Perhaps one of life’s greatest pleasures, other than long, extended journeys through distant and mysterious places (and poetry, and Miles Davis, and cambozola cheese), is the weekend trip. Put me in a car, or a boat, or a high-speed train, with one packed duffel and an extra pair of shoes. Give me a cabin on an island off the coast of Canada or a couch in a city in Asia. Give me a map. Give me a couple insider tips and a loose list of ideas. Give me 48 hours. Give me a partner in crime.
The weekend trip, due to its inherent compression of time, evokes both a touch of mischief and the immediate desire to inject each moment with a little extra energy and enthusiasm. I’ve been lucky enough to experience a few of these excursions with some key people throughout my twenties (Seattle with Shumka, Tofino with Gaeli, Whistler with Melissa, Galiano with Abbas–hello, all!) and after each one, I returned home wishing I had longer, of course, but also feeling reignited with my life, and reinspired to live in such a way that allows for time to play.
So, with summer in Korea approaching its inevitable end, plans for a weekend trip took shape. The month was September. The destination was Seoul. The theme, after concurring with my close Busan friend and designated co-tripper Leah, was art. Galleries, museums–Seoul has the stuff in droves and we were on a mission to see it. Of course, Leah and I also like to partake in the odd night out or two, so the theme quickly evolved to one part art, one part, well, Seoul night life.
The day before we left, an insider tip also emerged. An old friend of my close Vancouver buds Mike and Lori–a Canadian dude called Robb who lives in Seoul and who I had not yet met–replied to my facebook message with an invitation to pop into Club Answer, where Netherlands DJ Laidback Luke was playing and where Robb would be hanging out until somewhere around 3 a.m. So after eight hours of teaching on a Friday, Leah and I caught the KTX train to Seoul, and three subways to Gangnam–a spiffy neighbourhood on the southeast side of the city–where we greeted our couch surfing hosts John and Wendy, dropped our bags, changed, and hailed a cab that is now on my top-five-scariest-high-speed-car-rides-ever list to the club.
Not gonna lie, it was a hassle getting in. Club Answer is high end, and the Korean guys at the door barely acknowledged us, claiming the guest list had finished at midnight. But after that kind of trek, we were determined. Finally, following a lengthy wait during which we watched countless clusters of beautiful Korean girls skip the line and head on in, a woman on staff gave us the nod and two purple wristbands and let us slip through.
We were stoked.
When you’re this far from home, meeting a friend of your friends means a lot. Especially when he’s a chill guy like Robb, who we found upstairs in the VIP lounge. It was a pretty sweet spot to sip on a gin and tonic and view the crowd from, until we ventured back downstairs, only to discover the purple wristbands didn’t allow us back up. VIP’s we were not.
(Hello Mike and Lori–this pic’s for you!)
No matter, we danced it up on the main floor…
And pushed our way to the front of the stage for a brief and sweaty sway to Laidback Luke’s beats, which were a mix of house and mainstream, and which the crowd was digging big time. (He’s apparently been voted one of the top 50 DJ’s in the world.) I have no photo of the man but I can tell you he was smiling a hell of a lot and exuded the kind of energy of someone who loves what they do.
Back on our host’s living-room mattress, we managed to nab six hours of sleep before a Mexican breakfast lunch in Gangnam and a multi-subway hike to the Leeum Museum…
which, I’m not exaggerating, was phenomenal. After wandering through pristine displays of Joseon Dynasty porcelain and metal works, we came upon this staircase, designed by Swiss architect Mario Botto.
I’ve never seen anything like it. It rose up through several floors, and at the top, opened to a glass-enclosed skylight, which, under the blue of the afternoon light, painted silhouettes on the tall white walls.
In Leeum’s contemporary “Museum 2,” flamingo wings cast shadows in a dim red glow…
while a futuristic family stood guard at the window.
On the next floor I found a double-necked guitar…
and rooms and walls of other strange and striking modern works–pieces by Korean contemporary artists such as Lee Jeong-seop, Byeon Kwan-sik, and Nam June Paik, and 20th century foreign artists (Rothko! Richter! Warhol! Alberto Giacometti!) which I was politely told by staff I couldn’t photograph.
Ah, some sights are perhaps best left resonating in the mind’s eye. Though I started clicking the shutter again once we stepped outside, starting with Tsang Kin-Wah’s glass wall of sentences that frames the museum’s entrance…
and then the blue sky, and the bronze spider by Louise Bourgeois, and the smooth wooden planks.
Inside the Leeum, you could be anywhere in the world…back out, the bamboo reminds you–Asia!
The weather was really on our side. It was the last hot day of summer…
and we soaked it up on a sidewalk stroll, until descending back underground.
Oh, Seoul subways…the unavoidable third theme of our weekend sojourn. Miles of walking to transfer from one train to the next, an intricate system of bodies and motion…
which whisks you all over the city, including Insadong–our next stop.
Galleries abound here– in interlocking alleys connected through one long and bustling main street that’s jammed with shops and teahouses. Our late start to the day meant we had a hopeful hour left to catch a few before closing time.
My favourite was the Insa Art Centre, which is free, has seven floors, and featured these wooden women sitting, standing, and suspended with wings…
In my post-late night, long afternoon, subway-induced weary state, I failed to note the artist’s name (apologies!) but isn’t their work something kind of special?
After, we were hungry.
and in desperate need of a nap. Where can you nap in Insadong?
in a pinch, this concrete bench in the middle of the main road will do.
“We’re just two people in a city of ten million,” I said…”Who’s gonna care?”
We actually managed to doze off for a few minutes, which proved to be a necessary recharge, as the next item on the agenda was drinks with Peter, a Canadian guy I met at a wedding two years back who recently moved to Seoul. (To be precise, he’s the brother of my best friend’s sister’s husband.)
Turns out, Peter is hysterically funny. He brought along a couple friends, including Geoff who was visiting from Daegu, and, at the subway exit in Hongdae, suggested we head to a hookah bar he knew.
The place was called Great.
It was pretty great.
Leah, Geoff, and Peter broke the ice over a couple icy buckets.
Instant buds, and the night was young…
Hongdae–the sprawling area surrounding Seoul’s Hongik University–became the evening’s playground. It’s easily one of the most vibrant, invigorating, dynamic, and stimulating big-city districts I’ve ever absorbed. Masses of people, bars, restaurants, cafes, street stalls, lights, sounds, and smells converge in a shock of energy that is at turns overwhelming and deeply soothing. We picked up a few folks along the way…
And stopped in at a couple watering holes, before making our way to a park that seemed to sit in the center of it all, crammed with students and artists, musicians and foreigners, people sipping tall cans of Cass and green bottles of soju that grew warm in their hands in the still-summer air, standing in light that shone from nearby neon, talking loud above the Hongdae din, hours past midnight with hours to go.
It was here that Peter, Geoff, and our new friend Devang‘s desire to sing–a sentiment expressed earlier on– grew persistent, which led to…
at 4 a.m.
It was an epic end…
to an epic day–the stuff that weekend trips are made of.
Seoul–I will be back!
Take line #7 to Chung Dam Station, exit #3. Turn left at Hotel Rivera. Answer is across the street from the Hotel Prima.
Take Line #6 to Hangangjin Station, exit #1. Head 100 metres towards Itaewon, turn right at the first alley, and walk another five minutes to the hill.
Hours: Daily 10:30-6 p.m. (Thursday until 9 p.m.)
Take line #3 to Anguk Station, exit #6. Insa’s about a five minute walk up the main road on the right hand side.
Hours: Daily 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. (closes early Tuesdays, opens late Wednesdays)