When I started my trip I had some ideas about where I wanted to go in Asia. Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam, maybe Indonesia and Taiwan, and Japan. I never really considered South Korea; I had heard Seoul was basically a Western city in Asia and wasn’t really worth going to.
Then I had such an incredible experience volunteer teaching in Cambodia that I started looking for another opportunity to volunteer in Asia. I came across a few postings advertising “Language Cafes” in a city called Busan, in South Korea. The opportunity sounded interesting, it’s basically a program where Koreans can pay a membership fee to come practice their English with English speakers. But where was Busan? I had never heard of it. Turns out it’s the second biggest city in South Korea, located in the southeast surrounded by beaches and mountains.
So I started thinking about South Korea and realized that while traveling around Europe I met a lot of Koreans and they were always the nicest people. I love history…South Korea has a lot of history that I know little about…I love food…Korean food is really good… hmm visiting South Korea started to sound like a pretty great idea!
I secured a position at the language cafe, booked a flight, and gave myself a week to explore Seoul before I headed down south to Busan.
And WOW, Seoul is amazing. Did you know Seoul is a massive metropolitan city surrounded by mountains? I did not. I love big cities, and I love climbing mountains, therefore, I loved Seoul.
But a city needs more than beauty to be a great city, it has to have Seoul! (See what I did there?) So here’s all the other stuff:
- The subway system here is incredible and fairly cheap (most rides are about 1,250 ₩, or USD $1.17). It has 21 lines all with wifi and real-time train info. The trains are super clean, arrive every five minutes or so, and every station is massive often with underground malls, food, and clean toilets.
- Not only is the city surrounded by mountains, nearly all of the mountains are climbable with well-maintained trails. I climbed to the summit of Baekundae peak, in Bukhansan National Park, north of the city. Hiking is more of an older generation hobby in Korea, but that doesn’t mean they were slow!
- Food is a huge part of Korean culture and it’s really, really good. Kimchi (fermented vegetables, typically cabbage) is probably the most well-known, and it’s impossible to go through Korea without trying it because you get a plate of Kimchi every time you sit down in a restaurant. Most restaurants often have a self-serve section where you have unlimited access to kimchi, sprouts, radishes, greens, and sometimes rice. This is known as banchan, which basically means a little something extra. Some restaurants also come with a call button, so the waiter knows when you need something. If there isn’t a call button it’s pretty common to hear people yelling across the restaurant “Jeogiyo!” (excuse me) to get the servers attention.
- I’ve tried a bunch of Korean food… Gamjatang (pork bone soup), Kimchi Mandu (Kimchi Dumplings), Gimbap (like a long sushi roll… actually where sushi came from, did you know it was originally Korean?), Bibimbap (mixed rice bowl, usually with veggies, egg, and some kind of meat), Tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes), Samgyeopsal (grilled pork belly), spicy ramen, sweet bread filled with red bean paste, and of course, fried chicken. I have also included a picture of pizza, because in Seoul, pizza comes with a side of sliced pickles and I love it.
- The sock game in South Korea is strong, there are sock stores everywhere. I’m doing my best to fit in (and yes, I only have one pair of jeans at the moment…):
- I didn’t know anything about Korean history beyond the Korean War in the 1950s, and to be honest I didn’t know much about that either. Ancient Korean Kingdoms are believed to date back to the 12th century BC, and with ~3,000 years of history you can image there has been a lot of war. As a result the city is full of remnants of fortress walls which have been really well maintained.
- Korean society is very competitive in all aspects of life, including looks. Did you know Seoul is known as the plastic surgery capital of the world? I don’t want to throw too many stats on here because everything I read is different but it’s really common. It’s also relatively affordable, and about half of plastic surgery recipients in Seoul are foreigners. The most common procedure is eyelid surgery. In Korea it is generally believed that a double eyelid is a sign of beauty. More invasive surgeries include adjusting the jawline to more of a V shape. Koreans often have very round faces, and this is one of the reasons you often see Koreans posing for pictures making a V-shape with their hands under their chin.
