Goodness me, incredible but true, we are actually doing this! November is our travel month, and my eldest Son Kylian was in Seoul for a 3-month pre-master’s and suddenly we thought: why not South Korea? It is now or never!
I don’t even know Asia!
Kylian helped us book the itinerary, we googled and bought the Lonely Planet guide and it just sort of happened!
On arrival at the international airport where everything was spotless and wonderfully organized, we followed our instructions to purchase a Korean sim card and a transport card for the train. It feels really quiet. No one seems to speak English but are very friendly and willing to help you find your way. It is cold! Two degrees but with a dazzling Sunshine! We took the subway which was an experience in itself with pink seats for women (more on this later) very efficient.
It feels so very different in an exciting not scary way. We found our “Urbanwood guesthouse” on the third floor, above shops and did as everyone else clearly had, and took off our shoes and left them on the racks before the door. We at first had a communal bathroom which I was not so keen on, Princess that I am, but managed to switch to an ‘en suite’ for a nominal price increase. Very impressed by the toilet though I was too tired to want to try anything fancy (there are loads of settings, one which I did try later on which sends a jet straight up your bum!). We had a shower and lay down before Kylian arrives. Now THAT felt surreal! Kylian coming up for a cup of tea in our South Korean hostel!! So strange. He has only been here since September but certainly knows his way around and already speaks quite a bit of the language!
We have been practicing our 안녕하세요 annyeonghaseyo (hello), 안녕히가세요 annyeonghigaseyo (goodbye)and 감사합니다 gamsahabnida (thank you)
Our hotel is in the district of Honde and Kylian is in Sinchon (신촌). Kylian is determined to show us everything in one go. By now it is night, and it is like entering a new dimension with all the neon lights! We are surrounded by restaurants and beautiful clothes shops. They put a lot of effort into their appearance, so it seems. Everything is open 24/7 shops, arcades, study cafes and the place seems constantly to be humming. We tried the ‘rice sandwiches’ and loved them. We walked with him to his Goshiwon, a Korean long-term guest house. So proud of him for doing the real thing. His bedroom is so incredibly tiny, you can only more or less turn around in it and the toilet is basically in the shower, and you have to put your soiled toilet paper in a bag (!). Yet he seems happy and has a desk. It is all very communal. In the tiny kitchen they share there is always rice ready in the rice cooker for whoever wants and Kimchi, which is delicious, fermented vegetables but a lot spicier than I had expected so by now I am fully awake! We then walked on to his university, the acclaimed Yonsei (it is only here that I have fully understood how prestigious it was with parents preparing their kids basically from birth, TV programs on getting in etc). Next discovery was the delicious fish pasties with red beans (sort of pancake batter) called Bungeo-ppang (붕어빵) that we tried at a street vendor. Super nice and hot. As we were about to cross the road to the university, what are the chances, but we bumped into Kang-ho, a friend of Kylian’s from Berlin!!!! He has only seen him here once and that was planned. With 10 million inhabitants in Seoul what were the odds???? So very funny and lovely to meet him here again!
The university is impressive with a state-of-the-Art library and huge canteen. Kylian introduced us to some of the Global MBA students he studies with.
They love their food here and Kylian wanted our first meal to be a Korean BBQ. We feel rather in trance with jetlag and just basically being parachuted on a seemingly different planet but we are game for it all! We tried the soju wine + beer combo which was indeed delicious. You can serve yourself unlimitedly to rice, Kimchi, salad etc and then you order what (mainly meat) you want. It was delicious! Then off we go again, he took us into his favourite supermarkets where there are chairs and tables, and you can also consume what you have just bought. Interesting fact: no nose blowing in public! I am so full of food, but he was not finished with us yet and dragged us into a sort of dessert bar to try snowflake which is basically: “Bingsu (Korean: 빙수), sometimes written as bingsoo, a Korean shaved ice dessert with sweet toppings that may include chopped fruit, condensed milk, fruit syrup, and red beans. The most common variety is pat-bingsu (Korean: 팥빙수), the red bean shaved ice.” (Thank you, Wikipedia? I shall be very British and refer to it as ‘interesting’. Then we had to try the hot rolled pancake with honey hotteok (호떡), at a street vendor which was divine then some popular drink of milk and fanta (yikes) in the street, hanging out like the locals though it was freezing. By now I have no clue where I am, what time of day it is and just feel shattered, emotional, so grateful to be here and overwhelmed to see Kylian in this context. From tomorrow we are on our own as Kylian is off to Taiwan for a short break. Though everything clearly feels unfamiliar, it also feels really safe. Collapsed in bed but took a while to wind down.
Alarm went off at 9am local but I had to be more or less dragged out of bed as I am all fuddled up by Jetlag (+8). We were awake quite a bit in the night, my mind was just whirling. In the morning it felt like 1am. We met the owner of our pension, Martin, a relatively young Korean who had prepared a beautiful breakfast with exotic fresh fruit and bagels and cream cheese. He is wonderfully open, knowledgeable, and happy to share. It was fantastic to hear all about how he came to be in the city and the hospitality business. His parents had a farm and he used to love all the vegetables and the garden. He’s got one brother and four sisters and told us all about their upbringing.
Took the Metro to Changdeokgung, Olivier getting really good at directions (neither of us is gifted in that area to say the least).
It’s very cold, but with a bright blue sky and an incredible luminosity, a sort of ‘up in the mountains’ brightness. We are already learning how varied South Korea can be. Yesterday we were deep in the bustle and high vibes of high technology, mega screens, and neon’s of the digital age etc and today we are at the Changeokgung palace, one of the Five Grand Palaces, a place of calm and serenity, steeped in tradition and History.
The buildings are beautiful and colourful, all made out of wood and flamboyantly framed by the autumnal leaves. Simply stunning. Korean visitors mostly dress up in traditional costumes when they visit, which makes for fantastic photos. There is a touristy area where you can rent the full show. Olivier was grateful that I steered clear of it!
