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General Information / Geography
News about South Korea are usually limited to reports on strikes, student protests or they are somehow related to North Korea. Fans of martial arts are quite familiar with the name as well. However most travellers stick to China, Japan or Thailand. There might be some reasons for this phenomenon, but South Korea is definitely worth a visit. Korea occupies the Korean peninsula, which is sandwiched between the Yellow Sea (also West Sea) and the Sea of Japan (also East Sea). There's a long border to China and a few kilometers of border to Russia in the North. Japan in the south-west is only a few dozen nautical miles away. North- and South Korea cover an area of around 220,000 km² (as big as Utah), with North Korea being slightly bigger than South Korea. North Korea has around 20 million inhabitants and is therefore rather sparsely populated. South Korea on the other hand is densely populated and has around 45 million inhabitants. Both countries are divided more or less exactly along the 38th parallel. This border is still considered as one of the hottest borderlines in the world. Both countries are mostly mountainous. The highest peak in North Korea is around 2,700 m, the highest in South Korea around 1950 m high. Korea itself suffered a lot during the past centuries, and there are many problems remaining unsolved.
Several tribes settled on the Korean peninsula thousands of years ago. They united in the 1st century A.D. and founded the First Korean Kingdom. In the 3rd century, the kingdom fell apart and three independent kingdoms crystallised. This shouldn't change for the next 400 years. The kingdoms were called Koguryo, Paekche and Shilla. All kingdoms prospered and had strong ties with ancient China and partially with Japan. During the 7th century, the kingdom of Shilla grew stronger and eventually managed to unite the kingdoms. Two centuries later, the kingdom became weak and the era of the Koryŏ dynasty began. At the beginning of the 13th century, Mongols raided the peninsula. Next, Japan tried to invade the peninsula, but they failed that time (for more details see also →History of Japan). The Dynasty had lost much of its power and had to pay a horrendous tribute to the invaders. Soon the Yi- (also known as Choson) dynasty grew stronger and made Korea thrive again. This new era of prosperity had an abrupt ending in 1592 when Japan invaded the entire peninsula within one month only. The occupation didn't last very long, but Korea suffered the consequences for a very long time. Japan had not just destroyed almost everything but also carried off the intelligentsia to Japan. The Japanese invaders were driven out the country with the help of China, but only a few decades later Korea was invaded by Manchu (present-day north-east China). A long period of national isolation started. Same as Japan, Korea became a hermit kingdom and foreigners were not allowed to enter. But at the end of the 19th century, Korea was forced - mainly by Japan, which was forced to open its borders by foreign powers as well - to open the country.
During the following Japanese-Chinese war and the Russian-Japanese war, Korea once again painfully experienced what it's like to be sandwiched between super powers. The whole peninsula was finally occupied and turned into a colony by Japan in 1910. This event marked the end of the Yi Dynasty. Uprisings against the intruders as well as the Korean culture itself were brutally suppressed. Japanese language was a compulsory subject at schools. Over the next 35 years, Korea was unscrupulously exploited. It was an era of cultural genocide which had left its marks, and so many Koreans, including many youths, do not really like the Japanese. Nevertheless it must be said that the situation has widely improved, and there's a remarkable cultural exchange between South (only!) Korea and Japan.
Once I met a Korean exchange student in Japan who told me that he couldn't stand Japan and Japanese people. "So why did you come here?" I asked, and he replied "To see whether my aversion is justified or not". Of course I was interested in the result - was it justified or just a prejudice? For him, the answer was clear: "Yes, it's justified".
No sooner Korea had been liberated than the country was divided by the US, Great Britain and the Soviet Union, but not into East and West as in Germany but into a Northern and a Southern part. Geostrategically spoken it makes sense that the northern part belonged to the Soviet Union sphere of influence. All countries soon withdrew their troops, but the Soviet Union provided lots of weapons to the North. Eventually Kim Il Sung proclaimed the North a Democratic Peoples' Republic in 1948. He ruled the country until his death in 1994, followed by his son Kim Song Il, and established a somewhat unique communist monarchy. In 1950, North Korea finally invaded the southern part of the peninsula.
The UN reacted soon and sent in international troops to repulse the invaders, but North Korea soon managed to occupy almost the entire peninsula except for a small pocket around Pusan. To push things forward, General MacArthur (he was Chief of Staff in postwar Japan) landed with a small army at Inch'ŏn near Seoul and managed to push back the North Korean army to the Manchurian border. This was the moment Mao Zedong decided to intervene. As a result of a long and grim struggle, the front line found its level around the 38th parallel. A truce was negotiated and a de-militarised zone (DMZ) created. The war was a single tragedy for the country. Seoul changed hands four times, and according to various reports, there wasn't a single building left P'yŏngyang. The whole country was devastated and some two million people were injured or dead. Ironically, Korea's archenemy Japan profited from the war, since it was used as bridgehead and main supplier by the American army.
