|We got through Mongolian border controls and Korean border controls in record time and found ourselves in South Korea. In fact it was probably the smoothest journey we have ever had. Landing in Seoul was like landing on another planet. The main airport is all on reclaimed land and the new airport (Incheon) is quite impressive. We boarded a bus which ran exactly on time, was modern with AC and English anouncements for the bus stops. We soon found ourselves in the heart of Seoul - a huge city with many highrise buildings and a population of 10,400,000 - this was our home for the next four days.
Having read several websites that said that hardly anyone here speaks English and that people are generally unfriendly, we headed onto the massive subway system to find a bookshop which sold guidebooks. This we found quite easily as several people helped us - contrary to what we had read about the people. In fact, our first impressions of this city are pretty good - maybe we have been out of the western world for too long? Flushing toilets and being able to throw paper in the toilet rather than rubbish bins, air conditioned subway systems, being able to buy nice wine again and all manner of western food as well as friendly people are just what we needed! Our hostel is also great with a normal bed, our own bathroom and a TV channel showing english movies! We now feel like we are on holiday rather than travelling!
However this obviously comes at a price - we had thought Korea would be relatively cheap where in fact it is not so we have to watch our spending. Also, it is steamy hot at around 30 degrees C everyday and what feels like 90% humidity. This really tires you out fast and made us a lot more grumpy with each other!
Anyway, we found the book shop that the hostel receptionist told us about - my god, this is the biggest bookshop I have ever seen. You cannot see from one end to the other and there was a huge english lonely planet guidebook section that covered one wall. So we were able to find out what the important sites were to see for the following day. We were also surprised to see so many police patrolling the area and numerous riot vans, we thought it may have something to do with the recent troubles with North Korea, but found out later that a certain Mr Bush was visiting that day and we had stumbled across the US Embassy!
As well as being a modern, clean and efficient city there are also a number of historical sights adding yet another dimension to this city. Rather than go through a day by day account, I think we will just tell you about the things we saw and what we did:
Namdaemun Market: The entrance to this market is marked by the Great South Gate which was constructed in 1398 (rebuilt in 1447) and was one of the original gateways into the city. However when we arrived we were disappointed to find it covered in construction fencing so did not get to see it. However the market itself was pretty good - well in terms of food anyway. The markets here are different from what we were expecting as they include department stores and are multi-storeyed - not just street level vendors. Ginseng is a huge product here and the roots of the plants are on sale in glass bottles in many street stalls (see pic) - quite ugly really. There were also loads of umbrella shops (used mainly to shield from the sun), and sunhat shops. However we were most excited about trying some of the street food on offer. We ended up ordering some steamed dumplings which you ate with slices of pickled vegetable - yum! (9 dumplings for $3 US). We think they are called mandu and they are filled with meat, vegetables and herbs. To polish it off, a bit of fruit on a stick washed things down nicley and these are sold everywhere.
Boison-Gak: This is a pavillion which houses a bell from 1468 which was used to signal the opening and closing of the city gates. Right next door to this was a huge modern sky-scraper building which was quite impressive.
Insadong Area: This area has loads of little back alleyways with many restaurants and shops so it was quite fun wandering through here (although Shaun got very bored of me wandering through the shops). The green porcelain here is absolutely beautiful however it should be for the price! Handmade mulbury paper which is also famous here was in several shops so I managed to get myself some of that.
Tapgol Park: This park surrounded by sky-rise buildings is actually quite peaceful all things considered (although the cicadas make a terrible racket). Inside is a famous pagoda dating from 1470 however it is enclosed in huge thick glass walls. The park was full of old men resting, gossiping and playing cards or boardgames (see pic). The park is also famous as it is here where where the declaration of independence from Japanese rule was made in 1919.
Cheonggye Stream: This is a stream that was once covered over by concrete but has been opened up and replanted in a fantastic restoration project ($313 million US)! It really is quite nice with walkways down each side of it, stepping stones across it, fountains - all with clear water. The locals seem to love it and the kids love playing in it while their parents sit under the bridges out of the sun with their feet dangling in the water. We actually walked along this stream most days on our way to and from the hostel into town - it also looks great at night all lit up. It is actually below street level as well.
Seoul Park: This is a round circle of green grass surrounded by highrise buildings and the City Hall - however it is only there to look pretty as I do not think you are actually allowed to stand on the grass!
Changdeokgung: This is one of Seoul's five ancient palaces - although this one is supposed to be the best. It was constructed between 1405 and 1412 and is now a World Heritage Site. You have to go on a guided tour of the palace however we could not understand a word of what the english speaking guide said! The buildings (there are many of them), are pretty impresssive really and are set within a huge forested area in the middle of Seoul. The palace is also famous for its Secret Garden - basically a water-lilly pond with the royal library looking over it. This place would be spectacular in the autumn when all the leaves are changing colour.
Changgyeonggung: This is another one of the five palaces and is separated from the palace above by a huge wall. There are not as many buildings making up this complex however the throne building was pretty impressive.
