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Trip South Korea South Korea   My trip to South Korea in 2012. Walter C (US)
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My trip to South Korea in 2012.

  • 20Nov 2012

    1 Walter's Intro to Asia 11/20/2012 South Korea —

    Taepyeongno 1(il)-ga, Seoul, South Korea

    Description

    After talking about it for a few years now, I am finally going to South Korea. The main purpose of this trip was for medical tourism, as it was a lot cheaper for a doctor checkup, than in the US. More about that on a later entry.

    Anyway, I saw this as a chance to finally visit Asia, seeing it as my introduction to the continent. I wanted to visit various countries in Asia, but felt like I couldn't unless I went to Korea first, since I am an ethnic Korean, but born and raised in the US. I have been to South Korea twice before, but this would be my first time since getting the traveling bug.

    The first time was in 1987, when I went with my mom and sister. It was my first overseas trip, and the first time I experienced jet lag. I remember meeting cousins for the first time, and nearly getting lost for good in Busan.

    The second visit was in 1995, when I went with my whole family. Again, it was to see relatives in Seoul, plus a trip to Jeju Island. I remember thinking, on the flight back home, thinking I would come back to this part of the world many times. But that next time would not happen for 17 years.

    Now to 2012, when I travel solo to Asia for the first time. I would put my cats in boarding for the first time, which was not easy for me to do. Anyone with pets, would understand this. ;)

    I had to get to the Philly airport early in the morning, to catch a flight to Washington DC. From there, I had 1 hour layover, then got on a flight to Tokyo, Japan. That one took me into the next day (Nov 21).

    I forgotten how long flights from the Eastern US to Asia were, which was twice as long as going to Europe. I arrived in Tokyo, for a 2-hour layover. Then a flight to Seoul, South Korea. I had to go through immigration, and was required to put an address of the place I'm staying, on the card. I had no idea of the address of my grandmother's place, which was where I was staying. But they let me through. No idea how or why, though.

    I was able to meet up with my mom, who was waiting at the airport. This was the first time I arrived in Incheon Airport, which was built sometime after my last visit. Looked very futuristic!

    I took the bus to my grandmother's place. The bus ride was surprisingly more relaxing than the plane ride. I arrived in the area, and went to my grandmother's place, seeing her again after 1 year.

    [NOTE: This entry is for 2 days, which I decided to combine into 1 entry rather than into 2 entries on TB.]

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  • 22Nov 2012

    2 Long Ride For 1 Palace 11/22/2012 South Korea —

    Taepyeongno 1(il)-ga, Seoul, South Korea

    Description

    I ended up waking up early, so I could see my mom leave, who was going on another trip of her own. Then tried to go back to sleep, which was hard, probably due to jet lag and sleeping on the floor.

    Later on, I was ready to go out and see the city on my own. This is probably the first time for me in Korea, as in past trips, I would be accompanied by family members. I went out, and got lost, walking around in blocks for a while. I backtracked, and was able to find the Metro station.

    I tried to figure out the system, and wasted more time, looking for a place that sold some of kind of card that the guidebook mentioned. But did not find any, so I just paid the individual fare card. Then got on the Metro, and was in it for about 90 minutes. Hard to believe how far it was.

    When I got off, I tried to exit through the turnstile, but could not. Turned out that each ride is rated according to distance, and that there is a machine nearby, to insert money to pay the difference. Once I did that, I went to Changdeokgung Palace. I would pay admission for both the palace and the secret garden, which is guided tour only. More about visiting this place in the review here.

    Changdeokgung was built in 1405 during the Joseon Dynasty, as the secondary palace to Gyeongbokgung (which I will be visiting later on). The Japanese invaded Korea in the 1590's, and burned down all the palaces. While Gyeongbokgung was left in ruins, Changdeokgung became the main palace shortly after in 1610, and remained that way until 1868, when the other one was finally rebuilt.

