Paul and Rita's World Tour 2006/7 - South Korea


 South Korea
World Tour 2006/7 home page home

"Densely forested mountains, colourful Buddhist temples and sleek modern cities" LP Korea.  Yet another country that has been on our wish list for some time.  An industrial powerhouse, South Korea exports high tech from semiconductors to mobile phones, as well as cars and ships.

History: Allegedly founded in 2333 BC by Dangun and his bear wife, whatever that means,  Korea has been a Buddhist country since the 4th century AD.  It has been a united Korea for much of its history, but has been invaded many times, by the Mongols in 1231 and several time by the Japanese.  After WW11, Korea was occupied by the Soviet Union in the North and the USA in the South.  The USSR armed the North with a vast array of weapons, and in 1950 the North invaded the South, which is when the UN, led by the USA, stepped in. The war went backwards and forwards, until the Chinese joined in and eventually a stalemate was reached at 38th parallel, and the Demilitarized Zone, the DMZ, was created and a truce was eventually signed.  

Language: Korean, a member of the Ural-Altaic family, also borrowed heavily from Chinese and now English words are common within the language.  Population: 48 million. Money: South Korean Won,  1GBP = 1803 Won as at 28/11/06. Toilet Situation:  Outlook:  Hopeful.  Actual: Excellent, public toilets everywhere and they're very clean.  Guide Book: Lonely Planet Korea, 2004 edition.  Visa:  Tourist visa issued free on arrival, valid for 90 days, no work permitted.

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27th Nov 2006 - Arrive in Seoul 
28th Nov to 22nd Dec 2006 - Seoul
22nd to 27th Dec 2006 - Jeju-do island
27th Dec to 28th Dec 2006 - Seoul

Mon 27th November, 2006

The airport seemed eerily quiet when we landed, not sure I've ever seen the main airport in a country so quiet, although it was 8:30pm and we dont usually arrive so late.  We had completed the immigration form on the plane, only a small form with the usual name, passport number and date of birth boxes.  No questions from the man in the immigration booth, gave us 3 months tourist visa with no problems.  

Once in the arrivals hall it was a little busier.  Our guide book said there might be a subway link into the city by 2006, but they were obviously running behind schedule as when we checked at the information desk, they said the only options were bus or taxi.  They had some great information leaflets and booklets, in English, so it was worth checking out.   We had 20 minutes before the next bus, good time to book a hotel maybe.  Managed to buy a phone card with little drama, but couldn't manage to actually make a call with it, the problem being there were several sets of instructions.  We tried them all and still couldn't get through to the Seoul Backpackers, and eventually ran out of time. We'd just have to hope they were still open at around 11pm when we got there.

It was quite chilly out in the open, everyone was wearing warm coats and hats, so they were a little shocked at my attire of shorts and t-shirt.  I was quite warm enough for the time being, I thought it was nice to be back in a more temperate climate, and besides I knew the bus was going to be heated so there was no point getting all wrapped up now.   Rita is a bit more susceptible to temperature changes, particularly downwards, but she was prepared with her fleece.  We're planning on having to buy some cheap warmer clothing while we're here, then we can dump it when we leave. 

It was quite hot on the bus, a little too hot for comfort, so after an hour when the bus stopped out side Angok subway station, we were quite glad to get out into the fresh air.  Finding addresses in Korea can be quite a task, apparently.  The address usually consists of a building number in an area, followed by the name of a larger area or the town name.  The building numbers don't mean much, they are assigned sequentially as buildings are built so there is no logical sequence within an area, and to make matters worse, most buildings don't have the number displayed on the outside! Even the locals have a terrible time finding places, to the extent that it is quite normal practice to phone the place you're looking for and get them to send a fax, the main reason for the growth of fax machines in Korea in the past. We were fortunate enough to have our guide book which has fairly good maps, so we were fairly easily able to navigate our way to the Seoul Backpackers. We would have made it, too, if we hadn't come across the Beewon Guest House on the way, a place Rita had read about somewhere, so we popped in to check it out and decided it would do, for a night or two at least.  

