A different way to travel

We arrived home a few days ago after spending Christmas with family on the BC coast but we aren’t here for long! It seems we dropped in just long enough to experience some of the coldest days this winter has had to offer. Is it any wonder that I’m happily digging out our summer wardrobe and exchanging the contents of our suitcase for beach wear?

Much of our international travel has been done by the seat of our pants with a Lonely Planet guide in hand. Before each trip, I did lots of research. We always had a general idea where we were going and what we wanted to do when we got there but the details unfolded as we went along. This has led to many adventures and unforgettable moments including traveling the length of Vietnam by overnight bus and arriving in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) late on New Years Eve without a hotel reservation, being caught up in local celebrations and even accepting a ride with a total stranger in China. I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything but this time I decided that I wanted something easier, a stress-free vacation that I didn’t have to plan myself. After the year we’ve just been through, all I want to do is kick back and relax in the sun!

In late November, we did something we’ve seldom done before. We sat down across the desk from a travel agent and told him that we didn’t really care where we ended up; we simply wanted to go somewhere warm with a beach! We also favoured an all-inclusive vacation; one where we didn’t have to find our own way around or wonder where our next meal was coming from. We gave him the window of time available between my various medical appointments and let him do the searching.

“Let’s find you a non-stop flight,” he suggested. Thinking back to the many hours we’ve spent in airports and our unplanned 24 hour layover in Houston on the way home from Costa Rica three years ago, I readily agreed. He gave us some options to think about and we settled on a resort on Mexico’s Caribbean coast near Playa del Carmen.

We won’t have internet and our cell phone will be turned off. We’ll have TV, of course, but I’m not sure that we’ll bother to turn it on. For a little while, the world will get along without us. I’ve told a few family members how to reach us in case of an emergency but I’m praying that there won’t be any crises while we’re gone.

I’m going to immerse myself in the moment, soak up some sunshine and enjoy time with my hubby who, by the way, officially became a senior citizen earlier this week! Hopefully I’ll have lots to blog about when we get back.

Korea continued

During our remaining days in Seoul, we visited two more palace complexes. Like most historical structures, much of the Joseon Dynasty’s first royal palace, Gyeongbokgung, was destroyed during the Japanese colonial period. Reconstruction has been ongoing since 1990 but the structures that are standing today are impressive and palace guards in period costumes added to the atmosphere.

The part of Deoksugung, Seoul’s smallest palace complex, that stood out most to us was Seokjojeon, the first western style building constructed within the walls of a Korean palace. This huge stone structure with it’s European style rose garden and beautiful fountain looks quite startling surrounded by traditional Asian buildings.

In addition to our afternoon in Insa-dong, we spent quite a bit of time strolling through Namdaemun Market, Seoul’s second largest market area. Located a few blocks from our motel, this complex maze of tiny crowded stores and street vendors selling all sorts of foods and ready made items was fascinating. We also visited the Shinsaegae department store, the city’s oldest and definitely one of it’s finest. What a contrast! From the noisy, crowded market where much of the activity takes place in the street to the opulent department store where name brand items are tastefully displayed in spacious surroundings. Of course, the prices are just as different and so are the food venues – from street vendors selling both raw and ready to eat foods to an entire floor of classy restaurants.

Our visit to Seoul also included a subway ride to Samneung Park to see some uniquely Korean royal burial mounds, a couple of hours at the National Folk Museum and a visit to Namsan Park, the upper portion of a small mountain in the centre of the city. We rode a cable car up into the park then ascended the Seoul Tower by elevator. From the observation floors, we enjoyed views of the enormous city spread out below us.

We left Seoul on the morning of Wednesday, August 13 and traveled by express train to the port city of Busan, located on the country’s southeast coast. Traveling at speeds of up to 300 km/hour, we were in Busan in just under three hours. The train ride gave us an opportunity to see the countryside between the two major cities. Korea is a land of lush tree covered mountains with most of the usable land between the hills being used for agricultural purposes.

Busan is Korea’s second largest city and is an industrial and commercial centre as well as a centre for domestic and international trade. Compared to the vibrancy of Seoul, it seemed somewhat quieter. It is, however, a popular tourist destination for Koreans because of it’s beautiful beaches. It seemed a good spot for us to unwind and relax after our very busy days in Seoul. We especially enjoyed Haeundae Beach which was like nothing we’d ever seen before. We literally shared it with thousands of other people! Earlier in August, the Haeundae District had vied for the Guinness World Record for the number of parasols installed on a beach. I don’t know if they were successful or not but an estimated 12 000 colourful parasols are set up on the 1.5 km stretch of pure sand each day during the peak season. For 5000 won (approximately $6) we were able to rent a beach mat and space under a parasol for the day. Vendors wandered up and down the beach all day long selling food and drinks. It was noisy and crowded but fun and we enjoyed playing in the ocean waves along with hundreds of others.