    I spent about 90 minutes, walking around the palace grounds. Starting from the entrance gate, I crossed the small bridge, which goes back to 1411. Then went to the main building, where the throne hall was, and where the king conducted his affairs there, with the ceremonies done in the courtyard.

    After that, there are other areas to see, seeing where the king and queen, along with other palace officials, lived and conducted their affairs. Just seeing the architecture and setup of the buildings, was really fascinating to see. I went one way to the end, then backtracked all the way, to the area straight ahead from the entrance. This area was where the government offices were, and the ancestral rites were performed.

    With some time still available, I decided to step out and get something to eat. But I did not really find anything to my liking, either because it would take too long to serve the food, or just not to my liking. I stopped by a Dunkin Donuts, and saw Korean twists to a burrito, like a jalapeno bulgogi. I ended up eating some snacks. Then when it was time, I reentered the palace, and went to the entrance for the secret garden.

    I waited until it was time for the secret garden tour. The entrance was on the right side of the palace area. With the tour started, we were given a guided tour of the secret garden, or sometimes known as Huwon. It was called that, because it was only for private use by the king and some of his officials.

    At first, I wondered if this would be a waste of time, paying extra for what I thought, was a typical tourist trap. But after seeing the garden, it turned out to be well worth the money. In fact, I remember visiting this place back in 1987, with the pond and the buildings in the background, being the only things I remember from this palace.

    We were given the tour of the different parts of the secret garden, and the unfortunate thing was that we came after all the autumn leaves are gone. Thus, it makes the place a lot less colorful. While disappointing, I was still amazed by the architecture of the buildings, and the background with nature. I could only imagine it would look a lot more nicer at other times of the year.

    After the garden tour, it got dark, and I had to head back to my grandmother's place. I had to ride the Metro for 90 minutes, which just felt like forever. Once I got off, I got lost, but eventually found my way. Then went inside to her place, where I had dinner. Then to sleep, as the next couple days will not be fun.

    And that would be due to the main reason of this visit, which is medical tourism. And I would have an extensive doctor checkup, which would be cheaper here, than back in the US. Plus the fact that I don't have health insurance. So the next entry will skip the couple days.

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  • 25Nov 2012

    3 Prison and War 11/25/2012 South Korea —

    Taepyeongno 1(il)-ga, Seoul, South Korea

    Description

    After getting ready, I went to the Metro station, and decided to pay a little extra to take one of the Express trains. It reduced the time by about 30 minutes, but still felt like forever. I arrived and came to Independence Park, where Seadaemun Prison History Hall is located.

    Being the only attraction on the Japanese Occupation, I had to check this place out, since it did affect my relatives for some time. The Japanese Occupation (sometimes called the "Colonial Period") referred to the period when Korea was forced under the colonial rule of Japan, from 1910 to 1945. During this time, Koreans were basically forced to be Japanese, by adopting Japanese names and speaking Japanese only, as the Korean language was not allowed. Basically, it was cultural genocide. The prison was built in 1907.

    Arriving at the entrance, I went into the main exhibition hall. As I would learn here, that the prison continued to be used after liberation in 1945, as South Korea was under a dictatorship, until 1987. During that time, it was used to jail the pro-democracy activists.

    When I went downstairs of the main Exhibition Hall, I saw a lot of school kids. It was very surprising to see them there, considering the type of attraction this is. I guess they are just happy to be out of the classroom, as they don't seem to really know what the prison was really about, judging by how they were acting. I do wonder if the most of the torture displays were removed for this very reason, as I did see some photos of them on the internet, but did not actually see them at the museum. Judging by those photos, they were very graphic!

    After the exhibition hall, I went through a few of the actual prison buildings, then walked around Independence Park within the prison premises, seeing various features.

    The most touching part of this visit, was watching a video of a woman, who was a prison survivor, being next to one of the torture displays, and saying how the display does not even come close to describing the horrors that she had to go through.

    I can't imagine what it was like during this time. I know that my grandparents, and even my father lived during that time in Seoul. All I remember, was that my mother would tell me, that my grandmother would have to speak Japanese whenever she went to school.

