Days spent – 11 days (26 September 2016 to 7 October 2016)
Places visited – Seoul, Sokcho, Busan, Jeju Island
Books read – The Girl on the Train
Things done – Museum of Seoul History, Guenjeonggung, Heuginjimun, Korea War Museum, Seoraksan National Park, Mount Hallasan, De-militarised Zone tour
Highlight(s) – Korean War Museum, DMZ tour
Lowlight(s) – my mood
Cost – £450.27 (£40.93 per day)
I made it from home to Beijing without flying. It’s over five thousand miles (that’s over eight thousand kilometres for those of you that measure things sensibly). Chinese visas are hard to get so a little planning is required. Transport in and out are a must. The twelfth of September, day ninety-seven is my first flight (beijing to Tokyo via Incheon), one flight, or two if you count the connection as separate. As I have to go to Japan (to meet Tom and see Babymetal – kind of the point of the trip), it only seems sensible to stop by Korea on the way back to mainland Asia. I know South Korea isn’t an island, but for me, it may as well be given its neighbours to the north! On my way out of Korea I fly Incheon to Beijing via Qingdao, this is on October the seventh. After three months without flying I’ve now taken five flights in less than a month, seven if one counts connections as separate!
I never used to like flying but it’s growing on me. There’s something very safe and fimiliar in all airports, English is rife. Sometimes, flying is just the most sensible option. I flew from Jeju Island to Seoul for under thirty pounds, it took just over an hour. A nice, cheap, late-booked, domestic flight. A shame they aren’t available everywhere!
On Jeju Island I climb Mount Hallasan, which is the highest point on the island. It’s six thousand four hundred feet (or one thousand nine hundred and fifty metres), but I think this is the highest I’ve ever knowingly been. The guy at the hostel warns against me going because of the weather, there’s a typhoon coming… Google says it’ll start to rain at three and I’m gone by eight. It should take three to four hours to climb apparently. The weather is fine, the sun even tries to peek through, but alas its tries were in vain. I’m at the top in two hours and twenty minutes. I’m sweaty from the climb but my life is it cold up here. The mist is so thick I can’t see anything and the wind is blowing it at me at a rate of knots. I can’t stay long (but there’s nothing to see anyway!), I have to head down out of the wind and to relative warmth.
In Seoul, I visit another of the better museums I’ve been to, the Korean War Museum. This details the to and fro of the war from 1950 to 1953. Initially, the north invaded the south, the south weren’t prepared (having been struggling to stand alone after Japanese rule) and Seoul fell quickly. But the south fought back strongly after obtaining help from UN forces, mainly from the USA but also from twenty or so other UN representatives including the UK. Seoul was recaptured and the northern forces were pushed back nearly to the Chinese border. But the war took another twist as the north was then able to obtain help from a newly Communist China who provided millions in manpower despite losses they’d suffered recently at the hands of the Japanese also. There seems to be no end to leaders’ appetite for war last century, does there? North Korea took Seoul once more… In 1951 a stalemate was reached but it wasn’t until 1953 that a ceasefire occured because the north refused to hand back prisoners of war from the south.
The museum has a 4D recreation of the amphibious drive of UN forces from Incheon. There are signs warning against pregnant women to go. I laugh it off, but I can now see why. It’s basically a rollercoaster! It’s similar to the City of Ruins exhibit in the Warsaw Uprising Museum but better. Sadly, Seoul was also a city of ruins. The also have the original Korean flag that was raised in Seoul on its liberation.
After Seoul, I head for Sokcho and Seoraksan National Park. My first hike since leaving, I already posted about this because the weather was supposed to be good but wasn’t. But it wasn’t all bad, lower down was much clearer and allowed for some decent photographs. Also, I could satiate my waterfall obsession. I like to observe peoples’ fitness on hikes. On the way up I overtake most. Sometimes I take two steps at a time and others look at me as though I’m an alien (not because I look different for a change!)! On the way down I try to be encouraging to those that are nearly there. There’s also always that one person… They’ve had it, knackered, struggling, they haven’t got to the climb yet either!
On my first night in Seoul, we head out for a Korean barbecue, where you cook the meat yourselves on a BBQ in the middle of your table, quite nice. Along with strange flavoured crisps like honey, they also have sweet flavoured beers like grape and mango. Mango was my favourite. Kimchi gets served as a side dish with virtually everything so you can’t avoid it. It’s ok, not my favourite thing though. There are nearly two hundred varieties but most of them are spicy and/ or garlicy so I console myself with the fact that my parents would hate it. I also try bibimbap which is rice served with vegetables and sometimes an egg. Very simple and surprisingly nice and flavoursome. Juyeong – who I met on the descent of Mount Hallasan – kindly introduces me to Korean fried chicken, mmmmm, it’s great. Thanks for that, and thanks for the company going down the mountain! Chopsticks are here also of course, but they’re different! Ahh, just as I was getting the hang of it! They’re metallic and thus heavier and also harder to use in my opinion. Chopestick level: amateur.
No trip to South Korea is complete without a trip to the de-militarised zone, commonly referred to as the DMZ. This is a strange experience for tensions are still very high between the north and the south. We must carry our passports and they are rigorously checked even though we aren’t to cross the border. Passports are checked on the way out of the DMZ too, just to make sure no one is trying to defect to the north! On trying to enter, we are turned away twice, a problem with the checks. The first thing we see is Freedom Bridge, an odd name I think. But, this is before the guide has explained that this is the bridge the South Korean prisoners or war walked across upon their release. Ok, the name makes sense. Next we head to the third infiltration tunnel. Towards the end of the last century, tunnels were discovered with the north had dug in order to launch a surprise attack on Seoul. It’s eighty metres underground so it’s quite a climb back out!
^ The North!
The last stop is an observatory where you can, well, observe, North Korea. It’s five hundred won (about forty pence) to use the optics. Rude not to… The observatory is located so that it looks upon a fairly large North Korean town. It’s so strange to see people going about their lives under such oppression. We are told to look for the North Korean flag but it can’t really be missed. It’s on a pole that’s higher than that of the south to show the superiority of the north… Apparently, it’s the fourth highest flagpole in the world. There’s an alternative tour you can go on where you go to somewhere called the Joint Security Area (JSA), you can actually set foot in North Korea here. I can’t do this because there is military training on whilst I’m there. If you do this tour, you have to wear trousers and they can’t have holes in. This is because the north will take photos to use for propaganda purposes saying things like “Look at these poor foreigners, they can’t afford proper clothes.” I found this fascinating.
Whilst on Jeju Island, I suffer another typhoon. Luckily, the worst is overnight, I hear it at three am. Sadly, that means most tourist attractions are closed the following day as trees and phone lines etc. are down. This is particularly frustrating because after about eleven it’s a gorgeous, sunny day! As a result I go to the museum in Jeju City to see exhibits about the places I was going to see. It isn’t quite the same…!
My mood here isn’t great, only eleven days spent in Korea. It doesn’t matter how small the country is, one can only scratch the surface of a place in that time. Also, I’m finding that when I’m about to leave a country, I start to look forward to the next one and stop enjoying where I am. That’s a weird thing… Never mind, I’ll get my mojo back…
Strawbs – written 7 November 2016, published 8 November 2016
Changing of the guard
Oh hell no
It’s free if you dress like this!
Just going to hop on the train…