Trip to South Korea 2006
All travel reports are translated electronically although minor improvements are sometimes made.
Trip to South Korea 2006
South Korea was a great experience. Seoul, where I spent most of my time has a lot to offer. It is a lively, modern metropolis with admirable royal palaces dating back several centuries. They delight with interesting architecture of the region, they have nice gardens, and encourage people to get interested in Confucianism. Besides, a trip to South Korea is always a culinarly trip. Koreans have a lot of sophisticated, colorfoul dishes. Very popular in Korea are European-style eye plastic surgeries and skin whitening creams. I also saw a dog in shoes and was at an impressive fish market.
Travel route: Inchon – Seoul – Pusan - Inchon
From Inchon to Seoul
After nine hours of flight from Dubai I got off at Inchon airport. At this point I understood a very important thing. As I love to get off at unfamiliar airports in a distant country at the other end of the world. I said to myself: hurray, I’m in South Korea.
I took a bus from the airport and after leavingreaching the city, I saw what I like so much; Asia at its best (only this time the richer one). After a while, I saw stalls with fruit and fancy dishes that I tried in the past and whose name I do not know. The world of colorful lights, octopus skewers and richly lit shops, but most of all helpful people, forked in front of me. As before in Southeast Asia, the people here are very friendly and when I asked for help in finding the street, everyone was always willing to help. People even walked with me a bit to show me the way or stopped themselves when I opened the map. It has never happened to me before, for example in Poland.
After a short while I reached the guest house at Heywa subway station, clean and very cheap. So, in all my travels, I’m famous for the cheapest. At last I lay down in bed, which was very nice because I had not slept well for three nights.
Seoul – first impression
The next morning I went to the Mongolian Embassy and then to the National Museum. I liked the museum itself because it was a collection from all over Asia, but primarily showing architecture, costumes and articles from the Korean peninsulas. The most beautiful in my opinion are the local parks, often with small streams, waterfalls and bonsai trees. Then I started to walk around town, tried local food and watched people. Moving was not a problem, but it would have been easier if I knew Korean. Transportation in Seoul is very well organized. There is a metro, a ground train and buses at a fairly affordable price. Just like in Kuala Lumpur, the city travels easily and pleasantly.
I must admit that the Koreanki impressed me so much. Most are slim and medium in height, short skirts or trousers for knees and musters on heels. They are nice, but they do not throw themselves around the neck and do not make sweet eyes as it was in other countries. They also do not speak English which is a great hindrance at the start. I think the Koreans are a happy nation. They are always smiling, cheerful and love to eat in restaurants and on stalls. You can see that people live here well because economically it is a developed country and wages are often like in western Europe.
I walked around the city and tried to contact people but after a few hours I realized that the weakest point of the Koreans was the lack of English. That is why learning the language is such a good business here. I was told that if I went to one of the schools and asked for a job, I could get it straight away, although later I learned that Koreans officially accept only people whose first language is English.
I also went to the tourist office to plan the details of my further trip. Unfortunately, nobody again could speak English. I think sometimes they catch a word, then bow and reply in Korean. As for the bow, I think that also my “habit of bowing”, as everyone is bowing and each other, so I automatically also bow. The Koreans are so kind as to write me Korean in the name of the station, where to get it, and then I just have to compare their letters to the letters (also Korean) on the stations and I usually get 5 out of 10. The fact that almost no one speaks English here is a great hindrance. Sometimes when I’m nervous because I can not get along with anyone, it seems to me that the Koreanki shudder at their high heels. But it is sad that I am completely alone at the end of the world and even if something happened to me, nobody would understand what I mean. But I continue to pursue my plan of travel, laboriously comparing the Korean signs. My first day was full of new impressions but I had a lot to see. I felt like the hero of the movie: “Lost in Translation”.
I would like to mention that Seoul is interestingly built. It’s a town set on hills and mountains (just like Stockholm on islands). It is a combination of 14th and 16th century temples and settlements, combined with modernity and the colorful lifestyle of young Koreans.
