Because the university where I teach has semester breaks every 11 weeks, I’ve been able to do a lot of travelling over the last 8 months. For April, I debated between Japan and Korea but decided that I really wanted to explore the country where so many of my students and coworkers, friends, and family have lived. A special bonus was that my time off would coincide with the cherry blossom season in Korea. First, I visited Seoul for 3 nights and 2 days, staying at G Guesthouse in Itaewon. When I arrived, I was very happy to learn that this is an extremely international neighbourhood. I had the chance to have Turkish, African, Indian, and Mexican food during my stay. I visited Dongdaemun traditional market and the very large DDP, Dongdaemun Design Park, with some space for a museum, art gallery, creation, and marketing. There was an interesting lighting and jewelry exhibit there. In the evening, I went to Gangnam, to visit the brand new Apple Store and to replace my lost iPad. It’s always interesting to me to watch the energy in an Apple Store. A schoolboy who was about 12 was working at the Genius Bar on video-editing while I set up my new device. Gangnam (famous for the song) is really a pretty classy neighbourhood with some interesting stores, including LUSH, one of my favourite stores for body products. Taxis back and forth to the other side of the river were only about $5.
On my second full day, I visited another traditional market: Gwangjang/Kwangjang. I’ve been collecting colourful cottons on all of my travels and this market had a huge selection of fabric. However, the majority was silk and fabrics that are suitable for hanboks (the traditional Korean garment). Nevertheless, I was able to find a couple of uniquely Korean cotton patterns on my journey. Not only that, I discovered some terrific Kimbap (Korean-style “sushi) as well as a wonderful dumpling soup. There were so many great food stalls at the market. In the evening, I enjoyed the rooftop with a group of people from the guesthouse. The owners, staff, and guests were all very friendly and helpful at G Guesthouse. Laundry and fresh-brewed coffee were free.
When it was time to leave Seoul, I started out early for Gimpo Airport. I expected to only take 2 trains but I probably got on 5-6 trains to get to my destination. Instead of checking the map carefully, I got onto one train after another only to realize that I was going in the wrong direction. Luckily, the trains run very frequently so I could easily get out and cross the tracks to the right train. Finally, I took my time to examine the map carefully and I really focussed on what train I needed to take and what stop I needed to get out at. There are lots of English signs but it’s easy to get mixed up if you don’t pay close attention. Because I left very early, I still had lots of time to relax at Gimpo before my flight to Jeju. When I arrived at Jeju Island, luggage was available immediately and as soon as I stepped into the arrivals area, there was a tourist information booth straight ahead. I told them what guesthouse I needed to go to and they wrote out excellent instructions, giving me a map and telling me how much money it would cost to take a bus. Everywhere that I travelled, there were these wonderful tourist information booths where the staff spoke great English and where they worked very hard to help me. This was the best thing about travel in Korea and the transit was the second best thing. I loved the country but this reduced so much stress for me.
I arrived at Jeju in the early evening. I noticed that I didn’t pack my container of vitamins and medications. In most Asian countries, it’s very cheap and easy to buy these things. I learned right away that this isn’t true in Korea. One must have a prescription for many medications. Supplements (Turmeric and Calcium-Magnesium) are extremely expensive. As a result, I went to the nearby market where I was able to buy powdered turmeric to take. My knee arthitis was pretty sore for the next few days. The area near the guesthouse had lot of restaurants, bars, cafes, and small shops. I was able to eat well on Jeju. One thing that I really wanted to do in Korea was to visit a hot spring, since that’s a very popular activity for Koreans. I learned that most of the interesting places on Jeju are not in the city. However, the bus service is excellent. I tried using Google Maps to find my way to places like the bus terminal. That didn’t work very well. My friend in Korea suggested Kakao Maps, which gave much better information, but mainly in Korean. At the bus terminal, they showed me the one bus that would take me almost directly to the hot spring. It was about an hour bus ride. All of the bus trips on the island cost just over a dollar if you have a T-Card, which you can buy and load at convenience stores. I have no photos of the hot spring because they aren’t permitted. Once you’re inside, everyone everywhere is completely naked. There are separate areas for men and women. The water there has very high Bicarbonate levels. In the unheated pool, it felt like sitting in a drink of soda. It was a very pleasant and relaxing place to spend time. Many of the older Korean women were curious about me, where I was from, and whether I was travelling alone. Apparently, travelling alone is very admirable!
I should have eaten some oranges on Jeju because they grow everywhere and they looked very fresh and delicious. However, they were usually set up to sell to tourists in large, expensive boxes. The flowers all over the island were really lovely, including the cherry blossoms. On my last morning in Jeju, I visited a traditional market, which was quite easy to find by bus.
My guesthouse there was in a great neighbourhood but it wasn’t a great place to stay. It seemed like it was just a private residence for the “staff” who rarely seemed to work. They took over the “community room” eating and drinking noisily until late at night, as well as taking up all of the kitchen space in the morning when the guests were trying to cook and eat.
I realized that I really planned too much travel, going to 3 different Korean cities in 1 week, but they were all places that I wanted to see. After Jeju, I flew to Busan, in southeast Korea, and located right on the shore. I stayed in the northeast part of the city, at Song Jeong Beach. Again, the tourist information booth at the airport gave me a map and wrote detailed instructions to travel to the area by train, as well as to give to a taxi driver at the train station. It was great to check in and realize that I was only about 50 metres from the seashore! There were surf shops everywhere, as well as food trucks selling toast (?!). The area around the guesthouse was very peaceful and there were some really lovely restaurants and cafes nearby. I ate a hamburger in a “bao” bun (steamed bun), which was really delicious. Although the guesthouse was lovely, it was nearly empty. I had one roommate and there may have been one other guest staying there the first night. I chatted a fair amount with my roommate, a Taiwanese travel expert who had studied in Scotland. The second night, she and I explored the area for food, and she had already researched the best eating options. We enjoyed Korean fried chicken, which was very tasty. During the day, I visited my former classmate from the CELTA program. He has a young family now and lives near another beach (Gwangam). Although his area is very nice, it’s much more built up so it was less relaxing to be there. We had some fantastic, fresh-roasted Ethiopian coffee from a barista school in the neighbourhood. In Busan, I was able to really see the cherry trees in full bloom, all along the boulevards.
My final day was mainly spent on travel. I took a taxi to the Busan train station, which was $20 and only took 1/2 hour in the very early morning. I was kind of sad to be at the train station so early because it was really uncomfortably cold there. However, it was a beautiful building and the train ride to Seoul was very comfortable. It was easy for me to take the train back to G Guesthouse to pick up the vitamin case I had left there. They let me keep my bags there while I went for lunch and toured the area one last time. Then, I took the train back to Incheon Airport and relaxed until flight time. It was very easy to check my bag and to get my tax refund from the iPad I purchased.
All in all, I would say that Korea is a very good place to visit if you just take a little extra time to read signs wherever you go. People are very helpful if you have any trouble. My accommodation and transportation were quite reasonable. Meals were about $20/day. The hot spring was the only place that I visited that cost money ($12) and there was plenty to see and do, everywhere that I went. Coffee and beer were both expensive: $5+ for coffee everywhere I went. It was always good-quality coffee. Beer was often $8/bottle, about $3-4 from a convenience store. If you have the time and money to visit Korea, I highly recommend it!