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Published: August 20th 2018
Greetings from Seoul! My final stop on my adventures this summer. I am glad to have arrived here, and feel quite proud of myself for having made it overland and independently from Tokyo to Seoul, having seen some amazing places and had some amazing experiences on the way. It is from Seoul, on Wednesday, that I fly back to my beloved England, and settle into my everyday life again once more, rejuvenated no doubt from having explored yet another corner of the world, and learnt just that bit more about this beautiful planet upon which we live. I am also feeling tired now, and am looking forward to some lovely days of rest in my lovely home, enjoying the post-trip contemplation stage of what has really been a memorable trip.
I believe I last wrote from Pyeongchang on Saturday, just about to take the newly-built KTX fast train from Pyeongchang Station, in the nearby town of Jinbu, to Seoul station. The trip was indeed fast, taking just over an hour to reach the outskirts of Seoul, and then the best part of about 30 minutes heading slowly into the centre of this large and sprawling city. From
Seoul station, it was a short, two-station hop on Line 1 of the Seoul Metro (this one line, out of 18 lines in total, has a whopping 62 stops – the system is huge!) to Jonggak station, right in the heart of town, and location of my lodgings for three nights in the city – the YMCA (as in, it’s fun to stay at the…!). I am indeed staying in the YMCA, it’s not fun, but it is very peaceful and quiet up here. Located on the eighth (top) floor of a seventies-era building, surrounded by cars, traffic, a busy entertainment district and skyscrapers, this really is an oasis of calm in the middle of a hectic and bustling urban centre. I believe I chose well, and it has most of the fittings of my beloved Japanese business hotel – small, compact, efficient, quiet, and a sorely-missed in-built bidet system in the toilet (!) – but it doesn’t have too much friendliness or welcome by way of service. Not to worry, it is very peaceful, and I believe I chose well. It was actually quite a special arrival, perhaps even considered auspicious in Asian cultures – I arrived here on
day of the 8th
month, 2018, and checked into room 818. That seems quite special. And in addition, this is actually also my 100th
blog entry on this site! So maybe there is something special about Seoul. Indeed, the city itself was founded on Feng Shui principles, around 2000 years ago, and is quite perfectly situated on a near-symmetrical slight curve in the Han River, with small mountains to the north and south. It is a great place to end my journey, and despite being tired, I have enjoyed my time here exploring this city of around 10 million inhabitants.
I arrived a bit earlier than check-in time, but the YMCA still let me check into my room, which was nice. After a short rest, I gathered as much energy together as I could and headed north, to visit the main central tourist places nearby. First, a walk along the popular shopping street of Insadong, where I was surprised by how many other international tourists there were. I indeed entered South Korea through the back door, and on my journey thus far, encountered very few foreign visitors. However, in my first hour of walking around Seoul, I
believe I saw more international tourists than in the whole of my nine days prior to arrival. This must be where all of the foreign visitors visit in South Korea, and it seems very few make it beyond the capital. This is a shame for them as there is much more to see in this beautiful country, but it was good for me, as I like going places off the beaten tourist track. It was a bit of a shock to the system though to see so many fellow tourists, and the Korean people here as a result do not seem so welcoming, in that they are used to seeing foreign visitors – in most other parts of the country, people would smile at me, greet me and talk to me on the street. This has happened less often here, understandably of course and I do not blame the Seoulites for this – I just note the difference here.
After Insadong, I headed to the main palace of Seoul’s four, the Gyeongbokgung Palace. Originally built in 1395, what the tourist sees during a visit nowadays is merely a reconstruction over the last forty years, as the original buildings were
Jinbu KTX Station
destroyed during the Japanese occupation from 1911 to 1945, and the subsequent Korean War (1950-1953). Still, it was a stunning place to visit, and like the Forbidden City in China, each entry through one of the square compounds brings you to another, even more magnificent building or gate leading to the next one. The central buildings are also surrounded by very attractive gardens, which although hot, were pleasant to walk around. After exiting the building, I stumbled upon an interesting and loud demonstration, with placards mainly in Korean, but gathering from the few words in English, it seems the people were protesting against the current South Korean president’s rapprochement with North Korea. There were American flags being waved along with South Korean ones, so I deemed it safe to approach, and took lots of good photos, with many demonstrators being very willing to pose with their placards for me. Apparently, demonstrations are quite a common sight in Seoul, and so are the surrounding riot police and police vehicles. From my experiences, the Koreans seem a very tenacious, strong-headed people, and as a nation, I can understand how such loud and public voicings of their opinions are quite common-place here. I
remember hearing a while ago, that the Koreans are the Italians of the Far East – they are red-blooded, feisty, and can be hot-headed and fiery, along with their cuisine. I have found this to be quite true, and at times they can be quite forceful in trying to get you to do what they want. For example, whilst taking a photo of a crab at the fish market back in Busan, the stall’s owner actually grabbed my arm and pulled me closer, so that I could get a better picture. And a couple of guesthouse owners didn’t seem completely pleased when I didn’t go with their suggestions for sightseeing, but preferred to follow my own itinerary. I am not criticising at all, I am just noting my observations of the Koreans being a tenacious, strong-willed people. I can thus understand why public demonstrations are loud and quite commonplace here. It also helps me to understand how difficult it must be to be able to come to any kind of resolution on the conflict between South and North Korea, given that these are two Korean nations conflicting against each other. If each side is as tenacious and self-believing as the
other, then I understand how the conflict has seemingly dragged on for so long. More on that perhaps in my next, and final one, as I’ll explain below.
