I came to Korea on January 15, 2002, on Asiana Flight 271 from Seattle to Seoul. I was 25 years old, and had been drunk and/or stoned for about a year.
I had been living in Vancouver, in a basement apartment on 20th Street and Cambie. I was jobless, broke, and deeply in debt. When I had money, I drank. When I didn’t have money, I sat on the couch and stared vacuously at the wall, too depressed to open a book or even turn on the hockey game.
I smoked enough pot to stuff a loveseat, and when the doctors prescribed me Ritalin, I crushed the pills up and snorted them, fistfuls at a time. When my girlfriend woke up in the hospital from emergency gallbladder surgery, I was at a Halloween party in the East End, blasted on ecstasy, with no nagging feeling at all that I was forgetting something.
I went to the new Korea. Travel to work there came like a saving angel, as it has for so many young, unemployed Canadians. In my five months in Vancouver, I had sent out hundreds of resumes and applications (or so it felt), and had gotten two interviews, neither one successful. When I applied to Korean recruiters, I sent out six resumes and was interviewed by all of them. Within a week of accepting a job I was in Seoul, teaching kindergarten and primary school, of all goddamn things.
If Vancouver is the world’s most liveable city, Seoul is its most explosive. It explodes with red Christian crosses on tin roofs, a dozen to a block. It explodes with dilapidated brown brick housing, at the feet of monstrous white tower blocks that go on for miles. People burst out of its shops and offices, restaurants and bars, subway stations and temples, bus shelters and car parks, roads, highways and overpasses, trees and rivers and mountains, and it never seems to end.
You can hop on a train at any one point and get off after two hours of random transfers and swear you haven’t moved an inch. You are always surrounded by this amorphous mass of people, things, food, drink, smoke, sweat and life that can only be called Korea. In the day, it is like some kind of Asia Disney on meth. At night, it looks like Blade Runner.
Most teachers back then just did a year, took their money, spent two months in Thailand getting blasted, and then went home to kids, car, and mortgage. But I stayed. I had a plan.
I moved out to Ilsan, a new and modern satellite city north of Seoul. I found a decent job and got promoted. I got a girlfriend who became a fiancée who became a wife. I wrote in the mornings and worked in the afternoons, and completed a master’s degree. And then every four years, we strapped on a backpack, quit our jobs, and disappeared.
The first time we left on an epic journey we took the boat to China and the bus and train up and around the country, through nine provinces on the coast and in an arc through the centre, ending in Chengdu. The food was excellent—we would order by pointing at food groups in our phrasebook and asking “have/don’t have?” in Chinese. They would then run down the menu: “Have, have, don’t have, don’t have, have…” The beer is tasty too, and it helps you deal with the culture shock, like when people gather around you in a doorless toilet stall to say hello.
We flew to Nepal, and saw the streets of Kathmandu literally run with sacrificial blood (of animals). We made our way south into India, and then doglegged through the east coast and centre before flying to Sri Lanka. In the ancient city of Dambulla, terrorists blew up a bus full of nuns, and we felt like assholes walking past it, asking for directions to Sigiriya. On Valentine’s Day, I puked all over a beachfront bar because of a dodgy lassi.
Back in India my wife Jo was groped by some bastard in the centre of Madurai. Emotional breakdowns became more and more common as the poverty and filth took its toll, and liquor became harder to locate in the more conservative states. When we returned to Vancouver, we were reminded what air conditioning and sheets feel like.
Two years later we did it all again. We flew to Hanoi, site of our engagement. We crawled the length of Vietnam, and double-backed into Cambodia and Laos. We saw pyramids of human skulls in Phnom Penh, unexploded bomblets half-buried in the Laotian mud, and had bonfires in empty bomb casings. Crossing into Thailand, there was an accident on the road up ahead, and we spent seventeen hours stranded by the roadside, where we ate grasshoppers and rice with the locals.
We lay on the beach in Ko Lanta and drank bhang milkshakes. In Malaysia we discovered that the largest flower in the world is a parasitic plant, and in Singapore we learned the meaning of fleecing when I paid $18 for a Singapore sling. We drove through the centre of Australia and up the coast to Queensland, where we flew to New Zealand, to get married.
And the Korean zeal for education, combined with enormous helpings of white privilege, means we could come back to Korea jobless and still find work within a few weeks.
