Category Archives: South Korea

Travelogue RWC 2019: Jeju

JEJU
29 September – 01 October 2019

After having very nearly almost missed our flight from Busan, we were relieved to touch down on the runway in Jeju for the next leg of our trip.

Our hotel was in the town centre of Jeju City, so it was an easy bus ride to get there. We only had large-note paper money so feared being turned away but the bus driver, taking pity on our bedraggled selves and big cases, waved us onto the bus for free instead. The wheel turned though when we got off a stop too early and had to haul ass uphill -and in the drizzling rain that had just started – to get to the Ramada sign that we could see in the distance but that seemed to not get any closer.

Having had quite a heavy weekend and with our East Coast tour starting early the next morning, we decided to play it safe with a tame dinner in our neck of the woods.

It was still lightly drizzling, which we hoped would lift for the next day, but which we knew better than to rely on the weather report for a forecast after the completely random predictions from the weekend in Busan that had seen 99% chance of rain be dry as a bone and 44% be the downpour that had come out of nowhere and drenched us.

Good fortune was on our side though and we awoke to blue skies. Well, patchy blue skies, but that would do.

We met our tour guide, Jin, who ran us through the order of events for the day, predicting rain for 3pm and reassuring us that we’d be done with the outdoorsy stuff by then so it wouldn’t interrupt play for us.

Jin gave us a rundown on Jeju while we drove out of the city.

Geologically, Jeju Island is a shield volcano, first erupting 1.8 million years ago and continuing on and off until recent times. It is bigger than most think before they visit; 3 times the size of Seoul and almost 3 times the size of Singapore, so ideally tourists need 3 or 4 days to see the whole island.

There are 700,000 people living on Jeju and this number is growing with people coming to find a more balanced life than in the cities, like Jin himself who had moved down from Seoul. He spoke fondly of the life and culture on the island, proud that it has no beggars, no thieves and no gates. Jin called it a “cousin’s culture”, where everyone is proud of their heritage, works to preserve it and looks out for their people – and he said it can be tough for outsiders such as himself to break into such a tight circle.

Jeju is also a self-governing province so visa-free for over 180 countries, saving the red tape for countries they term as dangerous, like Afghanistan. Otherwise they welcome foreigners and if those foreigners purchase property for $500k or more they will get a permanent resident visa. The clearly progressive goverment is also pushing electric cars to try reduce pollution, so they subsidise up to 50% of the car’s purchase price to encourage more environmentally friendly road usage.

By this point in the story we had arrived at Manjanggul Cave, a volcanic lava tube that is 7km long, although the accessible bit is only a kilometre. Expecting it to be a narrow tunnel, it was a surprise when we took the steps underground to discover a massive cave.

The walkway had subtle lighting guiding the way, but it was still very dark because if they light it too much then the moss will grow and ruin the cave, and the small lights could only brighten so much of the caves that were easily 3 or 4 metres wide and 5 or 6 metres high in mostly places, but also ballooned into much bigger caves periodically.

The info boards explained in layman’s terms why and how the caves and passages were formed so it was very interesting, even with no geological knowledge at all – and we could know what we were looking at with the likes of the 7.6m high lava column (formed when lava pours down from the ceiling and congeals; Jeju’s is the highest in the world) and Turtle Rock (a dried lava shelf that happens to be exactly the same shape as Jeju Island).

The caves are very cold (between 10 and 15 degrees) and dank, with water dropping from the ceiling so as much as it was a great experience, it was an equally great experience to resurface.

Jin told us that there had been citizens that had hidden in the caves during the genocide of the Jeju Uprising directly preceding the Korean War in 1948, where 10% of the population was killed in the process of trying the quash the rebels. I can’t imagine how awful that must have been!

The next excursion was a visit to the Jeju Gimnyeong Maze Park. We were provided a map and challenged to get to the bell in the centre. Constructed with over 2200 aromatic, green and very samey-samey Leyland Cypress trees, it was a fun challenge to twist and turn through the narrow leafy passages to complete the task.

Jin then took us to Woljeongri beach for a coffee stop to relax and admire the azure ocean and strip of golden sand beach. Fortunately, the weather had held so we were able to walk up and down the beach. With its fringe of shops and restaurants and idyllic waters, it was easy to see how this was described as a perfect holiday resort town.