Everyone is really friendly and helpful despite not speaking English. They really seem to want the few foreign tourists to feel welcome, showing us maps, et cetera. You can’t actually enter the buildings but can see some of the inside through the windows. I feel a sad vibe. Deserted, forgotten, whereas for so long it must have been a hub of activity and of splendour. It deserved better. Enjoyed a coffee (once I had worked out not to take cappuccino as it is always sweetened) and then at 2:30pm, we had our guided tour of the secret garden (obligatory). Organised tours are never my favourite as I am a fast walker, but it was only 1.5 hour and seen how freezing it was the group moved faster than they probably would have, so I enjoyed it. The guide was wonderful, and she spoke really good English even though she’d never been outside of Korea.
It really changes the experience to have more context. We learnt of where they planted the rice and dried it as paper for the manuscripts which were written here. Many of them are still in good state.
From there we left to the traditional Bukchon Hanok village. Small, cobbled alleyways going up and going down, lined with rows of Korean traditional homes. We let ourselves wander and get lost.
By then we were definitely peckish. Thanks to Kylian’s instructions we managed to recognise and order two of those delicious hotteok at a street vendor. Piping hot pancakes, rolled up, oozing with honey. However, to our dismay we then heard they cost 3000 Korean Won, cash and we only had 2000W. We had not taken a bite and shame-faced tried to explain and give them back, but the little old lady would have none of it and gestured she wanted us to still take them and enjoy. Gestures like this make you so incredibly grateful. Maybe she felt sorry for Olivier who had to ‘lose face’ in front of me since he was the one with the purse.
We went up to the ‘observatory’, you had to pay to go up and I actually think it was just some guy’s flat where he let people on to his terrasse. It certainly looked that way but who cares, there was indeed a great view over the roofs and while enjoying a cup of tea, we decided it would be nice to see the sun set from the North Seoul tower (236 m) so off we went by metro.
Now that was an experience! First of all, we were very proud of ourselves for having negotiated the buses, et cetera. However, we soon discovered you had to queue absolutely everywhere. Once you thought that was it, as you’d finished waiting in one section at the tower, a door opened, and you queued at the next section, and the next. They did try to make it nice with holograms you could watch as you waited etc.
The sun had long set before we had reached the lift and travelled up to the observation floor at the very top, but it was certainly worth it. Incredible views from the revolving section, with all the city lights on everywhere. My highlight had to be the toilet as you sit, enthroned and the entire wall is made of glass, and you can just stare out at the lights. Probably the highest I will ever take a pipi! It was really funny. We had a beer reflecting on the thought there are 10 million inhabitants out there. That is an awful lot. We walked down which was fun to do.
We came across very few foreigners today, also no blacks, no Arab looking, it feels strange in a way but also somewhat authentic. We are so used to living in global melting pots.
On exiting, we just happened to stumble across the exact bus that we needed, and all the connections were effortless which is such an empowering feeling. They do make it easy, there is even a voice that tells you how far away the bus is while you wait at the stop!
We exited the metro at our neighbourhood of Hongik University and looked around for restaurants. Quite a challenge to find one that does not only serve meat (I am not a meat-eater) and they are huge meat eaters here. They help by putting pictures of the menu outside. One looked very much like prawns but when we entered it was chicken and apart from that they only had pork, beef, chicken legs, and chicken feet. Not my cup of tea. Exhausted we then saw this tiny little restaurant behind a plastic awning. It didn’t honestly look great, but they had an English menu and had squid. There was a group of about six people inside tucking into lobster which looked promising. They had run out of rice (?) so we settled for noodles. The people were absolutely lovely and spoke some English and thanks to Kylian, we knew to order beer and rice wine (what else do you need?). The food was divine, and we got chatting to those at the next table, some of them spoke English and we took photos! The food was truly excellent, and it was great fun.
We checked with our host Martin afterwards and the place happens to be really hip and popular among YouTubers. After all those beers we were happy to wander back and collapse in bed. We woke at 2:30 am as some poor guest was trying to get in and was struggling with the code. The jet lag kicked in again (we did let her in first!)
Ready for day three even though I feel even more muddled up. I actually feel rather shell-shocked and a bit nauseous. We met the new girl in the room next door, a lovely young Filipino.
Taking the travel pass was a great idea which makes life so much easier. We took the Metro which is incredibly clean and has little old ladies walking around with a brush and shovel, cleaning up all day.
The whole security side of things is impressive. In the metro there are videos of what to do if there is smoke, for example. There are smoke/gas masks everywhere. So, you need to put them on and then crouch down low below the smoke and put water on a tissue over your mouth. There is a tap (?) under the wagon, (not quite sure I go that bit right)and it explained how to open the doors. There are also instructions on what to do if there is an earthquake: Stay away from the lift, put your bag on your head, take the stairs to make your way up.
We have also worked out that these pink seats in the metro are for pregnant women who are seen as being of great duty to the country, heroes of the nation probably as most of our countries and Asia in particular, are suffering from the ageing of the population. They are like thrones, but it seems that even if there are no pregnant women in sight you cannot sit on them.
In the fear of offending and generalizing in a totally political incorrect way, I personally do not find Korean women the prettiest. They don’t have very fine features but are impeccably made up and dress with a lot of flair, either in huge, oversized coats with tennis shoes and like a baseball cap, or they’re really very smart in little skirts and dresses. They like miniskirts with high socks and look like a set of little dolls.
Today we are going to Gyeongbokgung Palace (The palace of Shining Happiness). The weather is greyer, and colder and I found the buildings had somehow less of a magical aura than yesterday, but it’s beautiful.
There used to be 300 buildings on the compound, now there are less nowadays, and it feels a bit soul-less. Nevertheless, we enjoyed walking around and some of the buildings situated a bit further off, on the water, with weeping willows, gave a glimpse of how special it must have been here.
We then went to the colourful changing of the guards where a moustache and pointed beard seem mandatory. It was fun with lots of brio and gongs resounding etc.
By then we were freezing and could see this big tower/ pagoda in the distance, which looked so beautiful with lots of stairs on the facade. It turns out to be the free, national folk museum of Korea and was fun to look around. They recreated the older houses and shops then moved up to more or less how they live nowadays. I was also delighted to find a real cappuccino (unsweetened) and it felt good to sit before looking around inside the museum which was actually really interesting.
