South Korea · Tennessee · Travelling

Days 10 to 14 – Busan and Daegu

Day 10 – Songdo Beach, Amnam Park (and Pizza Hut)

On day 10 I jumped on the ‘KTX’ train and sped down to the southern coast of Korea. I say sped as that train flew down the line! Previously I had only taken ‘Mugunghwa’ trains which are older and slower, whereas KTX trains are like bullet trains, very modern and sleek.

I immediately connected with Busan. It is similar to Seoul, but the weather is nicer, it is easier to get around and more importantly I found a VEGAN restaurant for lunch! Big win. It is the second city of Korea and is a large port. It also has a number of beaches, which I intend to utilise as I need a few days of not rushing around.

On my first day I bought a return ticket on the Busan Air Cruise cable car, and headed up to Amnam Park from Songdo Beach. I practically had the place to myself, and with cool ocean breezes it was the perfect place to unwind. I hiked around the park and it was wonderful, with breathtaking views across the southern seas.

Amnam Park and the cable cars in Busan
Amnam Park and the cable cars in Busan

I did find ANOTHER vegan restaurant to try for dinner, but here restaurants seem to close incredibly early, and disappointingly when I arrived at 8.10pm they were already closing…?!!>>>@! Imagine my surprise. However all was Ok because I ended up in Pizza Hut which is virtually the same thing. Will try again another day.

Day 11 – vegetarian delights and the world’s biggest shop

I had a very welcome vegetarian experience today! As I may have mentioned a few times, being vegetarian here in Korea is quite frankly the worst. However, there are nuggets of vegetarian goodness if you know where to look. I found a great restaurant called ‘Ecotopia’ and had a delicious tofu burger with rice, roasted veg and some amazing pickled cucumbers in lemon. The best part however were the amazing people who run the place. The owner told me she had studied in Leeds of all places, and then interviewed me for her Instagram channel! She also gave me a free book. Then they gave me a free cookie a previous customer had bought and left for me, as I had told him he had left his phone on the table. A small thing perhaps but things like that remind me how people can be amazing and generous and kind, which I need to remember from time time…

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Vegetarian goodness

I also visited the largest store in the world! Officially. Well, according to a sign they had up. I don’t deny it has pretty huge. So huge I got completely lost. But it did have a Boots, rather weirdly, so I shopped in there for a while til I found my bearings!

Day 12 – Taejongdae Park and a hidden gem

Didn’t have much on my agenda today, decided to have a quieter day, so I jumped on the bus over to Taejongdae Park, about 50 minutes from my hotel. It’s a hilly cliff-side park which you can walk around, with some fantastic views across the sea. Unfortunately, it seemed like half of Busan also wanted to come with me. Thankfully most of them were very lazy and jumped on this train thing that ferried around the park, meaning I was largely left to my own devices.

Funnily enough it was mainly the older generation who I shared my walk with. It is quite surprising to see how active over people in Korea are. They love using those outdoor gyms and are always power-walking somewhere. I was imagining if they lived in the UK they would be curling up on the sofa watching Corrie most nights instead of hiking up a mountain!

Taejongdae Park, Busan
Taejongdae Park, Busan

I also stumbled across a beautiful and very quiet buddhist temple, with a reclining buddha outside. Most temples do not let you take photos of buddhas but this one was Ok which was good. It is funny though, as because it was not a ‘touristy’ temple on the tourist trail, there was no-one there. Just shows what you can find if you out the guidebook away and just wander…

Yes more meal-drama today, searched out two places to eat, both of which were closed. I finally found my old saviour, the Japanese restaurant and had at least some vegetables to eat. The whole mission-to-eat thing is becoming pretty tiresome. I do not enjoying eating here at all, I find it pretty depressing that Korea is so unfriendly to the idea of not eating meat.

Days 13 & 14 – a trip to the bathhouse and Daegu

On day 12 it didn’t stop raining, so what better time than to visit the quintessential Korean experience – the bathhouse. I have been to one before, in Orange County, with my good friend Liz, so I kinda knew what to expect. Which was a good thing as the experience can be a bit confusing. Where to put your shoes? What to wear? What NOT to wear etc! The place I chose was called Heosimcheong Spa and it was huge! The way Korean bathhouses work is that there is a mixed area called a Jimbang. This is where the dry saunas are, as well as communal lounge areas and a cafe. The wet areas are single sex and that’s where all the saunas, hot and cold baths are. Also where you have to get over your British reserve and whip your clothes off!

