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Off the beaten track
Korea - Korea at a Glance
all data refer to year 1996

The Land of Morning Calm [Click this link to read the article]
Traveller's Memories: index

South Korea... What a Land! With China looming to its west, Japan nudging it from the east, it's no wonder the country has played unwilling host to centuries of war campaignes. Poking delicately into the Sea of Japan, the little peninsula has proved an irresistibly tasty morsel to its hungry neighbours.
But no matter how often they try to swallow it, Korea, like plasticine, comes out the other end largely intact. Koreans attribute their indigestible culture to the binding agents of Confucianism, language and pride, but I think there is something more rooted in that wonderful People hard to explain but I felt when I've been in Korea.
Korea's stunning landscape has also played a big part in creating a cohesive Korean identity. This is a country swathed in green, prodding its stony fingers skyward, and the Koreans are a people who love nature, and with mountains in particular. Wherever you travel, you'll see them out in the open air.
The Korean People is characterized by his generosity, his warmth and kindness and It they are also known as hard workers.

South Korea has its northern border with North Korea, faces China to the west across the Yellow Sea (West Sea in Korea), and Japan to the east and south across the Sea of Japan (East Sea in Korea). The line dividing the south from the north runs roughly along the 38th parallel. South Korea is 99237 km2, and most of the country, particularly the east coast, is covered in mountains - the highest is Hallasan.
The standard meridian of the peninsula is 135°, 9 hour ahead respect to Greenwicth time.
Korea's history has been plagued by wars, all of which have taken their toll on the environment. When under the control of the Japanese, it was thoroughly logged and mined to support their war effort. However, South Korea is now reafforesting with a vengeance. In the north of the country the environment is alpine, with plenty of beech, fir and pine trees. This is the only part of the country where native animals are hanging on: you might see black bear and deer. Along the south coast things get a bit more tropical and the vegetation is lush. This is where Korea grows its ginseng supplies. The country is dotted with 20 national parks, including the very popular Soraksan, Hallasan and Chirisan parks.
The Capital City of South Korea is Seoul, which is also the main historical, cultural, tourist, commercial, financial and scholastic center of Korea.
South Korea also has 5 metropolitan cities: Pusan, Taegu, Inch'on, Kwangju e Taejon.

Korea has four distinct seasons, with a wet monsoon/summer in the middle of the year, and a very cold winter from November to March. Cheju-do off the south coast is the warmest and wettest place in the country.

Craftman at work - Korean Folk Village According to Korean History, the first of their kin was born in 2333 BC. Less aesthetically-minded scientists believe Korea was first inhabited around 30,000 BC, when tribes from central and northern Asia stumbled on the peninsula. Under constant pressure from China, these tribes banded together to found a kingdom in the 1st century AD. By 700 AD the Silla Kingdom of Korea was hitting its cultural stride, littering the country with palaces, pagodas and pleasure gardens and influencing the development of Japan's culture. But in the early 13th century the Mongols reached Korea and gave it their usual scorched-earth treatment. When the Mongol Empire collapsed, the Yi Dynasty took over and a Korean script was developed.
In 1592 Japan invaded, followed by China - the Koreans were routed and the Chinese Manchu Dynasty took over. Turning its back on the mean and nasty world, Korea closed its doors to outside influence until the early 20th century, when Japan annexed the peninsula. The Japanese, who hung on until the end of WW II, were harsh masters, and anti-Japanese sentiment is still strong in Korea. After the war, the USA occupied the south of the peninsula, while the USSR took over the north. Elections to decide the fate of the country were held only in the south, and when the south declared its independence, the north invaded. The ensuing war lasted until 1953. By the time the war ended, two million people had died and the country had been officially divided. After a few years of semi-democracy in the south, martial law was declared in 1972. The next 15 years rollercoastered between democracy and repressive martial law, hitting a stomach-heaving low in 1980 when 200 student protesters were killed in the Kwangju massacre. By the late 80s the country was at flashpoint - student protests were convulsing the country and workers all over Korea were walking off the job to join them. Among the demands were democratic elections, freedom of the press and the release of political prisoners. The government wasn't budging and civil war looked imminent until, to everyone's jaw-dropping surprise, President Chun suddenly decided that everything the protesters were asking for was alright by him.
In 1988 - the year Seoul hosted the Olympic Games - elections were held and Roh Tae-woo, another military figure, was elected president. Student protests continued apace, but contrary to expectations Roh significantly freed up the political system. Relations were re-established with China and the Soviet Union. In 1992 Roh was replaced by Kim Young-sam and his Democratic Liberal Party. Kim's hobby horse was corruption, and during his term of office several politicians were prosecuted for rorting the system. Most notably, ex-presidents Chun and Roh were brought to book for their role in the Kwangju massacre. Roh was sentenced to 22 years, Chun to death, but it's expected that both will eventually be pardoned. 1997 was a very bad year for South Korea's economy, with the won taking a tumble and tourism dropping dramatically. In February 1998, former dissident Kim Dae-jung became president, the first time a non-conservative had headed the country in its 50 years of independence. Kim promised to introduce economic and democratic reforms and improve relations with North Korea. By mid-1998 the South Korean economy was actually shrinking - something that hadn't occurred for nearly two decades. Rising bankruptcies and soaring unemployment have led to large-scale labour unrest.