Lunch was the next exercise and we were signed up to try the pork for which Jeju is famous; tender rashers marinated and served in a spicy basting. Jeju, however, is also infamous for pork of another kind, where old traditional houses used to use pigs as their sanitation systems. Outdoor toilets channelled the waste to adjacent pig pens, where the pigs would eat the matter and then of course later be eaten themselves. Quite efficient. But also very gross.

Rested and refuelled, we headed to Seongsan Ilchulbong for our hike up the crater. As a Tuff Cone Hydro volcano formed by the ocean about 5-7 thousand years ago and detached from the mainland, what has evolved and remains today is a perfect dormant crater easily accessible from the island which, after climbing the 553 stone steps to get to the top, allows spectacular panoramic views of the island, neighbouring Udo island and the ocean. Completely worth the effort.

At the bottom of the crater is a cove where the Haenyeo lady divers can be seen. These (mostly old) ladies are known for diving for conches and abalones without any equipment. They sell their hauls and supply the restaurant in the cove, which I suspect must be some of the freshest seafood you’ll ever have the pleasure of eating.

Hot and sticky from our walk, we were surprised with a bonus stop that hadn’t been described on the itinerary; a lesson in aromatherapy massage.

We were led through very pretty and perfectly manicured gardens to a very Zen looking and sounding room which had rows and rows of golden basins sunk into the floor. Jin sat us down in an area facing a wall of glass window overlooking the gardens.

We were told to put our feet into the basins which were half-filled with scorching hot water. We could add a little cold, but were told to try and tolerate as hot as possible.

The water already had rosemary drops in it (so it smelt delicious since I only associate rosemary with roast chicken) and Jin squeezed in some rose and peppermint oils. The aroma off the hot water was heavenly!

Jin guided us through a series of breathing exercises, through nose-only first then deep breaths through mouth only, to use the scents to open up sinuses and chest. Then we were given salts to use to scrub feet, lower legs and then hands, ending off with a pat dry and rubbing rosemary moisturising oils into the bits we’d just exfoliated, while Jin drizzled a few drops of peppermint and rosemary oil on the top of our shoulders and back of the neck.

With feet glowing and shoulders buzzing, it seemed a shame to have to put socks and shoes back on to return to the bus pausing for commemorative photos in the pretty gardens en route.

Our last stop for the afternoon was the small village of traditional Jeju style houses. In an effort to preserve the heritage, the goverment pays for the repair of the houses so there are still people living in them to provide a living museum of sorts.

We saw the infamous pig-cleaning toilet setup (!!) and Jin showed us other adaptions that the Jeju people have had to make to adapt to their environment, eg with the island being very windy, they have to tie the thatched roof down with rope. Bearing in mind Jeju was expecting its 6th typhoon for the year on Wednesday (no doubt “44% chance of…”), the government must be shelling out pretty consistently to keep repairing these relatively fragile constructions, so good on them for their continued commitment.

With the tour done and so much seen, we were herded to the bus to try and get ahead of the dreaded rush hour traffic on our return to town. The driver put foot to get us there, as the rain started. Jin’s prediction had been off by a couple of hours, lucky for us.

It was tough choice to decide what to have for our last supper in South Korea, but we settled on Chicken & Beer as a sure winner. We consulted Google Maps and got to a very traditional (and by traditional I mean ‘no English menu’) restaurant. It took some charades and a translator app for us to muddle and order through, but we got the Soju and Cass right away so there was some wriggle room with the rest.

We needn’t have feared; we were served a massive platter of chicken – some crumbed and deep fried and some in a sticky sweet chilli sauce – with all sorts of side dishes. The kind of feast you need to just dive into sans reservations and then wet-wipe yourself back to presentable afterwards. Which we did.

Since the rain had started coming down harder while we were eating, we were compelled to get another bottle of Soju to wait out the storm and soak in our last night.

Travelogue RWC 2019: Busan

BUSAN
27-29 September 2019

We very nearly really didn’t get to Busan. First we got to the subway station, where we knew that tickets are a cash-only sale and we knew we didn’t have enough cash, but we assumed there would be a cash machine there.

There was not.

No mind, we took the escalators back up to ground level and went into our trusty 7-11, but the ATM didn’t accept VISA cards (?!) so we went into the shopping mall that occupied the first few floors below the hotel we’d been staying in. No ATM machine.

