Posts Tagged ‘south korea’

Seoul Redux

Side street in Insadong

The day and a half I spent in Seoul at the end of the Korean leg of my trip were a repeat of those at the beginning, except that I visited Changdeok Palace instead of Gyeongbok. I stayed at the same hotel (the Ibis Ambassador), I met the same friends for dinner the first night (chicken and rice this time), and I ate lunch at the same Insadong restaurant followed by coffee and macarons in the same patisserie. I did try a rose raspberry macaron as well as a brandied pistachio – the pistachio was much better.

Changdeok Palace

Roof detail, Changdeok Palace

Built on hilly terrain, Changdeok doesn’t follow the usual south-north layout, but is more spread out. The architecture is otherwise similar. I was most interested in seeing the “secret garden” behind the buildings, but when I learned that the mandatory tour would last two hours, I bailed at the half-way point. Aside from not wanting to stress my bad foot, I was getting hungry, and the grey day wasn’t the best for photographs. I do think the grounds would be lovely on a sunny day, though, especially after the leaves changed.

The garden at Changdeok Palace

I had no one to blame but myself for the planning that required me to get up at 5:00 am to make my next flight, from Seoul to Taipei. At least I got to eat breakfast twice – in the Cathay Pacific lounge at Incheon, and on the flight itself.

Bridge detail, Changdeok Palace


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Hating Jeonju

The entrance to Seunggwangjae - anyone can walk in any time they choose

The people at the Korean Tourist Offices were really very helpful. I have nothing but good things to say about everyone I dealt with. But, one of their brochures was responsible for my worst experience in Korea. Visit Jeonju, home to a large section of traditional houses, it said. Stay in a hanok (traditional house), it said. Stay in a hanok (Seunggwangjae) owned by the grandson of the last king. Lonely Planet also spoke highly of Seunggwangje: “live like a king at Jeonju’s best hanok”. Sounded good, although I had remarkable difficulty making a reservation – no English on the web site, no email address on the web site, no response to a phone message left by a Korean-speaking friend-of-a-friend. Finally, a man in the Seoul Tourist Office made the reservation for me, and I confirmed it, as requested, the week before I was due to arrive.

Traditional Korean dress available for photos at the festival

My day got off to a bad start. Although the bus station was closer than the train station to the guest house in Gyeongju, it wasn’t close enough I wanted to walk it with my pack. But when I asked for a taxi I was told that I couldn’t get a taxi because a marathon was taking place. So I walked. Then the bus stopped halfway through the trip for a lunch break, but only for 20 minutes, barely time to order, eat, and visit the toilet. Finally, the taxi in Jeonju had a lot of trouble getting me to the right place (possibly because a festival was in progress).

So, I was very ready to be treated like royalty. Instead, the woman apparently in charge kept waving me away as if I were in the wrong place. After I rechecked the name over the gate (in Korean characters) I made it clear I knew I was in the right place. The hanok’s courtyard was full of tourists taking photos and poking into corners (not an encouraging sight for someone who values privacy) and one translated for me: there was a problem with my reservation and I needed to spend the first night somewhere else.

The somewhere else turned out to have a shared shower room as the entry way, with a shared toilet in the courtyard. When I said this was unacceptable, a lot of loud phone calls ensued, and I was eventually told my room at Seunggwangjae would be available at 5:00pm. I should have bailed at this point, instead I spent a couple of hours checking out the festival, drinking coffee and finding an English speaking contact at the local tourist office.

Seunggwangjae on a quiet Monday

At 5:00 I found out that their solution to the problem was to have the man currently occupying “my” room move out, which of course he refused to do. I don’t know whether they double-booked the room, or he asked to stay longer and they didn’t tell him he couldn’t, and I don’t especially care. What really bothered me was the totally unprofessional way they handled the situation. The “assistant” dealing with me (via phone calls with the very helpful woman in the tourist office) finally offered to comp me a room at another hanok for one night, but by that time I wanted nothing more to do with him or his operation, plus I didn’t want to have to move the next day. I wound up instead at the Hotel Hansung, sleeping on the (heated) floor but with actual shelves to put things on.

