Not Quite Smooth Travelling

I spent my last full day in Seoul purchasing some discount hiking poles and looking around the fabric section of the Gwangjang Market. Or in other words, getting lost in the identical aisles of the Gwangjang Market. I could have passed the same teetering pile of fabric half a dozen times and not known it. This is not to say that all the fabrics were the same, indeed there was a vast variety of colour and composition, it is merely that fabric shops of any reasonable size have an innate ability to become labyrinths to the unsuspecting customer. Thus, it is hardly surprising that an entire market of fabric stores had me without orientation within seconds. Eventually I escaped the maze, sanity and wallet intact (there was a long moment where I debated getting a hambok after the fun I had wearing one). I spent the rest of the day relaxing at the hostel and checking a few last minute details for my next stage of travelling. Because my flight to Japan was an early one, I’d elected to change to a hostel closer to the airport for ease of mind. This is where everything started to go wrong. Well not everything, just one particular thing that impacted on everything else. One very annoying little thing.

Remember how on my first day in Seoul I was complaining about the difficulties of getting money at an ATM? Well it happened again as I tried to pay for my hostel and again and again at the nearby ATMs. I was forced to cancel my hostel, though at such short notice they charged via the internet anyway. Ironic that I was forced to pay for something I could not have when the reason I was unable to have it was that I could not pay.

Having seen the train times, I knew there was no way I would have been able to stay at my previous hostel, where I technically still had a reservation, and make it to the airport on time. Hence I found myself sprawled and trying desperately to sleep on an airport bench while waiting for 04:30 and check in to roll around. It eventually did, and after a pleasant chat with my mother via the beauty of free, unlimited airport WiFi (take note all English airports), I checked in without a hitch.

The queue for both entrances to security was painfully long, so long in fact that the two ends collided out by the check in desks. I was reminded of the days when all the new security measures had only just been introduced and no one knew what was going on. Nowadays it is so streamlined in some airports as to be almost painless. My flight left on time and, other than a little turbulence, I naively thought I had left my troubles behind. More fool me, for in my pocket still lurked the card of doom, biding its time until I needed to withdraw my yen.

Safely through immigration and customs, I head straight for the ATM line up and start working my way down the line. To my utter devastation, not a single one would give me any money. There I was, stuck half way around the world, without a usable penny, or rather yen, to my name. I didn’t have a working sim card and with no money, I could not use a payphone. After a small meltdown and several failed attempts to phone home via Messenger, I found myself once more in front of the dreaded ATMs. This time my goal was only to get enough money for the pay phone. At the third machine along I started low and upon a miraculous success, worked my way up until the I once again got an error message.

This method was by no means perfect and I dread to think of the various bank charges I have incurred but I now had enough money for the train and my hostel, which was a marked improvement. Armed with my newly procured funds I took the JR line to Nagano where I said goodbye to English announcements and continued on to Yudanaka. I carefully monitored snow levels throughout my journey, after all my sole reason for coming to Yudanaka is to see the snow monkeys. Things did not look promising as the train set off from Tokyo. It was not until well after Nagano that dustings of snow began to appear and only in the final stretch, when we ventured in to the shadow of mountains, that any major snowfall occured. End of the line and I walked to my hostel, miraculously not getting lost. I enjoyed an amazing plate of sushi and some tempura with a couple of other guests before retiring for the evening.

An amusing aside observation is how airports and train stations gradually seem to be giving up on forbidding luggage on escalators. In Hong Kong, signs asked that people with big bags use the lifts but when I reached Seoul it was only if one had multiple bags that the lift was required (though the number of stairs in some stations made the lift a tempting option anyway); at Incheon Airport signs showed how to take two suitcase on the escalator; finally, when I reached Narita Airport in Japan, the escalator to the train station was labelled as being suitable for taking trolleys. On this last however, one must note the look of fear on the faces of those standing in front of the trolley.

From Palaces to Prisons

Today was a nonstop day. I hit the ground running and got to Changgyeonggung Palace shortly after it opened. This meant the Palace was almost blissfully deserted. After all, what tourist wants to have other tourists in all their holiday photos? At this point I will admit to feeling a little palaced out, however the grounds were really stunning and it was fascinating to read about the State Council. I also spent a considerable amount of time trying to work out how to read the angbuilgu sundial.

