A Travellerspoint blog

Chuseok Korean Holiday 2012 - Seoul


Sunday 30th September

Today is Korea's largest public holiday. People travel home the day before to be with their families then spend the next day traveling back to their place of residence.

Up bright and early for breakfast around 8.30 and off for the days activities. First stop is the Gyeongbokgung Palace about 20 mins stroll down the main road which is lined with flags, pictures, the largest TV screens you can imagine plus the sweet smells of fairy floss and doughnuts. The roads are so wide 6 lanes each way divided by Gwanghwamun Square, not good place to run the lights.


A statue of the king, heads the square which has been transformed into a field of potted rice plants of all different varieties, there are tents lining each side as we move further down filled with activates for the children face and mask painting, bow making, calligraphy, you name it was there. We make it to the place in time to see the changing of the guard, bigger than the one from yesterday to match the size of this palace it's massive. Through the gates we go, there is a path way leading down the middle of this huge court yard. The pathway is split in to three lanes, centre for the King the outer two for the court. Very cleverly the granite stones are roughly hewn to reduce the glare.


After exploring the grounds we wound our way to the back of the complex to the rear gate which lead on to the Blue House which is the current Presidential residence. Security guards on uniform and plain clothed every where.


We turned left here and walk down the tree lined boulevard to begin our walk up the mountain to see the Fortress wall. Raewyn wasn't kidding about how far she was going to walk me today ugh. Up the hill we went, a great hill challenge for the Korean Ginos on their flash bikes and Lycra. We met a couple of American dudes also walking not sure if they where going in the same direction, finally we made it to the point of the Seoul Seonggwak or Fortress Wall. There is monument to a policeman who had given his life protecting the Blue house January 1968 when a group of 31 North Korean guerrillas tried to invade, he was shot in the heart and abdomen and still fought on giving his life completely to his duty and country. Along with another policeman he was awarded with a posthumous award Superntendent General.


We where unable to walk along the Fortress wall as it is under military control damn it, and you need your passport.


So we turned around and walked back down the mountain by now both our feet are hurting and very hungry as it is now 2pm. The view over Seoul was amazing as we descended. As we came back in the mix of celebrations we skirted the Palace Wall to get back to the front of the palace and back to our hotel. Cleverly I remember to turn on the pedometer on my phone at the of the mountain, the return trip was just under 7kms so that roughly 14kms we had trudged, oh my aching feet. For lunch Raewyn had Bibimbap which is a dish that comes with an egg in the middle in the middle and you stir it up as it fries in the super hot earthen bowel, I had Kalbi tang which is beef ribs in a beef broth yum to both dishes.

Rested we head off for Gangnum on the train, it's about 4pm now. Sadly we didn't make it as it took us about an hour to work out the train route so no Gangnum style for us. Next choice is the Cheonggyecheon stream, this runs east/west and about 10 mins from the hotel. Back in its day the woman used to wish the clothes while the children played, over time it has been concreted over and rediscovered and turned in to this beautiful oasis running through the heart of Seoul. In its current form the walls are lined with granite blocks and paved with a mixture of granite paving and crazy blacks stone slabs, there are water falls placed along the walk way to hide the smell of sewer harking back to the olden times. At night the stream is lit with lights creating a romantic mode for lovers and families along its banks. At the head of the stream is a large waterfall which is lit by lights and a wishing well placed in the centre of the stream, this too is lit by LED lights.


The temperature is starting to drop now and we are getting chilled from the night air so we head back to the hotel for happy hour and bed. Seoul is a beautiful safe city to stay and enjoy, our three day here have not been enough.

Posted by tojoken 21:49 Comments (1)

DMZ - Demilitarized Zone and a Palace for Good Measure


Saturday 29th Sept

Up early to get our tour to the 3rd tunnel in the DMZ. Bus was full and we had two interpreters, one for the Japanese at the front of the bus and one for the English at the back. Laura, our guide, had a great sense of humour. She had been counting in Korean when we got on the bus to make sure she had the right number of passengers, she got to 12 and Chris asked what can after 12 and she answered 13. Then gave a big grin.


Very interesting to find out that the river that runs from North Korea through to South is heavily fenced and patrolled. It is a no go area for boats and fishing as North Koreans have tried to infiltrate using the river in the past. One year the river froze over and spies tried entering that way too. All of this activity is quite recent really, happening between the 60s up to the 80s. There is another branch of the river that South Korean can use but it seems such a waste of a great river. Wondered what the fishing stocks are like in there?


