June 10, 2008

Silk Road III Day 2: Flying to Tashkent

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Got up this morning and went out to check out the two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Seoul. After arriving at Changdeokgong Palace (昌德宮), I realized that I had to join a scheduled tour, and the next available one (in Chinese) was an hour away.

I quickly hop into a taxi and asked the driver to head to Jongmyo Shrine (宗廟), even though it looked adjacent to the Palace. The driver drove around the block and dropped me off at the entrance. As I walked through the small park towards the gate, I realized that the ticketing counters were all shuttered. Jongmyo doesn't open on Tuesdays! Arrrgh!!!!! I had no choice but to drag my sorry ass back to Changdeokgong Palace in time for the tour.

At first glance, Changdeokgong Palace was nothing special to someone who had lots of exposure to Chinese and Japanese palaces and shrines. The architecture was relatively simple, and not particularly ornate. However, the beauty of this palace was in its layout and its beautiful gardens. As the palace is quite old, there were plenty of old trees on the grounds. It reminded me of a stroll through Meiji Shrine (明治神宮) or the temples at Nikko (日光). At the end of the tour, we passed a cypress tree that was around 750 years old. That's not something you find in a capital city very often...

Went back to the hotel and decided to have sangyetang (篸雞湯) for lunch. Couldn't find a nice little hole-in-the-wall around the Westin, so I ended up on top of Lotte Department Store...it's just sangyetang and pretty much the same at most places.

After checking in for my flight at Incheon Airport, my friends and I decided to have a little bit to eat before boarding. Yes, I am still stuffed from the sangyetang, but I felt like having a bowl of kalbitang from Byeok-Je (碧帝). The soup was clear and really nice with spring onions, but the beef...well, what was attached to the bones was nice. But the loose strands were a bit overcooked. However, I still really enjoyed the soup.

Now about the 7-hour flight from Seoul to Tashkent... I had decided to be cheap and fly Economy instead of Business, even though the premium for Business Class was only 100% more than Economy, or roughly USD 1,300 extra. I began to regret my decision the minute I sat down in my cattle-class seat.

On my left was a gentleman (I hardly think he qualifies for this description) of Central Asian descent. Despite wearing some nice cologne, his body odor was clearly detectable. He chose to invade my space with his arms and legs, having decided that his seat was too small for him. On top of it all, he took his shoes off and soon I began to enjoy an odor not unlike some of the strong cheeses I've encountered. It got to be unbearable pretty quickly, and as we were taking off, I decided to put my baseball cap over my face to insulate myself from the air around me. I am seriously considering upgrading myself to Business for the return leg. Fortunately, the nice Korean flight attendant found me a seat nearer the front of the plane, and I finally could breathe again.

All was well for the remainder of the flight. The service was excellent, with Ms. Kim continuously bringing water to rehydrate me. The plane, an A330-300, was relatively new and fitted with AVOD entertainment system in all seats. Time passes quickly when you have movies, TV shows...etc to watch.

After touching down at Tashkent airport, I noticed that the small terminal building didn't have any planes parked at any of the gates. In fact I thought I only saw one other plane parked on the tarmac. Nevermind.

We go through the inefficient and not-so-foreigner-friendly system of passport control (didn't know which lines were for locals or foreigners, no one at the visa counter for about 1 hour...), and collected our bags. Lined up at customs while every bag went through a scanner and the officer checked to ensure our forms were filled correctly. We finally all passed through customs and met up with our local guide Batir 1 1/2 hours after landing (I think some of the passengers were still waiting for their luggage at this time). A short ride later we arrived at our hotel, a very clean-looking Dedeman Silk Road Tashkent.

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