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Machine generated postcard from Insadong in SeoulAfter my brother spent a long hard winter in the Republic of Korea we decided to take advantage of my wife’s recent business trip to Australia to go to visit him. This is the first in a short series of posts about my week in Korea.

I took a flight over to Seoul while my other half was in Melbourne and met my brother in the bustling capital of the south of the Korean peninsula. On her way back from Oz we met up with my wife in Seoul. I must say that having a globe trotting wife does have its advantages, mainly really cheap holidays half way across the world.

So where did we go?

We only had just over a week and …… there is so much to do and see in Korea that we really needed to reign in our ambitious plans for the week. We could have easily spent the whole time in Seoul, but that would have been a shame and I really wanted to see other parts of the country as well as visit the place where my brother lives.

So our plan was pretty simple:

  1. Spend plenty of time in Seoul – a truly massive city
  2. Visit the science city of Daejeon and the home of my brother
  3. See if we can get something else in if we have time – the town of Suwon as it turned out

We would have liked to get to have got to Busan or another of the big cities, but as we found out getting around was not as easy as we thought it should have been so we decided to cover as many of the sights as we could in the places that we visited.

I am going to post a number of more detailed posts on what we did and saw, some of which was amazing and some completely astounding. We did so many things that by the end I was shattered. I don’t think I have walked so much in a week even though we were using public transport (it is worth adding that the public transport is pretty good, but almost impossible to follow if you don’t speak Korean). Below are a few of my photos of some of the great things that we saw and did in a whistle stop summary of our visit.

In and around Seoul

When I arrived in Seoul I was staying the first few nights in a local sauna called a jjimjilbang. There was already talked about in a previous Korean Dispatches, but needless to say it was a pretty cool experience and super cheap.

For about £13 per night you get your own sleeping pod (see photo) and included in the price you get free access to the sauna, baths, steam rooms etc.. Actually you don’t need to spend so much and can still sleep there however the pod is good for having somewhere to put your bags whilst exploring the city. As I found out most people just come and sleep pretty much anywhere (sadly no photos as I thought it was a bit disrespectful). It was simple and not the most comfortable, but was a good intro to the Korea way of life that my brother had spoken to me about.

Inside a pod sleeping chamber

After I dumped my stuff I decided to wander around and see some sights. I was staying in Chungmuro, in central Seoul, a short walk from a traditional Hanok Village which was pretty impressive.

After wandering around for about 10 minutes I realised it was a reconstruction and not an original village from the Joseon Dynasty in the 16th Century, but a pretty good one at that. It really put into perspective the difference between modern and traditional Korea. From my short visit I found that Korea was a country of contrasts, as I am sure my brother had also told me numerous times. The picture I took from the village shows this contrast with the ultra-modern communications N-Seoul Tower in the background of the traditional wooden and brick Hanok buildings. Awesome!

The N-Seoul Tower itself was also well worth a visit giving a 360° view of the whole city. It is a massive, expansive city and you only really appreciate it from above with its hundreds of skyscrapers all intersected by the huge and majestic Han river. Well worth the 9000 won (about £6).

Traditional village meets hi-tech Seoul N-Tower

After seeing the village I decided to go and see something a bit more palacious and in Seoul there is nothing more so than the Gyeongbokgung Palace. It was possibly the most impressive building complex I saw in the country. Again stuck in the middle of a load of high-tech glass buildings with the huge avenue of Sejongno leading up to it and framed by the imposing Bukhansan mountain (site of a Presidential assassination attempt by the North) and its sister mountains that surround the city.

Admiral Yi Sun-Sin on Sejongno with Bukhansan in the background

You don’t even need to pay to see the changing of the guard at the palace and it is well worth it. After paying the 3000 won to get in (about £1.75) there is about 3 hours of ambling around the palace to be had before you start to saturate. The guards themselves I found fascinating, especially their facial hair which at first I thought was stuck or drawn on; I had to get up quite close and personal to work out if this was true or not – turns out it was real hair.

Gyeongbok(gung) Palace Guard

Inside the palace I spent about 20 minutes watching this kid playing. It was pretty cool to see the small child against the backdrop of the gates to the palace and the Seoul skyscrapers. The kids there were super cute and seemed a lot more innocent than the foul monsters that seem to pass for children in the UK.Technology meets history

Inside the palace there was a pavilion set in a small lake that in February when I went happened to be frozen and I really liked the effect of concrete that it gave with the massive Bukhansan mountain in the background. Visiting in winter does have its downsides however, mainly with the cold being pretty bloody Siberian cold and that most attractions and outdoor things (like roof terraces in cafes and restaurants) tend to be shut until April/May…

Bukhansan from Gyeongbokgung

After that I stumbled upon the Japanese Embassy, where I didn’t realise there was a situation going on and was steered away by some quite friendly yet forceful ROK police. It turns out the Koreans pretty much hate the Japanese, probably due to the centuries of invasions and persecution of the Korea people. This is still going on today with arguments over islands, but is perhaps most evident by the cultural and human atrocities that happened in WWII.

Cultural exploits during the daytimes segway into less cultural ones of the evening. Seoul is an awesome place to behold at night. The neon streets and nightlife are really super beautiful and there is so much of it that you keep getting surprised and amazed. It also goes on all night which is great if you are hungry for noodles or fancy getting some beer and chicken at 3am.

Typical neon street near Chungmuro

One of these amazing nightlife experiences in Seoul is the Gwangjang street-food market. I will write more about this later when I cover my food experiences in depth, but it was a great meal and very cheap and made even better by the bizarre conversation with a very drunk Korean man who was very keen to get to know a couple of English guys (although I am not sure he really understood what we were saying or that we were even British and not American). The mung bean and spinach pancakes were especially good washed down with some Korean beer.

