I wasn’t going to visit the Korean peninsular without attempting to get into North Korea.
Well, by “attempting” I mean “paying for a trip” and “North Korea” I mean the Joint Security Area.
The DMZ, or demilitarised zone, is a strip of land around 2km wide which covers the entire border between North and South Korea. The JSA is a tiny section of this where talks and negotiations take place: a makeshift hut slap-bang on the border, precisely half in each country, is the epicentre. It’s arguably the most interesting place to visit and an essential part of any trip to South Korea.
It was also temporarily closed to visitors.
This was due to imminent talks taking place three days later between the leaders, so I deemed it a reasonable excuse not to let me in and went on a tour of the DMZ anyway, sans JSA, and feeling rather aggrieved at their ill-timed political processes.
After the wash-out that was Busan, I was determined not to make the same mistake twice. So I gave myself a week’s notice and pored over Seoul’s accommodation options before choosing one with universally excellent reviews and the promise of a beautiful breakfast.
I had high hopes but low expectations and it was with some surprise that I discovered that my guesthouse was nestled deep in the heart of Bukchon Village: a higgledy-piggledy district of alleyways and single-story hanoks, the oldest part of Seoul, and bordered by two palaces and three mountains.
There is a peculiarly Korean activity and it is to spend the night in a sauna.
It’s not quite what you’re thinking. For one, you’re not literally in the sauna itself . . . unless you want to be. And secondly . . . it’s not remotely dodgy.
Jimjilbangs, as they’re known, are essentially bathhouses, and you’ll find them in every city, town and village throughout the country – although most are significantly smaller than the one I visited. They’re open 24/7 and you can enter or leave whenever you want, which makes them the ideal crash pad for exhausted office workers or late-night clubbers or just a safe, friendly space for a gang of friends to spend an evening. I knew I had to experience this before leaving and had heard good things about Siloam in Seoul: not as glitzy or touristy as the much-touted Dragon Hill Spa, but still attended by enough foreigners that there would be some English instructions, and my flabby white body wouldn’t receive too many curious/disgusted glances.
Do you want to know the hardest thing about staying in Korea? Wrapping my brain around the similarly-named cities. I stayed in eight places altogether, three of which were called Gyeongju, Gwangju, and Gongju. That said, either my pronunciation is top-notch or the bus stations employ really excellent staff because I ended up in the right place every single time.
Although I didn’t know it before I got there, Gwangju is infamous for being the site of a horrific government-sanctioned massacre of protesters. The “Tiananmen Square of Korea” happened in 1980 and eventually sparked significant changes in Korea’s political situation, leading to the government of today. Nonetheless it remains deeply controversial, not least because nobody is entirely sure how many people died; 207 minimum, but some sources suggest ten times that.
There’s a knack to enjoying short, sharp visits to large, intimidating cities.
Book yourself some bloody good accommodation.
By “good”, I don’t mean expensive, plush, or in the thick of the action. A balcony on the 18th floor and crisp Egyptian cotton won’t make a blind bit of difference when you’re sitting there alone, wondering what to do with the empty hours stretching out before you. No, what matters primarily is the host: someone who is besotted with their city, and not just willing but actively keen to pass on their inside knowledge so that you, too, will grow to love it as much as they do. That’s why I’m such a huge fan of AirBNB which (when you get it right) embodies all of these glorious traits. (I wish I were paid by AirBNB to advertise their services. I’m not though, sadly. I’m just a fan. Although if you’re considering trying it then use this link and we’ll both get £13 off when you make your first booking. Everybody wins).
Of course, this didn’t happen when I went to Busan and left it far too late for decent accommodation. So I ended up in my worst kind of place: a basic, faceless backpacker hostel next to the train station, and I arrived in bucketing rain which took away any remaining joy. To make it even less appealing, I’d paid for a single room, but all this meant was that I got shoved into one of the 4-bunk dorms with the promise that nobody else would be joining me, and strict instructions not to use the linen on any of the other pre-made beds. And so it was that I spent my first night in Korea’s second city sleeping on a lower bunk with rain-damp clothes hanging next to my face, and a cardigan rolled up under my head to bolster the pathetically thin pillow.
It’s so glamorous, this travelling lark.
I found my Andong accommodation through AirBNB, which is making more of a stir in these parts than I’d expected. Although recently built, it was the real Korean deal: a tiny, self-contained, hanok-style apartment in the garden of the main house. It sat next to the front gate – an old, pleasingly solid wooden number sealed with a weighty beam that got hefted into place at night.
The owners, who didn’t speak a word of English. were all smiles, even though I’d arrived far later than intended. They turned on the ondol (underfloor heating, found in every Korean house) and left me to it. With handy bus times stuck to the wall, wifi, and my own bathroom and kitchen, I needed nothing else. Well, actually, I could have done with a hand translating the loo which – somewhat incongruously against the classic sliding doors, wood-carved wardrobe, and frilly counterpane – was a terrifyingly modern Japanese device with buttons on the side. After two days using that contraption, I’m still not entirely sure that the water jets went where they were supposed to and frankly I feel rather violated.
Planning this trip didn’t really allow time for panic. It happened so quickly, in the event, that every spare moment was taken up with the practicalities of leaving home for six months and planning the initial stages. I doggedly fixated upon making it to Vladivostok via all the intended stops, and didn’t allow myself to think much beyond that.
The Trans-Siberian passed in something of a whirlwind and without any warning, it was time for Peter to leave. We had previously made the decision to part ways post-Russia; he to Melbourne for a wedding, and then to New Zealand for three weeks. Having already visited New Zealand, and with no overwhelming desire to go to Australia, I decided I’d rather spend my precious time exploring South Korea; a country that Peter had already been to and I knew nothing about. So I tearfully waved him off on Vladivostok’s airport shuttle train and suddenly there I was, alone, at quite literally the ends of the earth.
And suddenly it all felt very overwhelming.