(Even) Deeper Into Korea

Day 266 (1st of December, 2016) – Busan, South Korea

I woke up a little earlier this morning for a stroll around Seomyeon on my own.

It turns out that I wasn’t the only one with that idea – Dylan was already out and about by the time I arose. I went off to do some errands – top up my SIM card, buy groceries for breakfast and find a tailor to resew a few lost buttons (it’s poor form that I can’t do that on my own, I know).

The group unanimously agreed that it was Ben’s turn to organise the day today. I didn’t really have any reason to shift the workload off my shoulders other than sheer laziness, but I wanted a day of following rather than figuring out directions. Between his checks of FIFA and Facebook, Ben pulled together an impressive itinerary for the day which was centred around the Gamcheon Cultural Village.

Here’s a picture the good man himself leading us around.

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We quickly picked up on one of his idiosyncrasies of pretending to yawn while looking the other way to discretely check if we were heading in the right direction. But I can’t really speak – I have a few of my own discreet ways of looking like I know what I’m doing when I really don’t. The others just haven’t picked up on them yet.

We found ourselves trekking up a hill of twisted streets all the way to the peak.

The latter part of the walk provided us with some impressive views over the village below. The appearance of the place had striking similarities to Brazilian favelas, albeit the communities within were surely far less dangerous and impoverished.

We underestimated how long it was from Google Maps and quickly jumped on a shuttle bus instead.

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We eventually reached the top of the hill and the entrance gate to the Cultural Village. We instantly found ourselves in the midst of one of the most funky little towns we’d seen in our travels.

This historically rich, mountainside slum became a famous tourist destination after getting an arty makeover in 2009 when students decided to brighten up the neighbourhood with clever touches up the stairs, down the lanes and around the corners. Today it’s a colourful, quirky community of Lego-shaped homes, cafés and galleries.

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One of my favourite parts of the street was this “Gallery of Ordinary People”. It lived up to its name.

I do really appreciate art like this – it allows what was a “tourist attraction” to be humanised through its residents. It makes you fascinated at the differences in these people’s lives but a simultaneous realisation that at the end of the day, we really are all the same.

Lachie tried to blend into the exhibition himself.

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The main cultural street itself provided even more spectacular views over the village below.

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As we were strolling down the street, we came across one of the more fascinating scenes of the trip. A functioning “Grand Budapest Doll Hotel”. After Lachie noted the Wes Anderson reference out loud, the owner overheard and invited us in for a look. He offered to waive the $6 entry fee if we posted about the visit on social media. We agreed and were whisked in.

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It’s fair to see that this was one of the weirdest (and even scariest) things we’d ever seen. Ben and Dylan bailed before too long, and it was probably smart of them to do so. Lachie and I stayed for the full show and grew more and more uncomfortable the deeper we got into the hotel. The host was obsessed with dolls. OBSESSED.

The lobby of the “hotel” wasn’t too crazy, but very impressive nonetheless.

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It was when we put our heads into the holes in the ceiling and were entered into our own “doll rooms” to play doll-sized pianos and socialise with our doll companions that things started getting strange.

The more the host spoke, the more we felt simultaneously saddened at how far this obsession had taken him and happy that he was preoccupied and satisfied. But this guy was strange.

He urged us down some stairs deeper into the hotel. This was when Ben and Dylan appropriately bailed.

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Lachie and I were treated to a serenade at the doll jazz club while the real-life owner watched throught the CCTV camera above.

And then we were led through the dance floor and art gallery.

But then, just to make us even more uncomfortable, things started taking a horror twist.

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We felt far more comfortable on the street outside the “hotel” looking at some of the street art and graffiti. The perfect compliment to the already trendy aura of this city.

And then some perfect photo opportunities over the glimmering lights below.

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Our stomachs grew hungrier as it got darker, and we decided to catch a bus to one of Busan’s other commercial centres at Nopo-dong.

We even passed a classic East-Asian pet shop on the way. These places can be pretty hard for a Westerner to stomach when they first see them, as you can see through Ben.

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We entered the neon gates into BIFF Square and the food alley, which turned out to not be much of a food alley but instead a collection of duplicated boring food stalls. The proper shops were much more interesting.

We also found a “headbanging machine” at an arcade which Ben won on. This is a video which is definitely worth watching.

We ended up finding what became one of our favourite restaurants of the trip – a Korean BBQ where the waitresses cooked for you. It’s somewhat comforting to see your food cooked in front of your face.

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And then I stumbled across my favourite Korean snack of all – straight out of Fusion Bar in Xuzhou. Chicken and glutinous rice.

