Saturday, June 25, 2016

Incheon: Tail End of Cherry Blossom Season

Having arrived at the very tail end of the cherry blossom season, the first order upon arrival—nevermind not having had any sleep for more than 24 hours—was to go to Incheon, in the hopes of gazing at cherry blossom petals on branches and not on the ground.


Chinatown
인천 차이나타운

I was in South Korea, why would I want to go see China? I did not want to, but I had to. From Incheon Station, there was no other way to get to Songwoldong Fairy Tale Village and Jayu Park, but through Chinatown.

Just across Incheon Station looms a huge yellow and red gate. Unmistakably Chinatown.

Walking the uphill main road of Chinatown, I followed my nose and turned right to a street lined with many different shops and stalls selling so many unfamiliar food. I wanted to try everything! But my common sense, budget, and stomach were all in agreement: No! Just two or three. The woes of traveling alone.

Gonggalpang (foreground) and Onggibyeong (background)

So many delicious smells wafting from every direction, but these are the must try ones when in Chinatown:
  • Gonggalppang – The name means "empty bread". These are large, sweet, round, and hollow baked crisps. After trying a piece or two (okay, maybe three) from the free taste bowl, I wanted to buy one gonggalppang....but it was sold in bags of five to eight!
  • Onggibyeong – These are oven-baked dumplings which looked to me more like buns. The buns are stuffed with sweet potato, pumpkin, meat, or red beans, and baked in a large clay jar. Onggibyeong are crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside.
  • Jajangmyeon – Because this stir fried noodles in black bean sauce is said to have originated in Incheon.

Directions to Chinatown: Take subway line 1 to Incheon Station, exit 1. Right across is Chinatown.


Songwoldong Fairy Tale Village
송월동 동화마을

I left the delicious smelling street of Chinatown, and followed the road opposite until I found a rainbow archway to my right. The archway with Korean letters let me know (though I don't know how to read Korean) that I was now in in the land of fairy tales: Songwoldong Fairy Tale Village. This magical village is replete with colorful murals and decorations depicting well loved children's fairy tales such as The Wizard of Oz, Aladdin, Little Red Riding Hood, The Frog Prince. etc.


Directions to Songwoldong Fairytale Village: Take subway line 1 to Incheon Station, exit 1. Enter Chinatown right across the station, and follow the main road. At the end of the road, turn left and follow the road until you see a rainbow archway on your right.


Jayu Park
자유공원 (인천)

From somewhere in Songwoldong Fairy Tale Village, I spotted a white puff of trees from a distance. Keeping my eyes on the trees, I weaved my way through the village until I reached Jayu Park. Jayu Park was sprinkled with petals falling on the ground and locals enjoying the cool spring day. I explored more of Jayu Park until I reached an area with patches of brightly colored flowers and a vista of Incheon Port.

At the fringes of Jayu Park

Spring has sprung

The view from Jayu Park

Directions to Jayu Park: Take subway line 1 to Incheon Station, exit 1. Enter Chinatown right across the station, and follow the main road. At the end of the road, turn right and be tempted by the delicious smells of food. After the temptation, turn left where the walls are tiled with scenes of a Chinese story. At the end of the story (or maybe that was the beginning?), turn left to Jayu Park.


Incheon Grand Park
인천대공원

With time and energy to spare, I decided to go to Incheon Grand Park. The lady at the Tourist Information Center just outside Incheon Station told me that I could go directly to Incheon Grand Park by bus (1 hour), but I decided to take the subway to Songnae Station (30 mins) then a bus (15 mins). From the bus stop I followed a man in a hiking outfit, deducing he was going to the park too. After he had unwittingly acted as my guide, I thanked him in my mind and, lest someone think I was stalking him, overtook him to start my exploration of Incheon Grand Park. The grassy areas of the park were dotted with picnickers and the tree lined roads were teeming with locals strolling, biking, jogging, and admiring the thinning trees as it snowed cherry blossom petals.


Directions to Incheon Grand Park: If you're coming from Chinatown, at the bus stop right outside Incheon Station, take bus 15. Or take subway line 1 to Songnae Station, exit 1. Then take any of these buses: 103, 16-1, 909.


On the subway on my way to my hostel, still an hour and a transfer away, I fought the urge to fall asleep and instead thought of how lucky I am to have caught the last scenes of the cherry blossom season.






South Korea on Three
South Korea Countdown
Itinerary and Expenses
South Korea Solo: Tangible Essentials
Six Apps for a Smooth South Korea Trip
Incheon: Tail End of Cherry Blossom Season (you're here!)
(more soon)

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Six Apps for a Smooth South Korea Trip

It was smooth sailing in South Korea with the help of these apps:

All of my accommodations for this trip were booked through this app. What I loved about Booking.com is its ease of use. I can filter by location and by price—no need to salivate over accommodations I cannot afford!

