I was really looking forward to South Korea, it was near the top of my list of places I wanted to go. We ummed and ahhed about going when we first left for travelling because of all the media reports on the problems with North Korea, but decided to book the flights anyway and assess what was going on nearer the time. While we were on our tour in China we met an American lady there who worked for the US army in South Korea and she told us there was no problem with going there so we carried on with our plan. We were glad we did.
We arrived in Seoul quite late and got the metro to our hostel. Our room was great, massive with its own mini kitchen, it was more like a studio flat. But the hostel itself didn't really exist, as in there was no common area and reception was never open, you had to email the reception lady (thru Facebook strangely!) if you wanted anything. Saying that thou, we got such a warm welcome when we arrived with the 2 owners talking us through our room facilities and then they got a map and described everywhere in the areas for us to see, it was lovely. The hostel was in the Hongdae area, which after wandering around Seoul we discovered was definitely the best place in Seoul to be and our hostel was minutes away from the centre. Once we'd checked into the hostel we went for a wander down the main drag full of restaurants, bars and clubs. Being somewhere that had bars (and they were everywhere!) was totally different from any where else we'd been in Asia where you generally had to hunt around for somewhere to have a drink without wanting food, so after a quick bite in a Mexican place (not very Asian I know but Asia belly had been getting to me quite a bit by this point and I was craving something that my body was more used to) we ventured off for a bit of a bar crawl.
The next morning we were pretty hungover from our late night so eventually managed to drag ourselves up about lunch time and do the normal first day planning. We had a few things on the list we wanted to get organised while in Seoul, one of which was to book a temple stay, so we headed off to the temple stay office that a friend had told us about to do a bit of research. We loaded ourselves up with all the English leaflets we could find and found a Korean restaurant to have a cheap lunch before going exploring round the town. En route to the main city area we walked past a stream with lots of locals sitting on the bank with their feet in the water, so although we didn't know why they where doing it － we assumed it was supposed to be lucky or something － we thought it would be rude not to join in! It was quite refreshing! After our walk we headed back to the hostel to chill for a bit and read all our leaflets before heading out the local restaurant area for dinner. Trying to get up at a decent time the next morning and have a more productive day, we were up, out and back at the temple stay office by 11.30 (ok still quite late, but early for us!) only to discover it was a bank holiday and it was shut! Luckily the tourist sites were still open so we went to look at the 3 Buddha temple across the road. Although we had seen quite a few temples, this one was pretty impressive as it was an actually a worshipping temple rather than a non functioning now tourist attraction and it was cool watching people bowing and chanting. Next stop after lunch was a walk round the old presidents palace and garden grounds, after a bit of a chill by a large pond in the gardens, we got the metro to Gangnam. I was expecting big things from Gangnam, as the song had promised me it was all going on! It was a pretty busy area with loads of restaurants and as few bars, but I still preferred the area round our hostel. We had a drink in a coffee shop and took advantage of the free wifi then headed back to the hostel for a chill before dinner. For dinner we went to a BBQ place which Hongdae was famous for. You picked some food to cook and then BBQ'd it yourself on a little BBQ in the middle of the table. It was similar to the one we went to in Taiwan but rather than being all you could eat, this one you just ordered what you wanted to cook. The menu's had no English on them at all and the waitress didn't understand what were asking for and just kept shaking her head, we were totally confused! Eventually we ended up with some food and it turned out to be quite a tasty meal.
We were up early they next morning for a tour to the DMZ zone between North and South Korea. It was really interesting learning about the differences between the two countries and how they became 2 countries in the first place. I didn't realise that Russia and America were so instrumental in the split... as well as world war 2. Every Asian country we've been to talks about the effects of WW2 and how the countries rebuilt themselves and changed after it was over. Its interesting coz in the UK its not really mentioned as much (well it might be to tourists when they come but I never hear anything about it), and whenever it is only really about how Hitler tried to take over and cleanse everything. Where as coming to Asia you realise it was much much bigger than that and it had a devastating affect on so many people with all different perspectives of what happened. It also appears that Japan generally come out as the bad guys most of the time, where as you think of the Japanese now as friendly people!