My bed at the Hansung

The next day I set out to explore the “historic” district. Since I saw at least one new hanok being built, it really wasn’t clear how much of “Hanok Maeul” was actually historic. Then many of the buildings turned out to be shops, along with some cafes and museums. In other words, a big tourist trap. Not my kind of place at all (although I did enjoy the coffee at the No Name Cafe).

Macchiato at the No Name Cafe

Lonely Planet spoke well of the “narrow maze of alleys”, but since the hanoks are courtyard houses, I can’t see what’s to like about blank walls and the occasional electricity meter or trash can. I much preferred the modern Gaeksa shopping and eating district, where the Hansung was located. At least it was full of young locals enjoying themselves. I wasn’t very impressed with the region’s signature dish, bibimbap, either, but perhaps I was just in a bad mood.

Shop in the Gaeksa district

I did contact the man who had made my reservation, who was properly apologetic and who assured me that they will no longer recommend the Seunggwangjae. I still need to send feedback to Lonely Planet.

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Historic Gyeongju

The first king to rule the whole Korean peninsula, Munmu, took power in 668 C.E., and the dynasty ruled until 918. Like the contemporaneous Tang dynasty in China, the kingdom developed a flourishing culture and luxurious lifestyle.  The royal and elite dead were buried in the Korean version of pyramids: large rounded hillocks, covered with grass.  Originally they held coffins, protected first by wooden and later by stone chambers, which were covered with rocks and then earth. Over 670 of these tombs still remain in and around Gyeongju, the tallest 25 meters high, although some of the contents have been removed to the city’s museum. However, after a while all the hillocks started to look alike – I certainly didn’t need to see all 670 of them!

Tombs in Gyeongju

Silla gold and jade in Gyeongju's museum

About the time I decided I had seen enough tombs for one morning, I acquired a companion – a man staying at the same guest house. I’m not quite sure why he decided to join me, as I was limping quite slowly, but we did seem to have a similar agenda. My first priority was to locate the intercity bus terminal and try to buy a ticket for Jeonju. Once again, I found out how hospitable the Koreans could be. A young couple who were visiting the town put us in their just-parked car and drove us around to find the bus station. People on Twitter had suggested I might have trouble traveling in Korea outside Seoul, as few people would speak English, but I found those who did going well out of their way to be helpful.

After lunch we took a bus to the museum, where we found several large

More gold

school groups who seemed delighted to see westerners, happily shouting “hello” to us. I have two museum speeds: dead slow, where I read all the labels and/or listen to everything on the audio guide, and super-fast, where I stand in the middle of each room and do a 360 to see if anything catches my attention. This museum rated dead slow, especially the rooms holding the gold artifacts from the Silla tombs.

The last stop of the day was a different kind of dead slow. The guide books said that the Bomun Lake area, a few kilometers out of the center, had been developed as a resort area, and it sounded like a good place to get coffee. Not on an October afternoon, evidently. We finally had the front desk staff at one of the big hotels track down someone to make coffee for us. The next week the finance deputies for the upcoming G20 meeting were supposed to be staying at Bomun Lake, maybe it would be livelier then. Or maybe there’d just be a bunch of security. (I was glad to leaving the country before the G20 meeting proper got underway.)

The approach to Bulguk-sa

Solo again the next day (really my preferred way to travel), I took the circular bus out to Bulguk-sa. And I do mean out. None of the maps I saw of Gyeongju were to scale, and the distances were much further than they looked. The first temple on the site went up in the 500s, but it has been rebuilt, destroyed and rebuilt several times. The last restoration was completed in 1972, and the result is impressive. And despite the crowds, I got a real sense of peace from the building housing a statue of Gwaneum (the Goddess of Mercy).


Fish-shaped gongs are popular in Korean temples

Unfortunately I was less happy with the Seokguram grotto, on the mountain above Bulguk-sa. While I understand the reason for the glass that blocks access to the main part of the grotto, it also blocks the view of all but a few of the carvings lyrically described in the guidebooks. Since getting there involved a bus ride plus a 1.2 kilometer round-trip hike, I felt cheated.


