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Korea

June 13, 2011

I was initially intending to go to Japan after my exams. I had planned for my exams to end on the first day of the two week exam period and had this crazy idea to go travelling and return before the last day of exams. The downside was finding a travel companion: no one else in NUS, NTU, and SMU would finish exams this early, except my sister apparently, and so we planned to go to Japan, with my sister doing alot of research and trying to learn Japanese as well. On my part, I was exploring the visitjapan website and planning out a nice itinerary for us.

Unfortunately, the multiple disasters hit Japan and put an end to our travel dreams to go there. We were initially insistent on going despite the risks, which we believe were being blown out of hand. However, we were eventually persuaded not to go by an elderly Japanese couple we were acquainted with when they came to our church many years ago when we were kids, citing the inconvenience of travelling within the city and the closure of tourist attractions as reasons.

We got our ticket refunds, but were dissatisfied, and therefore went about looking for an alternative solution to our travel hungers. Initially reluctant, my sister gradually accepted the idea that i mooted earlier on travelling to South Korea instead when news of the nuclear crisis erupted. And thus our travel trip to Korea was born. Through zuji, we found reasonably cheap air tickets to get to south korea.

The flight there was comfortable and the in-flight entertainment was enough to keep me busy through the nine hours of flying. The video-on-demand was certainly a godsend. We reached Korea at night and took an airport shuttle all the way to SungKyunKwan University where our accomodation for the entire duration of the trip, Open Guest House, was located. After spending the night, we awoke the next day ready to discover the soul of Seoul.

The pictures may be small but clicking on these thumbnails will open up a lightbox with a bigger version of the picture.

Dongdaemun

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Dongdaemun (Big East Gate)

First up we went to Dongdaemun where the textiles mega complex and shoes market were located.

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Dongdaemun shoes market: it is big!

Cheonggyecheon Stream

Then we walked down the Cheonggyecheon stream, which ran across the centre of seoul. It was formerly a filthy stream but the government of seoul decided to renovate it, installing nice sculptures, wall murals, fountains, lots of rocks, bridges and lights. While initially upset at the amount of humanization that went into the stream, I saw ducks and fish in the water and realised that if not for what the government had done, the stream would have been unlivable for these animals, and people would not be able to enjoy walking down this waterway with exits to the major parts of Seoul.

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Cheonggyecheon stream

Dongdaemun History and Culture Park

Because the stream had exits to many tourist attractions in Seoul, we walked down it happily, having much energy from the excitement of setting foot in seoul. We exited at Dongdaemun History and Culture Park, and, initially dismayed that the park was seemingly under construction, found a small part of the park that wasnt and took a break there.

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Dongdaemun History and Culture Park

Bosingak

After a heavy lunch at a basement restaurant run by aju-mas, we decided to walk along the stream instead of taking the subway because it was better for our stomach that way. We exited at the Bosingak and proceeded to marvel at its beauty. We would revisit this place again the next day to witness the tolling of the Bosingak bell by citizens.

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The Bosingak where the Bosingak bell was housed.

Insa-dong

We decided to head north to Insa-dong. What a pleasurable place this was! There were many souvenir shops, presumably with tourist-targeted pricing, but also there were a multitude of art galleries and art shops. I liked how the various narrow winding alleys lead to somewhere interesting and strange. You never knew where you were going until you tried the route out, and when you do, you find some interesting shop or eatery.

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Alleys of Insa-dong

Within Insa-dong was a shopping centre called Ssamziegil and it was designed in an angular spiral. There were mostly art shops and one could find interesting trinkets and souvenirs to make one’s day there. There were also several snacks and coffee joints along the way to the top.

