Have you ever wondered what it feels like to be that t-shirt or pair of socks that you try to mercilessly shove into an already overflowing drawer? No? Me either. But, this weekend, I got to experience what it might feel like first hand when Erica and I made our way to Yeouido to see the Seoul International Fireworks Festival in Hansang Park, and let me tell you, it’s definitely not a comfortable feeling.
Saturday was a day of last minute plans. Initially I had nothing on the agenda for the weekend and was just going to do boring adult stuff; cleaning and laundry. Since I’m planning on going to Andong during Chuseok (Korea’s Thanksgiving) to see the Mask festival at Hahoe Folk Village, I really need to get my house in order before I leave. But, late Friday night Erica made me an offer I couldn’t refuse; to go discover a new up and coming part of Seoul that even she had yet to visit. The area is called Mangwon-dong. This is an older neighborhood that has been fighting gentrification. They have not allowed big chain stores to come in and have instead supported small businesses, maintaining that small community feel. The area if full of quaint little boutiques, coffee shops, and unassuming restaurants, and was highly recommended by one of the past English teachers that worked at our school.
Seoul, like many other big cities, is still growing, and thus means that more people are moving there for work. Areas that may not have been great to live in before are undergoing renovations thus driving rents so high that the residents who have lived there a long time are having to leave. Mangwon-dong is trying to fight this issue by supporting local businesses, requiring those wanting to open something in the area to renovate old buildings instead of building new ones. Since it sounded like a really eclectic and cool neighborhood, we made our plan.
As I was getting ready to leave on Saturday, my friend Norma sent me a message inviting me to see the fireworks in Seoul. I asked Erica if she felt up to going to it and since she did, we added into our itinerary. While on the train I read that they were expecting over a million people to be at the fireworks festival as it is the biggest one Seoul. That should have been a clue as to what to expect later on that evening.
Mangwon-dong was everything that I hoped it would be. If I were ever to move to Seoul, this is the area that I would want to live in. There were so many people walking around and small vegetable stands, fishmongers, and partially open meat markets were all calling for any passerby to stop and buy. The area truly has it’s own pulse. Cozy coffee shops and restaurants are everywhere and many with a line waiting to get in. If this place was supposed to be a secret, the secret was out, because the streets were full of people. It is definitely a place to explore. Although there are many popular places to eat or drink, finding them may be difficult without calling and asking for directions as few have big signs advertising their business. I think many rely on word of mouth or internet reviews. So, I would suggest visiting with the intention of spontaneously visiting which ever place strikes your fancy.
Or…go hang at the traditional market. The food there was amazing, maybe one of the best I have tried. We settled for a mung bean and potato pancake or hash brown type thing, then got hotteok (fried bread filled with brown sugar, nuts, and cinnamon) for dessert. We also stopped at a donut and croquet place and a chicken place to take food to the park. When walking around a traditional market, you definitely feel like you are no longer in “Kansas”. If you are a germophobe, or you have issues with how food is handled, this is not the place for you. Also, if you have a problem with people getting in your personal space, maybe a traditional market isn’t your cup of tea either. Your personal space will definitely be invaded, especially by the elderly ladies. They will railroad through you like nobody’s business without sparing you a second glance. While standing in line people have no problem to be so close that they are practically breathing on the back of your neck. It takes a little getting to used to.
We were supposed to meet Norma around 5:30 to head over to the park, but we didn’t head that direction until 6:00. The fireworks show was supposed to start at 7:30. The first train we took wasn’t too bad. This changed at our transfer station though. There were people everywhere. People were queuing up in three rows to go up the escalator which only allowed for rows of two. I would liken it to herding cattle. At the stop, there were lines to get on the train. We had to wait for two trains before we could get on our train. Once we got on, the train was full to overflowing. I was squished between two men, one poor fellow who was trying to protect his little girl from being ran over, and one fellow behind me. The three of us were sandwiched together like grilled cheese. I haven’t been all up on someone’s stuff nor had their stuff all up on me in a long time, in this case, it wasn’t so pleasant. We had to go two stops. At the first stop, more people tried to get on and this one older guy put both hands on the door and backed himself in pushing everyone even closer than before, not that I thought it was possible we could get any closer. This is the point where I began to think about that t-shirt I mercilessly shoved into my already overflowing drawer this morning as I put away laundry, and I thought to myself, “ah, this is what it feels like to be that shirt.”
I was so happy to get off at our stop, however, that feeling was short lived. There were thousands of people; this time we were not only smooshed together, but there was no air circulating down in depths of hell that was the station. It was suffocating. For the first time in my life, I came close to having a panic attack and was just about ready to climb on top of people to get out of there. Once we started climbing up, we began to feel the cool air coming in from outside, and when we made it outside, I think everyone was sighing in relief. We eventually found a place to stand and enjoy the fireworks. It was a great display, one of the best I have ever seen as a matter of fact. Louisville, Kentucky, which is where I came from, has the largest fireworks display in the U.S, and hundreds of thousands of people show. This one, however, made it looks like childs play. It was definitely worth the discomfort getting there. Note to self though; get there early next year.