Tag Archives: Seoul

Two Weeks in South Korea: Day 14 – Final Day In South Korea

So here it is, the last full day in South Korea. As my husband packs in the background I’m hoping that he’s going to suddenly surprise me with a train ticket to Daegu or Gangneung and say that I’ve been mistaken and we have a few more days, but the hopes of that are fading fast.

As with a lot of our holidays, this final day in Seoul is a bit of a grab bag of things that we wanted to do but could not fit in on other days. It’s meant a mixture of a lot of walking and some sudden long trips on the metro, but it’s good to say that we’ve pretty much seen everything that we thought we would try to fit into our four full days. There’s more than enough left on the planning room floor if there is to be a future visit to Seoul, but for now I’m happy how we got through things.

To start the day, we went to the final place on our Korean palace ticket that we did not have time to do cross off yesterday – the Jongmyo Shrine. This is the only place on the ticket where a tour is mandatory and, for English speakers, there is one of these every two hours. The reason behind this is that Jongmyo Shrine is essentially the nation’s spiritual shrine. It’s the place where the spirits of the Joseon kings and queens are venerated and where the ancestral rituals take place, so you can’t just have hundreds of unchecked people running around.

As with the other tours we’ve had, the tour guide was excellent and was really able to get across the spiritual importance of the place with a smile. The tour itself can’t show you the insides of the two main buildings, because that’s where the spirit tablets of the monarchs are held, but a room is set up so you can get an idea.

The main building, known as the Jeongjeon, is where the spirit tablets of 19 kings and their key wives are held inside. It’s also one of those buildings that you just cannot photograph well because it is just so very long and impressive. The look is quite simple, as it is meant to be a solemn place, but there is no denying the impact.

You also have the Yeongyeongjeon, which is similar to Jeongjeon but narrower and the spirit tablets held inside are of short-reigning kings and some royal ancestors. It is still a very long, impressive and hard to photograph building. It also feels a bit savage that kings who had a short reign, possibly due to illness, are relegated to here because they don’t have recognised achievements.

Continuing the theme of calm in a major city, we wandered south from the shrine and through some streets where the only thing they sold were light fixtures and accessories (because sure) and down the stairs so we could walk along the Cheongyecheon stream. Opened in 2005, this stream cuts through downtown Seoul and is this amazing refuge of nature that adds so much green and provides a stress and traffic-free way to walk nearly 11km across town.

This stretch doesn’t just contain a stream and some trees, but there are waterfalls and art pieces as well. I really wish that there was something like this in London in the non-rich areas that also had water so clean that carp can swim in it. Still though, it was lovely to go there now and use it as a path between different areas.

So that brings me neatly onto Insadong. So many places online talked about this being the perfect place to go in order to purchase souvenirs, and that would definitely be accurate. Problem is, I’ve pretty much bought all the souvenirs that I can conceivably fit into a suitcase. Didn’t stop us from buying a couple of t-shirts and me recoiling in terror in what my size would be here in Korea. What can I say, UK sizes are far more forgiving and I am six inches taller than the average South Korean.

From here, we walked a fair bit so that we could wander through the Bukchon hanok village. This is the third hanok village (an area containing traditional hanok housing), the others being in Jeonju and Gyeonju. Being that this is just outside of downtown Seoul, the entrance to the area still feels very city like and very few buildings are actually in the hanok style (although thankfully one of them sold hotteoks, so I was able to have a snack).

Further into the walk, however, the sound begins to melt away and the percentage of houses in the hanok style begins to increase. It never quite reaches the level as Jeonju, but that’s because people still live here and the walk is taking you through a residential area. A beautiful residential area, but a residential area nonetheless. Makes for some wonderful photos though, especially when you get to the higher ground and get a good look around you.

It was back to base for some snacks and to drop off my new t-shirt before making the walk to the Namsan cable car and heading up the mountain that so dominated the Seoul skyline. Why? Well, the final Lonely Planet entry is here.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 91/100Sight: N Seoul Tower
Location: Seoul, South Korea
Position: #342

I have yet to find a place in main Seoul where you can’t catch a glimpse of N Seoul Tower. The tower itself isn’t too tall, but it sure has one hell of a natural vantage point. The area around the base of the tower already has a great number of views and, for some reason, the most love-locks that I have ever seen. I mean, they encourage it by selling them at £10 a pop from a lovelock vending machine, but they have whole shrub-like structures of them. Still though, managed to find a gay one – hope they’re still together.

The journey up the tower takes 7 seconds and, since it was Halloween, the music at the top appeared to be ‘Thriller’ and the Ghostbusters theme on a loop. Also, continuing the Halloween theme, the pre-elevator had this long tunnel with star-like lights and tissue paper ghosts hanging from the ceiling. It might have taken all my need to suppress the giggles I wanted to unleash.

