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The travelling time by ferry from Shimonoseki to Busan (formerly romanised as Pusan - they changed the romanisation system sometime in 2000) is only about eight hours, but you're actually on the boat for about twice that length of time, presumably so as not to inconvenience the Immigration staff at each end by making them work unsociable hours. The ferry departs from Shimonoseki at 6pm (and you have to check in three hours beforehand), and when you wake up in the morning you're sitting anchored outside the port, waiting for Immigration to open. The actual disembarkation time is 8.30am.
Sleeping arrangements on the ferry were more civilised than I'd anticipated. I'd been under the impression that it was a free-for-all in a huge tatami room, but in fact it was a series of carpeted rooms divided into bays, each sleeping about twelve people, and each person was allocated to a particular bay. The bays were all laid out with sleeping mats, blankets and pillows (which were shaped like large bricks, and not much softer - I ended up using a spare blanket instead), so it was really quite comfortable. On the outward journey my dorm seemed to be female-only, but on the return leg it was co-ed. Having spent the previous night on a bus and had no opportunity for a shower, I was happy to find that there was also a Japanese-style Grand Bath for each gender.
Sleeping arrangements on the ferry.
The ferry was also equipped with a few karaoke boxes, so I hooked up with some British students and some Japanese girls who were in my dorm, and we did an hour of karaoke.
The Five or Six Rocks outside Busan - at high tide there are six but two of them are joined just below water level, so at low tide there are only five.
We disembarked at 8.30am as scheduled, and after clearing Customs I headed into town and within a few minutes found a "Service Center for Foreigners". There I was able to change some money into won, book a rail ticket to Seoul (a five-hour journey on the Mugunghwa express (the Saemaeul is the fastest but is also about 50% more expensive) for the equivalent of less than £10) and take advantage of the free Internet access.
I had a couple of hours to spare before I needed to go to the station, so I walked up to the Busan Tower and got the combined ticket for the tower and neighbouring aquarium. The view from the tower was impressive, but the aquarium was nothing special. After that I had a look around part of the Gukje market area. People in Busan don't just automatically assume that if you're white then you must speak English; they usually take the precaution of asking first, because, being Korea's main international seaport, the city also gets a lot of Russian visitors.
Part of the view from the top of the Busan Tower. The large boat in the middle of the picture was our ferry.
The train ride to Seoul was fairly uneventful, and when I got there I immediately changed to the subway and went to my accommodation, Guesthouse Korea (booked through the Budget Inns Reservation Centre on the KNTO website). It was a friendly place, populated by a mixture of Koreans, Japanese, native English speakers from various countries, and one Russian. Quite small - I think the capacity was only about 14 guests. Of the Koreans, I was never quite sure who actually ran the place, who was staying as a guest, and who was just hanging out there to practise their foreign languages. And to confuse matters even more, one of the staff was not Korean but Japanese. The women's bathroom was very unusual: you entered onto a ledge which ran the length of the room almost a metre above floor level, and had to take two steps down to make use of any of the facilities there. At the other end of the ledge was a door leading out onto the (tiled) roof.
The women's bathroom in Guesthouse Korea.
That evening I went out to the Dongdaemun (East Gate) markets with two Canadians who were just beginning a grand tour of Asia and a Korean girl called Jin Hee who had taken them under her wing after meeting them on the street earlier in the day. The night markets in Seoul are vast, and they really are night markets; the ones I went to in China ended around 10-11pm, but the Korean ones go on right through the night. This applies even more so to those at Nandaemun (South Gate); if you go there between 5pm and midnight then a lot of the areas will be closed, and the best time to find everything open is apparently about midnight to 5am.
After a couple hours of looking around the markets we went for a meal of bulgogi, which was a dish of marinated beef cooked at the table in a wok-like pan - somewhere between grilling and stewing. There were lots of side dishes too, including crab in a tomato sauce which was too spicy even for our our Korean guide! Fortunately the bulgogi itself wasn't so spicy, and was very good.
At the bulgogi restaurant.
The following day I went on a guided tour of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), on the border between South and North Korea. Cue lots of South Korean propaganda! There are several different tours of the area available; for example, the USO one (which doesn't run every day and due to its popularity has to be booked well in advance) includes Panmunjeom, others omit Panmunjeom but include the Third Tunnel, and the KTB one includes both but is very expensive at W65,000. Panmunjeom is a village where a building used for endless reunification negotiations straddles the border, and where the tension between North and South is at its most palpable. The building is manned by guards from both sides who are unarmed but highly trained in martial arts, and who stand facing each other across a line that neither side is allowed to cross. That's how I understand it, anyway; I opted not to fork out for the KTB tour so I didn't actually go there. (There's also a very strict dress code for tours visiting Panmunjeom, but it doesn't seem to apply for other tours to the DMZ.)
