A Week in South Korea

Note: All the pictures shown in this blog are taken by me.
For more pictures, check out my Instagram account: grasptheadventure

Planning the Trip:

To be perfectly honest, South Korea never made it to the top of my travel list; I mistakingly thought that out of this region, Japan and China would be more than enough. However, I got back from Thailand after a week of Muay Thai training around three weeks ago, and after only one day in the office I thought to myself ‘Ive got to get out of here one more time before Ramadan’. Now of course, I did not have enough time or energy to deal with the efforts of applying for a visa (to those of you with passports that count for something, a visa is a document that countries require for entry because simply put: they don’t trust you); so I opened up good old Uncle Google and checked which countries I can enter with my, one and only, Egyptian passport without having to apply for a visa. I want to say I was overwhelmed with the number of countries the search result showed… but that would be a plain lie. Out of the 48 countries that I could enter without a visa, only 6 or so were actually safe to travel to… that is how South Korea made the cut (not the kind of ‘how did you know its the one’ kinda story you were hoping for huh). I must admit though, once I started planning for the trip, I felt kinda stupid that this country wasn’t on my list to begin with (when I say list, I mean top 30 kinda thing. I plan on visiting all countries eventually so technically speaking, everything is on my overall list). There are many recommended cities to visit in South Korea: its got everything from honeymoon islands (Jeju Island) to historical (Gyeongju) and bustling cities (Seoul) and national parks (Seoraksan National Park). Here is a summarized 8 day itinerary, I already adjusted it based on my trip’s experience so it won’t exactly match the day-to-day blog.

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Day 1: Arriving in Seoul/ Journey to Gyeongju

Now personally, I prefer not knowing how long the flight is because that means I never have the tendency to count down the hours and what not. So I knew we took off at 10:15 PM from Abu Dhabi, and landed in Seoul at 11:55 AM, but I did not know what the time difference was, so I must say I was surprised when we landed a whole nine hours later (I was expecting seven or eight hours max not nine!!!).

It was already 12:15 PM by the time I got off the plane and I was hoping to catch the 1:40 PM bus to Gyeongju, lets just say that didn’t happen. First, you line up as soon as you get off the plane for a ‘quarantine’ check up (South Korea seems to be very strict with health precautions). I will admit though that the whole thing entertained me quite a bit because there was a little step before the machine that checks your health and it seemed like literally everyone there missed to notice it… so I spent 10-15 minutes watching people almost fall over (yes yes its evil to laugh but I did). Despite the long queues at passport control, I was still doing well on time and thought I’d make to the bus… that is until I noticed that the couple in front of me were Egyptian too, and they both didn’t make it past passport control. Instead, they were escorted to an office… I soon joined them. It wasn’t the questioning process that blew away my schedule though, it was the waiting time. I must say, the officer was very friendly and respectable and welcomed me into the country as soon as I showed him all my hotel bookings, trip itinerary and flight reservation.

Knowing that I had already missed the 1:40 PM bus and had some time to kill, I decided to go look for telecom data services. The prices were a lot higher than I expected and I ended up buying a 10 day unlimited Data Prepaid Sim for 38,500 W ($35). I also purchased the bus ticket for around 32,000 W ($28). The bus takes you directly from Incheon Airport to Gyeongju Bus Terminal (right in the city center, walking distance from most hotels). However, the next bus was at 3:30 PM so I still had some more time to waste and two options to do so: a) watch a random, free show about how traditional Korean weddings go b) sit next to a plug somewhere to charge my phone since I’ll be needing it for Google Maps once I arrive. I hope this doesn’t give away the answer, but lets just say I ended up with a dead battery, 500 calories heavier (great sweet bean donuts being sold from a cafe by the show) and ‘life changing’ knowledge regarding Korean weddings.

The bus is awesome (I am not being sarcastic)! The seats are very comfortable recliners with great leg support; and most importantly, there were only 6 other passengers which is pretty good since the journey was 5 hours long. They also failed to mention that the driver only stops once half way into the ride for a short break, so… let’s just say I was very close to start asking people for an empty bottle.

