Fire and Ice: Apartment Building Fire and Hot Spring Resort
First off, let me just say that we’re OK. We’re safe and there was no damage to our apartment.
Last weekend, Alex and I went on our first trip outside of Seoul (but still in Korea). We decided to “escape” the cold weather by going to a hot springs resort for the day. We took a direct bus from the East Seoul Bus Terminal to Termeden, a “German-style” hot spring resort, located in Icheon. Upon arrival, we were given two tickets assigning our locker numbers (one for 남자 or man, and the other for 여자 or woman). The first thing we had to do was take off our shoes and carry them to small shoe lockers (on either the men’s or women’s side). After putting away our shoes, we took out the key (which also has a smart chip in it so that we could charge meals and other extraneous items to our account) and proceeded to the locker rooms. Prior to the locker rooms, there was a line of people, holding out their smartphones. For only 3,300 won, you can have your phone vacuum bagged in plastic, so that you can take it with you into the water. Yes, we paid to have my phone waterproofed… but the pictures came out blurry.
As soon as I walked into the lady’s locker room, I was surrounded by naked women of all ages, strutting their stuff. Well, not strutting. But they were definitely all very comfortable walking around naked. I, on the other hand, was mortified! I knew that all traditional Korean saunas, Jjimjilbang (찜질방), are gender segregated for THAT reason, but I didn’t expect the women to be leisurely walking around naked. Some were blow-drying their hair while naked, and others were putting on make-up naked! At the very rear of the locker room were a set of doors that lead to a nude pool and hot tub, as well as rows upon rows of showers. The towels that were provided were the size of a dishtowel… big enough to dry off with, but small enough to not be able to cover anything! After I found the corresponding locker to my key, I gingerly put on my bikini, rinsed quickly, and met Alex on the other side.
There were SO many people in the indoor bade pool. Tons of women and children. I guess that’s what we get for going on a weekend? We got into the pool (warm) and made our way to the outdoor section of the pool. The water became noticeably warmer, and the cold air felt good on our faces. There were slightly fewer people in the outdoor pool, but not by much, since there were water slides for the kids. The first thing we noticed when we finally settled down was that Koreans wear clothes into the water. Not just t-shirts for the men, but long-sleeved dry-fit shirts, zip-up hoodies (??), coverups, and jean shorts for the ladies. We saw so many girls wearing jean shorts into the water. [At first we thought we were seeing “never-nudes” – reference to the T.V. show “Arrested Development”, but that couldn’t be the case because a). We saw so many, b). They were clearly not bashful in the locker room.] I guess there’s a double standard when it comes to girls showing their bodies: In the summertime, girls here wear the shortest little miniskirts imaginable, but at the pool, they are all of a sudden “shy” and cover up their entire bodies. We only saw a handful of girls wearing only bikinis, like myself. And most men had t-shirts on. I wonder if it’s the same at the beach? Anyway, I felt pretty scandalous wearing only a bikini, but I didn’t pack anything else!
We eventually left the outdoor pool when our faces got too cold, and headed inside for lunch. We “paid” with our locker key, and settled down to a decent lunch of udon noodles and the Korean version (Jajangmyeon 짜장면) of Chinese noodles. Alex liked the cafeteria because there was unlimited kimchi! 🙂 After lunch, we went into the “resting room”, pulled up a mat, and took a nap on the floor. There were a couple of older gentlemen who were clearly enjoying their after lunch nap (snoring). I was too cold from my wet bathing suit to sleep too much, so after 20 minutes, we went back to the pool area.
This time, we tried both the indoor “Western” sauna as well as the outdoor “Korean” sauna, which looks like a stone hut (full of people). We also squeezed into two of the three scented hot tubs (blueberry, lemon, pomegranate), which felt REALLY good after walking outside just 10 seconds. After just a couple of seconds, my feet felt frozen. There was even ice slush along the paths between the outdoor pool, sauna, and hot tubs! The hot tubs very relaxing, despite being shoulder to shoulder with twenty other people! I can even imagine the hot tubs being romantic, if there had been fewer people… Then, we tried the Dr. Fish foot treatment (best 10,000 won ever spent!).
We immersed our feet into a tank of tiny fish, who enjoy nibbling away at dead skin. At first, I couldn’t stand the feeling because it tickled so much, but we quickly got used to (and started to enjoy) the feeling. To me, it felt like bees buzzing around my feet. I thought my feet were becoming numb, but as soon as we stepped out of the tank, the “numbness” went away.
