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Our location as of 10/2/2012

Madison, WI, USA
Last updated 10/2/2012
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Country Recap: South Korea

To be honest, the main reason we decided to come to South Korea in the first place was that when we made our itinerary for Japan, we were entering during their Golden Week holiday, and we wanted to avoid it. We didn’t know what to think of Korea. Looking back on it now, I’m really glad we came. In a way, it feels like the Midwest of Asia. It has cold winters and hot summers, the people are extremely nice, it’s clean and modern, yet somewhat conservative and modest, and it often gets overlooked by tourists for China and Japan. Here’s what we thought about Korea…

Top three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. Meeting such warm, friendly people everywhere we went.
  2. Going to the crazy baseball game in Seoul was so fun. Really, just being in a country where people wear baseball caps and watch games on TV every night was great.
  3. Touring the DMZ. I know it’s more of a tourist attraction than an actual military spot these days, but it was still very cool and weird to be standing in North Korean territory.

Brad:

  1. The DMZ/JSA tour. It was very informative of the history and current situation. Even though we didn’t see many North Koreans, it still felt intense at the border.
  2. Our baseball game in Seoul. It was completely different from baseball in America, and so fun! Winning $50 made the game that much more fun.
  3. The people. We were constantly bombarded with hospitality, offers for help, and food on our hikes. Even the taxi drivers are helpful! The people in Korea are the most friendly we’ve met on this trip, even surpassing New Zealanders and Thais.

Bottom three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. Some of the very strange foods we tried.
  2. The historic sites in general. Some of them were nice to see, but the majority were pretty underwhelming.
  3. Struggling to find cheap food. This is probably easier if you speak Korean and really enjoy their food. We don’t do either, so Korea ended up being much more expensive than China. 

Brad:

  1. It’s an expensive country, roughly on par with New Zealand without a rental car.
  2. The food we ate after the DMZ/JSA tour. Not very good at all.
  3. The Gyeongbokgung Palace changing of the gate guards was really cheesy, but still pretty entertaining. The gate guards had ridiculous fake beards pasted on their face, and their shifts last just one hour so they can fit in more changing ceremonies for tourists.

Best meal?

Our all-you-can-eat seafood and meat Korean BBQ in Sokcho. (Closely followed by our Korean Fried Chicken nights!)

Worst meal?

Nikki: I can’t think of just one meal in particular. Nearly all of the common side dishes were too weird for me to enjoy.

Brad: We ate at a cafeteria after our DMZ tour, and I partially blame that meal on why I’m not a fan of actual Korean food much. It was pretty bad.

Favorite person we met?

Young from Seoulwise spoke great English, gave us so many helpful tips of things to do, and arranged the baseball tickets for us.

Worst disaster?

Brad: We didn’t have any distasters, just some close calls. In Gangneung we wanted to see Tongil Park because it had a US destroyer and North Korean submarine on display, but the taxi driver informed us (with the help of the tourist information center) that if we went out there so late in the day we might not have a way to get home.

Our other near disaster was in Busan when we hiked to the South Gate of Geumjeongsanseong Fortress, but didn’t have a way of getting down, kept getting lost, and barely made it to the cable car in time to get down.

Favorite place we stayed?

Nikki: Our homestay in Gangneung.

Brad: Seoulwise in Seoul was great, and the owner was so helpful. It had a good atmosphere, was in a fun neighborhood, and was clean.

Worst place we stayed?

Some random motel in Sokcho. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t as good as the other places.

Best thing we didn’t blog about?

Nikki: Visiting the Changdeokung Palace and Secret Garden in Seoul. We really only had time to see the Secret Garden, but I enjoyed it.

Brad: Jongmyo Shrine in Seoul. It was a very neat set of buildings holding the wood tablets of all the kings of Korea, from even before the Japanese invaded and destroyed just about everything in the country. The garden area around the buildings was very beautiful in the spring as well.

Weirdest thing?

Nikki: Eating with metal chopsticks. For whatever reason, Koreans prefer them over wooden ones. I thought I was getting pretty good with chopsticks in Vietnam and China, but the metal ones are much more difficult to master. Another weird thing: motels provide almost all toiletries for you, such as toothpaste, hair brushes, hair gel, condoms, and aftershave. And I can’t forget to mention how weird the penis park was!

Brad: The fluorescent, brightly colored hiking clothing that’s in style. It’s not uncommon to see people walking in the subway with technical jackets, big backpacks, hiking poles, and huge sun visors. The outdoors stores are probably the brightest things I’ve seen on the trip so far.

Statistics for South Korea

Statistics for the Trip

  • Countries visited: 12
  • Days on the road: 250
  • Places we stayed: 112
  • Rainy days: 45
  • UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 19
  • Photos taken: 9,789
  • Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 2,327, 24% of all photos taken
  • Geocaches found: 16
  • Hours traveling overland: 341

Busan

Before we went to South Korea, I had never heard of Busan. (But that’s not so unusual. I hadn’t heard of a lot of the cities we’ve visited.) With a population of over 3.5 million people, it’s South Korea’s second largest city. It has a subway system, a baseball team, and several beaches, which is about all I need to enjoy a city. Its seaport is one of the busiest in the world. It’s home to the largest department store in the world, the Shinsegae Centum City, and it’s bidding to host the 2020 Olympics. Basically, it’s a pretty awesome place.

