There are a lot of ferry options from Korea to China. I mean a lot.
And we chose the one with the soju-fuelled Korean singalong. Continue reading “Yellow Sea: Korea to China by Boat”
There are a lot of ferry options from Korea to China. I mean a lot.
And we chose the one with the soju-fuelled Korean singalong. Continue reading “Yellow Sea: Korea to China by Boat”
There are a few sensible options for getting from Seoul to Beijing without flying — several overnight ferries take you from Incheon, on the Seoul metro, to Chinese ports which connect to Beijing by high speed rail. Seat 61 has information on a couple of routes, but there are tons of ferries you could conceivably use. Continue reading “How to get from Seoul to Beijing without flying”
For our trip to the Korean DMZ we chose the DMZ/JSA and third tunnel tour with Koridoor tours, who are run by the USO. That’s USO as in the people who organise live entertainment and other social events for US troops and their families overseas. And also DMZ tours. Kind of weird. Sadly, Bob Hope didn’t make an appearance on our tour.
The waiting room at the US base in Seoul where we met up at the start of the tour was a little slice of America though. Continue reading “Which DMZ tour?”
On our day out to the Korean DMZ we made the biggest mistake of our trip. Worse than missing out on playing dress up at the Gangnam Tourist Information Centre. Worse than eating whatever it was that made me sick enough to pass out on a Chinese night train. Worse than losing six days of our Russian Visa. Worse than accidentally ordering duck foetus in Vietnam. Worse than cycling 20 kilometres into the Cambodian jungle in the dark, with no water, and finding the only river was too salty to drink.
Maybe not that last one.
The Korean DMZ is a two mile wide buffer between the two Koreas. A heavily mined strip of land 35 miles north of Seoul, in reality the demilitarised zone is one of the most heavily militarised places in the world. The perfect spot for a day trip then. Continue reading “DMZ: Korea meets Korea”
North Korea has long had a guilty allure for me — it brings up some squirming contradictions. So intriguing: the ultimate foreign land, full of strangeness. We’re all fascinated by it. But then horrified: the famine, the camps, the death.
Under the rule of Kim Jong-Un, North Korea remains among the world’s most repressive countries. All basic freedoms have been severely restricted under the Kim family’s political dynasty. A 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry found that abuses in North Korea were without parallel in the contemporary world. They include extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence. North Korea operates secretive prison camps where perceived opponents of the government are sent to face torture and abuse, starvation rations, and forced labor. Fear of collective punishment is used to silence dissent. There is no independent media, functioning civil society, or religious freedom.
Often the global coverage of North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as it’s more properly known, tends almost towards humour. Oh look at those funny North Koreans, what will they get up to next? You could argue laughter is a weapon, and both factual coverage and fictional portrayals of the Kims have certainly made them look pretty silly. Continue reading “Should I visit North Korea?”
Seoul’s attractions aren’t all tinged with the peninsular’s recent fractious history. There’s plenty of stuff to see that doesn’t have a Korean war story, or at least not one that’s made it onto an information board. Exceedingly tall men pretending to guard the old imperial palace for example.
We happened upon the changing of the guard at Gyeongbokgung, a royal palace dating from the 14th century, and heck these guys were tall. Maybe they had platforms on. Actually, I wouldn’t put it past faux-guard recruitment to select the tallest, scariest looking applicants, a similar thing goes on with the for-real guards of the border with the North. But more on that next time, I’ll try to not mention the war for now.
There are plenty of atmospheric backstreets to wander too, away from the pomp and ceremony, particularly to the south and east of the imperial palace. As ever, in a way, the most interesting parts of the city are the everyday, lived in bits. I find reading about the history of a place intriguing, but when you’re actually there walking about, the places where something extraordinary once happened are rarely as absorbing as the places where something ordinary is happening right now.
One of our favourite way s to see and feel the everyday beat of a place is to eat. All of the foods. Our best Seoul food experience was at Gwangjang market, a buzzing, loud, pleasingly gritty, covered market. The centre of the market is packed with stalls serving up all sorts of Korean delights, to customers squashed together on benches along the many counters. It’s particularly famous for its mung bean pancakes. At last, a vegetarian Korean speciality!
