Posts Tagged ‘Travel’


Gyeongbokgung Palace was built in 1395 at the start of the Joseon Dynasty. This new dynasty moved the capital to Seoul, the earlier Goryeo Dynasty was based in Kaesong. The palace dominates the northern part of Seoul and is a testament to one of the longest running dynasties in the World – 1392–1897.  The name Gyeongbokgung translates to “Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven.” Its dominant location in the heart of the capital is no accident, with Bukhansan to the north and the mighty river Han to the South, the location was deemed ‘auspicious’ by the traditional practice of geomancy or Feng Shui.



If you ever doubt the benefits of this practice I recommend taking a closer look at this building; it seems like the modern skyscrapers of Seoul are queueing up to pay homage to this building or rather this complex of buildings. My first encounter with the centre of Seoul was ascending the steps from Gwanghwamun station only to be met by the awesome sight of King Sejong guarding the path to the Palace with the snow-capped Bukhansan in the background. The palace grounds stretch all the way to the Blue House – the home of South Korea’s President. I have been to the palace about five times and I would recommend it as being the number one priority on a Seoul bucket list.

Changing of the Guards

Changing of the Guards

The first structure is Gwanghwamun Gate (mun means gate). This is the main entrance to the palace and it is linked to the major parts of Seoul by the  Sejongno boulevard. As I mentioned earlier, this street is the beating heart of Seoul because it contains the statues of King Sejong and Lee Sun-shin. To get a good idea of this central axis I recommend visiting the Seoul City Museum. They have models and pictures which allow you to appreciate this area in all its glory. Gwanghwamun Gate is also where you will see the changing of the guard. During the Japanese occupation of Korea, the Japanese  destroyed the gate and built their own government buildings. The gate appears quite modern looking , especially compared to some of the other stone gates in the capital. This is down to the fact that it was rebuilt in 1968 using concrete. As you walk through the gate you get an immediate impression of a large-scale landscaped layout with several important buildings. I will tell you about some of them moving south to north.

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Gangnyeongjeon ( 강녕전) was used as the king’s main residence, I always imagine King Taejo living here after seeing him in the amazing drama ‘Deep Rooted Tree’.  Like most of the palace buildings in Seoul it was destroyed in the Japanese invasion of 1592. It has also suffered fire damage on other occasions. Since then it has been rebuilt to its original design. The only disappointment, especially to any European visitor, is that it doesn’t look particularly old. This is a common problem with many of the monuments in Korea, but at least they are being restored. The building sits on a tall stone foundation, and a stone veranda is in front of the building. You might see similar structures throughout Korea, but few match this one for scale and location.


The next building moving north is Geunjeongjeon ( 근정전) which is a Throne Hall, or was a Throne Hall because Korea is a Republic these days. The name means ‘diligence helps governance’, a very Confucian name. This type of room will be familiar to anyone who has  seen films like ‘Elizabeth’ or who watches TV shows like ‘Game of Thrones’. This two-tiered stone edifice was where the king formally granted audiences,  greeted foreign ambassadors  and gave royal declarations. I imagine that King Sejong decreed the new alphabet from here. The highlights for me, and anyone with a love of close up photography, were the  sculptures of  animals on the balustrades. There is also a stone-paved courtyard  lined with rank stones or pumgyeseoks( 품계석). These were important for a Confucian society because each stone indicated where the officials were to stand. This strictly ordered ranking system is still very much a part of corperate culture in Korea. People get very uncomfortable until they know their age or rank relative to others.

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The most scenic of all the buildings for me is the Gyeonghoeru (경회루) Pavilion. This was a state banquet hall during the Joseon Dynasty. Its first inception  was  in 1412, but it was burned down in 1592, yes there is a predictable patten with fires in that year! The reason I like it so much is because it is located on an island of an artificial, rectangular lake. The wooden structure  sits on top of  stone pillars, with wooden stairs connecting the second floor to the first floor. The outer perimeters are supported by square pillars but the inner columns are cylindrical. Three stone bridges connect the building to the rest of the palace grounds, the balustrades around the island are decorated with sculptures depicting twelve Zodiac animals. The same twelve animals can also be seen near the folk museum.

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I’m going to miss some of the other buildings and move on to another favourite: Hyangwonjeong ( 향원정) This is a smaller, two-story hexagonal pavilion built on an artificial island of a lake. It was built later than the other buildings and reminds me of a kind of oriental folly, the sort you might find in the park of an English stately home.  The name Hyangwonjeong apparently means “Pavilion of Far-Reaching Fragrance,”. I’m not sure why it was called this but it does feel less city like at this northern end of the grounds. It is perhaps the most photogenic of all the buildings in the palace, I once fell asleep on the grass next to the lake.

