A Tour of Itaewon Nightlife and Satellite Cities

This will mainly serve as a travelogue for those of you interested in foreign travel.  It will also serve as motivation (not that I need much of that) to have and then convey adventures.


Premeditated.  Hookie is still as fun as it was in high school.  Escaped Busan (and Saturday work) late in the evening last Friday, hopping a cab directly after work at 9pm and making it from Geageum to Busan Station with fifteen minutes to spare, enough time to get a quick, expensive, shite burger from Lotteria. 


The train starts loading as I am squatting and Hoovering the sustenance.  Then, with my bagful of crap that I cannot seem to rid myself of just yet and some clothes for the weekend in my backpack, I board the train with intentions to read much of Fifth Business by Robertson Davies.  Soon, though, I feel tired, and just play some puzzle game on my cell phone, sleep a little through the racket behind me.  The area between cars—where the bathrooms and cell phone talking area is—is just behind me.  The trip starts with KTX employees trying to calm a furious businessman who doesn’t seem to have the proper ticket; later, an older military man gets on the train drunk and loud.  About half way through the trip, my mouth waters for a beer but, by the time the guy comes by again, he is fresh out of mekju.  I text Janine to see if she wants to go for a beer when I get there.  Sure, she says.


She meets me at Seoul Station around 0030 (the KTX is consistently 10 to 15 minutes late getting into either Busan or Seoul) and it is raining and there seems to be no place around that is open for a beer, the area around there unfamiliar to both of us; there seems not much going on in terms of a pub to sit and have a drink without the high-priced anjou (side-dishes for drinking that are usually required to order unless, in some cases, you can play the foreigner card and indicate that you want no food).  Besides, this food is of marginal quality by Western standards.  I once had a plate of what I thought was going to be beef of some sort, but I ended up getting a plate of three partially dried fish and mayo and glorified ketchup that I think was supposed to be cocktail sauce.  Don’t get me wrong: I like fish, but this was too over-powering in all senses fish.  And if I ever see a lemon in this country, I will be sure to eat it right there on the spot, with or without fish. 


Anyhow, we end up seeing a number of places for a beer but decide it’s just late and we should try and find a cabby to take us out to her neighborhood.  A cab ride out to Hwajeong at that time of night can go upwards of W25,000 (~$25 USD).  A few months back, Janine and I took a cab from Itaewon to Hwajeong and the cabby missed the exit something fierce; the fare was W45,000, of which we paid about half, using many W1000 bills and opening the door before he could lock us in.  No way we were going to pay 20,000 more for a fuck up on his part; besides, how else were we to explain to him that 45 thousand was not going to happen, was not fair?


After standing in the rain for fifteen minutes, we find a cabby willing to go that far and we share a ride with a businessman and pay a flat rate of W20,000.  Hwajeong is a northern suburb/satellite city of Seoul, out near Ilsan, about 40 minutes by subway from Seoul Station. Janine’s place is a two minute walk from the subway stop. Among other conveniences, she works in the building right next to her apartment building.  Also, she is directly across the street from E-Mart (like a WalMart.  In fact, used to be a WalMart but WalMart failed in their venture here in South Korea and all have been sold to E-Mart, LotteMart, HomePlus or other major competitors) and many other amenities like western coffee joints and fast food chains (this is pretty common throughout Seoul and Busan).  All these conveniences are a short walk from her place; also, there are a couple parks that will be, come full spring, great places to sit or play soccer or tennis or basketball.  Parks are curiously lacking in the area I am living now.  While there are plenty of mountains to hike on day or half-day excursions, sometimes, I simply want to sit in a park and read a book or talk with a friend or listen to music without the strain of climbing a mountain. Though, Busan does have the beaches.  That is one major aspect that I am giving up with my upcoming move to Anyang.  The Yellow Sea that feeds into Incheon Port to the northwest of Seoul is, from what I hear, less than spectacular.  But I will have to experience that for myself to really make a judgment; that is what a couple of full weekends will allow me to do now that I will have those two days to trip down the west coast of the peninsula; I have seen parts of the east coast, a place called Uljin: clean, quiet.


After quite a few laughs and a beer or two and some food near Janine’s place, we call it a night.  


We are out the door and on the train by around noon on Saturday.