It feels so good to be in such a safe country. No worries in the metro or looking over your shoulder for pickpockets and purse snatchers. People just leave their bags when they go elsewhere, to order in a café for example, even if that is downstairs.
After the museum we walked down the main street, Sejong-Daero, to the City Hall. We are now surrounded by high rises. I didn’t find it as photogenic as I had expected. However, by nightfall it was all lit up, and was absolutely magical. This was a good thing as I was having a dip and suddenly felt very tired, and my arthritic toe was throbbing (Fabulous after Fifty for you!). We started looking for the fish pasties or the honey rolls for an energy boost but could not find. We settled instead for a waffle and not just any waffle but one with warm Belgian melted chocolate and nuts. Momentarily torn between feeling a wave of energy or utterly nauseous, I set my mind on the first and we walked on to JogyeSa (조계사), the Buddhist worship hall, which was impressive to see. Korea has its own branch of Buddhism and we wandered around the huge Buddhas decorated with flowers outside and entered the temple (shoes off, of course). There are mats on the floor and people were seated and chanting, as did I. I am not sure which school of Buddhism it was, not what I practice (Nichiren Buddhism).
We then took the bus to a rooftop terrace recommended by the Tourist information centre, but it did not open for another hour.
Not proud to say but by then I was freezing and tired and got cranky (as Oliver says, ‘it is as if at times the lights go out’).
Olivier as always was lovely (he has his moments too but thankfully we do not seem to have them at the same time). We walked back downtown to a diner. These places are great, there is unlimited water you can serve yourself to and you can stay as long as you want. People were working, studying, reading. We had a lovely tea as the city transformed with nightfall into a fairy-tale of lights.
Finally, we went to the Cheongyecheon (청계천) which is so lovely. It used to be a motorway running slightly underneath the city that they have transformed into a place to walk where you can escape the noise and the bustle. You look up at the high rises, but they seem far removed. It is like an oasis with water in the stream, waterfalls (some made fluorescent with lighting), special illuminations like a rainbow and real trees. It is romantic!!! There are even steppingstones to go from one verge to the other.
It was so beautiful, I quite forgot that I was aching all over.
To finish the day, we made our way to the fish restaurant we had spotted, directly outside the Metro exit seven (Hongik) where we are staying. I devoured a delicious stew of clams and mussels and noodles and a few beers. There was some sort of beer advert thing going on and two young people in branded uniform came up to our table and asked me to speak the brand name into their microphone: “cass”!!! And I won a mug of beer in a glass that changes colour as you pour the beer in, and they took some photos for the promotion! Haha! The things one does!
We meandered around our neighbourhood which was teeming with people. Groups shopping, making music and large crowds among the many wannabes K-pop artists singing and dancing. Fabulous! No longer tired at all! I actually quite felt like dancing myself!
On our way up to our guest house, we stopped off at the little pastry shop and I had a lovely pumpkin and something cheesecake.
When we arrived back at our guest house Martin and Lara, a lady from Singapore who’d been staying here for two months and was about to go back were having drinks and we joined them and the four of us stayed up till 1 am drinking wine and discussing life! Incredible how much you can get into a day! It was perfect!
Finally slept through the night. Of course, lots of wine and going to bed at 1:30 am probably helped. And no headache! Had a lovely breakfast and chat with Martin, really such a lovely guy and so wonderful to be able to have long chats with a local who can provide insights and context. He’s gay and shared that it is now accepted here. It’s not exactly talked about much, but it’s no longer such a taboo. I’m not feeling so well, maybe getting a cold, tight, itchy breathing but will be a question of mind over matter. Packed up and left some things here since we return to Seoul after our expeditions to Jeju and Busan.
Before heading to the airport, we took the Metro to one of the sprawling souk-like markets, this one called Namdaeumun (남대문). I love that sort of thing, it reminded me a bit of Turkey, lots of leather and basically anything you can think of. The number of shops dedicated to gadgets for your phone is mind-blowing, and there is high-tech stuff everywhere.
The mixture of high-rises and then these tiny little boutiques with loads of clothes is fascinating. They love brands but I am not sure if what I am seeing sprawled all over is the real thing or copies. We found a 7-11(!) and I managed to buy a little sewing kit since a button has fallen off my jacket. Enjoyed a cappuccino sewing away happily in a diner. I love the fact these cafes have unlimited water as I go through a fair bit. You just go and serve yourself from the pitcher.
The trip to Gimpo airport for our flight to Jeju was again super-efficient, clean, well indicated, with great staff. Everything went really well. According to Kylian, the Seoul – Jeju line is one of the busiest air routes in the world with a plane every 15 minutes. We both fell straight asleep after boarding after desperately trying to find VICKS everywhere. My gesticulating that I need a cream to rub on my chest to breathe better is greeted by blank stares in the chemists, at least I am lucky I did not get arrested!
On arrival at the island of Jeju we chose the easy way and took a taxi to our hotel called ‘The One’. It is really nice, and affordable though we have a huge, beautiful bedroom. We are on the 10th floor and there is a great roof terrace on the 11th.
We wandered around a bit, found tablets for my chest and a fish restaurant but it only served raw fish and I am not up to it today. We then found what was called: Korean casual dining, which was really nice because it served both meat and fish. You sit and look at the menu and when you want to order, you ring the bell on your table and they come, same for refilling drinks. Very efficient. I guess they are doing something else the rest of the time. Olivier enjoyed a whole array of different brochettes of meat and seafood. And I had another seafood stew. Our stomachs are doing really great despite the really spicy cuisine. We just had a rice roll at the airport, so we certainly enjoyed our dinner.
We returned to the hotel and had a quiet evening catching up on our diaries and social media, and it did not take me long to fall asleep, bombarded as we are with new impressions all the time. Looking forward to discovering Jeju.
Our room is great with a fabulous shower, but I did not sleep well as I struggled to breathe and the mirror in the lift down to breakfast was awfully harsh.