Quite small rooms, but en-suite bathroom and satellite TV and fridge, under-floor heating and air conditioning, 37000 Won a night.  The brochure said there was a 10% discount if you stayed more than 3 nights, but the receptionist explained that the brochure was an old one and they no gave discounts.   It was after 11pm by now, but we thought we'd take a little wander around the neighbourhood, just to see what was around. On our way from the bus stop we hadn't seen much, but there were plenty of small shops and cafes, bars and restaurants.  This will do nicely. 

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Tue 28th November, 2006

Free breakfast!  Well, toast and a Yacolt (?) yoghurt, and a sachet of coffee. Nice little kitchen, even got a stove and a big pan, might be able to do something with that if we stay any length of time.

Spent the morning using the free internet, catching up to date with our emails and website, and Rita researched her voluntary teaching options.   Ventured out in the evening to look for alternative, hopefully cheaper, accomodation, and for dinner.  Checked out a few hotels, motels and the Seoul Backpackers, but didn't find anywhere we could feel at home for possibly several weeks.  The backpackers offered one free night for each six nights you stayed, but the room was vary bare, even though it was quite large.   Decided to stay on at Beewon, the room was too warm but otherwise it would do for now.  

Had a nice meal at a restaurant in a small shopping centre in the Insa-dong area.  Went for the safe option of a tofu soup/stew, served with a dozen small dishes of various types of kimchi, basically pickled vegetables (although I'm sure there's a lot more to there preparation).  Kimchi is the national dish of Korea, and no meal is complete without it.  We also had a bottle of the national drink, while we were at it,  soju, a clear distilled spirit, mostly made from sweet potatoes these days, but with an alcohol content of only 20 - 25%.

Wednesday 29th

Another lazy start to the day, investigated some more accommodation options, settling on the Emerald Motel.  At a discounted 35,000 Won it was only slightly cheaper than the Beewon, but the room was bigger and had better facilities, i.e. a computer with broadband connection a huge TV and dvd player, a fridge and a hot and cold filtered water machine. That'll do nicely.  We were already committed to another night at the Beewon, 

(Rita's news to be inserted here when she writes it!)

Evening meal at a friendly little restaurant down the alley from the Beewon, We both had the fish dish, cooked this time, tasted a bit like a smoked kipper to me but don't know what it was.  Like last nights meal, it was served with a range of small kimchi dishes, and we had a bottle of soju to wash it down.

Thursday 30th November onwards

(Rita's news coming soon.  She's not being very forthcoming about writing something, so I guess she doesn't want you to know!)

It's a strange thing, but when you have more time on your hands, you seem to get a lot less done.  We're in Seoul for some time, probably 3 or 4 weeks, so we've taken our time, but now almost 2 weeks have passed since we arrived, we're wondering where the time has gone.

We've not been totally lazy, we've been out and about and seen some things.  Here's some of what we've been up to:

Yongsan Electronics market - the biggest electronics market in Asia, so they say.  It's more a large area of various size buildings, with shops ranging from small carts on the side of the road to the 7 story Etland building, complete with cinema and food court.  It all sounds quite impressive, but there are an awful lot of shops selling the same thing as their neighbours, whole lines of stalls selling mobile phones, digital camera's and electronic language translators.  That covers about 70% of all the shops in the area, another 10% covers laptop sales, another 10% for desktop computers and components, and the rest is made up of ceiling fans, lighting and other domestic goods.  The surprising things, for all their high tech exports, they dont seem to have much in the way of latest high tech gadgets, just like we found in Japan.  Of course, perhaps we just looking in the wrong places, but I must have walked several miles of stalls and nothing really caught my eye.

The Imperial Palace - Gwanghwamun.  Originally built in the 14th century, this palace has had a chequered history, lying in ruins for 300 years before being rebuilt in the 1800's, then most of the buildings were demolished by the Japanese when they took over the country in the early 1900's.  Since the WWII, the palace has been gradually restored, and is now an impressive place to wander around.  We thought it was similar to the Forbidden City in Beijing, but on a smaller scale.