As you would expect, the view that you get from the observation deck is stunning. Like our time at the top of the Montparnasse Tower in Paris, we were constantly roaming around the observation deck to see how many places we could see that we actually visited. We could even see our hotel building from up there, which was a first. Being up here really shows just how beautiful a city Seoul is and how stunning the rivers and mountains that the city nestles in are. Since we got here earlier than expected, we’d have had to wait over an hour before the sun started to set, so we said our goodbyes to the scenery, made our way down via the cable car and headed to Yeouido.

The reason that we came to Yeouido was for the World Night Market, which is one of the Bamdokkaebi (meaning “night goblin”) night markets that are run in various parts of the city on weekend nights. Before getting there, however, I found myself bewitched by being on the riverbank in Seoul for the first time after dark and seeing the buildings all lit up. Not the first time I just drifted off from my husband without saying a word, surely won’t be the last either.

We eventually made it to the World Night Market, and they weren’t kidding about the title. There were so many great looking stalls here that it made it hard to make a decision, but I knew I wanted to leave room in case I came across a final Korean fried chicken stand later on.

So, shared between us, we ended up with some sweet and sour pork, takoyaki – cheese flavour and a pork banh mi. All delicious and, as I write this, I just realised that they were all Asian which was actually unintended. This market also had some delicious looking pizza on offer and massive seasoned turkey legs, but I choose my choice and would do so again.

Time to make our way to our final destination of the evening: Banpo bridge. This bridge, which is near some beautifully lit-up buildings on manmade islands, does
a three-times nightly show which is a simple and soothing take on dancing fountains. There’s nothing too flashy here other than the world longest bridge fountain with hundreds of water jets and LEDs that change colour. The movements are gentle and hypnotic, which really did make for a lovely ending to the day.

Oh, but what’s that across the road from the viewing area of the bridge? Why it’s another of the Bamdokkaebi night market that we came across completely by accident? I found out later that this particular one is called the Banpo Romantic Moonlight Market and, given the setting with all the riverside seating, that’s really the perfect name. It also means that I got my final pot of Korean fried chicken and ate it looking on the Han River and the lit up buildings.

And that’s that for my time in South Korea. It’s been two truly incredible weeks and I have no doubt that I am going to be making it back here, hopefully for the 2030 World Expo in Busan where so much will have changed that it’ll like being there for the first time. I also expect the number of western tourists is going to be a lot higher in a decade’s time, which will be an adjustment.

Just going to finish off with a big thanks to all the Korean people. Sure I’ve seen kids throw gravel at each other in a subway and there was that one guy who openly moved to another section of the airport seating in Jeju as U.S. foreigners sat next to him, but nearly all of my interactions have been incredibly positive. So thank you for having us and for making us feel like welcome guests in your wonderful country. It’s going to be so hard to leave tomorrow.

Two Weeks in South Korea: Day 13 – The Royal Palaces of Seoul

Well, today was very close to taking the title of most steps walked on this holiday, clocking in at over 38k. Actually, it’s only second – the most steps, unsurprisingly, occurring when we climbed Hallasan last week. I’m kinda amazed that there’s still this much left in these legs, but boy am I glad.

Today the aim was simple, to see the Royal Palaces of Seoul. There are four main ones to see and you can see all of them (plus a shrine that we’re seeing tomorrow) for less than £7. It’s amazing value for money and we are sure going to make the best use of this. Just a note before continuing, best efforts have been made to get the spellings of these long names correct.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 90/100Sight: Changdeokgung Palace
Location: Seoul, South Korea
Position: #194

Right, so we started our day at Changdeokgung Palace. This is probably the second most popular of the four, but it’s the one on the Lonely Planet list AND it features a garden section that is usually tour-only – so we tried to ensure that we were there on time to get as early as tour as possible, which is what we did.

 

This was the main palace of the Korean royal family for nearly three centuries, which explains the large area that the palace complex encompasses. The most impressive room, as with all the palaces, is the throne room where all the history I have on-boarded in the last two weeks began to recognise elements (like the 5 mountain peaks on the backdrop), which was cool.

As we were here fairly early, there was no issue roaming around taking pictures of the buildings other than constantly bumping into the same French tour group at semi-random intervals.

Then we got to the main event of this palace, a tour of the Secret Garden given by a wonderfully sarcastic and sassy Korean tour guide. This area makes up the majority of Changdeokgung and the whole thing has been built following the natural layout of the landscape. This means that there are a fair share of ups and downs as you walk around, which turns it into a number of smaller gardens that are perfectly landscaped.

This really was a beautiful place to walk through with the ponds, streams, pavilions and other buildings working in harmony with the foliage. The tour also included a walk through a gate that was so labelled that walking through it will mean you don’t grow old. So fingers crossed guys.

Next door to Changdeokgung is the next palace, the similarly named Changgyeonggung Palace. This palace was originally built as a place for the first Joseon king to retire to after he passed on the role of king to his successor. As a palace to visit, it’s a bit of an odd one as so much of the original buildings were demolished in the early 20th century by the Japanese who turned parts of it into a zoo and removed it’s status of being a royal palace.

Like Changdeokgung next door, Changgyeonggung has a large section devoted to gardens, including a rather sizeable greenhouse. This was also the only palace where I saw wild animals, well if you can include feral cats into that label. As you wander around you’ll also find an old observatory that would have been kitted out with astronomical instruments of the time.