There were strict guidelines where and when photos were allowed to be take once we entered the military controlled area. I had read many stories of people have their sd cards deleted when they did not follow the rules, so we swapped over our sd cards for blank ones and did as we were told. A soldier comes on board the bus and checks everyones passport then you can pass through. We went to the 3rd tunnel first, being the 3rd tunnel that South Korea discovered that the North Koreans were digging to get inside the South. The 3rd one was discovered 1978 after a North Korean defected and told them about it. He was an engineer involved in the design, structure, build whatever you call it. To find it South Korea drove PVC pipes deep onto the earth and filled with water, one eventually drained and they had discovered the tunnel. They tunnel down 300m before they hit the tunnel which was 1.7 km long and 73m below the surface. By this time the north had realized they had been discovered and scarpered. When questioned over the tunnel they claimed it was a coal mine and tried to prove it by showing areas they had painted in coal dust. The area is solid granite. Then they argued that the south had dug it but the holes dug for dynamite and the scoring on the rock showing the blast pattern disproved this, plus the tunnel sloped towards North Korea to allow for draining of the ground seepage. We got to travel down in an open sided train wearing hard hats to the bottom of the South Korean shaft. Chris managed to find a seat on the outside so had his hat knocked a few time by the narrow sides. He made sure he sat in the middle on the way up. You walked or bent over for another 265 m to the first of 3 walls the south used to block the tunnel. The first wall had a window to see to the second wall. Then you walked back. It was hilarious hearing all the donk donk of the helmets and of course once you laughed you nearly always ended up donking your own head. It was very wet but plenty of fresh air as the south had installed piping for that. Laura was saying many North Koreans would have perished building the tunnel due to the heat and damp.


Next was the Dorasan Observatory where you could look at North Korea either with the naked eye or binoculars, but if you wanted to take a photo you had to had to stand behind a yellow line which avoided a limited view. Ok for those taller and one couple even took advantage of that and asked if Chris would take photos with their camera. Hehe. You could see the S.Korean flag flying in a village near the border, they are natives that have always lived there, even through the Korean War and across in N.Korea is their flag flying in what is called Propaganda City. The north built this town, some buildings are only a facade and a light automatically goes on and off, just to prove they could have a town near the DMZ too. Petty. Then there is a real town that has actually been built by the south in the north. In an agreement with the north it consists of factories where the south uses north labour to build and manufacturer just about anything you can imagine. Why? Cheap labour. They don't need to go to China and there's no import tax. North Korean benefit from an economy boost and better wages, though Laura said the south pay the wages directly to the north and they take their cut before paying the workers. That said while they only get $2 an hour if they worked in a northern owned factory they would only earn a dollar. What a horrible life. Lets hope that one day the two can reunify and a better standard of living can be enjoyed by all.


Dorasan Station was the next stop. A train station that takes the managers of the south-owned factories in the north to and from work each day. One day they hope that visitors will be able to use this too. If you asked, you could get a photo with the soldiers here. We jumped in straight away while everyone was heading for the station, pays to listen to the guide. Next minute the poor guys were swamped. We went to the station. It was lovely and quiet. We were able to buy a ticket, 500krw (50 cents) to go onto the platform and by the time everyone else arrived we were heading back out.


Last stop was Imjingak. Here was the Freedom Bridge where at the end of the war, prisoners-of-war crossed over and made their way home. Their cries of 'freedom' as they crossed caused the bridge to be renamed. This place was for families with park lands and a fairground. Tomorrow is a Korean holiday, Chuseok, when they honour their families. Many families will come to this park which is why there are no tours tomorrow as it will be crowded. There are 4 statues called Separate Families, made to remember those families still separated by the war. I was keen to see these which were on the opposite side of the park to where the bus parked, by the bridge. We dashed to get photos of these and back to see the bridge and on the bus. We only had 20 minutes here which really was not enough, the only minor complaint we had.


Lunch was a beef soup cooked on a gas cooker on your table. It came with all the usual Korean condiments and was hungrily devoured. We had to sit on the floor and my legs not too keen about being crossed but managed to stretch out under the table with all the power cords. After lunch while waiting outside the driver of the bus was raiding a tree of its fruit. He passed by with a pottle of these fruits and offered two to me. No idea what they were but he was happily munching away on them. They were small and green and tasted like apple. When the interpreter started picking them I asked what they were, she said dates. Chris started getting the red ones for the top of the tree (pretty sure dates grow on palms) and the squeals of delight from Laura at Chris being so tall to reach them. These did taste more like a date. Rest of the tourists were on the bus, just us four having a wonderful time.


