4 wonderful solo weeks in South Korea

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Jul 2nd, 2014, 09:10 PM
  #1
kja
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4 wonderful solo weeks in South Korea

Finally! -- a start to my promised trip report on South Korea. I plan to summarize my final itinerary, comment on what I enjoyed least and most, recap my planning activities, and then – because South Korea gets so little coverage on Fodor’s -- give you a relatively detailed account of my time. So consider yourselves warned: This TR will be LONG (feel free to skim! ) and it will take me a while to complete it. Even so, your questions and comments are welcome at any point!

Context: As some of you know, I’m a woman with reasonably extensive experience as a solo, independent traveler. This was my first visit to Korea and my third trip to the Orient. (I previously visited Japan for 3 weeks and northern China for 4 weeks.) Wherever I travel, I seek to maximize the diversity of the experiences I will likely have during my trip. My tastes are fairly eclectic, but not entirely indiscriminate: I typically enjoy art, architecture, museums, religious sanctuaries, parks and gardens, natural scenery, castles and fortresses, markets (for their atmosphere, not for shopping), picturesque villages, good food and wine, folk traditions, and the chance to see and experience other parts of the world. I generally don’t seek opportunities to relax (relying on meals and time in transit for that) or shop (except for buying gifts for family and friends).

Itnerary: This trip took place in May of 2014. My final itinerary was:

- Day 0-1: Leave the U.S.; reach my hotel in Seoul by early evening; begin exploring
- Days 2 – 5: Explore Seoul (with more time in Seoul at the end of my trip); day trips to Yongin and Suwon
- Day 6: First part of day in Seoul; move on to Daejeon
- Day 7: Day trip from Daejeon to Buyeo
- Day 8: Day trip from Daejeon to Gongju; move on to Gwangju
- Days 9 - 11: Gwangju and day trips to Gochang, Soswaewon, Songgwangsa, and Yulpo/Boseong
- Day 12: Move on to Seogwipo (on Jeju Island)
- Days 13 – 14: Explore Jeju Island
- Day 15: Visit Jeju City and move on to Busan
- Days 16 – 18: Explore Busan and Tongdosa
- Day 19: Move on to Haeinsa for an overnight templestay
- Day 20: Finish seeing Haeinsa; visit Daegu and Jikjisa; move on to Gyeongju
- Days 21 – 22: Explore Gyeongju and visit Seokguram and Bulguksa
- Day 23: Move on to Andong; visit Hahoe
- Day 24: Explore Andong
- Day 25: Move on to Yeongju; visit Buseoksa
- Day 26: Return to, and explore more of, Seoul
- Days 27 - 28: Explore Seoul
- Day 29: Return to U.S.

Likes and Dislikes:

What I liked least:

- In many areas, seemingly incessant and frankly unnecessary, irritating noises. Music blaring, people shouting, cartoon-like commercials and announcements (SO irksome, whether auditory or visual!), honking cars, sounds of hacking and spitting, etc., all (of course) against the “usual” street noises one encounteres anywhere. I remember one hike when -- just as I was thinking about how nice it was to experience a few moments of silence, broken only by an occasional bird call or the rustle of the leaves as a breeze caught them -- my thoughts were interrupted by blaring karyoke from a radio somebody was carrying. Seriously? And if someone is going to share his/her music with everyone else, does it really need to be Korean-dubbed disco music, decades-old pop music, or “White Christmas” (in May)?!? Sigh.

- Litter and the lack of trash cans/disposal options. One of my first impressions of Seoul was that it had a surprising amount of litter. The next morning, when I wanted to dispose of a take-out coffee cup, I realized that part of the problem is that it is almost impossible to locate a disposal option. Even the areas around vending machines – which were almost as common in Seoul as in Japan – didn’t necessarily have any trash receptacles. If I asked someone where to put my trash, s/he would inevitably simply take it from me, which I must admit felt like an incredible imposition, especially the time I asked a police officer. I came to the conclusion – which could easily be mistaken -- that at least in Seoul, garbage is picked up early in the morning and people simply leave their trash at the curb. The problem didn’t seem quite so prevalent outside of Seoul, and I’m glad to report that when I did find trash receptables, they were almost always designed to separate recyclables from trash.

- The seeming absence of consensually acknowledged rules of the road other than stopping at a red light, so that just about every time I took a taxi, it was with the sense – no, make that the certain knowledge!!! – that I was risking my life. Nonetheless, I only saw one accident, and neither of the two cars involved were taxis.

- The VERY long waits to cross streets. It seemed that at almost every intersection, each distinct approach had it’s own, separate light. And each red light was long enough that some drivers (including some of my crazy taxi drivers) literally turned their cars off. A wait of up to 4 minutes for a green light for pedestrian crossings was not uncommon, causing me uncommon frustration.

- some truly awful coffee. I mean REALLY bad. I thought I could endure just about any cup of coffee if I felt the need for caffeine. I was SO wrong! I did find a number of decent coffee shops (Starbuck’s franchises or those of many of its competitors) in major cities, but many of these shops were open for afternoon or evening business only. (?!?) Finding a good – or even just barely decent -- cup of coffee in the morning was not always an easy task, particularly outside of Seoul or Busan.

- the nearly complete absence of options to enjoy a glass of wine or beer when not also eating a meal. Wine was extremely hard to find and was seriously overpriced. And although it seemed that one could buy beer at any 24-hr convenience store, public places where Koreans relax over a beer in the absence of a meal seemed essentially non-existent. (Beer did not seem an unusual accompaniment to dinner.)

- the seat belts on intercity buses. I don’t mind wearing a seat belt. My complaint is about the particular seat belts used on intercity buses in South Korea: The piece to the right is HUGE and is firmly fixed to the seat, so it can’t be moved, and the seats are made for SMALL people. I may not be the slim little wisp that I was when in high school, but I’m not much over the ideal weight for my height, and I still developed a HUGE bruise from where this seat belt part dug into my side on every bus trip. Ouch!

