South Korea is one of those Asian countries that has never attracted me much. Being it very close to Japan, I decided to visit it by taking a ferry from Fukuoka. Not being one of my main destinations, I didn’t stay long, just two weeks, visiting the main places. I arrived at the end of October, in time to see the magnificent colours of autumn and enjoy the last few flashes of sun. Apart from the incredible beauty of the thousand colours of the leaves, it is not a country that has caught me much and my initial intuition was confirmed by the journey, which was still pleasant and interesting. For an article on Korea, the Koreans, the food and the peculiarities of this state full of contradictions read here.
“Koreans are among the world’s big consumers of exotic parts of exotic animals.”Michael Breen
My first stop was the second-largest city in South Korea, with more than 3.5 million inhabitants. I took a ferry from Fukuoka and in less than three hours I was already in Busan. A vast city presents itself, half dominated by the traditional life of who knows how many years ago, for the other half by skyscrapers, neon lights and gigantic screens. There is also a magnificent sea that laps beaches that rivals the tropics and so much surrounding nature. Transportation is very efficient and ALL have free WiFi. Wherever you can pay with a card (credit or debit) even for small amounts. Korea in this is ahead of Japan, where WiFi is not so widespread and cash remains the main means of payment. Of all the cities in Korea I’ve seen, it’s the one I liked best.
I could not find a host with Couchsurfing, partly because I moved at the last minute, partly because there was a major festival held once a year on November 2nd, so it was full of people in a visit. However, I found two very cheap hostels, one in the Haeundae area for two nights, the other next to the Jagalchi fish market, practically the two most opposite areas: the first is the kingdom of modernity, with its skyscrapers over the sea, the latter is the heart of traditional life and street food.
I spent 4 wonderful days, meeting friends through Couchsurfing, eating the spicy local food, dried worms and drinking Makkoli, the rice wine. There were also visits to the Buddhist temple on the sea Haedong Yonggungsa, the most beautiful in Korea and the artistic village of Gamcheon, the fish market of Jagalchi, the BIFF, where Busan street food is concentrated, the Bosu-dong book street. But the most fascinating show was the fireworks of November 2nd, the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.
Just north of Busan, there is a charming town, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Korea. Not very large, with its 270 thousand inhabitants, it attracts mainly because it is the seat of the first capital of the united kingdom of Silla. The burial mounds of the kings and eminent personalities of that time are still clearly visible (and can be visited). Among them is what is called the oldest observatory in Asia (a ridiculous 12-meter tower in the middle of the city…). Just outside of the town there are the important and fabulous temple of Bulguksa and the cave temple of Seokguram. Finally the beautiful Woljeonggyo bridge and the Anapj pond. Here I was hosted by a loving American lady who teaches English, who cooked me delicious vegetarian dishes, introduced me to a real Korean gentleman, doctor and owner of a women’s health clinic and took me to see some of the places.
Further north from Gyeongju, slightly inland, there is this town of just over 160,000 inhabitants, a bit decadent. The attraction, in fact, is not so much the city itself but the Confucian academy Dosan Seowon, about an hour’s bus ride from the center of Andong; and the traditional village of Hahoe, a UNESCO world heritage site, also an hour from the center. Both immersed in a very suggestive natural environment, especially in autumn for the colours of the leaves, contain important pieces of Korean history and tradition. Andong is also the home of the famous Soju, a medium-high alcoholic beverage.
Here I was hosted by a slightly weird Bengali boy, with whom it was difficult to communicate (not for the language but just because of his way to say (or not say) things). He spent the first night complaining that he had received two negative feedback on Couchsurfing’s profile, from two girls, because they had accused him of flirting with them badly. The next day he told me that there was a dinner at his house but with meat, I asked if I could cook rice for me, he hesitated for a while, then he said yes. In the end, he left me a negative review (the only one in 4 and a half years) because I cooked rice… Luckily I met a very nice Italian girl who stopped me because she saw my backpack of Invicta: things that only Italians have.
A lively university town, Jeonju is famous for its traditional hanok village, incorporated within the modern city. Also worth visiting is the Gyeonggijeon sanctuary, which houses one of the famous portraits of Tae-jo, founder of the Joseon dynasty. Behind the sanctuary is the Christian cathedral Jeondang, nothing to do with European ones, I must say. The Nambu market with traditional products is also interesting. My host was a Korean boy, a university student, who lived in a studio apartment. So I slept on the floor; having underfloor heating in Korea, it made me a plate effect and I woke up the morning that seemed to me they had baked me! My host was very busy and we saw very little, but it was very nice and welcoming.
Last stage of the journey. I was hosted by a lovely Korean in her apartment. Although she had to go away for one night, she welcomed me to her house leaving me the keys. But first we had lunch together. As soon as she left, I went to the bathroom and a catastrophe happened there. As I touched the sink, it fell down with the shelf formed by an extension of the sink, with all the stuff on it. The supports were broken and they were waiting for nothing but some loser on duty to lean on. In a panic, I moved the fallen stuff and think about what to do. Feeling guilty, even if it was impossible I broke it, I decided to fix it.
The broken sink had to be rescued
I looked for a plumber on Google Maps, I found one pretty close my place and I went there. But it was a store for air conditioners. I asked then where I could find a plumber and the guy, who didn’t speak English but thanks to the photos I showed him he understood, he gave me directions to go there. At that moment an old man passed by, listened to the surreal conversation half in Korean and half in English and told me to follow him. As we were walking, at a snail’s pace due to my companion’s age, the guy started shouting something at someone. This guy approached us, spoke a little with the elder and asked me what happened, always in Korean. I answered in English by showing him the photos and he made a puzzled face but told me to follow him. I said that I was looking for a plumber and he replied that he was the plumber!
We arrived at his shop and the guy pulled out a couple of supports very similar to those (broken) that had supported the incriminated sink. I bought them for little money but I told him that I had no tools. Then he lent me a wrench but he wanted the deposit because he was afraid I wouldn’t have brought it back. I went back home, dismantled the broken supports, mounted the new ones and hanged up the sink, which however remained split in front, but still working. At that point, I contacted my host and told her everything. She apologised by telling me that she had known the sink had been unsafe for a while and she thanked me for fixing it (telling me that before? No, eh?).
The capital city
Seoul boasts more than 10 million inhabitants. Capital since 1400, it has a long history, although not much remains of the original buildings, destroyed by the various invasions suffered (especially the Japanese ones). Honestly, I did not like it very much as a metropolis, nothing to do with the beautiful Tokyo, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, just to name a few. I still spent 4 days without getting bored. Beautiful were the lantern festival along with the canal, the night view from the hill on which the Seoul Tower is located, the various royal palaces, the Buddhist temple of Jogyesa full of flowers (and its very expensive vegetarian restaurant). I also visited the hanok village of Bukchon (nothing to do with that of Jeonju), the National Folk Museum (nothing special), the City Hall (ibidem), the mural village (don’t even go there), the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (interesting), the Gangnam neighbourhood.
Although it wasn’t an unpleasant experience in Korea, it is not a country that particularly impressed me. It must have been the cold, which was particularly bothering and which I do not like. There are interesting things, but they are not many. In my opinion, the city of Kyoto (or Florence) alone has more things to see than all of Korea. So I personally recommend visiting it if and only if you have already seen the other, much more interesting, Asian countries, such as Japan, India, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, just to name a few. Koreans don’t take it personally, it’s just a matter of taste!
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