Initially they said three weeks, then six. Six weeks turned into three months and eventually I ended up staying in South Korea for half a year. An exciting time and in some ways for sure eye-opening – which in my opinion holds true for whenever you live as a stranger in a strange land for a while. I’m now going to try and shed some light on my personal experience with the country and its people as well as provide some general information.
Little did I know about South Korea, when I first got there last Septmeber. In fact, probably nothing except for its ongoing conflict with the northern neighbours and then they hosted a soccer worldcup recently. Of all the East-Asian countries, South Korea had never really appealed to me as a holiday destination. Thus I was quite excited to find out more about the country. Which turns out to be not that easy at all. Although Korea has become more and more “westernised” in the recent years it still has a very traditional and rather conservative base. Which might be the reason why hardly anyone speaks English. So unless you’ve picked up some Korean it is very tough to ask for anything. That said, Korea is actually home to more than 45 thousand foreign English teachers – I guess that in a few years this will change the language situation quite a bit.
The language barrier obviously makes it very hard to get in contact with actual Koreans. So what you see when you go to a bar or pub are conglomerates of Western people and very rarely you’ll find an equally mixed group.
Which is a pity because in general (younger) Koreans come across as very friendly and interested in making contact with foreigners. At the same time though I always found older persons to be a little harsh. But usually helpful and willing.
Eating and drinking
I complained in an earlier post that Korean food is mainly about Kimchi and everything tastes similar. Well, six months later I can still second this but I’ve also come across quite a few edible things that are actually really good, even for my spoiled European sense of taste. Amongst my favourites are Dak Galbi and all sorts of Korean BBQ, which you prepare yourself on a gas stove or charcoal grill in the middle of the table.
Ordering food in a western restaurant can lead to rather unexpected results: the Bruschetta you get at the Italian around the corner might be topped with icing sugar, and the cappucino usually comes with cinnamon on it rather than chocolate powder.
When it comes to alcoholic drinks there’s no way around a shot (or a few) of the infamous Soju. It’s basically the Kimchi of drinks and Koreans celebrate their Soju whenever they can. One night at a BBQ this random Korean guy came up to our table and insisted in several shots with our group, taking photos and having is well underaged kids sitting at his table. Soju usually means a night of great fun but it is also to be held responsible for a lot of staggering and some of the worst hang-overs …
The larger cities in Korea offer a very well developed subway system, but quite often a cab is the easiest way to get to where you want. They are very cheap and there are plenty. Drivers tend to be a little crazy and don’t expect them to speak English or understand your attempts to pronounce a Korean word properly – try to get your destination written down in Korean and you’re on the safe side.
For traveling between cities there is an extensive Intercity and Express bus system, again very cheap and the buses are comfortable. City buses exist, too, but I haven’t been able to find a single schedule or route map in English and the only time I took a city bus ended in getting lost …
Being the capital of Korea and home to a quarter of the Korean population, Seoul obviously offers a huge variety of things to do and see. Shopping, eating, drinking, sight-seeing – it is huge. I myself only went there a few times for some shopping and to Namsan tower.
Busan on the southcoast is the second largest city and seems worth an extended stay. It has famous beaches and a large temple complex.
Cheongju is where I lived for half a year. It has defintely grown on me, mostly as a result of the great time I had with all the lovely people I became friends with. I’ve written about Cheongju in a few earlier posts.
My favourite places
I have to admit that I’m still not sure whether I’d call Korea a beautiful country or not. Quite often it looks very dirty and rundown, but I have definitely found a few amazing spots, some of which rank among the nicest places I’ve ever been to:
- Seoraksan National Park: A spectacular mountain range with nice hiking and great views. I went there in autumn an can only recommend this time of the year. Read my post
- Guin-Sa Temple complex: Maybe rather impressive than beautiful, but worth a trip if there’s time. Read my post
- Hwayanggugok: A river in Songnisan National Park near Cheongju which is a great place to enjoy a hot sunny day. Read my post
- Seungbong-Do: An Island about two hours off Incheon. Deserted beaches and only a few people make for a great weekend trip to relax and sun bath. Read my post
Still not tired of reading? Here’s a list of all Korea related posts.