South Korea: Ancient and Modern - 2014

Jump to Hanoi blog

24th October 2014 - Flight to Korea

I leave home at 9am and I'll be in Seoul about 24 hours later. The hardships I have to go through :-) Anyway down to Gatwick in plenty of time for my flight. First check-in. I've got myself an upgrade to Business Class with OptionTown but it is still subject to availability so fingers crossed ... and I'm in; business class upgrade from Gatwick to Hanoi. Champange as I get to my seat. What's that way off in front of me? It's the seat in front. Really nice lunch then settle down for the 11 hours to Hanoi. Didn't sleep much, but so much nicer than my usually cattle class seat.

25th October 2014 - Arriving in Seoul

By the time I get to Seoul, travel into the city and check-in it is already 7pm, about 26 hours since I left home yesterday morning. First impressions, a fantastic rail and underground system as you would expect and the city is quiet. Not that much traffic on the streets, not all that many people. Wandered into Insadong an area with plenty of restaurants where it was busier. Loads of great street food but tonight I went to a restaurant for some BBQ Pork and all the Korean trimmings. By trimmings I mean loads and loads of side dishes (Banchan). A clear soup, cabbage kimchi, radish kimchi, battered vegetables, steamed soft tofu with soy chili sauce, soy braised onion, a bean shoot dish and some dips and others I've probably forgotten. It was all great and very spicy, spicier than what I've had in the UK. Marvelous.

26th October 2014 - Seoul

When I go on holiday I end up going to lots of palaces and temples and climbing lots of hills. So today it was the old Royal Palace and climbed Namsan Hill. First up the Changdeokgung Palace (the Palace of Illustrious Virtue). It's sort of a mini-Forbidden City. Lots of Asian palacey buildings; built of wood, curly roofs, restored in a way which makes them look well maintained but still showing their age. They are 600 years old. The buildings are set in picturesque gardens with the surrounding hills in the background, lovely spot whether you believe in all the feng shui rubbish that influenced their design not.

Attached to the Changdeokgung Palace is the Secret Garden. This 78-acre Huwon (secret garden) was originally constructed for the use of the royal family and palace women. The garden incorporates a lotus pond, pavilions, and landscaped lawns, trees, and flowers. Generally you have to join a tour with a guide to look around but in Autumn you can walk around on your own and a good job too. There must have been nearly 100 people who turned up for the start of the English tour.

The garden was great. Being autumn all the trees have started to change colour and look fantastic. The reds, oranges etc. When I was walking around there were three locals in national dress walking around with a photographer. I thought I'd better point that out as in those big colourful dresses they look like the sort of national costume dolls you see in souvenir shops.

For lunch bibimbap a famous Korean dish which I think translates to mixed rice. I guess it originally was just a plate full of left overs but being Korea it now gets served in the correct mix of colours and flavours to give the right spiritual balance. From Wikipedia "Bibimbap ingredients are rich in symbolism. Black or dark colours represent North and the kidneys - for instance, shiitake mushrooms, bracken ferns or nori seaweed. Red or orange represents South and the heart, with chilli, carrots and jujube dates. Green represents East and the liver, with cucumber and spinach. White is West or the lungs, with foods such as bean sprouts, radish, and rice. And finally yellow represents the centre, or stomach. Foods include pumpkin, potato or egg." Of course it was served with a number of side dishes including kimchi.

After that I decided I needed a decent walk so I headed down to Namsan Hill. Namsan Hill is in the middle of Seoul and topped by the N Seoul Tower which looks down on the city. There is a cable car running up to the top at 860ft, but I walked up. Lots of steps, a real good work out and a great view from the top across Seoul to the hills behind.

At the top there is the N Seoul Tower, some restaurants, a few walking paths and some smoke stacks which were used as an emergency signaling system right up until 1985. I guess the hill is also a prime destination for young lovers. Like so many places around the world the crass love lock thing has taken hold. Fences covered in locks, sculptures covered in locks, 'trees' covered in locks. I bet the locks last a lot longer than the majority of the relationships. How many guys do you reckon have got a dozen or more locks up there?