There was an outdoor bath, a boiling hot scald-your-skin-off bath, freezing cold baths, powerful water jets to massage your shoulders, you name it, they had it. It was about 8 times bigger than the place I visit in California and I spent about three hours there, all for about ¬£6!

On day 13 I got the SRT (I don’t know the difference between KRT and SRT?) train to the city of Daegu, about 45 minutes way. It is famous for it’s oriental medicine market, which I looked around and smelt some amazing aromas, have no idea what they were though! In the words of ‘French & Saunders’, it was just a bunch of old twigs…. I did see a few disturbing things like turtle shells though too.

I also stumbled across a brilliant sushi restaurant, and some veggie rolls! The lady who owned it had lived in Austin, Texas, which I visited on my last trip so we reminisced about our time spent there which was nice.

I also had a funny/terrifying experience at the railway station. I was just finishing buying my ticket when I heard some screams and shouts and I turned around only to see about six masked men dressed in black hurtling towards me holding semi automatic rifles!?! Well I froze and though good god this is it, I’m dead, when I then saw some man waving a fluorescent orange stick which turns out meant, don’t worry this is just a drill. In a packed railway station. With no notice. Thanks ūüôā

Highlights of Daegu
Highlights of Daegu

I ended my day back at the veggie burger place in Busan that I went to on my first day here, so a pretty good day all round food wise! I am heading off to Tokyo tomorrow which I am really looking forward to! Hopefully more so if Trump has departed!

I just wanted to finish my thinking out loud a few thought on my time here in Korea…

Some general musings on my time in Korea

  • Korea is the worst country I have ever been to for vegetarian food. And I’ve been to France! And Germany. If I never have to eat Korean food again I will be a happy man.
  • The people are generally very friendly, helpful and respectful. I always felt safe and welcome.
  • Getting a seat on the subway is a national sport. Heaven help you if you try to get in someone’s way if they have an eye on seat. You’ll stand no chance.
  • Everyone is very law-abiding when crossing the road. I wasn’t.
  • Train conductors will happily go up to anyone who is speaking even vaguely loudly and tell them to shut up which is pretty amusing to see! I somehow can’t see that working on UK trains.
  • Korean men have a disgusting habit of hacking up their lungs and spitting in the street. One guy did it right at my feet. Gee, thanks.
  • Pedestrian crossings mean nothing – Korean drivers would rather run you over than even contemplate stopping.
  • If you come here as a westerner, be prepared to be stared at. Every. Day.
  • Rural Korea is beautiful, the mountains and rivers, the temples and palaces.
  • Someone described Korea to me as a blend of Chinese and Japanese culture which I think is probably spot-on.
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South Korea · Travelling

Days 6 to 9 – Andong and Gyeongju

Day 6 – Andong

On day 6 I left the capital and headed south. I love big cities, the culture, the galleries and museums, the hustle and bustle, but I also love the tranquility and slower pace of more rural life too. My first stop is Andong.

Andong is about four hours train ride away from Seoul in a south-easterly direction. It was super cheap to get here, about ¬£7! I am staying a lovely guest house run by a Korean couple who couldn’t be more helpful. It is a Korean style room with a bed on the floor and minimal furniture. My hosts made sure I was well versed in everything there is to do here in the town. I was also guided around the array of different shoes you have to wear. bathroom shoes, indoor shoes and outdoor shoes too! I also made some new friends – Terry and Jun the dogs!

Me and Terry
Me and Terry

Andong is famous for two ancient brick pagodas. I stopped by both on my walk, one is nine stories tall and is the largest in Korea and dates from the 10thC. I then walked along the meandering Nakdong River, and crossed the longest wooden bridge in Korea, with beautiful views up and down the river. I then headed back into town via a lovely wooden walkway that rises and falls with the adjacent hills.

