SOUTH KOREA

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Wednesday

Off to a flying start on our tour of South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.   Ten hours on Asiana Airlines (never heard of it!) from Sydney to Seoul. Uneventful, no complaints, good service, good meals.

Made it through the airport, caught the express to Seoul Station and a cab to the hotel. First impressions of this city of 10 million are good. Transport all very efficient and the Korean people are very helpful, perhaps a little reserved. Most thus far speak understandable English but they are probably employed in jobs where it is required. They should divide their currency by 1000 to bring it in line with others, perhaps even 100 would help.  We first divide by 1000 and add about 30% to get from WON to AUD. City has a distinctive smell, not bad but just a little off possibly a mix of a big city and air pollution.  We will get used to it quickly I think.  Everywhere it is clean and tidy.  Hotel Fraser Place is fine and we sleep well.

Thursday

We are staying at Fraser Place Namdaemun, very central in Seoul. About 200 metres from City Hall.  Namdaemun is or was one of the eight gates in Seoul’s fortress wall which surrounded the city in the Joseon dynasty.  The gate was first built in 1398 and rebuilt in 1447. In 2008 the wooden pagoda atop the gate was damaged by arson. It was restored in 2013.

Today we breakfasted in the hotel and visited the DMZ in an afternoon tour. We were unable to take 20 steps into North Korea as did Trump a few days ago, but we got within a few yards of the border via one of the discovered North Korean tunnels.

We travelled in a small bus with about 15 other tourists to the DMZ, courtesy of VVIP Travel and guide Emily. Left about 11am returned about 5pm.

First stop Imjingak Park which is really a commemoration to the separation and problems between North and South Korea.  There is an old train full of bullet holes that symbolises the railway connecting the two countries, a freedom bridge built in 1953 to free thousands of prisoners after the Korean War and a Unification pond in the shape of the Korean Peninsula.

We then went to the third tunnel discovered in 1978 which got about 165 metres into South Korea. Steep but steady walk down to the tunnel where we can see through a small hole in a concrete wall another wall which is apparently on (or under) the boundary. This is as close I suppose as we got to North Korea.  We wore helmets and I had to bend over a bit to go through the tunnel that led to the wall.  Good lung busting exercise on the climb back out again. Nothing to say that there are no other tunnels constructed to expedite North Korean tanks/troops in the South in an attempt to overwhelm Seoul which is perilously close the border.

Next stop the Dora Observatory where we viewed Geaseong City, North Korea’s third largest. The day is hot and humid and it is difficult to see much through the smog. We can see flags and just make out a couple of North Korean soldiers manning guard posts.

Finally, we go to the Dorasan Station which was built recently to reconnect Seoul with China, Siberia Europe etc via North Korea.  Civilians can use the line from Seoul but this is where for the moment it stops.  We take pics of each other pointing at a sign that says Pyongyang.

This DMZ with its associated tourist is a symbol to the folly and utter stupidity of mankind. It should be a relic of ages past. Unfortunately, it is a contemporary reminder of a failure to compromise and consider others. Both sides point the finger, both sides should point the finger in the opposite direction.

A good tour with Emily giving us an interesting perspective and tips about other attractions in Seoul itself. At one point I took her aside and asked her about the cannons and rockets trained on Seoul from the mountains to the North. She knew nothing about them and was quite surprised. I mentioned that it was thought that North Korea had a bargaining chip with its nuclear weapons program. It has the ability to do enormous damage to Seoul because its weaponry is in virtually impenetrable positions. She was astonished but did say that she thought South Korea was also well armed.

Later we walked through the Namdaemun market place before finding a restaurant for dinner within a stone’s throw of our hotel. The chicken was plentiful and delicious, we even carried a container out with us for eating tomorrow.

Friday

Today we fired up early with breakfast at a little unpretentious Korean place down the road. We sat among young Korean business people catching a bite before work. Cost was $15 compared with $50 in the hotel. Quite tasty fish sushi, dumplings and dumplings with soup (in Chinese “Hn do win”). Again we ordered too much and took out some sushi for lunch!

We decided to try a city bus tour today but had trouble finding the pick-up point, which turned out to be right across the road from our hotel!  Once we got the hang of it, the tour was great. Get on or off at any one of about 25 stops. A City Tour bus came around the circuit, called the “Downtown, Palace Course” at about half hour intervals throughout the day. There are two other courses.

