Co-hosting the World Cup in 2002 has thrust a little well-deserved limelight on Korea. Reclusive by tradition, the former “Hermit Kingdom” tends to get missed out of most Asian itineraries.
My recent ten-day trip proved there’s never been a better time to visit. Preparations for the influx of football fans have overhauled the service industry, making this fascinating country measurably more foreigner-friendly than when I first went in 1996.
Seven years ago, the only budget accommodations available were the ubiquitous yogwans, seedy hotels doubling as brothels. They’re still there – but at least there’s an alternative now.
Before arriving, I took the precaution of booking a single room for 25,000 won (US$20) in the centrally-located Seoul Backpackers. There is a problem with addresses in Korea – they don’t seem to use them. They just give the name or number of the building and the general area – very confusing for taxi drivers, as well as for visitors. I got as far as Jongno Sam-ga station, rang for directions and finished off the journey by taxi. I understand that Seoul Backpackers now offers a free pick-up service for guests staying three nights or longer – a good idea.
Seoul Backpackers proved exactly what I was after – clean, comfortable, and full of foreign visitors eager to swap travel stories and tips, which we did most evenings in nearby bars.
Most of the travelers I met were Americans and Canadians, singles and couples in their 20s and 30s.
On the back of a good night’s sleep and a kimbap (rice and veggies wrapped in seaweed) breakfast, I set off for a day of palaces and temples. Seoul is full of them, tucked away in back-streets, small oases of calm in a city that lives life at a frenetic pace. The two most impressive are within walking distance of each other in Gwanghamun in the city center.
Back in ‘96, workmen were busy restoring broken buildings. They’re still busy today and probably will be for a long time into the future.
While strolling around, you’ll also get a glimpse of the heavily-guarded Blue House, President Kim Dae Jung’s official residence.
Traveling around Seoul was easy once I got oriented. Taxis cost about 2000 won (US$1.50) a mile – the more luxurious black ones were about 30% more – which would have been costly. But the buses and subway were dirt cheap, clean, and frequent. I picked up a city street and subway map at the airport on arrival.
On the subway, destinations and maps are displayed in English as well as Korean. Bus routes are more difficult to get hold of but are often faster than the subway, especially when you have to change lines two or three times to travel a relatively short distance. If necessary, I asked for help at the hostel.
The subway certainly came in handy the next day as I zipped between shopping areas. People will tell you Seoul is a great city for shopping. The problem lies in knowing where to go. Certain districts and streets specialize in one or two products.
Insadong is the place for trinkets and antiques. For designer clothes and accessories with matching price tags, try Myeongdong north of the river or Apgujeong and Gangnam to the south. Tailor-made suits are easily bought in Itaewon, while Yongsan and Techno-Mart in Gangbyeon are best for electronics.
My own tastes, on the other hand, veer towards bustling streets with vast and eclectic ranges of goods. Fortunately, Seoul’s also got a couple of world class markets.
Dongdaemun – literally Big East Gate – is a sprawling traditional market, part-modernized and re-housed in slick-looking malls.
Starting from Dongdaemun Stadium subway station, I followed the road signs towards Cheonggyecheon. My two mile stroll took in parallel streets of budget-priced sports shops, the Doosan, Freya and Migliore fashion malls, row after row of rickety stalls offering shoes, jackets, camping equipment, leather goods, traditional clothes, office supplies, tools and much more besides.
The woman I spoke to in the Tourist Information office (in the stadium building) claimed the market as Asia’s biggest with 30,000 speciality shops and 50,000 manufacturers using it as an outlet.
My personal favorites were the antique and second-hand shops of Cheonggyecheon, where traditional tea-sets and furniture shared floor-space with 50 year-old juke boxes and electronic goodies. I even found a zoom lens for my old Soviet-era Praktica that I’d been vainly searching for in Britain and Australia for the past 10 years.
The other major market, Namdaemun (Big South Gate), is more compact than Dongdaemun with around 20,000 shops. Looking beyond the stalls selling cut-price clothes, shoes and bags, I was struck by the number of optician’s shops. This is the place to go for new and spare pairs of glasses. They’ll make them up in 20 minutes, and the prices are low – US$35 for my prescription sunglasses including frames.
A number of 4 or 5-storey buildings rise above Namdaemun’s stalls – rented floor-space for small to mid-sized manufacturers looking to sell their products. Each building has a different theme: accessories, jewelry, hardware/furniture, baby clothes, folk-craft decorations and souvenirs, gardening and agricultural products, and so on.
Returning to street level, I browsed among a row of shops selling traditional herbs and foodstuffs such as insam (ginseng) and kim (seaweed). Great favorites among savvy Japanese shoppers, these products are cheaper and available in greater bulk than in the tourist traps of Insadong and Itaewon.
Born and brought up in rural England, I find two or three days in the city – any city – is usually enough for me. Despite its merits, Seoul – with its chronically overcrowded streets – was no exception. A modern-day Zen paradox: the futility of a million taxi drivers tooting their horns at the same time. With a slower pace and a little of Korea’s renowned “morning calm” in mind, I arranged to catch a train to Gyongju.
Content in my own company, I didn’t have any loneliness concerns about going alone, and my impression of Korea is that it’s much safer than any Western country I’ve visited. Even at three in the morning, Seoul didn’t feel the least threatening. Had I felt the need of company, it wouldn’t have been difficult to hook up with someone for a day or two of exploring if I’d wanted.
