Archive for September, 2013

When people ask me, and they often do, ‘what’s your favourite food?’ I usually make up a quick answer to avoid unnecessary complications. Korean cuisine is infinitely complex and I have several ‘favourite’ foods. What I can say with some degree of certainty is that for my favourite meal or meals there should be several key elements. These elements are instantly Korean and instantly delicious. I sometimes get nervous when there is a table missing these key dishes or side dishes. They are of course: rice, kimchi, ssamjang, and some kind of meat. Other elements make these taste better, but these are the foundations of flavour. My favourite way to eat these foods is in a ssam.

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A ssam is basically a wrap. The wraps can differ, but the most common is just some green lettuce. You can wrap meat and vegetables in seaweed (or lava) and different kinds of leaves. Once you start free-styling you can even use two different kinds of leaves e.g a sesame leaf and a plain lettuce leaf. The most common places to eat ssam are at any typical Korean BBQ place or at a Bossam/Possam(보쌈) restaurant (the clue is in the name). The reason I love ssam so much is that you make them yourself to match your own palette. You can also develop them over time to include other key elements, garlic and beansprouts often find their way into my own ssams. I think ultimately, there is no taste better than one’s own taste. The ssam, like the humble sandwich in Western Cuisine, is completely subjective. My own ssams rely on a good dollop of ssamjang – the suffix jang can be added to foods to imply a kind of condiment or paste. I also like cooked kimchi if possible, especially for samgyeopsal (삼겹살) which is bbq pork belly. Obviously the most important thing is the actual meat. This combination of textures and flavours makes for a perfect meal. You don’t need to eat lots of meat and rice for ssam, in fact they can be very healthy relying on fresh seasonal vegetables and leafy greens.

possam (1) possam (3)

Here is a DIY guide to making a decent ssam. I think the order in which the food goes on doesn’t matter too much, but I usually put the meat on towards the end. The most important thing, and a common error, is the size of the ssam. A good ssam should be bite sized; it should fit whole into your mouth without spillage. It’s also great to drink soju with ssam, usually a shot goes together with each saam. If you don’t like soju I recommend trying it with ssam before you give up on it. There is something amazing about the ritual of nailing a shot after each ssam, or before each ssam.


TicketSeolleung (선릉) and the Jeongneung (정릉) are royal tombs in the Gangnam district of Seoul. Most people, including myself simply refer to the whole place as Seolleung (pronounced more like Son Young). Getting there couldn’t be much easier now that the station of the same name has a Yellow Line link. From Seolleung station take exit 8 and continue up the road for about 5 minutes.You can also get there from Samseong station exit 5. From the COEX it is about 10 minutes walk, but beware – there is only one exit to this park so you may have to walk round the entire  park if you arrive from the COEX side.
There are many tombs and shrines dotted over the whole of Korea, and especially Seoul. If you’ve been in Korea for some time you may become jaded by the conventional 5 colour beams from the typical religious architecture.  The tombs and stone statues here are similar to those found in other areas. What differs is the location. Seonjeoneun is hidden away behind the huge office buildings and hotels of Gangnam. It’s also on a hill and surrounded by parkland. Without the tombs I’m pretty sure it would have been developed by now.  After visiting a few times I realized that many people come here simply to escape the city. The human scale of this part of Seoul is particularly overwhelming with some of the biggest skyscrapers in the city and some of the biggest traffic jams. Indeed, the gigantic COEX centre is less than 10 minutes walk from here. So if you don’t like history, and you’re not interested in Joseon era tombs, you can still come here to relax. Although you will still have to pay the 1000 won admission fee – well worth it!

Seonjeongneung contains the burial mounds of three important royals of the Joseon Dynasty (1392 – 1910). They are: Seongjong (1469-1494), his wife Queen Jeonghyeon, and King Jungjong (1506-1544).The red gates as you come in are common to many shrines and tombs, the red symbolises holiness. You will also see the taegeuk (as seen on the Korean flag). The taeguk is usually called by its more famous Chinese name – yinyang. However, in Korea I recommend calling it the taeguk as it is a symbol of national pride.

Another interesting feature are the stones paths leading up to the ceremonial buildings. They are spirit roads allowing the dead kings or queens to journey unimpeded into the after life. Apparently you shouldn’t walk on the slightly elevated path because it might impede the spirit of he kings. The lower paths are for humans. Whether this is true or not I don’t know, but in a country which has been conditioned by neo Confucianism I would treat such places with more caution. Whether you are royalist,Confucian or something else, I think it’s always better to respect the dead, especially of they were important enough to deserve such shrines and tombs

What strikes me the most after visiting this place, and reading about it,are  the similarities between other cultures and the manner in which they treat the deceased. You may notice the monkeys on the eaves of the buildings, these ‘Japsangs’ are to ward off evil spirits in the same way you can find gargoyles on the corners of older Catholic Churches. In addition to this, you can find the stone statues of the departed monarchs who serve as guardians in the afterlife. In this case they are soldiers and animals but  similar customs could be found in Egypt, on the steppes of Russia and even in the burial sites of Anglo-Saxon nobles like in Sutton Hoo.

