South Korea

SeoulSeorak Dong/SukchoHaein-saGyeongjuWando/JejuBusan

Arrival in Seoul started well - like Hong Kong airport, we needed a train to get from our arrival gate to the baggage and immigration hall. We'd booked at a guest house and arranged a pickup at the airport - all went perfectly and we were delivered to a rather interesting house (pictured alongside) where the owner was friendly, his dog was gorgeous, and the room was quite traditional, with bedding on the heated floor.

Seoul weather didn't treat us well; it was very cold and spitting rain when we went to explore the city. Despite this, we walked downtown to the markets, then back to two palaces and finally back to the guesthouse having wandered around the suburb a little to see what was there. Back at the guesthouse we decided to stay a little longer, and had to shift into a tiny, bare box, scarcely bigger than a cell - a real come-down from the initial big room with private bathroom.

Our extra day in Seoul let us visit two palaces and the royal shrine. In the adjacent park old men were playing go or various forms of checkers - as we wandered around lots of people stopped to chat. After touring the shrine we walked along the Cheonggyecheon Stream and visited yet another palace (a very palacey place, Seoul) and the folk museum.

Caught the subway to Dong Seoul bus station and the bus to Sukcho. It was a very luxurious bus, with arm-chair seats and lots of leg room. After lunch in Sukcho we caught a local bus to Seorak Dong, where the hotel was overjoyed to see us, and dropped their price to almost half the price in our book. We seemed to be the only guests in a large tourist hotel inside Seoraksan National Park. We wandered around the temple and the shops in the park, then had a very early dinner because everything was due to close up. It was very cold - ice covered all the surrounding peaks, and there was a mound of snow and ice on the ground near the temple, but when the sun shone it was fine.

We were up early in the morning to walk to the falls - or at least as far as you could walk, before the walkway was totally destroyed by falling rock Did the gentle meditation circuit, then took the cable car to the top of the hill. We thought it would be cold there, but it was sunny and warm, so we scrambled up the rocks to the "fortress" and walked down to the temple before cable-carring it down the hill again. In the late morning we walked out to the rocky outcrop jutting up from the hills some kilometres from the hotel. The trail was good, but got steeper and steeper the closer we got to the rocks. The walk back was far easier - seemed a great deal shorter, with less steps. We managed to search out a late lunch/afternoon tea and veged out for the rest of the day

Next morning we woke up to the sound of rain - just a steady pattering. Despite this we walked out a few kilometres along one of the rivers to a rather stunning waterfall tumbling over massive rocks, with soaring cliffs on all sides. We caught the bus back to Sukcho in the continuing rain - it was getting rather unpleasant and quite icy. Booked into House Hostel, where the manager gave lots of information about exciting things we could do, like going to the beach and boating on the lake. It was bitterly cold, raining and miserable. We did walk around town, into the fish markets, but it was very unrewarding. It snowed on us, bleakly. The following morning brought real change. The weather was fine and all of the hills around the town were covered with a layer of fresh snow. We walked around the harbour, up to a pavilion overlooking the town, around the back of the shopping streets along the waterways, then checked out and caught the bus to Deagu.

The bus ride was amazing - we thought we were going down the coast, but we only did that for a short time, then cut inland through the mountains. The fresh snow at Sukcho had been light, but suddenly were were driving though country where they had had quite a heavy snowfall during the previous night. It was picture-card perfect, hot in the bus and freezing cold outside. When we stopped for a loo break it snowed on us. We drove through snow for about an hour, then had a short break before driving back into snowy forest again - it was just magic. Once out of the snow we saw some of the best cherry tree blossoms we've yet seen.

We arrived in Deagu at the north bus station and had to go to the west one. Our guide book said there was a subway station, but no-one knew what we were talking about, so we asked some policemen for help. They worked out what bus we should catch, and amazingly enough it worked - despite all the odds we ended up at the correct bus station and caught the bus out to Haein-sa. We couldn't find any of the hotels recommended by the guide we were carrying, but we were quickly kidnapped by another motel manager - not a lot of tourists there!

Had a dreadful dinner - local mountain foods, which turned out to be endless little plates of cold food:

all this on a night when the temperature was about 2 degrees centigrade.

We tried to eat some of it, and struggled along, and eventually we were also served bowls of hot rice, another plate of horrid cold greens, a plate of delicious hot mushrooms and a pot of steaming fish soup with tofu. It was an enormous lot of food, most of it very unappealing to us.

The next morning we had a totally fruitless search for breakfast in a sleeping town, then walked down the hill to the temple site. There are more than 90 temples at the site, but we misplaced them and managed to climb up yet another hill to a monastery, where they redirected us down to the correct path. The temple complex was, as always, beautiful. It is also a very important site, housing the Tripitaka Koreana - a complete and accurate set of woodblocks for printing the buddhist texts. We walked all around the main temples, then took a path through the forest, where we saw and heard a woodpecker banging away at a tree. On the way back I saw a family of Koreans catch a taxi to the toilet, 50m down the hill. We watched a backhoe artist as he built a retaining wall along the bank of a stream with boulders the size of a car - amazing. Then it was back up the hill to grab our packs and get the bus back to Deagu. I managed to find an apple for Geoff's lunch - we were doing a lot of walking on very little food.