So we split up, me with the suitcases at the top of the subway station escalators so that Christian could move quickly to find the nearest cash machine.

Well, I still don’t really know where it was because on his return Christian was beyond reasonable conversation, having had a frustrating experience finding an English- and Visa-friendly ATM.

But he had. And we were on our way again.

Confidently we punched in Incheon International Airport Terminal 2 – reasoning that we’d landed at Terminal 1 on our flight in from Japan, so 2 was likely to be Domestic – and again we were on our merry way.

It was only when the train pulled up at Gimpo Airport (another airport entirely, that hadn’t occurred to us at all) a few stops later that we even questioned if we were going to the right airport.

With the train doors opening at Gimpo we scrambled to find the plastic sleeve with all our booking info and there it was “Departure: Seoul (Gimpo)”. We’d spotted it in the nick of time so we hurtled toward the train door to get out at this correct station.

Thank heavens both airports are on the same subway line or we’d have found out too late and missed our flight!

Our hosts in Busan, Ji and Neo, had at least had the foresight to prepare us for what to expect and how to get to them, so it was simple to exit the Arrivals Hall and find the Limousine Bus office to get our tickets to the Bexco stop, where we’d arranged to meet them.

With 10 minutes in hand, there was just enough time to grab a quick sarmie from the 7-11 for padkos on the bus.

Pulling into Busan, we were met with terrible traffic. But it was just after 5pm on a Friday evening so it’s probably to be expected wherever you are in the world.

We had no sooner got all our selves and our bags off the bus than we heard a hooter and presto! There were our friends come to meet us!

Ji was driving but Neo jumped out and loaded our things and us into their people carrier. There were 3 juniors in the back, 2 of whom we’d only met when they were babies (and were now tweens) and a new baby (already 8 years old) that we’d never met.

There was much excitement as we shared stories of where we’d been and what we’d been doing for the almost 10 years since we’d last seen each other – but besides the physical human evidence that time had passed, it felt like no time had passed between us at all. Good friends just pick up where they’ve left off.

We were staying at a B&B around the corner from the Binedell clan, so as not to get underfoot with the existing schedules that were already being relaxed and stretched for our benefit. First stop was thus logically to drop off our bags so that the admin was done and we could relax and go with the flow for the rest of the evening.

When it had come time to book, the B&B had already been quite full with a group of athletes having block booked all the suites with Western beds so we were allocated a Korean bed room.

On check in we discovered that this meant a laminate square room with stack of thin mattresses and pillows in the corner, a washing machine fitted onto the wall of the room (genius) and leaving shoes at the door so as to only be barefoot in the living / sleeping space. We’re always all for trying the local things, so were delighted with our digs for the weekend.

Back in the car we climbed the hill with its twists and turns to get to the Binedell’s apartment block. Completely converse to our suburban living at home, their suburb is a collection of high rise blocks with spacious family living apartments. Being on the bottom floor, they have the best of the garden view and none of the admin of maintaining it.

We settled around the dining room table – having barely taken a breath between stories since the meeting at the bus stop – and enjoyed a welcome drink, Neo’s favourite Somaek which is a mix of Soju (South Korea’s speciality, a clear, colourless distilled liquor) and beer. Soju is a bit sweet so gives the beer a good edge.

We had a few of those, while Ji made some dumplings for nibbles and we chatted about anything and everything. We caught up on shared friends – now spread all over the planet – reminisced about old times, reviewed the present and guessed at the future, and learnt a lot about Korean culture and food.

For dinner we took a walk down to a local restaurant where we feasted Korean barbecue style. Platters of thinly sliced and rolled raw meat (we had beef and pork) were delivered to the table to be self-cooked on the gas skillet bedded in the middle of the table, and there was a buffet of sides to either also cook on the grill or add to the juicy meaty bits raw for crunch. And of course rice.

It’s a wonderfully social way to eat with the best of both in that the first bites are ready in minutes and the rest of the eating process can be drawn out over a couple of hours, to allow lots of conversation and laughs and more drinks and more laughs.

We’d been seated at a long table at the end of the restaurant and collapsible doors had been drawn to give us a private dining room, but there kids were out of sight as soon as they’d eaten, preferring to entertain themselves in the lounge rather than have their style cramped by us old people.

The walk home to the Binedell’s apartment was welcome, as it is always great to get some fresh air and the blood flowing to move dinner and clear the head.