Korea is only moderately well-placed for jumping off to the rest of Asia. Until North Korea opens up, there are no overland routes out of the country. Japan and China are the two closest accessible countries, and there are scores of flights and ferries to both. (Though getting your Chinese visa in Seoul can be tricky—check this website for the newest regulations first.)
The nearest flight to the Banana Pancake Trail is to Hanoi, about four and a half hours away, and North America, Australia, and Europe are a solid 10 to 14. So the best way to explore, leaving from Korea, is to make it a good, long trip—and crawling through China is guaranteed adventure.
But don’t forget Korea, and don’t make the mistake most visitors do of spending a day in Seoul and then moving on. The country is small, but it is fascinating.
I’m now a year away from my fortieth birthday. I have spent three-quarters of my adult life in Korea, or backpacking somewhere in Asia. We have no house, no children, no pets. People often ask us when we are going to settle down and return to “real life.” We are living real life—it’s so real, I feel it in every breath. People who say this isn’t real life think real life has to suck.
In my next two guest columns on Korea I’m going to lay out all the South Korea travel tips you need. In the first, I’ll discuss two of South Korea’s two most magnificent natural features: its mountains and islands. In the third column, I’ll show you how to best visit Korea in two weeks—from the DMZ to Jeju Island, we’ll go by boat, train, and bus through the ancient kingdom.
Part 2: Go for the Cities, Stay for the Nature
Most people who visit Korea go for the cities rather than the nature. At 517 people per square kilometre, Korea is one of the densest countries in the world. And you feel it—everywhere you go, people bang into you as though it’s nothing, without a word of apology. The thinking in Korea is: it’s crowded, get used to it.
Combine the density with breakneck industrialization, and the assumption is there’s very little room for nature. It’s true to an extent. If you’re expecting to go camping in the rainforest or bear hunting on the steppe, then you’ve come to the wrong place. The wilderness here has been tamed. But Korea is proud nonetheless that it’s maintained so much of its natural beauty, particularly in its mountains that run the length of the peninsula, and its islands, which surround it.
Koreans worship their mountains—literally, they believe there are spirits on the mountains they should defer to. Though evangelical Christianity has displaced many of these ancient, shamanistic beliefs, Koreans like to cover their spiritual bases.
Bukhansan is Korea’s most visited mountain. Located in the north of Seoul, you can get there by subway (Gireum Stn, Line 4, Exit 3; Gupbal Stn, Line 3, Exit 1; Mangwolsa Stn, Line 1, Exit 1). Owing to both its location and its majesty, it’s often packed with hikers, so unless you like big crowds with your hiking, its best to avoid it on weekends and national holidays. There are many paths to the three peaks, ranging in difficulty from easy to relatively difficult, but Dulle-gil is one of the best. It circumnavigates the park in lower altitudes on an easy-to-hike, mostly afforested path. Dulle-gil also brings walkers to small villages that were never visited much before and where there are usually great little restaurants.
On the east coast of the country is Seoraksan, just outside the beautiful seaside city of Sokcho, in the northeast province of Gangwondo. There are a series of paths through it that range in difficulty; the park is excellent for novice hikers and lazy bums like me, with its cable cars and (relatively) flat valley walks. But there are also some extreme peaks, and the top of Daechong peak is one of the best places in Korea to catch the sunrise. Up there, when the valley fills with early morning fog, Seoraksan is worth every drop of sweat you put into it. You can get to Sokcho by bus from most cities, and then take local Bus 7 or 7-1 from the Intercity Bus Terminal to Seoraksan.
The tallest mountain in South Korea is Hallasan, on the southern island of Jeju. Getting to Jeju you can fly from most Korean cities on the mainland, or take a ferry from the port cities of Mokpo, Busan, or Inchon. From Seoul it’s about $150 and takes about an hour each way. By ferry from Mokpo, it takes about four hours and costs at least 30,000 won for a walk-on (without a car). Ferry from Busan is about 12 hours, and costs a minimum of 43,000 won.
From Wando, it takes anywhere from an hour and 40 minutes to five hours depending on the service, and costs upwards of 24,750 won. Hallasan is a massive volcano, and its peak is visible throughout the island—most of Jeju is in fact “on” Hallasan. There are five different trails through Hallasan, two of which reach the peak, and they vary in difficulty–there is generally something for everyone. At the top of Hallasan is White Deer Lake, built into the crater, and one of the most stunning lakes in Korea. Hallasan is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with a UNESCO ecology museum at the Eorimok trailhead.