 

Tomorrow I am getting the bus to the famous Hahoe Folk Village. So famous that when the Queen visited Korea, she asked to be taken to the most Korean town in the country, and they chose to bring her here! Apparently the village has a monument in honour of her visit! I shall find out tomorrow…

Day 7 – Andong

Well, the rumours were true! QE2 had indeed visited Hahoe Village, there was a plaque and everything to prove it! I spent about three hours at the village, wandering around what is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was nice that it is a fully functions village with people living there. You can see the homes they live, many dating from the 16thC.

The village name means meandering river and you can walk by the river and up a nearby cliff for wonderful views of the village.

Hahoe Folk Village
Hahoe Folk Village

I also visited the Andong Folk Museum. I learnt some interesting facts about Korean traditional life. It used to be that Korean boys did not cut their hair, wearing it in a braid until they married, when it was cut. I also learnt that when every child turned one, the family had an elaborate ceremony, one of the elements of which was to place a number of toys in front of the child. Depending on which toy the child selected was supposed to determine what career they would have. Not sure it happens too much now but it was fascinating insight into generations past.

Trees of Korea
Trees of Korea

I also managed to find some vegetarian sushi which was cause for celebration! I am off to Gyeongju tomorrow and I hope it is easier to find something to eat there. Andong has not been kind to me food-wise, my body is craving healthy veggie food! Oh what I would do for an oat milk flat white and a quinoa salad lol….

Days 7 & 8 – Gyeongju

I arrived by train into the town they call the museum without walls. It was about a billion degrees and I immediately melted. Having pulled myself together I headed to the Gyeongju National Museum to find out about the history of this area.

Gyeongju burial mounds
Gyeongju burial mounds

Founded in the 5th century, the Silla dynasty has left its mark on this area of Korea. Primarily in the form of a series of royal burial mounds found throughout the town. They are quite an eerie site, but beautiful too. My video below shows a few highlights.

You can go inside a few of them and see how they were excavated and how they were laid out when the person was laid to rest in them. The king or queen was laid out with their possessions, often gold jewellery and crowns. Some of the crowns are in the museum and they are stunning.

Sixth century Silla gold crowns
Sixth century Silla gold crowns

In the sixth century, buddhism was introduced into the Silla dynasty, and this has left an amazing legacy of temples and shrines in the area. The most famous is the Bulgaksa temple. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. I sensibly went early, to avoid the heat and crowds of tour buses, and was rewarded with a tranquil experience to take in this beautiful temple.

I then headed high into the mountains above Bulguksa to a temple called Seokguram. I couldn’t take any photographs but this is a temple based round a beautiful stone carved buddha. I loved walked through the cooler air and the trees of the forest, with views back down to Gyeongju.

Bulkguksa
Bulkguksa

I then ended my day eating Japanese ice cream and cinnamon buns from a little Japanese cafe I found. I then sat next to one of the tombs and read, thinking how funny it is that two weeks ago I was commuting to Horsham up the A23 and now I am sitting next to a royal burial mound in Korea!

Tomorrow I am off to the south coast of Korea, to the second city of Busan. It has lots of beaches which I am looking forward to, then onwards to Japan!

 

 

South Korea · Travelling

Days 1 to 5 – London to Seoul

So here I go again….

About 27 months after my last big trip, I decided to head off again to do some exploring. This time I wanted to challenge myself a bit more, in terms of visiting some countries that don’t speak English that widely and whose cultures differ greatly from mine. So I chose to start with Korea and Japan!

Here are my video highlights of my first few days.

Days 1 & 2 – Flying to Seoul and Deoksugung Palace

Images of Seoul
Images of Seoul

After an 11 hour flight from Heathrow to Incheon, I touched down in South Korea on Thursday 16 May 2019. Unfortunately it was very hazy so couldn’t really see the city as I came into land. As with any long distance flight, with an 8 hour time difference, I’m ¬†jetlagged to hell!

One of the first things to hit me is that it is astonishingly hot here, something I was not expecting. 30 degrees and humid. I had read that it is not wise to come in the summer because it is too hot, so I chose spring. What must summer be like?!