The National Folk Museum In the grounds of the Gwanghwamun Palace, this is one of the most interesting folk museums I've been to for ages.  I've developed a short attention span for museums, particularly when they only offer rows of old bits of pottery with labels I cant read, but this place is a lot more informative.  There were several 3D models of various scenes, such as village life and important battles, and many informative displays of important daily items such as how ginseng is grown and produced and the process of making kimchi.  
We were lucky with the timing of our visit, as just when we were about to leave we found out there was a free performance of Korean dance about to start in the attached theatre. We managed to get good seats and enjoyed the performance, staring CHA Myeonghee and the UHA dance society.  It was an all women performance, with a lot of drum playing, dancing and some singing.  The drum playing was particularly impressive, with at one time about twenty drummers keeping perfect coordination for a 10 minute performance, and the beat was changing all the time so it was not a mean feat.  

DMZ - The De-Militarized Zone, the border area between North and South Korea.  We did a half day tour with a tour company, you're not allowed to go there and do-it-yourself.  It was very interesting and our guide was very knowledgeable about the Korean war and everything that has happened since.  Once inside the DMZ we were tightly controlled, one reason being the large areas of land-mines around the place, and we were also very restricted about where we could take photos.  We visited the "3rd tunnel", dug by the North Koreans under the DMZ to use as an invasion route, one way around the landmines I suppose.  It was a steep walk down the access tunnel to the tunnel dug by the North Koreans, and we were allowed to walk along to the point where it had been walled up to stop the North Koreans trying to use it.  The funny thing was the black paint they had put on the granite walls, apparently to make it look like coal, and thereby say it was an old mine shaft and not an invasion route. Back at the surface, the view from the lookout at Dorasan, from where we could see over the valley where the actual border lies, and Panmunjeom village which lies on the border and is where the two sides meet for talks.  Photography was limited at the observatory platform, we had to stand behind a yellow line 10 feet behind the platform edge, so we couldn't really photograph anything.    

Insadong - the artists and antiques area, one of the older parts of town, the back streets are small and winding, with many small Korean restaurants.

Itaewon:  Itaewon is near some of the US army bases, so is a focus of shops that cater for foreigners, although the bases are being moved to outside Seoul, so I dont know if that will change the nature of Itaewon.  There are several German bars, and an English bar run by a German,  not sure what that's about. 

Dongdaemon Market. A huge wholesale and retail shopping area, lots of stalls on the streets and a busy, lively atmosphere, when we visited on a Sunday, anyway.   There are also four huge high rise shopping malls, open until 5am for shopaholics, but we didn't get around to going into any of them.  Maybe later

Skiing.  Yes, they have lots of ski resorts here, and its certainly cold enough for snow!  We went to the Yongji Pine Resort on a day trip from Seoul, and we liked it so much we went back on another day trip.  The resort is about an hours drive out of Seoul, and when we first arrived we were a little concerned about the lack of snow on the surrounding hills, but it turned out they have some excellent snow machines and there were three slopes open.   We were a bit disappointed that the 70,000 Won price of the trip didn't include the lift pass, but it did include transport and equipment hire, so the extra 35,000 for the pass wasn't too much, taking the cost for the whole day to around £60 all in.   We started on the beginners slope, a nice gentle incline with its own ski lift.  I've only skied twice before, 18 months ago in Chile, and that's the only time Rita has skied in the last 12 years, so we were both a little cautious at first. After a couple of hours or so, we'd both gained a bit more confidence, so we progressed to the next slope, longer and at least twice the incline of the beginners slope.  It was a big leap in required skills to negotiate, and was quite busy with skiers and snowboarders, and was also fairly icy,  so after a few descents we were getting tired with the effort of trying to stay upright and avoid collisions, and went back to the beginners slope for some more practice.  
Our second day at Yongji was fabulous.  It had snowed over the previous 2 days so the slopes were well covered with fresh, natural snow, and we had brilliant blue skies and sunshine all day.  Started off on the beginners slop again to gain some confidence, but were soon on the intermediate slope and this time stayed on for several hours.  I even managed to upright the whole day, although I did have a couple of dodgy moments, and Rita only fell over when someone collided with her.  Still got a long way to go before I'd say I was a competant skier, but what a fantastic day.

