When I mentioned to my friends and family that I was going to Korea, there were a series of questions – Why? What’s there to see in Korea? Are you sure it’s safe? And of course, the over smart one – north or south? I couldn’t understand the reason for these questions – no one asked me these when I visited Italy or Croatia earlier this year. Yet, it was my visit to South Korea that had my well-wishers mouthing concerns. And that just made me more adamant to go!
So why did I actually want to go to South Korea? Apart from the honest truth that the dates fitted perfectly, it was also because it was a country I’d never considered visiting. Sadly whenever I did hear about South Korea, it was in context to their troubled northern neighbour. A neighbour which has intrigued me for long, a country I’m absolutely forbidden to visit by my family, and one I won’t on ethical grounds as tourism there benefits only the government and not the people. So when the opportunity came to visit South Korea, I grabbed it because I couldn’t go north. And I’m so glad I did.
After a disastrous flight on China Eastern, and a missed connection, a co-traveller and I arrived in Seoul in the evening. As we drove into the city we were greeted by clean, well maintained roads, no horns and dazzling lights. It was over the next few days when our guide, a brusque, grandfatherish, knowledgeable man called Kim, reiterated how poor South Korea was till the 1950s and how the country had overcome that situation, did I actually understand how proud the citizens were of their country.
We were a small group of women – nine of us – from different parts of India. And that’s the beauty of trips like these, the joys of meeting new people and learning from each other. With Kim to guide us around our days in Seoul were spent sightseeing (we saw North Korea from a very safe distance) to walking down the streets of Meyongdong eating street food and buying cosmetics.
It was Gyeongju though that became my favourite. We spent the evening exploring the Bulguksa Monastery followed by a tea ceremony with a young monk. The gentleness of his ways, the calmness that he exuded left me wondering if I would ever be able to feel like that in my urban life. Or is that kind of inner stillness possible only if we move away from external disturbances? While I didn’t ask him any of these questions, we did ask several including ones on love and relationship, which turned his cheeks red. Even the simple vegetarian dinner at the monastery was scrumptious and if I say we overate, that would be an understatement. Later, we joined the priests in offering evening prayers and while it was a unique experience it turned into the much needed workout session after binge eating. We were asked to follow the priest and to my horror he kept doing prostrations.
Busan was a delightful experience, with the contrasting quirky Gamcheon Cultural Village to the modern Haeundae Beach area with flashy lights and busy restaurants. It was here that I enjoyed a traditional Korean bar-b-que, a pleasure for any meat lover. On the grill atop the table meat of your choice is cooked in front of your eyes. Along with the meat there are a hundred tiny bowls with variety of kimchi and salad leaves to add flavor. We devoured every bit of food on our table, and then, feeling guilty, walked along the shore to digest our humungous meal.
Our last stop was Jeju Island, a destination that often crops up in the visa free places list for Indians. Filled with tangerine gardens and plantations this vast island almost seems uninhabited in certain parts. From the airport we headed to Love Land, which had more comical than erotic statues of couples engaged in sexual acts. We also visited Jeju Folk Village, the home to the female divers, whose average age according to our guide was sixty-five. In fact the village boasted of a granny who was 109 years old, and two others who were above 100. The village supports its economy through products made and sold only there, and I dared to buy a facial cream made of horse lard and tangerine. Someday I’ll dare to use it.
As the colours of autumn swept across South Korea they painted the country vibrant reds, maroons, browns, yellows and greens. And these colours, interspersed with glittering lights, remain etched in my memory. My week in South Korea was certainly well spent.
-By Richa Wahi