Some meals really work better with a group, and I was pleased when one of the couples staying at the guest house agreed to try the BBQ at Pyeongyang with me. It proved to be one of Lonely Planet’s better recommendations, and we enjoyed the minced beef and usual side dishes, and admired the flexible metal snake above the table that turned out to be an extractor fan. On the way we also got to see an outdoor concert of traditional music, but while we admired the costumes none of us cared for the music. Back at the guest house the owners had started a fire in a metal drum, as the night was on the cool side, and a group of us sat around it sharing travel stories. The heated floor was more welcome that night!

Dabo-tap, the "femine" pagoda at Bulguk-sa

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Getting to Gyeongju

The day I arrived in Danyang I devoted some time to figuring out how to leave. The information desk in the bus station was empty when I arrived, but after lunch a helpful woman got an English-speaking man on the phone and we had a three-way conversation. After I finally made it clear that I didn’t want to leave that very day, the consensus was that I should take the afternoon train directly to Gyeongju. I had wanted to stop either in Andong (folk museum) or Daegu (herbal medicine market), and Daegu was a major transport hub for the south.  The two locals insisted that Andong was impossible, and that the only bus from Danyang to Daegu was the 13:25, but that it would be better to take the even later train.

The herbal medicine market in Daegu

While I wasn’t sorry to have visited Danyang, I didn’t want to spend the best part of another day there. Careful perusal of the bus timetable turned up a morning bus that appeared to go both to Daegu and to Busan. When I boarded the bus, with a ticket for Daegu, the driver kept saying “changing, changing” with a very worried expression. I took this to mean that I would have to change buses at some point. I did, but it couldn’t have been easier – all the Daegu passengers were shepherded off one bus and on to another, with no opportunity to stray, and the driver even moved my pack for me. Piece of cake.

Ginseng for sale in the market

Unfortunately, getting from the North Daegu bus station, where the bus terminated, to any of the other bus terminals, or to the train station, proved not a piece of cake at all. The driver of my bus told me to take a taxi, but not only were there no taxis in evidence, I though it was a bit far for a taxi ride. A very helpful local lady carefully read all the bus timetables, and agreed with the driver that there was no bus connection. Finally I took a bus headed for an area with a subway stop – only to be told by the driver when we got near that the subway wasn’t working! When I failed to find the stop for the bus he told me to take instead, I gave in and took a taxi to the train station – now much nearer – but I had to waylay a passing pedestrian to translate my destination.

The only items not pre-packaged in plastic

Lonely Planet had been enthusiastic about the traditional herbal medicine market. Possibly it has changed since the book was researched. Or possibly the author had been over-using some of the merchandise. Either way, I found the nearby food market more worthwhile – how often do you see a life-size octopus made out of candy? The medicine market had been cleaned up, with everything packaged in plastic and neatly stored indoors, and no hands-on activities on offer in the cultural center.

Octopus for dessert, anyone?

Since I had to go back to the train station to collect my main pack, I took the train instead of a bus onto Gyeongju. Probably the same train I would have taken if I’d spent the day in Danyang. Comfortable enough, but with an extremely annoying and persistent squeak.

I took another taxi (fortunately they’re pretty cheap in Korea) to the Sarangchae Guest House. At first I thought I had made a mistake – the place looked a bit worn and tired – but it turned out to be a great travelers’ hangout. Not something I want at every stop, but a nice break every now and then. It was a bit far from the nearest bus stop, but the tumuli (or royal tombs) for which the town is famous were right next door – looming atmospherically over the containing wall at night.

I was sleeping on the floor again, but this time, in accordance with Korean custom, the floor was heated! In fact, it was heated so efficiently that several guests, including me, asked for the heat to be turned down after the first night. Once again, I had no problem sleeping, but I did miss having somewhere to put things.

