South Korea – The Last Word

Seoul. South Korea, May 2017: I arrived here some 4 weeks ago with the pre-conceived idea the country is full of glitzy shopping malls, Americanisation to the hilt and people like robots. While its true that developed Asian nations have largely followed the Manhattan path and its people have an addiction to all things digital, in Korea there is still enough culture among modernity that one can easily forget the plethora of American influence around the place. So here’s a summery of the ‘Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ of South Korea.

The Good: Seoul is a wonderful, vibrant and very modern city. Clean and organised for its 3 million inhabitants.  Getting around Seoul and Korea in general is easy, cheap and overall a great experience on local transport. Andong, a great little town oozing with culture. and then there’s Busan. Another wonderfully vibrant city. Blue sea, clean beaches and not too much Americanization there, yet! Getting around is equally a great experience.

The Bad: The culinary experience is tricky to navigate. The local Food scene can be bland and expensive – meat eaters, fish lovers pay the heaviest price. Vegetarians can find their food options limited – Tofu and noodles, soups – nothing much under £4 – £5 for a dish. Koreans have an addiction to all things digital – even at the supermarket checkout leading to a degree of arrogance. Purchasing single and small quantities of items in shops is a frustrating task. I found it near impossible to buy a single tube of toothpaste, a small box of tea bags or a single banana. Groceries are outrageously expensive – Lipton’s Black Tea Bags, £6!

The Ugly: choking then Spitting in Public.

Costs: Cheap accommodation is hard to find in Seoul and Korea in general. Seoul, I stayed in a small box type room for £11 per night in Mokdong, someway from the city, found on Air BnB. In Andong the cheapest I could find was £15 per night to sleep on the floor in someones house. In Busan, I had to resort to a hostel, near the beach at £15 per night. 4 weeks accommodation came to £415.

I managed to average the food and groceries expense to around £7.50 per day thanks to free rice at the guesthouse in Seoul and I still managed to taste traditional Korean delights like Kim Bap! Food expense then came to £210.

With getting around on public transport and the DMZ trip costing another £90 my trip to South Korea, excluding flights came to around £715 for 4 weeks, £178.75 average for a week.

And so here’s the last word from South Korea – Awesome!

Next Stop: Phuket Thailand

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South Korea – Train to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), Cheorwon, Conclusion

Seoul, South Korea, May 2017: having sat through a 20 minute video presentation, the chronology of the Korean war, it’s time to step outside for a breath of fresh air. Still under the watchful eyes of soldiers the group is allowed to wander around taking in the wonderful scenery but at the same time experiencing an eerie sense of danger! yes, just a short distance from here there is a murderous regime of oppression and control, poised, their tanks pointing in this direction. A radio station perched on the hill here continuously transmits in the direction of North Korea – propaganda echoing across the valley interspersed with a K-pop song. Yes, even PSY’s Gangnam Style is used to annoy  those within earshot! Gunfire also echoes across the valley, originating from the camp here – target practise day possibly or just reminding the opposition of a South Korean presence.

Below, another sneaked photo. Here is the South Korean side of the DMZ fence. To the right is ‘No Mans Land’. To the left of course is South Korea with the radio station perched on the hill top and a look out post in the foreground.

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An old railway bridge constructed in 1935 and said to be the first electrified railway line anywhere, remains as a relic of the past. A few more photos around here are possible with cameras pointed away from the DMZ area. A couple of helicopters rumble between the hills giving one a sense that this place really is on the fine edge of danger with North Korea. Yes, this is the real, raw DMZ alright, an experience like no other, a surreal sense of eeriness and danger!

And with the return 2 hour ride back to Seoul Station, that completes this little tour of the DMZ. Its a great experience, I’d recommend it to anyone with a sense of adventure. There are no hoards of international tourists on coaches, so I guess this tour is only available via the DMZ train, known to Koreans and with tickets purchased on the day.

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South Korea – Train to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), Cheorwon Part.2

Seoul, South Korea. May 2017:  2 hours after leaving Seoul Station the train pulls up at Baengmagoji, a rather small halt in the middle of nowhere. The station official users everyone to a ticket counter and the waiting coach. About £20 for the ticket, a 4 hour tour for what I’m hoping are the sights and sounds of South Korea’s de-militarised zone, the famous DMZ. Virtually no English here, just a giant map that really isn’t much use to a non Korean – yes, I remain the only white tourist in the group.