The main throne room, known as Myeongjeong-jeon Hall, is like a scaled down version of the throne room I saw in the previous palace, down to the decoration used on the ceiling which includes two golden flying figures and a lot of flowers.

I’m going to skip ahead a bit from here to lunch which was at the Tongin Market. They have a interesting quirk here, in that you can pay just over £3 to get a pile of 10 tokens that you use to pay for food in the market itself. Things typically cost 2 or 3 tokens, but some things did go as high as 5.

The hub and I worked together and so we shared a whole bunch of different foods including: Korean sausage (or sundae), japchae, fried chicken, rib meat and some tteokbokki. If one of these suddenly popped up near where I worked, I don’t think I would ever get my lunch anywhere else. The value for money is astonishing and I wish that we’d clubbed together to get two of those hotteoks now.

We took a bit of a detour on the way to the next palace which meant we got to see the Blue House – the official residence of the South Korean president. The setting, with that mountain in the background looks so idyllic. Then I remembered the story our tour guide told us yesterday about how North Korean assassins hid in the woods on that mountain behind the Blue House as they failed in their attempt to kill the then president. Still though, it’s pretty damned beautiful.

Not too far from the Blue House, is the main visited palace in Seoul. Gyeongbokgung was the main palace for the Joseon Dynasty back when it was built in 1395 and, like so many things, was burned down by Japanese invaders, restored and then demolished (again, by Japanese invaders) and then restored in modern times. The restoration project is still ongoing, with one building that we saw having been rebuilt but now is awaiting ornamentation. There are so many beautifully restored buildings in the Gyeongbokgung area (a lot of them having been designated as National Treasures), but there’s two buildings that were breathtaking.

The first of these that we saw was the Gyeonghoeru Pavillion. It stands just off-centre in a large pond, where it just looks like it has been tethered to the side and is ready to float out at any moment. The pictures really don’t do it justice as there are no people for scale, but it’s big. But not as big as the other beautiful building.

This is Geunjeongjeon Hall. Rebuilt as part of the late 19th century restoration work, this behemoth of a building is likely to be the largest Korean throne room that I will ever see. Also the busiest, with people swarming at the front to get a good look inside there are as others in rented traditional costume pose for photos on the steps.

We had a good look around all the buildings at Gyeongbokgung before leaving via the exit that takes you to the National Folk Museum of Korea. We didn’t look inside, but instead we came that way so I could get a good look at the tall pavilion building that I kept seeing on the horizon. Maybe next time we’re in Korea, we might go inside.

Next was a bit of a walk away, but as it worked well last time, it was time to visit one of the temples that I put on the to do list. We weren’t disappointed and, again, felt like we got very lucky.

This is Jogyesa Temple and they like to decorate their grounds with seasonal flowers. Since it is October-November time, everything has been decorated with many many different colours of chrysanthemums. In some areas, the fragrance from the flowers was really quite lovely and helped to create such a welcoming atmosphere at the temple.

There were so many flower-covered sculptures that it was easy to forget that we were to see a temple. Like many other temples, you are asked to not take pictures when standing inside, but outside from a distance seemed fine enough. Inside the temple itself are three large golden Buddha statues which looked beautiful in the warm light provided by the candles. I’d love to come back here when they are celebrating a different flower, as I’m curious what they did previous when they decorated everything with lotuses.

This then left us with our final palace – the Deoksugung Palace. This is the more unusual of the palaces for two reasons. Firstly, the grounds of the temple includes a number of modern art installations that really contrast with the older style buildings.

The other weird thing, is how modern western things were included as the penultimate king of Korea (who was also the first emperor) liked them. This means that rooms actually have electric lights and he built, as his sleeping quarters, something in a European style right down to the columns. It’s another weird contrast, especially as this is liable to be the only time I see a traditional looking Korean palace building and a western style building next door to each other, within the same palace walls.

By the time we’d finished with Deoksugung Palace, the sun was setting and it was dinner time. Since we had time before our final activity, we found a Korean barbecue place in Myeongdong and had some rather delicious barbecued pork and mushroom. I really need to find a good Korean barbecue place when I am back in London as I feel like I need to try it with beef and some more vegetables.

And that leaves me with our final stop of the day – the Nanta theatre in Myeongdong. Nanta is the longest running show currently in South Korea and is what happens when you take Stomp and set it in a kitchen. I don’t know if I’ve enjoyed myself in the theatre this much for a long time. It was a great mix of music, circus tricks and humour that meant you were never too far away from clapping. The fact that it’s mostly non-verbal made it even better and explains why a lot of people in the audience were tourists. This is definitely something I’ll be recommending.

Tomorrow is the last full day in South Korea. I really don’t want to believe it. As much as I do miss my own bed and a lazy evening just watching some television, I am feeling so sad to be going. Plans are being made for a future visit, I know, and so I am just going to try and be in the moment and enjoy a day made up of miscellaneous things that we couldn’t fit elsewhere.

