South Korea was an object of interest for a long time. Personally I wanted to investigate this country most of all. Although US Embassy reported about some commotion on the north-eastern coast of the country a year and a half ago, involving artillery firing, current news do not deliver such disturbing information, so I hope everything is going to be calm in this land. CIA World Factbook helped a lot in planning my itinerary. There is a reason it is called one of the best online geographic resources, indeed. Print outs from it are enclosed at the end of the mission journal. Although, a comprehensive research cannot include official sources only. A lot of information can be gathered from the amateur sites, and impressions of common travelers are also necessary. A country is not only its economy and politics. It is culture, customs, traditions. All of these elements will be incorporated in my field mission.
As soon as I got the task, I turned to the internet to arrange the most convenient flight. Of course, spending limit is a great restraint, but U.S. government was never detected of sparing money on such missions. TravelBlog helped me with the initial preparations and choice of the flight time. Total distance from LAX (Los Angeles) to ICN (South Korea) airports is 6047.86 miles A round flight (I return on the 26th of May) costs $1068; departure and arrival hours are suitable for me. Of course, there is no business class luxury in this air travel, but who needs it on a mission. The time I will spend over the Pacific Ocean is more than 24 hours on the way to Asia (departure at 1:45 PM and arrival at 6:25 PM next day) and 19 hours on the way back (departure at 4:10 PM and arrival at 11:10 AM next day). I wonder where the facet of travelling without stops is. Well, we have what we have. Unfortunately, airfare booking pages expire fast, so I cannot attach the print out source.
Next issue is finding a place to stay in Korea. Four-star Astoria Hotel Seoul seems to be a reasonable choice. Judging from clients’ feedback, this hotel is modestly looking but quite cozy. The location in the center of the city is also favorable. They charge $93 for the night, and the total cost will be $558; rooms are available for booking via internet. There is also a restaurant in the hotel, which is practically the basic requirement and satisfies my needs completely: I can have a meal a day there and the rest – during my trips into the city. Luxurious apartments for an idle week might look suspicious, so the hotel pricing plays a great role. I will not tick the box “business” for sure, so it is better to be on a safe side. Incheon International Airport is situated on an island and a taxi will take me to the hotel quickly and comfortably (moreover, most of the taxis accept payment via a credit card). I know the fares for a direct taxi from the airport to the city are around $45, or 50,000 Korean wons.
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Day 1: May 20, 2012, Sunday.
So, I am here. Ocean and ocean, water – and then civilization finally. Seoul is situated in the north-west of the country, so I had a chance to get acquainted with the rest of the Korean peninsula (especially its majestic mountains) along the way form a bird’s-eye view. The city itself is also mountainous. The capital with a special status greeted me and other passengers with a breeze and moderate warmth, which is quite a nice beginning. Usually springs are rainy in Korea, but we were lucky to arrive on a cloudless day. Hospitable faces of the local residents on a weekend contributed to the general elevated mood.
The flight was rather weary, so I checked in and had a nap – planes are impossible for me to rest in. I had a look at the hotel’s restaurant, and the menu cannot be called a revelation to me. I do not know who would be surprised to see rice or vegetables in an Asian country. But I understood that the offered dishes include both all-national cuisine items and the regional ones, so I will look into that later. The choice of beverages was a boost; I decided I had to try the national variant of tea (called ‘cha’ in Korean). Tisane taste of the cold tea was rather specific. The prices were reasonable, too. After the visit to the restaurant I went to bank to get some native currency, the exchange rate, as understood from the abovementioned, is almost 1 to 1,000. Seoul makes an impression of a busy city uniting millions of people of all races and nations on its vast territory. The fact that it is the capital makes it easier for a foreigner, because English is understood practically by everyone. Good for me that I am fluent in Korean, but as far as I heard as the answers to my inquiries, several miles away from the big cities one would have a hard time without knowing the national language. I have also bought a city map and found out that my hotel is situated near some places of interest, like Namsangol Hanok Village presenting the architectural pieces of ancient and traditional Korea with these wonderful houses with curved roofs (looking perfectly Chinese to an unknowing eye), or Cheonggyecheon Stream, a piece of greenery in the midst of the busy city, or the historic site – surprise – a Catholic Myeongdong Cathedral with its Gothic architecture. Nice places to walk to, but, unfortunately, not enough mission information can be gathered from such trips, for they are mostly tourist attractions. And I need locals, I need their vision. Well, there are also several shopping and business centers in the area, but show me a megalopolis where there are no such buildings.