Korean society is based on the tenets of Confucianism, a system of ethics developed in China around 500 BC. Confucianism is big on devotion and respect - for parents, family, friends and those in positions of authority. Confucious also emphasised justice, peace, education, reform and humanitarianism. Many Koreans attribute their country's remarkable success in recent decades to this attitude. In modern Korean society, Confucianism is most noticeable in relations between people. The Five Relationships prescribe behaviour between ruler and subject, father and son, husband and wife, old and young, and between friends. If you fall outside any of these relationships, you do not, effectively, exist. Many travellers to Korea find the locals rude: they're probably not, chances are they just haven't noticed you. Once you're introduced to someone, you'll fall within the rules for friends and things will start looking up.

The South Koreans have turned their hand to just about any artform you can name. Traditional music is similar to that of Japan and China, with an emphasis on strings. The two main forms are stately chongak and folksier minsogak. Among the folk dances are drum dances (sungmu - a hectic, lively dance where the participants wear drums around their necks), mask dances (t'alchum) and solo dances (salpuri - these are usually improvised).
The most important work of Korean literature is Samguk Yusa, written in the 12th century by the monk Illyon. Recent literature has had a dissident twist to it, with lots of work being produced by student protesters and Taoist-style ecologists.
Koreans also consider their language an artform, and are particularly proud of their script, Han-Gul.
Korea is also strong in the visual arts. Traditional painting has strong Chinese and calligraphic elements, with the brush line being the most important feature. Most traditional sculpture is Buddhist, and includes statues and pagodas - one of the best Buddhas is at Sokkuram. Shamanists do a great line in wood carving.
Seoul has several art sculpture parks, where modern sculptors show their works. Seoul is also a showpiece of modern and traditional architecture, including the city gates and the Chosun-era Kyongbokkung Palace.

The mainstay of Korean cuisine is kimch'i - grated vegetables mixed with chily, garlic and ginger and left to ferment. Whatever you order, kimch'i will probably arrive with it. The national dish is pulgogi, or fire beef. Strips of beef are marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic and chilli and cooked on a hotplate at the table.
The most popular street food is pancakes, including p'ajon (green onion pancakes) and pindaeddok (pancake with bean sprouts and pork). Korea's social life revolves around tea and coffee rooms, and while you're here you should definitely try some of the country's famous herbal teas. If you're keen for something harder, keep an eye out for makkoli jip, the Korean version of the local pub.

