South Korea - temples, love motels, snow and gimbap
04-12-11 - We arrived at Insadong, the area of Seoul with the highest density of tourists, and joined all the Japanese, Chinese and Western people in their exploration of the colourful streets of Insadong, the old buildings of which have all been turned into souvenir shops, restaurants and 7Elevens. A few hours later we met Heewon - our first couchsurfing host in Korea. He took us to a charming restaurant where we tasted a whole bunch of specialties from traditional Korean cuisine (barley porridge, all sorts of kimchi, makgeolli and more).
05-12-11 - We visited the Gyeongbokgung Palace ("the Forbidden City" of Korea). More than anything else, I loved the area around this temple - old streets lined with tile-roofed houses that looked small and ashamed to be next to all the modern buildings. These streets for me are always a kind of a time-machine. They take me to an era from long long ago, when people were riding horses instead of cars, eating home-grown food instead of synthetic factory products, going to tailors instead of shopping malls for clothes, marrying the people from their neighbourhood as opposed to somebody they met on a dating site, reading books instead of browsing and in general living a quiet rather than hectic life. For me these streets are like isles of a very local, very simple, very peaceful and no-longer-existing world... In the afternoon we went to see the Myeongdong Fashion street market, full of shiny shops, lights, street stalls with clothes, shoes and accessories, and crowds of shopping people, in short totally opposite to the quiet streets from the morning.
06-12-11 - We spent the morning exploring the area around Changdeokgung Palace, another "isle of past". In the afternoon with eyes wide open and jaws dropped we tried to take in all the incredible amount and variety of stuff which you can buy at the Dongdaemun Market - Asian shopping mecca.
07-12-11 - We spent almost the entire morning setting up the Olleh wi-fi payment interface (what a monstrous piece of software!), only to find out that it cannot handle secure credit card transactions. Daylight hours being short and therefore precious in winter, we gave up on Internet and went to visit the so-called Korean house - a historical site where you can see the original decor of the rooms (and occasionally the mannequins dressed up and positioned as the original inhabitants). One thing that really struck us is how small the rooms were despite the fact that the inhabitants of the house were some kind of royalty.
In the afternoon we visited Seoul Herbal Medicine market, huge and full of things we'd never seen and were unlikely to ever see again. In the evening we finally had a chance to use some Internet to check our couchsurfing requests, when we dropped the Olleh idea and instead treated ourselves to a Starbucks experience (coffee + free wi-fi).
08-12-11 - We took a bus to Sokcho, a gorgeous city in the north, tuckled between a mountain ridge and the ocean, and at the time of our visit, covered up to a knee-height in snow. Our original plan was to hike the mountains in the Seoraksan National park, but this became impossible due to the heavy snow fall that began exactly at the time we were on the bus. This snowfall was so heavy that it was like watching a fast-forward movie: in a matter of a couple of hours all the colours around us disappeared as the world became completely white. While our bus was still struggling through the slippery highway, the rest of the traffic came to a complete emergency-light standstill, with only a few drivers of 4WD able to continue and the rest frantically trying to get hold of some chains. Even though I grew up in Belarus where such an amount of snow was perfectly normal for winters of my childhood, this was the fastest transition between the coloured to the black-and-white world I'd ever seen. It was awesome! On arrival, we checked into a Love Motel (20 dollar, spacious clean room with spotless shower and a big flat TV with movie channels) right at the station, which for the next few days became our warm and comfortable base of exploration of the cold and beautiful Sokcho.
09-12-11 - We walked almost the entire Sokcho, thoroughly enjoying the look of a snow-covered world (for the first time in almost two years that we'd been travelling). The views of snow, bright sun, blue sky, the mountains and the sea, all at the same time, were overwhelmingly beautiful. In the afternoon, not to waste the whimsical sunshine, we went to visit the Seoraksan national park. Instead of a mega mountain hike, it became a simple visit to the ancient monastery located at the base of the mountain ridge. In one of the remote temples of this huge and scattered monastery we stumbled upon a young nun. She was absolutely alone. As she waved at us from the stairs of the temple, momentarily I felt jealous of how beautiful and peaceful her world was.
10-12-11 - We had a walk to the Sokcho beach which in summer must be crowded with locals and tourists but now was quiet, drowned in snow and extremely windy. Taking care not to be blown away, we had a walk along the pier, till we reached a point where we could see the entire Sokcho with the mountain ridge in the back- and the sea in the fore-ground. This walk made us hungry, which gave us a good excuse to try a local specialty - stuffed squid. (Another excuse to try it was the fact that the squid stall had a mother cat and her two lovely kittens.) The same day we went to check the local market and on the way back made friends with a dog which wore a stylish backpack and was following every passer-by (we think, in the hope that they would take him for a walk and finally give him a mission and a purpose for the backpack). The next day we saw him again, again he followed us as far as he could, and again we didn't see any sign of the owner.
