Solo travelling is not for everyone.....

Seoul Travel Blog

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April 2009.

 

It’d had been 9 months since my whirlwind tour across Europe with only a short trip to Iceland (which was great) in-between. Needless to say my travel lust had once again been ignited. So I decided to thoroughly plan my next trip and, with £2000 to spend and no one to go with I decided to try the whole solo travelling thing. Two weeks would be a good time I thought, I’ll head to the other side of the world and meet people and generally have a grand old time.

Why not? A good thought in principle indeed I’m sure you’d agree. There was one vital flaw in my fantastic plans: I decided to go to South Korea. Now, there’s not too much wrong with the Korean Republic in itself but in my naivety (such as believing Koreans can speak any English) I assumed it’d be much like Japan in that it’s got plenty of other tourists and Westerners, not least in the capital Seoul, so I’d meet people out there and maybe trip round parts of the nation with them. Reading up on Korea and the level of infrastructure, such as the fact you can get from Seoul to Busan by train in less than 3 hours, I figure this would be an experience similar to that of neighbours Japan and I’d be able to work it all out and cross this small nation with ease.
I was wrong. So I will provide you, avid readers, with an account of my less than stellar experience of the land of not-very-much and all (or not) that it has to offer with a healthy does of my own incompetence along the way. Please forgive me if I can’t remember all exacts, it has been over a year since I took this misadventure and I’ve been around like syphilis ever since. But I’ll share what I recall.

 

I started off by sipping a beer (Peroni, as I remember for some reason) in Weatherspoons at Birmingham International Airport’s Terminal 1 while reading ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ by Phillip K. Dick (don’t ask me why I remember these useless facts but I do) before boarding my Air France flight to Paris with several French businessmen (I was the only guy not in a suit on the entire plan) and arriving at Paris Charles de Gaulle which is also known as the world’s most confusing airport due to all the signs completely contradicting themselves.

Apparently check in desks 1-65 is both left and right. Thanks. What does that matter for a connection, you ask? Well the genius staff in Birmingham couldn’t check my connection in there so I had to do it on arrival in Paris. With 1 hour until my Korean Air flight to Seoul was due to go. But after rushing around like a madman and drawing the attention of France’s Finest (indeed) I managed to board on time and got three seats to myself thanks to the very friendly check-in guy. Seeing as I was going to be flying for 14 hours I thought the ability to lay out might be good. It was. The rest was a none event so after having a good old stare at China from 40’000-odd feet up (you really don’t understand how vast and empty the Gobi Desert is until you’ve seen it from above on a clear day) I landed in Incheon (Korean War buffs will know this place) and arrived in the Republic of Korea, about a mere 20 miles from its fairly aggressive Northern Communist brother as I’d later discover.
But they were getting on okay at the time so it was alright.

 

After being let through the boarder control after giving my job as “investment banker” which was kind of an exaggeration (okay, it was a total one but you should have seen how eager they were to stop anyone they considered undesirable entering the country. Those two backpacker hippy-looking types were having an awful time of it) I grabbed a taxi, because public transport after 14 hours in the air is an absolute no go, and headed towards Seoul. Lucky the taxi driver I picked spoke very good English (even if he didn’t seem to believe he did) so there was some conversation on the journey. It was he who pointed out the ominous black cloud covered land of North Korea just 20 miles from the airport which then launched into a discussion regarding the Korean War.

Little did I know but the war was won by the great and heroic South Korean Army almost single-handedly repelling both the vicious Communist North and their evil accomplice the People’s Republic of China with a small amount of help from the UN Task Force (note, not Americans). But of course it was mostly the South Koreans who did all the fighting and winning in spite of being massively outnumbered. Slightly different than what I’ve learnt I thought and he seems extremely proud of the South’s armed forces. Then it clicked. Being a South Korean, he would have certainly had to partake in military service for at least 2 years so as a former army man himself, he’s probably going to think a lot of them. The discussion then moved to cars and he was delighted to discover that I own and drive a Daewoo Lanos which then led to a talk about the recent misfortunes of Korea’s car industry and he pointed out several manufacturers’ offices on the way through Seoul.
We also worked out how much I paid for my car in Korean Won and I was please when he announced that I’d “got very good deal”. So eventually I was asked about my reason for visiting Korea. He immediately assumed it was business reasons. I corrected him and told him it was for tourism. Then, to my horror, he laughed “to see what? Nothing good in Korea. You should go Japan!” and asked about my plans. I told him my idea to travel around Korean and he asked how much Korean I spoke. None, I replied. “How you think you gonna talk out of Seoul?” He responded. “No one speak English out in countryside”. I’d previously read that some 97.8% of Koreans speak good English I explained. He assured me that was not the case and I’d be lucky to find an English-speaking Korean even in Seoul.
I’d later discover he was right. Not to mention several of the places I wanted to go no longer had train stations (thanks for that, Rough Guides to: Korea you bastards) since “like 70’s maybe”. Goddamn. He then kindly ripped me off by at least £20 and left me at the hotel. Still, he was a friendly guy so let it go. We’ve all got to make a living. Travelling makes you immune to being screwed by taxis. It’s part of the experience.

