It has exactly been one week since I have returned from South Korea and I am currently undergoing the post trip blues. From the damp, stinky, and loud fish markets of Busan and the scenic Jeju Island to the fast moving, fun loving Seoul, I miss it all. And it sucks to be back. This post will be about revisiting all the places and also recalling all the wonderful interactions I had with the locals and fellow travellers.
It was late evening when I reached my hostel in Seoul, SP Guesthouse. Located in Itaewon, this guesthouse is in the heart of the party zone. The area is surrounded by some of Seoul’s best pubs, restaurants and clubs, and at night people from all over the city, expats, locals and tourists, would come here and party the night away. Even though, I liked my hostel, my room mates and the manager, I did not like Itaewon. Most of the people I met in this area were snobs. Dressed up in their shiny party wear and reeking of expensive perfume, Itaewon’s party goers and I had nothing in common.
However, the one thing that I will remember about Itaewon was a Finnish guy called Rico. After spending a year and a half in Thailand, he decided to move to Seoul and try his hand in “something athletic”. He was tall, well built and his favourite pass time was working out. One night, we had a long conversation during which he told me why he chose to leave Finland, and what his long term plans were for Korea. He was a fun guy and his jokes about North Korea and it’s supreme leader kept me entertained.
It took me about a day and a half to see all the major tourist sights.I was really impressed by the grandeur of the palaces and the serenity of the gardens surrounding them. Another place that I really liked was light and sound show at the Namsan Tower. Reminded me of Macau. Also, I found the Seoul flea market very entertaining. I bought a second hand jacket here to save me from the chilly Korean breezes. You can find anything in that flea market.
Visiting the DMZ during my stay in Seoul was a top priority. On my second day, I booked myself in a DMZ tour and their bus came to pick me up from my hostel really early in the morning. I remember how my half asleep manager came up to my room in his red underwear, and told me that the bus was honking like crazy outside his window. As I ran downstairs to board the bus, I saw irritated faces peeping out from the other rooms. It is very hard to summarize the DMZ tour in a few sentences (I’ll probably write a post about it someday) but not only did I see North Korea (from a distance) but also entered one of the four tunnels that they dug to infiltrate the South. Thanks to the very knowledgeable, friendly and well spoken guide, I had a wonderful day at the DMZ.
Lotte World, the largest indoor amusement park in the world and Everland, a Korean equivalent of Disneyland, also turned out to be quite a lot of fun, which I did not expect.
The best part of the trip began when I boarded a flight to Jeju. The flight to Jeju was a memorable one because for the first time in my life, I screwed up with the flight timings and showed up at the airport 12 hours early. Standing at the Asiana Airlines counter that day, altering my flights, I learned a life lesson. Never book flights under the influence of alcohol, and even if you do, check the tickets as soon as you get sober.
Nambuk Hostel hosted me in Seogwipo, Jeju and on my first evening, I went to the Cheonjiyeon Waterfall which was walking distance from my hostel. The agenda for the evening quickly changed when I saw the Olle pony. It was my first hiking experience and I must say, it was much harder than it looked on the Olle website. Nevertheless, I walked along the Seowipo harbour, climbed a hill, and walked some more to get to the Oeodolgae rock, which basically is a big rock sticking out from the sea. Yes, it was pretty, and the fact that I walked for 3 hours to get to it, made it look even prettier.
However, getting back to my hostel after the hike was quite an adventure as well. By the time I reached Oeodolgae, it was late evening and it was getting dark. I did not know where the bus stop was, could not find any taxi either. I took out my map, which was in Japanese, and tried to figure out where I was. I walked along the only road that I saw, hoping that I will see a taxi or a bus stop, or a Korean who spoke English. Finally I saw a shop, selling household grocery items. The pale, tall, skinny, shopkeeper called me a cab, and within minutes I was on my way back to the hostel.
When I went back to the hostel that evening, after having a plate full of spicy chicken wings and several bottles of Cass, I met Hanor, my Korean room mate, who was on a trip around the island before starting his two years of mandatory military service. Mandatory military assignment has got to be one of the saddest things in the world, and I know I am not the only one who thinks that. I saw it in Seoul, and in Busan. Young adults in military uniforms with sad expressions on their faces, carrying big rucksacks on their backs, while their mothers, and girlfriends hugged them, and shed a few silent tears. It is a common sight in the Korean subway.
There are quite a few tourist spots on the island, from the black sand beaches to theme parks, but I believe the reason Jeju is considered to be amongst the seven natural wonders of the world, is the Seongsan Ilchubong, a volcanic tuff cone which is 180m high. Climbing it all the way to the top was tough, especially with my sprained ankle and knee (thanks to the Olle trail), but the view from the top was great. Later that day, I visited the U-Do Island by ferry. Rode a cycle around the island for around 3 hours, stopping occasionally to click pictures, take a dip in the sea, or to eat at the very friendly Ha Ha Ho Ho cafe. It was a great day!
Few days later, I landed in Busan. A city from which I did not expect much. On my first day, I roamed around for almost an hour and a half near the Haeundae beach, trying to find a decent hostel. I remember asking a lady at a lottery store for directions. She had no idea where the guesthouse I was looking for was, so she browsed around on google map and then wrote the directions in Korean and through some weird hand movements tried to tell me where it was. Even though, I still did not manage to find that particular guesthouse, I ended up finding another one on my way. The Pobi Guesthouse. Apart from the very friendly receptionist, the hostel had every possible facility that a traveler can want. Free Internet. Clean Rooms. Great Location. Fantastic staff.
I was staying at a 10 bed dormitory. There was a guy from Ireland who recommended some really great bars in and around the area. There was an art teacher from Seoul, who also happened to be a Twins fan. He was making a movie about User Created Content (UCC) about which he talked about very passionately. There was another guy from Seoul at the corner bed, the most interesting of them all, who was in Busan to learn surfing. I had a long conversation with him once during which he told me about his three India trips. He even showed me the photos of some Indian wedding that he attended. Nice guy.
While in Busan, I visited three places that I think are worth mentioning.
The Jagalchi Market, which sold all kinds of fresh sea food. From octopuses to king crabs to sea cucumbers, they had it all. The market was damp, smelly and loud. Had a lot of fun watching a group of tourists trying to eat a baby octopus.
The Beomeosa Temple is located on the outskirts of Busan and is a must see if you are in Busan. Located on a hill, this temple is very popular amongst the locals and the tourists. And yes, it is pretty up there. If you are lucky, you might end up there on a special day when they are giving out free lunch.
The Sajik stadium will go down in history as the place where I experienced my first live professional sports event. One night, while browsing around on the net to find out about things to do in Busan apart from being a beach bum at the Haeundae beach, I came to know that Busan’s Lotte Giants were having a game the next day. Baseball is really popular in South Korea and I witnessed that first hand when I saw people cheering, chanting, dancing in the stands to support their favourite team. Even though, the home team had a clear advantage when it came to crowd support, they ended up losing the match while I slept in the my 30000 KRW seat thanks to beer overdose.
South Korea was definitely the most enjoyable country that I have been to so far. There are so many more things that I wanted to include in this post like my first jimijillbang experience, or the time I tasted authentic Korean barbeque for the first time, or how every time I said that I was from India, the locals gasped “Indo!”. Walking around the streets, markets and the tourist sights, there were quite a few time when I felt like I was the only foreigner there. And that was a welcome change from the over crowded backpacker areas that I have been frequenting during my trips.
I do not know if I will ever go back there again, but I will always remember Korea as a very friendly, and peaceful place. And I am really glad that I chose to visit the country when everyone asked me not to.