Even today there's no peace contract or something similar - it's only a truce between both countries. Provocations are nothing unusual, and so far they included everything possible: Tunnels below the border, attempts on the life of some politicians, spy games, abduction of Japanese citizens from the beaches of Japan, military provocations by planes, submarines etc. Of course all provocations are denied by the government. North Korea's army is considered the 6th biggest army of the world - at least when it's about the number of troops. An estimated one million citizens serve the army, and so it's almost half as big as the Chinese army. Since the politics of North Korea is still somehow unpredictable (esp. after the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994 a clear line is missing), the enduring menace to the fragile truce can be felt clearly in South Korea when you look closer. The fact that Seoul is very close to the North Korean border and parts of the administration district are even closer does not really help the situation.
In contradiction to North Korea, which has always followed a very clear and uncompromising line after the war,
the situation in South Korea was anything but stable. Military dictatorships and coup d'états, riots and
upheavals characterised the past decades. Recent problems include some corruption scandals and how to come to
terms with the former military dictatorship. The severe economic crisis in East Asia had hit South Korea as well,
although the country's industry managed to recover soon.
However due to the crisis the formerly overrated currency Won grew weaker and so the country attracted
more visitors. When you walk through Seoul, Pusan or other cities, you won't take long to understand that South
Korea is a rapidly developing country. The boom of the economy is of course accompanied by an increasing
domestic demand, and so it comes as no surprise that some districts of Seoul and other places very much look like
Nevertheless there's a distinctive Korean culture surviving between all the glass and concrete structures.
The climate of the Korean peninsula is characterised by a big difference between the four seasons and a strong north-south incline of temperatures. The summer is mostly wet and humid, temperatures of 30 degrees Celsius and more during the daytime are quite common. You won't notice a big difference when you come from →Japan (except for →Hokkaidŏ) to Korea in summer. Most of the annual precipitation is spread over July and August. Spring and autumn on the other hand feature moderate temperatures and little rain. Hence, these seasons are the best for travelling. There's a huge gap of temperatures in winter between the north and the south. Cold winds flowing in from Siberia let temperatures fall down to minus 30 degrees Celsius in North Korea. In Seoul, the average winter temperature is below zero as well, and nights with temperatures below -10 degrees Celsius are nothing unusual.
Pusan in the south of South Korea is remarkably warmer. However the warmest place is the popular
holiday island Cheju-Do. Precipitation in winter is rather low. I went to South Korea in January. At that time,
temperatures in Seoul were around -10 degrees Celsius, but snow was only falling for a few hours during 10 days.
At the same time, daytime temperature in Pusan, which is 500 km south of the capital, was about +10 degrees.
50 km north of Pusan, everything was different - it was freezing cold and there was a strong wind blowing all the time,
although it wasn't clouded at all. Needless to say that there weren't any tourists around, which can be a great
advantage. If you want to visit Korea without all the hectic and trouble, winter is the time to go
(provided that you are frost-resistant). In winter, ticket fares of all airlines are much cheaper and hotels are unlikely to
be booked out.
Culture and language
Although China (resp. Manchuria) as well as Japan tried to absorb Korea not only once, the Koreans managed to preserve and develop their own culture and traditions. Nevertheless it's quite clear that the neighbouring countries had left their marks. In the past, Koreas was often the connecting link between ancient China and Japan. Almost all envoys between both countries had to cross the peninsula, which had a good influence on Korea as well - at least during peaceful times. It needs to be said that the cultural exchange between China and Japan was rather one-sided: some 1500 years ago, China was much more developed than Korea or Japan. They introduced the basics of metallurgy, the writing system, Buddhism (which is not a Chinese 'invention' but had been modified by the Chinese believers), Confucianism and much more. Still it would be wrong to seek similarities to China while travelling Kora - it's completely another country with its own culture, and one thing is for sure - Koreans are very proud of their history and culture.
Nevertheless there are some interesting parallels to point out. One is superstition. In the Korean language as well as in Japanese there are two different counting systems. One is the native counting systems, another one the adapted Chinese counting system. The word for 'death' in Chinese is the same word as for the number 'four'. And so 'four' and 'death' have the same pronunciation in Japanese and Korean as well (in Japanese it's 'shi', in Korean 'sa'). 'Death' is a delicate subject in both societies and there are many things you need to be fully aware of if you don't want to put your foot in it. One of these things include the unlucky number 4, to be followed by the number 9 ('ku', which also means 'ordeal'). Hence there's no fourth floor in Korean (and also Japanese) hospitals and some hotels - after the 3rd it's the 5th floor. Other faux pas include sticking chopsticks upright into a bowl of rice, taking something with your own chopsticks from another person's chopsticks (esp. no bones!) and more - these are parts of the funeral rites and therefore extremely embarrassing. Especially Koreans are very superstitious, so it's not a bad idea to be well informed before taking off to Korea.