And a very good tactical move too, to have a pause before we got home for nightcaps and then headed out again for Round 2.

As Neo had told us, the South Korean night out generally has a few stops, eating and drinking along the way. We had technically had 2 stops already with the welcome drinks and dinner, so were compelled by custom to have a nightcap (or 2). Ji had volunteered to be on kid-watch duty so Neo was tasked with accompanying us to our neck of the woods, where there were several night spots – mostly 24 hours – right behind our B&B.

We got ourselves a booth in a cosy little restaurant/bar where most tables were still eating even though it was well past midnight, and ordered a jug of beer.

Fortunately Neo let us off the Soju on this last episode but nonetheless, the beer was enough to end play for the day.

We walked back to our B&B and giggled as we figured out our room and made up our beds. When I initially lay down I thought the mattress was bloody uncomfortable… Until I discovered that Christian had laid them upside down so the discomfort was from the sticky little bubbles that are supposed to grip the floor and were now gripping my sweaty flesh.

More giggles and a remake later, we were asleep immediately.

Neo had said that Soju is a kind drink on the next morning and I hadn’t believed him… Until I woke up nine hours later, fresh as a daisy. Not sure if it’s the Korean bed or the Soju that should get the credit, but I was super grateful.

Christian was a bit more the worse for wear, but it didn’t last for long, thanks to a great shower, doorstop of toast and glass of Coke in the B&B’s kitchen… And Neo (with Xuri, the littlest, in tow) arriving with ‘regmaker’ beers!

We’d made the arrangements the previous night, than since Ji had to fetch and carry kids to Saturday morning school commitments, Neo was going to make his way to us and we would then head towards the beach and meet Ji and the kids somewhere there.

It took us so long to get ourselves together though, that we ended up just sitting on the deck outside the CU convenience store downstairs and waiting for Ji to pick us up.

The whole party reunited, we drove to Haeundae Beach. The traffic was again something terrible and by the time we arrived, the clouds had rolled in and it was raining. Not ideal beach weather at all.

We diverted to the food stalls market and started nibbling inside a seafood stall where I finally got to try the snack we’d seen everywhere but didn’t know what it was. It looked like a skewered wavy length of stiff dough and seemed to be served in a cup of something we’d assumed to be dipping sauce. Turned out that it’s called Eomukgok and it’s actually ground and compacted fish and the stuff in the cup is a hearty fishy broth. Really delicious. And a great accompaniment to the selection of tempura that complemented the spongy fish with battered crunchiness.

We’d hoped our snacking would see us through the rain but, alas, as we made our way down the food stall alley the rain got worse not better and by the time we circled back to the beach itself for our pictures, it was bucketing down and we got soaked!

Rationalising that we were actually more interested in each other’s company than braving the elements for the view, we retreated back to the Binedell’s apartment, stopping for a few supplies en route.

It was a great decision. The kids could get on with what they wanted to do, we could yack and yack, Neo could pour a steady stream of drinks, Ji sorted an endless flow of nibbles and by the time it came to nachos (middle child Xander’s request), I was even grabbing a session in Ji’s full body massage chair! We had had a brilliant evening, totally chilled and doing what we do best; making memories with good mates.

With intentions of an earlier start to make the most of what we hoped to be a sunny Sunday, we maintained better decorum and decided to forego the Last Rounds pub crawl of the previous night and grabbed a taxi back to the B&B at around midnight.

We awoke on Sunday morning to a patchy sky that was encouragingly blue in places and decided to back optimism, wear shorts and embark on the tourist trail we’d originally intended for the weekend.

Ji, Neo and Xuri fetched us and we started with a visit to Yonggungsa Temple.

The rain from the previous day could still be felt in the air and it was hot and humid. But it wasn’t raining, so we counted our blessings (in an appropriate location to be doing so).

The walk to the temple runs through a food market and we recognised some of the things from the day before, but discovered some all-new marvels that took some explaining too.

The temple itself is old and beautiful, set right on shoreline but on the rock cliffs so with magnificent views of the ocean below. Signage said that this was the most beautiful temple in South Korea and with limited comparisons and the spectacular setting, it was hard to argue with that.

On the way out I stopped in the food market to get a snack for us. I choose a flat octopus which the lady quickly heated up on a flat grill, like a toasted sandwich press and chopped into slices. It was delicious!