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And a Krisky Kreme for dessert couldn’t hurt. I need to gain weight anyway, right…

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Day 267 (2nd of December, 2016) – Busan, South Korea

It was my turn to organise the day’s activities. After a city-heavy trip, I was keen to escape back to some form of nature. Luckily, Busan is an oceanside city with one of the more pristine coasts on Earth. I never really believed it, to be honest. We don’t really associate “Korea” with “beaches”. But boy, were we wrong.

We emerged from the subway station in the closest thing to Santa Monica I have seen since being in LA.

And then Haeundae beach, South Korea’s most popular and most famous beach.

Strolling on the sand in our ski jackets was one of the most satisfying walks of the trip – the perfect mix of cool breeze and warmth in our clothing. And best of all, some very refreshing views. The striking blue of the water and bright, Irish green of the moss was surprising given the beach’s proximity to the city centre. This place beats Bondi any day of the week, and even gave the Gold Coast a run for its money.

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Aren’t we good tourists.

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The boardwalk continued around the peninsula, dipping in and out of greenery and providing pretty glimpses of the Pacific.

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And then we found the perfect platform to rest on, playing the bottle-flipping game for far longer than I’d like to admit.

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At the tip of the peninsula was a lighthouse and viewing platform.

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And would couldn’t have asked for a more stunning walk back into the city – it was as if the cherry blossoms were in full bloom (but unfortunately, not the right season for that).

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We caught a taxi for fairly cheap to our next destination – Oryukdo Island.

Just off the southern coast of Busan, Oryukdo Island may appear to be five islands or six islands depending on the day and the tide, hence its name (‘o’ meaning five and ‘yuk’ meaning six in Korean).

As soon as the taxi dropped us off atop the cliffs of Busan, we realised the treat we were in for.

Just look at ‘em.

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To make things even better, there was a skywalk above the cliff which took some convincing for Lachie to do.

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We were able to walk down the cliff and closer to the island for some different angles.

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Back in Seomyeon, we decided on a repeat of Sunday night’s dinner with some Chimaek – chicken and beer.

The flashing lights of the city centre were stunning as always.

The chicken sure was tasty, but Dylan’s bowels made him regret it the next day.

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Day 268 (3rd of December, 2016) – Jeonju, South Korea

Breakfast this morning. Direct out of a convenience store.

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That was because we found ourselves in a rush to the bus station which was a little way out of the city. We were heading to Jeonju – our last major stop of the trip before just one night in Seoul and the end of the trip.

Walking from the bus station through the public transport network and to our accommodation gave us the most local Korean vibe of the trip so far.

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We thought this institution was pretty racist…

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And before we knew it we had arrived at our accommodation – a traditional Korean “hanok”. We snagged what was to become my favourite photo of the trip.

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A hanok is a traditional Korean house, comprised of a characteristic closed square shape with rooms heated by ondol heated rock and floor bedding. We had rented our very own.

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One of the other unique things about hanoks is the small, winding laneways between them. It is while walking down these streets that you can see how the architecture of the buildings also lends consideration to the positioning of the house in relation to its surroundings. We had some fun exploring them for ourselves.

The Jeonju Hanok Village is arguably the most renowned traditional town in the country. It houses over 800 hanoks, all retaining their original design. Despite the somewhat bustling city just around it, Jeonju Hanok Village was designated an “International Slow City” in 2010 in recognition of its relaxed pace of life where “the past and present coexist in harmony”.

After some discussion, we decided to delay initial plans for a segway tour and instead spend the night exploring our surroundings. There was so much to see, and we didn’t want to be zooming past it at first.

There were some great street snacks in Jeonju. No wonder it’s considered to be the food capital of Korea.

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And then we stumbled across it: Virtual Reality (VR). What better idea than to sink a few drinks and then band together for a virtual rollercoaster? Well we couldn’t think of anything that beat it, so before we knew it we had our headsets strapped on and were gripping onto our seats for dear life.

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This technology is actually getting substantially more advanced. It already makes you feel everything in your gut in a way that other entertainment mediums haven’t been able to in the past. I can’t imagine how much more engaging it will be once the graphics have caught up to the rest of our devices.

After the VR sesh, we found our way to the “rice wine restaurant”, as recommended by our hanok host.

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Now, to make everything clear, we did NOT nominate this restaurant because of the rice wine. In fact, the decision was purely based on which food looked best. We weren’t even planning on getting any rice wine (the primary reason being that I can’t stand it). But, it seemed that you didn’t order food – you simply ordered the rice wine and the food came. So we did just that.

