By Amanda Cardini, Editor-in-Chief
When I decided to go on the Summerim in Asia this past summer, I immediately knew that I wanted to travel to Japan before the program started. Shanghai and Singapore (the cities the Summerim included) were interesting enough, but I had felt a pull to Japanese culture, fashion and cuisine since I was little, and couldn’t miss the opportunity to pay the country a visit. I started mentioning this to other T-birds committed to the trip, hoping to find someone to accompany me to Japan, and succeeded in finding another T-bird looking for a pre-program travel companion. Only this T-bird wanted to visit Seoul.
I hadn’t really thought much about Korea, and I knew very little about Seoul, but being a Thunderbird means traveling to places you never imagined you’d visit. We agreed to do both Korea and Japan, and recruited one more T-bird to join us in what was sure to be a whirlwind of a trip, due to the limited time we had before the Summerim started. Despite my initial focus on Tokyo, I actually enjoyed Seoul more, and it ended up being my favorite city of the entire Asia trip.
On our first day in Seoul, we arrived on a flight that can only be classified as the worst flight I have taken in my entire life, due to the relentless rain and turbulence we endured throughout the entire two hours from Tokyo. Shaken from the stormy conditions, and still jet-lagged for having only been on this side of the world for three days, our first order of business was to find our Airbnb. The host had sent us a map with specific directions from the subway, but it was difficult nonetheless as none of the three of us spoke or read Korean. This was a problem we had already encountered in Tokyo, so we did not underestimate the challenge. But the roads in the neighborhood we stayed in in Seoul were significantly more narrow, hilly, winding and cobbled than the almost eerily perfect paved roads of Tokyo. Not to mention that we were lugging large suitcases the whole way, bumping them along the cobbled streets, due to the fact that the Summerim required us to be in business formal attire almost every day.
Despite the difficult uphill trek from the subway, the neighborhood we had emerged into felt friendly, warm and exciting. After three days of nonstop rain in Tokyo, it was a relief to take our first steps in Seoul in sunshine. The streets were lined with blossoming trees, and filled with small boutiques and restaurants, where young people were meeting up and exploring. Our airbnb was located on a tiny side street, and it took us a few wrong turns to find. Luckily the wonder of the place kept frustration at bay, as we had arrived in perfect timing to catch the sunset blessing the tops of the mountains that surround the city with a golden glow.
On our first night we explored our neighborhood, and stopped in a Korean barbecue place for dinner, not knowing that this would be the first of many incredible meals. The area in which our Aribnb was located was not touristy, which meant that the restaurants did not have English menus, and most of the wait-staff did not speak English. As T-birds, we were up to the challenge, communicating mostly in gestures and short phrases. One night the language barrier was so strong that we simply pointed at what the people next to us were eating to signal, “we’ll have what they’re having.” To this day I’m not exactly sure what kind of meat we ate that night, but it was one of my favorite meals of the entire trip.
One of the things that struck me not just in Seoul but in some of the other cities we visited in Asia, was the juxtaposition of old and new. On our second day in Seoul we were leaving the Namdaemun market and accidentally ended up in front of one of the original gates to the city dating back to the Joseon dynasty in the 14th century. Though the gate has gone through its fair share of strain over the years and undergone several restorations, it was awe-inspiring to be standing in front of such an ancient piece of history surrounded by a modern concrete jungle.
My favorite part of Seoul was our visit to the Changdeokgung Palace and secret gardens. We took a tour and learned that the place was constructed in the 1400s as a home for kings, some of whom were even coronated there. The gardens were used for meditation and relaxation, and were designed to be in harmony with the surrounding nature. It’s not hard to see why meditation was a common practice here; the place emits an air of tranquility that is incredibly contagious. The pagoda-style gazebos are set next to ponds lined with lily pads, and lush green trees provide canopies above. I felt like I could have spent all day curled up in one of the many corners of the gardens, which make up 60% of the entire property.
Of course, our trip would not have been complete without experiencing the famed nightlife of Seoul. On our last night we walked a narrow street in Itaewon that was filled from end to end with differently themed bars, ranging from casual and grungy to outlandish and flashy. We found ourselves in one called Off The Record, which was a second-story vinyl bar, and it was here that we met people who worked for the State Department in Seoul. They were thrilled to hear that we went to Thunderbird, and answered our many questions about their careers. It was a testament to the value that the Thunderbird name still holds abroad, and the connections Thunderbird can help you make.
Traveling with fellow T-birds was unlike traveling with anyone else. There’s a mutual desire to understand and respect a place that perhaps other tourists don’t get. Seoul felt like a place I could spend a lot of time in, certainly much more than a few quick days, and I look forward to the day I can return, hopefully in the company of T-birds.