I travelled by train from Seoul Station to Busan on the South Korean coast in the south east, a journey almost the length of the Korean peninsula in 4½ hours for about C$32 in a superior class, fast train with a reserved seat. English was spoken at the station; signage was in English; even the ticket was in both languages.
Busan is Korean's second largest city and the world's fifth largest port. Those fascinated by vast container ports will be impressed during a city tour while those who need a beach fix will head to popular Haeundae Beach, which offers luxury hotels, summer crowds and a little fishing village at its north end for delicious, informal seafood dining.
In central Busan there's a lively shopping area, and Korea's largest fish market - Jagalchi - offers an unusual eating experience in its many colourful kiosks and sights to inspire the photographer.
Busan is home to the U.N. Memorial Cemetery, a pilgrimage site for many, as it pays tribute to the soldiers of all 16 allied nations that participated in the Korean War. No trip would be complete without a visit to Taejongdae Park on the tip of bridge-connected Yeongdo Island with its ancient trees, steep cliffs and views over the Korean Strait towards Japan which supposedly is glimpsed on a clear day.
I soon left Busan to travel north again, stopping to visit two of Korea's most important historical sites and to experience a couple of its festivals. Gyeongju, about 75 km north of Busan, is one vast site, home to the 1,000 year-old history and culture of the Shilla Dynasty. The entire Gyeongju Historical District has been designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Immense grassy mounds of the Royal Tombs covering wooden burial chambers where coffins and priceless artifacts have been unearthed are the first thing that one notices. One of the tombs is open to the public and contains some of the artifacts displayed museum-style around its perimeter.
Near this park stands the Cheomseongdae Observatory. Built in 632, it is the oldest astronomical observatory in Asia. Curious why the door is placed half way up the tower? It's because the base of the observatory is filled with soil and pebbles to withstand earthquakes. The astronomer entered the tower via a wooden ladder. What may not be apparent are twelve stones forming its base that symbolize the months of the year, 28 layers of stones symbolizing the 28 major stars and 361.5 stones used in the entire construction representing the days in the lunar calendar year.
From here it's a short walk to the Gyeongju National Museum: four modern galleries set in gardens containing sculptures, pagodas and the massive bronze Divine Bell of King Songkok (AD 771) as well as a little cafeteria. This museum complex (closed on Mondays) contains many beautiful objects revealing thousands of years of history, and is considered the finest museum in Korea. My favourites were the exquisite, hand-size gilt/bronze Buddha statues, illuminated in their dark cases and the tomb tablets engraved with armoured and armed creatures of the zodiac, looking rather comical. Other treasures include a gold crown and girdle, vessels in the shape of dragons and many intriguing figurines. The English translations on the signage are a delight, the description of the solemn stone Buddha suggests to the observer that "the face is somewhat chubby!"
After these sites, the highlight of the region is the magnificent Bulguksa Temple complex, set amongst nearby misty, wooded hills. Photographs or illustrated books feature images of Bulgusksa in spring when the cherry blossom blooms or fall when its beauty is emphasized by the dazzling colours of the surrounding trees, sometimes even magically snow-covered in winter. Keep your camera ready for the traditional buildings and vibrantly-coloured carvings of dragons and fish, the golden Buddhas, the graceful pagodas, and the calm monks sweeping a quiet corner of a courtyard. Tours are regularly conducted in English and the history and legends are informative.
All national Korean treasures, large temple complexes or small artifacts, are numbered. Bulgusksa is "Historic & Scenic Place No. 1."
From Bulgusksa, it's an enjoyable drive through the mountains to Seokguram Grotto, the stone cave temple containing an immense statue of Buddha and other exquisite carvings; a revered site for Koreans and another UNESCO site. Excellent English guide books are available at the site, explaining the history and significance of the temple. Visitors have an opportunity to "purchase" a roof tile (Won 10,000, about C$11) that will eventually be used in the restoration of the temple buildings. Paint is provided so that the purchaser may inscribe a wish or a message upon the tile and they are then stacked in rows awaiting use. While most of these are written in Korean, it is fun to glimpse the odd message that one can understand. I enjoyed: "First of all, peace for all ... as well as getting into Oxford University." Hopefully, Eric Wang got both his wishes!
Close to Gyeongju, travellers find the Bomun Lake Resort with many tourist hotels including the luxurious Hyundai and family attractions beloved by Koreans with children.
