Saturday 28 March 2015
So after months of planning, sorting out visas and getting injections for potential diseases I can’t even pronounce, the day has finally come for me to set off on my 3 month journey across the world and back. The trip starts with a National Express coach from Poole to London Heathrow terminal 4. If I could have opted for a more convenient mode of transport for the start of my journey I would have. Let’s just say, the driver liked the rumble strips on the side of the motorway more than your average motorist and had a habit of feathering the accelerator every 5 seconds to ensure he could make as many people queasy as possible. Normally I would have arrived the night before, checked into an airport hotel and breezed into departures, but due to circumstances I decide to travel up today.
So having arrived at the airport a full hour before the check in desk opened, I ticked off a few more levels on Candy Crush Saga on my iPhone. As soon as Korean Air check in desk opened, I was there at the front of the queue.
Check in was painless. They required the credit card I booked my tickets with as validation which was a new one for me and had to sign a declaration to say I purchased the tickets on their website but even that was a breeze.
Getting through security was again simple. Going to Seoul didn’t require a visa in your passport in advance. Once at the other side, it was straight up to the airport lounge for 3:30pm. £30 per person for access to the No.1 Traveller lounge which they actually shared with the Skyteam Lounge. Just remember to bring the email confirmation printout with you otherwise they’ll ask you to forward the original email whilst stood at the front desk. Awkward.
Once past the receptionist, there’s 2 floors of cosy seats away from the hoards in departure. I must say that this is one of the nicest No.1 Traveller lounges I’ve been too. Plenty of hot food from quiche, prawns on skewers, french onion soup, noodles and vegetables. The “help yourself” wine covered Chardonnay, Rose and Savignon Blanc. There is also bubbles, spirits and soft drinks on offer too. A nice little treat before a 12 hour flight from London to Seoul. Let’s just say I definitely made my money back here. Next stop, Seoul…….
Sunday 29 March 2015
After spending over 10 hours plus on a Korean Air plane, I finally touchdown in Incheon International Airport in Seoul. I had mixed feelings about the actual flight. The movie selection was a bit limited. I managed to watch John Wick (Keanu “Whoa” Reeves) for the second time and the seats were solid enough to make my left bum cheek go numb on numerous occasions but the leg room was more than ample for me to stretch out a bit. That was the only real plus point.
Received a very nice welcome from passport control at Incheon by a miserable looking woman who never uttered one word during the whole process. Her computer did all the talking for her, telling me to place my index fingers on the scanner and face the camera at the same time. Arrivals was actually a breeze to be honest. Backpack collected, the next task was to find my way into the city centre.
Decided on taking the bus number 6015 which was convenient parked right outside the airport. The damage was 10,000 KRW per person to Namdaemun Market stop which in today’s exchange rate is £6.58 to be approximate! Once hopped off the bus, I got my bearings and headed off to check into my first accommodation Hotel Shin Shin. Backpack emptied, showered and it was straight out to explore this city which was now starting to light up as the sun began to set in the distance.
First stop this evening was to go up toward the N Seoul Tower located on Namsan Mountain via cable car. As soon as I arrived to purchase tickets, there was an hours wait just to get the cable car to the tower. I as starting to sweat as my body wasn’t us to the “barmy” 18C compared to England. Having sat down for over 10 hours on a plane from the UK, standing wasn’t such a bad idea though. After being packed in like battery hens into the cable car, the ride itself took about 5 minutes. A round trip ticket cost us 8,500 KRW (£5.59) each.
Didn’t bother actually going up to the top of the tower as there’s plenty to see at the base without shelling out more cash for the pleasure and gorgeous views of Seoul’s skyline at night. Plus, you wouldn’t get the view of the tower being lit up all green from the bottom either. One trap that the tourists and locals alike have adopted here is the “love eternal” padlocks on the railings surrounding the tower. They do provide a lovely backdrop to my photos though.
Dinner time next….where to eat. Eventually settled to dine at Andong Jjimdak which seemed busy both upstairs and down.
Had a very tasty Boneless- Jjimdak which was a boneless deep stir chicken with plenty of chili’s accompanied by Soju which is a rice wine with the same taste as Vodka really but not as strong. Only a measly 19% APV. At 3,000 KRD (£1.97), I just had to try it. The whole bill came in at 37,000 KRW (£24.34). Walking back to the hotel to retire, the smells and sights of market and food stalls were amazing. That may be an option for tomorrows dinner.