- The lack of a top-is-north convention for maps. (I think the convention may be that the top is what you are facing, but I’m not certain.) I didn’t realize that it wasn’t top-is-north until well into my trip, but I was soon aware that I was having great difficulty using publicly posted maps. That was disconcerting, as I am usually pretty good with maps. Eventually, I remembered being in another country where top is not necessarily north: Lightbulb!

- The very limited space for hanging things in Korean lodgings. Only one room in which I stayed had more than 3 hangers (it had 5!?!); some had less. Most rooms had enough rack space for me to hang my used towels and my day’s handwash; some did not.

- My idea of a dinner napkin is something one can use to cover one’s lap and wipe one’s hands. Not so in South Korea! As a rule, dinner napkins were no larger than what I consider a “cocktail napkin,” and they were often made of much thinner tissue. I did reasonably well – IMO – with the metal chopsticks and spoon, but I went through a LOT of the insubstantial little “napkins” I found at my tables. ;-)

What I liked most:

- the people and their truly warm hospitality. In every country I have visited over the years, I have been the fortunate recipient of some incredible acts of kindness, and those moments remain among my most precious memories of prior trips. Even in that context, the warmth and hospitality of the people of South Korea awed me, and it could well be that my memories of these people prove the most enduring of this trip. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere where so many people have gone out of their way to make me feel welcome or to find ways to help me or share something with me. As examples, I don’t think I ever stopped at a public map without someone politely offering assistance. And even though there was no reason to do so, an incredible number of people who passed me as I walked around a temple or climbed to a fortress wall or whatever took a moment to greet me, whether in English or Korean; and they beamed, and sometimes paused to speak, when I responded. Delicious fruit was foisted upon me; people who I asked for directions sometimes walked a block or more just to make sure I found what I sought; volunteer guides spent inordinate amounts of time with me. Wow!

- the food! One of the few words I learned before going to Korea was “delicious,” and I definitely had opportunities to use it! More often than not, I sat, laughing, as plate after plate after plate (“banchan” or small dishes) was put before me, sometimes even before I ordered. I don’t have the most adventurous of palates, but OMG, just about every dish was amazingly delicious! I didn’t always know what I was eating, but at most, one or two of the side plates at any one meal proved too salty or spicy for me.

- the attentiveness of bus drivers throughout Korea. There were, at most, only a few times when a bus driver failed to make absolutely certain that I got off at the place I wanted to go, and most of them also made sure I knew which direction to walk once I got off.

- Ondal floors! None of the nights that I was in Korea were particularly cold, but even so, a tad of warmth underfoot was incredibly pleasant. I want one!

- The ease of using the subway systems in Seoul, Daejeon, and Busan. There were frequent signs and announcements in English and each station had conveniently located maps of the station, the area around the station, and the metro system. It may have taken a moment for me to get oriented in any specific station, but it didn’t take long!

- The many opportunities I had to observe a wide range of Korean traditions, ceremonies, and performances, whether by walking through folk museums or attending events or visiting villages that have retained traditions that have been abandoned elsewere. I attended the very solemn Jongmyo Daeje as well as humorous reenactments of folk dances; saw professionally performed dances and barely proficient equestrian stunts; attended moving Buddhist prayers and the comedy of Nanta – a delightful range of cultural events!

- Public toilets. Seriously! Even in the middle of forested parks, public toilets were common, clean, and generally had Western-style toilets. I only came upon one public WC that had only squat toilets; a few had both Western and squat options, most had Western only. And almost all had plenty of toilet paper and soap. There were even a surprising number of toilets, even in parks, that had those fancy Japanese toilets with heated, padded seats and a set of controls that provide all sorts of options. Awesome!

- And to move to the completely trivial, I became a complete convert to the exfoliating strips that many Korean hotels offer their guests. These are just bits of some kind of synthetic whatever, but I LOVED them – just the right texture for exfoliation, just the right size for scrubbing one’s back, easily wrung out to dry overnight. I took every one that my hotels offered as a free amenity and bought more for family and friends! When I showed one of my proprieters an example, and asked her to write out and pronounce the Korean name for it, she said, literally, "You won't believe me, but the name, pronounced in Korean, really is “shower tower – or should that be towel?” LOL! But using that name worked, and some of my friends and family members will reap the benefits. (Or they might if I decide to give any up.)

I think you will have noticed that my “least-liked” list includes many things that were irksome, but ultimately irrelevant; my “most-liked” list includes things that made this trip truly memorable. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in South Korea!
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Jul 2nd, 2014, 09:52 PM
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Oh good, very glad to see this get started!

BTW, if you had problems with the noise, the trash and the traffic in South Korea, you might want to skip India... Just saying.
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Jul 2nd, 2014, 10:28 PM
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kja
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OMG, thursdaysd, there are SO many things in India that I would love to see, and SO many things I don't think I can manage -- the heat, the poverty, the crowds.... Not to mention the horrible events involving women over the last few years -- which I know you bring to our attention as soon as you become aware of them. Sadly, I suspect that India is off my list of priorities, at least for now. But maybe things will change, and at least I am absolutely certain that I won't run out of other options!
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Jul 2nd, 2014, 10:31 PM
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kja
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Oh, and I should be clear: I found the noise, trash, and traffic in South Korea irritating, nothing more, and I regret if I suggested that they were trip-stoppers (as I think they can be in some countries).
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Jul 2nd, 2014, 11:25 PM
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Doesnt sound good when the negatives are up top.
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Jul 3rd, 2014, 07:39 AM
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Well, I think India is absolutely worth it, but I was amused because I don't remember noticing that noise and trash were bad in Korea, and certainly not traffic, but apparently I've spent more time in Asia than you have (yet). BTW, I drink wine almost exclusively at home, but I drink beer in Asia. Things may be gradually improving, but when I started traveling in Asia wine was either undrinkable or ridiculously expensive. I don't even look for it any more.
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Jul 3rd, 2014, 01:00 PM
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kja - I am looking forward to your report particularly about Seoul....as I said in your other post, all I know about Korea is from Korean dramas, and Seoul and the Han River have a place in my heart....
In the dramas they tend to drink at these tent bars which seem to be outside and serve soju and some type of food - did you see places like that?
I am surprised about the litter - in Japan you don't see trash cans much at all in the stations/streets but there is very little litter for the most part.
Was there no language issue for the most part? Funny about 'shower towel.' In Kyoto I was with a Japanese friend in a health and beauty aids type store and I told her I needed body lotion and asked how you say it in Japanese....'body lotion'....with a little Japanese accent of course. ;-)
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Jul 3rd, 2014, 04:24 PM
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Warm greetings again kja and early thank you for what promises to be another thoughtful trip report concerning a country I've grown to savour for current Asia business travel, South Korea. (And remain most appreciative of your China musings. Believe have mentioned this before: writers like you make being on the road for work that much more enjoyable.)