Hiking is an activity Koreans take seriously, as evidenced by the amount of money they put into hiking gear. Older Korean men and women, ascending the mountain, look like flocks of brightly coloured tropical birds, with their day-glo orange, pink, blue, and yellow Gore-Tex jackets, pants, backpacks, boots, and poles. Once they reach a mountain peak, Koreans like to crack open a bottle of makkoli, a milky rice wine, and drink that with a bit of food. Look kindly and lost enough, they’ll probably share it with you.
While mountains are great for the fit—but for the wheezing kids down here in the valley, it’s the islands that provide the real refuge from Korea’s cities. The peninsula is surrounded by hundreds of islands—some are barely islands, connected to the mainland by well-trafficked bridges. Others are hours distant, accessible only by churning ferry rides.
Hongdo is as far southwest as you can go in South Korea. The island is made up of steep peaks and lush forest, most of it protected, to preserve the island’s wild birds and plants. But the high and stunning trail that connects the villages of Ilgu and Igu offers some beautiful views of the island, its peaks and beaches, and its colourful birds. Cars are gloriously banned. Getting there, you take a ferry 115 kilometres from the southwestern city of Mokpo, which is on the KTX high-speed train line. You can also stop off in Heuksando, Hongdo’s larger and more developed neighbour, or any of the other islands that make up Dadohaehaesang National Park.
For something closer to Seoul, you can take the subway to Dongincheon Station (Line 1, Exit 2), and then get Bus 12 or 24 to Yeonan Budu Ferry Terminal. From here, there are ferries to all the west coast islands that dot the sea between Korea and China. My personal favourite is Deokjeokdo, about 50 kilometres west of Incheon. It’s a feast of mountain trails and beautiful, white sand beaches, and a good distance from the mainland. It is rammed in the summers, but fall and spring are great times to visit.
One of Korea’s most remote islands is Ulleungdo, in the West Sea between Japan and Korea, 120 kilometres from the shore. You can get trains and buses to Pohang, an industrial city on the east coast, and then a ferry to Ulleungdo from there. Ulleungdo is a beautifully isolated volcanic peak, and is famous for its tasty squid, which you can see drying on rocks all around the island.
Ulleungdo is also the place to get a ferry to the disputed islets of Dokdo, which Japan also claims. If you spend more than a few days anywhere in Korea, you will undoubtedly have someone tell you that “Dokdo is Korean land.” If you know what’s best for you, you will not argue with this person, or even ask why. Most Koreans passionately believe Japan is seeking to reoccupy Korean land, and they will begin with Dokdo. The islands themselves are not much to look at, but the fever and pageantry around them are something else.
In our third and final column, we will have more South Korea travel tips on how to see the whole country in a couple weeks. Cause you can do that in Korea.
Part 3: How to Visit Korea in Two Weeks
One of the great joys of visiting South Korea is that it’s small. The longest train ride is about six hours—three if you take the high-speed rail. So there’s no need to spend too much time worrying about distance, and in two weeks you can see almost everything by bus and train.
Any trip to Korea should begin in the megacity of Seoul, 30 minutes by bus or train from Incheon International Airport. Korea’s capital politically, financially and culturally, and with more people in its metropolitan area than in Australia, a lot of tourists think it is the alpha and the omega of Korea—and never leave.
You should leave eventually, but you need at least three days here: one enjoying the ancient palaces, walls, temples and observation towers, and a second getting lost in the markets, eating and drinking through university areas such as Hongdae and Jongno.
On the third day, it’s time to tour the DMZ, the world’s most heavily fortified border. Take the Koridoor Tour, where you can spy the UN compound that divides North and South Korea. Call USO Camp Kim at 02-6383-2570 ext. 1 to book it.
The DMZ is a surreal experience in Cold War terror—South Korean soldiers in Ray-Ban sunglasses, poised like curled snakes, stand on guard against drab North Koreans who will likely watch you with suspicion. You will attend a UN briefing, where you will be instructed to do exactly what the guides tell you to.
“I am not chasing anyone across a minefield,” a kind lieutenant from Kansas once put it to me .
From Seoul, make your way 30 kilometres south to Suwon—you can take the subway there, but an intercity bus or train is quicker. Suwon is the last completely walled city in Korea, and is home to Hwaseong Fortress, where Koreans fought off many foreign hordes. The food in Suwon is exemplary too. It’s famous for its barbecued beef, but also wonderful is the foreign food here: Suwon is home to significant Chinese, Indian, and Vietnamese minorities, many of whom have opened excellent, authentic restaurants, miles away from their Korean imitators you’ll find elsewhere.
