Travel notes: South Korea surprises

Couple in traditional Korean dress approach Changdeokgung Palace entry gate.

Arriving at Changdeokgung Palace in Seoul, I was surprised to see some Korean women wearing their traditional outfits – and a few men, too. They helped transport my imagination in this UNESCO World Heritage Site, which dates to the 15th century. While ruined and rebuilt several times, Changdeokgung is considered the most architecturally beautiful of Seoul’s five royal palaces.

Then I noticed several Caucasian women wearing Korean dresses – and asked them why. They told me Korean apparel was available to rent at shops across the street and gave them free entry to the palace. Of course, the rental cost was much more than the admission ticket, but they were having great fun adding to the palace atmosphere.

The Secret Garden includes pavilions and terraces with flowering shrubs.
Intricate roof detail on pavilion in Secret Garden.
Tranquil lotus pond and viewing pavilions.

Changdeokgung is special because of its Secret Garden, which requires a separate admission ticket. The palace was originally built as a place of relaxation for the royal family, and the garden occupies 60 percent of the palace site. I enjoyed wandering through tranquil landscapes of flowering trees and shrubs, bordered by viewing pavilions. There is a lovely lotus pool that bursts with blooms in summer.

The next day, I joined my Overseas Adventure Travel group to visit Gyeongbokgung Palace. It is the largest of the five palaces of Korea’s longest ruling family, the Joseon Dynasty. Gyeongbokgung was far more crowded with visitors, including those wearing traditional outfits.

Gyeongbokgung Palace entry gate.
Gyeongbokgung Palace — Imperial Throne.
Changing of the guard at Gyeongbokgung Palace.
Family in traditional Korean attire at Gyeonbokgung Palace.

Originally built in the 14th century, Gyeongbokgung was also destroyed and rebuilt several times. Today the huge complex includes about 500 buildings and 7,700 rooms. Visitors see a fraction of these, highlighted by the spectacular Imperial Throne Hall. The National Palace Museum and National Folk Museum are also within this palace complex, both with free admission.

Also free, the National Museum of Korea is a must-visit in another part of sprawling Seoul. It showcases over 5,000 years of Korean art, culture and history. A highlight (and perfect place to take a museum-going break) is the Room of Quiet Contemplation with the Pensive Bodhisattva.

Evening food street market in Seoul.
Typical crowded side street, monitored by two information reps in red uniforms.
Korea’s famous ginseng for sale.
A food stall featuring “Starchicken.”

Seoul is an enormous city. Its population is well over 10 million people, and nearly one-half of South Koreans live in the greater metro area. South Korea’s economy is flourishing despite being cut off from land access by North Korea – everyone and everything must arrive by plane or ship if not produced locally.

Perhaps that explains the thin, black metal chopsticks used everywhere. They can be washed and reused indefinitely, unlike wood chopsticks. However, we Westerners found them difficult to use – especially with hot food that heated the metal and slid off.

View of North Korea from the Dora Observatory, looking across the DMZ.

We learned about the division between North Korea and South Korea by visiting the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). It separates the two Koreas near the 38th parallel, dividing the Korean peninsula roughly in half. This 2.5-mile-wide, 160-mile-long buffer zone was established under a 1953 armistice that halted the three-year Korean War. However, an official peace treaty was never signed; the two Koreas are still officially at war.

The DMZ is heavily fortified on both sides, and access by visitors from South Korea is tightly controlled (approved tour groups only, no independent visitors). Photos are not allowed of many things. My group went to the Dora Observatory, which offers views across the DMZ into North Korea. Big telescopes on its roof deck let us glimpse North Korean villages.

Illustration of the Third Tunnel and connecting walkway for visitors to walk through a small portion of the tunnel.

Four infiltration tunnels dug by North Koreans have been discovered beneath the DMZ as part of past plots to attack Seoul, just 35 miles south. A portion of the Third Infiltration Tunnel is open for visitors to experience. We descended a long connection walkway and then walked about 20 minutes through the narrow tunnel. It ends with the first of three blockade walls that seal the tunnel closed. There a little window looks into the area before the second blockade wall – presumably so South Korean military can check for breach attempts.

Afterward we visited The War Memorial of Korea back in Seoul. Its exhibits provide much more detail and commemorate the 54,246 Americans who died fighting in the 1950-1953 Korean War. The United States and United Nations continue to have a significant presence in South Korea to deter future North Korean aggression.

Oeam Village.
Oeam Village— traditional tiled- and thatched-roof dwellings.

A completely different experience was visiting the Oeam Folk Village, a one-and-a-half-hour drive south of Seoul. Oeam is both a cultural heritage site and an active village where more than 200 residents live and work, mostly in agriculture. The historic community was founded in the early 16th century during Korea’s Joseon Dynasty (1392 -1897).

Walking among the tile- and thatch-roofed houses, we stepped back in time to ancient Korea. Then we participated in making traditional Korean wine and chili paste. The Oeam Folk Village provides such interactive experiences both to preserve its agricultural crafts and to introduce them to visitors.

Oeam Village hostess getting fully fermented chili paste from aging jar for a group to taste.

First we mixed rice powder, lotus leaves, pine needles, yeast and water in bowls to make the traditional village wine. Our hostess then scooped the mixture into a large jar, where it would ferment for many months. Tasting ready-to-drink wine proved “interesting.”

Then we went to another home where we learned how to make gochujang, a fermented red chili paste. We combined red chili peppers, fermented soybeans and rice – all in powdered form – with water, then scooped it into little jars that we could take home with us. Our hostess gave us sample tastes of the finished product and told us our chili paste would be ready to eat after 100 days.

— By Julie Gangler

Julie Gangler visited South Korea on Overseas Adventure Travel’s tour, South Korea & Japan: Temples, Shrines & Treasures. She is a freelance writer who has worked as a media relations consultant for the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau. She began her career as a staff writer at Sunset Magazine and later was the Alaska/Northwest correspondent for Travel Agent Magazine.

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