Completely concur with your positive impressions of that warm S. Korean hospitality, the cuisine and yes, those occasional "exfoliation strips". Am presently scheduled for ongoing Seoul meetings this month, so look forward to more from you.

As always, would be honoured to offer lodging, dining and recreational ideas for our fine home of Singapore (and naturally, a certain Singaporean airline I'll be flying "trans-pac" for work this weekend). Our sweet city-state of SIN can have her moments.

Keep up the brilliant work, kja; always a pleasure. Warm and early weekend (and perhaps holiday) wishes to you and all from San Francisco Bay Area,

macintosh (robert)


... Singapore Girl, You're a Great Way to Fly ...
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Jul 3rd, 2014, 05:17 PM
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kja
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Hmm… I wonder if the trash I noted was because I arrived in Seoul on a holiday weekend? If the street clearners were off, that might explain the amount of litter I saw. (Although more trash receptacles would have helped!)

@ Prachuap – point taken! I hope the title of my TR lets the reader know that I thought the positives won out.

@ thursdaysd – I wasn’t particularly surprised that it was difficult to get decent wine at an affordable price; it’s just one of the (little) things earned a place on my "least liked" list. I do enjoy being able to relax with a glass of wine, or beer, at an outdoor cafe at the end of a long walk! Maybe one day I'll learn to stop looking for such opportunities when in Asia. (Of course, the day I do that will be the day it actually becomes an option, and I won't even notice! ;-) )

@ Mara – I did see some of those little tent places, and unlike you, I hadn’t known about them! All the ones I saw sold hot food (oh, the aromas were enticing!); I’m sure that beer and soju would have been available (as they were at most other places where one could eat).

Language was more of an issue in some places than others, but there were at least some people who spoke at least some English just about everywhere. And I’m always pleasantly surprised by how much can be accomplished with just a few words, particularly when people are as accomodating as I found the Koreans to be. I’ll try to be sure to note the few times where communication was on the more challenging side.

As a speaker of a language that adopted so many words from other cultures, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised when other languages adopt English terms, particularly for modern conveniences. Even so, it can catch me quite off guard, especially when the items seem so commonplace and, as you say, they are pronounced (charmingly) with accents.

@ AskOksena – Hi, Robert, and thanks again for your kind words. Towards the end of my stay, I adopted one of your recommendations – but I’m not giving anything away yet! You are just going to have to read along….
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Jul 3rd, 2014, 05:25 PM
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"The lack of a top-is-north convention for maps." I had to laugh at this one. I kept wondering why I was so lost in Tokyo until it was pointed out to me that there is no "north at the top of the map" convention in Tokyo!

Enjoying your report, kja.
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Jul 3rd, 2014, 07:54 PM
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kja
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@ Kathie – Knowing the direction of a map turns out to be useful, doesn’t it! I think it WAS Japan where I had encountered that issue before….


Thanks to all of you who are sharing this trip with me -- keep on chiming in!


Approach to Planning:

I LOVE to plan my trips, and in recent years, I have typically spent about 6 months (on evenings and weekends, as my schedule permits) doing so. This time, life intervened and I did not feel as prepared as I would have liked when I left for the airport.

Planning for Korea provided some unique challenges: There was enough information out there to let me indulge my urge to plan, but only up to a point. There was not enough information (or at least, not enough that I could find that seemed reliable) for me to have confidence in some of my plans. And in some cases, the information I had was so scanty or inconsistent that I didn’t feel I could plan at all. (Of course I know that NO plan is perfect, and I never think of a plan as being written in stone, but I do like being able to think things through in advance when I can.) Here are a few examples of the challenges I encountered:

• Planning a visit to the Gansong (aka Kansong) Art Museum. This museum, which some sources describe as the finest private collection of art in South Korea, is only open twice a year – for two weeks in May and two weeks in October. But NOTHING I did resulted in information about WHICH two weeks in May! Just before I left, I got a message from the staff of one of my hotels in Seoul saying that it would not likely be the first 2 weeks….

• Identifying certain transportation options. Example: I hoped to visit Buseoksa and believed that the best way to do so would be by taking a bus from the city of Yeongju. But the only bus information I could find suggested that there would be no way to get to the temple after 8 a.m. and no way to leave it until about 5 p.m. – options that didn’t suit me well. If nothing else, I thought, maybe I could hire a taxi for the day….

• Reserving certain reserve-able events. Example: Perhaps a month before my trip was to start, I came across an announcement that two of Seoul’s palaces – including Changgyeonggung, which was near my hotel – would be open for a rare evening visit on the night of my arrival in Seoul AND that a certain number of tickets were reserved for foreigners. Bonus! One was to call a certain number, so I did! And called. And called. And then I called other numbers – the number for the 2nd palace included in the special event (yes, the number you have is correct, we don’t know why you can’t get through… ) and a different number for the palace in question that I found on-line (yes, you are right about the tickets, but we can’t help you – please call the number you already have again….) How frustrating! I spent both more time and much more money than I would have liked talking to people who couldn’t help until the last date for making advance reservations passed. Sigh.