Korean's love taking photos. Korean's seem to love taking photos with themselves in it. Step forward the 'Phone on a Stick'. They are everywhere. Some people seem to be walking around with it out in front of them videoing their every move.

27th October 2014 - Seoul

First up this morning the Jongmyo Shrine, the final resting place of the souls / spirits of the Korean kings. Once again you can only enter on a guided tour and only a couple of English tours a day. Just as yesterday I was very much in the minority on the English tour as a native English speaker. Germans, Dutch, Scandevavians, South Americans and many asians from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thialand, Cambodia ... Basically if you're not Korean and not Chinese (who have their own tours) you're on the English tour.

Anyway, another big green space with lots of traditional buildings. Supposedly the buildings have been standing since the 1500s but I suspect there has been more than a little rebuilding during that time. The tour ran through the history of the Joseon dynasty and then on to the spiritual stuff. Confucianism values the spirit and not the body after death so the bodies are just buried (returned to the ground) but the spirits are somehow captured in spirit tablets which are revered and kept in the shrine. The usual one walkway / gate etc. for the king and queen, one for the courtiers and one for the military. Symbolic trees, curly roofed buildings ad in this case a large sort of parade ground in front of the building in which the tablets are stored. All in all a really nice place to spend an hour.

Whenever you go into a restaurant over here all you can smell is kimchi. Fermented, pickled, spiced cabbage. It does taste pretty good, but I don't find it the most appetising smell. Anyway a boiling meal pot stew type thing for lunch, plus the obligatory side dishes and down to the Gyeongbokgung Palace. Yesterday's palace was where the Kings and Queens lived today's is the ceremonial palace I think where they host foreign dignitaries and held banquets I think. No compulsory tour here so I just wandered around and enjoyed the huge palace grounds and the sunshine. I made it just in time to catch the end of the changing of the guard. Very colourful and lots of big flags.

Unlike the other places I've visited so far most of this palace has been destroyed over time and the buildings do look like they've been recently rebuilt, not weathered like the shrine this morning. But they are impressive buildings and grounds. There is so much space, there are a lot of people walking around but doesn't feel crowded. If I came to Seoul again I would definitely bring a book and spend a whole day there. Ceremonial buildings, banqueting halls, lakes, there are also a few museums on site. Being rebuilt the place does feel a bit most touristy, almost theme park in places compared to the others. But it's an impressive theme park.

28th October 2014 - The DMZ

Today is all about my trip to The DMZ, the De-Militarised Zone. The 4km strip of land between North and South Korea which ironically is one of the most militarised areas in the world. I booked on the tour which is run in conjunction with the USO (United Service Organizations) as it is the only one which goes into the US military camp, actually go into the DMZ and right up to and a few steps over the border.

But first a few stops just outside the DMZ as appetisers before the main course. We started at Tunnel 3, the 3rd of 4 tunnels the South Koreans have found which had been dug under the DMZ from the North. We got to walk down an access tunnel to 75m below the surface and then to walk to within 120m of the border underground. A bit cramped down there in the tunnel which had been cut out of solid rock. With the reinforcement struts it meant me walking quite crouched not to bang my head. Amazing how they managed to dig so far or in fact dynamite a tunnel so far.

Next stop Dorasan station. The last station in South Korea on the railway line into North Korea. A line which was intended to run all the way through to Pyeongyang and on into China. It was built when relations between North and South were better. But it never ran any further than the Kaesong Industrial Region and currently doesn't run north at all. It was funded by private money in South Korea manly people who have relatives in the North with the hope that it would be used for family visits. Maybe one day it will.

We then headed up to the Dora Observatory which is on a hill on the edge of the DMZ and gives views across into the North. It was a good day but still pretty hazy. Looking across the DMZ to the bare hills of North Korea. Supposedly all the trees were cut down so that they can easily spot people trying to defect.

Things we can see are the 'Freedom Village' in the South Korean DMZ (small white flag on the right) and the 'Propaganda 'Village' (even smaller looking, but in fact bigger dark flag on the left) in the North Korean DMZ. Can also see the Kaesong Industrial Region and the high razor wire fences of the edge of the DMZ (front and centre).

