09 November 2008

Seoul: Looking to the future

My "sightseeing" in Seoul today actually wasn't much of a sightseeing day at all. It was more of a subway joyride to make myself feel better, and to look into possible travel opportunities in the future.

My original intention was to visit the Chinese-Korean hybrid shrine of Dongmyo, dedicated to the Chinese General Guan Yu (of the Romances of the Three Kingdoms fame). Unfortunately, I found that it remains under renovation, and will stay that way for a while.

My joyride took me to Gimpo Airport in the far west of the city; this was my first visit there since 1994. My initial intention was to check the connections to the A'REX airport train service, which connects Gimpo to Incheon International Airport; as it is cheaper than a bus, I will use that service to get to Incheon when I head for Hong Kong next month. It looks like I will need to allow myself plenty of time, as the subway ride (Line 5) to Gimpo from downtown takes a while.

While at it, I also toured the rest of the airport. The 1971-vintage former domestic terminal is now an E-Mart, which I did not check out. The 1980-vintage current domestic terminal (which was the main international terminal, with sizable Japan Airlines, Northwest, and United presence, before Incheon opened in 2001) is much less miserable now than I remember, after Incheon took the heavy load off of Gimpo and the terminal got renovated. I counted at least half a dozen airlines serving it, now that several low-cost airlines have taken to the skies, primarily on the popular Jeju Island route. Even the main full-service airlines have joined the low-cost fray, in the form of Jin Air (Korean Air) and Air Busan (Asiana Airlines); they join the established low-cost airlines Jeju Air, Hansung Airlines, Yeongnam Airlines, Eastar, and others, as well as Korean Air and Asiana Airlines' own extensive domestic services.

While flying around the compact South Korean mainland is more hassle than it's worth (especially now that the bullet train offers a much easier alternative), Jeju Island, due to its distance and isolation, is best reached by air. While I have no plans to go to Jeju at this time, I will certainly go there during a future Seoul visit. Jeju also requires a rental car for any serious sightseeing. I wrapped up my visit of the domestic terminal by visiting showcases of various South Korean locales, including Jeju Island and a few mainland destinations that are part of my road trip next week.

The 1988-vintage international terminal, originally a secondary terminal built exclusively for Korean Air (though shared with a few other airlines, including Asiana, later on), once again handles international flights. It currently runs services to Haneda Airport in Tokyo and Hongqiao Airport in Shanghai. There are six airlines there: Korean Air, Asiana, Japan Airlines, All Nippon, China Eastern, and Shanghai Airlines. As the terminal is underutilized, the western half of it is now a giant shopping mall. Originally, I didn't want to check out the terminal, but I decided to check it out anyway just in case I end up going to Tokyo, a two-hour flight away, on a future Seoul visit. And yes, despite the reactionary Japanese politics, I think Tokyo will surely be worthwhile; after all, despite 2MB, I am loving Seoul.

Sure, it's also possible to head out to Incheon and take a flight to Narita; in that case, a number of other airlines, including Northwest and United, also become viable options. But the airport transit times will be excessive, and the cost will be prohibitive as well.

Now, I have picked up inspirations for future visits to Jeju and Tokyo. I am determined to make Seoul not only a mere destination, but my second home, and also a jumping-off point for journeys into other great Asian locations. Now, it's time for me to book my trip to Hong Kong, as a start in making this happen; I will learn a lot from planning and carrying out my Hong Kong trip, and that will certainly carry me well into Jeju, Tokyo, and more.

My return to Los Angeles is now confirmed for mid-December. Looking forward to enjoying the experience of getting a new car while I am back home.