Once again, we stayed in a hostel with an incredible ocean view. (Having to share one bathroom with nineteen other people was not so incredible.) We finally had warm, sunny weather so we took advantage of that by walking all over the place. First we went to Beomeosa Temple, which was the first temple we’ve visited that actually felt like an active place of worship. We’ve seen tons of temples and there are always people praying at them, but for some reason, they feel more like tourist attractions than temples. This one finally had that mystical, serene, ethereal atmosphere I thought all Buddhist temples would have. I considered pulling out a cushion and attempting to meditate in front of the Buddha, but that seemed just a little too ridiculous.

Then we went to the nearby Geumjeong Fortress. The bus dropped us off at the East Gate and we planned to walk over to the South Gate and take the bus back from there. Sounds simple, right? At the beginning, we were really enjoying our little hike. We paused to admire the view of the city down below us and a nice Korean couple gave us an apple. When we got over to the South Gate, we took some pictures ??and strolled around for a bit. Then when it was getting close to sunset, we realized we had no idea where the bus stop was. There was a dirt road in front of the gate, but it was way too rough for a city bus to drive on. We decided it must be down in the South Gate Village, so we hiked down there. After wandering around and attempting to ask a few people, we still had no idea where to get the bus. We hiked back up the hill and decided to go over to the cable car. Before we left, I had read this in Wikitravel: “It should be noted that hiking trails are not really well marked in Korea, even if you can read Korean script. Definitely do your research before you hike.” Since this was just a three kilometer hike, it hardly seemed worth worrying about. We started following the signs to the cable car, but it was getting darker and darker and we kept taking wrong turns. And we didn’t know what time the cable car stopped running. And we didn’t have a flashlight. We were getting pretty nervous and I started to picture Bear Grylls style survival situations. Luckily, we made it to the cable car right before it stopped running, so we didn’t have to eat insects for protein or build a shelter out of palm fronds.

Our next day wasn’t nearly as exciting. We checked out the historic Jagalchi Fish Market, but we arrived pretty late, so there wasn’t much going on. The restaurants above the market were too expensive for us, so we went down the street and ate some delicious street food. Then we went up to Yongdusan Park and saw the Busan Tower. After relaxing in the park, we felt up to seeing the above-mentioned largest department store in the world. We couldn’t find cheap shampoo and soap there, but we did see a lot of designer clothes and shoes.

Tomorrow we are taking a ferry to Japan. After that, we have two long bus rides in a row. It won’t be fun, but I think our destination, Tokyo, will be worth it.

Give Korea A Chance!

Poor little Korea tends to be overshadowed by China and Japan. Most backpackers skip over it all together. The few that do stop here seem to only visit Seoul, Busan, and Jeju Island. I guess they have their reasons. Frankly, it’s not as exciting. The temples and other historical sites aren’t as impressive. (Maybe because they were almost all destroyed by the Japanese in the 1500′s and rebuilt only recently.) There are some nice national parks here, but again, they don’t compare to the parks you could visit in other countries.

The lack of exposure, though, also makes it a great place to travel. We didn’t see any other Western tourists in some of the cities we stopped in. And the Koreans are so nice. They are by far the friendliest people we’ve met on the trip so far. I feel like I’m back in the Midwest. While we were hiking in Seoraksan National Park, a group having a picnic insisted that we join them and eat some food. Whenever we look lost in a bus or train station, someone always stops to ask where we want to go. In Gangneung on the way to a park, the cab driver kept trying to tell us something. He finally got out his cell phone and started making calls, then handed us the phone when he got a hold of someone who spoke English. Apparently he had been trying to tell us that the park is very far away, and that we may not be able to find a way back into town, so he recommended we not go there at all. We agreed and he just took us back to our hotel, but he didn’t even make us pay the entire cab fare. If the same situation had happened in Southeast Asia, we probably would have been scammed out of hundreds of dollars.

We had our first actual home stay in Gangneung as well. The guy at the tourist office asked if we would like to stay in a guesthouse. In other countries, a “guesthouse” is really just a cheap hotel run by a family.??To our surprise, this one was literally a room in a family’s apartment. This wasn’t a quaint little apartment, though. It was a swanky pad on the 11th floor looking out on the ocean. ??The family we stayed with didn’t speak a whole lot of English, but they were very warm and welcoming.

The only thing that’s really letting me down is Korean food. I’ve given it a chance, but I just don’t like a lot of it. Kimchi, the national dish of fermented cabbage with spicy paste, must be an acquired taste. Many of the side dishes are cold vegetables, either pickled or fermented. It’s not all bad, though. I didn’t mind bibimbap, a mix of rice, vegetables, sometimes meat, and an egg. Meat here is incredible! Bulgogi, thin strips of marinated beef, is delicious. Korean??barbecue??places, where you cook the meat on a grill in the middle of the table, are really exciting (even if we do need help from the waitstaff). And fried chicken is quite popular here. A night of fried chicken and beer is just as much fun as our dumpling and beer nights in China. So I guess we won’t starve here as long as we’re fine with becoming carnivores for a while.

