Being an avid traveler, I had always wanted to visit South Korea, and this year I got the chance. It turned out to be more exciting, vivid, cosmopolitan, and picturesque than I had anticipated.
I began my journey in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, which is bordered by eight mountains and split in half (North and South) by the Han river. Seoul is the business and financial hub of South Korea and houses the headquarters of Samsung, LG, and Hyundai. I decided to stay at the Shilla Seoul Hotel, perched on a hillside with views of central Seoul and Mount Namsan. This ultra-luxury hotel features a spa, indoor and outdoor pools, a gym, an indoor golf range, sculpture gardens, hiking trails, and several restaurants. It was so lush and inviting I took in a morning hike! Along the shady fern-lined trail, I came across a brightly painted pavilion. Suddenly, I had an urge to simply dance. So I did.
My first excursion day was a 75-minute driving trip to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the border of North Korea. This “zone” of land was created in 1953 by North Korea, China, and the United Nations as a buffer area between North and South Korea. It’s 2.5 miles wide and 160 miles long in a zig-zag pattern. Within the DMZ is a small “meeting point” called the Joint Security Area. It’s here that President Trump shook hands with Kim Jong-un in June of 2019. Today, there are numerous photos in the zone commemorating this historically significant event.
I was surprised to find out that people live in the DMZ. These settlers are people whose relatives originally owned this land, and they live in what is called the “Peace Village.” They must remain in their village homes for at least 240 nights per year to “hold onto their ownership.” Peace Village Republic of Korea citizens are exempt from paying tax and other civic requirements such as military service and they are governed by the United Nations. They typically work as farmers and sell their goods to tourists in the DMZ store. The variety of goods for sale in the store was of particular note to me. Who knew there was a market for DMZ chocolates and honey?
While in the DMZ, I visited a desolate train platform at Dorasan Station that was built by South Korea to welcome the residents of North Korea when one day, they hope Korea will be united. It features a piece of the Berlin Wall. I also experienced climbing a lookout point on Mount Dora, where I was able to view North Korea through a telescope. I could see “Propaganda Village,” (last photo below) a town of white painted, poured-concrete multi-story buildings and apartments with electric lighting. The village was oriented so that the dark roofs and white sides of the buildings would be the most distinguishing features when viewed from the border. However, the buildings are mere concrete shells lacking window glass or even interior rooms.
Since November 1974, South Korea has discovered four tunnels crossing under the DMZ into South Korea. Dug by North Koreans, these tunnels were part of a plan to invade and bomb their southern neighbors. Three of these tunnels are available to tour. I passed on that claustrophobic exercise, but Scott made a go of it in tunnel number three. He came out of the tunnel sweaty and feeling way too tall.
After my day in the DMZ, I was ready for something a little lighter. For years I’ve had my eye on Korean designer Lie Sangbong, and his flagship store which is in the Gangnam district of Seoul. One of Seoul’s most upscale neighborhoods, Gangnam, features trendy boutiques, top restaurants, and expensive residential areas. The architecture of the Lie Sangbong store was created by Unsangdong (the duo of Jang Yoon Gyoo and Shin Chang Hoon). Their design proposal was a slim, tall tower with a sinuous, undulating façade, inspired by a 15th-century Korean painting referencing an ‘ethereal utopia’. Lie immediately approved it. Jang believes, “Architecture and fashion have the same starting point because they both deal with the human body. Both evolved into more sophisticated spheres from the same goal of protecting and making the human body comfortable. Both disciplines deal in form, structure and material, and the idea of creating or transforming an outer skin.” After being treated like a Queen, (I was even shown the secret top floor), I ended up buying a pair of denim boots with space-age silver heels, and a signature ruffle sleeved multi-fabric Lie Sangbong dress. What fun!
Having been inspired, and in search of additional innovative Korean architecture, I visited Common Ground, a mall made out of shipping containers. The bakery items in the mall were as beautiful as they were tasty, and the shops contained avant guard artistic and cutting edge millennial fashions.
For my final day in Seoul, I went “back in time” to the village of Bukchon which is filled with hanok, traditional Korean houses. Korean architecture considers the positioning of the house in relation to its surroundings, with thought given to the land and seasons. The interior of the house is also planned accordingly. The ideal hanok is built with a mountain in the back and a river in the front. Hanok shapes differ by region. In the cold northern regions of Korea, hanoks are built in a square with a courtyard in the middle in order to retain heat better. In the south, hanoks are more open and L-shaped. They have curved tiled roofs, wooden beams, and stone block construction. Visitors to the area like to dress in traditional Korean attire and pose next to the hanok homes. The Korean dresses are called hanbok and can be rented by the hour for guests looking to authenticate their photos. I was very tempted to try this out but instead opted for pictures with some very kind ladies in their rental hanbok.
While in Bukchon, we stumbled upon an ancient teahouse, named Cha Teul, serving traditional teas and sweets. We left our shoes in the indoor patio of the hanok and took a seat atop thin cushions on the heated floor. We were served steaming bowls of red, green, and black teas along with sweet rice puff cakes. The cakes were gooey, crispy, sugary, and airy; such a compliment to the pungent tea.
In the morning, I caught the high-speed KTX train from Seoul to Busan, which is built around a major port (one of the largest in the world), and the rocky shore where the Nakdonggang River and the surrounding mountains meet the East Sea. Busan was one of the few areas in Korea that remained under the control of South Korea throughout the Korean War, and for some time it served as a temporary capital of the Republic of Korea. Since then, the city has been a self-governing metropolis and has built a strong urban character.
I spent time in Busan discovering Dongbaek Island, located at the southern end of popular Haeundae Beach. The island creates a picturesque scene in harmony with a thick forest of camellias and pine trees. I stopped into the Nurimaru APEC House, built for the 2005 APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit, attended by President George W. Bush and President Vladimir Putin. The exhibitions were quite detailed, down to plastic recreations of the food they ate during the summit, and the hanbok attire they wore. I was amused.
Scott and I enjoyed a traditional Korean BBQ meal at Mori, alongside the splashing waves at the Busan seashore. We were able to cook our fresh seafood, meat, and vegetables on a table grill while listening to intriguing tales from our vivacious guide.
The highlight of my time in Busan was my visit to the Haedong Yonggung Temple. After strolling through a village with stalls of Korean delicacies for sale, we came upon a winding rock staircase which descended over 200 feet toward a sheer ocean cliff. At the bottom of the cliff we found ourselves immersed in a brightly painted Buddhist Temple, which was originally built in 1376. A giant gold statue of the Buddha sat laughing outside the multi-building complex. The bright temple colors, the sound of the crashing waves, and the Buddhist monks singing inside truly took my breath away.
My South Korean trip was both a glimpse into Asia’s past and a step into its future. The food, fashion, architecture and spirituality are all vibrant, strong, and emotive. The Korean word for love is salang. I may have found a new Asian salang.