Seoul – Changdeokgung Palace and Biwon
The next day in Seoul, I wanted to see the historical architecture of Korea and therefore went to Changdeokgung Palace and Biwon first. This palace is on the UNESCO list and is a wealth of world culture. Biwon, on the other hand, is a beautiful garden in which these temples are integrated. The construction of this architectural work was started in 1405 by order of King Taejong and was completed in 1412. For years they were only beautiful temples and buildings that were the king’s residence, and in 1463 King Sejo extended the palace and created the Biwon gardens, also known as the ‘secret garden’ . Unfortunately, this place is also associated with the tragic history linking Korea with Japan. The Japanese burned down all the palace facilities in 1592. Many of these facilities were burned down and rebuilt many times. In total, thirteen kings lived in this palace for over 270 years.
The main gate or Tonhwamun, built in 1412 but then destroyed in 1592 during the Japanese invasion, is impressive. Rebuilt in 1607, it is the oldest wooden gate in Seoul. Changdeokgung Palace is also the only place where you can still see blue tiles, once used frequently throughout Korea. Walking around the grounds was a real pleasure and a great history lesson. Traditional Korean architecture from that time was shown here. Sumptuous and intricately crafted details on the buildings looked like majestic temples of a kind. The roofs, which looked as if they consisted of many storeys and were beautifully decorated, were characteristic. I must admit that the Korean temples made a great impression on me and are very different from those from Laos and Thailand and have nothing to do with those from Myanmar or Cambodia. Korean temples are primarily more massive at the base of the roof.
The Biwon garden adds to the beauty of the entire facility, without which all buildings would not look so impressive. This garden (original name: Huwon) consists of many ponds, stone bridges, bonsai-like trees and rocky hills with small pavilions and pagodas. Biwon is a beautifully landscaped garden where kings and their families used to spend their time playing and relaxing. In the territory of this palace I was lucky because I met a girl from Canada, with whom we took turns taking photos. At least here I didn’t have a language barrier.
Seoul – Jongmyo Temple
Jongmyo is a Confucian temple built during the Joseon Dynasty. Its purpose is worship for the deceased kings and queens of this particular dynasty. The whole complex was built in 1395, but during the Japanese invasion in 1592 it was burned down and then rebuilt in 1608. This temple is also on the UNESCO list and services are held here to this day. The whole facility was a bit different than Changdeokgung Palace and Biwon.
There were no such beautiful gardens here, and the buildings themselves were not as ‘pampered’ as in the earlier palace. Because of this, you could feel the weight of time more here. The Jongmyo temple was fenced with a massive wall and in the middle, on a large, stony square, there was an object supported by tall, red pillars. Here, too, the roofs were very massive and colorful. The entire complex of temples is located on a large area and each object is separated by a garden or a wall. Here, too, I felt like I went back many centuries (over 600 years to be exact).
Seoul – ‘retirement club’ in front of Jongmyo Palace
After leaving Jongmyo, I noticed that the old people had organized a party in the square in front of the palace where one man was doing a snake show. He had two tiger pythons and a second man, about 70 years old, was breaking stones with his hands. The rest of her ate, danced, and sang. The noodle bowls were spread out on the benches and the boiling water waited in huge pots.
While traveling in other parts of Asia before, I noticed that older people are very active and willing to live. For example, when I was in Vietnam, people in their 80s practiced Tai-chi with swords, and in Cambodia they practiced in one of the main squares, also in front of the palace. In this case, it is not about money or age, but about the way we were brought up and our culture. Here, older people exercise and have fun, and in Europe, the old man’s entertainment often ends only on television.
Seoul – House of Korea
The House of Korea was built in 1957 in the traditional style of the royal palaces that I described earlier. This place was created so that tourists could experience the local architecture and art. Traditional dance and music shows and tastings of Korean food are held here. I only had the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful view and walk around this facility, sometimes climbing and observing the old architecture against the background of greenery and a modern city in the distance. As I walked towards the facility, I first went through the traditional gate and inside was the House of Korea. It consists of four buildings creating a courtyard in the middle. In addition, there are several other pavilions and smaller, architecturally attractive buildings throughout the area. The House of Korea was another culturally interesting experience in this modern city. Great architecture blended in with nature allows you to rest.