So, having now stayed awake for what is now nearly 36 hours, I’m struggling to keep my eyes open whilst writing this entry. Time for bed me thinks…..
Monday 30 March 2015
Managed to kip in until the alarm went off at 8am which was amazing since I didn’t sleep for 36 hours previously. Realised my previous entry may have been a load of random words as I was seriously drifting off whilst typing last night.
First stop on the tourist trail was the “Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven” or for short Gyeongbokgung Palace. Built in 1395 it’s been constantly attacked or leveled by the Japanese until 1990 where restoration has gone on since. For anyone who can relate, it’s like building an awesome structure with Lego and then having someone come along and destroying it….Annoying! Good news, however, is no-one has felt that urge to knock down the palace for 25 years since.
Anyway, for an admission of 3,000 KRW each (£2), it’s definitely worth the trip. There’s a free English walking tour around the massive grounds starting at 11am. I opted to buy an English guide book instead right next to the ticket office for 1,000 KRW (33p). Whilst walking around with the free English walking tour, I was off reading my little digestible guide book and exploring myself, occasionally returning back to the tour like it was a security blanket. What I did take away from my visit today was the King had a Queen and “officially” up to 9 concubines! I have nothing unenvious to add to this at all except that the grounds and buildings were amazing to look at in the 20C sunshine. Once you get to about the fourth building though, you do get the “seen one seen them all” syndrome.
Next stop was the Jogye-sa Temple. Free and beautiful to visit. You’ll get to see Golden Buddha Statues and if you’re up for it, practice Buddhism. I was only there really to take pretty pictures and absorb the views after which it was Makgeolli time.
Makgeolli is another rice or wheat fermented drink that’s cloudy. The chosen venue was ‘Story of The Blue Star’. A proper “off the beaten track” kind of restaurant/drinking hole, at 5,000 KRW (£3.29) for a small kettle, this was the end of a cultured day and start of the evening. I found this place down an alley no wider that 2 foot. With hesitation, I parted the green thick see-through PVC curtain into what looked like someones large coal shed. However, the hospitality and Makgeolli made me increasingly forget my basic surroundings.
After a couple of more venues drinking Soju and “Grapefruit” draft beer, it was dinner/supper. Opting for a diner called Yoogane which I stumbled across last night, it ended up being a delicious meal. There was a ring burner built into the table right in front of me and various waiters and waitresses would come by, stir and cook my meal of seafood and chicken in front of me.
I made a vow to myself that during this epic trip, I will refuse to go to any Starbucks, McDonalds or Burger King and instead, go local. Yoogane (been around since 1981) ended up being a chain after walking back to my hotel and spotting their logo several times. It’s not that much of an international chain to count right???
Tuesday 31 March 2015
This morning was an early start as it was DMZ tour day. I’ve been looking forward to this for a while. Up at 6:45am to check in with the tour operator Panmunjom Travel Center for 8am and on the coach for departure at 8:30am. My guide for the day was very entertaining, enthusiastic and shouty at the same time which was funny. Also, we had the pleasure of a North Korean Defector on our trip today. Not sure how much I should write about her as I certainly don’t want to make a certain Kim angry!! Some interesting facts from her though and about life in North Korea and how brainwashed the people are there. I asked the defector what she enjoys the most since leaving the North and she said her freedom and the internet. I know I’d be lost without those things too.
After passing through the Unification gate and getting my passport checked, the first stop was The 3rd Tunnel which the North tried to disguise as a coal mine tunnel when in fact, it was a sly entrance into the South. Taking a 5 minute monorail underground and then walking with a stoop for 5 minutes after that to avoid bashing my brain against the roof of the tunnel, all to see a purpose built wall at the end to stop any invasions happening.
Next stop was the Dora Observatory which for 500 KRW (33p) you can spy over to North Korea through binoculars. It was quite misty so I didn’t see much. After spending 15 minutes there I could hear my tour guide shouting “everyone back on the busssss” in the distance.
From there, we set off to Dorasan Train Station which, very recently, became the furthest you can travel by train toward North Korea. The “southerners” are hoping that by 25 June this year, they can mark 70 years since the end of Japanese occupation by getting the train all the way to Gaeseong, North Korea. One cool thing at Dorasan train station is that you can get a train stamp for Pyeongyang. I was so tempted to stamp my passport but that may screw up any intentions I have of getting into the USA in future. Instead, I stamped my tour coupon. I know, I wimped out but that was my sensible head winning!
