Strangely, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to visiting South Korea at first. I didn’t know much about Korean culture and didn’t know what to look forward to, which meant I set myself up perfectly for having my expectations exceeded. I loved it here.
After sweating my way through Southeast Asia I was very happy to be arriving in Seoul at the beginning of winter. It was nicer than the humidity in Vietnam, and warmer than what I knew would be waiting for me back in Canada. On the first night I went looking for something cheap to eat and found a place selling “tonkatsu,” which became my favourite meal throughout South Korea and Japan. It was also nice to be in a country that gives free water with your meal.
I’m not the first of my family to go to South Korea, since my grandfather Vince Brûlé fought in the Korean War. My priority on my first day was going to the Korean War Memorial.
The monument was quite striking to visit in the evening as the sun set. I spent some time there thinking about my grandpa and imagining how scary it must have been to have crossed an ocean to fight.
Not wanting to head back to my hostel just yet, I decided to walk towards the palace. Now, Seoul is a huge city, and the best way to get around is definitely the subway system. It can get very crowded at certain times, but people respect queues and the trains are extremely punctual.
Aside from the occasional packed subway, the city didn’t feel overcrowded. The natural additions helped, like the river downtown where I saw this heron.
Still not wanting to call it a night, and feeling very safe everywhere I’d been so far, I went out to a cafe nearby to try a green tea latte.
I decided to spend the following day at Gyeoungbokgung, the main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty.
Luckily, right as I arrived the Changing of the Guard began.
At this point I was just in a great mood. The weather was nice, and I was happy to explore the palace grounds by myself. I encountered many people dressed in traditional clothes and discovered later that admission is free for those who do dress up. One girl asked for a picture with me, (I decided to dress up as a foreigner), and was nice enough to pose for one for me too.
As for the palace, it was ornate. Not that I can articulate it, but I thought by now I was starting to recognise the Korean style.
The palace was built in 1394, but completely burned to the ground by the Japanese in 16th century. It wasn’t until 1867 that the palace was rebuilt. I thought it was pretty funny that the palace was re-built in the year of Canadian confederation. Seems some countries are old.
The first section all looked similar to me, so I was happy to find various gardens and pagodas in the back. The palace grounds were huge though, so walking around took up a good part of my afternoon. The Hyangwonjeong and Gyeonghoeru Pavilions were particular highlights.
After much wandering, I decided it was time for something completely different, but that I wanted to go out by the pagoda I’d been seeing. There were anthropomorphic statues of the zodiac animals circling what might have been a lunar calendar. I got a picture of the dog because it’s our year starting February 16th.
I made a really good friend while in Seoul named Hyunjun. He is a local, and therefore had a lot of good advice on what to do and see! He is also one of the people who made the trip worth it. He had advised me to head to Samcheong-dong when I was done at the palace. I think I asked why, he said something about cafes, and suddenly I was there. It was such a beautiful neighbourhood, I’d highly recommend a walk through it if you’re ever in Seoul.
Enjoying a view of the sunset over Seoul as I walked, I made my way back into the downtown area and just kept walking until my feet hurt too much, at which point I ducked into the nearest subway station and was soon back in my hostel.
By now it seemed to me that I could either have money or I could have food, but I couldn’t have both, so I asked the girl who ran my hostel if there were any good and cheap food options nearby. Turns out that yes, there is a way to have it all. A local restaurant specialized in bibimbap and charged one price for unlimited helpings. So I saved money, ate a lot, and tried some authentic Korean cuisine. The old win-win-win.
A good priced hostel if you’re ever in Seoul that’s a 2 minute walk from one of the subway hubs is Dustin Guest House. The staff are awesome.
South Korea was a significant country for me on this trip for two reasons. It brought my overall country count (not just my trip) to an even 50, which I’m super happy about, and it was the last country I would do alone. Seeing as my solo traveller lifestyle was in its final days, I made sure to get out and make the most of it. I decided to take a day trip to Suwon, just south of Seoul, because I could get there using my Seoul metro card.