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Ssamziegil: the spiral building

Jogyesa Temple

We proceeded to Jogyesa Temple that was near to Insa-dong. It was decorated with lanterns in preparation for a lantern festival the next week on the 5th of May. We would have left by then. If you recall, a section of Cheonggyecheon stream was also decorated with lanterns in a picture above. After visiting the temple, we headed back to our guesthouse where we went to a nearby restaurant to try Samgyetang (Ginseng Chicken Soup) and Kimchi Bokum Bap (Kimchi Fried Rice). The Samgyetang wasn’t that great but I never knew Kimchi Bokum Bap would taste so nice! Its nice and soury and makes your mouth drool!

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Jogyesa Temple: Ways of Buddhism in Korea. Buddhism is a strong religion in Korea. From the One-pillar gate, the temple has been decorated with many lanterns in preparation of a lantern festival in the upcoming week.

Seoul Seonggwak

The next day, I was inspired to take a hike to find the remnants of the Seoul Seonggwak (the fortress wall) and dragged my sister along this adventurous track, guided by a very simple looking map which would almost certainly get us lost soon enough. Fortunately, the start of our trek was just outside the guest house, with the street winding along the remains of the fortress wall. It was interesting to see the walls of houses built along the fortress wall. However, the view was somewhat disappointing, for we expected to see something far grander, like an actual fortress wall.

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Not a tall tale: The fortress wall is out there, somewhere! And we were at the start of the trail.

After walking aimlessly, not sure of the wiseness of my decision to “locate the fortess wall”, we came to the start of a park which bore a sign giving some information of the fortress wall. We hiked 30 minutes into the park before turning back, and saw much of the town, and a view of Seoul, with N Seoul Tower to the west. Of course, we saw the fortress wall as well, to our satisfaction.

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The views along the hike. It was a steep slope up which killed my sister. It was pleasing to see views of the town, and N Seoul Tower.

Bosingak Tolling

We headed back and rushed to the Bosingak to try to catch the citizen tolling of the Bosingak bell, which takes place every day at 12pm. We were just in time and were ushered by some nice Korean guides into the Bosingak where we witnessed first-hand the tolling of the Bosingak bell. Unfortunately, the narrator was only talking in Korean to explain the significance of the tolling of the bell.

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Citizen Tolling of the Bosingak Bell

Ehwa Women’s University

After watching the Bosingak Ceremony, we headed to Ehwa Women’s University because our host recommended us to go there to shop. Indeed, it was an interesting place to shop and dine. There were many coffee shops and snack joints that tempted us to enter. But the main draw was of course, the alternate shopping destination and it proved to be vastly different from Myeong-dong, which was quite refreshing and interesting. Local brands lined the street, and if I were to draw a comparison I would say an outdoors version of bugis street or queensway shopping centre (minus the sporting apparel), though neither of these places would have the appeal of Ehwa Women’s University. Of course, we dropped by the Women’s University as well to take a look and I must say that the buildings are very nice indeed.

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The Ehwa Women’s University area

Imjingak Park

The next day, we decided to make our way to the DMZ. We took the trains all the way to Imjingak Station and toured the area, to which my sister was quite satisfied at having “seen” the DMZ. However, upon inquiry, we found that there was a shuttle service to a few other attractions, and we decided to get tickets to visit this attractions.

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The Imjingak Monument, Freedom Bridge, Imjingak Park, another monument, Imjingak Shrine, Peace ribbons along the fence, the bombed train, and peace ribbons on the gate.

The Third Tunnel, Observation Post, and Dorasan Station

We went into the Third Tunnel, one of four discovered tunnels that North Korea dug to try to infiltrate the south. It was barely high enough to stand in, but if successful it would have put battalions of north korean troops within striking distance of seoul! We then went to see North Korean from the observation post. It was interesting to see the barbed wire snaking along the ground, and military posts on each side with a tall tower each proudly bearing the flags of each country. Unfortunately, no pictures of the north were allowed, though i snuck in one attempt. We then went to a village which sold the nicest tofu and kimchi that I tasted in the whole of Korea! Apparently, the area near the north is very good for snakehead fish, as our host later told us. He would go up to the north to catch the fish and cook them for its supposed health properties. Finally, we went to Dorasan station where we saw the very well built and maintained building, which unfortunately though carrying the earnest hopes of some South Koreans of reunification, would not be seeing use anytime soon. Some South Koreans were also skeptical of the attempts at reunification, because the North Korean citizens would undoubtedly bring with them a very different culture which might affect the former’s way of life. We planned for the DMZ activity to take half a day but it took an entire day, leaving us with little time to do anything else.