Continuing the eating tour, we drove to Songjeong Beach where Neo ordered Korokke while we admired the beach and then we had our senses delighted with deep fried crab croquettes.

We drove down the coast past Haeundae Beach that we’d visited the day before and on to Gwangalli Beach, where we parked the car and went for actual lunch.

We ticked off another new meal box with Korean Fried Chicken (KFC); mountains of crunchy chicken wings, sticky chicken pieces and tender juicy breaded chicken pieces that looked like they came from a monster bird!

We left lunch a little later than we should have and instead of being able to enjoy our drive across the Gwangan Bridge, we had already started to worry a bit about missing our bus to the airport. Our fate was sealed when we ran into more traffic and we resigned ourselves to the fact that we’d missed the 3.17 bus, and that we would catch the next one at 3.47, which would be very very tight for our 5.05 flight, especially bearing in mind the bus would have to beat the same traffic to get there.

Then the bus was late.

Arriving close to 4pm, it was a nailbiter all the way to the airport, with Ji madly researching on her phone and calling the airline to say the bus had been late, and sending us maps of the terminal so that we knew what to expect when we got there.

Our hearts sank as we watched the big red digital clock numbers at the front of the bus tick over. 4.20… 4.30… 4.40… The airline website had said gates close 20 minutes before the flight so when 4.45 ticked past, we’d all but lost hope.

But in a last little burst for freedom, the bus seemed to pop out of the confines of the city and made up incredible distance in the last few minutes.

At 4.49 the bus pulled up in front of the terminal. By the time it came to a complete stop, I was pressing against the doors, passports in hand.

I sprinted across the airport and up to the check in desk, thrusting our passports at the lady, wordlessly panting. She reviewed the passports, typed something into her terminal and asked me where my other passenger and bags were.

Miraculously, Christian caught up with me just then, with our suitcases. The lady checked us in and told us it was too late to check the baggage so we’d have to take it with us.

She escorted us as we three dashed at madman’s pace across the terminal and all the way to the boarding gate to ensure we got on the plane.

All was indeed well that ended well and we were off to Jeju.

What an excellent weekend it had been and thanks to the rainy weather on Saturday, we still had a full day’s unused itinerary to use as an excuse to come back and visit our lovely hosts again!

Travelogue RWC 2019: Seoul

SEOUL
24-27 September 2019

While we were in the neighbourhood (relatively speaking, having been in Japan), we thought we’d take the opportunity to hop over to visit South Korea.

We had booked the flight from Sapporo to Seoul several months before so were dismayed when we got an email notification a couple of weeks before travel that the flight was cancelled. It worked out for the best though because we found another flight on another airline at around the same sort of timing – and for half the price!

Once on the plane we surmised the cancellation was owing to not meeting minimum numbers because our new flight was not even half full. Their loss; we had a very comfortable 3 hour flight with our new hosts on Jin Airlines.

It was very exciting approaching Seoul with an aerial view. It’s awesome for most cities to come to life after the amount of 2 dimensional planning we put into our trips, but Seoul looked especially surreal from the air with its massive bodies of water and long snaking causeways carrying the tiny little cars inching across them. Or maybe that was just the airport; it remained to be seen.

From our pre-trip research, we knew that public transport would easily get us to our hotel, the Holiday Inn Hongdae, which we’d booked expressly for its location directly above the train station on the line that ran straight from the airport without requiring any connections.

Although the Info desk did a hard sell on the M-Pass, an all-inclusive travel card exclusively for tourists, some quick mental maths decided for us that doing single tickets as we went would be a more economical option.

With no such thing as to let offices, we were on our own with the self-help ticket machines. Fortunately, there was instruction in English and our destination was easy to spot so we were soon on our way into Seoul.

The hotel was as easy to find as it had promised online, but the ‘no view’ description of the standard room we’d booked wasn’t quite as accurate. Turned out that we did have a view… Of the elevator lobby on our floor! We had an interior room with a window facing across the atrium and onto the lifts and passage so not only did we have a view, but so did the other people of the 16th floor! Or they would have had, had we chosen to keep the blinds and curtains open.

We had pre-booked a 2 day tour, not wanting to risk missing anything on our short hop through such a massive city. The first day was to be a city our and the second a trip to the Demilitarised Zone separating North and South Korea. With our tour guide doing the heavy lifting, there was no pressure on us to do anything of consequence on our first night so we decided to explore home base.