The famed pancakes are on the left, and they were crispy, greasy perfection. In the middle is pig foot. Order one and they’ll chop it up for you and serve it with kimchi and dip. I had seaweed wrapped vegetable rice rolls, which were fresh and tasty. Sounds like sushi? Don’t call it that in Korea (Japan’s not too popular here), it’s called gimbap, and it’s completely different (it’s not).
And if you tire of aimless wandering and streetfood grazing, there’s always Lotte World.
Lotte World is Korea’s answer to Disney World, except really small, on an island in a river in the middle of the city, and under the flag of a multinational conglomerate better known for its supermarkets and chocolate. Having a Lotte as a good friend, we were particularly excited to see this.
These pictures just skim the surface of the Lotte related fun available in Seoul. There’s the Lotte department store, the Charlotte theatre, Lottemarts for your grocery shopping, Lotte chocolate to snack on, and for your fast food needs, Lotteria. (Try the mozzarella burger, it’s literally a burger sized piece of breaded mozzarella in a bun, with burger toppings, including cheese. Seriously.)
If you fancy papering a wall of your house with pictures of stuff that says Lotte on it, Lotte, you know where to find us.
And then there’s Gangnam, Seoul’s wealthiest district.
You may be familiar with the popular music title Gangnam Style, or at least the horse riding dance that goes with it. Here is a potted summary, courtesy of Wikipedia.
The phrase “Gangnam Style” is a Korean neologism that refers to a lifestyle associated with the Gangnam District of Seoul. The song and its accompanying music video went viral in August 2012 and have influenced popular culture worldwide since then. By the end of 2012, the song had topped the music charts of more than 30 countries including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Spain, and the United Kingdom. As the song continued to rapidly gain popularity and ubiquity, its signature dance moves were attempted by many notable political leaders such as the British Prime Minister David Cameron, U.S. President Barack Obama, and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who hailed it as a “force for world peace”. On May 7, 2013, at a bilateral meeting with South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye at the White House, U.S. President Barack Obama cited the success of “Gangnam Style” as an example of how people around the world are being “swept up” by the Korean Wave of culture.
K-Pop (modern Korean pop music) does seem to be slowly but surely taking over the world: its hyper-upbeat, hairgelled tones have already conquered most of Asia.
So, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to visit Gangnam.
What we did miss, because we didn’t know about it, was the Gangnam Tourist Information Centre. Sounds dull, right?
Turns out you can play K-Pop dress up there, with props, and sets. Sets! Our friend and fellow travel blogger Emma visited the Tourist Information Centre a few days before we were in Seoul. Read her take on it, but in short this is what we missed:
So, oblivious to the fancy dress opportunities at our fingertips, we just gave Gangnam a flying visit. In other words, we went, we saw, it rained, we left. In summary, there are a lot of shiny tall buildings. On our five minute walk we passed a man begging, knelt prostrate with his forehead to the floor, as seems to be customary in Korea. 50 metres further on was a very expensive, very empty steak restaurant blasting It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year out to the street. Getting back onto the subway with us was a family with a six or seven year old girl wearing a pink Harvard jumper.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. The song is essentially a piss take of the Gangnam lifestyle of conspicuous consumption, and the copycat spending of people who aspire to that lifestyle without the income (or more likely trust fund) to support it. I read an illuminating article about the subtext of Gangnam Style, which quotes a Korean joke about women who live off instant noodles so that they can be seen drinking hideously overpriced coffee at Starbucks. Hence the boast in the song that goes something like ‘I drink my coffee in one gulp, while it’s still boiling hot.’
Who knew doing the horse dance had so much meaning?
Actually, eating instant noodles doesn’t have the same ‘slumming it’ connotation in Asia as in Europe, it’s more like having a sandwich. We had instant noodles for lunch our first day in Seoul, eating standing up at the 7/11 noodle making counter. A very authentic Korean lunch. Mine were pizza flavour though, because (surprise surprise) none of the Korean flavours are vegetarian. Over the course of this trip my reluctance to eat instant noodles has utterly dissolved, in fact I’m eating some as an afternoon snack as I type.
