From September 2007

Dongdaemun

As my plane back to the UK wasn’t until midnight on Monday I decided to have a final explore of some of the things I hadn’t yet seen which included both Dongdaemun and Namdaemun markets, centred around the historic city walls.

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Dongdaemun means “Great East Gate” and was the major eastern gate in the wall that surrounded Seoul during the Joseon Dynasty. Today it’s marooned in the middle of a busy roundabout looking somewhat forlorn, no longer gatekeeper to a city which is grown way beyond its original boundaries. Surrounding the gate is Dongdaemun Market, consisting of over 26 shopping malls, mainly specialising in retail and wholesale fashion items. With over 30,000 shops you’re pretty spoilt for choice if you like that sort of thing!

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I choose to steer away from the modern shopping malls and headed for the backstreets which looked a whole lot more interesting. Packed between narrow streets lay an array of curious vendors selling all manor of various goods. I particularly liked an alleyway which sold nothing but shoes of every type and size, stacked high against the walls. The place reminded somewhat of Silk Street in Beijing with many counterfeit brands!

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If you’re curious to see what the more modern side look like at night check out this video. Next up, the final instalment from Korea (normal service to be restored shortly!).

Escape from Busan

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After a leisurely afternoon in Busan it was time to catch the KTX back to Seoul. Unfortunately I had rather underestimated the amount of time it would take to get back to the accommodation to collect my things and then get back to the train station. This turned into a mad dash to make the 8.55pm train which I made with barely 5 minutes to spare. Funnily enough the KTX train journey was faster than this little detour!

Having made it back to Seoul it was back to the guest house for a final few winks sleep before my last day. Unfortunately I woke Monday morning to find a huge cockroach on the wall above my bed. For someone who is only used to seeing to occasional small spider the sight of a 2 inch long cockroach presented somewhat of a problem and a definite end to sleep! I eventually knocked it off the wall where it scurried under the bed. It was time to bid a hasty farewell…

Chungnyeol Shrine

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Having been running around Korea like a crazed manic the previous week I decided to take Sunday a little slower (at least that was the original plan). Late morning I headed to Chungnyeol Shrine, “where the spirits of the patriotic martyrs in Busan region, who have bravely fought against the Japanese troops in the battles under the Japanese Invasion of Korea in 1592 and died heroic deaths, are enshrined.” You probably get the picture, just a hint of anti-Japanese fervour here!

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…along with some massive fish but surprisingly few people. One of the benefits of travelling in Korea is that you generally don’t seem to find massive hordes of foreign tourists at the big sites (even less at the small ones) which can make for a much more enjoyable experience. The only downside is that, as an Englishman, you’ll probably be mistaken for being American due to their large military presence in the country! Putting this right is an obvious priority, but I digress… 😉

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The shrine is set into the side of a hill on tiered levels with various halls, monuments, displays, and well-manicured gardens. If you fancy a traditional Korean wedding ceremony they’ll also lay one on (for a measly 100,000 won/£50). Being visibly surrounded by the city, the shrine almost feels like the last place of sanctuary from the ever encroaching urban jungle – the polarised differences couldn’t be more striking and perhaps places like these are good for finding a sense of reality outside the controlled chaos…

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On a lighter note – To those in Korea happy Chuseok (harvest festival)! To those in China happy Mid-autumn festival! Be sure to eat lots of moon cakes and watch the sky tonight 🙂

Jagalchi Market

One of the highlights of my trip to Busan was visiting Jagalchi Market; Korea’s biggest seafood market right next to the port where all the produce comes from. On display were the most amazing array of strange creatures from common mackerel to huge squid, and even whale meat being sold by old women (‘Jagalchi Ajumma’) on small stalls along the road. Whilst I’m not much of a seafood fan the market was a great place for photography and I think I got some nice results…

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Jagalchi Ajumma

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I’m not sure how anyone could put up with the smell of raw fish and guts all day long but I guess they get used to it! Perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that eating live squid/octopus is considered a delicacy (as seen in Old Boy) – how anyone could manage to eat something which has writhing tentacles covered in suckers is beyond me! In case you think I’m making this up, here’s the proof:

Warning: not suitable for those with weak stomachs!

Looks lovely but this is one experience I decided to pass on 😉

Sadako on Seoul Subway

Sadako on Seoul Subway

So I was sitting on the subway in Seoul early morning minding my own business when I felt something rest itself on my shoulder. Looking down in horror I saw a faceless head uncomfortably close to my own and for a split second wondered if Sadako (from Ringu fame) had finally come to reek her terrible revenge on me… (her victims “die of fright”)

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Alas no, a local had unconsciously decided my shoulder looked like a comfortable place to sleep! Whilst I awkwardly tried to nudge her off me a friend who was conveniently sitting opposite (now in hysterics) took a pic – censored to preserve my anonymity and dignity 🙂

N.B. I meant to post this before the Korean Folk Village episode, which is when it happened, but somehow overlooked it!

Kwanganri Beach

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After heading back into the centre of Busan it was time for lunch. Stopping somewhere near Pusan National University we found a restaurant where we ordered iced-noodles (Milmyeon – a local speciality) with fried rice and chicken (Dakgalbi Bokumbab). Eating noodles in ice was certainly a new experience for me but to be honest I wouldn’t call it my favourite dish although everything else was delicious.

