Before visiting South Korea, I had never imagined a country that had been living in the shadow of China and Japan for thousands of years could preserve their culture so well; similar but always unique!
Just stumbling his way out from post-war trauma, now neighboring his troubled cousin in the north, it is hard to believe that South Korea spent only half a century to become one of the top economies on earth. Our business trip with Odynovo Tours gave us an eye-opening chance to see what this miraculous nation could offer. While it takes only 2.5 hours to travel from Seoul to Busan by Korean Train Express, it took us 8 days and 7 nights to have covered Seoul, DMZ, and Suwon in the north; Busan and Gyeongju in the south.
As their proverb goes, "Even if you have to crawl on your knees, get yourself to Seoul!" There are around 11 million people live in Seoul. This is a very modern city full of energy and surprises! But what this sleepless city really inspired us was the comprehensive urban value notion - Seoul takes in everything, the old, the new, the modern, the sexy, the happy, the sad… Every single element finds its own piece of space here.
The city has gone through several major urban renewal projects during the five decades after the war; but its core always remains unchanged - efficiency, discipline, and politeness. "The Benevolent lives by the mountains," our guide told us, "and Seoul shows exactly the trait, 70% of South Korea's territory is made up by mountains, and Seoul is, particularly generous and that is partly why one-fifth of our population chooses to live and thrive here." Nice people, great food, and endless creativities that make this city stand out from the other Asian cities. I loved standing at the open platform surrounded by traditional Hanok houses overlooking the modern city; and also enjoyed sipping a cup of coffee in the artsy Samcheong Dong alley.
The harmony breaks only with one hour's drive. Soldier's confrontations, family separations; plots, breach of the peace treaty, nuclear weapons; you find your answers at the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) near the 38th parallel north.
We immediately felt the lingering tensions when we arrived at DMZ. There were soldiers checking everyone's passports and we were told to stay at each site for a given time. At Imjingak, a lot of public petitions were hung from the compelling wire entanglements, begging, crying out for peace and family reunions. I imagine North Korean people do the same, but the only thing we could peep into North Korea's territory was the "propaganda village" with the world's third tallest Panmunjom flagpole (160m), and the hovering eagles through Dora Observatory. Under the ground was the 3rd infiltration tunnel - a damp, narrow tunnel stretching 1.6 km across the border dug by North Korea in order to overturn the South Korean government, with the capacity of transferring 30,000 soldiers to the south per hour. We had a chance to pass through the steep tunnel, and at the 260 meters barricade area we saw dynamite holes, and coal dust disguised as to dig for the coal mine, all the excuses given by the north seemed very ridiculous on the site.
What has turned a family into the enemy? South and north could never be able to return back again. People tend to forget their past, especially after several generations. After all, we are only small countries struggling between the superpowers, this is our fate." Our guide David said softly. We felt sorry for him but we could do nothing. Time stands against us, it also heals us.
If Seoul is a modern girl, then Busan, the second largest city in South Korea, is an unsophisticated woman. Thanks to its location, Busan did not suffer too much during the Korean War, and this kept this city intact. I like Busan, not only did it provide endless charming coastal lines and various types of seafood; but also Busan people's down-to-earth attitude and straightforward personalities. These made our trip so enjoyable. "Oso Ou Sai Yo!" Stepping into small restaurants in Busan, we were warmly welcomed by the hosts and hostesses, and we always felt like we were at home. We do not speak Korean, but language really did not matter that much at that moment; a genuine smile told us everything.
Seafood is everywhere in Busan, even inside the downtown area. We spent the whole afternoon exploring Jagalchi Fish Market to see the weirdest seafood; indulging ourselves in the unrivaled 360 panoramic Busan view from Busan Tower; and found our joy wandering in a glittering array of inexpensive items in Gukje market.
Sitting in the car heading to Gyeongju from Busan, I felt like I was sitting in a time machine. In 1.5 hours we travel from modern Busan to the thousand years old capital city of Shilla Kingdom, Gyeongju. And it is amazing that modernity leaves no traces here in this "museum without walls". No tall buildings. At the city center, the deserted tumuli ancient royal graveyards, Cheomseongdae ancient observatory allow us to ponder on the heydays of the Korean Peninsula. The two UNESCO sites - Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto represent the highest achievements of its history.
The eight days Korea trip offered so many surprises than I originally pictured. Nanta show, Korea House, Gangnam style, Jimjil Bang, Jeju Island, Nami Island, Ski resorts…My bucket list goes on but I could never tuck them at one time in our 8 days' itinerary.
Korean people advocate harmonious ways of living and working; just like their national flag shows - Balance. While people enjoy state-of-the-art technologies, they still live in Hanok and behave humbly and respect each other.
South Korea is a highly hierarchical society and that is why you see people pouring Soju (Korean's alcoholic beverage) with both hands, bowing to seniors and speaking in honorific forms. Confucius is in their bones, Confucian even runs in their blood. But tradition does not stop them from embracing western culture; Koreans always find ways to integrate new things into their own culture. They are heavy coffee drinkers but they drink east-west blended coffee. Started as a fashion copier, and now Dongdaemun fashion decides what people wear these days.
Traditional but open, conservative but modern, South Korea, one of its own kind.