Korea

An adventurous stopover between the English-speaking world and my tour in Japan.

One night in a B&B near the airport, to recover from a 12-hour flight and 8-hour time difference, then two staying with a family in Seoul.

Saturday-Sunday 8-9 October: Monastery-Stay experience (Trekking option) in Busan.

To start with the flight: 12 hours travel and a 16-hour time difference, beginning early afternoon and ending shortly after sunset the following evening. I don’t think it ever got dark until the very end, though since the woman in the window seat kept the blind down apart from takeoff and landing I wasn’t aware of this.

I filled in the time between the two complicated meals on the in-flight entertainment, with films and TV programmes about

  • Archaeological research about Angkor Wat,
  • A Chinese monk walking to India
  • a walk following the Himalayas
  • planning an exhibition to mark a Hieronymous Bosch anniversary

Then there was a language app from Berlitz through which I tried to learn a bit of Korean.  Numbers and dates were easy enough, but there was a very steep learning curve when it came to dialogues and I would have needed to consult a dictionary or phrase book to understand the suggested answers to a question. So I turned to my Kindle and iPad to find out about the Korean syllable alphabet Hangul. For light relief I played Bookworm on the IFES, but this got too difficult because of turbulence. What I did not do was try to sleep!

On arrival, the Customs official assured me that my Swiss Army knife was not regarded as an offensive weapon (unlike the US security guard who confiscated the much blunter knife from my portable cutlery set), and the currency exchange booth gave me smaller notes and coins for one of my 10 000 won notes ( about $10). I arrived at Unseo station, immediately saw a phone which accepted coins, telephoned the guest house, and was picked up 10 minutes later. In the morning, the owner’s wife drove me back to the subway. She was excited to hear about my travels and said she dreamed of doing such a thing. If you are reading this, Lisa, I hope your dream comes true.

I had booked a free walking tour starting at Dongdaemun, the eastern gate of the city of Seoul, at 10:00, and arrived at about 9:40. There was only one other participant, a young Turkish woman who had also just arrived in Korea. The tour guide took us along part of the City Wall, including a couple of museums and an exhibition in a park, alternating between the stages of its building in the Middle Ages, the postwar history (WWII and the Korean War), and modern reconstruction and renovation work.

Afterwards I found a cafe for lunch, then walked across to the southeast of the city. On the way I bought a sweatshirt from a Salvation Army shop, as my purple one is rapidly wearing out, had a pleasant walk along a renovated canal, and discovered the Anglican Cathedral.

Other attempts at sightseeing were less successful; I could not take my rucksack into palace grounds, and missed an English-language tour at a shrine by five minutes. But I walked down some wonderful streets of tiny specialist shops, and got some idea of the city.  I arrived at the station at 4 pm, meaning to book my ticket to Busan for Saturday, but the queue was too long.  Taking the subway, I arrived at the arranged meeting place at 5 pm exactly.

My hosts suggested that we should straight away go out to eat at a very popular restaurant. My first Korean meal was overwhelming, sitting on a floor cushion and trying to negotiate the narrow metal chopsticks as well as my first encounter with kimchi (pickled vegetables) and a huge variety of dishes.

We agreed that Brian (his chosen English nickname) would take me sightseeing the next day while Sunny was at work. Thanks to my explorations earlier in the day and the map provided by the city walk guide, as well as the Lonely Planet guidebooks borrowed from Kindle Unlimited, I had some idea of what I wanted to see, and between us we agreed a rough programme.

Brian then tried to book my train ticket online. It seemed that everything was fully booked apart from one leaving at 7 am which would mean getting up at 5:30.  However, it was possible to go on the waiting list for other trains in case of cancellation, and the following morning we learned that there was a seat on the 10:00 train. So we could relax and enjoy the rest of Friday in Seoul.

I got talking to this group of middle school girls on the Seoul subway on the way into the city. They were off to see a musical.

We started with an English-language tour of a 14th century palace. Then a Korean lunch in a restaurant where fortunately I did not have to sit on the floor and could enjoy the food.  We arrived at a Confucian shrine which is a resting-place for the spirits of dead kings and queens in time for the 2 pm English-language tour,

and finished up at the impressive Jogyesa Buddhist temple, the largest in Seoul.

 A relaxing evening with supper cooked  by my hosts.

On Saturday we drove to their local temple. They usually walk there on Saturday mornings, but my train time did not allow that. It was good to walk round in peace and quiet after the crowds of the day before. Even at 7:30 two visitors were meditating.

Brian then came with me to Seoul station to see myself and luggage safely onto the train for the Monastery Stay, which needs a page of its own.