Itād 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 Ā£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, Iāll 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 Iām sure youād agree. There was one vital flaw in my fantastic plans: I decided to go to South Korea. Now, thereās not too much wrong with the Korean Republic in itself but in my naivety (such as believing Koreans can speak any English) I assumed itād be much like Japan in that itās got plenty of other tourists and Westerners, not least in the capital Seoul, so Iād 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 Iād 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 canāt remember all exacts, it has been over a year since I took this misadventure and Iāve been around like syphilis ever since. But Iāll share what I recall.
I started off by sipping a beer (Peroni, as I remember for some reason) in Weatherspoons at Birmingham International Airportās Terminal 1 while reading āDo Androids Dream of Electric Sheepā by Phillip K. Dick (donāt 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 worldās 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 couldnāt 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 Franceās 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 40ā000-odd feet up (you really donāt understand how vast and empty the Gobi Desert is until youāve 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 Iād 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 āinvestment bankerā 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 didnāt 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 Peopleās 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 Iāve learnt I thought and he seems extremely proud of the Southās 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, heās 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 Koreaās car industry and he pointed out several manufacturersā 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 Iād āgot very good dealā. 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 āto see what? Nothing good in Korea. You should go Japan!ā 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. āHow you think you gonna talk out of Seoul?ā He responded. āNo one speak English out in countrysideā. Iād previously read that some 97.8% of Koreans speak good English I explained. He assured me that was not the case and Iād be lucky to find an English-speaking Korean even in Seoul.
Iād 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 ālike 70ās maybeā. Goddamn. He then kindly ripped me off by at least Ā£20 and left me at the hotel. Still, he was a friendly guy so let it go. Weāve all got to make a living. Travelling makes you immune to being screwed by taxis. Itās 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.
Iād 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 theyād 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 Iād broken my back. Marvellous.
I decided to get down the business the next few days and do some epic tourist-ing. Thatās why Iām here right? Grand idea, just one issue: thereās not really very much in Seoul. Oh well, Iād 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 couldnāt speak any English and Iād 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 (Iād hoped to see the Namdaemun Gate but some twat of an arsonist burnt it down in February 2008. Itād 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 Seoulās excellent subway network which is massively confusing but thanks to the fact Iām a damn genius and the voice of a generation (lawlz Kanye) it didnāt take me long to figure it out and learn the tricks.
It wouldāve been a hell of a lot of walking otherwise as I wasnāt 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 canāt remember the names so weāll 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 didnāt want to talk to for long, I was beginning to get pretty lonely. This wasnāt 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 āyesā and ānoā 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 Iād 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 āWhich bus goes to Gwangju?ā *confused looks* āā¦ā¦okay, thank youā *lots of false smiles*
It was now crystal clear that my fabulous plans were unravelling themselves faster than Katie Priceās knickers and I was in more trouble than Steve Irwin in a stingray tank (well okay, maybe not quite that bad but it wasnāt going well). I was essentially trapped in Seoul (I figured that if I canāt master the train or bus systems than hiring a car probably wouldnāt be too bright) with 10 days until the return flight home.
This was a daunting prospect because, as I may have mentioned previously, Seoul isnāt really that interesting. In fact itās downright boring after maybe 2 days. On top of this, I was starting to get really hungry. Iād eaten during my 4 days there of course but the thing about Korean food is that it isnāt that great. Itās all fried seafood mixed with other strange fried stuff and something that tastes doughy which I guess is pretty healthy and in fairness itās 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 didnāt 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 couldāve gone somewhere else and the idea was tempting but my budget was already stretching thinner than Paris Hiltonās brain cell and if I actually intended to return to the U.K Iād 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 canāt run from reality forever, tempting as the alternatives are. So I booked a flight home. A Ā£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 Ā£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. Iād 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 āA Wild Sheep Chaseā 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 cafĆ© 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 didnāt 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 wasnāt 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. Donāt 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. Itās also not quite got the free backpacking vibe of Thailand yet so solo travel isnāt really a good idea as Iām sure you now understand unless your Korean is very, very good.
Of course in spite of all this Iād like to try solo travel again but I think Iāll try somewhere a bit more well-trodden like South East Asia or Australia. Another point Iād like to make is that, in spite of how it might have sounded, I donāt 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 20ā000 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 itās not a good feeling particularly when you quickly understand that this isnāt going to change short of stumbling onto the US Military Base in Itaewon.
But then isnāt 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 didnāt spent my time eating in TGI Fridays and drinking at an Irish Bar for that wouldāve been a truly ridiculous way to try and experience the Republic of Korea.