April 26, 2011

Soul Searching in Seoul: Day 2 - Nami Island

Our 2nd day in South Korea started early. Really early. We got our wake up call at around 5:30 a.m. (4:30 a.m. Manila time!). Ms. Julia required us to be at the lobby before 7:00 a.m. along with our luggage. I was expecting only a handful from our group that would be able to make it at the appointed time. But lo and behold, almost everybody was packed and ready to go 15 minutes before time! After a hearty breakfast at the Paradise Hotel, we proceeded to our first destination.

Nami Island
God’s Little Garden by the Han

If you’ve watched the popular Korean TV drama, “Endless Love 2: Winter Sonata,” then you’ll probably know what Nami Island is all about. Most of the romantic scenes were shot here, featuring the island’s beauty during autumn and winter. While my mom would have wanted to see the place packed with snow as it had been in the TV drama series, we were instead treated to Nami Island’s springtime splendor.

Our trip to Nami Island (also called Namisum or Namiseom)from Incheon took around an hour and a half. Travelling from Seoul to this garden pot takes only about an hour as it is only 63 kilometers away from the capital. Upon reaching the Gaepyong Wharf, we were whisked by our guide to the ferry as the leaf-like island is situated in the middle of Cheongpyung Lake. The placid cross took only about five minutes.
Nami Island's Tall White Pines
I was immediately smitten by the island’s beauty upon alighting the boat. While Nami boasts of no mountains or hills, it is blessed with trees that could rival Seoul’s skyscrapers in making an earnest stretch for the heavens. Contrary to what some say that it could only be appreciated if one has watched Winter Sonata, Nami Island is a sight to behold sans the TV drama. One need only to have eyes, bespectacled or otherwise, in order to willingly nod to the claim that the place has been carefully sculpted by nature.

Walking through the Namiseom’s main pathway is like strolling down a hall walled by tall White Pines and birches and decked by trunks and leaves that roof passersby from the sun. It is simply magnificent. Treats for the eyes, and for the soul as well, could be found along the way. Nature lovers, and lovers in the strict and simple sense of the word, would delight in the beguiling blend of the elements.
One of Namisum's mode of transportation
For those who would want to spare the soles of their shoes for a later stroll in the city, nature-friendly walking aids can be rented for a minimal fee. I didn’t resort to one, though, as I was already happy enough to slowly discover every corner of the island by foot. I was even lucky enough to come across a squirrel (or at least that’s what I think it was) jumping from one tree to another.

I would have loved to spend a whole day in Nami Island, but our tour guide only gave us 2 hours to go around this garden by the Han. For those who are not chained to a tour package, a stay at one of the island’s cottages could provide a good retreat from the city hustle. You don’t have to worry about amenities. Nami Island offers the essentials that a traveler usually needs or demands – souvenir shops, money changers, and great places to eat.
Cherry Blossoms at Full Bloom in Namiseom

How to Get to Nami Island by Bus or Public Transportation

A quarter of a day wasn’t enough for me to really feed my senses of all the scenic spots that Nami Island has to offer. That’s why before I left Namisum, I made some inquiries as to how one could go about visiting the place by public transportation. The easiest way to go to Nami Island by bus is through Namisum, Inc.’s shuttles. Its Seoul office is located at Insa-dong. The buses are parked at the nearby Topgol / Pagoda Park. Getting to the Namisum Seoul office and the bus stop / pick-up point is easy. Via subway, take line 1 and go to Jongno 3(sam)-ga Station. Exit 1 or 3 will lead you towards the pick-up point or Naminara Republic’s Seoul embassy (office).

The shuttle bus departs Insa-dong at 9:30 a.m. Make sure that you make a reservation first either via phone (+82-2-753-1247) or e-mail (namibus@naminara.com). The roundtrip fare costs KRW 15,000 or around Php600. Not bad at all. The drop off point would be at Gapyeong Wharf. This is also the meeting point for the return trip to Seoul at 4:00 p.m.

For other information on how to go to Nami Island from Seoul by public bus in case the Naminara shuttles are already fully booked, you may visit http://www.ti21.co.kr/ (East Seoul Terminal).

Nami Island draws around 1.5 - 2 million visitors each year. Needless to say, a trip to South Korea would never be complete without gracing the grounds of Naminara Republic.