South Korea is a country with many religions. Many Koreans are Christians - Catholic, Protestants, Methodists and others. It's an 'imported' religion but still the Christian community is very powerful. The number of new churches in the suburbs of Seoul is impressive. Every 200 meters or so, there's a new church with a neon cross atop a small tower. All of these churches look the same and seemed to be produced on an assembly line (according to a Korean friend, this phenomenon has, among others, tax reasons). There are even Christian elite universities, where attending service is part of the student's curriculum. Almost as strong but definitely not as noisy as the Christians are the Buddhists in Korea. As in Japan, there are several sects. Among them, the Zen-Buddhism is one of the most important. Almost all sects follow the Mahayana-school (better known as the "Great vehicle", which means that everyone can achieve enlightenment). 'Natural religions', i.e. Shamanism, play a surprisingly big role in Korea. However due to the lack of places of Worship, visitors to the country will not experience much of this old religion. Additionally, Confucianism (which is actually no religion) in Korea is as important as it is in China and Japan. Other religious groups include the sect of Reverend Moon and other groups.
The hospitality and frankness of Koreans towards strangers is surprising. It won't take long until someone offers help if you look helpless or disorientated. They don't even care about language barriers, and this is a big difference to Japan: There, it would take donkey's years until someone helps a stranger. The same can be said about staff in restaurants and hotels - they're all very nice and friendly. As in other countries, there are some rules and habits one needs to get used to. Actually I had the impression that there are more rules than in other countries. There are distinctive respective roles based on the principles of Confucianism. The relationship between young and old, parents and children, simple worker and foreman and last but not least between men and women is clearly defined and not easy to understand for a Westerner.
Although there are so many roles and rules, there's no reason to be scared as long as you communicate in English. Most of this Confucian role play is manifested in countless words and phrases which simply do not exist in English. These words and phrases define the speaker's position in the society or group and seem to be old-fashioned to the ignorant visitor. It's a major stumbling-block to learning the language. There are numerous phrases showing respect and modesty, depending on who you are talking to - your teacher, your boss, your older sister, your student and so on. And so talk between two students is completely different to the talk between student and teacher. However it's an important part of the Korean culture. But as in Japan, things are changing slowly and some traditions, probably also languagewise, will vanish sooner or later. Better or not - that's another question. As a visitor, making mistakes is inevitable. Koreans aren't too strict about that, so unless the visitor behaves in an arrogant and superior manner it's no problem. Nevertheless it's better to read something about Korean etiquette - especially when invited by a Korean family. Growing a beard for example is quite unusual and somewhat freaky in Korea. To give another example - never start smoking before the host does. And so on.
Official language is of course Korean, which probably (!) belongs to the
Ural-Altaic language family (the Ural branch includes languages such as Finnish and
→Hungarian, the Altaic branch includes
Mongolian and →Japanese).
Which doesn't mean that all of these languages share similar vocabulary, but they all have
something in common: agglutination. This means, that endings are glued to verbs to
change tenses and other grammatical aspects. Korean is quite close to Japanese. The sentence structure is quite
similar (i.e. completely different to English) and many words sound the same or similar, but this has other reasons.
As already mentioned above, both Korean and Japanese feature many different levels of politeness and
other delicate nuances of language. To give an example, there are many words for addressing someone, i.e.
different words for 'I' and 'you' and so on, depending on who you are talking to. The Korean writing system is somewhat
unique and very interesting. Same as Japan, Korea imported Chinese characters some 1500 years ago.
The assimilation of Chinese characters proved to be extremely difficult, since both languages have absolutely nothing in common with Chinese. It took a very long time to adapt the characters. Together with the characters, i.e. Buddhist and scientific writings etc., countless Chinese words had been imported. And so it doesn't come as a surprise that around 60% of Korean vocabulary derive from Chinese words. Accordingly, many words sound similar in Chinese, Korean and Japanese. 'South Korea' for instance is called 'hán guó' in Chinese, 'han'guk ' in Korean and 'kankoku' in Japanese. The Chinese characters for 'han'guk' are the same, just the reading had been changed slightly. Since Chinese characters cannot be used to display Korean and Japanese grammar, both cultures developed their own writing system. And here's the biggest difference to Japanese. In Japan, people developed two different alternative writing systems independently - it was a historical process. Koreans developed a completely different writing system in the 15th century, called Han'gŭl (Hangeul). In contradiction to Japan, Koreans widely abolished Chinese characters (Hanja) and write almost everything in Hangeul. One of the reasons for this phenomenon might be the fact, that the Japanese invaders forced Koreans to use Hanja. Hangeul on the other hand are a Korean invention and much easier to learn.