With lots of deep, calming breaths (and BTW, it turns out that it is helpful to take such breaths SLOWLY), I planned what I could – which was, in truth, most of my trip.

Key Resources: Here are the key resources I used:

- The following six guidebooks:
Frommer’s South Korea,
Insight Guides’ South Korea,
Michelin’s Green Guide, South Korea,
Moon Handbook’s, South Korea,
Rough Guide’s Korea, and
Seoul Selection Guide’s Korea.

The best of these was, IMO, no contest -- the Seoul Selection Guide. The bad news: It is made with high quality paper and a wealth of color photos, so it is NOT a good book for carrying along, and it was not available in Kindle or other electronic format. The book I chose to take in hardback was the one I thought second best, the Moon guide (minus all the pages I didn’t think I would need, which I tore out -- ouch! Sort of like ripping a bandage off, IMO.) I also had a copy of the Rough Guide on Kindle. BTW, I didn’t use either of two of my usuals for this trip: I read so many bad reviews of the Lonely Planet’s guide that I didn’t even look at it, and, at least when I shopped, Fodor’s didn’t have a book on Korea that I could find that was less than 10 years old.

- Answers to questions I posted here on Fodor’s, as well as answers to a few questions I posted on TripAdvisor or sent to VisitKorea.com (the web-iste of South Korea's tourism organization) or to some of the lodgings I reserved, and trip reports and other postings that I found through Fodor’s. Here’s a link to my planning thread:
http://www.fodors.com/community/asia...outh-korea.cfm

- Input from a few Korean friends and also several friends who are not Korean, but who have visited one or more parts of South Korea.

- Google maps. And

- Any and all sites I could find when googling topics about which I wished to know more.

Lodging: At this point in my life, my critera for accommodation generally include cleanliness and safety, location, en suite bath facilities, internet access (preferably free wifi), cost, and other evidence of “good” as opposed to “not so good.” I spend very little time in my lodgings – as a rule, just enough time to sleep and take care of hygiene -- so I do NOT look for high-end accommodations, nor do seek Western hotels.

- As with my other travel plans, I seek variety in my lodging: I wanted to stay in at least one hanok (a traditional Korean home, converted for guest lodging), at least one temple, at least one “love hotel” (more about them later), etc.

- I read reviews on both booking.com and tripadvisor.com (and sometimes other sites), and then reserved most of my lodging through booking.com and a few places through their own web sites.

- The only reservation I didn’t have before leaving was for Yeongju, for which I had little information. I had selected a possible hotel, but couldn’t reach it. After arriving in South Korea, I reserved it with the help of someone at a hotel I visited early in my trip.

- I post reviews of hotels on TripAdvisor (TA), and I don’t like to create the impression that two different people have said the similar things about a place, so in what follows, I will quote my TA reviews verbatim.

Language: I listened to 7 or 8 hours of Pimsleur’s Korean lessons, but I can not say that I learned to speak Korean before my trip. I found Korean to be very alien to my ears and I had a hard time with even some very basic phrases. But I did learn a few words and phrases – enough to at least try to be civil. And with the help of a few friends who are Korean, or who have Korean relatives, I learned some words that I found very particularly useful: wonderful, delicious, etc.

Currency: Someone with whom I work had recently returned from Seoul, so he sold me his leftover won – about 30,000 won – for the exchange rate listed on the internet the day we looked. Otherwise, I knew that the airport into which I would fly (Incheon) had conveniently located ATMs.


Soon to come: posts about the trip itself! I will try to provide enough of a description of places to give you a sense of what I am talking about, but I will NOT try to duplicate information you can find in a guidebook or with a simple internet search. Instead, my focus will be on MY experiences of these places in the hope that that information will provide a personal perspective on things you can easily learn elsewhere. When it seems appropriate, I will interrupt my report to share some generalizations; I will try to remember to set these notes aside by starting them with astericks.

Again – feel free to ask questions any time!


Days 0-1: Flight from DC to Seoul

I flew Korean Air, taking a direct flight from Dulles to Incheon. I was in window seat (my preference) in economy class (not my preference, but I can’t imagine it is anybody else’s, either ;-) ) Fortunately, there was no one in the seat next to me, so it was by no means the smallest space I’ve been forced to occupy. It could have been MUCH worse! I chose the Korean dishes for each of my two dinner choices, and thought them better than many intercontinental meals I’ve had. (Although I must say that the bibimbap tasted much better on the way there than the way back. I got spoiled!) With the “benefit” of a sleepless night of preparations before my midday flight, I slept through most of this 14.5 hour flight.

Once at Incheon, I easily spotted a store selling “T-Money” cards -- plastic cards the size of a credit card that one can use to pay for subway and other transit options within Seoul and some other parts of Korea, with greater savings and convenience than using hard currency for each trip. I was surprised that it seemed difficult to buy this card, until I realized that my coworker had inadvertently sold me some Phillipine currency. Yes, that would make the transaction more complicated! Once I offerred Korean currency, purchasing and charging the T-Money Card were very easy.

I then stopped at an ATM and went to an easily located Tourist Information (TI) desk, where I got a map, confirmed the directions to my lodging, and headed to the departure point for my bus. It arrived soon, and the driver stowed my luggage in an external side compartment. ( I love external luggage compartments!)

