South Korea

Seoul

We arrived in the port of Incheon after a lengthy trip through the locks (bringing us up to the slightly higher water level of the port) and a very busy shipping channel. We left the ferry in the direction of the nearest metro station, which turned out to be much closer than we thought due to an expansion of the system since our map had been updated. After a long trip into Seoul by metro we made it to our hostel near Hongik University.

A typical ‘hood in Seoul.

We were immediately impressed by Seoul, and it seemed to us like a considerably more sophisticated version of China (with manners matching our sensibilities a bit better, to boot).

We spent our time in Seoul again enjoying the niceties of big cities, and in particular, those of Korea’s food culture.

Various pickled goods on the street in Busan.

Our first foray into that scene was at Gichatgil Yeontan Saenggogi, a Korean barbecue joint suggested to us by a friend of Ian’s from long ago, who is a veritable expert in all things Korean and Japanese. As we showed up, we knew we were at the right place, with a line out the door and bustling, crowded tables with meat grilling and beers sloshing. Punctuating the cacaphony were the frequent shouts, accompanied by the waving of an empty bottle, for another round of soju (Korean grain liquor, around 20%). The fist-bumping owner assured us that our table was soon to be free, and we were seated. The options were few, so we ordered what was recommended, with a couple cold beers to top it off. The experience was awesome, and the food was fantastic, all in all a night to remember.

Barbecue.
Grilling meat.
All the fixings.

On our second day in town, we were caught up in a fairly sizeable protest, complete with shouting parades and megaphones and Korean flags. We had forgotten about all the trouble the South Korean president, Park Geun-hye, had gotten into recently, and were reminded by an Australian passerby that the protest was in support of her leaving office. Riot police were everywhere, although you could tell that they thought their responsibility was pretty ridiculous as well. 

Probably on the same page after all.
Not sure what they’re saying, but they seem pretty serious about it.
About ready to phone it in…

Nevertheless, we managed to squeeze through the barricades and throngs of protestors into the Gyeongbokgung Palace in the city center. We spent several hours wandering the pathways of the palace complex, and were reminded of the Forbidden City in Beijing, although with mercifully fewer crowds. On the way out, we stopped at MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) Seoul, as Oona is a big fan of visiting MoMAs in the cities we visit. A bit hard to navigate, but fairly interesting nonetheless.

Some structure on the palace grounds.
Inside the palace.
A charming little partially-frozen lake at the palace.
One of the many living quarters at the palace.
Some little fellows decorating the awnings.
Some women dressed in traditional clothes at the palace.

We decided that it was time to try this chicken and beer that we had been hearing so much about. “What’s the big deal?” We thought, “Sure, we like both items involved, but what’s with all the fanfare?” Well, it turns out it’s a pretty great combination. We walked through one of Seoul’s endless lively neighborhoods, Changcheon-dong, improbably bustling for the weeknight that it was. We navigated down narrow alleys, asking various revelers for directions in the blazing, neon-lit metropolis. We eventually made it to our destination, an unassuming restaurant, fittingly named Poulet-Chicken. We ordered a fairly non-traditional dish to start, the Carbonara chicken, which we had heard was to die for, and a few beers, since we guess that’s apparently the thing to do. The chicken was pretty amazing. Small morsels of battered and deep-fried boneless chicken bathing in a sea of cream and bacon… Not a bad item to accompany an ice cold beer. Not fully satisfied with our strictly unorthodox choice, we headed to another place in the neighborhood for a more traditional take. More beers and a sampler plate of fried chicken later and we were convinced. Hardly able to move at this point, we hefted our newly-gotten bulk to a nearby taphouse and washed down the remnants with some craft brews. Yes, it seems that Seoul is a cool town, we concluded. 

Winningest combination.
A conveniently-located taproom was waiting for us.

We checked out Bukchon Hanok village, an old part of the city center with many historical houses, the following day. There were quite a few tourists and enough nice-looking houses to shake a stick at, yet we were not that impressed. Maybe we’re jaded from all the fabulous Asian architecture we’ve been exposed to over the past few months. We packed up and headed to Itaewon (which is clearly the expat neighborhood, dominated by western restaurants with foreign faces a very common sight) for some lunch.

Old houses in Bukchon Hanok.

Our hostel stay proved a bit challenging, as we shared our dorm with an aggressive and angry Frenchman. He seemed fine at first, but he was prone to fits of anger and shouting. He spoke hardly any English, so Oona was his liaison for better or for worse with her knowledge of French. Anything out of order would trigger him, and the several dishes in the kitchen sink one morning sent him into a rage, yelling and swearing in French at the various other guests in the room. He ended up being kicked out the day we left due to the numerous complaints about him. At this point our friend in Baku was looking a lot more appealing…

We finished up our stay in Seoul with a stroll through Gangnam to see if there was something about its style worthy of all the hype. To us it just seemed like a nondescript financial district. Maybe we missed something…

More palace.