First stop was the National Museum of Korea which turned out to be the National Hanguel Museum quite a beautiful and modern museum. Its sole purpose is to collect and preserve Hanguel materials and to promote its value and culture. So what is Hanguel? It is a script (like our alphabet) devised by a King of the Joseon dynasty in 1443. Before that the ruling class spoke Korean but the script was Chinese characters (Hanja is the Korean name given to Chinese characters). The number of letters in Hanguel is small, 8 basic letters increased to 28 with a few variations. In 1910 when Korea lost its sovereignty to Japan, Korean and Hanguel was forbidden but it was preserved and promoted throughout the Japanese occupation. According to Wikipedia, Hanja is no longer used to write native Korean words, which are always rendered in Hanguel, and even words of Chinese origin are written with the Hanguel alphabet most of the time, with the corresponding Chinese character often written next to it in order to prevent confusion with other characters or words with the same phonetics.

Second stop was the Namsangol Hanok Village because I confused it with the Bukchon Hanok Village. This small village was a famous summer vacation spot during the Joseon Dynasty with beautiful scenery and a clear and clean stream flowing through it.  It is an uninhabited village restored and opened recently. Construction is ongoing. We did not spend long here.

Then on to the Namsan Seoul Tower which is a communication and observation tower located on Namsan Mountain right in the middle of Seoul. At 236 metres, it marks the second highest point in Seoul. Add in the height of the mountain and we are at almost 500 metres above sea level. The smog does not seem so bad today and the 360 degree panorama from the observation deck is amazing. You first walk through a LED tunnel to a quite spectacular room with 32 LCD screens recounting the 600-year history of Seoul.

Last stop for the day was the Insadong market, promoted somewhere as “antique alley” but really mostly souvenir shops with some art galleries, perhaps galleries a bit of an overstatement. Anna constantly shopping for little gifts to take home, me finding a shady spot to read The Korean Times”.

Home for a snooze and relax about 3:30 followed about 7pm for a barbecue dinner of lamb and prawns and a cold Tsingdao beer at a local restaurant. Anna was initially reluctant about the barbecue idea but it was so tasty she suggested we come and live here just for the food!

Saturday

Today we have three visits only planned, one the National Folk Museum, two the Bukchon Hanok Village, and three the Gyeongbok Palace. Today I have to get to grips, albeit just broadly, with the history of Korea and its current policies.

Early Korea is shrouded in mythology but from about 700 BC, records show various periods when the country was ruled from within or by the Han dynasty of China or in conjunction with Manchuria or by the Mongols. Fast forward to about 1388 when the Joseon dynasty overthrew the Goryeo dynasty (which was first established about 400 years earlier) and introduced many reforms including Hanguel, the Korean alphabet. The Joseon dynasty lasted until about 1897 but became increasingly stagnant and isolationist. In 1897 the Korean Empire was established but in 1910 Japan annexed the country. Korea was then controlled by Japan under a Governor-General of Korea from 1910 until Japan’s unconditional surrender to the Allied Forces on 15 August 1945.

South Korea’s history of course dates only from 1948 following the Japanese surrender and the partitioning of the country into the North (administered by the Soviet Union) and the South (administered by the US). The intention was to return a unified Korea back to the people after the US, UK, Soviet Union and China could arrange a single government. Nobody could agree and two separate governments resulted. The brutal Korean War of 1950-53 achieved nothing but destruction of the two parts of Korea. The country was then divided and remains divided by the demilitiarised zone and by deeply entrenched political and philosophical differences.

Since partition South Korea has had civilian governments starting with the First Republic until todays Sixth Republic.  Mostly a nominally democratic government at inception the leadership became increasingly autocratic and often the military ruled. The sixth republic has stabilised into a liberal democracy. South Korea is regarded as one of the Four Tigers of the rising Asian states (along with Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong) and has developed from one of the poorest countries to one of the world’s wealthiest nations.

Just a quick review above to remind me of the background to the Korean peninsula of today. It gives little perspective to the ongoing tensions between North and South and probably the underlying wish of most of the population of both countries that they be unified, listened to and treated with respect.

Today we saw the changing of the guard at the Gyeongbokgung Palace which was the primary royal palace where the king resided. The palace guards had the duty of protecting the king by opening and closing the palace gates, inspecting all visitors, and maintaining a close surveillance of the palace. They were divided into day and night shifts, and the Changing of the Guard ceremony took place whenever the shifts changed over. Today of course it is ceremonial, there is no king on the throne a bit like Buckingham Palace, except that England has her majesty the Queen! Quite a colourful display accompanied by some heavy drums to give a military or at least formal touch to it.