A great tour and really interesting. Did a spot of Lotte Duty Free shopping, Erica will know what I mean. Then back to hotel to freshen up before going to look at Deoksugung Palace about 5 mins from hotel. Arrived just as the changing of the guard was about to start - perfect timing. Only a small palace compare to others in Seoul but just nice to finish of the day.


Had to queue for the cocktail hour, lots of quests tonight. Think we got to jump the queue being foreign. Not sure but I do get the feeling that we get treated differently, in a better way, than others Asian guests.
Chris has informed me he's typing tomorrow's blog, sick of twiddling his thumbs waiting for me. Aha, wait till he sees what's planned for tomorrow.

Posted by tojoken 03:09 Comments (1)

Seoul City


Friday 28th Sept

We bid farewell to the MVL hotel in Yeosu after stocking up on breakfast. Absolutely beautiful hotel and staff and would recommend to anyone travelling this way to stay.
Arrived half an hour early for the KTX train to Seoul, the longest of our train journeys at 3.5 hours. Chris managed to get handed a leaflet as we entered the station which turn out to be on of those religious pamphlets just like you get a home. Same the world over except this one really was wasted as it was all in Korean. In economy for this trip but still very comfortable. Pre-purchasing the tickets online was definitely the right way to go. Yes, you are stuck with a set departure time (they have very reasonable cancellation fees, the most you would lose is 15% if you failed to turn up) but you can just head to the ticket counter and hand over your printed receipt and they just print out your tickets and off you go.
We stowed our luggage at the end of the carriage and took our seats about 20 minutes before any other soul appeared. The floors of the train were still wet from where they had just washed them. You do not have any concept of how fast the train is going because it is so smooth. Chris finally worked out how to get hot food, just point at the microwave behind the guy serving. He came back with two dishes, one hot rice and the other a segregated dish with various meats, pickles and the like and a sealed cup of water, all for 11,000 krw ($9). It was delicious and we managed to eat it all (including pickled egg which was surprisingly yummy after a few hesitant bites), apart for the one section that contain dried white bait, at least that's what I think it was, tiny silver fish with blue eyes. Eat me,not.


We were so involved with our meal that we almost missed that the next stop was where we had to get off. Not that much of a biggie as it was the last stop but we still had to pack all our gear at the table and collect our luggage. Don't know where the time went.
We arrived Yongsan Station and followed the crowd up the escalators to a very busy and large station. We stood there for a moment not really sure where to go but there's always an information sign. The guy there told us we needed track 6 to get to City Hall Station and any train would take us there and that we could get tickets from the machines on the other side. We proceeded over there being handed some form of advertising which came with chocolates, thanks for that. The ticket machines are so easy to use. Select English and a voice steps you through, though it was straight forward. Select destination and how many people and it prints produces two plastic one use barcoded passes.


We did the traditional tourist twirl looking for track 6, found the signs and placed the pass on the digital reader to pass through the entry. obviously i had too much space between my bag and me and the gates closed behind me leaving my bag on the other side. just ad i though i would have to haul it over the reopened to let it through. Chris had the usual, what are you doing look on his face like I had intended this to happen. Several flights of stairs to the track meant that Chris had to do his he-man impersonation, and carry the bags down. You wait behind automatic glass doors that only open once the train has stopped. No chance of falling on and throwing yourself on the tracks here. The stations are announced in Korean but a digital sign on the train would display the name in English so after 3 stops we were there.