Hangeul is probably the only writing system in use developed from a scientific point of view. Roman letters for example are comparatively easy to learn, but there's no logical explanation why the letter 'k' looks so different to 'g', although pronunciationwise they are quite similar. Hangeul are different. It's a strictly logical system and therefore in my eyes the easiest writing system in the world. It takes only 30 minutes or so to memorize the elements (which doesn't mean that you can read everything after half an hour!). All in all there are 24 'elements' - 10 vowels and diphthongs, 14 consonants [click the following link if the characters are not displayed correctly: Table of Hangeul Elements (7 KB)]:
The writing system itself is not the problem, but the fact that the reading changes according to the
position in the syllable and/or word. The first reading is the reading for the initial position, the second for
the medial and the last for the final position. Only 'n' and 'm' are always read as 'n' and 'm'.
** This element is used as a vowel marker - whenever a vowel, semivowel or diphthong follows, this element is not pronounced.
Furthermore there are some double consonants, but they are easy to manage since you only write the appropriate consonant twice:
The next group contains all Korean vowels and semivowels:
|Vowel & semivowel elements|
These elements can be combined to form diphthongs and more semivowels. Quite often, the reading of the combined vowel is very logical, but sometimes it's not easy to understand why for instance yŏ+i is pronounced 'ye'. All you can do is learn it:
|All combined vowels:|
Same as Japanese, Korean is a syllable-based language. However a big difference is the fact that Japanese is a mostly 'open syllable language' (i.e. almost all syllables end with a vowel). Korean features open and closed syllables. One character contains at least two, at most four elements. Every character contains exactly one vowel, semivowel or diphthong element - hence the expression 'syllable-based language'. Here comes the Lego-principle: You start to write and read from the top to the bottom and from the left to the right. According to the number and combination of elements, the structure of a character can change. Most characters are built in the following structure:
[Note: Click the following link if the characters are not displayed correctly:
Hangeul Explanation (12 KB)]
The numbering marks the order of writing and of course the order of reading. The yellow field marks the position of the vowel. A vowel can never be at the first position. If the syllable starts with a vowel element, the element [ ㅇ ] must be written in front of the vowel. So if you want to write 'A', you must write [ ㅇ ] first. In that case, this element is silent. And so the character [ 아 ] is simply pronounced as 'a'. As you can see, this character has the same structure as #2. When using more complex diphthongs and other combined vowels such as [ ㅞ ] or [ ㅢ ], the silent consonant element is written at the left top. Thus [ 외 ] is simply pronounced as 'oe' (see also structure #6).
Another example: The word 'Hangeul' itself is written [ 한글 ]. When written in Roman letters, we need seven characters. In Korean, it's only two, because it contains two syllables. The first syllable is 'HAN' and follows structure #3. The second character is 'GŬL' ([ ㄱ ] (K) is pronounced 'G', because it's in the middle of the word and 'N' is in front of it). This element follows structure #5. More complex characters (for example [ 된 ], a mixture of the 1st and 6th structure) are rather rare. Most characters are structured as #1, #2 and #3. Learning to write Hangeul is no problem at all, but the reading is something one needs to get used to. As in Chinese and Japanese, there's traditionally no space at all between the words, so a sentence appears as a compact block of characters. This is not a big problem in Chinese, but it's not easy to understand for beginners where a word starts and where it ends in Korean. And so it's even difficult to read the sentence properly when there's a lack of vocabulary, e.g. is 'K' read as 'K' or as 'G'? In some cases, blank space is used between the words, but in most books and newspapers it isn't. Note that almost all names are written in Hanja (Chinese characters). It's much easier to travel South Korea when you speak Japanese. Especially young people speak English, too, but Japanese is far more useful, although there might be some people who refuse to speak Japanese.
Travel hints / Money
South Korea is definitely not one of the cheapest destinations in Asia, but at least after the dramatic drop of the Korean currency, the Won (₩), South Korea became accessible even to travellers living on a tight budget. In 1995, € 1 was worth around ₩ 1000, since 1999 it remains stable at around ₩ 1400. As in every other country, the daily budget highly depends on the style of travelling and living. You can stay in luxurious hotels or in very cheap hostels, in Korea called 'Yŏgwan'. The latter charge around ₩ 20,000 (€ 15) for a double room. Needless to say that prices differ and depend on the location. However Yŏgwans in Seoul can be pretty grotty fleapits. Some of the older hostels feature the famous Ondul - the traditional floor heating system. As in Japan, people sleep on the floor, so the Ondul can be a real blessing during the cold winter months.
There's also a huge gap in prices when it's about food. The cheapest are food stalls,
which can be found almost everywhere. Rather expensive speciality restaurants and a bewildering
array of fast food chains complete the list. People who don't like spicy food will have a hard time
in Korea, since almost everything is more or less 'breathtakingly' spicy. The staple diet includes
rice and the famous 'Kimch'i', which is slightly fermented Chinese leaves marinated in some sort of
chilli - love it or leave it. Kimch'i is eaten cold as a side dish and comes with almost everything.
