A short but pleasant flight (just two hours but it included a free meal and personal TV) took us from Taipei to Seoul and a 45 minute train journey later we reached Hongdae, a lively area packed with bars, restaurants and twentysomethings. After some fun and games trying to get cash from every ATM in a 3 block radius we had our first meal in South Korea...a burrito! Not very traditional but we did order some Soju to go with it. Soju is a popular Korean spirit, similar to vodka but distilled from rice. It's very cheap (around £1.50 a bottle) so locals often get through several bottles while eating dinner. It's also pretty strong stuff and one bottle was enough to get us in the mood for more drinking! We hit a few more bars, playing electronic darts and ordering jägerbombs before heading back to the hostel in the early hours suitably battered.
Nursing a Soju-induced hangover it was early afternoon before we surfaced. After a bit of a walk to clear our heads and get our bearings we had a late lunch in a Korean cafe for our first experience of traditional local food. I had Kimbaps - Korean sushi rolls - and cold glass noodle soup with kimchi (pickled cabbage served cold - it sounds horrible but is surprisingly nice, which is just as well as it is served with pretty much everything you order in South Korea!). We walked around a bit more, to city hall and through the Central Business District where we stopped for a barely earned rest and sat with our feet in a man made stream that runs through the centre. Im ashamed to say that for the second night running we had western food for dinner, this time it was fajitas at a BBQ chicken place...not remotely korean but good comfort food for a hangover!
Our third day in Seoul was a Korean national holiday so with most things closed we headed to the Emperors palace for a bit of culture. It was a humid day and it didnt take us too long to get bored so after an hour we got the metro to the famous Gangnam (Style). A very trendy area, Gangnam is full of hip coffee houses, expensive shops and upmarket restaurants...a playground for the rich kids of Seoul. I'd half-hoped to catch a glimpse of Psi wandering around or practising his next dance craze but had to make do with catching him on the huge advertising screen in the high street! For dinner we headed back to Hongdae to eat traditional Korean BBQ. The raw ingredients were brought for us to cook on a grill in the middle of the table and served with accompaniments of kimchi, pickles, rice and sauces. Having already experienced this kind of meal several times in our trip, we felt like old hands at this by now, but that didnt stop the food being as tasty as ever!
The next day we were up early to join an organised tour to the De-Militarised Zone - an area of neutral ground between North and South Korea designed to help keep the peace after the end of the Korean War (no official peace treaty was ever been signed, but a ceasefire agreement is in place). The day started in bizarre fashion when a driver picked us up outside our hostel to take us to the tour bus. He drove us round the block once, parked one street away and then led us through a side street back to the exact point he'd picked us up! Maybe he was trying to ensure we got the included hotel pick-up service or just earn himself a tip...either way he genuinely seemed to have no idea how ridiculous it was!
The tour bus arrived ten minutes later and an onboard guide gave us a potted history of the North/South politics spanning numerous conflicts and leading up to the Korean War. Given the recent recurrence of tensions it was particularly interesting to hear the background history from a local. We drove to a military checkpoint - where an armed guard boarded the bus to check our passports - and then on past the Unification Village. Next we went to a visitors centre to watch a short film on the Korean war before descending 300m into The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel - a tunnel dug in secret by NK with the capacity to get 30,000 soldiers and their gear through in an hour! Four tunnels have been discovered so far but there are believed to be at least 20. Naturally NK denies all responsibility! The tunnel was very low and definitely not built for Westerners - thankfully hard hats were compulsory as I kept bashing my head on the rocky ceiling. At the end of the tunnel you could peer through a hole, right into NK (well their side of the tunnel anyway!).
Next we went to a viewing platform where we were able to look through binoculars into the NK Propaganda Village. It was fascinating looking through just because you know the North don't want you too! You cant help wondering whats really going on behind the fabrications of their own "unification village". Photos were not allowed here and the SK guards were pretty strict about it - several people were physically made to delete photos they took from the observation platform. The last stop was Dorasan train station, the gateway into NK and the transport that takes South Korean workers into the factories in Pyeongyang. At the time we were there all South Koreans had been evacuated from Pyeongyang so the station was eerily deserted apart a few tourists and some armed soldiers!
It was really interesting to learn the history behind the Korean conflict but its worth noting there was little sign of anxiety from the SK side. There was no US military presence and the Korean soldiers (mostly young, part-time recruits) were laid back and occasionally even posed for photos.
The rest of the day was pretty chilled and spent wandering around some other areas of the city - Itchewon (which was a disappointing shopping district), the World Cup Stadium (home of the 2002 tournament) and a local Hypermarket (interesting to see their idea of a supermarket and the weird foods it sold!).
On day 5 in South Korea we decided it was time to get away from the capital city and go on a road trip. We went back to the airport to hire a car and after an hour long argument with Avis about excess charges (which we lost!) and another hour figuring out the korean sat nav, we were on our way! After a wrong turn and an hour of city traffic we hit the toll roads and started to make good progress. Perhaps more through luck than judgement, the first toll was negotiated without any problems, but at the second we came undone. Not understanding the road signs, we found ourselves in the lane reserved for automated passes, stuck at the barrier, with a queue of impatient drivers building quickly behind us. The attendant a few booths up shook his head and looked ready to come and point out the error of our foreign ways but as the car horns behind us became more frenzied he thought better of it, hit a button and let us through for free instead!