We roamed about the palace, which was huge in area but did not convey the feeling of the grandeur of the Forbidden City.  Within the precincts of the palace grounds is the National Folk Museum well worth a visit.  The museum uses replicas of historical objects to illustrate the history of traditional life of the Korean people.  We spent an hour or so wandering through it looking at the exhibits and increasingly gaining an admiration for the hard work and conscientiousness of the Korean people. It was exemplified today by a number of groups of children (primary school, different age groups) each with a teacher who was busy explaining the exhibits. In every case the children were totally focussed on the teacher and what she was saying. No fidgeting or signs of boredom. Absolutely rapt. The discipline starts at home and starts early.

Last visit today was to the Bukchon Hanok Village which is a thriving Korean traditional village, with lots of little alleys and preserved to show a 600-year-old urban environment. Charming homes, probably of the reasonably affluent set on a hillside not far from the palace. The Hanok is the traditional Korean house built in a specific architectural style and constructed using elements such as long curved roofs and alternating flooring that help keep the home warm in the winters and cool in the summers. Recently, hanok houses have become very trendy as not only are they historical and beautiful, they are also very eco-friendly and sustainable using natural building materials.

Outside when we got back to the hotel there was a huge demonstration which we took to be anti-Japanese. Instead it turned out to be anti the current Korean leadership of Moon Jye-In, described as socialist or worse, and in favour of the conservative Park Geun-Hye who was deposed on corruption charges and is serving a prison sentence of 33 years. Turns out Moon was imprisoned in the 1970’s as a human rights lawyer under the regime of Park Geun-Hye’s father Park Chung-Hee. The latter was abhorred by many as a brutal dictator and praised by others as the architect of South Korea’s economic prowess following decades of post-war poverty.  Anna took some pics of the huge demonstration, most of the participants were elderly.

While it is a pity if South Korea is racked by political divisions at a time when it should be providing a united national face to the Japanese and to North Korea, it is surely a symptom of progress that orderly demonstrations can be held and tolerated.

Sunday

Breakfasted, mainly fruit at a little deli very close to the hotel and boarded the train at Seoul Station for the trip to Gyeongju. Travelled business class on the bullet train, bit over the speed limit at 302 kmh. The trip took a bit more than 2 hours. The Korean peninsula is quite hilly and much more forested than I would have thought. Very green and fresh, water flows and the rivers look clean. Tidy everywhere. A lot of rice, huge amount of veges or whatever under glass or plastic but not once did we see sheep, beef, cows or pigs. Presumably the chickens are indoors! Koreans seem to be great meat eaters, is it all imported?

Our hotel was not ready to book us in at 1:30PM so we trudged off to look at the local attractions.

The first was difficult to find even after asking directions. The Koreans are very helpful but tourist map reading is very difficult for us and for them. One girl chased after us for more than 50 metres after thinking she put us wrong then found something on her mobile. Bless her.

Eventually after passing between a huge park, a hanok village and a number of small hills signifying tombs of the kings, and showing a picture (worth a 1000 words) we found the Cheomseongdae Observatory. Cheomseongdae is the oldest surviving astronomical observatory in Asia and possibly even in the world having been constructed by Queen Seondeok who reigned from 632 to 647. Agriculture was assisted by astronomy which could determine the movement of the stars and the changing of the seasons. Cheomseongdae stands 9.17 meters high and consists of a base upon which a column is constructed, a curved cylindrical body, and a square top. Constructed of limestone blocks, midway up the body stands a square window which doubles as the entrance to the inside of the structure. Cheomseongdae’s original appearance and shape has remained unchanged for over 1300 years.

We walk on through this huge park dotted with the tomb mounds, lotus and flower gardens and cross a highway to find the Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond.  This was part of the palace complex of ancient Silla the kingdom that existed for almost a thousand years. (57 BCE – 935 CE). So like Xian in China, Gyeongju was the ancient capital of central and southern Korea from 57BCE until 668 and then of a unified Korea until 935. (followed by the Goryeo, from 935 to 1392 and Joseon from 1392 to 1894, The Korean Empire from 1894 to 1910, Japanese Occupation 1910 to 1945 and partition from 1948 to the present).

Notably during the 7th century Silla allied itself with the Chinese Tang dynasty and adopted Chinese models of bureaucracy to administer its greatly expanded territory. This was a marked change from pre-unification days when the Silla monarchy stressed Buddhism, and the Silla monarch’s role as a “Buddha-king”. Later Silla fought to expel Chinese forces from the peninsula but there is strong evidence of the influence of the Tang Dynasty on many figures and carvings unearthed from tombs in the area.

The Wolji Pond was originally called Anapji. During the era of King Munmu, a new pond was made in 674 in the palace and “flowers and birds flourished in this pond”. After the fall of Silla, the pond fell into disrepair for many centuries. It was dredged and rebuilt in 1974.  Quite a big pond but looks as if it is again falling into disrepair.

