Once they lived shoulder to shoulder in harmony but for the past 70 years, they are at loggerheads. The changing contours of politics might have created two countries, but these two states are technically still at war as they haven’t signed a peace treaty after the Korean War. On one hand, you have a democratic, free and prosperous South Korea and on the other hand a secretive and an autocratic North Korea. This engrossing history was the fuel that took Pratheesh Jaison, an engineer and avid traveller, to the Korean peninsula. He was also harbouring a desire to have a glimpse of North Korea from the borders of neighbouring South Korea.
Thiruvananthapuram-native Jaison went to the Korean region in November last, when the contagious coronavirus, which would later wreak havoc across the world, was unheard of. As there were no travel restrictions at that time, getting a visa was not a problem for Jaison as he presented the requisite papers along with a detailed travel plan. He got the visa within 3 to 4 days and reached Seoul, the capital of South Korea, after a close to 9-hour flight from Dubai in the UAE.
There was a nip in the air as Jaison touched down in Seoul though winter was not at its peak in November. The trees had shed their leaves and taken a different hue. Onboard the flight, Jaison had to give in writing that he had no fever and other illness as there was an outbreak of bird flu. There were stringent screening at the airport too before the passengers were allowed to board the flight, he says.
"I exchanged some dollars for the South Korean won and also bought a SIM card. South Korea has ultra-high-speed mobile internet, fastest in the world, and the internet and call tariffs are also low," he notes. A tourist SIM card provides an exhaustive map of the Seoul city’s public transport and a travel card, which could be used for shopping.
No one hails taxis
Taxi is a sign of pomposity as the Seoul city has a robust public transport system. Without any hassles, Jaison reached Hongdae, a happening place for the youths, after travelling on train and metro train. The trendy Hongdae, situated at the heart of the city, is known for its coruscating nightlife, and Jaison stayed at a place near it. Restaurants decorated with gleaming lights are lined up on the two sides of the road. But unfortunately, Jaison was shown the door when he tried to enter an eating outlet. Reason: entry allowed only for a minimum of two persons. A companion is a must if one has to dine in a restaurant.
"A lady was selling some fried dish on the roadside and I bought it with a certain degree of trepidation. But thankfully it turned out to be tasty chicken-based delicacies," says Jaison.
A group of young people is dancing to the thumping tune of pop music in a street corner and a number of tourists are intensely following their groovy moves with great curiosity. For these youths music and dance are their life, he notes. Jaison, like others, had a notion that all Korean look alike but that was put to rest as time passed by.
"I think Koreans are not used to people sporting moustache and beard. Many were staring at me as I had a moustache and beard, and two children also took a snap with me," recollects Jaison.
An unfulfilled dream
After setting foot on Seoul, the first thing Jaison enquired is how to visit the North Korean border. Whether it was possible to travel to the Korean Demilitarized Zone? But all the tour operators answered in one voice that entry is barred due to certain technical issues. And that was a huge dampener for Jaison who longed to visit the North Korean border.
But South Korea is a country that won't allow tourists to leave with a heavy heart as it always offers many enthralling moments to cherish. Even its public transport system is something exemplary, and the metros trains are relatively crowded, Jaison notes. One thing that caught the eye of Jaison was the 'hut' icons inscribed above the doors of metro stations and underground shopping malls. These symbols denote safe shelters for people if North Korea bombs Seoul. Jaison wonders what will be the situation along the borders.
As Google Maps was not effective in Seoul, Jaison used a Korean application by the name of Naver for navigation. This app, besides displaying the routes, also lists the train numbers and exit numbers which are helpful for tourists, says Jaison.
"After boarding a metro train, I reached the modern fish market of Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market. The market, which is spick and span, sells octopus, shellfish, live prawns and lobsters," he adds. From the market, Jaison left for Gangnam Station, styled after the famous 'Gangnam Style' song by PSY. A huge statue in front of the station portrays the signature move of the song.
Near the Gangnam Station is the unique COEX Mall, which stands out due to its distinctive library. The Starfield Library on the main lobby of the mall is stacked with thousands of books that could be read by the public.
"Chairs and tables are arranged for the public to sit and read, and many people are reading books. The order of books on the shelves will be changed every month for the benefit of readers. I was ready to visit the next place after a bit of window shopping," says Jaison.
And the next destination for the passionate traveller was Insa-dong, a popular cultural street.
Food turns villain
Jaison reached Insa-dong by noon and craved for a sumptuous lunch as he had skipped breakfast. He decided to have lunch from a live grill restaurant, where food is grilled on an iron plate placed in the middle of the table. But Jaison had a bitter experience as three restaurants turned him away with a stern message in the Korean language –‘Koshy-Moshy-Pooshi—meaning 'No one person.' A crestfallen Jaison decided not to have food from any of the Korean restaurants and hopped into a bar and café.
"No one was there at the café and the outlet had an excellent view of the cultural street. Ordered a beer and randomly chose a dish from the menu. After a while, food arrived and it gave me a rude shock. I couldn't make out whether it was an octopus or a big squid. There were two big eyes and tentacles on the plate. The woman who was waiting on me wanted an opinion about the food, which was not appealing for me. I swallowed a small portion and told her that the food was super," Jaison remembers.
The cultural street of Insa-dong stages many art and cultural programmes from the afternoon on Saturdays and Sundays. The drum beats from a distance gave an indication that the cultural activities have started and that prompted Jaison to leave the café as soon as possible. A musical band was in full flow and there were people dancing in the middle of the street, he says.
After dusk, the food streets came alive, and Jaison decided to have a blast as there is a food street in every corner of the Insa-dong street. Besides eating outlets, the street also has many shops selling cosmetic products. Another interesting fact is that all metro stations have 'powder rooms' where men and women would be groomed, notes Jaison.
