Tuesday, August 26, 2014

[Grandma and Jacki in Asia] Day 5: Travel to Gwangju (South Korea)

My sister and grandma came to visit me in Korea during my summer break. We were together from August 8 - 20, 2014. Here are the retellings of Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, and Day 4.



In the morning we dropped off the two carry on suitcases and my backpack at the hostel's locked luggage storage room. We then took the metro to Yongsan Station, only two stops south of Seoul Station. (Note: If you're trying to buy train tickets from Seoul to Gwangju, you'll have to do a ticket search with "Yongsan" as the departure location. This took me far too long to figure out; for a while I thought we'd have to rethink our Gwangju plans, as I didn't see any available tickets when I first looked online!)

We bought food at the station to bring with us on the train, which resulted in our earliest lunch yet - since I started eating around 11 after we'd been on the train for a little bit.

We got to Gwangju around 13:30 and took a taxi to our hostel. There was some construction on the street where our taxi dropped us off, so we assumed he couldn't get to the exact building, but we were close enough.

We walked down the street to compare it with the terrible map/directions that the hostel provided. Once you get to the correct bus stop, the directions only said that they were across the street from an eye shop, third floor. Jacki had seen an eye shop on the street when we were in the taxi, which we later walked past, but there was no "opposite side" of the street from this shop - and there could very well be multiple eye shops around.

We walked down to the closest bus stop to confirm that yes, this was the stop we would have arrived at if we'd followed the public transportation directions instead of taking a taxi. So the hostel had to be close by, we were on the right street.

Grandma saw a cafe that she wanted to visit, and since we were in no rush to check in, we paused the hostel search, escaped the heat, and went in for a coffee.

It was a tiny and pleasant cafe, decorated with all sorts of knickknacks.


The man working was very kind, patiently listening to my grandma describe in her regular English that she wanted milk on the side. I said the Korean word for milk and then proceeded to use lots of hand motions to show coffee here, milk here, separate. We weren't sure if we'd communicated correctly until he brought out her coffee with a cute little milk dish on the side.

Hostel hunt

Cooled down and caffeined up, we set back out into the heat to find our hostel. We walked around random streets, but our pace wasn't promising. So I suggested that Jacki stay with Grandma while I found the hostel, then I'd come back and get them and take them to it. I can walk much faster alone and have a good sense of direction, and I knew it would be the quickest solution.

The other tid bit here is that as of December 31, 2013, Korea adopted a new address system throughout the country. Previous to that date, addresses did not coincide with a street name, but rather an area and a number for that area. So people living on different streets in the same general area might have an identical address, except for the building number.

The only address on the hostel's website was the old address. But now, all of the buildings were marked with new address signs - a street name and a new building number - which wasn't helping the search. While on my own, however, I discovered that some of the new address signs had the old address building numbers in tiny print on the very bottom. So I followed the numbers, trying to find the hostel that way.

Once I made my way back to the street we'd generally started at, I saw some old building numbers that looked promising. It had to be between a dress shop and that eye shop. I walked down the alley between the two buildings and peered into an opened door. There it was! The door was painted bright yellow, but it was opened and opened inward, so the door wasn't visible when looking at the side of the building, as we had before.

Then, very much dripping in sweat, I had to walk back down some alleys to find Jacki and Grandma, and then lead them all the way back to the hostel.

I told them, "You will not believe where it is...  It's above that eye shop!"

We walked up three flights of stairs (we'd been using an elevator/escalator whenever possible with Grandma, but this building was like my apartment building and didn't have an elevator) only to discover a closed door with a sticky note on the door that had a number to call.

Luckily I had a working Korean cell phone to use, but none of us could figure out what one of the numbers was supposed to be. It looked like a 9 flipped horizontally. But there was another 9 in the number written correctly, so it couldn't be a 9.

While trying to decide which number to try first for that digit, someone else came up the stairs and arrived at the same door. He was Korean and must have been staying at the hostel too, so he told us to wait a minute while he called the number of the worker - which he had in his phone or something.

After hanging up, the guy typed a number into the door's keypad and let us in. He said the worker would be back up in about 5 minutes. No problem.

We checked out some of the brochures and set down our stuff. Soon the worker came to check us in.

