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  • Writer's pictureGeoff Kronik

Seoul Stopover, Soul Food

Updated: Jul 7, 2023

I had to fly from Singapore to Salt Lake City--not a standard hub-and-spoke pairing--and all the listed fares were at nosebleed prices. Then, to my delight, I found a connection through Seoul and Seattle for hundreds less than any other option. I booked it swiftly, before the mysterious forces of airline pricing erased the bargain from my screen.

On landing in Seoul at 6AM, I checked the departure for my Seattle leg. I had to read it three times, but it still said 4PM. No wonder the low fare. I now had a ten-hour layover without having planned for it.

There are worse places to kill time than Incheon airport. Its terminals are light, lofty spaces elevated by modern sculpture, with islands of soothing greenery and glossy ads featuring the eye-candy of BTS and Blackpink. Restaurants abound, there is the snack food paradise that is an Asian 7-11, and the well-heeled can shop Gucci or Hermes while the less-heeled can visit duty-free. Ailing travelers will appreciate the well-stocked pharmacy, and a darkened room of chaises-longues thoughtfully serves the napping needs of transit passengers.

I was also lucky enough to have lounge access, which meant calm surroundings in which I could work, slouch-doze in an upholstered chair, and overeat Korean or western food gratis. In short: all the comforts I wanted were there at Terminal 2, and yet a central ingredient of travel for many—adventure--was missing.

Where to find it seemed clear: Seoul proper wasn’t far away. How hard could it be to get off the airport and into town? In fact, it was easy, but the details are administrative and available elsewhere, so I won’t list them with dull travelogue thoroughness here. A web search, patience and persistence—the latter two are near-guarantors of travel bliss--were all that was required.

There was a fast airport train, which one can expect in an Asian capital and easy subway transfer. I kept destinations to a minimum, as missing my onward plane would quickly turn adventure to stupidity, but explored each one thoroughly. When time is short and distance means time, go deep, not wide. I observed architecture, geography, businesses and people, all to try and grasp what was unique and what was known; what made Korea Korea, and what made it a place on our familiar planet.

I’ll let pictures tell most of the story, but it might just come down to Korean Street Toast. After passing a third stall selling toast filled with egg, vegetables and other ingredients, I realized this was a thing. A Korean thing. But toast, it seems reasonable to say, is close to universal. The familiar made new, like the Malaysian item called burger, hits the sweet spot of travel where what you think you know gets reframed and reinvigorated.

Five hours can change your life. That’s how long my Seoul stopover lasted, from when I thought of going into town to when I arrived back at Incheon. Less time than my flight from Singapore had taken, and far less than the one to Seattle would. Those hours spent aloft are undistinguished in memory now, but not the five I invested in the future. Why the future? Now I have a new travel experience forever in my mind, a new reminder to take calculated risks, and a new country visited. No one can remove that stamp from my passport now, or undo the memories it signifies, or diminish the taste of that streetside sandwich.

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