| Pusan, Gyeongju, Seoul
In early October 2005 I spent five days travelling across South Korea,
entering the country in Pusan (Busan) and leaving it from the Incheon
airport (Seoul). It was a short trip which I did mainly to get a first
impression of the country. South Korea is not your typical tourist
destination and in fact I met very few western travellers.
Korea is a country tough to travel through as very few people in Korea
speak English (not even the young people who learn it at school). Also,
on the streets everything is written in Korean characters so you can't
even guess what is the meaning. The situation is a bit better in Seoul,
with more English names in the streets.
This is the pre-departure plan for the overall trip:
||Arrive at Taipei airport 21:55
||Fly 17:50-21:10 with GE702
||Visit Busan; Busan->Gyeongju with bus in the
|Gyeongju - Seoul
||Gyeongju until afternoon; Seoul in the evening
|Meet Shirley in the evening in Beijing
|| Shirley flies Chengdu-Kunming-Kuala Lumpur;
Alfred flies Chengdu-Lhasa
|Do the Gyantse-Shigatse-
Yam Tso lake loop
||Arrive in the evening in Guanzhou
||Afternoon flight Guangzhou-Bangkok
The overall trip is a bit ambitious, but doable. I don't have the
tickets for the flights within Asia when I leave Munich (will have to
buy them while I'm in Asia). Shirley already left for Malaysia on
September 23rd. She'll leave the baby with the in-laws and meet me in
Beijing on October 10th. We'll travel for one week across China, then
we'll split and meet in Bangkok for the return flight. I'm planning to
do a three-days circuit (Gyantse-Shigatse-Yam Tso) in Tibet.
To travel across Korea I used the Goodwill
guides are Korean people, who volunteer as guides for tourists in
Korea. To get a Goodwill guide I emailed an application to the Goodwill
guide organisation in Korea, with some information about myself and
planned itinerary. My Goodwill guide in Pusan and Gyeongju was a
tourist guide from Pusan - let's call him "Frank" to protect his
privacy - while my guide for Seoul was a lady - let's
call her "Paula" to protect her privacy - a law
student from Seoul.
In my personal opinion the Goodwill guide system makes
sense in a country like Korea, where it is tough to travel around if
you don't speak Korean. Goodwill guides in general are helpful for
planning your trip, as they can provide you with local information
which might be difficult to obtain. But Goodwill guides can also drag
you down a
bit, as you need to coordinate everything with your guide, set up
appointments and inevitably end up losing some time. It is best to
limit your time
with a Goodwill guide to one day or two. After one or two days you
are usually familiar with a place and have all information you need to
continue exploring it by yourself.
Generally speaking, it is great having a local Korean who acts as an
interpreter for you. In Seoul for instance, I had my first positive
experience with Korean food (after four days of frustrations and
fast-food) in a Korean restaurant, when Paula helped my choose some
dishes and acted as a translator with the restaurant staff.
Why do South Koreans volunteer as Goodwill guides? For a number of
reasons, I'd guess:
- They want to practise their English.
- They are interested in foreigners. Not too many
make it to South Korea.
- Some Goodwill guides probably want to make friends
from Europe or
- Koreans are helpful, generally speaking.
Korea is not a cheap country to travel around, although it is nowhere
nearly as expensive to travel around as for instance a western
European country. To save money I stayed in "love hotels", which, as
the name says it, are hotels for couples who want to spend a night or
weekend together and enjoy some privacy. These rooms are very good
value - for around 40000 won you usually get a room with everything
(see below), including a computer with fast Internet access, a TV with
a (soft-)porno channel, perfumes, lotions and creams etc. The food and
expense is moderate if you travel by bus, while my flight from Seoul to
Beijing was quite expensive.
/ Exchange rate (October 2005)
1 Euro = 1260 won
The cheap dollar (the Korean won is kind of linked to the US$) made my
trip less expensive. For current
the Universal Currency Converter.
phones / Prepaid GSM
South Korea unfortunately has no GSM networks. They only have CDMA
mobile phone networks which are not compatible with GSM phones. These
networks by the way suck as I had difficulties calling both the mobiles
Goodwill guides in Pusan and Seoul because of network problems. In one
case the Goodwill guide switched off the phone to save battery life,
which implies that CDMA phones have a poor battery life.