Olympic Park.  The Seoul Olympics of 1988 were obviously a huge event for the city, there's a large park area known as Olympic Park where a lot of the main buildings used during the games are situated, but, strangely, the Olympic Stadium itself is situated a mile or so away in another sports complex, along with the baseball stadium and one of the four Olympic swimming pools.

Lotte World. One of the many department stores in Seoul, this one also has a lot of entertainment options, from a Disney World style indoor amusement park to swimming pools, bowling and ice skating. The department store itself was crammed full of big designer names, or so I was told by Rita, I'm not very well up on that front.

Seoul Tower  Perched on top of the Southern Mountain, as its called, but is actually now in central Seoul thanks to the rapid expansion of the city, this tower is the highest point above sea level you can get to in Seoul.  It's probably a bit sad to say this, but one of the most amazing experiences was using the urinals in the gents toilet on the observation deck, they were up against the window so you stood facing out to the world while you did your business.  It wasn't the same in the ladies toilets, so I explained to Rita in graphic detail the experience to be had in the gents.  SHe didn't say a lot, but I could tell she was quietly impressed.

Research, Planning and Booking 

On the days we weren't doing the stuff above, we weren't totally idol, although from outward appearance you might sometimes have thought so.  We managed to negotiate tourist visas for India and Mayanmar, which took lots of form filling and 8 days between them, and booked several flights, including our christmas flights to Jejudo and our Bangkok-Yangon-Bangkok flights.  I'd looked into flying back to Chiang Mai in Thailand instead of going straight back to Bangkok, having heard of flights betweend Chiang Mai and Mandalay, but after much furrowed brows and internet reasearch, I finally found out they only fly from Chiang Mai to Mandalay, and not in the reverse direction.  That's crazy, if that's the case they must have loads of planes parked up at Mandalay by now!  

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Fri 22nd December, 2006

Early start from the Emerald Motel, caught the subway train on line 5  out to Gimpol airport in plenty of time for our 11:15am flight out to Jejudo.  Had a slight problem at the security check, there seemed to be something coming up on the scanning screen that they were very interested in finding in my laptop/camera bag.  They scanned it 3 times and emptied all the contents, a bit worrying at times as it kept on disappearing out of sight.  In the end they gave up, they wouldn't tell me what they had seen, but that bag and its contents have been through about 10 times in the last 3 months and nobody else objected.   

A short flight of about an hour and we arrived at Jeju-do, the "Tropical Holiday Island" of South Korea.  Or so the adverts say.  I must admit I had been a little sceptical about this claim, especially in winter, and although there are palm trees here, of sorts, it's certainly not warm enough to be considered tropical, in winter time anyway.  They have an excellent limousine bus service (just a normal coach with a posh name) with services taking you all over the island.  We caught the 100 service to the long distance bus station, near where we had sussed out some cheap accommodation for the night.  The Ruby Motel turned out to be a little run down, but we had a good sized room, the landlady was charming, and it was only for one night.  Rita also managed to barter the room rate down to 25,000, which also helped.

On studying the guide to Jejudo City (actually, its split into the old and new parts, which are called Gujeju and Sijeju, but that gets too complicated) we found  there actually wasn't a lot to see.  We set off walking to the Folk museum, a mile or so away from our motel.  When we were in the area but couldn't find the entrance, we were helped out by a friendly old local, who spoke very limited English, but showed us along several pathways to a sort of 3 bar gate, one of the traditional features of the island.  The bars are supported at either end by a granite pillar with three holes bored through, and the setting of the bars indicates whether you are prepared to accept visitors.  If all three bars are up, then no visitors are wanted, if two bars are up and the top bar is only raised at one end, it means you're temporarily unavailable but come back soon, and if all three bars are down, everybody is welcome.  Interesting system, perhaps we should have something similar in England!