Finally, I arrived at Gyeongju at around 8 PM and took a nice 15 minute walk to my hotel, Hanok Sodamjeong. The hotel is nothing fancy and the rooms are extremely small, but I would still recommend staying here because you get a very authentic Korean experience. The rooms are set up around a cozy garden with a little dining table right in the center. I would go into more detail about the rooms and all but I’ll just put up a couple of pictures instead, after all, they’re worth a 1000 words aren’t they? The hosts weren’t here when I arrived but they left me a note on my door to let me know which room was mine; moreover, knowing that I was flying from Abu Dhabi, they left me a small UAE flag on the door, a really cute gesture.

Cheomseondae Observatory and Donggung Palace:

Seeing that it was already too late, I took a little stroll to the Cheomseondae Observatory and Donggung Palace. White and yellow lights installed amongst the distant trees reflect softly off their outlines giving the viewer a weird sense of tranquility. The Palace is built beautifully with a pond running in-between the different structures giving each a magnificent reflection. Although I will probably revisit the Palace during the day, I definitely do recommend seeing it at night.

Donggung Palace
Night view of the Donggung Palace with all its beautiful reflections

Day 2: Exploring Gyeongju

Before I begin, I do plead guilty to oversleeping an hour or so, but I blame it on the 5 hour jet lag. However, I was up and ready to hit the city by 9:30 AM and decided to make the Bulguk-Sa Temple my first destination. One vital thing that I forgot to mention about South Korea by the way, Google Maps doesn’t work too well here… yea I know, good luck with that.

Bulguk-Sa:

Getting to the temple from city center is pretty easy via most of the public buses, Gyeongju is full of little tourist information centers too so you can always refer to them for directions. The walk from the main gate of Bulguk-Sa to the actual temple takes you through a beautiful garden with a small lake running through it. The abundance of trees and little scenic bridges make it easy to take that Instagram picture that’ll definitely fill your friends with envy. The temple itself is fairly simple but still majestic in a sense. It is very similar to many of the temples that I found in Japan but the main difference here is the lack of tourists. While you’re there, make sure to put your cameras and phones away for a few minutes and just enjoy the fresh air and the silence of the garden as you sit on a bench by the pond.

Seokguram Grotto:

On a map, the Seokguram Grotto is right above the Bulguk-Sa temple, but in reality its either a 20 minute bus ride or a 50 minute (actually took me 75 minutes) hike. Guess which option I went for? If I remember correctly, the hike covers a total distance of 1.7 kms which doesn’t sound too bad, but, and its a big but, the incline is pretty damn steep. The main issue that I had with this hiking route is the lack of scenery which makes the journey more ‘exercise’ and less ‘tourism’. Bottom line, its great exercise but not very scenic, save your time and take the bus. 

Now, when I say Grotto, what do you imagine? A cave right? Well this was not a cave, it was a disappointment. The Grotto is actually a small room dug into the mountain with a statue of Buddha at the end of it. And just to add salt to the wound, the room is closed off with a glass pane and photography isn’t allowed. So after a 75 minute non-scenic hike, I get to this… lets just say I was not impressed. Silver lining: the space outside the grotto was very nicely decorated with Korean lanterns.

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Beautiful Korea Lanterns posing outside the ‘so-called’ Grotto

Gyeongju Folk Craft Village:

So far, all the locals I dealt with were very friendly; in fact I had Korea at second to Japan when it came to the people (in Asia). My first ‘ugh’ experience was on the bus to the Gyeongju Folk Craft Village; I thought I was at the correct stop so I got up to ask the driver. Of course, he had no clue what I was saying and it didn’t seem like he was even willing to try. Meanwhile, a grumpy old woman getting on the bus pushed me aside to get past me. So I got a bit frustrated and got off, turns out it wasn’t the right stop and the folk craft village was actually a 28 minute walk away. I wish I could say that the Village was worth the hassle, truth is: it wasn’t. There was almost nothing there, no people, no tourists and no folk craft.

Yangdong Folk Village:

After a short stop at city-center to pick up some water and snacks (my lunch due to lack of halal food), I took off in another 40 minute bus journey (past out the whole way) to Yangdong Folk Village hoping it would be more authentic and touristic than the Gyeongju Folk Craft Village. This place is beautiful, but its important to set the right expectations. It is not a touristic village set up as a folk village; it is actually a folk village. The houses you’ll see are people’s houses and they’re still living their everyday life there. So do not expect souvenir shops, cafes and restaurants, expect a quiet stroll through the village as you admire the way the locals live. Living in insomniac cities, we often forget the tranquility of silence, take this opportunity to remind yourself of that. I personally wished there was a cafe or somewhere to relax and pass time as I enjoyed the village. However, like I said this is not a touristic site, it is a real village.