Today I visited

  • Seoul Art Museum – mainly to get out of the heat! It was all contemporary Korean art, some of which was interesting. You can definitely sense a tension is the art, reflecting a constant tension at the situation in the north.
  • Deoksugung Palace – one of four main royal palaces in Seoul. Highlight was watching the changing of the guard and listening to the most out of tune band ever which was very amusing (for a taste of them, see my video)!
  • Cheonggyecheon-ro stream – this was really cool. Years ago this stream was concreted over, and a flyover built on top of it. About twenty years ago the city and the people decided the reclaim the waterway, and today it is a lovely place to sit in the shade and relax.
Images of Seoul
Images of Seoul

I also had dinner at Namdaemun market, my first proper Korean meal. I have been a bit concerned about the whole Koreans love meat thing, but today was Ok! I saw some plastic rice and eggs in the window and went for it! I also tried kimchi for the first time (fermented spicy cabbage and very much a national obsession) and wow, yes, it blew my head off!

Fried rice and kimchi
Fried rice and kimchi

First thoughts are that everyone is really friendly, everyone is very orderly and respectful and I seem very tall!

Jetlag is hitting me so I am signing off for today…

Day 3 – Gyeongbokgung Palace and Jogyesa Temple

A marathon 21,000 steps today, mostly spending wondering around the quite frankly mahoosive Gyeongbokgung Palace grounds. A royal palace complex for hundreds of years, it fell into ruins, only to be rebuilt in the 19thC. I felt a bit like a rockstar as loads of teenage girls repeatedly came bounding up to me asking to take a photo with me and to fill their surveys out! Move over Bono. Or Rick Astley is probably closer.

Deoksugung Palace, Seoul
Deoksugung Palace, Seoul

I also visited the Korean Contemporary History Museum. I had not been aware of the details of the turbulent recent history of this country, especially that it only gained independence from Japan in 1945, and then 5 year short years later was invaded by the north, hence the start of the Korean War.

I also visited the beautiful Jogyesa buddhist shrine, with three huge buddhas and hundreds of coloured lanterns strung across the sky.

Jogyesa Temple
Jogyesa Temple

I ended my day at the sweaty, crowded and vibrant Gwangjang market, where I ate some delicious mung bean pancakes. Partly because everything else had a face, or used to!

Day 4 – Changyeongung Temple and Namsan Park

More palaces today. There are quite a few around! Today it was the turn of Changyeongung Temple, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Not as vast as the palace complex I saw yesterday, but it did have some beautiful gardens. There were again lots of Korean people dressed in traditional costume touring the site which made a lovely atmosphere and some nice photos.

Changyeongung Temple
Changyeongung Temple
Changyeongung Temple
Changyeongung Temple

It was also mercifully a bit cooler too, and less humid, and a breeze too! I went on a vegetarian food hunt to the district of Hungdae, following a recommendation in my Lonely Planet which ended up being a wild (veggie) goose chase. However I luckily stumbled across a lovely place called Sukkara. It was part Japanese, part Korean, part very welcome! I knew getting decent veg food here would be hard and boy it sure is, unfortunately.

I ended the day climbing Mount Namsan. I had planned to get the cable car up to visit the North Seoul tower but half the city had the same idea so I just went for a stroll round the park and watched the night fall.

North Seoul Tower
North Seoul Tower

Day 5 – National Museum of Korea and Dongdaemun Design Plaza

I started my last day in Seoul doing what I love best – visiting galleries and museums! Today I had the pleasure of visiting the amazing National Museum of Korea. It really is one the best museums I have ever been to! It is purpose built, and has fantastic lighting, exhibition spaces, layout, you name it. It also contains some beautiful artwork. With an obvious focus on Asian art, it has comprehensive collections of buddhas dating back hundred of years, as well stoneware, statues and paintings. Here are a few of my highlights.

Assorted Korean artificats
Assorted Korean artificats from the National Museum of Korea
10thC buddha, Korea
10thC buddha, Korea
Wooden figurines decorating a funeral bier, late Joseon period (Korea)
Wooden figurines decorating a funeral bier, late Joseon period (Korea)
Arain deity 'Adu Sirana, Indonesia, 19thC
Grain deity ‘Adu Sirana, Indonesia, 19thC

I also visited the impressive Zaha Hadid designed Dongdaemun Design Plaza. It is pretty impressive from the outside, but it seems that the authorities do not know what to do with it inside. It feels very empty and lacking in focus unfortunately.

Dongdaemum Design Plaza
Dongdaemum Design Plaza, Seoul

I am heading out of Seoul tomorrow to see the more rural side of this country. Seoul has been fun but I am ready for a bit more down time!