Flight to South Korea

Hello readers! I’m currently in South Korea due to some personal matter and I just want to say that I’m amazed at the length the South Korean government is trying to take to make sure everyone, residents of Korea as well as travelers, are safe during this pandemic. In this post, I will summarize my trip from San Diego to Busan, and the process at the airport to my trip to Busan.

Flights. There wasn’t a direct flight to Korea from San Diego so I had to take a domestic flight to Seattle for a transfer. For internationally flights, I usually try to get to the airport 2 hours early and use the lounge if I’m left with lots of time. My first flight was using Alaska Airlines. I tried using the kiosk but since I was connecting to an international flight, I had to use the desk. The agent was super friendly, spoke clearly through the mask, and helped me check in. There was no line so I thought maybe there isn’t a lot of traveler. Boy, was I wrong. Once I was in the terminal, that is where I saw all the travelers. The stores and restaurants were full and lively. The lounges were all closed so maybe that contributed to the busy terminal.

There were signs on the airport terminal chairs on which seat to leave empty for social distancing. And solo travelers were abiding by the signs but family/friends traveling together were sitting together. The area near by gate was crowded and I figured that the flight might be full and I was correct. Every single seat, including the middle seat, was taken. The airline provided limited service in air for safety and requested that everyone on board keep their mask on during the flight. The crew walked around and if there were people who lowered their mask, they politely asked them to put it back on correctly. Luckily, my flight did not have any passengers who argued with the crew and it was a peaceful ride.

Once at Seattle, I had to check in with Asiana Airline for my international flight. They told me that I would have the whole row to myself and the flight was very empty. While checking in, they asked me to sign a form called “Agreement to Facility Quarantine”. I explained to the agent that I was staying in a place that my parents have prepared. The agent told me that I would have to explain my situation once in Korea but to board the flight, I would have to sign it. So I reluctantly did. The form had information on the 14 day mandatory quarantine measures, including the cost. After I signed the form, I was able to get my boarding pass.

There was only 1 lounge open (The CLUB at SEA) and they were also doing their best to social distance. For instance, all food was pre-packed and the food area was roped off. You had to ask a worker for the food and they would put it on the side table for you to pick up. They also had blue ropes on chairs to indicate which seat to keep empty for social distancing. The choices for the day were hummus with veggies, pita, cheese, fruit, and soup. The lounge was also empty when I visited and I was able to relax and stretch a bit before the long flight.

Because of the low number of passengers, the boarding process seemed short. And as mentioned before, I had the whole row to myself and the row in front of me was also left empty. The crew on board wore mesh covers, gloves, clear glasses, and masks, fully covering up for safety. They also asked people to keep their mask on at all times, excluding meal time, and to stay in our seats as much as possible.

I thought they would have limited services, similar to domestic flights, but they had regular service. They handed out their regular amenity, thin slippers and toothbrush and tooth paste. They also provided 2 meals (first meal was bibimbap! My favorite inflight meal. 2nd meal was chicken and potato) with drinks and came around frequently with trays of water and juice. I asked them to fill my water bottle and they were able to do so in the galley.

For entry documents, they added 1 more: Travel Record Declaration. They document had QR codes to 2 apps to download for the duration of my stay in Korea. I filled the form with my normal answers (eg. writing my parent’s address in the “address of residence”)

Once off the plane, there were 4 checkpoints leading to the baggage pick up area for international travelers. The 1st checkpoint was to download and setup the app. Since the Travel Record Declaration form had 2 QR codes, I assumed we had to download the 2 apps but it looked like they condense the app to one and only needed to download. There were banners with the correct QR code and an agent helping people download it. Once the app was downloaded, the agents at the checkpoint helped me fill in the information and told me not to exit the app because it will refresh and clear the information.

At the 2nd checkpoint, they verified the information written in the Travel Record Declaration form and the quarantine app. Since I was quarantining at a place my parent’s setup, I couldn’t use my parent’s home address but had to write down the address of where I would be under quarantine. They also called my parent’s to make sure the address was correct and to check if I was in fact their daughter. Once you pass, you got a Health Screening Certificate for the next checkpoint.

The 3rd checkpoint was the regular arrival checkpoint. They took my picture and fingerprints here and handed me the Entry Confirmation. Normally, it would end here but since I was not staying at the Quarantine Facility setup by the government, I had to go through one more checkpoint. At the 4th checkpoint, they asked for Family Registration Form (가족증명서), an official government documentation that verifies the immediate family tree. This was something that I only found out once I got to Korea and had to ask my parents to send it to me quick. Luckily my dad had a copy of it in his phone and he was able to send it to me right away. Please prepare this before arriving at the airport!