Already enjoying the relative peace and quiet of Suwon compared to Seoul, I wandered from the metro station in the general direction of the palace. I was banking on it jumping out at me at some point, and seeing as Suwon is the last walled city in South Korea, I’d at least know if I went too far.
I was successful, however, in finding Haenggung Palace and spent the first part of my day trying to navigate my way around it.
I don’t know when the high season is for tourism here, but I can attest to South Korea being absolutely beautiful in the late autumn/early winter. It certainly wasn’t busy when I visited most places here. Even exploring this palace, I was pretty much on my own. Since it is also a Joseon palace, it seemed familiar after visiting Gyeoungbokgung.
It was definitely beautiful, but it was expansive to the point of feeling abandoned. It even had some creepy trees to set the mood.
At this point I was looking at the hill behind me and thinking, huh, can I climb that? Turns out yes, yes you can,
Unfortunately a wall prevents you from running free into the hills, so I started back towards the entrance. If anyone was panicking that I was going to leave without getting more pictures of fancy chairs don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.
The symbol prominently displayed on the door there as well as the South Korean flag is called the Taegeuk, and it is a Taoist symbol. It has been used for centuries, and is now a Korean symbol, not exclusively a Taoist one. Not wanting to head back to Seoul just yet, I walked to the north gate of the city to see if there might be a way to get up on those walls.
There wasn’t even a ticket gate, just some stairs up onto the walls. From here I was doubting how committed I was to the idea of returning to my metro station via ancient wall, (it looked steep), but it was nice out and I was too curious to pass it up.
I later returned to the war memorial in Seoul to see the museum, which covered Korea’s history as well as having an in depth section on the Korean War.
Following WW2, Korea was taken back from the Empire of Japan and divided into North and South. The Soviet Union was given administration of the North, while the USA got the South. As this was at the beginning of the cold war, the two countries proceeded to not get along very well. The North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, who may or probably didn’t create the world in 7 days, secretly went to China and asked nicely if they would allow them to invade South Korea. China thought that sounded like a fun idea, but only if The Soviet Union thought it was cool too. Stalin did indeed like that idea, and in 1950 North Korea invaded the South, quickly capturing the capital Seoul.
I stopped to take a picture after all of those stairs so that I could see what I looked like without oxygen in my body.
Following the invasion of the North, the South Korean president Syngman Rhee ordered the execution of at least 100,000 people who he was worried would join forces with the North. Known now as the Bodo League Massacre, it wasn’t until the 1990’s that details of the massacre began to come out, as it was kept a secret upon penalty of death for years.
The South Korean army was forced back all the way to Busan, with the rest of the peninsula effectively under North Korean control. That was when the United States and United Nations entered the war. President Harry Truman had pledged to protect countries against communism, and the States launched an invasion of Incheon, to the west of Seoul. This was the first ever deployment of United Nations troops, one of whom was my grandpa, who spent 9 months on the front lines.
With the help of the Americans and the United Nations forces, the North Koreans were pushed back past the 38th parallel, and the Americans captured the capital of Pyongyang. They were just about to push the North Koreans back to the Yalu River which forms the border with China when China decided that no, they would not be doing that. Suddenly the Southern forces were facing 180,000 Chinese soldiers, and were pushed back south of the 38th parallel.
After a few more years of fighting, an armistice was finally agreed to in 1953. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was created as a buffer zone between the two Koreas, as no agreement was reached about the reunification of Korea. Defectors from the North are still shot to this day trying to flee south.
The stone in that second last picture is called a dolmen, and it is a Bronze Age grave marker.
Following what turned out to be a beautiful walk along the walls of Hwaseong, I returned to Seoul and to the War Memorial one more time.
In the museum I was excited to see a slightly smaller version of a Korean Turtle Ship. These were armoured cannon ships used against the Japanese. The spikes on top are to strongly discourage anyone trying to board the ship.
Before leaving Seoul for the second half of my South Korea visit, I was able to see Hyunjun. Once again, the worst thing about meeting amazing people is having to leave.
That’s what I look like when Im’ completely ready for a picture to be taken.
From Seoul, I took the train to the ancient capital, Gyeongju.