Sunday, 11 November 2012

A Night Walking Tour of Itaewon!

Over the years, I found that most tourists visiting Itaewon just literally breeze through it: they get off their tour buses, walk through the main road, buy some souvenirs, and on to the tour bus again an hour later. Well, I can't blame their tight schedule.
                               (Pizza Peel's pizza)
For those who have time, walking through Itaewon (and I'm not talking about the main road) would be more interesting than buying those overpriced Korean souvenirs on the sidewalks. Over the years, Itaewon has added more restaurants and bars, more fashion boutiques and I guess, has attracted more people.
(Itaewon's Fashion Street sign)
And one time, when my friend Vangi, who lives in the Gangnam area, told me that she's never been to the back alleys of Itaewon, an idea came up! Why not a walking tour of Itaewon? So, I invited other friends who were interested and gathered them on a Friday night, on the eve of the Itaewon Festival.
 We all assembled first at Starbucks, next to McDonald's at around 7:30PM. I thought of grabbing dinner first before we embarked on our discovery of Itaewon on foot. I brought them to Pizza Peel, a very good pizza/calzone restaurant hidden in the alley among souvenir and clothes shops on that first arcade on the right when entering Itaewon from Noksapyeong Station. As usual, Pizza Peel didn't fail. Yummy always - that New York calzone!

And after filling ourselves with pizza and calzone, it was time to burn them off!

We started the tour at Itaewon’s Fashion Street, that alley around Suji’s starting from a Chrysler car dealership and about two hundred meters down. The alley, which used to have a poor, bumpy surface, was rehabilitated, asphalted and renamed as Fashion Street. It is now full of boutiques, discount stores, a few cafes and restaurants. This is the home of the Zara Outlet in Itaewon (although I find the prices still pricey for an outlet!).

The other end of the Fashion Street is marked by a few Korean restaurants, and if you walked further up, there’s El Comedor, Wolfhound, Johnny Dumpling, Ko-a Mart, Chef Meili and few more.

Having reached the corner, we turned right towards the street full of antique shops. But since it was late, these shops were already closed. But we found another stop worth looking into: Chateau Chocolat

It’s a small coffee shop, run by a very young lady, who serves a variety of chocolates and an impressive blend of iced café mocha! This small coffee shop is a few meters from the bus stop. You won’t miss its red sign and red interiors.

                   (Thanks, Vangi, for the iced cafe mocha! 
           And thanks to the cafe lady for these chocolates!)
And while sipping my iced café mocha, I ushered the group to the narrow alley opposite Chef Meili and walked through a kebab kiosk, shops selling call cards and cellphones, hair and tattoo shops and small restaurants run by locals , Middle eastern and African nationals. This alley ends up at the other end marked by a pharmacy. If one turns right to the foreign supermarkets, one would see transgender bars. But if one crosses the street going going to the other side from the pharmacy corner, one would enter another alley notoriously named Hooker Hill.

Since this was real tour, I made sure we walk through the Hooker Hill to show why it was called so. This small street, lined up with some girly bars up until the inclined end, obviously got its name from this concentration of this type of bars. If I remember right, a bar burned down last winter when one male foreign customer allegedly tipped over a lighted candle. (The moral lesson? Don't leave a lighted candle and a drunk customer unattended). 

Upon reaching the end of that hill, we went around the corner and found the entrance of Itaewon Land, a huge multi-storey jjimjilbang and sauna, which, if accessed from the main road, would require one to climb up the stairs. From the main road looking up, one can see Itaewon Land's traditional Korean style entrance.

And from the Itaewon Land, we continued around the alley after a few small shops and an apartment building to reach the Seoul Central Masjid. This mosque is an imposing structure, standing on the hill in Itaewon and can be seen from around the Yongsan area (and from my apartment in Hannam-dong!). This is where our Muslim brothers in Seoul come to worship.
                          (The Seoul Central Masjid)
From there, we then went downhill through a neighborhood of Middle eastern shops, restaurants, bakeries and groceries behind the masjid, tracing our way to the narrow road where you can find the more groceries selling mostly imported items. These groceries are the favorites of foreigners living in Korea as most of the products from home are available here. I usually come here to get some fruit dates and my Nestle hot chocolate mix every time I ran out of supply. I used to get my Quaker's natural granola cereals from here, but I eventually found out that Costco offers these at a lower price.

And continuing our walk towards the main road, we passed by another an alley named Homo Hill, which is parallel to the Hooker Hill. If the Hooker Hill was lined with girly bars, this one has gay bars.

And since it was a festival night, there was a few traffic bottlenecks of both cars and people on the main road and on the sidewalks. As there were a lot of tent restaurants and vendors on the sidewalks, everyone just tried to enjoy the crazy atmosphere in Itaewon that night. We would have gone to the other side behind Hamilton Hotel, where rows of restaurants and bars must have already been filled with people. But we decided to end our tour right in the main intersection, and let Itaewon and its revelers eat and drink their way until the morning hours.

I will never be able to capture Itaewon's kind of atmosphere through my photographs or my writing. I guess you will have to be here to find out for yourself what kind of spirit this place gives off. 

Itaewon's character can be notorious, dirty, noisy and filthy, but it can also be festive,  international, fun and well, tourist-y. And tonight, it was all that!

In this place, everyone's welcome. Itaewon doesn't choose nor discriminate (unlike some pretentious, snooty places across the river). No matter what language you speak, the color of skin or the shape of your eyes, your gender or sexual orientation, the size of your wallet, your age bracket or even your religion, Itaewon doesn't try to define you. It's up to you to define Itaewon.

Until then, Itaewon
Who wants to join the walking tour next time?

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