Two Friday nights ago after work, I flew so far to the east that I ended up west, jumping four time zones ahead between Tashkent and Seoul, and then 17 more time zones backwards as I continued in the same direction towards San Francisco. I was en route door to door for about 36 hours. Unfortunately for me I only slept about 90 minutes cumulatively during the two overnights I transited. Because I was chasing the sun and then fleeing the sun, I ended up with possibly the longest Saturday of my life.
Last autumn, I told my stepmom that I wanted to plan a surprise for my dad’s 70th birthday in February. I told her I had one more R&R to use during my Tashkent tour and that I was thinking about coming to the U.S. She confirmed that they didn’t have any travel plans around that time. She said she thought it was a great idea and that she would keep the secret. We reminisced about the surprise party we threw for my dad’s 50th in 1997. This was going to be epic! So my R&R orders were cut and the flights were booked.
We started getting excited about the secret plans. I had to go out of my way to keep it off Facebook, and only a handful of people knew that I would be in California for the first time in over two years. I asked my mom to help me make the most of my 10 days stateside to take care of some medical appointments. But there was one other opportunity I wanted to take advantage of, too, and that was the chance to spend my 11 hour layover in Seoul on the way to California.
I started doing some research and realized that the international airport, located in Incheon, is almost 90 minutes outside Seoul. Once I ruled out having sufficiently comfortable time to visit the DMZ on the North Korean border (goals!), I decided the next best thing to do would be to take the AREX airport express train into the downtown area. Unlike the local train or the bus, the express train takes only about 43 minutes to get from Incheon to Seoul Station, where you can grab a cab, bus, or transfer into the regular metro system.
Given my back and foot injuries and the fact that I was going to have flown overnight with no sleep, after working all day and not even having slept well the night before, I ran the risk of arriving at Incheon International and being airsick or just needing to lay down. I had a tentative Plan B which involved an airport transit hotel. However, my Plan A was to travel into the city and see Gyeongbokgung Palace, built by the Joseon dynasty in 1395.
When I arrived in the airport, I was glad to be off the flight, which had been overheated and crowded with Uzbek migrant laborers. I decided that I was OK and would definitely head to the palace. I went through immigration, grabbed a huge coffee, found a place to store my carry-on tote, and made my way to the express train. I bought my ticket from a machine which was relatively painless. Car 5, seat 7A.
Relieved to see I wasn’t going backwards, I sat down and a female ticket conductor smiled and bowed to me as she passed through the cabin. It was only one of many, many instances of the polite, gracious, self-aware and dignified behavior displayed by South Koreans during my brief visit there.
I listened to music on headphones to avoid motion sickness and to try and stay awake. When I arrived at Seoul Station, I went to the information desk and a helpful attendant added money to my card and gave me a metro map. I took the blue line 1 train past City Hall and Jonggak, and at Jongno I switched to the orange line 3. Two stops later I came out at the palace, after having first passed through a little arch I jokingly hoped might prolong my youth.
I had noticed in the metro that elderly people were always deferred to for priority seating. It was nice to look around and see how aware people were of other people’s needs, rather than just pushing and shoving to be first. Emerging from underground, I realized I was starving. Luckily I was saved by bibimbap!
The palace complex includes the National Palace Museum of Korea and the National Folk Museum, which I didn’t visit just out of sheer exhaustion and wanting to keep my time to 90 minutes in and out.
I learned that in the early 1900s much of the palace grounds were destroyed by Imperial Japan. The South Koreans have been carefully restoring it over time, and Gyeongbokgung is said to be the grandest of the five palaces from the Joseon age.
I kind of laughed about the fact that my travel time to and from the palace exceeded the amount of time I actually spent there, but I’m not sorry I went. I was aware that the logistics, the near-freezing weather, my worsening back pain, and my lack of sleep were all working against me, so I just took it very slowly and easily. It was certainly beautiful and worth a look.
I knew that the 6011 bus outside the palace leaves frequently and goes directly to the airport, but the risk of spending two hours in traffic sounded awful to me. I was willing to expend the extra energy navigating the very complex metro system just to stay on a tighter schedule.
When I got back to the airport, I collected my carry-on, proceeded back through security and immigration, took an air tram to my departure terminal, and located my gate. I saw that I had more than four hours, so I found the glorious free showers and sleeping rooms.
I managed to clean myself up, get another 90 minutes of semi-wakeful shut eye in the “rest and relax lounge”, and have a nice meal before boarding my flight to San Francisco. I still have some status on United, and had used it to upgrade my government-issue ticket to an exit row aisle seat in economy plus. So I gleefully boarded knowing via the United app that no one was sitting next to me and it would be a more comfortable-than-usual 11.5 hour flight. And even if not, I was going to California! That’s right – for the first time since December 2014, I was going to California to see my family.
I certainly hope to make it back to Seoul one of these days. If you’re ever passing through this airport, it’s worth it to check out the amenities – including a movie theatre, ice skating rink, museum, world class shopping, and series of free cultural and participatory arts and crafts activities. Beautiful and amazing, even on the way to other places!