During my hour-plus-long bus ride, I looked out over the broad mud flats (I think that’s what they were) of the vast tidal basin near Incheon. Soon, the bus reached the outskirts of Seoul, with its many clusters of highrise apartment buildings – cluster after cluster after cluster, each building maybe 20- or 25-stories tall, mostly in the same shade of eggshell white, rising in tiers, one after the other, into and in front of the surrounding tree-covered hills. This was my first exposure to Korea’s hills, which I came to think of as dragon-backed ridges – they extend across the horizon with so many ups and downs that the ridges seem broken; ridges that ran parallel to one another, one behind the next, fading into bluer and bluer shades until they disappear into the distance. For me, this image of clusters of high-rise apartment buildings creeping up the lower reaches of multiple dragon-backed ridges will remain one of my iconic images of Seoul, and, absent the high-rises, an iconic (and lovely) image of much of what I saw of South Korea.

It was easy to find my stop: Shortly after a recorded voice announcement (as I was to learn, many announcements on public transportation in Seoul were in Korean, Mandarin, Japanese, and English), the bus driver signaled to me that we had reached my destination. I stepped off and he gave me my luggage.
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Jul 3rd, 2014, 09:17 PM
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Great stuff - looking forward to more.

BTW, do you live in DC? If so, would you be interested in a mini-GTG the first weekend in August?
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Jul 4th, 2014, 02:10 AM
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kja
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Thanks, thursdaysd!

I do live in the DC area and expect be in town the first weekend in August, but there is a small chance that I might have to be elsewhere that week. I would be delighted to meet you – thank you so much for suggesting it! I think we have a mutual friend out on the west coast; I’ll give him permission to share my contact info with you. Or feel free to suggest another way to connect!
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Jul 4th, 2014, 06:48 AM
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Cool! The safest would be to leave a comment at http://mytimetotravel.wordpress.com/ - you haven't commented before (I think?) so it won't post to the blog, but it will give me your email address.
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Jul 4th, 2014, 07:01 AM
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This is great kja. Funnily enough I was in Seoul in May too, though only for a few days. Loved it. Very interested to see what happens next.
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Jul 4th, 2014, 07:49 PM
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kja
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@ thursdaysd – You need to help a luddite! When I tried to click on your “comments” link, my computer (a Mac) told me that I don’t have an app that will let me do that. So, what do I need? I have a Mac and an iPad; no smart phone.

@ gertie – I wonder how often our paths crossed in Seoul? I’ll look forward to hearing your perspectives on the things I saw.

@ Mara -- next to last paragraph of this post.


Day 1, continued: Seoul

I got of the bus, as directed, at the Changdeokgung stop, began following the directions provided by my lodging, and thought to myself: “This can’t be right – it’s too close!” But it was correct -- bonus! I turned the corner across from the impressive main gate to Changdeokgung – one of Seoul’s palaces – and then walked through a short block of multistory structures with storefronts. In just minutes, I reached my lodging.

HOTEL: Hostel Korea 11th: Changdeokgung. Here’s the review I posted on TripAdvisor:

“I spent 5 nights in a double for single use at the Hostel Korea 11th: Chandeokgung . For my purposes, the location was superb: I was within easy walking distance of 3 different subway lines and multiple sites of interest to me. 



I found this hostel to be quite serviceable and pleasant. There is a small area with a cheerfully utilitarian décor that serves as the breakfast room and is available 24/7. There’s also a roof deck with some nice views of the mountains to Seoul’s north and a self-service laundry area, too.

My corner room offered nice views; was spotlessly clean; and was simply, but comfortably, furnished. It had a minifrig, electric kettle, free wifi, flat screen TV, and computer. The bathroom was a wet room with sufficient counter space and just enough rack-space to suit my needs. 



Breakfast was also serviceable: Hardboiled eggs; steamed sweet potato slices; bread that you could toast in one of two 2-slice toasters and top with jam (my one recommendation for the hostel: get a few more toasters!); bananas; a delicious yogurt drink; cereal; and (unfortunately) truly lousy coffee. 



The staff of the Hostel Korea 11th deserve special commendation. They spoke English well, responded promptly to numerous questions I sent in advance of my trip, and provided patient and constructive answers to the many questions I asked during my stay. 



To be absolutely clear: The Hostel Korea 11th provides utilitarian accommodation. If you want luxury, you are looking at the wrong place! But if you want to stay in this part of Seoul in a place that is clean, pleasant, serviceable, and staffed with people who will go out of their way to help you, then the Hostel Korea 11th is well worth considering. I am very glad I chose to stay there.”

*** Accomodations in South Korea: There were several things that I found common to all the places I stayed during my trip, with the exception of my templestay (which was an entirely different beast). These commonalities could have resulted from my strategy for selecting accommodations, rather than from common Korean norms, but for what it’s worth, here’s what I observed:

- Payment in full was expected in advance.
- One is expected to take one’s shoes upon entering one’s room. Separate pairs of slip-on sandals are provided for the bedroom and the bathroom.
- If there is a bed (and you should be able to tell in advance whether you are reserving a Western room – with a bed – or not), then the bed will be on the firm side (I’ve slept on firmer). Whether in a Western room or not, you will likely find a lightweight comforter, but not a top sheet. (Hotels geared to Westerners may have them; I don’t know!)
- I was generally given 3 hand towels and 1 bath towel.
- Many bathrooms were “wet” – the room is designed with no expectation that a shower curtain or shower wall or anything else will contain the water from a shower. Instead, there is a drain in the bathroom floor into which the water will flow. Most such rooms are designed with more than enough spray-free space, but do consider the placement of towels, robes, toiletries, etc., before taking a shower!
- Bathroom counter space was often quite limited.
- All rooms in which I stayed had functioning sink stoppers.
- My electrical adaptors fitted too loosely to function properly in any of the rooms in which I stayed. With one exception, all of my accommodations had adaptors that I could borrow.
- Most of my rooms used the door’s key card to control electrical current, so one could not charge electrical appliances after leaving.
- As I recall, all the rooms I stayed in had a wide-screen TV, a computer, a mini-frig stocked with water, a hair dryer, and at least a core selection of toiletries – soap, body wash, shampoo, conditioner, a toothbrush, and toothpaste. Many rooms had other amenities, such as electric kettles, packets of tea, robes, etc. Rooms in “love hotels” also had a tray with various lotions and creams.
- With one exception, none of my rooms had more than 3 hangers.