Since we were in the heart of the Hongdik University area, there was lots to do and lots of students already out and about doing it.

Across from our hotel was a pedestrian street lined with bars and restaurants shouting out who knows what from busy lightboxes covered in Korean hieroglyphs. Through the middle ran a long strip of park, where countless young people were gathered in little groups sharing a pizza, a picnic or a laugh. A very relaxed atmosphere; chilling and enjoying the evening.

We were hungry and ready for dinner, but deciding between all the options was quite overwhelming. On the one hand we’d intended not to fall back on western / chain food. On the other, having no idea what the Korean writing meant, it was near impossible to figure out what the traditional stuff was that was on offer or how much anything costed.

We ended up doing a full circuit to the end of the pedestrian area and back before settling on a place almost across the road from our hotel, with our choice based purely on what we (thought we) could decide from the bright pictures on the lightbox outside.

We had dakgalbi; a spicy chicken stir fry mixed with cabbage, carrots and thick fingers of udon noodles and served at the table in a skillet which is placed on the element fixed on the table top. A thick vein of grated cheese runs through the middle of the stir fry and you stir in the cheese as it melts in order to blend as you eat. Stringy mozzarella is no mean feat with chopsticks, I can tell you! We ordered Level 2 of 4 on the spicy scale and it was HOT. Definitely not for sissies!

Very pleased with ourselves for sticking to our traditional guns, we did an after dinner walk around the other side of our hood, which looked a lot sleazier, with more neon and what looked suspiciously like strip clubs. It wasn’t entirely a surprise since this neighbourhood had a reputation for clubbing and, clearly, other nocturnal activities.

We weren’t getting sucked in though since we had an early start, with our guide picking us up from our hotel at 8.15 the following morning.

Early start or no early start, we were determined to make time for a hearty breakfast at the hotel. We were expecting a continental and local combination but were surprised and delighted to find bacon, eggs and sausages, over and above the predictable local fare.

With full bellies, we met with our tour guide, Stella, who took us to our bus. We were the second of five stops to gather our group for the tour; the usual motley collection of Brits, Aussies, an American and us.

Our induction to the tour was Jogyesa Temple built during the Joseon dynasty in 1395 and refurbished in 1910. Stella told us a bit about it, most of which we missed acclimating to her accent but the gist seemed to be about praying to a specific one of the three massive golden Buddha’s depending on what you were asking for. She also told us that with big movement to Christianity and bigger movement to atheism, Buddhism in general is shrinking in South Korea.

From there we needed to zoot over to the Gyeongbokgung Palace (“the palace greatly blessed by heaven”), which was completed in 1395, but deconstructed and rebuilt several times after Japanese invasions. Being the first royal palace built in the Joseon Dynasty, it’s where their 500 year history began and is the grandest of the 5 remaining palaces in Seoul.

The rush for us to get there was to view the changing of the guards, which is a spirited affair with a large band procession leading and timing a procession of guards wielding flags and weapons. All dressed in brightly coloured tunics, they certainly present a very different representation of authority than their camo-clad modern counterparts.

Following the formal proceedings, Stella lead us through the palace gates towards the Royal residence and only when she started her narration did she realise we were short a group member. We’d lost Sanjeev. Among hordes of people. After being told that we had to stick together because it was so easy to get separated.

Stella flapped around panicking and rattling rapidfire Korean into her phone to who knows whom while the rest of us swapped stories, took photos and DID NOT MOVE, as we’d been emphatically instructed by Stella several times.

Sanjeev found us again quite by chance, was quite sheepish at having caused the fuss and we were without a further word about it and living the Dynasty life of concubines and heirs and quirks that come along with the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

The next excursion caught us quite by surprise since it wasn’t listed on the tour we’d booked. We were taken to a Hanbok store and dressed up in traditional outfits. I got a rather fetching poofy white satin number with big bright purple flowers and Christian chose for himself, quite by accident, a King’s outfit with regal blue jacket with silver embroidery.

Once dressed, we were turned past hair and accessories for clips and costume shoes before being presented to the photographer for couples and groups shots. Not something we would have opted to do, but made for some fun memorable pics and we had a laugh with our tour mates.

