This is the city’s slogan. I don’t really get it, but loads of people of course love taking their photo in front of the sign on the main plaza. That’s the first thing you notice about South Koreans – they love to take photos and really pose for them. It’s a little catchy so I have to stop myself doing the peace sign to fit in.
King Sejong and Admiral Yi
So far the museums we’ve visited here have either been free, or less than 5000 won (about £3), and full of english information. Under the main plaza which leads to the Palace there are two museums dedicated to the most revered people in Korean history. Above ground on top of each is a large statue dedicated to them.
It’s very clear that King Sejong the Great is loved by all here and after visiting the museum, we are equally impressed. My previous knowledge of him is from the game Civilization V where he is the strong, science-focused leader of Korea. Born in 1397, he was the fourth ruler of the Joseon Dynasty which lasted from 1392 until 1897. It ended after the first sino-japanese war which was fought mostly on Korean soil – think of Poland, fought over by both Germany and Russia. Not interested in the people or the culture, simply the gain of land. The Japanese annexed Korea in 1910 until the end of WWII during which they tried to ban the Korean language and demolished palace buildings among other things.
King Sejong created the Korean alphabet as a way to allow everyday people to become literate. Previously only trained scholars could read and write the difficult Chinese characters. It’s fairly easy to learn how to read Korean and this simple guide will get you started. Many people do speak english here but they can be shy and reluctant to speak it.
Following the floor markers through Sejong’s museum leads you into the museum for Admiral Yi Sun-Sin, known as a better naval tactician than Nelson. The game Age Of Empires II taught me the unique military abilities of Korea – war wagons and turtle ships. These ships have flat bottoms for quick maneuvers and a wooden/metal shell with iron spikes to repel boarders. Admiral Yi’s most famous feat is defeating the oncoming Japanese fleet with only 12 (sometimes the information board said 13) turtle ships and in the museum you can even climb onboard a small replica of one.
There are five palaces in Seoul and with our limited time we chose to visit the main one. The cost was 5000 won and the grounds include the Folk Museum and the palace museum. The palace itself had been destroyed and abandoned in the past so it is a reconstruction but still interesting to walk around the complex to understand the scale and importance. Oh, and to see Koreans (and a couple of foreigners) wearing hanbok traditional dress to get in for free.
However the most interesting part for me was the Palace Museum which Mischa skipped for a baseball game in Gangnam instead. Inside shows the life of olden day and more recent Korea including recovered architecture and furniture as well as rooms dedicated to Korean science including a working water clock. My favourite item was the screens depicting the Painting of the sun, the moon and the five peaks, or 일월오봉도. I’m collecting ideas for my future home and it will include a copy of this on perhaps the wall of my living room, or maybe outside on a wall in the courtyard full of potted plants and feng shui half-walls in front of the doors.
The Folk Museum included a large pagoda, an exhibition on the coastal and international city of Ulsan and outside a small street containing several old houses and old shops. This reminded us of the Village Museum in Bucharest which was my favourite part of our interail trip in 2014 to Romania and back. It did not however include an old Star Wars poster.
Given two full days in Seoul, we devoted a whole day to climbing a hill – Mount Inwang. In Busan this has become our favourite past time. I’ve always enjoyed walking but never considered myself a proper hiker but now after nearly 3 months away walking many hills and even a mountain, my legs have become walker legs. I don’t think they’ve ever been fitter! We decided on hiking up Inwangsan because of its temples, shrines and fortress walls.
People here love hiking and must wear the correct gear, they even wear when they’re not doing a walk to look trendy in town. Every hill and mountain will have tracks of varying difficulty with sign posts all over the place, and it will also have very rough unsignposted paths for when you wish to attempt something more ‘wild’. Having climbed many wooden steps to a shrine half way to the top, we took the quickest route up by going off the sign posts. Rocky outcrops looked unclimbable until you notice the rope hanging from the tree to help you get up.
The view of course was stunning, modern skyscrapers with flashing screens next to the old renovated buildings of the palaces. There are many spots perfect for photos with no photography signs and guards keeping watch. Following the walls along the top of the hill we came across a military area complete with gun pointing north guarded by army men. This is probably why photos are banned… We managed to take a few of course.
My favourite korean dish is bibimbap and without realising I had booked a hostel 5 minute walk away from Gwangjang Market, full of food stalls. Dumpling soup and bibimbaps for 5000 won each, and all easily vegetarian – a relief after eating so much surprise meat in China. Bibimbap is a hot dish of rice, loads of different fresh vegetables, and sometimes a raw egg is cracked on top and cooks while you eat. Kimchi and sometimes a miso-like soup is provided on the side for free. We ate so well every time at this market and at least once every day that the seller at the stall we went to would always wave at us when we walked past.
Food always helps to bring people together, though in South Korea everyone is so friendly and helpful straight away without even asking. We hiked yet another hill in Busan two days ago and came across a man eating something and he immediately smiled and offered us some of his food.
The slow train from Seoul to Busan
It’s not expensive to ride the fast KTX to Busan but wanting to keep costs low, we chose the second slowest train, ITX-Saemaeul. It took 5 hours, longer than the long-distance bus service, and stopped often. I was very happy to take it slow and enjoy the countryside, suspecting that we may not have a chance to travel far out from Busan once we got there. I never knew how many beautiful green hills with rural towns, rice paddies and rivers there were. I’ve since heard from a fellow traveller who took the train from China into North Korea that it is even more beautiful if that can be imagined.