Jongmyo: This is also a World Heritage Site and supposedly is a shrine where the spirit tablets of Joeson kings and queens are kept. We had thought we would get to see several large stone tablets until we read the guidebook and found the tablets are 'spirit' tablets!! Hence all the buildings being closed up and you not being able to go inside them!
Dongdaemun Market: This is supposed to be the biggest market in Seoul so we were quite excited about going there. However despite its massive size, this is mainly all contained within multi-storeyed buildings and there were several massive department stores. All we saw was clothes for sale so Shaun did not last very long - in fact we walked into one and he said that it was too hip and trendy for him! A sign of getting old perhaps!! So we did not do this market justice really. However on one side of the market we got to see the old cities famous 'East Gate'.
Namsan Mountain: This is a large hill in the middle of Seoul which has the N'Seoul Tower on it (looks a little like the Sky Tower in Auckland). As it was so hot and we had been walking around all day, we did the lazy option and took the cable car up to the base of the tower. From the base of the tower there were pretty good views all over the highrise city. The fence around some the walkways were also covered in padlocks with love messages written all over them! Couples come up here and declare their love for each other on a padlock and then lock it to the fence - really quite funny and there are thousands of them up here. This is obviously a very couply place to hang out. Anyway, given my affinity for high places, the views we already had and of course the price to get up the tower, we decided to not bother going up it. The cable car ride up and down through the thick forest was pretty nice though.
Gwang Jang Market: We basically walked through here trying to find a restuarant and went back the following day for lunch. There are loads of seafood food stalls here as well as sundae - but not as we know it! Sundae is basically a sausage made with pig intestine which has rice, blood, vegies and starch noodles in it.
TechoMart: This is not really a city highlight however we spent most of our last day here buying a laptop!
Our other main highlight about this place is the food which is really pretty good and also quite inexpensive. A typical Korean meal is based around rice and soup with loads of side dishes called banchan. These side dishes are refilled if you finish them off so you can certainly fill yourself up on them.
One of the main side dishes which is always there, is kimchi. This is pickled or fermented vegetables (usually cabbage), with plenty of red chilli. The kimchi is basically made in pots which are left for several months underground, although nowadays they also have special kimchi fridges! Anyway, although it sounds awful, it is actually quite tasty.
With the variety of dishes that come to your table, it is quite difficult knowing exactly the etiquette in eating. However in most restuarants we were in, the friendly staff always came up and showed us what to eat first, what to add to what, and how to eat it! That made life a lot easier!
The following were the different foods we tried in Seoul:
Seolleongtang: This is basically a hot broth soup made from ox-bones. It has bits of ox-meat and leeks in it and you then tip your bowl of rice into it. This is all served with lots of kimchi. Thinking I was finishing my soup off feeling quite full, they quickly came around and refilled it with broth! You really have to be careful here about finishing things so we soon learnt to leave a little in the bottom of our bowls when full!
Samgyeopsal: This is served at one of the many BBQ restuarants where a small grill is inserted into the table. Strips of fatty belly pork come out and are grilled on the BBQ in front of you. A bowl of lettuce and other green leaves come out and you wrap the pieces of meat in the leaves with some of the side dishes. Yum!!!
Bindaetteok: These are large thick savoury pancakes that are made with ground mung beans, onions, bean sprouts and potato. We had these for lunch one day accompanied by a bowl of raw onion in soy sauce. Very tasty!
Soju: This is the local firewater and tastes a little like vodka (it is 20%). Shaun ordered some one night to try it and we were surprised when a whole bottle came out (330mls). Anyway you drink this stuff straight in nip glasses and it is quite horrid! We took the rest of the bottle back to the hotel and drank it with orange juice! However the locals all love it and loads of them drink it with their meals at all times of the day and night.
Sauted spicy chicken: We went into a restaurant one night and pointed to a picture of what we wanted as they knew no english (something no doubt we wilol be doing a lot of while here!). Basically a wide cooking pot is placed on the table on the gas and spicy chicken pieces with vegetatble is put in it. You then cook it and eat it. We have no idea what it is called but it was extremely spicy so we were both sweating by the end of it as well as having very runny noses. This was a bit of a problem as it is considered rude to blow your nose at the table so we had to sniff the entire time! Towards the end of the meal a bowl of hot broth came out with crusty rice balls in it. We were too full to eat this but were not sure what to do with it anyway! At the same restaurant we were given a slightly yellow cloured drink which tasted like dirty sock water! We think it is called Dakbokkeumtang or Dakmaeuntang.
Bibimbap: This is a mix of different vegetables on top of rice (sometimes with meat or an egg as well). You mix it all together with spicy red sauce (gochujang). This is a pretty healthy food and is likely to be our staple!
Overall we are now pretty excited about touring round South Korea. It was not on our original itinery and we knew very little about it but so far we have found it to be a clean, efficient, and friendly place and the food has been excellent. Lets hope the rest of the country matches our first impressions........