Sunday, 3 January 2010

New Year’s 2010!


We could see the Bosingak bell from the middle of the bus – on the bus’ T.V., that is.

Ken and I were headed up to Seoul City, the capital of South Korea, for this decade’s big New Year’s blast. It was one of the places to be on New Year’s Eve, but we hadn’t taken into account Seoul’s 25 million population that night.

Never mind it being -16oC, or the fact that snow and ice were now covering the busy city’s streets…nothing was going to stop us from being at that bell when the clock struck midnight.

Setting down our things at the lovely Alps Motel, right in the heart of Seoul’s City Hall, we padded ourselves with layers and layers of long underwear and sweaters, double-checked our cameras, and bolted for the hotspot that was Bosingak.


On our way, we saw many food stands lined up on the sidewalks, eagerly taking advantage of the thousands and thousands of people that were standing and freezing outside for the holiday.

One of the stands was dedicated towards a charity, and was selling helium-inflated balloons for 1,000 won ($1). If purchased, something was supposed to be written on them – a wish, a New Year’s resolution, etc…to be released at midnight.

We were about to reach the corner of the street, when we were caught. A girl stopped us in our tracks, and yelled to her partner, “Wak-guk! (Westerner!)”. A cheery fellow rushed over and started telling us, in English, that the charity was to help buy kerosene to heat retirement homes.

Well, his speech impressed Ken, and in the spirit of the New Year, he donated 1,000 won to the charity…and I got a deep-blue, big, bobbing balloon. What did we write on it? To the first of many

The famous bell was only minutes away, and as we got closer and closer, we noticed many police riot buses, lined up on every street and corner, blocks away from Bosingak.

Little did we know that there were thousands of riot police, outfitted in shiny, light-reflecting gear, inter-locking arms around the site. Creating a border with a radius of over 100 feet, most people couldn’t even see the bell past the hundreds of swaying heads in front of them. Performances were being held on a stage set up in front of Bosingak, and singers and dancers were putting on a show for the countless number of people surrounding them.

It must’ve been about thirty minutes before midnight. My breathable running shoes weren’t doing me justice, and my feet were slowly freezing to the point where I was gruelingly trying to move my toes for some blood circulation. It was to no avail.

Then, the worst possible thing that could happen, happened. The riot police let up their guard, and everyone jetted towards the bell. Helpless and unable to stay in the same spot, Ken and I were shuffled forward by the crowd, my ice-blocks-for-feet stinging with each step. The police soon reformed their lines and the crowd was divided, once again, by the lines and lines of linked arms. I was face-to-face with one of the riot police – not the view I had wanted, half an hour before the arrival of the new year…

(One minute before midnight…)

I was about to reach my limit. It was so cold that my eyes had glazed over and my feet were ready to shatter from the icy temperatures.


Colourful balloons were released into the air, and the many hopes and dreams that people had set for 2010 drifted up towards the heavens. What followed was a light show of epic proportions. People had brought roman candles and were firing them up into the sky. The fireworks marked the celebration that was the start of the new decade, innocent and unscathed from the rest of the world. Energetic dancers, in traditional Korean wear (hanboks) twirled around the lit stage to the main theme of the movie Mission Impossible. You could hear the bell ringing in the background. Thirty-three hits, by thirty-three different people, to bring forward new blessings for the year.

Feeling like meat popsicles, Ken and I attempted to get out of the crowd. I turned left, left, and left again. There was no ‘out’. This was a claustrophobic’s nightmare. It was terribly difficult to move an inch any which way, with thousands and thousands of people groping you without meaning to do so. Everyone was pressed into a human sandwich, being eaten alive by the crowd that was rapidly growing in size.

Forty-five minutes. That’s how long it took to get out of the mass of people. Individuals were still pushing their way inwards towards the bell. No matter how many times I said, “We want to get out!” they still pushed their way in.

Once we were on the outside of the swarm, we headed straight back to our cozy motel. Curling up with bowls of hot, instant ramen, Ken and I spent our first moments of 2010 warming up to the glow of the T.V., completely rested and relaxed…I think it was a good way to start the new year :).



Our goal set for New Year’s Day was to find a pair of winter boots. My breathable, walking shoes hadn’t done me justice the night before, and Ken knew I wouldn’t last the weekend if I didn’t find suitable footwear.

