Work has been really intense for the past couple of months. So intense that I’ve worked every weekend and have even had to put Chinese lessons (which I absolutely need) on the back burner. Finally things calmed down enough to take a weekend off. I decided to get out of the country. That way I had a reasonable excuse for not going back into the office over the weekend (it turned out that I needed that excuse, but that’s a story that won’t get posted here).

So, I went to Seoul. By accident.

Over the past month, I’d been planning to visit Seoul and visit Helena Meyer-Knapp, one of my former college professors who has a post-doc fellowship at a university there. Her area of study is the development of peacemaking, something that is definitely top of mind for the leaders of the Republic of Korea. Since the end of the Korean War, the Korean peninsula has been divided under an uneasy truce into north and south, and is separated by a DMZ. In 2005 I visited the northern part, and was one of the first Americans to visit the DPRK (as North Korea calls itself–“Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”) as a tourist. It seemed only fitting to visit the DMZ with someone whose life’s work is dedicated to erasing it. And who better to explore Seoul with – Helena, although many years my senior, is one of my favorite people in the world.

There was only one problem. We had gone back and forth in email to plan dates but were thinking about different months. I ended up booking the wrong month, April instead of May. No matter, the trip is not overly expensive, so even though my tickets were fully refundable and changeable (there’s really no such thing as a non-refundable plane ticket in China) I opted to travel anyway. Why not? The weather forecast was miserable in Beijing and I really needed a break.

I left on Thursday night, and booked the last flight of the day, which is on Korean Air, arriving in Seoul at 12:10AM. I arrived two hours early at the airport prepared for a long wait through immigration (you have to stamp both into and out of China), but was pleasantly surprised at how little wait there was. This gave me time at the airport Starbucks to wrap-up last minute business using the free airport WiFi. You can’t use WiFi in China without registering, and there used to be a very complicated process where you had to find a kiosk (there are only a few in the airport), scan your passport (which often doesn’t work correctly), and then get a username and password. Fortunately it’s a lot easier now. You can just register with your mobile phone and the airport will text you a username and password.

The service on Korean Airlines was typical for an Asian airline. Even though it’s only a 2 hour flight, there was a full meal service, free alcohol, and duty free sales. It somewhat softened the blow of the $400 airfare (one of the consequences of every trip being full service and all tickets being refundable is that the prices are often higher than in the US for a similar distance). There was a little turbulence since it was stormy, but nothing major.

Seoul customs and immigration was breezily efficient, although they didn’t give me all the correct forms on the plane so I had to go fill out an extra form and was required to go to the back of the line to do this. The more developed the country you’re visiting, the more forms there are to fill out for Customs and the more questions they ask. I was prepared for a US-style hassle (the US, Canada and the UK have unfriendly and intrusive customs and immigration) due to the substantial US military presence in Korea and the large number of Americans there. However, I didn’t get stopped or even asked any questions.

Helena had earlier warned me that the airport shuts down at night, and I hadn’t reserved a room. I went out to the airport shuttle area and was delighted to discover that there was one shuttle left, which was going to an area roughly close to where the Renaissance was. I would have to take the bus to a different hotel, then take a taxi to the Renaissance. My reservation at the Renaissance wasn’t until Friday night (with a 2pm check-in time, not a 2am check-in time), but given the distance from the airport and the time the bus left, it would be nearly 3 in the morning when I arrived at the Renaissance. I figured I’d just ask how early I could check in. Hey, if you don’t ask, they can’t say “yes,” right?

I needed money for the airport bus, and there was no ATM near the bus station. I’m glad that I always bring along a few hundred US dollars for emergencies, because it turned out that they only way to quickly get Korean won for the bus was to exchange US dollars with the airport 7-11 at an unfavorable rate. $100 got me 100,000 won, so at the prevailing rate I paid about $7 for the privilege. Still, this is only about double what an ATM fee would have cost me, so it wasn’t too absurd a gouge. I should have paid more attention to where the ATMs were on my way out.

The airport bus costs 15,000 won (the won is a very low valued unit of currency, so you have to divide by 1,000 and subtract 5% to arrive at roughly the dollar conversion). It’s a long ride to the part of Seoul where the Renaissance is, but the driver told me where to get off. And so it was that I found myself sitting at a bus stop at 2 in the morning with a bunch of teenagers. I was so tired that my contact lenses were about to fall out, so I busied myself with taking them out. The kids ignored me. They were busily using a giant touch-screen display attached to the bus stop to flip through satellite view maps of Seoul, apparently trying to figure out their bus route. I just stood and watched, fascinated by the spectacle. South Korea is one of the most technically advanced societies on the planet, and is probably the most sophisticated at this point.

After a few minutes of standing around watching the kids (who pointedly ignored me – a huge difference from Beijing, where if I’d paid attention to anything that teenagers were doing, I’d be quickly surrounded by them trying to practice their conversational English) I decided to try to find something to eat. Since I didn’t have anywhere in particular to be, there wasn’t any hurry to get to the Renaissance. Besides, the later I showed up, the more likely it was that they would let me check in early. I’d seen a 24 hour Internet cafe on the way to the bus stop, so I walked there through the rain. Walking inside, the owner was obviously asleep. One pasty-faced college student was absorbed in a game of World of Warcraft, and never even looked up. I felt bad waking up the owner, and didn’t really want to go online, so I walked back upstairs. Next door to the Internet cafe, there was a 24 hour restaurant. It looked like a greasy spoon, so I figured I’d give Korean food a try.