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Yangdong Folk Village, probably not the most convenient way of living but it certainly is relaxing #Folk #Village

Daereungwon Tomb Complex:

This is actually a scenic park with several hills with each one being a burial site. So in a sense, its a really pretty and surprisingly relaxing graveyard. I think that was actually my favorite thing about this place, it literally defeated all graveyard stereotypes. I was also in a super good mood because I found a halal, kebab food truck at the entrance, goodbye hunger for protein! The park reminded me that death should actually be about peace, not fear. Burial sites should inspire serenity, not discomfort. As you sit on the grass and enjoy the soft, Korean music playing around the park, think deeply about why you fear death. Try attain the peace that accompanies the contentment in life.

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A burial site that defeats all graveyard stereotypes! #ThatIsHowIWannaGo

Donggung Palace & Anapji Pond:

After spending the entire day walking around, it was time to sit back and enjoy the sunset. I chose a good spot overlooking the palace and pond to set up my GoPro and started a time-lapse video. It is worth mentioning that most parks in Korea play soft, Korean, meditation music through speakers surrounding the parks; it just makes the experience that much more relaxing. Around two hours and 30 pictures later, it was time to head back to the hotel for the night.

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My reward for a tiring day: quality sunset time!

Unexpected Surprises:

Well this part isn’t really a surprise because I was looking forward to eating here since I walked past this place in the morning: ‘Kiss the Tiramisu’. Yes, that is actually the name of the place, and yes I kissed the tiramisu. Before I could even set foot in my room, the owner of the hotel (a lovely lady in her early forties with the most contagious laugh) told me that a famous Korean singer was performing nearby for free. A free concert? Why not! (PSY, the Gangam Style dude was actually performing for free the night before and I missed it!) So I made my way with the owner to the concert. Unfortunately, we made it there 2 minutes before the concert ended, but it was still a fun and funny experience. All in all, it was a good way to end the day. PS: The singer’s name is Sochinhee, she’s a rock star and her music sounded pretty cool so Youtube her!

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Selfie with the hotel’s owner!

Day 3: Mountain Hiking & Show

Once again, the jet lag got the best of me and I ended up oversleeping a little more today. A cup of orange juice and a granola bar and I was ready to head to Namsam Mountain for today’s hike.

Gyeongju Namsam Mountain:

I was pretty impressed with this hiking trail. The maps were very clear and signs showed the way (along with the distance) to all the significant checkpoints along the path. There are several different routes that can be taken to a number of peaks, I took the route that starts from Seonamsam Parking Lot up to Geumobong Peak and then down through the Yaksugol Valley. The route up was not too technical and I was surprised to see so many older locals (in their late 50s even) hiking up the trail with ease, a sight I’m not used to seeing back home. It reminded me of the importance of exercise and how it not only adds more years to your life but also adds life to your years. When I finally got to the peak, I picked a nice little secluded spot, sat down with my legs dangling off the edge and took in the sight as I listened to my favorite ‘nature’ song: Spirit Bird by Xavier Rudd. Some people enjoy silence while others have their ‘go to’ song at times like these, if you are from the latter, please do share your choice with me. The way down was slightly more technical with slippery rocks and steep descents; at one point, you even have to grab onto a rope and hop down the rocks backwards!

Highlight of the Day:

Now I wasn’t exhausted after the hike but I was fairly tired, which is why this next incident made my day. As I was sat at the bus stop waiting, an old lady came up and announced something in Korean. Another girl waiting for the bus, smiled and walked over to her, but I had no clue what she said. She spent the next 5 minutes trying to explain but she didn’t speak a word of English, no one did (amazing that she didn’t just give up when I didn’t understand). A man, who I am assuming is either her son or her driver, then walked over and said ‘go car, all car’ and gestured to a car. After a few more minutes of gestures and random Korean words, I finally understood that they were offering us a ride. I know you might be thinking ‘how dodgy’, but it really wasn’t like that; you get a vibe with stuff like this and I honestly felt like they were just fulfilling their good deed of the day. They asked for nothing in return, just a smile and a thank you (which I googled in Korean). People often say that the smallest gestures are often the most meaningful, this was the perfect example.