Olympic village and War memorial
The destinations for the next day were Olympic village, where the Seoul Olympics was held in 1988, and the National War Memorial. Jaison stepped into the Olympic park after travelling by metro train. The trees had started to shed leaves as winter was setting in and the trees in various parks and streets were dipped in a myriad of colours such as red, yellow, green and magenta.
"Though there are many meadows, water fountains and stadiums in South Korea, the resplendent trees are the main attraction in Seoul," says Jaison. One can get a map of the Olympic village from the main entrance and there are many places of interest in the village. Some of them are the World Peace Gate, One Tree Hill, The Thumb and Wild Flower Garden, among others.
The World Peace Gate is a huge arch that had been modelled after a bird, and below the arch, there is an eternal flame that stands for peace and harmony in the world. On the opposite side, the flags of all countries, including India, could be seen fluttering.
The interesting One Hill Tree in a small hill with just one tree on it and this picturesque sight was once the wallpaper of operating system Windows. ‘The Thumb’ is a statue in the shape of a human thumb, and the Wild Flower Garden boasts of flowers of different hues.
The village has six stadiums, artificial lakes, water fountains and modern sculptures. "As it was a Sunday, many concerts were being conducted in the stadiums. Mainly youngsters throng these places as the village is a spectacle and is a must-see destination," he adds.
Deadlier than coronavirus
The coronavirus will definitely pale before the Korean War. More than 50 lakh people, close to 10 percent of the total Korean population, were killed in the war which was fought between June 25, 1950, and July 27, 1953. And most of the people who died in the war were commoners. The War Memorial museum pays tribute to those who were killed in the war and also documents the history of Korean War.
The Statue of Brothers, which symbolizes the soldier brothers who were separated during the war, greets one to the war memorial. There are many other memorial statues that depict the pain and sorrow of war. The expansive facade of the building houses the plaques listing the countries that participated in the war and the number of soldiers who died, along with commemorative messages. India, which was part of the United Nation's armed force, was also part of the war. The war memorial records that out of the 627 Indian soldiers who fought the war, three lost their lives and 23 were injured.
An exhibition hall explains the history of war and the memorabilia include arms and ammunition, portraits of prominent leaders and military personalities and the noteworthy items used by them. Fighter planes, tanks, artillery guns and vessels are also on display. One can also see pictures and videos showcasing the history of Korea and the weaponry belonging to Japan’s colonial era at the war memorial.
A new Korea
Jaison has travelled to many countries but an experience he had in South Korea was one of its kind for him. "I was leaving my place of stay to have breakfast. It was drizzling and I didn’t have an umbrella. I was ambling on the road when a man came up to me and offered his umbrella. Thinking that the man was an umbrella seller, I declined his offer. But he said 'no problem, no problem' and left after handing over the umbrella," recollects Jaison. (Incidentally, Jaison used this umbrella throughout the Korean trip and gifted it to an airport cleaning staff while leaving South Korea.)
After this heart-warming experience, Jaison set out to visit two symbols of modern South Korea – The N Seoul Tower –Namsan Tower, which is a radio station, and the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, which is known for its exquisite design.
The panoramic view of the Seoul city from atop the N Seoul Tower is breathtaking. The tower, which is 236m tall, was built on the Namsan hill in 1971. One can reach the tower by cable cars and buses. Jaison took a cable car to reach atop and returned by bus. "Lakhs of plastic love locks of different colours could be seen on the lower storeys of the tower. The bridge that leads to the tower and the observation deck is also replete with love locks. I also locked two love locks on the tower," says Jaison.
From the Namsan Tower, Jaison travelled to Dongdaemun Design Plaza, which made Seoul the design capital of the world. The plaza, which houses exhibition halls, offices, shops and play areas, has one the best architectural designs and lighting arrangements. The plaza's roof looks like a park with meadows and scores of plants.
Let's take a lowdown on some of the main attractions in Seoul city.
Namdaemun also known as Sungn yemun Gate and is considered as the first national treasure of South Korea. This is the southern gate of the great wall that was constructed by King Taejo in 1395 to insulate Seoul from invaders. The major portion of this historic wall is in a shambles.
The Namdaemun market, one of the biggest in Seoul, is near the Sungn yemun Gate. The market was established in the 13th century and one can get anything under the sun from the market, which is a paradise for Korean cuisine. The information centers at the main points of the market provide a map and other relevant details about the market.
Now, let's take a peek into places where one can enter without paying any entry fee if clad in traditional Korean attire.
The Geunjeongjeon Palace was built by the Joseon dynasty in the 14th century. The palace, which is situated in the backdrop of mountain ranges, is a favourite among travellers. The palace was damaged during the Japanese invasion of Korea and the regal structure was taken over by Japan in 1915. The palace, which was renovated in 1990, had to take brunt during the Korean War too. The security guards still wear the traditional Korean dress and the change of guard ceremony, which happens every hour, is a treat to watch.
Bukchon Hanok Village
If you want to step into conventional South Korean houses, then one has to visit the Bukchon Hanok village. This hamlet is one of the busiest tourist centres in South Korea.
There are also many tourist destinations on the outskirts of Seoul city and Nami Island is one of them. One can reach this island after a two-hour drive from Seoul. Ferry services are also available and if you are into adventure then zip lines will take you to the island. The island has exotic gardens, unique ostrich parks, small trains and restaurants. One can experience the four seasons in their full glory on this island, which will be covered in snow during winter.
Seoul is a ravishing collage of charming gardens, colourful trees, mouth-watering cuisine and jovial people indulging in singing and dancing. In a nutshell, South Korea is a reflection of K-pop (Korean pop).