Seoul – my last day
(Plastic eye surgeries, Dogs in Boots, Itaewon Market, dating Korean women for teaching English, Myeong-dong, Seoul Tower, Antique Posters, Flea Market in Hwanghak-dong, Yangnyoungshi Natural Medicine Market, Dongdaemun Market, Namdaemun Gate)
On my last day in this unique city, I wanted to see the places that I missed while focusing on palaces. This meant I had to take the subway a bit, but I was already skilled in getting around Seoul. Leaving my hostel with a friend from Europe, he drew my attention to one interesting fact. Well, I found out that eye plastic surgery is very popular here, because Korean women prefer to have European eyes, not Asian ones. There are only two places on my street where this can be done. I also noticed in Koreans that they love dogs. There are many shops here where they are sold, especially dachshunds and chewawa. There are also many animal hospitals, dog hairdressing salons and, rather unusual, many dogs are put on shoes.
First, I went to the Itaewon bazaar which is kind of like a tourist zone. Here you can get souvenirs, buy postcards, you can also see more white faces with round eyes and the Koreans themselves know English to a very limited extent. If we want to buy antiques, paintings, jewelry and all kinds of souvenirs, Itaewon bazaar is the best. I also had an interesting incident here. One older gentleman talked to me and said that he knew who Lech Wałęsa was, although almost everyone knows him, wherever I go. Young Korean women also talked to me and knew a few phrases in Polish. I’ve seen this before. It is very nice that even here Koreans can ask in Polish ‘how are you’. Korean women were nice and very nice of course, but I think most of them expect a free English lesson, because it is expensive here and the demand is very high. Exactly the same thing happened to me in Vietnam before. Often, girls want to go out with Europeans who know English well for dinner. They will eat, have fun, teach English for free and then politely say goodbye. This is what it is like in Korea. A friend from America told me about it. He already had a few dates with pretty Korean women and spent a lot of money on dinners, but they only wanted English.
Then I went to the Myeong-dong fashion district but didn’t stay there long. There were a lot of people, colorful neon lights and shops with shoes and handbags. I only got bored and that is why I recommend this area only to women who really want to spend money. However, I saw something here that also interested me. These were posters showing the policy of the Chinese government, ie torture and persecution of the political enemies of the Communist Party of China. (I saw the same thing before in Hong Kong). There was also the Seoul Tower nearby, 480m above sea level. It didn’t look extraordinary, but it was one of those objects worth looking at and ticking off. Out of curiosity, I also went to the Hwanghak-dong flea market.
It is a street of stalls with antiques, used machines of all kinds and mostly things that nobody needs but too many and there is no way to get rid of them. It is one of those places where you can find the most original souvenir from Korea, having no idea what you are buying. I recommend to the inquisitive. I was also at the Yangnyoungshi Natural Medicine Bazaar. This bazaar was large and interesting and accounts for 70% of all natural medicine interest in Korea, including Korean ginseng. However, especially here, I would advise you to take a translator to explain exactly what each specificity is for. Either way, it’s an interesting experience.
Being nearby, I also got off at the Dongdaemun bazaar, which is another fashion district. It was more interesting here than on Myeong-dong. There were several large buildings and there were outside stalls, but I skipped the look at the clothes and shoes. I only bought a souvenir T-shirt with the Korean flag and donated this area. The building that interested me the most was the Namdaemun Gate. It is the oldest wooden structure in Seoul as it was built in the 14th century. It was created at the time when Seoul was becoming the capital of the country and it was the function of the southern gate. It is an impressive, massive structure consisting of stones at the base and a wooden part. This gate consists of a massive, colorful roof, built in a style characteristic of that period. Unfortunately, when I returned from the trip, I found out that on February 11, 2008, this timeless monument was set on fire. The perpetrator confessed and gave the reason for the arson. He did so because he did not receive sufficient compensation from the construction company for the land from which he was evicted. The Korean government intends to rebuild the monument, but it will take many years and will cost many millions of dollars. I am glad that I had the chance to see the Namdaemun Gate before the tragedy. Then I walked at night along the river bank and in the light of the skyscrapers and then went to the hostel, to the Heywa station.