The worker invited us to sit down while he made a brief call in Korean to someone. I had an inkling from the call that everything was not okay with our reservation. We gave him print-outs of the reservation confirmation and deposit, but it soon became clear that he wasn't expecting us. Apparently they don't check their reservations from that site (or something ridiculous), so they hadn't had our reservation in their books. So although they would have space for us tonight, they were totally booked the following night.

Oops. I'm used to getting over road bumps while traveling, so I knew this was far from the worst that could happen, but I would have preferred to face this one when I was traveling alone, not when I was bringing my sister and grandmother along. Grandma said it would be best to stay the same place both nights, and the worker agreed, so off he went calling a bunch of different numbers and talking with god knows who in Korean.

Five minutes later he said, "I have a solution, it is okay."

There was another guesthouse five minutes away that had space for both nights. The nightly rate was cheaper, and personally he thought it was a better place to stay, he shared with us.

So back down the stairs we go, out into the strong sun and humidity, and follow him through some side streets. He was walking at a super fast pace way in front of us, as he was obviously not used to our we're-walking-with-Grandma pace. It was funny.

A few times he'd stop and look around, seemingly unsure of which direction to go next, and then he'd be talking with someone on his phone to get directions, and then off we'd go again.

Finally, I want to say a good 15 minutes after we left, we arrived at the right guesthouse.


Korean guesthouse

He talked with the woman in Korean, and would translate a few things to us in English. Darn, it was nice staying somewhere where the worker spoke English - I was a bit dreading when the guy would soon leave to go back to the original hostel. Did we have any more questions for him now about Gwangju? Speak now or forever hold your peace!


Before I get to our next surprise, let me just say that way back when the hostel guy had first mentioned we stay at a nearby guesthouse, I had been skeptical of the sleeping situation. In traditional Korean houses you sleep right on the floor, just like at the jjimjilbangs (Korean spas) I've crashed at. When we originally were looking online for a hostel in Gwangju, only two showed up on the major hostel search sites. The second hostel was not cheaper than the place we'd originally booked, so he couldn't have taken us there.

The woman opens a door just inside the front gate and my fear that I'd suppressed is confirmed: This is a small, square room with no beds. Just a floor for sleeping space, and a decorative trunk in one corner with some books lined up across the top.

I don't think Jacki or Grandma realize what this means when they look into the room. Later Grandma recalled that she assumed the beds were in another room.

The hostel guy returned our deposit in cash, and then I paid the Korean woman for two nights in their home: 20,000 KRW/person/night, which actually saved us quite a bit in lodging costs. And then the original hostel guy was gone, back to his place of work.

And then I had the lovely duty of explaining to Grandma and Jacki that we were to sleep on the floor. Grandma made a joke that this was a Bed & Breakfast without the bed, which led into a retelling of the time she stayed at a B&B with no breakfast.

When Soon Mi, the woman who owned this house with her husband, saw Grandma uncomfortably trying to sit on the high chest in the corner of our room, she brought in two folding chairs, which were perfect. She also brought us a 2 liter bottle of cold water to drink.

The bathroom attached to our room was a nice Korean bathroom, and the rest of the house was beautifully traditional. The husband, who wasn't home at the time, made traditional Korean flutes out of bamboo for a living. His wife, Soon Mi, taught taekwondo classes a few days a week from their home. The home consisted of five rooms: The kitchen; the small "gymnasium" where she taught classes, which also had a rock climbing wall; their bedroom, which we never saw, but did discuss a few times when speculating whether they had a real bed or not; the tea/flute room; and the guest room that we stayed in. These rooms made a backwards "C" shape, with a small grass lawn in the middle where the clothesline hung.


After a brief tour, we settled into our room's floor and chairs while catching up on journaling and cooled down with the water and fan. Soon Mi was teaching a taekwondo class that very afternoon, so we saw a few of the young students. You could tell they were excited of our presence, yet they were shy too. One little girl came in to say hello.


Later that evening we set out on foot to find some dinner. We ended up at a kimbap nara sort of joint, which meant a huge menu of cheap, delicious Korean food. We hadn't had kimbap or any of these dishes yet, so it was great. There was so much deliciousness:


And the total for all that food? ~$11 total!

That night of sleep was the roughest of the entire trip, but we all survived. There were three sleeping bags in the room that we rolled out on top of the blanket that we'd put down on the floor. While these layers offered approximately 0 padding, Jacki and Grandma had each brought a small pillow along, so at least they had that.


> > > Next: Day 6 - Bamboo forest
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