Temples, Tech, and Trekking in South Korea

Over the past year the things that we look for in travel have changed pretty drastically. For one, I’ve found myself seeking out places that will challenge me and push me outside of my comfort zone, but which also afford me the ability to move around and explore safely and independently. My love for travel stems from being able to see and experience life in another place, through another lense. Which shouldn’t by nature be easy, but when it works has led to some of the most humbling, eye-opening experiences that have transformed the way I view and interact with myself and the world around me. Korea – somewhat unexpectedly – ended up being one of these places.

Our reason for choosing to kick off our adventures in Asia here was simple: friends! My college roommate, Meg had moved here a few years ago and I had been dying to catch up with her and check out her current home. As luck would have it we also had the chance to catch up with some of my former coworkers and Kyle’s uncle, who were all in Seoul on business. Because we had the luxury of having friends to show us around, and (let’s be honest) we were a bit burnt out on the planning side of travel, we decided to wing it. No Lonely Planet book, or extensive Google searching this time!

Our amazing friends made the trip exceptional!
Our amazing friends made the trip exceptional!

In many ways this country was so vastly different from everywhere we’d been — being outside of the Roman alphabet we were, for the first time on our trip, in a place where we couldn’t bumble our way (badly butchered, but understandable) through pronunciation of a menu. The city of Seoul, where we began our adventures, was larger than I could even fathom possible for a city. The first time I saw the entire panorama spread out before us from the top of Namsan Tower I was completely blown away. It made NYC look like the type of managable city where you can navigate yourself around with relative ease. Seoul is a place where you can live your whole life and never even visit all of its neighborhoods.

That all said, it was one of the easiest cities to slip into — language barriers and all. The subway system was immaculately clean, punctual, and quiet. Looking around it was rare to see someone not tuned into their smart phone in this tech-savvy city. There were no vendors singling us out, immediately translating our skin tone to ‘wealthy tourist’. In fact, most people we met went out of their way to help us, whether we were standing around a train station looking lost or trying to figure out where to stay for the night. Korean culture as a whole felt light years away from the boisterous atmosphere of most European and South American cities. And the food somehow managed to be both healthy and delicious. From table-side Korean BBQ to bowls of bibimbap and markets packed with fresh fruits and veggies, eating remained our favorite activity.

A feast of meat with all the fixings
A feast of meat with all the fixings

Another awesome thing about Seoul: great hiking is never too far away. Koreans seemed to really value their time in nature, often flocking to one of the city’s many mountains after work and on the weekends. I don’t think I’ve seen such a high concentration of people decked out in hiking boots since we left the Camino! We were more than happy to jump on the hiking bandwagon, first exploring the relative solitude of Bukhansan National Park in Seoul, then tackling the lesser-traveled trails and historic fortress walls of Mount Geumjeong in Busan.

We had the mountain nearly to ourselves and climbed to distant sound of chanting monks
We had the mountain nearly to ourselves and climbed to distant sound of chanting monks

We spent our first week in Seoul staying with Meg and her boyfriend Joram, indulging in on all of the things we’ve missed most from travel. Primarily: fast wifi, a real kitchen, a backlog of Mad Men and Game of Thrones episodes, and the luxury to be truly lazy. Slow mornings aside we did make sure to venture out and explore the city. We hit up Seoul’s famed night markets where we found you really can buy anything — from high fashion to mass-produced t-shirts any time of the day or night. Forget NYC, Seoul has this city-that-never-sleeps thing down!

Hanging out and shopping at the night market
Hanging out and shopping at the night market

Another afternoon was spent touring the Korean War Memorial, a museum founded to commemorate the Korean War. Knowing about the war and seeing it all spread out before you in devastating photographs and staticstics are two vastly different things. It was hands down the most moving experience I’ve had visiting a museum and I left with a whole new respect for all that the people here had endured within our grandparent’s lifetime: families split apart indefinitely, rebuilding their capital city from complete rubble to a world-class city. And the weighty reality that the war never actually ended: the country is still at an armistice, with tensions flaring up semi-regularly, as they did while we were here over a conflict in the DMZ.

A war that split a country
A war that split a country

On a lighter note, our friends brought us out to the Korean Folk Village for one of our last afternoons in Seoul. One part history, one part family day-trip locale, it was really cool to see traditional homes, temples, and customs from different parts of the country. Such a fun way to learn more about Korean history and culture!

A day at the folk village made for good fun and interesting lessons in history
A day at the folk village made for good fun and interesting lessons in history

Our last week here was a whirlwind solo adventure south. Leaving behind our amazing Korean-speaking friends we set off to check out Korea’s famed tea plantations, second largest city, and more Buddhist temples than we could count. Logistically, planning the trip was no easy feat. Even with the help of two native speakers, one who works as a tour guide on the side, we still had difficulty figuring out long distance bus schedules and lodging. While almost all hostels and hotels across Europe could be booked online, this was decidedly not the case here.

The Boseong tea fields were the first stop on our trip, by way of Gwangju. Boseong is known for producing the highest quality green tea in all of Korea and it did not disappoint. We arrived late in the day, and the afternoon light blanketing the tea-filled rolling hills was magical. Climbing to the top of one of the hills we could see through the haze all the way to the ocean, a view that seemed to embody the timelessness of this place. Oh, and of course the food! Green tea everything: from pancakes to noodles. The green tea ice cream from the shop just outside the entrance to the tea fields was the best I ever had — I’m still dreaming about it!

A literal mountain of green tea
A literal mountain of green tea

From Boseong we travelled east to Busan for a few days by the beach. Here we indulged in some of the best sashimi of our lives, fresh off the fishing boats, and treated ourselves to a day at Spa Land. Spa Land, as the name implies, is like Disney Land for stressed out adults — 3 stories of communal pampering at it’s best. I’ll admit, the community aspect of Korean spas was a huge culture shock at first — no clothes allowed in the separated men’s and women’s baths, and matching mono-chrome spa “uniforms” for the co-ed saunas. But, once you move past the initial self-consciousness it’s a really cool experience. Seeing women of all ages so comfortable in their bodies was a refreshing change of pace from American culture.

The only way to have it fresher than this is to eat it in the ocean
The only way to have it fresher than this is to eat it in the ocean

The last stop on our self-led-mini-tour was Gyeongju. After the bright-lights, big-city feel of Busan we were happy to spend a few nights in a family-run guest house in this walkable town. The highlights of our time here were shopping in the many boutiques and a trip out to see the UNESCO World Heritage site of Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto’s 1300-year-old stone Buddah statue. The night market, where I was given hands-on instruction of how to properly assemble my plate of food by the elderly woman sitting next to me, may have been our all-time favorite food experience. A reminder that common language isn’t the only way to communicate!

Ancient carved Buddha in four directions, the rock has a different image of Buddha on each side
Ancient carved Buddha in four directions, the rock has a different image of Buddha on each side

At the end of our time in Korea we were sad to say goodbye to our friends and this country. It might take a little more effort to get around, but the effort will most certainly be rewarded with some of the best food, nicest people, and most authentic travel experiences you could hope for.

Current location: Khao Lak, Thailand

More images of temples, Seoul and food from Korea:

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