To book, some accommodations on Booking.com would require a credit card, but won't charge the card; it is only to guarantee the booking. Payment would be made upon check in. Some don't even require a credit card! If something comes up and you need to make changes or cancel your confirmed bookings, it can be done through the app. Most accommodations on Booking.com would allow booking cancellations free of charge (within a given number of days).

Internet Connection: You must be online to search and book accommodations and to view the map to a property. When offline, you can only view the details (not including map) of your confirmed booking(s).

Tip: Watch out for Booking.com's "Deals Day" which means discounted rates!

Download Booking.com app here: Android | Apple


Visit Korea was my sole source of information for where to go. I just specified the area I wanted to visit, clicked on the category (history, nature, UNESCO sites, food, shopping, etc) that interested me, and browsed the suggested pages. Each page would show photos, give a description, and provide important information such as opening hours, admission fees, transportation directions, map, etc.

Internet Connection: To search anything on this app, you are required to be online. If you save a page, the saved page can be viewed offline.

Tips:
  • Plot your itinerary using the app's Planner feature.
  • Check out the Discounts section...there might be discount coupons for places you are planning to visit.
  • When taking the bus and the driver can't understand or speak English (or when you're lost and want to ask for directions), show him/her the page on Visit Korea app for the place you are going to/looking for; the title on the page is in English and Korean.

Download Visit Korea app here: Android | Apple


I planned a day of walking from neighborhood to nearby neighborhood and had in mind specific areas to visit. I created a map on Google My Maps, plotting out my route and pinning locations. Google My Maps also became very useful for me when I just winged it to a place without much travel information. On the way to wherever it was I was going, I pinned locations for the bus stop and the bus terminal...this was so I would not get lost on the way home.

Internet Connection: You should be online to search locations, pin locations, and create your own map.

Tip: If your WiFi Egg battery's low, but you need your online map, pin your destination on Google My Map, load the map (both zoomed in for details and zoomed out to cover the area you need), turn on location/GPS, start walking until you see that little dot on the map (that's you) move. Then turn off your WiFi Egg.

Download Google My Maps app here: Android


Weather

I would check my smartphone's weather app to plan what to do the next day (hmmm...looks like rain; hiking might be a bad idea) and what to wear (nice cool 13°C,  I shall wear a light jacket! And windy?!...maybe I should wear two light jackets!).

Internet Connection: You should be online to get updated data.

Tip: Don't forget to check for information on wind and gusts. Eventhough you think the temperature is tolerable with no jacket, the wind could bring down the real feel temperature to chilly.


Subway Korea

The subway system in Seoul looks complicated because of its many subway lines, but is fairly easy to understand. Nonetheless, having the Subway Korea app was a great help:
  • it provides the timetable/schedule
  • it gives options for fastest route or fewest transfers
  • it tells you which side the door will open
  • it tells you how many stops between stations
  • if you need to transfer, it suggests which car door to enter/exit for a faster transfer
  • you can set an alarm so you won't miss your stop
  • it provides an exit map for each station
  • it tells if the station has a restroom, elevator, disabled access, etc
This app is not only for Seoul, but it also includes subway maps and information for these cities: Busan. Daegu, Daejeon, and Gwangju.

Internet Connection: If you need to know the schedule in realtime and check the station exit map, you should be online. If you just need to know the duration of the journey and the fare, you can still use the app offline.

Tip: If you have to transfer trains, follow the suggested car door to enter/exit. The car and car door number is indicated on the platform floor: the first number is the car number followed by a dash then followed by the car door number (ex. 9-2 means car 9, door 2).

Download Subway Korea app here: Android | Apple


KakaoTalk
Most Koreans are on KakaoTalk. Without a local mobile number, I got in touch (text and call) with my Korean friends and even my accommodation hosts through KakaoTalk.
Internet Connection: Required.

Tip: Before leaving for South Korea, download KakaoTalk and save all contact numbers of your hosts and check if they're on KakaoTalk. You might need to contact them if your flight is delayed so they won't release your booking (especially bookings that have no downpayment or did not require a credit card). But if they're not on KakaoTalk, you can always resort to email (and pray they check their email), or, if you're on roaming, call.

Download KakaoTalk app here: Android | Apple



South Korea on Three
South Korea Solo: Tangible Essentials
Six Apps for a Smooth South Korea Trip (you're here!)
Incheon: Tail End of Cherry Blossom Season
(more soon)

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

South Korea Solo: Tangible Essentials

These are the things that were most useful (aside from money) during my 8-day trip to South Korea:

T-money
My very pink T-money card, the only
design available at the time.
T-money was my ticket to almost anywhere in South Korea—it's a prepaid transportation card that can be used for the subway, bus, and taxi. (It can also be used to pay for purchases at affiliated convenience stores, vending machines, lockers, etc.)

For me to have a T-money card, I had to have money to purchase one. A T-money card  (no credits yet) would cost from KRW 2500 to KRW 4000 (for cards with special designs) and can be bought and added with credits (from KRW 1000 to KRW 90,000) at convenience stores or at subways stations.