 

So I arrived at my hotel in the backstreets of God-knows-where Seoul, checked in and went to my room. Upon entering I found the room covered in a dark red glow, a large LCD TV on the wall, a heart-shaped bed and a list of porn channels on the desk.

I’d also noted a condom machine in the hall. Something was amiss, I suspected. My instincts were proved correct a little later; this was indeed a converted Love Hotel and they’d decided to keep some of the little bits already there. The underfoot heating in the bathroom was a nice touch though. Still, fuck it I thought, what a hilarious quirk. I jumped backwards onto the bed to get some snooze. Bad move. The bed was like a damn rock and felt like I’d broken my back. Marvellous.

I decided to get down the business the next few days and do some epic tourist-ing. That’s why I’m here right? Grand idea, just one issue: there’s not really very much in Seoul. Oh well, I’d leave a bit earlier than planned. Leaving the hotel I asked a policeman for directions (I was right near a police station) but the poor guy couldn’t speak any English and I’d yet to learn any Korean.

After looking generally helpless and apologetic he managed to point me towards the subway station while his colleague in the office across from where he stood laughed hysterically at his predicament and my plans got well and truly underway. I visited the Royal Shrine and the 5 Great Palaces (of which Gyeongbok-gung was the most awesome followed by Changdeok-gung) as well as taking a stroll down the famed Insadong street and Namdaemun Market (I’d hoped to see the Namdaemun Gate but some twat of an arsonist burnt it down in February 2008. It’d only stood since 1398 and was the oldest wooden building in Seoul you fucker) and later spent a day hiking up Bukhansan Mountain (more like hill really). This was all extremely possible thanks to Seoul’s excellent subway network which is massively confusing but thanks to the fact I’m a damn genius and the voice of a generation (lawlz Kanye) it didn’t take me long to figure it out and learn the tricks.
It would’ve been a hell of a lot of walking otherwise as I wasn’t keen on using the buses which were as crowded as sardines in a can. I visited some museums too but they were pretty lame and I can’t remember the names so we’ll forget about them. After 3 days of this and eating solo (and discovering the great drink that is Soju, widely available and cheap with 13% alcohol, I suggest it to anyone) and meeting no other English speaking person bar one annoying Australian who I really didn’t want to talk to for long, I was beginning to get pretty lonely. This wasn’t part of the plan at all. Time to move on, I thought. But this was soon to present its own difficulties.

I figured the place to go to continue my quest was the train station. I had thought ahead and purchased a rail pass so what better way to depart Seoul? Yet again this was sound in principle but not in practice.

Unlike Japan where the signs change every 30 seconds between Japanese and English, Korean signs stay in, well, Korean. As I was presently struggling to master “yes” and “no” I felt this most recent issue was a bridge too far. So I tried the customer information desk. From them I got a map of rail lines and the information that my rail pass was only useful for consecutive days, 10 in fact of which I’d already spent 4 in Seoul not realising my money was flowing down the drain due to this stupid system. Honestly, what tourist is going to use the train everyday for the duration of their pass? Idiotic idea. But it is what it is. Not to mention the customer service reps were obviously more into their important conversation about shampoo and boys (I guess, I got the girly talk vibes) than the helpless fool before them.
At this point it was getting clear that the train station was beginning to defeat me. But I had an ingenious backup plan: the bus station my taxi driver had previously mentioned as a cheap and effective means of conquering the Korean peninsula. So I went there. And it got worse. I think it went along the lines of “Which bus goes to Gwangju?” *confused looks* “……okay, thank you” *lots of false smiles*

It was now crystal clear that my fabulous plans were unravelling themselves faster than Katie Price’s knickers and I was in more trouble than Steve Irwin in a stingray tank (well okay, maybe not quite that bad but it wasn’t going well). I was essentially trapped in Seoul (I figured that if I can’t master the train or bus systems than hiring a car probably wouldn’t be too bright) with 10 days until the return flight home.