The final palace I visited was Deoksugung Palace. The remaining area of this palace is very small in comparison to some of the others I have visited. What is particularly interesting is the presence of a couple of western style buildings, which are not seen at any of the other palaces. Today’s clear sky meant that the sun was in full winter force and I ended up receiving several very cold drips of snow melt down my neck as the rooftop snow thawed.

My palace adventures over, I got the train to the Seodaemun Prison History Hall. This prison is where the Japanese imprisoned thousands of Korean independence activists during their colonial rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945. To walk through the grounds and read about just some of the appalling treatment and torture of prisoners was chilling. While there was a reasonable amount of English in the main building, there were a couple of areas where everything was in Korean. This was a real shame, but merely walking through the echoing halls with the knowledge that people were crammed together in the surrounding cells, unable to lie down for lack of space is a sobering and deeply moving experience. I think the most heart wrenching story for me was that of a young woman who was pregnant when she was arrested and was forced to give birth and the care for her baby in the prison.

Unwilling to conclude the day on such a depressing note, I made my way to Namsangol Hanok Village. Built to celebrate Seoul’s 600th anniversary as the capital, it contains a buried time capsule and five traditional hanoks relocated from around the city. The hanoks have furnished rooms that one can view and I took the opportunity to rent a hambok and take a few photos of myself around the village. This was very nerve-wrecking and I felt like all eyes were on me, especially when I walked past a tour group and they all stopped talking. In the end I opted for the aggressive eye contact approach, which quickly had people turning away. All those staring contests with my cat have clearly paid off.

Shrines and Cable Cars in the Snow

The first thing I realised this morning is that everywhere closes on Monday. And I mean everywhere. Or at least everywhere that I wanted to visit. Hence, Deoksugung Palace, the Seodaemun Prison History Hall and Changyeonggung Palace have all been delegated to the future. After over an hour of trawling guide book, map and internet to figure out what was open I set out, revelling in the falling snow.

I walked to Jogyesa Temple via the Bosingak Belfry. The Belfry houses a bell that used to be rung 33 times in the morning to signal the opening of the city gates and then 24 times in the evening to signal their closing. I could not see the bell but there was a wall in the nearby station that explains its full history. The Jogyesa Temple is the centre of Buddhism in South Korea, and was a beautiful splash of colour in the snow. It was extremely restful to walk around and warm myself by the outdoor heaters as I listened to the melodic chants of worship.

I wound my way through snow clad streets, admiring the many hanok style buildings as I left the busiest roads behind on my walk to the Jongmyo Shrine. Arriving at the gates, I was alarmed to see a large number of people milling outside the gate but no one entering. Had perhaps the opening times online been wrong? Or was it closed because of the snow? Heart sinking, I walked closer until I saw a board bearing a list of languages, and a separate time for each. Somehow in all my reading I had missed that entrance to the Shrine was by tour only. This is done to preserve the UNESCO world heritage site. By some wondrous miracle, the next English tour was only two minutes away and within no time I had entered the breath taking shrine. I expect that it is normally picturesque, but the snow laden trees and rooftops were straight from a wintery postcard, if not better.

The shrine was built to house the spirit tablets of the Joseon kings, their queens and some of their most devoted government officials. The central stone path to the main shrine, Jeongjeon, is comprised of three lanes, the two outer lanes are for the king and crown prince, while the centre one is for the spirits to make their way along. The shrines are undoubtedly impressive and just a little imposing but I must confess it is the surrounding woodland that captivates me the most. In Guernsey the world stops at the sight of a single snowflake, but here in Seoul life continues as normal, it is only among this forest that the snow lies untouched and winter reigns.

The bark of the juniper tree is used to make an aromatic incense used in the ancestor summoning rituals held at the shrine every year. The circular island represents heaven while the square pond is Earth.

With the tour over I head to Namsan Park and take the cable car up to Seoul Tower. This is a pleasant way to spend some of the afternoon, just meandering the various attractions, although there were a lot of “coming soon” signs. I particularly liked the Ssentoy Museum which had a large selection of Marvel figurines, models and dioramas. The view from the observation deck of the tower was rather limited but I did get a lovely aerial view of some of Namsan Park and the section of the old city wall that runs through it.

