“Weird” – Something very ‘unearthly’, says the dictionary. Even after a thorough search on the thesaurus, I couldn’t find a word any more apt to describe South Korea. A country where plastic surgeries are doled out as if they were burgers, where naked spa days are a weekly affair, where smartphones are used for everything from blind dates to grocery store payments, where men’s cosmetics are just as popular as women’s, where cute singers doing a ‘Beyonce’ crashes Youtube – you sure can’t find a different word for it, can you?
Yet, in spite of all this oddity, South Korea carries an allure that makes you wonder why things aren’t quite that way back home. In the depths of winter with no blossoming cherries or gleaming ponds to enamour me, I met with the real Korea, one which had me falling for its charm without ever making eye contact.
South Koreans Are Dry, They Said
If I’ve learnt one big lesson about the world of travel blogging, it is not to trust every word you read. South Korea’s image has been fairly tainted by its reputation as an ‘unwelcoming’, ‘dry’ country that doesn’t quite match up to its neighbours, Japan. Some have even gone to the extent of pinning South Korea as ‘poor man’s Japan’.
I won’t lie to you, though. South Korea can be a lonely place to be. People wade about in black coats, their eyes transfixed on the mobile screen and their fingers tapping away like clockwork. Whether we were riding on a train, walking on the street, or shopping at a store, we went unnoticed in spite of being the odd ones sporting flashy, colourful jackets. It was almost as if we were invisible to them.
But, dry? Well..
On a late Seoul evening, we were left stranded having missed the last subway to our apartment. Invisible to all, we made our way to the streets. Our attempts at hailing a cab were futile and our bodies were beginning to feel the effects of the unfavourable weather. At this point, out of nowhere, came a young girl who tapped on our shoulders with a big smile. She quickly took out her phone and began typing in Korean into the translation app letting us know she’d be willing to help. After a long time, when we finally got one, she wrote “Count your stars! You both are lucky, and so am I“. As the car came up to the apartment and I took my wallet out to pay, she wrote “Oh! Don’t! When I’ve gone outside, so many people have helped me. Today is my turn to return the favour!”
As we stepped out of the car, Divya and I looked at each other to say “And we thought we were invisible!”
Seoul, You’ve Got Soul
It isn’t surprising that most travellers to the Korean peninsula don’t tread beyond the comforts of Seoul. It is a colourful melange of everything Korean, bundled into a dynamic energy-packed city. When our hosts learnt that we’re staying only for 4 nights because we’re going to some other parts of the country, they were truly bewildered. Their expression had “Who leaves Seoul in 4 nights?!” smeared all over ’em.
You could be beginning your day visiting one of its many fascinating temples, having steaming hot breakfast by the street, ambling in and out of uniquely designed palaces by the noon, shopping at every turn by lunch, appreciating intricately designed buildings by sunset, watching a tea ceremony by late evening, sampling 134565 varieties of street food for dinner, and partying it up in pub district by night. Before you know it, the city would’ve absorbed you.
To think all of this doesn’t even talk about its gazillion hiking paths, lush green gardens, or its mouth-watering delicacies is a testament to just how dynamic Seoul is. Given the public transport system extends to far-distances, you could be on a ferry to a remote island or on a train to the North Korean border in the blink of an eye. The never-ending array of shops in Seoul got us into a shopping mode, in spite of the fashion disasters and world misers that we are.
Cabin-Life In The Korean ‘Alps’
While Seoul is a loud rock anthem, its neighbouring province of Pyeongchang is a slow melody. Until it hosted the recently concluded Winter Olympics, the world knew very little of it. Among the locals, it has been a popular ‘ski’ destination. But, beyond the realms of skiing and winter sports, Pyeongchang is an alpine dream that barely fits into the image of South Korea we’ve been painted. Snow covered pine trees, wooden cabins, frozen lakes, and starry skies – you wouldn’t be blamed if you mistook it for Scandinavia.
