We spent about 7 hours wandering around an area of markets that was maybe 1 square mile today. We explored the famous Dongdaemun market, as well as the much smaller, less known (at least, based on my trusty guidebooks) and definitely more crowded and crazy market of Gwangjang. We could probably spend the rest of our time in Korea exploring this area and not exhaust it.
We went first to Gwangjang, because Don was drawn to the description of “Mokjagolmok (Eatery Alley) where you can savor generous portions of cheap street foods such as tteobokki, gimbal, bindaetteok, and jokbal.” Covered shopping arcades & street food are two of the top 3 things I’d say Don loves about traveling (I’d name used bookstores as the 3rd. Although obviously “cats” would outrank any of these.) So the combination of covered shopping arcade & street food style vendors made this a prime destination for him.
Maybe not so much for me, though: it’s unusually hot for September (80s with humidity making it feel like it’s in the 90s) and the market is a crowded, covered area with little air flow and a LOT of dead meat…and not-so-dead fish, octopuses, and other sea life. Weaving through rows and rows of crowded food stalls with people eating on stools around the stalls, surrounded by raw meat in stacks towering as tall as I am and simmering on grills, with still-live fish flapping their tails on butcher blocks and the smells of all of this trapped in a hot, crowded, covered market arcade is not my vegetarian idea of touristy fun. So I was darting ahead trying to escape the sights and smells, and even Don was ready to admit there was nothing Aardvark or I could eat here. We decided to try our luck elsewhere, when we happened upon a stall that had what looked bindaetteok, or mung bean pancakes. The woman staffing the stall saw us looking and ushered us in to a small restaurant stall with four tables nestled into a little nook in the otherwise open market.
It was air conditioned, separated from the heat and smells of the rest of the market and I could sit, and that was enough to make me happy, regardless of whether or not I could eat anything. But I when I asked the server – in my horrible Korean – if there was anything vegetarian, she excitedly listed several foods that would work. We were thrilled! Don got to eat his covered market street food, Aardvark and I could eat the food too, and we could sit in some cool comfort for a bit. This was definitely a win! (And since this was the first day I was brave enough to try saying anything at all in Korean, I felt especially proud of myself. The server and cook were so nice, and seemed so touched when I told them in Korean the food was delicious. And even though I was reading it right out of my phrase book and probably still butchered the pronunciation, I was relieved I could at least vaguely communicate!)
They brought us huge bowls of “pumpkin soup,” which we also saw described as pumpkin porridge, a thick pumpkin soup with sticky rice cakes; gimbap (Korean-style sushi, though the rice is not seasoned with vinegar the way Japanese sushi is, and the fillings often include pickled vegetables – which is great by me 🙂 ); and bindaetteok. As well as kimchi and some onions that were soaked in a soy sauce/vinegar/sugar sauce.
We were thrilled! And we finished just in time – when we left the little stall for the rest of the market, I wanted to take pictures – but we were inundated with the lunch time crowd. And motorcycles driving right through – the aisles were less than two feet wide! We scooped Aardvark up and headed out – it was a great experience, but time to move on.
Here are some photos from the surrounding market area though, which was full of tiny, crooked little streets with stalls and shops selling lots of zippers and trims (this is a wholesale fashion district), woodworking and metal workshops, milliners’ shops, and oddly, mixed in with all of these, lots of small shops full of either military clothes and goods, or technical outdoors clothing and equipment. It was somewhat of a strange blend of shops, indeed.
Fresh Korean ginseng
A little bowl of squirming fish. Bowls and tanks full of little fish, giant fish, squiggling octopuses the size of one’s hand, and other sea life were pretty much everywhere in both the indoor and outdoor markets.
We also stopped at the Hyundai City Outlets, this weirdly fancy department store in the midst of all these not-at-all fancy markets and shopping arcades. There was a mascot for nearly every department in the store, and Aardvark – suddenly quite brave and photogenic – wanted her picture taken with each one. (Except the giant statue of The Hulk mid-running stride, which terrified her. Fair enough.)
Riding a Mini Cooper; pretending to be a Playmobil character (check her hands! This girl has got posing down.)
And can we pause for a moment to discuss the amazing baby lounge on the baby/toddler items floor? This is the nursing room: there were 5 little booths (2 not pictured), each with a drawable-curtain, and nursing pillow in this room. The other room had a fleet of clean, stylish high chairs, and then there was a changing area with loads of wipes, diaper creams and diapers on hand, and a sink right next to the cushy changing pads, and a separate sink area with microwave, refrigerator, dedicated bottle warmer device, and counter for preparing any kind of bottle or baby food one could imagine. Why are stores in the US not kitted out like this!?
Finally, we made it to Dongdaemun Market, which is known, among other things, for its wholesale fabric and fashion – apparently it is the largest fabric and clothing material market in the world. Aunt Hye Sook explained to us that most of the shopping happens at night there, but it’s very different – at night, it’s all wholesale, and shop owners buy loads, cart them to their own stores, and then sell them in the morning. Apparently, night and day prices are thus as different as night and day (ha!)
Obviously, wandering through a multi-story, multi-building lair of fabric and yarn and notions booths was delightful to me, even if, by the end of the day, our energy was starting to drain. (This kind of yarn – shiny/sparkly, but also thick and scratchy looking – must be all the rage right now, because it was everywhere.
We also totally bought Aardvark a hanbok. Obviously this is not the best showcasing of it, and it was a splurge item, but it is 1) adorable on her; 2) her favorite color, purple, 3) comes with a mini version of the cute little hanbok bags she kept loving (& coveting) when we saw teen girls and women dressed in hanbok all over yesterday, and 4) a perfect souvenir for her. We might dress her up in it for the upcoming big Korean harvest holiday, in which case there will presumably be better photos.