Back to the tour that I did. There were three of us on the English-speaking tour: a Canadian called Darcy who was teaching English at a college in Japan, an American high schooler called Eric who was accompanying his father on a round-the-world business trip, and myself. Our guide introduced herself as Jane. Once we'd passed through the various checkpoints (one of which involved a passport check, since Korean nationals are not normally permitted to enter the DMZ), we first went to the Anti-Communism Hall, but a large group was already there so in the meantime we went to the Third Tunnel. Incidentally, I have to say that the "Demilitarized Zone" didn't look remotely demilitarized to me; the place was crawling with armed soldiers. Military service is still compulsory in South Korea for men when they reach the age of 20, and I can't remember exactly how long it lasts but I think it was quite a while, over two years. At the entrance to the Third Tunnel we were given a briefing in English by a young soldier who looked incredibly bored and whose English pronunciation we all had great difficulty understanding, then we were allowed to go down into the tunnel, as far as the first barricade, where it was blocked off. The tunnel was dug by the North Koreans to by bypass the DMZ and launch a surprise attack on South Korea, and was the third of four such tunnels found so far by the South. The South Koreans believe that there are probably another 20 or so of these tunnels in existence so they're still searching diligently. At least, that was what the South Korean propaganda said.
At the entrance to the Third Tunnel (Eric, me, Jane, Darcy).
From there we went back to the Anti-Communism Hall where we were shown round the exhibition by another young soldier. This one didn't seem too excited about his job either, but he was a bit less deadpan than the other guy and his English was marginally less difficult to understand. Actually I think his English was pretty good; it was just his pronunciation that wasn't so great. (Better than my Korean, mind you!) With the other guy we'd wondered whether he knew any English besides the standard spiel that he had to recite for the tourists. The exhibition was about the Korean War and the history of the regiment that now mans the area. It included things like the discovery of the tunnels and the shooting of a North Korean soldier who attempted to infiltrate the South as recently as 1995.
After that we left the DMZ and went to Imgingak Park, where South Koreans hold ceremonies for their relatives in the North. This was also the site of the Freedom Bridge, used for the exchange of prisoners at the end of the Korean War. We had a fairly mediocre lunch at the restaurant there, then went to the Odusan Reunification Observatory, where we saw a video presentation and used the very uncomfortable telescopes to peer through the haze at what little we could see of North Korea. Actually we were supposed to go to Dora Observatory, which I think was inside the DMZ, but it was closed due to railway construction work.
After the tour I took a walk around the Itaewon area of Seoul with Darcy, then I went to the express bus terminal and bought my ticket to Gyeongju (formerly Kyongju - trains going there from Seoul are infrequent). Explored Sogong Arcade and the Myeungdong shopping area before heading back to the guesthouse for the night.
Suwon & the Korean Folk Village
The following morning I took a quick look around the Nandaemun market area before taking the subway to Suwon, about an hour's ride away. Unfortunately it absolutely poured with rain for most of the day and I got completely drenched - in the end I resorted to buying an umbrella, although I could have done without the extra weight. (Apparently the previous weekend had been worse, though, with floods in Seoul.) I went and had a look at some of the Hwaseong Fortress buildings that at one time used to surround the city (but I spent most of the time sheltering from the downpour) then took the free shuttle bus to the Korean Folk Village, together with an American drum fanatic living in Japan called Christopher and a Korean friend of his who spoke virtually perfect English. The Folk Village was vast and we spent nearly four hours covering it all, so we missed the last shuttle bus back into town and had to take the regular local buses instead.
Nandaemun (National Treasure No.1).
Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon: one of the main gates; eaves of the gate (there were torrents of water pouring off, but you can't see them on this photo); floodgate and rest house / lookout tower.
Korean Folk Village: temple; operating two different kinds of grinding machinery; making traditional toffee-like sweets.
On getting back to Seoul I went to have a quick look at the Lotte World complex (theme park on the top floor, shops and eating places on the middle floor, and an ice rink on the bottom level). Also went to Insadong, the antique shop quarter, but by the time I got there it was after 10pm and all the shops were closed.
Unfortunately during my time in Seoul I didn't manage to visit any of the famous palaces, in spite of the fact that two of the best ones were within walking distance of my guesthouse. The palaces are one thing in Seoul that only opens during the day, and my daytimes were pretty busy.