After the 4 checkpoints, I was free to claim my bags and left the area, only to find more checkpoints. There were 2 agents, fully covered, collecting the Certificate and asking where I would be quarantining. There were multiple areas that were directing people to different airport exits for different regions. Since I was going to Busan, they told me to go all the way to the end and follow signs for the KTX train. The international travelers who were staying in the Facilities were given lanyards and taken to a waiting area for their own bus.

The KTX area for regions outside of Seoul was on the other side of the airport so it was a bit of a walk. And on my way to the designated area, there were several restaurants and cafes that were open. I usually pick up my sim card at the CU convenient store and luckily, it was on the way. If you are staying in Korea for short period of time, I would recommend the sim card here and you can preorder for pickup from their website. Plus, grab some snacks and drinks! The convenient stores in Korea are definitely worth a visit.

Once at the designated area, there were more agents here asking where my final destination was. I told them Busan and they told me to wait for the next bus to take us to the train station. They told me that usually the bus operates 20-30 minutes but the there was a union strike that made it 40-50 minutes. And since the bus was coming from terminal 2 (half full), it can only take 15 people from terminal 1. Luckily, I was the last of that 15 and was able to get on the next bus.

They packed the transportation bus full and took us to the Gwangmyeong train station, which was about 40 minutes away. We entered from one side of the station and it looked like they closed the area to the public and was only using the entrance for international travels. Once inside the station, we had to purchase 2 tickets: the bus transportation from the airport (12,000 won) and the train ticket. My ticket to Busan was 54,000 won and I could not get on the earliest train and had to wait a little less than 2 hours for the next train.

TIP: In the waiting area, there were vending machines but not a lot of choices. A lot of it was empty since I arrived later in the evening. So please visit the restaurants/cafes/convenient stores inside the airport because taking the bus to the train station!

When we boarded the train, we were told to not worry about our seat numbers and just take any seat inside the train. There were 2 carriages that were only for international travelers and we had so much space. Everyone was good about keeping 6 ft apart and sat in various seats and we were told to keep our luggage on seats were weren’t using (I think they were trying to use luggage as indicator for spacing).

Once we arrived at Busan airport, we again separated into 2 groups: a group for people who had someone picking them up and a group for people who needed taxis (duribal). My mom was already at the station so I got in my respective line. We were led to the testing area and had to fill out more forms. We had to write down our contact information, our quarantine address (even if it was a hotel), and emergency contact. This was where I got my first test in Korea. They did both the throat and nose swab and told me that I would get my results tomorrow.

Once the test was over, an agent had to escort me to my mom’s car and gave her warnings about the quarantine. My mom and I were not to touch each other, we had to keep our masks on in the car, and she could only drop me off at my quarantine location. We followed the rules and she dropped me off and left promptly. If you were to take a taxi to your next location (quarantine location), there were duribal taxis waiting for people.

I arrived in Incheon around 5:30pm and got to my quarantine house at 1am. It took a long time but I was glad that they were taking the measures to keep everyone safe.

[Day 13] Off to Uyuni

We woke up early in the morning, packed up, and headed to the airport at 6:30am. The hotel was able to get us a taxi fairly quick. The city of La Paz at sunrise was beautiful. The pink tone building with the early morning light was a sight to see. The road was clear so we were able to get to the airport in no time. Check in was a breeze too and headed to grab some breakfast.

Not all the restaurants in the airport were open and we had limited options. And since we were in Bolivia, I wanted to try something Bolivian. So I got Huminta, a Bolivian style tamale, and Tikimanas, a Bolivian style empanada. They were both really flavorful and filling. I actually couldn’t finish both of them because of their size. I didn’t realize how big they would be. But my travel companions were there to help me. For both, it was 17.5 bol. Not bad for breakfast at the airport.

The airport was so small that even the check point took only about 5 minutes and they didn’t take my water away. Once we were inside, we wanted for our boarding time. It was interesting since the boarding time was the same as the last call. There were a lot of people getting to the gate at the last minute, including us!