It's sometimes slightly sweet, sometimes sour but always fiery hot. Personally speaking, I love Kimch'i, but
it remains a mystery to me how someone can eat this for breakfast. Kimch'i is combined with every sort
of western food, too: Kimch'i spaghetti, Kimch'i burger - you name it.
Other famous dishes include Bulgogi, some kind of Korean BBQ and not to be missed!!!, and Kalpicchi, which is like a ribs' stew. Most dishes include up to 10 small plates. By the way, it's a little known fact that dog meat is much more common in Korea than in China. However this dish is usually only sold in restaurants specialised in dog meat, so chances are low that you'll eat dog meat coincidentally. Don't expect a steak or something - dog meat usually comes in a spicy soup. Another let's say 'different' dish is ppŏndaegi - boiled silk worms. It is often sold in the streets (I would have tried it, but to be honest - the smell is horrible, and I don't believe in eating stinking food). You know how to use chopsticks? Think again! Korean chopsticks are made of metal, so even for professionals it's quite a challenge to eat a noodle soup with Korean chopsticks.
Most nationalities do not require a visa for South Korea but cannot stay longer than 15 days. Some nationalities are allowed to stay 60 or 90 days without visa. Situation is different in North Korea. Everyone requires a visa and this is best obtained in →Beijing. The North Korean visa needs further arrangements, since it's not allowed to travel on your own. The border between the North and the South is a no-go area and no one can pass it. This means you can only go to South Korea by air or sea. There are regular ferries from Japan (mainly Shimonoseki and →Fukuoka to →Pusan. The airport near Seoul is a major transport hub in Eastern Asia, so getting to South Korea by plane is no problem at all. Almost all international flights were bound for Kimp'o- Airport near Seoul, but this has already canged - there's a new and very modern airport built on reclaimed land near the city of Inch'ŏn. Similar projects had already been realised in Hongkong, →Ôsaka, →Tôkyô just to name but a few. The new airport is quite far away from Seoul, but there seems to be a good train connection. The older Kimp'o Airport is around 20 km away from the centre, but there's a subway station inside the terminal so it's quite fast and simple to get to the centre of town.
Since South Korea is a comparatively wealthy country, there's no need to worry about exotic diseases or a lack of medical care. However according to some sources there's a potential risk of getting Hepatitis B.
As already mentioned above, the Korean currency (North and South!) is called Won, but of course the North and South Korean Won is not convertible. You can change money at almost every bank, there are countless ATM's, traveller cheques etc. are widely accepted, so getting your hands on your OWN money is no problem at all in South Korea. The Won is convertible so you can change it at banks outside the country as well. It's possible to get by on as less as 20,000 Won (€ 15) a day, depending on your travel style and needs. For 30,000 Won a day you can include extensive train and bus travel and eating out in a restaurant here and there.
It was January 1999 when we went from →Tôkyô to Seoul. Thanks to United Airlines we hadn't had a good start - service and food was lousy, with the stewards being busy flirting with some Japanese girls. Passing through immigration at Kim'po Airport didn't take no time at all, and so we went to the subway station. Some passengers seemed to notice that we hadn't had the slightest clue where to stay. A man approached and patiently explained the route of the subway. He wasn't quite sure, and so another passenger joined in. We still didn't know where to stay, but I was stunned by the hospitality - I've never experienced something like that in Japan. We decided to head for the Insadong area - the vibrant centre of Seoul, where a couple of cheap Yŏgwan's concentrate around Chongno rd. It was already late in the evening, but we soon found a place at the end of a narrow backstreet near Chonggak station. The place was called Munhwa Yŏgwan (). An obviously severely mentally ill man opened the door, which was quite confusing. He seemed to belong to the family, and soon the owner showed up. The room wasn't the cleanest and very cold. But it contained a heating system and a broken TV. Oddly enough, all windows where sealed with paper. A double cost a reasonable ₩ 20,000 (which means around € 7 per person).
In contradiction to every other airline, United Airlines didn't manage to
provide a meal aboard the meal, so we were starving. We left the hostel
immediately to find something to eat, which is no problem in Insadong.
There are numerous food stalls in the streets and countless restaurants and drinking
halls. The drinking halls seemed to be quite similar to their Japanese counterparts, which
means there's not just drinks but also plenty of food. No one goes there alone,
most people come in flocks - colleagues, students and so on. As in Japan, afterwork drinks
are somethink like a social obligation, and so the drinking halls are noisy and crowded.
It's an unwritten law that guests have to order at least one dish, since eating and drinking are
two inseparable components in East Asian social life. Additionally, it's an unknown concept
to have your own dish - all food is shared. So much about the similarities. In Japan,
food in drinking halls are snack-sized, so you have to order quite a lot when you are hungry.
In Korea, we were surprised by the price of the food: Around € 3 per item is quite a lot.
