it could reach before dozing off. I fell asleep when the train was running at 200-250kph, about 30 minutes in the journey. I woke up from time to time and glanced outside at some of the towns along the way. Of course, when a train is that fast one can't really see anything much outside.

At 4pm we arrived in Seoul, safe and sound, thankful for the experience that brought us almost flying over the rails.
big enough at the Standard Class car
We then contacted Charles, owner of Yongsan Residence, who was already waiting for us at the exit just in front of Lotteria. He was very friendly and gave us some basic information about going around Seoul on our drive to our accommodation. We told him about the luggage delay problem and he promised to help as much as he could. We settled in to a room with a homey atmosphere, rested for a while, and were back on our feet to see what was around the area. There were a number of restaurants, convenience shops, and a mall just across the side road. We stopped by Dunkin' Donuts for snacks before heading to the mall, which was actually connected to the Yongsan Station and E-mart (a big grocery cum department store). How convenient is that?! 

We went back to our room after familiarizing ourselves with nearby amenities and shopping for necessities. My in-laws arrived few hours later and we headed to nearby CU (convenience shop) to buy T-money cards. It was a bit difficult to tell the cashier what we wanted because she wasn't conversant in English, but we managed to buy several cards for our group and topped up for tomorrow's use. We found out later on that children should have a different T-money card, so we planned on looking for a place where they sell children's T-money card (go to 7-eleven for that!) the following day. It was getting very late and tummies were grumbling so we walked to the nearest place where we could eat Korean BBQ which was just at the end of the street. The food experts, my sis- and bro-in-law, ordered using Korean phrases they were familiar with (relating to food, of course) while the cousins had their sweet reunion. 

dinner was a bit pricey at KRW91,400 ($108.17). We realized that they recommended beef serving based on head count. We thought we weren't able to finish the food when we were served, but we managed to gobble up everything (Korean beef and pork BBQ, bibimbap, etc). The kids loved the food, too. Ira, who is such a picky eater, liked the BBQ beef.

After dinner, we still had time to drop by the grocery to buy something to cook for breakfast.

That's what we did on our Day 1 - familiarization day. 
KTX ride, check!
Korean BBQ, check!
T-money cards, check!
Comfortable, clean and inviting room, check!
We're so ready for Day 2 and that's coming up next in my blog.

Travel tips of the day:
  1. Not all train stations have lift service so if you're travelling with a family it's better to have 2 medium size luggage that are easier to carry along the staircase.
  2. Always have a map in hand or a smart phone app to help you navigate. It gets easier as you ride more often and get more familiar with your starting point (station closest to your accommodation).
  3. Wi-fi is almost always available anywhere - hotel rooms, restaurants, train lounges, etc. So if you want to upload photos on social network or check something online, do so when wi-fi is available (and free). You wouldn't want to be wasting precious dollars on data roaming charges when you can use them on food or souvenirs or for entrance fees to attractions.
  4. If you're travelling with children and need T-money cards for them, I suggest you go and look for a 7-eleven shop. They should have both cards for adults and children. Top ups can be done there as well. From our experience, the 7-eleven staff were also more knowledgeable about T-money details as compared to CU staff. And they could communicate with us better.
Additional itinerary suggestion:
  1. If you have time in Day 1 of your itinerary, I suggest visit KTO office at 40 Cheonggyeocheon-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul (open 9am-8pm). You can get brochures from here that you don't have yet. Some brochures have discounts in selected establishments. You can reach the building via Jonggak Station (subway Line 1, blue), take exit 5. Cross over the Cheonggyecheon Stream, turn right along the street parallel to the stream. The building is second on your left.
  2. From KTO office, you can walk back to the Cheonggyecheon Stream. At night, the side of the stream is lighted up which makes night stroll interesting.
  3. There are also other tourist places in the area that you can explore:
    • City Hall Station - Deoksugung Palace, Seoul Plaza
    • Jonggak Station - Insadong area, Tapgol Park
    • Myeongdong Station - street shopping

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