11-12-11 - We left Sokcho and headed for the ancient Korean capital of Gyeongju. The whole day was basically about driving (it was 5 hours of watching the landscapes on the bus to Pohang and another hour to Gyeongju). We arrived around dusk, found our next couchsurfing spot - Nahbi guesthouse, and after a short walk around the city centre went to bed, to rest before our next morning working shift. Now, here is what I mean by this: in Korea accomodation being quite expensive, we decided to couchsurf as much as possible, but because ever since we arrived we had limited access to Internet and therefore were unable to contact people in time, in Gyeongju the only person who replied on a short notice was an owner of a hostel. They registered on couchsurfing, offering a free stay to foreigners (including all the meals) in exchange for help in cleaning the hostel. In the end, we had a great few days with the young and friendly team of this cozy (and very clean :-) hostel with a very family-like vibe.
12-12-11 - 14-12-11 - The cleaning took us just over a couple of hours every morning, and for the rest of the day we took it easy, exploiting the free and fast internet and hanging out with Chris (another couchsurfing foreigner at Nahbi).
15-12-11 - The couchsurfing arrangement covered us till this morning, but since we were planning to stay another day, it was time to move on (to a motel). We left Nahbi and spent the day exploring the sights of this ancient capital: the Bulguksa Temple, the hill tombs and the old city part.
16-12-11 - Another driving day, on which we took a bus from Gyeongju to Daegu city. On arrival, we found a motel close to the train station and had a walk around the area, before returning to the room for warmth and movies.
17-12-11 - We visited what was supposed to be an incredible herbal market but turned out to be just one street with normal shops selling traditional medicine and some of them - huge baskets of rice cakes. After checking with the tourist information office that it was indeed all that was left of this market, we spent some more time in the area which turned out to be a big shopping scene, with many young people hanging around shops and cafes. One curious thing we saw that day was an open lesson of emergency first response, organized in the centre of all the action by the volunteers of the local medical university. This reminded us of how badly this kind of volunteering is needed in countries like Cambodia and Laos, where in a relatively short time we saw three cases in which people were trying to reanimate somebody by doing a massage, or doing chest compressions on a beating heart.
18-12-11 - This day we visited the incredible Haeinsa Temple, which is located a short drive away from Daegu and holds the world's largest collection of ancient wooden printing blocks of Buddhist scriptures (Tripitaka Koreana). A fun fact about this collection is that at some stage the Korean government anxious to take the utmost care of this Unesco-rated world heritage decided to move the blocks to a specially constructed building, which was equipped with the fanciest devices to regulate temperature and humidity. However, the mega-move never happened as after a few years of closely monitoring the sample blocks in the planned location and comparing them with the blocks from the original location, it was established that the blocks were "happier" at the temple. It turns out, those monks knew exactly what they were doing :-) The highlights of this trip were listening to the monks sing mantras in one of the temples, walking through a labyrinth-like walking mandala and seeing all those printing blocks on simple wooden shelves just like that, in the open air, preserved by nothing but the mysterious ways of nature and the pure vibrations of the temple.
19-12-11 - It was another day of landscape observation, which we spent on the train from Daegu to Busan. On arrival, we spent a couple of hours using the free wi-fi of the super comfortable Busan station, to fix some things about some flights and arrange our next couchsurfing. After checking into a tiny cozy motel (where we were the only guests), we spent some time exploring the area (mostly motels, restaurants, shady bars, a huge market and a weird Chinese gate to a non-existent China town (which according to the notice on the gate was supposed to be a "Shopping area for foreigners"). The night being young and us feeling restless, we googled for the best karaoke (noraebang) place in the Busan city and found a great link to what indeed turned out to be the best karaoke place in the Busan city. After singing for two hours and exhausting the supply of the English-language songs we knew in the book, we spent some time strolling around the university area which was full of bars, restaurants, shops, gaming places and students.
20-12-11 - This day we explored the major areas of Busan marked as places of interest on the tourist map: we climbed up and down the narrow streets of the hilly Nampo-dong area, watched all those Maersk containers neatly bundled on huge ships from a bridge at the Busan port and took dozens of pictures of the hundreds of seagulls at the Haeundae (Hundai) beach. By sunset time we somehow naturally ended up at the Gwangan (Diamond) Bridge - the best spot (according to us :-) in the city to watch the sunset.