Now it's time for the DMZ itself. We drove to Camp Bonifas the United Nations Command military post located 400 meters south of the southern DMZ boundary. Here we transferred to a special military bus to travel into the JSA area. But first we had to sign a waiver to acknowledge we were going into a dangerous area and listened to a talk from a US military guy giving us some history and some rules for our trip which are basically do what we are told and only take pictures when they say we can and then only pointing north. We can photograph North Korean buildings but not the South Korean ones.

We drove up to the border area and the JSA (Joint Security Area). Here we went into the negotiation room which straddles the border where we could 'step into North Korea'. The guy in the picture is standing at the end of the negotiating table so basically has one foot on each side of the border.

There hasn't actually been any meetings here in years so the area is only used for tours at the moment. When there are tours from the south the North Koreans stay back in the distance and I guess the reverse is true when there are North Korean tours. The only North Korean we saw is in the picture below in the left hand door way the the top of the steps. In front you can see the negotiating rooms and some South Korean troops. Half way down the blue buildings you can see a concrete strip on the ground, that is the border.

Next up a guard post down the road right on the egde of the border which incedentally is just marked by white pegs spaced along the ground like out-of-bounds markers on a golf course. From here we could see much more clearly the 'Propaganda Village, the 160m high flag pole and 600 pound flag. The North Korean government say that the village contains a 200-family collective farm, serviced by schools, and a hospital. However, observation from the South suggests that the town is an uninhabited with most of the houses just having painted on doors and windows.

On the way out of the DMZ we passed the 'Bridge of No Return' used for prisoner exchanges at the end of the Korean War in 1953. The name comes from the claim that many war prisoners captured by the US did not wish to go back. The prisoners were brought to the bridge and given the choice to remain in South Korea or cross over to the North. However, if they crossed the bridge, they would never be allowed to return.

All in all a fun and interesting day and I managed to avoid any diplomatic incidents which is a bonus!

29th October 2014 - To Sokcho

Time to leave Seoul and head out into the rest of South Korea. First up across to the east coast to Sokcho. Described as being the gateway to Seoraksan National Park but despite this it feels like a fishing town rather than tourist town.

I got the express bus from Seoul and was in my hotel next the the bus station soon after 2pm. Sokcho is quiet. A nice little beach and lots of open space although across the lake from where I'm staying it does look like a big town. I had a wander along the beach and then around the lake which is actually an enclosed harbour. The sun was shining, it's about 18 degrees, beautiful; 10 moths with only 2 days of holiday I really miss finding places like this and exploring them. The sign below was a like worrying though; it's basically saying that in the event of a tsunami you will end up 1km in that direction!

Sokcho is definitely a fishing town, fresh fish everywhere. The local delacacies are raw fish (you choose the live fish and it's on your plate in minutes) and squid sundae. No squid sundae is not an ice cream but a form of sausage. But instead of using pig intestine they use a squid. The squid is stuffed with noodles, chopped squid, tofu and vegetables it's then fried and served sliced. Definitely be looking out for it tonight. I walked past a warehouse on the docks this afternoon and it looks like they are plenty of squid for them to stuff.

I ended up going out too late (after 8pm) to get much choice of restaurant. Most restaurants over here seem to be closed at 9pm. So I struggled to find anywhere that wasn't empty. I ended up finding somewhere and had fried fish. The squid sundae will have to wait for another day.

30th October 2014 - Seoraksan NP

The reason for coming across to Sokcho is to visit Seoraksan National Park, 40,441 acres of hills, rivers, trees and Ulsan Bawi Rock which I hiked up today. From the sigh above "Ulsan Bawi extends along an east-west axis in the northeast corner of Seoraksan NP. Its spectacular profile is often referred to as the face of Seoraksan Mountain. The huge slab of rock rises 873m above sea level ..."

873m above sea level and where I started from wasn't very many metres above sea level at all. The hike started off following the river up a valley so a nice gentle incline to start with. The path wound its way up through the trees which were in full Autumn colour, this really is the best time of the year to be here.

