Traveling South Korea: Seoul and Busan
By Paul Shoul
The KTX high speed train from Seoul to Busan on the east coast of South Korea pulls out of the station ever so smoothly, exactly on time.
Building up to a cruising speed of 190 mph, we glide through the precise Korean landscape; picture perfect rice paddies, movie set small towns and spotless futuristic industrial centers.
The seats are spacious and comfortable. There is free wifi, and a snack cart selling spicy ramen noodles and coffee. I sit back and make a Skype call to home.
In 1953 during the war, my father, a young surgeon in the US army stationed at a prisoner of war camp near Taejon, took this same route on a much slower train, searching for a telephone to call home.
He said that they only traveled at night, without lights for fear of enemy gunfire, the engineer guiding the train only by the light of the moon’s reflection on the tracks.
Every third building in Seoul was destroyed” he said.
Before hanging up, he became serious and asked me a final, important question, Did you try Kimchi and Soju?His stories of the war have always fascinated me. He spoke with great reverence for the Korean people and the soldiers he served with. He remembers a “South Korea in ruins, with a landscape barren of all trees cut down for firewood, pockmarked by bomb craters.”
South Korea today is rebuilt and front and center on the worlds stage. Samsung is threatening Apple’s domination with its new Galaxy 4 cell phone. Gangnam style is the worlds most viewed YouTube video ever, and believe it or not, Jinro Soju is the worlds best selling liquor, by far out selling Smirnoff vodka by over 50%!
Squeaky Clean Seoul
The capital, Seoul, is a glimmering mega city of over 10,000,000. Cutting edge, futuristic, and squeaky clean. A friend observed that he could not find even a gum wrapper on the ground. Seoul s rated the #8 safest city in the world in a recent TripAdvisor poll.
It is one of the world’s most digitally connected cities with the worlds fastest internet speeds and security cameras on every corner. South Korea is at once ancient and hyper modern. It is not unusual to see a monk sporting the latest cutting edge digital device that gadget crazed consumers in the US can only dream about.
Love Food, Love Work
Koreans are a hard working people, and their love of food is as strong as their work ethic. It is common for the whole office to go out together after work, maybe for some traditional Korean barbecue, like I had at Mi Gang restaurant (82-2-733-1608). Korean Barbecue is legendary, the charcoal grills were embedded into the table.
Beautifully marbled marinated beef bulgogi and jumulleok (short steak with sesame oil and salt) accompanied by small side dishes of Kimchi, hot peppers, garlic,radish, cucumber and lettuce to wrap it all up. Sitting crossed legged on the floor at long tables, grilling meat, and drinking copious amounts of Soju is a fantastic eating experience.
Soju is ingrained in Korean culture. Made from rice and or potatoes or barley it is a 19% slightly sweet clear spirit usually drunk straight in shot glasses. Tradition has it that your glass can never be empty yet should rarely be full. It is your obligation to fill anther’s glass, and an insult not match each other shot for shot. “Note to self, never ever get into a drinking competition with a Korean again, you will lose badly and its going to hurt in the morning.”
A trip to this palace is mandatory. A UNESCO World Heritage site built in 1405, It was the principal palace for the Joseon Kings. The architecture, detail of the woodwork and the gardens are spectacular.
While I was there I was very lucky to participate in a unique clinic held only a few days a year by the Korean Medicine association. I was seen by Dr. Sung Kyung Hyun.
Diagnosis and traditional herbal treatments and acupuncture were given on the spot. Historical monuments and museums can often be sterile dead feeling places.
Suddenly the palace was brought to life again with the hubbub of children, waiting families and occasional nervous laughter before needles were inserted for treatment.
It was a great glimpse into Korean culture and to what real life might have felt like in a 600-year old royal palace.
Insadong (Antique Street)
Tons of traditional souvenir shops, art galleries, little restaurants and street food, Take time to just wander around. While in the area, try Min’s Club: Jongno-gu Gyeongun-dong 66-7 A fusion of Korean and European cuisine housed in historical home.
I was skeptical going into this show. Man was I wrong. There is good reason this is the longest running show in Korean history. Absolutely one of the most entertaining, original and hilarious performances I have seen in a long time. Part Vaudeville, comedy acrobat, pantomime musical, blue man group meets SNL. They turn cooking on its head and a kitchen into a musical instrument. Brilliant!