Day 2: May 21, 2012, Monday. I paid for a bus tour with a guide, so today I began my excursion over Seoul. Much had to be done and seen. The first point of today’s itinerary was the visit to the old castle, mostly prominent for its wall. It was really educating in terms of getting acquainted with the country’s history. Back home I had read on one of the travelling sites that the capital is proudly called the ‘miracle on the Han’, and today I had an opportunity to find the proofs to these words. Moreover, ‘the miracle’ continued to gladden with a dry weather.
The guide provided us with all the necessary information along the way. A lot of Europeans were taking the excursion with me and were inexhaustibly full of questions and took a lot of pictures. Meanwhile, I was busy trying both not to look too much apart from the group and not to become the most active person in it, which is rather difficult when you look like a local. The places we saw were accompanied by stories from the history of the country. Seoul is 600 years old. It is not much compared to the capitals of other Asian and European countries; nevertheless, one cannot call Seoul a culturally poor city. Architecture of the capital of Seoul is distinguished by the richness of forms and styles. The way skyscrapers neighbored with parks and green zones was really amazing. It is one of the peculiar signs of the modern urban scenery, and even Los Angeles is similar to Seoul in this respect. We were told that restoration of the city palaces and Namdaemun gate is in progress. We were also surprised to find out that there existed a plan to reconstruct and reunite the remains of the fortress wall. The Seoul Fortress Wall dates back to 1397. It was built in the Joseon period some time after the transfer of the capital of the country to Seoul. The entire nation took part in its creation, and the wall was completed in 98 days. This is what we call Oriental diligence. The wall is situated in such a way that it ends in the forested mountains around the city and thus creates a perfect place to roam and rest from the city rat race. I guess, such urge to reconnect to the nature has roots in the Buddhist vision of the world.
We also found out some facts about the Korean language, which is interesting even if you speak a language fluently. It is generally classified into the group of Ural-Altaic languages and currently spoken by almost 78 million people all over the world. Historically it is divided into old, middle and modern periods. Old Korean dates back to the 12th century. Nowadays there exist regional dialects, and the capital is distinguished by its own dialect, too. Full of this knowledge, I returned to the hotel.
Day 3: May 22, 2012, Tuesday.
Seoul is a large metropolis with the metropolitan area hosting over 25 million people. In such a way, investigating the second largest suburbs in the world is an important task. Here is where the relief of the land can be seen. As it was said before, Seoul is situated in a mountainous place, and to be more precise, the city borders on several mountains. Lower relief forms are to be found in the Han River valley only. The Han, earlier used for navigation, has lost its useful function, because now it serves as the borderline between two Koreas. The weather, continuing to please, was really very unusual for the humid continental climate of the area. It was just that the season of monsoons, characteristic of a subtropical zone which partly stretches over the city, did not start at that time yet. Today I also visited the famous Korean Folk Village in order to see the way culture developed in this country. It is situated in a satellite city within the Seoul Metropolitan Area. I realize that it is a pure artificial tourist attraction, but at least the scenery is genuine there, as well as food. So it was my little Korean suburban experience.
Day 4: May 23, 2012, Wednesday.
