All things considered, Thanksgiving is probably my favorite holiday back in the States. Fall is my favorite season, and where I grew up in Pennsylvania, it is a special time of year. The brisk air, beautiful foliage, and the coming winter months provide the perfect setting for a holiday based on gratitude and heritage. My memories of Thanksgiving growing up involve spending quality time with my wonderful grandparents, watching A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (my favorite Peanuts special!) and American football, and, of course, eating lots of turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, apple & pumpkin pie. As a pescatarian these days, turkey is no longer part of the equation; but a greater appreciation for the deeper meaning of the holiday more than makes up for it. I’m thankful for the mere fact that we have a holiday based on gratitude for our blessings in life which has mostly escaped the rabid commercialization that has infiltrated Christmas.
As it turns out, Korea has its own Thanksgiving celebration, called Chuseok. Its dates are based on the lunar calendar and it occurs in early autumn: this year, it was September 23-26. For foreign teachers, the break means an opportunity to explore Korea or travel abroad. I was thankful to have two Czech friends visiting during this time. Oddly enough, I did not meet them during my year living in the Czech Republic! Veronika was an adult student and friend during my time teaching in Australia in 2016, and I met her partner Honza for the first time when they arrived in Busan. After about 3 years living and working in beautiful Hillarys, Western Australia, they have been doing a whirlwind tour of Asia over the past few months. As I write this they are living it up on the beach in the Phillippines, and have toured virtually all of Southeast Asia and Japan. I was glad that their travel schedule lined up with the holiday, and we were able to spend it in Busan and Seoul. We certainly didn’t have a traditional Korean Chuseok, but we made the most of our time!
Beginnings in Busan
Veronika and Honza arrived in Busan on a Saturday evening. All of us had long days of travel behind us, so it was a quiet night. They had taken a 5-hour ferry from Fukuoka, Japan, and from what I understand, it was a rocky ride the whole way complete with 2 meter waves. I had taken several buses over the course of about 6 hours. So, we had some bibimbap and turned in early. The next day, however, we were determined to see some of the sights in Busan.
We decided to start the day with a brunch of champions: Indian food at Dar Bar Indian Restaurant. This was easily the best Indian food that I’ve had yet in Korea. The gap in quality between the Indian food available in Gwangju vs. the Indian food available in Busan (and Seoul) is pretty large. If you spend any time in Korea – especially outside of Seoul and Busan – you’ll learn quickly that all manner of foreign food is altered to suit Korean taste. This usually means that there is sugar in everything – even things like garlic bread and pizza. So as a lover of authentically spicy Indian curry, I was delighted to find this place. And because Honza and Veronika are vegetarians, we ended up eating dinner there as well, which was fine by me!
“The Most Beautiful Temple in Korea”
After fueling up on curry, we headed to the Haedong Yonggungsa Buddhist Temple, a beautiful complex right on the coast that dates back to 1376. Apparently the striking beauty of the place is not lost on the Korean tourism promoters, who are no doubt responsible for the large sign which reads “the Most Beautiful Temple in Korea.” I’ll let you be the judge, dear reader!
After visiting the Temple, we decided to spend a leisurely afternoon at the nearest beach. To be perfectly honest, I do not remember the name of this beach. We just walked until we found one. I know that this makes me a bad travel blogger, but it’s the truth! C’est la vie.
Onward to Seoul
Although we enjoyed our slow start in Busan, the real highlight of Honza and Veronika’s visit was our four days in Seoul. But let me tell you, it wasn’t easy getting there! I made a true noob’s mistake by booking us bus rather than train tickets during Chuseok. We spent about 8 hours inching down the highway at a snail’s pace before arriving in Seoul Monday evening. We would have been better off riding a turtle. Where’s Crush when you need him!?
Our long trek to Hongdae did not deter us, however, and we decided to go out exploring in the area that evening. First, we went for Mexican food at Gusto Taco. Living in Jeollanamdo, there is basically no Mexican food available. The closest one can get are the tacos and nachos on the menu at The First Alleyway, the Canadian-run expat bar in Gwangju. They are OK, but far from authentic. I must admit, Gusto Taco was not the most authentic thing I’ve ever tasted either, but for Korea, it was quite good. The owner is a man from New York City, and it is definitely an Americanized experience – but an excellent one! There are plenty of vegetarian and vegan options on the menu as well, which was perfect for us. I recommend stopping by if you are in Hongdae.
