Heart and Seoul
We said a bittersweet goodbye to Japan, and moved on to our first “new” country, one neither of us had been to before - South Korea. We got together with a friend in Seoul, Brian, who Peter met while they were getting their CELTA certificates in Chicago. Brian had a week to kill before going to teach in Vietnam for a few months, so a while back he called us and asked us where we’d be in September, to which we replied, “I don’t know… Korea maybe?” He replied “K see you there”, and so we did.
The first thing we did the night after arriving was seek out a good hike, Korea is roughly 70% mountains, so we knew it wouldn’t be difficult. We decided to go to Bukhansan, a collection of mountain peaks in the northern periphery of Seoul. It was a beautiful day, hot and sunny, and we were feeling adventurous - so rather than hike any of the marked trails on the map, we followed signs for one that was, quite literally, off the beaten path. It was angled and rocky, one of those trails where you have to use your hands to steady yourself and pull yourself up on the thick wire rope that’s strung up on the steepest parts. It was slippery and a little scary, but that just made it more fun, and the view from the peak was well worth it - seeing the ultra-urban skyscrapers of Seoul nestled in between the rocky, rolling mountains was truly amazing.
Near the peak of the mountain we had the pleasure of meeting a new friend and Korean native, Yeong-Jin, when he turned to us and said, “How did you guys find this hike? Not many foreigners know of it”. He didn’t look annoyed by our presence, though, rather the opposite, asking us all sorts of questions about our lives, and telling us about his (he’d learned English from some American GIs he was stationed with while he served in the South Korean military.) Yeong-Jin said he’d hiked this trail “several… thousand times”, and I don’t think he was exaggerating - he walked up and down the craggy, uneven rock as easily as if it were a sidewalk in Seoul. He accompanied us for the rest of the hike, telling us what to order to get the most authentic Korean barbecue, chatting about his life in Seoul, and helping us down the steeper parts of the path. He told us we were too young to be married, but that he wished his son would find a girlfriend, and he couldn’t for the life of him seem to grasp why we were hanging out with Brian - “I still don’t understand why he’s with you on your honeymoon!!”
When we finally reached the base of the mountain, Yeong-Jin gave us a tour of the nearby temple, introduced us to a monk that was hanging out there, and showed us the barrels of soy sauce that were fermenting outside. We were about to part ways when he said, “if you don’t mind, I will drive you to the subway station”, which was lucky for us because we were still figuring out the bus system and weren’t sure we had enough money on our transit cards anyway. We tried to thank Yeong-Jin by inviting him out to Korean barbecue and karaoke with us that night - he politely declined, but I think he was tempted.
The next day in Seoul we went to Bukchon Hanok Village, a traditional Korean town on a hill near Gyeongbokgung Palace, filled with hundreds of classic homes called hanok. It is both a major tourist destination and a functioning residential area, which has recently presented some issues with tourists acting like ruthless paparazzi, crowding the streets and driveways, or generally being disturbers of the peace - there were signs put up, pinned to the stone walls, asking tourists to be quiet or to stay out altogether. We walked through the winding alleyways of the little town in hushed tones, the occasional click of our cameras.
Myeong-dong, a shopper’s paradise and commercial district in Seoul, occupied much of our time - the bright lights and crowds of people offered something new at every turn. I could wander through the streets for hours, window shopping at the street wear stores, skin care shops, and luxury outlets - but that night we were on a mission - street food and Korean barbecue. Thankfully with all the walking we’d worked up an appetite, there was more street food than I’d ever seen before, that I’d never heard of before, and all cheap too - spicy rice cakes, skewered fish, Korean fried chicken, sweet egg toasts, octopus pancakes, grilled cheese lobster, fried sugar donuts, blood sausage, pig’s feet, roasted sweet potatoes, pressed squid. One thing I learned very quickly is that Korea does not fuck around with its spicy food - the woman at the street stall warned me twice before she finally sold me some rice cakes, I felt my mouth burn for an hour afterward.
There were too many Korean barbecue restaurants in Myeong-dong to count, we were at a loss for which one to go, being pulled in each direction by eager employees waving menus in our faces and clamoring for business. Amidst the hustle and bustle, we watched a lady deliver some take-out to a nearby retail shop, then meander back into the row of restaurants and vendors. So we figured this: if a store in Myeong-dong is ordering dinner from that particular restaurant, it must be good, since the locals picked it from the myriad surrounding food options. Brian considered this for a moment, then took off, disappearing into the crowd after the delivery woman. It was a pretty funny sight, watching a six-foot-something guy chase after a little old Korean lady who was seventy years old if she was a day. Anyway, he saw which restaurant she worked at, a small barbecue joint at the end of an alley, and we went there for dinner that night. Following Yeong-Jin’s suggestion, we ordered samgyeopsal (삼겹살, pork belly), which according to him is much better than beef (which is often imported). We drank soju and cheap forties, and sang karaoke until the sun came up.
Five days in Seoul came to an end, Brian had left for Vietnam and it was time for us to move on too. We boarded a train for Gyeongju, a historical city that’s now often referred to as a “museum without walls”. Gyeongju was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Silla (57 BC – 935 AD), and is now home to a number of museums, ancient ruins, and archaeological sites throughout the city. We read about the ancient empire in the museum, saw spanning green paddy fields, watched vendors pounding mochi in the streets of historic villages.
Pretty much every major city in Korea seems to have at least a few traditional markets, winding streets filled with vendors selling goods of all kinds - fruits, vegetables, fish, meats, breads, clothing, textiles, souvenirs, handicrafts, traditional Korean medicines, and more. We stopped into Seongdong Market by chance, we spotted the thin alleyway across from our bus station and figured it could pass some time while we waited, and provide some much-needed respite from the rain. It wasn’t too touristy, unlike most of the other traditional markets we’ve been to, there were only a few other people in there, locals buying ingredients. We wandered through stalls of octopi as big as your head, strung up and hanging down from the ceiling; whole chickens being deep fried, head, neck and feet still attached; ginseng roots floating in mystery liquid, tendrils twisting and knotted. We passed a writhing container of caterpillars eating shiso leaves (still not sure how they’re meant to be cooked/served), and we saw once again just how seriously the people here take their spicy food - a group of locals haggling animatedly over the price of chili peppers.
We’ve been trying to read books, listen to music, and watch movies that come from the countries we’re visiting - I’m not too familiar with South Korean cinema, but there were a few titles on Netflix so we picked one to watch. That’s how we ended up watching a post-apocalyptic zombie horror titled “Train to Busan”, literally the night before taking a train to Busan. It was strange stepping into the exact Korail cabin cars we watched riddled with blood and zombie parts on TV the day before, but thankfully we made it to Busan safely, and it ended up being my favorite Korean city we’ve visited thus far. It’s an expansive metropolis by the sea, filled with mountains and tranquil shoreline as far as the eye can see. We spent a morning on what is considered by many to be Korea’s most beautiful beach - Haeundae - chatting about everything and nothing and listening to the waves lap the white sand. We spent the afternoon at a famous Buddhist temple built right into the sea (Haedong Yonggung Temple), and the night in a more commercial district, Seomyeon, ever in search of more street food.
South Korea has certainly been different from what we got used to in Japan, which was the cleanest, most orderly country I have ever been in. Korea is louder, more chaotic - not in a bad way, but in a way that feels raw and authentic. I could never say which one is better, but for now, I’m embracing the change.