Another UNESCO site was next on my itinerary, Haeinsa or "Reflection on a Calm Sea" Temple, 100 km due west of Gyeongiu via expressway, apart from the final few winding kilometers into Gayasan Park, followed by a 25-minute walk from the car park to the complex which is nestled in the hills. This temple (National Treasure No. 52) is the storehouse of the Tripitaka Koreana, 81,340 birch-wood blocks, each weighing 3.5 kg. carved with 322 characters per side to form 84,000 Buddhist texts without a single mistake in well over 52 million characters. Carved in the 13th century as an entreaty to protect the 'Goryeo' nation from Mongolian invasions, it is hard to imagine the work involved. My guidebook tells that first the birch trees were cut and soaked in sea water for three years before being cut into wooden blocks which were boiled in salt water and dried in a shady place. Then the blocks were planed to produce a smooth surface before the laborious, 16-year task of carving upon them began.
In 1488, high on a hill behind the Haeinsa Temple, the four-hall depository was built to house the blocks. This building, which has twice escaped fires that destroyed the rest of the temple complex, was meticulously constructed taking into account placement of windows, access to insects, climate control, drainage, ventilation and humidity in order to keep the blocks in perfect condition. It remains unchanged and devoid of any mechanical controls to this day. The pathways up to the temple, which pass through the forest, over bridges across a bubbling stream, under beautifully carved gateways and past sculptures and monuments, is a joy. On a soft day in late summer there were few visitors; I wandered calmly, enjoying the special atmosphere and bowing to the passing monks as though I were part of an historical movie.
Take the time to explore Korea fully. As the guidebooks and maps show, it has much to offer.
Koreans are proud of their cuisine, delicious soups, meats which you barbecue at your table and rice dishes (especially bibimbap), accompanied by that Korean favourite kimchi.
Japanese food is also popular as well as international foods and the ubiquitous fast-foods. If driving, you can stretch your budget now and again by eating in the bright cafeterias attached to gas stations. They offer western and Korean food, and in the latter a large, fragrant soup costs only a dollar or two.
Korean Air flies regularly to Seoul from Toronto and Vancouver. I found them efficient and comfortable, with charming flight attendants and a choice of tasty Korean or western food.
Korea has a high traffic accident rate. Only the brave attempt to drive in Seoul and its busy suburbs. Beyond big cities, the extensive network of highways and scenic secondary roads seem calm and efficient if you decide on a rental car. An International Driving Permit (IDP) is required. The IDP is a license ($13), valid for a year from date of issue, that allows travellers with a valid Canadian licence to drive in over 160
countries without a test. Contact your local CAA office to have an application mailed to you, or download the application from the CAA website: www.caa.ca.
For those who do not wish to drive, Korea offers a massive transportation infrastructure. Trains are fast, reliable and moderately priced with a Korea Rail Pass (the KR Pass, available at any train station) for overseas visitors offering unlimited travel within a set number of days. First and second-class trains are comfortable, the latter making more stops. On-train announcements are made in English and screens show the train's progress. There's tourist offices in main stations and major signs - "tickets for today," "the train is leaving shortly," and so on - in English. In Seoul station you find every fast-food outlet you can think of! Shuttle buses often link rail stations to hotels and the hotels in tourist areas generally offer tours. These tours are not always available in English, but the Koreans will be all smiles if you join them and the major sites should have English-speaking guides. In every historic and cultural site I visited there were English signage and information booklets.
A long-distance bus service links the major centres with an Express Bus and a Superior Express Bus, the latter offering more luxurious seats, foot rests etc.
The impressive new Incheon international airport offers luxury-bus transfers in four different directions for Won 10,000 (C$11), plus a bus link (C$6) to the domestic airport at Gimpo. The drive into town takes over an hour, so do not resort to a taxi unless your pockets are deep.
Best times to go: spring, when the cherry blossom and wild flowers adorn the land, and fall when the trees change colour, are the best times to visit Korea. Summers are hot and wet and winters cold, although I must say the photographs I've seen of the temples in the snow make winter look special.
South Korea is rich in natural, cultural and historical sites. It's also home to a wide variety of festivals, mainstream and unusual. When you leave the high-energy atmosphere of Seoul, you enter a different world. The cities are large and built in high-rise style, but they are usually surrounded by green wooded hills, even around Seoul. In fact approximately 70% of the country's terrain is mountainous or hilly while the coast is dotted with islands, most of which are designated Maritime National Parks. Wherever you go, you will find excellent infrastructure, environmental initiatives, little litter and charming people who are keen to help you even though they may be shy about speaking English.
Ann Wallace is editor of The Travel Society Magazine
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/