After the demonstration, and some good photos, I finished off my sightseeing for the day by taking a walk around the nearby Bukchon Hanok Village, just north of the city centre. This is a small area of traditional Korean hanok houses winding their way up a picturesque hillside, and having been swallowed by the urban growth of Seoul. Quite a beautiful little enclave, with charming little boutique shops galore. By this time I was quite tired, so I had dinner at a local pasta place, and called it an evening, happy to rest my weary head for the day.
The next day, yesterday, I planned to fit in quite a lot of sightseeing into one day, as I wanted to set today aside as more of a day of rest, and also preparation for my day tomorrow, as I’ll also explain below, and my journey back on Wednesday. I woke up quite tired though, and although I did fit everything in that I wanted to, it was a struggle of
a day, but ended quite beautifully. My first visit was to the Yoido Full Gospel Church, on Yeouido Island in the middle of the Han River. This is not really on the tourist map, but I really wanted to visit, as it is officially the largest church in the world – this I just had to see! I arrived with near-perfect timing, just after 11am, for the main service of the day (out of a total of seven Sunday services). The place was huge, and extremely welcoming. There are dedicated “Foreigner Guides” who saw me before I saw them, scooped me up, and took me up to a reserved seat on the front row of one of the areas on the balcony. As well as the 13,000-strong congregation there on the day, there was also a full orchestra and choir, playing beautiful music, including a lovely opera-duet. And the main preacher was also the church’s main reverend, the Revd Young Hoon Lee, apparently quite famous, who gave a fiery and passionate sermon on the importance of staying awake during the service, referencing an incident in Acts (20: 7-12) where a congregation member (Eutychus) fell asleep, fell from a window and
died, but was miraculously brought back to life by St Paul. I did feel very tired, and felt very conscious of not closing my eyes for too long! The Foreigner Guides had brought me a translator radio, through which you could not only hear translations in English, but also Japanese, Chinese, French, Spanish and Russian. After the service, which I enjoyed, particularly the music, I was invited up to a small room on the fifth floor, along with a few other foreign visitors, to watch a short video on the church – very inspirational, with soundtracks from “Back to the Future” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” to add to the emotion. The church has no less than 780,000 members, and a short calculation from this figure makes it the church of around 13% of the whole population of Seoul! And considering that around 25% of Koreans call themselves Christian, relatively speaking about half the Christian population of Seoul would call this their church. That is one sizeable church!
Refreshed for the day, and after a lovely cup of coffee which they offered me, I continued my whistlestop day tour of Seoul. Next up was a short visit by metro
View from my room
to Gangnam Square – there was not much to see there, but I just had to go and strike a pose for a photo there (see attached!). After this, another metro ride to the Lotte World Tower, a huge 550m skyscraper built only two years ago, and now the tallest in Korea and fifth tallest in the world. It also has the highest glass-bottom viewing floor in the world, which was pretty scary to say the least. From here, a short walk took me to the Olympic Park (rather special for me, as the Seoul Olympics of 1988 were the first Olympic Games that I remember, as a ten-year-old boy), where I took a few more photos, and then another metro ride to the War Memorial of Korea, where I only had an hour to look around the huge museum before closing time. I couldn’t possibly see the whole place, which documents the whole history of war in Korea, but focused my attention mainly on the exhibits showing the Korean War (1950-1953), which I know very little about but wanted to know more (for good reason they call it “The Forgotten War”)
Following the defeat of Japan by the
An oasis of tranquility, right in the heart of Seoul
allied forces, the Korean peninsula was liberated from Japanese colonial power. The Americans stepped in to help rebuild the southern part of the peninsula, and the Russians the north. It was decided that the 38th
parallel would be a dividing point between the two. As a result of their polarised influences, the two partitions did not see eye to eye, and on 25th
June 1950, the North made a surprise attack into the south, taking Seoul within three days, and occupying most of the peninsula except for a small enclave in the south-east around Busan. Believing that a fully-communist Korea would be a serious threat to the stability of Japan and the Pacific region, the US and a number of UN nations, mainly the UK and Turkey, launched a counter-attack from Incheon, just west of Seoul, and re-took Seoul and the south. The fighting continued, ultimately leaving millions dead, millions homeless, and ravaging the country. By 1951, the fighting had stabilised pretty much along the current North-South Korean border, although it was a further two years before hostilities ceased. Apparently the terms of peace were agreed by North Korea and the UN, but not South Korea, and thus peace terms
The YMCA Hotel, an oasis of tranquility in a sea of urban neon
have never fully been agreed – technically the two countries are still at war, a “cold war” which has far out-lasted the much more widely-known “Cold War”. For me, it has been encouraging to see the meetings between the North and South Korean leaders taking place this year, as well as the meeting between the US President and North Korean “supreme leader”. This does hint at some form of rapprochement, although there do seem to be a number of major grievances held by the South, as I am sure there are equally in the North, and given my understanding of Korean tenacity and hot-headedness, any form of union seems very much in the long distant future. I believe my plans for tomorrow will help me learn more here, as I’ll mention below.