Gyeongju World Culture Expo:

It was now time to make my way to the Gyeongju World Culture Expo. My plan was to book some tickets for the SILLA Performance, a show about a Persian Prince who was involved in a shipwreck and ended up in Silla. It is a love story filled with war, action and drama. To my dismay, there was another performance showing today because of a special event held as a collaboration between Vietnam and Korea. I might have actually been lucky to catch this show since it was only held for one day and the best part about it: it was free. I had a couple of hours to kill before it began though so I decided to check out the Shilla Millennium Park; but guess what? That was shut too! I recommend you check it out though; it is a cool park that immerses you into the historic land of Shilla, there are live performances around the park and it is also a studio where famous Korean movies and shows were filmed. With two hours until the show, I ended up taking some pictures of the Gyeongju Tower and Hwangnyongsa Temple. I then found a little restaurant that made Chicago style deep dish pizza… it was delicious. Probably the second cheesiest pizza I have ever had, first being in Chicago of course. The restaurant is called James Chicago Pizza and you can find it next to the Burger King right in front of the Expo’s gates. Finally, it was time for the show. Since this was a collaboration between two countries, many politicians and VIPs were present, and the first half an hour of the show was all about introductions and speeches. Of course, I was fast asleep. I did wake up to a beautiful dance though which was pretty confusing. The rest of the show had a range of different performances such as drawing on sand, martial arts, acrobats, fashion shows, singers and live bands. The theme was: The cultures and traditions of Korea and Vietnam coming together. I am pretty bummed out about missing Silla; however, I got to watch an awesome show for free, and watched an old man get stuck trying to jump over his seat in an attempt to exit the show early!

Day 4: Seoul

I beat the jet lag. By 7:45 AM, I was making my way to the train station. It is worth mentioning that the train ride is only 2 hours long and more or less the same price as the bus, so I do not know why I was ever recommended that five hour bus ride! Anyway, the past is the past.

Seoul Station:

The difference between Seoul and Gyeongju hits you the moment you step off the train. With Gyeongju, you get a sense of calmness, like an old forgotten city that has long seen its peak; that was its charm. Seoul on the other hand is your typical modernized city, with countless lanes of cars and a lack of pedestrian crossings, promoting industrial creations over the natural gift of locomotion. The first two things that struck me as I walked out the station are the countless towers of Seoul and the familiar restaurant chains. The city still has a soul though, and you sense its presence within an hour of walking around it. It is typical but unique at the same time, and it definitely offers tourists countless things to do and see. 

The entertainment began as soon as I set foot in this city, when I was greeted by the ‘Shoes Tree’ exhibition. I added a photo below so you know what I’m talking about. Just like I said earlier, we are facing a major problem with urban scarcity, and this exhibit tackles the issue in a fun and creative manner. The shoes represent walking as opposed to driving, and the way its built like a tree represents the need for forests as opposed to streets. This piece of art reminds us of the values that have been forgotten amidst our everyday city life.

The ‘Shoes Tree’ exhibition
The ‘Shoes Tree’ exhibition

Seoul Shopping District & National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art:

Shopping districts are not my typical destinations when traveling, but since my hotel is located pretty close to this one, I decided to take a stroll down the road and check it out. Sejongdaero street must have at least 6 different malls, so there was no way I’d check them all out, but I got the gist that they all sell more or less the same kinda clothes. Right across the street from all the malls is the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. The design of the building alone will definitely intrigue you. The museum was also hosting an African & Korean collaboration event which hosted a number of different performances. I’ve only been here 4 days and already witnessed two different events promoting the mixtures of cultures. Take notes people, and maybe Trump should learn a thing or two from this.

Changdeokgung Palace, Bukchon Hanok Village & Gyeongbokgung Palace:

It was a pretty long distance but I decided to walk from the museum to the Palaces and the village. The walk allowed me to enter some of the non-touristic parts of Seoul and really get to experience it as the locals do. The Bukchon Hanok Village offers a small break from the city, with its traditional Korean houses, each selling food, drinks or clothes. During my walk in the Hanok Village, I stumbled upon a band of street performers who literally blew my mind. When in Korea, I expected K-pop or even American Pop, but the last thing I expected to hear was Jazz or Blues, which is what this band played. I found myself sitting on the curb mesmerized by the ability of the instruments to fight over the performance but still work together in perfect collaboration. Another thing that impressed me during my tour around the palaces and village is the amount of Korean ladies and some men that were rocking the Hanbok (Traditional Korean clothes, shown in pictures below). The reason behind this, as I later found out, was that it was the Hanbok Festival. Regardless though, seeing all these people dressed in their traditional wear got me thinking about why we gave up our own clothes for western fashion. I mean, look at the pictures below and tell me its not 100x more beautiful and elegant than a t-shirt and some torn-up jeans! 