The tour took us to the border of South Korea where there was a viewing platform into North Korea and also down into tunnels that had been built by the North Koreans within the last 20 years, still trying to infiltrate South Korea (which North Korea deny!) By all accounts North Korea aren't doing as well as South Korea financially, or with resources, as on the border it is noticeable that there is a clear line where North Korea have cut down all their trees and vegetation to use for fuel as they can't afford to buy oil.
After the tour the bus dropped us off in the town centre and we got the metro to Itaewon which is supposed to be an international hub in Seoul and great for shopping. I wanted to do a bit if shopping so Grant and I went our own way for a few hours and arranged to meet back at the hostel later. Unfortunately I wasn't at all impressed with Itaewons's shops, or the place itself in general really, so soon gave up on the shopping and went for a lovely massage instead before heading home (very backpackery thing to do!) When I got back Grant had been to the supermarket so we had dinner in the hostel before heading out for a quick drink in a nice pub we had found on our wander round the night before.
It was then time to leave Seoul, and having not being able to decide where we wanted to go next we had booked to hire a car for 3 days and planned on just driving around the east coast and seeing what we could find. I was very excited about our road trip! I was looking forward to firstly not having to carry my bags around, but also just having the freedom to explore without having to plan it all out before hand! We headed to Seoul airport and after about an hour of arguing with the car people about what we had or had not booked we were off... We had read about a national park near Sokcho that was about 5 hours drive east of Seoul and decided to make this our first destination. Driving in Korea was easy, they drive on the wrong side of the road but the roads are pretty empty and the road signs were in English. Luckily we also had GPS so we had a chance of not getting hopelessly lost! What we didn't realise however is the amount of tolls there would be, which not only racked up the cost in the 3 days we were driving around but made for an interesting journey when we went thru the wrong bit twice, the first time I think they felt sorry for the thick foreigners and just let us thru but the second time we were not so lucky and were told to pull in and go to the office at the side of the road to explain to the non English speaking people in the office how we had driven thru the gate meant for people with season tickets and so we didn't have a ticket to prove where we got on the road!! They found it fairly funny tho (just that we were English in general I think!) and managed to find our car on CCTV to work out how much we owed.
When we arrived in Sokcho we embarked on finding a place to sleep. We had heard about 'love hotels' which were supposed to be pretty good quality but fairly cheap with a lot of them having themes to their bedrooms. The only downside being that the rooms were sometimes rented by the hour so were well 'used'! ;-) In general thou they were supposed to be pretty good and clean. We drove around looking for a decent one at a reasonable price but weren't impressed with the first 3 or 4 we saw and thought we could do better in a different part of town.... Eventually when it got to about 8pm and we'd had enough of hunting around we came across a cheap motel and too exhausted to check the room first paid in cash and were shown to the dirtiest ,most depressing room we had seen, with a bed that looked like it had net been cleaned and hair in the bathroom soap! We didn't have the energy to argue or look elsewhere so resigned ourselves to using our sleeping bags on top of the bed and touching as little in the room as possible! Keen to see at least some of the town (and not spend any time in the room!) we headed out for a wander to find something to eat. After about 30 mins, in the wrong direction we later found out, we stumbled across the harbour with restaurants crowding the waterfront and quite a lot of people about. Not being a fan of fish I didn't fancy eating in one of the sea food restaurants so we headed to a coffee shop with an upstairs balcony and picked at random one of the 3 things they had listed under food - In Asia they have a habit of listing titles in English and then everything underneath in the native language! They do in on menu, signs, magazines, very random! I'm not sure if it's a fashion thing, or they think it mean English speaking people will understand it! Luckily when the food arrived it turned out to be Tonkatsu, which is a popular breaded pork dish, and was lovely. We chilled on the balcony for a bit watching people on the beach letting off handheld fireworks (we thought they were just being stupid until we saw someone selling them and realised they were actually supposed to be holding them while they went off - still a stupid idea thou!) and then went off in search for a shop to buy a few beers and sat on the beach for a while before heading home to not touch anything!
