Currency: Korean Won (₩)
₩1000 = 72.5p . £1 = ₩1378
Time Zone: GMT +9 (8 hours ahead of UK summer time)
So the last stop on the Korean leg of our travels was to be the capital, Seoul. Our first planned activity in this buzzing metropolis was to have a short nap! We had arranged to meet a friend of mine in the evening. I had met 2 South Korean ladies when in Toronto in 2012 and I had arranged to meet them both but they were only available on seperate nights. So the first night we were meeting Gyusun.
When we were in Kyoto we had spoken to a Frenchman who recommended we visit the Hongnik University region of Seoul, so Gyusun was waiting for us outside the KFC at the station. Gyusun explained that this region was for the young folk, mostly 19 year olds, and we were all too old, so we walked to the nearby district of Hapjeong to a trendy beer bar called Bali Superstore. We ate Indinesian food, drank beer (or wine) and had a great time catching up.
The next day some of us felt a little rough around the edges so it didn’t start as early as we would have liked. For lunch we wondered south from our hostel and found a few eateries around a nearby roundabout. We tried to find a veggie option written in English but eventually settled for the Korean fast food chain Lotteria, where Kate could have chips and mozzarella sticks at least. I ordered a burger with a giant hash brown and mozzarella but I had accidentally ordered it without the burger, which meant it was entirely veggie friendly. So we shared everythinh in true Korean tradition.
With our bellies full we set off in search of one of Seoul’s 5 grand palaces, Changgyeonggung (창경궁). It was a very pleasant 10 minute walk to the entrance and cost ₩1000 (about 73p). The buildings are pretty but entirely empty and there was little in the way of information.
The grounds however were lovely and we had a good wander around to burn off our unhealthy lunch.
We wandered south to find an ATM that both worked for us and didn’t charge us for the privilege. We had no trouble in Busan but had found only 1 machine in Jeju (that particular bank had 4 but only one worked for us). After trying maybe 7 different machines we found one we could use for free! By this point however we had ventured a long way from our hostel so carried on walking along Jongno, one of Seoul’s major streets. It was incredibly busy with all sorts of niche shops that always seemed to come in pairs. Wig shops? One’s not enough. Artificial limb shops? Obviously you need a pair. Industrial lighting? I think you get the picture.
We eventually found ourselves a subway stop and headed back to the hostel. We were meeting Bitna, my other Toronto friend, and her boyfriend that evening so after a horrendous ordeal with 2 broken washing machines and frantically hanging dripping wet clothes, we were a little late. We were meeting at Dongdaemun Night Market, a big open space event of food and crafts. Bitna was keeping a table for us whilst her boyfriend came to find us. Again, it was great to catch up and we went round the market ro get some bits and bobs to eat. After the market the plan had been to head to BBQ restaurant but it was because I had neglected to mention Kate’s dietary requirements. So after some frantic Googling by Bitna’s boyfriend they found a seafood BBQ joint a short taxi ride away.
We had a fantastic time sampling the many seafood options: clams, mussels, octopus and plenty of sides.
We also both had the Korean traditional cocktail of someak: soju (the super popular Korean spirit) and maekju (beer). I am not a big believer in beer cocktails but it’s not bad!
The whole thing was an experience we wouldn’t have been able to have without their guidance and it was so nice spending time with another old friend and a brand new one! And Kate of course!
Day 3 was marginally more productive than the previous day, despite the large quantities of Somaek consumed. We caught a subway to get to the premier palace of Seoul: Gyeongbokgung (경복궁). Built in 1395 it is the largest of the five palaces and quite an impressive collection of structures, especially considering its surroundings.
The grounds are huge and littered with various functioning buildings from living quarters to parliament rooms to kitchens. And again some lovely gardens.
We walked around the outside of the grounds in an attempt to find somewhere nice for lunch but ended up in a Chicago theme restaurant. They had a curious menu item that I felt obliged to try: cheeseburger soup. Mince, bread and cheese in a thick cheesy broth. Super unhealthy, not even slightly Korean but amazing!
After lunch we went to the National Folk Museum. They have plenty of outdoor exhibits looking at aspects of Korean life through the ages. They also have this giant pagoda.
Inside the museum we turned up just as a volunteer guided tour was beginning so we took up the opportunity and learnt all about Korean history. The first area focussed on the importance of seasons and explained that it was viewed as essential for a big city to have a river one side and mountains on the other, which was why Seoul became the capital. The second area was the life of a Korean from birth, marriage and death. Apparently the biggest buffets are thrown for the wake. This is apparently a “typical” one.
After the folk museum we popped to Gangnam to see what Psy was on about in 2012. It turns out they have a stage dedicated to the dance, despite the fact the song is aimed squarely at taking the mick out of the residents.
We wandered the streets for a bit and stopped for a drink to people watch. We ended up mostly watching a middle aged lady shoving a BBQ restaurant sign in everyone’s face. Not quite the Gangnam reaident I thought we’d see but the large number of people driving a Mercedes or a Bentley was closer to our expectations.