The waitress didn’t speak any English, and the menu was in Korean and didn’t have any pictures. Eventually, one of the patrons decided to help me. “This is a special restaurant, all the food is stewed pig’s guts.” When I said “Oh, like bacon?” he said “No, the other gut parts. It is very spicy and smelly, most foreigners do not like it.” His girlfriend, also an English speaker, nodded to indicate her concurrence. “The place next door has chicken, it is very good, many foreigners like Korean chicken.” I thanked him and left to go next door. Unfortunately, the restaurant had just closed, so no chicken for me.

To my surprise, as I was leaving, the friendly guy from the restaurant next door was coming in. “You are leaving?” he said. “It’s closed, but thank you anyway,” I told him. He asked the owner a question in animated Korean, nodded gravely, and said “They have closed.” Looking at my luggage, he said “Where do you stay?” “The Renaissance,” I told him. What the heck, he seemed friendly enough. “I’m not sure where it is, though. I just got here on the airport bus.” He replied “Oh, that is a very famous hotel, but it is not close to here. You had better take a taxi.” Having received the same advice from both this guy and the airport staff, I guessed I was probably going to end up in a taxi. “OK, thanks!” I said. “Do you know how much it should cost?” Crooked taxi drivers tend to overcharge me, so it’s always good to know what the price should be so I can argue it later. “Oh, very cheap, maybe 5,000 won,” he said while flagging down a cab. In Korean, he told the driver where I was going, shook my hand, and wished me a nice visit to Seoul.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. So far, Seoul was making a pretty good one.

The taxi driver took me straight to the Renaissance. Unfortunately, I couldn’t check in early. “The check in time is 2pm. We can’t extend your stay, though, because it’s a full house tonight. You can check with the concierge for things to do, and we can keep your bags for you.” I didn’t particularly mind. “Extend your stay” is hotel doublespeak for “charge you for another night,” and the Renaissance is a 4 star hotel that I’d booked for $88 per night through Priceline. I doubted “extending” my stay would be an inexpensive proposition.

I dropped my bags with the concierge and asked for some advice, explaining that I was very tired but the Renaissance was full and I couldn’t check in. “Would you like to go to a sauna?” he asked. If I didn’t live in China, I wouldn’t have any idea what he was talking about. However, Korea has the same spa culture as China. There are expensive, luxurious and well-appointed spas that have sleeping areas. You can have a deep soaking bath, get a massage, and then have a rest for as long as you like (the price you pay allows a full day stay). Best of all, it’s cheap. I have never gone in China, but I’ve read about these and it seemed like a reasonable option. “Sure, I guess, if there’s nothing better that you can suggest,” I said. The concierge didn’t have any other ideas, since there just isn’t much open at 3 in the morning. He handed me a map, told me how to get there, and sent me on my way.

Unfortunately, the map was really confusing and it was all in Korean, a language that I don’t have any experience reading. I’m actually able to recognize Chinese characters now, but the Korean written language is called Hangul and it’s so different from Chinese that the characters all run together (this was the case for me with Chinese too until I started learning a few characters – now I can at least match characters on a sign to something in a book, etc.). Try as I might, I couldn’t find the spa. It was pouring rain and I was getting soaked, so I finally ducked into the lobby of a business hotel in an effort to find the place.

I was so tired that my first question was whether they had any rooms available. They didn’t, and had no idea where the spa I was looking for was located, but one of the hotel employees literally left his desk and walked  me to another one nearby (there are spas all over the place in Seoul). I was truly blown away with the kindness; I wasn’t a customer and would never be one – I’d expect an indifferent shrug or “mei you” in China, so it was a little overwhelming to have someone go completely out of his way just to be nice. The spa wasn’t at all luxuriously appointed, but it wasn’t bad and was pretty cheap at about $10. It seemed like the kind of place that would attract students or recent graduates. The spa was very clean, though, and I fell asleep on a cheap plastic lounge chair next to the pool. For a few hours, it was quiet enough to sleep (not comfortably, but I didn’t especially care). Unfortunately around 6 in the morning some guy with a terrible cough started hacking up nasty chunks of phlegm and spitting them on the ground. This seems to be a less common habit in Korea than in China, but it’s still considered socially acceptable here. I tried to go back to sleep, but he just kept coughing, the lounge chair was uncomfortable anyway, and it was clearly time to wake up.

Now, here I am in a bathhouse full of nude and half-nude Korean guys, and I think Korean guys (unlike Chinese guys) are attractive, and this early in the morning they were almost all (except for Phlegm Dude) young and in really good shape. I’d never been in a bathhouse before, and I’ll probably never go again. Ron Jeremy thinks of disgusting things when he’s trying to avoid having an orgasm. “Korean dog meat soup, dog butcher, dead dogs” I thought, trying, erm, “hard” to keep blood from flowing to certain parts of my anatomy. If you need advice on control, take it from Ron Jeremy; it works. I got up and got the hell out of there as quickly as possible.