See what I did there?
Soooooooo 12 days in South Korea and it’s a country that is on the revisit list for sure. Not just because it’s home to Corean Cimchi and her family who opened up their small but perfectly formed home to me nor the unbelievable array for foods on offer but because despite an itinerary that’d make any Asian proud, I barely scratched the surface of what to see and do. That’s down to the fact that South Korea has much to offer, I was short of time & we were spoilt for choices.
I arrived on the Sunday looking and feeling like shite, I’d turned into my very own snot-making machine with sore muscles and a fever. Being in a country where nose blowing isn’t polite I spent the trip being highly inconsiderate and having to decongest whenever there was any exertion, e.g. breathing or putting one leg in front of the other. It was either that or drown in mucus. I know that the Koreans would rather drown but I had serious eating and sightseeing to do so I was all up for remaining able to breathe.
We took an airport bus which afforded us a view of the rather grey skies of Seoul and the rather hideous Sunday drivers. Unfortunately they tend to drive that badly the rest of the week too, the old driving test being 2 days of getting to grips with 2 tons of metal with 3 pedals and away you go out into the world at large to reek havoc on the roads. It was rush hour so luckily the madness was somewhat curtailed.
CC lives to the east of Seoul in Gangdong, and across the Han River that bifurcates the city just like the Thames does to London. It’s a low-rise part of town, with wide roads, a busy market, shops and entertainment area. If we were to talk in numbers then the family were in a 3 room apartment, on the 4th floor of a 5 floor building and was housing 6 of us for around 7 nights….CC lives with her sister and mum, aged little dog who is a very demanding old auntie and Feling the 4yr old grey cat (never met a cat who loves to sniff at everything with such deep interest)…and for a period of time the lardy lump that is me was squeezing in there too. The flat was like the tardis, deceptively large – with a laundry area tucked behind the sisters’ bunk beds, a shoe cupboard that’d put Imelda Marcos to shame and a walk in fridge freezer that all those 3 lovely people could have squeezed into if it wasn’t for the groaning shelves of food that took up the space.
CC’s mum is a chef and works at a traditional Korean restaurant and the first night I got to experience her amazing cooking with a banquet of food that covered the small table on the kitchen / living room and which made me realise that any weight lost over the duration of the trip would be coming right back at me whilst in Korea. CC rustled up some bulgogi which we ate with lettuce and a flat leaf called Perilla, plus a couple of types of kimchi. Also on the table was dried squid, seaweed, a miso and tofu soup. Oh my, where to start – with trying not to be a chopstick chump – failed. No wonder their fridge was so big – it was leftovers central – the food would have fed a wedding party and the waiting staff.
It was not as cold out as I’d expected it to be – although the wind was sharp and cut through you at night. It was a welcome change from the incessant heat of the past few weeks, and it became perceptively milder as the days wore on – Spring was sprung fo’sure.
Monday was our day out into Seoul – a bit of cul-cha – and my recognition that I was totally ferked from being on the go in the preceding weeks and that there wasn’t going to be any let up. Not with my guide and itinerinerary-wonder CC in charge. I was quickly to become a breathless and aged laggard. Seoul’s underground system is particularly deep under the city and seemingly built with less thought to the infirm, thus long stairs are the norm into and out of stations. Escalators are few and far between as well. Staggering up from the metro I was often wondering if oxygen masks would be readily available at the top of stairs and not just on the platforms in large glass cabinets.
We went first to the north of Seoul to visit Gyeongbokgung Palace, Gwanghwamun Square and Gwanghwamun Gate.
At the Square, set back from the statue of King Sejong the Great, who created the Korean (Hangeul) alphabet and that of Admiral Yi Sun-Shin, famed for his victories against the Japanese, there were placards, puppets and tents still in situ from the demonstrations against the former president Parks.
It seemed to be winding down, although there were still tents set up as a memorial to a tragic sinking of the Sewol ferry that happened in April 2014. The government had been heavily criticised for the response to the disaster at the time and the tents were a reminder ahead of the raising of the ferry that was due to happen late March.
