If you have been reading my website at endlessroaming.com you would be aware that I have been blogging about previous adventures across the USA, specifically 2012. Ill also write further about other experiences in the USA and other countries I have been to, at this point now 72. I am now sitting in my accommodation in Almaty Kazakhstan and thought Id cover my four days in Seoul South Korea.
Seoul South Korea is the first new country I have visited roaming in 2019 and I was not really sure what to expect, Tip If unsure about a place always best to check into a hostel over a hotel, more likely to meet other travelers and helpful hostel staff. The hostel had already provided me details on how to get there from the airport which is actually simple enough as there is a railway that runs into the centre of Seoul and then a rather detailed and complex underground / overground rail network with a bit of practice becomes easy to use. With my simcard sorted at the airport I was ready to head into Hongdae where I would be staying. It was also handy to know that there were gas masks on hand in case of any nuclear war occurring involving North Korea over the border.
I arrived at the hostel, unfortunately there were not very many guests (it is winter I suppose) however the hostel owner was really sociable and informative and gave me a plan of sorts to see the best of Seoul for my four-night stay. My first evening involved wondering around Hongdae itself, this is the student area of Seoul, along with the university there is hundreds if not thousands of retailers within the area selling both budget and high-end fashion as well as many restaurants and bars. The locals appeared to be very fashion conscious and there was a constant flow of people eating and shopping. The fashion is of such quality that I would recommend the area for anyone looking for new clothes, so much so that I felt a little out of place with my dusty jeans and sheepskin jacket. I consoled myself with some fried chicken and a few beers at a bar. The bar was quite being a Monday night but the hustle and bustle of people still shopping was still going on when I decided to go to bed around midnight.
The following day I did a self-guided tour of some of the sites with the aid of my phone, the tourist map and guidance provided by the hostel owner and the extensive transport system. After determining which was the right way to go Tip Google Maps does not work correctly in Seoul, it will guide you through the rail network however it wont guide when walking, the owner told me it’s something to do with being so close to North Korea and this level of detail can not be provided. My first stop was the National Museum of Korea, a free entry museum detailing the history of Korea, this includes history on Korean Buddhism, pre-historic and ancient times and a focus on the Joseon dynasty. The most memorable moment for me however was when a security guard came up to me, started laughing and pulled on my beard I assume to see if it was real, very random.
Conveniently next door is the Gyeongbokgung Palace was the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty and is regarded as Seoul’s no 1 tourist attraction. Originally built in 1395 over its history it has been destroyed and rebuilt including by bombing by the Japanese Air force during World War 2. Korea has a history of occupation 1910 to 1945 by the Japanese and in many ways to the cultures today are intermixed and many Koreans are fluent in Japanese. The palace grounds are made up of various temples, its quite an expansive space and is a good opportunity to take photos and get a feeling for the cultural heritage. There were also many tourists that rent Korean costumes of the period when the palace was actively used and nearby there are many shops in the area that rent out these costumes. I learned later if dressed up entry is free, this includes Western tourists. It’s the first time I have been to a tourist location offering this type of free admission entry.
Conveniently again next to the palace is the Buchkon Hanok Village, a traditional suburb of Seoul and not just a tourist attraction but also an area where locals reside. It’s on a hill and has many paved streets where people can walk and look at traditional architecture, there is also traditional market shopping and restaurants. Its quite a picturesque location and I was more and more gaining an appreciation for traditional Korea . Nearby is the National Folk Museum of Korea, there are more temples and also the museum itself demonstrating various traditional period dress. Museum ed and temp led out for the day, I headed back to the hostel, the owner took myself and another hostel guest to Traditional Korean Barbecue, Bulgogi or marinated beef is brought our frying in a pan and chopsticks are used to wrap in leaves and put various condiments on it, roll it up and eat. We sat on mates cross legged, drank some maekju (beer), talked about Korea and had some laughs, Koreans enjoy beer as much as I do.
The following day I was on a tour to the DMZ, if you have not heard of this briefly is a strip of land separating North and South Korea across the entire island, the width being approximately 4 kms all the way across. After World War 2 Korea had no government as the occupying Japanese had been defeated so the country was split in two, the USA governing the south and Russia the north. The Korean war started from 1948 and concluded in 1953 when the border was established. The tour is about an hour bus ride from Seoul and time is limited as to what can been seen, the border being heavily controlled as its active. Our first stop was the Freedom Bridge, a park that includes many monuments to the war. Unfortunately we were delayed there due to the amount of pollution in the air Tip If you have a local sim you will get warnings a few times a day, this isn’t about an impending problem on the DMZ but pollution, neighbouring China creates so much pollution that it effects the weather condition in Korea which appears like a fog, when getting such a warning its advised to put on a surgical mask to inhibit the pollution into the lungs. I would not let this discourage a tourist from visiting Korea, but it is something worth mentioning.
Our next stop was the Third Tunnel of Aggression, one of four tunnels dug by North Korea during the war that have been discovered, there is thought to be 20 or so more, this is the only tunnel open to tourists. No cameras are allowed, a hard hat must be worn and then it’s a 1.6km steeply descending walk and it can get quite claustrophobic, very interesting and worthwhile experience even if there is not much to see, its more appreciation of the effort. Then it was onto the Dora Observatory, the new complex as opposed to what is featured in the link, from there you can apparently see North Korea and the city of Kaesong, there are binoculars for this purpose but because of the pollution I could make it maybe 2km in distance, half way through the DMZ itself. Last stop Dorasan train station, an active station to Seoul, it connects to the north but has an irregular service and is not for tourists, Westerner or Korean. It’s a typical looking train station except perhaps sadly the glassed off customs inspection area which includes luggage scanners you would find at any airport but have never been put to use.
After another night of fried chicken and beers, there was one more museum to see, the War Memorial of Korea. An impressively sized complex detailing the history of warfare in Korea from ancient times but in particular the Korean War itself, including the role of the United Nations, the USA, United Kingdom and the importance of Australia Army during the conflict. There are many details including a large collection of weapons, tanks, planes and a ship. South Koreans have experienced the threat of war for a long time, from the Japanese occupation to the Korean War and now ongoing issues with North Korea. The hostel owner told me that all South Koreans have compulsory military service and can be called upon for active duty till the age of 40. He as so many hopes one day that there will be one unified Korea, I hope it does happen for them and also, I wouldn’t visiting North Korea myself one day.
This is what I got up to in my four days in Seoul, a truly world class city with a lot of tradition and history. Sure there is some tension with an active DMZ but it does not seem to effect South Koreans daily lives and it should not affect tourists from going there either. With top quality food, excellent beer, friendly people and as indicated earlier, quality shopping and fashion sense, I would recommend a visit for historian buffs, lovers of barbecue and shoppers alike. Anyway, now it’s time for Central Asia and Kazakhstan and who knows what….