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Friendly locals rocking their Hanboks in front of the Palace #KanyeGotNothingOnHanboks

The Muslim District:

There is only one mosque in Seoul, and I knew that’s where all the Halal food would be, so I made my way there in time for dinner. The small roads around the mosque are pact with Turkish, Pakistani, Indian and a couple of Korean Halal restaurants. There are also a number of travel agencies, halal supermarkets and Islamic book shops; it was almost like I left Seoul and landed in a completely different country. The mosque itself is pretty majestic and stands tall at the top of a hill. It is not the most ornate mosque (especially coming from the UAE), but it was worthy of a picture. I decided to eat at a restaurant called Eid which serves traditional Korean food. The meal consisted of Korean beef bbq, kimchi, anchovies, rice, salad and seaweed soup. I loved the Beef bbq and Kimchi but cannot really say the same about the anchovies and seaweed soup. I met a few muslim Malaysians and Koreans in the restaurant and had some interesting conversations about Islam in Korea. Apparently, one of the king’s bodyguards hundreds of years ago was Arab and his lineage still lives on to this day. You wouldn’t be able to tell them apart from Koreans now but they could be backtracked to him.

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The one and only Mosque of Seoul #KeepingItHalal

Han River Water Front:

The walk from the Mosque to the river turned out a lot longer and more complicated than I thought with multiple overpasses and underpasses (last thing I needed were stairs!). On the upside, I met a Nigerian man named Nnaemeka Agada on the way and got to talking for at least 30 minutes or so. His brother is an ambassador in Korea and he’s been staying with him over the past month (he lived in Poland before that). Crazy how you can meet some of the most interesting people during random walks around a city. We spoke about Africa and the problems it faces, and what people can do to solve them. He said he’s been meaning to write a book that would address these problems, I look forward to reading it one day! The river’s water side was definitely not worth the long walk. It is more for exercise and less for tourism. The view is obscured by trees over the majority of the path, but I did manage to find one little opening that took me down to the water. With no one around, I sat down on the rocks, listened to ‘Spirit Bird’ and enjoyed the nightly city skyline reflecting against the river (read on for the river cruise).

Markets:

These markets are right behind the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. I won’t waste too much time talking about them because all they sell is food and clothes. Must say, I am not impressed with the souvenirs so far, I haven’t seen any!

Day 5: Gapyeong & Seoul

It’s adventure time! I haven’t had my fix of adrenaline for a while now (possibly since I visited South Africa in February) so I was itching for a dose.

Gapyeong:

To go to Gapyeong using the metro, you first have to get to Seoul Station. Then, you can either take the express train which is slightly more expensive but faster, or continue the entire way using the metro. However, don’t make the same mistake I did, check the train timings (every hour most of the time), and make sure you plan accordingly. Also, the train uses the same platform as the metro, don’t get confused, the train looks different so you’ll be able to tell them apart. The digital board will also clearly indicate whether it is the metro or train that is arriving next. I ended up missing the train and had to sit there for a whole hour waiting for the next one. One last piece of advice, the train ticket is not the same as the metro’s, so make sure you buy a train ticket too (the earlier you are the more likely you’ll find a seated ticket, otherwise you can buy unassigned tickets which means you stand-up or sit on the ground).

Once I made it to Gapyeong, I rushed over to the bungee tower to book my jump. You will not find much about this bungee online, and when you get there you’ll understand why. The place is not advertised at all and the service isn’t the best either. However, you’re there to jump off a tower, and jumping is exactly what you’ll be doing. At 55 meters high, it certainly isn’t the most thrilling bungee in the world but it will still get your adrenaline pumping! It sucks that they did not allow me to take my GoPro while jumping, something about safety apparently. However, I was able to set it up at the bottom using a tripod so I still have decent (but far from perfect) footage of my jump.

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Ziplining to Nami Island #RememberNoFear?