The view just outside Sarangchae in daylight

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Plan A for Korea had me traveling northwest to Seorak-san National Park for a couple of days hiking. Plan B had me heading southwest for Danyang instead, as it would take such a long time to get from Seorak-san to anywhere in the south. A traveler I met in Gyeongju told me that Seorak-san really was beautiful, but since my bad ankle would have kept me from hiking, and there wasn’t much else to do there, I didn’t regret my change of plan. Danyang is on the edge of two other National Parks, Worak-san and Sobaek-san, but there were other attractions, according to both Lonely Planet and Rough Guide.

Dodam-sambong's billion-year-old rocks: the concubine, the husband and the wife

My friends checked the bus routes for me, and I left from Dong Seoul, just five metro stops from my hotel. With only five other passengers on the same bus, I had no trouble buying a ticket right before it left. A heavy haze had blanketed Seoul the day before. I thought it might be pollution, but it never lifted, even as we finally cleared the suburbs half an hour out, and began driving through heavily forested hills. I enjoyed the scenery, and was amazed to read in the Rough Guide that by the end of the Korean War the hills were mostly barren. The subsequent reforestation program must be the most successful in history – you’d never guess today that the tree cover is just 50-60 years old. (Well, if you were an expert I’m sure you’d know it wasn’t virgin forest, but it looked fine to me.)

View from Danyang

I didn’t have a hotel reservation in Danyang – I had had another Korean friend of a friend contact one of the hotels, which said I didn’t need a reservation, and the (very helpful) Korean Tourist Office agreed, although with a note of regret. After an unsuccessful search along the waterfront for the Sky Motel, listed in the Rough Guide as “between the bus station and the ferry terminal” (no ferry terminal was visible) I tried the only hotel that looked at all inviting – Hotel Luxury. My inability to find a normal entrance was the first clue that it was actually a love motel – access was through the basement parking garage, only. Then there were day and half-day rates for the rooms. I picked the cheapest room, just under $50 a night, and found it plenty comfortable. True, there were rather more mirrors than I was used to, and the big TV screen dominated the bed, but it was roomy, and had a deep bath and separate shower. I was amused by the reproduction Vermeer’s in the corridor, and the pieces of Klee’s in my room, and pleased to note that the welcome kit included condoms.

Danyang's garlic market

Mushrooms in Danyang's regular market

Looking for a place for lunch I couldn’t believe the number of empty restaurants – maybe they do better in the summer. I picked the only place with customers, although it really catered to groups. After lunch I discovered that the Sky Motel was above the restaurant, but if I had found it earlier I would have missed out on the love motel. Then I took a taxi to the first attraction on my list, Dodam-sambong, three small islands in the lake formed by Chungju Dam (which drowned most of the original town of Danyang). The rocks were pretty enough, and a musical fountain had been installed nearby, but even if I had climbed the rather steep steps to the stone arch on the nearby hill the place couldn’t have kept me occupied very long. I took a bus back to town, where I drank bad cappuccino, bought some things for breakfast, and discovered that the only power point in my room was under the bathroom sink. Dinner, at a place advertising itself as “green” but serving me packet soup and a huge Weiner schnitzel with minimal veggies was chiefly memorable for the small boy across the room who kept glaring at me with obvious but inexplicable hatred.

The fountain at Dodam-sambong

The next morning I took a local bus across the river and up into the hills to visit Guin-sa, a modern temple belonging to a Buddhist sect called Teon-ta, founded (or re-founded) by a monk, Sangwall Wongak, in 1945. The site, a valley in the mountains, was as spectacular as I expected. What I hadn’t realized was that the valley wasn’t level, and that the final building was a long way up. And, of course, down. (I actually went down some of the slopes backwards, as that put less strain on my bad ankle.) After trekking all the way up, and admiring all the elaborate decoration (and noting the ongoing construction), I was rather taken aback to discover that the statue inside wasn’t that of the Buddha, but of the founding monk, in traditional Korean dress. If that doesn’t bother you, it looked like you could stay in the complex, and the setting is lovely. You’d probably need someone who speaks Korean to arrange it.