But still, eating them every day, for Starbucks? It’s not even good coffee.
I stood trapped, trying to look nonchalantly unconcerned as the strains of Für Elise got louder and louder, attracting a swelling crowd of gawping Korean subway users to my plight. To pass the time, I affected a consuming interest in the safety poster on the pillar next to me. Which was in Korean, obviously.
I’d accidentally double tapped my ticket on the exit gate, rendering me stuck inside the barriers. Subway stations in Seoul are grand, sleek and shiny but rather soulless (baboom) spaces, generally completely devoid of staff. The only thing for it then, was to press the help button.
Don’t press the help button.
The ticket gate will rip into a spirited rendition of Für Elise, which will get louder and louder (or was this my imagination?) as you wait helplessly for a staff member to stroll the several miles from the nearest manned gate. People will stare at you. Your husband, who has managed to exit the ticket barrier without mishap, will slink off to laugh at you from a safe distance. Help will seem a long, long time coming.
Even if you do manage to exit the barriers in the manner of a person possessing basic barrier exit skills, getting out of a Seoul subway station is not easy. Look at the places.
When I eventually freed myself, we stepped out into the crisp cold sunshine and began to walk. Seoul is a dense modern city, packed with skyscrapers and expressways, but amongst them sit scraps of the past. One of these was our path for the day: the city wall.
In the 14th century a 20 km wall was built to encircle Seoul, controlling traffic in and out, and sealing the city shut at night. These days the city surrounds the wall, and not much of the original stonework remains. But several sections have been restored over the years, and now a walking route completes the whole circuit.
Frankly, we couldn’t be bothered to walk 20 km, so we set our sights on the northern half of the loop. We began climbing through a low rise residential neighbourhood, then on up the wall itself as it rose on a ridge above the city.
Baby faced guards, dressed all in black, loitered in groups at short intervals along the wall, outnumbering hikers considerably. Signs warned us not to point our cameras in the direction of the Blue House, the president’s palace, which dominated the foreground.
The history of this wall isn’t all ancient. In January 1968 it was the site of the first shots fired in an incident known as the Blue House raid.
It was January the 21st, midwinter. Three days before the largest campaign of the Vietnam war kicked off, 18 months after North Korea lost to Portugal in the quarter final of the World Cup, held in Liverpool.
A unit of 31 hand picked officers from the North was sent to assassinate the president of South Korea. They made it from the border and as far as the city wall, well inside Seoul, before being confronted.
Being outnumbered by uniformed guards adds an edge to otherwise serene hiking. The wall follows the ridges of four rocky, tree spattered hills. A tiny sliver of nature amidst panoramic city views. After a quietly tense hour or two on the chilly, wind whipped ridge, we were forced back down into the city by a break in the wall. Following the trail at ground level, we found ourselves at a checkpoint. Here, near the president’s palace, the wall is near complete, reconstructed to provide extra security after the events of 1968.
Entry to the wall section directly behind the palace is strictly controlled. Passports are required, and registration. The day we arrived they weren’t allowing entry at all. But to be honest, we’d had enough of this rather unsettling walking already.
Our pleasant stroll in Seoul turned out to be an introduction to the obvious presence of the sometimes quiet, but still ongoing conflict between the Koreas. This slight sense of unease, the barbed wire suggestion of impending doom, is not something we noticed further south. But here, 35 miles from the border, you can feel it.
As we started downhill back to the centre of town, we came to a monument to police officers killed during the raid.
Choi Gyushek, the local police chief commemorated in the statue, was on the lookout for North Korean infiltrators that night.
Camped on their journey south, the soldiers from the North had been happened on by four teenagers. The soldiers had orders to kill and bury any civilians they met, but they didn’t. Perhaps because the ground was frozen too hard to dig a grave. Perhaps not. Either way they let the boys go, after an ad-hoc lecture on the virtues of communism. The boys went straight to the police.
So Choi Gyushek had been warned. When the North Koreans tried to pass his checkpoint disguised as soldiers of the South, he got suspicious. So they shot and killed him, the first casualty of the raid.