It was pouring with rain as we exited the station. I could see the hotel across the road about two blocks so not worth trying to get a taxi so on went the raincoats and we arrived at the marble foyer, wet with shoes squeaking as we walked. What a sight. If you turned up like this in Australia they would look down their noses at you but here they just smile, present you with a juice while you check-in (towel would have been good) and take you to your room.
Another very nice hotel, the Westin Chosun. We a here for 3 nights so decided to splurge and go executive club level which includes breakfast, fitness centre and happy hour from 6-8pm. I also booked a special deal which included a half bottle of wine and fruit and cheese platter and it was there waiting for us. Only thing not included was wi-fi so we are sitting in the lobby tonight typing this on the free site there so that why there are no pictures. Will add later.
Had a walk around the outside of the hotel to get our bearings. Chris is the navigation man and picks up his bearings quickly. I have not idea. Found the Lotte Hotel where we leave for our tour to the DMZ tomorrow. It's behind our hotel. Returned for the happy hour and by the time we had eaten nibbles which really are a meal in themselves - mini open toasted sandwiches, beef sukiyaki, deep fried chicken, cheese, fruit, nachos - you didn't want any dinner. Sampled the gin and tonic and it was good along with the sparkling ,red and white wine. Yes I think we'll come again tomorrow. :)
Had an evening walk to see the city lights. It had stopped raining and we even managed some cosmetic shopping at Loccitane and Biotherm at the Lotte Department store. You name a brand and its in that store.


Well that's it folks. Real loving Seoul. Hope the weather holds for tomorrow.
Oops, almost forgot. Toilet has a heated seat and I like it, I like it a lot.

Posted by tojoken 05:37 Comments (0)

Yeosu, Odongdo Island and Real Mermaids

Thursday 27th Sept

After an early morning trip to the gym followed by a hearty breakfast ( bacon, eggs, pumpkin salad, raw tuna salad, wagyu beef to name a few of the options we choose ) we headed to the breakwater outside the hotel that leads to Odongdo Island. It was a pleasant walk despite the now familiar signs of destruction from Typhoon Sanba which came through 10 days earlier. We had wondered why a town that had only just hosted an Expo was so badly damaged, it couldn't all be the deconstruction of the expo site or some extreme form of vandalism. Such a shame after all the money spent to get the place in top condition to have it bent and buckled in this way.


Odongdo Island was a lush, green escape from the heat but many of the tracks with steps leading to the sea were closed also due to typhoon damage. The other side of the island faired better and we were able to get onto the rocks and with the pounding of the surf in our ears watched the boats entering and leaving the harbour. Another breakwater lead from the island and we followed that one, over the no entry red tape like all the fisherman before who obviously weren't going to give up their favourite fishing grounds because the safety rails were gone. They climbed over them anyway to get to the rocks. We walked to the end to a viewing tower before the rather hot return journey. What had started as a cool and slightly cloudy day, had burned off to a scorcher and the white concrete breakwater accentuated the heat. Tried out a rather interesting icecream to help cool off, taste very much like icecream cake. Had a lot of fun trying to work out how to eat the icecream in the cup and finally discovered a hidden slot behind a tear off label that housed a spoon for the very task.


We visited the Hanwha Aqua Planet in the afternoon, Koreas largest aquarium, built for the expo. It was definitely not large when compared to places like Kelly Taltons or the Melbourne aquarium but it did have some interesting species. The Beluga whale was so entertaining and playful. It would pop it's head up as if to see who was watching, squeal and then grab its toy, only to pop up again and stay with it head out of the water as if posing for the photo you so eagerly wanted to take. So cheeky. There were the fishes that you have probably seen or heard about in Thai foot spas that nibble the dead skin from feet. They were there in small tanks with finger holes in the lids that allowed you to put you fingers in to be sucked. They were very obliging though cant say I noticed any difference to my fingers - I think they like my hand lotion. Then the Mermaids, yes, Korea has mermaids in a large tank swimming with the fish. Strains of 'Under the Sea' could be heard (from the Little Mermaid) and as we turned the corner there were 3 of them swimming and performing for the crowd.


Had our first dinner in a restaurant since we started our holiday. We have either had room service, been on a plane or had such big late lunches that dinner was not needed. We got dressed up and went to the Sky Lounge on the 25th floor. We were the only ones there which was rather sad as the food was amazing and the service was very attentive. The waitress was saying since the expo had stopped it had been very quiet in the hotel.

After dinner we changed back into our walking gear and headed off into the night to photograph Dolsan Bridge from the newer but equally beautiful Geobukseondaegyo Bridge. As we were walking along to the new bridge, one of the hotel staff was heading along the road into work, he removed his headphones and said 'Evening ma'am' before continuing on. I was thinking how nice he remembered me then, doh, of course theres not many of us foreigners around. We met an American couple earlier in the day and it was so exciting, we both had big grins on our faces and loudly greeted each other with a Good Morning which you kind of miss, as I think I said in earlier blogs that the Koreans don't seem to greet each other like that unless they know each other.