The Internet is everywhere in South Korea. In all three hotels I stayed
I had an Internet connection in the room, although I could only plug
directly my notebook computer into the DSL line in Pusan (in Gyeongju
and Seoul I stayed in cheaper love hotels, which offered a computer
with Internet access in the room, but not a DSL line connectable to
Korea has a moderate climate with four seasons. It can get pretty cold
in winter, with snow falling in Seoul (and there are ski resorts in the
mountains in South Korea). During my visit it was quite fresh in Pusan
and Gyeongju (in Pusan I had to wear a light jacket) and it rained a
bit. It was warmer in Seoul, warm enough to walk around with a T-shirt
(but at night you needed a jacket). On a couple of days there was some
Seems to me that South Korea is a relatively safe place, and that no
vaccinations are necessary. I didn't however drink tap water.
VISA / Entry
No visa required for EU nationals as well as nationals of other
Very high level of security in South Korea.
I used buses to tour through Pusan and taxis and the subway to get
around. In Gyeongju I "rented" a taxi for half a day to get quickly
from one site to the other one. The bus from Gyeongju to Seoul was
fast, comfortable and cheap. Seoul has a very dense network of subway
stations, with so many stops that it is faster to get from A to B by
taxi, despite the traffic.
Korea has a good railway network, with "bulllet trains" between Pusan
and Seoul (and probably also between other destinations), but I didn't
try it out. Korea also has many motorways, but most Korean drivers
limit their speed to 80km/h, even when they are on the left lane,
forcing other cars to overtake them on the right. My bus from
Gyeongju to Seoul had to overtake pretty frequently cars which were
blocking the left lane driving at 80km/h.
Hotel Phoenix, Pusan. 68000 won for a
room with TV, phone, bath+shower, ADSL internet connection. Not too
pristine, looks a bit old, but is clean.
Weather: Quite fresh in Pusan in the
The Transasia GE702 flight to Pusan leaves almost on time. The plane is
full, for some mysterious reason lots of Taiwanese want to visit Busan.
The plane lands in Busan 15 minutes early at 20:55 local time.
Immigration and baggage retrieval are very fast. A bit after 9pm I'm at
the information counter of the airport and book a hotel. The lady at
the booking counter keeps saying "Hotel Penis" instead of "Hotel
Phoenix" (?!). Then I take a
taxi (15000 won), and around 9:30pm I'm in the hotel.
Initially I feel lost. I can't speak a single word of Korean and can't
read the characters. I even start speaking Chinese with the taxi
driver. I guess I'll feel more at home when I'm in China (I speak some
Chinese, having been
studying Chinese for four years).
The guy who was supposed to guide me through Pusan (the goodwill guide
Frank) is not available, kind of got lost. So tomorrow I'll have to
do Pusan on my own. Around 11pm I go out to buy some water. Surprise,
surprise I'm in a very lively area of Pusan, full of shops, food
stalls, pubs etc. It's a bit chilly.
Hotel Phoenix, Pusan. The bed in the
room is very hard
Weather: Sunny with a more or less
thick layer of clouds. Quite fresh and in the late afternoon it rains
briefly. In the evening I have to wear a jacket when going out.
The alarm clock wakes me up abruptly at 8:20am. I rush to get ready,
but only manage to leave the hotel at 9:15am. Luckily we reach the
train station in Pusan before 9:30am, so I still manage to get into the
bus for the Pusan tour.
In the morning I do the tour of "historical" Pusan (whatever that
means), leaving at 9:30am and returning at 12pm according to the guy
who sells the tour tickets (the company is Arum tours,
www.arumtour.co.kr). Five places are marked in the itinerary, but we
will only stop in two.
The first stop is at the Mt. Youngdu park between 9:50am and 10:10am.
Not too impressive park, but never mind. After that we drive to the end
of the Taejongdae peninsula, where we stop between 10:35am and 10:55
am. Very scenic spot, with a nice view of the ocean and the cliffs.
This is the best Busan has to offer, as I understand later.
