South Korea: A little bit of Seoul

By Ian D Robinson

With just 16 hours in South Korea's capital, adventure writer Ian D. Robinson plays tourist.

At the grand main gates of Gyeongbokgung Palace. Photo / Jim Eagles
At the grand main gates of Gyeongbokgung Palace. Photo / Jim Eagles

Years ago a mate and I sat in the pub bragging over jugs of beer about the countries we had been to and who had more stamps in their passport. We decided on a rule that to be able to claim you had "been" to a country you had to have cleared the nation's immigration desk and actually left the airport.

So finding I was to have 16 hours in South Korea's capital, Seoul, on the way back from somewhere else, I decided I'd make a point of having my passport stamped and leaving the building.

Even at one of the busiest hubs in Asia, Incheon International Airport, at 3am, it was quiet with an unmistakeable vibe in the air that, despite being a truly 24-hour city, this was very early in the morning.

At the immigration desk I got that all-important proof-I've-been-there stamp and a visa for three months, that was about 2192 hours more than the 16 I needed for my stopover.

Part of the connecting flights-stopover-deal was that Korean Air was obliged to put me up for the day, lucky for me I was dropped at the Hyatt Regency.

In the lobby, a vast silent tomb of subdued marble, no one was awake save for those that had to be. Somewhere in the distant cavern I could hear the clatter of someone setting up breakfast cutlery.

The two young men who had drawn the graveyard shift on reception were specimens of immaculate grooming and courteous detachment. My suite contained the largest bed I'd ever lain in, a bathroom bigger than my living room back home and fluffy robes and slippers.

I'm sure all this is no big deal for frequent high-end travellers but I was just a nobody whose flights didn't quite connect and more accustomed to Central Asian flea pits where the beds can be so filthy it's better to sleep on the floor, places with no stars - or if they do have stars it means you can see them through the holes in the roof.

It was tempting to sleep the day away in that bed, or maybe wander down to the hotel bar but a brochure I'd picked up in the airport offered a selection of transit tours and day trips. I considered the "Shopping Tour" or the "Drama Tour". The "DMZ" was too far unfortunately, so I opted for the five-hour "Seoul City Tour 1".

On the grey, rainy Korean day I joined seven others in a minibus. I guessed everyone else was on their way to somewhere else, they all had a halfway there, jetlagged look. As we headed towards the city, our young guide, Cindy, launched into her script in a high-pitched monotone, informing us of the peninsula nation's climate and how much of the country was covered in mountains. Perfectly on cue, she pointed out a monument we were driving by without even needing to turn around. She'd done this before, a lot, but she still did well at sounding interested.

The bus whizzed past factories and farms, veges grown in tiny patches below hills topped with military posts.

To keep us amused on the ride the sound system played the Beatles' Hey Jude, performed on some kind of traditional Korean stringed instrument. On the way back we'd get an album of Abba sung in Korean. Crossing an inlet of the Yellow Sea, which looked anything but yellow with miles of mudflats covered in pink algae, Cindy taught us some phrases in Korean, eager to see that we'd make the most of our brief cultural encounter with her homeland.

"Annyeong haseyo." Hello.

"Gamsa hamnida." Thank you.

"Sarang haeyo." I didn't think my 16 hours was going to be enough to need to know how to say "I love you" but Cindy stood at the front of the bus and made us repeat after her over and over until she was satisfied with our pronunciation.

First stop on our transit tour was Gyeongbokgung Palace, an expansive complex of sandy courtyards, enormous slab wooden doors and grand upsweeping oriental eves. At the grand main gates solemn guards and court officials stood, swords and pikes in hand, in traditional get-ups setting the scene as it once would have been.

The original palace dates from 1395 and the Joseon Dynasty. Gaegyeong was then the nation's capital before it was moved to Seoul. So I was informed by the back of my entrance ticket. Naturally Cindy confirmed all this and then explained that the buildings we were rushing between to avoid the increasingly heavy rain were in fact a reconstruction. "Most of the buildings were torn down or destroyed by fire in the Japanese invasions." Cindy reminded us of the Japanese invasions four times before we left the palace grounds. Under dripping, spouting-less eaves, school kids trailed behind their damp teachers like ducklings in the rain. "The king slept here," Cindy pointed to a wide empty room, "the queen slept separately because the king had 10 concubines."

Back in the carpark we waited for the bus to return. The next stop was supposed to be the National Folk Museum but due to the weather it seemed we had spent longer in traffic than expected and were running behind schedule.

"If you want we can only spend a short time at the museum and then only a short time at Insadong shopping street," Cindy offered us a choice, stressing the short time we'd have at each place and then seemed somewhat excited by the prospect of option two - "or we can skip the Folk Museum and go straight to Insadong. What do you think?"

"Shopping!" was the unanimous vote. I got the feeling that everyone else on the tour was just like me, not overly interested but feeling obliged to make use of the empty time they had in transit to be able to tell the folks back home they'd done something with their stopover.

The little streets of Insadong begged me to spend the whole day exploring and poking through the antiques and handcrafts, lacquer ware, incense, brass Buddhas, painted fans and scroll paintings, ceramics, paper crafted by hand from mulberry bark, embroidered gowns and tea salons.

But Cindy's order of "please meet at the 7/11 at the end of this street in 30 minutes" dashed all hopes of more in-depth rummaging.

Lunch was the next stop. We were hustled into a local eatery, where our meal was already sizzling away, ready to be eaten. Bulgogi, thin strips of beef barbecued right there on the table, rice and half a dozen little side dishes of bean sprouts, seaweed and the legendary chilli-infused cabbage and radish kimchi. "It's a little spicy," Cindy warned us.

With my mouth on fire as I gulped glasses of water, I wondered if the cabbage had been grown in the crater of an active volcano.

Gobble and go! Back to Incheon Airport in perfect time to check in, another country to add to the list and be able to say: "Korea? Oh, yeah, I've been there."

- NZ Herald

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