26 South Koreans were killed in the fighting, which spread from the checkpoint as the North Koreans scattered, then fled. A bus full of civilians were caught in the crossfire. Several days later, four Americans were killed in the DMZ trying to prevent the remains of the unit from returning to North Korea. One North Korean officer made it back, the rest were killed or committed suicide, except one.
Kim Shin-Jo was the only officer captured. He defected, and then he found god. Back in North Korea his family were murdered for his defection. In 2010, still living in South Korea, he became a human rights advisor to the government.
But it gets stranger.
The South decided to launch a revenge mission. Their unit of assassins too, would have 31 members, but they wouldn’t be elite officers. They’d be civilians, recruited for financial reward. The chosen 31 were held prisoner on an uninhabited island off the west coast and subjected to such intense training that seven of them died in the process. Then the mission was called off.
In 1971 the survivors of the training overcame their guards, made their way to the mainland, and hijacked a bus, which was then stopped by the army.
All but four of the unit members were killed in the struggle, or committed suicide. The remaining four were sentenced to death, and executed in 1972.
But it goes on. In 2003 a film based on the events was released, called Silmido after the island where the unit trained. The box office takings of Silmido topped 30 million US dollars in Korea alone. Only two years after this was a government investigation into the incident initiated, the bodies of the unit members, who had been buried in secret, located, and their families officially informed of their deaths. In 2010 the families won a case for compensation, which totalled less than 250,000 US dollars.
Funny place, Korea.
*Image from populargusts.
In Daejeon we ate.
A weekend of food with friends was a lovely interlude in our trip: the first, and so far only, meetup we’ve managed with friends from home. We came to visit Jason, a school friend of mine who’s been living in Korea for a couple of years, and his girlfriend Julie who we hadn’t met before. It was so nice to just chat and catch up, mostly over delicious food of various sorts. We kicked off with the aforementioned beer, real beer! Then a birthday dinner, involving soju, followed by cake and coffee.
We more or less switched off for the weekend and enjoyed being ferried around to various scenic spots and tasty food and drink opportunities.
Our main scenic excursion was a little walk amid the mountains with a temple to ogle along the way. Lots of heavily equipped hikers passed us, dressed for an Alpine assault despite the diminutive size of the surrounding peaks. Korean hikers clearly don’t like to leave the house without boots rated for ice climbing, the latest 50 litre pack (empty), a $400 waterproof, trousers with more zips than a magic roundabout merch store, and a pair of retractable walking poles with lasers hidden in the handles (just a guess). Every group that passed us was highly entertained by Arthur’s shorts.
I definitely recommend building some visits to far-flung friends into your travels. It was like coming home for the weekend. There’s something odd about spending all of your time in temporary places with temporary people. A couple of days in a place with somebody who lives there, and has a life there, is refreshing. Couchsurfing has this benefit too, but staying with friends there’s the extra anchor of seeing somebody who’s known you for 10 years, not 10 minutes.
Also, your local friends will know all the good eating spots, like where to get desserts that are bigger than your face.
We had coffee, bubble tea, afternoon tea, and ginger tea. And outside our Saturday lunch spot we were mobbed by puppies and chickens.
As we were leaving a man came in with a crate of cabbages and left with a puppy. The barter economy is not dead here.
And then there was Korean BBQ, topped off with ice cream, DIY rice paper rolls, and brunch, glorious brunch. Best meal of the day.
And, I didn’t accidentally eat ANY meat, ALL weekend. High five?
Having Julie’s linguistic assistance made veggie Korean eating infinitely easier. No mean feat.
Thanks for a wonderful time guys, hope we can catch up soon. Brunch maybe?
Arriving in the dark meant we were greeted by the bright lights of Busan, somehow different from those in Japan. For a start, I suppose, a sparkling skyline is really only found in Tokyo. Most Japanese cities are pretty low key, even when they’re not low rise.
Busan is not low key. It’s Korea’s second largest city, a busy port, seaside resort in the summer, and full of buzz even in December. The skyline is a uniquely Korean mix. Part Japanese-style high rise patchwork: vertiginous compartmentalised buildings, countless small windows glittering, and part Chinese-style grand flashing gesture: technicolour illuminated bridges and vast glass faced monoliths. Below the skyline hints of Russia were back too, in a renewed popularity for shiny tracksuits and 90s fashions, and a visible military presence on the streets.