Anyway, I divers.  Our guide pointed at the building behind the gate, and left us.  Inside the museum we walked around the three halls, which had a variety of exhibits describing the folk history of the island, with English descriptions as well, but I didn't find it quite as good as the Folk museum in Seoul, seemed to be missing something.  Just my opinion though.  Outside in the courtyard were some harubangs, "grandfather stones", somewhat similar to the moai of Easter Island.  The Jejudo version has more shape and detail than the Easter Island ones, but there is more than a passing similarity.  I must look into the history of them sometime.

Walking out of the front gate we noticed the ticket office, where we apparently should have bought our entrance tickets.  Oh well, maybe next time we'll pay.

We walked down the steep roads towards the sea front, following the granite boulder lined ravines, devoid of water at this time, but testament to the non-porous nature of the island and the fast run off of rainwater.  Down in the town it seemed fairly quiet, I suppose this is not a busy time of year, it not being quite as tropical as we had been led to believe.  Nice town though, lots of shops and restaurants.

Saturday 23rd

Caught the bus the long way around the island to the southern side, not quite as easy as you might think.  We wanted to go the long way around because we would see more of the island than if we went straight across the middle, even though it was 90 minutes longer and more expensive.  The problem was finding the right bus to get on, we were told we should get on the bus at stand 11, but when we tried and showed the driver our tickets, he told us to go to stand 9.  The driver of the bus at stand 9 studied our tickets and said no, we needed the bus at stand 11, the one that had just left without us.  It was only twenty minutes until the next one, but the driver on that one tried to send us to stand 9 again, until we explained we wanted to go the long way around the island.  I was exhausted already, and we'd only gone 200 yards from our motel.

The island is famous for its tangerines and persimmons.  December is the harvesting time, so there were still trees bearing fruit.  Out of the town, the houses were single story and had roofs of different colours, some, red, some light blue, and some green.  We saw only a few of the traditional thatched roofs, fairly shallow and held down with a sort of rope net affair.  All of the flat land we could see was cultivated or covered in fruit trees, and high above us was the extinct volcano that created the island millions of years ago.  The road was excellent, mostly two lanes and a good hard shoulder with a cycle path.  We had originally planned to cycle around the island, but I had come down with a throat infection and a cold, so decided it wasn't a good idea.

The bus route ended at the Seogwipo World Cup stadium, build especially for the Korean and Japan 2002 World cup, quite an impressive stadium with what looks like a big wing or a sail for its roof.   From there we got a taxi to the Jejudo Hiking hostel that we had already booked for the christmas weekend, and a good job we did as they said they were otherwise full.  The room was a little small, and on the fifth floor with no lift. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea, especially as I was feeling under the weather.  The manager said we could have a larger room in the morning, he had nothing else available at the moment.   After checking out the kitchen facilities, which consisted of a couple of gas camping stoves, and electric kettle and a microwave, we decided it was probably the best we were going to find, especially at only 20,000 won a night.  So we stayed.

Once we located it, the town centre was quite busy, one main street with the posher shops on, and lots of lesser streets with lesser shops and bars, clubs and restaurants.  There was also a large covered market with sections for veggies, meat, fish, a huge section for kimchi, and various other stalls.  All very colourful and interesting for a wander around.  We stocked up with fresh veggies for our christmas dinner, as welll as the other meals we planned to eat.  We had decided we'd cook all our own meals while we were here, we're missing our steamed veg and potatoes!!!

Sunday 24th, Christmas Eve.

I'm feeling worse, cough has got worse despite copious amounts of medicine.  Time to try the old remedy, whisky!  Ah, that's a lot better.  We both did a spot of last minute christmas shopping and Rita prepped up some of our christmas dinner.  Quiet day, really.

Monday 15th December, Christmas Day.

Happy Christmas everyone!  After a slow start to the day, we walked out along the coast to the Jeongbang Waterfall, a mile or so from our hotel.  The waterfall is 23metres high, and is, allegedly, the only waterfall in Asia that falls directly into the sea, although apparently some people dispute this.  We also had a good view of the mountain in the centre of the island, normally covered in clouds but quite clear this morning.  Actually, it was quite a pleasant, sunny morning, around 12C.