Our second day at Haeundae was cooler and I got quite chilled after spending some time in the water so, rather than spending the entire day on the beach, we walked the promenade circling Dongbaek Park, a wooded knoll jutting out into the ocean next to the beach area.

While in Busan, we also visited Yongdusan Park where we went up the Busan Tower and enjoyed spectacular views of the city and the harbour and Taejongdae Park where we rode the 4.3 km circuit on a cute tram getting off at various spots along the way to enjoy the ocean views. We were especially intrigued by the open air “restaurants” set up on a rocky point below the lighthouse. Shaded by colourful tarps, visitors sat on wooden platforms overlooking the water and were served fresh seafood by women who cooked it out in the open.

What were some of our overall impressions of Korea? Had we not spent six months in Japan first, I’m sure we would have experienced culture shock but since the two countries are similar in many ways, we didn’t. We did observe that Korea is much dirtier, however. In spite of the fact that there are very few garbage cans in public places in Japan, it is a very clean country and we have quickly grown used to that. As mentioned previously, the Korean people are less reserved than the Japanese so it’s a noisier, more vibrant place. We enjoyed it thoroughly but I was very happy to come “home” to Japan!

A day to remember

Thus far, August has been all I’d hoped it would be but it’s actually been nice to get back into routine the past few days. Perhaps now I’ll finally have time to write about our trip to Korea!

We flew to Seoul on Saturday, August 9 and spent the next three days exploring that city. Though we didn’t know it until we arrived, that was a perfect time to be a foreign tourist in Seoul due to a promotion called the Seoul Grand Sale 2008 which provided us with free passes to several of the historical sites that we wanted to visit as well as free transit passes.

Our first full day in Seoul was especially memorable. After breakfast, we caught a bus to Changgyeong-gung, one of the three palace complexes that we visited. Though many of these historical buildings were destroyed by the Japanese at various times throughout history and have since been rebuilt, the throne hall at Changgyeong-gung escaped destruction and is said to be the oldest building of its kind in Korea. Much work has been done in recent years to restore the rest of the palace complex to its original state. The buildings were very similar in design to many that we have seen in Japan.

After touring the palace complex and walking through the peaceful grounds, we made our way to the nearby Jongmyo Royal Ancestral Shrine where two long buildings house memorial tablets for many former kings, queens and other royal family members. Jongmyo is considered the most important shrine in Korea and one of its two main buildings is the longest traditional wooden building in the country. Once a year, in early May, a ritual Confucian ceremony is held here. During this six hour rite, special food and wine are offered to the spirits of each of the departed kings, ceremonial recitations are spoken and traditional musicians and dancers perform. A video presentation gave us a glimpse of that.

Next, we walked to Insa-dong. Full of antique stores, art galleries, handicraft shops and restaurants, this well-known shopping district was an intriguing place to poke around in. After much deliberation, we came home with a handmade lamp that we both fell in love with. We enjoyed lunch in a tiny, authentic Korean shop in Insa-dong. It was here that we first tried a popular Korean dish called bibimbap. Though we found much of the Korean food to be too hot for our liking, this dish was very tasty.

After leaving Insa-dong, we visited a small park that is somewhat of a shrine to Korea’s independence movement as it was from the park’s octagonal pagoda that the Declaration of Independence from Japan was read in 1919.

Late in the afternoon, we started to make our way back toward our motel on foot. That’s when the day really started to get interesting! First, as we enjoyed a Starbucks coffee break a group of high school students spotted us through the window and came in to ask if they could interview us for a project they were working on. A little later, quite by accident, we came across Cheonggyecheon, which I recognized only because I’d read about it the evening before in some of the tourist information that we’d picked up at the airport. This once badly polluted waterway had been covered over with cement after the Korean war to create more roadways and decrease traffic into the downtown area. In 2003, the mayor of Seoul initiated a major project to uncover and revitalize the stream. Completed in 2005 with waterfalls, fountains, stepping stones and historical bridges it is clearly an asset to the city and drew many people on this hot summer afternoon! We decided to walk along it as it led in the general direction that we needed to go. What an amazing experience that turned out to be. At one point, we heard drumming in the distance and soon came across a colourful group of street artists performing traditional music. We sat and listened for awhile before continuing on to the end of the waterway where we discovered that the Korean Olympic committee had set up a huge TV screen, a stage where a live band was performing and even a huge electronic Olympic flame! As darkness fell, we joined the large crowd that had gathered there and watched the Korean women’s archery team win the gold medal! What a moment that was, complete with fireworks! The square rocked with loud music and cheering. It was a wonderful privilege to share that moment of national pride with the local people gathered there. Eventually, we moved on, stopping for a quick supper along the way. A little later, we once again heard music in the distance and were drawn to Seoul Plaza, an open grassy space in front of city hall. There we caught the finale of an open air symphony concert complete with vocalists and dancers!