Two Weeks in South Korea: Day 12 – A Day of Contrast

I think that today might go down as one of the more weirdly contrasting activities day that I have done on a holiday. I’m certainly struggling to think of another off the top of my head. It’s one of those interesting days that can only happen when you have a massive to see list and you end up playing Time Tetris and seeing what combinations work. Also helps if you’re staying in a city where such varied activities are available.

Prior to today, the same evening we found out another the Korail strike actually, we received an email from the tour company that we booked with that the DMZ was just closed because of an outbreak of African Swine Flu. We were later told that, depending on the severity, this might stay closed for up to a year. However, they had an opening on another tour to the Military Demarkation Line (MDL), so we jumped on that.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 88/100Sight: North Korea’s DMZ
Location: South Korea
Position: #195

Right, so I know that this isn’t 100% what was meant when this was added to the Lonely Planet list, but I believe that I’ve completed it in terms of the spirit of its inclusion. So, what did we do?

After an hours trip out of Seoul, where our excellent tour guide gave an in depth recap of the situation between the two Koreas and of the developments in the last few years, we arrived at Imjingak. On the way, we managed to catch our first glimpse of North Korea from the window of the coach as we drove along the river. That alone was surreal, but to be at Imjingak and see the remains of the semi-destroyed Freedom Bridge (where prisoners of war were exchanged in the Korean War) firmly put more of a human element to the stories.

Also at Imjingak were a train and railway line, both destroyed during the Korean War and now sat there as a symbol of the severed connection between two nations that had been joined for a millennium. There was also an alter to allow Koreans separated from their family members or hometowns in the north to perform Confucian rites that they are unable to complete normally.

From here we went to Odu Mountain Unification Observatory, which allows you to see an actual North Korean village over the border. The observatory itself stands on a mountain that overlooks an are where rivers from both North and South Korea converge before heading out to sea – quite a metaphor in that. Using the binoculars there you can see the village in closer detail including a Kim Jong Il memorial and houses, some with incomplete roofs. However, it was clear enough that I saw something I didn’t quite bargain.

People. The weather was good enough that we could see actual North Koreans walking down the roads going about their lives. The whole thing really did have the threat of feeling like an exercise in anthropology, but seeing those North Koreans walking the roads of the farmland made all of this ridiculously real. Not that it didn’t since I’ve been in South Korea for nearly a fortnight, but suddenly North Korea was less an abstraction and more flesh, blood and earth. Gave me a lot to think about on the ride home.

Our final stop on the tour was at the Korea War Museum and, by extension, the War Memorial of Korea. I think that if our tour guide hadn’t been so thorough in her explanations, and that we hadn’t already learned about the previous wars in Korea thanks to visits to Gyeongju and the National Museum of Korea, we might have found this museum a lot more interesting to walk through. But, hey, it’s another example of a free South Korean museum and so we made sure to give it a proper walkthrough.

Also here, as I said earlier, are war memorials to those who lost their lives as part of the Korean War. These memorials are very affecting, especially all the tablets listing the names of the fallen from all over the world. Also, in front of the museum there is a plaza where they fly all the flags of the nations who supported South Korea in their fight after the North invaded in the 1950s. Such a diverse group including nations from all the continents. It’s very humbling and really heightens the contrast between the first and second half of the day.

First though, lunch. We hadn’t eaten anything (or really drunk anything) and it was two in the afternoon. Where the hub got a rather nice looking bulgogi rice bowl, I fancied noodles and went for something that was just translated as “Traditional Korean Noodles”. I’m sure that isn’t what was written in Hangeul, but it was delicious so I’m not complaining.

List Item: Visit 25 Amusement Parks
Progress: 15/25

And here we are at pretty much the opposite of a North Korean in a field: Lotte World. This is the largest indoor theme park in the world, but more on that in a bit. As it’s close to Halloween, the exterior section of Lotte World (called Magic Island) turns into a zombie invasion after sunset. So, since zombies freak me out, we wanted to cross this off before it got dark.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to notice that the similarities with the Magic Island having a castle in the centre much like Disney’s Magic Kingdom, but that’s the kind of blatancy that I live for. As this is the outside park, this area includes one of their major roller coasters (where I was over the maximum allowed height, much to my disappointment) and a few vertical drop rides. All this adds up to us only really wanting to try out one ride – the underground rotating roller coaster called Comet Express. We were spinning and being flung around like nobody’s business. It was so much fun.

We had a wander around the rest of the Magic Island admiring the decorations and drinking a blood bag full of some sort of strawberry-flavoured liquid before heading inside and getting to know the five floors of the indoors-park. The best way that I can describe it is like the sort of theme park I end up making in management simulation games, as in things seem piled together and somehow it works really well as a park concept.

Our plan of attack was simple, we had limited time here so we were going to start at the top and try and hit all the rides we were interested in. Beginning on the 4th floor, we got in a pretty long queue for the Pharoah’s Fury. It was here where it hit me just how much care had been put into the theming for these attractions. I mean, the queuing area for this dark rides was filled with replicas of Egyptian treasures and the walls with their own take on Egyptian carvings. It was really cool.