After a day in Suwon, hop a bus or train south to my favourite province, Jeolla, in the far southwest. The ancient city of Jeonju should be your first stop. The Jeonju hanok village, right in the centre of the city, is home to more than 800 traditional Korean houses, many of which double as cafes, restaurants, bars, shops and guesthouses. Jeonju is famous for its food, especially bibimbab, a mix of rice, traditional vegetables and hot-pepper paste.
One of the best experiences in Jeonju is drinking makkoli, a milky rice wine. At Jeonju makkoli restaurants, you order it by kettle. Side dishes will arrive, including soups, kimchi and meat. The more makkoli you order, the better, larger and more elaborate the side dishes become. It is one of the cheapest ways in Korea to get both stuffed and soused.
At the southeast end of Jeolla is Mokpo, a small port city. There is beautiful hiking along the sea here, and at Yudalsan Mountain, in the centre of the city. Its nightlife is exemplary for a city its size. According to rumour, the city is run by the mob, but investigating whether that’s true or not is beyond my pay grade.
After a day in Mokpo, hop the ferry to Jeju, the “Korean Hawaii.” Flying to Jeju is also an option, but if you’re already in the south, it pays to just take it slow and enjoy a four-hour cruise through the islands of South Jeolla and the open ocean. Once you arrive in Jeju, I recommend you rent a car or scooter—unlike the rest of Korea, public transportation around the island can be sketchy. You’ll need an international driver’s licence.
Jeju is a holiday paradise, and a bit of a tourist trap. Summers are busy, and the last week in July, first week in August should be avoided at all costs, as that’s when almost all Koreans take their vacations. Recent Chinese-led development has led to complaints that it is becoming a Chinese Cancun.
“According to rumour, Mokpo is run by the mob, but investigating whether that’s true or not is beyond my pay grade.”
Never mind. It is stunning: the black sand beaches, the peak of the Hallasan volcano, Buddhist grottoes and traditional villages. Udo Island, off the east coast of Jeju, is one of the most beautiful places in Korea, home to a large community of Haenyeo women divers, and three different coloured beaches. Jeju black pig is a wonderful meal—in Korean, it’s literally called Jeju Shit Pig, since they were traditionally fed human excrement. It’s also the best place in Korea to eat raw horse.
After three days driving, eating and lounging your way around Jeju, hop an overnight ferry to Busan, on the southeast coast. Busan is Korea’s second largest city—about the size of Toronto—and its busiest port. For the love of God, avoid Texas Street, the foreigner district across from the train station. Its reputation for insalubrity is well earned.
Instead, take a hike up to Beomeosa Temple, one of Korea’s grandest, or go down to the rapidly developing Gamcheon Village. Jagalchi Fish Market is the place to get fresh fish cut and prepared right in front of you, to eat either grilled or raw. You can also hike along Moon Tan Road through the woods, and arrive at Haeundae Beach, Korea’s most popular.
After two days in Busan, head north to Gyeongju, Korea’s ancient capital as far back as 50 BC. Often referred to as “Korea’s Kyoto,” it is packed full of temples, tombs, palaces, museums and other historical artifacts. The middle of town is notable for being both modern and surrounded by grassy hill tombs, some of which you can tour inside of, none of which you should climb. When visiting Bulguksa Temple, just outside of town, try for the early morning to avoid the crowds, and do not take a cab up there—the traffic will bankrupt you. Don’t miss Seokguram Grotto, an ancient granite temple and UNESCO heritage site.
Much as there is to see in Gyeongju, it does get repetitive, and as you’re coming to the end of your trip, you’ll have seen much of it before elsewhere. One busy, full day is probably enough to see everything you need.
From Gyeongju, head up to Andong, in the centre of the country. Andong is famous for two things: Neo-Confucian scholarship (the ideology that has ruled Korea for the last six centuries) and soju, the clear alcoholic beverage that has ruled the country far longer. A visit to the unique, UNESCO-protected Andong Hahoe village will acquaint you with both.
From here it’s a straight shot by train or bus back to Seoul and Incheon International Airport. Your trip to Korea is done, and you’ll have seen more of it than most Koreans.
Whenever you have any questions, you can phone 1330, the Korea Tourism Organization’s (KTO) very helpful helpline for the best South Korea travel tips.