The next day, we decided we would hike Bukhansan, one of the most famous peaks in Korea. The weather was perfect, and it wound up being the highlight of the trip.
Getting to Bukhansan National Park took about an hour on public transport from Hongdae, and the hike itself took between 5 and 6 hours from start to finish. I have never seen a more crowded mountain in my life! Although we were constantly surrounded by beautiful nature, the number of people who also decided it was a great day for a hike made it feel as if we hadn’t left the city. I’m sure the crowd was larger given the fact that we visited over Chuseok, but it is something to keep in mind if you plan to visit in search of a more secluded getaway from the big city.
The trail to the peak is quite scenic, and there are several places to stop to buy snacks, use the restroom, etc. Once you start getting near the peak, what was previously a moderate hike starts to get more intense. According to my iPhone’s activity monitor, I climbed the equivalent of more than 200 flights of stairs. At the very top of the mountain, you’ll need to use ropes and your upper body strength as well as maintaining proper footing. Take your time, and stay on the trail, especially if it is crowded. Some Korean hikers who were in a hurry and went around the protective wall on the trail and ended up falling and needing to be rescued by helicopter. Scary stuff!
As long as you take it slowly and safely, though, you shouldn’t have any trouble. The views are absolutely worth it. I will let them speak for themselves.
The day after our Bukhansan hike, we decided to tick an important item off of the Korean bucket list: A tour of the Korea Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). I must say that I personally found the experience underwhelming, especially for the price (about $40 USD for a half day tour). But hey, it was mildly interesting, and it’s kind of cool to be able to say I did it.
We booked through “GetYourGuide.com,” and our tour included a visit to the Dora observatory, an infiltration tunnel that had been dug by the North Koreans, and a railway station meant to provide service to Pyongyang at some point in the future. It’s worth noting that this DMZ tour did not include a visit to the famous joint security area at Panmunjom, where North and South Korea hold official talks and where it is possible for tourists to step over the border into “North Korea.” Those tours are much more expensive and need to be booked months in advance.
At the Dora Observatory, tourists have the ability to look through binoculars at the North Korean “propaganda village” Kijŏngdong just across the border. Supposedly, you can see as far north as the city of Kaesong, but if that is true, I must have missed it. Kijŏngdong is claimed by North Korea to be a real town, but South Korean and Western media say that it is an uninhabited village built in the 1950s to encourage South Koreans to defect to the North. I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide who to believe! This tourist saw a grand total of zero people there! Since relations are a bit nicer between the two Koreas these days than they have been in the past, the loudspeakers that used to blast patriotic music and propaganda from both sides of the border were turned off.
Next, we visited the Dorasan railway station meant to provide service to Pyongyang. Instead, the only trains that ever use the station are a handful bringing tourists from Seoul. The station is basically a symbolic place, complete with a map of a hypothetical connection through the North with the Trans-Siberian Railyway in Russia. There are photos of various foreign heads of state who have made appearances there, including former President George W. Bush. In my opinion, the real reason that they take you here is to go to the gift shop, where you can buy various overpriced knick-knacks, and liquor made by North Korean defectors.
Finally, we visited one of the North Korean infiltration tunnels. These were discovered in 1984, and were constructed by the North Koreans while they were simultaneously engaged in peace talks with the South. The tunnel is quite long and narrow, and it is cold down there, so I recommend bringing a sweater or jacket. Also, you should wear the hard hats they provide you. I bumped my head on the low ceiling multiple times!
During our final day in Seoul, we visited one of the main tourist sites: Gyeongbokgung Palace. The main reason we visited is because I had some joyous bureaucratic business to do at the U.S. Embassy, and the Palace is located right nearby. Gyeongbokgung was the main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). Originally built in 1395, it served as the residence of the King and his extended family, as well as the seat of the government. It was abandoned for two centuries after a fire in the late 1500s, later being restored and return to use in the 19th Century. During Japanese colonial rule in the early to mid 20th Century, much of the palace was systematically destroyed. It has since undergone more than half a century of restorations to try to restore it to its original form. Below are some photo and video highlights. . .