And so the DMZ tour begins. 5 minutes and arrival at the first stop. Lunch, which is included with the ticket. here we are at a canteen of pick and mix. Steaming rice, noodles, soup and all the good things Korean’s like to eat. The tofu with seaweed is rather tasty., even second helpings on offer but the big let down here is the coffee – that god awful 3 in 1 mix, you have been warned!

The lunch was very good actually. In England that alone would have been about £8-£10. So on with the tour, where we are gong and a few rules to follow – well I’m assuming this is what the tour guide is saying since the whole spiel is in Korean. Next stop is monument to the fallen – a memorial standing tall on the brow of a hill. Its quite a long walk up the hill, much like an avenue of remembrance. The view from the top though is pretty good giving visitors a first glimpse towards North Korea – unfortunately photography from the hill towards the DMZ is prohibited although I did sneak a few shots before getting caught by the beady eyed soldier! In my defence, Well, I don’t understand Korean sir!

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Here the area is called Cherowan. Although the place is essentially a military camp the fields below are farmed by villagers. The high banks are designed to stop North Korean tanks according to the guide, who, on this occasion was happy to speak in English.

The hills here in these photos below mark the start of the South Korean side of the DMZ, the swathe of land separating to nations still officially at war. Dotted around the place are look-out forts and various military installations…

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A pleasant enough 40 minutes or so looking at the scenery with all the commentary still in Korean. On the road again, next stop being a large building in ruins – a relic from the Korean war presumably. Yes, according to the tourist info board it’s a building once occupied by the North Koreans. A symbolic monument reminding South Koreans the brutality of communist control. No access inside but one can see where bullet shells made their mark.

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Next stop, a significant military checkpoint – oh dear, perhaps they’ll drag me away for sneaking those photo’s! A soldier jumps on and looks sternly at each one of us. Thankfully no dramas and off we go once again, this time with the soldier! Up into the hills and onto an army camp. Getting off the bus under the watchful eyes of three soldiers here and another looking down from a watch tower. Quick as a flash I did manage to sneak a couple of snaps before getting caught again! The group is herded up into an darkened observatory accompanied by the soldiers constantly watching, observing each of us closely. A 20 minute presentation all in Korean but I get the picture – war! Then the blinds a rolled up to reveal the DMZ – a stunningly beautiful lush green valley cutting through mountains and hills. Remember the TV series M.A.S.H, its just like that!

In Part 3… An eerie sense of danger amidst the gunfire…

 

South Korea – Train to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), Cheorwon Part.1

Seoul, South Korea, May 2017: A very last minute decision having ruled out a trip to the DMZ a few weeks ago at the height of US/North Korean tensions. Today is my final full day in Korea and now that the situation has eased somewhat, a trip to the DMZ is calling like a magnet to a nail! Quick research reveals there is a train from Seoul main station leaving around 9.45 am and that’s pretty much all the information I have. Better take my passport just incase of trouble.  I’m assuming there’s some kind of a shuttle bus between the end station and the DMZ!

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£17 return ticket on the DMZ train leaving at 09.27 am. Tickets can be bought at any counter and paid for with a credit card, so far so good. About 1 hour 40 minutes to the end station, place called Baengmagoji – Yes, I can’t say it either! A slow meandering between the suburbs of North Seoul, soon though the thing gets going and time to sit back and watch the scenery pass by. A mountain, green hills and soon evidence emerges of a militarised area – camouflaged shelters and transport compounds. I’d say riding the DMZ train is a unique experience.The thing is nicely themed along the lines of peace and humanity. Inside and the walls are adorned with a fine display of photos depicting aspects of the Korean war. The train though is largely empty, just a handful of Koreans and me, the only white tourist – but that’s not so bad!

The DMZ Train…

Here at a place called Hantangang is a hillside covered in white crosses. Although Google isn’t coming up with any information, one can only assume its a monument to the fallen during the Korean conflict. On the other hand this could also be the local grave yard.

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Here at last! 2 hours after leaving Seoul Station the train pulls up at Baengmagoji, a rather small halt in the middle of nowhere. (Google Map)

Next…at the DMZ fence.

South Korea – The Last Post from Haeundae, Busan.

Haeundae, Busan, May 2017:  As this visit to Haeundae draws to a close, here’s a selection of photos that really didn’t fit within the main flow of jottings. So then the last jottings from Haeundae, Busan.