Luckily, his travel companion Lonely Planet’s Guide to Korea listed a store just for me. Apparently ABC Mart in the area Myeongdong, was the best place to purchase cheap shoes.

The day was bright and oddly sunny for the chilly weather that was looming about. Ken and I took an unplanned one-and-a-half hour walk around the many districts of Seoul, looking for this ABC Mart. We even reached the point where the buildings we were seeing were crumbling from age. Turning back, we stumbled upon Insadong, an area dedicated to traditional artsy trinkets, hand-pressed paper, and ggultarae candy.

As we were browsing through the many stands of handbags, key chains, and paintings, two men called to us from their stand. One of them, wearing a stuffed, panda hat on his head, attracted us to him like bees to a flower. He began his show. In English, he started explaining how the honey candy he was making used to be given only to royalty.

He exclaimed that he could make tens of thousands of honey threads from one block of golden fermented honey. Poking a hole into his honey ball, he stretched it out until it was like a saggy rubber band, and dipped it in cornstarch. He then wrapped it around his hands once, and stretched it out again, dipping it in the same powdery substance. He finally made it to the point where he was holding out thousands and thousands of fine strands of honey, separated by cornstarch powder. It was a beautiful sight.

The strands were then bunched and torn into sections into which a 21-spiced mix of peanuts or almonds was added. Wrapping the strands around the spiced concoction, they set their newly made candy into boxes, ready to sell.

Although I enjoyed the show, my feet were getting frostbitten pretty fast. Ken and I continued to walk around the streets, until we came across another outdoor market. It was New Year’s Day, and the streets were packed with people our own age. I guess this was the place to be. Only a minute later did we find that this wondrous place was Insadong – exactly where we could find the ABC Mart.

Entering the store, we did find several different kinds of shoes, but none into which I wanted to invest. I just wanted a pair of snuggly boots that I could tear up for about eight months (the remainder of our teaching contract).

Returning back to the cold, we browsed around some stands, hoping to find a bargain. Then, I saw them – snuggly UGG-like boots that were sitting on a stand, waiting for me to buy them. I didn’t even have to bargain. I was sold just by looking at them. Fortunately, the price was only 20,000 won ($20), for a pair of the warmest and most comfortable boots I have ever worn.

Now we could do what we planned to do today: a photo tour of downtown Seoul. The Christmas decorations we saw the night before had completely mesmerized us, and drawn us into our activity for this day. We shot photos soon after dark, when the holiday lights began to illuminate the blackness of the night. There was not one corner of the downtown area which was unlit by magnificent displays of lights.

We walked along the Cheonggyecheon stream, which was like a peaceful dream. With architecturally beautiful walkways, and a small waterfall illuminated at the end, we took photos of the large Christmas tree and hanging skeletons of lit presents, marking the end of Seoul’s lover’s lane.



The highlight for today was to meet some members of my mother’s side of the family. Due to the unforseen consequences (uncontrollable vomiting) from eating the san-nak-ji (live octopus) the last time we were in Seoul, we made it our mission to avoid street food at all costs. We made a rule: no overindulging on anything.

We met my relatives at the bus station and drove to Incheon for some dinner. Stuffing ourselves with smoked duck, pork ribs, and yukgaejang (spicy beef soup that is served boiling hot), the evening meeting was quite successful, especially with my uncle constantly cracking jokes and making over-the-top gestures to communicate with Ken.

The night finished off tasting international beers at a sports bar, with my uncles and Ken. The night ended with Ken and one of my uncles linking arms to drink out of their glasses (my uncle called it a ‘love shot’).



Our last stop of for the weekend was in the infamous Dongdaemun Market. Known as the shopping district in Korea, there was city block after city block of clothing stands, fashion malls, and underground shopping centers. Dongdaemun, in its entirety, was a haven for impulsive shopaholics (unlike me) and a must-see for incoming travelers.


So that’s it. A new decade has begun, with amazing new memories, about to be born. To whatever wild adventures arising this year, I say, “Bring it on…”.

Happy New Year!

- Jess


  1. I guess it's a good thing that you didn't know what to expect for New Year's Eve otherwise you may have not gone and missed out on another "once-in-a-lifetime" experience! Jess - I feel so bad about your feet. When I have cold feet, it hurts to the bone and I can't think straight - so I can wholly sympathize with your words describing your pain...

  2. You did better then us with New Years. Pat, Kim and I planned an extra night in Bangkok for the special day and fell asleep missing everything....:-(