On Sokchonje (held in March and September), crowds gather at Confucian shrines to hear traditional court orchestras and watch costumed rituals. The best place to see this ceremony is at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul. Lantern parades are held for Buddha's Birthday, celebrated in late April or early May. The most important of Korea's lunar holidays is the Harvest Moon Festival, which falls in early September. Cities throughout the country empty as people return to their family homes to pay homage to their ancestors. Around September you can enjoy a hanjongshik of Korean culture at the National Folk Arts Festival.

Visas: If you have an onward ticket and you're not from a country not recognised by South Korea, you can stay in the country for 15 days without a visa. If you're from western Europe or Canada, you can get up to 180 days visa-free... This is not true for every European State, so check it out at a Korean Ambassy.
Everyone else has to extend after their first 15 days. Extensions last for around 90 days, and if you know you're going to need one it's worth getting it before you leave home.
Health risks: No particular risks, but you should consider vaccinations for hepatitis, typhoid, polio and tetanus and diphtheria.

The Currency is Korean Won (KRW)

Some daily costs (on 1998):

South Korea is steadily shouldering its way into the big league when it comes to costs - Japan is about the only place that's still more expensive. If you're slumming it, self-catering and staying in the same place as much as possible, you might be able to get by on $40 a day. If you've got a few more dollars to throw around, it will make your trip much more enjoyable - for less than $65 a day you can eat and sleep well, move around a bit, enjoy some nightlife and buy a few souvenirs. If you smile and ask politely you'll get some discounts.
Remember: everywhere you go, you'll need WON. Cash US dollars are the easiest to exchange, but any other hard currencies, especially Yen or Euro, shouldn't pose a problem.
You'll get a better rate on travellers' cheques - those in US dollars will be more widely accepted - than cash.
There are ATMs (Automatic Teller Machines) all over Seoul, Pusan and other major cities, but the instructions are in Korean. International credit cards are widely accepted and in many banks one may also have cash advance.
South Koreans don't expect you to tip, particularly as a 10% service charge is added to the bill at tourist hotels. You'll be wasting your time bargaining in department stores - you'll have about as much chance as you would in K-mart - but you might as well give it a go in small shops and markets. Even fancy-looking tourist shops will usually bend a little on their prices. I repeat: if you're going to haggle, be polite, smile and don't get grumpy.

If you possibly can, time your visit to South Korea for Autumn (September to November). It's sunny, the skies are blue, and Korea's spectacular Autumn foliage is a real drawcard. Winter is cold but dry, and a good time to visit if you like skiing, snow-draped temples, a dearth of tourists and crisp (ie below freezing) weather. Spring (April to May) can be beautiful, but it's also the most popular time with Japanese tourists and you'll have trouble getting mid to top-end accommodation. Summer is hot, muggy, crowded, wet, typhoon-prone and expensive.

