4 Days in Seoul

I was lucky, really lucky, and was given the chance to take a press trip to Seoul to attend the Korea International Art Fair. I left JFK at 2 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 19, and arrived at Incheon International Airport at around 6 p.m. local time. The longest flight I've ever been on. While it was fun at first to eat snacks and watch movies (Stop-Loss, Kramer vs. Kramer, Iron Man, part of Sex and the City), it was really boring by hour 7, knowing I still had 7 and a half hours ahead of me.

But I forgot all about the flight once I got to the airport. I took what is called a deluxe cab, because it takes credit cards and I had no won. It was really just an adapted minivan, the inside all black and high-tech but also both homely and homey. The driver, a soft-spoken middle-aged man, put on the TV for me—there was a tiny monitor mounted to his dash and a big screen above me. First he put on a local program, what he explained in fragmented English was the equivalent of America's Top Model. At some point, and I don't know when because I was delirious with fatigue, he switched to a Charlie Chaplin movie. I love Charlie Chaplin. Then he placed an old bar towel on the arm rest between the two front seats and encouraged me to put my feet up. I said no, no. I mean, how could I put my feet up right next to his arm. How disrespectful. But 10 minutes later, he reached back and pulled my seat closer and again patted the towel. This time, I did not demur. I was asleep in minutes.

It took over an hour to get to my hotel, the posh Park Hyatt Seoul. My room has floor-to-ceiling windows. This is the view at night.

And here it is in the daytime. The hotel is in Gangnam, which is the business district. Nothing but skyscrapers, it seemed. Lots of gray and tan. And kinda bleak, despite the city's glassy modernity.

The room is really wonderful, though. There's a tub that overlooks the city.

And a great bed for sleeping off jet lag.

At the fair, which was held at a big convention center just a 10-minute walk from the hotel, there was a display by an artist who built a high-up platform out of scaffolding. He wanted people to be able to see all of the fair from a new perspective. A woman in a white coat gave out sets of binoculars to those ascending the rickety steel stairs.

The scaffolding installation was a highlight of the fair. I feel ungrateful saying it, but most of the art was either underwhelming or aggressively commercial, like these Claes Oldenburg–style sticks of gum.

It was so disappointing, I felt like I wanted to lie down.

But I didn't want to make up my mind about the fair so quickly, like some stubborn person.

Especially when the organizers were trying so hard and being so welcoming.

I was given a VIP pass, which meant I got to lounge in this cool space that was walled off from the rest of the exhibition booths by colorful stacks of...

plastic baskets.

Inside the VIP lounge, they were serving Moet & Chandon. There were little menus in the seating area encouraging us to enjoy a flute of champagne. "Be fabulous!" the menu said. All it cost was 12,000 won. The VIP area also boasted a display of fake heads of lettuce.

Back in the hotel, I had lunch: bibimbab made with barley and including tiny, delicate flowers. Meals were pricey. This dish cost me something like $18.

My second full day in Seoul, I decided to do some sight-seeing. This is the Gyeongbokgung, a royal palace built in 1394, partially destroyed during the Japanese invasion in 1592, rebuilt, and then almost entirely destroyed by the Japanese in 1911. My visit there was far less eventful. The day was hot and muggy and bright, and the place was teeming with tourists. I was there long enough to take these pictures and eat a peach on the steps of one of the buildings.

I was too hot and bothered to get the proper name of the men who stand guard at the palace entrance.

From Gyeongbokgung, I walked and walked. Stopped in a couple of galleries. Asked directions a couple of times (people here are very friendly). And wound up at Insa-dong, a district devoted to Korean traditions—crafts, foods, and the like. It sounded promising in the guidebook but turned out to be really touristy. I ducked into an alley at the first sign of a cafe, one that served American iced coffee. How touristy of me.

This is me before the coffee came. Grump.

Fortified with caffeine, I decided to walk the shop-laden boulevard. There were a lot of tourists. Their English conversations sliced through the Korean, as if a staticky radio suddenly tuned in to a clear station. I stopped at a stall selling what looked like pods containing a finger-long...thing. It had what resembled black seeds inside. I couldn't tell if it was a fruit or a caterpillar-in-waiting or the makings of a future tree. I had to take a picture and then some video. While I did, I overheard two American guys mulling whether to buy one and eat it. "It's larvae," one of them said. Then they both grimaced and walked away. But is it larvae? I don't know. Only the vendor and the little girl I saw tentatively licking the felt-like covering of the one her mom just bought her can say for sure.

This side street in Insa-dong has a sign almost less appetizing than that pod-thing: Gruel Shop.

From Insa-dong, I walked again in the heat, on a hectic street crowded with shops and shoppers, and so many cars going by. Nothing but signs and banners and ads. Reminded me of Chinatown in New York. Or at least I thought it did until I wound up here, at the labyrinthine outdoor Namdaemun Market, which makes Chinatown seem spacious and sterile.

I loved that you could buy a hunk of fruit for just 1,000 won, or about 85 cents.

Some of the vendors sold knock-off name-brand items, like fake Converse sneakers and underwear with Calvin Klein waistbands. But most of them sold seafood, raw seafood, such as glistening heaps of squid, their tentacles all stuck to each other. There was live seafood for sale, too. One vendor had a makeshift tank containing what looked like a squid, a creature the size of a sausage. It took big breaths that were like sighs.

Exhausted and hot, I headed back to the hotel via the subway. The subways here are really clean and bright, but they also smell like a mothball just issued its last breath.

The subway station at the hotel also happens to be home to COEX, a giant underground mall. I was starving at this point, but the mall has a weird mix of restaurants: patisseries and a Mr. Pizza and Dunkin' Donuts. I wanted something Korean, so I tried this place, even though none of the menus or signs were in English.

I noticed that many of the small Korean restaurants display photos of the proprietor out front. It's as if to say, this is who cooked this food, or whose recipes we used. This is the woman whose food I ate.

I asked for bibimbop, but they had only bulgogi, which is sliced beef. As is customary with many Korean dishes (or at least the few I'm acquainted with), the main dish is accompanied by a number of small dishes. In this case it was rice and (bottom row, from left) bean sprouts, two pink ovals of meat (not sure what kind, and it tasted of nothing), kimchi, and (top row, from left) tiny pungent shrimp, big soft leaves seasoned with pepper paste and garlic yet also tasted strangely minty, and dried fish.

The bulgogi itself bubbled in its iron pot. The steam came off of it in waves, reminding me of the squid and its slow, heavy exhalations.