We are back in the train station at 11:30am. There the guy who sold me
the tour ticket passes me his mobile phone and, surprise, it's my
Goodwillguide Frank on the other end of the line. He tells he is
going to come soon.... at 12:10pm. I say 'ok' without thinking about
it, and this turns out to be a mistake, because the afternoon tour
starts at 12:50pm and now it's 11:35am and I would have enough time (1
hour 15 minutes) for a lunch in a restaurant, if I didn't have to be
back at the train station at 12:10pm to meet Frank.
So I start looking for a place where I can have some kind of fast food.
The road behind the train station road has surprisingly shops with
signs in cyrillic characters. At first I
don't notice this, but suddenly a shop lady starts talking to me in
something which sounds like Russian. Later I learn from Frank that
that is "Little Russia" and Russian people come to Pusan to make
business (?!). So the lady must have assumed that I was Russian.
After some time I walk into the French bakery on the station square and
order two sandwiches. It turns out later, that one of these sandwiches
(chicken & green peppers) is uneatable, as it is way too full of
chilli. The other one, the cheese one, doesn't taste good. I have
to get into a 7-11 and buy some pastries for lunch.
At 12:10pm I meet Frank. We chit-chat for a while, he has many
questions about me. At 12:50pm we take the bus for the next tour. I
only have to pay another 10000 won (the ticket for Frank), as my
ticket of this morning is still valid.
Frank tells me he is a professional tourist guide. This tour will
bring us over the next three hours to three places of "modern" Busan:
the museum, the UN memorial (which is closed for works) and the
Haeundae beach. The museum actually is, but I end up paying 12000 won
for an entry ticket to a totally boring "British museum exhibition",
with copies of the originals instead of the originals.
The Haeundae beach is supposed to be the "largest beach in South
Korea", but is actually nothing so special. The whole of Pusan is
nothing special, to put it nicely (I might add that the organisers
of this tour have a strange sense for what is interesting for
tourists). There is no building older than 40 years and the whole town
looks like it didn't exist 40 years ago. Or perhaps they tore down all
old buildings to make place for new ones. I get the impression that
South Korea is a country which hasn't been able to afford to
have a cultural heritage. I remember that an Indonesian friend of mine
told me six years ago that the Indonesian government in Jakarta tore
down a number of old, colonial era buildings instead of preserving
Anyway, had I known how Busan looks like, I would have skipped the town
and would have gone directly to Gyeongju from Busan airport when I
By the way, when walking on the street with Frank, this guy has the
habit of walking very close to you, and touch you all the time (!).
After a while I start walking away from him, trying to keep a minimum
distance, and then Frank will try to get as close as possible.
I'm back in the hotel at 4pm and spend the rest of the day not doing
much. In the evening I get out at 6:30pm to have some dinner. I end up
in a "steak restaurant" in Nampudong, where nobody speaks a word of
English (in the whole of Pusan virtually nobody speaks a word of
English and most neon signs are written in Korean characters only). I
order some chicken dish and try to explain that it should not be hot,
no chilly etc. The waiter says "yes, yes" (sort of nodding
In this restaurant in the middle of each table there is a pan, where
they will cook for you. When the waitress arrives with the ingredients
I start having second thoughts. It turns out that the red sauce on the
chicken meat is full of chilli sauce. Also, the ingredients and the way
they are cooked don't look appealing. I pay the bill and leave before
waitress finishes cooking the stuff. End up having dinner at a
MacDonald and start meditating whether I should shorten my stay in
Korea and leave earlier.
In the evening I try again calling Paula, my goodwill guide in Seoul.
Her mobile is not available all the time. I email her about that and
she tells me that she kept it switched on all the time. Since also
yesterday I couldn't reach Frank on his mobile (also a 010 number), I
start thinking that there must be something wrong with the CDMA network
in South Korea. Frank told me that he switched off the phone
yesterday to save battery life (!). Possibly these CDMA phones have
short standby battery lives and the CDMA network is either full of
holes or will cut off the service erratically.
The girls in Pusan are so-so. Not really pretty on the average. The
only attractive girls I saw were the belly dancers performing in
Nampudong to celebrate the International Film festival, and they
probably were not from Pusan and perhaps not even Korean.
Tomorrow I'll take the bus to Gyeongju. I'm a bit skeptical about this
place - I suspect that again it will not be that interesting.