The old Haeundae Station: Opened mid-thirties and closed around 2013-2014 when a new station was built on the edge of town. Shame because this station has character and is just a short walk from the beach. What remains is the ghostly appearance of an old station house, boarded up windows and weeds vigorously taking hold. The railway lines are being excavated, turned into a cycle path down-track towards Busan, while the pressure of development encroaches ever closer up-track towards Songjeong. The long concrete platforms are still intact for now at least, still with the familiar yellow do not cross lines now fading. All that’s left is a small section of track right outside the station house as though a dedication to the millions of Koreans that must have pounded the concrete since 1934.

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Fast Food, Slow Food, Food for Dogs: The food culture here is quite an experience for the uninitiated average white tourist! From the indescribable, such as those pink slugs to the downright bizarre – cows blood soup. I have to say I’m not that adventurous or never that hungry that I need to try ‘Cow Blood Soup’. I got to liking ‘Kimbap’ – essentially rice wrapped in a seaweed leaf and crab stick vegetables through the middle. Once the crab-stick is removed its quite a tasty dish. So, for about 4500 KRW about £3 I settled on noodle soup and Kimbap. So, first sightings outside the UK for me are the Macdonald’s home delivery mopeds, a Starbucks drive through and a dog cafe where one can indulge the poodle with, well, Cow Blood Soup of course!

Here’s a look at Haeundae before the advent of skyscrapers. These were fixed to the compound walls of a construction sight and gives one a little insight into the story of mass development.

And to finish with lets enjoy the Haeundae Sunset…

Next stop – back to Seoul.

South Korea – Jurye Neighbourhood and Gimhae Airport, Busan

Busan, South Korea, May 2017:  Today I’m having one of those shall I, shan’t I dilemmas. For those of you that don’t know I have a pilots license, although somewhat out of date now, I feel drawn to visit the local aviation scene if such exists, just for curiosity sake. Here in Busan there is an airport but its right across the city at some distance away. I’ve read that the aviation scene there isn’t really that great. On the other hand its my final day here and I don’t have anything else to do with it! Yes lets head for the airport, maybe explore the neighbourhoods around it too.

Getting to the Airport is like getting to anywhere else in Busan – easy! Just 1 change at Sasang and the place is just across the river. Its quiet with a a burst of action a very now and again so not that exciting after all. On the other hand the scenery around here is. Planes are taking off towards Gimhae town and its mountains requiring them the climb and turn quickly, but a bit too far for a good photo unfortunately. Looking back at Busan from here and the skyline is, well, full of skyscrapers but against the back drop of hills making for some unique photos.

Gimhae Airport….

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Looking back at Busan…the Sasang and Jurye Neighbourhoods.

A couple of hours here actually did produce an interesting item – a Korean Navy Maritime patrol aircraft, but now I’d better head off back to the city before arousing to much suspicion among the security guards. Just a 10 minute ride to the end of the line at Sasang where I can change for the line straight to Haeundae or walk a couple of stations along and explore the neighbourhood. Yes, lets explore the neighbourhood!

A 40 minute stomp towards the hills brings me to the neighbourhood of Jurye, according to Google Maps (Google Map Link). There’s a distinct European continental feel to the place, a residential neighbourhood spilling up the hillsides, flowing between mountains like a glacier. Yes, quite a different feel to the Busan explored earlier. A few shops, a very small vegetable market and some restaurants surrounding the Jurye Metro station.

Here’s one shop every British reader will recognise and it’s the only one I’ve spotted in all of Korea. In Britain, this was the mainstay of corner shopping in the 1970’s, not so much nowadays.

The Spar Shop, a great British institution for those of us growing up in the 70’s…

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Here’s a look around the Jurye neighbourhood…

 

South Korea – Haeundae, Songjeong

Haeundae, Busan, South Korea, May 2017: A cold fresh morning here on Haeundae Beach. The wind is strong, the waves are big with sea spray making distant views rather hazy. Its my penultimate day here, and I need something to occupy it with. Having seen everything that’s worth seeing I think a return visit to Songjeong will just about hit the spot! First lets go and look at those big waves crashing violently on the shore line. Plenty of folk up early, braving a dip in the ocean. Its the weekend and a public holiday so the place I daresay will be packed later.