We had one night in the city, so we chose a hostel on the edge of Chinatown, which is near the train station and the port. It was a five or ten minute walk from the port to the train station. Asking people in the port for directions caused utter confusion: everyone assumed we were looking for the bus to the train station. Eventually we figured it out, and overtook the bus on foot, despite the gale force wind trying to blow us back out to sea. We stayed at INSIDE Busan, a funny little hostel housed in five custom built mini buildings grouped around a courtyard. It was a nice change, and a fitting intro to Korea, to stay somewhere with some interesting modern architecture. A big contrast from mostly-old Japan.
Dinner was also a fitting intro to Korea: I utterly failed to order anything vegetarian. Picking tiny pieces of pork (not mentioned on the menu) from my black bean noodles attracted even more staring than we were already getting for a) being white, and b) getting noodle sauce all over our faces. Korean food is saucier than Japanese food.
I did sneak a couple of mussels from Arthur’s seafood noodles, which were delicious. Mussels beat oysters for me, though the rich, sharp, spicy sauce may have been the clincher. Also delicious were the pickles, which come with every meal in Korea, and are replenished for free if you like. This first meal just came with the jolly yellow ones, but often you get seven or eight different types, which are almost a meal in themselves.
I feel bound to mention at this point that these pickles are traditionally made using fish sauce among other things, so they’re unlikely to be strictly veggie. It seemed churlish and somewhat futile to avoid them when every meal was a challenge to not order meat, and then eat round it when it came anyway. You can call me a hypocrite if you like, because I am. Also, did I mention they’re delicious?
Next up on New Experiences On Our First Night in Korea was a night cap: apricot soju. We’d had soju before, during our brief brush with Korea on the Eastern Dream, but this version was sweet and borderline palatable, which was new. (To recap, drinking regular soju is comparable to being punched in the mouth.) The apricot version didn’t have the depth of something like sloe gin, but it went pretty well with a chocolate truffle and a game of bananagrams.
Next morning I woke up older, so Arthur made me eggy bread and coffee.
As the birthday celebrator, I also got to choose the morning’s activity, so we went for an artsy wander round a part of town known as Gamcheon Culture Village. To get there we took the metro to Toseong and walked up the hill (use exit 6 and take the first right). A handy map board just outside the station helped us on our way.
There were also some signs directing you along the route, but I think we lost them somewhere and started going rogue instead.
Basically we just walked around and looked at interesting things, and it was lovely. Crisp cold, but the sun was shining and the air was clear. We spotted some plants drying in big round trays on a roof, fish curing on a washing line next to them. And by scrambling up through some tumbledown allotments we found a lantern bedecked shrine nestled into the cliff face, complete with broom to keep it tidy (of course).
From the shrine we kept climbing, and eventually reached a view out across the bays that Busan is ranged around. To get a proper vista we had to fight our way through several metres of trees and thorny undergrowth, then climb up a large pile of rocks, but it was totally worth it.
Apparently Gamcheon is known as ‘the Santorini of the East’. I’m not sure if I’d read this and it sculpted my perceptions, or if I independently came to the same idea, but the little brightly coloured houses flowing down the hillside to a narrow bay did bring a Greek island village to mind. It’s doing it a bit of a disservice to say that, because of course it’s nothing like Santorini really, but beautiful in its own more down to earth, urban, Korean sort of way. I think Koreans are keen on it because it’s old, small scale, and a bit rough around the edges. Definitely a contrast to the smooth, shiny city centre.
On the way back we saw some of the street art that gives the ‘cultural’ bit to the cultural village, as well as some of the more run down areas. Gamcheon was previously a bit of a shanty town, and the arty side of it comes mainly from a 2009 scheme to regenerate the area by introducing cultural projects and attracting tourists. I think it’s worked quite well, you get the impression that the unique windy streets atmosphere of the place has been preserved rather than sanitised, though more money is coming into the area. We saw a fair few hipster family sorts milling around the shops and stalls.