From the entrance through the southern gate we went inside to explore the palace. It was originally built in 1395, however it was systematically destroyed by the Imperial Japanese following their annexation of Korea in 1910. The Korean government has had a policy of rebuilding historical monuments since the 1990s, so what was inside the walls was a reconstruction of a percentage of the original palace, some 500 buildings over a 40 hectare site versus the 7,700 that existed and had been restored in the 19th century, under the leadership of the Prince Regent.
Most of the buildings were not accessible, you could only view them from behind a barrier, however we were able to visit the rooms at Gonnyeonghap to see an exhibition relating to the murder of Empress Myeongseong by the Japanese in October 1895.
She had been seen as a great strategist and political influence, who had been trying to forge closer links with Russia in an attempt to loosen the ties Japan had with Korea. She was seen as a threat and the exhibition was to commemorate her life and her assassination by the Japanese and the subsequent burning of her body nearby. The King left the palace a couple of months later never to return and the Japanese government demolished the building completely in 1909. You kind of started to understand why Korea may not have the best relations with Japan, and after the visit to the Seodaemun Prison History Museum on my last day it was even clearer.
Many of the sightseers appeared to have made a bit of an effort wearing traditional Korean costume. Turned out that dressing up meant discount entry. Women were floating about princess styleeee in hanbok with wide skirts, decorated with embroidery, beading or faux gems. Guys wore traditional hats and kimono style jackets. The dressing up wasn’t left to the Koreans either, the few Chinese kicking about (there’s currently a travel ban enforced by the Chinese government) seemed to favour a discounted opportunity to wander the palace too, as did a few Americans. When the wind gusted it revealed their jeans and trainers underneath – the more preferred clothing option of Seoul it seemed.
From the palace we wandered to Insa-dong area for a cup of Korean tea (which contained plums, pine nuts, and some other dried bits and pieces). Not tea as you know it but both were supposed to contain health-giving ingredients.
The area of Insa-dong is preserved as a traditional area, all signage in Korean, including major companies such as Starbucks. Lots of shops were owned by artisans with handmade product for sale, and it had a calm, uncluttered feeling despite the tourists milling about. I think it was the money in the air, it wasn’t a cheap area.
For a complete contrast we hit Myeong-dong. Here was shopping central and both the school kids and tourists were out in full force, along with street food-sellers selling green lipped mussels bigger than my (admittedly midgety) hands, sausage on a stick, dried squid on a stick, Korean crepes, snack heaven. It was heaving, claustraphobically so, worse than Oxford St the weekend before Christmas. I was just thankful that the Chinese were currently not allowed to travel to Korea as it’d been even worse (turns out, they’re all in Bangkok clogging up the malls there – that I can confirm ).
We fought our way through the melee toward a hill in the distance and Namsan Tower aka N Tower. It’s site states that it ‘has become a resting place for the citizens of Seoul and a tourist attraction for foreigners with the living nature of Namsan. I think that means they were too knackered to do much other than sit down after they hiked to the top. It was starting to get cold but we were ensuring we weren’t going to be feeling it any time soon as we were walking all the way. To be fair CC offered the chance of taking a bus but I thought I’d make the effort, as a result it was slow-going, I was worse than I thought energy-wise, but we finally made it just as the sun disappeared behind the smoggy greyness of the overcast Seoul day.
The reward for the struggle up was not in heaven but at the bottom if the hill at a fried chicken restaurant. Chicken and beer (Chimaek – a compound word formed from Chicken and Maekju, the Korean word for beer) is traditional fare, so is serving up the chicken with chopped raw cabbage generously doused in ketchup and mayo, which then got mixed together. The chicken didn’t disappoint, unlikely that it could tbh, we’d missed lunch and were totally hank.
Day 1 was done and dusted bar random Korean tele – no show is less than an hour long and ideally two. Next stop after a wee day of rest – Jeju Island, famous for wind, women and rocks, or was it rocky, windy women? Certainly no-one mentioned the penis headed statues carved from volcanic rock, but that’s for another day.