21-12-11 - Another travelling day, at the end of which we arrived at the Seoul station, where we were picked up by our last (and best) couchsurfing hosts - a lovely young Korean family. They brought us to their cozy home, treated us to a dinner, and after an evening of chatting and smiling at all the cute things done in turns by their sweet daughter and funny small dog, we fell asleep in the little girl's room, full of toys, dolls, toy tea sets and Cinderella shoes (guess who enjoyed most staying in this room: me or Jordi? :-)
22-12-11 - Having seen most of the sights in Seoul, we decided to spend our last day visiting the fortress in Suwon, which looked like an interesting sight according to its marketing booklet we got at the airport on the day we arrived in Korea. Well, it was a typical case of marketing vs real image mismatch, as we ended up quite disappointed with the visit (it was hardly a fortress as there were hardly any walls left, and the only thing to visit was an average Korean temple). Nevertheless, we did enjoy a walk through this city (especially the part where in order to find the entrance to the fort we were following a local guy in his powerwalk along the mountain road from which we could see the whole city), but couldn't take too much of it due to how freezing the day was, so eventually we fled back to the comfort of the warm metro to take the long ride back to Seoul. As uneventful as the day was, we thoroughly enjoyed the evening with our host family: we had a chance to try on their traditional dresses which they use for weddings and other important family occasions, and they took us for a night ride around Seoul, which with all the Christmas lights on top of the usual neon looked really awesome! We drove along the Gyeongbokgung Palace, the non-stop Dongdaemun market, the Itaewon Special Tourism Zone (this one was all about straight, gay and transgender clubs and bars), then right around the corner from this zone we drove past the huge American army base (a giant scar on the face of the beautiful Seoul city, which the locals hope will be removed in a few years), then we drove past the Namsan Tower on to the Han Gang river where we briefly stopped at the bridge to look at the awesome view before going back.
23-12-11 - This was our last day in South Korea so we spent time doing what has by now become a tradition: shopping for postcards to send to our families. Insadong being the perfect place to buy them, we spent the day walking around the area, thus closing our South Korea trip in the same place where we started. As the evening was approaching we headed towards the airport but not to take a plane: instead we were going there for a very special and very traditional Korean wellness treat - sauna! Jimjilbang - a very common thing to do in both Korea and Japan - has been on our minds ever since we arrived but for some reason we never made time or found the resolution to go and try it the full way. The full way means that you go there and apart from attending all the spas and baths, stay to sleep on a mat in the big common area covered with tatami. In Japan this wellness + sleeping package being the cheapest accomodation option is used by many Japanese to rest after a busy day at work as an alternative to long and exhausting commuting back to their homes. I guess in Korea apart from wellness, spas also serve this purpose. Well, thanks to our host family who, when they heard that we had a very early plane to catch, gave us this invaluable airport sauna tip, we had a really fun and comfortable way to spend our last night in South Korea.
Some observations on South Korea:
- Although the country is very modern and people are very progressive, they seem to have a firm loyalty to really old traditions. They sleep on the floor, sit cross-legged on the tatami in restaurants (and sometimes even on normal benches :-), in saunas do things that look like a wellness ritual that's been passed from generation to generation for many centuries (and make you realize that for local people it's just as much about socializing and mind therapy as about wellness), and on a daily basis hardly ever deviate from the traditional Korean cuisine.
- People in general are very civilized. What I mean is that the absolute majority of people we met in South Korea have that special quality which is a combination of personal dignity and good manners and makes people properly queue, offer a seat to somebody else on the metro, eagerly help strangers etc. etc. And on top of that, they seem to be genuinely kind, like there were many cases when they would stop and ask whether we needed any help just seeing us looking at a map.
- South Korea struck as a country with the highest density in the world of (very clean and free) public toilets, quite affordable motels, 24/7 shops in the style of 7Eleven and coffee places. So anywhere you are in this country, you don't need to plan your next trip to the toilet, where you are going to sleep, get a snack or a coffee. This makes it a really comfortable country to travel.
- Contrary to our expectations, it was not only very comfortable but also quite affordable, but that of course due to some extra effort on our part: eating almost exclusively gimbap (Korean sushi) and instant noodles from GS25 (like 7Eleven) and couchsurfing for as many days as we were able to find hosts. This brought our average daily expense to the levels of countries like Thailand or Malaysia!
