The ferry docked on time, border control and customs was straightforward and I was in South Korea.
The overnight ferry from Dalian had been perfectly fine – I snoozed for most of the journey. Heading out into the sticky, muggy atmosphere of Incheon wasn’t particularly pleasant, and I hadn’t been able to find out exactly where the ferry was to dock so had a bit of exploring to do to find out where to go.
South Korea had been somewhere I was keen to visit for a while, and Seoul in particular. A city with such an immense history, with mountains overlooking the hustle and bustle of such a dense area, and with such a strong reputation for embracing technology, it was a must see for me.
The journey through the huge metro area from Incheon to Seoul is an easy one on the near silent, air conditioned train. An immediate difference from China, Mongolia and Russia was that almost everyone on the train and the underground were staring into their mobile phones. I hadn’t been quite as aware of the contrast in the last three countries where people actually spoke to each other on public transport.
My first couple of nights were in a hotel near Insa, and this area shows the crazy side of Seoul perfectly. At the time of writing, TripAdvisor states that Seoul has 122,349 restaurants (as a comparison, it states that New York has 13,349) and a walk through an area like Insa shows why this number is probably pretty accurate. Buildings are stacked up with tiny pubs and restaurants all over the place, every doorway or free space, no matter how small, has some kind of food outlet. A door that leads nowhere might have a BBQ behind it and become a new food stop. It’s hard to know where to begin.
In contrast to an area like Insa, crossing the river to Garosu shows a different side to the city. For all it’s still busy, and has little winding streets packed with places to eat and drink, it’s a far more laid back atmosphere. North of the centre of Seoul is Bukchon Hanok village, which is a beautiful, traditional Korean village where the busy city feels quite far away. Bukchon is a winding maze of hills and tiny streets with traditional houses, and in places a fantastic view. The draw to tourists has led to locals asking, even pleading at times, for visitors to respect it as a residential area.
A trip to the DMZ is a must when visiting Seoul. It has to be organised through a tour company and includes a passport check. Visiting there brings about a bit of comedy, disbelief, disappointment.
The comedic aspect is in the propaganda towns on the North Korean side of the river, aiming to portray such a lavish lifestyle to their neighbours in the South. It’s in the “who can have the tallest flagpole” competition that took place. It’s in the utter audacity of the infiltration tunnels, aimed to bring thousands of troops and artillery through such narrow tunnels for an invasion.
But at times it’s uncomfortable. At a view point, tourists looking into the north are laughing at the North Koreans they can see through binoculars, almost in the way some people might laugh at animals at a zoo. And with all of the tourists around, it can be easy to forget that this is a genuine, heated conflict between two countries.
Returning from the DMZ towards Seoul, we stopped at Dorasan Station. This is a modern train station ready to link North and South Korea together and comes complete with customs and border control areas. They’re empty, of course. The passenger information board showing a train to Pyongyang looks quite surreal.
Another must see in the city is the view from Namsan Mountain. Even without heading to the top of the tower, the view from this high up is really stunning and shows the size of Seoul as the city continues towards the mountains or disappears over the horizon.
Scattered across Seoul is a variety palaces which are immaculately kept and show the contrast between history and the modern side of Seoul as a skyscrapers tower over a traditional temple. They’re a nice break from the busy city streets.
Seoul has many highlights for me. The food was outstanding – but I wasn’t quite adventurous enough to try live octopus. The atmosphere across the city is fantastic, from the fast-paced areas to the more relaxed. The mix of modern and traditional buildings is tastefully done, and the scenery with the mountains overhanging Seoul is incredibly picturesque. But after a week, it was time to move on.