The next morning we couldn't wait to get out of the room so were up and out early. We headed to the National Park nearby and got the cable car up to the peak of the highest mountain. At the top you could climb even further up to get to a beautiful view of the valley. It was probably only about a 100 meters to climb to the top but a was fairly steep climb up the rocks so was good fun (and knackering!). Once at the top we took the obligatory photos then chilled out for a but with a picnic before heading back down.
Next stop, after a slight detour while we got a bit lost, was 'Waterpia' a natural hot springs water park. The water park was quite cool, it was a mix of water rides, our favourite being the 'torrential river' an extreme version of a lazy river, and loads of different naturally hot spring water baths, most if which was 40 degrees. The fascinating bit for me was the 'spa' area when we were getting showered to leave. There was a separate spa area for men and women, which consisted of various different temperature baths, some stand up showers and sit down showers where you sit in front of a mirror. You has to be totally naked to be in the spa, and the women were taking it in turns to scrub each other down with special exfoliating cloths before getting in the baths and showers. The fascinating but was that in the water park all the women (and quite a few men) were fully clothed. They all had bikinis on but would then cover themselves up with shorts, t-shirts and quite often jumpers as they were too modest to walk around showing too much flesh, but in the spa area they were all butt naked scrubbing each other down! I didn't get involved in the scrubbing but it was quite liberating walking about naked in front of people!
Back in the car and it was time to decide where we were going to head for the night. There was a beach town, Gangneung, about 2 hours south of us so we thought that would be a good place to start. When we arrived we pulled up at the beach where about 5 or 6 motels were and headed into the first one. We had learnt our lesson from the night before and didn't want to waste any time hunting around so after a bit of haggling and a quick check of the room we were in. The room was lovely, it was obviously another love hotel judging by the pack of stuff you got free in the room, but was clean and pretty with a little balcony that over looked the beach. We chilled on the balcony with some beers for a while before heading out for a wander and some dinner.
We thought it was about time we tried one of the fish restaurants that were popular in Taiwan and South Korea. They generally consisted of wooden benches inside and on big verandas, with loads of tanks outside with fish, crabs and eels in. You could either pick from the menu what you wanted, or if you fancied it, you could point to the fish outside you wanted and they would grab it out and cook it for you. What we didn't realise however was how expensive the places were! They didn't look that special from the decor! We looked at a couple of different menus, all with the cheapest dish being about £30 each and the most expensive running into hundreds before finally found one that had an English menu and a nice waiter who once we'd explained we had very limited funds, helped us find a couple of tapas dishes that were just about affordable. Luckily, in most restaurants in South Korea you get a lot of free dishes with you meal, like kimchi (spicy cabbage) and pickles so by the time we'd eaten all the free stuff too we were just about full up! We strolled back to the hotel to people watch the locals from the balcony (more hand held fireworks!) before watching a film on the massive TV in the room. It was a lovely evening.
The next day we wanted to take full advantage of being near a beach for a change so got up relatively early and settled ourselves on the beach . By 2pm we were burnt so headed back to the car for the drive to our last destination. Grant had heard of a place called Chuncheon which was famous for a Korean dish called 'Dak Galbi' and it was about half way between Gangneung and Seoul so we headed there. This time we booked a hotel on the net so we didn't have to hunt around for somewhere to stay. We checked in for our third night in a love hotel, this one with a jacuzzi bath and funky disco lights! There was a particular street famous for its Dak Galbi, which after about an hour wandering around lost we managed to find, and we were glad that we had. The dish was a mix of chicken, vegetable and spices in a kind of tomato sauce which they cooked on a hot place in the middle of your table, it was delicious! With the normal kimchi and pickle dishes you also got a bowl of lemon ice water which we had no idea what it was for and didn't taste that special. The dish was pretty spicy, and we discovered that the ice water soup was to calm your mouth down as we watched the Korean couple next to us slurp it down and constantly asking for more, while we quite happily rammed ours down our throats in about 30 second flat! We're obviously more used to spicy food! The Korean couple were half way thru theirs when we arrived and we were in an done before they had finished! They happens quite a lot thou to be fair, they like to take their time over dinner, and we're just greedy :-) A quick wander round the shopping streets (shops in Asia are open later than the restaurants generally!) We headed back to our disco room.
The next morning our road trip was nearly done as we headed back to Seoul, via many more tolls, to give the car back.....