Along the way up you pass a few temples and other interesting sights, but the most noteworthy is Heundeulbawi. This is a large rock that looks like it will roll off the cliff with just a slight push. But of course it's there to stay despite every hiker getting their picture take giving it a push. It's a nice spot but not quite the Golden Rock from my Burma trip last year.

Anyway onwards and upwards and the big rock itself does start to get closer ... and steeper.

This is one of the most popular hiking tracks in Korea ad the Koreans do love hiking. The track is great really well defined and either rocky with the odd wooden block strategically placed to help you up the big steps or as you get closer to the rock more and more metal walkways. There is a lot of climbing steps whether rock or metal up, up, up. But as usual on these treks it just makes me realise how much fitter than most people I am. Despite carrying twice th weight of most people I seem to be going up easier and recovering quicker at 'photo stops' than everyone else :-)

I as you would expect I made it to the top and there was a great view both out over the Seoraksan NP and down on Sokcho. I picked a lovely day for it, a bit hazy but beautiful clear blue sies. I hung around for a while, lay in the sun and read my book before heading back down.

I knoww some of you must have been getting a little worried. You're in Asia but where's Buddha? After last year where there was a Buddha on every corner they are not quite so plentiful here. Korean is about a third Confusionist, a third Buddhist and a third the rest (mainly Christian). Anyway for those of you wanting a Buddha here is a particularly fine one I passed on the hike. It was at Sinheung-Sa, Korea’s oldest Zen temple, founded in 652AD.

After lunch I took the cable car up a different peak and had a bit of a hike around up there. More great views including one back to Ulsan Bawi. No wonder my legs are tired, it does look quite high.

31st October 2014 - Sokcho

It's a good job I did the hike yesterday as today it's a bit misty / hazy. So I took a walk around the lake to the main part of the town and to the fish market. There sure is a lot of fish in this town.

For lunch today I had the squid sundae. The stuffed squid sliced up and fried coated in egg. It was served with chilli soy sauce and wasabi. It was nice but a little bit too fatty and fried for my liking.

Sokcho is a bit like the town in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs but instead of sardines Sokcho has squid. It's everywhere. Live squid, stuffed squid, fried squid and the squid cartoon character which is all over the place.

1st November 2014 - To Jeju

My one all day travel day today. Sokcho to Seoul and then a flight from Seoul to Jeju Island which is off the south of South Korea. By the time I had taken the bus to Seogwipo where I'm staying it was time for a beer, some Korea BBQ and bed.

One wierd thing on the plane; the cabin crew played a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors with the passengers for prizes. The steward stood at the front and everyone put their fists in the air. 1-2-3 choose. Anyone who loses puts their hands down. Repeat until there are two people left and they play each other for the prize. Maybe this is what BA needs to get passenger numbers up.

2nd November 2014 - Jeju

A day of two waterfalls today. Jeongbang Waterfall which they describe as the only waterfall in Asia to fall directly into the sea and Cheonjiyeon Waterfall. Both were quite scenic and in nice settings, gave me a good excuse for a decent walk but I guess I've been spoilt having seen Victoria Falls, Iguazu Falls and the waterfalls in Iceland.

One of the reasons for coming to Jeju was to climb Hallasan the volcano which dominates the island but it was shrouded in cloud today and probably will be again tomorrow so I've decided not to do the 9 hours round trip trek on the off chance of a break in the clouds. Jeju is one of the '7 Natural Wonders of the World' which I think is over stating it a bit, but Jeju has plenty of other stunning scenery to explore now I just have to decide what.

3rd November 2014 - Jeju (Seongsan)

Decided to climb a volcano anyway; not Hallasan but Seongsan which is off the east coast of Jeju. It is a smallish volcano linked to Jeju but surrounded by sea on three sides. As with other hikes in Korea it is very organised with a walkway up and down. Lots of steps but it didn't take long to get to the top. It really is a proper volcano sloping up on all sides and with a rim and depression in the middle This is about the best shot I could get at the top.

After lunch of a huge fried mackerel (+ banchan) I walked along the coast path for a while to get some good photos of the volcano from the base. A nice walk along the black volcanic sand, would have been better if it wasn't so windy on Jeju.

