15.06.2015 - 28.06.2015 24 °C
After 4 flights in as many days and apologies to any environmentalists out there, but increasing my carbon footprint/bodyprint dramatically I touched down in South Korea.
Before I left though I was in two minds about whether to change destination. The country was in the middle of a health crisis due to a contagious breathing disease caused by getting a bit too close to a camel. Not that there are any camels here of course, just tourists that like that kind of thing and brought it this way. The disease, Mers, also had a similar name to a certain UK singer, Olly....if the illness was half as bad as his warbling it was one to avoid. In the end I decided to stick with my plans, unlike a lot of others, as I boarded my flight to Seoul to be greeted with an empty plane...cue more Mansfield Town home game jokes.
Arriving in to Seoul was like landing in the future, even more so after spending the previous 5 weeks in India. Everything was clean, efficient and worked. I was at my hostel within 1 hour of landing and quickly realised it was time to hold my hands up and say I knew nothing about this place, other than the food was meant to be something special and they have some pretty angry neighbours to the north.
After a bit of research my must do list went as follows:
Get a Chinese visa - Always get the boring paper work out of the way first
Visit the DMZ - Heavily guarded no mans land to keep those no good communists out of the capitalist dream
Head down the country to see what's on offer
Check out a baseball game - This place is hooked
Eat enough Korean BBQ to counteract my strict vegetarian Indian diet
Rough plan decided and a taste of Seoul experienced over 2 days (eating lots of fried chicken and drinking a local spirit called Soju) I headed out east with a new travel companion.... Arnie Schwarzeneggers long lost brother, and I'm not talking Danny Devito out of the underated hollywood masterpiece Twins. By subway and bus, all leaving and arriving on the dot we arrived to the port town of Sokcho...I was almost getting bored with how well everything works over here....for my German friend however this must have been paradise!
Sokcho wasn't the prettiest place but it was located next to one of Korea's top national parks, where we took part in their national past time... hiking. It doesn't matter where you are in this place, the locals will be decked out in all the latest gear from all the best brands....word of advice though, when trying to earn trekking brownie points don't tell the chap who asked where your shoes are made they are from China....cue much laughter about why my shoes were probably going to disintegrate in the rain we were experiencing. He still seemed happy enough to have a picture and drink some holy mountain water with me though. Trekked out we decided to head further south on a day trip with our hostel owners brother to some caves and a Korean war exhibit. I should add that our hostel owners name was Yoo...we never did get his brothers name so for the purpose of the blog I'll go for Mii. This country is also exceptionally clean, so much so if your food drops on the floor there is no 5 second rule....I was therefore not that surprised the day before when we were told we would have to delay our cave visit as it is closed once a month for a spring clean....who cleans a cave? We did make it to the cave the next day, the Korean slant being neon lights everywhere and names that really captured the mood of the place (see picture below)..Mii our guide was also scouring evey inch of the cave with a torch, I can only assume it was his national duty to be on the hunt for any pesky northerners.
I know your in there Kim Jung
After the cave the day trip took us to unification park, scene of the area where North Korea invaded back in the 50's and also where a spy submarine ran aground in the 90's. A chance for me to wear yet another hard hat, and this time pretend to be one of Kim Jung's comrades aboard his sub....
The day was rounded off with a first for me...some English/Korean fusion food, you heard it here first...Squid stuffed with black pudding, incredible!
Korea is probably the most high tech place I have been, touch screen tourist maps in the underground and at the beach, everyone has the latest phones and gadgetry and there is free WiFi everywhere....but when this extended to an 'ancient' cultural village where we went to on our trip further south the next day you start to think its gone a bit too far...'and now on your right you will see the oldest house in Korea and if you look slightly to your left you will see the air-conditioning unit of its latest resident, his 4 wheel drive kia and the first WiFi hot spot to be installed in town'. Who needs authentic, we need to stream the latest game of thrones! That night we reached a city called Gyeongju, home of some more ancient relics, not a reference to the local elderly people, but a series of tombs, and the best temple in all of Korea (according to the Korean government, and who am I to argue). As long as there weren't WiFi terminals and flat screen TVs everywhere I'd be happy...
We pressed on with our journey southwards and after a short stay in the city of Busan boarded a plane for an island south of the mainland called Jeju, which I can only assume means very wet place when translated. Let's just say it was a bit on the moist side and flippers would have been more appropriate than my still in one piece walking shoes (put that in your pipe and smoke it Mr Korean hiking snob!) The island reminded me of Cornwall with its rolling countryside, rugged beaches and as previously mentioned dodgy weather...sadly no clotted cream ice cream though and despite the weather we donned our trekking gear once again and climbed the highest peak in the country before I left the next day to head back to Seoul.
Back to Seoul and back to feasting on the local food. I ticked a few more sights off the list... the local palace, an inner city river, the korean war museum and then went to what turned out to be a real highlight of the trip....a baseball game. Let's just say the atmosphere beat the sport hands down. These guys are mad for a bit of karaoke, so the singing wasn't a surprise. What was though was the dance routines, cheerleaders and some crazy bloke instigating the whole thing. For the four hours the game lasted everyone was out of there seats giving it some...the Chesterfield FC faithful have a long way to go to compete with this!
The next day was my last in Korea before jetting off to visit Genghis Khans family in deepest Mongolia. What better way to spend my final hours here than looking at some oppressed people through a set of binoculars...aka a trip to the north Korean border. Unfortunalty the joint security area where you can actually get to the border was closed due to ongoing health crisis, so the next best thing was a trip to an observation tower to watch a south Korean propaganda film and then stare into what felt like the human zoo of the north. 'Look at that one, he's planting crops by hand', 'You would think they'd build them a nicer enclosure, some of them don't even have roofs on their houses', 'Oh how quaint, they don't even have mobile phones over there'. The experience was very bizarre, even more so when coupled with the sight of the south Korean border guards taking some down time....
I finished my trip off that evening with a trip to a local football match...let's just say some things are best done back home...yes even as a Chesterfield fan and one final blow out BBQ feast. What Korea lacked in sights it more than made up for with its culture, sporting events (baseball at least) and its incredible food...I'm back to my fighting weight! Time to leave the future, bring on Mongolia!
Hillbilly style, it had to be done...who said that beards were in fashion.