If you plan on going to this park then it can be done on the same day as the COEX and Bongeunsa temple. The following photographs were taken on two separate occasions so you may notice the grass and sunlight are different.

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Sea Train (바다열차)

I had a very pleasant journey from Gangneung to Samcheok on the special tourist train. The seats faced sideways so the passengers could look out of the window to the East Sea. There was of course out of context Muzak on the journey but I have learnt to tune it out and focus on other senses – a useful skill in Korea. When I finally alighted I tried to find a way from the station to the centre of Samcheok. Despite the small size of the town, the train station is a considerable distance from ‘down-town’. As it was the height of summer and I had a backpack, I decided to walk. With hindsight, I believe I was trying to tire myself out so I wouldn’t have to attempt a visit to the famous caves on the same day. I had slept in a jjimjilbang the previous night so I was in need of a decent sleep. I looked in a couple of motels near the bus station but they were triple the usual price, that is literally the price you pay for travelling in peak season. I eventually found a place called the ‘International Motel’, although it was written in Korean which made me giggle. By this point I was sweating more than usual and I probably looked a little pathetic. After checking the prices I was crestfallen again, I asked if there was any discount and the ajumma said she would knock it down from 90,000 to 70,000. I took out 60,000 from my wallet and said this is all I have. She made a brief phone call to the boss and then let me stay. I don’t usually haggle to that extent but I had a strict budget and didn’t want to cut my trip short because of one motel. 

Samcheok River View


The evening approached quickly and I noted the bus timetable for the caves then wandered down the river through the long shadows. All the special cave museums watch over the river and face the usual apartment buildings on the other side. The style of architecture in the cultural type buildings of Samcheok is Vegas meets Disneyworld. They don’t seem to be going for the natural wonders angle. I enjoyed walking round Samcheok and I would like to visit on another occasion to stay nearer to the sea and to visit the crazy looking museums which were closed during my stay.



I awoke fresh and well rested, the previous days exertions mixed with some cans of Asahi had rendered me comatose throughout the night. I got to the bus station early and found some other tourists waiting for the same local bus which was cavebound. Luckily the caves are by far the biggest draw in this part of Gangwondo, this makes getting the bus pretty easy because there is always an expectation from those working in the bus station; they know where you are going. The lady in the tourist information booth next to the bus station also spoke pretty good English. After a rickety journey through some spectacular valleys and mountains we finally reached Hwanseon. There were many minbaks and pensions along the way. This was a rustic part of a rustic province and the journey made me feel cut off from the rest of Korea. If I ever return I would like to stay in one of the small pensions in those valleys, a place to escape subways and mobile phone shops.

Hwanseongul is a huge cave. In Korean the word gul (굴) means cave, so you don’t need to say Hwaseongul cave. There are other cave systems around in this part of Gangwondo but this is the most famous and the biggest too. The main reason I wanted to see the cave was not to tick off another Lonely Planet highlight, it was to re live some experiences I had as a schoolboy. I was a pretty keen geography student at school, mainly because I love excursions. I even love the word excursion. Being from the Northern part of Lancashire the impressive limestone features of the Yorkshire Dales were only a short bus ride away. There seemed to be a trip to Malham every year and I always attended. I went on the trips to see limestone caves and features even when I wasn’t studying them. After I had finished studying them I still returned to visit the limestone features. Even on the other side of the world I was able to see some of the same things I studied in class as a child.






On my solo geological excursion I couldn’t find any clints or grykes like in Malham, but the karst scenery was outstanding and has bestowed one of the largest limestone caves in Asia. The cave system was immense with over 6 kilometres of known passages. The problem with these delicate environments is the human contact. Many of the nearby caves are closed to the public and you are restricted from taking photographs or touching anything. Although I managed to get a few phone camera shots. I took a cable car up to the entrance because I was there for caves not for hiking. I expect it would take a minimum of 30 minutes to reach the top by foot but the cable cars or funiculars are a nice way to take in the scenery before you enter the huge natural gateway.  Once inside, the temperature plummeted from the outside summer highs of 33°C  to about  12°C. It was a great relief to be in the cool in what was a pretty vicious heat wave. Some of the rocks drip and spout water from crevasses, this then  joins other little trickles to make  streams, waterfalls and plunge pools. Some of the chambers are  higher than Gothic cathedrals at over 100m tall. In fact I have many theories about church architecture and caves, but that’s another post. Many of the difficult features have been made accessible by metal bridges which gives it the air of an Indiana Jones movie. Unfortunately the majesty of nature has been sabotaged by using glowing lights and exploiting some of the features with bizarre names. The bridge of seven hells, the chamber of coarsely whispered insults, the valley of misshapen croutons, the cascade of venereal diseases…etc. Actually, my fake names may be even better than the ones I saw. I don’t think it’s necessary to adorn such an impressive site with anything other the basic ways of traversing through the features. It was quite funny for a while but in the end I think I felt sorry for the rocks.

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I certainly recommend the effort it takes to get to Hwaseongul. The best place to travel from is Samcheok and given the local scenery it should be worth taking some pack lunch and going hiking. I expect it gets incredibly busy later in the day so to appreciate the place fully I think it’s a good idea to take the early bus.