Philippines - Day 12 (Traveling/Korea)
This is entry #14.
Link to entry #13.
Jolayne is also chronicling our trip here.
Day 12-13. Wednesday, April 10th.
Day 12 picked up exactly where day 11 left off; it's all part of the same thing. Our flight from Manila wound up leaving almost an hour late, but it was no big deal. We boarded a new A330 about 1230am and pretty much all immediately fell asleep. The plane was very quiet, and none of us touched the food we were served; Kristen probably slept the best and Amy the worst since she was sitting next to another guy that kept bumping her. It's funny about personal space on airplanes. Things you'd never do in public normally are all-of-a-sudden common and acceptable when confined on a plane: touching, rubbing, all sorts of awkward. The flight was about 3 hours was all, and before we knew it we were landing back in Incheon/Seoul. We took off at 82 degrees (+humidity) and landed to 32 degrees. We'd taken time in Manila to pool all the things we'd need into a single bag, including pants, sweaters, etc. ...or so we thought. Turns out we didn't bring any thing for Kristen. Poor thing was freezing from the time we got off the plane. She wound up using my sweatshirt and Jolayne's pants all cinched up the rest of our time in Korea. My cute little white-trash kid.
By the time we deplaned at about 5am and figured out the right way to register for a transit tour and also make it back up to the Asiana Lounge, the sun was coming up. My poor kids were just exhausted. They collapsed on the middle of the floor on the concourse and immediately fell asleep while I sorted out what to do next.
We wound up having breakfast (light) in the lounge, charging ipods, and waiting for a few hours for our transit tour time. The kids tried to sleep, but I don't think anyone besides Amy got any shut-eye. Jo and I showered; it was a nice facility. Having access to the lounges has certainly made the trip easier. We've really enjoyed my gold status this year, and it makes me really consider whether to move my miles away from Southwest since traveling internationally seems to be something we're more interested in now. We've visited many of the places in the western US already, and even though I can more readily get credit on Southwest, the cost of flying overseas might mean a change is afoot. With my dad retiring next year anyway, and since Southwest has lost some of its original Spirit, moving to United might not be as terrible as I've long thought (the mainline United folks are not very pleasant by and large.)
After leaving the lounge we went through immigration and got our 3rd stamp in our passports for the trip. We were officially in Korea! The kids were much more excited about the passport stamps than they were about the place itself. Funny. We waited another 30 min or so after finding the gathering point for our tour, which was to take 5 hours. By this time we seemed to have regained some of our steam.
There were about 20 people on the tour. The airline provided either a transit hotel or a day tour to the city as part of the 12-hour layover. Nice stuff. But since 3 of our tickets were rewards, they didn't qualify. So I paid for 3 additional transit tours back in LA at $60/each. $180 was pretty spendy even for all 5 of us, but it was a good way to see a country I otherwise knew nothing about. We all boarded a bus and were on our way about 930a.
We had three destinations. It's about an hour's drive from Incheon into Seoul, and we tried to enjoy the landscape, but we soon were all dozing; it was just too hard to stay awake after only a couple hour's sleep.
Korea isn't a huge place, and the weather seemed to mirror what we had at home in Colorado; it was a stark contrast to what we'd experienced with the extreme heat in the Philippines. It was definitely still late winter in this part of the world. South Korea is home to about 50 million people and is approximately the size of Kentucky. The country shares the well publicized DMZ with North Korea, and tensions were running extremely high during our visit, with threats of attack from the North flooding CNN just prior to our getting on the plane in Manila. Of course, nothing happened, and I didn't even notice any sort of elevated threat or nerves once we arrived in South Korea. From what I can tell, they've spent pretty much the entire last 60 years with the threat of attack and annihilation on a daily basis, so when some crazy dude goes on TV and says he's going to attack you, it's not really any big deal.
Compared to the Philippines, we were immediately taken with just how clean and orderly everything was. It was another stark difference from the rest of our journey. When we first got off the plane and saw a drinking fountain with the words "purified drinking water" on it, we were taken back at what an amazing thing it is to simple have reliable, clean water to drink any time we wanted. Wow, the things we take for granted.
Next, we walked to the nearby Blue House the presidential palace. As it was described to us: "You Americans have the White House, we Koreans have the Blue House." Though we weren't permitted to get very close, I have to say the architecture of the Blue House (it's actually a complex of buildings) was more impressive than what I've seen at the White House. As we were taking pictures of the places, our guide suggested that instead of saying "cheese" we instead say "kimchee", which is a sort of national food there. I tried Kimchi on the plane ride over and wasn't overly impressed, but then I didn't have high hopes for fermented cabbage anyhow. According to Wikipedia, the veggies often ferment underground for months at a time. Mmmmmmm.