Deciding the to relax for the remainder of the afternoon I head back the to hostel, stopping at an underground shopping centre to browse a some pretty shoes and handbags.


I was the first to board the bus and it was another 40 minutes before we picked up anyone else. I passed the time by admiring Seoul as it began to awaken. Having picked up another five people, we switched to a larger tour bus and made our way towards the boarder.

Outside the entry point to the military controlled area, we looked at the Freedom Bridge, Peace Bell and an old locomotive engine from the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). The Freedom Bridge is where North and South Korean POW were exchanged after the war while the Peace Bell and a number of other pieces express the Korean people’s deep desire for their country to be reunited. Unification is a major theme of our tour as our guide points out Unification Village, Unification Bridge and so on.

After having our passports checked, our first stop in the DMZ was the Third Infiltration Tunnel, built by the North Koreans into South Korea. After descending the steep access tunnel, we were able to walk along the main tunnel until we reach the third barrier wall that blocks the tunnel on the South Korean side. At this point I stood only 160m from the boarder and it was most likely the closest I will ever be to North Korea. Here pictures were not allowed so just picture a cold and rough hewn granite tunnel (though warmer than the surface) with a concrete wall blocking it. In the wall is a small window and a rusted door.

Managing not to bash my head on the low ceiling, I retreated to the surface and the tour moved on to the observation tower. It felt weird sitting on a tour bus and being driven everywhere after so long being my own tour guide or only taking part in the occasional free walking tour. Fortunately it seems my poor visibility curse remained in Hong Kong and the observation tower offered amazing views of North Korea. Our guide pointed out the various details, from real and fake villages to two flag poles on opposite sides of the boarder which use to compete to be the tallest until the South gave up.

Out final stop in the DMZ was Dorasan Station. This train station sits on a line that runs through the entire Korean peninsula, eventually connecting to China. While trains do not currently run between the North and South, the rest of the line is in use and it was once again apparent just how much the South wishes to be reunited with the North.

Our final stop was at a ginseng information centre where we were enthusiastically told about the growing process and the various medical benefits of the six year old ginseng, as opposed to less mature ginseng, which can only be purchased in South Korea.

Visiting the War Memorial of Korea

Most people have heard of the Korean war, a war that started in 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea on 25th June 1950 and ended in an armistice on 27th July 1953. It was a war between communism and democracy that not only irreparably tore apart a nation but also its people and their families. Entering the grounds of the War Memorial of Korea, one is immediately greeted by the Statue of Brothers.

I cannot give a just explanation to the full symbolism of this moving piece so will give only the text of the accompanying plaque and allow the reader to reach any further conclusions:

“The Statue of Brothers is an 18 meter wide and 11-meter high symbol of the Korean War. It consists of the upper part, lower part and inner part. The upper part of the statue depicts a scene where a family’s older brother, an ROK officer, and his younger brother, a North Korean soldier, meet in a battlefield and express reconciliation, love, and forgiveness. The lower tomb-shaped dome was built with pieces of granite collected from nationwide locations symbolizing the sacrifices made by our patriots. The crack in the dome stands for the division of Korea and the hope for reunification. Objects inside the dome include a mosaic wall painting that expresses the spirit of the Korean people to overcome the national tragedy and a map plate of the 16 UN Allied Nations that dispatched troops to the war. The links of iron chain on the ceiling signify the unbreakable bonds of a unified Korea.

After viewing the rest of the outdoor exhibition, a collection of tanks, planes and boats from the Korean War, I walked in laden silence through the galleries that enshrine marble slabs, each bearing row upon row of names, what will be the final footprint of those who fell as time gradually erases all else.

The museum itself was extremely interesting, detailing not only the Korean War but also some of the Korean Peninsula’s turbulent history and the events leading up to the war. Fortunately there was plenty of English explanation boards and while visiting a museum that documents wars and some of the suffering experienced during them cannot be called enjoyable, it was certainly informative and moving. To anyone else who visits my only advice would be to avoid the times when tours are being led around as they really disturb the atmosphere the museum clearly worked hard to achieve.

“In remembrance of the Korean soldiers and UN military participants who lost their lives in the Korean War, the respect towards the warriors (1,300 identification tags) has been embodied as tear drops. The iron thorns symbolise the horror, suppression and danger of the tragic war. The circle on the sand below represents the wave of the drop.”

