Backpacking Korea. (09/03/18 to 04/04/18)

Korea has been one of the most interesting countries to backpack around, partly because there are hardly any other backpackers as it’s off the beaten track so people treat you really nice, and partly because it was fascinating to see this country at the height of its economic boom. Its capital, Seoul, just a short distance from North Korea, was our first stop. We felt shabby in our backpacking clothes (everyone in Seoul dresses immaculately), which were totally unsuitable in the stinging cold. Going from sunny Taiwan to Korea was hard. I literally shivered non stop for a week. To warm up I played the crane machines determined to win some cute teddies. I was still cold so shopping was called for and in Seoul there are plenty of shops and huge malls to choose from. When shopping I couldn’t get over how beautiful the women were. Korea is famous for its plastic surgery so we played the guessing game as to who had had what operation. I was told by a Korean girl that many of the younger generation have had some form of surgery, be it eye surgery, rhinoplasty or had their jaw bones (shaved), in search for their version of beauty. She said some parents even buy surgery as a graduation present. Once in warm clothes we visited the local markets trying out all kinds of sea food, Yachaejeon (yummy vegetable pancakes) and pickled foods. We then had a few days partying hard in underground pubs, heavy mental clubs and noraebang (karaoke bars). One of our favourite nights out was the night we spent in a sparkling underground drag club. I watched on as Tim and our friend Chris took part in a dance competition…the prize…more booze. A friend needed someone to house sit for her so we found ourselves in a beautiful house amongst the mansions of Gangnam (the song Gangnam Style by PSY is based on this area). The subway was easy to navigate so we hit Hongdae and were lucky enough to see the flowering cherry blossoms. We strolled through the Josen Palace Museum and observed stunning Korean women strolling around in traditional Hanbok clothing. Next it was onto the area of Yongsan-gu to check out The War Memorial of Korea. This museum is one of the best I’ve ever visited, it took us two days to see it in full and to pay our respects to all the lives lost in the Korean War which lasted three years. Needing to get out of the city for a while, we visited our friend Chris’s home in Sinchang, where we drank cans at the ‘bottom of the hill’, and partied at his local noraebang, drinking traditional makgeolli and soju. Feeling worse for wear, we decided to visit the south coast to get some fresh air, settling on the seaside city of Busan. Busan was filled with live fish markets (the best one being Jagalchi Market), a 360 viewing tower in Yongdusan Park, neon lights, pretty beaches and the kindest hostel owners. Pop Hostel took us for hot orange juice on a night trip, showing us around the city lights set under huge lit up bridges. We visited the Busan Modern History Museum where we learned about the ‘comfort women‘ who were forced to ‘comfort’ the Japanese men during the war. These elderly women now march in protest every Wednesday at 12 noon, along with younger supporting women, requesting acknowledgment and an apology from the Japanese. This is the longest protests in the world! Busan also provided me with my first experience of jjimjilbang (not for the faint hearted or prude), whereby you get into steaming hot public baths, naked, (no underwear allowed…mine practically had to be torn off me…I am Irish after all), have a long soak, then head up to a communal ‘nap room’ for a sleep or you can use many of the entertainment rooms. I LOVED the experience (after I got over being the only westerner walking around in the nude) and went to two different bath houses. My skin was so shiny and smooth. I really wish we had these in the UK. The price is less than £7 and you can stay the full night in the communal sleeping room if you want. After watching street dancing and listening to modern K-pop music we made our way up the coast by train. The snow capped mountains were stunning and it really provided a view of life outside of Korea’s bright cities. Things move much slower on the coast. We stayed a few nights in Jeongdongjin as we wanted to have the opportunity to see inside the submarine the North Koreans used to try and infrantrate South Korea. The submarine was so small inside, I honestly have no idea how the crew fit in there. Afterwards we went to see memorial statues of the Korean War overlooking the sea and spent the evening eating at a Korean buffet. All eyes were on the two westerners choosing our food as clearly we had no idea what we were doing. Eventually everyone got over the shock and started chatting to us in broken English, filling our plates up with all kinds of pickled items (kim chi), soups, seafood and braised meat. They were so kind to us and always stopped to say hello when we were out in the village. We strolled the beach (a setting for a famous Korean soap, their version of Home and Away) and took a picture of the largest hourglass in the world. By bus we moved onto Gangneung where we stayed at a themed ‘love motel(they have these all over Korea, think of the movie ‘Blue Valentine’), saw where the Paralympics had just been held and enjoyed a ‘live band’ naraebang night. I drank my weight in soju as Tim played the drums, the owner played lead guitar and I sang until my throat hurt. It was such a fun date night. Our friend Chris was playing a gig for a cat charity in a town outside Sinchang so we moved back to Sinchang. The gig was brilliant fun and raised lots of money for a great cause. By the end of the night, Tim was on the drums and I danced until 5 a.m. with Chris’s friendly expat teacher friends. At dawn there was an incident with a door and a cupboard… (sorry Chris and a huge thanks to Miriam!). Chris took us for a farewell meal, of gogi-gui, a barbecued dish where you cook the meat yourself with lots of garlic and wrap it in lettuce leaves. It came with pickled vegetables, cold seafood soup, chilli crab and tofu so we were stuffed! Chris was a wonderful host and so generous to us. To finish off Korea we moved back to Seoul so we could go on the North Korea DMZ tour. Looking at the people walking around in North Korea was jarring. At Dora’s Observatory I could see the North Korean guards and the ‘fake town’. We also took a train through the third tunnel which highlighted the determination of North Korea. It’s suspected there are more tunnels which are yet to be found… Freedom Bridge was an emotional experience, you could hear a pin drop. The whole DMZ trip was unforgettable, just like Korea itself. One day I hope this country can be fully reunited. >

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