The road back to Deagu was lined with cherry trees in full bloom - impossibly delicate.

Back in town we caught the metro to Dongdeagu and the west bus station, with a lot of help from a Korean girl who saw us struggling. Caught the bus to Gyeongju and checked into a hostel with a very friendly english-speaking owner. Walked around some of the burial mounds, into down-town and the market, after indulging in coffee, cake and yogurt ice-cream at the local "A Twosome Place" dessert cafe.

We were lucky to have clear, fine but windy days. We walked all over town - tumuli, observatory, pond, museum full of chattering children. Also walked out of town to the folk village and covered bridge, then back into town for lunch and to visit the second market. The next day we caught the bus out to Bulguksa Temple - fantastic cherry trees on the way. The temple is more elaborate than others - very beautiful. We were initially waylaid by a group of children and walked off in the wrong direction, followed by other (Korean) tourists. We pretended we just wanted to see the town! Took a bus up to the Seokguram Grotto , then walked back down to the temple and caught the bus back to Gyongju.

We had decided to take the ferry to Jeju, so found bus connections that took us through Busan and Gwangju to Wando, a rather seedy port. We found a room in the hotel close to the ferry terminal - $15, but we got what we paid for. This was quite reminiscent of the sort of places we used to stay in when we were a lot younger and had little money for accommodation. There was no hot water, sheets or towels, and we slept on a heated pad on the floor, with something thicker than the mattress to cover us. It was alternatively hot and cold, and we slept badly. Wando wasn't much of a town. A couple of coffee shops, no real restaurants, nothing to hold our attention.

We caught the 8am slow ferry; It was a good crossing - very smooth. On the way we chatted to a Korean english teacher and his pupils - showed them pictures of Oz and exchanged email addresses, as one does. We took the bus to Seogwi-po; took a walk around town and out to Saeseom Island, then came back for a much-needed shower and dinner.

Next day we went out to Hallasan National Park - the Seongpanak entrance - along with huge numbers of Koreans, who charged past us at speed, walking poles flashing, dressed for a himalayan ascent. We had no intention of going for the top - just walked up to the first shelter and back, less than three hours; a morning stroll. Came back to town and had a look at the market, then later in the afternoon walked out to the falls. That night we finally discovered Korean barbeques - something like a cross between a mongolian hot plate and tepanyaki, where strips of pork were cooked on a hot plate built into the table. Had lots of things to accompany it - you build a parcel in a lettuce leaf of pork, onion, mushroom, salad and kimchi - really good. Finished up with a rich spicy seafood soup full of tofu and something very much like yabbies. Walked around town at night - very lit up and colourful.

The following day we went for a walk along the Olle trail, a series of walking trails that go around most of the island. We did the end of trail 6 and part of trail 7. There were lots of other people doing it. Came back about 1pm, just in time to catch a bus over to the other side of the island to the lava tubes. The information person said with great confidence that we could visit the port on the east coast and the lava caves all in one afternoon. In the event, we had a 1.75 hour bus ride into worsening weather, so that it was dull, dark grey, cold, raining, and blowing a gale when the bus dropped us at least 2km from the lava tubes. We scuttled over the road to the opposite bus shelter (shelter! it rained inside it!) and with total unanimity decided to catch the bus straight back. Didn't get back until nearly 6pm. Had we manfully struggled on to the lava tubes it would have been at least 8pm before we got back to town, and that would only have happened if we caught a return bus (1.5-2 hours apart) immediately. Forget it!

We were due to fly out of Jeju-si fairly early in the morning, so moved over there a day early to have a look at the city. After dumping our packs at a hostel we walked back to Jeju Mokgwana (reconstructed administrative buildings) and looked around it, then went to the E-Mart for lunch, and walked back along the sea wall and out to the live fish market. After booking in at the hostel (no bookings until after 4pm) we walked through the market, then out to Samseonghyeol Shrine. Walked back to Topdong, wandered through the underground market, along the stream, then back to our hostel.

Well, it all happened so fast! We caught the bus to the airport early, checked in, had breakfast at dunkin' donuts (shame on us, but no real alternative), then flew to Busan. Caught the light rail to the metro, then metro to the port, stuffing up the fare, so that we were caught behind the exits with no way out. We opened a gate and walked through it, then explained ourselves to the officials and paid the extra amount to make our fare correct. Went to the ferry port and bought a ticket to Japan for 3:45 that afternoon. Walked around a bit of Busan - to Busan tower, down the hill (had lunch of steamed dumplings), then went to the live fish markets at the jetty. Went back and caught the ferry to Fukuoka.


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