|Photo by Freeimages.com/David Hart|
The Daily Telegraph, February 26, 2016
It is hard to know what to make of South Korea; few are aware of what a modern and fascinating country it is. Often overshadowed by the histrionics of its sibling to the north, it has astounded economists with its rags-to-riches transformation.
The Korean peninsula was divided in 1945, after the Second World War; by the early 1960s, the southern side had a per capita GDP far less than that of its socialist sister, and a primitive standard of living. Since then, however, through hard work and some serious creative planning, South Korea has become a cultural superpower and the world’s 13th-largest economy.
It is perhaps the only country where you will notice a remarkable physical difference between each generation: the elders come in at around 5ft, hunched over from years of manual labour; there is a middle generation of hard-working but well-groomed conservatives about six inches taller; and the well-nourished youngsters often top 6ft.
You might think the younger citizens would be arrogant about the country’s achievements, but they are not. Though deeply patriotic, they are still fascinated by the Western world; expect to be wedged between Grandma and the new baby for a family snap, drawn into broken-English conversations on the subway, and greeted with a shy but welcoming smile wherever you go.
While women often rule the roost at home, sexism is still largely accepted in Korean society: it is improper for women to smoke in public, and men and women rarely shake hands. But there are some benefits: at select Lotte department stores there is a separate level for women-only parking, with large bumpers in front of the wall. So helpful.
Seoul fosters all kinds of quaint traditions. A new couple, for example, is not taken seriously until observed wearing full matching outfits; your dog can’t be seen outside until it has dyed-pink ears and booties; a night out is not complete without disco bowling; and it is not unheard of to have your fried chicken served in a (clean) urinal at a toilet-themed restaurant.
This is a culture full of fascinating contradictions; the remnants of Confucianism have teamed up with rampant consumerism to form a slightly confused society. There remains a strong hierarchical respect among the population (grammar changes when you address elders, and some seats on the subway are strictly reserved for the elderly), yet the streets are kept clean by destitute old people without family support, who cart waste and recycling to centres and get paid a pittance. (Thankfully, a welfare state is now emerging, and it looks as though this imbalance will slowly be corrected.)
One of South Korea's five historic royal palaces in Seoul
Most people in Seoul visit nude bathhouses regularly, yet frown upon uncovered shoulders in public; conservative parents are as obsessed with plastic surgery for their children as they are with academic achievement; and South Korea’s population consumes twice as much liquor as Russia’s, yet crime and drug abuse are rare.
As a place to travel around, whether as a family, as a couple or alone, it is incredibly easy. The subway is spotless and cheap, with air con and English signs – not to mention the immaculate (free) toilets in every station. You can charge your phone everywhere and access free Wi-Fi across the city (the whole country is connected to superfast 4G), and taxis are plentiful and cost next to nothing – a driver once asked me to pose for a selfie with him as payment for our 30-minute journey (people love photographing foreigners).
Even the airport has a public bathhouse, an ice rink, a golf course and two cinemas. Yet there is a strong traditional side to Seoul, which throws light on its troubled past. There are fantastic museums and lovely walks to be taken along the old city walls, as well as beautiful palaces, temples and theatre and dance performances.
During the hot, humid summers, outdoor public swimming pools open across the city; autumn brings magical colours and is a perfect time for hiking; winter is cold, but there are ice festivals, skiing and even ice-fishing; spring is for picnics in the park under falling cherry blossoms.
At weekends, the national past-time, hiking, comes into its own. Half the city dons neon nylon and heads for the hills – Seoul has 37 mountains and thousands of trails. The city itself holds an infinite number of surprises, which I still hadn’t got used to after 18 months of living there.
Seoraksan National Park, SeoulCredit: Fotolia/AP
It is hard to ignore the Korean obsession with physical perfection. There is a beauty shop on every corner, it costs £2 to get freckles removed, and a common 16th-birthday present for Korean girls is a nose job and double eyelid surgery (to make eyes look bigger – it’s alarming, but this is a narcissistic city). You will be entertained on the subway by a lot of selfie-taking and photo-editing. And it’s not just the women: apparently Korean men use more cosmetics than the rest of the world’s male population put together.
Don’t be alarmed if you age fast in Korea – it’s only a number. When you are born, you are considered to be one year old. And everyone becomes another year older on January 1. So if you are born on December 28, after four days you are already two.
Every subway station is a fashion mall, and there are entire districts devoted to shopping. Most are open until 11pm, and some all through the night. Head to Dongdaemun for day and night markets, Myeongdong for brands, Hongdae for eccentricity and Sinsa for the latest trends.
Aerial veiw of Seoul
Learn ‘Konglish’, a strange mix of Korean and English that almost gets it right, and then totally misses. Look out for notepads proclaiming the power of though, 60-year-olds wearing T-shirts that say motherf—ing gangster and chart-toppers with lyrics such as ‘Sexy, free and single, I’m ready to go bingo’.