This was a daunting prospect because, as I may have mentioned previously, Seoul isn’t really that interesting. In fact it’s downright boring after maybe 2 days. On top of this, I was starting to get really hungry. I’d eaten during my 4 days there of course but the thing about Korean food is that it isn’t that great. It’s all fried seafood mixed with other strange fried stuff and something that tastes doughy which I guess is pretty healthy and in fairness it’s not awful. But after 4 days I wanted a goddamn steak and chips. Or  just something starchy. Starch being a staple of the British diet after all and by now I was getting withdrawals and yearned for a meal that didn’t leave me hungry afterwards. But it was not to be, so I ate fried seafood and drank enough soju to leave me substantially buzzed for the duration of my stay.
Anyway, back to my predicament. Given the situation I felt there was only one choice: book a flight and get the hell out of this tourist unfriendly country. Now I could’ve gone somewhere else and the idea was tempting but my budget was already stretching thinner than Paris Hilton’s brain cell and if I actually intended to return to the U.K I’d better start making serious decisions. Although the concept of staying on some tropical island in the south Pacific was an interesting and exciting one you can’t run from reality forever, tempting as the alternatives are. So I booked a flight home. A £650 one-way one with Lufthansa to Munich with onward connection to London Heathrow which, given that my original return flight with Air France was £420 return, this was somewhat gut-wrenching but I guess my wallet felt it more. Anyway, this arranged I was left with a day to kill and had been trying all week to visit the Demilitarized Zone at Panmunjeon, the jointly administered boarder zone between the North and South but alas that was yet again not to be as all the tours were booked up.
Perhaps my greatest regret was that before I left Korea I never got to see the DMZ. I’d have also liked to visit the temple town of Gyeongju before I left but at least I was nowhere near it unlike the 52nd Parallel just to my north. Anyway, as this was a no go I paid my bill the next day in cash to get rid of my now pointless Korean Won and took a (much cheaper than before) taxi to the airport.

I dossed around in the airport for a while, reading ‘A Wild Sheep Chase’ by Haruki Murakami and eating 3 sandwich rolls and 4 Snickers bars (I was damn hungry okay! And this was normal, unfried food) in a small café corner until my flight was called and I had the pleasure of sitting on a old plane packed to the rafters with an in-flight entertainment system that didn’t work full of Germans for 12 hours.

Still, at least the beer was good. I arrived in Munich and ran to my connection (half an hour for a connection? Why do I keep getting screwed over like this?) before landing about 50 minutes later in London Heathrow. But the drama wasn’t quite over yet as the pilot landed in Terminal 1 rather than Terminal 3 where our bags were transferred too. But after all that sitting down a walk was good so it was no biggie. So ends my visit to South Korea. Don’t be put off, Korea is a great country with a lot to offer but I just suggest you be a bit more prepared than me. It’s also not quite got the free backpacking vibe of Thailand yet so solo travel isn’t really a good idea as I’m sure you now understand unless your Korean is very, very good.

Of course in spite of all this I’d like to try solo travel again but I think I’ll try somewhere a bit more well-trodden like South East Asia or Australia. Another point I’d like to make is that, in spite of how it might have sounded, I don’t actually expect every Korean to speak English. Not at all. But I figured maybe 1 in 20 people would like in Japan. It was more like 1 in 20’000 which really drills home the saying of being alone in a crowd. In a city of 20 million people, the inability to communicate leaves you painfully isolated and it’s not a good feeling particularly when you quickly understand that this isn’t going to change short of stumbling onto the US Military Base in Itaewon.

But then isn’t the idea of travelling to immerse yourself in the local culture even if sometimes you drown? In spite of my expensive and fairly epic failure here I still took some stuff home with me, even if it was only 4 bottles of soju. Either way, at least I didn’t spent my time eating in TGI Fridays and drinking at an Irish Bar for that would’ve been a truly ridiculous way to try and experience the Republic of Korea.

GeorgeLeach says:
The more I think about it and the more I read on it, I feel I missed out on a lot. I think had I not been totally alone I would've given it a much greater go. What can I say, I like company.
Posted on: Jul 20, 2010
fransglobal says:
Seoul is great and there's plenty to see and do there. Korea is very interesting and the people are lovely. I spent two weeks there, including about 5 days in Seoul. Wasn't bored for a second. The only reason I left after two weeks is that it was bitterly cold in February. I would love to go back in warmer weather.

Agree about the food though. Would not at all be my favourite cuisine.
Posted on: Jul 19, 2010
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