There are lots of other things we could have done in Busan: a sea cliff temple, city viewing tower, parks, museums, an aquarium, or the world’s largest department store (dear god). I’m really glad we (I) chose this, it’s an interesting side to the city, and I had a great time wandering about in the fresh air.
We could have stayed a lot longer I’m sure, but we had a train to catch, so back to the station we went. We’d booked online the night before to be sure of a seat to Daejeon, a little over two hours away. They have a system where you’re booked onto the train, but you don’t get assigned a seat until you pick up your physical ticket at the station, so if you arrive at the last minute as we did you might end up standing. Fortunately we got seats, but they were a few rows apart. We just had time to grab some lunch at Paris Baguette, a fancy European style bakery/sandwich shop, before we boarded our train. This was definitely a birthday treat: it was well over £10 for food and coffees. But yum. Also I didn’t feel like picking meat out of my birthday lunch, which was the only alternative to my delicious tomato and mozarella ciabatta sandwich. I’m sure we took a photo of this, but I can’t find it, so instead, here are the beers we had when we got there.
More on these (and loads of other delicious stuff) next time!
There are tons of options for getting between Japan and Korea without flying. Well, four anyway, which is four times more than from Russia to Japan.
Three different ferry companies ply the Hakata to Busan route at various speeds, and you can also get a longer overnight ferry from Osaka to Busan. (FYI: Hakata is the same place as Fukuoka, where we went to the sumo. They used to be separate places but they fused, so now both names are used.)
We nearly plumped for the ferry from Osaka, since we finished our trip in Kyoto, but with the Willer Express bus pass it worked out cheaper to head down to Fukuoka on the bus and get a Camellia Line day ferry from there. Partly it was cheaper because, wait for it, we got BIRTHDAY DISCOUNT. Hello Korea. The list price for a second class ticket is 9000¥ each, about £60, but we paid about £40 because we were sailing in the month of our respective births. Alas, this seems to have been a one year only offer. It was good while it lasted.
Getting the ferry was fairly easy, if a little labyrinthine. We booked online, and after one last Mister Donut breakfast, arrived at the port on a city bus directly from Hakata station. Easy peasy. They even had a big sign in the port with the timetable and price of the bus into the city, complete with ‘how to catch the bus’ instructions. Nothing left to chance.
We checked in at the Camellia Line counter, where we had to pay a fuel surcharge (I think this happens with all the ferry companies). Then, as if Japan wanted to wish us farewell in style, we were directed to one last vending machine.
We made the mistake of letting a Korean tour group get ahead of us in the queue to board the boat. Starvation might have set in during the wait, if it hadn’t been for the corn stick.
On board, we were directed to a rather flashy cabin, with a view out the front of the boat, and only two other inhabitants. They were very excited that we were from England (saying Britain or the UK generally provokes polite bewilderment), but the conversation sort of died after that, so we had a nap. The second class cabins are tatami mat rooms with roll out mattresses that accommodate about 12 people, most of them seemed a lot fuller than ours, and windowless. Perhaps it was the birthday cabin? Or maybe we got special treatment for being foreign, this definitely happened in Japan and Korea a bit.
We watched Japan disappearing from view in a Russian doll procession of islands, getting smaller and smaller until there was nothing but sea.
Trapped inside because of rough seas and wet decks, after our nap we had ample time to explore the boat. Unfortunately it didn’t take ample time, there being not all that much of it. We were tempted by the karaoke booths but they were a bit pricey, so instead we engaged in Asia’s second favourite pastime: taking selfies. Clearly we weren’t doing it properly though, because a lady intervened and moved us to a gaudier backdrop, while enthusiastically gesturing that we should make a heart with our arms. Her art direction was better than her photography.
I had a quick onsen, with several Korean ladies who all wanted to borrow my soap, then there was just time to watch the Korean news before we arrived. As would become a theme, this was quite similar to in Japan (the hosts bowed deeply to their viewers at the start and end), but shinier and brasher, and somehow a little more hard faced. Korea has all the politeness of Japan, but feels a little sterner.
Soon enough the bright lights of Busan twinkled into view, and we were there. Another country, and the start of another adventure, this time with more pickles than ever before…