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Trip Report Some notes about South Korea

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I dont intend to write a full trip report ( I have never managed before so doubt it would happen!) but rather just bits and pieces about South Korea accumulated over a number of visits. I hope they might help someone.

This was my 5th trip to South Korea and my husbands 3rd. I will add a little information about us and why we go. I am a potter. South Korea has a wonderful and long history of making ceramics and is the home of very fine bluish green celadon glazes usually decorated with an inlaid design. (China is also well known for celadons but they are a much greener colour) The tableware and decorative ceramics in South Korea is very good all round and well supported by the public. Along with other arts and crafts the goverment actively support the industry to keep their heritage alive. With my own work focused on carved celadons and supported by making tableware you can see what draws me there.

Each year amongst many ceramic festivals held around the country there is a Celadon Festvial at Gangjin in the south of the counrty. This is on the site of the original 1000 year old kiln site and home to many contemporary celadon artist. Along with a number of other international potters I have had the good fortune to be invited to attend the festival twice. Opportunities to work with a master carver in a different part of Korea have taken me back twice more. This lastest trip was to return to that studio yet again.

I've also had the chance to travel extensively in the country both with a group and also independently by bus and hire car. This trip we were staying with our friends at the studio and mostly travelling in their car so a "real" trip report doesn't work very well. Also my trips are very focused on ceramics so probably of little interest to others. I will try and add bits of information that might help and please just ask anything - I may or may not know the answer.

Firstly though, I will also advise anyone intending to travel around South Korea to take the time to read the very enjoyable and thorough report written by Kja as it comtains a wealth of information.
http://www.fodors.com/community/asia/4-wonderful-solo-weeks-in-south-korea.cfm

TIMING A VISIT My trips have each been 3 to 4 weeks at a time in June, July/August, October and most recently May. By far the standout for weather was October with lovely warm sunny days, cool evenings and just a bit of rain. The bonus for me that time was the autumn foliage which we see little of in my part of Australia. June was pleasant and quite warm, July /August was very hot and humid with the odd typhoon and unless there is a good reason to go at that time I would avoid it. May this year was nice with a few days of rain but otherwise sunny and warm. We were lucky to avoid the Yellow Dust days with can be a problem at this time of year.

This year we were too late for cherry blossom but the azaleas were out and the mountain foliage beautiful with the pines in flower and interspersed with masses of white Acacia blossom. I had not known previously but these acacia were introduced from Japan. The odd purple magnolia also dot the forest. The mountains are beautiful at any time and being a country of mountains and valleys whenever you travel outside the cities you will see them.

USEFUL THINGS - maybe.

●Time through Incheon airport.
I had read recently that there were long waits going both in and out of Incheon airport. I have always flown in at around 7.30 to 8.30 am and because of the airlines used have had to take the train from the outer concourse to the main terminal. It is a 5 minute shuttle train but can be crowded and may mean waiting for the next train but they are every 5 minutes or so. It can be a long walk to get there depending on the arrival gate. Once in the main building you need to line up for immigration and this is where it can get slow. My first 3 trips were very quick but the next was a fair wait. So this trip I took note (particularly for Thursdaysd who asked). From our plane to immigration took 20 minutes (there were a lot of people at the shuttle train) then immigration was packed so 40 minutes more. Our bags were already out when we got to the carousel and it was straight customs through to the buses. So plane to bus 1 hour. Not so bad. If you landed at the main terminal it should be quicker of course.
Leaving through Incheon has also had reports of delays getting through immigration and security checks. Our flights depart around 11.00am. Last trip it was really busy but we got through with time to spare. This time we were staying the last night in Seoul and so made sure to catch an early enough bus to allow for Monday morning trafic as well as potential delays at the airport. The bus left Insadong at 6.40am and is scheduled to take around 100 minutes and, as we beat the morning rush, thats what it took. Check-in and immigration were both quick so we were at the concourse by 8. We had lounge access so no problem hanging around. Its a pretty good airport if you do have to hang around though.
So I guess timing is the luck of the draw. Sometimes slow but more often okay.

●Maps.
We used the following apps for getting around. maps.me, google - earth, street view etc, plus if you can read a little Korean, Naver and Daum maps. Maps.me is offline so while not everything is on it its really handy when you don't have internet. We used Daum and Naver maps a lot in the cities as it has all sorts of info on places - food, hotels etc. It takes a bit more work as its in Korean but not too hard. If you open Daum maps in Chrome browser rather than using the app, it will to translate to english. When Searching you will probably have to enter the name in Korean so copy and paste or better still get a korean keyboard and practice the alphabet by copying the name of what you are looking for.

On that note learning the korean alphabet is very easy and while you may not be able to actually understand all the words you see written it definitely helps with checking which bus you want etc. As with any country if you have something written in the language it makes it a lot easier to get help with directions. I can read just enough to get by and write a name if I need to and it has really helped. Try as I might my spoken Korean is still useless but a can be polite and greet, thank and ask for basic things.

●Transport
Outside of Seoul I have used buses and hire cars for getting around but not trains. I understand the trains are great but we haven't used them. Buses vary from standard intercity to express. I've travelled on standard intercity ones that are like ordinary city buses but going out to country towns - they have 4 seats (2×2) across the bus. Not all that comfy for a longish trip but okay. They tend to do more stops- for instance they leave Seoul with no stops but as they get close to the end of the trip will stop at a number of places for people to get off.

The Express service is usually a slightly better bus but they still have the standard 4 seats to a row. There are also "Excellent" buses on many express routes between big towns/cities. These are like business class with only 3 seats ( 2/1) to each row and lots of leg room. They cost more but its not a lot. For instance I was travelling between Gwangju-si in the south and Seoul which takes around 3.5 hours. There is a bus every 10 minutes and 2 out of 3 are Excellent ones. The regular bus cost approximately 19,000won and the excellent 26,000won. They all seemed to fill up. Unless I was down to my last cent I'd take the Excellent as its really comfy. You can use google and daum for bus numbers/ stops etc in towns.

Hire car - outside of the cities. I certainly wouldn't consider driving in Seoul - the traffic is horrible and finding parking a hassle. Actually I left the driving when we did hire a car to my husband as its the opposite side of the road for us so I did the navigation since I can read a bit of Korean. Most signage is also in English. You need an international license, your country's license and a credit card to hire. You can use Hertz etc but we joined Lotte Car rental - its associated with Hertz or Avis - but by joining on the website and booking on the website we got a huge discount making it very economical.

We hired out of Gwangju which is also a huge city but we were getting out of town as soon as we could. Driving in the countryside is easy and we tried to avoid the motorways as much as possible. Its not that the motorways aren't good - they are and have great service areas but are busy and we prefer to wander around and look at odd bits.

The hire car made it so much easier to get to a number of spots that while sometimes possible by bus would have taken much much longer. We also chanced on many small places that we simply wouldn't have gone without a car. This last trip we intended to hire again but given we were with our friends a lot of the time we were travelling with them in their car.

In Seoul itself we mostly used the very good subway and for some journeys, taxis which are pretty cheap. To and from the airport and Seoul we used the airport limousine buses which are good. There are a mix of standand and excellent buses on different routes costing 10,000won for standard and 15,000 on the routes using the excellent models.

To be continued

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