Next we boarded the Aeronaut’s Balloon Ride because I wanted to get some good photos from the top of the park and because the balloons looked so cute just going around the edge of the park that I just wanted to be in one, fear of heights be damned.

Being up this high really brought home just how huge this park actually was and how many things I actually wanted to try before it closed. Luckily. After these thirst three initial rides, we didn’t have to queue for anything else for much more than 5-10 minutes. Granted that’s because we decided to give the inside roller coaster a miss, but we weren’t really feeling it anyway.

We ended up riding the river rapids Jungle Adventure and the Fly Venture (which was their version of the Voletarium from Europa Park, but with a lovely fantastical setting) rides before making our way to the centre for the parade.

Following the lead of other parks, this after sunset parade was an illumination parade with lanterns controlled by drones, floats, puppets, dancers and some surprising inside fireworks coming from the castle in the centre. Although on a smaller scale than other parades, because of the restrictions of being inside and having the parade take place on a floor above visitors, this was so well done and made us look forward to what they would do as a closing performance.

We did two more rides – a shooting game called Dragons Wild Shooting and a simulator called Wild Jungle that has you driving through the jungle and having all matter of things happen to you – before grabbing a hot dog from one of the many food vendors. Trying to stay Korean somehow, I went with the dak gulbi dog, which had spicy chicken as a topping. It was really good and gave me the energy for the rest if the evening.

Time was marching on, so we bought a gift for our niece and I got a keychain for my collection as well as doing two repeat rides of our favourite indoor attractions – the extra ride on the rapids being extra cool as they gave us our own tube so we were able to go through the ride again with just the two of us.

The finale show wasn’t at all what we expected, but it was pretty marvellous to see. Rather than a more traditional light show or fireworks (the latter being near impossible because, again, we’re indoors) the show was done by projecting images onto the surface of a section of the park. It’s hard to describe or photograph, but it was very transfixing.

So ends a pretty contrasting day, all possible because of what can be done in Seoul. Tomorrow we’re boots on the ground again as we do our own tour of the many royal palaces of Seoul. Hopefully we’ll be able to hit them all up in a day, else there is always our final full day as a bit of a spillover.

Two Weeks in South Korea: Day 11 – National Museum of Korea Day

The holiday soreness has really kicked in after over a week of doing of ridiculous amounts of walking and not much in the way of rest breaks. It’s the issue with wanting to see as much as possible in a limited time, but I guess it makes up for the lovely food I’m eating.

So today was the first day that we actually spent in Seoul and we decided that this would be the perfect day to go and explore the National Museum of Korea. It’s a truly massive and beautiful looking modern building and its situated in some gorgeous surroundings. This is one of the largest and most visited museums in all of Asia and over three floors contains a wealth of treasures from Korea and some assorted things from other Asian nations. Well, two and two-thirds floor as a significant portion of the third floor was undergoing renovations.

Even with a completed third floor, a visit to this museum isn’t an all day affair like The Louvre or the National Palace Museum, but like a bunch of other museums it’s free entry. Pretty great value given that we spent a good 4-5 hours looking around exhibits plus a lunch break. The only downside? Some of the worst behaved school groups I have encountered in a museum. Like, touching the exhibits and throwing gravel at each other on the escalators type of behaviour. It was a bit of a jarring experience after some of the friendly and otherwise fine groups we encountered at Gyeonju and, to be fair, the better groups who were also in the museum today.

Anyway, that unpleasantness out of the way, if you have even a passing interest in Korean history then the bottom floor of this museum is the place for you. Starting from Room 101 and going anti-clockwise, you see Korea going from the same pre-history beginnings that every civilisation seems to go through (axes, arrowheads, first general cutting tools) all the way to their annexation by Japan in the early 20th century.

The rooms do an excellent job at highlighting the strengths and differences between the original disparate Korean kingdoms of Goguryeo, Silla and Baekje. The road to unification and the many wars and name changes that happened since. It put’s their greatest treasures, including another Sillan Golden Crown and beautiful pieces of bronzework into historical context extremely well. Sure, there aren’t many things on the first level that have a real wow factor, but you don’t need to be wowed to be engaged.

We stopped for lunch in the museum restaurant after completing the first floor, we were going to go to the cheaper food court… but it was full of school groups. We both had bibimbap here but, where the hub went for another beef one, I went for a rather lovely spicy octopus and flying fish roe bibimbap and lamented over how much I am going to miss Korean side dishes when I am back in the UK.

After lunch we went straight up to the third floor as part of some tactical school children avoidance. Like I said before, a large section of this floor was closed, but luckily that side of the floor still had an exhibition on about the treasures of a recovered Chinese shipwreck found off the coast of Korea. That was such an interesting few rooms where I was shocked to see so many intact ceramics had survived despite being dragged to the bottom of the sea. The exhibit doesn’t seem to posit a guess as to why they sank though, so I’ll just assume angry sea monster.