… which made for better company and more conversation at the group lunch where we enjoyed traditional Korean Barbecue, beers and Soju.

Back in civvies, we were taken to Bukchon Hanok Village; one of the last bastions of traditional Hanok houses from the Joseon period. Retaining the old city appearance and being in such short supply, the houses sell for millions of Dollars, even though the residents are not allowed to alter the appearance of their houses and often have to park their fancy cars outside the suburb and walk to their house.

The tour ended off a climb (in the bus) up the hill so we could get a spectacular panoramic view of Seoul. It’s indescribably massive. On the one side was sprawling suburban living creeping up the side of a mountain; on the other was a sea of skyscrapers as far as the eye could see.

While city blocks seem to be step-repeated, as if a big 3D Lego stamp had made its way across the horizon. We had noticed on the ground that the skyscraper buildings were clustered, to the point that a collection of identical buildings would have massive numbers painted on the side so you could tell them apart. Presumably this is what happens when a country (re)builds itself with the astonishing efficiency that South Korea has.

The bus had to drop some of our our mates in Myeong Dong, which is a famous shopping and street food area, so Stella gave us a half hour to explore before resuming the drop-off circuit. So so so many stores selling make up and cosmetics; quite overwhelming with all the special offers and sampling… But a Mecca if that’s what you’re after!

We were exhausted when we got back to hotel; so much so that I dropped off into a little nap before heading out again.

Our intended mission for the evening had been to find us an Irish pub to log on the Index, but Google Maps was playing up and not showing walking routes, wanting us to catch a complicated combination of trains to get just down the road (!), so we were unable to find the first one we pegged and gave up on the plan in favour of a dinner on the main drag in Hongdae instead.

On Thursday morning, Miss June, as she introduced herself, met us at our hotel promptly at 10am, as planned. We joined the bus with its existing 8 other passengers and Christian was immediately barnacled by a surveyor from London who – as Christian expressed to me in Afrikaans – he was afraid would never stop talking or asking arbitrary questions.

Fortunately Miss June (eventually) clamped on her headset and started the narration for the tour, much to Surveyor’s disappointment.

Miss June told us that Korea was liberated from 35 years of Japanese occupation in 1945 at the end of the Second World War when the Russians came down from the North and the Americans came up from the South, slicing the country in half at the 38th parallel.

Before WWII Korea was a unified country and all the factories and plants were in the North, so when the country split all the infrastructure was in the North and they had a better economy than the South, which had been rural and farming land.

The Korean War then broke out in 1950 with the North invading the South; with Western support the war was brought to a close in 3 years, but at a massive price. From the Korean war 70% of the South’s capital, Seoul, was destroyed as was so much of Pyeoungyang that the Americans said there was nothing left to bomb.

Miss June told us that there is no physical border between North and South, but a 2 km limit line is observed on either side of imaginary line and NOBODY moves in that No Man’s Land.

We also learned that all the water we could see from the air was the Han River, which is visible from more or less anywhere in Seoul – and is protected by barbed, electric fences and armed guard towers because it flows down from North Korea so needs to be defended against any spies coming from the neighbour. Defection is less of a concern with only 30 thousand people having successfully defected, mostly to the China side because the South Korean border is so heavily armed.

In places you can see North Korea from the bus, beyond the defences and across the river. The other side is noticeably browner and less vegetated which our guide told us was because only 15% of North Koreans have electricity and cut down trees for warmth and cooking.

There are ghost town villages on the other bank, where the Northern authorities won’t let people live because it’s too easy to escape when the river is so shallow in low tide. Understandable especially now that the tables have turned and the North Koreans are starving and malnourished. Or so the South Koreans are told.

Conversely, our guide shared a heartwarming story about how her parents’ generation sacrificed so her generation could be educated and rebuild their country. Her mom even wore the same single pair of shoes for over ten years to save to pay for their schooling. Now her generation is spending considerable energy instilling in the younger generation why unifying Korea would be a great thing since the younger people don’t feel the loss of relatives and friends trapped across the border and have all the creature comforts that their successful society provides.

By now we’d reached our first stop where we alighted to view the Unification Bridge, built over the Imjin River which runs into the Han. Although in perfect working order, the bridge stands unused since nobody is allowed to cross the border. The bullet-ridden train exhibit on our side of the bank bears not-so-subtle inference as to the consequences.