Couple of things we've noticed: all the toilet bowls are half filled with water not the little bit we have at home and they play English music in all eateries and coffee shops we've been into.

Posted by tojoken 06:02 Comments (2)

Yeosu - South Korea

sunny 24 °C

Wednesday 26th Sept

We said goodbye to Daejeon and Hotel Hue. Best bargain stay so far, $132 for two nights in a spanking new hotel that included breakfast each morning and free wi-fi. Had a laundry and kitchenette, only downside was a double bed. But when we arrived without a place to stay think we did ok to find this gem.

Taxied to Seodaejeon train station, the number two station in Daejeon (main station called Daejeon Station, funny that). Arrived with over an hour to wait, thinking better to make sure we had plenty of time to make sure we were getting on the right train since this was all new to us. Taxi driver didnt seem to understand my Korean to well but once I said KTX (Koreas equivalent of Japan's bullet train) he nodded and head off. The tourist information booth directed us upstairs to the ticket counter. I have to say I love the look on their faces when we approached, you could see the panic in their eyes. I pulled out the reservation form for our tickets that I had organised in Australia on Korail's English website and she nearly sighed with relief. She just keyed away on her computer, produced the tickets and off we went. Now our turn to stress and we tried to work out where to go. The tickets had everything you needed apart from the track number. After watching the arrivals boards flick over from Korean to English we finally had that worked out and just waited until our train appeared on the list and headed to track 2.

We stood around killing time when it suddenly occurred that there were numbers on the platform edge and that these counted down. Looking at our ticket we realized that these were the car numbers and we needed to be at car number 3 and not 8. No major panic as we still had plenty of time but it may have been a rush if we had only discovered this after the train had stopped as you have 3 minutes to get on and seated. Seems a lot but not when you are not used to something.


Safe on board our KTX, we struggled to fit our large bags in front of us. Once seated and reading the on-board magazine we discovered there is a section as you board where you can stow luggage. Well know this for next time. We booked first class seats as there was only $9 difference each ticket and thought best to travel in as much comfort as possible. Trip was 2.5 hours, very smooth and quiet. Wandered through a few other cars looking for the source of the hot food we saw other passengers with but didn't have much luck finding any. Did see the economy seating and they are quite close and definitely no room for luggage and really noisy. I think we are turning into snobs. We are travelling to Seoul in economy as all first car tickets were sold, 3.5 hours so we will have to suck it up.

Yeosu looked beautiful as we came down the hill into the station, glimpses of the sea and a much newer city than Daejeon. The hotel was wow and wow. The MVL Hotel (Most Valuable Life) was built for the Yeosu expo that was on earlier this year and a lot of the dignitaries stayed there. It is light and beautiful and makes us feels so old and scruffy. Shiny smiling faces greeted us, a cold drink was offered while we checked in and they spoke very good English, unlike that sentence I just wrote. The porter chatted to us on the way up to the room, asking if we had been to Korea before and hoped we enjoyed his country. We told him we had come from Daejeon and said it was nothing like Yeosu. 'Daejeon', he smiled, ' is sooo boring.' We agreed.


The room is amazing. Has a bathroom with large glass window so I can watch Chris shower and the rest, eew. The lady at check-in advised that the windows of the hotel are being washed tomorrow so if we are showering we should pull the blinds so ... She didn't quite know how to finish, she was laughing and slightly embarrassed. They are a very young group of workers in this hotel and obviously been trained to cope with the overseas visitors for the expo. Even the taxi driver jumped out to put the bags in and out of the boot. In Daejeon they don't move for you at all.

We had missed the lunch time for the restaurants but could order room service . Getting used to the 3pm lunch that seems to be when we stop. Tried Bulgogi (a pan-fried sweet marinated slice beef) and Yukgaejang (beef, glass noodle and vegetable). It comes in a separate bowl to the rice and condiments - kimchi (pickled cabbage and chilli), chilli paste, 2 spinach type dishes, a seaweed one and another finely shredded vegetable tossed with chilli and sesame. The Bulgogi was our favourite and Chris wasn't keen on the condiments but I tucked in and they use a shorter grain of rice a bit stickier like sushi rice.


We had a walk around the hotel and up a tourist lookout, then around the old expo site which was being pulled down and looking rather sad. We never had dinner as still to full from lunch but had a hot choc in the lobby lounge. Feels like we are the only people staying here. Guess we will find out at breakfast.


Posted by tojoken 05:16 Archived in South Korea Comments (2)

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