This is also the floor you come to if you want to see some beautiful examples of Buddhist sculpture and so many exceptional works made of celadon clay. There’s a lot of other examples of later pottery, but nothing matches the celadon works, which is the opposite compared to the ceramics that I saw on display in Taipei. I guess, Koreans were just especially skilled at celadon crafting.

We ended our visit on the second floor. This is a bit of a mixture where half of the galleries are themed after the donor who bequeathed their collections to the museum. This means a lot of roof tiles (as, in Korea, roof tile collecting appears to be a done thing by wealthy people). You also have some rooms with woodworking and, in a very out of place move, an Ancient Greek helmet donated by the Korean who win the Olympic marathon in 1936.

This floor also contains the big wow moment of the museum, an 11 metre tall and 7 metre wide (at least I think that’s what I heard during my eavesdropping) Buddhist painting. Apparently it would be unfurled outside the temple for mass worship and then be folded and stored in a wooden box between uses. It was a real marvel.

So that was the museum and we were left with some time to fill, which is how we ended up touring the beautiful gardens and taking a seat at the picturesque rainbow-producing Dragon Falls to then be approached by a quite old Korean man. It was quite a lively discussion we had (once he found out we were not from America, which made him all the more happier to talk to us) about Korean history, his visit to Europe and, of all things, Brexit. Looking back on it, this was a weirdly lovely moment to have in the museum gardens. I can’t think of another holiday where a stranger has approached me with friendly curiosity as has happened multiple times on this trip. It’s actually really nice.

We made our way from the gardens across town to Bonguensa station in Gangnam which, across the road from each other, has a temple complex and the worlds largest underground shopping mall. It’s a bit of a worlds colliding at the road crossing kind of thing. Given the time and that the sun looked like it wanted to set soon, we went for the temple first.

The notable thing about this temple is the Buddha statue just up the hill. This isn’t an ancient statue (or set of statues) by any means, but that doesn’t stop it from being a sight to behold. One of these days, I am going to go out and learn about the significance of the different figures and all the smaller figures in sculptures like these. I know I read the Buddha manga about the life of the Buddha, but that doesn’t cover a lot of the actual details of the religion.

As we were leaving, two of the monks from the complex started playing on the large drums and then proceeded to ring the large brass bell numerous times. I wish I knew if if here was a reason behind this and, if so, what, but one thing that’s clear is that the experience was quite moving and I feel so lucky to have come across something like this completely by chance. We did then roam through Coex Mall across the road, but there wasn’t really much for us there, so we left via some rush hour metros to get some dinner.

Gwangjang market was our destination, our first Korean market experience where the food was served at small sit down places rather than food to be eaten on the go. We were a bit daunted at first because of the slightly manic energy and all the choice on offer. So, we started simple and got an order of a mung bean and a kimchi pancake. Then, at another stall, we got miniature kimbap and (finally) my first order of japchae.

We left space in our appetites as we were going to also hit up the nearby Dongdaemun Market, but I’m guessing we were a bit late or something. So, instead we went back to the old faithful (and best night market ever) at Myeongdong for some final bites and some present hunting at Artbox for our newly born niece.

Tomorrow is going to be a big day of contrasts. In the morning we’re taking a trip up to the border with North Korea. Sadly our original tour got cancelled due to an outbreak of African Swine Fever, so I’m not sure what’s happening. Still though, should be interesting – especially as the late afternoon and evening is going to be spent at Lotte World.

Two Weeks in South Korea: Day 9 – Day Trip to Jeonju

5:45 is not a dignified time to be getting up. Brings back bad memories of the teaching grind and making sure my early bus ride to work would have no students on it. But needs must as we have a 7:05 to catch to Jeonju. Never did manage to catch any additional shut eye on the way as the man in front of me kept insisting on rotating his chair to the point where my pull down tray belonged as much to me as it did to my husband sitting next to me.

At least I had a good breakfast though! We were looking for these dosirak boxes yesterday, but it turns out we couldn’t find anywhere in Busan station that did them. The opposite is true for Seoul station where we were completely spoiled for choice. My husband went for one that was a like a rice ball lottery, with one of them being hot enough for him to struggle. I went for this spicy pork bowl based purely on aesthetics (the Pokémon themed dried persimmon pack was for later snacking) and it was delicious. It even came with a little pot of hot soup. The perfect meal to eat when settling in to a long train ride.

We arrived in Jeonju just after 9 and, a short bus ride later, we were in the main area that tourists tend to go. In modern day South Korea, this is a minor city but its of major cultural significance. For one, Jeonju is the home of bibimbap – which, by most metrics, would be considered the national dish. It is also the city where the family of Korea’s final royal line (the Joseon dynasty) originate. So this city is actually a pretty big deal if you want to do some more digging during a visit.

Our first visit was a flying one to Pungammun Gate. It’s the final surviving gate of the old city of Jeonju before the walls and the other three gates were destroyed by Japanese invaders. It’s one those things that is near the top of the suggested sites, but to see it without knowing the history and how, for some reason, it still survives actually does it a bit of a disservice.