Back at base we rustled up our Christmas dinner, which went quite well except I burnt the sautéed potatoes, which we were having in place of the usual roast potatoes because we didn't have an oven.  Never mind, the meal was great and the pan cleaned up eventually.

Tuesday 26th

Had planned to go along to the Jungmun coast, 10 miles to the west of us, to have a look at the black basalt cliffs, formed into hexagonal pillars by the rapid cooling in water (or something like that) and very similar to the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland.  But, we weren't feeling up to it today, might go tomorrow.   Instead we took a walk down to some more waterfalls, Cheonjiyeon, closer to the town and set it a nice little park.  Nice.  We had the same problem here as at the other waterfall, finding out where to buy the entrance tickets.  It's only when you get to the entrance that they tell you that you've got to buy a ticket back at the office.  What office, I didn't see one.  Retraced our steps and eventually spotted a small sign saying "Tickets" and a hole in the wall with some guy smiling behind it.  I suppose the mass of Korean writing might have been more informative, but of course we couldn't read that.

It was only when we got back to our hotel and the manager informed us we had to pay for another night if we wanted to stay that we realised are flight back to Seoul was tomorrow, and we didn't have another whole day here tomorrow as we had thought.  Doh!  Oh well, we've seen the Giants Causeway anyway, how different can it be.  

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Wed 27th December, 2006

Very efficient and regular buses here, only what I would expect in Korea though.  Caught the 600 bus across the island to the airport. 5000 Won  If your every here, remember that when you get off the bus, you have to give your ticket back.  I couldn't find mine when we arrived at the airport, but luckily they said it didn't matter. Why do they collect them back in again then?

Had a slight altercation with the security staff at the hand luggage scanning point, they decided my little pair of folding scissors were not allowed on the flight, even though they are far smaller than the 5cm blade length that the sign outside said was permissible for scissors.  I tried explaining that they had checked them when we flew out of Seoul a few days ago and they said they were ok, but my Korean wasn't up to it, so I lost my scissors.  Other than that, nice easy one hour flight

Back in Seoul, noticed it was a lot colder, only a few degrees above freezing I'd say.  Caught the subway line 5 back to Jongno3 and back to our old hotel, the Emerald Motel.. They tried to charge us the standard rate for the same room as we had last week, but they soon relented and let us have it for 35,000 Won.  How kind.

In the afternoon we took a walk up to Dongdaemon market for the last time, just in case we saw something we might like to send back home, but in the end decided we'd already got enough to send back.  Found a nice little bar snuggles between a couple of the huge department stores up there, and then faced a chill walk home.  

Thursday 28th

Packed up all our warm clothes and a few items we'd bought to send back home, then took them down to the post office. The post offices are great here, they sell the packing boxes of various sizes for very reasonable prices, and they also provide work table, packing tape and even scissors.  That's lucky, did I mention I'd had mine confiscated yesterday?  I'm still a little annoyed by that.   It's a really cold day today, below freezing, and I've just packed all my warm things up and sent them off in a parcel.  We wont be doing much outside today, I can assure you.  

Friday 29th

Up at the crack of dawn... actually, sometime before dawn, to get the subway out to Gimpol Airport, then the connecting bus to Incheon airport for our 10:20am flight.  Slightly convoluted route, but it was cheaper, and, as we didn't have much in the way of cold weather gear, the entrance to the subway was only 100 yards from our hotel and the airport bus was half a mile away, so which would you have chosen.  To help you decide, the temperature outside was still below freezing.

At the airport there was a long queue at the Cathay check in desks, the first queue we'd had for many flights. There didn't appear to be a quick check in option, which we probably couldn't have used anyway as I wanted to check a bag in this time, as I had a couple of sharp items.  Only took 20 minutes of patient waiting to get processed, then we were soon through security and passport control, buying our traditional last beer in the country.  A tad early for some, maybe, but my view is that it's opening time somewhere in the world, wherever you are.

Bye bye South Korea, we've had a great time here, very friendly and helpfull people, and probably one of the safest countries in the world, as far as personal safety goes, we'd say.    


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