Guin-sa - near the bottom

Guin-sa - at the top

Inside Gosu-donggul

The afternoon also involved more stairs (including a long, narrow circular staircase) than were good for me. These were in a cave, Gosu-donggul, which I thought really not worth the effort. There were quite a few interesting formations, but the rock was mostly a muddy grey, which rather spoiled the effect. I preferred the view above ground, strolling slowly along the river bank. I also enjoyed dinner – pork with garlic and pepper sauce arrived in a foil-lined dish over a heater. I was supposed to wrap it in lettuce leaves, but I always have trouble with that.

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Sightseeing Seoul

Since I’m not a big city person, I had allotted just two full days for Seoul, one at the beginning and one at the end of my time in South Korea. The palace that was top of my list was closed on Mondays, so I started at the Gyeongbok Palace. It took me quite a while to get there from my hotel south of the river – did I mention that Seoul is a big city?

Inside Gyeongbok Palace

Interior at Gyeongbok Palace

Ceiling at Gyeongbok Palace

Cultural similarities with China were evident: the south-to-north, public-to-private

Chests at the craft exhibition

layout matched the Forbidden City in Beijing, although fewer buuildings remained. The Japanese colonial era and the 1950-53 war were both devastating to Korea’s historical heritage. Although I initially admired the buildings, whether original or reconstructed, eventually they all started to look the same, and I appreciated a temporary display of contemporary Korean crafts at least as much.

I was about to leave when the hourly changing of the guard ceremony got under way, and I had a prime viewing position – an actual seat, in fact – on the steps in front of the first interior gate. The costumes were, I believe, authentic. The drum and other instruments presumably were too. But the whole affair felt contrived. That didn’t stop me taking plenty of photos, though.

Waiting for the ceremony to start

In full flight

I lunched in the highly touristy Insadong section nearby, in a small restaurant just off the main street. At least at lunchtime, they provided a traditional Korean meal for solo diners, at a very reasonable price, and I recommend their beef and mushroom bulgogi. (It’s on Insadong Gil 12, first place on the left.) After lunch I skipped the souvenir shops and instead visited the nearby Jogye Buddhist temple. A volunteer English-speaking guide explained that the women filling the main hall were praying for their children’s success in upcoming examinations. She also said that the temple practiced Korean Zen Buddhism, which I found surprising, as the temple and the ceremony in process seemed very un-Zen to me.

I finished the afternoon in a French patisserie just north of Insadong, called, I believe, Armandier. The coffee was good, but the brandied pistachio macarons were to die for.

The main hall at Jogye-sa

The drum and bell tower at Jogye-sa

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On To Seoul

Welcome to Seoul: outside Gyeongbok Palace

Staying in Asakusa gave me what should have been easy access to Tokyo’s Haneda airport, where I’d catch my flight to Seoul Gimpo. The helpful lady in the T.I. office wrote the route out for me in great detail (very simple, one train change, no platform change), starting out on the Asakusa line. So when I got back the night before, ON the Asakusa line, after I followed the arrows to the exit I wanted and cleared the ticket barrier, I looked back to see the arrows pointing the way to the Asakusa line, and I looked round for a ticket machine for that line. But I was now in the Ginza line station, and even the English language terminal wouldn’t recognize Haneda as a destination. So finally I asked the guy in the ticket office. Guess what? He had a nice big sign, in English, telling you how to buy a ticket to Haneda – HIDDEN IN THE OFFICE!

He could put it up on the wall, and let the foreigners read it at their leisure, but then they’d know what to do, and that would be no fun, right? Then I found another catch. I wanted to buy a ticket that day, when I had no luggage, to use the next day, when I would have luggage. Could I do that? No, I couldn’t. (Good thing I noticed the tickets were date-stamped.) When I expressed quite mild dismay at this news I clearly violated the Japanese code, because the guy went completely blank on me. I ceased to exist and he just stood there. (I know that technique – I’ve used it on persistent Indian salesmen.) Well, I feel the same way about the Tokyo subway non-system.

Aside from having to get up at 5:00 am, I had no trouble getting to Haneda. Since the rain

Live guards at Gyeongbok Palace

hadn’t stopped, and I was flying JAL again, I had taken the precaution of packing everything in plastic. A new International terminal was due to open at Haneda on October 21st, and did they ever need it! I was very grateful to slide past the zoo at economy check-in to the business class area. The JAL lounge turned out to be a bit better than the one in Vancouver, but the food on the flight was much better, featuring a double-layered bento box.

