My quick break in Korea was a bit of a last-minute affair. I seized an opportunity which presented itself – a five-week break between jobs – and I really had no time to plan anything beforehand. Sylvia Park of Park Air Travel (15 Hanover Square, 0207 495 2525) fixed my flights with Korean Air at short notice. Asiana would have been marginally cheaper but they could only waitlist me for the days I wanted to travel – I was a little surprised that the flights were so full. A Korean friend of mine reserved the first couple of nights at the Insadong Fraser Suites. (Very easy and foreigner-friendly, but there are cheaper ways of staying in Seoul). I had managed to book a rendezvous with General Paik Sun Yup before I left, but even that had to be rescheduled once I had arrived. So really just about everything I did was spur-of-the-moment stuff.
I knew I wanted to get out of Seoul to collect a few UNESCO world heritage points, and I knew that I wanted to meet up with old friends, and put to faces to the names of people I have corresponded with in the past. I had the phone numbers of people I wanted to meet up with, but there were too many numbers for the available time in Korea. I took the approach that if I was meant to see someone, they would answer the phone first time. If not, then I’d ring the next number on the list. My schedule soon filled up and I didn’t get round to seeing half the people I wanted to, but I was still as busy as I wanted to be.
It was a great break, and I’m struggling to come up with any complaints about my stay.
- One below-average restaurant in the tourist area of Insadong;
- A couple of bad traffic jams in Seoul1;
- A mild sense of puzzlement that although entrance to the National Museum is free you still need to get yourself a ticket.
- Oh, and there was a bit of a nutcase in the subway once.
That doesn’t amount to much of a list, and could apply to any city in the world. OK, so I kept away from things that I knew were going to stress me out (the Kyobo book store for example), but in general things were very easy.
I was surprised at the number of people who could speak good or acceptable English – certainly enough to help me get what I wanted (a ticket, information about what bus to take etc). Prize for the best English goes to Miss Bae in the Bulguksa tourist information office.
Help was on hand when I wanted it, but otherwise no-one came up to bother me. Train and subway announcements were made in English as well as Korean (and in some cases Japanese and Chinese as well). Ticket vending machines were bilingual. The subway systems are straightforward (though because station names are in both Hangeul and Roman script the wall maps get a bit busy and difficult to read).
It does help if you can read the Hangeul script (eg, for reading the destinations at bus stops), because not everything is transliterated. But Hangeul is easy to learn. My handful of Korean language classes at the Cultural Centre also helped to break the barrier; but I could have managed without. Obviously, it helps if you have local friends to show you around and help penetrate the surface a little: again, that applies in any foreign country.
Given the choice, I would not travel to Korea in July again: the mugginess of the weather at times was not pleasant. But I did not have a choice in the matter. Next time, I’ll see if I can schedule something for the autumn.
I only scratched the surface of what I wanted to do in Korea, which leaves me hungry to come back. There’s all of Kangwon, Chungcheong and Jeolla provinces which I’ve never set foot in; there’s plenty left to see in the provinces I have ventured into; and I still haven’t eaten Budae Chigae. I hope it’s not too long before I return.
- Kyongju Anapji pond by buck82
- Seoul World Trade Centre by Swisscan
- Ulsan apartments by bhophoto
- Seoul palace pond by Dolmang
Index of the 2009 Travel Diary:
- 1: Arrival
- 2: Suwon and Prince Sado’s tomb
- 3: 20th century art and history
- 3a: Interview with Gen Paik Sun-yup
- 4: Recuperation and the Kilburn Art Space
- 5: Bulguksa and Seokkuram
- 6: Haeinsa
- 7: Korea House
- 8: Galleries old and new
- 8a: Interview with Brother Anthony of Taizé
- 9: Hails and farewells
- => 10: Reflections
- to be fair, one of these was in the rush hour, and the other was in the construction area around the Gwanghwamun