You have to be seated for breakfast by nine. A mixture of mostly Korean food like kimchi, rice, scrambled eggs, and then lots of salads and sausages and things like that. But there was also fresh fruit – like pineapple -, croissants, toast, and honey. I am not in the best of moods and was rather harsh with Olivier about him not trying new things and we are both a bit overwhelmed with what to see, in which order and how to get about it I am mostly annoyed at myself at assuming Olivier would do all the planning. One of the disadvantages of a ‘second round relationship’ is you assume that you get to keep the good sides. Anyway, we both decided on renting a car and then found out that Olivier had taken his residency permit thinking it was his license and I had brought my car matriculation card instead of my license. For goodness’ sake! Needless to say, we both felt pretty stupid and have decided to wear glasses more often!
Not a brilliant start. I was feeling tired and unwell and rather overwhelmed at the idea of taking eight buses to get around the island. We trudged along to the tourist information where some very friendly, helpful ladies who did their utmost in limited English (you can tell how unused they are to English speakers or any foreign tourists which actually makes it feel even nicer) convinced us to rent a taxi for the day. It felt horribly decadent and cost us 180.000 W (about 130 euro) but it was such a great decision! We had an absolutely magical day with driver Kim who could also speak enough English to explain things to us. We popped back to the hotel to pick up jackets (needed for the lava tube visit) and set off on our discovery of the Eastern side of Jeju.
First stop was the UNESCO site of manjanggul (만장굴 ) which is a lava tube you can enter and walk along for 1 kilometre. This is underground, where it is cold and wet but not oppressive as it has a very high ceiling. In it there are lava columns of up to 7.6 meters, that one is actually the biggest in the world. It is great because you can just walk at your own rhythm and stop as much as you want. It was a truly wonderful thing to do.
We then drove along the coast and stopped to take a few photos. The island is bigger than we had imagined and alternates between very busy towns and industry, and then forests. And of course, many, many volcanoes. Suddenly Kim pulled in and pointed at some divers. It turns out these are the famous Haenyeo women divers and we were lucky to see so many of them. Traditionally, since the 17th Century it is the women who dive for food and do so without oxygen (the men had all disappeared off somewhere, probably at war or just wanted to get out of heavy duty). So, women started diving in order to feed their families. And still do till this day.
The coastal road is stunning with all the lava rock. I was drawn by the rows of cuttlefish hanging drying by the road above the sea and asked to stop, which we did. They fish by boat at night where the cuttlefish are attracted by the powerful lights. There was a little shack by the road and the lady plucked a cuttlefish from the line and grilled it for us on her little pile of charcoal. We devoured it out of a paper bag sitting by the coast, with the most adorable dog at our feet, with a beer in hand. It was divine.
Back in the car we headed to yet another UNESCO site, the Seongsan Ilchulbong (성산 일출봉) hiking trail up along the wall of one of the craters. It was a very steep climb up the stairs they had created. Where usually I would have shown off charging up, I was labouring with every breath burning in my chest but well worth the spectacular view at the top. The view of the crater itself is amazing, but you can also see far around and it’s 17 degrees celsius with a bright blue sky! How lucky we are!
Walking down was a pleasure and we went on to the jetty, where the women bring in their sea harvest. So good to be in nature. I promptly fell asleep in the car after all of that, the roads here are in really great condition. Random fact: practically all the cars are Korean made and white.
I recovered in time for the next crater, Sangumburi (산굼부리) with a gentler trail along the most beautiful silvery fields. I don’t know what plant or shrub or crop it was, silvery high grass fields like tall feathers swaying in the breeze. It was pure magic and made for beautiful photos with the volcanoes as backdrop.
We enjoyed the walk up and all the way round, through different sorts of environment until we arrived at the top with again a stunning view of the crater, before descending through the pine trail, which smelt fantastic and was just what my chest needed! At the bottom Olive enjoyed a corn dog, another recommendation of Kylian’s and I had a steamed bun.
Kim, our taxi driver, is so lovely and had mandarins for us.
The sun came out for our walk on the hugely popular Hyeopjae beach. This is where the Koreans come on holidays. Beautiful white sand, black rock, blue sea, very fun, and a popular family outing for Koreans. It must be packed in Summer. Still no foreign tourists.
We found a great cafe overlooking the beach, pricey but enjoyed our cappuccino all the more with a selection of brownie and nut cake but also traditional rice buns which were delicious, all soft and gooey with cream in the centre but not too sweet, before wandering along the jetty.
Last stop of the day was Samyang (삼양) black sand beach which I personally found less spectacular as there were pipes sticking out everywhere and industry in the background. Both beaches were protected by a sort of blanket, apparently to keep the sand there during the winter months!
We then drove back after our 8-hour day touring Jeju, shattered but thrilled. Popped down to the 7/11 for beers, rice rolls and dried mango we enjoyed with the mandarins the lady on the coast had given us and just chilled on our bed, discussing, and digesting the day.
Already day six. After our VIP trip of yesterday, today, we have decided to be local. So, after breakfast, we took the local bus to the airport (sort of transport hub) and then took what they call the ‘limousine’ bus, as in a bus which doesn’t stop everywhere. In our case bus number 600 to Seogwipo-si (서귀포시), which is in the south of the island and the second largest city after Jeju-si (the island is actually called Jeju-do). The bus system was very efficient and clean.
Lots of fog and drizzle today but we knew that and there was no rain.
They are very ecological minded here. One lady was telling us that they’re not allowed to sell drinks in plastic cups. Everything has to be in paper cups and the great majority of people by far have their own cups which they take around with them. They are also very keen on saving water. The toilets have all got water saving systems.
Got out at Seogwipo exhibition Hall. As usual, we’re just so grateful for Naver, which is like a local Google Maps. Everything is written in Korean without English names which makes it hard to work out which bus stop is which and if we are going in the right direction (especially with OUR sense of direction!). Once you’re actually in the bus or the tram or the train they do write it up in both languages and announce the names of the stops.