From the War Memorial of Korea, my final visit of the day took me on another metro ride, and along the newly built and amazing Skygarden, a walkway built high up over the tracks of Seoul Station, and planted with beautiful shrubs and bushes, making for a really pleasant stroll up above the hustle and bustle of the city below. I was heading to the amazing Siloam
Sauna, probably my final bath house experience on this amazing trip involving a number of them.
In fact, out of all the onsens (the Japanese term) and saunas (the Korean term) I have visited on my trip these last five weeks, this has to have been my favourite. For a mere £8 or so, there was not only the typical room of hot baths and saunas, there were five floors of relaxation to enjoy. The fifth floor even housed the sleeping areas, where you could spend the night in small bunked cabins even more cramped and even less personal than the Japanese Capsule Hotel. I didn’t opt for this, but did enjoy a lovely noodle soup on the second floor eatery, and many of the additional hot rooms, scent rooms, hot pebble rooms, salt rooms, and even an ice room, which at -11 degrees was my favourite – I could have stayed much longer in that one! There was even a small cinema, two table tennis rooms, and a karaoke room, with much more besides. It was a really nice place to relax and wind up a very hectic day of Seoul sightseeing, along with many Seoul residents who
were also seemingly there to relax and unwind. It was soothing. I arrived back at the YMCA, and pretty much went straight to bed.
And today, as mentioned, I have taken it much easier. After a bit of sightseeing, taking in the N Seoul Tower in Namsan Park, via the N Seoul Tower Cable Car, the Namdaemun Market, the largest market in Korea, and the Cheong-gye-cheon Stream, a beautiful, recently “daylighted” stream, which was long hidden by urban sprawl until a raised highway was torn down in 2005 revealing a really pleasant babbling brook flowing through landscaped pathways and bridges, I had a late lunch and returned to the YMCA for an afternoon and evening of good old rest and recuperation.
I am indeed tired, my travel days on this trip have been packed, generally from 10am to 7pm or so each day, and it is nice to get some down-time now just before the end of my trip. In actual fact though, I’ve got one more trip lined up, which is also why I’m resting up a bit today. Tomorrow, I take a full-day guided excursion northwards, towards and along the DMZ (De-Militarised Zone) marking the border
with North Korea. These are quite popular tours, with limited spaces, and thus need to be booked in advance. I booked this just before I left the UK, and am looking forward very much to this trip tomorrow, and learning more about the relationship between the two countries of the Korean peninsula. It will also be nice to see North Korea again, this time from its southern border, as my last view didn’t go too well.
Way back in 2002, on a trip I had taken to China via the Trans-Siberian from Moscow, I was in a city on the Chinese side of the border with North Korea called Dandong, pretty much the only foreigner there from what I remember. From there, I paid a private boatman to take me across the river separating the two countries, and whilst I didn’t set foot off the boat, I was able to take some amazing pictures of North Koreans in their daily lives – many of them washing their clothes in the river, which was a huge contrast to the development of China. There were also a few naval vessels which I took photos of. Looking back on this, I believe
I was very naïve and really quite stupid to do this. The very next day, my camera went missing, containing the film of all the photos of North Korea which I had taken, and so did a small collection of North Korean coins which I had bought from a street vendor. I have always found it quite odd, and actually quite perturbing, that these two items alone went missing, and nothing else of my belongings. I do believe the North Koreans knew about my activities on that day. Well, this time I am going on a much more official visit to the border, and will very much be more mature and aware of the need for wisdom in such a sensitive area.
Tomorrow is an early start, waking up at 5.30am, packing my bags and leaving them in reception to go on the trip, then returning at 6pm to pick up my bags, and take them along with myself to my final hotel, an airport hotel not far from Incheon International Airport. I have planned to stay there, as my flight leaves fairly early on Wednesday morning, so my wake-up call on Wednesday shouldn’t be as early as it
would have been had I booked my final night in Seoul, hopefully…
I plan to write my next, and final, entry probably on Thursday, after I arrive back in the UK, and thus will write about my visit to the DMZ in that one, as well as my journey home.
Until the next time, thank you very much for reading, and all the best for now.
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