Trip Start Sep 21, 2007
Trip End Apr 10, 2009

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Annyeong haseyooooo!
I thought it was time again for a new entry. I am now in a new country on this trip, South Korea. Way more western than the previous countries (it is comparable to Taiwan), which is sometimes good, but it comes with a price: it is also quite a bit more expensive.
Anyway, the last time I wrote an entry I was in Qingdao, where I had to (temporarily) part with my girlfriend Peony... :-(
From Qingdao I took the ferry to Incheon in South Korea, a journey of almost 17 hours. I had a bunk bed in a 50 bed dormitory, which may sound awful, but in fact it was very comfortable and quiet; with a reading light and a curtain in front of each individual bunk bed. It was also only half full. The sun was shining in Qingdao and the next morning it was grey in South Korea. I arrived in Incheon harbour and saw lots and lots of brand new cars in the harbour waiting to be exported. I walked around for a while in this city and saw a Chinatown... quite something if you just arrived from China. Then it was time to take the subway to Seoul (about an hour). Here I checked in into Bong House, with the very friendly and laid-back owner Bong.
The next few days I visited the sights of Seoul and that are quite a few. There are a number of palaces for instance. One evening I saw a big anti-government demonstration - which turns out ugly most of the time - but when I left it was still peaceful. I also had some lazy days here and I did some daytrips from Seoul, some even by subway (which network is extensive!). First I visited Suwon, an hour south of Seoul by subway. Here there is the very famous Hwaseong Fortress, which was indeed quite impressive and photogenic. Another daytrip went to Ganghwado Island, where I saw a dolmen (but I was hardly impressed because they have much bigger ones near my parents' place), a so-so temple and I climbed a low mountain with had views of about 10 meters due to a heavy fog. Another day I climbed another and higher mountain north of Seoul (again reachable by subway), the Dobongsan in Bukhansan National Park. This was a real mountain climb and near the top it got all rocky and very steep: there were metal railings and chains to hold yourself: not for the faint-hearted and vertigo sufferers! Once on the top the clouds moved in and you couldn't see the valley anymore; but at least I saw it for about five minutes!
Another thing I did in Seoul: I bought (yet) another digital camera, the Panasonic DMC-TZ3 for about 200 euro. My Ricoh was half broken and there were spots on my camera lens. I will keep that one as a back-up now. So all the pictures from after Seoul are taken with this new camera.
The last daytrip which I did from Seoul was to the North Korean border at Panmunjom. Here you have the possibility to feel the very real tension between the North and the South. I joined an American army tour (a tour is the only way to go here) to Panmunjom. Just before entering the DMZ (demilitarized zone - absolutely no pictures!) we crossed a bridge which the bus had to zigzag across, because the bridge was littered with randomly placed military road barriers. We then drove through an anti-tank wall and then we arrived at Camp Bonifas, where western (mostly Americans) and South Korean troops are based. We had a very interesting lecture here and then we moved on (changed into a military bus) to Panmunjom proper. Here is the place where the North and the South are at its closest (the DMZ is normally 4 kilometers wide). Exactly on the border are some UN buildings which we visited as well and the northern part of the building was technically on North Korean soil (so this way I have been to North Korea). We also saw some serious looking North Korean soldiers. After this we went to a viewpoint and had a good look at North Korea and saw the so-called North Korean propaganda village, with its huge 160 meter high flagpole! On the opposite side in South Korea the flagpole is 'only' 100 meter high. Via the Bridge of No Return (where in the past the people (prisoners of war) who crossed could never go back - now nobody crosses this bridge I guess). After Panmunjom we continued via a so-so viewpoint (no pictures) to the Third Penetration Tunnel. This is a North Korean dug tunnel in rock from North Korea under the DMZ to South Korean territory. They have discovered 4 tunnels so far, but they guess they are much more. We had a chance to walk in the tunnel until the first barrier. It was 71 meter below the ground and quite smallish, although military experts guessed 10,000 troops per hour could go through this tunnel. After this tunnel we headed back to Seoul.