From there we walked to Jeongbang (정방폭포 ), a 23-meter-high waterfall which cascades straight into the sea. The sun came out and it was absolutely glorious and photogenic. It is about 17 or 18 C but feels a lot more and is so humid you are rapidly drenched. I certainly was, even with my hair up and a t-shirt I’m still dripping. We walked along the coast and kept coming across a tree which stank to high heaven. I have now found out it is the Gingko tree and “When the female ginkgo trees shed their leaves and berries, they rot and emit a stench often likened to dirty gym socks, vomit, or poop.”
Talking about poop, there are toilets everywhere and they are pristine. It makes travelling (especially being 50+ just so much easier!)
We found this adorable little place for coffee, with delicate porcelain cups. The man behind the counter had no English but insisted we try what I could best describe as a coffee liquor, or essence of coffee with tangerine and no alcohol. He then insisted on gifting us a bottle, even looking up on his phone how to say ‘present’. Little expressions of kindness like that just go straight to my heart. All these wonderful connections we are lucky to make, sharing even 5 minutes of life with these people, this is what I love about travelling.
Women often give me a little nod and a smile, not quite sure why but am thinking maybe it is their way to greet us as there are so few Western looking tourists here. Quite a few Asian tourists though who could be local but also maybe Japanese or from Hong Kong, I am not very good at making the difference.
We wandered over a beautiful white bridge to the peninsula called Saeseom (새연교) from where there was an absolutely lovely view. It feels very tropical here. We walked back through the pine forest to the Cheonjiyeon (천지연폭포) waterfall. Everything is very well organized and signposted, a real pleasure.
The majority of Korean (or Asian visitors) are photo-obsessed, and all wield selfie sticks and even tripods they lug around with them. We’re walking a lot which I love. There is a city tour bus you can take, but I felt like walking, and you experience so much more.
From there we wandered downtown to the big covered Seogwipo Maeil Olle Market (서귀포매일올레시장). A feast for the eyes with so much colourful, exotic-looking food and vegetables. Absolutely fascinating. All the fish you could imagine. And meat and vegetables and ladies salting cabbage. Olivier was brave and tried one of the items in the guidebook, the famous black pork underbelly, and I stuck to my red kidney bean doughnut or chapssal (찹쌀도넛). We also came upon the little steamed buns I like as well.
Time to stroll along the hip and funky Lee Jung Seop Street (이중섭거리) and stopped in a lovely little beautifully decorated café with flowers, super atmospheric and had a black beer. The name of the brand in the ad was I think Geomeong Ale (거멍에일), brewed in Jeju, so there we sat listening to 50s music. We then realized the time and zoomed back to the waterfalls to take the bus 600 back to Jeju city and both fell fast asleep. It was very busy on the roads, probably Sunday night traffic as lots of people fly here for the weekend. During the trip we realised our flight back was earlier than we thought so as soon as we got back to the airport hub, we took local bus 325 to old Jeju and got out at Seomun Market (서문시장). We then walked to the coast as we had heard they had great fish restaurants there and found a very local, very brightly lit (looked a bit like a cafeteria) fish restaurant. It was all raw fish. I wasn’t sure if Olivier had understood as it is not really his thing. The meal was incredible! We had understood it was a menu, but it seemed never ending, they just kept bringing it out! Dish after dish. We thought we’d finished after 12 or so dishes when lo and behold out they come with a live squid and a pan of boiling broth they dumped the unfortunate creature in and kept pushing him down as he valiantly tried to scramble out while we watched on in shock. It was delicious though (sorry more sensitive friends, it felt the only thing we could do. At least his surmise was not then for nothing…). All in all, a pretty incredible meal.
We took the bus back and wandered around the new part of town. It’s very busy and all the shops are open as usual. Back at the hotel by about nine o’clock after a full and absolutely wonderful day.
Now Olivier has my cold, I suppose it was inevitable. At least I am feeling better so there is always one of us to bring the other up. After breakfast we left our luggage and just wandered around the shopping street we had found yesterday, but practically everything was shut. I wonder what time they open… Makes sense I guess; seen they are open so late. We did find a sock shop. Socks are very popular here, mostly the very low ones sporting all sorts of different designs.
We did some shopping and then stumbled on a health park. It was really fun to see the same sorts of machines you would find in the gym, those big ones with weights, et cetera, but then outside. There were many older people working out. They also had what I would best describe as a reflexology walk. Basically, a pathway with little stones on it that they were walking on barefoot. It looked very healthy!
The Dutch children’s iconic rabbit Nijntje (Miffy) is very popular here, same as Hello Kitty though Nijntje dates back to 1955. They both have the same sort of round childish face. They are mad about those sorts of figures here. There is an immensely popular line, the Kakao family with entire shops dedicated to these cartoon-like figures for your phone. If I understand well Kakao is an internet company.
South Korea truly is a fascinating country, on the one hand very highly digitalized and modern, Samsung, Hyundai, high tech everywhere and then on the other hand there is a huge mess of electrical wiring hanging above the streets and lots of old traditions the young are now rebelling against. You look up at a whole web of old wires going all over the place (maybe the ground is too hard to dig underneath?) and through them you see the ultra-modern skyscrapers. Another interesting random thought is that all the cars and buses appear to have black shading over their windows giving them a slightly sinister appearance…I wonder why? Privacy? I think it is forbidden in Europe.
We are also getting used to seeing people all over the place wearing face masks like many Asians also wear in Europe, not quite sure if it’s for germs or pollution. (This was written before the Covid pandemic. I am only editing now in Feb 2022. How strange to think that back then we would have found utterly outrageous the idea of having to wear a face mask when outside the home).
Maybe there is pollution. I don’t find it noticeable. Another thing which surprised me for a tea-loving nation is that they only serve coffee at breakfast. I so love their green tea, they have a brown rice one I am becoming totally addicted to, and Ginseng.
There’s a huge difference in temperature since yesterday when we were sweating buckets in the south of the island. Today it’s about 11 degrees and feels cold. We don’t have much time anyway. We collected our luggage and took a taxi to the airport, (which is about 7000 W for a 15-minute drive). We are off to Busan, South Korea’s second largest city. Foreigners have to queue in a different line than locals for domestic flights. Some sort of law typical to Jeju about movement within Korea.