Although JAL managed to keep my bag dry, I had an inordinately long wait for it to arrive. Apparently a soccer team had traveled on the same flight, and ALL their immense quantity of luggage was unloaded before anyone else’s! Then I had a little trouble finding my hotel from the limousine bus stop, as the map I got at the T.I. counter in the airport had positioned it too far west.

My western chain hotel

Shortly before I left on this trip, I had been introduced to a Korean couple, long time friends of friends,  about to move back to Seoul after a second sojourn in the U.S., and they had kindly offered to help me with my visit to Korea. They had recommended the Ibis  Ambassador in the Gangnam district, south of the river but close to where they lived in the upscale Apgujeong area. While the Ibis was both more western and more upmarket than my usual hotels, after several nights on the floor I appreciated some extra comforts. I started by taking advantage of the guests’ discount for the Japanese style hot bath in the basement.

Statue outside the nearby Starbucks

That evening D and M took me out for a traditional Korean meal, and I had my first adventure with Korean chopsticks. Now I’m no fan of chopsticks – I find it perverse that peoples who love noodles choose to eat them with chopsticks – but I am reasonably competent with the normal round variety. In Korea they aren’t round and they aren’t made from wood or plastic. They’re flat and metal and I had no end of difficulty with them. You also get a metal spoon with a long handle, but don’t imagine this is just for soup. Later a waitress gave me a lesson in how to use the spoon: you pick up some rice, you add pickled vegetables with the chopsticks, and then you dip it in the soup. I felt like I needed an extra hand.

No Korean meal is complete without pickled vegetables – lots of little dishes with different kinds. You’ll also get soup and rice, and whatever you’ve chosen as the main dish. The little dishes may contain other treats – at one meal a whole fish showed up! Some restaurants presented me with additional implements – tongs and shears. These are for kimchi or noodles or both – you lift the long strands with the tongs and cut off a sensible length with the shears.


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Planning for South Korea

From Japan I fly on to South Korea, getting into Seoul Gimpo at 10:40 am on 10 Oct, and flying out of Seoul Incheon at 9:30 am on 21 Oct.  Here’s what I’m thinking of doing in between:

Oct 10 – 11 Seoul – I’d better be over jet lag by now, so I should be able to get in some sightseeing the day I arrive. I’m mostly thinking palaces, museums and markets for Seoul.

Pavillion Buyong-jeon at Changdeokgung Palace in Seoul, by Johannes Barre: Creative Commons

Oct 12 – 14: Travel via Chuncheon and Lake Soyang (bus, boat, bus) to Sokcho/Seoraksan National Park

I’d like to visit both Outer and Southern Seorak. Since I’d have to head out of the park from Outer Seorak to get a bus back in to Southern Seorak I’m wondering about spending three nights in Sokcho instead of staying closer to the park. Maybe two nights at Outer Seorak and the last night at Sokcho – I don’t like one nighters, but I’d like to get a head start on the travel on the 15th.

Sinheungsa in Seoraksan National Park by Steve46814: Creative Commons

Oct 15 – 16: Taebaek (by bus and train) with day trip to Jeongseon

My first thought was two nights at Samcheok with a visit to Jeongseon on the way to Danyang, but the beaches round Samcheok don’t sound that great, and I can visit a cave at Danyang (the other reason to visit Samcheok). I’d prefer to visit Jeongseon during the week, as if I hit the autumn colors there are likely to be lots of people around, and competing for space on the twice-daily train, but something has to fall on the weekend.

Guinsa Temple by Steve46814: Creative commons

Oct 17 – 18: Danyang, with a day trip to Guinsa

Oct 19 -20: Back to Seoul

I’m thinking of visiting Suwon and the Korean Folk Village on the way back to Seoul. Or perhaps the pottery villages of Yeoju and Icheon. Then I could visit the coast west of Seoul on my last day. Or perhaps by then I’ll need to just take it easy in town.

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