6.10: Busan -> Gyeongju
Hilltop motel, Gyeongju. 40000 won for
a room with everything - TV with porno channel, VCD player, phone,
fridge, hair dryer, water boiler/cooler, even a computer with Internet
access, toilet with shower and sophisticated toilet seat, A/C, fan,
several creams and lotions for the loving couple. Friendly staff,
advance payment. This is a "love hotel" for young couples in need of
privacy. There is even an automatic dispenser in the corridor where you
can buy vibrators and other stuff.
Weather: Sunny with some clouds.
Definitely warmer than in Busan. No rain the whole day. Fresh in the
I get up at 9am and leave the hotel at 10:30am. The taxi drive to the
bus station takes 45 minutes and costs 18600 won. At the bus station I
meet Frank and get two tickets to Gyeongju (4000 won each). The next
bus is leaving at 11:40am and the drive should take one hour.
The bus leaves on time and after some time reaches the motorway. It
takes a while to leave Pusan behind us - Pusan is really a big city.
Lots of roadworks initially, but after some time the motorway is free
and the driver speeds up to over 100km/h. Funny that the cars drive so
slowly and the bus so fast. Every now and then there is an idiot who is
blocking the left lane by driving at 80km/h. But our smart bus driver
knows how to overtake on the right side (this by the way seems to be a
sport here in Korea - everybody is overtaking on the right side).
The bus reaches Gyeongju at 12:45pm. Then we jump into a taxi and Frank
starts negotiating a deal with the taxi driver. For 50000 won (= 40
Euro) they will drive me around for five hours. Ok, fine with me.
The first thing to do is to leave the luggage in a hotel. Since I
couldn't care less about the accomodation, I pick the first "middle
class" place in the LP guide. Turns out this wasn't a good idea,
because this place (Hansol Jang) is out of town around lake Bomun.
Can't believe the LP guide puts this place on top of the list.
Negotiations, discussions with the taxi driver and we decide to go back
into town to the Hilltop motel. On the way back we stop at the Bomun
lake (nothing to see, except for a few modern hotels) and at the stone
pagoda of Bunhwangsa.
Time passes fast and by the time I leave the luggage at the hotel and
am able to "start the day" it's already 2:10pm. We drive to a McDonalds
restaurant for some fast food, then at 2:30pm start the sightseeing.
Until 5:30pm we visit a number of places in the Namsan district, mostly
tombs of Silla rulers. After a while I get tired of always seeing
There are no big impressive structures left of the Silla period. Only
some stones, some very basic ruins. Nothing comparable to the ruins of
ancient Rome. The scenery however is quite nice - it's a good
place for hiking.
Overall Gyeongju is a bit of an archaelogical place set up for
tourists. In Pusan there was nothing old, here in Gyeongju everything
is supposed to be old and interesting. The focus in Gyeongju is pretty
much the archaeological stuff (of which not much is left).
In the evening I have some junk food at McDonalds. Later, while walking
in town, I discover that there are lots of restaurants. Tomorrow I'll
do the sights within the city and then get to the Bulguksa area by bus
and visit the highlights there.
Hotel Ritz, Seoul. Tel. 02-7640353.
with TV (guess what channels they have), computer with Internet
connection (I asked for that - initially they showed me a room without
Internet), bath, fridge, VCD player, phone (local calls only), A/C,
water heater/cooler. The hotel in Gyeongju was better.
Weather: Overcast in Gyeongju until
when I leave at 5pm. It starts raining at 1:30pm initially heavily,
then it continues very lightly (like it's not raining but you get wet
anyway). Fog and clouds around Seokguram. No rain in the evening in
The alarm clock wakes me up as usual at 9am (I still haven't adapted
completely to the local time). By the time I've had breakfast, checked
my emails, taken a shower and packed my things it's 11am. I check out,
leave my bags in the reception and start today's sightseeing.
I first walk to the Tumuli park (admission: 1500 won), where there are
several Silla tombs spread around. The park is full of schoolchildren,
who behave as if they had never met a western guy in person. I'm at the
centre of the attention, with lots of kids trying to practice their
Half an hour later, at 11:45am I get out of the park and start walking
towards the Cheomseongdae observatory (ticket: 500 won). Quite nice,
but five minutes are enough to inspect it and take a few photos. Again
lots of schoolchildren who have never met a western guy in person.
