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Anna and I had a great week in 2016 exploring the length and breadth of South Korea.
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South Korea was high on both Anna’s and my lists of travel destinations. For me I was eager to catch a break from China and bask in a new environment while Anna, like most Chinese, is obsessed with Korean pop culture. Our home Xiamen had also recently been hit by a vicious typhoon, leaving the city a partially flooded, debris-strewn, hot and humid, mosquito infested hellscape. We were eager to escape and hopped on a plane during China’s October Week holiday bound for Jinan, Shandong en route to the glamour of Seoul.
We arrived at the Incheon airport in the dead of night and had to get a long and expensive taxi ride to our hostel in Seoul’s city-center. At this point the only impression I was able to get of the city was the usual stuff I notice when I leave mainland China for its more globalized neighbors like Hong Kong and Taiwan. There’s a 7-11 on every corner and some fast food establishments near and dear to my heart, like Dunkin Donuts, that are conspicuously absent from the mainland. When we arrived at the hostel, I was starving and stumbled blearily to a Burger King I had spotted a few blocks away.
The next day we were finally able to dive properly into Seoul and we made first for the National Museum of Korea and the National Folk Museum of Korea and learned a bit about the history of this small but ridiculously tenacious and vibrant country we were investigating.
We also headed to some of the more famous of the city’s palaces, including Changdeokgung, famous for its Secret Garden, only accessible to the public at certain hours of the day and by guided tour. For lunch near here I devoured a delicious blue cheese burger. Later we went to the gorgeous and unique Jongmyo Shrine.
Later that evening we hiked up to the brightly lit Seoul Tower and got a great panoramic nightscape view of the city. Exhausted after the steep climb uphill we staggered back downhill and consumed heaps of grilled meat at the little barbecue joint near our hostel. It was at this moment that I fell in love with Korean food. We also went to the massive COEX mall in Gangnam where Anna did some shopping while I chowed down on more donuts before we both went for Indian food.
The next day we hopped on the bullet train and crossed the entire country in about three hours to the coastal city of Busan. We hung out near the beach eating ice cream and pizza. The beach scene was less than ideal since a typhoon had blown through the area literally minutes before our arrival. We also visited the aquarium and hiked up through the colorful Gamcheon neighborhood clinging to the hillside overlooking the entire city (often called the Santorini of East Asia). We stopped for a lunch of cold noodles and kimbap at a tiny mom and pop establishment.
The following day we rode the cheaper but slower long distance bus to the historic Jeonju, famous as the birthplace of bibimbap or mixed rice. We mainly hung out at the Hanok Village, an area of town with preserved traditional structures. China is filled with similar sites but they can veer toward the tacky and the exploitative. In Korea the crowds were more courteous and it was a more enjoyable experience. Watching Korean tourists dressing up in traditional clothes and traipsing through the temples was a treat. We also hiked uphill to a small, artsy neighborhood painted in vibrant colors and bedecked with trinkets and knick-knacks.
On our final day in Seoul we ascended Mount Bukhan, wholly unprepared for the rugged nature of the hike. A kindly local hiking enthusiast took us by the hand and helped us up the ropes and over the boulders. We got to one of the lower summits before descending back down the mountain past a beautiful temple. Other highlights of the end of our trip included a micobrew coffee shop, the Kakao Friends store and the e-Stadium.
On our final day before heading to the airport we took a quick trip back to another section of the Gyeongbok Palace and checked out the National Palace Museum.
Our flight back to Jinan was fairly grim. The plane was backed to the brim with Lotte bags filled with boxes of goodies our fellow mainland tourists were hauling back home. There was no overhead room, not even room under the seats. Anna and I both had bags in our laps. Our cheap flights also forced us to sleep on benches in the Jinan airport. We arrived back in Xiamen sleep deprived and exhausted but it had all been worth it. All in all, a great trip to Korea.