Shaking off the cloud that had begun to form over me, I made my way to Itaewon for a late lunch and spent the rest of my afternoon looking around the various shops. I was amazed by the array of items on offer and found myself pining after a good many pair of boots. I think my favourite site though was a little street vendor that sold only scarves, knuckle dusters and nunchucks.

Two Americans, an Australian and a Brit walk into a Korean restaurent…

To finish the day I went out for a lively and enjoyable dinner with three others from my hostel. We ended up in a restaurant that served only one dish, beef on the bone in some kind of broth. It was most delicious and after some confusion over having to pay first, we were even complimented on our chopstick use (I think).

Hitting the Ground Walking in Seoul

My first impression of Seoul is cold. Cold enough to wake me up from my midnight flight state of foggy sleep deprivation. After making it through immigration and retrieving my bag, I’m quick to pull out warm coat, hat, gloves and scarves (yes, plural scarves) before continuing any further. Clearly my body has forgotten what it is like to be in a cold climate after being spoilt by the year round high temperatures and humidity of Singapore. Especially when the cold temperatures in question are hovering below zero and hardened snow still lines the roads.

Land-side, I immediately run into the roadblock of none of the ATMs working for me. This is an issue I occasionally run into with some banks overseas, particularly when the exchange rates differ by a number of decimal places. Normally the quick and easy solution is to go to the next ATM along and, provided it belongs to a different bank, one is in with a fighting chance of managing to take out some cash. If not, rinse and repeat until one encounters success. At most airports there is a whole line up of ATMs, so it is just a case of trial and error to find a bank that works. Unfortunately for me, every ATM in Incheon Airport belongs to the same bank and it did not like my account. Hence I was forced to convert my leftover Sing Dollar at the currency exchange, most frustrating.

This inconvenience over, I purchased my travel card and made my way to my hostel. On the subway I had a lovely chat with a game designer about this, that and the other. It was a nice pick me up after the trauma of my ATM adventure. Parting ways, I took shelter in the subway station while I waited for the hostel reception to open. Backpack safely stowed, I ventured back into the subway armoured with some coffee and a target destination.

I started off by heading to Changdeokgung Palace just in time for the 1130 English speaking tour around the Secret Garden. This section of the palace can only be seen by tour as they are trying to preserve this UNESCO World Heritage Site, so I was pleased that my timings lined up perfectly. The dusting of snow that lingered on some rooftops added a beautiful picturesque feel to the whole day. Iced over ponds complimented the wintery feel and after I had finished looking around, I was relieved to take shelter in a café to warm up and eat a late lunch.

After defrosting slightly, I made my to Unhyeongong Palace. This was much smaller, but had a few rooms laid out and mannequins in traditional dress performing various tasks. I was particularly excited to get a closer look at the chimneys and firebox systems called ondols that were used in a historic version of underfloor heating.

Taking a break from palaces and with the weather a few degrees not as cold, I wandered through the traditional Hanok Village of Bukchon. As I tried to outpace various tour groups and hambok wearing tourists, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the residents that have to listen to our racket all day. If I had had a little more time to plan, I may have stayed to try some of the traditional artwork workshops offered in some of the hanoks.

Back on my palace tour and I headed over to the Gyeongbokgung palace. This was very different to the previous two, with a more rigid layout that didn’t flow with the natural landscape in the same way that Changdeokgung palace does. The majority of it has also had to have been rebuilt in recent years due to its past relocations to Japan and various fires. To use a concept from The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, I felt these building lacked historicity. The replicas do not hold the same soul as their originals. Of course this may be because perfectly straight edges in a historical building are practically unheard of, with time wearing smooth all things and fading paint so that we forget that these haunts were also new once upon a time.

I wrapped up my tour with roasted chestnuts from a street vendor and returned to the thawing warmth of the hostel to spend a pleasant evening with the other guests. Overall today has left me extremely impressed with the South Korean government who are making a consertive effort to restore, rebuild and rejuvenate the history and culture of Korea, both with the palaces and the hanoks. Too often today, people are all too eager to leave the past behind, forgetting that the Old can hold just as much beauty, intrigue and life as the New.