April 24, 2011

Soul Searching in Seoul: Day 1 - The Best and the Worst

It has been a long and lingering wish of mine, especially of late, that my 100th plane ride would be on a legacy airline. That wishful thought was almost certain to remain within the confines of my mind, given that the next flights that Gin and I were able to book involved budget carriers Air Philippines and Cebu Pacific. However, by some twist of fate, that fancy of mine was granted life! Flying on an airline that has more than 5 inches of leg room is already something for somebody who made Cebu Pacific the airline of choice (my wallet’s choice, to be exact). But to fly on a 5-star, Star Alliance-member, and Skytrax 2010 Airline of the Year awardee is pure and simple bliss! Never mind that I’m traveling economy. As long as I have been unbound from Airbus A320s and other single-aisle aircrafts, I’m already near Nirvana.
Asiana Airlines
My Incheon-Seoul, South Korea trip came about due to mom’s addiction to Korean telenovelas. I’m not really a fan of them, but I must admit that I have been chained to the TV before by some of it. The first (and only) Korean TV/drama series that I was able to watch from episode 1 to eternity was Endless Love 2: Winter Sonata. I’m not sure if there was really endless love there, but there sure was an endless crying from episode ten to end. But for some reason, I got stuck to it (probably due to pity as the lead star was close to being dehydrated from continuous crying). So in a way, this trip would be a treat since one of the sites where we will be taken to would be Nami Island, the place where the poignant scenes of Winter Sonata were shot.  This would also be the first time that I will be travelling on a guided tour courtesy of Rakso Air Travel and Tours.  Rakso is one of the few travel agencies which specializes in Korean tours/vacations.  The travel agency's Ms. Melai Makasaieb was also very helpful in facilitating and processing my South Korean Visa application.

That relaxing South Korea trip that I had in mind started out ironically stressful. We left the house at around 9:00 a.m., thinking that we have enough elbow room for our 12:45 p.m. flight. However, it turned out that a good portion of Roxas Boulevard was closed. Things turned a little bit chaotic once we stepped in at the Terminal 1 of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Just recently, the NAIA Terminal 1 has been voted by travelers as the fifth worst airport in the world. Imagine that! I was first indignant about it, opining that the survey or the ones who took it did not know what they were talking about. But after just spending a few minutes inside the terminal, I began to realize why it was branded as “a bombed out ruin.”
NAIA Terminal 1: One of the worst airports in the world (allegedly)
We entered the airport at around 9:45 a.m. By the time we reached the waiting lounge/gate, it was already 12:05 p.m.! The line leading to the check-in counter was very long. But that wasn’t the mold in the cake. What really ticked the bomb inside my head were the long lines at the immigration counters! It was terrible! The line resembled tape worms knotting their bodies to each other! There were many empty counters. While I’m sure the persons manning the same needed a break, airport and immigration officials should have prepared for such a contingency, especially since the holiday season demands reasonable foresight in managing the lines. We spent almost two hours just to have our passports stamped!

Our stress levels dropped dramatically upon boarding the aircraft. The seats at Asiana Airline’s Airbus A330 was comfortable enough to induce some sleep, even if it’s economy. At chow time, we were made to choose between chicken and seafood. Not much of a choice, but they already satisfied my palate.
Chicken meal at Asiana's Manila-Incheon economy section
The in-flight entertainment was superb. A touch-screen LCD graced each of the seats, letting us choose which among the various shows in the 40 channels that were available would keep us company all throughout the 3-hour and 30-minute flight to Incheon. I chose Ms. Jolie :)

Excellent in-flight entertainment options
At touchdown, we came to see why the Incheon International Airport was voted as the 2009 Skytrax best airport in the world. The contrast was not that hard to notice, especially since we just had a harrowing experience at Asia’s worst airport just a few hours ago. The Incheon air terminal was an architecture to behold, both from the inside and from the out. I really hope that Philippine air transport officials would take notice of how far we have been left behind by our Asian neighbors in terms of building and maintaining world-class air terminals that would really inspire both locals and foreigners alike to say, “Mabuhay!,” upon touchdown. Our air facilities at the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport has a lot of potential. Authorities should not hesitate in phasing out NAIA and opening up a grand and modern air terminal in Clark, Pampanga. Nobody builds airports right at the heart of the capital anymore. A quick glance at the addresses of the air terminals in the region would readily show that they are around 40-60 minutes away from the main city.
Incheon International Airport
Ms. Julia Lee, our tour guide, met us at the arrival’s area. I was curious as to how cold it was outside. Upon stepping out of the airport, I had a rude awakening of how cold 8 degrees centigrade was actually like. My ordinary jacket felt like a thin undershirt! We stopped by at a nearby restaurant for a sumptuous Bulgogi dinner before heading towards our temporary billeting in Incheon.
Authentic Korean Bulgogi!


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