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The rice wine, which was poured out of a giant teapot, was chestnut flavoured and far too sweet. It’s fair to say we hardly got through it, instead focusing on the pork knuckles and omelettes in front of us.

We wound the night away jumping from convenience store to convenience store trying everything we could get our hands on.

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My favourite was this “sandwich”.

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Day 269 (4th of December, 2016) – Jeonju, South Korea

When we arose in the morning, we really weren’t in the game of wasting any time. We knew what we wanted – segways. After updating the parents on our holiday planning earlier in the process, we received substantial criticism and a number of “vetoes” for our idea of hiring an e-bike in Taiwan. And you know what? Fair enough. Too dangerous and insurance doesn’t cover it.

So we came to a compromise.

Segways on pedestrian streets in a much safer country. With segway tours being among the most popular tourist activities, we figured that this was a good middle ground.

But no, that wasn’t good enough for us. It needed more… authenticity. Some traditional Korean clothing – that would do it. After a few brief confirmations from some Koreans that this couldn’t possibly be interpreted as offensive (and many other Koreans were doing it themselves), we hired the clothing of royalty…

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…and boarded our segways.

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We were instant celebrities.

Crowds were literally lining up for photos.

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With our music playing loud and proud, we roamed the streets in our gang. Enjoy our mixtape.

Our fun with the clothing only lasted a little over an hour before it had to be returned. Experiencing a fall from grace not unlike that of Macaulay Culkin or Michael Richards, we decided that it was best that we acknowledged our sudden dismal popularity and instead escape to the outer streets.

Luckily, it was here that we found some good food too.

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After a rest back in the hanok, we got stuck into our evening activity. This was one which was originally planned for our last night in Seoul as the ultimate bonding experience. But, it turned out that Jeonju had a better alternative, and so we jumped at the opportunity.

This one was unique – a Korean spa (also known as jjimjilbang).

Before we faced our deepest fears, we sat down for the last supper before we would bear all (literally).

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Let me fill you in on the culture of jjimjilbang. Jjimjilbang are large bathhouses in Korea, furnished with hot tubs, showers, Korean traditional kiln saunas and massage tables. For some people, these places function as hotels – they can be relaxing to stay in overnight. For others, it’s just a quick after-work ritual to calm down after a stressful day. But the most confronting factor is that for the most part, you are completely nude. Both Lachie and I had experienced similar things in Japan, but this was a different deal altogether. With your closest mates, unashamedly revealing your manhood.

The tensions were running high.

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Ben was understandably worried.

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But you know what, after the awkward five minutes at the beginning, the experience was A LOT of fun. For obvious reasons no photos were allowed, so I’ll use the closest I can find on the internet to give you an idea of what it was like.

We began in the sauna area. It was here that the genders weren’t segregated, and as such you were expected to wear the thin orange garments being handed out. In this area was a large, heated room with people sleeping all over the ground, watching TV, reading manga or tucking themselves into small holes in the wall.

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We decided to head straight towards the saunas. These rooms were kept stable at between 80℃ and 107℃.

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Inside, these boiler rooms were almost unbearable at first. We lay on our towels with only a block of wood to keep our feet off the piping hot floor, staring at the ceiling above which wobbled with heat waves.

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Lachie couldn’t handle it for more than a minute, and fair enough – it’s not for everyone. But for the rest of us, we pushed through another 20 minutes, summoning every cell in our body to focus on relaxing with only the slight whisper of a Korean soap opera playing in the background.

Next up was the real deal – the bath section.There was three pools lined up next to each other with their temperature printed above each one. We would start in the warm one, lower ourselves into the hot one and ten plunge ourselves into the cold (and repeat).

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The warm one was at first unbearable with the temperature at over 70℃. But slowly, our bodies adjusted and we stomached the splitting pains of stepping into the 80℃ pool. The older I get, the more I can handle this sort of heat in a spa. I still get the almost unbearable feeling of the heat expunging all of the air from your lungs, but it’s more about calming down, relaxing, and letting the heat open your pores up.

Or so they say.

The most thrilling bit was definitely walking over to the 20℃ pool, splashing our way past 80 year old nude men and 10 year old boys alike. The water was debilitatingly cold, and we could only submerge ourselves by tensing excessively and then running out immediately after.

The whole culture of this sort of bathing and the irrational fear of nudity makes you realise how Australian culture could be misplaced on this issue. Everyone here just seemed to be going about their own business without care. That’s the way we should be with our bodies. We’d be much healthier and have far less body image issues if we adopted those sorts of attitudes.