We found our home in a quiet cabin deep in the mountains, with very little around that could be called civilisation. A total of four families live in that area with a car being the only feasible way of getting around. It felt like someone told the clocks to move slow, as we spent hours watching the pine trees swaying in the cold wind, the stars lighting up the sky in all its glory and the absolute deadness of the harsh winter. We could feel every puff of air, every minute going by quietly.
Almost as if the colossal beauty surrounding us wasn’t enough, our hosts, an old retired couple, showered a hospitality we’ve so often experienced in the remotest parts of the globe. We didn’t speak the same language by words, but they spoke to us clear as day with their love. Sending a cheesecake late in the night because they were celebrating a birthday, dropping us to the town whenever we had to go, ordering food for us saying ‘you’ll enjoy this!’, trying to translate into Hindi to connect with us, coming to the market with us to help pick supplies, their care and affection put the towel on the faces of the “Koreans are dry” theory.
Meeting A Forgotten Korea In Jeonju
The buzz of Seoul and the beauty of Pyeongchang was thoroughly absorbing, without a doubt. But, it was not until we got to the southern town of Jeonju that we came face to face with Korea’s past. The exciting facets of Korea’s culture and traditions are preserved to this day, as if warped in a time capsule, in Jeonju. Although we initially planned to stay only for little over a day, we wound up spending more than 3 days in this semi-urban town.
Jeonju is the birthplace of the Joseon dynasty that served Korea the longest. The remains of the dynasty still live on in its palaces and shrines. The traditional homes of Korea’s elite class, hanoks, with its curly roofs, under-floor heating, and large courtyards remain in plenty in a beautifully arranged network along cobbled lanes. Most of these hanoks serve as cafes, shops, and museums today, but it isn’t hard to look beyond and picture how life would have been a few centuries ago. Oh, and don’t be surprised seeing locals ambling around in colour hanboks like it’s just the norm here. While a lot of it is tourism-driven, there’s a part of Jeonju that screams authentic.
It is in Jeonju that Korea’s most popular dish, Bibimbap, was born. Sitting down to devour a bowl of bibimbap is a feeling that can only be truly felt at its home ground. UNESCO even declared Jeonju the capital of gastronomy in 2012, a decision that isn’t hard to reason with if you spend just a day in this rustic old town.
To Eat Is To Be
In Korea, food isn’t just a necessity of life. It is an emotion, an experience, the core of their very being. Koreans maybe obsessed about fitness and looks, but it doesn’t stop them from embarking on a gourmet journey that is sinfully sublime. Whether it is a pop-up food market, an array of street stalls, a neighbourhood eatery, or a Michelin-star restaurant, expect to be sucked into the never-ending whirlwind of Korean food. Much like India, there are an innumerable amount of dishes that they cook up leaving you with not enough time to take in the highlights, even if you spend a good two weeks.
Even if your eyes were tied, you can meet with every corner of Korea through your palette. As I write this out, I find myself salivating over Chi-Mac (Korean Chicken With Beer), Galbi (Meat cooked in spices and veggies on the table!), Hotteok (Korean Pancake), Samgyetang (Ginseng Chicken Soup), and the gazillion street items whose names we could never learn. Whether it’s a Monday afternoon or Friday evening, the food markets are abuzz with people socialising over street-eats and a bottle of makgeolli (rice wine).
Be warned, though. Before we arrived in South Korea, we had lost a ton of weight and were eating well, and exercising regularly. But, ever since we drowned in the whirlpool of Korean food, we’ve been on an eating trajectory we haven’t yet snapped out of. Make sure your pants are super loose before you head, you’ll need the extra inches.
So hey, don’t let anyone fool you that South Korea is all about the blooming flowers and towering hills. Even in the harshest of winters when the winds will blow your face off, it will do so charmingly. Such is the spell it weaves.
Before heading to South Korea, we strongly recommend reading ‘Pachinko’ by Min Jin Lee whose portrayal of Koreans in Japan during the period of occupation provides an authentic insight into the Korean world that may possibly help you understand why Koreans are how they are.