Next, I took the adventure zipline to Nami Island. With a maximum speed of 80 km/hr, the ride will give you a bit of a thrill but I can’t call it an adrenaline rush, it is very fun though and offers beautiful scenery of the area. Once on Nami island, there are a few things that can be done; however, I personally think its more interesting if you’re traveling with kids. I walked around a little bit and then took the ferry back. Next on the list was the Gapyeong Rail Park, a 4 wheel cart that you peddle on a rail as it takes you around a scenic route, a great opportunity for photography. That plan went to hell though because someone reserved the whole Rail Park for the day.

Flowers in South Korea
The colors of South Korea

N Seoul Tower:

After a delicious meal at Yang Good Halal Restaurant, Korean style cuisine which allows you to grill the meat at your own table, I headed to the N Seoul Tower. It was already dark by the time I found my way to the top, but I kind of wanted to witness the scene at night anyway. Piece of advice: You can either walk, take a bus or take a cab to the cable cart station which takes you all the way up to the tower, or you can hike up. The observation deck didn’t offer much of a view because the glass was pretty dirty (or at least it was when I was there). However, the view from outside the tower was amazing and the weather was great. Bottom line, I recommend taking the cable cart to the top and enjoying the view of the city but do not recommend going up the tower to the observation deck (the cable cart takes you to the top of the mountain, then a separate ticket takes you to the top of the tower).

Day 6: DMZ Tour & Seoul City

I had the DMZ tour (or the JSA tour to be more precise) booked for the day. Keep in mind that you need to book this in advance. Loads of agencies run it but I booked mine with dmztours. Before going into details of the day, I want to take a minute to explain the Korean war and what exactly caused it, believe me it’s very interesting.

The Korean War:

It all began in 1910 when Japan invaded and took over Korea. However, at the end of World War II in 1945, Japan was defeated and the Soviet Union entered the northern part of Korea to fight off the last of them. In the meantime, U.S. forces entered the southern part of Korea for the same purpose. The 38th parallel line was drawn to split the responsibilities of fighting the Japanese between the Americans and the Soviets; it was never meant to split the country in half (or so they claim). During this time, the northern part of Korea was greatly influenced by communism from the Soviet Union and China while the southern part longed for democracy in one united Republic of Korea; thus beginning the conflict. After many minor battles between the north and the south, the UN suggested an election between Communism and Democratism to end the war. North Korea did not accept the election and in 1948, South Korea voted for democratic rule. In return, North Korea claimed independence and the 38th parallel became a boarder. Nevertheless, the UN did not recognize North Korea as a country since they rejected the election. In 1949, the Soviets withdrew their troops from North Korea and America did the same with South Korea. It is said that the Soviets left behind loads of weapons while America didn’t, which gave North Korea an edge, but I personally can’t entirely believe that. Anyway, after the Soviets and Americans withdrew their forces, North Korea started testing the waters of war by initiating small attacks on South Korea. In 1950, North Korea gained its confidence (and the approval of Stalin, president of Russia at the time and Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Communist Party of China at the time) and launched a full blown attack on South Korea. In only 3 days, North Korea took over 90% of South Korea forcing them to retreat all the way to Busan. That is when the UN sent in troops from around 19 different countries to aid South Korea. Not only did they fight the North Koreans back to the 38th parallel, but they also managed to take over 90% of North Korea. However, North Korea quickly recovered and fought back the UN and South Koreans forces to the 38th parallel or the border. In 1953, after Stalin’s death, a cease fire agreement was signed and the demilitarized zone (DMZ) was created. A 154 mile long military demarkation line (border) was drawn between the two countries. The DMZ stretched for 2 km on either side of the demarkation line. On the southern side, a Civilian Controlled Zone extends for another 8 km after the DMZ. The Joint Security Area (JSA) was also created at the same time, this is the only potion of the DMZ where Southern and Northern troops stand face-to-face.

Although it is debatable, but some might say that living in the Civilian Controlled Zone is a blessing, I’ll let you be the judge of that though. Starting with the negatives: they have a 10 pm curfew, they are constantly living in a tensed and risky environment, they always have UN forces watching over them (not sure whether that’s a negative or positive), the whole village has one school, one church and probably no recreational facilities, they must remain in the CCZ at least 265 days of the year and their mobility is monitored. Positive side though: since pesticides are not allowed into the CCZ, these villages specialize in organic rice farming which means they make a lot of money, the government subsidizes their trade and will always buy their rice products so they are not affected by economic price fluctuations, a family would make around $80,000 a year which is more than most engineers or doctors make, they are exempted from military service, the children get to choose any college they want to attend and the government will cover all the costs. So, what do you think, to envy or not to envy? Either way, moving to the village is not even an option. There are restrictions as to who has the right to live in the CCZ, they must be natives, descendants of the village or have lived there during the war. Women can marry into their families but men cannot. If you had a choice to live there though, would you take it? Leave your answers in the comment section below!