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The DMZ tour provides much more insight

Gyeongbukgong Palace

The next morning, we met up with my sister’s penpal and visited the Gyeongbukgong Palace. Sister’s Penpal brought us around the palace and explained to us the meaning of the different buildings, from a a research book on which she had made many notes and drawn maps to guide her along.

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Scenes at Gyeongbukgong Palace

History and Culture Museum

We could visit the History and Culture Museum for free with our palace tickets and so we did. It was an interesting place which taught a great deal about korean costumes, old buildings and customs. There was also a person making traditional Korean hats.

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The History and Culture Museum

Bukchon Hanuk Village

Adjacent to the Palace and museum was Bukchon Hanuk Village, a traditional Korean village and it was very apparent in the architecture that it was so. We had lunch in the village and proceeded to go to the various photo spots marked on the tourist map. Finally we walked down a street termed the cafe street because of the smattering of coffee joints down the street where people could pop in for a nice cuppa and enjoy the bustling street as people walked past, oblivious to those watching them.

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Scenes from Bukchon Hanuk Village

Namsan and N Seoul Tower

After the village we went to join some of Sister’s school mates from NIE to ascend Namsan and see the N Seoul Tower. It was a tiring walk up but one of my sister’s friend, Jocelyn was very spunky in ascending the hill and so not to be outdone I did my best to go up as well, stopping only for short photo taking along the way. At the top of the hill we saw locks of love on the fences of the hill, by couples who wanted to “lock” their love for each other and throw the key down the mountain. Sister bought three bears at the teddy bear museum: one for her penpal, one for herself, and one for me.

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Namsan and the N Seoul Tower

Myeong-Dong and Korean Costumes

The next day, we went to Myeong-Dong and did shopping and tried on the traditional Korean costumes. We met some old church friends there too! As for me, i donned the same costume that the General in Bosingak wore.

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Meeting Philip and Alysse in Myeong-dong, followed by trying of traditional Korean costumes.

Hangang and Banpo Bridge

After our shopping spree we went to Hangang to watch the Banpo Bridge, which would have a rainbow fountain show every night. Unfortunately, we were late and missed the show, but here are some long exposure shots I managed to obtain of the river and bridge.

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Hangang River and the Banpo Bridge, which does not have a fountain show but has the N Seoul Tower in the background for some sympathy marks

Noryangjin Fish Market

The next day, we went to visit the Noryangjin Fish Market, which would be analogous to Japan’s Tsukiji Fish Market. However, we decided that we were not confident with the korean sashimi and decided not to try anything there.

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Noryangjin Fish Market scenes

Hair cut

I decided to cut my hair at Juno Hair in Myeong-Dong. It cost only $20000 won, which was quite cheap for what I must say has been the best hairdressing experience in my entire life. I’ve spent even more at Reds, Monsoon or whatever boutique in Singapore and I wish they can compare to the skill that this hairdresser had. I like how the hair grew out and was still nice even after one month. Usually, my hair would become unbearable after two weeks from a Singapore stylist as it grew out.

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Haircut!

Spicy Octopus

We ended off the day with a dinner from our host at a spicy octopus joint. And while Korean meals are normally spicy, they happen to be manageable. This spicy octopus was way off the charts! It wasn’t as bad as sunset grill’s buffalo wings for sure, but it still packed a punch!

End

On the last day of our trip, we missed our flight. However after paying a penalty we were rescheduled onto the next flight and were safely back home in Singapore.

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