Last time I hiked to Songjeong (Read about that here) the route followed a disused railway line. This time I’ll take the official road, elevated and next to the pine forest. About 25 minutes and one leaves behind the bustle of Haeundae to arrive at peace and quiet, broken only by the occasional kids squeal. Diversions are frequently encountered – I mean hiking trails. Yes, what seems to be a Korean tradition to ensure ones health, trails and paths exist with well signed arrow heads pointing up and down into the pine forests. Me, well i’m going to stick to the black top road, hopefully get some nice ocean views. Quite often one frequently encounters a pagoda, and here’s one now. 720 steps up but the view will be nice according to the sign!

Leaving behind the metropolis and arriving into peace and quiet….

And the views from that pagoda, 720 steps up…

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A little bit misty for clear views but still pretty good from here. Now though time to get back to the road and continue on to Songjeong and it’s wonderful beach. The road is still elevated and around this next corner I should hopefully see Songjeong, the town and that nice big beach. Yes, there it is. Plenty going on by the looks of things, not far now then. Looking down here, there’s a little area of allotments making for a nice photo, just by the little fishing hamlet described an earlier visit. (Read here)

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And so back again on Songjeong Beach. The advantage over Haeundae is the ability to have lunch and drink coffee while still just a stones throw from the ocean. In Haeundae, its all miles away and expensive too. A rough sea, plus holiday weekend brings out hundreds of surfers and this time some pretty decent waves to ride in on. Fun to watch while sipping coffee and nibbling on some indescribable food. This is nice, relaxing in the warm sunshine – I’ll stay here for a while.

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Heading back, on the bus since I’ve done quite enough stomping around for today. The 181 rolls up along the main street, 1200 KRW, and its about 25 minutes to Haeundae Beach and base camp.

South Korea – The Purple Bridge and The Trump, Haeundae

Haeundae, Busan, South Korea, May 2017: Visitors to South Korea have to admire the way in which the country solves its road transport problems. When land space runs out they simply build over water! In Seoul I’ve seen highways elevated along the course of the Han river and here in Busan, highways are built out to see, creating a series of Bridges attracting a good deal of tourist attention.  One such bridge connects Haeundae with the Busan downtown area. Its the bridge that can be 1/2 seen from Haeundae Beach when the sun shines and the haze doesn’t prevail but in full view promises to be quite a spectacle – well, that’s the myth floating around here!. This evening then, a stomp all the way to the very edge of town to check it out.

The sun is sinking, the sky turning into red and orange hue. I’m on the water front with skyscrapers behind me and the bridge ahead. The skyline here is really quite a sight as distant skyscrapers become shadows with the sun almost behind the hills. The Bridge, well its a spectacle all right – a beautiful mix of purple lighting with the backdrop of dark shadows and all the colours of a sunset. (Google Map)

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After about a hour here mixing with selfie obsessed Koreans and a few serious photographers its time to move on, back to base via the beach – lets see what they get up to at night around here! As I turn, oh look who has a presence here – non other than the President of the United States of America.

Donald’s pad in Busan….

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And on Haeundae after dark, plenty of kids letting off fireworks before being chased away by beach officials. Shadows of couples on the shoreline and one old timer selling flying Chinese lanterns. No drunken debauchery spotted, well its still quite early.

South Korea – Nampodong, Busan by Night

Busan, South Korea, May 2017: Having spent most of the day stomping around Gamcheon, uphill downhill, I have now arrived back in downtown Busan. The sun is low and not long until night, maybe a couple of hours. Thinking lets grab some scenic night shots, and thanks to a tip from Mel and Suan the perfect roof top views are not far from here. The Lotte Mall, has a roof top garden with 360 degree views of Busan and particularly the the docks. According to Google Maps is pretty much a straight line to the area of Nampodong, about a 20 minute stomp (Google Map)

The place is getting progressively busier, much more lively than 10 minutes ago. The road has turned into a pedestrianised street crammed full of shoppers. I’ve arrived at Gwangbok Road (Google Map). Looks like the place for Koreans to hangout on a Saturday afternoon. Much like London’s Oxford Street or Tottenham Court Road, a dedicated area for shops, malls, more shops and alleyways leading to, well, more shops, not to mention the array of cafes, restaurants and fast food. Oh, I almost forgot to mention the puppet man with his collection of puppets acting out to some music and playing up to the crowds gathered around.