It's 12pm and I still have to visit two places before taking the bus to
Seoul - the Bulguksa temple and the Seokguram grotto (what the hell is
a "grotto" ???). They are about 25km away from Gyeongju, and Frank
advised me yesterday to take a bus as the taxi will be expensive. So I
start walking towards the bus station for Bulguksa and on the way I run
into a Pizza Hut restaurant. I have some lunch there (pizza + drink is
16000 won). Wouldn't mind having lunch in a Korean restaurant, if at
least I was able to communicate with the waitress and ask what is
inside the dishes.
While I'm in the restaurant I decide to take a taxi, as it is already
1pm and my time is limited. Never mind if I have to pay 50000 won for
the taxi, the problem is that getting to Bulguksa will be messy and
time-consuming. At 1:10pm I get into a taxi and tell the driver
"Bulguksa". The driver smiles and says "thank you" (must be good
The trip to Bulguksa takes only 20 minutes and costs 14000 won - much
less than what I had feared. When I get out of the taxi at 1:30pm it
raining quite heavily. I wait for a while for the rain to stop, but
after 15 mnutes the rain is still not over, so I enter into the temple.
The temple is quite nice and would be nicer if it wasn't being
renovated and if the sun was shining. The entry ticket is 4000 won.
The Bulguksa temple has been destroyed by a fire laid by the Japanese
in the 16th century. The structures you see today have been rebuilt
about 30 or 40 years ago by the Korean government, trying to match as
close as possible the original.
The temple is again full of schoolchildren. After I have set up the
tripod to take a photo of a wall, too dark for a handheld shot, a young
Korean lady, who can speak English, approaches me and asks if I'm a
professional photographer. She says she's a teacher and the schoolkids
want to know who I am. We have a short conversation and then I continue
with my sightseeing (I have a feeling that she would have liked to
speak longer with me).
After a while it stops raining and it becomes easier to take photos. At
2:45pm, over an hour since I reached the Bulguksa temple I start
looking for a taxi. There is none in the parking in front of the
temple, so I ask at the ticket counter and the lady tells me to go
down. And true, about 400m below, there is the information counter and
a taxi stand.
The road to the Soekguram grotto is a narrow and winding mountain road,
leading to a parking at an altitude of about 700m a.s.l. From there
(entry ticket is 4000 won) you have to walk for about five minutes to
get to the grotto. The taxi from the Bulguksa temple to the Soekguram
grotto costs 6000-7000 won. The "grotto" itself is kind of a temple,
with some very nice Buddha statue inside (and other statues inside).
At 3:30pm I walk back to the taxi and get back to Gyeongju, more
specifically to the bus terminal. It's 4:20pm and the next bus to Seoul
would be at 4:30pm - too short term - so I get a ticket for the 5pm
Seoul bus (price is 24200 won).
I get back to the Hilltop motel, which actually is very close to the
bus terminal, get my bags and walk to the bus terminal. I first get
into the wrong bus terminal (the two bus terminals are quite close to
each other), then into the correct one.
The bus to Seoul leaves on time at 5pm. It is the comfortable 24-seater
type and is half-empty. The traffic on the motorway initially is quite
high, as if there were too many cars on too few roads in Korea. After
7pm the motorway is less crowded.
We stop at 7pm for half an hour in a petrol station, where I have some
food, a Korean noodle soup. These are thick noodles which you have to
eat one by one with chop sticks. The problem is that you can only grab
one noodle at a time and these noodles are very slippery. You either
suck them up, and then the soup nicely sprays on your face and clothes
or you block them first and then try to grab the other end with the
chop stick. In my case lots of noodles fall again into the soup bowl
and it takes a while to finish the noodles. Feels like a bird trying to
eat rainworms. The soup taste is not good by the way.
On the motorway the situation is again the same: people overtaking on
the right side all the time. There is always some brainless guy driving
only 80 km/h on the left lane, refusing to move to the right lane and
forcing all cars behind him to overtake him on the right side. Makes me
wonder what kind of driving education people in Korea get.
The bus arrives in Seoul bus station on time at 9:25pm. After that I
take a taxi to the Hotel Ritz (half an hour, 9000 won) and check in at
10pm. The hotel is a love hotel (I'm getting used to that...). I call
Paula (my goodwill guide in Seoul) and check my emails.