4th November 2014 - To Busan

Today is another travel day, back around the island and a flight back to the mainland and Busan, South Korea's second biggest city. Amazing flying back along the south coast, thousands upon thousands of islands. Many look inhabited and there are lots of bridges connecting them. Busan is a very busy port so lots of large ships ploughing their way forwards and back as well.

South Korea is quite expensive in most cases London sort of prices. Food and drink similar prices, public transport and entrance fees much cheaper. Hotels are quite expensive but there are two options to keep the price down, hostels and 'Love Motels'. The guide books all recommend Love Motels so it's my time to book into one. I'm sure some of you are already ahead of me but here goes anyway. These are places that can be booked for a short period of time for people to 'rest'. Often for young couples who still live at home with their parent or more improper liaisons. They ask for no ID, you pay through a little window so the person behind can't see who is taking the room. You get a welcome pack containing tooth brushes, a razor and some condoms. These places are everywhere, big neon signs outside and pictures of their themed rooms.

You can also book for longer periods and many are now going up market and targeting tourists as well. Anyway, I'm checked in (booked via that's how respectable it's become) the room is big and clean and tidy. Computer, big TV, fridge, kettle, tea/coffee air-con. Just like a normal hotel room only much cheaper. Rooms are advertised as soundproofed so shouldn't hear any 'resting' going on in neighbouring rooms.

5th November 2014 - Busan

A quiet night's sleep and today got to see quite bit of Busan. One disadvantage of a Love Motel is that you can't go down to reception and get tourist advice or maps so mapless I did get a bit lost now and again. Busan is a city set amongst some big hills and I mean amongst. Loads of big hills covered in trees right inside the city and the buildings just sit in the valleys between them. Today I went up Mt. Geumjeongsan, I cheated on the way up by using the cable car. At the top are some temples and a fortress which really is just a wall encircling an area on the top with four gates in it.

Korean's really do like their hiking and they have all the gear. Everyone looks prepared for a week long hike. Designer gear, lycra, gore-tex, expensive looking hiking boots, many have hats and gloves, most have walking poles. I was hiking around in cut-off cargo pants, a tee-shirt and Teva sandals. I got a few looks especially as I was going past them as the struggled up some of the inclines.

I hiked the 800m down; quite a rocky path down through the trees. Beautiful. I did look for a temple which Lonely Planet describes as hard to find, but I didn't find it.

Next I headed to the Jagalchi Fish Market the biggest in Korea. It is huge, fish everywhere, live, dead, fresh, smoked, some I recognise lots I don't. Loads of octopus trying to clamber their way out of their tanks, many succeeding. Upstairs is a restaurant area. You can buy fish downstairs and take it up for them to kill and cook up for you or you can do what I did and just order off of their menus.

Restaurants in Korea are rubbish if you are travelling alone. All the best stuff on the menu is for two or more people. Served in banquets, in big bowls of soup or stew or supersized mixed grills of meat or fish. Even Pizza Hut only do medium and large pizzas, no small pizzas for one. The restaurants in the fish market all seemed to serve meals for two, but Jackie talked me into eating at his restaurant by offering to do any meal half size. I went for the spicy fish stew and some tuna. The fish stew had two whole fish in it which were really tasty but not the easiest things to eat with chop sticks.

Last up Yongdusan Park and the Busan Tower. A 120m tower which looks out over the city and the harbour. Great views which shows just how many hills there are and how big the harbour is.

As it was already 5pm I hung around for an hour for the sun to go down to see the city lit up. A great end to the day.

6th November 2014 - Busan

A lazy last day in Korea. I headed down to the Heaundae area, home to Korea's most famous beach and 'a favorite for tourists and expats'. A lovely day, blue sky and warm yet the beach is empty. Probably too cold for the Koreans but like a summer's day in the UK. I wandered up and down the beach, sat and read and had a lovely Thai meal a nice change from Korean. An added bonus was to be able to eat with a fork.

South Korea has been great and it's been a great time of year to visit. Very few other tourists about but the weather has been perfect. The scenery is amazing, it's so easy to get around and generally hassle free.

It's also nice that they give such good advice to their citizens. If there is a tsunami don't go to the beach, can't argue with that.

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