Back to my first night in Seoul: I checked into my hotel, freshened up, and decided that I had enough energy to spend a couple of hours exploring Seoul. You might recall that I had been unable to reserve a night visit to Changgyeonggung. But there I was in Seoul, only a 15-minute walk from the palace, in need of a stretch of legs after a 14.5-hour flight and an hour-long bus ride thereafter, and really, what did I have to lose? The worst they could do was say no! So off I set, and YES! WooHoo! They let me in! As I knew by the time I got there, I had at most just over an hour before closing, but it’s a small palace.

Changgyeonggung. Changgyeonggung may not be the largest or most noteworthy of Seoul’s palaces, but seeing it after dark on the first night of a visit to South Korea gave it a special aura. As I stepped through the gate and faced the little arched bridge, with its guadian statues, over the stream that marked the inner/outer border, I thought: ah, yes, I am back in the Orient!

The grounds were lit specially for this night-time event, with tasseled red and blue silk lantern screens hung over the lights that mark its pathways and green or yellow lights provided back-lighting to the major sites. Most palaces and residences and pavillions were lit so that one could see both exteriors and interiors. The area by a pavillion overlooking the palace’s stone pagoda and the area by a man-made pool near the king’s residence seemed especially lovely to me in the dim light. There were a number of people about, but everyone spoke in hushed tones and the atmosphere was wonderfully quiet and evocative.

As I was walking in the area near the king’s and queen’s residences, a guard signaled to me, and despite her limited English, indicated that I should go to the palace’s pond before the palace closed for the night. And so off to the pond I went, and I am so grateful for her timely notice! Here, too, lighting was used to great effect, and the reflections in the still waters of the pond were absolutely lovely! All too soon I heard the announcement for closing, an announcement that was made in several languages, including English.

It was a beautiful evening, and very comfortable, and OMG, what a wonderfully unexpected introduction to South Korea!

I returned to the area near my hotel, walked around a bit to get a sense of the neighborhood, and then returned to my hotel. I checked my e-mail, and found a surprise, which requires a bit of a back-story.

I knew well in advance of my trip that May 4 would be the day of the Jongmyo Daeje (aka Jongmyo Jerye), a centuries-old celebration of the kings and queens of the Joseon dynasty. The shrine in which this ceremony is held – Jongmyo – is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS), and the ceremony itself has been designated a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The ceremony was another event for which a number of (free) tickets for non-Koreans had been set aside. I had applied well in advance of my trip, but apparently not soon enough – days before my departure, I got word that my application had been denied. But when I returned to my hotel that night and checked my e-mail, OMG, I had been awarded a ticket after all!

I fell asleep with the feeling that South Korea had opened its arms to me.


Day 2: Seoul

Bukchon. Bukchon is a small district within Seoul that is “preserved to show a 600-year-old urban environment traditional village … composed of lots of alleys [and] hanok …” . While that may well be true, that description does not fully capture my experience: In my 2-hour-plus walk of the area, I saw a lot of tourists posing before a few stretches of traditional hanok walls. I saw a lot of places where it was possible to imagine that hanoks were hidden behind walls. I saw a lot of electrical wiring and unadorned cement walls. I saw a place where one could look out over much newer sections of the city. With effort, I found “the” place where one could look out over a Joseon-era palace – if one climbed up on a bench and craned one’s neck…

If you are getting the sense that I thought Bukchon over-hyped, you would not be mistaken. I didn’t find my time in the area unpleasant – it was just not what I had expected. I thoroughly enjoyed a few places: the garden of the Constitutional Court; a set of wisteria-draped arbors edging a library’s courtyard, etc…. (But those aren’t the essence of Bukchon, are they???)

There was one place, though, up a small inconspicuous street that was sided by a fence, from which one could see, descending a slope, a series of slate-colored tile roofs, each with its ever-so-slightly upturned corners, each giving texture and shading to the view, each making me smile. THAT was worth seeing!

I stopped for a latte and then headed for Jongmyo. As I understood it, there was to be a parade leading up to the Jongmyo Daeje, and it was to proceed along a route that I could easily reach from Bukchon. My plan was to walk along the parade route until I reached Jongmyo. I was a bit later than I had planned, but only by 15 or 20 minutes, and there was no sign that there had been, or would be, a parade along any of the very busy streets involved. After a relatively long, rapid walk in more humid and hotter conditions than I would have preferred, I came to the main entrance to Jongmyo – only to see signs directing me elsewhere because of a construction project.

I bought more water and followed the directions and FINALLY found the entrance. There, I learned that the parade had been cancelled because of the tragic ferry disaster that had taken place about a month before. Fully understandable!

People at the gate were handing out sunvisors made of two flat pieces, one that wrapped around one’s head and the other that clipped into it to shade one’s face and eyes. Perfect!

Jongmyo. The entry into the shrine provided a surprisingly clear demarcation between the hustle/bustle of city life and quietude. I had been on a street that was filled with vendors and relatively raucous crowds, and as soon as I stepped through Jongmyo’s gate, I felt the peacefulness of a sanctuary. I had only about a half-hour to visit the grounds of Jongmyo before positioning myself for the ceremony. Despite the crowds, my impression was that this was a very deeply respected space, and one that was intended to foster contemplation (as a pond near the entry did) or to quietly inspire (as the elegant lines of each building did).

Jongmyo Daeje (aka Jongmyo Jerye). From what I had read in advance, my understanding was that this ritual takes 6 hours all together, and includes 3 phases that are open to the public: the parade, a 2-hour ceremony that would be accessible to the public and would start at 1 p.m.; and another ceremony open to those with tickets from 4:30 to 7:00 p.m.