- Again contrary to expectations, access to Internet proved to be a bigger challenge than what we'd thought, at least before we discovered all the gaming places like PCWorld where we could browse for 1 dollar per hour, surrounded by all the soldiers who in between whatever it is that guys serving the duty do in this country were passing time killing digital foes. Before we came to this country we thought that South Korea being so advanced we will have free wi-fi everywhere - what we discovered was that almost all the networks of cafes, restaurants, shops etc. were secured, same with all the people living in the nearby flats and motels didn't provide any wi-fi. Yes, of course, wherever we went there was the omni-present Olleh wi-fi (and a couple of other similar providers) but as I wrote above they all turned out to be pretty useless since they couldn't handle secure online credit card payments and din't offer any other payment methods (what a shame, especially with such an extensive network of 7Elevens and FamilyMarts!).
- Impossible as it was for us to get wi-fi in the public places, locals seemed to be online all the time! In this context South Korea struck us as a country which has the highest per capita ratio of iPhones and iPads. On the metro in the big cities we would see the absolute majority of people armed with either iPhone, iPad (and the like), in many cases both and sometimes even three devices of this kind. Every time we were doing a mental count of people with devices, we would many times get a number as high as 80% of the people present! (Our count of people reading books would usually be much easier - at most a couple of people per each time we took a metro). One really striking thing about this nation-wide obsession with devices is that we noticed people seem to be developing a habit of browsing and walking at the same time: that way they can continue checking messages and social networks as they are changing between the lines, getting on the train etc.!
- Another striking thing about South Korea is the amount of shopping facilities and the resultant consumption. Actually, from what we heard and saw shopping is one of the biggest tourism attractions for South Korea.
Some curious things we saw or heard about South Korea:
- The day we were going from the airport, our driver got up at the second stop and went through the bus making sure that every single passenger had their seatbelt on!
- A local told us that there is a belief among the people that they are so good at their national martial art taekwondo because regular sitting in the cross-legged posture makes their legs very strong :-).
- It might be giving them a powerful sidekick, but we are suspecting that it's the continuous sitting in this cross-legged posture that might have coursed some permanent spine deformations that we saw in some really old ladies. We saw old women whose legs and back were at complete 90 degrees to each other!
- We heard that plastic surgery is a big thing in modern South Korea, and we did see quite a lot of plastic surgery clinics and ads.
- Apparently there are still so many American soldiers in South Korea, that the American government is providing them with a dedicated Pentagon channel. Apart from American movies, the soldiers positioned in South Korea can watch programs with news about their own training, social events etc.
- Having mentioned all the American soldiers that we think are positioned in South Korea judging by the dedicated TV channel and the monstrous size of the army base in the very heart of Seoul, it was really striking (for us personally) that one of the most major events of the Korean peninsula history (the death of Kim Jong-Il) happened exactly at the time that we were visiting South Korea. Local people being very civil and diplomatic would only say "lets wait and see" in response to our questions as to what they thought would follow this event.
Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul:
These jars are used to preserve kimchi - spicy pickles which domineer the Korean cuisine:
Myeong-dong Fashion district, Seoul:
Changdeokgung area - isle of the past, Seoul:
Hwanghak-dong flee market, Seoul:
Dongdaemun market, Seoul:
Herbal medicine market, Seoul:
Traditional Korean house, Seoul:
Our love motel (the only difference between a normal and a budget love motel is the inevitable presence of a huge mirror on the wall next to the bed):
Seoraksan National park, Sokcho:
This nun had this snow-covered temple all to herself:
Kittens at the squid stall, Sokcho:
On the way from Sokcho to Gyeongju:
Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju:
A temple we stumbled upon in Gyeongju:
Ancient tombs, Gyeongju:
Emergency first response introduction organized by volunteers of the local medical university:
Haeinsa Temple, Daegu area:
Tripitaka Koreana - the world's largest collection of wooden printing blocks of Buddhist scriptures preserved in the open air with the help of ingenious ancient techniques:
This was the only butcher shop we've ever seen so far that looked fun despite of all the corpses. With disco music and bright lights, it seemed to transmit this young guy's personality:
Busan Kyungsung University area, Energy Core karaoke:
Seomyeon area, Busan:
Haeundae Beach, Busan:
Nampo-dong area, Busan:
Day trip from Seoul to Suwon:
Hwaseong Haenggung, Suwon:
A really scary church in Suwon:
View from the apartment of our host family in Seoul:
Trying the traditional dresses:
The building of a love motel usually looks like a castle:
Incheon International Airport:
Occasionally locals prefer to snack on a burger rather than on a gimbap (in our case it was a coffee + warmth + power for the laptop):