JSA/DMZ Tour:

The first stop was the War Memorial Museum, the guide explained the details of the war (everything I said earlier) before we had some extra time to roam around for pictures and what not. Next, we had lunch at a park right by the CCZ (don’t remember the name of the park because I didn’t find it that amusing and was not impressed with the lunch, I just do not understand why people would add seaweed to food!!!). After some time in the park, the interesting stuff began. We passed the CCZ checkpoint and made our way to the last military base before the DMZ. At the base, we were briefed by American MPs and signed waiver forms. At this point of the tour, you really start to feel the tension in the air. We were constantly reminded that the war is not over and that low-key skirmishes are constantly going on; you can tell it’s not just a tourist trap too because of the serious military precautions that are taken. After the briefing, we were transferred to a military bus and to my luck… it started raining, meaning the visibility had gone to hell. That made it difficult to see the North Korean village (also named Propaganda Village) with one of the highest flag poles in the world and we only barely saw the South Korean Village (also named Freedom Village). The military bus took us all the way to the JSA where we visited the conference room. This was by far the best part of the tour, I got to cross the border which means I officially stood on North Korean soil; moreover, you get to see North Korean troops and experience the unease and anxiety as you walk past all the Republic of Korea (RoK) troops patrolling the area in full alert.

Temple Food:

Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice… Well I got fooled twice today when it came to food but to be fair I did see this second one coming. I made my way to Insadong to try some temple food with two friends that I met during the tour. Temple food is made entirely by the monks, they grow all the vegetables and even the spices that are used. One look at the menu and we all knew that the food wasn’t going to be great but hey, when in Rome right?

Hans River Cruise:

For your information, you can buy tickets and board this cruise right by the Yeouinaru Metro Station. The river cruise actually has a lot of potential and I am sure that it would’ve been absolutely wonderful… if it wasn’t raining. Unfortunately, it’s my last day in Seoul and I really wanted to ride down the river so I had to put up with some extremely gloomy clouds and wet terrace seats. I booked the performance cruise as well which means that for the second half an hour, I got to enjoy a Korean singing duet  performance. In my opinion, go for the cruise but skip the performance part, its nice but just not worth it.

How Islam Reentered South Korea:

The owner of the restaurant I had dinner in was a muslim Korean who converted at the age of 16 before moving to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for education; he explained to me how Islam reentered South Korea. 

Islam actually entered Korea over 600 years ago (the story of the King’s bodyguard that I mentioned a few days ago). But over the years, it slowly died out until it was almost completely extinct in the Korean Peninsula. However, remember how I said that the UN sent troops from around 19 different countries to aid South Korea in the war of 1950? Well Turkey happened to be one of those countries and the troops that it sent spread the message of Islam back into South Korea. Thank you Turkey, for all the Halal restaurants. 

Day 7: Seoraksan National Park

I really wanted to pick up the rental car at 9 AM sharp so that I can hit the road early and enjoy the scenic route before the sun hits its peak; however, it didn’t really go down as I planned. I booked the car from Plus Rent a Car which operates under Europcar in Seoul via rentalcars.com. From past experience, I know rentalcars.com is great and reliable. The problem here was with Europcar themselves. The address they have on the website will get you to the right area but then you have to find the place yourself. The building number is also included in the address but to a foreigner, that doesn’t help much, especially since the rental office is on the sixth floor and there is not a single sign put up on the building. So I ended up walking around for an hour trying to find this place. Luckily, I asked a guy who coincidentally works in the same building, so he knew exactly what I was talking about when I said car rental. On the bright side, I met a Columbian retired doctor whose visiting his son in Korea, he gave me the perfect idea for a dream vacation. A few years ago, he drove from Columbia to the southern most tip of Argentina for 3 months with his wife and his son. According to him, he has pulled off crazy road trips all around the world but none compared to this one.