We press on to the nearby Gyeongju National Museum which has preserved historical artifacts of Silla including a 19 ton ‘divine bell’.  Many of the artifacts were excavated from the Anapji Pond and from the Hwangnyongsa Temple site. Considering their antiquity many of the gold artifacts are astonishing in their precision and finishing.

Finally, a cab back to the hotel to check in. Pretty ordinary place but considering it is only three star, probably about value for money.

Wandered around later looking for somewhere to eat and luckily found a pretty special new restaurant in a new hanok style building. Sushi, beef and rice and various delicacies were delicious and the meal was quite cheap. Best meal yet in Korea. Home after picking up some fruit and milk etc from the local supermarket.

Monday

Today we set off for the Bulguksa Temple by bus. Quite a long way with a bus load of mainly young people, who got off at the amusement park a few stops before the temple. Fortunately, Anna got a seat, nobody offered me a seat, unlike China where everybody would stand and offer their seat immediately. Sometimes I was embarrassed because I would be offered a seat by someone I thought was older than me. Mostly anyway I declined but today, even the young man sitting beside Anna on the aisle side, sat immovable.  The Koreans otherwise have been unfailing polite, friendly and helpful. Consoled by the thought that maybe I just look 23!

The temple itself was quite a walk up a hillside in a very pretty setting of trees and streams. The temple’s records state that a small temple was built on the site in 521 and the current temple in started in 751 and completed in 774 by the Silla royal court. It was then called its current name Bulguksa (Temple of the Buddha Land). During the war with Japan it was burnt to the ground in 1593 but the impressive stone steps and structure leading up to it survived.  After 1604, reconstruction and expansion started, followed by about 40 renovations until 1805. Major restoration was again conducted between 1969 and 1973. Monks were praying and chanting before Buddha in two of the halls and there were a lot of tour groups around, unlike many of the local sights we have visited.

We returned by cab to the World Culture Expo Park, where the driver took the liberty of driving us around an extra block pointing out where the Expo was and at the same time running up our fare, bit of a nerve.  This venue is a theme park established in 1996 to celebrate the ancient kingdom of Silla and promote Korean culture.  We went to the observation deck of the Gyeongju Tower which was completed in 2007. An impressive structure with fantastic views all around for pics.

In the back of my mind was to take a visit to a fishing village as Gyeongju was promoted as being on or near the coast.  The tourist map is a bit misleading because it was a lot further than we thought. Per Tourist Info instructions we caught the 100 bus outside the Expo and carefully explained to the driver where we wanted to get off.  Bus was pretty full but we both got the last seats. At one point he beckoned to us to get off, miles from anywhere! Fortunately, we found some folk that helped including a young man by the name of Kim?? who had spent a year in Brisbane on a working holiday. He very graciously took us part way to our destination and dropped us off at a beach. Would not take any money for petrol or anything, bless him.  We finally found that we could walk the 1,7km to the village but the fishing “fleet” turned out to be a motley lot of little boats that had not seen the open sea for years.  Nobody around except for a few guys fishing off the large breakwater. An impressive little port but no longer a fishing village.

Finally we found some gracious folk in a little hotel management office who kindly phoned for a taxi.  Anna was tired, had a headache, was hungry and so we took the taxi all the way back to the hotel. She was sick from the car speed and turns and so we have had an easy 2 to 3 hours recovering this afternoon before venturing out for dinner.

We returned to last night’s restaurant only to find it closed on Monday nights. Around the corner we found another place and had a fry up by a one-woman owner. Unhealthy and not up to the usual Korean standards, but all part of the experience.

Really glad we stopped here in Gyeongju for a couple of days. Korea’s ancient history would have otherwise just been academic knowledge. Like Xian in China (an experience also not to be missed) the old capital of Gyeongju has fleshed out for us the Silla kingdom which formed a significant part of the country’s past.

Tuesday

Breakfast at McDonalds one of the few we have seen, only because it was right next door to the hotel and we wanted something light, quick and cheap.

Caught the 10am coach to Busan, travelling first class (that’s what we told ourselves) arriving at the Busan Intercity bus terminal about 50 minutes later. Tracked to the metro, asked several times where to go, how to get tickets out of the machine and took the metro to within 150 metres of our hotel. We thought it was a 4-star place, turns out we misread it and its only 3 (barely). Anyway we were booked in early, are central, we are online and we have everything we want even if its poky and the bed is hard.