Jeju

At this point, our old selves would have laughed us out of the venue. We ended up buying another plane ticket, this time to the “Hawaii of Korea”, South Korea’s southern paradise of Jeju. Again, we had aspirations of taking the bus to Wando followed by a ferry to Jeju, and had we been more committed to staying on the ground, we would have. But airfare for $20 per person, compared to an upwards of $60 per person for the ground route? Consider us converted. As bad as we feel about fueling the airline industry, we’re going to grin and bear it with the cheapest option. This particular corridor also happens to be the busiest air corridor in the world, with nearly 200 (!) flights per day. We figured the tropical destination would be a ghost town in the dead of winter, but we were wrong. The airport was packed with people either coming from or going to Jeju, on a Monday, no less.

We arrived on the island in the evening and checked into our hotel after a bus ride across town from the airport. Unfortunately for us, the weather on Jeju wasn’t great (but it was a lot warmer than the sub-zero temperatures in Seoul) so the whole tropical paradise vibe was severely impeded. Nevertheless, there is a lot about the island that reminds one of Hawaii.

Some fisherfolk on Jeju’s southwest coast.

Our second day on the island we decided to check out one of Jeju’s famed Olle trails. We took bus number 750 to the starting point of trail number 12, on the southwest side of the island. Bear in mind that the website for the Olle trails says to take the 750-4, but such a bus was nowhere to be seen at the bus station, so we asked the driver of the 750 (close enough, yeah?) if his route would take us there. He said something about changing buses, yet insisted that we stay on. He ended up dropping us off some 2.5km south of the starting point, so we walked up the highway to the start of the “trail”. The trails are well-marked, yet sometimes the signs can be confusing, so after several wrong turns (arrows painted on cylindrical objects like telephone poles mean go straight, not to turn in the inevitably-skewed direction of the painted sign), we made in onto the trail in earnest. Nothing about the trail was particularly remarkable, it stuck to paved roads and meandered its way through industrialized farmland for the majority of its inland portion. It ended up being an entirely unnecessary 22km walk almost entirely along paved roads (with cars driving on them). The portion along the coast was slightly more interesting, but we still bailed some 4km before the end out of sheer boredom. Hiking these trails in the summer, and spending several days staying in the many guest houses along the way would probably be a much more enjoyable experience. After all, the whole deal is modeled after the Camino de Santiago. 

Tending to the crops on Jeju.


Our last full day on the island was veritably drenched in rainfall. We took the 701 out to Gujwa-eup to check out the Haenyeo museum. The museum is dedicated to the fascinating and deeply-historical tradition of the female divers on the island. Learning the history and traditions of these heroic figures is certainly worth the visit, but we got entirely soaked on the way back to the bus stop.

We finished off our stay in Jeju with a traditional (only gotten on Jeju, apparently) noodle soup made of seaweed and pork (although the pork seemed more like fish to us, so we’re still not sure). The following day we took the 13:40 departure of the SeaWorld Express Ferry to Mokpo (32,300 won) with the intention of catching a bus from Mokpo to Boseong, the day’s ultimate destination. For what it’s worth, Jeju to Mokpo to Boseong seemed to be the most feasible route; both Wando and Goheung, also accessible directly from Jeju and much closer to Boseong, have no public transport leading there. Mokpo, on the other hand, has buses leaving every 40 minutes (10,000 won) until 19:40 heading to Boseong.

The winds were high in Jeju, but the ferry left on time. It proceeded to battle its way through some spectacularly rough seas on its way to Mokpo, leaping from swell to swell, smashing down on the seas with bone-rattling power. The seas calmed as we reached the mainland, and the portion hugging the coast was much more relaxing. In any case, we arrived in Mokpo in time to catch the #1 city bus to the bus terminal, where we caught the 19:40 bus to Boseong. The bus was comfortably empty, and we made it to Boseong at around 21:30 and checked into the Boseong Tourist Motel, which is actually surprisingly clean and nice, with the modest price tag of 35,000 won per night for a double room.

Boseong

Boseong is home to the majority of Korea’s tea production, and there is a well-known tea plantation some 10km from the town itself that we planned to visit. It was an easy jaunt out to the fields by city bus from the bus terminal in Boseong, and the locals were happy to point us to the right bus. It seems the buses leave at reasonable intervals (no longer than 60 minutes) throughout the daylight hours.