There is a community of around 200 people that live within the Imjin line on the Southern side, which is technically under the United Nations Command and those people don’t do conscription (21 months) or pay tax.

The bus took us to Dorsan Station; a fully decked out train station, all ready to go for a train service that would connect South Korea all the way through to the UK… When and if unification would allow for it. Miss June speaks so optimistically about the possibilities that it’s hard to tell if it’s wishful thinking or if it’s something these people believe that they can will to happen.

In the foyer of the station there is a collection of several framed photos of the North and South Korean Presidents meeting, smiling and shaking hands – wives in tow, like it’s a social – as if there might be possibility of such connection. But the display seems so contrived that again it’s hard to decide if I’m viewing with Western cynicism or if this is a show being put on to string the hopefuls along.

From the station we entered the Demilitarised Zone, our bus climbing slowly up the hill to get us to the Dora observation point.

Using the fixed binoculars, we could see across the border to the abandoned factory complexes and surrounding residential towns, and beyond to the third largest city in North Korea.

The factories had until 2016 been a collaborative project where 700 South Koreans would commute in and out to the factory to work alongside their Northern colleagues, producing all sorts of things. The Northerns workers welcomed the income and the Southern manufacturers provided the materials and utilities and gained from the cheap labour. Finished goods were taken back across the border and dispatched from a control centre that now too lies dark and lifeless.

Now that the collaboration has been stopped, the factory complex lies dormant, the feeders villages have been abandoned and the horizon is dark after dusk since the Southerners are no longer providing electricity to the area.

Miss June said that sometimes you can see soldiers moving around, but we saw nothing.

The bus then took us to the 3rd Tunnel, so named since it was one of the 4 tunnels that the South Koreans discovered that the North Koreans had been digging, ostensibly looking for coal (they had even painted the inside of the tunnels black as ruse clues of coal) but practically preparing for an invasion. With all 4 tunnels pointed toward Seoul and each enabling 30,000 armed soldiers to pass through within an hour, it would irrefutably have been a devastating surprise attack.

We caught a little trolley down into the tunnel and were able to walk all the way to the barricade that is established at the limit line.

In times gone by, these barricades had 24 hour armed guards stationed to detect any signs of North Koreans crashing through but fortunately for those poor sods, technology enabled camera surveillance to save the soldiers the immense discomfort of long and boring shifts in the dark and dank dead-end passage.

We ended the tour with a quick stop at the Unification Village, to see how normally the local people go on with their lives, within the limits of the DMZ. Conveniently, their tax free status allows for slightly relaxed rates on supplies, snacks and souvenirs.

On the return journey, Miss June helped us to map out the rest of our evening. First priority was a visit to the old town wall at Dongdaemun and then down to Gangnam which was bloody miles from anything but just had to be done.

The bus dropped us off with some of the other passengers near the palace so we could jump on the subway to get to the city wall.

Now wise to the ways of the subway, it was more a case of finding exact change than navigating the route and we were soon off in the direction of the Dongdaemun Cultural Centre.

At the tourist desk they armed us with a map of the area and a wall passport in case we were ambitious enough to want to walk the whole city wall (a fortress maybe 19km long, built around Seoul at the very beginning of the Joseon Dynasty), gathering collectors stamps at the ancient gates we would pass through.

We did not, and so we made our way to the nearest gate, got our snaps, walked a section of wall up the hill to admire the view… And then retraced our footsteps, ticking the To Do List and moving on to Gangnam.

A collection of connections later we emerged in Gangnam at sunset. And clearly the end of the workday. The station was heaving, the pavements full of dressed to impress people and the road full – of more than its fair share of fancy luxury vehicles.

The neon was soon to own the night and so we threaded our way through the pedestrians to seek sanctum in a traditional Irish pub to wait out the chaos… And earn an eye-watering #2 on our Guinness Index!!

During our sundowner, we researched what traditional meal we were yet to try and ended up making our way back to the main drag for dinner, to have boiled beef bowls of broth at Bonga that were served steaming to us at the table. So hot that they had to be delivered on a trolley. Very dramatic indeed. And delicious.

The streets were still full of life, with most shops still open until 10, but we were a good hour away from our lovely Hongdae homebase so worth catching our ride back sooner rather than later.

The subway was still heaving and showing no signs of letting up. Amazing nightlife for an arbitrary Thursday night in September!