Cheonggye stream runs through the capital.The bridges, public squares and sculpted seating along its banks are a gathering place for Seoulites. Whether it is from ions emitted by the running water or it is just the Koreans natural good cheer, there is a giddy playful feeling around the stream. Its usually crowded, just the way they seem to like it. If you want to hang with the locals, this is where they are.
Where to stay in Seoul
A grand hotel in every sense with a fantastic restaurant and a huge golden lobby to match. The rooms are spacious and geared for business travelers with a good desk and plenty of outlets. The beds were sumptuous. It is located in the heart of the city.
Where to stay in Inchon ( closer to the airport)
A Best Western hotel conveniently located near the airport. My room was huge, I had the hottest shower of the trip with a great view overlooking Inchon.
Busan is the countries 2nd city, the largest port in South Korea and the fifth busiest port on the planet. Located on the southeast tip of the peninsula it has a beautiful coastline.
The only possible way to find fresher fish than the Jagalchi market would be to catch them yourself and eat them on the boat. This huge frenetic market has many live tanks. In fact you can eat some seafood still wriggling in your mouth or seconds fresh as Kimbap ( Korean Sashimi).
There is every imaginable variety of seafood and many you would never have even dreamed of. It is staggering that the worlds oceans can produce enough bounty to fill this market for one day let alone for the decades it has been open. I only scratched the surface of and it is at the top of my “ten places must go back and spend more time” list.
Located just outside of Busan city this temple is perched on the rocky coast and was built in 1376. It is a pilgrimage for Koreans on new years. A beautiful and dramatic spot, the temples, gardens and Buddha statues are delightful as is the view of the ocean.
Yongdusan park and tower: Escalators bring you to the park with 360 views in the center of the city, But higher still after a quick elevator ride to the top is the 394 ft high Busan towers observation deck.
The APEC House and Dongbaek Park:
If Iron man lived in Busan, Apec House looks the part of what would be his home. Modern, futuristic with strong metal lines supporting a domed structure nestled into the cliffs of an island. This where the world APEC leaders meet. The park and trails on the island offer many outlooks along the coast.
Overlooking the river the fortress stone walls were originally built in 1379. It is the scene of one of Korea’s most enduring stories. During the 1593 victorious invasion and siege by the Japanese, Korean woman entertainers (Kisaengs) were forced to accommodate the generals to celebrate. One named Non Gae seduced and lured one of them to the rivers edge and within her embrace, threw them both into the river to their deaths.
Where to stay in Busan:A living village enclosed by castle walls with people still farming with traditional methods A cool window into the past.
An Elegant 4 star hotel located right on the beach.
Marris Seafood restaurant:
Almost worth the entire trip, the variety and freshness of the seafood dishes at the buffet is rivaled only by the Busan fish market. There are over 100 dishes and can seat a thousand people. Kimbap chefs prepare huge amounts of glistening octopus and fish, Tempura, fresh noodle soup stations, and mounds of fresh king crab legs. Go hungry.
Aside from fish, this is a must eat in Busan and all of South Korea.. Samgytang is a hearty chicken
broth infused with Ginseng garlic and dates with a large breast of meat stuffed with sticky rice served still boiling in black clay pots. It is the classic summer dish fighting fire with fire and supposed to nourish and revitalize you. It does.
Ye Ji Won Restaurant
In many ways this was my favorite meal in Korea. The lobby is filled with clay kimchi pots around which are the neat rows of shoes of the people in the adjoining private rooms. occasionally a loud communal shout is heard as shot glasses are raised and drained. Waitresses in traditional costume commandeer huge carts of food, darting from room to room.
This meal was again eaten at a a long low table but rather than barbecue we had platters of marinated fish, huge squid with ink, carpaccio and abalone and fresh kimchi. Of course we were bound by tradition to match the shouts coming from the other rooms of Soju! with our own chorus.
How to get there
I flew on Thai Airways new flight from LA to Bangkok, that now stops in Seoul. I love Thai Air. Amazing food, a nice new plane and the most gracious, helpful, and attractive staff in the air.
This trip was made with the assistance of Visit Korea, but the opinions are the author’s alone.
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Paul Shoul is a Northampton, MA-based photographer who doubles as a staff writer for GoNOMAD. For thirty years he’s lived in the Pioneer Valley and chronicled life there though his work in the Valley Advocate and Preview magazines. He’s also been seen in the Boston Globe, New York Times, BBC, the Chronicle of Higher Education and many other publications. Today as well as shooting around the world for GoNOMAD he works for local nonprofits, banks and advertising agencies.