I heard at the hostel that if you don’t reserve rail seats ahead, you risk having to stand or sit on the floor for the entire journey, so I booked a couple of days ahead and had no problems. The national rail network isn’t particularly fast, but the trip was relaxing and comfortable.
As Florence is to Italy, so Gyongju (variously spelled Gyeongju, Kyongju) stands out as Korea’s city of culture. From about 50 BC to the 10th century AD, it was the capital of the Shilla (also Silla) dynasty and, for a third of that time, capital of the whole peninsula. On first impression, this city of 300,000 struck me as a place at peace with itself, seemingly content to live off its millennium-old reputation.
I walked along looking for a place to stay and, in about five minutes, found the Hanjin-jang Yogwan. The owner, a bronzed old man, somehow managed to hand out leaflets and give advice on places to visit without interrupting his t’ai chi routine. I knew immediately I’d found another good place. My single room – no bed (traditional roll-up mattress instead), but attached bathroom – cost 25,000 won (US$20). The communal kitchen was handy, as was the pleasant rear courtyard where the guests (mostly non-Koreans) gathered to drink and socialize together.
Gyongju is surrounded by a series of interconnected historical sites. The town and its immediate outskirts can be explored in a day. I started by strolling around the tombs of the Shilla kings and their families, collected together in Tumili Park and Noso-dong. These tombs take the form of landscaped grassy knolls, the bigger the mound, the more important the occupant. Looking out on the tombs’ clean flowing lines, I began to appreciate a little of Gyongju’s reoccurring motif – that of harmony and easy coexistence with nature.
Early next morning, following directions from Gyongju’s tourist office and my own guesswork, I caught the local bus to Namsan, a diminutive mountain a few miles south of Gyongju. Bewildered by choice, I put away my newly-purchased map and took to following my nose instead.
Clambering haphazardly over the mountainsides sums up, for me, the whole point of Gyongju. The place is a huge open-air museum. It’s impossible to walk in any direction on Namsan for more than a few minutes without coming across chunks of rock carved with Buddhist images. The forested pathways are littered with minor curiosities and photo opportunities: A pebble with a Buddha’s head carved on it. Bunches of dry flowers left as offerings beside free-standing boulders. A water-filled teapot on the floor of a forest glade (now I think of it, very curious indeed). Among the landmarks I came across during my day’s hiking were two pagodas (Buddhist shrines) with rock statues, intricately-painted lattice-work, and smouldering incense sticks. An old nunnery and a temple complex with striking relief carvings nestled amid some tall conifers.
Three days in Gyongju wasn’t nearly enough. I didn’t get to see Chomsongdae, a 7th century astronomical observatory; the ‘Triple Buddha’ statues of unknown origin; Punhwangsa Pagoda, the authentically preserved and still inhabited Yangdong folk village. The list is a long one. The point is, of course, you don’t need to see everything – just enough to imbibe a little of that “morning calm” for yourself.
My next destination – to round off the trip with something completely different – was the island of Chejudo. Travel brochures tend to plug the peninsula’s largest and most southerly island as “Korea’s Hawaii.” While hopelessly trite, the comparison at least works on a superficial level: both places share volcanic landscapes, similar vegetation, and a surfeit of honeymooning couples.
In contrast to Seoul, hiring a car here is an excellent idea. It took about an hour to drive from Cheju City in the north to Seogwipo on the opposite side of the island.
As a freshly developed World Cup venue, Seogwipo had plenty of accommodation options. The Donghwa-jang Motel, smack in the center of town by the market, with its comfortable rooms and English-speaking staff, proved a good choice at 25,000 won (US$20) per night.
Walking along the cliff-tops near Seogwipo, I came across a few of the island’s Haenyo, or female divers. Chejudo has long had a higher ratio of women to men – attributed to the precarious lifestyle of the male islanders: fishing on the open sea and fighting off invaders. As a result, generations of these mostly older married women have donned thick rubber wetsuits and gone diving for shellfish to support their families. Numbering around 30,000 in the 1950’s, but down to four figures now, those I met were more than happy to show and even sell me some of their afternoon’s catch.
The following morning, in the foothills of Sungsan – a small volcanic mountain on the east coast – I got to see and stroke a couple of the island’s celebrated horses. During a 100-year occupation by the Mongols, Chejudo was used as an equine breeding ground. Presumably they left a few behind, as those that remain today bear a close resemblance to the classical short and sturdy Mongolian steeds. The majority of the island’s stock live further inland on vast grazing pastures, a fraction of which I glimpsed from the car’s window while speeding back towards the airport.
I almost forgot to mention the black pigs. I found them on my last stop in Cheju Folk Village, a museum of reconstructed 19th century habitations. There, among the thatch-roofed, black lava houses and shamanistic stone totems, stands an open-air hole-in-the-floor toilet. Resourceful Chejudo inhabitants developed a latrine system in which human waste fell directly into a pig pen. I should say I tried some black pig samgyupsa (barbecued pork). No complaints. Very tasty indeed.
A tight itinerary curtailed my time on the island as it curtailed my whole trip. From Chejudo, it was homeward bound to the UK, via Seoul. My 10 days in Korea had passed like 10 minutes – an appetizer towards more frequent and lengthier visits in the coming years.
Korea has always been fascinating. The big difference between 1996 and now is the ease and comfort of the traveling. We have the World Cup to thank for that.