Gwangjang market street food

As my brother already talked about the fermented cabbage (and other vegetables) side dish of kimchi is a massive part of Korean life. This is so much so that they have a museum dedicated to kimchi – the Kimchi Field museum. I visited this rather small museum and quite enjoyed it. It wasn’t amazing, but you could try a few different types and see the process by which they made it, so that was good.

Making Kimchi

I actually loved the stuff, but the best way to experience kimchi isn’t going to a museum, but eating what comes with every meal, everyday. However I am reliably informed that after 3 months this sentiment tends to die down and you end up longing for something slightly less garlicky with every meal.

It is worth adding that the Kimchi museum is in the COEX which itself is a quite impressive mega-mall. There are not many places in the world as big as this one if you want to shop ’til you drop – not really my cup of tea – but might float your boat.

So after the Kimchi Field museum we had a bit of a mission to recover my brother’s passport from his Director (he forgot to bring it to Seoul) that we could go on the USO tour of the DMZ and the JSA. This was an experience that at the time although I was a little hesitant about I was also very excited. It doesn’t do it justice to write a short piece here so needless to say more will come later as it is very timely with the increase in the North’s bellicose rhetoric.

North vs. South

One thing I was surprised about was that with the tensions on a pretty high alert it didn’t actually feel that bad going into the only tourist-visitable war zone on the planet. Considering it is only about 1 hour from Seoul it did seem strange that there wasn’t more fear from the ROK populous, but I suppose after 60+ years of having a shouty neighbour you just get used to it.

Back in Seoul we had to visit Gangnam. This place isn’t actually what I thought it would be. It turns out that Gangnam means anywhere south of the river Han in Seoul, which is basically half of the metropolitan city area, home to some 12.5 million people. There is however a Metro station called Gangnam and you can take photos in front of the rather garish sign below doing your own Gangnam-style dance. The place itself was rather disappointing apart from the great nightlife, but we were tired so didn’t really get to enjoy it as much as we would have liked.

Gangnam

There is one place in Gangnam that I was really keen to see that is a little off the beaten track. The Kukkiwon is the home of Taekwondo Korea’s national martial art. The building was completed in 1972 and is a rather simple arena dedicated to Taekwondo. Sadly there were no public demonstrations until April so we didn’t get to see any fighting action, but it is something that is worth seeing if you get a chance and entry is free of charge.   

We still got to wander around and take photos as it seemed to be completely deserted and got to touch the mats on the main fighting surface in the dojang. Quite cool!Kukkiwon

Also in the Gangnam area, not far from the Gangnam Metro stop is the Samsung D-light building. This is basically Samsung’s show room of the newest and most innovative products they sell or will be selling in the future. Sadly the coolest things I saw were things I couldn’t take home (I really liked the amazing fridges). If you want to check it out their site is here.

From technology to food again, the thing I enjoyed the most was Noryangjin Fish Market, the biggest fish market in Korea. It was truly amazing and teeming with squirming and flapping things from fish to seafood, some of which you could never imagine eating, let alone eating raw. More on this to follow, but one thing I love about this place was the fact that you could order in anything in the market and take it to a stall nextdoor and they will prepare it for you (cooked or not). Excellent, but not for the faint hearted.  It was also absolutely massive, the below not really doing it justice, probably about the size of 3 or 4 football pitches. Wow!

Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market

Talking of massive places we also went to the Technomart. This is one of the biggest malls dedicated to technology. Sadly the main products they sell now are either cameras, smart phones and white goods, which was a shame because I really wanted to take home some crazy gadget that is only found in Korea. I am going to have to rely on my brother to bring one of those back with him when he returns. If I could have got one in my suitcase I would have brought home a tech toilet, but 20 kg was the limit with Korean Airways.  

Probably my favourite part of Seoul was the trendy student area of Hongdae. It was full of students with a big university near by and was a great chilled out place to go out for beer, dancing and general fun. It was much better than the more American and Ex-Pat focused area of Itaewon (which was annoying due to all the American tourists and GIs). The shop below was typical of places in Hongdae, this one being entirely devoted to the sale of phallic protection…

The sights of Hongdae

The final place we went to was the other major palace, to the north east of Seoul, Changdeokgung Palace. It was not as showy as the bigger Gyeongbokgung, but was made especially good as the sun came out and the temperature went from 1° to 22° C which was nice. After you have seen one Korean palace you get a good feeling for what they are about, ornate buildings with relatively simple furnishings. The chap in the photo below had a great device to allow him to take photos of himself with things in the background, it was basically a camera on a stick – what a dude!!

Korean man takes self-portrait with camera on stick in front of palace

Outside Seoul – Daejeon and Suwon

Once we got outside Seoul we went to Daejeon which from a tourist’s point of view is relatively forgettable. It seems like a fun place to live, but had little to offer the fleeting visitor. However we did get out of the city and partook in the Korean national pastime, hiking, which allowed us to see the awesome Donghaksa Buddhist temple in the Gyeryongsan National Park. This is an all female monk temple and was truly beautiful and worth the walk and short bus ride from Daejeon.

Mountain temple near Daejeon

After leaving Daejeon and on the way back to Seoul we stopped in Suwon to visit the UNESCO Hwaseong Fortress which was a fitting finish to our Korean adventure. An amazing fortress in the middle of a city that again contrasts the traditional with the super modern.

Suwon Fortress

Hope you enjoy the photos!