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In the afternoon I got my first proper look at the coastline in Busan, which is after all a port city! Surrounded by tall buildings Kwanganri beach was somewhat surreal but even more extraordinary was the huge double-decker suspension bridge they had built straight across the bay on the horizon. My pictures don’t really do it justice so I suggesting checking it out on Google Maps, how this thing was ever built is amazing!

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Whilst it wasn’t a particularly hot day there were still plenty of people having fun in the water and even a few swimming. Apparently in the hight of summer the beaches are teaming but since most Koreans don’t like getting a suntan they bring thousands of umbrellas – just take a look here!

Beomeosa Temple

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Nestling on the side of Mt. Geumjeongsan overlooking Busan is Beomeosa Buddhist temple. Surrounded by lush forest and bamboo groves, along with the fact that this is an active temple with monks still in residence, this is definitely not one to miss. It’s not the easiest place to find, being near the end of the subway line and bus journey up the mountain (take the No. 90), however it’s dirt cheap to get in so you can’t complain!

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One of the Heavenly Kings standing guard (above) in a gate house through which all visitors must pass to enter. Whilst the original 678 temple complex was burnt down by the Japanese in 1952, along with seemingly everything else in Korea, the 1613 reconstruction is certainly showing it’s age and some parts look badly in need on repair. Hopefully any restoration work will be sympathetic and not loose its rustic look as has happened with the ancient sites in Beijing.

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If you fancy finding your own piece of enlightenment Beomeosa runs a “temple stay” program where you can go and live like a monk for a few days – you can certainly see the appeal of sitting around this sort of place meditating with none of the distractions of modern life.

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Above the temple is a hiking path along side a small stream which leads to the summit. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time that day to get to the top but on a hot day the cover of the trees and the are an ideal place to get out of the sun.

Evening in Busan

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Arriving in Busan around 5pm I made my way by taxi to my accommodation which unfortunately was the other side of the city and a pretty long distance away at that. The room I was staying in was part of a small complex above a 24 hour convenience store (convenient in itself!) and a short distance from a subway station. On first inspection I couldn’t find the shower but a closer search found it hanging over the toilet – this was compact living taken to the extreme! By this point it was around 6pm and about time to find some sustenance…

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For some reason Koreans always seem to expect westerners not to be able to eat spicy foods but I for one love the opportunity to start a few fires and no doubt destroy my taste buds in the process! The dish of choice this evening was another very spicy chicken dish with rice, simple but ever so delicious. I like the way you always get chilled water in metal cups in Korean restaurants, simple but refreshing.

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After filling up it was time to explore the city centre and it turned out that night was the best time to see it. With thousands of neon shop lights illuminating the narrow streets it felt like being on a different planet. The atmosphere was pretty lively with mainly young people out shopping and enjoying themselves. It would appear at a glance that the economy is doing pretty well in Korea with people many people clearly having considerable disposable income.

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On of the more intriguing sites was a game arcade full of people playing various games at alarming speed – I’m not quite sure how to describe it but check out this video for an example – those crazy Asians! Another craze was groups of friends going in special photo booths and taking photos which can then be customised on a touch screen computer to add rather girly effects… all very stupid if you ask me 😉

I eventually made it hope around 2am and considering I’d been up since 6am collapsed directly onto the hard floor mat which served as a bed… it’s a hard life!

Korea Train eXpress (KTX)

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Public transport in South Korea is second to none that I’ve seen before, certainly on par with the likes of Switzerland. Buses, Trains and Subway systems are clean, modern, comfortable, and efficient with signs provided in both Korean and Roman characters so that hapless foreigners can get around without to much difficulty!

On the KTX to Busan

For my journey to Busan (in the South) I took a high speed KTX train, comparable to Japan’s Shinkansen (bullet train) or France’s TGV (which KTX technology is based on). Travelling at over 300 km/h the journey only takes 2.5 hours, cut from 6 hours on a normal train! Unsurprisingly, although the tickets aren’t cheap, they’re still considerably less that what you’d pay for the same length journey in the UK and even less if you buy a group ticket.

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Shooting through the mountainous countryside of Korea I saw another side to the country, quite unlike the sprawling megalopolis of Seoul. Small cities, farms and industrial complexes all passed in the blink of an eye, perhaps reflecting the speed at which South Korea has developed over the past 50 years. Korea is undoubtedly a beautiful land and still relatively unspoiled. It has yet to take off as a major tourist destination which in my opinion makes it even more attractive.

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The journey was to be about the only rest bite I got that day leading up to a fairly frenetic evening in the neon lit thoroughfares of Busan!

Korean Folk Village

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On the Friday morning I got up at 6am and made the two hour trip to the far south suburb of Yongin just outside central Seoul. Located here is the Korean Folk Village which is a sort of living museum displaying the various elements of traditional Korean culture. Luckily the rain had stopped overnight and the weather was pleasantly warm.

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As well as live performances of traditional Korean dance and wedding ceremonies you could also see different types of Korean dwellings (by social class), markets, and crafts etc. To be honest its probably more aimed at Korean children (there were many school trips being ferried around) but it’s still interesting to see from a foreign perspective and it was a shame I only had just over an hour to explore the massive site.

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At around 12 noon it was time to take a bus and two subway lines back into central Seoul and the main train station in a mad dash to catch the KTX (bullet train) to Pusan and what would turn out to be a very long day…