It’s as if South Korea has bought a self-assembly kit of the modern world and misread the instructions. The country is in the middle of an unsteady wave of Westernisation and all the young dudes are wearing all the right labels in all the wrong ways. South Korea is worried that it’s losing its culture to America. It is, but stir a little with your stopover spoon and you’ll find the Korea of old still lurking. It’s like milk that’s been in the microwave too long: a nasty skin of Starbucks and Nike has formed that needs poking to let the real Korea bubble through.
Seoul’s first stopover plus point is that you feel more than welcome as soon as you arrive at Incheon Airport – as a foreigner, it’ll feel like everyone wants a conversation with you. Take a taxi instead of the bus to Seoul’s city centre and the driver will chat away in Korean, just throwing in the odd English word to keep your attention. Once in town, waitresses suppress their giggles and old ladies welcome you by offering an umbrella to shelter from the monsoon rain.
Essential for those on a tight time-budget, Seoul has an excellent transport system. The subway is the easiest way to get around, but buses are cheaper. Late-night travel taxis are reasonably priced, but most drivers don’t speak English so you need good pronunciation or a map. Almost everything is written in Korea’s Hangeul script, so be prepared.
If you’ve enough time to explore beyond the capital, head south of the Seoul-splitting Han River to the express bus station, with reasonably priced coaches heading all over South Korea. Trains are cheap, too, so if your destination is on a rail route, it’s worth spending a little more for the added comfort and convenience.
Abundant accommodation is provided by Seoul’s traditional inns or yeogwans. These outnumber youth hostels and offer the chance to meet Koreans, although paper-thin walls mean you may hear more than you want to. The landlord will show you around the yeogwan first, so pick one that has thick walls and doesn’t rent rooms by the hour.
Having had your fill of aeroplane and airport food, you can boost your immune system with some healthy Korean cuisine. Stew or salty soup will come in a large bowl, surrounded by smaller bowls of vegetables, sticky rice and fish and often accompanied by the popular dish of kimchi: pickled vegetables that have been soaked in spices and buried in the ground for months. Some find kimchi repulsive, but it has been heralded by Koreans for saving them from the dreaded Sars virus – a claim to be taken with a pinch of salty soup.
World ridicule has prompted South Korea to send its famous dog stew to, well, the doghouse, and although you can still find it in some restaurants, you’ll struggle without a Korean guide. Other unusual food is still literally alive and well, such as octopus, which wriggles on the plate and clings to the chopsticks. You need to swallow quickly or risk choking when the tentacles grip your throat.
Every weary flyer needs to unwind and Koreans love to get drunk as much as any visiting traveller. By night, the streets are filled with sozzled businessmen walking hand in hand and singing the virtues of their unique Korean spirit. That unique Korean spirit is soju, a drink similar to vodka, but made from potatoes and famed for delivering a mean hangover, so it isn’t recommended the night before a flight.
The best place to share a bottle of soju is in Itaewon, a suburb of Seoul near to Yongsan US military base. During the day there are bargains to be had and in the evening it turns into party town. The atmosphere is a bit macho while the American soldiers are around, but like Cinderella they have a midnight curfew. Once they leave, the clubs lose their Vietnam-movie atmosphere and become much more school disco, with organised dancing and shy boys dancing with giddy girls.
To sweat out all the soju, the locals head for the bathhouses. Inside, many Westerners feel self-conscious at first and with good reason, as the Koreans tend to stare at the Western men and their hairy bodies. Even in restaurants or shops, some children and young women will ask to stroke westerner’s hairy arms. That’s the funny thing about Seoul. It’s not everywhere you’ll hear people asking permission to stroke the ‘gorilla man’s’ chest.
South Korea’s Top Five out-of-Seoul experiences
1 Try a trip to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), which is the border separating North and South Korea. The tour includes a trip to truce village Panmunjeom, scene of several skirmishes since the two countries agreed to a ceasefire in 1953. Recent diplomatic efforts have eased tensions between the two nations, but this is still the only place you can see a North Korean soldier without them shooting you. The US Army offers the cheapest tour from Seoul’s Yongsan base.
2 Catch a bus from Nambu bus station to Songtan near the enormous Osan US Air Force Base. What used to be a notorious red-light district is now one of the biggest party towns in South Korea. US soldiers and local Koreans drink the night away in around 30 of the least expensive bars in the country.
3 Jirisan National Park has the best hikes in South Korea. A good map will point out the best trails and all the temples, camps and shelters.
4 Newly married Korean couples flock to Jejudo, an island off the southern coast. At the centre of the island is the volcanic peak Hallasan, South Korea’s highest mountain. Go and have a look at the haenyeo, a group of women famed for diving to great depths and for long periods without scuba gear and all for a sea cucumber.
5 If you want to visit North Korea you need to go to Beijing, from where you can arrange an expensive visa and the one-hour flight. Tourists are permitted to the ‘Hermit Kingdom’, but only on guided tours to certain events and destinations.