A few more blocks brought us back to our motel and the end of a wonderful day. Though most of it was relatively unplanned, we couldn’t have planned a more delightful day if we had tried. In my next post, I’ll try to give a summary of the remainder of our Korean holiday but this day was definitely one to remember and one that cried out for a more detailed description.

World without strangers

Since arriving in Busan yesterday, we’ve noticed two people wearing t-shirts with the logo “World Without Strangers” in bold lettering across the front. Apparently, these were produced by fashion brand, Giordano, in conjunction with the Beijing Olympics. If we were to see them for sale while we’re here in Korea, we’d probably buy a couple, not only because we like the sentiment, but also because it seems to be an apt description of the Korean people.

Though we can’t tell the difference between Korean and Japanese people by looking at them, it didn’t take long to discover that they are very different. Japanese people tend to be very reserved. Though they’re known as a polite society, it often seems as if the people are very self absorbed and hardly seem to notice anyone around them. We’ve usually found them to be very helpful if we approach them and ask for assistance but have seldom had anyone offer to help us when we’ve been trying to find our way or figure something out. Here in Korea, however, people are constantly stopping to ask us if we need assistance when they notice us checking our maps and brochures.

We’ve also noticed a difference on the subways. In Japan, people are very quiet on the trains and almost never speak to strangers. That’s definitely not the case here where people seem much more open and friendly toward one another. In Japan, people occasionally choose to stand rather than taking a seat beside us and though it hasn’t happened often, we’ve even had people move when we’ve sat down next to them. Today, I had quite the opposite experience. We were on the subway on our way to the beach. The car was full so we were standing. When it stopped and someone got off, an older lady who was sitting next to the now empty spot beckoned to me indicating that I should come and sit with her. Later, on another train, I was sitting and Richard was standing. A lady sitting next to me noticed a spot open up on the other side of the car so she moved across and indicated that Richard should take the seat next to me. I also noticed a young man get up and offer his seat to an older gentleman. That would be a very rare occurrence on a Japanese bus or train.

Something else we never see in Japan is vendors on the the subway trains. Here it appears to be quite common for someone to get on the train and make their way from car to car hawking their goods. As you can imagine, the Korean trains are noisier than their Japanese counterparts but they’re also much friendlier.

Am I disappointed that we chose to spend this year in Japan rather than Korea? Absolutely not! There are many things that I love about living there and we have had the opportunity to get to know many wonderful people. It’s just interesting to observe the cultural differences between the two countries.

Living in luxury

We’re enjoying a little bit of luxury including a computer and free internet in our hotel room so I thought I’d try to catch up on a bit of blogging this evening. Seoul was amazing but it will need more time than I have tonight so for now I’ll just write about more mundane things like hotel rooms.

In Seoul, we stayed at the Daewoo Motel. Finding it was a challenge as it was tucked into a maze of tiny alleyways just off one of downtown Seoul’s main streets. Our room was small but clean and adequate. For 35 000 won/night (about $40) we had a tiny but private bathroom, a TV, a mini fridge and an air conditioner. In this climate, having an air conditioner is probably more important than just about anything else! We also had access to free internet and the room price included a full breakfast each morning!

Here in Busan, we hoped to find something similar. We were correctly told that we didn’t need a reservation and that we could simply ask to see a room then decide if we wanted it. The lady at the tourist information booth at the train station directed us to the Dong Yang Motel which is practically next door to the station. What a good suggestion that was. For 40 000 won/night (less than $50) we feel like we’re living in the lap of luxury. In addition to the in room computer and free internet, we have a beautiful big room with big screen TV, mini fridge, water cooler, air conditioner and fan. The private bathroom has a big corner tub that I can stretch out in! What a delight that was after all the walking we’ve been doing the past few days. The room overlooks the railroad tracks and beyond that the harbour but in spite of how close they are we’ve hardly noticed any noise from the trains.

Both cities have first class hotels like the Hyatt, the Hilton and the Westin, of course, as well as mid range ones like Best Westerns and Sheratons but how we could want anything more than we have here, I don’t know. Of course, Busan’s luxury hotels have scenic locations overlooking sandy beaches instead of railway tracks but we’ll spend tomorrow on the same beaches without spending several hundred dollars for a room.

We haven’t bothered with a TV in Japan but having one while the Olympics is on has been a bonus even though the commentary is in Korean. We haven’t seen much of how the Canadian athletes are doing, however, as they mainly keep showing the Korean successes over and over. It’s been kind of fun to cheer along with the locals though. Everywhere we go, people are huddled around TV screens watching the Olympics.

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