Seoul is mega-modern and appealingly ancient. Flattened in the Korean War, most of the city has been rebuilt since the 1950s. Peeking out from among the 12-lane freeways, overshadowed by high-rises, Seoul has a hidden history of centuries-old temples, palaces, pagodas and pleasure gardens. It also has cheap accommodation, excellent public transport and cultural experiences aplenty, and that's why most visitors to South Korea never get past its city limits. The Han-gang River bisects the city, with Chung-gu the central district, Chongno-gu (with most of the budget hotels and sights) to the north, and It'aewon-dong (packed full of shopping, bars and nightlife) just south of the city centre.
INSADONG shops Seoul's cheapest netcafe is probably 'Highway' in Noryangin (Phone: 884 0730). It's pretty central and currently offers a special membership deal for foreign visitors that gives you a month's unlimited net time for the price of four movie tickets (around 20,000 Korean won - about US$12).
They might be putting the price up in September though... But you can get free access to the internet at the KNTC Tourist Information Centre.
Generally if you are lost in Seoul you will have no problem finding English speaking people, but in other areas, you may run into difficulty. Make sure you stock up on information at the airport: the Korea Tourist Board puts out many colourful and informative pamphlets. As is probably the case in most countries, a smile goes a long way. Korean people may appear hesitant at first, but I have been struck by the real kindness and concern to ensure that we are comfortable during our stay here.
If you have a problem communicating with taxi drivers, contact Goodwill Guide Taxi. The drivers speak Japanese and English so you just ring for a taxi by telephone (3431-5100) or look out for the Goodwill Guide Taxi sticker on the rear window of the taxi. The Goodwill Guide Taxi also provides a concise tour guide of Seoul and its vicinity and has tourist information brochures and guide books. The fare is the same as a normal deluxe taxi.
Seoul is justifiably famous for its palaces. Kyongbokkung Palace is the best known. Built at the beginning of the Yi Dynasty, most of the 500 buildings in the palace grounds were destroyed when the Japanese invaded. Reconstructed in the late 19th century, destroyed again in the Korean war, the palace and its grounds have now been entirely restored once more. The palace is actually several buildings, including one of the most exquisite pagodas in the country and an enormous two-storey throne room. The National Folk Museum in the grounds of the palace is dedicated to showing how ordinary Koreans have lived through the ages. Another palace highlight is Ch'anggyonggung Palace, built in 1104. Once the rulers' summer palace, the Japanese downgraded Ch'anggyonggung to a park, but there are still plenty of Koryo Dynasty drawcards, including astronomical instruments, a botanical garden and stone bridges. Cross a footbridge from the palace and you're at the Chongmyo Shrine, where the ancestral tablets of all 27 Yi Dynasty kings are enshrined.
ITAEWON If a bit of a chat with the locals is what you're after, head south-west of Ch'anggyonggung to T'apkol Park, where crowds of friendly elderly folk sit around talking about the weather. This is where the Declaration of Independence was first read in 1919, and murals around the park are dedicated to the independence movement. The park is named after the marble pagoda (t'apkol) in its grounds. The city's other great park is Namsan, south of the city centre. The third tallest tower in the world, the Seoul Tower is within the park, and it's packed full of tourist fun - an aquarium, games room and the thrillingly-named Fancy World. For more sobering tourist experiences, try the War Memorial in the Yongsan-gu military base, touted as one of the best museums in Seoul.
National Treasure No 1 is the Namdaemun Gate, once Seoul's chief city gate. The gate, built in the 14th century, is near the Seoul train station. Its solidity and calm elegance make it an island in a sea of traffic. In complete contrast, Lotte World is mall culture gone mad. South of the river, Lotte World has its own ice skating rink, hotel, swimming pool and the Disney-clone Lotte World Adventure - hours of family entertainment.
The city centre is your best bet for budget accommodation, while Chung-gu has most of the mid-range places. Touristy It'aewon is where the moneyed traveller will find digs to suit. You can grab a cheap Korean feed from the basements of department stores in the city centre, but if you can't deal with kimch'i for breakfast, 7-Elevens all over the city will do you coffee and doughnuts. Those longing to dance the night away should head to It'aewon or Kangnam. If a quiet drink is more your style, Seoul's best pubs cluster around the Shinch'on subway station.

It sounds cheesy, but the Korean Folk Village is actually a very tasteful way to immerse yourself in rural Korean life without the nastiness of dusty bus trips, strange food and dubious guest houses. The village has examples of traditional peasants', farmers' and civil officials' housing styles from all over the country, as well as artisans' workshops, a brewery, a Confucian school, a Buddhist temple and a market place. This is a real village, not just a tourist show - the people you'll see working here live here all the time. There are regular dance performances and parades held every day. Buses go here every 20 minutes from Seoul.
The Korean Folk Village shuttle bus departs from Suwon station plaza. The last bus for Suwon station leaves outside the Folk Village at 3.30pm in Winter, and 4.30pm in Summer. But there are also direct buses from Chamsil.


The Land of Morning Calm [Click this link to read the article]
Traveller's Memories: index
© Paolo Botton