    I left, and headed to War Memorial of Korea. I had a limited time left, and wasted part of it, looking for a place to eat. And strangely, I ended up eating lunch at the museum restaurant, which served some good Korean food. I had some jajangmyun, which was good. Too bad I did not photograph it, because I have a hard time describing it.

    I walked around the museum area, seeing the "Statue of Brothers" and the Korean War monument, among others. On the other side, are replicas of war planes and tanks, some of which, you can go in. But I did not spend too much time seeing them, since my time was limited. I went inside the museum, which was free.

    I toured the museum in chronological order, which started with ancient Korea. With so much to see, and trying to see it all, I did find myself skimming through most of the exhibitions. Basically, it got into the various wars that the Koreans were involved in, whether between themselves, or against the Mongols or Chinese. And most notably, against the Japanese during the invasions of the 1590's. Some of the exhibits reminded me of the Korean historical dramas that my dad used to watch.

    It also got into the Korean War in depth, which is the most extensive part of the museum. With so much to see in this museum, I did not have enough time to see it all. The most notable part is on the Korean War (1950-1953), with a big part of the museum devoted to it.

    But I do remember some stories my parents would tell me, though they did not share too much about it. Still, it was a reminder how great of a childhood that I had, when compared to them, having to live through this war.

    Closing time came, and I had to leave the museum. I walked around the outer area, where the airplanes were. But they were closed off, so I could not go in them. I'll have to make a return visit someday, to see more of this place.

    After spending the day seeing a couple of dark attractions, I went back to my grandmother's place.

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  • 26Nov 2012

    4 Having a Towering Seoul in a Palace 11/26/2012 South Korea —

    Taepyeongno 1(il)-ga, Seoul, South Korea

    Description

    I did have a hard time sleeping, as I did end up waking up in the middle of the night. And would end up making a few calls back home on a regular phone, since my cell phone was not working in Korea. Mainly to get an update on the cats, as I received e-mails from earlier, that the cats are not doing good at boarding. That did make it hard for me to enjoy the trip at times. As some of you already know, I am just as crazy about cats as I am about traveling.

    When it was morning, well after sunrise, I rode the Metro, all the way into town. I did not like doing this, but a small price for free room and board. I arrived into town, and hoped to get to an information center, to find an internet cafe with phones. But they were not opened on Mondays, so I had to continue on, heading to Gyeongbokgung Palace.

    Gyeongbokgung was the first palace built in 1394, by the first king of the Joseon Dynasty. And remained the main palace until the 1590’s, when it was burned down and remained in ruins, until it was re-built in 1867. It remained the main one until the Colonial Period, when the Japanese destroyed most of it. The palace started to be restored in 1996, a work that continues to this day.

    I arrived at the main entrance, seeing the guards standing still there. Very much like the ones in London. Just hard to believe how well they were able to stand still like that, as it was very cold, and the wind was really blowing. Talk about having major discipline!

    I went onto the palace grounds, to the ticket booth to pay admission. Then went to a visitor center, hoping to pick up a tour booklet. But they ran out of the English ones. When asking if they will get more, but they said it would be a long time, due to budget problems. I ended up picking up a French one, though no idea why!

    I stayed around the entrance area, to see the Changing of the Guard. It did have that ceremony atmosphere, as there were a group of guards coming from one end of the square, and went through the entrance, to switch with the ones that stood guard beforehand, to the beat of the big Korean drum. I went inside and outside the palace area, as the whole thing was happening in both areas at the same time.

    Afterwards, I did decide to get an audioguide, which was a little helpful at times, but most times, it was frustrating to figure out and follow the commentary.

    I walked to the main throne building, which looked very much like the one at the other palace, Changdeokgung. Then walked around the labyrinth of buildings, reading the descriptions along the way. Like the other Korean palaces, all the buildings have their own names and served some purpose along the way. If you want to know more, there are more detailed descriptions on Wikipedia.