Sadly, they no longer stamp the passport when you land from abroad but just insert a little square piece of paper inside your passport. They did not actually specify it was an official document and that we had to keep it. Thank goodness mine was still there however we can’t find Olivier’s. But airport officials were really nice and made no big deal and put him down as having arrived with me.
Nosing about in the duty-free area we realized we hadn’t got to try the honey or the prickly pear jam that I’d heard about. The place was also full of little biscuits with mandarins which seem typical, but that we did not come across either. The airport is once again spotless with the usual crew of broom-wielding ladies.
It was great to have our first view of Busan from the air and see how spread out it is. There are a lot of mountains and waterways and spread out in between there are hundreds and hundreds of high rises making maximum use of the scarce space. It is very impressive. There are also many plasticized ‘glasshouses’ I guess for growing vegetables.
We weren’t allowed to take photos landing at the airport. It looked like there was also a military base there. There was a long queue at the toilets. The lady in front of me sort of bowed to me and made me go first. Did I look that desperate?
When we took off, there was the usual person on the tarmac making the usual signs to the pilot but next to him, there were four other people who just basically seemed to be waving. And I swear it was the same thing as we landed at this airport. They just seem to be standing there and waving at us. Very hospitable…
We weren’t quite sure what bus to take. We had been told to take either one of those limousine busses or the Metro. And we thought, well, the bus sounded nice, like that we could see more but it was hard to work out which bus was what, so we ended up taking a local bus, which stopped at something like 40 places which all seemed in the suburbs before we got to our hotel in Haeundae (해운대). That was an unexpectedly long trip, but we got there, through the drizzle. We are staying at the Ibis budget Haeundae beach which unsurprisingly is located on the beach. Our huge room is right up on the ninth floor with a breath-taking sea view.
We had a bit of a dip as Olivier is feeling worse and I have a splitting headache too and we are tired, and it is dark (6pm) and wet. A good old cuppa tea cheered us up and we decided on a short walk along the coast to the ‘diamond bridge’ we could see twinkling through the gloom. It is magical with all the lights and the high-rises, and we barely noticed the rain.
The place is teeming with police as there is the ASEAN conference on here at the moment, with seven presidents from other Asian countries visiting. Makes us feel even safer! We walked along the sea front, and indeed the beautiful bridge is all lit up with a huge number of lamps.
We walked on and took the Metro and went to one of the biggest convenience stores in the world, Shinsegae (신세계), very luxurious. A sort of Korean Harrods.
We went up to the 9th floor and after all the adventurous raw fish last night settled on a pizza and some red wine and by the time Olivier had had his ice cream, the shop was shutting. Another surreal experience was making our way around this mega huge shop with dimmed lights to find an exit which was not locked!
Made our way back thanks to Olivier and the navigation thing he downloaded and decided to try out the “communal baths” on the second floor of our hotel. The communal was actually women together and on the other side men together. So, we split up and each enjoyed a sort of very big bath/pool which was piping hot at 40 degrees.
I was alone at first and flopped in the tub but then another lady came in and I could see how it was done. Basically, people come in naked since you’re all same sex. They wash themselves first in the shower and wash their hair and take their makeup off and then go and lie in the pool. I did everything backwards of course, but it was nice to lay in the hot water before meeting up with Olivier and returning to read in our room. This should have melted away the germs.
Our colds kept us awake and my head is whirling with all the thoughts and sensations, but we woke up to a beautiful view of the beach and to the excitement of being here and discovering what each day offers and that put the aches and pains to the side. We went down to a lovely breakfast, a mix of local food with hot Korean dishes, and also with egg and sausage and kimchi and white toast with eggs, fresh fruit, yogurts, et cetera.
We felt fortified enough to set off on a long metro ride through the sprawling city up to the temple of Beomeosa (범어사) that I really wanted to see. Spotless metro, efficient as always. People are extremely friendly, and so respectful to women with rows of seats just for our delicate posteriors. Here however, contrary to Seoul, if there are no pregnant women in sight, anyone sits. Martin in Seoul had shared an anecdote with us which had made a lot of noise on social media. A young woman who was not noticeably pregnant was seated on the metro (on a pink chair) feeling unwell and an elderly gentleman berated her for sitting there and it caused quite an outcry. There seems to be a big change in attitude towards the elderly with regular occurrences of elderly people yelling at the young for lacking in respect causing frustration on all sides.
It is a radiant autumnal day with a deep blue sky, bright sunshine, and all the glorious colours of autumn that we could admire once the metro went above ground. The white high-rises are striking against the mountain.
Girls and boys are impeccably styled in dress, make up hair, accessories etc. The K pop boys are totally adored and a little too ‘pretty boys’ to me and you often see them in real or in ads with light makeup and plastic surgery is big for both sexes. The girls look like little dolls, what I would call ‘Geisha style” with pale faces, glossy black hair, bright lips and pink cheekbones, perfect eyebrows. Today for the first time I actually saw a girl apply her makeup in the metro.
Even ill, Olive is our champion navigator, and we found the bus up the mountain to the stunning temple which is actually a complex of many ornate buildings nestled against the facade. They are all ornately carved and colourful, dedicated to Shakyamuni Buddha and his 16 disciples. It felt very special with the bell pealing in the breeze. Here practitioners bow, genuflect, and ‘hit’ their heads against the cushion before them while silently reading a sutra (a law). I left Olivier and did my Gongyo and Daimoku in silence wishing I could share with him the depth of peace I feel (I am a member of the SGI and practice Nichiren Buddhism). Practitioner or not you can tell no one is insensitive to the quiet serenity and magic of the place. The view itself is worth the visit.
We wandered back down and stopped as recommended by the guidebooks for the typical green onion pancake, which was absolutely delicious, there was seafood in it as well, very tasty.