IMG_5903 The Puppet man of Busan, much more entertaining than the puppet man of Norwich, my home town (Google Link).

The Lotte Mall is just ahead although how one gets to it seems as complicated as negotiating the London Underground for the first time! Via a series of tunnels in an underground market one eventually arrives at the Lotte. Now all I have to do is find a way up to the roof – the 13th floor. Its a 10 minute journey on some very slow escalators to the top of Lotte Mall. A garden for the kids, a coffee shop for the adults and a viewing deck for everyone. Yes, the views from here don’t disappoint as the sun begins to set – night very soon then.

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So this is how Busan lights up after dark. Not quite the spectacle I was expecting but the changing colours on the bridge is pretty unique and worth the wait. Now though, its time to head back to base in Haeundae, but not before a little stomp around the streets below, to eat and find a subway station.

 

South Korea – Gamcheon Culture Village And Gamcheon Park, Busan Pt.2

Haeundae, Busan, South Korea, May 2017: Serious hikers could spend several hours here on the hill that is Gamcheon Park. With magnificent views across the city, shady pines and no crowds, well what more could they ask for? For me though, id better get back to the original plan – visiting the Gamcheon Culture Village which means a hike back but this time on a different path and on the opposite side of the hill, with a hunch that eventually I should see the village from above. Its Not long before the trails land up on a public road and yes, another set of great views – this time of Gamcheon village, although I’d class it as a small town rather than a village!

Gamcheon from the park road…..

From this distance one can’t help forming the opinion that the place resembles a shanty town, a slum but of higher quality. Being one of Busan’s top attractions there’s obviously more to the place than ramshackle dwellings and open drains, so lets go and explore!

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Well, having made it to the main street one gets an immediate feeling of mass tourism – a tidal wave of Koreans all jamming into the one street, jostling for space at the obligatory trinket and souvenir shops, fried food stalls and Ice cream counters. An array of arty shops are established along the one main road, here at the start of proceedings and down into some side alleys. Personally, well, I can poke my head around the door of 1 maybe 2 art shops for curiosity sake, the rest I can happily bypass. Wall art though is different. more relevant and accessible to everyone and anyone, and there’s plenty of it around here. Murals adorn walls and sides of buildings adding character at least to the touristy part of Gamcheon.

This is of course a tourist setup, but a setup representing the daily lives of folk that rely on tourists for an income, albeit a very small section of the town. One therefore feels the need to deviate from the tide of tourists if any degree of authenticity is to be Found. Sadly though deviating from the main street is frequently met with “No entry” signs and one can only let out a sigh while looking down into the picturesque little ally ways.

So, moving along with the tide of tourists here on a sunny Saturday afternoon, one has little option but to participate , jostle for photo spots and observe some Korean quirkiness.

Food, some of it indescribable and some no doubt a Korean delicacy. A British inspired cafe and yes, of course the food is more expensive than it would be in Britain!

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Here’s an example of how a local has adapted to the influx of tourists – by turning her house into a cafe, possibly the smallest cafe in the world. The menu is limited and there are only 2 tables in the tiny little room but the prices are good. Noodle soup, cooked up from scratch, takes around 20 minutes but its well worth the wait – delicious!

So there it is, the Gamcheon Culture Village – “the neighbourhood on a hill”. Despite the throng of tourists there are some quieter spots towards the far end as the road curves down the opposite side of the hill. The unique feature being the way this placed has evolved – the circular lanes, the tiered houses so densely packed one wonders how there is space to move.. Quite how to define the cultural aspect is difficult. Perhaps its the artisan appeal or the culture of Korean food or is it the obsessive culture of taking selfies!. Either way the place has a quirkiness albeit for tourist effect and a couple of hours here is time not wasted.

Now its time to head down hill again, down into the city and back towards the hi-ride and -mid-rise metropolis. I’m taking a different route down carefully following Google maps. Very quiet, just the odd bus, taxi and a few cars. This is a very different part of Gamcheon devoid of tourists. A quick deviation to the right with some interesting features – a giant notice board with old photos and an explanation of the history of the place. Then a viewing platform with a sofa – all to myself. Oh yes, this is a better spot, quiet and among the real people of Gamcheon. (Google Map)

And so to conclude this rather long winded post, a selection of views from the lower part of Gamcheon looking across Busan City.