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Getting there:

Gyeongbokgung Palace Station (Seoul Subway Line 3), Exit 5.

Gwanghwamun Station (Seoul Subway Line 5), Exit 2.

Top tip: There is an all in one ticket which you can use for other palaces. However, if you don’t have much time then perhaps just visit this one.


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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.





In a country with hostile neighbours it comes as no surprise that most people in Korea have traditionally been reluctant to travel. Even after the rapid development of the economy, and a huge increase in disposable income, few Koreans seem to enjoy travelling. I say this not from some dry UN statistic, but from general conversations and by visiting various places in the world. Compared to Australians, Germans, British and even Japanese, Koreans don’t really clog up the international flight map. This is mostly because of the working schedule which leaves little time for long holidays overseas. The only red days in the calendar are those that cling to the traditional family festivals like Chuseok and Seollal – the harvest festival and Lunar New Year.

The boat from Udo

The boat from Udo

So when Koreans do get time to go on holiday where do they go? What constitutes the exotic for this nation of workaholics? Where is the Korean Hawaii, Tenerife or St Tropez? How do people escape the grey apartments and white shirted offices? There is one resounding answer – Jeju.

Jeju is the self-governing island located to the South of the Korean peninsula. It’s near enough to be a comfortable flight and to get instant noodles and kimchi. However, it’s just far enough, and isolated enough, to have its own dialect, climate and cuisine. This distance from the rest of Korea gives Jeju a sub-tropical edge which has affected all aspects of life here. Jeju is the ultimate destination for all Koreans; you rarely get through any conversation about travelling without the name Jeju cropping up. Everyone knows someone who has been to Jeju. It’s one of those ‘must see’ places on any Korean bucket lists.

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I have always been luke warm to must see destinations, I feel so pressured. With this weight of obligation and the lack of other viable destinations (I’ve been in Korea 2 years) I chose to go to Jeju for my last holiday. Apart from the flight I actually spent very little time researching the place. I imagined it would be one of those step off the boat and select the best option places. There are countless things to do in Jeju but I would caution against being too casual because the weather and the public transport can be quirky. Despite a couple of grey days and some timetable wrangling, I found Jeju to be everything I expected and a little bit more.

The airport was much bigger and more urbane than I expected, I thought it would be more akin to one of those Caribbean places that James Bond arrives at. Instead of light-hearted trans-atlantic banter with Felix Lighter – I settled for a taxi. Like most Korean taxi drivers the guy had no idea where my hotel was, and forget using a map because taxi drivers don’t understand the world as seen from above. They work on more of a medieval approach to directions – half instinct half rumour. Eventually he found the hotel which was a cheap love motel turned into a family friendly budget hotel. The owner seemed genuinely surprised to see a guest but the room was large and clean. The best feature was a framed seashell.

Fish in the Spirited Garden

Fish in the Spirited Garden

After seeing Jeju-si (the city) and the hotel district I was pretty disappointed. Most places didn’t seem much different from the average Korean town. The sea comes close to the shore leaving little in the way of a beach, and the ferry port is just a small industrial area. Some of the major hotel chains seemed a bit provincial and drab. However, this was only the city and Jeju-si isn’t Jeju-do. ‘Si’ is city and ‘Do’ is island. After a brief night of fear wondering what I had done, the next two days were amazing.

I visited the Eastern side of the island using local buses. The scenery was verdant and a welcome pleasure from the back of a rickety bus. After nodding off several times I kept seeing small forests and green pastures through my half closed eyes. Sometimes I felt like I was home on the roads between Lancashire and the Lake district – they even have dry stone walls! On closer inspection the trees were much different from those found in England. In fact, nature itself was a slightly different shade in all its examples. Islands are separated from the processes of natural history on the nearest landmasses. This gives Jeju its distinct trees, plants, and fruits.

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On the second day I headed west on an organized tour. The tour was excellent and gave enough time in each place without ever getting bored. The tour guide was informative without feeling the need to entertain. The mixture of scenery and attractions was always stimulating and I would go back without hesitation. I got the chance to walk along the coast, visit Buddhist temples and there was even a buffet at a famous bonsai garden.

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I am purposefully leaving out details because I hope the pictures can show a glimpse of the colours and scenery that make Jeju so popular. I decided pretty quickly that I will return to Jeju and go hiking up the Halla volcano. Until then, like most Koreans I will keep dreaming about going to Jeju.

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