    I got to a familiar sight, which was a pavilion on a pond. I was told this was where the king would hold banquets. I remember seeing this in 1987, one of the few sights I remember from that trip. I continued to walk around, just enjoying the architecture of the buildings, even if I don't know the full history of the palace.

    I did take a brief detour to the National Folk Museum of Korea, but only to relax in a warm place. It did look like an interesting place, but I did not have time for it. I went back to seeing the rest of the palace.

    After seeing the palace, the next place to visit was the Seoul Tower . It was a short Metro ride away. From the station, I had to walk up a hill, which was quite a walk. I arrived at a cable station, and rode the cable car to the top of the Namsan, the hill where the Seoul Tower was.

    This was another place that I remember visiting from the '87 trip. In fact, a souvenir photo of me and my sister from that time, is still hanging on the wall in my house. I had to see it again, as an adult.

    From the cable car, I had to walk up a path towards the ticket booths, passing by smoke stacks and a cardboard Christmas tree, reminding me that this holiday is coming up. After paying admission, I went inside to ride the elevator to the top, which stands at 777 feet (237 meters) on Namsan Mountain.

    Once there, I was able to get nice views of Seoul, with the mountains in the background. And at different moments, as I saw the city before sunset. Then at sunset, and after sunset, as the city lights came on. It was really nice to seem as I saw downtown and the Hangang River.

    The only problem that I had, was trying to photograph through glass, which made it a pain. When the photos came out, it came out blurry or the reflection showed up. And since I am not skilled at photography at all, I did not get any really good nighttime shots of the city from above. It doesn't help that I'm still using an old camera from the early 2000's.

    I walked around the viewing area, then just went to the elevator, to go back down. Then rode the cable car down, and walked down to the Myeongdong area. I was amazed at the sight of the bright lights of the shopping area, and just walked around.

    After walking down a couple streets and around blocks, I went back to my grandmother's place. Once there, I just hung around, and did see one of my cousins briefly. Then started packing a little, as I would leave the next day.

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  • 27Nov 2012

    5 Last Museum Before Leaving 11/27/2012 South Korea —

    Taepyeongno 1(il)-ga, Seoul, South Korea

    Description

    It was the last day, as I had to pack up. My flight was not until the evening, so I would have enough time to see one more sight.

    After packing up, I said goodbye to my grandmother, who has been helpful to me. And I did see my mom briefly, who just got back from her trip to Southeast Asia. I headed to the Metro, and rode it into the city, as I was heading to the National Museum of Korea.

    I arrived at the building, passing by a pond with a pagoda in the middle of it. It was closed off, so I could not get a closer look. Just like the one in the palace. Anyway, as I went to the entrance, there were a lot of school kids already there. Needless to say, very noisy and crowded!

    I checked my things in, so that freed me from holding my backpack for a while. Then started to tour the museum. This place was very extensive on Korean history, the most I've ever seen on this subject. Normally, Korean art tends to occupy very small space in other art museums, when compared to other Asian art. So visiting this place, it looked very promising.

    The museum goes through the history of Korea, on the 1st floor, starting from the prehistoric age. There are good English descriptions, telling the history, along with the artifacts from that period, on display. The museum also goes into the Three Kingdoms period, followed by the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) and then the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). And each of those section have their own sub-sections.

    Other highlights is on the 3rd floor, with Buddhist art on display. And there is one section there, where there are art from other parts of Asia. When going through it, I could not help but think it could be a preview of possible upcoming travels to other parts of Asia for me. I can only hope!

    So when it was time, I had to leave. I was able to see Namsan, the small mountain with the Seoul Tower, from the museum. Then headed to the Metro, which I took to the Seoul train station.

    I took the Airport Express to Incheon Airport. Then checked-in, went through security fast, and just waited at the gate, with plenty of time to kill. Not really much to do, other than look around.

    When the time came, I got on the plane, and was heading back to the United States. And had to connect through San Francisco, before finally arriving in Philly. I hurried home, arriving after midnight. And went to the vet, where I was able to pick up one of my cats. I was happy to see the cats again!

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