As we were gathered in front of the Blue House, we saw cops on rollerblades. First time I've seen that form of transport for law enforcement. It was picture worthy. They weren't armed that I could tell (and since they were in super-spandex outfits, I could see a lot! By this time it was late morning but the temps were still in the 40's. We were chilled, especially since we weren't exactly dressed for it.
Next, it was a short bus ride to a Buddhist Temple. When we disembarked in front of a post office with a sign showing PSY stamps, my girls broke out into Gagnam Style dancing. I got out the music on my phone and we had a good laugh at them doing the horse-riding dance in the homeland.
Over at the temple, we arrived just towards the end of a very crowded worship service. Everyone took off their shoes prior to entering the temple. The kids had never seen anything like it, and it was really interesting to see a form of worship so entirely different to what we knew. We were permitted inside, but there was a strict no-pictures rule. I had my camera around my neck, and although I didn't attempt to take any pix, I did manage some stern looks from a number of tiny Korean grandmas. Speaking of grandmas, this place was absolutely full of them! There were a couple hundred four-foot-nuttin Korean ladies, all dressed similarly and who were EXTREMELY pushy once the worship service let out. Wow. Personal space was nonexistent. Still, it was really cool to see something so authentic.
We were next ushered quickly back onto the bus (none of our stops was more than about 30 minutes) and taken through the downtown core area. It wasn't nearly as busy or congested as I'd imagined (and it was the middle of a weekday morning). I enjoyed seeing the area and yet not having to worry about the fuss of figuring out how/where to get everywhere. But still, I much preferred our immersive experience in the Philippines, where we saw so much more of the country than a simple view from a bus window.
Our next stop was for lunch. We stopped at a traditional Korean restaurant, near the American Army base in the city, Yongsan Garrison there was a sizable American presence in the neighborhood. Our restaurant was in the basement of a commerce building, and we were treated to Korean barbeque; it was the first time the kids had seen a cook-it-yourself stove built into the table. It was yummy, and I have no idea about half of what I ate, though I know we had kimchee (cole-slaw like cabbage) in there somewhere. We had about 30 min for lunch and we were the last ones out. Felt like the hosts were laughing at our naivity in how to eat korean food, but no one showed us how it works, and I can only remember one other time having it in recent years. In reality, they likely weren't paying any attention to us as I think they get the transit-tour folks coming through every day (not a bad gig). We were charged $3/ea for tiny sodas; no bargain.
Our last stop was then down the road a few blocks to do about 30 min of shopping for small souvenirs. Kristen was the only one who found something, and she came home with a pretty collapsing fan. It was starting to rain, and even though most shops in this district readily took American Dollars (at a premium, of course), we just didn't have enough time to find anything worthwhile for the other girls. Of course I got an earful about how unfair that was; yep, add it to my bad-parent list.
We then headed back towards the airport, an hour's drive. While I wanted to stay awake and capture the sights passing us by, we were all so tired from the long journey we all dozed throughout the ride. We were so very tired, but we made it through the day well, and enjoyed our short time (but extended layover) in Korea.
Our day in Korea was interesting and informative; it was a great way to pass some time on a long layover.
After disembarking the bus we were quickly back through security and picked up the 4th stamp in our passports. The Incheon airport really is an amazing place; super nice. We still had some time to kill, so we went back up into the lounge to pick up our bags, charge iPods for another 45 min and grab more Sprite (at least for the kids, who used the trip as carte blanche to drink as much soda as they liked).
By this time my stomach was pretty upset. We'd managed to make it all the way through the trip without any illnesses at all, which was amazing. But I must have eaten something that morning (or perhaps at lunch) that didn't agree, and by this time I started popping the pills we'd brought.
We then made our way down to the gate, stopping briefly along the way to let Amy look for souvenirs. There were none that weren't terribly overpriced; most of the offerings were duty-free and very expensive. I recall reading somewhere than Incheon is the only airport in the world with a Louis Vitton store in it; just a little beyond our price point. Amy was ticked that she didn't get a Korean souvenir and Kristen did. Oh well. Guess we all know which child I love more (inside joke with my kids!)
