One Week in South Korea

After being delayed at departure in Oslo (which is not unusual with this brand new airport), I landed in Paris about the same time as my connecting flight to Seoul should leave. Fortunately, it was at Charles De Gaulle airport that the problem started in the first place, so the connecting plane was also late. Not only did I get on the plane, I also got to have my luggage with me. Always a comforting thought.

One good thing about Air France – they have private televisions in the seat in front of you. On some flights. On the outbound I got one, but not going home. Anyway, going home is a whole week ahead, let’s not get going that way right now…

I met up with my “boyfriend that I live with”, Geir. What do you native English-speaking call that anyway? We Norwegians at least have a word for it. “Co-habitee” as my dictionary calls it. Anyway, he met me when I landed in Pusan. This was two hours late – a long queue at the passport control in Seoul, and some confusion at the connecting to inland flights caused that, of course in addition to the delay in Paris.

Always remember to change money first when landing in Korea. You’ll need it for connecting flights (tax), taxi, bus whatever. And bring cash. USD is a good choice as always. ATM/Visa/Minibanks are non-existent, or all in Korean. You will not get money on your Visa card in the bank, but most hotels and car rentals accept credit cards.

Enough practical info. More later. I met up with Geir, and we drove to the hotel. He had been there for 4 weeks, working, and we were to spend a week together, holidaying. I won’t bore you too much with that first day, it was just great to see each other again. Distance makes the heart grow fonder…

Next day, Sunday, we decided to drive to Kyong-Ju, an ancient capital in the south kingdom of Korea – the Shilla-kingdom. We drove out of Pusan – Geir driving, me navigating – headed for the coastal way up to Ulsan and from there to Kyong-Ju. After going both right and wrong, we got on this very narrow and bumpy road, filled with parked cars and lots of people out on the beach/shore fishing, having a nice Sunday out. It took us an hour to the next town, a distance on the map of about 10 miles. This was the first indication that maps and Koreans aren’t exactly on a first name basis.

After about a three hour drive, we stopped at Kyong-Ju National Museum. A lot of artifacts from the many King’s graves and temples in the area, and the Emilee Bell. This bell is cast in bronze, about three meters high and two meters in diameter. The story of the bell is that at first they could get no sound from it, but then a Buddhist monk had a dream that they had to sacrifice a young child to get any sound. So this they did. They threw a young girl in the melting pot, and the last thing they heard was her desperate cry for her mother, “Emilee”. From that day, the sound of the bell is that of the child, and the bell has got its name from it.

The museum was quite good. Many of the showcases had English text, but still it is difficult to grasp a whole country’s story like that. I suddenly started to realise why Americans and other foreigners are not really interested in our Viking Ships.

Next – lunch. What to eat? Well, even after four weeks in Korea, Geir still hadn’t found out what, how, where to eat and we ended up at McDonald’s. This is the only place in Kyong-Ju that we met any other Westerners. You will find McDonald’s more or less everywhere, so it is always possible to get something to eat, if not too healthy.

We also visited a park with 22 great King’s tombs. Ever read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings? Remember when the Barrowkings at the Barrowdowns trapped the hobbits and Tom Bombadil had to rescue them? Did Tolkien ever visit Kyong-Ju? Because this park, if you remove the paved walkways in between the mounds, is just like I imagined Barrowdowns.

We drove back to Pusan on the expressway, which took about one hour. Always remember to have some cash. Every place you want to see, will cost you from 1,000 Won and upwards (1,000 Won is not quite US$1) in fees. Parking, entry, expressway-fee, you name it. It is an effective way to employ a lot of people, since someone has to sell you the ticket and someone else has to check it.

That night I was introduced to Korean food. They sit on the floor, fry the food at the table, and everyone eats with chopsticks out of the same pan. It is tasty and good, spicy to some degree. Remember to drink Soju with it. It is rice-liquor, but not as strong as the Japanese sake. This evening we had one of the two specialties, Bulgogi. It is minced meat, marinated and fried.

The next day we left one bag each at the hotel and off we went to Cheju. This is a beautiful island south of the Korean peninsula that all Koreans dream about going to and most do as a honeymoon thing. We met many, many young couples, most of them wearing matching clothing.

We rented a car. It was not very cheap, and some choose to hire taxis to take them from one place to the other. In the latter way, you wouldn’t have to fight too much with maps and bad signing, but it is always nice to have your own transportation.

The island is not too big, and we covered a lot in the two days we were there. Unfortunately, we had bad weather with heavy rain and wind, and we kept saying, “this is probably very pretty in the sun”. Much of the sights in Cheju are based on nature. The island is really just one big volcano (Mt. Halla). It is extinct and possible to climb. We didn’t, but if you go there and want to climb it, check first to find out which routes that are open. The mountain is the highest in Korea, 1.950m high.

We ended up on the South Coast after a few futile attempts to find a park at the West Coast (You land on the North, where the city of Cheju is located). There we went to Chungmun tourist complex. They had a waterfall, but not too impressive (A small digression is necessary here. If you have ever been to Norway, you will understand that most Norwegians are like spoilt brats as to nature sights. We have too many mountains and big waterfalls to be impressed by much. So, we are sorry about that, we do not mean to be condescending or anything).

At Chungmun we went to see a Dolphin-show. That was fun, I have never been to one before. They also had sea lions. Great! But I expect, if you have been to a Dolphin show in DisneyWorld or some other place in the States, you will probably feel like I do about the nature sights!