Not as soft as they look…

We spent a couple hours at the fields, admiring the old growth tea plants, with well-developed roots reaching far into the soil. The rows are very well-maintained as a result of the frequent year-round harvesting, and they look comfortably plush from afar. We wandered around the series of trails, reaching high up into the hills as the snow fell around us. The weather was capricious, as snow flurry was followed up by blue skies and howling winds. We hoped for a bit more snow, actually, as it lent a rather charming vibe to the whole place, but unfortunately none of it stuck. At least our visit, being in the winter, gave us a lot more solitude with only a few other groups there. We warmed up a bit in one of the several restaurants on the premises and got some tea-infused bibimbap which wasn’t particularly good.

Tea for dayz.
Iced tea.

We waited at the bus stop for some 20 minutes to head back to town before a taxi pulled up. We shared the taxi with another fellow at the bus stop which added up to only 50 cents more than the bus trip, and was much faster. Just as we were pulling away the bus did arrive, so our wait was the result of a poorly-timed arrival at the stop.

We picked up our bags from the hotel and got a ticket for the next bus departure to Busan, leaving at 15:05 (18,700 won).

Busan

We got to South Korea’s second largest city after sundown and made our way to our hotel. Well, it was really more of a love motel, or perhaps a slightly higher class love hotel, if such a thing exists. We booked it online in advance, looking for a bit of luxury for our Christmas away from home, and based on the reviews we saw online people seemed to like it. As we arrived to the neighborhood we were greeted by neon lights everywhere and hotels like “Sweet Love” and “Max 24”. We pushed on warily, and found our place amongst them, at the “Bono Hotel”. Cards for escort services littered the ground, and we made our way into the hotel through the front entrance, which was through a garage. The reception area was little more than a small window in the wall, but the friendly proprietor happily exclaimed “here!” when we asked where the reception desk was.

Our stay was fairly nice, despite the comings and goings of some relatively seedy characters at all hours of the day. There were a fair amount of young local couples as well, perhaps looking for an escape from the tedium of home life. The proprietor’s unflappable cheeriness certainly made the place a little brighter, though. The room itself wasn’t bad, with all the trappings of a somewhat higher class hotel, including the massive bathtub and overhead shower, but the view was of a parking lot in the back, and was mostly obscured by tinted glass.

A market street in Busan.
Waves crashing down on one of Busan’s many beaches.

Being Christmas and all, we ended up spending much of our time enjoying the simple things. We had good food, splurged a bit here and there, and largely avoided anything resembling work. 

The weather was not the sort of Christmas weather we’re used to. Busan is a bit like L.A., and enjoys fairly balmy weather year round with yellow, sandy beaches hugging the urban landscape. We walked along the beaches and soaked up the sun, and even sat outside at a cafe or two.

Somebody was feeding them.

Being our last stop in Korea, we made it a point to get a few of our favorite meals again, so we had some jajangmyeon and more of that chicken and beer. We visited a seafood restaurant down the street from our hotel the night we arrived and got a steaming pot of seafood bibimbap with fresh octopus and prawns as well, which was pretty excellent. We had a very non-traditional Christmas Eve meal of Indian food and beer from a Korean chain called Bombay Brau, something like a craft brewery mixed with an Indian restaurant. On paper, the concept is pretty brilliant, but the service (at least at their Nongpo branch) left much to be desired, and the food wasn’t particularly memorable. We were left reminiscing over some of our favorite meals from Mumbai and Delhi before the meal was over.

Seafood bibimbap.

We had our tickets on the JR Beetle hydrofoil booked from Busan on December 26th, and so early in the morning on our last day we headed to the ferry terminal to make our way to Fukuoka, in Japan. We underestimated the time it would take to get to the port, but fortunately made it before the check-in counter closed. We made our way through security and immigration and took off like a shot, with the hydrofoil gently skimming along the sea’s surface at more than 70km/h.

A brush shop in Seoul.
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2 thoughts on “South Korea

  1. love hearing all about Korea…sounds like it hasn’t changed too much since I was there in 84! I remember soju, boisterous beer/Makoli and meat houses, amazing food (noodles soups of all variety!), energetic people. Itaewon, Chejudo, the palace in winter, and yes, even the street protests, still as usual! Now on to amazing bizarro Japan…..

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  2. What a fabulous adventure! Just don’t get aboard any of those South Korean ferries that sink. They do that once in a while. It was great to Facetime a bit the other day, and you look just like the guy in these pictures so the whole tale is corroborated. On to Japan!

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