Early afternoon we took the Metro Line 2 to Haeundae Beach which is both an area and a superb golden sands beach. Quite a salubrious area in fact, holiday spirit, big crowds, lots of people on the beach and in the water. It’s a hot day, we noodle at a local restaurant before walking along the beach to catch the sights and take some pics. Twenty years ago we would have been in the water, today we are unprepared and it’s not worth the hassle.

At the end of the beach are three new office blocks reaching to the sky (look to be about 100 stories each) and a partially enclosed port where there are a host of fishing boats tied up. A step up from yesterday with at least one vessel readying to go and the others as if they were raring to go or just back. A genuine Korean fishing port but can hardly describe the precincts as a “village”.  Photos for the record.

We walk on for maybe 500 metres but end up finding a taxi to take us on to the Haedong Yonggung Temple, one of the more beautiful Buddhist temples I have seen, particularly given its setting and aspect.  On the side of a forested hill facing out to sea with uninterrupted sea views. Couldn’t imagine a better place for a monk to exist, if that’s best how to describe their usual life style. Lot of people visiting and we take our time and lots of photos.

Got a cab back to a restaurant that we found recommended in one of the Busan restaurant reviews, An Ga. Yes, the food, pork ribs and marinated pork belly was fine, done over a barbecue largely by the waitress and helped down with a couple of nice cold Klouds instead of my usual Cass. Again astonishingly cheap.

Back home after a hot day by metro, which is very convenient for us, probably quicker than a taxi and a whole lot cheaper. We now have our head around dealing with the ticket machines and the metro but it took some interrogation of young Koreans (who often as not speak a wee bit of English) and hiccups to get there.

Wednesday

Early breakfast at the hotel then dawdled for a while before catching the metro to Yongdusan Park. The name refers to a mountain (san) which resembles a dragon’s head. Big park accessed by a series of escalators. Grounds beautifully presented. Three main features include a statue commemorating one of Korea’s naval heroes Yi Sun-sin who defeated the Japanese in a naval battle in 1592, an octagonal pavilion and the Busan Tower.

We go to the Observation Deck of the Busan Tower and at 120 metres get great views and photos of Busan. This is a huge city of 3.5 million, Korea’s biggest port and currently the world’s fifth biggest container port.  North Korea did not reach here during the Korean War, causing a huge influx of refugees from other parts of South Korea.

As we exit from the lift at the bottom of the Tower we take a hard left because we want to visit the museum. There is one big step that Anna misses and falls heavily. She lands with an almighty thud and I look around to find her spread-eagled and gasping. She has landed heavily on her right side hip, elbow and knee. Her left hand is also cut. She was apparently looking at her photos and missed the step. I feel it is my fault because I often warn her of steps coming up but was preoccupied by where we were heading. She is badly shaken but we get her up and she soldiers on bravely.  Tonight after a late afternoon snooze she is stiff and sore. Not much physical activity planned for the next few days so she will hopefully recover quickly. Reminds us of heavy falls in Belgium and also Russell. Anna has a tendency to be accident prone and also her mind is way ahead of her limbs, often causing her for example to drop stuff in supermarkets when she sees something else she prefers. But she does not complain and takes it all in her stride. No pun intended.

We then visit the Busan Modern History Museum which according to Wikipedia is a building originally constructed during the Japanese occupation of Korea for the Oriental Development Company an organisation used to support Japanese colonization of Korea. Following the liberation of Korea in 1945 it was later used as the United States Information Service and was the site of the Busan American Cultural Service building arson during student protests in 1982. Hardly a museum, more an information provider about the Japanese colonisation and annexure of Korea and the US influence going back to skirmishes and a treaty with Korea in 1882.

We get a cab to the Gamcheon Culture Village, known as the “Machu Picchu of Busan” because of its steep streets and twisting alleys. It began as a shanty town in the 1950s built largely by Korean war refugees. The local government encouraged the development of the village as a tourist attraction by supporting the painting of house walls with brightly coloured paints and by placing works of arts throughout the area. The cab takes us up to it, but mainly we walk down. A fair way and steep so I am imagining Anna, with her fall earlier is going to be pretty stiff and sore tomorrow. We take heaps of photos.

Cab to the Jagalchi Fish Market which was fascinating but smelly and not a place in our view to have lunch. Several of the locals tried to entice us into their restaurants, one succeeded but Anna decided against it before we sat down.

We catch a cab to a restaurant said to be ok in Trip Advisor, the Choryang Milmyeon, but on seeing it decided to eat elsewhere. Perhaps we should not be judging a book by its cover but we found something that looked a bit more salubrious around the corner.  The food however was not all that great so maybe we got our wires crossed.

Metro from Busan station home at about 4pm for a late afternoon snooze. Planning for Hokkaido occupies most of the rest of my day.