The doors to the main shrine were opened at about 12:30, and I joined the masses as we entered and jockeyed for position. The shrine used for this part of the ritual is exceptionally long; I thought it had an incredibly simple elegance. The long side facing the courtyard is divided into multiple “bays” defined by supporting columns, and each “bay” held a table and various sacred objects. Most of the courtyard was actually a huge paved “platform” raised about 4 feet above the surrounding edges; there are several bridges connecting this raised area to the shrine. I was lucky enough to find a position leaning forward against the wall of this platform.

The vast platform had been covered, in parts, by woven mats, which demarked the places in which partipants (celebrants? I’m not sure how to refer to them) would later stand. An occasional gust of wind (thank goodness the air moved once in a while! -- it was very hot that day, ) tossed the mats hither and fro. There were two or three men in costume who ran about repositioning the many mats. (I kept thinking: Have you never heard of rocks or other weights?) Each time the men returned to their positions, the wind would hurl the mats around again….

Soon, costumed men began stepping onto the paved platform against which I was leaning. They were in Joseon-era costumes for civil officers and they seemed to take great pride in being precise in their steps and other movements. The costumes seemed generally similar, but there were some differences that would have signalled rank – whether one’s shoes were white or white with black details; whether one’s belt was “jade” only or had some other stones, etc.

Once everyone was in position, there was a row of men – maybe 10 wide – who were standing on the platform just a few feet in front of me; this was the last row of perhaps a dozen rows of men. Then a woman came along the platform edge, on the level where I was (not on the platform itself) and adjusted each man’s custom: There were knots that she re-tied and garments that she straigtened and socks that she re-positioned. She was VERY particular. And each time she started her work on the next man in line, it was interesting to see the startled reaction on his face, even as he stayed as still as he could.

And then began about 2 hours of … I wasn’t exactly sure. I had looked at on-line images of the ceremonies before leaving for Korea, but they all showed what was happening within the shrine, and from where I was standing, I could barely see into a few of the bays. Over the course of the next 2 hours, the rows of men filed to the center of the platform, and then into the shrine, and then back into place. I could hear the occasional sounds of bells and drums and gongs. I could see that someone in a special headdress (I assume the man protraying the king) was carried by palenquin into the area and then escorted by foot, to and from, a central point. And I could see, within the barely visible shadows of the shrine, various people moving around the tables in the shrine’s bay, offering wine or foods or whatever in highly ritualized movements.

And then, once everyone was back in place (with lots of running around to again secure the mats), it was over. And only then did I see any of those many men who took part smile -- which they did broadly as their children leapt onto the platform and into their arms or as other family members and friends came up and greeted them. I have no idea whether anyone on that platform believed in the power of the rituals that he reanacted, but I am convinced that those men believed in the importance of preserving those rituals.

After 2+ hours of standing in the sun (thank goodness for that visor!), I was ready to go.

I left the shrine and found a coffee shop, where I eventually got a much-needed cup of coffee. (Did anyone think that heating water IN ADVANCE of an order might be worth considering if your business is running a coffee shop? Of course that thought remained unspoken….) Much as I wanted a second cup, there was no time before the next part of the Daeje, the part for which I had been given a last-minute seat.

As instructed in the e-mail that notified me that I had been granted one of the free seats for this event, I went to the entrance to the shrine and found a table at which I could check in. The volunteers who manned this desk were very helpful and very gracious. I was given my ticket, a brochure, little booklet that I could use to obtain and record stamps from all the UNESCO WHSs I visited while in Korea, and a little emergency rain parka. I was offered a sun-visor (which I declined, since I already had one) and an English-language audio of the ceremony, which I declined (with regret) because I had a reservation subsequent to this one and didn’t think I would have time to stand in line to return it and retrieve my ID.

***English-speaking Korean volunteers. I benefited enormously from the many, many English-speaking Koreans who volunteered as docents or at tourist information offices or who staffed special events, such as this one. I didn’t realize until well in my trip that these people are often (generally? always?) volunteers. And every one seemed to take great pride in the things they were able to share with, and make accessible to, foreigners – their efforts seemed to me to be genuine labors of love. How awesome!

I also learned that this part of the ritual would actually be the SAME as that which I had observed earlier; the only difference is the availability of seating at this version. Oops!

This ceremony was held in a different building than the earlier one, and if not quite so long or quite so elegant, it nonetheless had a similarly pleasing simplicity of lines. My seat offered a view of not only the “civil officers” (those whose backs I had seen earlier), but also a distant view of musicians and dancers. And there were two HUGE video screens beside the visitors’ seats, so I could see what was happening INSIDE the shrine, not to mention the camera’s views of the dancers and musicians and the civilian officers and the costume of the man brought in on a palenquin and a man and woman (each in a beautiful robe) who were narrating the event.

As I suspected from my earlier experience, the ritual is solemn and slowly paced and a bit (OK – quite decidedly!) ponderous.

Then … was that a raindrop? Another? People began rushing out. It’s just a few raindrops! I put my emergency parka on. Event staff began moving easily assembled tents onto the shrine’s courtyard to protect the musical instruments. The ritual participants stayed in place. More frequent raindrops. More people dashed for the exit. Volunteers came out and distributed sturdier parkas. Rain began to come down harder. Even more attendees ran out. Event staff began moving more tents onto the courtyard. And then, as the rain came in full force, even the most stalwart of the ritual participants ran for the exits. And, with the last of the die-hard, I did, too, perhaps a half-hour short of the time it would take for completion of the full ritual.

Had I known, in advance, that I would see the “same” thing at both times, I can’t imagine that I would have tried to attend both. But what a precious stroke of fortune it was to have attended both segments, given the different experiences they afforded me. And, thanks to the rain, I didn’t sit through the ENTIRE event a full second time. ;-)

Despite the downpour, I took my time walking to the exit gate. Most of the grounds were blocked off, but I still appreciated seeing the green refuge that this shrine provided in the midst of one of the most densely populated cities in the world. And IMO, if a pond is pretty in good weather, it’s worth seeing when raindrops pock its surface.