We take the sub back into Seoul, twisting our way through the demolished old shanties and their refuse in piles, backhoes slowly removing the debris to make room for a new group of high rise apartments and businesses; the cranes in the distance, helping to build the first of many new high-rises in that area.  The size of this city continues to grow past 21 million (Korean National Statistics Office) in the greater Seoul area (the third largest metropolitan area in the world, second only to Tokyo and Mexico City—35 million, 22 million respectively (AllExperts.com)—and through the center of the city to the south, a satellite city of Anyang.  My first impressions are good: conveniences like a gym, my favorite cheap Korean foods, a couple small hills to hike nearby.  I will have to write more at a later time because we hopped on a train after an hour or so of wandering the area around my new employer. 


Anyhow, we go back to Hwajeong and then back into Seoul’s Itaewon area for the birthday party of Janine’s friend’s fiancé.  Now, I’ve been to Itaewon before, drinking at bars like Gecko’s Terrace and listening to live music and drinking at Woodstock and dancing and drinking at the UN Bar.  And at all these places, I saw such a mishmash of different cultures and races.  Blacks, whites, Indians and locals alike.  But this time, I am struck by the five or six different cultures I see represented as we walk up the subway to the street.  As far as I have seen in my seven months here in South Korea, Itaewon is the virtual mixing pot that I have only experienced in New York City.  In fact, this is a place unique to my experiences because NYC still seems somewhat segregated according to socioeconomic standards.  But, this heterogeneity is refreshing in comparison to the relative homogeneity of the rest of the country (Busan’s foreigner population is insignificant compared to Seoul; and Uljin is void of foreigners—and that is good for local flavor, to be sure, and highly recommended).  Travel over the next year and a half of my life will tell if cultural diversity is really what makes a city a great one.


Eat at New Delhi, an Indian food joint just down the street from the Hamilton Hotel, just down the street from the subway station, just around the corner from the Rocky Mountain Bar (a Canuck joint that supposedly shows hockey and, since the playoffs are about to start, I may be frequenting that joint if it’s open at the right times to see the Sharks games).  The Indian joint is all you can eat all day during the weekends.  It doesn’t seem worth W15,000 for Janine who ate next to nothing (Indian food not for the faint of palate). I, however, chowed down on a number of helpings of the spicy lamb stew and savory flatbread; the K-beer was five bucks a pop (unheard of for a pint of local beer) and of varying temperatures.  Didn’t smoke from the five foot hookah, but intend to at a future date.


Next, it’s off to the Nashville Extension, a fairly large bar with massive leather chairs and comfortable booths, one pool table and a massive big screen TV that is showing an English Premiership game.  The atmosphere is agreeable to western standards, though the portions small (a by-the-book shot of my JD or Janine’s Bailey’s at W5,000).  Would be worth it to pay 10,000 for a double: at least you wouldn’t have to get up again, though the cocktailers are well-versed in need-to-know bar English.  Stick around for a few drinks, watched the birthday boy do a beer bong (constructed by the staff for just such an occasion) and downed a beer in a birthday toast/challenge.  I was the victor by a small fraction of a sip; it was definitely my experience and not my age that allowed me to win.  We called it a night around midnight, trying to catch the last train to Hwageong to no avail.  Another expensive cab ride. 


The next day, plans are abandoned: we were going to go back into Seoul to see Jenie and then go to Namdamun Market, but we didn’t get out until half past 11.  Instead, we spend the day strolling around and sitting in the park with a cup of coffee. 


For a late lunch, we have shabu-shabu.  A boiling pot of spicy broth and green onions and mushrooms is put in front of you on a burner.  Thinly sliced beef is given to you to cook in the boiling broth.  After that, noodles are added to the broth for the second course.  The third course, if wanted, consists of rice fried right in the same pot where the broth used to be.  This is my favorite special meal in Korea.


I am now the Full Two-Day-Weekend Expat Warrior.  Over the next week or so, I will be visiting places around Busan that I haven’t gone yet because of the 36 hour weekends.  Until then…annyonghi kyeseyo.

One thought on “A Tour of Itaewon Nightlife and Satellite Cities

  1. 🙂 I like how you write. Your journal is much more fluid than my recollections of that weekend.
    Looking forward to your next visit/cum move in day.

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