NAVIGATING THE CITY
Insadong: traditional and cultural (Anguk subway station, Line 3)
Visit the stunning palaces of Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung (pre-book the secret gardens) for Korean architecture and magnificent, colourful paintwork.
Walk the cobbled streets to the north of Anguk station to see traditional houses with majestic roofs, and drop into one of the many cafes and boutiques.
Stroll along the main Insadong-gil street, south of Anguk station, to find souvenirs, art galleries and myriad street performances.
The MMCA is a brilliant multi-floor museum of modern and contemporary art that showcases national and international work.
Cheonggyecheon Stream: eclectic and creative (runs alongside Line 1, from Jonggak to Sinseol-dong)
Take a stroll alongside this 3.6-mile stream to escape the inner-city mania. Once you are revived, there are some great stations along Line 1 to explore for antiques, shopping and art-related fun.
Cheonggyecheon StreamCredit: Fotolia/AP
Jongno-5, Exit 7 leads you to the bustling Gwangjang Market, which sells local food and fabrics. The real gem is the hidden second-hand clothes market on the second floor. More than 500 stalls are crammed with extraordinary vintage wares, from 1950s frocks to Burberry trenches.
Dongdaemun, Exit 8 or 9 leads you to the Dongdaemun fabric and craft market, a mesmerising five-storey building that is an homage to craft – wool, jewellery, charms and much more. Walk towards the silver building that resembles a spaceship (DDP – Dongdaemun History & Culture Park), which hosts everything from a parade of toy Pikachus to the latest modern-art exhibitions.
Sinseol-dong, Exit 9 is the home of Seoul’s largest folk flea market, a fantastic street market and antiques warehouse that houses just about everything from taxidermy tortoises to old postboxes, furniture, furs, lectronics and jewellery.
Sinsa: sophisticated and glamorous (Sinsa subway station, Line 3)
If you are after something more relaxed and expensive, walk to Garosu-gil, a boulevard of cafes and boutiques with some inspired shop windows. Come here for late-night shopping and drinking.
Further up you will reach Apgujeong and Gangnam, otherwise known as the ‘self-improvement quarter’. Transformation posters line the subway stations, and moulds of noses cover shop walls. If you can face it, find out more at the BK Plastic Surgery Museum, which offers an interactive experience: touch samples, watch videos and even schedule an impromptu consultation if you so desire.
Hongdae: young and funky (Hongik University subway station, Line 2)
To penetrate the eccentric heart of Seoul, head to Hongdae, the student area. It is home to bizarre fashion, buskers and dancers performing to crowds of cameras, vibrant street art and the hottest live music, bars and clubs.
A street in HongdaeCredit: Getty Images
From Hongik University station (Exit 9), meander to Hapjeong station for boutiques, cafes and people watching. Pop into a photo-sticker booth for some holiday snaps and have fun with the dressing-up box and editing tools, which can widen eyes, create dimples and add blush.
To see Hongdae’s full potential, you have to go at night. Follow the crowds to the ‘Children’s Playground’, which is a handicrafts market by day and a gathering of DJs and dancers by night. There is a monthly outdoor silent disco, and I have even seen an extravagant wedding proposal here. The local spirit soju is cheaper than water in 24-hour convenience stores, so a night out will damage your brain but not your wallet.
Don’t forget to include a trip to a noraebang (karaoke bar). People are fanatical about karaoke in Korea, and you will get a private booth with drinks, snacks and a catalogue of possibilities. The bars are easy to spot by their flashing disco lights and the sound of Korean ballads wailing out from within.
Regular bowling is boring for Koreans. Try the disco version with glowing bowling balls, neon lights and pumping music at Tae Wha Bowling Center, which is open until 4am.
WHERE TO RELAX
If Seoul has worn out your soles, there are plenty of places to recharge your batteries.
This is said to be the city with the most coffee shops in the world, so there will be one to suit you.
Missing your pets? Head for some furry therapy at one of Korea’s many animal-themed cafes – filled with dogs, cats, and even sheep in pens.
A dog-themed cafe in SeoulCredit: Getty
Look out for a red neon heatwave sign and visit a jjimjilbang, a 24-hour, gender-segregated naked bathhouse with hot and cold pools, saunas, steam rooms and massage rooms, all for £4 to £10. Don’t be shy – the Koreans aren’t, and they don’t go in for waxing (apparently the hairier you are, the more fertile your body). You can bathe here for as long as you want, or relax in pyjamas in the unisex central cafe or snoozing rooms. For the ultimate plunge, go to Dragon Hill (near Yongsan station) for arcades, salt rooms, ice rooms and an outdoor heated pool.