The rest of the drive was pleasant and largely uneventful. Until now I'd had no idea SK was so mountainous and the views were often spectacular. Around early evening we arrived in the east coast city of Sokcho, our stop for the night. We had no room booked so drove around for a while looking to see what was available, even checking out a few "love" motels. Traditionally for hire by the hour, we'd heard night rates were often negotiable and very reasonable for the quality of room. The custom is to approach the hole-in-the-wall reception window, ask for a room, negotiate a rate, view the room, pay in cash and give the sleazy proprietor a wink as you smuggle the mistress upstairs (ok that last bit may not be entirely true...). We did this in 3 or 4 different places, each room we saw seedier than the last - the funniest being a motel shaped like a giant pink castle, with round 'love beds' and special 'welcome packs' in the room. We drove on. Half an hour later we were tired of looking and decided to take a room in the next place we could find - which sadly for us was a dingy, flea pit near the bus terminal. Having abandoned our view-first-pay-later policy, by the time we realised how bad the room was - the kind with stained sheets, hairs on the soap and cockroaches under the bed - we'd already paid in cash and were stuck with it! Still, at least it was cheap...
Not wanting to spend a second longer than we had to in our new home, we headed straight out in search of food. Before long we found our way to the seafront and an endless strip of seafood restaurants. Practically all seaside restaurants in Korea have huge water tanks out front housing the catches of the day (or in some cases the week, if the dead fish floating on the surface were anything to go by). Kate's not a big fan of seafood so we were about to grab some instant noodles from 7eleven when we stumbled across a small coffee shop which had some kind of menu and a page with the sub heading "meals". None of the 3 items listed were in English (it's amazing how often Asians scatter English words randomly into menus and signs) but the owner assured as the most expensive one was available so we ordered one each and sat down for another round of menu roulette! Thankfully, when it arrived it Tonkatsu chicken - chicken cutlet with rice and sauce, served with all the usual pickles and trimmings. We polished it off with a beer and watched crazy locals on the beach wielding fireworks as if they were holding Harry Potters wand. Still not quite ready for the flea pit, we bought beers from the 7eleven and sat on the beach ...well away from the fireworks. Several hours later we put sleeping bags on the motel bed, tried not to touch the stained sheets and prayed the cockroaches were out for the night as we tried to get some sleep.
An early escape from our hovel meant we arrived at our next destination, Seoraksan National Park, in good time. We took a cable car near to the top of the mountain before scaling the peak on foot. The climb was steep in places, several stretches needing the use of ropes fixed into the rock, but that didn't stop the locals trying to overtake us as they raced to the top wearing flip flops and dragging small children behind them! The views at the summit were spectacular and well worth the climb. We sat there for a while and had a mini picnic before climbing down to drive to Waterpia, a hot-springs-spa-cum-water park for the afternoon.
Re-invigorated by the hot baths and waterslides, we drove an hour or so down the coast to Gangneung and booked into a motel overlooking the beach. This time we checked out the room before we paid and were more than impressed with the seaview, balcony (albeit a very tiny one) , 40 inch flat screen and clean sheets! After a quick walk along the beach we squeezed onto the balcony to watch the sun set with a beer and then headed out for dinner. There were the usual plethora of seafood establishments so we thought it would be rude not to try one at least once. What we didn't realise was that despite appearances, the restaurants here were extremely expensive (presumably on account of the freshness of the seafood) and frequented by locals with money to burn! Thankfully we found one that seemed keen to have some western faces in the window and was happy to explain the cheapest options available to us. We dined on top shell, prawns, a host of random fishy sides, bowls of rice and washed it down with beer and Soju.
The next day we packed up the car and spent the morning/lunchtime relaxing and burning on the beach before starting back towards Seoul. The journey was pretty smooth except for another faux pas at the tolls. This time we stopped at a tollgate to take a ticket but the dispenser didnt seem to be working. Assuming we'd bagged another freebie we drove merrily on until an hour or so later we reached another toll where we were expected to produce a ticket and pay. The lady in the booth wasn't remotely impressed at my protestations of innocence and we were swiftly ushered to the toll office nearby. Inside I tried explaining the dispensing machine hadn't worked but all that did was draw looks of confusion from the ladies behind the counter. Luckily they either thought it all quite amusing or had been on the Soju all afternoon. They located our car on CCTV recordings, charged us accordingly and laughed as we paid and left.
In a few hours we reached Chuncheon, roughly the halfway way point and checked into another motel. Judging by the 'welcome pack' and random spa bath it was probably a love motel but it was pretty clean so we didn't care. In the evening we went in search of Dak Galbi, a regional speciality made from chicken marinated in chilli paste, onion, cabbage, sweet potato and tteok (a kind of steam rice cake) cooked on a hot plate. We found Dak Galbi street, a road lined with specialist restaurants and picked the busiest place. A waitress brought up the raw ingredients, stir-fried it in front of us in a huge shallow pan and served it with lettuce leaves and a bowl of salted ice water (presumably to cool the mouth down from the spiciness). The traditional way to eat it is to take a few spoonfuls of the mixture and heap it into a lettuce leaf to make a kind of wrap, but half the time we ate it straight from the dish. It was delicious and inevitably gone in half the time the other diners took to order!
In the morning we finished the drive back to Seoul airport and reluctantly handed the car back to the rental place. It had been a lot of fun driving around and living out of the boot of a car but sadly it was time to strap the packs back on!