Whenever I visit a new country, I try to try national food. Korean tastes great although it is certainly specific.On the first day for breakfast I ate pasta soup and I do not know yet what but was very good – for only one pound. The food here is very cheap, which is a great asset. For every meal, there are appetizers, which are always chopped, yellow vegetable, which kills even a little taste of acute soup. It is also ‘kim chi’, or chopped Korean cabbage with chili – very good. Korean cuisine is very sharp but fortunately not as sharp as in Thailand.
As we can easily guess after the location of the country, seafood is also very popular here. Street stalls sell live mussels and octopuses, which can be taken out of the aquarium and eaten. They are prepared on site by the client. Today I also eat sushi and Korean dumplings wrapped in rice cake and of course yellow fruit with kim czi. All I eat with chopsticks and still learning how to use them better. When I order food, I often have no idea what I eat. I just point my finger and say: ‘that yellow please’, even though no one understands me anyway.
Whilst walking through the streets of Seoul and watching the Koreans working at the shops and at their stalls, I once again ate sushi and dried squid. I have eaten them a lot in Thailand although the squid I never had enough. After a few days in Seoul I began to distinguish between dishes and wanted to eat the more elaborate. I mainly used octopuses, although I also ate mango dumplings and the famous cabbage with chilli: ‘kim chi’. I recently ate a new version of this appetizer because the cabbage was green and stuffed with many other fillings. So I see that when it comes to ‘mang du’ and ‘kim chi’, they have a whole set here.
I can also not forget the sticky rice wrapped in a piece of sea algae, with dried fish and vegetable stuffing, which is called ‘kim bab’. Kim bab is also a Korean fast food that children eat on the way to school. I also had chicken skewers on the street and they were also very good – especially after octopus and squid for so many days. I was also in a restaurant where I had to sit on the floor in a turkish sit down, because the table was about 30cm high. Although I ordered only one dish, I got a lot of starters. The food was good but at the same time it was a training session using the sticks and straightening the spine.
I think even if you are not interested in Korea, it is worth to come here for the food itself.
When writing about oriental Asia and traveling through many of its countries, I often use the word ‘Confucianism’ without explaining what the term really is. I mentioned it in my report about China and now also Korea, describing the Jongmyo Temple. I hope I can explain this concept in just a few short words. Confucianism is a philosophical and religious system initiated in China by Confucius in the 5th century BCE.
Confucianism proclaims that building an ideal society and achieving peace in the world is possible only on the condition of observing the obligations arising from social chierarchy and maintaining tradition, purity and order. According to European criteria, Confucianism is a mixture of religious, social, ethical, economic and moral concepts that create a coherent but not fully defined world view. Confucianism developed most widely in China, Korea, Vietnam and Japan, shaping the cultures of these countries at the same time. However, for detailed information on this subject, I advise you to obtain specialized literature.
(In this chapter: a trip to Pusan, a short description of the city, once again courtesy of Koreans, Gwangalli beach and Gwangan bridge, fish market, Geumgang Park and adventure related.)
The next morning I left Seoul and went to Busan to spend a few days at the Yellow Sea. The coach ride from Seoul to Busan took 4.5 hours. During the trip I noticed good highways and tunnels in the mountains, we stopped a few times and it was just a shame that no one spoke English again. Busan is the second largest city in South Korea after Selu, famous for its beach and beautiful views of the city from the top. Also this city has its sad history with Japan, but today these relations are very good. There are many mixed marriages and friends constantly inviting each other. Busan is also one of the largest ports in Korea. Here you can get a ferry to Japan, the islands of which are said to be seen in good weather. Busan is also famous for catching fish, the evidence of which I later saw. After reaching the station, I got on the subway and got off at a specific station. Here, too, the great kindness of the Koreans was confirmed. I couldn’t find a guesthouse, so one gentleman walked with me for about half an hour until he found an address for me. It was very nice and unusual. My bad luck was passing the hostel a few times but it was so unlit I couldn’t find it. It was the cheapest hostel possible where I slept in a room with eight Japanese who were fucking all night long.