When it was time to leave, we did the same locker room process in reverse. Alex said he embraced the nudist culture in the locker room and walked around naked as well! When we went to the shoe lockers, we discovered our keys no longer worked. We had to pay first, and then the keys for the shoe lockers were activated. Clever! They know you really can’t walk out without your shoes on…
Alex and I enjoyed a nice Italian dinner (really good food, especially for Korea!) after we returned to Seoul. It was a great way to celebrate our anniversary!
Our feet STILL feel great from the Dr. Fish! Alex suggested that we invest in a tank of fish ourselves…
A couple days ago, one of our friends, who also lives in our building complex, told me that she and her fiance saw a small fire downstairs, in one of the restaurants downstairs. She said the fire department was already taking care of it. I didn’t think much of it until a few minutes later, when I smelled smoke. I opened the front door and was greeted by a VERY smoky hallway. Panicked, I went to our Korean neighbor’s apartment. She called the front desk, who said that things were under control, and to just wait upstairs. Well, our apartments were getting really smoky by now, and we could see many firetrucks downstairs. One of our other friends called and said that they had just escaped downstairs and that we should evacuate the building. Alex grabbed Noodles and stuffed him in a carrier, and the four of us (neighbor and her daughter) ran down 30+ flights of stairs (I was starting to get dizzy). We had to use scarfs to cover our noses, because the smoke was so bad! Once downstairs, we reunited with a group of our friends who also live in the apartment complex. The people who live in the adjacent building had faces and clothing covered in black soot. The fire department started asking the people downstairs if we knew of anyone person (or animal) who was still upstairs. One of the guards at our apartment had apparently run upstairs to retrieve someone’s dog, and as he exited the building with the dog, he collapsed from smoke inhalation! Our friends had to run upstairs to rescue their dog. As far as we know, all the residents are “ok” but there were 20 something people hospitalized for smoke inhalation. One woman was stuck in the elevator for 40 minutes, and is still in critical condition at the hospital. (From this experience, we’ve learned that Koreans aren’t trained for fires. They didn’t know to use the stairs, not elevator! Even my neighbor pressed the elevator button before I told her we needed to take the stairs!!)
We waited outside and then in a coffee shop next door for two hours, until we were told it was safe to go back into our apartment building (the others had to wait even longer). Our apartment smelled of smoke, but it wasn’t that bad because we left the windows open. It was just very cold. The other building (where the fire actually started) had really bad smoke and soot everywhere. Our friends in those apartment buildings have been cleaning their apartments for the last few days, but the soot just keeps appearing. They’ve found soot in kitchen cabinets AND the cabinet doors were shut during the fire.
Apparently, the fire started in a restaurant downstairs, but quickly turned into an electrical fire (still under investigation). The buildings maybe weren’t built correctly because there were no firewalls installed. The builder may have also used some improper materials, as the fire grew very quickly. The worst thing is: the fire alarms never went off. We have a handful of fire/smoke alarms installed in our apartment, but nothing went off. The residents of the other building, where the smoke was especially bad, said their alarms never went off either. Out of a total of over 400 apartment units, not a single alarm went off. There was just one announcement, in Korean, saying to go up to the roof.
Yesterday, we attended a residents’ meeting, to discuss our concerns (well, the Koreans voiced their concerns). People are very angry and upset: That the alarms didn’t work, that there was so much soot, that you need an apartment keycard to exit the stairwell (in emergencies the doors should automatically unlock), that it’ll take a week for the professional cleaning crew to clean everyone’s apartment. There’s now a formal investigation to figure out why the alarms didn’t go off and to look into the building materials. If this were the U.S., people would already have started their lawsuits!!! I guess not in Korea! We also learned that renter’s insurance isn’t available in this country. The owner’s insurance covers up to 2 million won, which is roughly 2,000 USD, which doesn’t even cover the basic appliances in each apartment!
Needless to say, we’re all a bit shaken by the fire. We’re lucky that this fire wasn’t very serious and that we’re all safe, AND that it has exposed flaws in the buildings that need to be fixed. The Korean residents are pushing for answers. In the meantime, we are looking into getting our own battery operated smoke detector to place near the front door. And we’ve prepared a better exit strategy, just in case. Hopefully there will be no “next time” but if there is, we’re better prepared for it.