Back in the Metro, we took Line 1 which is a lot quieter and then walked to Geumgang park (금강공원) in a beautiful forest, to take the cable car up and were rewarded with a spectacular view of the city snuggled between mountains and sea. We had intended doing a longer walk to Seokbulsa Temple (석불사) to see the Buddha carved into stone, but we were too late as the last cable car leaves at 5:30 and it would probably have been too much for our congested chests. Instead, we just walked 1,5 km to the Southern Gate which is one of the four left of the 17 kms of wall remaining from the fortress. It is perfect weather to stroll through the pine forest surrounded by huge rocks. It reminded me of the forest of Fontainebleau where my parents live.
Took the cable car back down discussing our various visions of the world and how this trip will have changed how we see the world. From there we took the Metro to the Gamcheon culture village, (감천문화마을) a sort of slum perked up by students all funky etc which sounded fun, but it was getting dark, and you have to find a minibus. Even a hyped-up slum did not sound like a bright idea in the dark and it was getting very cold.
We took the Metro back the way we came to the biggest fish market in the country but sadly the main building was already shut but we had fun meandering through the alleyways. Not sure what animal activists would make of the place as the tanks often seemed inhumanly crammed to the full of poor wriggly fish, crabs and other sea creatures in every shape and form trying to escape. It was impressive to see. People then can take the food upstairs to be cooked. We found a funky place for the fish cakes that Kylian had told us about. And indeed, they were divine, coming in all sorts of different combinations of fish, squid, crab…
Once in the metro we slumbered away. We looked for a bar back in Haeundae beach, but most places were either part of a hotel or quite fancy and after all our fish cakes we were not looking for a full meal. Then we spotted the supermarket chain we have been to a few times and bought snacks, ice cream, Cass beer of course and had a party in our room watching Korean TV and then ended up finding a Marvel film actually in English which we watched tucking into the delightful, dried, Dole mango that they have here as well.
And that was the end of yet another full, absolutely wonderful day. Crazy to think that tomorrow night we’ll be back in Seoul and seeing Kylian, and also that our trip is coming to an end.
I took a sleeping tablet last night, so actually slept like an absolute baby and Olivier feels better too. Last day in Busan. Lovely breakfast as usual and I even added pan-fried anchovies on my scrambled eggs, which was divine.
I’m going to miss all these little bows we get constantly here when we get back. Checkout was 11 am and we chilled a bit in our room enjoying the view before leaving our luggage at the reception and wandering straight out of the front door and on to yellow-sanded Haeundae beach, which is the number one beach in Korea. Beautiful skyline. We saw a few warships out there, probably pulling their weight in front of the hotel hosting the ASEAN conference. We both love the sea so much. We then took the little Boulevard with all of its usual kitschy selfie stops with plastic cherry blossom, LOVE, and wedding banners you can be photographed under.
We continued our walk around the coast, and it was rapidly a totally different story which I am so happy we also got to see. Here we are in ‘working man’s’ territory, with rubbish, rundown buildings, a totally different scene to the glitz and glamour literally around the corner.
We ended up in a small, strong-smelling fishermen’s port with the sense of activity and adventure I always find so thrilling! I made my way through the nets and traditional boats to the end. Again, a strong feeling of contrast between the traditional boats against a skyline of modernity reaching to the skies. At the back there was a huge wave barrier and a sign for tsunami evacuation which reminds us of yet another dimension to Korea. One that one tends to forget wandering around here as a tourist.
We have not seen much of the inland, I wonder how poor and rural the inside is… One other thing I was wondering seen how keen they are on health and fitness is if they swim in the sea? People go in in Holland in colder temperatures than today (excellent to stimulate your adrenals) but we saw no one.
We continued our walk of discovery along the coast and came across a real pearl at the end.An absolutely amazing café/pension, with unlimited views on three sides, it was called Edge 993 and stands more or less alone, like a little tower. The building itself was not particularly pretty but inside the decor was absolutely gorgeous. For example, a typewriter and flowers, the sort of place you can imagine writing a book, a lovely feeling of peace and space. I took loads of photos in a desire to capture some of the spirit, to hold on to this feeling of freedom in my head. I could live here. I sometimes feel as if my adult life has not yet started (aged 52!). I’m dreading in a way, going back to my crazy busy life. And I also know that I do need to step back a bit, to stop trying to do so many things and just focus on one, and also, you know, just maybe let it flow a little bit. I’m looking too hard for my own path and destiny and mission. Now that the antennas are finely tuned, I think it’s time that I stopped pushing and just trust the flow will show me the way.
We wandered back through the markets, mesmerized as usual by the fantastic display of mostly fish. We had a cappuccino at Starbucks which I first resisted but seen the amount of them here, we are doing as the locals do!
Then it was time to collect the luggage and find the right ‘limousine’ bus. They had told us to plan 2 hours due to the ASEAN conference, but it only took us 10 minutes. Another wonderful example of Korean kindness to tourists as it turned out the driver accepted neither cards nor even the T-money card (travel card), and we had no cash for the 7000 each ticket! He took us though and at the airport I stayed hostage and Olivier legged it to the cash dispenser!
There are no shops, so plenty of time at the airport to relax with our books and a bagel before our return flight to Seoul.
Once through on the other side, I felt a tap on my shoulder and what a wonderful surprise: Kylian had come to pick us up! Suddenly you’re parachuted back into this surreal world where somebody very familiar is somewhere totally strange. So fun! The three of us went to drop off our luggage at the same lovely Urbanwood guesthouse we stayed before and we headed straight back out the door because by then it was 20:30.
It feels a lot colder and damper here. We wandered around and I managed to convince the men that I was fine with just side dishes, because I really wanted Olivier to enjoy Kylian’s favourite ‘chicken and beer’ (Chimaek (치맥)) in his local place. They actually had a lovely, delicious side dish, which is like spicy rice tubes/rice cakes (Tteokbokki (떡볶이). They look a bit like pasta, but the tubes are full. It was very filling and very spicy, but we’re getting used to that. I realized my stomach’s not overreacting to the spice like it usually does. And a lot of beer, of course. Back to my favourite pancake stand, with the same little old man who looked so delighted to see Kylian. They were as I remembered them, deliciously hot and dripping with honey.