Being the seat of government makes Seoul even a more active and hasty city. Today I ventured visiting the Blue House as a part of my investigation about the state system of South Korea. The color of a traditional curved roof of the building is what gave the name to it. In Korean this name sounds like Cheongwadae. As our guide explained to the others, it refers to the azure color. This complex of buildings situated in a picturesque place is the residence of the President of the Republic of Korea. It was especially interesting to hear about the governmental establishment of the country. The current President - Lee Myung-Bak – will be in office for another year, as the term length of presidency constitutes 5 years in Korea. Thus, the country is defined as a democratic republic with multi-party parliament system. The government and National Assembly share legislative power. Thus, the system is rather progressive, as everything in this developed country. I noticed the wandering expressions on the faces of other excursion participants. Obviously, I was one of very few truly interested in the state system of the country. Tomorrow I am planning to finish my city trips by visiting the Samsung headquarters.
Day 5: May 24, 2012, Thursday. Finally, the economic heart and hallmark of Korea – headquarters of the most famous Korean company. It is a multinational company, and its domestic seat is even granted with its own name – Samsung Town, a type of the Korean Silicon Valley. Its importance to the country is revealed by statistical data: the company is accountable for nearly a fifth of South Korea's export, and it was not strange to find out that its profit is higher than GDP in a lot of countries. The multinational character is one of the constituents of success. The scope of production is also striking: Samsung includes 80 companies dealing not only with electronics. Besides, it actively cooperates with other companies. The influence of Samsung in Korea cannot be underestimated; it was clearly traceable from the delighted tone of our guide. Of course, not the whole building is accessible – due to quite understandable security reasons. Sure, the secret of the company must rest with it. The grandeur of the building and diligence of workers is what impressed me the most today. And not only me: on the way back to our hotels the group held an enlivened discussion on the items seen and heard.
Day 6: May 25, 2012, Friday.
I decided to dedicate the day to investigating current events, inspired by close acquaintance with the politics and economy of the country. Well, that – and the fact that the sky turned grey today. So, social issues became the center of my concern. A topic most discussed nowadays is new regulations on smoking: warning signs will be a part and parcel of every cigarette box from May on. Earlier there were also initiatives on banning smoking in public places. To my mind, there is nothing strange in such smoking statistics throughout the country: these reactions are stress-induced. News headlines also included information on the developments in political and economic spheres. Samsung is mentioned almost in every article, really.
Day 7: May 26, 2012, Saturday.
Time to make reports and arrange all of the documents. No excursions were planned for today; I only rested before a long flight back to LA. It was raining outside, which was a kind of relief after the rising temperatures designating several previous days. I had my last breakfast here and headed to the airport, having spent another $90 today.
Mission is over, flight back home is ahead. It’s a pity I could not stay until Buddha’s Birthday which has a status of a public holiday in South Korea. It is celebrated according to the Lunisolar calendar, and this year’s one is on the 28th of May. Hundreds of lotus lanterns covering the temples – and hanging for another month – would be spectacular. I also know that free meals and drinks are given to everybody in the temples on the day of the holiday. Buddhism traditions and way of life find their reflection in this charity act. Such deep cultural adherence is always surprising and noble to see in the developed country of a kind. It is a typically eastern feature.
I feel my mission was precursory only. Some of the gathered information would be useful by all means, but for a deeper insight more time is needed. I hope there would be a request to continue the mission, and I would not refuse to visit this beautiful country once again in some time. A different season would be nice in this regard, with all respect to the luckily hospitable weather of this spring in Seoul. There is an old Korean proverb that goes ‘even if you have to crawl on your knees, get yourself to Seoul!’ No wonder Koreans are so proud of their capital. It is the heart of the country accumulating and concentrating all of its peculiarities. Of course, Seoul is not the whole South Korea. In order to understand the country, it must be travelled from the top to the bottom. But every capital bears the most typical traces of the nation’s identity; its essence is definitely felt in the streets, in the expressions on people’s faces. Thus, let us say that Seoul is a digest version of a modern and highly developed South Korea.