Republic of Korea
Trip Start Mar 10, 2011
20Trip End Ongoing
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Seoul, the worlds 3rd largest city with 25 millions Seouls (well according to wikepedia!) was our first stop in the Republic of Korea (known to many as south Korea but not it's official name). After our 13 hour flight from San Francisco we were very glad we had booked a cab to collect us from Incheon airport, about an hour out of the city. It's difficult to explain how different things are here in one of the most advanced economies in the world and where the culture is so so different to anywhere else we have ever been. It makes our Latin American experiences seem rather tame in cultural terms and has definitely been as testing as it has been amazing, and it really has been amazing!
This is the land of efficiency and production and contrasts very differently to the states in particular. There is no huffing, puffing and winging about things here, things seem to get seamlessly done with no fuss whatsoever. The cab driver who met us at the airport held a sign, took our bags from us and led us quickly into the minivan and followed the sat nav (which every single car here has) to our hotel so quickly and coldly we assumed he spoke no english so where surprised when he asked on arrival politely for 70,000 won. Things are small here, our hostel room the width of 3 yoga mats, and each of us has a tatami sized bed to sleep on. There are many strong impressions but the strongest has been the friendliness of Koreans, we have been approached on trains, subway, street, airplane and many more by really friendly people wanting to talk and help out.
One of the biggest challenges is the language, Korean characters leaving us no chance to communicate and with little written in english it's been very interesting. The subway for example in Seoul was tough to navigate but very exciting, the trains large, long, plentiful and very quiet. Crime is not an issue here, Koreans board trains and put their purses/bags in the racks above them, and we have been approached a few times and once forced to sit in someones seat when we politely declined their offer! Efficiency is king here, and a good example is Seoul's population density which is claimed to be twice that of New York (another Wiki credit!) and 8 times that of Rome. Things happen here at a fast pace, shops sit on top and below street level everywhere and every alleyway seems colonized. We had a lot of fun in Seoul, with a memorable day ski trip (continent number 5 for Alex skiing), and incredible DMZ tour which we gave its own blog page and lots of palaces and gardens (we brought a pass!) which date back to the 14th century.
After the Seoul area the next stop was via the high speed KTX train to Gyeongju, known as the historical centre of Korea. Even the trains here seem to be amazing, whilst you cruise along at 190 MPH there are multiple vending machines to keep you busy, a restaurant car, WIFI (free of course) and even breast feeding rooms! We arrived at Gyeongju on lunar new year, the biggest holiday in this part of the world. To our surprise there are no big celebrations like reported in the UK press I have been reading but Koreans all return to thier home towns and spend time with their family's. After a bit of research it looks like this is very common observation of the new year so I'm guessing all the fancy displays the like of China put on are just a show of might (or a rather large scale pissing competition as Alex puts it). So Gyeongju, more temples than you can shake a stick at, dating back to the stone age ultimately but focusing around the Silla period, 68-935AD, one of the three kingdoms of Korea. It was fascinating looking at the royal tombs where the ruler where buried during their 668-935 rule, seeing the palaces in which the kings and queens lived and walking on the same ground they stood up to 1,500 years ago. There was also a great museum with many excavations from this period and earlier, a observatory which was built and also a good more few temples and gardens! The pictures show some of the best bits, and we were happy to move onto Busan, the far south of Korea after walking around all day in sub zero temperatures!
Next stop was Busan, a big city from where we caught the ferry over to Japan. Busan's highlights have been a Korean history museum, parks, markets and a relaxed time. The fish market was a amazing, it's set up right on the docks and they dump the catches right into the stalls from the ships. We saw an astounding variety of fish, including octopi, monkfish, squid, and other unmentionables while watching a woman skinning an eel (or what looked like an eel) alive and watching it wriggle with its skin off totally disgusting....
We have loved our time in the Republic of Korea, it's been an amazing trip for us to be somewhere so different. Korean people have also made our trip great, they are so friendly, especially once you initiate conversation. The culture is very different here, people are very stand-offish until you approach them most of the time but then extremely friendly, one man apologised to us repeatedly for the weather in Korea this time of year!
There are some things here we will never forget like drinking glasses kept in ultra violet light disinfectant shelves to clean in between uses, or underfloor heating absolutely everywhere, Korean TV ads, or post offices keeping reading glasses of various prescriptions at the writing counter!
On to Japan, the ferry docks tomorrow in Fukuoka...