We walked on towards the Women’s university and finally found a karaoke place which still had room. It is an obsession here and everyone wants to be the next K-pop star. There are tiny little booths for, three, four people, but many come alone, to de-stress. Olivier and I were an absolute disaster, but Kylian did a pretty good job of it. We are the champions was the worst, probably because I know it best so let myself get carried away belting it out off-key, Last Xmas I found we did slightly less cringe (Kylian disagrees) and Hotel California was bearable.
We certainly had a good laugh, and I am glad we tried something which is very much their favourite hobby here, there are so many karaoke places, and they are full all the time.
We were toying with the idea of a beer, but by then it was 11 o’clock at night and at some point, you’ve got to go to bed. We are shattered. Hard to say goodbye to Kylian, just wanted to snuggle him into bed with me like when he was little, but I am so happy for his adventure here and he will be coming back to NL in a month. I can imagine him finding it hard to adjust back. Here everything is available 24/7. You never really feel alone. You can go out and there’s activity and vibrancy everywhere.
Martin was just back from his salsa lesson, and it was fun to catch up. Tomorrow is our last day.
And here we are Day 10. And of course, the first day I wake up by myself at 7:50, instead of being dragged out of bed by Olivier once the alarm goes off. We’re both utterly shattered. It has been ten wonderful, intense, busy, and at times overwhelming days which I guess we will be assimilating for some time to come. At least we can be proud that we have made the most of every minute.
At 9:30 Kylian came over for breakfast even though he is studying for a test tomorrow. I had checked with Martin who was delighted and like that we make the most of a few extra hours with Kylian and he gets to enjoy the lovely fruit Martin shares and the varieties of cheese and the bagel. It was only the second time he had had an apple since coming here! It was lovely talking all together with Martin he’s so friendly and open and knowledgeable.
Beautiful blue sky for our last day, and slightly less cold than yesterday, which makes it lovely for wandering.
We were going to start the day with shopping to bring gifts back but most of the shops don’t open until 11am. Instead, we took the Metro to City Hall and first had a lovely coffee before visiting the small Deoksugung Palace (덕수궁), nestled in the middle of the city centre, with beautiful, carved, painted wood and also a more austere-looking Confucian building. There’s also, surprisingly, a 19th century building in the middle. Lovely walk around before taking again, but during the day this time, that lovely path, which runs slightly underneath the city, which used to be a motorway, enjoying the water, the stepping-stones and made our way to Gwangjang Market (광장시장). We certainly will have walked a lot and I am so grateful for my new soles to help my arthritic toe! The market is a crazy mix of do- it- yourself things and then fabric and then fruit and vegetables and seafood. Store after store of delicious smells and people cooking various sorts of pancakes and dumplings and fish cakes, mostly fish. People cooking, stirring, chopping, peeling everywhere. Kylian tried to find the lady who had become a hit on Netflix, and there was a sign, but it didn’t look as if she was the same one.
I was glad Kylian was with us as it can get pretty overwhelming deciding what you want, and the prices were not always clear. We settled at a booth and went for the mung bean pancake (bindaetteok (빈대떡), which was delicious, washed down with rice wine, which is fermented and actually continues to bubble up.
We then moved on further down the market and I remembered that I hadn’t had any of the Mandu (만두) the steamed dumplings, which look a bit like a ravioli, I went for a Kimchi vegetable dumpling, and it too was really tasty.
We are all very aware of how special this time shared together is and struggling to not get too emotional.
Had a coffee and got some sweatshirts as gifts.
Once the sun goes under, it gets really brutally cold. Kylian was not going to let us go without visiting a dog café (dog and cat cafes are all the craze here). That was an experience! Once through the door you’re enthusiastically greeted by a cacophony of barking dogs, in all shapes and sizes who throw themselves at the door competing for strokes and hugs and attention. We managed to communicate a little bit with the lady in charge. The dogs are stray and mostly from the same family. Some are brought in; some are found abandoned. They go from a tiny chihuahua in a nappy to a massive Big Dane which graced our visit with a huge steaming poop on the gleaming floor! The volunteers rushed forward with all the gear needed to clean it up. You sit almost like in a sauna on stone slabs and cuddle stroke, take on your lap which ever dog catches your fancy. You relax, drink a cup of tea while petting, very therapeutic. One couple actually brought their own little dog, maybe to socialise, but otherwise people were just coming in with their shopping. You pay 3000 W, you get a drink and sit and can cuddle a pet for, I think, an hour or maybe more. The girls there were so dedicated. I had a shaggy one (dog, not girl) more or less nestled in my back and then they brought me this tiny little thing all wrapped up in a blanket which they put on my lap and it just sort of stayed there.
Olivier and Kylian each had different friends too and I could have fallen asleep. It’s fun, maybe also a bit unsettling…not sure why. I guess the idea that people come here searching for human warmth and connection. But the concept is good, the lady runs it like a business, she’s rescuing stray dogs, plus she’s giving other people a therapeutic experience too.
All three of us are tired but do not want the evening to end.
Kylian then guided us to the restaurant he has chosen for our last night. He has been incredible. We wouldn’t have had a clue how to go about it. In this one, you basically take a colander, and go to the front where there are mountains of ingredients, and you choose whatever attracts your fancy. All sorts of meat, and paksoi, shrimps, eggs, crabsticks, mushrooms, etc and they stir fry it for you. You can choose different degrees of spiciness (it goes from 2 to 5, we took 2 and it was hot enough!), which sauce…Glad for the heaps of rice to cool down your palate, and of course our favourite Cass beer. Lots of good talks as well about life, about choices, about what matters most and what’s coming next and how to not get overwhelmed by it all (still work in progress).
Next it was time to go back to our hotel. Kylian walked us back though he still needs to study. We did our best to keep it short and sweet and not over prolong the hugs, there’s so much love there.
Never easy to say goodbye. I am so proud of him.
Olivier and I were happy there were no other guests around and managed to shut our suitcases, and by 10 pm we were in bed. We have an early start tomorrow.
These were ten unforgettable days. Before we knew it, we were landing at Schiphol airport, missing the Jeju Air message: ‘Passengers may deplane from the front”.