Imjingang was next on the list to see a rusty train that was bombed and left in the DMZ with 1,020 bullet holes and a freedom bridge.
By this point, it was 1pm and since skipping breakfast, I was beginning to wane. Tour guide shouting in the distance to get on the bus, it was Bulgogi time. Basically, a beef hot pot on a camp stove. Tasty if not a little greasy. It was included as part of the tour which cost 120,000 KRW (£79) but my bottle of pop was not. That was an extra 3,000 KRW (£2).
2pm came and this is what I was looking forward to all day. We headed toward Camp Bonifas in Panmunjom for a US military briefing and escort. I had to endure a 15 minute slide presentation which felt like an hour. I took this opportunity to get a power nap in. Then it was on a military bus to the Joint Military Area (JSA). Strictly no photos as they didn’t want the “northerners” to suss out their layout.
Ordered to walk in 2 lines, we were told never to point or wave and to only take pictures when authorised by our soldier. The classic image everyone has seen of the South looking at the North and they in turn looking back at us through binoculars was there for me to see.
However, that wasn’t the best bit. I actually got to step into NORTH KOREA!!! Who can say they’ve done that??
Back on the bus and it was an hour ride back to Seoul. Dropped off at the Lotte hotel, it was straight up to the 35th floor for a couple of Kloud beers and views over the city as it slowly began to light up. I was tempted by the bottle of Krug champagne but at a measly 5,445,000 KRW (£3,583) I reluctantly passed…..
Wednesday 1 April 2015
Last day in Seoul today, so it was an early start in order to pack up, check out of my hotel and squeeze in a couple of sights. Being April Fool’s Day, there wasn’t any time to play pranks. Good job I wasn’t at the DMZ today though. With my cheek, I could have well started World War 3 somehow!!
My walking boots were pounding the pavement by 9:30am as I made my way from City Hall to the University area to visit the Trickeye Museum. I’d read about this on Tripadvisor and decided this was right up my street. With a limited detailed map and sketchy Wi-Fi, I arrived at its doorstep by about 11am. Entry was 15,000 KRW (£9.87) which gained me entry into the Trickeye Museum as well as to the Ice Museum.
As soon as I entered the Trickeye Museum, I knew I was going to be there for a couple of hours. How to describe this? Basically, it’s an interactive and fun art gallery where you can have your photo taken within the actual paintings and pictures themselves. I think some photos will explain it better.
The Ice Museum was in the same building and is easier to explain. It’s a huge freezer with ice sculptures and an ice slide. Of course, I had to have a couple of goes!
Anyway, 1:30pm came and it was time to move on unfortunately, over to Gangnam area to visit the Samsung D’light. Opting to take the underground as time was quickly running out for me in South Korea, I took the green line 2, which is the same as the Circle and District line in London. Purchased a “minimum fare ticket” at the machine for 1,150 KRW (76p) and a deposit of 500 KRW (33p) for the travel ticket which I got back at Gangnam station. Was slightly confused when I couldn’t get out of the barriers at the other end. It turns out the minimum fare ticket is literally that! I had to go to the machine and top up the ticket by an extra 100 KRW (7p). Outrageous!!!
Arriving at the Samsung D’light place, this was their far more superior effort at an Apple store. Spread over 3 levels, the first floor was a shop selling the usual TV, computers and phone gadgets. Second floor was more of a play and interaction area showcasing their products. Third floor was an education into how Samsung are continuing to innovate products for the future. I swear, I don’t work for Samsung and confess to owing several Apple products in the interest of fairness. I’m just a gadget man at heart really.
With a heavy heart, I left the Samsung “store” and headed back to Hotel Shin Shin on the underground, shelling out another 1,250 KRW (83p), picked up my back pack and caught the airport bus 6015 back to Incheon International Airport. The beauty about the hotel is that it was centrally located and the bus stop was literally 1 minute down the road. At a cost of 10,000 KRW (£6.58) again, I had just under 3 hours to make it onto the plane. An hour on the bus (power nap included), another 1 hour 15 minutes checking in and clearing security, I made the gate with 30 minutes to spare before I started my 5 hour Korean Air flight to my next destination…
Next stop….Siem Reap, Cambodia.