And so we only ordered two items. And got two huge bowls full steaming, fiery hot something.
I usually eat a lot for dinner, but this was mission impossible. Okay, it's expensive - but for the size it's a real bargain.
Most people wash down the meal with beer (usually around € 1 per 0.5 l) and Soju, the Korean firewater. The latter contains around 25% alcohol. Some people call it a failed attempt to imitate vodka, but actually Soju can be pretty tasty. As everywhere else in East Asia, so called Convenience Stores like 7-Eleven or Family Mart are open around the clock and can be found everywhere. We returned to the hostel. Halfway, it started to snow, but this should be the one and only time it snowed during our trip.
In the morning we went out for a first walk through the city. It was very cold and the strong wind even made it worse. Although a very big city, the snow remained in the streets. Seoul has around 10 million inhabitants and was destroyed several times, but there are many historic artefacts, and so there's plenty to see. Seoul sprawls along the Han river, with the northern part being rather hilly. In the middle of the centre, Namsan mountain () towers above the town. The steep mountain is surrounded by a nice park and features the Seoul tower, which is 238 m tall. The view from the observation platform is splendid - you can even see North Korea in clear weather and almost all of Seoul. However, parts of the city are hidden by other hills. The vista of the ultra-modern business district Yŏŭido () and the historic core around the former Royal Palace is just stunning. There's definitely no lack of shopping centres, bazaar-like districts and amusement quarters in Seoul. Another attraction is the modern subway system. The stations had been decorated in different imaginative styles. To give an example, one station looks like a hand-made cave, which is very impressive when you pass it on an escalator.
The subway network is very large. As already mentioned above, there's even a subway to Kimp'o airport, and that's not even the last stop. Another line leads to the entrance of Puk'ansan National park () north of Seoul. This area contains jagged granite rock formations with some of the peaks reaching 800 m and more. Additionally, there's a small fortress and some hidden temples inside the mountains. It's a very nice scenery and the perfect place for hiking. There's an admission fee to be paid at the entrance, but it's only a few Won.
During my long stay in Japan, I'd met many Koreans. One of them was Hwang In Boku, who showed us around in Seoula and Puk'ansan National Park. She even invited us to her home, which was in Paju (), a small satellite town between Seoul and the border to North Korea. As in many other towns, the first thing a visitor will notice in Paju is the number of newly built apartment blocks. The new apartments are quite big and seem to be pretty comfortable. Our friend's mother prepared a filling meal, and after lunch her sister took us to the border in the north. There are only three places where visitors can see the de-militarised zone (DMZ) - one option is a visit of the small and divided village of P'anmunjŏm. This place is used for negotiation as well and therefore it became quite famous. However South Koreans are not allowed to go there. Visitors must join a tour group. The tour must be booked ahead and isn't cheap. And there's a dress code, so the usual backpacker outfit won't do. I guess it's still worth the hassle, since this is the one and only place where you can directly go to the border.
Another option is to go to one of the two 'Unification Observatories'. The closest to Seoul is the so-called Odusan Unification Observatory (). The observatory sits atop a hill overlooking the mouth of the river Han. At Odusan, the Han is around 1 km wide. The other side of the river is North Korean territory. The closer you get to the border, the more military and military related facilities you will see. All crossings are secured, with countless pillboxes, tank traps and more lining up along the streets. It's not possible to go all the way to the observatory by car. Instead, cars must be parked 'behind' the mountain and shuttle buses take the visitor to the top. The observatory itself is a large building complex and offers all the typical tourist amenities: Cafés, a museum about everyday life in North Korea, exhibitions and of course several binoculars pointed at the other side of the river. You can sip a tea or coffee whilst thinking about the poor devils on the other side before you get back to your warm car to drive home.
The observatory is a deceitful place, but still it leaves a very strong impression. On both sides of the river, slogans are written in huge letters so that you can see them even without binoculars. And there are large loudspeakers on both sides - one is playing military marches, the other side counters with stirring speaches. I was freezing - partially due to the fact that air temperature was around -15&grad; C, but also because of the atmosphere. I recalled the Berlin wall, which I've seen once in a week when I was young. But this an unfair comparison. No one was starving in socialist East Germany, but according to the latest news, an estimated two million people died from hunger in North Korea. An old question came to my mind - how can it be that there is such a huge gap between human societies within such a short distance?
The museum on everyday life in North Korea as well as the exhibitions are just frightening. and leave a feeling of pure terror. Still I would be careful about this. There is this distinctive smell of propaganda in the building. And - does South Korea really need cheap propaganda tricks like loudspeakers and large letters posted along the border!? However after having read books like "taewang ŭi chaejŏn" (lit. "A king's feast", another title is "Escape from North Korea") written by Kang Chul Hwan and An Hyuk (Koreaone Media Ltd., Seoul: 1994) about life in North Korea makes it almost impossible to see the border unbiased.