The crowd in our gate area was as diverse as any I'd seen on the trip. People from the Middle East, India, and many from east Asia. We went through several more security checks and had our water bottles from the lounge confiscated. Boo. We got to board first because of my status, and we had the back half of the plane nearly to ourselves for some time. Finally they called the zone that represented that portion of the plane and it quickly filled with a raucous crowd of Chinese, Vietnamese, and others, who were nearly yelling, moving from chair to chair, and generally causing a stir. It was an absolute goat rodeo and continued right up until the time the plane pushed back. In fact, as the plane began to taxi, there were still a half dozen who were up and active, switching seats, moving bags, and even appearing to argue with flight attendants. I thought it was pretty entertaining, really. The flight left on time at about 4:30pm Wednesday.
The best news was that of only a handful of empty seats on the plane, we got one next to us! Yay! I consider that a huge benefit on a 10 hour flight. So our flights really turned out great on the whole trip, having those extra empty seats when they counted. This plane (a B777-200) was older and didn't have all the fancy Audio-Video On Demand (AVOD) that we'd enjoyed on previous legs. But having the open seat next to me was sure nice, sharing with Misha. Jo, Amy, and Kristen were in the row in front of me, in the rear starboard portion of the aircraft. The flight didn't include much to write about, and we landed uneventfully at San Francisco at around 10am on--you guessed it--Wednesday! This was one long day! We actually touched down before we'd left, which was strange for sure. Upon landing at SFO we had to wait in the customs line for something like 45 minutes since we didn't have any special status to get us through more quickly. Jolayne always comments at how she likes the way the immigration agents says "welcome home" after determining that we're safe to let into the country! I like that too.
As an aside, we traveled on Asiana flight 214, the same flight that later crashed on landing at SFO on July 6, 2013. It was surreal to know that we'd been on that same flight (and perhaps even the same aircraft). We very much enjoyed Asiana, however, and we'd travel them again if permitted.
We had a couple hours before our final flight home to Denver, and we tried the United arrivals lounge, but they wouldn't let us in (it was too late in the day or something ridiculous). More of the silly United-showing-they're-not-as-good-as-international-carriers show we'd seen since the beginning. Just made me glad we were on Asiana for the bulk of our trip. The unfriendly agent said we might be able to get into the lounge in the domestic terminal. So we went back through security and tried our hand at the regular United Club where we were again told we couldn't enter but that they'd be happy to give us one-time passes for $50 each (or perhaps it was more, I can't recall). What a joke. So we went back to the main food court for something to eat. The prices at SFO were incredibly high, and although we were just sharing snacks, it still ran us something like $25; I love how airports manage to charge you crazy for everything you have no choice but to go along with (unless, of course, you're at Incheon and get everything for free because it's such a cool airport).
Our last flight came and went mostly without a hitch. We were all SOOOO tired by this point, even though it was only mid-afternoon local time. We were on about hour 35 of our trip home. Poor Jolayne by this time had also picked up whatever stomach bug I'd started feeling in Korea, and although we'd both been popping Pepto pills like candy for a number of hours, it finally got the best of her. She's the first one I've actually seen use the barf bag for barf (although Kristen does a nice puppet with them). She was so quiet about it no one even knew what was going down. We all appreciated that. Once the flight attendant found out, she was more than helpful in trying to make Jo comfortable, which was a nice contrast from all the unfriendly United staff we'd encountered earlier in the day. Truly, one caring person can make a difference in someone's day. (Jolayne's account of the experience is certainly better than mine!) Our flight landed and we went through the now-normal routine of collecting our bags at Denver, happy to be almost home.
We still had two more issues to get through. First, the bag belt jammed and we had to wait for maintenance to come and fix.
Then United lost Amy's bag somewhere between rechecking it after customs and arriving in Denver. For being 2013 and having all sorts of crazy-cool technology, I'm amazed at how often luggage gets lost by airlines. We've experienced 3-4 of those ourselves in the last few years alone. It's frustrating. I have to say, though, that if you're gonna lose a bag somewhere on the trip, the leg home is the one to do it on. We filed the lost-bag report with United and they promised they'd send it home to us the next day. Whatever. We wound up getting the bag a day or so later.
Our friend Claudia picked us up from the airport, which we were grateful for. We were so tired it's probably a good thing we weren't driving ourselves home at this point anyway. We enjoyed telling our new stories on the ride home, and 35 minutes later we were dropped off at our house. It was so good to be home. Walking into our house was somewhat surreal in its own way; it seemed so very far away from the places we'd just visited. And knowing that we would soon be selling our beloved home made coming home to it that much more special.
Next: Philippines - Final Thoughts