Roadtrip to Seoraksan National Park:

To be honest, I was a bit intimidated about renting a car and driving across the country on my own. I usually have a friend in the passenger seat who takes over the role of navigator and DJ and a friend or two in the back who take care of snacks; now I had to do it all myself. Driving in South Korea could not be easier though. The roads were smooth and the scenery was breathtaking. I was in the car for around 3 hours but it felt like 30 minutes. It is much more affordable to take a bus but if you can afford it, I do recommend driving up to the national park.

Seoraksan National Park:

First thing’s first, I checked into The Kinsington Stars Hotel, a hotel that is way too British to be in Korea. The national park is set up so well and it’s almost impossible to get lost in there. I hadn’t even started the hike yet and this place was quickly becoming my favorite in South Korea. I took the route to the Yukdampoko Falls, then continued further to the Biryongpokpo Falls before climbing the 900 steps to get to the Towangseongpoko Observatory. The steps do get a little tiring around the middle but in terms of skill, this is a very easy and nontechnical hike. The view you get at the top though will surely leave you in a trance.

By the time I was done, there wasn’t much else I can do other than take the cable cart to the peak and enjoy the view from up there for a while. I wanted to stay up there until sunset, get a few good shots and a time-lapse, but the last cable cart leaves at 6:10 PM which bummed me out a little. I was in no state to hike to the bottom either!

Cable cart in Seoraksan National Park
Cable cart to the peak

Day 8: Seoraksan National Park & Yangpyeong Paragliding Park

Seoraksan National Park:

Today’s hiking destination was the Bulksan Rock, which is actually one of the most popular sights you’ll see when you Google search Seoraksan. The hike starts off pretty easy but before you know it, you find yourself in a constant climb for 800 meters or so. Don’t get me wrong, the hike is not technically challenging, but it does require a certain amount of fitness and physical health (the way down can be pretty traumatizing on the knees and ankles). Is it worth it? Hell yea, no words or pictures can do the view justice but I’ll tell you this, it is euphoric.

Yangpyeong Paragliding Park:

Shower, change, pack, check-out, inquire about paragliding park, pick up some snacks, play mad tunes, road trip. That pretty much sums up the sequence of events that took place before I got to Yangpyeong, and it was all going so smoothly too until I actually arrived. This was probably the biggest disappointment of the entire trip: all paragliding trips cancelled due to strong winds. I was really excited to soar over the green mountains of South Korea and just like, it wasn’t possible. With my tail between my legs, I retreated back to Seoul.

Getting to the Airport:

Nothing interesting here, just advice. If you need to get to Incheon Airport, there are two pretty easy ways to get there: Express train and All-Stop train. The Express train runs straight from Seoul Station to the airport while the All-Stop train has around 11 stops in between. I had some time to waste so I took the All-Stop train for 4750 W (you get 500 back when you return the ticket card), the journey takes around 1 hour 20 minutes. The Express train is probably much faster and more expensive but I don’t know the exact details!

Final Thoughts:

I am writing this a few days after getting back to Abu Dhabi because really, what I look for in a country are the memories it leaves behind in my head. Now, I couldn’t leave you hanging for a month or two while I build-up my memories of South Korea so I though a little less than a week would have to do. All in all, South Korea is a beautiful country with a wide variety of sights and activities. You’ve got everything from historical and modern cities to beautiful national parks with extraordinary hiking trails. Moreover, although Koreans might not appreciate this statement at all, I must say that I got a strong sense of Japanese influence in Korea, and it only makes sense since they ruled over the country for almost 50 years! Although it didn’t make my Eastern Asia top 3 list, I did have a wonderful time and do recommend that you visit South Korea.

I hope you enjoyed this blog, and keep in mind that I am not writing this to encourage or discourage you from visiting South Korea, I am simply writing this to encourage you to take a vacation and travel… it doesn’t even matter where! Do not be afraid to travel alone, it forces you to become more social and active; but most importantly, it builds up your independence. The world is at your fingertips, so just reach out and Grasp The Adventure!

For more pictures, check out my Instagram: grasptheadventure & if you found this blog useful and entertaining please feel free to share it with your friends and family. 

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6 thoughts on “A Week in South Korea

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  1. A very entertaining piece of writing, with some pretty spectacular pictures (if i do say so myself)! Looking forward to reading all about your adventures to come!
    # Number 1 Fan

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