Thursday, August 25, 2016

Trip to Seoul Korea, a city buzzing with life

A visit to Korea is always a cause for excitement. Seoul is a city buzzing with life, from sun-up to sundown.

Upon arrival at Incheon Airport, it was easy hopping into the train that took us to the nation’s capital, and arrived in Hondae (Hongik University) Station in just less than an hour. We arrived on a warm, sunny afternoon, and enjoyed the lush walkways and vibrant university community.

We were warmly welcomed with hot coffee by the Guesthouse staff.

Checking into our 3-bed private room feels like staying in a small but cozy hotel, complete with wi-fi, clean private bath, television, and toiletries. We instantly felt quite at home.

We begin the daily tours after a satisfying breakfast of toast, cereal and milk. What better way to learn about Korea than to “dig deeper” and move closer into its history and borders?

Naturally, our first tour was the half-day DMZ – Demilitarized Zone - Tour (booked through Shore 2 Shore Travel). In a nutshell, it is a tour that takes us back into time, when Korea was at war with itself, and was divided savagely by two ideologies: the democratic and the communist. We hiked deep into underground tunnels blasted away by North Koreans using dynamites, in their attempt to infiltrate into the capital and seize the government. We visited historical monuments, infrastructures, and train lines that were built to “bridge” the gap to future unity.

This tour made me appreciate how important freedom is to any citizen, and how curtailment of that freedom brings about separation, poverty, loss and immeasurable pain. Needless to say Korea’s civil war resulted in a divided people, with families and friends painfully torn apart. I was told by our tour guide Jenny, that even up to this day, many Koreans are forbidden from crossing the DMZ to see the siblings, parents, or children left behind during the war.

For the history buff, this tour offers lots of interesting tidbits about the Korean War, its politics, and the military’s role. That fragile gap dividing the North from the South might not just be enough to thwart another impending war, if they are not careful!

After the DMZ Tour, we are brought back to the city centre, this time to enjoy all the freedom that Seoul has to offer – together with all things “nice and spicy”.

To dine “Korean-style” is enough cause for culture-shock for someone from the Philippines, who is used to dining budget-and-modest style. Sharing is certainly not an option, and each person has to stretch up an appetite enough to accommodate all side and main dishes, to which my companions have to problems at all!

We enjoyed Korean food, served piping hot, and perfectly fit for the cool spring weather. Sumptuous bibimpap meals, meaty barbecues, sweets, crunchy greens, and local spices, chugged down with a bottle of soju (rice wine) can really open up the appetite. As fresh strawberries were also in season, cheap, not to mention HUGE, we ended up getting several boxes back to the hostel to mix into the next day’s breakfast cereals.

At night, the best thing to do would be to stroll along Meongdong for some shopping, cinema, and street food. The streets and underground are alive even at night, with mostly young people swarming into the latest fashion and skin trends, and spending a great time with friends. Insadong, another famous street lined with art galleries, souvenir shops and traditional teahouses, attracts thousands of tourists and shoppers daily. A short distance away is path towards the cable car that took us to N Seoul Tower where visitors can enjoy a splendid 360-degree view of the entire city.

Coming down, pedestrians can also enjoy leisurely walks along the peaceful and clean waters of Cheongyecheon Stream than ran artery-like across the city.

A visit to Seoul would be incomplete without a view of one of its palace grounds, and perhaps make-believe that we are in a period drama like Goong! We visited the UNSECO World-Heritage Cheongdeokgung Palace, and marveled at the huge expanse of land it occupied.

A throng of locals visit it regularly not only to enjoy its lush flowering gardens once upon a time kept only for royalties’ eyes, but also to take “selfies” of themselves wearing the traditional hanbok (Korean costume), and immerse into another period when kings and queens elegantly reigned over the land.

For travelers to Korea who have enough time to kill, a getaway to scenic and romantic Nami Island is highly recommended. Nami Island, the setting for popular Korean telenovelas, is famous for its tree-lined roads, picnic areas, geographic beauty, and interesting attractions.

We took the regular train to Gapyeong Station, and from there, took a taxi to the ferry docking station. Note that discounted rates for the ferry are given to foreigners so don’t forget to bring your passport! The ferry ride took only a few minutes. Upon docking we quickly set out to explore the island. What better, and faster way to see everything than on a bike! And in Nami island, bikes for all types of riders are available for rent – single bikes, couple bikes, family bikes, etc.

Traveling around on two wheels was the most fun thing we’ve ever done in Korea, perhaps because this mobility gives us a certain amount of freedom that is hard to enjoy in the busy city streets. It was a day well-spent, enjoying the breeze, snacking, going the off beaten paths, driving through bike lanes, and having an overview of all the attractions the island has to offer. The island’s rich blossoms, calm ponds, and natural beauty makes it a romantic getaway for young and old alike, and offers a refreshing respite from city life.

Finally, five days have passed and we’ve to head back home. In our return trip, we should surely try out the other tours. In Seoul, the possibilities are endless!

Contributed by Yasmin Ong 2016

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