We left the Hanok Village and headed for Gyeongju, a coastal city north of Busan, which features several UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Because of its role in Korean history, it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in South Korea. We toured Gyeongju National Museum where many treasures were displayed from the time when Gyeongju was the national capital of the Silla Kingdon (57BC-935AD…thanks wikipedia :)). The artifacts were interesting to see but my favorite part were the grounds surrounding the Museum.
- Following the Museum, we walked to the ancient burial mounds for the royalty of the Silla Kingdom. They’re very similar to the pyramids found in Mexico, Egypt, and many other parts of the world. We were able to walk inside Cheonmachong also known as the Heavenly Horse Tomb. It basically looks like a giant hill covered in grass. Inside is a layer of concrete-like material (probably rock), which is then covered in dirt allowing for grass to grow. Over 11,000 artifacts, including paintings, gold crowns, and jade jewelry, were found in Cheonmachong when it was excavated in the early 1970’s (again thank you wikipedia). It was a very interesting thing to see considering I didn’t even know tombs like this existed. Apparently burial mounds can be found in many parts of the world.
- A few of my travel buddies informed me of planking, a new trend that I apparently had missed the boat on. Basically you lay face down anywhere. Its a popular thing among travelers as planking photos have popped up in front of the Eiffel Tower and other touristy destinations throughout the world. It looks incredibly awkward to everyone around which is part of the fun. What better place to do it than at the ancient burial grounds of the Silla Kings? (Clint is owling btw.)
After our tour of the mounds we walked a little further out to the fields surrounding the mounds. There were so many gorgeous flowers and pathways everywhere. It really was one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen…EVER!! I could have spent all day just walking through the gardens and looking at the views of the surrounding mountains. AMAZING!
That night we stayed in Gyeongju. After settling into our bizarre throwback 1970’s hotel. We decided to venture. We walked in the general direction of downtown and happened upon the most random awesome flea market/food market/garage sale/drag show festival thing. There were many tents set up and people were selling everything from socks to souvenirs to dollar store-type items. I bought some handy toothbrush accessories…completely random. There was also a stage with what we assumed was a drag show. The male performers were dressed to the nines in tacky feminine wear, there was even fire breathing. Seriously!
As we were watching the dancing and singing on stage, I recognized a strange smell. Behind us, a lady was frying silkworms and selling them by the cup. During my visit to Korea last year, I became all too familiar with the unique scent of fried silkworms. I was always too freaked out to try them. I asked my friends if they wanted to try the little creatures. Before we knew it, we all had a tiny little silkworm on a toothpick in front of us. I closed my eyes and downed the hatch. It wasn’t bad at first but then I chewed and got that lovely buggy taste. I had to concentrate very hard on swallowing the whole thing. It was my first ‘Bizarre Foods’ moment if you will. Andrew Zimmern would have been proud. Needless to say we tossed our nearly full cup of silkworms into the nearest trashcan. Silkworms probably won’t make it into my menu for ‘last meal on earth’.
After bidding adieu to the south of South Korea, we braved a cross-country road trip. 5 hours (SK is the size of Indiana) and no less than 4 rest stops later, we arrived in the outskirts of Seoul. We had a quick dinner at a restaurant that I swear we went to last year before heading to our hotel in the Yeouido District of Seoul. I was thrilled to stay in the same place for more than one night after a week of bed hopping. Miraculously, my friend Julie from camp found her way to us. I had borrowed a Korean cell phone earlier in the day and was able to text her the name of our hotel in Seoul, the only info I had. She had messaged me the night before saying she would leave Gwangju about 3pm. Luckily when we got to the hotel in Seoul, we had computers and free internet in our room so I was able to send her a few more details. With the help of an ever useful smart phone, she found our hotel in the middle of Seoul and sent me a facebook message when she was in the lobby. Even more luckily, we had an extra bed in our room. It couldn’t have worked out better. About 6 of us Americans and Julie, our fearless Korean leader, set out for Seoul Tower. After about of hour of subways, buses, and finally a cab, we arrived at the top of Namsan Mountain. It was at least a 15 minutes cab ride from the bottom of the mountain to the top, luckily we didn’t try to walk.
The view from the top was gorgeous. I don’t know what it is about being high above a city and looking out onto the bright lights but its breathtaking every time. I’m convinced the fact that its at night is what makes it so amazing. I had the same feeling when I saw the city lights of Paris from the Eiffel Tower and downtown Dallas from the window seat of a plane. My day views of cities have been from the top of the Washington Monument and the Arch in St. Louis both during the day and definitely not as memorable.
For our final and only free day in Seoul, we hit the city early with a stop at the Korean War Museum. There were artifacts from not only the recent war that divided the Korean Peninsula, but also the wars that have happened throughout Korea’s history. It was interesting to read about everything from the viewpoint of Koreans.
Following a harrowing and unsuccessful journey to find Dr. Fish (google it), we headed to Insadong. Insadong is a must see for any visitor to Seoul and Korea in general. It is the go-to place for souvenirs and handmade Korean goods. Although it is touristy, I love the area because there are plenty of locals on the street as well. Its basically a very long pedestrian street filled to the brim with tiny shops, stalls, street food vendors, restaurants, and cafes. The shops sell everything from hand-painted fans to jade jewelry to furniture to traditional Korean clothing. At one point we were looking for the Starbucks to meet up with the friend of a friend and lo and behold, there’s a man standing in the middle of the street with a huge information sign above him. There was an English speaking guide as well as someone who spoke Chinese and Japanese. How handy dandy is that? He even had a map he gave us and circled the Starbucks in red so we couldn’t miss it. You’d be hard pressed to find the same helpfulness with the language of your choice in the middle of Times Square. Koreans are so hospitable. Before we left Insadong I managed to pick up a lovely scarf, a hand-painted shirt with Hangul writing, and a few pairs of socks.
After meeting up with my friend’s friend, we went to Gwanghwamun Palace and Gate. We didn’t have time to go inside but I got some great shots outside. In front of the palace is a large boulevard with statues and fountains. Under the statue of King Sejong (the creator of Hangul, the Korean alphabet) is a large walk-through museum of Hangul. Totally my cup of tea!
Following one of the most intense cultural experiences of my life in the jjimjilbang (read my next post), we met up with Julie and Sue (another of our lovely co-teachers from camp :)) and headed to the Hongdae district. It was one of the craziest places I’ve ever been, even crazier than places in Europe. There are many universities nearby so the crowd is definitely young. We also saw a lot of westerners, lots of U.S. military guys. The streets were jammed with people, club flyers littered the streets, and people sitting in every nook and cranny. There was club after club after bar after bar. Some of the street scenes reminded me of episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. The scenes were he’s sitting at a plastic red table with a few locals outside a tiny little restaurant on a busy street with people shuffling by. He orders the food from a little counter and sits at his table sipping the local liquor and watches the old man in the kitchen cook his food before his eyes. It was such a cool thing to see.
Hongdae is also a shopping area so there were tons of street vendors and small shops. By the time we got there, it was probably 11:30 and the night was in full swing. The stores stay open until at least 3am and the clubs are open beyond that. We stopped in a bar for a bit before deciding to spend our last night taking in the scene and not from a dark crowded basement bar. We walked through the streets for a while before stopping at a place to get some food and drink. Such a fantastic last night in a fantastic city with fantastic friends.