Chu-what….? Chuseok pronounced Chu-sock is the Korean thanksgiving. This year it was called the golden holiday because it fell precisely in the middle of the week, which prompted the government to declare the Monday (between the two weekends) a day off, giving us a total of 10 days. From what my co teacher tells me it’s normally only 3 or 4 days. It would have been nice to leave the country and explore a new one, but flights were ridiculously expensive and besides, I’d only just arrived in Korea, I didn’t feel a strong urge to go traveling just yet.
We decided on Seoul and Busan, Seoul is the largest city in Korean and one of the largest in the world with 10 million people and Busan is the second largest city in South Korea with 3.5 million people. We planned four night in each and by we, I mean my friends and I; 12 from orientation plus 2 who had been living in Boseong =14 for Seoul and 9 plus 1 arriving later for Busan. I’d never traveled with so many people before, my past travels were either solo or with a friend or two. As a solo travel I despised big groups staying at hostels because they’re usually set on each other’s companionship and rarely branch out to meet new people, which if you’re a solo traveler is something you must do. Also, even though you may be invited to join the group, you feel removed because of the past memories shared and talked about between them, things you can’t relate to. On the other hand, if you form a group of solo travelers, the common bond you share of being alone is something that others can easily relate to and join without feeling removed it. For the first time I was going to be one of those groups and I knew it was going to be an interesting experience.
Large groups move slow, like a bear waking from hibernation, it takes time for them to fully be awake. We found this out our first full day when our plan was go to Seodaemun Prison and then either the Lee Samsung Art Museum or the War Museum.
*A little history about Korea, the Japanese forcibly took control of and exercised complete rule over Korea from 1910-1945. During this time they tried to wipe out Korean culture, their language, their customs and instill Japanese ones. During this time Korea was basically one giant cell, prisons dotted the country and hundreds of thousands of Koreans were incarcerated, tortured and killed. Seodaemun Prison is one of these that has been preserved to serve as a reminder of this period and to remember those who for those who lost their lives trying to stand up to Japanese rule. Today, this still remains a cause for contention between the two countries.
We successfully visited the prison and got a snack afterward (something I may have forgone if I was traveling alone), but by the time we had finished it was around 4 and both the museums closed at 6, we didn’t have enough time. So, we decided to go to Itaewon, a famous tourist district of Seoul. Itaewon was nothing special, full of overpriced shops and chain restaurants, but we did find a place that sold postcards. For some reason post cards hardly exist in Korea. I’ve never been to cities where they aren’t on every street corner, but here they are almost non existent. We then found a bar and hung around playing pool for a bit. Another great thing about Korea is that you don’t have to pay to play pool in any of the bars, unfortunately where I live in the little town of Boseong, all the pool tables are pocket-less.
The next day we made a conscious effort to try and leave earlier, which after going out the night before was a little more difficult. I believe we did, however we probably spent the same amount of time eating, mingling and running back to the rooms forgetting stuff. Our plan for the day was two things, visit the Bukchon Hanok village and Gyeongbukgung. The Bukchon Hanok village is a traditional Korean village, over 600 years old in the heart of Seoul and Gyeongbukgung is the royal palace built in 1395 not far from the Hanok village. Both of them are an odd sight to see, traditional buildings flanked by skyscrapers in the heart of one of the biggest cities in the world.
*An introduction to my friends as I’m sure they’ll appear in more posts and I need to refer to them in this one: 4 are from South Africa (Robynne, Nicara, Andile, Sebastian); 5 are from England (Christian, Tom, May, Alex, Sanchez); 4 are from the US (Me, Melissa, Joey, Logan) and two are from Scotland (Lisa, Ryan).
The Hanok village was interesting to see, but underwhelming. Supposedly it’s 600 years old, but all the house are renovated so they look completely new, I also feel I can find more authentic ones around my area. However, one of the best parts of the trip happened as we were leaving. Robynne and I had separated from the rest of the group and wandered into an art gallery in one of the houses. We started talking to the artist and he told us to sit down and asked if we were girlfriend and boyfriend. We’re not, so he ripped the paper he had in half and proceeded to draw each of us. I knew the group was going to be wondering where we were, standing around in the sun (it was hot out) and waiting; something I would have been annoyed at had I been on the other end. Eventually they left us, which was fine because we met them at the palace after, well, most of them. By the time we arrived to the palace the group had split yet again. Two polarizing half’s, one by the exit wanting to leave and the other just hanging with no time frame to go. Later that night when we regrouped, it felt as if I hadn’t seen the others in over a day, even though only 6 hours had passed.
Our third and final full day in Seoul is when the group fragmented the most. We had planned to divide into two groups to visit the War Museum and the Art museum. Upon waking I discovered that everything was closed, Chuseok was in full effect. Well almost everything, the Bukhan mountain hike was still open. I didn’t want to waste a day shopping plus I had nothing to get, Joey and Robynne felt the same, so the three of us set off. The others separated into two or three smaller shopping groups. Now I haven’t really mentioned it much, but every night in Seoul including the night before we had gone out drinking, the first night was the fireworks festival on the river, the second night we went to some bars and the third night (the night before this) we went clubbing. It definitely wasn’t easy getting up and even less so what we were about to do.
The hike started calmly enough, thankfully the sun wasn’t out and we even joked about how easy it was; as time progressed we joked less about how easy it was, but whether or not we were going to make it to the top, the inclination grew and the steps became more frequent. Not far from the top, the steps were almost vertically and we were on the verge of collapsing, our shirts were soaked in sweat and our water bottles were empty. Three Empire State Building later we made it….to one of the parts (I don’t actually know how high it was, but we walked up so many steps I didn’t want to walk up any more the rest of the trip). Unfortunately it wasn’t the objective I had in mind, a granite cliff face where you have to pull yourself up by rope. That was even further and we started to go, but with enough persuasion from Joey and Robynne we stopped before getting too far. We would have been hiking back in the dark if we had continued to listen to me. It was only 2 o’clock but it would have required a lot more time to get there and even more to get back. Still, the one we reached provided beautiful views of Seoul and the surrounding valley, it was nice to get out of the city and into nature. It took us between an hour and a half to two hours to go up and about 50 minutes to come down. Afterwards we found our way back to the hostel, joined back up with the group and went out like it was our last night in Seoul, since it was.
Check out was at 10:30am, we all made it!
Some cool places we ventured to in Seoul:
Arcade bar: A bar with an arcade theme and arcade games
Bar다 (da): Tucked between clothes stores with only a stairway going up it doesn’t look like anything from the outside, it doesn’t even look open or that it has windows. It did have windows and was the coolest bar we went to. Hip, grungy, artistic and alternative is how the interior can best be described.
Meerkat cafe: A cafe where you get to play with meerkats! they also had two baby kangaroos, two raccoons, two foxes and various cats