My husband and I, from Austin, Texas, and two friends, one coming from Omaha, Nebraska, and the other from Portland, Oregon all had to make our standby flights to Dallas, Texas and then also get on the one flight a day to Seoul, South Korea. Somehow, we made it and did it First Class! It was going to be a long 14-hour flight. When we arrived, it takes at least an hour to get from the Incheon International Airport to the city of Seoul. We were able to grab a bite and drink and walk around the Myeong-dong market after checking into our hotel that evening, but it was a very long day of travels so sleep was much needed.
Bright and early on New Years Eve, we found ourselves at the Gyeongbokgung Palace, originally built in 1395 – yikes, for the changing of the royal guard ceremony. This was the main palace built by the Joseon dynasty and served as the home for the Kings, households, and government. There were a lot of people dressed in traditional formal Korean attire, called Hanbok. It was quite a cold morning, but at least sunny and we were able to walk around and amuse my friends on how much I really do like finding, observing, and photographing birds. Here I watched a pair of brown-eared bulbuls (Hypsipetes amaurotis)squabble over an insect, Eurasian tree-sparrows (Passer montanus), and delightful Korean magpies (Pica sericea).
After the Palace, we went up to the top of Namsan Tour (North Seoul Tour), which offered us some of the best panoramic views over Seoul. This tower was built in 1969 as Korea’s first integrated transmission tower for television and radio broadcasting. With the Observatory ticket we got a soda and popcorn and the roof of the elevator had an amusing video that made you feel like you were blasting off into space to get to the top of this tower. Around the tower, there are plenty of little shops and restaurants, and a lot of locks from couples declaring their eternal love. Supposedly, there is a legend that if lovers make a wish at the top of Namsan Mountain, then it will come true. The metropolitan population of Seoul is a whopping ~26 million. We could see the Han River and Mt. Bukhansan amongst the sea of buildings.
Searching for things to do to ring in 2019, we decided on attempting to go see the bell tolling ceremony, or Korea’s own “ball drop ceremony,” at the Bosingak Pavilion near City Hall. The bell would be struck 33 times at midnight to celebrate the coming of the New Year. The phrase Happy New Year translated to Korean(새해복많이받으세요)literally means “please receive a lot of luck or blessings in the New Year.” Back during the Joseon Dynasty, the bell would ring 33 times at 4am and 10pm signaling the start and of the day along with the opening and closing of the city gates. I have also read that the bell is rung in hopes of reaching the 33rddimension of Mount Meru. This is the center of the universe in some Buddhist cultures and has the meaning of wishing peace and prosperity to those who hear the sound of the bell. I heard the bell a handful of times, does that count? It became impossible to stay close to the pavilion without becoming a canned sardine and with all the police and unknown protests, it was not going to be a pleasant waiting period. There were different shaped lighted balloons being sold around the festivities and an area where you could write your wishes on a lighted lantern, which I really enjoyed. I had to get a heart shaped balloon because how else would my friends keep track of me in the crowds?
Our original plan was to stay a couple more days but we decided to leave on January 1stsince the chance of getting a seat while flying standby was greater. We had the morning still to explore though. Our search became looking for the Poop Café, because Koreans are obsessed with poop? Yes, it is cute there. It goes back to being a natural resource and not just waste. It is what improved crop productivity throughout East Asia. When modern toilets began to be introduced though, this resource literally was flushed away and the modernization of commercializing poop started in the 1990’s.
My husband and I also took a quick walk over to the Changdeokgung Palace where I spent most of the time trying to get close to a pair of oriental turtle doves (Streptopelia orientalis). I really wished I had my camera or a pair of binoculars on me because I was seeing and hearing a lot of birds. There is so much left to see in Korea, maybe one of these days I will make it back but it was a fun quick trip. It was officially the longest January 1stleaving Korea at 6:50pm and getting home by the same time in Austin on the same day!