After spending half of the night with some Koreans in several pubs and the rest in the hostel, we moved on to Pusan. This town has around 4 million inhabitants and therefore it's the second biggest town of South Korea. Pusan is on the other side of the peninsula, in the south-easternmost corner. Pusan is also the centre of Kyŏngsangnam-do (do = province). At Pusan, the river Nam flows into the Sea. Mountains and the Sea are close to each other and countless islands and islets complete the unique landscape. Today, Pusan is famous for its harbour and industry. You can go there from Seoul by bus, train or plane. There are several train connections between both cities. The fastest train is the Saemaul, which covers the distance of around 450 km in around 4 hours, the fare is € 15 per person. The second fastest is the Mugunghwa, which needs around 5 hours but costs half of the Saemaul fare. The third category is called T'ongil (Unification) train and is rather slow. The slowest option are local trains called Pidulgi, and they are really slow. The first two trains are very comfortable express trains with air-conditioned carriages and more amenities. The ride through mostly mountaineous Korea is fun, and you will see countless newly erected apartment blocks, factories and much more - this country is really booming. In Pusan you will soon notice that many shops became bilingual - Russian cyrillic letters join the Korean Hangeul in windows and menus. Russian sailors are on the loose everywhere, and sometimes groups of not really sober sailors flock through nocturnal Seoul singing old folk songs.
Pusan has a subway as well, but here it's only a single line. More is not necessary - due to the fact that the town straddles along a valley, Pusan is many kilometers long but only one or two kilometers wide. And so it takes quite a while to get from A to B. As already mentioned above, Pusan and the area around was not affected by the Korean war. However during the peak of the war, some four million refugees were cramped in the city. Even now, 50 years after the war, a military base of the United Nations remains in Pusan.
Although not destroyed during the last war, visitors will miss old structures like temples and fortresses in downtown Pusan - the city is a modern, young and vibrant place with a remarkable nightlife. The vista over the town centre is great from central Pusan tower atop a small hill. From there you can also see some bays and islands near the town. At the foot of the hill, the harbour, market and business districts of Chagalch'i, Kwangbok-dong, Chungang-dong and Namp'o-dong stretch all the way to the waterfront. There's also a very long underground arcade. The visit of this area is mostly impressive at night and underlines the cosmopolitan character of Pusan. In Namp'o-dong, especially along the Chagalch'i area, it's no problem to find something to eat and/or a nice bar.
The central district of Pusan is called Chung'angdong and is the place to opt for when looking for cheap accomodation. This area stretches between the train station and the TV tower around the Korean Air branch. One of the cheaper hotels is called Han'gim-jang Yŏgwan . A double costs ₩ 20,000 only, but compared to rooms with a similar price in Seoul, the hotels are much better in Pusan. There's plenty of space and staff is very friendly - a very good option for travellers.
We decided to walk around Pusan and its surroundings one more day. First we
took the subway to the fortress of Kŭmjŏsan-sŏng
which is around 20 km north of the centre. The fortress is atop a long mountain and includes
a wide area full of fortification systems. The mountain itself is almost 800 m high,
the fortress itself was built around the year 1703. The outer wall alone is around 16 km
long. It's a very nice place for hiking and relaxing. A cable car whisks the lazy visitor up to the
top. Around the fortress, some restaurants offer a local speciality - grilled goat meat, which is
definitely worth a try!
Not far from the fortress, the Northern gate to be exactly, an old temple can be found. The Pŏmŏ-sa temple was founded in 678, but unfortunately wide parts of the temple had been destroyed. The structure, as it can be seen today, is mostly from the 17th century.
After another night in Pusan, we headed north on a rather slow T'ongil train to
Kyŏngju in the middle of Kyŏngsangbuk-do province.
It takes around two hours and costs ₩ 3000 to get there.
We were instantly paralysed when we got off the train. In Pusan, air temperature was around
+10° C, which was very pleasant after frosty Seoul. Although only some dozen kilometers
north of Pusan, Kyongju was worse than Seoul - it was around -15°C and to make things worse,
a strong wind was blowing.
Kyŏngju itself is a pretty small and quiet provincial town. It wasn't always like that. Shortly after the beginning of our time, Kyongju was founded and later on it became the capital of the Shilla Kingdom - for not less than around 1000 years. After the unification of the three kingdoms, Kyongju was even the capital of the entire peninsula for around 300 years. Everywhere in town, reminders of the glorious past can be seen. This includes several temples and dozens of the characteristic tumuli - graves inside small artificial hills (see photo). South of the centre is a large Tumuli park called Kobun Kongwon (lit. 'Old Tombs park). The park is surrounded by a stone wall and contains some 20 tombs. In and around Kyŏngju, an estimated 250 tombs can be found. One of the tombs had been opened in the 1970ies - archeologists found around 12,000 artefacts in one single burial chamber! Today, visitors can enter this tomb. Admission fee to the park is ₩ 880.