Hotel Ritz, Seoul
Weather: Sunny with some clouds, no
rain. Warm enough to walk around with a T-shirt most of the time.
I get up at 9am, just in time to pick up the call of Paula. She can't
make it at 10am and postpones our meeting to 11am. Shortly after 11am
I'm at the exit 11 of the Jonggak MRT station and call Paula. She is
still on the way and arrives around 11:30am. Paula is 22, a law student
and has been volunteering as a Goodwill guide for about a year now. She
is kind of a Florence Nightingale, Mother Theresa who picks up and
saves travellers who got lost in Seoul. Jokes aside, she is a very
helpful and friendly person.
The first thing we do is to get to the travel agency and pick up the
ticket to Beijing (Paula organised that for me). In the process Paula
explains me the ticketing options for the MRT. I get a "cash card"
for 5000 won. When we get out of the MRT we walk to an ATM, which
however refuses to accept my ATM card. Luckily nearby there is a
Citibank ATM, where I can get the cash for the flight ticket.
After buying the flight ticket we have lunch in a restaurant. This
time, thanks to Paula's help, the food is eatable (and quite good too).
After that, at 1:45pm the sightseeing begins. We visit two temples,
Insadong, the changing of the guard at the royal palace at 4pm, the
royal palace itself and then Paula shows me the center of Seoul around
the city centre.
At 6pm we split and I take the MRT to the Namsan tower (myendong). From
the MRT station it's quite a long walk to a cablecar station, from
where you reach the top of the Namsan hill by cablecar (5000 won),
where the Seoul tower is located. Unfortunately today the Seoul tower
is closed for repairs.
On the way back, at 8pm, I have some food in a restaurant, then walk to
the MRT station, from where I get to the City Hall. There an event is
taking place (a Korean drumming performance). Great atmosphere and
setting among the skyscrapers; excellent audiovisual performance. At
10pm I'm back in the hotel.
9.10: Seoul -> Beijing
Hotel Hilton, Beijing. We get the
employee rate of USD 45 per night. Nice 4 star hotel, with free
Internet in the lobby.
Weather: Sunny, but with a cloud
layer, more or less thin. The weather improves in the afternoon. Warm
enough to walk around with a T-Shirt. No rain. Dry and fresh in Beijing
in the evening.
I manage to check out at 11am (am supposed to meet Paula at 11am at the
Jinggok MRT station), and after leaving the bags in the reception, I
rush to the exit of the MRT station where I will meet Paula. I get
a bit late (11:08am) but Paula is still not there. At 11:20am I call
on her mobile and she tells me she will be there in about 10 minutes.
These 10 minutes become 35 minutes, as Paula only arrives at 11:55am,
almost one hour late. As Paula explains, she is always late to
appointments. Yesterday she was half an hour late, today one hour and
yesterday evening she arrived half an hour late to her class (she is
teaching maths in English to children). Paula probably is the
friendliest person on earth and she definitely is a good guide,
but she comes late to appointments.
In any case it's almost 12pm so I call a taxi to go to the fortress
above Seoul. There is a nice view of the city and there are several
temples. The taxi drive takes about 10 minutes, but then you have to
walk a lot up, as the viewpoint can only be reached by walking. At one
point Paula is far behind me, removing the sweat on her face with a
tissue (I feel a bit guilty). Nice temples and good view of Seoul,
which could be better if it wasn't for this layer of clouds/fog around
Since time is short (today I'm flying to Beijing at 6:20pm) we get down
again and fetch a taxi to the International Convention Centre of Seoul
at 1:25pm. The trip takes 40 minutes and costs around 15000 won. The
convention centre and the area around it are nice - good architectural
design. We then walk to a beautiful nearby Buddhist temple which turns
out to be the nicest temple I've seen so far in Korea.
At 2:50pm we fetch a taxi and get back to the hotel, where I take my
bags. At 3:50pm I say good-bye and thanks to Paula, and drive by taxi
the Seoul's international airport in Incheon. The taxi reaches the
airport one hour later at 4:50pm (the distance from Seoul to the
airport is 52 km).
At the airport I take some photos initially, then at 5pm queue up for
check-in. There is a huge queue and I only manage to check in at
5:35pm. By the
time I'm through security and immigration and have reached the gate
it's 6pm and the plane is already boarding. The plane leaves a bit late