Advantages:
  • Fare charged using the T-money card is KRW 100 cheaper than when paying with cash.
  • Eliminates the hassle of buying a ticket every time you take the subway.
  • No need to have the exact amount when boarding the bus, just tap the card upon boarding and before alighting.
  • The remaining balance, if less than KRW 20,000, can be refunded at convenience stores minus a service charge of KRW 500. Refund amount of more than KRW 20,000 can only be refunded at the T-money headquarters in Seoul, so be sure to put in just enough for your trip.

Tip: If you plan to be in South Korea for five days or more and need to take the subway and/or bus often, a T-money card would be advantageous in terms of savings. You can estimate the total subway expense by searching for the route and fare using Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit Corporation's Cyber Map (for Seoul) or Subway Korea app by Malang Studio Co Ltd (for Seoul) or Korea Subway app by Pengtai (for Busan, Daejeon, Daegu, Gwangju).

Smartphone
A late bloomer, I only got myself a decent smartphone less than a year ago. In years past, I never saw the need for one, and just went old school (paper maps!). Having a smartphone proved to be very useful for this trip...

Mobile Apps
...especially since I had to rely heavily on six apps:
  • Booking.com – This is where I found and booked all my accommodations: Kam Guesthouse in Seoul, Aroha Guesthouse in Seoul, and Sum Guesthouse Garosugil in Busan.
  • Visit Korea – I scoured the Visit Korea app for places to see in South Korea. In addition to photos and a description about the place, this app also provides important information like transportation directions, maps, operating hours, and admission fees.
  • Google Maps or Google My Maps – I used Google Maps/Google My Maps to find my way around. Being a map geek, I pinned places and created my own map using Google My Maps.
  • Weather – When in a country with four seasons, and when traveling during non-summer months, I need to check the temperature to know how many layers I should be wearing.
  • Subway Korea – This app made snaking my way around Seoul's extensive subway system (which extends to Incheon and to some places in the provinces of Gyeonggi and Gangwon) easier, faster, and smoother. I also used this when I was in Daegu and Busan.
  • KakaoTalk –  Most Koreans are on KakaoTalk. Without a local number, this app provided a way for me to get in touch with my Korean friends and even with the accommodation hosts, through text and calls.
(More details about these apps in the next post.)

WiFi Egg (Pocket WiFi)
But these apps wouldn't work without WiFi. Although there is free WiFi in most places, I decided to rent a pocket WiFi or a WiFi Egg as they call it in South Korea, in case I find myself lost in a no free WiFi zone.

A WiFi Egg (or mobile phone if you also need to make calls and send text messages) can be rented at the Roaming Center of Incheon International Airport (first floor, arrival hall, between gates 10 and 11) or at Gimhae International Airport (first floor, near gate 3). WiFi Egg rental rates are the same for all telecoms: Data KRW 5000/day + Device Rental KRW 3000/day + 10% tax.

These are the three telecoms (and their current promotions) to choose from:
Renting a WiFi Egg (or a mobile phone) requires a credit card and passport. The credit card should have enough credit limit to cover the data and rental fees for the rental duration AND the deposit for the device (KRW 200,000 for the WiFi Egg, more for mobile phone).

Tip: If you're planning to visit Seoul (flying in and out of Incheon) this year, avail of SK Telecom's free 5-day rental of Samsung Galaxy Note 5 with free data and voice calls.

Credit Card
The main reason I got myself a credit card was because I would be traveling alone and it could be used for (God forbid) emergencies. In the end, there were no emergencies (thank God), but I was able to use it to:
  • Buy airline tickets online and later on, buy add-on baggage and inflight meals.
  • Book accommodations online.
  • Rent a WiFi Egg.

Powerbank
South Korea uses
the type C Plug
A powerbank adds weight to my already heavy bag, but I needed it to resurrect a dead phone and/or a dead WiFi Egg.

Adapter
To resurrect dead gadgets when the powerbank dies too. Gadgets whose plugs are all other types except type C need an adapter to gather juice from South Korea's two-round-holed power outlets. (If you're coming from a 110V region, you might need a step up converter, too.)

Season-Appropriate Clothes
This and the Weather app go hand in hand. I visited in April and brought a jacket for the low temperatures and an umbrella for the spring showers.

Comfortable Shoes
My feet did not thank me for walking every day for hours on end. But it did thank me for being in comfortable shoes.


What would I have done without all these things? I would have survived. But probably not without getting lost, missing my bus/subway stop, getting on the wrong subway line, dropping coins while fumbling for change and holding up the line in the bus, shivering in the cold for wearing too thin clothes, sweating in the heat in a thick jacket, soaking in the rain, and hobbling home with blistered feet.






South Korea on Three
South Korea Solo: Tangible Essentials (you're here!)
Six Apps for a Smooth South Korea Trip
Incheon: Tail End of Cherry Blossom Season
(more soon)