Further to the south, the historic observatory called Ch'ŏmsŏngdae attracts the visitor's attention. It was built around the 7th century and is considered the oldest observatory in Eastern Asia. In the middle of the small area, a small stone tower with just one window can be seen. There are 12 layers of stones between the top and the window as well as between the ground and the window. The whole structure contains 365 stones and is around 9 meters in height.
Modern life in Kyŏngju takes place between the train station and the two bus terminals near the river. Not far from the bus terminals, the Hanjin-Jang Yŏgwan makes an excellent place to stay. A double costs ₩ 25,000, which is quite reasonable for touristy Kyongju. The facilities and the common room are okay, and the owner is a very friendly man. As a farewell present, he even gave me a self-made calligraphy. Since we were the only guests, we had a pretty good time in the hostel.
Not that all the historic places in Kyŏngju would be enough - there are countless more interesting places around the town. Temples, shrines, more tombs - there's plenty to see. Koreans of course know about that, and so there are numerous large hotel complexes around Kyongju. Most visitors come from Japan, which means that there are many Japanese tourist groups running around in flocks during the summer. In February it's incredibly cold, and so there were no tourists at all. Seeing only a few of the interesting places in and around Kyongju would take a couple of weeks. However even if you stay only for one or two days in the area, you shouldn't miss Pulguksa . This marvellous place can be found around 15 km south-east of Kyongju. Buses (line 11, 12, 101 and 102) will take you there. Pulguksa was built around the year 528 during the Shilla dynasty. Unfortunately, Japanese invaders destroyed the entire structure in 1593. It was not before 1970 that Korea decided to rebuilt the temple. It's not just the large temple itself, but all the details that are so fascinating. Incredibly detailled and fine wood paintings as well as the carvings are just stunning. Behind the front entrance (see photo), steps lead inside the temple. The structure contains many small courtyards and pagodas, smaller buildings and so on. For me, Pulguksa is one of the most beautiful, if not THE most beautiful temple in East Asia (and I've seen many temples). Actually I can't find words to express the beauty and atmosphere of this place. I don't what the temple is like in summer. We had more or less good luck - the sky was steely and air temperature was less than -10°C, with a strong wind blowing away all the other tourists. And so we were the only visitors and had plenty of time to explore the entire temple. Admission fee was ₩ 3000. A few kilometers behind Pulguksa, another attraction can be found - the Sŏkkuram Grotto, which is basically a man-made granite cave containing a famous Buddha statue. The discovery of this amazing artefact was a coincidence. Around the year 1900, a mailman was looking for shelter from the rain, and so he found the grotto. There's also a very good museum on the history of Kyŏngju which provides an overview of all the historic sites and the long history of town.
We could only stay two full days in Kyŏngju, which is definitely not enough. A bus took us back to
the still very cold capital. The bus needed 4½ hours, the fare was ₩ 13,400. Back in Seoul,
we opted for the hostel we had stayed before again. At night we could meet our Korean friend and some
of her friends again to - you name it - go for a drink or two.
The next and already last day of our short visit was dedicated to the capital again, especially the former emperor's palace called Kyŏngbokkung . The construction of the palace started in 1394, when the Korean capital had shifted to Seoul. Unfortunately the palace was destroyed by the Japanese not only once (said the Korean tour guide to a group of Japanese tourists reproachfully). The Japanese made a thorough job of it - almost everything was flattened. At the end of the 19th century, around 200 buildings of the palace had been reconstructed. The Japanese annexation of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945 was a severe set-back. Only ten buildings survived the Japanese era.
Today, the palace is mostly 'under construction'. It looks like Korea wants to rebuild the entire palace. They did a good job so far - the reconstructed buildings which can be seen today are already very impressive. Especially the roofs (see photo), which not surprisingly show striking similarity to the roof of Pulguksa temple, are masterpieces. It must take ages to produce a roof like that. At that time, I thought that this kind of roof design must be somewhat unique, but later on I saw similar roofs in the Confucius temple of Taichung (see →Taiwan). Admission fee is ₩ 700, the palace area is closed on Tuesdays. There are two very interesting museums inside the palace - one is the Museum of Art (Central National Museum), the other one is the Ethnic Museum. Both are worth a visit.
East and south of the palace area, the district Chongno is also worth a visit. Chongno is quite big and there's much to see. The area along Insadong-gil is particularly interesting. Here, many cafés and antique shops as well as many other shops line up. All in all a nice place to stroll around.
Our trip to South Korea ended the next day when we had to go back to Japan. Korea is a very diverse and colourful country with a unique culture - there's definitely a lack of information about the country in the western world. I'm sure that hectic Seoul is not everyone's cup of tea, but the backwater of all the big cities offer an amazing range of beautiful landscapes and a lot of history and culture.
Dedicated to Keiko.