Anyway, near that is Jeondong Catholic Church which is interesting just to see how a country in East Asia would put together a church. Outside it’s a lovely looking building and there are free-standing statues of Jesus and Mary near the stairs. Inside, it’s not overly ornate, but then again this is a fairly new church, so it might have just not been built during the main decoration ostentation period. Still though, nice church and it was nice to hear some Korean language hymns as we caught the tail end of a service.

Across the road is the big singular attraction of Jeonju – Gyeonggijeon. It is here that the Joseon dynasty members would have lived when in Jeonju. It was also where the vast writings and histories about the previous kings were stored, prior to a substantial section being irretrievably burned by Japanese invaders (this is getting beyond a recurring narrative at this point).

Here we looked around the grounds, the gates and other buildings. Sadly the shrine wasn’t available to us as it was otherwise occupied by some event that neither of us could make out. This area also contains a few royal portraits of Joseon kings. Some of them are the only originals left (because burning) and is the place with the only remaining ‘original’ portrait of the founder of Joseon dynasty.

With the major sights seen, it was time to wonder around the wider area that comes under the umbrella of the Jeonju Hanok Village. Think of it as a concentration of buildings in the traditional Hanok style. It’s what the mini village in Gyeonju was trying to do, but it’s done a lot better here.

In our initial wanderings we visited the old Confucian School, two shrines (with the similar names Omokdae and Imokdae) and clambered up into the Jaman Mural Village to see what it was like there. It was really cool to climb up and down this mountain-side village and seeing all the different murals used to decorate their houses – some in original works and other deriving from Studio Ghibli films, Pokémon and even a red-headed Marilyn Monroe. The way that cafes were interwoven into this area makes me wonder if this is one of those places that might later evolve into a miniature Gamcheon Culture Village within the next decade or so.

After the village we ended up walking along the riverbank. Like with so many other water areas we’ve come across in South Korea, the water was clean enough for small fish and herons to go about their daily business. It was also a nice source of cool air in another day that was made of beaming sunshine and cloudless skies. I swear that our only bad weather day was when we climbed that mountain on Jeju.

By now we were getting peckish and were keen to sample some bibimbap in it’s hometown. So we found a nice enough looking place and got talking to this Korean man (who we think was a tour guide) and talked about him coming to the UK to visit his son studying in university. He seemed tickled pink about how much I knew about and loved Korean food. Don’t know how, but he seemed to talk to the restaurant and we got into the restaurant at lightning speed.

List Item: Try as many of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die as possibleFood item: Bellflower Root
Progress: 784/1001

So, what’s it like to have bibimbap (specifically Jeonju-style bimimbap) in it’s hometown? Bloody gorgeous that’s what. This is one of those moments that I have been waiting for all holiday and that first bite after mixing all the ingredients together was one of beauty. We also got a seafood pancake to share between us, but there is no denying the pure unadulterated power of a dish prepared in its original city.

We did some more exploring of the main section of the hanok village in an attempt to soak in some final ambience of watching people running around in rented traditional costume and to get some souvenirs. Sadly we came up empty on souvenirs, but it was a lot of fun to walk around all the old-style buildings and to learn more about how this village area came to be.

This is probably where we would normally call it a day, but we were booked on a late train back into Seoul and had some time to fill, so we made the bus trip across town to Deokjin Park. The map emphasised two main things, the massive pond in the centre and a suspension bridge that went across it. The bridge was pulled down earlier in the year, but it definitely delivered on a pond filled with lotus plants and people riding in pedalos and motor boats.

It was in this park where we had two more really sweet interactions with locals. First was two children in a pedalo who would not stop yelli itng ‘hello’ and waving at us. It was so cute, especially as the little girl must have been about 2 or 3 and she latched onto the word used by her brother and went with. We also got a hello and an unprompted handshake from another local, which left me so taken aback that I could hear a mother with a pushchair behind me giggling. It’s the little things that can get you, isn’t it.

We finished our time in the park by watching the musical fountain that, by chance started as we had completed our walk around the lake. It really made a perfect ending to our time in Jeonju as we sat there as the only westerners in a crowd of Koreans watching the waters dancing for us.

That was it for our time in Jeonju. We grabbed something light for the train ride back – me grabbing a spam mayonnaise kimbap from the nearby CU convenience store to sustain me as I write this post and to fend off the dinner grumbles which were then satisfied by most of the bounty you see in the picture as we did some laundry in the hotel basement. We didn’t eat the matdongsan or the chocolate things, but we did fall for the garlic sausage stick.

Tomorrow is another trip out of Seoul, but to a nearer location. The forecast is for fun as we go to Everland, the largest theme park in South Korea. It is set to be another sunny day with just a touch of cloud. Despite the early departure time, I really cannot wait to just get on some rides and see how this country does theme parks.

Two Weeks in South Korea: Day 8 – Final Day In Busan

I know that there’s a school of thought that it’s better to leave a holiday destination wishing to have had more time to do things than to have stayed too long and long exhausted all options. Still though, two and a half days to properly explore Busan just wasn’t enough and will just have to be put aside for a potential future visit.

