A peninsula is defined as a land mass that is surrounded by water on three or most of its sides. An island is defined as a land mass that is surrounded by water on all of its sides. So geographically, South Korea is a peninsula. However, because it is attached to the land mass of the Asia continent on the north side via North Korea, a land where no one can enter; South Korea is, for all intents and purposes, an island. There is no way for South Koreans to travel beyond their border via trains or automobiles. It can only be ships or planes. South Korea is cut off from the rest of the world by its other half.
This longing for connection to the North and to the rest of Asia is manifested in the hologram at the end of the train line in the DMZ. Beyond the old, bullet-ridden, rusting train, beyond the last vestiges of the railroad surrounded by barbed wires, beyond the glass-encased rail lines and its residual bullet wounds, stands this high-tech mirage. In the hologram, like in a dream, you can see the rails continuing north into the rest of the peninsula, to North Korea and beyond.
We arrived in South Korea on a Saturday morning and were flying out on Sunday afternoon so had 8 and a half days of travel. We decided to spend 2 days in Seoul, then rent a van and do a road trip around the country.
Our itinerary was to be :
Day 1 Seoul - check-in to hotel in Insadong, Paris Baguette for breakfast, walk to Changdeokgung Palace, tour Bukchon Hanok Village, Insadong Cultural street.
Day 2 Seoul - Guided tour to DMZ, lunch in Myeongdong, walk to Gyeongbokgung Palace.
Day 3 drive from Seoul to Hahoe Village in Andong, then drive to Gyeongju and check in at Wolamjea, a Hanok guesthouse, dinner in Gyeongju. Day 4 National Museum of Gyeongju - Donggung palace and Wolji pond- drive from Gyeongju to Busan, check in at a hotel near Jagalchi fish market. Dinner at the market.
Day 5 Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, Gwangandaegyo Bridge, Gamcheong culture village, shopping and dinner in BIFF square and Gukje Market.
Day 6 Drive to Suncheon, tour the Bay Garden, have dinner at Suncheon lamp skewer place, drive to Boseong and check in at a traditional hanok located on a tea plantation.
Day 7 tour Boseong tea farm and tea museum, drive to Namwon for lunch with naengmyeon, check into Jeonju hanok, eat dinner/ bibimbap in Jeonju. Day 8 tour Jeonju's Hanok village, drive back to Seoul, check into a hotel, shopping and dinner in Ikseongdong Hanok Village.
Day 9 last minute shopping in Insadong, fly out from Incheon
There are 3 main areas for tourists to stay in Seoul: Gangnam, where many K-pop and K-drama stars hang out; Myeongdong, which is near downtown and the main royal palace; and Insadong, which is near a traditional hanok or old town and cultural village. We decided to stay in the Moxy hotel in Insadong. It was right in front of the subway station entrance and after 6:30 pm the street in front of the hotel becomes lined with street food vendors.
Our Asiana airline flights landed in Seoul very early in the morning. We made the trek to the in-airport Covid PCR testing for the required post-arrival testing, then caught a taxi to our hotel. Despite the early hours, they were able to give us 1 room out of our 3 reserved rooms to drop off luggage, clean up and rest.
It was drizzling outside so we grabbed our umbrellas from the luggage, and walked to the nearest Paris Baguette for brunch. I was so happy to find the most crunchy kouign-amann pastry in Seoul. The kids were smart and grabbed extra goodies for their dinner.
We then walked to the nearby Jongmyo Shrine and the Changdeokgung Palace complex for a self-guided tour. It was a sprawling complex with many halls and pavilions to wander through, and so many nooks and crannies that we lost each other a couple of times there.
We walked back to the hotel to check-in the rest of the rooms and let the kids crash since we'd all been traveling all day and night. We were also due to wake up very early the next morning for the DMZ tour.
The DMZ tour in Seoul had just opened up to tourists again in July 2022, a few weeks before we arrived in South Korea. But instead of taking thousands of tourists like they used to, they only allowed 200 people in per day. It was first come first serve. So our family of six had to hustle through the subway at 6:00 in the morning to get to our tour group meeting point in time for the 2-hour bus ride to the DMZ. Unfortunately, in the rush to get out, we forgot the most important items, our passports.
Our English-speaking guide Moon of VIP travel ( https://www.vviptravel.com/ ) was fantastic and was able to take care of everything with the military guards at the DMZ so we were able to continue the tour uninterrupted. She told us of her family's ongoing separation by the DMZ, the bloody history of the Korean War, and the mixed feelings of the Korean people towards the idea of reunification. It was a very emotional and enlightening tour for me, having come from another country that was torn in half by what Americans fondly refer to as the Cold War, (but which was napalm-hot and incredibly bloody for us). It was very sad to see all the interrupted and lost lives in Korea as well.
The rest of the tour was informative and fun. We went down to the bunkers to see how the war was lived, walked down the 3rd tunnel that was part of a failed invasion, and went to the tower to peer over the border to North Korea.
Apparently many agricultural products were grown by the few families allowed to reside within the DMZ. We were able to sample DMZ ice cream, DMZ donuts, and DMZ chocolates; all made from the beans and soybeans grown in the DMZ. The DMZ chocolates made great gifts for families and friends since they were really good and you cannot find them in any other stores in or out of Korea.
We arrived back in Seoul just in time for lunch in one of the restaurant downtown. Then it was fun walking down the main streets in downtown towards Gyeongbokgung Palace. Seoul has some great and modern architecture and since it was a sunny day and the pandemic restrictions had eased, everyone was out playing in the many plazas and parks.
We came to the Gyeongbokgung Palace through the main Gwanghwamun entrance, bought tickets at the office to the left, and waited in the giant square for the free English-guided tour.
We were caught in the rain on the walk back to our hotel but were all prepared with umbrellas so were okay. Found a nice Korean barbecue joint for dinner just across the street from our hotel.
We were told that Korean barbecue is almost always pork, the beef short rib slices are actually called LA galbi, apparently an LA invention. They also have the coolest smoke vent on hoses that you pull up and down as needed.
The next morning Bruce and I took the subway to the car rental agency to pick up our reserved van. Although no one at the agency spoke English, we were able to use the app Google translate on our phone for communication and got most of our questions answered. We stopped by Paris Baguette for some more yummy pastry before driving southeast to head for Andong Hahoe folk village and Gyeongju.
The rental van has a very nice GPS navigation system that was set to English mode. We were told to either purchase a Hi-Pass card to automatically pay the toll road fees or just pay the fees by cash at the toll booths. The fees are automatically calculated for us on the GPS navigation system and displayed on the screen.