The plane that we took was really small and the ride was pretty bumpy. Once we got to Uyuni airport, we all got off at the tarmac. The Uyuni airport was TINY. It was the smallest airport I’ve seen. They did not even have a baggage claim belt. It was just this one corner they used as the baggage claim area. They don’t check tags or anything so keep your eyes open for your bag.

We took a taxi from the airport to our hotel. The interesting thing at Uyuni was that the taxi charges per person! So they try to fill the car up before leaving. The cost from the airport was 10 bol per person. With that, no one has to worry about if you are getting cheated on your taxi fare.

I wanted to try something new while at Uyuni and decided to stay at the salt hotel. We stayed at Hotel de Sal – Casa Andina. This is not the famous salt hotel but it had salt components in the hotel and the location was decent. We were a bit early for check in, so we left our luggage here and headed to book our tours.

There were several different tour agencies in Uyuni that specialized in Salt Flat tours. We decided to go with Brisa Tours. They had a tour with a photographer (extra cost) and I wanted some good photos with the stars. I had never done night photography before and since I was already here, I thought I wanted to get some nice photos.

At these tour agencies, they have papers outside that have different type of tours that are available and how many people can sign out. Anyone can come and write their name down and pay inside to make the reservation. We planned on doing the “Sunset + starlight” tour with Photographer As, who was part of Brisa Tours. The tour itself was 130 bol and we had to pay the photographer extra $120.

After we booked our tour, we decided to venture around a bit and grab something to eat before heading out on the tour. We found the local market and noticed that it was very similar to Peru’s market. And while following our nose, we found a fried chicken booth on the back side of the market. It was a bit hidden but those are the best, right?

The fried chicken was amazing! It was close to a chicken cutlet since it was so flat. It came with rice and veggie and the best part. It was only 8 bol.

After our meal, one of my travel companion decided to cut all our hairs! She is a hair designer in South Korea and she brought most of her tools to volunteer in Peru and Bolivia. I wanted to go super short and she just chopped it all off! After my hair cut, she asked around the hotel to see if anyone else wanted a cut and ended up cutting the receptionist’s hair too.

Our tour was at 3pm so after our haircuts, we headed back to the agency. They had a 8 seater van waiting for us. We drove about 20 minutes outside the city to this house to pick up rainboots and drove another 40 minutes to the salt flats. The ride was bumpy and we were told that some parts of the salt flats have sink holes so we all have to be careful. At first, the area was just dry flats and I was really worried we wouldn’t see water since it was dry season. But once we were out there, the view just made me speechless.

The weather was just spectacular with no clouds in sight. Also, the wind wasn’t too strong so we were able to get some good reflections. There was enough water to make the reflection too. Even though it was dry season, the tour agencies all know how far to go in to get the water so you do not need to worry about it.

It was just so pretty! When we got there, it was still very bright. But the sun started to set and the view just became even more amazing. The colors of the sunset seemed different here. And it really felt like we were the only ones here. It was so quiet, so surreal. I took the time to just bask in the sun.

Once the sun was gone, we had to wait for the stars to come up. I wasn’t sure if we would be able to see a lot of stars because the moonrise timing wasn’t that great for us. But slowly, stars were coming out and I was surprised that we were able to see so much of it with our naked eyes.

You could even see the Milky Way with your eyes. This picture was taken with my camera (Sony 5a) on a tripod on a timer. No filter whatsoever. Our photographer brought props that made the photos more interesting. The stars were just memorizing. I couldn’t believe I could see so much with my eyes. When I wasn’t taking photos, I was just looking up in awe. And the camera doesn’t do it justice. It was more mysterious in person and I cannot recommend the Starlight tour enough!

And one thing for sure. Make sure to wear layers or bring more clothes. Especially socks! While taking photos, we had to take off our shoes to get on the roof of the vehicle and in the process, our clothes, mostly our socks, got wet. So next time, extra socks! Also, it was extremely cold outside. Cold enough that my camera lens froze and wouldn’t focus. I had to take it inside the van to heat it up a bit before taking more photos.

After all the photos, we headed back to Uyuni. Even though it was late, everyone was so excited to have seen such a view that we kept talking about it. I definitely was amazing and worth it. I was not 100% satisfied with the pictures I took because it was my first time but it is a learning curve.

I did not plan much of Uyuni because everyone had said that everything is up to chances and luck. You might get lucky with day time weather, but not with night time weather. I heard so much of “what if” that I wanted to give myself a lot of buffer to work with.

I was debating doing a full day tour but I decided to wait to see what my body thinks the next day.