- K-Pop. Have you heard of it? It’s short for Korean pop music and it’s basically a genre of music that originated in South Korea that is slowly taking over the world. It’s a mix of all types of popular music but often has some sort of audiovisual element to it. To me it seems to be dominated by boy bands but there are some girl bands as well. I think I initially heard of K-Pop back in December when the lead singer of the popular K-pop group SHINee committed suicide. While the music is very popular and the bands successful, these kids are trained from very young ages to sing, rap, dance, be sociable, and have perfect looks; in other words there is immense pressure on the kids to perform and maintain a certain image and lifestyle, and there are some very wealthy management companies behind it all.
- Couples often dress alike, I guess it’s a thing here. It’s hard to take pictures of, but here is a candid subway shot and a shop that is meant for buying “couple clothes”.
- We all know Koreans love to take pictures and they work very hard to find the perfect spot. Well in Korea, many tourist attractions actually mark the spot where you should stand to take your picture!
- It is mandatory for men to serve two years in the military, the ROK or Republic of Korea Armed Forces, between ages 18-30.
- The Korean War Memorial has a very impressive completely free exhibition, taking you from ancient Korea through the recent Korean War. I found it really interesting, especially coming fresh from Vietnam, to compare and contrast the portrayal of the US and its role in these “wars against communism”. Obviously in Vietnam, still a communist country, the US is portrayed as the enemy. In South Korea, the US, along with the rest of the UN, is shown much appreciation for their role in protecting South Korea’s freedom. There is a hallway which lists the names of all casualties of both the Korean War and the Vietnam War by country, and in the US also by state. A quote in the hallway reads “Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.”
- The Statue of Brothers shows brothers fighting for North and South Korea reuniting and embracing in the middle of the battlefield. The crack represents the division of Korea and hope for reunification. Inside the dome there are tribute plaques to each of the 16 United Nations which sent troops to fight in the Korean War.
- The Peace Clock Tower has two clocks, one showing the time the Korean War began and the other the current time. A third clock sits at the base of the tower (pictured on the left) and states “Someday when Unification is realized, this Clock will be put on the Tower and will indicate the Time of Unification.” I had never really thought about the South Korean perspective and how they still want reunification. Over 30,000 North Koreans have fled across the border (mainly through China, Mongolia, and Southeast Asian countries) since it was formed in 1953. I’d imagine many South Koreans have lost family or friends who are stuck in North Korea so the wish for reunification makes sense.
- The official language of South (and North) Korea is called Hangul. The Hangul alphabet was created by Sejong the Great in the 15th century. Sejong is a big deal in South Korea. He was a third son of the King so his ascension to the throne was unique, but ultimately he was favored over his two older brothers and ended up bringing several advancements, including the alphabet, to Korean society. The alphabet has 19 consonants and 21 vowels that mimic the shape your mouth makes in making the sound…it’s actually surprisingly logical and easy to learn (I can already basically read it).
- At my last stop in Europe (Athens) I met a Korean guy named Jaehong. We hung out for only a few hours one night but I remember him being incredibly smart and kind. We exchanged facebook info and he happened to post something right before I left for Seoul, reminding me that he lives here! So I reached out and he was very excited to take me out one night for fried chicken and some local Korean craft beer. He is just one of many examples of Korean kindness I have encountered so far. I have had museum volunteers walk around museums with me explaining various parts of Korean history, I’ve had business men guide me through the metro giving me pointers about what to see and do in the city, a Korean man guided us down part of the mountain at the national park and then insisted we come to his friends restaurant for soup, and I’ve had old women give me food on the street, just because I’m a foreigner.
I have read that historically it was said “There’s no soul in Seoul”. The city was built up quickly during a fast industrialization period and I guess it used to look pretty sterile. This is certainly no longer the case. There is artwork everywhere, the city is filled with amazing and creative parks, benches, streams, and trails, and with the surrounding mountains you have a view from pretty much anywhere you stand. I really can’t recommend this city enough!
I am now in Busan volunteering at an English language cafe in Seomyeon district. It’s only been a couple of days but I am already loving the energy in my neighborhood and I’m excited to explore everything Busan has to offer! Below is a view from my kitchen, and an example of a geography lesson at the cafe!