WHAT TO EAT
Koreans love food, and thanks to the cheap options here, they eat out often. Ordering can be confusing for foreigners, but just choose blindly – you will most likely find whatever you get delicious. There is usually a grill or a wok for meat, and countless small dishes of unfamiliar sides and soups.
Bear in mind that the oldest person at the table will traditionally pick up the bill; tipping is not the norm.
Below are some popular dishes, and don’t forget to try the ubiquitous side of kimchi (pickled cabbage), which I was told not only has anti-ageing powers but saved Koreans from the recent bird-flu epidemic.
If Korean menus are too daunting, you can head to Itaewon, the westernised district where international restaurants and bars cater for more timid taste buds.
Gwangjang Market Known as Seoul’s largest food alley, this is a great place to sample Korean dishes. Look out for bindaetteok (mung-bean pancake), haemul pajeon (seafood pancake), bibimbap (mixed rice with vegetables) and japchae (sweet-potato noodles).
Barbecue – galbi (beef) and samgyeopsal (pork). Korean barbecue is by far the most popular dish and found on nearly every street. Pop the freshly grilled meat in a lettuce leaf with spicy sauces and experiment with different sides.
Gwangjang Market in SeoulCredit: Getty
Soups and stews Hangover stew (beef broth and vegetables) and soondubu jjigae (spicy tofu stew) are two local favourites.
Wok Dakgalbi (spicy chicken and vegetables) is more reminiscent of Western cuisine, but ask for ‘little spicy’ if you want to keep your tongue intact.
Noodles Jjajangmyeon (noodles in black-soybean sauce) and naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodles with veg) are staples and very cheap.
Get adventurous Makchang (cow rectum), gopchang (intestines), jokbal (pig’s trotters) – Koreans still have the taste buds of a destitute people ready to eat anything, and if you are brave enough then you may do the same. With inviting sauces and sides, these dishes aren’t as bad as you might think.
Street food here is safe to eat. Don’t miss gimbap (Korean-style sushi), twigim (fried prawns, eggs and veg), hotteok (crispy pancake filled with syrup, cinnamon and seeds) and boong-uh-ppang (doughnut with red-bean filing).
Korean kimchee stew in a hot stone bowlCredit: Fotolia/AP
Drinks Korea has a hefty drinking culture, so opt for soju and makgeolli (rice wine) with your food to really fit in. It is customary never to pour your own drink – whoever you are with should pour it for you.
WHERE TO STAY
There are a variety of ways to sleep in Korea, from glitzy to truly ‘local’. Staff in the more ‘local’ places are unlikely to speak English.
Boutique The W Seoul Walkerhill, situated at the foot of a mountain, is particularly stylish, and was the first W hotel to open in Asia. Similarly luxurious accommodation options can be found at boutiquehotels-seoul.com.
Themed Fancy sleeping in a prison? Or a SpongeBob love nest? In a safari Jeep? There are plenty of possibilities. Most are a couple of hours outside the city, but if you like something a bit different then it may be worth the trip. Visit lamangpen.com and cozythemeg.com – unfortunately they are in Korean, but you can use your browser’s translating service for enough Konglish to get by.
Love motels With couples not living together until they are married, love motels are everywhere. They are difficult to book in advance, so just look for the brightly coloured buildings with neon signs and flashing hearts. You can rent by the hour or by the night, and often it is only a discreet hand through a gap that hands you your receipt and key.
Traditional Swap the chair for the floor, and the bed for a mat. In a traditional Korean hotel, called a pension, you sleep on heated floors and hard pillows. It’s not as uncomfortable as it sounds, but I suggest avoiding it if you have a temperamental back. Most pensions don’t have websites, so ask around and show up without a reservation.
If you would like to see life outside the city, a 90-minute subway ride will take you to green mountains and rivers.
Namiseom is a pretty and peaceful wooded island, perfect for bike rides, ostrich viewing and swimming in the summer. You can experience the ultimate James Bond entrance by zip-lining on to the island. Get there by shuttle bus from Seoul (70 to 90 minutes) or take the subway to Gapyeong station (90 minutes) and a short taxi ride.
Beaches are at Muuido and Deokjeokdo. Koreans avoid bikinis to protect their pale skin, often changing into full wet gear, but don’t let that stop you. At Muuido, you can camp on Hanagae beach or rent a basic hut, and enjoy swimming while the tide is high. At Deokjeokdo, you can camp or stay at a cheap island pension.
CWT water park is ideal for families with children. Take the subway to Gapyeong station and a short taxi ride to try an obstacle park on water, jet-ski rides and waterskiing.
If you are feeling intrepid, take a day trip to the border between North and South Korea. See the infiltration tunnels and step on North Korean soil in the conference room. You can buy a souvenir of a section of barbed wire from the gift shop if you so wish. It is easiest to go with an agency such as DMZ Tours (dmztours.com).
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