After a few rounds of the hot-cold bath routine, we decided to call it a day. Heading towards the exit, I noticed one more pool to the side which I convinced the others to join me in. It had what looked like a lot of seats in it, and a few shower heads.

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This place ended up being the massage pool. The jets were STRONG, and they’d often uncomfortably shoot in areas I’d rather not mention. We braved them all, finishing with the final “shower head”, which in fact was just a pressure hose so strong that it physically hurt to touch any of the water which it whipped at you.

That marked the end of our foray into a Korean jjimjilbang – one which all agreed was one of the more worthwhile experiences of the trip.

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Day 270 (5th of December 2016) – Seoul, South Korea

Minus the clogging of the toilet for the nth time in Jeonju, our departure to Seoul was without issue. The bus was comfortable and speedy, and before we knew it we were in Gangnam Station.

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Exiting the station, we found a particularly funny notice illustrating Korea’s equivalent of calling 000 (112).

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Best of all, finding our accommodation wasn’t hard at all. In fact, it was literally on top of the station.

For $50 each, this centrally located duplex is hardly a bad deal.

We headed straight out to take a look around Gangnam.

For many of you (all of you, actually), the word “Gangnam” would sound familiar. That’s likely because you’d recognise it from “Gangnam Style”, the most viewed YouTube video of all time now with over 2.7 BILLION views. So yeah, this district has become pretty famous as a result.

Let’s see what AirBnB says about Gangnam. They sum it up pretty well.

“À la Manhattan, Gangnam’s blocks tremor with the electronic flow of office life and neon lights. The sheer volume of business buildings that surround this central neighbourhood suggests its daytime occupation – getting things done. While Gangnam’s days move to the steady tick-tock of millions of meetings, Gangnam’s nights churn with hard partiers careening through crowded streets. Its overwhelming atmosphere is also the allure – Gangnam’s mix of briefcase culture and party culture is a modern day marvel.”

Gangnam really started to show its face when the sun set.

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For the most part, the main street of Gangnam was a huge commercial hub. Ben loved this – particularly the big Nike store. While he did his browsing, Lachie, Dylan and I found ourselves at the in-store basketball court.

I was losing my mind at the hologram-esque advertising on all of the floors.

And then we were back home. Not exactly a far walk – it was just above the main street. Because of how far north the country is and with it being winter, it was getting very dark very early and there was no use staying out until dinner.

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Our poor domestic skills showed when Dylan removed his newly bought jumper from the wash only to see that it had shrunken to a little boy’s garment.

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For dinner, we found ourselves at what we initially thought was a Korean BBQ. Instead, it was actually a Chinese skewer BBQ in a Korean style. This was good, because it meant that we could have a good Korean meal for our final night whilst still having the ease of communication through Chinese.

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We ended the evening with heading to a bar to celebrate the final night. Except for a stranger accidentally dancing on (and destroying) my glasses, it was an appropriately fun end to what was one of the best holidays of my life.

From now on, when people ask me the question, “what’s the best country you’ve ever been to?”, I think I’d reply “Japan and Korea”. Such an amazing place. It seemed that we all agreed. We had lots of fun on the holiday debrief arguing over the best, worst and funniest moments. That’s always a good sign.

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Day 271 (6th of December 2016) – In Transit

Our last morning was… rushed. That was all of our fault – we slept in.

Initially, our walk through Gangnam in the morning was relaxed and chirpy as we made our way down to Shake Shack for the final lunch.

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But then, it suddenly occurred to us that Incheon Airport was well outside of the Seoul city proper, and that it might take longer to get there than originally expected. After a quick check on Google Maps, our worst fears were confirmed: we would have to skip our Shake Shack lunch. Instead, we rushed for the airport bus and arrived with good time.

After a painfully long wait to check in and have our baggage opened and inspected, we finally made our way through security. We were all flying to Guangzhou in China on the same flight. From there, Lachie, Ben and Dyl would continue to Sydney. I would stay on, heading to Berlin via Paris instead.

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The reason for the ridiculous amount of flights for me was simply price. I could save $1.5k just by taking this absurd three-leg route. I was prepared for the over 27 hours in transit to save that sort of money.

We finally got our fast food fix at the airport.

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And from there, it was just flying. Flying, flying and more flying. We said our goodbyes at Guangzhou Baiyun Airport after a quick blog post, and then I was on my own. For the first time in what seemed like a long time. It was instantly apparent to me how much of a difference it made having friends around. But it wasn’t long until I’d be joined by someone else – Aimee. But that’s for the next blog post.

Until next time,
Xavier.

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