After Gangnam we aimed for Banpo bridge. I had seen a photo of it lit up in rainbow colours at night and thought it would be worth seeing. After a short subway ride and a 20 minute walk we discovered it was not rainbow coloured but lit up by street lamps. It wasn’t even a pretty bridge. But the park on the south side of the river Hangang was heaving with people, presumably for the pretty night views of Seoul.
We walked through the park and found a shop to get us some instant ramen bowls, something we definitely should have done before. They are like pot noodles except they’re in bowls and some have fancy thick noodles. We scoffed them down in our hostel (with a couple of pre-boiled eggs).
Day 4 Kate and I had seperate plans. I had booked onto a tour of the DMZ (De-Militarised Zone), a 4km wide, 250km long stretch of land that seperates North Korea and South Korea. Kate on the other hand was going to save her money and have a relaxing day. Normally I try and avoid tours due to the cost hikes compared to doing it yourself, but to get into the DMZ you need to be on a tour. The tour promised to take us to within spitting distance of North Korea, as well as showing us various points of interest related to the ongoing conflict between the 2 halves of the Korean peninsula.
The tour started at 8 so I was up at the crack of dawn to get me there on time. This meant I missed the free breakfast slot and was a little peckish from the beginning. Our first stop on the tour was a memorial park called Imjingak in the town of Paju, a town on the fringe of the DMZ. It is home to a number of memorials as well as the symbolic Freedom Bridge.
They also have a steam train, riddled with over a thousand bullet holes, that was ambushed during the Korean war.
This area, known as Imjingak, was probably the best part of the tour but we only had 10 minutes to look around. There was a huge amount of info on each memorial and various photos and stories from the conflict. Paju is also renowned for its ginseng festival that was going on during this time, so it was rather busy.
The next stop was the “Third Tunnel”. During the 7os peace appeared to be on the horizon, until it was discovered that North Koreans had been digging at least four tunnels to attack the south. They plastered the walls with coal to try and fool the south into believing they were mining for coal. The south unsurprisingly didn’t fall for this and, after attempting to accuse the south of digging them themselves, they eventually admitted fault and apologised, but this had ramped up the tension between the two.
At the site of the tunnel there is a small exhibit on the history of the conflict with a model of the JSA (Joint Security Area) where the two nations can sit down and talk.
The tunnel itself was our next stop. It required walking for 10 minutes down a steep slope descending 187m, walking for another 10 minutes hunched over with hard hats due to the 5-foot-high ceiling, looking at some barbed wire and a window to nothing before returning the way we came. It was exhausting and probably not worth it. But at the end we were 170m from North Korea. Photos were not allowed but I wasn’t particularly bothered.
Back up on ground level we had some time to explore another collection of monuments to unity and peace before we were back on the bus.
Dora observatory was our next stop, a hilltop observatory where you can see into the north. They have built a village called Kijongdong, or Peace Village, that was known in the south as propaganda village as it remained empty for many years and was seen as a message to the south about the supposed quality of life in the north. It has what is officially recognised as the world’s tallest flagpole. As we experienced with Fuji, the fog ruined this opportunity to catch a glimpse of North Korean life.
We had one more stop before lunch (or so I thought): the Dorasan Station. This state-of-the-art station was built in 2002 as the last South Korean station in an attempt to connect Seoul to Pyongyang. Peace seemed to be on the horizon once more but the north refused to cooperate and it remains out of use, along with the many adjacent cargo warehouses. Due to the geography of the Korean peninsula, the south’s only land border is with North Korea and they had dreamed of international train travel.
At this point I thought the plan was lunch then back to Seoul. It was already 2pm and I was starving. Unfortunately our next stop was a 1 hour wait at an amethyst shop before arriving at an area called Itaewon at 3:30. I was then informed my lunch was a 20 minute walk away because the road was closed for a festival. And no-one else had paid for lunch so it was just me. The guide walked with me to the restaurant, paid and left. Finally, at around 4pm, I was given my bowl of bibimbap, a Korean dish of rice, veg and an egg.
It was nice, but I was far from satisfied. I trudged grumpily to the subway through the rain and returned to heae Kate had been drinking tea and chilling in the hostel and I think she chose the better option.
That evening we went back to Lotteria to stuff ourselves with hash brown and mozzarella burgers and went to a Korean craft beer pub for a couple of drinks. We picked up some snacks at a supermarket on our way back to the hostel and got ourselves to bed to prepare for a big journey to the Philippines.
The unfortunately named B&J Guesthouse was our base in Seoul. A family run budget guesthouse in the north of the city, relatively close to the subway, it seemed like a good base. Unfortunately, an unclean room, having only 2 toilet/shower/dry rooms and a disappointing breakfast of toast and jam meant we weren’t particularly impressed. The staff were nice, as ever and the free laundry was a nice addition, or at least it would’ve been if the machines hadn’t broken and made us late.