Nanta (a play/comedy/musical). It was very easy to find my way to the Myeongdong NANTA Theater: I took a bus to the very, very busy Lotte Department Store, and then walked a few blocks. I had reserved in advance (while still at home) and I arrvived in plenty of time to claim my ticket.

OMG, this play was such fun! It has energy and athleticism and musicality and martial arts and Latin dance and humor that ranged from corny to witty and it engages that audience wonderfully and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Myeongdong district. I’m not a shopper, so my goals for walking through this notorious shopping district were to get to/from the theater and to get something to eat. I had, in advance, identified a nearby restaurant that I thought I might enjoy that would still be open after Nanta ended. But I hadn’t understood Seoul’s method of assigning addresses, and so never found the restaurant.

***Street addresses: In Seoul, and many other parts of Korea, the thing I understood to be the “street” name when I looked at an address might not refer to a street, but rather to a district. As a result, multiple parallel AND perpendicular streets have the same "name". Street signs generally give the “district” name and often indicate which building numbers would be found in a particular block – or at least that’s what I came to believe.

There were a lot of food stands in the area. I rarely partake of street food because I prefer to sit down and relax over a meal. But it was late, the foods smelled wonderful, and I could watch the food being cooked (which I think is important when eating street food). Soon I had a delicious serving of a lightly coated, deep-fried, sandwich-like thing of minced shrimp and crab and vegetables. SO good! A bit later, I also had some nicely seasoned potato crisps. To this day, I don’t know how the local vendors turned slices of potato into such tasty coils!

Cheonggyecheon Stream. The Cheonggyecheon Stream is a revitalized waterway through the core of Seoul. There was an entrance just a few blocks from Myeongdong.

Near the start of my walk, a part of the stream had been strung with lanterns in advance of Buddha’s Birthday: Lovely! Other parts were more subdued. The stream was lined with young trees, and burgeoning shrubs, and reeds…. I’d love to see this urban park once the vegetation matures! There were stepping stones to cross the stream every so often, and places to sit, and a few places where walls were decorated with tiles that depicted key events from Korean history. Through most of what I saw, they stream flowed steadily, with just a bit of speed, through a slight downhill course, but there was at least one point when it flowed at a noticably rapid pace, and at least one place where it flowed over enough rock for me to consider it a small waterfall. A few others were out enjoying the evening, strolling or sitting.

What a great urban walkway!

As I walked toward my hotel, I passed a few street-side eateries, but not food trucks or carts – small, tented, street-side eateries. (Mara – these are the ones!) From what I could see, some tents --- the larger ones – had space for the cooking area and maybe as many as 12 or even 16 diners (I’m guessing); other tents seemed to have space for even fewer patrons. Each had a small central area where someone was cooking, and tables to either side, all under a single tent, and all with lots of lively conversation and comraderie. Although I didn’t eat in any, the aromas were enticing and the concept intrigued me.

I also passed a closed fish restaurant, where I learned something else about Korea: Many fish restaurants are fronted by tiers of large fish tanks, from which people select their meal.
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Jul 4th, 2014, 08:26 PM
  #17
 
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Wow, that is a very busy first day! I was starting to suffer from starvation just reading it.

Great that you were able to do the evening visit, it sounds magical.

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Jul 4th, 2014, 08:51 PM
  #18
 
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kja...lol....those tents sound like what I see in the dramas.

Great first day! The room sounds similar to a budget Japanese, e.g. Toyoko Inn, room except the Japanese bathroom always has a deep tub, right? Yes, three hangers is about it. ;-)

You are tempting me to visit Seoul. I am thinking to take a quick trip - maybe 3 nights - if I can get a cheap fare from Japan next spring.

Looking forward to more - even places I don't plan to visit - oh, and Jeju Island is also often visited in dramas......

Don't mind me - I am a kdrama addict....lol....I've seen many historical dramas as well and would love to see them dressed in those costumes at a palace.

Thanks so much for sharing.
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Jul 4th, 2014, 08:54 PM
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kja - I meant to ask - how is the smoking situation in Korea? Are there non-smoking rooms in the hotels you stayed at? What about restaurants? I found that to be an issue in Japan. Still most restaurants there allow smoking or have no real partition between smoking and non-smoking areas.....
Then again maybe you are a smoker or that isn't an issue for you...;-)
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Jul 5th, 2014, 11:42 AM
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kja, have read your stuff with great interest. I was in Seoul for just the last week of May, so we might have crossed in the street at the end of your trip!

While I was there I had a day in Gyeongbokgung, lovely, fairly quiet round the back and off the main drag!

Then another in Bukchon, which was a different story altogether... crowds and crowds of high school kids on school trips, the narrow streets very noisy and packed with people. Like you I found the English-speaking Volunteeers wonderful, so helpful and always smiling while answering my questions. One of them even advised me not to try to climb all the steps (I suspect due to my advanced age though she didn't exactly say that! I didn't take her suggestion either.) I walked back along Insadong picking up bits and pieces to take back for friends (I'm not a shopper in any way).

Another day I started in Unhyeongung which was almost deserted and suited me fine. Then across to Changeokgung and Changgyeonggung where I spent all day. Fantastic, especially the Secret Garden... hope you got there. You have to go on a tour to that bit but the group got so big, around 80 people, that it was quite easy to get lost and avoid them all!!

One thing I failed spectacularly in was a visit to Jongmyo. I found it with no problem and read all about it, only to stand outside and read that it was it closed Monday and Tuesday which were the only days I had left. So it is great to read about what I missed and it is always there for next time.

Another thing I did was to walk along Myeongdong to the elevator and cable-car up Namsan for great evening views. And more crowds.

I am sure I will read a lot more interesting stuff about your travels in the next part of your trip. I have also been to the DMZ, Pusan and Kojedo island but it was all in the early 80s. So I'm looking forward to your report telling me how much things have changed.
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