The next day I went to Gwangalli beach to bathe in the Yellow Sea. This beach is close to the center and my hostel. It was a very nice place and the water was warm and nice. Nearby is the Gwangan Bridge, which is illuminated in the evening. It gives the impression that this city never sleeps because on the one hand I had an illuminated bridge and on the other bright houses and hotels, the light of which was reflected by the sea. The Gwanagan Bridge is the longest bridge in Korea. It is 7.42 km long and connects two smaller towns. It also has two levels of freeways and as I mentioned it is well lit. That evening I also went to the fish market where I saw various specimens. There were not only fish but various types of clams and squid. On the way to the hostel, I also invited myself to a traditional Korean meal. I ate a couple of kim qi and kim bab and as always everything was delicious. I think that Gwangalli Beach and Gwangan Bridge and their surroundings are what must be seen in Busan. The next day I went to the biggest attraction in Busan – Geumgang Park. It is located at the top of Geumjeong and is known as the small peak of Geumgang.
All this time I had a Canadian and a Finn, which made me feel better and finally I could talk to someone. Geumgang Park was beautiful indeed. We got to the top by a cable car whose cable is 1260m long. All the time I watched conifers and interestingly formed rocks. When I got to the top, the view of Busan was of course beautiful and at the top there was also a small temple with a carved Buddha next to the door. The way back was not that easy anymore, because we wanted to make some effort. We went downstairs, which in some places was not easy and it took us about two hours. We had to avoid huge rocks and we often climbed them to jump on other rocks and in a hurry to catch trees. We also avoided mountain streams, crossing collapsed trunks and rocks. It was an adventure and great fun, and luckily we made it before dark. At the end we went to a restaurant where we sat cross-legged at a table about 30 cm high. We ate Korean food with chopsticks and that’s how we had this meal. Sometimes the waitresses wanted to give me a fork, but I always refused. In Busan I could spend more time and see more places, but time was pressing me. I had an important meeting in Beijing and I still had to travel across Mongolia. Busan was definitely worth seeing and I recommend it to everyone.
On the way to China
The next morning I went to the bus station in Pusan, which was supposed to take me to Seoul. Of course I was late, which is no surprise at all. In my life I was late and missed everything, and I also treated it very loosely. Instead of going to Seoul, I went to Incheon, where there is one of the ports. Thanks to that I saved time and the ticket was also cheaper. When I got off at Incheon Station, I caught a taxi to take me to the port. Explaining where I wanted to go was time consuming and tiring, so all the time I was not sure if we were going to the right place, because the taxi driver did not know the English word. Fortunately, we succeeded. I walked in five minutes before closing and bought a ticket.
My next destination was the city of Qingdao in the People’s Republic of China, which this time will be just a short stop on the way to Mongolia. I really did not want to go to Qingdao but I did not have a choice, because in all the other ticket offices for cruises to other cities in China, no one spoke English. So I went to China. So just what’s next? I was not disturbed by this awareness because I consider myself a hiker-traveler, and therefore dark travel also has its charm.
This is how my adventure with South Korea ended. I boarded a ship and sailed to China.
Summary of South Korea
South Korea has been a great experience. Seoul, where I spent the most time, has a lot to offer. It is a lively, modern metropolis with admirable royal palaces dating back several centuries. I also liked Busan very much, as it is a good place to relax by the sea with many other attractions. People are always friendly and willing to help, but unfortunately they are of little use as they usually do not speak English. In this country especially, learn a few words of Korean. Imagine that we are to show with the language of gestures that we are in a hurry to fly or that we are hungry. However, we certainly would not like to show that we want to go to the toilet and in this case Korean is needed.
I also highly recommend Korean cuisine, which is very tasty, healthy and it seems that its creativity never ends. I found my stay in Korea very successful, but as usual, I was able to spend more time and see more places.