So, with about five hours to get in some final Busan goodness, time was of the essence and we had to make it across the city and back in order to see Beomeosa Temple. In Korean Buddhism this is a pretty important temple and, as the story goes, the monks living here have fought off Japanese invaders a number of times. Honestly, I thought that sort of thing was just a Kung fu movie trope – apparently not.

The temple itself is housed most of the way up a mountain in the north of Busan with the surrounding areas being heavily forested. On the bus up to the temple (there is a possible hike up, but we didn’t exactly have the time) there were so many people with hiking poles and other such equipment as this temple is the starting point of a number of really beautiful trails. Thankfully, the path from the bus stop didn’t require such accoutrements.

On the walk up, you see a lot of stern looking tortoises carrying carved stone columns on their back as a way to help demarcate the presence of a temple. The beautiful wooden gates do a similar job, but one of them (the Cheonwangmun Gate) houses something special inside.

Inside of this second entryway into the temple are four painted wooden statues each depicting one of the four Guardian Kings who relate to the main compass directions. I didn’t manage to get this in the photos, but it’s interesting to note how two of the four statues are physically crushing a rather disagreeable looking person beneath their foot. I’m not sure of the symbolism behind this, but it was weird to see.

Up some more stairs and you are in the main temple courtyard with numerous places of worship and a lot of off-limits areas dotted around. In the end, this is a working temple with accommodation for monks (who I actually saw this time) and the occasional Buddhist retreat. Given how many people had actually come into the temple to offer prayers and the number of no photography signs, I didn’t end up with many pictures of inside the buildings.

Then again, like with the Haedong Yonggung Temple, the thing of interest isn’t the building interiors rather it’s the picturesque setting of it being a temple in the mountains, surrounded by forest that’s makes good use of the existing terrain. If it wasn’t for time counting down in my head I would have liked to sit a while, but I also wanted to hike down the mountain back to the station. So that’s what we did and we grabbed a steamed pork bun at the end for our troubles.

This left us with more time than either of us had first expected that would have just been us sitting in the train building for no good reason. Then I remembered a sign in the Seomyeon for a Busan Citizens Park. Since that was near enough the hotel and the Lotte Mart where I had a purchase to make, we figured why not. So glad I remembered that sign.

Given the tree growth, you can tell this is a new park. Turns out I was correct, with this park being opened in mid-2014 after this area of land was transformed from an old US Army base into a stunningly well cultivated public space. Walking through here with trees that can only be 5-6 years old was lovely enough, but things are going to just get more and more beautiful as they all begin to grow.

This area also contains a miniature urban beach based off that in Haeundae, a stream with rock bridges and bridges covered in flowers, a pond stocked with a vibrant array of koi (and a few terrapins), a mirror pond, pagodas and all manners of areas for children to play in. I can only imagine how beautiful this will be when all the plants properly begin to fill in. I hope I’ll be able to see it.

So that’s the last thing from Busan aside from my wanting to swing by Lotte to pick up a sloth that has been calling my name for days. We then got our bags from the hotel, made our way to the station, bought a stupid amount of train food including beef bulgogi dosirak boxes from a convenience store and some assorted items from the station’s fish bakery. It’s nearly a three hour journey which allows for plenty of time to do some scenery watching until the sun decides to set.

And then, before I knew it, I’m in Seoul. The idea of doing a two week holiday is so weird to me that there was a part of me that had almost forgotten this final longer stay was coming. It’s one of those pleasant surprises that means you have even more time out of the office and that your 6 month run without a day off was worth it.

After getting acquainted with the hotel, we headed out to explore the nearby area. This meant a visit to Myeong-dong night market. So far I’ve liked the South Korean night markets, but they never quite lived up to either the hype or their Taiwanese counterparts. This one did. Not only is it massive, snaking through multiple streets and featuring everything from grilled cheese-lobster (15000₩ or just over £10) to phone charms, but it also has the shopping area of Myeong-dong as a backdrop. It took all my willpower to not buy a tornado potato and waste all my won in the local (and massive) Artbox store.

 

We were so spoiled for choice that it was unreal. We were also acutely aware that we were going to other night markets so wanted to make sure we got things that we felt were either an absolute must or had never seen before. So, based on the copious YouTube videos out there, we started with a seed covered egg bread which I liked a lot and my husband (who doesn’t like egg and surprised me by buying his own) literally choked down. We then roamed the streets and proceeded to buy some Korean sweet and sour chicken (the best I’ve had yet), a honey comb topped ice cream fish-bread and finished off with a Nutella filled taiyaki made using croissant pastry.

Well, further exploration of Seoul is going to have to wait as tomorrow we’re doing a long journey to Jeonju, the home of bibimbap, which means a 5:45am start. There’s other things there for sure, but the thing I am most looking forward to is the bibimbap. Just hope I don’t drown or suffer serious burns as my exhausted head falls into the scalding hot bowl.

Busan, we got off on the wrong foot on the first night where neck pain inspired insomnia left me cursing your name at three in the morning. I then fell for you super hard and am sad to have left you so soon. Hopefully we shall meet again in 2030.