I spent the next morning on the bus to Gyeongju, where I met a Korean Dane, Kim, and his adoptive mother, Birthe. It turned out that they'd booked into the same guesthouse as me, Sa Rang Chae, but when we got there it transpired that I'd messed up my booking: I'd booked by email for the 22nd, then I'd sent another email telling them what time I was going to arrive but I'd written "23rd" instead of "22nd" so they thought I was going to be coming the following day instead. They were fully-booked for that night, but the landlord found me a reasonably-priced room in a nearby establishment which in Japan would be described as a business hotel, and invited me to spend my time at Sa Rang Chae and only go to the other place to sleep. This turned out to be an ideal arrangement. Sa Rang Chae was a lovely place, with loads of character, very hospitable and helpful owners, and an excellent location, but it did have one drawback from my point of view: in traditional Korean style, all the rooms led directly off the courtyard, and people would sit drinking and chatting there until late at night. I wouldn't have been able to sleep through that - not without earplugs, anyway.
The Sa Rang Chae guesthouse, and Birthe and Kim on the verandah.
On the landlord's advice, I did the local walking tour suggested in the Sa Rang Chae leaflet, starting with a taxi ride to the National Museum and finishing back at the guesthouse. Having taken a look around the museum, I went on the the next attraction, a former royal pleasure garden called Anapji Pond, which was very attractive. Almost opposite, there was an ice storehouse which I think was built in the 1700s, with a castle site (but not much in the way of remains) alongside. Then there was a short walk to an ancient astronomical observatory, which I just viewed from the road since you couldn't get much closer even if you did pay to go inside the grounds; then a small wood which according to legend is where the founder of the Kim clan was born (or rather found, in a gold casket ("kim" means gold) hanging from the branch of a tree); and finally Tumulus Park, where there are 23 royal burial mounds, one of them reconstructed as a museum inside, so you can see how they're built and what they contain. There are other similar tombs dotted all over the area, too - something like 200 of them in total, I think.
Walking tour in Gyeongju: Anapji Pond, the ancient observatory, and some burial mounds that weren't even marked on the map.
That evening, I took a bus up to the Pomun Lake Resort with Sujin and Dagyung, two students who, like me, had turned up at Sa Rang Chae without a booking and been redirected to the business hotel. At the resort we went to see a free performance of traditional Korean music and dance, which proved to have been well worth the effort of getting there.
Traditional music and dance. The second photo shows the dancers bending over backwards while each playing three drums simultaneously.
When we got back to Gyeongju we joined a few others in the courtyard and sampled assorted local drinks. The landlord made the Korean equivalent of brass rubbings, of a reproduction of a 1300-year-old tile design, and gave me one of the copies he made. Keeping it undamaged until I got back to Hikone proved to be quite a challenge! Later on, most of my companions decided that it would be fun to do something illegal and climb the highest of the burial mounds. Since I had to catch the ferry back to Japan the next day, and didn't want to risk any trouble with the authorities, I decided that this would be a good time to retire.
The Korean equivalent of a brass rubbing.
The following morning, I left my luggage in a locker at the bus station and caught a bus up to Bulguksa Temple, one the area's biggest tourist attractions, and with good reason.
At Bulguksa Temple: the front of the temple; one of the gates; me on the steps below the same gate.
From there it was possible to take a shuttle bus up to Sokkuram Grotto, but I didn't have enough time to do that and still catch my 14.10 bus to Busan. Instead I tried to go to the craft village which was on the way back to town, but somehow managed to get off the bus in the wrong place and just ended up wasting time and not seeing anything much. I did still manage to catch the bus to Busan though.
Market in Gyeongju.
Back to Japan
The bus was delayed due to heavy traffic, and the express bus terminal in Busan turned out to be in a completely different part of town to the ferry terminal, and a fair distance from the nearest subway station too. I was running so late that I had to take a taxi from the express bus terminal to the subway station, and then I found myself completely disoriented on emerging from the underground at the other end. I made it to the ferry terminal, dripping with sweat, just five minutes before the check-in deadline. The moral of this story is that you should check the location of the express bus terminal in your destination city (incidentally, when Korean maps say "inter-city bus terminal", what they really mean is "intra-city" - these are the bus terminals for local buses, not inter-city (express) ones), and if you need to leave Gyeongju and catch the ferry to Shimonoseki on the same day, it's a good idea to set off earlier than 14.10!
On the ferry back to Japan I met a group of Koreans, aged 10-16, who were eager to practise their English. They all spoke English far better than most Japanese their ages, especially Kyu Min, the oldest one.