The next day it was time for me to leave Seoul. I took a bus to Danyang. Here I visited some caves and the nearby large Gu·insa Temple complex. The next day I wanted to take a boat trip across Chungju Lake to Chungju, but alas, there was no scheduled boat this time. So I took the bus to Chungju and changed a bus to Cheongju (some place names really look the same in this country). I found a hotel here and took a bus to the Beopjusa Temple complex, which was very photogenic - it was also a very hot day.
From Cheongju I took a bus the next day to Daejon, where I changed a bus to go to Buyeo. Here I based myself in the local youth hostel (I had a dormitory room to myself - a ondol room, which means it's a room with some mattresses (yo) on the floor with floor-heating). I then took a bus to Gongju and visited this old town. I saw the Baekje (one of the three old Korean Kingdoms, together with Shilla and Goguryeo) royal tombs and a not too impressive fortress. After that I went back to Buyeo.
Buyeo is quite a pleasant town with some sights, like some Baekje Royal Tombs, a beautiful lotus garden and an old temple complex with one solitary stone pagoda. In the afternoon I took a bus to Daecheon Beach, where the annual Boryeong Mud Festival started that day. It is also the busiest west coast beach, and that was not hard to see. I think I have never seen a busier beach in my life! And there was of course the Mud Festival. While I didn't participate (you need friends with that I guess - which I have of course, but not at that time) it was fun to watch people fully covered in grey mud en mud wrestling games. After a few hours I made it back to Buyeo with only just a little bit of mud on my daypack.
From Buyeo I took a bus to Nonsan, and changed here for a bus to Jeonju (Chungju, Cheongju, Jeonju, try to pronounce these places right!). In Jeonju I found a relatively cheap hotel and had a look around the old town - which didn't impress me at all, but maybe I am just spoiled. It was not overly restored like so many buildings in South Korea, it was just, well, really not special.
So the next day I did a daytrip to Maisan Provincial Park (with Maisan meaning Horse Ears Mountain) and I admit, the two peaks really looked a bit like horse ears. The park and the mountains were really pretty and I did quite a bit of walking and climbing. I also saw a temple, where in the past some monk piled a lot of stones on top of each other (must have been bored) and these stone piles and pillars are still standing today, even withstanding earthquakes.
Yesterday I took a bus from Jeonju to Gwangju and from Gwangju to Unjusa Temple. Unjusa Temple is famous for its stone pagodas and Buddha statues. It was quite pretty and like so many parks and sights during the week: almost deserted. After the temple I went back to Gwangju and had a really great but very spicy fried squid with rice meal before taking the bus to Mokpo, where I am now.
Today I didn't do much; I had to take care of some paperwork back home and I made a reservation for the ferry to Jejudo tomorrow. I also gave me a chance to write this diary, talk to my girlfriend en do some other necessities.
South Korea has been a great country so far, with its own peculiarities. A strange phenomenon here in South Korea is that there are almost no Japanese cars in this country. I know there is (still) a lot of animosity between South Korea and Japan, mainly because of the Second World War, but even in China - where a lot of people hate Japan as well - there are quite a lot of Japanese cars. I've noticed the lack of Japanese cars from almost the beginning, so I started counting them: so far I have counted Japanese cars of the following brands: Lexus (5), Honda (3) and 1 Infiniti (1). There are also a few European and American cars, but the brand names are at least 99% Korean here. Hyundai is number one, closely followed by Kia. Then there are some Daewoo, Samsung and Ssanyong cars, and even less Actyon (ugly!), Opirus and Equus.
Another thing: I wanted to buy a new battery for my mobile phone but it turns out they don't have Sony Ericsson here (second largest mobile phone brand worldwide); I haven't even seen a Nokia. The only foreign brand I have seen so far is Motorola, the rest is Korean: Samsung, Cyon, Anycall, et cetera. Do they not like foreign brands here, are they seen as inferior or is it just domestic market protection? I guess the last one.
Anyway, this was my new entry. Gamsa hamnida for reading it. As always I am uploading new pictures more often than I write a new story, so for those who haven't seen them: there are also a lot of new pictures.
Everybody take care!
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