And Korea has the weird category as well. The prime example is our recent trip to the Penis Park in Samcheok. Yes, a park dedicated to the male sex organ. Apparently a long time ago in the little fishing village there, a young man took his fiance out to an island so she could gather seaweed. He left her there and said he would pick her up later. Well, a storm blew up and the girl ended up drowning. After that, the village was suddenly unable to catch any fish. They decided the girl’s spirit must be upset that she died a virgin. As a solution, they made a phallic offering and, sure enough, were able to catch fish again. The result now is a whole shore full of giant wang statues. It was more than a little odd to see, but it was a fun afternoon and, judging from the reactions of the Koreans there, we discovered that penis jokes must be funny in all cultures.

So South Korea might not have the fame and glamour of other countries, but I’d say it’s still worth a visit. If nothing else, at least you can have a laugh with some incredibly kind people.

Seoul and Korea’s Demilitarized Zone

Seoul didn’t leave a great first impression on me. I was still sick on our first day there, so I just spent the day reading and sleeping in our hostel. When we finally did emerge, we found a huge, confusing city. (And one of the most densely populated cities in the world.) The subway goes everywhere, but it’s not the easiest to use (especially when compared to Hong Kong’s beautiful transportation system). We did make it to Gyeongbok-gung, a palace that was originally built in the 1500′s, but destroyed by the Japanese and later rebuilt in the 1800′s. Compared to the other palaces and temples we’ve seen on this trip, I thought it was unimpressive and a little boring.

But after the first day, we started to have a great time in Seoul. We found lots of yummy snacks in Insadong. Then we went up to the North Seoul Tower to see the compulsory “view from the top.” We visited a war monument park that had many planes and tanks on display. At night we enjoyed the bars and restaurants in Hongdae.

One of the highlights was our day touring the DMZ. The war never officially ended and things are still pretty tense around the border. I didn’t know this, but apparently there’s a skirmish with North Korea practically every year. Our tour began at the Third Tunnel, where North Korea was trying to dig into South Korea to launch a surprise attack on Seoul. It reminded me of the Vinh Moc tunnels of Vietnam, except this one was much larger. After that we went to the Dora Observatory that looks out on the North, but it was foggy and we didn’t see much. Then we visited the closest train station to the North. The track goes all the way to Pyongyang, but the trains stop at Dora Station. It’s crazy to think that if trains could go through North Korea, you could go all the way from London to Seoul by train.

Finally we went to the Joint Security Area, or JSA, where things really got intense. Before we entered, we had to sign waivers saying that we were entering a hostile territory and that neither the military nor USO would be held responsible if we were injured in an attack. Then our “security officer,” an American soldier, gave us a military-style briefing about the DMZ and JSA. We were given very strict rules, like we couldn’t take off our jackets or interact with the North Korean guards in any way (including making eye contact with them). As we rode “up north” in a special military bus, our security officer explained the defense systems we were passing, including antitank devices and landmines. At the border we had to walk in single file lines straight from the bus and into the meeting room. The meeting room is right on the border, so we technically entered North Korea when we were on the other side of the table.

South Korean soldiers guarded us the entire time. The guards at the JSA are the best of the best and being selected is a very high honor. They have to be fluent in two languages, pass certain tests, and be experts in two forms of martial arts. While they guard the area, they stand in a modified Taekwondo stance with sunglasses on, so they don’t show any emotion towards the North and also so they don’t get into staring contests with the North Korean guards. You definitely don’t want to mess with these guys. We only saw one North Korean guard. He was standing outside of their building, watching us with binoculars.

Our other highlight was going to a baseball game. It was by far the most entertaining baseball game I’ve ever been to! We were in the main cheering section, and they do different chants and cheers the entire time the home team is up to bat. The rules are the same as at home. ??There are a lot more fielding errors here and stolen bases, though, and we think the relief pitchers were terrible, because the Twins (the home team) were winning like 6 to 0 going into the 8th, but ended up losing. ??And we were on the kiss cam! ??Right when they started doing the kiss cam I kind of figured they would show us, because of course we were the only westerners in the entire section, so we stuck out like a sore thumb. ??Sure enough, the camera goes to us, and it was kind of stupid, I was trying to be funny and make a silly face like, “You want me to kiss him?!”, but Brad was trying to stand up for this big, romantic kiss, and we ended up just awkwardly meeting in the middle. ??So much for our moment of fame in Korea! ??But then the guy sitting next to me told me to go down to the cheerleaders to get our gift. ??They gave us a gift card, but we didn’t know what it was until we got home and showed it to the owner of our hostel. ??Apparently it’s a gift card for $50, so we actually made money at the game!

We did a few other things in Seoul, but nothing as exciting as the DMZ or the ballgame. You can look at pictures of those other things here. All in all, I can’t believe how much fun we had in Seoul! There’s still more to see and I wasn’t ready to leave, but, like always, we have to move on to the next place.