Lunch was again a problem, so we ended up, very wet, at Dagmar’s at the Hyatt Hotel. Great Cheeseburgers! The Hyatt is absolutely beautiful, but very expensive. 300,000 Won for one night. We headed back over the mountain pass, and back to the city of Cheju. We stayed at Cheju Palace Hotel. Nice, clean and reasonably cheap.

Due to the terrible weather, we had dinner at the hotel restaurant. They served Western style food, but here’s a good tip: Do not eat Western style food outside the West. They do not know how to make it. We had the worst steak in history, and ended up very disappointed.

Next day, we travelled eastward. We had one sudden and unexpected stop at a Buddhist temple, still under construction. It was very quiet, no people around, and I was certain that someone would come and chase us away when we started to take some pictures. However, the ever so friendly Koreans offered to take our picture so that we would have one picture with us together in it. So in thanks, we decided not to take any pictures of their Buddha, which is a mortal sin to do anyway.

Next stop was at the Manjuro caves. The world’s longest lava-tunnel, only 1 of 33 kilometres is open to the public. We went in, and immediately regretted not having brought umbrellas. It virtually rained inside. But aside from that, Manjuro was well worth visiting. We also stopped at San-gumburi.

San-gumburi is a crater peculiar to Cheju. Without volcanic lava, it is unlike other craters. Approximately 10m high and 2 km round with the total area of 298,000m², it is a floral treasure where 420 kinds of the temperate, subtropical plants and alpine plants grow.

Last stop in Cheju was Songsan’s Ilch’ulbong Peak. This mountain, also called the Sunrise peak, consists of 99 odd-shaped rock peaks, thus eroded because the giant crater juts on a peninsula far into the sea. Sit on the peak at dawn, the view of the sun rising on the horizon is absolutely magnificent. We, unfortunately, had a too early flight – due to one very specific reason I’ll come back to, so we only saw the peak from below.

We rushed back to the airport, delivered the car, hopped on the plane, and whooshed back to Pusan. The reason for our early return was a visit to some good friends that live on another island, Koje, outside Pusan. The best way to get to Koje is by boat, or shall we say ferry. The problem is that, if it is raining, or windy, or dark, the ferry is cancelled. The last ferry is at 6.30 p.m. in any case. So to make it to the last ferry, we had to leave Cheju around 4 p.m.

When we arrived in Pusan we called our friends at Koje, only to learn that all ferries were indeed cancelled, due to wind. BUT – there is no need to go into Pusan, and then take a bus, my friend told me. Take the airport-bus to Masan, instead, and there you will find to a bus to Koje. Sounds easy enough doesn’t it? It isn’t. I won’t bore you with this long story. Let’s just say that one bus-ride of 45 minutes, one taxi-ride of 30 minutes, a new bus-ride of a bit more than two hours and a new taxi-ride of 15 minutes got us there. 45 minutes of ferry-ride was exchanged for almost 4 hours of bus and taxi. It was expensive, too.

One of the problems in Korea is that there are few to none with any knowledge of English. We had two very good helpers, because if the extremely friendly Korean see Westerners, they do come forward and offer their help, if they can. And we did get there. It cost time, money and arguments about my not so good travel-skills, but we got there.

You see, I’m a control freak when it comes to travel. I need to know where I’m going and I need to know that everything is under control. I’m working on it, and I’m better than I used to be. This is why I prefer to travel alone, when flying, and why I’m always elected travel guide, and why I always carry a map AND know how to read it.

Koje is absolutely beautiful. We had very good weather, nice and sunny. We borrowed a car, and by the helpful tips of our friends who have lived on the island for a year, we knew where to go. We had a great day, stopped in small villages, at the beach for a couple of hours (at the time of day that the Indians (Asian) say that only Mad dogs and Englishmen go out.) We swam in the Japanese Sea. We went sightseeing on a gravel road, and stopped at a small fishing village for “lunch”. Again, too afraid that we would be served raw fish, we ended up with very sweet bakery-stuff and Sprite. No McDonald’sÂ…

Back in Ok’po, the town where our friends live, we headed out for dinner. We ended up at a restaurant serving fowl, and had two servings, one with duck and one with goose. The duck was very good, but the goose – well, now we know why it is called goose bumps. Let’s leave it at that.

Back in Pusan, this time by ferry, thank God, we had a slow day. We stopped by Geir’s office, checked our mail, talked to some people, and had lunch in a Japanese restaurant. Yum, they do know how to make good food! As I said, a slow day. We went shopping – Christmas presents, other stuff, birthday present to me. In the evening, we had Chinese food. Expensive, but very good.

Friday, last day, we spent sightseeing in Pusan. We went to the tower (Yongdusan) and had a good, last, look at Pusan, and then we went shopping. We didn’t buy much, so mostly we went browsing. They have some very special markets, including an underground marked situated just over the subway (metro).

Dinner that night was the other of the two specialties, namely Galbi. Whole slices of meat, instead of minced, marinated. It is not that much different from Bulgogi, only twice as expensive. But it was very tasty and nice.

Saturday was homegoing day. Nothing much happened, nothing to write about, anyway. Air France did not have a personal TV this way, and I had only one hour sleep. But who cares, you are just going home and to work, you can always sleep there, can’t you?

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